I recently returned from a nine day residential course in meditation at the Vipassana Meditation Centre (VMC) in Shelburne, MA, USA.
The Centre, and others like it worldwide, provides residential vipassana meditation courses from the teacher S. N. Goenka and his assistant teachers, at no charge. Although embedded in a Burmese and Indian cultural tradition, and similar to a range of Buddhist practices, the vipassana practice itself is presented in a non-sectarian way. Thus, it can be practiced without risk by followers of any religion or by those who have no religious beliefs at all. The course is given freely, as though the students had begged for it in the manner of a monk, and is funded out of the donations of previous students who found the courses beneficial .
My goals entering this course were to provide an inspirational and motivational boost to my own meditation practice, and to face the challenges of meditating for ten hours a day for several days in a world that was prescribed, scheduled, and incredibly constrained compared to my “normal” city life.
Vipassana meditation practice was the absolute focus of the entire course. Everything about the students’ life during the course was calibrated to create the optimal environment for meditation practice, and every other aspect of life was subordinated to this single goal.
To provide context and encouragement for meditation practice, recorded lessons and chants of support from the head teacher Goenka were played during the start and end of the meditation periods. Nightly videos of Goenka’s dhamma discourses – extended practical lectures on vipassana meditation – were played after the evening group meditation. However, the primary focus of the course was the actual practice of meditation itself, rather than hearing or thinking about it.
The initial focus of the meditation sessions was simple, passive observation of breath or anapana meditation. This was intended to create deep focus of the mind (samadhi).
During the first three days of anapana meditation, my “monkey mind” was operating at full power. I found it a real challenge to concentrate and do nothing but sit and observe the breath in a quiet environment after transitioning from my typical urban lifestyle – running from appointment to appointment, with constant input from city life, conversation, phone, iPod, internet, television, and so forth. It seemed like my mind was looking for some form of entertainment, and so it would replay movie scenes, pieces of music, and events and memories from my own life.
My theory is that in modern society, the mind is accustomed to a fire-hose of input from so many different sources. When all that input is removed at once, the mind doesn’t know what to do without its familiar noise. So it creates its own “noise” for a while, reacting to the absence of input with stimulation of its own. Once it grows accustomed to the new, reduced level of input, and the simple practice of anapana meditation, it eventually quiets down.
With a quiet mind, and focused samadhi, we next learned the principal (vipassana) technique for observation of physical sensations on the body. This style of meditation is extremely minimalist – it uses no visualization, mantra, or pranayama (breath control). It is purely passive and observational. The goal and the yardstick for measuring progress in the vipassana technique was the level of equanimity in the mind, with respect to both pleasant and unpleasant sensations in the body. In other words, the goal was to avoid both craving (the desire for something pleasant either to happen or continue happening) and aversion (the desire for something unpleasant either not to happen or stop happening).
The day-to-day lifestyle at the course was similar to living as a monk in Asia. Volunteers rang the wake-up bell at 4:00 AM, and the usual bedtime was 9:30 PM. During each day, we meditated for 10 hours. We depended on the sound of the bell as a signal for everything – to wake up, to walk to the dhamma hall for meditation, to signal meal time. Men and women were completely separated for the duration of the course. No speaking was permitted apart from interaction with the teacher or course manager. This “Noble Silence” was intended to minimize distraction from focus or confusion within our meditation practice. In particular, students were unable to discuss or compare meditation experiences with each other (“You felt a tingling sensation and saw lights? I didn’t – am I doing it wrong?“). Likewise, students were prohibited from writing and any reading aside from the public notice boards. We had no access to telephone, internet, television, or outside food. Anything that would significantly distract from the meditation practice of 10 hours a day was discouraged.
All students lived in dorms, cabins and tents during the course. I shared a 3 man dorm room with private bath. The rooms were extremely simple – each student had only a bed, bedside table, and shelf / clothing rack.
Each student agreed to follow five precepts for the duration of the course: to refrain from killing, stealing, telling lies, taking intoxicants, or practicing sexual misconduct. They were relatively easy to follow due to the lifestyle constraints. For example, the “Noble Silence” blocked all speech, not just lies; since men and women were separated, any kind of heterosexual temptation or interaction was impossible.
Because of the first precept (refrain from killing), all the food provided during the course was vegetarian, with vegan-friendly options. Since my usual eating habits involve frequent snacking, I thought that I would be unable to handle just two meals a day (plus fruit as a afternoon tea time snack for the new students). But none of these were a challenge. I didn’t feel emotionally hungry once, in the sense of craving either specific foods or food in general, although I occasionally observed hunger as a physical symptom for a little while, mostly prior to breakfast at 6:30 AM. Overall, I found the meals to be tasty and abundant. For those who wish to complete a course while following an extremely specialized diet, such as low carb or raw food, the relatively fixed menu may present a challenge. On the other hand, omnivores open to vegetarian meals, and conventional vegetarians and vegans are likely to do fine.
As someone who likes to be connected at all times, I thought that I would be seriously bothered by the lack of internet access or access to a phone. As it turned out, I didn’t face any withdrawal symptoms or miss internet or phone access at all. Occasionally I felt slightly curious, in a detached manner, about what emails or text messages might be waiting for me when I returned, but I never craved access to my Blackberry, computer or other electronic gadgets. In analyzing this after the fact, my theory was that craving and distraction tends to happen in association with things that are both near by and desirable but not yet immediately available in hand. I didn’t crave things that were “impossible” like internet or chocolate. Why bother? They just wouldn’t be an option for a few more days.
After a few days of ongoing meditation practice, my mind felt anchored to the rhythms of nature and the regular, unchanging schedule. Watching bees and flowers was my main entertainment. I saw a hummingbird moving from flower to flower outside my window. I saw a small frog hop off the path into the garden, and watched a nervous looking rabbit nibbling at plants near one of the walking paths. I became familiar with the behavior of the local chipmunks and birds. When not meditating, listening to the nightly dhamma discourses from the teacher, or performing basic maintenance on my physical body and few possessions (i.e. eating, washing, toilet, laundry), there was nothing to do but walk in the woods or look out the window at the natural world.
The greatest challenges that I encountered were simple tiredness due to the rigorous schedule, and leg pain due to experimentation with new meditation postures. In speaking with others when Noble Silence was lifted, I learned that several of them had entertained ideas of leaving. Interestingly, I had never imagined that I would leave early. Maybe my meditation posture would be atrocious, maybe I would be distracted and meditate badly, maybe I would face airborne allergies due to the rural setting, but I resolved to stay.
Some strange things happened in my mind as I adjusted to my new life. During the middle of the course, I could not find my favorite T-shirt. In the midst of my spaced-out thoughts, I convinced myself that this was some kind of deliberate experiment run by the course management, intended to make the students let go of their attachment to physical possessions. But how did they know that this was my favorite shirt? I later found it hanging on the clothesline – I had dropped it while carrying my dry laundry back to my room, and someone had hung it back up. Obviously, there was no experiment going on – it was all an act of my imagination.
Another odd experience happened when I accidentally took the footwear of another student who had the same sandals in a couple of sizes smaller. (According to the Burmese custom, we always removed our shoes before entering residential buildings or the meditation hall.) After leaving the meditation hall and putting on “my” sandals, I stared at them for a while before questions arose – Have my feet swollen during meditation? Have my sandals shrunk in the sun? Am I just losing my mind completely? Am I dehydrated? I contemplated these questions for a few hours before we all congregated at the same location and I was able to realize that I had just taken the wrong sandals.
Perhaps my lowest point emotionally arose in the middle of the course when I read the announcement of the addithana requirement – group sitting meditation for one hour without moving. At all. The specific requirements were to avoid opening your hands, legs, or eyes for the entire meditation period. You could not scratch an itch, shift your legs, or brush a fly away if it chose to land on your face. Before addithana, my longest continuous meditation experience had been 30-40 minutes in cross-legged position, generally quarter lotus, and I had usually changed positions (i.e. changed the cross of the legs, if nothing else) at least once or twice. So I felt a bit intimidated by this requirement. This low point transformed into one of my peak experiences of the course when I completed the first addithana without moving. It felt painful and unpleasant. This turned into a whole day (3 group meditations), then two days. After that point, I believed deeply that I could complete all addithanas successfully, and did so. I believe that using a small meditation stool that enabled a kneeling posture was a key part of enabling this for me. I’m not sure if I could sit for an hour in a cross legged posture without moving yet.
I experienced some very unusual and vivid dreams during the 3rd and 7th days, and seemed to remember my dreams somewhat more than usual. The dreams felt like they ought to be nightmares due to their unpleasant subject matter, but I felt calm and relaxed during them. I observed the dreams unfold, reflected while dreaming that before the course I probably would have felt very uneasy and frightened, and noticed that I felt calm and relaxed.
I also recall a very low mood during the 6th day that arose in the morning for no apparent reason, and persisted until the middle of the afternoon.
Recommendations for first timers
The following are the things that I would have liked to have known before going to the course, and that I intend to follow for any future courses that I attend.
Practice and get used to a meditation position that you can hold for an hour or more. I think that the course would have been less physically challenging if I had had a more regular meditation practice under way prior to starting the course. My practice before the course began consisted of sporadic 20 minute sessions. At the same time, I felt that completing all the required addithana sessions without moving was a great breakthrough for me, and one that I didn’t know would be necessary at the outset. Other students who had taken more than one course told me that things feel physically easier and more familiar in subsequent courses, but that they can get mentally more challenging as you dig into deeper layers of your mind.
Figure out what physical support and cushions are best for your meditation practice. Not having used traditional meditation cushions in the past, I had to learn what worked by rapid trial and error. There wasn’t time to explore every possible meditation cushion before the supply of certain shapes ran out, so knowing what I was seeking in advance of the cushion selection process would have been valuable. As it happened, I was able to use a couple of blankets that I had brought from home to support my legs when sitting cross legged, but some experimentation at a local meditation centre might have saved me some confusion.
Pay attention to logistics and make sure you have a sufficient supply of whatever you need. I ran out of toothpaste and was concerned about the level of my contact lens solution. Because of the rigors and challenges of the days of meditation, the less you have to think about mundane matters like this, the more you can focus on the main task at hand. Since you can’t run out to a store to buy supplies during the course, having enough when you start is important – otherwise you may go without. (However, you can contact the course manager if you are missing something essential.)
Bring flip-flops or other slip-on sandals. I wore sport sandals with Velcro straps, and these weren’t as easy to put on and remove quickly as I would have liked.
I came home to find all my possessions in storage in the basement of my apartment house had been destroyed. Apparently, during my absence, heavy rains in the Boston area had caused extensive flooding and the water level in our basement had risen to five feet deep. I realized that all this physical “stuff” had been weighing heavily on my mind over the preceding several months: “I don’t want it… but I can’t throw it all away since it’s still usable; I guess I can donate some of it, sell some of it, etc.” Losing it entirely felt strange, surprising, and not completely unwelcome. The only thing that I ultimately rescued undamaged was a painting, sealed in plastic wrap and bubble wrap, that had some level of sentimental value. For a while I thought that even it was gone too, along with everything else, and felt OK about that for a time as well.
I found this to be an interesting synchronicity, since I had been meditating for days by observing the reality of change and impermanence in my physical body. It was as though the universe saw fit to teach me a very practical lesson of what I had been learning in meditation – that is, all is अनिच्चा (Pali: anicca (ah-NEE-cha) = impermanent) .
Overall, I found this course was an incredibly valuable experience.
On the mundane level, I felt good that I was able to meet the challenge of facing a complete withdrawal from habits and conveniences that I ordinarily take for granted, such as frequent snacks, and always-on internet access, and to adapt myself to a rigorous and monastic schedule. Likewise, I was happy that I could meet the physical challenge of the addithana group meditations, and meditate for an hour without moving during each session.
On a more spiritual level, I feel that I have learned a very practical, logical meditation technique and passed through a genuine “boot camp” in the practice of that technique. If an hour a day is a “normal” practice for a meditator, then the course packs the equivalent of three months of practice into nine highly focused days. I feel like I have dug into the mind and now understand, at an experiential level, the nature of reality a little better. I feel like I have grown at least a little bit in my level of equanimity with respect to both pleasant and unpleasant things happening in life.
I would recommend this course to anyone who wishes to know their own mind better, and to understand the spiritual nature of reality by exploring the impermanence of all things, starting within the framework of their own physical body.
Finally, for those of you who know what I mean, “start again, start again”.
 On the off chance you were wondering about the absurd title of this article, enlightenment is not guaranteed, and because you don’t actually pay anything for the course, there’s no refund.
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