My Vipassana Journey
2nd October 2020
Meditate. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
Sounds like a pretty luxurious way to spend ten days, right? Well it would be, if the meditation didn’t culminate to ten hours a day, if the eating was more than breakfast, lunch and a piece of fruit and if the sleep wasn’t interrupted by the 4am wake up gong every morning.
Before I embarked on Vipassana people told me, ‘have an amazing time’ and ‘enjoy a well-deserved rest.’ I knew however that it wasn’t that kind of retreat. I wasn’t under any illusion of where I was heading, I knew it wasn’t going to be a holiday or a restful break, that instead it would be hard and confronting, still nothing can quite prepare you for such a dramatic shift from normal life.
I first heard about Vipassana a good few years back and have always had an interest in partaking in one, however, with the continual opportunities to lead or participate in yoga retreats and trainings both abroad and in the UK, booking two weeks off work to go sit cross-legged on my own for ten hours each day just never quite took precedent. But then some pandemic happened in 2020, which you may or may have heard of, and all my plans for such trips and trainings quickly dissolved, leaving the path wide open for a bit of solitude and a an escape to the countryside. After being on the waiting list for a few months, six days prior to the retreat starting I got an email confirming I’d received a place, so I became excited and then preceded to sh*t my pants and question whether I really wanted to put myself through this. Ten days of no communication (verbal or otherwise), no reading, no writing, no exercise, no yoga, no music, so basically meditation prison??? Well, why the heck not.
My Vipassana took place at Dhamma Sukhakari in Stowmarket, Suffolk, the UK’s second permanent Vipassana centre. A place that normally has the capacity for ninety students was available to a mere twenty lucky students this time round due to Covid safe procedures. On day 0 we were allocated rooms, had a chance to explore the layout of the land and then handed over our trusted companions a.k.a. mobile phones, before heading to the Dhamma hall to take our vow of noble silence, accompanied with various vows of morality to uphold for the duration of our stay. Then the meditation began.
The schedule is a pretty gruelling one, the day starts at 4am with the first meditation at 4.30am, breakfast at 6.30am followed by more meditation, lunch at 11am followed by more meditation, afternoon break at 5pm, followed by more meditation, a discourse in the evening followed by more meditation and finishing the day at 9/9.30 and heading to bed. The timetable is a universal one, no matter what Vipassana centre you go to around the world, this is the daily schedule you adhere to, definitely a shock to the system and a shock to my usual priorities of eight solid hours a night.
The first three days are dedicated to watching the breath. Yes, that’s right, a whole three days to watch the breath and nothing else. The purpose to slowly sharpen your awareness until you reach a point where you can feel the subtle sensation of the breath moving over your upper lip with a sense of clarity, a meditation practice not too dissimilar to what I’ve practiced in the past, bar its durational aspect. The mind wandered of course, multiple times, over and over and over and over again, but the environment and the conditions allowed me to gain more focus and go deeper than normally available. A sense of boredom definitely crept in over the days and my mind craved excitement, stimulation and activity other than the observation of respiration.
The purpose of Vipassana, as stated by S.N. Goenka is for mental mastery and purification of the mind, to liberate us from our mental defilements and misery. Well, spending ten days with your own thoughts, desires and internal dialogue is a surefire way to demonstrate how little mastery we have over the mind. With that realisation, you start to observe mental habits and patterns, you begin to gain more understanding of the mind rather than simply being a slave to it in ignorance. On the first day Goenka describes the process like ‘cutting into a wound to get the pus out’ and unfortunately that feels pretty accurate. It’s uncomfortable and difficult and will provide you a myriad of hypothetical options for procrastination but essentially it’s completely necessary should you want to arrive at a place of happiness and peace.
Halfway through day four you shift from Anapana (breath focused) to working with Vipassana meditation, observation of sensations of the body, those that are gross, intense, loud and really f*cking uncomfortable as well as those that are more subtle, quieter and pleasurable. The purpose is not just to scan the body to build greater awareness, but to pair that awareness with the quality of equanimity - the saviour of all of our problems. This new technique is also accompanied by the arrival of Adhitthana, the kind of person that you really don’t want to turn up at the party. Adhitthana means strong determination and is applied by the resolve not to move for the entire sitting, not to open your eyes, hands or legs. Trying not to move if you’re chilling in savasana is one thing, but maintaining pure stillness whilst sat cross legged for an hour at a time is a whole other kettle of tofish.
I knew that the silence wouldn’t be a massive issue for me, despite the fact that I am not a particularly quiet person, there is something very attractive about a period of pure introspection and solitude that is rarely available to us in this modern world outside of adopting a monastic life. The real big challenge however was the discipline, an art that I think is lost on many of us, myself for sure. Vipassana requires a level of discipline that is rigorous, diligent and continuous, one that asked more of me than ever before. To follow strict rules on how to live and a gruelling schedule set by someone other than me was new, as a freelancer it’s not something I’ve experienced for a long time and when I have, its been with a whole lot more freedom of choice and agency. The ability to soothe unpleasant feelings with external pleasures or to fulfil your cravings and desires was stripped right back, a much more accurate experience of reality, rather than the delusion of control that we often live under.
Whilst the Corona virus has robbed us of many things this year, in this one instance it worked in my favour, I had a four person dorm, entirely for myself due to social distancing. This gave me much more freedom and possibility, firstly by increased solitude and privacy but most beneficial of all was the ability to sprawl out on the floor, stretching and whimpering as I rolled ma ass over myofascial balls. Yoga and exercise are not permitted on the course due to not having the facilities to do so without disturbing others but with a private room and a body that was crying with the daily addition of aches and pains in every little muscle, nook and cranny it was a luxury I refused to go without.
Each day, my favourite part (besides lunchtime) was the evening discourse. Essentially Netflix and Chill for 75 minutes. Except instead of Netflix it’s a video recording of Mr Goenka himself and rather than chill its remaining sitting upright for the duration. Mr G. is wonderful to listen to, incredibly charismatic and very likeable, full of fables and anecdotes, offering the Dhamma, the theoretical teachings of the practice that stems from Buddhism, in language that is understandable, universal and non-sectarian. The course is majorly practical, probably about ninety percent but the ten percent of theory offered in these sessions is golden. It allowed me to really look at the way I’m living, to question my purpose, my choices, thoughts, words and actions and to start to integrate it throughout my stay.
Now that it’s over I ask myself these questions…
Was it worth it? Without a doubt. It was quite possibly the hardest thing i’ve ever done, at times I was battling with demons, experiencing pain and wishing to be anywhere else, but with all that it taught me a tremendous amount. Any suffering I experience has nothing to do with the outside world and everything to do with me and my mind. I understand that on an intellectual level clearly and have started to understand that on an experiential level too. I know for certain this won’t be my go to response for many things when I start to feel the icky stuff in life but I also know for certain that there is a different path available to me if I put in the effort, time and practice to walk it.
Would I go back? Well I imagine Vipassana to be a little bit like childbirth, whilst you’re going through it, it can be pretty excruciating and cause you to question Why the f*ck did I ever sign up for this? But then you come out the other side of it and the intensity is less acutely remembered; instead you’re left with the appreciation of the gift you just received, the benefits you gained and the slightly altered perspective on reality that you’ve adopted.
Would I recommend it? Most certainly. If you have a real interest in going deep, deep into the mind, deep into meditation and deep into your relationship with the world then this is perhaps for you but know that it’s not like creeping into a pool whilst the body slowly acclimatises to the temperature but rather jumping in the deep end with the full knowledge you’re about to freeze you tits/balls off.