This summer I took a 10 Day Vipassana Meditation Course in rural Illinois. No talking, no phones, no reading, no writing. Ten hours of meditation per day for ten days in a row… It was an experience and a half!
In my last post I explained how I ended up there, now I am going to dive into what my Vipassana Meditation course was really like.
What is Vipassana Meditation?
Vipassana means “insight” in the ancient Indian language Pali.
Vipassana is a meditation technique that teaches awareness of reality. Through Vipassana meditation one learns to remain equanimous in both pleasure and pain.
I have heard it said that if you are Christian, Vipassana will make you a better Christian, if you are Hindu, Vipassana will make you a better Hindu, if you are Muslim, Vipassana will make you a better Muslim, and so on.
Vipassana Meditation is taught at a meditation center over the course of ten days (these centers are all over the world). Phones, reading, writing, talking, non-verbal communication and eye contact are strictly prohibited throughout the entire course. Yes, that means I was not allowed to speak for 10 days! (Ok, on the first day I accidentally said “ewww” when I found I a pair of underwear in my room, that had been left by the previous guest, oops).
In order to participate in the course I had to agree to the five precepts:
- No killing living beings (This sounds easy until I remind you that the meditation center is located in a marsh and that mosquitoes are living beings.)
- No stealing.
- No sexual misconduct.
- No lying (Not even to yourself).
- No intoxication.
We had to adhere to a strict vegetarian diet during the course. I had been vegan for 6 months by the time I attended so this was no problem for me. All meals were provided by the center. Most were vegan which was great. I enjoyed the food so much that at the end of the course I got copies of the recipes!
I meditated for over 10 hours a day for 10 days. (See the daily schedule image above.)
Starting on the 4th day, three of the meditation hours were dedicated to Strong Determination. This meant that for an entire hour, 3x per day, I could not move. Once the meditation began, whatever position I was in, I was committed to it for the entire hour. No shifting positions, no moving hands, no opening eyes.
The hours of Strong Determination may sound like they were the hardest, and for many people, they were. But for me, they were my most fruitful practices. I was amazed by my physical and mental strength. During the more flexible mediation practices I often gave into discomfort by changing positions or moving between my room and the meditation hall. Even though my successful practices were empowering, and giving in to discomfort was defeating, Vipassana teaches to not react to negative feelings or crave positive ones.
Getting to Pecatonica, IL (AKA The Middle of Nowhere)
The meditation center facilitated ride sharing. Which was great considering the center is located in the middle of nowhere and I don’t have a car.
I selected a driver off a list of names for two reasons. One, he was departing from Wheaton, my home town, and two, he had an Indian sounding name, and I am forever nostalgic for India.
The day before my departure I got really nervous. Not so much about the course but about spending almost two hours in a car with a man I’d never met. I told myself that, at best, it’d be awkward and at worst… we won’t go there. After 48 hours of trying to convince myself not to go, I got it together and my sister drove me to his house.
“This is it,” she said, slowing down in front of a large, well kept home, with gable roofing and tan siding. I saw a 30-something-year-old Indian man in the garage, loading a suitcase into the trunk of a Chevy Equionox. An older woman was standing beside him. “Oh, he looks really normal!” I said to my sister, relieved, as if I expected to see a serial killer. “Yeah, more normal than you do,” she retorted, smirking and side eyeing my purple undercut and and multicolored fanny pack. She was serious but her tone also implied the same sense of relief I had.
I greeted the man and the woman, who turned out to be his mother, and said goodbye to my sister and nephew, as I loaded my stuff into his car.
His mother was warm and welcoming. They both were. She told me how everyone in their family had already taken a Vipassana course this year. Now it was her son’s turn. I loved it.
Nicole, a 50 year old woman from Taiwan, joined us for the ride as well. The three of chatted the entire way there. It was the farthest thing from awkward and even farther yet from those worst case scenarios I horrifyingly imagined.
Starting the Course
We arrived at the meditation center with just enough time to drop our stuff off and sign in. The men and women were separated almost immediately. After a light dinner, silence began. In silence we attended a brief orientation and short meditation then retired to our rooms for the evening. I went to sleep happy to be there.
The first full day was by far the easiest for me. I woke up at 4am, drank a bottle of water, took a hot shower and headed to the meditation hall. This would be my exact morning routine for the next ten days. I think the first day was so easy because I’d built up how difficult it would be in my head for months. However, once I knew exactly what to expect day in and day out, challenges came.
Day to Day
The days were pretty much what you’d expect, long, quiet and repetitive. I spent 10 hours per day, sitting on a cushion, not moving. It surprised me how painful sitting still can be. I had built myself a cushion couch by the end of the third day.
The whole idea was to focus on actual bodily sensations. Nothing remarkable, just the natural tingles, twitches, temperatures, aches and pains that the body experiences. Letting thoughts come and go without getting attached to them. When I got lost in a thought, I turned my focus back to my bodily sensations. Sometimes I came back to my body quickly, other times it took much longer.
On our few breaks between meals and meditation, we were free to walk around the center grounds. Male and female boundaries were clearly marked and strictly enforced. Despite being buggy, humid and hot outside, the center grounds were beautiful.
There were wide open fields with tall grass, purple flowers with wispy cotton like buds, yellow flowers with brown centers, and cattails. A variety of trees were scattered around the marshlands. Pine trees, almost blue in color with tightly compacted needles stood beside pine trees with loose, bright green, needles that blew in the wind like a head of hair. There were willow trees, oak trees and crab apple trees. Robins hopped and fluttered around with worms hanging from their mouths. Blue jays perched. Cardinals flew. Squirrels, bunnies, and chipmunks scurried. Big frogs, tiny frogs, and bumpy toads concentrated near the pond. Mosquitoes and stingy flies were everywhere. Centipedes and daddy long legs too. Every night, on the walk back to the dormitory after the evening meditation, fireflies made the dusky field sparkle.
I did not sleep much at all during the course. I had an annoying pain in my shoulder. I get weird aches and pains occasionally that I chalk up to 15 years of doing hair. This one had been bugging me for few weeks prior to the course. Every morning at 4am, when the gong rang, I was already awake. I would jump up grateful that the boredom was over. Surprisingly, I was rarely tired.
I learned that sleeplessness is common during the course. We sleep to rest our bodies and minds. I wasn’t doing much physically so my body didn’t need rest. My mind did but through a concentration technique I learned in the course, I was able to rest my mind without sleeping. It was trippy, and I craved sleep, but it wasn’t bad.
What is on my arm?
The sixth day was the most difficult for me. I noticed a weird mark on the outside of my left arm that made me nervous. It looked like hair dye (which was impossible as I hadn’t done hair in weeks). Thinking it was some kind of stain, I washed my arm, which did nothing. Normally this would be the kind of thing I Google frantically or call my mom to get her opinion on. Both of which usually end with me convinced that I’m dying. I couldn’t do either, so I went to bed.
The next morning, it was still there. It looked as if a thin, individual vein was crushed beneath the surface of my skin. I made an appointment to discuss it with the teacher. (A scheduled appointment with the teacher was the only time talking was permitted.)
The teacher was more startled by it than I expected her to be. She thought something had bitten me and the poison was working it’s way up my vein. Yikes! But the fact that there was no point of entry and the line wasn’t moving, quickly put this theory to rest. Fewf!
Then it clicked. In my attempts to find a comfortable sleeping position, I had been contorting my by body in weird ways. Many nights I was awoken by a numb left arm. The pressure and lack of circulation to my left arm must have caused a weird bruise. The teacher agreed with my conclusion and gave me an ointment to put on it. That was that.
On the last day, we were allowed to talk. It was great to get to know the people I’d been side by side with throughout this experience.
There were about 25 females and 35 males. The class was filled with a wide range of cultures, races and ages. Several people had driven in from out of state. My roommate was from Colombia. Yes, I shared a room with this girl for ten days and we hadn’t spoken once! I received so much insight, inspiration and advice from these people. Sharing this experience bonded us in a way words never could have.
All Vipassana courses are paid for by donations from previous students. At the end of the course students are invited to donate in whatever way they see fit- money, time, skills and/or material goods.
It has been three months since I took this course and I continue to find new ways it impacted me. Here are my major takeaways from the course:
- Suffering is caused by ignorance, craving and aversion.
- You cannot be living in the moment if you are dwelling on the past or dreaming about the future.
- Awareness and equanimity lead to peace.
- Everything in this world is impermanent.
- Let go.
- Everything we encounter in life is a result of our actions. Therefore we can become masters of lives by becoming masters of our own actions: mental action, vocal action and physical action.
- Right Livelihood. “There are two criteria for right livelihood. First, it should not be necessary to break the Five Precepts in one’s work, since doing so obviously causes harm to others. But further, one should not do anything that encourages other people to break the precepts, since this will also cause harm. Neither directly nor indirectly should our means of livelihood involve injury to other beings.” (William Hart, The Art of Living)
Share something about your own experience in the comments below:)
If you have any questions about taking a Vipassana Meditation Course, feel free to ask in the comments or reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org!