Last month I completed my first Vipassana meditation course and it has profoundly changed my life. Meditation had not been a core practice for me before. I have previously dabbled in meditation but this experience enabled me to deepen my practice, identify areas for inner transformation and contemplate the state of my emotional well-being.
This article is as much a guide to Vipassana as an account of my own personal experience. The intention is not to detail the entire process or replicate the incredible resources about Vipassana that are already out there. This is a brief overview to answer the questions I had before starting the course and give a concise entry point for anyone curious about this practice.
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana is an ancient meditation technique that is widely practiced across the world. It stems from Buddhist tradition, however the meditation technique does not require its practitioners to be Buddhist. In fact, it is offered as a non-sectarian practice that requires no particular belief system. The technique primarily focuses on observation of sensations in the body without reaction to develop self awareness and mindfulness.
There are a number of different lineages of Vipassana, however the most widely practiced was largely popularized by S.N. Goenka, a layman taught in Burma who followed the Ledi Sayadaw lineage. Vipassana meditation has been a source of inspiration for many western practitioners such as Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzburg & Ram Dass. It is also a major source of inspiration for the mindfulness movement.
Where does Vipassana originate from?
It is said that more than 2500 years ago Gotama the Buddha discovered this technique of meditation. While many other meditations were widely practiced at the time, he included a deeper level of understanding into the meditation practice, which is the separation of sensation from emotion.
The technique was passed down through the generations by teachers who dedicated themselves to the practice. The tradition was kept alive in Myanmar (Burma) by the Theravada monks and more recently practiced by laypeople as well.
S.N. Goenka, an Indian layman and businessman who lived in Myanmar, was plagued by a rare case of extremely painful chronic migraines. He had tried so many things to cure them, but even doctors in Europe could not find a cure. One day a friend suggested Vipassana to him and he decided to give it a go.
After completing a Vipassana course his headaches slowly began to disappear. Naturally, he kept practicing under his teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, and after 14 years of dedication to the practice he became a teacher. At some point his mother who lived in India fell ill and Goenka traveled to India to teach her Vipassana.
After arriving in India and teaching Vipassana to his mother and some select friends and family, word of this technique spread like wildfire. Although it was not his initial intention, Goenka stayed in India to continue teaching. He taught thousands of students and word continued to spread across the world.
Goenka is well known for his charisma and goodwill. He dedicated his life to sharing Vipassana with as many people as he could. To this day live videos of Goenkai filmed in 1991 during his courses are used in courses today. He passed away in 2013, but his work is carried on by the teachers he appointed before his passing.
How does Vipassana differ from other forms of meditation?
Vipassana means to see things as they really are. The focus of the meditation is to simply observe the sensations that occur in the body without associating them to emotional reaction.
The teachings explain that all reactions that we have in life first begin as a sensation in the body. Only by observing this sensation and sitting with it are we able to maintain equanimity and not react. For example, when you experience anger there is first a sensation in the body of heat and tension and then the emotional response rises from this. Repeated emotional response to a sensation produces cravings and attachments (the grooves of emotional response become deep and habitual).
Vipassana does not use mantras, visualizations, special breathing techniques, or similar techniques that other meditations do. It is entirely grounded in bodily sensation and breath “as it is”. This is beneficial as there is no prerequisite of a certain belief system and no need to convert to a new set of beliefs.
How Vipassana has changed my life
Prior to starting the retreat, I felt anxious about participating in 10 days of silence and meditation. Having very little experience with meditation, I was diving straight in at the deep end. I did not know what to expect, nor what would come up for me.
Over the course of the 10 days I felt waves of emotion and physical sensations (what I would previously refer to as pain). At first, I could not sit still for more than a few minutes, my mind ablaze with thoughts and ideas. The sensations had control of me and all I could do to appease them was change my seating position over and over.
Slowly, my ability to meditate strengthened. I could sit for an hour or more without moving a muscle and the mind chatter also melted away. This opened up for deep, silent contemplation – an opportunity to know myself better.
Each night after almost 10 hours of meditation we were played a video recording of Goenka, whose charismatic wisdom resonated perfectly with the experiences of each day. Through meditation and absorbing the wisdom, I came to realize much about my cravings and attachments.
I am an emotional eater. I sometimes react unnecessarily to my environment. Just the awareness of these two characteristics alone, plus the applied tools of Vipassana meditation have already changed my life.
Now, I eat less food and I am aware when I want to eat because of emotions. My disposition is much calmer, I no longer get road rage. Interestingly, my tolerance for strong sensations has also dramatically increased.
There are certainly more subconscious lessons I have learned as well, but these particular points stand out for me. Of course, the journey of self awareness is life long but within just 10 days I have gained so much practical ability to improve my life.
Is Vipassana meditation for everyone?
While my experience is profoundly positive, this type of meditation is not for everyone. This is not due to the practice of the meditation itself, but rather the way in which you must learn the meditation technique. The 10 days meditation course is really the only way to learn the technique fully, yet this is no easy experience.
You can expect deep emotional and physical traumas to rise to the surface, which can sometimes be unbearable. There are many personal accounts of people having adverse reactions to intensive meditation retreats, such as this. The meditating in safety website is a useful resource for students and teachers to learn more about the potentially harmful effects of meditation.
That said, if you have a regular meditation practice this will put you in a better position to make the most out of a Vipassana course. It is important to feel prepared for such an intense journey and not dive into it because other people have had a great experience and you want to tick it off of your bucket list. It personally took me three years of contemplation before deciding to take the leap. I am glad I did, but I am also glad I waited for the right moment.
If you feel ready, read on to find out how to apply for a course!
Where can you do a Vipassana meditation course?
There are 369 locations across the world that offer Vipassana courses, 233 of these being centers which continuously offer courses. If you have not taken a Vipassana course before you are required to begin with the full 10 day course.
Once you have completed a 10 day course you become an old student, which opens up possibilities for shorter and longer courses, as well as volunteering for service at a course. Providing service is a great way to give back and continue to develop your practice. Furthermore, once you become an old student you gain access to a huge community of Vipassana meditators who have self-organized sits, pilgrimages and much more.
How to apply for a Vipassana meditation course
To apply for a Vipassana meditation course you can see the courses nearest to your location on the Dhamma.org website. On the website, you can filter by location, date and language the course is taught in.
Once you have found a course that you want to participate in, the application form is simple and easy to complete. The course facilitator will then get in touch to confirm your spot. If you can see there is a short waiting list, it is still worth applying – it is quite common for people to change their mind closer to the date and free up some space.
Are Vipassana meditation courses free?
The short answer is not exactly, but if you truly cannot afford to pay for a course the answer is yes. The Vipassana courses work on a pay-it-forward initiative where the previous students cover the cost for the next set of students.
This is a wonderful model for two reasons. Firstly, it makes the courses accessible to everyone, regardless of financial stability. Secondly, it changes the psychology of the financial contribution, no longer are you paying for a course, but you are giving a wonderful gift to someone else for them to experience what you have just experienced.
You might want to know how much to give. That is really up to you. Remember that your course was paid by someone before you so that you can have this profound experience, so give what you can. If money is an issue, you can also give back by volunteering for service and support others through their courses.
What to expect during a Vipassana course
During the Vipassana meditation course, there is a strict routine and structure. Here are a few points that are noteworthy:
- The day begins at 4am with meditation starting at 4:30am. The final meditation finishes at 9pm and lights are out by 10pm
- Men and women are segregated in the meditation center. The meditation hall is shared but men and women are still separate.
- Noble silence is practiced throughout the course, however you are able to speak with the teacher.
- Breakfast and lunch are usually served buffet style, but no evening meal is provided. For new students there is some fruit, but old students fast after midday.
- Eye contact between students and servers is forbidden, as is any form of physical touch.
- Stretching, exercise and other spiritual practices are highly discouraged during the 10 days.
- There are 10 hours of meditation per day which should be diligently practiced. Mostly, this should be carried out in the main meditation hall, however at times it is possible to carry it out in your private room.
- Reading and writing materials, including electronic devices, are not allowed during the course. These will be confiscated at the beginning of the course and returned afterwards.
For each student, the course experience will be very different but there are some things that are commonly experienced:
- Mind chatter – especially during the first days, quieting the mind for the whole 10 hours is near impossible. Remember, Vipassana is about experiencing things as they are, so acceptance is the key to working through this.
- Physical sensations (pain) – the purpose of the technique is to become highly attuned to sensation in your body. Initially the painful sensations are distracting and more subtle sensations are harder to observe. Throughout the practice it becomes easier to notice all sensations equally.
- Emotional rollercoaster – during the 10 days you will likely experience the full emotional spectrum from anger to elation. As old traumas rise to the surface so do these emotional experiences. Again acceptance is key here.
- Self realization – this may not happen first time around, but through the practice of Vipassana meditation, you will develop self awareness and the ability of self regulation.
- Dhamma.org is the main Vipassana website, which contains many amazing resources and deeper reading.
- Doing time, doing Vipassana is a documentary about Vipassana meditation being taught in one of India’s largest prisons.
- A personal account of a Vipassana meditation course in New Zealand from Legal Nomads.
- A small research paper on the effects of Vipassana meditation (plus extensive readings in the references).
I hope that you find this article both practical and useful. Please share your own personal experiences with Vipassana in the comments and if you have any feedback (or additions) on the article, I would love to hear from you.