A lot of you have asked me about my experiences of my Vipassana silent meditation course, so I decided to share my thoughts here. I hope it will be helpful for those who are considering embarking on this journey.
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India's most ancient techniques of meditation and basically an Art of Living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and achieving happiness, inner peace and eventually full liberation. Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to physical sensations.
Since the time of Gautama Siddhartha Buddha, Vipassana has been handed down by an unbroken chain of teachers. The current teacher in this chain, Mr. S.N. Goenka and his assistant teachers.
The technique is taught at ten-day residential courses during which participants follow a strict Code of Discipline, learn the basics of the method, and practice daily to experience its benefits.
During the course it is essential that all forms of prayer, worship, healing or spiritual practices are suspended. This is not to condemn any other technique or practice, but to give a fair trial to the technique of Vipassana in its absolute purity.
Noble Silence & Contact
All students must observe Noble Silence from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow students, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc. is prohibited.
Students may speak with the teacher and the management, but communication should be kept to a minimum. The participants should cultivate the feeling that they are working in isolation. Men and women are completely segregated, couples, friends and family members should not contact each other in any way during the course. It is important that throughout the course there is no physical contact whatsoever between people. No outside communication is allowed before the course ends, except for emergency situations. Cell phones and other electronic devices must be deposited with the management before the course starts.
The Meditation Centre
I was looking for a Vipassana centre nearby where I can do the course in English instead of German. Through a friend’s suggestion I was lucky enough to find a location less than 2 hours drive away from Duisburg, in Belgium, called the Dhamma Pajjota Vipassana Meditation Centre.
They do courses in English, German, Dutch and French.
This centre is situated in Dilsen-Stokkem in a very rural area. There are only fields and forests around, pure air, nature and above all: silence. It was just perfect! There were separate walking areas in the garden/park for men and women, where one could get a bit of fresh air and contemplate the secrets of the universe.
The meditation hall where the group sittings took place was relatively new, nice and clean. All kinds of pillows, blankies and other props are provided to support the students during the long sitting sessions.
The accommodation buildings were quite old, but nicely renovated and kept in good shape.
The rooms were shared, having 2-6 beds. They were simple but very clean and spacious. I was in a 3 beds room with two other girls. There was enough room for all our stuff and to live there for 10 days comfortably. The beds were sturdy with good quality mattresses. I was a bit cold at times, but just used some extra blankets and always wore fluffy leggings under my pants, thick socks and jumpers.
The showers and toilets were well equipped, modern and clean.
You start your day at 4am with a wake-up gong – yes, you read that right, 4am it is! I often did not hear the gong, so had an alarm clock set up as well. However, I did not sleep much I must say. I was mainly lying awake at night or in a weird half-awake state while my mind was wildly spinning. All kinds of weird mind movies were playing in my head of past, present, alternative timelines and similar stuff. Later on, one evening I learned, that this is normal. Still, I was pretty used up after 10 days of no deep sleep at all. Anyway, there were plenty of nap options during the day :)
At 4.30 the meditation practice starts already. You have 1.5 hours to meditate either in the hall or in your room. I usually stayed in the room, as it was warmer there and I could focus better. In the hall there were just too many energies, too much rustling, nose blowing, coughing, sneezing, sniffing etc.
At 6.30 we had breakfast. Normally I was pretty hungry by then, because there is no real dinner in the evenings. Breakfast was mainly sweet stuff like fruits, muesli etc., so not really my thing. I mostly ate bread with some veggies. All this bread eating took it’s toll though, I was struggling with constipation and with acne the whole time.
At 8am we had our first group meditation session in the hall for one hour, then mostly we were free to meditate in our room till 11am. These were the sessions where I struggled the most to stay awake, because of my sleepless nights.
At 11am came lunch, for me the highlight of the day! I really loved the lunches during my stay. After lunch, some rest till 1pm. This of course mostly meant naptime! We were lucky enough to enjoy the last autumn sunrays in the garden. I tried to take a brisk walk every day, then do some stretching.
At 1pm you meditated in your room or in the hall, at 2.30 the second group sitting took place, then again, meditation on your own till 5pm.
5pm was teatime. As a new student, I could grab a piece of fruit and some hot tea. For returning students, there is only a glass of lemon water, so they fast till the next morning. Something to remember when I return!
From 6 till 7pm our 3rd group meditation took place. Then we watched each evening a discourse video, where Mr Goenka was explaining about the technique in depth. These videos were very useful, funny and educational, with lots of story telling. Then some more meditation till 9pm. After these sessions we could stay in the hall to discuss any questions with the assistant teachers or retire to our room. At 9.30pm the lights were out.
I'm of course aware that one does not go on such retreat to indulge in food. But those who know me personally are aware, that food is a central topic in my life ;) I am an extremely picky person and it does not help, that I try to avoid eating animal products. The course description only mentioned simple vegetarian food, so I was a bit worried before going there, how will I manage.
Food was after all a very pleasant surprise for me. It was indeed simple, but very clean, almost entirely plant based (they offered some yoghurt, butter and cow's milk for breakfast), seasonal, rich in fibre, well balanced, healthy and tasty. There were always some pan roasted veggies, some carbs like rice, noodles or potato and some saucy stuff like dahl or veggie stew. They even offered sauerkraut, pickled beetroots, sprouted mung beans and such nice sides. On some days even cakes. The kitchen cleverly used leftovers in creative ways, so I was very pleased with how food waste was sustainably managed, without making us eat disgusting leftovers. So as said earlier, lunch was always the highlight of the day for me.
By each meal you could fill up your thermos with some freshly brewed herbal tea such as lavender, elderflower, nettle, verbena or chamomile. This was so comforting; I really loved the idea of these beautiful calming and cleansing herbs purifying our bodies while we worked on purifying our minds.
To be honest I was missing dinner and was often hungry in the evenings. But mainly because my body was used to eating late and something heavier in the evenings, as I’m always ravenous after my yoga classes. In theory you are not supposed to bring in outside food to the course, but I was glad that I had an energy bar in my bag, which I sparingly ate piece by piece in the evenings.
What to Pack
In general participants are well taken care of during the course, but there are a few things I brought with me that I found helpful.
My course was in November, so I was constantly cold. If you are like me, pack lots of warm clothes, thick socks, scarves, thermo leggings and a bathrobe. These were so valuable for me.
Make sure that you bring waterproof slippers you can shower in and some warm indoors slippers (in case your course is in the cold months). Have a pair of shoes/boots that are easy to slip on and off, as you will have to walk outside between buildings and in the buildings the shoes must be taken off, so there will be a lot of shoes on shoes off.
Don’t forget to bring your own towels, pillowcase and duvet case, as these are not provided by the center.
I bought an alarm clock before I went in. I don’t have watch and use my phone for everything, including checking the time. Once your phone is gone, your only way to keep track of the time will be a clock.
I took my camping mini water boiler and a mug. These proved priceless, as the earliest you can access a hot drink is at 6.30 during breakfast. I like to have a warm drink upon waking, especially when the waking is at 4am. Each morning I had my warm vitamin C morning shot with some Lemon and Ginger oil. Also, in the accommodation buildings only plastic cups are available, so I was very grateful to be able to drink from my own mug.
If you value your sleep or in my case your daytime nap, bring an eye mask and earplugs. They are lifesavers.
I was missing my Himalayan salt. The meals are very low sodium, so everyone can add salt to their food to their own taste. I used quite a bit of salt, but in the dining hall there was only some refined salt of unknown origin, so next time I’ll bring my own.
In November we had not much trouble with creepy crawlies, but if you go there in the warmer months, make sure that you have mosquito and tick repellent.
You will not be able to run, jog, do yoga or any other form of exercise during your stay. All you can do is have a walk in the garden. After my daily walk I normally did 20 minutes of yin yoga to ease my pains caused by the long sitting sessions. But that is the max you can do. So best to learn a quick 15-20 min yin sequence you can use. I’m happy to share my sequence if anyone is interested, it is targeted at the areas that get most stiff after sitting long hours.
Participants, Volunteering, Course Finances
The Vipassana technique is not taught commercially, but instead offered solely on donation base. The teachers and organisers don’t receive any payment and there are no charges for the courses - not even to cover the cost of food and accommodation. All expenses are met by donations from people who completed a course, experienced the benefits of Vipassana and wish to give others the opportunity to benefit from it. Thus, the spread of Vipassana is carried out with purity of purpose, free from any commercialism.
I love this idea and find it amazing how this movement grew so vast this way. How the people who wish to support others on the path keep the whole thing financially afloat. You can truly feel this energy and attitude in how the volunteers interact with you, how your food is made with love, how the teachers share their knowledge and wisdom with love and compassion.
It is possible to support the community as a volunteer in the kitchen or in the maintenance of the centres. I will definitely return as a volunteer later in 2020 to the kitchen or maybe even to do some garden work.
On this course I saw participants from all ages and walks of life. It is really for everyone who wishes to dedicate time and energy to learning this technique. My roomies were also great, we kinda telepathically communicated and existed in peace and harmony for those 10 days, even though we only exchanged a few words before the Noble Silence came into effect. On the last day, when we are finally allowed to speak, we could hardly wait to share our experiences with each other. That last day is kind of cathartic in this sense.
To those who consider giving this a try, I suggest that you allow yourself 2 days after your course to adjust to the outside world before you return to your work or any other form of daily grind you have going on. It was a bit hard on me that I did not have this buffer. Next time I will be smarter about it!
My Realizations, Summary
Well, I certainly realised, that I can sleep while sitting :D
The first 2-4 days of the retreat I had to deal with my extremely overcluttered and overactive mind. For days I have been just watching my own weird mind movies basically day and night. This included past traumas, the most random childhood memories, envisioned future stories and even some (a lot of) weird pornographic fantasies. My mind was completely out of control. I just had to let this run its course and clear out, I guess. Then my mind finally quieted down more or less after the third day, so I could start working in earnest.
As you get deeper into the technique, it sheds it’s light on the fleeting nature of things. Of the impermanence of the world and life itself. You start to re-evaluate your life, your relationships and in my case your time. Observing yourself, the world and situations objectively is not easy. There is always some emotion, a reaction involved. But you can train your mind to get out of its old patterns and become non-reactive. Realistically this will not happen in a 10 days course, but it is a great opportunity to establish your practice in an ideal environment. This is a great chance, because as soon as you are back in the outside world and flooded with input, it is much harder to keep up with your practice, to focus and to stay objective, non-attached and equanimous. To accept reality as it is and not how you want it to be.
The course and especially keeping up you practice requires hard work, dedication, discipline and patience. These 10 days are challenging and intense but very satisfying and peaceful in the same time. It puts things into perspective, and you will definitely see the world, the people around you and the situations you encounter in a different light. It created the much-needed space in my life, which I have to protect for the sake of my sanity and happiness.
All in all, I felt safe, comfortable and peaceful. I did not miss talking at all, my phone even less.
I recommend this course to those who seek happiness and harmony and willing to do honest work for achieving it. For those who wish to see things how they are. It’s a long path, but I learned that its effect is profound. I am excited to see where it takes me.
Bhavatu Sarve Mangalam