A few more random thoughts about the meditation course

I’ve had a lot of questions since my post on Tuesday about the 10-day Vipassana meditation course, so I thought I would follow up with one more post about it. These points are in random order and are themselves random.

Waking up at 4 a.m. No question, it’s not easy to wake up a 4 a.m. If you’re staying in one of the residences, they assign someone to take care of the 4 a.m. gong. And then there is another at 4:20. And you’re expected to be meditating in your room (not in bed!) or in the meditation hall by 4:30. Once I relocated to the cabin I needed to wake up on my own. I’m really glad I had my Timex Ironman watch. I don’t think I have ever used it so much. I set the alarm for 4 a.m. daily, and I used the timer whenever I was meditating in my room and also to wake me up from naps that I took during the longer breaks.

Image description: close up shot of the face of a Timex digital Ironman Triathlon watch, showing a daily alarm at 4:00 AM, on a wrist.

The food We had two meals a day — breakfast at 6:30 and lunch at 11:00. At 5:00 we had a tea break and new students could have fruit (anyone who for medical reasons needed a meal at that time could pack up some extra at lunch and heat it up for dinner). The food was simple but good.

Breakfast was the same set of choices every day: Oatmeal, stewed prunes, bran cereal, granola, raisins, sunflower seeds, flax seed powder, nutritional yeast, cinnamon, almond milk, soy milk, cow’s milk, bananas, apples, oranges, sometimes sliced fresh pineapple, 12-grain bread for toast, butter, vegan margarine, peanut butter, tahini, and jam. Instant coffee, black tea, green tea, hibiscus tea, peppermint tea, chamomile tea. I always had a coffee and a tea, both strong because I needed the caffeine.

At lunch, we usually had brown and white rice, some sort of stew or stirfry, veggies (roasted or steamed), salad with optional toppings of shredded beets, shredded carrots, raisins, chickpeas, sprouted lentils, choice of dressings (including a really delicious sunflower seed dressing they made there), and about 4-5 times we had dessert. Same choices for tea and coffee as at breakfast, with almond milk, soy milk, or cow’s milk. My favourites among what they served for lunch were: the thai tofu curry, the grain pilaf, the roasted beets, the roasted broccoli, the Persian rice, the sunflower dressing on shredded carrot with chickpeas and raisins (I made that every lunch time), and the cassava pudding (OMG it was amazing; I need the recipe). I always had a strong black tea with soy milk with my lunch.

Having only tea and fruit at 5 wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I didn’t feel terribly hungry but I was grateful to be a new student because the old students only got tea, no fruit.

The silence: what if you had an issue? A few people have asked me about this. The course was conducted in Noble Silence, which means no communication. But that was only among the students. The goal was to enable an inward experience to work on the technique. I think this was a good idea because it prevented (as much as possible) us from comparing where we were at with where others were at. And it prevented people from having negative and complaining conversations about how hard it was. That could have created a downward spiral of commiseration that wouldn’t have served me well.

However, we were definitely not left alone in our heads with no recourse. If you needed something or were having difficulties, you could talk to the course managers about it. That’s how I ended up getting moved from my room in one of the women’s residences to a cabin of my own. It’s also how I ended up being permitted to sit in a chair during the evening discourse rather than having to sit on the floor, which was causing me some difficulty. We could also speak to the teacher, which I did on two occasions to ask her about ways of easing my body during meditation. She made some suggestions that were helpful. Finally, the teacher checked in with us periodically, calling us up to the front in small groups and asking us questions about our progress. During those periods we spoke.

So it wasn’t as silent as all that — I did talk a number of times during the course. You could also speak with the kitchen servers if you had questions about the food.

Was it hard not to exercise? I went for a walk most days and did a lot of stretching. Frankly, that was about all I could handle. At first I was bummed that I couldn’t go running, but with ten hours of sitting in meditation in a day that went from 4:00 a.m. to about 9:30 p.m., I used most of the off-time when I wasn’t eating to lie quietly on my bed.

Was it hard to follow rules? There are a lot of rules. From noble silence to indoor footwear in the dining hall to showering only during your designated 20 minute time-slot to meditating during all meditation time, remaining within the course boundaries while at the centre, respecting a modest dress code, not bringing any of your own food, maintaining a fragrance free environment, meditating only inside and never outside, not to mention the 5 precepts (against killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and using intoxicants)…to name a few. They give a lot of advance notice. I think someone who really felt like these rules would challenge them and make them feel controlled (or defiant) probably isn’t temperamentally suited for this type of thing. Myself, I didn’t experience them as a big issue, not for just ten days. But some struggled with the modest dress code, with the silence, with the fragrance free policy, and with the requirement to meditate during all of the meditation times.

What was the best part? That’s a tough one. I liked most everything, even if it wasn’t what I would call “fun.” I enjoyed the nightly discourses (the talks) by SN Goenka. These are videotaped recordings of talks he gave during a 10-day course in 1991. They are excellent and engaging, and gave context to what we were learning. I also relished the silence and the permission not to engage in social interactions. And I liked the challenge of it all–I felt as if I was doing something that would change me in ways I couldn’t anticipate. I’m pretty sure I was right about that.

What was the worst part? I’m not sure I would define this as necessarily “bad,” but it was definitely a lot more physically demanding than I anticipated it would be. But the worst part was probably the first three days when we were doing the breathing meditation (Anapana) and I couldn’t focus for more than a minute or two at a time. It was mentally and emotionally frustrating. Plus I was exhausted — the 4 a.m. wake-up was pretty difficult and never got easier for me during the entire ten days.

Would I recommend it? This is the sort of thing that someone needs to get curious about on their own and apply for only if they’re drawn to it. In that sense, I can’t say I would recommend it as something for everyone. I don’t think it’s for everyone. My suggestion would be for anyone who was intrigued to take a careful look at the “What to expect on a course” page on the website. I suggest looking more carefully than I did (I kind of read it but didn’t take in the intensity of the schedule). I don’t think I would have been dissuaded had I fully appreciated what I was signing up for. But I would have been better prepared, psychologically, for what I was about to undertake.

Okay, I’m done talking about it now. I feel a strong commitment to continuing to work on the technique of meditation that the ten-day course introduced me to. I do think that employing this technique on a daily basis can and will improve my life. Already I have experienced clarity about a number of things and, though that is not the exact purpose of the technique, it is a result of it.

My question: has anyone gained a curiosity and interest in the course (and possibly a desire to apply) from reading about my experience with it?

3 thoughts on “A few more random thoughts about the meditation course

  1. Tracy, I also posted this question on your Facebook page: do you think this sort of retreat has political benefits, e.g., provides ways for activists to personally cope with injustice?

  2. Thanks for this follow-up post – it clarifies a lot of the questions I also had! (Like, how was this whole room switch arranged if you couldn’t talk, or how were they instructing you without “communicating” etc.) I still think you are so brave for having done this. If you’re up for answering more questions: what was the biggest benefit you took away from it, and was it what you had expected it to be? What did you find the most surprising?

  3. After reading your post about the retreat earlier I chose to do the meditation retreat at home. Other than my blog and a couple apps I use for keeping myself on track, I am trying to stay in my head. I have found a couple books I have to pass the time when not actively meditating. Thank you for your inspiration for this 2 day journey I have immersed myself in! 😊 I have learned just in the past couple hours I have a very loud and demanding mind….here is to change…

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