This is my story about recently completing a 10-day course in Vipassana meditation in Malaysia. It’s also a story about impermanence.
Day four. It was 90 degrees outside, maybe pushing 95. Inside the meditation hall, I had been in some form of a restless, tortured cross-legged meditation posture for a total approaching six hours that day. It was 2:00 P.M. and I was in the midst of what one might informally refer to as a “body scan.” I was systematically surveying the surface of my body for sensations when I again faced a familiar barrier.
I sat hunched over at the bend in my lower back, forever a nexus of pain and constraint. “I cannot get to the rest of my body if I can’t get beyond here,” I thought to myself again. Sweat poured down my sides, inside my legs. A good sweat, the cleansing kind, the lubricating kind that eases the muscles and mind and allows impurities to spill from the body.
I leaned forward, to the left, attempting to wrest motion from and liberate the right side of my body. I caught on something, maybe a rib, maybe a burr, and pressed into a familiar painful muscle cluster, ground zero for all my body’s tension for as long as I have known. I moved further forward, twisting, bending.
Maybe this was focus. Maybe this was the “observation” I’d heard about over the speakers in the first days: “Observe the pain…craving and aversion create misery.” I observed my pain so deeply; it was electric. I leaned right into it. I immersed myself, bathing in the burn.
Then something snapped. I felt an unusual vibration, waves deep inside. Imagine twisting the tuning peg on a guitar just a little too far. You know, when the string breaks.
I have divided this article into different sections based on the various questions that have been asked of me about my experience. Skip ahead to what interests you most:
- How I First Learned of Vipassana and Why I Put It Off for Years
- The Snap…Continued
- The Flow of My Vipassana Experience
- Should I Take a Vipassana Meditation Course? (physical and mental expectations and outcomes)
- How to Take a Vipassana Course, All the Practical Details (finding a course, food, lodging, cost)
- A Typical Day: The Vipassana Daily Schedule
The Back Story: How I First Learned of Vipassana and Why I Put It Off for Years
Years ago our friend Jennie mentioned something about a silent meditation course retreat she’d taken. “It’s called Vipassana…ten days…no speaking…meditation…clear the mind…lots of traffic…it’s loud in the head…then peace.”
Those were among the tempting phrases and hooks I recall.
The term Vipassana means “to see things as they really are.” It's a meditation method discovered by Gautama Siddhartha (Buddha) over 2,500 years ago.
S.N. Goenka, a Burmese man of Indian descent who one might say reintroduced Vipassana to the world in the 1970s, opened the first centers. Today, there are more than 190 Vipassana centers around the world. His instructions and lessons are played during the course, the structure of which is identical regardless of the location: 10 days of silence, meditation from 4:00 A.M. and 9:00 P.M. with breaks for meals and rest in between.
Audrey and I were both sold on the idea, but I felt I had some physical impediments to overcome, including an inability to properly sit cross-legged. I could not fold my right leg in; I always sat leaning to the right or with my right leg kicked out. Whenever I visited a Buddhist temple during my travels, I was invariably that guy whose feet pointed in transgression at the Buddha, the altar, or the monks.
I have scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. Through nurture, nature or some devilish combination, the top of my spine is like a corkscrew, twisting like a piece of fusilli pasta while the base of my spine then collapses forward and the bottom tails off to the left. A lifetime of compensating for this had built up a rail of tension along the right side of my spine, a couple of small knots along the way, then a baseball-sized knot at the base. The tightness in the right side of my back extended to the hip and ultimately to the knee. Thus all those temple transgressions.
I never characterized myself as someone with chronic pain. When you have it, chronic pain is something you just learn to live with.
Shiatsu masters and Thai, Burmese, Swedish, Chinese, Laotian, blind, sighted masseurs — you name it and I have seen every type of massage therapist across the world — were all bewildered by my knots. I even took ten sessions with a Rolfing myofascial tissue specialist in Berlin last year, followed by sessions with other physiotherapists. All of that may have done some fleeting good, but nothing felt as though it really made a difference.
Each year I inched closer to being able to sit cross-legged, a little more flexible for some exercise I had done. Audrey and I would flirt with the idea: “Let’s do Vipassana this year.”
But I never felt prepared physically, so I put it off. It wasn’t the fear of silence, or other pleasures — like alcohol — that must be foregone during the course.
Then, last month Audrey was headed to Switzerland with her mom, giving me an opening of 10-14 days. I had plenty to occupy me work-wise. I also considered a host of getaways — to the beach, to the mountains, etc.
“How about Vipassana?” I thought. Ironically, Audrey was the more enthusiastic of the two of us about it. Perhaps that’s why I ought to have been the first to go.
So I did a search, found a newly available course at a long-standing center in Malaysia. I thought on it for a night, woke up, applied for the course and booked a flight to Malaysia for the following week.
If I waited until I felt “ready” I’d never go.
And what about the supposed mental benefits of a meditation course?
The most apt description I’ve given as to my mental state prior to the course: “My head feels like a traffic jam.” I felt a ball of agitation, of quick response. Always reacting. I responded to too many circumstances negatively – not only more negatively than I would have liked, but also more so than was good for my health and for that of others around me. Whatever the appearances and whatever the notion is regarding “normal” for a freelance lifestyle, I was bearing a lot of stress.
So, about that snap of the guitar string on day four…
“What was that?” After the confusion and pang of “Holy shit, what did I just do to myself?” I felt a most remarkable release. A dissolve. An unraveling.
Buckets of emotion washed over my entire body. I felt as if someone continuously poured warm water over my head and the rivulets seeped under my skin. Then came the river of tears. Unassociated tears. Tears of joy. Tears of stored physical and emotional garbage. Tears for so much of a life lived with chronic pain. I sat in the meditation hall, soaked and completely wiped out.
I got up slowly as one does after his body has been pretzeled. I exited the hall, closed my eyes and the brightness of something new streamed through the veil of my eyelids. I bent over once, then twice. Did it really happen?
Yes, it did. No more mother of all knots.
Just like that?
Yes, just like that.
The knot was truly gone. There one minute. Gone the next. I poked around for it. My experience was the textbook illustration of the concept of annicca, or impermanence, that had been echoed throughout the course instructions.
I felt phenomenal. More accurately, I felt like I had never felt before.
It often struck me – no, it still strikes me — as facile the suggestion that we ought to focus on our pain, that focus alone can make it go away. I found it simplistic, until I found a reason and approach that doesn't belie the reality that this process involves a great deal of work. (Note: I am not suggesting that observing your freshly broken leg will heal it on the spot, by the way.)
A short time later, the meditation bell rang calling us back into the hall. We were asked to sit, holding whichever position we chose for one hour. Excruciating. Whatever my joy, it had been replaced with unassailable pain.
My moment of glory was short-lived.
Impermanence, it seems, cuts both ways.
The Flow of My Vipassana Experience
The Vipassana experience is a personal one. So it is different for everyone. I hesitate to share my journey out of concern that it may unduly influence someone else’s process and create unreasonable expectations. However, I’ve been asked a lot of excellent questions, and conversations suggest that sharing my story might serve to allay fears and apprehension about the course and process.
Arrival at the Vipassana Center
When I first arrived at the center, I felt a bit overwhelmed. Approximately 100 people were taking the course with me. There were people everywhere it seemed, people who appeared more adequately prepared for the experience in every way than I might have been.
I had the chance to speak with other students before the observation of “Noble Silence” began that evening. It was then I realized that meditators come from all over the world — truly of all ages and from all walks of life. Some had absolute no experience meditating while others had meditated a great deal. Some knew nothing of Vipassana, while others were returning for their seventh sitting of the course.
There were some who were severely troubled and were willing to talk about it — including people seeking to overcome addiction and personal loss. Others appeared fully evolved and completely free of internal struggle, however accurate or inaccurate that outward appearance might have been.
Within that universe, you learn to become comfortable. Comfortable with what is, who you are, where you are. Therein lies the first lesson.
Leaning into the Silence: The Work Begins
It became clear to me why the silence, why the monastic sort of life for 10 days. The process and schedule seems aimed to minimize decisions and to put one’s mind at ease regarding needs and logistics. With none of that to worry about, you can focus on the process and yourself.
For the first three days, we learn to focus solely on our respiration, not to control it. To focus the mind, I observe my breath at the point where it enters and exits the nostrils. This focus proves an almost laughable struggle mentally and physically.
As I do this, I recall one of the returning student's observations before we went silent, “You will uncover memories you didn’t even know you had.”
To his point, my mind becomes a flipbook of memories in those first days, as I turn page by page from present to the past as far back as pre-kindergarten. I find I’m re-processing who I am.
This is a good thing.
I appreciate that I can eventually identify bodily sensation in and around my nostrils and upper lip. This sounds ludicrous, I know. But eventually you take that focused awareness of sensation to the rest of your body.
…unpleasant experiences arise and fall, come and go. The flip side: the pleasant ones do, too.
And that’s where you spend the remaining six or seven days. During this time, the connection between mind and body becomes clearer, and the relationship between all that and how to balance oneself day-to-day becomes clearer, too.
During the one-hour video “discourses” screened in the evenings, S.N. Goenka explains the phenomena we experienced that day and foreshadows some we may experience the next. It’s as if he can read our minds. He puts into astonishing and also sometimes emotionally painful perspective that unpleasant experiences arise and fall, come and go. The flip side: the pleasant ones do, too.
When this awareness finally landed, I felt free. But I also felt a little bit sad. Everything in our lives, good and bad, comes and goes.
And so do we. But we cause ourselves more pain by trying to hold on to it all.
Breaking the Noble Silence: We Are Not Alone
On the tenth day, “Noble Silence” is lifted, enabling us to speak with other students. Many of us were surprised to find ourselves slightly reluctant to re-enter the world of the speaking. But we’re human, wired for connection with others, and so we do.
Particularly in the West, we are taught to be strong. But to find our greatest strength, sometimes we must find room to surrender.
During my first “speaking” lunch, I had a conversation with another student who shared his experience with focusing on pain. Beyond the physical pain, he explained, he found a “gap” in his body — a feeling, in his words, indicating that he “somehow didn’t belong.” The sadness he related still chokes me a little as I write.
But this is what it means to be human. We hurt. We all hurt, just as we all experience joy. It's this recognition that allows us to settle who we are and leave a growing space of compassion for others.
He belonged as much as any of us. I realized more than I have ever realized, the power of the words I spoke in a talk we gave several years ago:
“We are not alone. We will go through challenges, and we will go through very significant struggles, and they will be personal, they’ll be financial, they will be emotional, and they’ll be physical, but understand this: there are people in our midst who are going through the same thing, and if not, there are people half way around the world who are sharing it with us. Take solace in this.”
Particularly in the West, we are taught to be strong. But to find our greatest strength, sometimes we must find room to surrender.
Final Meditation Sessions
With even more newfound perspective from my fellow meditators, my final three meditation sittings were perhaps the most productive of my time. I went farther than before, finding something deeper, achieving moments of greater focus. I cried a lot, not for something specific or even for something sad, but perhaps for the inexplicable beauty of the moment.
The words to describe reaching such a point currently do not exist in my vocabulary. “Powerful” and “transformational” can’t even touch it.
I leaned over and touched my toes for the first time in my life.
As I scanned my body, I felt that flow I always do on the left-hand side of my body, but I stopped at the top of my right hip. I watched it. And probably because of the 90-degree heat and 10 days of stretching, it finally gave way. A line of muscles tensed at the base of my spine began to dissolve, as if to separate from the bone. The physical sensation was absolutely bizarre. Imagine old, caked adhesive warmed by the sharpened heat and focus of the sun, then pulled away from the wall it was long stuck to.
I exited the hall after the meditation bell rang. When I did, I leaned over and touched my toes for the first time in my life.
This wasn’t some kind of crazy healing. It was a recognition of and focus on a storehouse of emotional and physical tension balled up in stiffness and pain. And as I slowly rid my body and mind of that tension during those 10 days, I felt a freedom, the likes of which I’d never felt before.
I appreciated the moment, recognized its impermanence, and was grateful for it.
Should I Take a Vipassana Course?
Rare are the experiences in life that get an unequivocal “yes” from me, but this is one of them. Vipassana is not for the faint of heart. The 10-day course is demanding and difficult in many ways. However, it is ultimately doable by absolutely anyone.
Understanding the Physical Requirements of a Vipassana Course
If the thought of sitting cross-legged seems physically daunting and too painful to bear, there’s the possibility of using back rests or even a chair. In other words, your perceived physical limitations should not deter you from taking the course.
And know this: I did it. Sure, I was athletic and ran road races and climbed mountains. But I could barely touch my knees, let alone my toes. And you already know about my fusilli pasta spine.
Despite that, I’m glad I toughed it out on the ground on my meditation cushion, for I’m almost certain I wouldn’t have achieved the results — physical, mental, or emotional — had I done otherwise. During the course, you have 10 days to experiment and plumb the depths of what you can withstand and achieve.
Managing Expectations and Accepting the Work
Will Vipassana solve all of my problems? Can Vipassana help me dominate the planet and become rich?
The Vipassana website will be the first to disabuse you of the notion that Vipassana is a panacea. It can provide a process for focusing the mind, appreciating the present moment, and navigating life’s never-ending stream of vicissitudes. That's it, really. But that’s kind of a lot.
…there are no gurus and it’s up to each of us to find our own way. It’s found and cultivated here, in the present moment.
I asked one of the returning students, there for his seventh sitting of the course, what he gains with these additional visits. “The measuring stick remains the same: equanimity.” He said. “I gain a greater inner vision. With that, I not only understand myself better, but I make better decisions.”
I also appreciate another fundamental message of the course: that we are the source of our own wisdom and liberation. Though Goenka is the voice of instruction and there are assistants who can be consulted for guidance, Vipassana sends a clear message – or at least it sent that message to me — that there are no gurus and it’s up to each of us to find our own way. It is not given to us or promised to us upon death. Instead, it's found and cultivated right here, in the present moment.
If we wish to find answers, it’s on us to reach inside ourselves to do so. This is very difficult work, the sort that takes a lifetime. And it's much easier said than done.
Make no mistake, however: the focus on self is not ego, but a rejection of ego paired with responsibility. It’s no surprise that the terms “service” and “compassion” occur frequently in the discourses.
Developing Your Personal Meditation Practice
It’s not a requirement that you have prior meditation experience to sit a Vipassana course. I realized almost immediately how little I really knew about meditation, regardless of how much I’d attempted to practice it for the previous 18 months.
Vipassana shifted my focus to observing my breath and bodily sensations. To observe myself, in broad and subtle ways, to observe my discord, to observe my peace. Sure, I had done “body scans” before, as prompted by meditation apps like Headspace (a decent place to begin for meditation, by the way), but I never understood how to properly observe sensations — and most importantly, why I would do so. Both the how and why have become clearer, as has the impact on my meditation, my daily life and my understanding of the world around me.
It's recommended that at the completion of the course, you continue your Vipassana practice by meditating two hours each day — one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. For various reasons, this is not an immediate reality for me. So I meditate 30 minutes in the morning, with the hope that I will eventually introduce a session in the evening.
At first, meditating feels like a chore to me because of some physical stiffness, but after about 30 seconds, I’m grateful. And after 30 minutes, I’m grateful still. It proves a little easier each day.
Will I return to sit another course? Yes. Some people even do so annually, either as a reboot, a continual building on their practice, or both.
What I Learned
The lessons I learned during my ten days are the stuff of books. Note, I did not say book-worthy. Even though I did not have paper, pens or any recording device (you surrender those when you arrive…for the good of your meditation), I have written well over 10,000 words about my experience since, from the more technical aspects of Vipassana meditation, to the underlying philosophy to the implications of what I learned on my everyday life going forward.
Yes, there’s a lot to take in. But never has being slightly overwhelmed felt this good.
Isn’t There More?
Yes, there’s always more. But that’s for you to find out for yourself. As I’ve shared my experience with Audrey and other friends, I have approached a sort of limit. I feel over-sharing might deprive you of experiencing some of the course’s most pleasant surprises and painful yet productive discoveries on your own.
I’m certain Audrey will also take a Vipassana course someday soon. We share so much in our lives together, it will be interesting to compare notes on experiences so similar, yet I’m sure so entirely different.
So I pull up a bit short and leave some of that on the table. The point of sharing all that I have shared is to suggest that life journeys are long, and that good things often require great effort. Stories do not unfold in the snap of a finger.
Vipassana is a good thing to do, even if you feel as though you might not be up to it right now. Someday maybe you’ll decide it’s the right time, and you’ll go. And you’ll find that the feeling you are least likely to emerge with is regret.
Just as I have.
Practical Details for a Vipassana Meditation Course
If I have piqued your interest in taking a Vipassana 10-day silent meditation course, here's some information you might need to help you take the next step. If you have more questions, please leave them in the comments section so I can address them in this article for the benefit of others.
Where can I take a Vipassana course?
Although the Vipassana course was developed in Asia, you can find Vipassana centers all around the world today. Check this website for a complete listing of course locations and dates. To understand which language(s) the instruction is in, check the Vipassana site. The audio and video components of the Vipassana course are in English (usually with local language translation offered) and individual consultation and question and answer sessions are often in the local language with one or another foreign language translation offered.
There are centers throughout Europe and the North America, although I found that these tend to fill up quickly. You may have to plan in advance to book your spot, especially if you are a beginner. The schedule, program, instruction and video discourses are identical no matter where you choose to sit your Vipassana course.
Can I do this course in less than 10 days?
Ten days may sound like a major time investment. Consider, however, that people from all walks of life with stacks of personal, professional and family obligations – far beyond my own limited responsibilities — have found the time. They do so because they have a sense that this process will be for their betterment and for the benefit of the ones they love. You'll find other courses, shorter and longer, available on the Vipassana website. However, you must begin with a 10-day course.
“Did you ever feel the urge to quit?” No. Out of the 100 or so people who sat the course with me, only one left during the ten days.
Can I take the Vipassana course with a spouse, partner, boyfriend or girlfriend?
The intent of the course is to focus on oneself, so the idea that you are taking the course with someone else or you have “company” becomes irrelevant once the course begins. In fact, it may be distracting.
Ideally, you and your partner set off at the same time and attend different centers and return together with a comparable, yet personal and differentiated experience. And most importantly, a new, shared vocabulary.
Where I took my course: The Dhamma Malaya Vipassana Center in Malaysia
I'm going to resist keeping this place a secret, all to myself. I thought the center and its facilities were excellent. I had my own room, for which I was grateful. (Note: I understand that not all Vipassana centers around the world are equipped to give new students their own room, but I found this feature immensely helpful, not only for my own convenience, but also to avoid creating any stir or inconvenience for someone happening to room with me.)
Having said all that, the center is not luxurious, nor is it supposed to be. It's not a spa. It's basic. Your ten days are to be lived simply.
For me, taking the course in the hot season was great. I could pack very light (a first for me!), as in a pair of light cotton trousers, a couple of t-shirts and bathroom stuff. Laundry dried quickly and I was never cold (something I find distracting). Additionally, all that I achieved physically was helped along greatly by the stretching I’d done, which I find becomes much easier in the heat.
What about the food at a Vipassana course?
“Simple vegetarian food” is on offer. It is plenty and it’s tasty. And there’s enough variety to meet most taste preferences. If you wanted, it would be easy enough to eat vegan during the week. If you have specific dietary restrictions, just let the organizers know in advance. There was even a pregnant woman taking the course while I was there.
Volunteers who have previously taken a course serve meals. I was profoundly grateful for them and their service. And they sometimes made me laugh inside. Watching a diligent server manage a 10-piece toaster while a bunch of ravenous meditators, me included, are trying to figure it out on the first day, is skit-worthy.
You also realize that food is one of those things with which we can barrage our body and senses. When heat and spice are toned down — not typical in my dining practice — as it is with Vipassana food, I found that it was one less distraction my body had to deal with. I also now find myself more sensitive to subtle tastes in food in general. I still eat the heat, but I find I'm even more attuned to enjoying the flavor.
Although the evening meal was very light – usually just fruit – I never felt wanting for food. You learn to eat only as much as your body really needs.
What is the cost of a Vipassana meditation course?
On principle, no fee for the Vipassana course is charged. Centers are instead maintained by the donations of those who have completed a meditation course. You may donate only once you have completed a course and you are free to choose the amount you wish to donate.
The idea: those who came before you support your course while your donation supports future participants. So you pay it forward.
Schedule: A Typical Vipassana Day and Timetable
For days one through nine, participants observe a “Noble Silence” which means no talking and no charades or other non-verbal communication. You can ask the instructor questions during sessions at 12:00 P.M. and 9:00 P.M. Remaining silent during this time is not nearly as difficult as it sounds.
The schedule is the same at every Vipassana 10-day meditation course, no matter where it is being held in the world. You can see this at the bottom of the Vipassana FAQ page.
Wake up bell: 4:00 A.M.
Most mornings, for whatever reason, my body anticipated the waking bells at 4:00 A.M. I set an alarm for 4:10 A.M. just in case and never had to use it. Not because I wasn’t tired in some way, or even jet lagged a bit, but because it was clear I had something important that I must do.
After a quick wash and water and a stretch, I was out the door into the pre-dawn darkness for a walk from my room to the meditation hall. The touch of cool before the birds would come alive and the warmth of the Malaysia hot season would land was something I’ll never forget.
Meditate in the hall or in your room: 4:30-6:30 A.M.
I quickly realized after a brief conversation with the instructor that meditating in the hall for newcomers is an important discipline. I found I would go much further with the structure and discipline of the early morning in the hall, despite the fact that the morning sessions ended with a chant that typically drove me borderline crazy.
On Day 10, after silence is lifted, one of the other students shared that he was tempted to leave the hall one morning after experiencing pain and frustration, only to look over and find me in a fit of what appeared to be even greater torture. Though we were discouraged from minding other participants, I’m grateful my struggles could serve as an inspiration to others.
Breakfast and rest: 6:30-8:00 A.M.
Both western and Asian options were usually offered for breakfast, meaning you could have toast and oatmeal or rice noodle soup and vegetables.
After breakfast, I would take a walk around the male side of the center (sexes are segregated during the course). I appreciated each and every sunrise in spectacular detail, well beyond the usual attention I might pay.
One sunrise sky in particular stood out: layers of the color wheel were strewn in bent wisps through contrails that arced over the intersection of red rooftops. The image was accented by the perfectly hung earth-tone outfits of the Bikkhu, those training to be monks.
If there was one tableau that captured the peace and simplicity of my 10 days, it was this. No, I didn't have a camera or iPhone to capture the image (you surrender those, too). But I'll never forget it.
Group meditation in the hall: 8:00-9:00 A.M.
Meditate in the hall or in your room: 9:00-11:00 A.M.
Lunch and rest: 11:00 A.M.-1:00 P.M.
For returning students, this is the final meal of the day.
Meditate in the hall or in your room: 1:00-2:30 P.M.
Group meditation in the hall: 2:30-3:30 P.M.
Meditate in the hall or in your room: 3:30-5:00 P.M.
Tea break: 5:00-6:00 P.M.
For new students, this is the final taste of food for the day. It usually consisted of a piece or two of fruit. Returning students only take tea. Hint: If you really think you’re starving, have some hot chocolate.
Group meditation in the hall: 6:00-7:00 P.M.
Evening discourse: 7:00-8:15 P.M.
“Discourses” are the videotaped talks given by S.N. Goenka, the founder of this Vipassana meditation course. These talks struck me as important because they explained the day’s experience, foreshadowed the practice for the following day and shed light on the connection between what we were doing, our lives and broad issues, including even life and death.
Final group meditation: 8:15-9:00 P.M.
Lights out: 9:30 P.M.
By bedtime, you are definitely ready for sleep.
Do you have any other questions regarding taking a Vipassana 10-day meditation course? Leave a comment and I will expand the information in this post so others may benefit from it.