Vipassana 10 Days Silent Meditation
Should you do it?
In 2015 I undertook Goenka's 10 day silent Vipassana meditation course. I say 'course' rather than 'retreat' (as it is sometimes referred), because I believe that it should be considered as such; it is a challenging period of time where you will work hard and learn a lot, rather than a restful or relaxing experience.
One thing I know for sure is that the experience of 'going on Vipassana' is completely different for everybody. For ten days straight you are alone with the inner workings of your mind, and let's face it, everyone's minds are different. Therefore what we experience, uncover, learn and take away from Vipassana will be different for all of us. On the final day when the silence was broken, I was amazed to hear how very different everyone’s experiences were.
If you are considering doing Goenka’s 10 Day Vipassana course, then I cannot advise whether or not you should – only you can decide that. But what I can do is to share the details about the course that will be largely the same for everyone (eg food, rules, structure etc), as well as my own personal experience and a few things I think would be wise to consider before making your decision.
Firstly, what is Vipassana?
Vipassana, also known as Insight Meditation, means to see things as they really are. It is one of India's most ancient techniques of meditation, taught in India more than 2500 years ago as a remedy for universal ills.
The ten day Vipassana meditation course which many people merely refer to as 'Vipassana' or ‘Going on Vipassana’, is a course founded and taught by S.N. Goenka, a Burmese-Indian teacher of Vipassanā meditation. His teaching is non-religious (although there are many cross-overs with Buddhism), and the techniques taught are supposed to be universal and scientific in character. The step by step course is run continuously on a rolling monthly basis in most counties across the world and open to all. It is conducted in silence and is free to attend (by donation, pay what you like) and run entirely by volunteers. At the end of each day, students receive teachings in the form of a video lecture by Goenka, guiding them in the next step of the technique to practice the following day - this is the only part which isn’t silent (although students remain silent!)
This 20 minute video is a good introduction to Vipassana meditation, by S.N. Goenka:
Do I need to be an experienced meditator?
No, but it helps to have an understanding of what meditation is and to ideally have started a regular practice at least one month before. This course is theoretically suitable for anyone in reasonable physical and mental health who is genuinely interested and willing to make a sincere effort. Meditation in itself is not difficult. If you are able to follow the instructions patiently and diligently, you can be sure of results.
How much is a 10 day Vipassana meditation course?
All Vipassana courses are run on a donation basis. The idea is that each student who attends a Vipassana course is given this gift by a previous student. There is no charge for either the teaching, or for room and board. All Vipassana courses worldwide are run on a strictly voluntary donation basis. At the end of your course, if you have benefited from the experience, you are welcome to donate for the coming course, according to your volition and your means. The donation is anonymous and there is no pressure at all to donate.
What are the rules?
No speaking, no reading, no writing, no mobile phone, no talking, no exercising, no music, no eye contact, no use of anything with a strong smell (eg perfumed shampoo), no bright or patterned clothes, no drugs, no smoking, no alcohol, no caffeine, no sex, no laundry, no physical contact with anyone, men and women are separated at all times,, no communication with anyone outside of the centre (or inside!) during the ten days. There’s a full list of rules here.
What's the food like?
Personally I loved the food and found it very tasty. It was vegetarian, served up canteen style so you can help yourself to what/how much you want. Overall it was pretty healthy with a decent choice, so I never felt hungry. There is herbal tea but no coffee. Occasionally there is dessert. There will be a menu card indicating foods that contain soy, gluten, dairy and nuts at the head of the serving table each lunchtime, and all dietry requirements are catered for.
Breakfast: Oatmeal, Stewed Prunes, Fruit Bowl, Toasts and Jellies, etc.
Day 0: Vegetable Soup, Non-Dairy Cornbread, Soy Spread, Butter, Jam, Salad
Day 1: Penne Pasta with Tomato Sauce, Quinoa, Brown Rice, Steamed Broccoli, Non-dairy Herb Bread, Salad, Fresh Fruit
Day 2: Baked Nutritional Tofu, Brown Rice, White Rice, Steamed Kale, Salad, Banana Bread
Day 3: Mung Dal, Curried Vegetables, Raita, White Rice, Brown Rice, Salad, Fresh Fruit
Day 4: Tofu–Broccoli Tumble, Brown Rice, White Rice, Salad, Chocolate Chip Cookies
Day 5: Chick Pea Masala, Brown Rice, White Rice, Baked Potatoes with Ketchup & Sour Cream, Steamed Swiss Chard, Salad, Fresh Fruit
Day 6: Baked Marinated Tempeh, Brown Rice, White Rice, Steamed Squash, Salad, Pumpkin Gingerbread
Day 7: Vegetarian Chili, Brown Rice, White Rice, Non-Dairy Cornbread, Steamed Greens, Salad, Fresh Fruit
Day 8: Macaroni and Cheese, Brown Rice, Steamed Broccoli & Carrots, Salad Bowl, Fresh Fruit
Day 9: Coconut Curry, Brown Rice, White Rice, Steamed Greens, Salad, Apple Crisp and Whipped Cream
Day 10: Veggie Burgers and Whole Wheat Buns, Sliced Tomatoes, Ketchup, Mustard, Mayo, Quinoa, White Rice, Steamed Kale, Salad, Chocolate Cookies
Teatime: Light Miso Soup or Hummus & Veggie Sticks, Rice Cakes and Bread, Fresh Fruit
What's the accommodation like?
The accommodation varies depending on which centre/country you choose. For me I went to the Dhamma Dipa Vipassana Meditation centre in Hereford, UK, and I slept in a dorm. However, the beds were all separated from one another with curtains so you have privacy and there is room for changing, plus a few draws to keep your things. Others had private rooms or twin rooms – it is luck of the draw which bed you get allocated. For me, everything was very clean and comfortable.
What's a typical day like?
VIPASSANA COURSE DAILY TIMETABLE
4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12 noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher's instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher's Discourse in the hall (here everyone watches a videotaped lecture by the Teacher, S.N. Goenka, which provides a context for meditators to understand their experience of the day.)
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall (this is an optional chance to speak to someone if you have any problems or questions)
9:30 pm Retire to your own room - Lights out
You can download the official PDF timetable here.
All students attending the course are asked to observe "noble silence". This silence is observed by everyone. It may seem daunting, but to be honest I personally found the silent part the easiest bit of the course, and I even started to feel glad that I didn’t have to speak to anyone.
Observing silence gives you a chance to really start to turn inward and connect deeply with yourself. You are not distracted or manipulated by others’ words, feeling or emotions. This becomes prominent when around day 5 some people started to break down a bit. I noticed more people crying, some left, and others started booking regular sessions to speak to the co-ordinator. Ordinarily, In a situation where you notice your peers in distress, the automatic reaction is to try and help them, perhaps offering a shoulder to cry on or offering them advice or support on their problems. But in this case the rule of silence meant that we all have to deal with our own issues. It meant that those in distress got advice and help from the coordinators and everybody else could concentrate on their own practice without distraction, which I think worked really well. If you have any problems (eg you get sick or have a dietry issue), you are free to contact the management and to speak with the instructor. Silence is observed for the first nine full days. On the tenth day, speech is resumed as a way of re-establishing the normal pattern of daily life.
How do you book a place?
All courses are booked through the Dhamma website, here; https://www.dhamma.org. Here you can search the course you want (date, country, language) and then click 'Apply' to start the application process
Can you leave early?
Yes. But if you leave early, you do not learn the full teaching and do not give the technique a chance to work for you. Also, by meditating intensively, a course participant initiates a process that reaches fulfillment with the completion of the course. Interrupting the process before completion is not advisable. For instance, I didn't begin to have my first insights until Day 5 and my real insights began around Day 8. This is of course completely different for everyone.
4 questions to ask yourself before booking Vipassana:
1. Why do you want to do Vipassana meditation?
Goenka’s 10 day Vipassana course can be an extremely tough and challenging experience, so before undertaking it, be clear about why you are doing it. Everyone will have different reasons for considering Vipassana and that's ok, but just be clear about your intention. For me, I had reached a certain stage in my meditation practice where I felt as though I was on the edge of understanding something much deeper about myself and the world, but I felt that I needed a greater focus and guidance to realise what it was I was experiencing.
2. What is your meditation experience?
It's true that you anyone can join a Vipassana course, even with zero experience of meditation – however, I would not advise this. Meditation is a practice that takes time to learn and most people find it difficult to sit still for just five minutes, let alone 100 hours. So I would personally advise having a regular practice for at least one month before trying Vipassana. Even if you just commit to ten minutes' a day, this will at least start to get you mind familiar with the tools and techniques to help you to connect with your breath and start to observe your thoughts.
3. Can you sit for long periods of time?
Do you get pins and needles in your feet after sitting crossed legged for five minutes? Does 30 seconds in the lotus leave you with aches and pains? If so, you may want to do some preparation before going on Vipassana. When on the Vipassana 10 day course, make no mistake, you will experience pain. Whether you are a seasoned yogi or a newby, 100 hours of sitting on the floor is going to take its toll sooner or later. However, there are a couple of things you can do to prepare:
Start a regular yoga practice.
Many people don't realise that the traditional purpose of the yoga asanas is actually to prepare the body for meditation. And guess what, it works. Here are some poses you can practice at home to help prepare your legs, hips and spine for: https://www.yogajournal.com/meditation/meditation-classes/meditation-prep
Find your seat
Everybody's body is different and so it's important to find the most comfortable pose for you to sit in for long periods of time. It's a myth that most meditators sit in the lotus pose; in fact, most people find it highly uncomfortable, so it's perfectly acceptable to find a variation that works for you. Once at the Vipassana centre, you'll find an abundance of cushions, blankets and chairs to choose from, and the first couple of days will be about getting set up in a way that is the most comfortable for you. But you'll be ahead of the game if you can find your preferred way of sitting beforehand. In preparation, experiment with different ways of sitting and try and find a pose that you can sit still in for one hour. Here are a few different options you can try: https://www.yogajournal.com/meditation/everything-need-know-meditation-posture Personally I meditate in Burmese pose, raised up on a cushion or two. Chairs are provided for those unable to sit comfortably on the floor because of age or a physical problem.
4. Are there any uncomfortable issues from your past that you haven’t dealt with?
During the process of Vipassana you are alone with your mind, and after a few days of scratching the surface you will likely start to dig deeper to the root level and possibly uncover things buried so deep you forgot they were even there. Over the course of ten days you will start to un-peel the layers of your mind like an onion, and for many people this can be a very challenging, emotional, and sometimes painful experience. If you know you have a lot of issues from your past that you have not yet dealt with, then be prepared that these might resurface during Vipassana. For many, this can be very therapeutic and beneficial experience, but for others they may want to consult a therapist, doctor or meditation teacher before making their decision. If you’re unsure whether you should do Vipassana, you can contact the teachers through the website and through a process of questions and answers, they will be able to help you decide clearly beforehand whether you are in a position to benefit fully from a course. In some cases applicants are asked to get approval from their doctor before they can be accepted. The course is not suitable for those suffering from psychiatric problems, or for anyone undergoing excessive emotional upheaval.
My Vipassana Experience
My ten day Vipassana Meditation experience was a rollercoaster, but a gentle one. I think I was expecting to feel tremendous highs and lows and although I certainly had both, I mainly stayed balanced. I realised that having practised yoga and meditation for almost ten years now, I have already spent a lot of time digging around in my own head and working on myself, uncovering my deep rooted fears, staring my weaknesses in the face and analysing my mistakes and insecurities. So although there is still work to be done, it turned out that I had walked further down the path of self-discovery than I realised, which I was grateful for.
Although the first three days were hard, they were bearable, and I managed to stay positive, focused and maintain strong determination. I experienced physical pain, but again it was bearable. My previous yoga practice had helped my hips to open and taught me how to protect my back when sitting up straight. My experience with mindfulness meditation meant that I already had practice with learning how to observe pain objectively rather than reacting blindly to it. So this helped me too.
Of course there were obstacles. Firstly, my own drowsiness meant that I could hardly stay awake for one sitting, it was impossible to stay alert, especially at 4am! Secondly, after a few days I started to see others break down around me as they dug up their own deeply buried issues, but I somehow remained stable – neither experiencing pure bliss, emotional upheaval, or huge revelations. At first this was frustrating as I felt like I wasn’t ‘getting results’. But soon I realised, a lot of the things that were ‘coming to the surface’ were repetitions of lessons I had already learned, so it would take a little more time for me to get below the surface. Many times I doubted myself. Was I missing something? But then on a few occasions, I started to experience 'the flow' and I knew I had tapped into something.
There were two occasions which were most memorable. The first was on Day 5. I was aware of subtle sensations all over my body from head to toe. The energy was flowing through me calmly in the form of small subtle vibrations. I was aware of everything simultaneously, and yet was detached, able to observe from outside my body yet being present in my body at the same time. It was the closest I have come to an out of body experience.
The second and most intense experience was on the evening of Day 8. I felt a heavy tightness around my heart and couldn't breathe. I meditated on that area, focusing on the tightness, observing it and trying to dissolve the solidity of it. Then all of a sudden I had a deep feeling of impermanence. I realised very profoundly that everything will pass. At that moment I saw a bed of red roses and felt the memory of a deep sadness that had occurred long ago in my past. The grief and sorrow spread through me and the pain hit me in a lightening bolt. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I felt blackness all around as I felt the inevitable truth that the people we love will die one day, and so will we. Sorrow filled my heart, but as the truth revealed itself the tension in my heart started to melt.
The feeling spread and I felt a warm tingling melt through every cell of my being. And with that, I entered the vibrating field. Every cell vibrated on the same frequency, and then I saw the planes – a complex grid of thin purple lines constantly wavering, my cells connected to the web of life. The web tilted and swayed and I moved effortlessly with it. I was part of it, not separate. And a feeling of peace filled me. Peace, warmth, lightness and expansiveness. I realised the physical boundaries of my body only existed on one level, but on this level, the web of vibrations, there were no boundaries. I floated here in a sea of calm for some time. The only thing connecting me to my body was my breath. I could see my breath as a small ball of white energy and light in my stomach, softly rising and falling, the life force.
I could have stayed there, but I did not want to create a craving or attachment to the feeling, so I moved my awareness back to my body. When I opened my eyes it was like seeing the world in a different way. The same, but through a different lens.
The other thing that surprised me were my dreams. Vivid, clear and so real. Every night I would enter a hyper real world and experience movie-like scenarios in high definition. In one dream, me, my ex-boyfriend and a polar bear had gone to live in a cave in Eastern Europe on a small island. There was warm sand and turquoise water with lapping waves. Suddenly a big wave entered the cave, taking us under. In another dream, I saw a child who I knew to be mine. A boy, about two years' old with white blonde hair. I held out my hand and he grasped my fingers and then slipped away from me.
Not only did I have this succession of vivid dreams, but I found that the dreams would sometimes pick up where they left off when I started to meditate in the day. The lines between my conscious and and my subconscious became blurred. And then I started to have flashes of long-lost dreams. Scenes from dreams that I'd had years ago that had been long forgotten, started to re-emerge. Worlds and places I had only ever visited in my dreams appeared in my meditations like the wandering thoughts, cropping up regularly. When I asked the teacher about this, she said that I was journeying through layers of consciousness so now I had begun to unpick things buried in my sub-conscience.
What I learned
As I left Vipassana I was reminded that when we follow our heart and live in tune with the law of nature, the universe comes together and gives us signs that light the way on our path.
Seeing and speaking with the other people coming out of Vipassana on Day 10, it is clear that it works. It touched so many people and the experience was very different for everyone. For me, I'm glad that I did it. I have since incorporated elements of Vipassana meditation into my practice, although I use other techniques as well. The experience left me with a feeling of confidence in myself, my strength, and a renewed direction and purpose.
The week following my Vipassana course I decided to quit my job of five years and travel to India. I have since started my own business, become a yoga teacher, and have been travelling the world working, drawing, teaching, meditating and continuously learning for the past three years. I cannot say that this life-changing decision was purely down to Vipassana meditation, as I had been unhappy in my work for a long time and was planning to make a change. However, I do believe that Vipassana gave me the insight and the confidence to take action to make my dreams a reality and to live more in accordance with my true self. I also made a quiet kind of peace with my past and had a few important conversations with friends and family about deep memories that I had reconnected with. This helped me to understand things I had been feeling guilty or confused about as a child, but I have now thankfully put to bed.
My greatest lessons from Vipassana were:
In every situation we have two options: accept or change. You must accept everything as it is, not how you'd like it to be, or how you think it is. Be honest with yourself. If you are truly opposed to a situation and you are able to change it, then do. If you are unable to change it, then you must accept it. Those are the only two options in any given situation.
Everything that arises will pass away. Nothing is permanent, including human life.
Observe the sensations of the body with equanimity and awareness. Do not react with craving or aversion. Instead maintain awareness, especially in moments of stress, anger and pleasure.
Do not be concerned with your image or in how others perceive you. Instead, be true to yourself, make decisions from the heart, decisions that will benefit both yourself and others, and cause no harm. Ensure that decisions, (especially big life decisions) are not driven by the ego but instead by the heart.
Everything I do should be done with love. I want my life to bring joy and happiness to others and to help people in need.
For those seeking to learn and understand more about meditation, here’s a list of some of my favourite books on Meditation and Mindfulness which I have read and highly recommend:
Meditation Apps for Beginners
For those completely new to meditation, I recommend downloading the free Headspace App. It has 10 free short guided meditations and a great introduction to get you started. Another popular meditation app is called Calm, they also have a free trial.
After you have tried a meditation app, I recommend finding a local meditation group and joining a class, it’s a very different experience being in a group session and a good opportunity to try a longer sitting and to speak with the teacher about any questions that arise.