A Vipassana is a ten-day silent meditation retreat where you attempt to take control of your monkey mind and emerge more grounded.
During these ten days you agree: not to kill; steal; lie; engage in sexual misconduct; or take any intoxicants. You also give up: meat; physical exercise (besides walking); your phone; the Internet; reading; writing; or anything else that could distract you from the task at hand.
Basically, all you do is meditate, eat, sleep & repeat for ten days.
When I was 20 years old I attempted a Vipassana. However, I left on day three without saying anything to anyone. My excuse to myself was that my back was too weak to maintain the position but, in all honesty, I was just sexually frustrated and went stir crazy.
My annoyance and guilt for not completing it stuck with me ever since. Last month (around 7 years later) I finally got around to completing a full Vipassana.
Here’s what went down.
Disclaimer: Everyone who does a Vipassana will have a unique experience. My experience will not be yours. Reading this will give you a description of the process, but the intimate experiences I had are likely to be different from what you will experience.
I arrived at the centre in the late afternoon, hungover from a few days of drinking with some buddies.
Milling around in the dining hall were about 25 men all nervously waiting for the experience to begin. Some Vispasanas, as this one was, are segregated by gender, to limit the distractions the opposite sex engenders in most people.
The average age was in the late twenties, with only a few people over the age of fifty which surprised me. Perhaps social media and always-on technology are fueling anxiety in young people.
Our phones and valuables were reluctantly handed over to be locked safely away for the ten days. This was going to be the hardest part; like most of us, I’m glued to my phone all the time.
Each day follows the same timetable.
- Wake up at 4am.
- Meditate from 4:30am till 6:30am.
- Eat a vegetarian breakfast.
- Meditate from 8am till 11am.
- Eat a vegetarian lunch.
- Meditate from 1pm till 5pm.
- Drink some tea and have some fruit.
- Meditate from 6pm till 9pm and watch a 1 hour recorded video lecture in between.
- Lights out by 10pm.
As this point, you might be wondering why anyone would voluntarily put themselves into a situation like this for ten days. Why would anyone spend what is a significant period in complete silence, sitting very uncomfortably for hours at a time, with a group of strangers, eating only rabbit food?
There are dozens of Vipassanas being conducted around the world as you read this, and they have been going for thousands of years, which explains why millions of people find the experience worthwhile. There are studies that report how many people experience breakthroughs in their personal lives and relationships, prisoners stop re-offending, addicts get their lives back on track.
On the other hand, some people report getting little benefit, aside from feeling calmer when they leave.
Personally, I’m a sucker for a new experience. Everything deserves to be tried at least once, except heroin. So, what was my experience?
Much of the time, I was bored out of my brains and desperately wanted to leave. I started off with all due enthusiasm and determination. The first day was, well, okay. I stuck with it on day two. But by day three, the get-me-out-of-here voice was becoming strident. This time though, I stuck with it.
Prior to the Vipassana, I’d never sat still for more than ten minutes a day to meditate. By the end of the ten days, holding my position for an hour at a time was relatively easy.
An interesting thing happened on the evening of the fourth day. A sharp pain had been present in my upper back for much of that afternoon.
Suddenly that pain was overshadowed by a feeling of pure ecstasy and rapture. It was like an orgasm that wouldn’t end, or what I imagine MDMA feels like.
I wanted to laugh and cry with happiness at this feeling as it washed over me continuously. This feeling, however, was not the intended goal of Vipassana. This was merely an opportunity to practise what I was being taught, to maintain a balance of awareness and equanimity regardless of the physical sensations occurring within your body.
Others that I spoke to after the course did not get this ecstatic feeling, and it did not repeat itself on any other day within my body.
As the remaining days progressed, I was able to go deeper into the meditation and events from my past naturally bubbled up. The reoccurrence of these memories were opportunities to reframe them through the lens of what I was learning in the evening lectures.
The moment it was finished, I realised how valuable it had been for my mental health. An inner calm that I didn’t know I was capable of feeling emerged from deep within. Anger that I’d been holding onto for more than ten years evaporated.
I would say the most significant takeaway from the experience is the ability to observe my mind and not get sucked into a vortex of anger, lust, anxiety, depression or any other emotion that can cause misery. Writing this, six weeks later, I can report that the capability remains in my armoury of personal resources, even if I don’t use it often enough.
Best practice requires that you continue to meditate for an hour at least each day, and I have certainly not met that standard. Nevertheless, I believe I am calmer and much more centred. My capacity to focus has increased, as I know how to quieten the monkey mind. All up, I am very pleased with the impact the Vipassana has had on my life; I am happier for it.
You might be wondering; how much does a Vipassana retreat cost?
Vipassana is free. You can donate at the end and you can volunteer your time to prepare food for another class of students. Unlike much of the personal development out there, Vipassana has no commercial model. There are no high-pressure sales tactics to sell you anything.
Nor are they religious. They merely teach you their meditation technique and create an environment for you to do the work on your own.
So would I recommend Vipassana to other people? Simply, yes. But with a word of caution.
Build up your determination over time and establish a daily meditation practice beforehand. This will make it easier and greatly increase your chances of staying the full course, two people left during mine. Waltzing in to have a crack is very unwise and your chances of leaving early will be greatly increased.
There is a Vipassana centre about an hour’s drive from Melbourne. Their course schedule can be found here.