The path to enlightenment is not a vacation: Tracy’s ten day Vipassana meditation course

Image description: Tracy, short hair, smiling, dressed in loose black pants and a long sleeved jacket with a t-shirt sticking out the bottom, standing in front of Cabin 4, a light green-blue cabin with a white door, two steps leading up to it, grass in front.

A couple of weeks ago I posted about how I was about to take unplugging and meditation to “the next level.” I was preparing to attend a ten day meditation course at the Ontario Vipassana Centre, Dhamma Torana. It was not a retreat. Or a vacation. I mentioned there that there would be ten hours a day of meditation. I mentioned there that we would be getting up at 4 a.m. I also said I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. And maybe that was a good thing because it meant I didn’t get scared. Had I known exactly what was coming, I might have been at least a little bit afraid.

And that would have been entirely appropriate. Because ten hours a day of meditation is not trivial. I think it is the most grueling physical undertaking I have ever endured (more cumulatively taxing over the ten days than running that marathon a few years ago was).

Before I left, I have to admit that the thing that attracted me the most was the silence. The entire course is conducted in noble silence. Though it is not everyone’s cup of tea, I absolutely love noble silence–where people occupying a space together refrain from talking or communicating in any manner, including gestures, written notes, or eye contact, and more generally maintain as quiet an atmosphere as possible. Though it is somewhat challenging because the urge to interact, even with a smile of greeting, is so strong, once you’re in the swing of things, noble silence takes off the social pressure and let’s everyone do what they need to do for their own practice.

I arrived at the course on Day Zero. We were still allowed to talk until 8 p.m. that night. Everyone was directed to the dining hall to register, check in their valuables (that included all electronic devices), find their room, start unpacking and be back to the dining hall for dinner and an orientation meeting. No meditation to speak of on Day Zero (I think–I actually can’t remember Day Zero so much). Day Zero was also the day to sign up for your shower time–that would be your 20 minute shower time for the rest of the course. Mine was originally at 7 (half an hour after the start of breakfast) but then changed to 7:20 when I moved my room (more on that later).

One thing I do recall from Day Zero is a conversation I had with an “old student” (that’s what they call students who have already completed one ten day course in the past). She said she thought she would never do it again because it was “so painful.” “Painful?” I really hadn’t thought in terms of pain. But she made it sound as if everyone knew that. Nope. Not everyone. But then the next thing I knew it was time to go into silence and I couldn’t really ask about it again until I got an interview with the teacher later in the course.

The course is designed to teach the Vipassana meditation technique. It starts with Anapana, a breathing meditation that focuses the breath on the small area between the upper lip and the top of the nostrils. We spent three days on that, learning to feel the sensation of breathing, and, finally, to focus on the sensations we could feel in that area between the upper lip and the start of the nostrils. Three. Days. It’s a challenge to stay focused for ten hours a day on such a small area, but there is a reason for that and it did pay off in the end.

During those days, we were instructed that if we got uncomfortable we could change our posture. That was good and I found myself changing quite a bit because my usual meditation posture turned out not to be great for long sitting. I had to spend a lot of time stretching out my legs in order to alleviate discomfort. Also, my mind wandered all over the place. This is normal in meditation, I know. But I couldn’t keep my attention on the requisite area for five minutes in a row at the beginning. My mind just ran all over the place. So between the shifting postures and the mind run amok, I struggled those first three days.

I forgot to mention too that we had to wake up at 4 a.m. and were supposed to meditating, either in our room or in the hall, by 4:30 for the first two-hour session of the day. I mostly did that session in the hall because otherwise the temptation to go back to sleep was just too strong.

Here is the timetable:

Day four: Vipassana. Each evening we had a discourse, or Dhamma talk, by Goenke, the teacher whose method we were following. He explained Vipassana as a technique for enabling people to experience the reality of impermanence (based on Buddhist teachings, but offered as a nonsectarian technique that can be practiced by anyone of any faith or none at all). The idea is to observe the bodily sensations (of which the first three days training develops the ability to be aware) with equanimity (a balanced mind that neither craves or is averse to any particular sensation). This is supposed to be possible after some time practicing awareness. Though he didn’t call it a “body scan,” it’s something like that though much more subtle and “advanced” perhaps (I’m not sure if “advanced” is the right word — it’s definitely different) than mindfulness meditation.

The thing with Vipassana is this: though it may sound perverse, it’s not designed with the goal of “feeling good.” Not in the moment of meditation, in any case. It is designed to sharpen the mind’s awareness and equanimity with respect to bodily sensations and to maintain an attitude of neither aversion or craving towards any particular sensations. Why? Because, as taught by Buddha and countless others, aversion and craving is the source of human misery. We get miserable and suffer when we get what we don’t want or when we don’t get what we want. (I don’t really want to debate the finer details of this picture — it does make sense to me).

The course emphasizes repeatedly that it is the technique that we are there to learn. It’s a practical thing, not a ritualized undertaking to be done without attention and alertness. They emphasize as well that proper practice has immense benefits. Through the technique, as practiced (purportedly) by Gautamo (the Buddha) 2500 years ago, the student comes to experience the ever changing nature of reality at the level of bodily sensations (which are themselves ever changing). Developing equanimity towards sensations such that we don’t react and increase our misery then carries over into the rest of our lives (so they report–I just got back a couple of days ago).

There are several layers of teaching delivered in the evening discourses, but I’m not going to get into all of that here. The main thing is that attention to sensation. Okay, so this brings us to the sittings of “strong determination.” Remember how for the Anapana part of the course we could shift position? Well, not so much with Vipassana because the whole point is to be able to observe whatever sensation you’re experiencing and not react to it — to bear it with equanimity. So on the fourth day they introduced the idea of these three sittings per day (8 am, 2:30 pm, and 6 pm) where for a full hour you weren’t supposed to move.

Before the first day of Vipassana instruction (day 4), when we were told we had to remain in the Meditation Hall for the full two hours without leaving (!!), everyone who knew what was coming was already in the foyer stretching and getting primed. It kind of reminded me of the start of a race.

It was about the time when he said we shouldn’t move for the hour that I started to panic. Why? Because I had up until then been moving every 5-10 minutes because of pain and discomfort. My knees and quads and hips were okay for about 30 minutes in a cross-legged posture if I really pushed it, but after that I needed to get some relief. My preferred method was to stretch out my legs. But when I met with the teacher she suggested instead that I just bring my bent knees up in front of me and hold on to my legs for a bit (kind of like a sitting version of the fetal position, which seems appropriate).

The thing is, you are motivated to move as little as possible during the sittings of strong determination (or, as I liked to call them, “hard sittings”) because in a silent hall with 100 other immobile people, the slightest shift on your cushion makes noise. There is peer pressure not to be the one to make a sound. That’s amazingly motivating and got me to sit through all sorts of pain and discomfort for longer than I anticipated. Not that I never moved. In all the seven days of Vipassana, I only completed three of those hard sittings without having to shift my posture at all. Note that you were not supposed to leave the hall when in the sittings of strong determination.

Ten days alone in your head is a long time. Besides the physical demands of Vipassana, there’s the whole mental side of the house. I became very aware of my thoughts as the source of my own misery. I mean, I was interacting with no one else and yet at times I was having all sorts of drama.

The life for students at the Centre is likely as close to monastic living as I’ll ever come. The schedule is rigorous and exacting. Besides the scheduled sittings (ten hours a day) and the evening discourses, the meal schedule was strict. Breakfast at 6:30 and you had to be out of the dining hall by 7:15. Lunch at 11 and you had to be out of the hall by 11:45. Tea break (with tea and fruit for new students, black tea for old students) at 5 and you had to be out of the dining hall by 5:30.

The course was fully gender segregated, with men’s and women’s residences on opposite sides of the grounds with course boundaries that did not permit any intermingling at all. There were separate entrances to the Meditation Hall and we meditated on different sides of the hall. The Dining Hall had two identical halves with separate entrances and a curtain drawn down the middle. We didn’t see or eat with the men at all. We even had separate walking trails.

There were some times in the schedule where you could meditate in your room. But we were given strict instructions that we were to be meditating at those times, not sleeping or walking or sitting outside. Meditation was not to be done outside, ever.

They also had a fragrance-free policy that was well-articulated ahead of time and I went to great pains to respect. I bought special products and other than my toothpaste, nothing had a scent. I appreciated the policy because though I am fine with the scents I am fine with, I react strongly to scents that I can’t handle. I had some difficulties in my residence with someone using essential oils. When I brought this to the attention of the Course Manager, it happened to be the same day another student had asked to move out of a cabin into a residence room instead. So I was offered my own little cabin and I absolutely loved it. It felt like an upgrade and I had my own space, and a bit more space. I didn’t want to develop a “craving” but oh how fortunate I felt.

I can’t really get into the full measure of details but suffice to say that I am enormously grateful that I had this opportunity. These courses are free. The Centre runs fully on donations from old students. No one can make a donation who has not completed at least one ten-day course. Once you complete, you can donate with the idea of paying for someone else to attend (or more, or less of course, according to your means and what seems right to you).

On the last day, we learned a new type of meditation called “loving kindness” (metta bhavana), with which I am somewhat familiar already. It was a really beautiful way to end, and it is suggested that a few minutes of metta bhavana be added at the end of each Vipassana session provided you are physically and mentally fit (that is, not in physical pain and not in any kind of emotional tumult).

After we learned the loving kindness meditation in the morning, we were released from noble silence at 10 a.m. We had lots of longer breaks that day, and much of the time was spent in chatter, finally being able to meet and speak to these women I’d been meditating and eating and living alongside for the past ten days. It was overwhelming and exhausting in its own way, but lovely to exchange our reflections on our experiences.

I had a profound experience there. I had no issues with the rules. As my experience of noble silence, the rules kind of let me off the hook. I followed the schedule for the most part, oversleeping three times but not by much. I did my utmost to remain in the same posture during the hard sittings. I stuck to my shower time. We had committed to five precepts — no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, no intoxicants.

The only one I struggled with was the no killing because summer in that part of Ontario means mosquitoes, and I confess that though I didn’t kill a single mosquito outside, I did kill a few that made their way into my room at night. Maybe 6-8 in the ten days, which isn’t so bad. But when you’re lying in bed with your aching limbs (even my fingers ached from holding on so tightly when wrapping my arms around my legs and clasping my hands together when I was taking a break from sitting cross legged) and trying to fall asleep because of a 4 a.m. wake up…it’s hard.

I’m going to follow their suggestion to give it an honest try for one year. That means one year of two one-hour sittings each day. My schedule is to do one at 5 a.m. and one at either 5 p.m. or 9 p.m. depending on how my evening looks. Being on leave until September 2020 will help a lot.

The course is for not for everyone, but it is for anyone who is already meditating and is already of the mind that much of our misery lives in our head, and that equanimity in the face of difficult challenges is a worthy approach to minimizing that misery. That doesn’t mean that the world needs no changes. I like the idea of training my mind through the practice of awareness and equanimity, and I believe that the more people who engage in this sort of life-changing practice, the more the world will change for the better.

So that’s my experience more or less at the ten-day Vipassana course. It was not a retreat in the “wellness” sense — no spas or luxurious bedding or quiet spaces where you could curl up with a good book and take refuge from the world for a bit. I feel confident that it was so much more than that. Instead of being a break, which is how I always experience vacations, it was more of a beginning, introducing new students to a technique that if practiced with diligence, attention, and commitment can change their lives.

Have you ever done Vipassana or any other practice that is designed to transform the way you see and interact with the world? Do tell.

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