Fast forward to landing in Bali and beginning my life in Ubud a full year later. I had forgotten all about Vipassana, even though Dhamma offers courses all around the world; the closest center being just three hours from my hometown. I remember looking up meditation courses in Indonesia one sweaty afternoon in Ubud when I came across www.dhamma.org and a full list of the 10 day Vipassana courses offered around Indonesia. While many courses offered in the coming months were quickly filling up, there was space for new students in the Java course which began March 30th. It was March 1st. I didn’t know if that was too soon to take on something so intense, too soon to leave the life I had just begun in Ubud, or too far to travel just for a meditation course. Regardless, I signed up to secure a spot with the intention of making my final decision later on. I then found the ‘non-centers’ list of courses which were offered on Bali. Non-center just means that the course is held in a space that isn’t owned by Dhamma, usually in an ashram. The next available course in Bali began on May 4th and was just 40 minutes from Ubud. This seemed like the more feasible option or me, both money and time wise, so I cancelled my application for the Java course and committed to the one in Bali.
Goenka Vipassana meditation is said to be the hardest, strictest type of Vipassana one can take. There are many rules for Goenka style Vipassana: no talking, no reading, no writing, no physical activity, no eye contact, no communicative body language, etc. Students must observe noble silence – silence of body, speech and mind – for the entire duration of the course. Before completing the course, many people think 10 days of silence will be the hardest part. They’re in for a treat.
Before beginning the course, one must swear into 5 precepts:
- to abstain from killing any being;
- to abstain from stealing;
- to abstain from all sexual activity;
- to abstain from telling lies;
- to abstain from all intoxicants.
Old students, those who have completed a Goenka Vipassana course in the past, must swear into 3 additional precepts:
- to abstain from eating after midday;
- to abstain from sensual entertainment and bodily decorations;
- to abstain from using high or luxurious beds
Because Dhamma doesn't have a center on Bali, they have to rent out a space to hold the 10 day program. As the spaces are usually not made for Vipassana practitioners, all the facilities are not exactly catered to the necessities of a Vipassana course. I was shoved in a room with 9 other women where the only thing that separated our damp mattresses was a dinky mozzy net, most of which had holes in them anyways and could only protect us for so long. Some of the older women had their own rooms or only had to share with one other person. This was the first time I've wanted to be over 40 so I could have my own space. But it was a good way to begin my 10 days as they say you are basically a monk for 10 days and beggars can't be choosers.
Our daily schedule for the next 10 days was the following:
4:00: Morning wake up gong
4:30-6:30: Meditate in the hall or in your residence
6:30-8:00: Breakfast and rest
8:00-9:00: Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00: Meditate in the hall or in your residence
12:00-13:00: Rest or interview with the teacher
13:00-14:30: Meditate in the hall or in your residence
14:30-15:30: Group meditation in the hall
15:30-17:00: Meditate in the hall or in your residence
17:00-18:00: Tea break
18:00-19:00: Group meditation in the hall
19:00-20:15: Discourse in the meditation hall
20:15-21:00: Group meditation in the hall
The morning of day 1 rolled around quickly as the gong sounded at 4am sharp. Surprisingly enough, it was easy for me to wake up and get myself to the meditation hall. A lot of it has to due with my eagerness to start the course and naivety about how the days would pass. Our schedule was posted on the communal board, along with any other information we needed to know, such as instructions for signing up to interview with the teacher and suitable times for bathing and doing laundry.
I always got myself up and out of bed at 4am and to the hall for meditation, no matter how tired I felt. I knew if I stayed in bed and tried to meditate there, I would end up just falling back asleep. That being said, I could never go deeply into my morning meditations. The majority of the two hours I sat there were spent remembering my dreams (which were always SO vivid) and fantasizing about what we would have for breakfast that day. My favorite was the black rice pudding.
At 6:30am, the gong was struck and we lined up for breakfast. Although meals are set up ‘buffet style’, they would put a limit on the portion size. The first morning there were a mountain of white buns, some kind of sweet lentil soup and a small bowl of fruit. I intended on skipping the bread until I saw that was basically all we were getting – then I took my allocated 2 white buns, hoping they would fill me up. I was used to eating a massive plate of fruit for breakfast everyday, so I was disappointed by the dinky portion of papaya and watermelon offered each morning. I was genuinely angry one day when we had 2 donuts for breakfast one morning, but then I learned to not associate myself with this aversion, this feeling of hatred toward these sugary treats. Instead, I viewed them as fuel for my body and gave thanks that I was lucky enough to have a morning meal daily, even if it was sugar filled fat pockets.
After breakfast, I usually had about an hour to kill before the next meditation. I spent it walking around, staring at nature, laying in bed and being alone with my thoughts. I cried a lot the first day. I would stare at the mountains or into the jungle, and just burst into tears. It hadn’t even been 24 hours yet and I was already incredibly emotional; something I didn’t expect from myself. We then had one hour of group meditation in the hall, where we learned the first step of Vipassana meditation – observe your breath. This may sound like an easy task, but after developing a deeper yoga practice of the past few years and learning pranayama – how to control the breath – it was incredibly difficult for me. I would be really focused on my breath and think that I was observing my natural breath, and then discover I was controlling how deep I was breathing or which nostril it was coming out of. The task we were given was simply to observe your natural breath without altering it. I cried after the first group meditation once again, this time out of frustration. The first group sitting was followed by another two hours where we were instructed to remain in the meditation hall and continue to observe our breath. Observe the way it enters your nostrils. Observe which nostril it enters. Does it enter equally through both nostrils? Observe which nostril it exits. Does it exit equally through both nostrils? Observe any sensations inside your nose from your breath. Does it move your nose hair? Do you have nose hair? Maybe you thought you didn’t have nose hair but now you realize you do have tons of nose hair. Is it normal to have this much nose hair? Do people somehow get rid of their nose hair? But they need to it clean the air that they breathe in, so we need nose hair. And now your mind has wandered off into the endless realm of nose hair. Okay, get your mind back to your breath. But don’t try to control it. Just observe it. I wonder what were having for lunch. I wonder what time it is. I wonder if I can do 10 days of this. Yesterday was technically day 0 and I’m not even halfway through day 1 yet. And the course actually ends on day 11, so really I have 11.5 days left. Why do they call it a 10 day course if you’re really here for 12 days? Damnit Sam, back to your breath. Watch your breath.
We had tea time at 5:00, which means you take as much ginger tea as you can to fill you up and a small bowl of fruit (usually about 6 small squares of watermelon or papaya). If you are an old student, meaning you have completed the 10-day course before, you don’t get fruit at 5:00. That’s enough reason in itself to not take the course again. After tea time, we had group meditation in the hall followed by discourse. Discourse was one of my favorite times of the day. We got to watch an hour long video of Goenka explaining the meditation technique, speak to how you may be feeling that day, and inform you of what’s to come the following day. Many of my questions were answered by the discourse videos in the evening, so I didn’t go to the teacher to ask questions all that often.
One of the two times I did go to for an interview with the teacher, it went a little something like this. It was day three, and I had been feeling incredibly lost with the practice. I couldn’t feel any sensations on my upper lip or lower nostril region. Every once in a while, my nose hairs would tickle but that’s about as far as the sensations went. My mind was constantly racing and I couldn’t concentrate or calm it for more than 5 minutes. Feeling frustrated, incapable and overall just defeated, I went to the teacher to ask him how I could calm my mind and bring myself to concentrate. I walked into the Dhamma hall, where he waited at the front, dressed all in white, perfectly seated in lotus with his white hair glowing in the spotlight. I knelt down in front of him and began to whisper my question. I was whispering because I was the only one in there with him, and I hadn’t spoken in three days so my voice was fairly raspy. He cut me off and said ‘You’re going to have to speak up’. I tried to project my voice, but it wouldn’t go any louder. When I tried to use a normal speaking voice, my throat began to close up and I felt tears well up in my eyes. They didn’t stay there long. Sooner than later, I was kneeling in front of the teacher balling my eyes out, and I didn’t really even know why. Yes, I was frustrated because I’d been attempting to watch my breath for three straight days and had seen zero ‘progress’. He watched me cry and said, “You need to let all of that out. Go somewhere, be by yourself, and cry. These emotions need to surface and be released before you can move on”.
The first three days are hands down the hardest days of the course. But on the fourth day, you begin to learn the technique of Vipassana meditation. In its simplest form, you are attempting to feel the subtle sensations on your skin: tingling, tickling, stings, numbness, heat, cold, and the list goes on. The goal is to focus the mind so sharply that it can recognize subtle sensations. In the bigger picture, a practitioner of Vipassana meditation observes sensations so subtly that they may free their mind from any reactions or attachments, both negative and positive, to the sense of the world and thus be liberated. A Vipassana meditator is not a slave to the conditionings of the social world.
My hopes were brighter and higher on the fourth day because I had something new to focus on – scanning my entire body for sensations and avoiding any development of sankaras. This meant if I had a sharp pain in my knee from sitting still for two hours, or an itch on the back of my neck, I was to observe the sensation and not associate myself with it. If it was a pleasant, tingling sensation, I was to observe it. If it was a sharp, aching pain, I wasn’t to wish it away. Just observe it, until it dissolves into non-existence. We scanned our bodies for sensations for the next 7 days straight. At times it got a bit tedious, but because I could feel my mind becoming sharper and sharper, it was easier to see progress and see just how much you could feel all over your body. The goal of the meditation is to sweep the body from head to toe and toe to head, feeling a constant wave of sensations all over the body.
On the 10th day, we were allowed to talk after our 8am group meditation. We all walked out of the hall and just stared at one another in the eyes, something we hadn’t done for 10 days. Everyone talked about their experience, their challenges and how damn good the food was. I was physically vibrating all day from all the stimulation. It was such an intense and cool feeling.
4 women out of around 50 left the course at the mid to halfway point. 5 of 25 men left. I can’t imagine going through 4 or 5 days of practicing this type of meditation and then quitting. I can honestly say that day 1-3 are the most difficult. If you can make it past day 3 and you really intend on completing the course from the beginning, you’re gold. Nothing is permanent, not even this course. As they say, “this too shall pass”. I spent a lot of time counting down the days and hours, and the time somehow passes even in complete silence. Completing this course made me realize we are slaves to distraction. Our days pass whether we are present or not.
Before beginning the course, I didn’t understand the necessity of noble silence. But throughout the course, if someone were to tell me about the sensations they were feeling, and I wasn’t feeling them myself, it would completely affect my experience. Comparison is detrimental to happiness. It segregates unity and community; it creates an ‘us versus them’ mentality that always keeps us craving more. We are never fully present because it is engrained in our social and cultural norms that there is always someone better than you. More compassionate than you. Richer than you. More flexible than you. Better looking than you. Whatever it is, we can only be the best versions of OURSELVES. We are individual, and comparison is merely an illusion of the mind that drives us deeper into misery.
By completing one 10-day course, I am by no means enlightened, healed or free from all my miseries. I have merely gained the tools to continue along this journey of happiness. It’s a technique that must be practiced every single day to bring a positive change into your life.
On day 5 I swore this would be my first and last Vipassana course. At the end of the 10 days, I was already thinking about where I want to do my next course. As an old student, you may complete a 1-day or 3-day course. Many cities have daily group sittings which is amazing if you strive in a group environment like me. I would absolutely recommend Vipassana as a technique that EVERYONE can benefit from, so long as you are willing to put in the work and have a desire to change your life.
I have so much respect for all those who complete the course around the world daily. It attracts a conscious and compassionate community, and I have made lifelong connections because of it.
To find a Vipassana course near you or on the other side of the world (an amazing excuse to travel, and its all donation based!), visit www.dhamma.org. Keep in mind, you must complete a full 10-day course before signing up for a 1 or 3-day course.
May all beings be happy. Much Metta.