10 days in silenceMar 2023
I recently completed a 10-day course in Vipassana meditation, as taught by SN Goenka. It was one of my life's most profound experiences.
I have meditated regularly for 6 years now, for about 20 min a day. With time, I had found that my practice had stagnated. I needed to infuse my practice with more rigour, and this was my primary motivation to enroll in the course. Besides, I know that I would benefit from 10-days of absolute silence. I had gone into the course expecting it to be a silent retreat.
However, the course wasn't merely a silent retreat. The term 'Vipassana' translates to 'understanding reality as it is'. The meditation technique is aimed at understanding the nature of reality within the subjective framework of our mind and our body. This is achieved by being in intimate touch with one's bodily sensations. Vipassana meditation is nothing less than initiation into a path that leads to liberation from all suffering. But don't get dissuaded by this lofty, seemingly far-fetched goal, for the course gave me practical insights that I could apply to my day-to-day life.
The objective of this essay is to provide an overview of the course itself. I will stick to my experience of the course rather recount my personal experiences during meditation. Everybody's meditation experience is bound to be different, and therefore, I wouldn't wish to bias or influence anybody else's future experience.
What did it look like?
On the day of our arrival, we wrap our phones in paper and hand them over along with all our valuables for safekeeping. In the next 10 days, any form of communication is forbidden, including via gestures or eye-contact. No reading or writing in any form is allowed. We merely have our thoughts to keep us company.
The day starts at 4 AM with a wake up gong. Through the day, we have meditation sessions that are 1-2 hours long. These sessions are punctuated by short breaks, along with three long breaks for breakfast, lunch, and tea. Every evening, we have a discourse for about 1 hour to help us make sense of what we practiced on that day. At 9 PM, our day ends and we retire to our rooms.
The entire course is conducted using audio recordings of SN Goenka, so as to keep the method standardized across centers. The discourses are also recordings of his speeches. Most meditation sessions are guided, with careful and precise instructions. An assistant teacher is available on-site to clear any doubts that might arise. Talking to them for this purpose alone is permitted.
An important detail here is that we aren't permitted to pay anything for the course itself. The courses are financed by voluntary donations, and we aren't allowed to make a donation unless we successfully complete a course. Therefore, our entire course is made possible by other people's charity.
What did it feel like?
On the first day, I was surprised to notice that I could wake up at 4 AM without much effort. The light dinner the previous night helped - my stomach didn't feel bloated like it normally would have. Throughout the course, it was never a challenge for me to wake up early.
As I closed the door of my room behind me to go to the meditation hall, I checked my pockets to see if I had forgotten something. I realized that my pockets were empty. But then, it dawned upon me that I had nothing to take. Since we didn't have any valuables with us, even our rooms weren't locked. We could move around with merely the clothes on our body, and this felt good. For 10 days, I felt liberated from material possessions.
For these 10 days, we had a taste of the lives of monks and nuns. We woke up at 4 AM and went to bed at 9 PM. We were surrounded by silence. We didn't have many possessions. Our food and shelter were donated by other people. We didn't have household chores or responsibilities. We merely had one object of attention - to work on our practice.
The food served during the course is simple vegetarian food that is low in spice and salt. Onion, garlic and chillies are avoided. This is entirely different from the food I normally eat. But to my surprise, I enjoyed every meal, despite its blandness. Further, I stopped eating when I was full. My appetite reduced over the course of 10-days, given that we were mostly sitting in meditation. I felt a lot better though - I felt more energetic and had none of the bloating and heaviness that I otherwise feel after meals.
In effect, the experience was challenging, but it left me feeling wholesome. But that isn't what set this course apart.
What set it apart?
I was exposed to meditation at a young age. Even as a teenager, I read several books on spirituality. Despite being a seasoned meditator, I found this course and the manner in which it was conducted to be a revelation.
In Buddhism, there are three kinds of wisdom: suta-mayā paññā or wisdom we derive from other people via reading or listening, cintā-mayā paññā or wisdom derived from one's own thinking, and bhāvanā-maya-paññā or wisdom that is obtained by direct experience (e.g. via meditation). Of the three, it is bhāvanā-maya-paññā, or experiential wisdom that is seen as most important on the path to liberation. Even otherwise, I would trade in theoretical or intellectual wisdom for experiencial wisdom any day.
What sets this course apart is its laser-focus on practice. On all 10-days, we practice all day long and only later, in the evenings, do we understand the theoretical underpinnings of our practice. For 10-hours of meditation, we receive one hour of theory. Thanks to the silence, there is little room for theoretical or intellectual discussion. Instead, we are drilled on the technique with single minded focus.
And here is where we recognize that the practice is easy to explain, but difficult to exercise. It is easy to tell somebody to observe their breathing and do nothing else for an hour. It is difficult to actually do this. Given that experiential wisdom is so difficult to practice, it is easy to seek an escape into theoretical and intellectual wisdom. In this course, we had no escape. It is difficult to meditate for 10 hours a day, but having done so is rewarding, for it leaves us marinated in experiential wisdom.
What makes it happen?
I found the course to be meticulously organized. All the information I needed was made available precisely when I needed it, without the need for me to speak with anybody. Everything started on time and finished on time. When the food in a tray was empty, a volunteer magically appeared to fill it up. When the course wrapped up, we received precise instructions on how to leave things in a proper state for the next batch of students. All of this worked with six-sigma precision, freeing up the meditators to focus merely on meditation.
Several people were responsible for the course's conduct - assistant teachers, course managers, cooks and servers. I later realized that all of them had volunteered their time. None of them received any monetary compensation. They had dedicated more than 10-days of their lives to merely ensure that we had a successful course.
Similarly, the course was made possible due to the donation of students who finished it before us. The whole experience was entirely devoid of commerce. After the course, I had no pressure to volunteer, donate or join an organization. I could perceive no motivation behind the course and its conduct other than the welfare of its participants. In today's world, it is indeed rare to be part of such an experience. Initially, I had suspected it as being too good to be true. On finishing the course, I found it to be even better than what I had heard. My suspicion melted away, leaving heartfelt gratitude in its place.---
In case this isn't already clear, I recommend this course to anybody who is interested in a deeper understanding of their mind, their body and the relationship of the two with the world outside. In the best case, you will receive training in an ancient technique that helps you minimize your suffering. In the worst case, you will receive an island to meditate for 10-days without any concern for your material needs.
Further, this course is suitable for both new meditators as well as seasoned meditators. My wife who had no experience with meditation also found that it was tailored to her needs. Before the course, she had struggled to meditate for 5 min. Since the course has concluded, she meditates for more than an hour everyday.
The 10-day Vipassana course wasn't a silent retreat. Instead, I found it to be a sanctuary that leaves the mind in a state of unparalleled clarity and stillness: a lake in the mountains that is still enough to reflect the snow-capped peaks that surround it, and clear enough to reveal its depths. Having visited it once, I shall be returning to this sanctuary again and again.***
This is the official website of the organization that conducts the course. You can find information about course locations and schedules here.