A while back(I won’t tell you when) I took a trip (I won’t tell you to what part of the world) to do a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat. It had been something that had been on my list to do for many years.
I have meditated on and off for about twenty years (more off than on)mostly for periods of only up to 30 minutes to 45 minutes and usually following a form of Tibetan meditation which involves continually bringing the mind back to the breath while keeping the eyes softly open.
Vipassana meditation is pre-Buddhist, was revived by the Buddha and is essentially a body scan meditation. It is done with the eyes closed preferably sitting cross-legged or in some sort of lotus-like position but it can be done sitting on a chair. The aim is to bring attention to every part of the body following a pattern from the top of the head to the feet until you get an equanimity of sensation throughout. The process involves sitting with whatever sensations you feel and accepting without trying to change them. Needless to say physical pain can be a large part of this process. Much meditation in the west, particularly body scan meditations, are based on Vipassana.
A Vipassana Retreat is a silent retreat. The first retreat is typically ten days. There are longer retreats but you do not hear much about them until you have finished your first one. The retreat begins with three days of Anapana meditation which concentrates on the breath and the sensations one feels in the upper lip. On the fourth day you are introduced to Vipassana meditation .
The format for the retreat is the same world-wide. Rising at 4:00(ish) there is two hours of meditation in the main hall after which breakfast is served. Meditation begins again at 8am with lunch at 11.30. Afternoon meditation begins at 1pm and breaks at 5pm for a cup of tea and a piece of fruit(for first time students-lemon water for ‘old’ students ie those who have completed at least one retreat).
The evening resumes with meditation from 6 to 7pm and is followed by a recorded talk from the main teacher being S.R. Goenka a Burmese businessman who died last year. There is meditation then until 9pm with lights out at 9.3opm.
There are periods at breakfast and lunch when you can grab an hours sleep and also parts of the timetable allow for students to ‘meditate in their own room’ which can be taken as rest period depending on how serious you are. I was serious.
The retreat is run by volunteers. There is a teacher present to answer questions at set times but all the instructions come by way of recordings and videos from the main teacher, usually Goenka. There have been other teachers like John Coleman who also died recently but Goenka seems to be the most popular. Because of this reliance on recording and a policy of not using written materials my hearing difficulties were to have a huge impact on my experience.
There were 50 women and 45 men on the retreat I was on, all ages, all types and many different nationalities. We did not see the men After Day 1 until Day 9.
Ideally on a Vipassana Retreat one should have their own room but the rooms we stayed in were shared with one other person something which ended up causing huge upheaval for me three days in as my roomie turned out to be a bit of a kook. But more on that later.
Reading, writing, smoking, drinking alcohol or taking any drugs is prohibited as is the use of phones, communication with fellow mediators via speech, eye contact or touch. Needless to say all sexual activity is prohibited and the sexes are segregated.
Speech is allowed between the meditators and the course manager and teacher but is kept to whispered minimum.
You are also asked to stay for the full length of the retreat and I have heard that leaving one can be made difficult but this was not something that worried me. If I want to leave somewhere no-one is going to stop me but I was quite determined to stay. 10 days after all is nothing right?In the event a few people did leave.
To some these rules are ludicrous but to me they made perfect sense as a means for a meditator to gain a place of mental stillness. If you cannot understand that a Vipassana retreat is not for you. Some meditators bitch about the rules but in my opinion if you don’t want to do Vipassana, you don’t do it. Simple.
However, as it turned out, during the course of my retreat I did come across some less delineated rules that came from a place of ego than of common sense something which contributed to my feeling that Vipassana was not for me. But more on that later.
Why would anyone want to this in the first place?For me it was to be a mental and physical challenge, a way to push my boundaries a little and question some basic assumptions about my physical and mental needs. I was not concerned about the silence, I was looking forward to not having to deal with other people but I was hugely apprehensive about not being able to read and write and very concerned about being hungry and tired. As it turned out these things were to be the least of my worries and it was other people, as usual, that were the biggest challenge.
As a meditator I have experienced the benefits of meditation and before this retreat I truly believed in it as the one thing I have found in the course of a life of searching to have very solid benefits so even though I tried not to expect too much I did expect for it to have some effect.
In the event 80 or so hours of meditation in the space of 9 days(our retreat despite some fancy footwork with the timetable was only 9 days)seems to have had little impression on me at all leading me to wonder if I was enlightened already and if thats the case let me tell you nirvana is not all its cracked up to be…
I have read quite a few accounts of Vipassana retreats, the main one being Tim Parks Teach Us How To Sit Still which is on the whole a very positive account and a good book to read too. Many writers rave about how it has changed their lives while a minority claim it can have a seriously negative impact on a person (and I was warned off doing this retreat by at least one person) but I have not read one post that records a reaction similar to mine which is to put it bluntly:meh.
This experience was too much to put into one post I have decided to split it up. In the following post(s) I will describe my experiences, the feelings I had during meditation and the problems I faced. The impressions of the my surroundings and the people around me, both the meditators and the volunteers, were vivid. I found myself making up names for people and imagining their lives. Some people annoyed me, some I became fond of despite not even exchanging a glance with them. By the time we were allowed to talk I realised I admired the hell out of them all.
You will meet Fashion Mall who galloped around the meditation garden working off calories, Bam Pow the fetching and seemingly very young Japanese girl who reminded me of some kind of manga superhero, Dead Girl who couldn’t feel any sensation in her body, Huggy Bear who swaddled herself in blankets, Dave who reminded me of a character from The League of Gentlemen as well as Nazi Volunteer Girl, Three Fruits and Queue Skipper among others. Stay tuned…