Vipassana: meditation boot camp or ticket to liberation?

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April 19th 2009
Published: April 28th 2009
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Walking area at Dhamma DipaWalking area at Dhamma DipaWalking area at Dhamma Dipa

Photo courtesy of Dhamma Dipa UK
‘Why exactly did I choose to come here?’, I ask myself as the solemn sounds of a gong wake me from slumber at 4 am. I crawl out of bed, have a quick wash and shuffle to the meditation hall in the dark, rain dripping down my face. I find my place in the dimly-lit hall and settle down for a two-hour meditation session before breakfast. Today is my first day at a Vipassanameditation centre in Herefordshire, and I am about to start a ten-day course of silent meditation.

The first time I heard about the practice of Vipassana was about four years ago, when a friend told me that he was going to attend a course that involved meditating for eleven hours daily. He talked about 4 am starts, strict silence, no reading and writing, and limited food and sleep. My reaction at the time was one of incomprehension: why would anybody want to do something like this voluntarily? It seemed unfathomable. Yet, over the years I continued to meet people who had attended this mysterious Vipassana course. They all had one thing in common: a radiant glow on their faces, together with an aura of calm happiness and bliss. Intrigued, I began to question these people: what was this Vipassana? What happens in these courses? Why did they feel compelled to do them? I heard overwhelmingly positive stories, and the general line: ‘It’s hell for the first five or six days, but then it becomes bliss.’ Slowly, a seed began to grow in my mind that I might want to try this Vipassana one day, in the distant future. But not just yet.

This spring, with a tremendous amount of trepidation, I finally bite the bullet and enrol for the course, wanting to find out for myself how to attain this elusive nirvanic bliss that Vipassana meditators talk about. Mind you, I still try to get out of it. Two days before the course, I develop a bad cold and hope that the Vipassana people might either prohibit me from attending due to health reasons, or cancel the course. Neither happens. I have no more excuses. My teacher Tony takes me to the train station in Swansea. I sit glumly on the passenger seat. ‘Tony!’ I whine, ‘I feel like I’m going to prison! I don’t want to go!’. He smiles benevolently like an incarnation of Gautama the Buddha himself. ‘See it as an adventure’, he says as he pushes me gently towards the platform. ‘It will be your ticket to freedom.’ Still struggling with resistance, I somehow manage to end up on the wrong platform, as well as board the wrong train, but eventually I am en route to Hereford, and a couple of hours later, in a taxi to Dhamma Dipa, the UK’s Vipassana Centre. Taxi driver number 23 tells me soothing stories about the Vipassana course and I am beginning to surrender to my destiny.

Dhamma Dipa is a purpose-built structure located in the rolling hills of the Herefordshire countryside, and consists of a large meditation hall, accommodation blocks, a dining room/office building, and beautiful gardens with a large wooded walking area. I register and sign a paper in which I commit myself to an infinite number of rules, including that I will stay for the duration of the entire course. Then I settle into my room (a tiny space with a bed and two coat hangers in it), make friends, and go for a little walk. In the evening we have our first introductory session, and then the practice of ‘Noble Silence’ begins, which means that we cease to communicate for the next nine days, apart from with the teachers, if we have a problem. Not even smiles or eye contact are allowed. We also take several vows and promise that for the duration of the course, we will abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activities, wrong speech and all intoxicants. At 9.30 pm, full of anticipation and a fair amount of bewilderment, we retire.

Vipassana meditation, I learn over the next few days, is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. Long lost to humanity, it was rediscovered by Gautama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. Vipassana means seeing things as they really are, and not how we would like them to be. It is a process of self-purification through self-observation, and is said to be a technique that will eradicate suffering. Vipassana courses are free of charge and run solely on a donation basis, meaning that everybody is able to attend them, regardless of their financial status.

The course structure is rigorous. Our whole day, from 4.30 am until 9 pm, is spent meditating, in blocks of one or two hours, with breaks for breakfast, lunch and tea. Breakfast is at 6.30 am, and lunch at 11 am. The food, consisting of simple vegetarian meals, is excellent, but there is no dinner. Instead, new students are allowed two pieces of fruit at 5 pm. There are about 120 people on the course, although men and women are strictly divided. Men sit on the left side of the meditation hall, women on the right, and dining hall, sleeping quarters, as well as walking areas are separate.

On Day 1, we learn the practice of Anapana meditation, which entails observing the breath coming in and out of our nostrils. We are told not to regulate or change the breath, but to simply observe it, as it is. My feelings swing from irritation and impatience to calm and peacefulness, and I shift around, as my back hurts from all the sitting. Somehow, I get through the day, and it’s actually not as bad as I expected. During the breaks, there is time to go for relaxing walks, have tea and lie in the sun, and I am really enjoying the silence - it gives the mind a break. It’s also interesting how social norms change when you can’t talk. We silently hold doors open for each other and commit other acts of quiet courtesy. It all flows, without the need for ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’. I notice more and more how much of what we say in daily communication is superfluous, and over the next few days, how most questions answer themselves if you are patient and observant.

In the evening, Mr. S.N. Goenka, the Indian head teacher who revived this ancient practice, holds a discourse via DVD, explaining the philosophy of the technique. He instructs us in this format throughout the entire course. ‘The firrrrrst day is overrrrrr’, he purrs with a satisfied smile. ‘You have now nine days left to worrrrrk.’ Aware of this reality, we silently sigh in unison. I like Goenka-ji immediately: he is adorable. His discourses are vibrant, intelligent, passionate and funny. He makes me smile, sometimes laugh out loud, and I begin to look forward to my daily installments of Vipassana wisdom. At 9 pm, after the final meditation session, we are finally dismissed. ‘Take rrrrest’, Goenka-ji addresses us compassionately through the speakers, ‘take rrrrrest’. Obediently, we take rest.

On the morning of Day 2, in the full knowledge of what is expecting me, my thought of ‘what am I doing here?’ changes to a desperate ‘How am I going to get through this day?!’ It is Good Friday and thoughts of Jesus on the cross pass through my mind. I am irritated, people annoy me, and I imagine they are looking at me in the wrong way. Yet, I remember Goenka-ji’s encouraging words from the night before and somehow get through the first session and the chanting, which seems endless. ‘Worrrrk diligently, patiently, arrrdently’, booms the voice of Goenka-ji through the loudspeakers several times a day. ‘You’re bound to be successful, bouuuund to be successful’. I nod gravely and begin to work again. At some point, I feel suddenly very relaxed and grateful to be here. I think, ‘how extra-ordinary that there should be such a technique! Will it work? Can it really eradicate deep-rooted complexes of the mind, as Goenka-ji says it does?’ I am determined to give it my best shot. It’s only ten days out of my life, I reason, and I will try to surrender completely. It’s tough, but it promises to be adventurous.

Having said that, I suffer of horrendous back pain, each day in a different spot. This, according to Goenka-ji, is normal. The philosophy is that we all accumulate sankharas (reactions, mental conditionings, negativities) throughout our lives, and that these sankharas manifest as pain in our bodies. So, for example, if you suffer of back pain, this may be an energetic knot of past anger or sadness or some other reaction to an unpleasant event in your life. We are to observe this pain (and the cravings) with equanimity, without reacting to it, to see how it shifts and dissolves. Gradually, through this process, all the old sankharas will dissolve, and because we do not react so strongly to new stimuli anymore, we will not generate new ones either. Goenka-ji knows it’s hard. ‘People say to me’, he chuckles, ‘yes, Goenka-ji, we understand that everything is impermanent. But this pain, THIS PAIN, is perrrrmanent!’ Laughter ripples through the meditation hall. We can all relate to this.

In the discourses, there is much talk about craving, aversion and ignorance, the three roots of all ‘mental defilements’. We crave the pleasant and shun the unpleasant, and hence become slave to automatic reactions and thus miserable when the pleasant does not happen, or when we experience pain. The root of all of these sankharas, however, lies within us, in that it is our craving and our aversion that we experience. We merely project them outwards onto external objects, such as another person or circumstance, who is then said to be the ‘cause’ of our misery. But if this were to be the case, then everybody would react to this person or circumstance with aversion. We keep generating negativities arising from these reactions, and thus create unhappiness for ourselves and others. The technique of Vipassana, says Goenka-ji, will help us to remain equanimous about both pleasure and pain. The main emphasis of the teaching is on anicca (impermanence) - meaning that everything in life is changeable and does not last. Through observing this reality, we will realize that it is senseless to become attached to these sensations. Furthermore, we are told that we should abstain from ‘sinful actions’ and practice ‘wholesome actions’. I react to the word ‘sin’ until Goenka-ji explains that by sinful actions he means any actions that harm others, and that wholesome actions are all actions that benefit others. That seems simple enough, and I try to stop myself from philosophizing too much about what ‘harm’ and ‘benefit’ may mean, and if there is a consensus in such matters.

With the concept of equanimity in mind, I bravely help myself to some broccoli at lunch. For years, I’ve had an irrational dislike for broccoli to the point that I convinced myself (and others) that I suffer of an allergy. I chew gingerly and realize that it is no big deal. Broccoli is still not my favourite dish, but I can deal with it. Equanimously.

On the subject of food, for the next three days, I am being plagued by the most insane food cravings, in particular at night. It is overwhelming. I can literally taste the different foods in my mouth. What is most strange about it is that I crave things that I don’t normally eat, or eat only rarely, such as pizza, sushi and cheese. And even stranger, I crave meat. And that really confuses me, since I haven’t eaten meat, nor missed it, for the past twenty years. Slightly concerned, I tell one of the teachers about my cravings. She smiles and says that this is perfectly normal: Vipassana is a process of mind purification, and very deep-rooted, unconscious cravings can emerge in the process. These are merely to be observed and will pass away eventually.

On Day 3, I continue to feel irritated, frustrated, and in physical pain. I doubt Goenka-ji’s sanity, my own sanity, the sanity of every person doing this practice. The morning session seems endless. I light up slightly at breakfast when I hear my friend Ram talking to me in Hinglish accent in my head. He instructs me in every step until I laugh and my irritation passes. After the morning session, I feel a shift. We are refining our technique in that we are now focusing on any physical sensation experienced in the small area between the nostrils and the upper lips. In this process, the mind is gradually becoming sharper and more sensitive and we begin to notice subtle sensations we are not normally aware of. It is fascinating, and I am enjoying it.

On Day 4, I wake up in equanimity for the first time since I have arrived. That’s progress, I think. Today, Easter Sunday, is Vipassana day. After three days of breath observation, today we are to learn the actual Vipassana technique. For two hours, we learn how to become aware of and observe our bodily sensations, from the most gross to the subtlest level. This might include feeling hot, cold, itching, pressure, pain - anything. I am fascinated to feel the blood pulsating through my body ever so slightly in some areas, and to feel it really strongly in my heart area. I get lost in the technique, and realize how insensitive I am to parts of my body at first. Scanning the body in this way feels unusual and powerful and demands meticulous attention and concentration so that you don’t miss anything. Compared to Vipassana, the Anapana meditation now seems like child’s play. My body is grateful. It seems to whisper: ‘Finally you’re paying attention!’ After the session everybody seems dazed, dumbfounded and in thought. I feel spaced out.

This is not all, however. Simultaneously, a new challenge (or instrument of torture) is introduced: ‘The Sitting of Strong Determination’. This, we are informed, consists of using the Vipassana technique for one hour at the time, without moving. At all. We are not allowed to open our legs, our arms, or our eyes, but are to try very hard to stay motionless for the entire hour. We are to observe the pain and urge to move with equanimity, knowing that the sensation is impermanent and will change eventually. Gosh, I think, and am grateful that I have my meditation chair with me. To my surprise, I manage the first sitting, and feel a sense of achievement, but it is painful. The point of this technique is that if you learn to stay calm in midst of pain, it starts to dissolve eventually. You learn that pain is anicca, too, as is pleasure. If you however become upset or nervous or anxious, it makes the pain so much worse and unbearable. Goenka-ji calls it ‘you’re adding mental pain to physical pain, and that is unnecessary’. Although I can’t quite feel this equanimity yet, the concept makes sense to me and I continue to practice - diligently.

With this new technique, the food cravings leave me and are promptly and intensely replaced by a craving for sex. It is very distracting, and it’s driving me insane. Yet, I continue to observe, and that, in itself, is not entirely unpleasant. I wonder what exactly Goenka-ji means by ‘sexual misconduct’. I mean, what is ‘conduct’ and what is ‘misconduct’? It is not very clear. Do my overwhelmingly sexual thoughts count as sexual misconduct? And can I……? No, I remind myself sternly: I have vowed to abstain from all sexual activity for ten days, right? I go for a walk in the lunch break, and everything seems more intense: the sights, smells, the taste of food. I am in awe of the beauty of the birch trees and develop a silent relationship with them. I trace their deep furrows and almost hear them breathe. Yet, I begin to have doubts. I wonder: if nobody ever craves anything, how can there be progression? Achievement? Passion? Art? Without craving for a better world, would people still be inclined to help each other and stand up for what is right? Then I think, maybe, if everybody practiced meditation, there would be no need for social change, because everybody would behave in a loving, peaceful and respectful manner. I imagine what would happen if members of the Taliban or Bush’s administration practiced Vipassana.

‘Staaaaaaaaaaaaaaart again’, Goenka-ji instructs us after each break, ‘staaaaaaaaart again. With a caaaalm and quiet mind, staaaaart again’. Obediently, we start again. After the evening session and another ‘Sitting of Strong Determination’, I am irritated as hell. I am glad that I have vowed not to kill, as tonight I am tempted. Everything annoys me. I have so much back pain and imagine hitting heads with hammers. I once again think that the Vipassana people are completely crazy.

It gets worse. Day 6 is a notoriously difficult day, according to Goenka-ji, ‘verrrry difficult for weak-minded people. One feels like rrrrunning away’. For me, the day starts once again with intense feelings of anger and rage. I feel as though the first five days were a walk in the park. I have a sharp pain in my upper back and more doubts about the technique. This shifts after breakfast when I realize that I have a habit of questioning every technique/person/course in my life. It means I never have to fully commit to anything. Maybe it’s time to accept that nothing is perfect, but rather appreciate perfection in imperfection, and, as Goenka-ji says, to take out the parts that don’t make sense, and enjoy the rest. It is a tremendously tough day. I feel tired and fed up and bored. I am finding it hard to focus and stay awake, and keep nodding off. This practice is austere, I think. It strengthens the will and purifies the mind. And at this point, it seems like a very masculine, almost ‘macho’ practice. I miss softness and gentle flowing. I speak to the teacher about my doubts. She, once again, says that this is a normal reaction, and that doubt is one of the five ‘hindrances’ or ‘enemies’.

In the afternoon session, somebody farts and a few of the girls start giggling. ‘Work seriously!’, the male assistant teacher sternly reprimands. This makes people laugh only harder. ‘If you can’t work seriously, leave the hall!’, the teacher booms again. One girl runs out of the hall in fits of giggles, and we hear her laughing hysterically in the foyer.

On Day 7, I have a breakthrough. Towards the end of the morning practice, I am suddenly overcome with an inexplicable feeling of bliss. My body tingles with an electrical current, time loses meaning, and it is so pleasant that I almost miss breakfast. The pain I felt shifts into pleasure and I experience the nature of impermanence stronger than ever before in my own body. I also feel less interested in food every day. It is not that I don’t enjoy it, but I develop a different relationship with it. I realize that I had a belief that there is somehow ‘not enough’, and once I learn to trust that there is enough, I become less bothered about it and can take it or leave it. It is fascinating to get to know myself and my patterns on such a deep level.

Day 8 is hell again in the morning. Every bone in my body screams and resists, and I feel an incredible pain in my heart as well as in my lower back. What sankharas are coming to the surface now, I wonder? I experience shaking, agony, despair and anger. I notice just how much tension there is in my body. Yet, I sit it out and tell myself ‘just see what happens if you don’t move throughout this’, and right towards the end, the pain shifts, bliss sets in again and I relax. I am getting used to this concept of anicca.

And then, suddenly, without warning, bliss hits me unexpectedly and with full force like an express train in the afternoon session. One minute I sit there, watching the pain in my shoulders transfer into my lower back; the next minute waves of energy caress me, and I feel like I am being stroked with a thousand feathers. It is a sublime, subtle pleasure of sheer ecstasy. A big smile manifests on my face. I live through what seems to me like a two-hour-long ecstatic full body orgasm, only it is much more transcendent and delicate. I lose all concepts of time and space and go really deep. Unsurprisingly, sexual thoughts manifest alongside, but I manage to observe them near-equanimously. Somehow, this Vipassana bliss reminds me of various tantric practices taught to unite with the Infinite, with Source, and I gather that this is only a glimpse of what can be experienced. This must be the bliss yogis experience in a more permanent, intense form - it is much greater than any other pleasure, and depends on nothing or nobody else. It is purely energetic, a form of making love to and merging with the Divine. I now begin to comprehend why Lord Shiva told his ganas, ‘The only lasting bliss is in the atman’, after his beloved Sati was consumed by fire.

Of course, like everything else, these pleasant sensations are also impermanent, ever-changing - but I think I understand that if one remains in constant equanimity, constant awareness, constant knowing, the pain as well as the pleasure is taken with a smile. Vipassana, to me, is not a technique of suppression or of not enjoying physical pleasures; rather, it is more about enjoying them fully when they are there with the awareness that they are impermanent. This will help to reduce cravings, addiction and associated misery; and likewise to reduce the feelings of aversion and mental pain when unwanted things happen. Everything is felt fully, but there is no attachment to the actual sensation. It becomes easier to enjoy and to let go. Later, my back pain returns but I know it will shift, just as I know that the pleasure will return, followed by other, more mundane sensations. It is an ever-changing cycle of impermanence, it is dhamma, the law of nature.

On Day 9, I have a strange experience in the morning session. It is still dark, and as I sweep my body mentally, I feel as though I am dissolving completely, as though I am leaving my body. I feel dizzy and become one with the space around me. I feel my entire physical structure dissolve into particles and there is no separation anymore between me and anything/anyone else. I begin to feel afraid and bring myself back, scared of losing my mind. The sensation continues until breakfast. Later, I realize that something big has happened. I began to experience Oneness with the Universe, but my ego was scared of losing itself, of losing the ‘I’, the perceived separation. I was scared of becoming a part of the greater Whole.

The more time passes, the more I grasp the power of this extra-ordinary technique. What I like it about it is that it is empowering, because once Vipassana has been learnt, it can be used to heal oneself and to aid one’s spiritual progress. By scanning the body, tensions are dissolved, the mind becomes very sharp, and the spirit very sensitive. You begin to see things as they really are, away from perceived attacks on one’s ego, removed from reactions to likes and dislikes and circumstances, and peace begins to permeate your being. Vipassana, I begin to see, offers a path into liberation from automatic reactions, so that we can choose to act in our lives rather than react all the time. I feel elated by these discoveries, and really blessed to be here.

On the morning of Day 10, we learn a final practice called Metta Bhavana, the practice of Loving Kindness, in which we share our love, peace and happiness with all beings. I am in a deep space of gratitude and cry a little as I feel my heart open wide. Noble silence is lifted today. It feels weird, almost shocking, as a lot of people go straight into chatting, loud laughter and mobile phones. I am a bit shell-shocked and flee back into the meditation hall, where I sit until 11am. Later, I speak to some of the other women. The cravings for food and sex seem to be common. Compared to the reactions of some others, I seem to have had an easy ride, though: I hear stories of fever, migraines, excessive bleeding, colds and other detox symptoms. One woman tells me excitedly that she has had a damaged vertebrae in her spine since she was 12 years old, which pressed against her lung. During the Vipassana practice, as she scanned her spine, the vertebrae suddenly popped out, back into place, and she could breathe properly for the first time in ten years. She cried with relief, as the change seemed permanent. I admire her determination, as she is young and has never practiced any type of meditation in her life.

After a final blissful morning session and an elaborate farewell, inclusive of all my favourite chants, from the delightful Goenka-ji on DVD, I emerge from Dhamma Dipa on Day 11 with a big smile and feelings of gratitude. My cravings have left me, and I feel strangely purified, calm and happy. I also have a great sense of achievement that I completed the course, and did not miss any of the meditation sessions. It was a deep experience - certainly challenging, but rewarding beyond measure. A week later, I continue to feel calm, centered, and focused. My body feels more loose and relaxed than it has in years, and my mind is much sharper than it used to be. I have gained fascinating insights into my mind and my psychological patterns, and I learned a valuable tool that will help me to lead a more peaceful and balanced life. A Vipassana course is undoubtedly a tough ride, but the results are astonishing. All the pain, in its impermanence, was worth it.

Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam - May all beings be happy.

To read more about my journey, my book
'Meeting Shiva - Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas' is available via Changemakers Books from 30 August 2013. Read the first few pages on Amazon UK and Amazon US !


29th April 2009

Oh My Gosh!
Tiziana you continue to inspire, amaze, fascinate and intrigue me. I was with you at the beginning in thinking 'nuts', 'mad as a box of frogs'...but now, I'm finding myself wanting to explore it more...and maybe, one day, I'll try it! One day... xx
3rd May 2009

Ciao Tiziana! I'm glad to know you are good and lived this experience, I hope to go on a Vipassana Retreat soon too, another friend of mine did it and he found very astonished also! Huggs from Sicily, Filippo xx
24th May 2009

Hi Tiziana, that really was a wonderful personal description of a Vipassana course. Having sat myself I can relate to so much of what you experianced and I am really pleased you got so much from it.xx
9th July 2009

Boot camp
Having read your article in the yoga magazine I followed up by reading your blog. I love your honesty and am inspired by your writing here.
17th April 2010

I just totday returned from a 10-day course and was scanning the internet to do some reading about the 5 enemies of practice when I bumped onto this. I read it all the way and believe it or not, your comments on Goenka made me smile. I feel like we know a common friend. I'm glad you overcame your first reactions and showed "strrrrong determination". It was my third time going, but the days before I felt like I was saying goodbye to life and I nearly backed out as well. The 10 days are scary, but they ar soooo worth it. Bhavattu Sabbah Mangalam, indeed!
28th April 2010

Thank you for this valuable post...
Thank you for helping me to understand the process and technique of Vipassana meditation. Your descriptions of inner and outer struggles were very enlightening to me. I wish you all blessings in your continuing spiritual journey.
16th May 2010

Dear Tiziana I have just enrolled into my first 10 day course and am excited to do it, but mostly terrified... after reading what you wrote, i feel like i am now ready for it and you have definitely made me feel less anxious about it. you are inspiring!! Thankyou! x
16th May 2010

Great to hear that, Yasmin, and good luck! :-)
22nd May 2010

It is nce to share your experiences. Please go on with it.
31st August 2010

i want to attend this meditation,how cd i ?
12th April 2011

Vipassana Meditation.
Good experience. I have just been back from 10 days Meditation at Dhamma Dipa, which was anexperience of Life Time. Above student's Narration of Day to Day Experience is exactly feelt by all who attend Meditation Courses and is very useful for New Students to make their mind up and prepare for what to expect. Well Done
28th February 2015

Great kindness
I'm feeling a great kindness towards you from your description of the vipassana journey. If I have anything like it I will feel blessed beyond measure. You have strengthened my resolve to go and enjoy the impermanence of each sensation good and bad! I leave on Wednesday for my first retreat in kelseyville, CA! Thank you!
1st March 2015

Thank you!
Thank you, Diane. I hope your Vipassana goes well. I myself am sitting another one next week in India. :)

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