Monday, March 31, 2008

Vipassana Meditation Retreat

Yesterday I returned from my first introduction to Vipassana meditation. This was a pretty incredible, intense 10 days, and I would recommend the experience to anyone and everyone. For me, it wasn't life-changing in a blinding flash of light kind of way, though I can see how some people might get that feeling. The light is more a steady glow suffusing everything else. You get a very different way of seeing and approaching things, and in that sense it's life-changing.

I have a bunch I want to say about Vipassana itself, so that's the first section here. Hopefully it's interesting to read, but if that's not your kind of thing, feel free to skip to the second section, which is more about my actual experience of the course.

About the Theory and Technique
First of all, I should mention that there are said to be three kinds of knowledge: blind faith, intellectual understanding, and experiential understanding. Vipassana is all about the third kind. They talk about the theory so you can know why you're doing what you're doing, but the truly important part is the practice. If you practice correctly you should see benefits in your life, regardless of whether you understand why (though of course that intellectual part does help the learning and the practice).

Therefore, I'm not going to describe the technique in detail. Part of this is because I know that if I saw the instructions written out, I would just jump to the end, say "that looks easy," give it a try for 15 minutes, and then give it up as no good. The technique is simple, but that's not the same as easy. It's a completely different experience if you spend a 10 hour day meditating on each incremental step in thoroughly learning the technique. (This is why it makes so much sense to have what seems like an intimidatingly long 10-day course for beginners.) However, I do want to share some of the ideas behind the technique.

Most of what they taught at the intellectual level wasn't anything new to me, and probably many of you have heard a lot of it before as well. Things like "suffering is caused by attachments to cravings and aversions," "everything is constantly changing and impermanent," "the only thing you can really control is how you think and react," and "only you can truly make yourself happy or unhappy." The problem is that just knowing this intellectually doesn't help much because it's so hard to do anything about it. And for a long time before the life of Gautama Buddha, this theoretical level was all there was, until he came along and created (or rediscovered) a technique for putting the theories into practice. That technique is Vipassana.

The theory says that there are four levels of the mind. The first two are perception and recognition -- pretty straightforward utilities that we don't need to worry about too much. Any sensory input (including thoughts and emotions) passes through these first. The third level is called vedanā in Pāli. This is the direct, physical sensation we feel as a result of this input. There are sensations created throughout our body for everything we experience. When we have a reaction to something "out there" in the world, what we are actually responding to is the physical sensation in our body generated by our perception of that object, not the object itself. That response comes from the final level, called saṅkhāra. It decides whether it likes or dislikes the sensations, then develops cravings or aversions to them, or trots out our old, established, habitual reactions. This is the problematic part, because the world is never conforming perfectly to our wishes, and we're therefore constantly feeling cravings and aversions that we can't satisfy, and that's what makes us unhappy.

The idea behind Vipassana is to learn to set up a filter of sorts between the vedanā and saṅkhāra parts of your mind. From a direct experience of the vedanā we can choose how best to react, without being slaves to our old habits of behavioral patterns or emotional reactions. The first part of doing this consists in developing your awareness. You learn to be aware of and focus on all the myriad sensations constantly going on in your entire body, from the most obvious to the most subtle. The second part requires developing your equanimity. Whatever sensations you observe, you do so objectively, dispassionately, taking them as neither good nor bad. If the saṅkhāra comes in and tries to make you react, you don't give in to it. The more you practice this awareness and equanimity together, the more you also come to realize (experientially) how much everything really is constantly changing. These things we form attachments to are coming and going, arising and passing away, all the time. Which makes it easier, of course, to just take things as they come and not form cravings or aversions for them.

I'll give a basic example first. When you're meditating 10 hours a day for 10 days, you have a plethora of very obvious and painful physical sensations to observe if you aren't yet good at noticing the subtle ones. At the end of Day 4, the first day of Vipassana proper, my legs were extremely sore and aching. I was also extremely worried that this would keep me from falling asleep, and then I'd be in horrible shape for getting up at 4 AM for another long day of work. Just before bedtime, though, I realized that we had just learned what to do about this. So I lay down, got my legs as comfortable as possible, then carefully noticed and analyzed the pains, letting my mind detach from them emotionally, and in that way was able to relax and go to sleep just fine. This is something I'm going to be doing a lot in the future, after long nights of dancing.

For another example, imagine being angry at someone. Your heart rate probably speeds up, along with your breathing. Various muscles probably get tense, and you may have other reactions. If you can really be deeply aware of and analyze these feelings, your experience begins to change. First of all, you're focusing internally rather than externally, so you're less likely to snap and do something stupid. And secondly, you start to realize that none of these feelings or impulses are really going to get you anywhere, so you can detach from them and start figuring out the logical, compassionate way to respond to the situation.

These kinds of experiences and reactions are going on at some level constantly in our lives. The big ones have bigger effects, but even the smaller ones are hugely cumulative over time, and can have large effects on our happiness and the happiness of those around us. Vipassana teaches you to whittle away at all of this; even if you don't have the presence of mind to practice Vipassana right in a specific situation, you're learning new habit patterns that affect your behavior even subconsciously. There's much more that can be said about the practice and benefits of Vipassana, but this is sort of what I see as the core of it, from a beginner's perspective, fresh out of my first course.

Also, hopefully it's clear from this that this isn't a religious practice in any way. People of all religions practice Vipassana and benefit from it, and the Buddha himself never wanted to convert people to "Buddhism." You're not only allowed but encouraged to keep your own faith. The evening discourses during the retreat had occasional references to reincarnation or karma, but they were always followed by a reminder that if you don't believe in that, it's not necessary for the practice of the technique.

About the Course
The California Vipassana Center is in a gorgeous area out towards Yosemite. The terrain is hilly and rocky, with lots of gorgeous manzanita trees. There are a few small walking trails within the course boundaries but I would have loved to have gone on some long hikes around there. There are separate dorms and dining halls for men and women; the meditation hall is shared, but divided down the middle.

The strict separation of the sexes is one of many rules that seem a bit extreme initially, but which come to make complete sense after a few days. Everything is designed to let you focus and concentrate to a degree that many of us had probably never experienced before. Noble Silence alone, which includes restrictions on even gestures and eye contact, frees up tons of brain cells that are normally engaged in everyday social navigation, politeness, etc. (It's very interesting, by the way, to be among 100 people who are all trying not to notice or be noticed by each other. Sort of like being in the middle of a rehearsal for a 10-day arrangement of 4' 33" with full choir.) The rule about celibacy, in addition to being about focus, gives you another desire or habit to learn to analyze and manage (and yes, this rule includes "self celibacy," if you know what I mean). As for separating the men and women, well, my meditation seat was on the aisle next to the girls' section, and I gotta admit, I was peeking sometimes. The mind really does grasp for any little distraction it can get.

I was put in the ghetto dorm, which seemed to be a couple trailers pasted onto a hut or something. Most of the others looked like they were probably nicer. On the plus side, there were only 5 of us in there (though it could have slept a lot more), so we each had a lot of space. I had a room to myself, which was very nice. We were all beginners in that dorm, and in spite of maintaining Noble Silence, we still saw each other coming and going all the time, and I still had a certain sense of camaraderie, with us all going through everything together.

The meditation hall is a large, carpeted room, with platforms in front for the assistant teachers to sit on, a stereo system for recorded instructions and chants, and a couple TVs for watching the evening discourses. (The teacher is S. N. Goenka, but the teaching is all through audio and video recordings from a course he led in 1991.) The floor is covered with a grid of meditation mats, and you get assigned your spot on the first evening and stick to it throughout. I was #36 (a 9 number, signifying The Hermit, appropriately enough) which was in the last row, next to the aisle. In the men's and women's foyers, there were huge collections of meditations stools, and cushions, pillows and blankets of all sorts. Within a couple days nearly everyone had elaborate, unique, custom configurations for their sitting spaces. When you get there early and just see all the stuff and no people, it looks like preparation for a giant slumber party. I wish I could have taken a picture. I had two separate configurations myself, for different situations, involving different combinations of a stool, four cushions, and a blanket.

Each day starts with an enthusiastic guy going around ringing a gong at 4:00 AM, when it is still very dark and cold. The first meditation session runs from 4:30 to 6:30, and you can do it in your room or in the meditation hall. In your room is a bad idea; beds are awfully tempting. The assistant teachers come in maybe half an hour from the end and play a recording of Goenka's chanting strange, guttural stuff in Pāli. I feel like I have a pretty decent acceptance of weird music in general, but it still took a little while for this to grow on me. In the end, I enjoyed having him there in some sense, supporting and encouraging us, even if I couldn't understand the words. There were shorter bits of chanting at most of the group sittings throughout the day as well.

At 6:30 you get breakfast, and a bit of daylight. Oatmeal, stewed apples, cold cereal, fruit, bread, and tea. I would usually pile all the warm stuff into myself that I could, then get back to my room and crawl back into my sleeping bag. The morning break went until 8:00, so I could usually get in a decent catch up to recover from 4 AM.

8-9 AM is a group sitting with everyone in the hall. These usually start with a recording of a chant or two and review of the instructions. 8:00 was usually my best time, since it was still early in the day, but I was feeling better than absolute first thing in the morning. Then there's a session from 9-11. In a lot of these, the assistant teachers would gather groups of five or six students together to have a little whispered conversation about how things are going with the technique, making sure every one is on the same page, and then meditating together for a few minutes. After that you can finish meditating in the hall or in your room.

11:00 is the lunch break, and longest break of the day, lasting a full two hours. Lunch is the main meal, and there was a nice variety of good, vegetarian food. The weather by this time of day was beautiful for eating outside and then going on a walk around the paths to stretch your legs. I'd usually take another nap as well, or at least lay down to rest and think.

The afternoon session from 1 to 5 was the longest, most grueling stretch. This was usually all just practice, with just a couple breaks. There was a group sitting in the middle, with the option to go off and practice on your own for the other three hours. I decided early on to just stay in the meditation hall the whole time. It was just more comfortable and easier to focus.

5-6 PM is "dinner" break. I use quotes because all you get here is some fruit and tea. Apparently you meditate better if you never get more than about 3/4 full, so they want to keep it light. For the most part this was alright, though I was always really ready for breakfast by the next day.

After another hour of group meditation, we have the thing we look forward to all day: the evening discourse. You still have to sit on the floor in the meditation hall, but it's a break with entertainment, which is otherwise unheard of. Each discourse was an hour-long video of Goenka talking about Dhamma, the theory of natural law that underlies everything we're working on. And he's really just delightful to watch and listen to. The overall impression is of someone's funny old grandpa just sitting on a porch talking about stuff and telling stories, and he can be really hilarious at times, too. Luckily Noble Silence didn't seem to apply to laughter, because there was plenty of that going on during the talks. But he also did a good job of getting the important points and concepts across.

The end of the evening had a short little nightcap of a session, during which we would receive instructions on what we would practice throughout the next day. (Most days had either new techniques or variations or refinements of the previous days' techniques, so you build up incrementally.) Then at 9 PM you could stick around and ask questions of the assistant teachers if you want, and then go to bed. If you're quick, you get 7 hours of sleep.

Speaking of asking questions, I did my fair share of that, as I always do. I mostly kept it to details and clarifications about the actual technique, though. I did have a lot of questions about the theory and application, but I found that after a day of sitting around and thinking about it, I could usually answer them for myself, which is much more satisfying and better for my learning process. Dhamma is really a very logical, scientific system, so pretty much everything I found myself wanting to know was work-out-able from the basic principles we got in the lectures.

Everybody has different ups and downs throughout the whole course. Day 2 is pretty commonly a difficult one. I think that's because it's the first day that you have to do it all again. On Day 1, you don't really know what it's like until you get to the end, but at 4 AM on Day 2, you have the maximum amount of awareness of upcoming torture. This was my worst day, painful, distracted, everything. But I think it was good to get the worst out of the way early on. There were some bumps later on, of course, but nothing as bad as Day 2.

On the afternoon of Day 4, we started Vipassana proper (after various meditating warm-up exercises) and with it began the Sittings of Strong Determination. You're always allowed to sit in whatever position you find most comfortable (ha! "comfortable") and shift as necessary. But during these sessions, you had to stay put for a full hour, without moving your legs or hands, and without opening your eyes. There were three of them a day, during the morning, afternoon and evening group sittings. This is where things really start getting tough. Luckily I had independently started forcing myself to keep still for a full hour on Day 3, so I had a bit of a head start. I think I did it more or less successfully every time for the rest of the course, though it took a long time before I could really achieve that in the right way. For some reason, it wasn't until Day 9 that I really grokked the equanimity part of it. Before that I had been relying far too much on sheer willpower and physical determination. But at least I got there in the end, even if it was kind of slipping under the wire a bit.

On the morning of Day 10 we were allowed to break Noble Silence and have a day of what Goenka calls "Noble Chattering." You can't practice as seriously then, but it gives you a bit of a transition day before going back into the real world the next morning. I had actually adapted to the silence extremely well, and found myself feeling very uncomfortable when the talking started up again (though there's something to practice the equanimity on). When the first guy passed me on the trail and said hi, all I managed was a grunt and a nod. By the time I got to lunch I could talk again, but couldn't concentrate. It was an immense struggle to focus on my conversation with the guy in front of me while being surrounded by other conversations, all of which I was perceiving approximately equally. Then there's also the weird issue of not really knowing who these people are in relation to yourself, after having spent 10 days with them but not interacting. Are they strangers? Friends? Comrades in arms? But things worked out and I got (briefly) to know some nice folks and there was some good fellowship there before we all had to leave the next day.

Coming back home was interesting. There's always some culture shock coming back from a trip of any kind, though luckily this particular trip gave me tools for dealing with that. But the real world is still somewhat overwhelming after a meditation retreat, and more so when I'm immediately given intense tests of my newfound equanimity skills. Oh well. I also talked the ears off a couple patient people, unleashing a flood of stuff I've been wanting to share for the last 10 days, which was very tiring. But I'm feeling better and more adapted today, so that's good.

If you're at all interested in learning Vipassana, please feel free to talk to me. I'd love to share more about the course and provide encouragement for doing it. I also have some informational materials to share, and there's a bunch of stuff on the website as well. It's really a fantastic experience that I can't recommend highly enough.

May all beings be happy.


Anonymous said...

Congrats on finishing your first course! This is no small feat. Anicca... ;)


zenya said...

interesting, thank you for the article.

would like to read more on that subject from you again, maybe after you have used for some time that new you gained while learning vipassana meditation.

I mean, would be great to know how it influenced your life 'in the long run'.

Dougie FRESH said...

I loved when it finally broke into Nobel Chattering! Thanks for the story Graham!

Anonymous said...

Thanks! great blog!

Mateo said...

Congrats on finishing - that's no small feat.

I've finished two Goenka courses and I'd love to put together a regular sitting group in the city for younger folk like us. Let me know if you have any interest.

Meaghan said...

wow that is alot of writing you have done!!!
i think that it is really interseting!!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your great article :) I have been practicing Vipassana meditation for the past 15 years and still sit my two hours every day with incredible results. But I can still remember my very first course with Goenka-ji and I totally agree with Congratulations on completing your first course - its a big step. Keep it up, every year, every month, every week and every day - its worth it :) Anicca ;)

Sony உதயன் said...

Hi nice to hear abt the class.
I m going to do that in chennai,india.
I really have a passion on meditation.but after reading buddhas i got myself into vipassana meditation.but i did nt know where i could learn,thankfully i knew tell me more abt mentally thinking and awareness and the core of enlightenment after the 10 days course ,with your city life.
how do you spend the wholeday mindfully ?

Anonymous said...

I am debating about taking the course this Jan.
I am registered but I am thinking about taking a trip to Mexico, where I will practice yoga and mediate by my self.
So my debate is
do I cut my trip short and come back for Vipassana
or I stay the entire time in Mexico and enjoy my practice there...
Will I want to be silent with strangers after a trip?

I know ist my decision but any insight would be good

Thank you!!!

Anonymous said...

thank u for sharing ur experience. i am gathering up the guts to register myself for my first retreat in the philippines.

Unknown said...

I am very impressed with your writings of Vipassana and your experience. Very well done!

I just finished my first course 2 weeks ago, in Shelburne, Ma.

Was the hardest thing I have ever done, but the absolute best. I was sooooo ready for this course, I was pumped as the saying goes (guess you might say I was tired of my crazy mind having control over my well being and happiness).

So I got great results, but it truly is a life long process, one to practice with occurrence, in each moment diligently maintaining awareness with the wisdom of anicca, laced with equanimity. No easy feat and very hard under some circumstances but it is a path for change and one I am very grateful for.

Thanks for your blog! Metta.

Anonymous said...

This is really a nice article. I would also like to hear how it ended up for you, do you still practice morning and evening sittings?
BR Gregor

raj said...

Is donating money a must ? How much do people donate per person(a student / working professional)?

Tandava said...

Rajbharath - If donating were required, it wouldn't really be donating. :-) However, I expect most, if not all people do. Having just spent 10 days with free room, board, and life-changing instruction, I very much wanted to give something back to support the work though I know it didn't remotely cover the cost or value of what I received. But you can just donate whatever you feel you are able. I didn't see what anyone else did, but just did what felt appropriate for me (I don't even remember how much, at this point).

jessica said...

This is great to read in the lead up to my first Vipassana experience which begins tomorrow.

Thank you.

Sydney, Australia

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

Thanks for the detailed insight. I go for my first vipassana experience tomorrow. Take care.
Auckland, NZ

Anonymous said...

What you've written is an interesting and informative read. Having done a course, i can relate well to your experiences during the 10 days. My thoughts on breaking the silence subsequent to having adapted to it were strikingly similiar to yours.
Thanks for the article and hope to read more on Vipassana written by you.Metta

Anonymous said...

I too am thinking about attending a Vipassana retreat. Worries about comfort factors..ridiculous but real for me. Do they serve coffee? The withdrawl is a very bad headache...I have low blood sugar and need to eat every 2 hours..can I take snacks? Can you ever sit in a chair? Yes, I am a wimp with a strong spirit. Nibor

Tandava said...

It's been several years now, so I don't remember all the details, nor do I know if anything has changed. I'm pretty sure there wasn't coffee there, but I don't drink coffee so it wouldn't have made an impression. I don't know if there's a policy on snacks. I don't think I saw folks using chairs, though sometimes people would move off their mats to go in the back of the room and sit against the wall for support. So it wasn't super strict or anything. I would really just recommend getting in touch with the folks running the course, though, since you have such specific needs. I hope it works out okay!