In simple words, Vipassana is a 10-day meditation course to purify your mind and clarify your thoughts. Sounds good? Ha! And now imagine staying in an isolated place for 10 days without any external communication, ability to talk, write or read, waking up at 4 a.m. and going to bed at 9.30 p.m. with 10 hours of sitting on your ass and meditating. How does it sound for you now: challenging, interesting, impossible?
Here is a simple test for you. Right now sit down on the floor, straighten your back and neck, close your eyes and start thinking about the way air enters your nose and goes out. For the next 2 hours. Without cheating: eyes closed, all thoughts aside, no music or dreaming about risotto con pesto for dinner tonight. If you try to do it for at least 15 minutes, you’ll get the idea that Vipassana is not about leaving your children home and staying on the coast to escape from a daily routine, responsibilities and husband. It is really hard work which requires commitment, readiness to follow the rules and sincere desire to get the best out of the technique.
Before diving in Vipassana, I would recommend you to read ‘The code of discipline’ and a timetable to understand whether you’re ready for it at this point of your life. For example, you need to keep Noble silence during the whole period of the course, refuse from electronic devices, books, cameras and religious rituals. In case you’re waiting for a call from university with the results of your Master’s entrance exams or you are about to sign an important contract with international partners, being constantly stressed about inability to reach external world might cause only distraction and negativity.
Be ready for not meeting opposite sex for the next 10 days. Although you share the same territory, you have separate dining and living areas, teachers and managers. No physical contact is allowed. You’ll also be served exclusively vegetarian food, and moreover, the last meal of the day consists of fruit and hot drinks like coffee or ginger water, and is served at 5 p.m. After that get ready to survive till breakfast next day at 6.30 a.m.
My personal motivation to join the course was to experience meditation as a tool of personal development which would bring me insights about my life and future plans. By the way, Vipassana itself means ‘insight’ on ancient Pali language, in the essence of which is Dhamma (‘law of nature’). And although Dhamma was taught by Buddha and endless generations of his followers, it’s not Buddhism. You don’t need to refuse from your religious views or turn into Buddhism. If you’re a Jew, in 10 days you’ll still be a Jew. If you believe in Flying Spaghetti monster, it’s your right. There are no religious rituals or prayins: it is based on observing your body sensations in real time and start to bring fruit as long as you work ‘ardently, diligently and persistently’.
You’re not left alone on your path of eradicating misery and upbringing love and compassion towards people. You’ll be surrounded by other participants who also look tired, follow a strict schedule and meditate-meditate-meditate. There will be ‘old students’ who came to serve you: cook food, clean common territory and arrange logistics; male and female managers who are responsible for everyone to be on time for group sittings and communicating messages from teachers; and teachers themselves.
There is 1,5 hour per day when you can talk. Hmmm, I would say, not at all: 1,5 hour to ask a teacher questions about the technique. This is a person who can advise you how to fight drowsiness at 5 a.m., how to keep a posture during a meditation, how to understand the technique. In my case these were a monk and a nun who were ‘seriously in meditation’ for over 10 years. And yes, seriously doesn’t mean meditation once a week or 10 days per year. Generally, the technique we were practicing for the first almost 4 full days is polished in Asian monasteries for 5 years. The founder of Vipassana meditation, S. N. Goenka, spent 14 years to get permission from his teacher to teach meditation. Apparently, it’s more serious and deep art than generally considered in Western world.
When I was going for this course, I expected difficulties from 2 directions: keep silence (come on, I get depressed when I stay in my room without people for one weekend) and being out of civilization. Fuck no! Shutting up? No problem. I have enough thoughts swirling in my head except for ideas and opinions from other people. No whatsapp, facebook and email? To tell the truth, I barely had time to take a nap or wash my clothes.
The real problems approached me quietly from the back. First, it’s very very physically demanding. I got pain everywhere: I couldn’t straighten my neck, I had constant pain in the back, my knees seemed to be broken, my ass felt like a wound. 10 hours of sitting on the floor on a small cushion, from day four – 3 group sittings lasting for 1 hour each without changing a posture (a so-called ‘sitting of long determination’ during which you need to learn to observe splitting pain as a sensation similar to heat, cold or itching) were a nightmare. Day 3 and day 7 seemed to be never-ending and pushed me to the idea to quit.
The second obstacle I experienced was mental focus. The teaching says that in everyday life our thoughts jump from past experience to future plans, and we never find ourselves in reality and state of being. Thus, the idea of the meditation is to stop the flow of thoughts and observe sensations. Sounds simple: observe sensations without giving them labels of pleasant or unpleasant (but I feel like my knees are being operated without anesthesia!), stay aside your thoughts (‘What is the weather like in Croatia?’, ‘Do we have rice for lunch again?’, ‘Can I change tickets and go home?’).
The pleasant surprise is that as time passes, you realize you can stay longer in the same position without changing every 3,5 minutes, you manage to bring inner focus to pulsing sensations on the neck, further to slight heaviness in the right shoulder, little tension in upper hand and down to the palm. As Goenka explains in his discourses (1-hour movie every evening which reveals the philosophy of the teaching): work diligently and you’re bound to success.
My personal goal for Vipassana was completed: I had three days (6, 8 and 9) of insights about my life and relationships with people, about my future and about forthcoming training courses in spring 2016. Imagine me sitting in the meditation hall in yoga position thinking about sensations on my forehead and here it comes – bamboleo: connection with space is established, and one crazy and amazing idea after another is popping up in my head. That was the only time I broke a rule: I took a piece of paper and started to put them down to bring home a ton of inspiration and food for thought.
And yes, one last thing to mention. When the course started I was looking around at people and thinking: ‘oh my god, this is not the place for me: they are all grey, boring and wearing these baggy clothes’. If only I knew that in 9 days I would discover amazing stories of a Polish girl traveling hitchhiking to Morocco, an English girl who just finished her PhD thesis on protection of Amazon forests, American who is going to Asia to visit every country and stay in Korea for business, Mexican currently living in Holland and many more. Crazy, these people are positively crazy!
You can read a dozen articles about Vipassana, but every described experience is individual, and to say whether you like it or dislike it, you need to take a shot. The centers are located all over the world, and the application procedure will take you 3 mins to complete. No motivation letter, recommendations or what-is-the-sense-of-life answers needed. It seems that they left you no chance for an excuse, and thus, just go for it, and who knows, it might happen that these 10 days in isolation being left on your own become most meaningful in your life.