I first heard of this course in the late 90’s, but wasn’t inspired to do it until about 15 years later when I had the experience of meeting 5 different people within the time span of one month who raved about it. That seemed like a sure sign, it was my time to go.
Taking ten (actually 12 with the arrival and departure dates) days off from work, family and daily life is not easy for householders. For many there is no way they could even consider such a thing at this time in their life.
Should you do it? I don’t know.
It depends a lot on your level of desire. It is a very rigorous commitment, definitely not for wimps. Upon arriving at one of the 164 worldwide Vipassana centers, you are first asked to turn in your valuables, cell phone and other electronics. They are stored in a safe until the day of departure. If that idea seems daunting or impossible to you, you may not be ready. I was relieved to have a break from technology for almost two weeks.
Are you ready to spend 10 days in complete silence and surrender to the rigorous schedule of only 2 simple vegetarian meals per day and up to 10 hours per day of sitting meditation? They discourage you from doing yoga or exercise but they do have a quarter mile loop where I managed to put in 4 miles per day of power walking.
The most difficult part of this for me was all the hours of meditation. I don’t even like meditation that much, but I know I need it. I’ve heard this from countless teachers for over 30 years. I have tried to meditate, but honestly, compared to what I’ve experienced in yoga and other courses such as Landmark Education or hundreds of hours with my therapist, meditation never really made sense to me. Sitting on a pillow with my eyes closed only gave my already very quick mind license to race around like a crazed stallion. My mind is like Netflix on speed, constantly bringing me old and new movies to watch. I would get up after meditating and my head would be spinning. I would have felt much more peaceful had I just read a good book. At least that would have kept my crazy mind focused on only one story at a time! As a true extrovert and verbal processor, I much preferred talking with my therapist or a wise friend whenever I felt the need to get back on track.
My final take away has been gaining another way to deal with my own self-generated misery around my real loss and pain, using meditation as a tool. Many of you know of my story. I am a trauma survivor, and I have been dealing with my pain/suffering for about 16 years now, beginning with a difficult divorce in 2000 compounded by the loss of my 20-year-old son in 2003. Losing a child is such a deep pain that it colors one’s experience, tying any present threat of loss back to the past “big one”, causing us to re-experience the gut-wrenching pain fairly regularly. Getting to the root of this suffering has captured my curiosity. Of course I know that I will always live with the remembrance of this loss. Can I learn though to free myself from this high-level suffering around my attachment to my first-born child? The more I can surrender my ego identification as the mother of “my” son, the less misery I will spin in stories of blame and shame. I want to learn how to do this for myself so that I can also help others who have experienced similar losses. I feel this now in many ways to be my life’s work.
Grueling as these 10 days were, they have forever changed my understanding of yoga as well as meditation. I now see this practice as a way of training the mind into an awareness that can allow and accept all that might be happening in the moment with equanimity. The idea of this skill is not new to me, but the Vipassana technique as presented in a clear, repetitive and sometimes even humorous way is digestible and transformational. In the past, I have been led through guided meditations, the “success” of quieting my mind depending on the skill of the teacher. Now I understand how to guide myself and do my own work to train my mind into a state of peaceful ease. It is very similar to training a dog to heel or sit rather than jump all over people.
The course is available to everyone and anyone who is interested in doing the work. The majority of the attendees were under the age of 40, which was a surprise as I had expected an older, more seasoned crowd. Many of them had no prior experience with meditation or any type of mind/body training. Our course had 30 men and 30 women, some had done the course before.
The course is not easy and it’s not fun. Many times I felt like leaving. At times, it took all of my willpower to stay with the program, so please remember to pack that in your suitcase. Meditation is not an escape or a form of entertainment. It is not always a feel good experience; that is not its aim. Andrew and I came home with a more grounded and spacious feeling. We felt more patient and present and joyful for no apparent reason.
The Southern California center that Andrew and I attended has small private rooms for older students and a dormitory for younger students. There is no cost. Students are encouraged to make donations to the not-for-profit organization www.dhamma.org. None of the teachers or servers are paid as this is a volunteer, pay-it-forward model. The teachings are elegantly and clearly presented, and are based on the ancient teachings of Gautama Buddha.
The instructor/guide, S.N. Goenka, (1924-2013) a brilliant, compassionate and humorous Burmese man, deeply understands the workings of both the conscious and unconscious mind. His talks during the daily video program take a beginner from point A (in my case kicking and screaming) to point B (meditating in a very healing, purifying way) and he knows exactly where in the process a new student will be, every step of the way. I found it very reassuring to know that my mind’s resistance to this process is textbook human behavior.
May all of us…. be happy, be peaceful and be liberated from our suffering.