The Vipassana Meditation Course

Last week, from Sep 10 to Sep 21 2014, I attended my second 10-day Vipassana Meditation course. I attended my first such course 2 years ago in October 2012.
In these two years, with a not-very-regular practice (not suggestible though), but a good understanding of the concept of Vipassana, especially after this course, here is what happens at a course and what you can expect.

What is Vipassana (originally pronounced as vi-pa-sh-ya-naa)?

It is a meditation practice, long lost, which was discovered by Gautama the Buddha 2500 years ago. Using this practice, he ‘purified’ himself of all the impurities of the mind (anger, greed, jealousy, fear etc.) – a process called as ‘Spiritual Enlightenment’. He started teaching others and the practice spread across the Indian subcontinent and neighboring countries and continued to benefit people for another 500 or so years. Eventually it got lost and became loosely translated into customs and rites which were followed by a certain group of people.
There were, however, small groups of people who kept the practice alive from generation to generation by a teacher-student tradition. Sh. SN Goenka, a Rajasthani businessman, whose grandparents migrated to Burma, learnt it there from his teacher and then moved to India in 1969 and started teaching this practice in India. In the last 40 years or so, the practice has moved from India to all over the world with more than 100 Vipassana Meditation centers across the world.

The 10-day course

The course begins on the afternoon of the Day Zero, when all the meditators assemble at the center. On the Day Zero, all the valuables – mobile, wallet etc and all reading/writing materials are taken by the management and locked safely, only to be returned at the end of the course. All access to the world or means of communication/recreation are taken away from you before the course begins. You just have yourself to spend the rest of the days with!
The course begins on the evening of Day Zero with brief instructions about the course. On the First Day, the meditation practice begins.

Vipassana Meditation Practice

The practice is divided in three major parts.

1. ‘Sheel’ – The Five Precepts
On the Day Zero, the five precepts are explained which are to be strictly followed during the course. These are – abstain from killing, stealing, intoxicants and sexual activity, and no telling lies.
Considering the place and the schedule in which all meditators are put in, the five precepts are relatively easy to follow. Further, there are separate residential quarters and walking areas for men and women, and they are not allowed to cross them. Hence safety is also not a concern.
2. ‘Samadhi’ – The Concentration of the Mind
For the first three days, all meditators are directed, by way of audio recordings done in the voice of Sh. SN Goenka, to concentrate our mind on the inflow & outflow of natural breath. No breathing exercises, just natural breath. The idea is to focus the mind on the small area of the body where the breath strikes. This leads to increased concentration and makes the mind aware of everything which happens on this small area. This is a ground work for Vipassana.
3. ‘Pragya’ – Attainment of Wisdom
On the fourth day, again by way of directed audio, the meditators are initiated to the concept and practice of Vipassana Meditation, which is, in a way, a continuation of what we did in the first three days.
Now Vipassana can, at best, be understood by experience rather than any kind of reading or discussion, and hence it is recommended from my side to all the readers to attend a course!
However, for the sake of understanding, I can say that Vipassana is a very logical & scientific practice in which we observe all that is happening on the body at all points in time with the goal to eradicate the impurities of the mind, and hence become a more happy and contented person, eventually a Buddha, a Christ, a Krishna, a Nanak or other such spiritually enlightened beings.

Sounds vague?! I’m afraid that’s all I can say. Anything about the theory I try to explain has the potential of being misunderstood without the actual practice. That is why whenever someone asks me about meditation, I always recommend the breathing meditation, since that is easy to explain and can be done by everyone at ease. Rest assured, you will realize that Vipassana is very scientific, which is why I find a lot of educated crowd coming to these centers and learn the practice of meditation.

The Time Table

Vipassana Meditation course follows a strict time table from 4.30 in the morning to 9.00 in the night. On a daily basis, all meditators meditate for 10 hours which is followed by a 1.5 hours of video discourse in the night by Sh. SN Goenka which clarifies the practice and brings theory and practice in sync with each other. For a mere mortal like me, who does not have a habit of sitting cross-legged for more than a few hours in a day, 10 hours of meditation and sitting in one posture can be an arduous and a physically challenging task. The amazingly clarifying evening discourse is like a balm for all the hard work you put in the day. It relaxes the muscles and makes you ready to keep going and knowing more about yourself on the next day!

The Noble Silence

All meditators are supposed to follow strict silence which means no communication with fellow meditators by way of words or actions. You can ask practice related questions with the Assistant Teacher who is present during the course or any administration related issues with the management.
I hear many people say being silent for 10 days is so hard for them! I will go mad! How will I do it?
Trust me, when you come here, keeping silence will be the least of your worries. You think it’s easy to sit and meditate for 10 hours everyday?!

Day 10

On the 10th day, noble silence ends and hence we can speak with the fellow meditators. We also get our valuables back (and can click photographs!). After 9 days of hard work and self discovery, 10th day is like a balm in itself. It is the day of merriment!

Conversion to Buddhism?

This is a common question many of us have. Since this practice was discovered by the Buddha, are they going to make me follow Buddhist tradition etc? The answer is No. In every day’s evening discourse, all Sh. SN Goenka stresses on is meditating. Just meditate everyday and you are good (he himself was a Hindu all his life). If you are a Hindu, be a Hindu, follow Hindu traditions, festivals, customs etc. Same goes for all other modern day religions, Muslim, Christian, Buddhism, Sikhism etc. Just meditate everyday and you are good.

The Fee

All Vipassana Meditation courses across the world are conducted free of charge. All basic amenities – clean rooms, clean bathrooms, simple vegetarian food, even facilities like doctor’s assistance if someone needs it are available to all meditators. The courses are run on donations and all meditators have the option to donate any sum of money they wish to, on the day 10.

After Going Back

After going back, the practice of Vipassana needs to enter in life as much as possible, else the time and energy given during goes for a toss. And for this, 2 hours of daily practice is recommended by Sh. SN Goenka in order to maintain the process of purification while actually living in the world.

Try it out to find it out!

All said and done, you will definitely feel lighter and happier after returning, and may be even more determined and energized to face the life problems and its challenges ahead. It is definitely worth giving a shot, especially the earlier in one’s life the better.