In the absence of a teacher, the Dhamma is the teacher.
"POSITIVE." I blinked in disbelief at the Large-Bold-Red letters staring at me unapologetically from the phone screen.
"This cannot be," was my first thought.
The notification went on, "You have a POSITIVE COVID-19 Test Result." "But how can this be!? I don’t even have symptoms and am about to leave for my New Year's Vipassana retreat!!" Thoughts started shooting in my head as I was trying to grasp this new reality in which I contracted the virus.
"Let me unpack that for you," a sarcastic voice said in my mind as I read on. "If you have a positive test result, it is very likely that you have COVID-19. Therefore, it is also likely that you may be placed in isolation to avoid spreading the virus to others."
There, all my beautifully designed plans for the mindful start of the new year collapsed like a house of cards in just a few seconds. It took several months to get into a Vipassana course. I made all the arrangements in my work and personal life to go away for 10 days for my second Vipassana. I had high hopes for getting more clarity and inner guidance for the new year. I pictured myself all-Zen emerging on the other side in 2022 blissful and renewed. But I got COVID instead and can’t go. Boom.
The truth is I placed too much importance on doing the course, created a ton of expectations and was now boiling in aversion, one of the exact things from which all types of misery are generated, according to the teaching of the Buddha: Ignorance, Craving and Aversion.
But did I have to give up? As an old student, I already knew the Vipassana meditation technique and, in theory, could attempt a retreat on my own.
It never occurred to me before that I could do it outside of a meditation center with its tranquility, facilities, assistant teachers, volunteers and fellow meditators that provide a tremendous amount of support and ecosystem to help you get established in the practice.
The question was whether I could actually do it by myself. Slowly - very slowly - I came to realize this was an opportunity to practice equanimity and experiment with doing a Vipassana self-course at home.
Disclaimer (I couldn’t have said it better than "The Art of Living"):
My purpose here is merely to share my experience of sitting a self-course on my own. This blog post is not a do-it-yourself manual for the practice of Vipassana meditation or a self-course, and people who use it this way proceed entirely at their own risk. The technique should be learned only in a course where there is a proper environment to support the meditator and a properly trained guide. Meditation is a serious matter, especially the Vipassana technique, which deals with the depths of the mind. It should never be approached lightly or casually. If you wish to try Vipassana, please visit the official website to find out when and where courses are given.
First things first, what is Vipassana again?
Vipassanā means “insight” or “seeing things as they really are” in the ancient Pāli language of India. It is one of India's most ancient meditation techniques that was discovered by the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. It teaches the path to liberation from suffering and living in peace through self-observation. Vipassana is not tied to any religion and offers a simple and effective self-awareness tool that can be successfully applied by anyone. This meditation technique is taught at residential donation-based courses of ten days.
During courses, students observe Noble Silence, do not interact with anyone except the teachers, refrain from using any electronic devices or consuming/creating any content in any form - reading, writing, listening, drawing etc - to eliminate distractions as much as possible and learn the technique properly. No yoga or exercising either.
What is a Vipassana “self-course”?
A self-course is a Vipassana meditation course that you sit on your own in your home or any other place that can function as a temporary mini meditation center, without any guidance or with minimal guidance from an assistant teacher.
Who is qualified to sit a self-course? Who is an “old student” in Vipassana tradition?
Self-courses are for old students only. Anyone who has successfully completed at least one 10-day Vipassana course as taught by S.N. Goenka is considered an old student. New students should take their first course at a center to properly learn the technique before doing self-courses on their own.
How do I organize my self-course? How do I prepare myself?
Most importantly, you would need to arrange a private, quiet and self-contained place where you can meditate without distractions and interruptions for 10 hours a day, sleep, bathe, prepare simple meals, eat and ideally go for a walk for some exercise and sunshine without getting disturbed.
My fridge was pretty empty as I was initially planning on doing Vipassana at the center, but thanks to Amazon Fresh and family support, I had groceries stocked up at the start of the self-course. I made some very simple meal prep on Day 1, which mostly involved cooking a big pot of rice and some veggies. I had protein oatmeal with berries and a peanut butter toast for breakfast. Same as at the on-site courses, meals must be vegetarian without eggs.
For those who wish to maintain a certain level of protein intake for health and fitness reasons (any Vipassana weightlifters out there?), I added a plant-based protein shake from Orgain (20g of protein) and tossed a couple of spoonfuls of Kirkland hemp seeds on salads at lunch (10g of protein).
Don’t worry about hunger or food cravings. Yes, as an old student you are not supposed to eat after noon, but that’s not going to be a bother if you practice properly. I thought doing a home-based course was going to be a big hunger challenge: it’s a one-on-one with the fridge situation, after all. Same as I experienced it at my local Vipassana center, the mind begins to operate differently, and thoughts about food somehow fade away into the background of consciousness. But do make sure you have a balanced meal plan to support your body with all the necessary nutrients during the course. We are not starving ourselves!
Create your home meditation space
If you regularly practice Vipassana or other meditation techniques, you may already have a dedicated space in your home. The general recommendation is the course area should be free of distractions and not used for a different spiritual practice. I set it in the living room in front of the fireplace. You can use any props to provide a reasonable amount of comfort: meditation cushions, yoga or meditation mat, blankets etc. Read this guide to finding the right meditation cushion for your meditation style.
From the beginning of the course until after you start practicing Metta, you’ll be observing Noble Silence. That includes not checking your phone for messages. Inform friends and family that you’ll be unavailable during this time, but arrange a way to be contacted in case of an emergency.
Read these guides
- Self-course FAQs developed with input from teachers around the world. Accessible on the Dhamma.org mobile app (download for iOs or Android): navigate to the hamburger menu in the bottom right corner and go to Old Student References under the Library section. Alternatively, contact your Vipassana center or a virtual sitting group and they can send a pdf version.
- Go through the Code of Conduct, this is our handbook for the self-course.
- Remember that reading and writing are not permitted during the course to refrain from any distractions so best to review these before you begin.
Audio and video resources
Make sure you have any recordings you will want to play during the course and a device to play them. Students sitting a self-course can play the following recordings:
- Goenka’s early-morning chanting - I’m not a fan but they are available if you wish to listen.
- Group sittings - there are over 10 versions with Goenka's short and long instructions available online. I played one of them at least 3 times a day during “group sittings”, very helpful.
- The 10-day discourses - I always learn something new or get a new perspective when I watch these.
You can access the recordings from the official site or from the mobile app. Contact a center near you for the username and password. If you are using your phone to play them, set it in airplane mode, disconnect from Wi-Fi and disable notifications.
All Vipassana centers usually have separate walking paths for male and female meditators where students can go during rest periods to stretch legs and get some exercise. Between walking from your room to the meditation hall, dining hall and the walking path, you naturally spend sufficient time outdoors to ensure at least the minimum amount of sunlight and steps. But sitting a self-course is a different story: you are inside the whole time and the lack of sunlight might potentially have an impact on biological circuits.
According to Dr Andrew Huberman, Professor of Neurobiology at Stanford, viewing morning and afternoon sun for at least 10 min a day is essential for healthy hormone function, sleep and well-being. I sat on my balcony facing the sun for 10-15 minutes after the morning meditation session. Luckily, waking up at 4am during a self course, you sure won’t miss the sunrise!
What is the daily schedule in a self-course?
Good news, it is the same timetable as in a regular 10-day course.
How many days is a Vipassana self-course?
According to the Self-Course FAQs, it can be anywhere from 1 to 10 days. I did 6 days for my first self-course. It is not recommended to extend it longer than 10 days. In a normal vipassana course one third is Anapana, two thirds are Vipassana and Vipassana + Metta on the last day.
Here’s the day-by-day of my home retreat experience.
Day 1 - Anapana Meditation, observation of natural breathing
Anapana is the first step in the practice of Vipassana meditation. Its purpose is to develop strong concentration, to forge the mind into an instrument with which to examine bodily sensations in the next phase.
On December 31, I let everyone who I was in contact with know about the positive test result and the idea to carry on with Vipassana from home for a few days. I did not know at that time how my body was going to react to the virus and how it was going to work out with the self-course so kept my timeline open.
2:30pm - my phone goes dark and a vow of silence begins.
Doubts start rising… What if I go mad sitting and meditating long hours all by myself? Well, not true, not entirely all by myself, I now have COVID to keep me company… Speaking of which, as the mind keeps playing distraction games, some strange dialogues are taking place in my head:
Me: Um, Covid? Are you there?
COVID: You know I am here, you took a PCR test and then two at-home antigen tests because you did not believe the first test result from the lab, silly.
Me: Why did you come here?
COVID: The door was open.
Me: You weren’t invited to come inside.
COVID: I don’t need your invitation.
Me: You are evil!
COVID: No more than you are, my darling… (*chuckles)
Me: I’m trying to get better.
COVID: So do I, so do I. As a matter of fact, I recently released a new holiday edition, called Omicron. How are you liking it, by the way?
The voice of Goenka from a recording comes on the speaker:
If your mind becomes very agitated, simply bring your attention back to your respiration, and keep trying, keep trying…
9pm: sent everyone a mental “Happy New Year” and turned off the lights for the night. Tomorrow is an early start.
Day 2 - Anapana continued, developing the “awareness of respiration”
January 1st, 4am - Hello, the first day of the new year! My alarm woke me with a sound of Gong that I found on Spotify to mirror the waking experience at the meditation center. Luckily, no new symptoms of COVID, just a slight headache and congestion. I settled in on my meditation cushion for the first morning session, ready to journey within.
Deep inhale, deep exhale, simply observing natural respiration, without controlling or regulating it. Nothing else to do, nowhere else to be right now. No verbalization, no visualization, trying to hold on to the present moment, but the mind waves kept carrying me far away. It's okay.
After the first two hours, I was so excited and light - I couldn’t believe I was actually doing it from home! Then I watched the first sunrise of 2022 from my balcony and made a simple breakfast of oatmeal and a wholegrain toast.
Anapana continued through the rest of the day. I meditate on a regular basis, but my mind is still quite a piece of work and requires a constant effort to keep the attention on one area. Losing focus after about each 3-5 rounds of breath, but patiently continuing to come back to the only object of observation - respiration.
Same as my experience at the on-site course, the first couple of days felt very tiring both mentally and physically. Most people are typically not used to sitting in a cross-legged position on the floor with erect spine for 10 hours a day. I needed to take naps at each rest period and could barely stay awake at the evening Dhamma discourses. It might have something to do with how the mind starts to operate differently.
Day 3 - Last day of Anapana
The mind calmed down a little and I was able to sit without switching my position for about 30 minutes at a time. Wide awake and aware of unpleasant sensations in my hips, knees and lower back.
I did not know I could feel so many things going on in the body at the same time. I am like a human cacophony of sensations:
- The right leg is numb and asleep again
- Itchy-itchy in the back of the head!
- Knees disagree with the whole thing and want to quit
- Throbbing in the chest
- Bubbly vibrations rising from the hands
- Mysterious aches in the lats
- Something pulls on the face. (*gasp) Is that gravity?!
Reminding myself again and again that every sensation means change and reveals itself so I can learn to observe without generating craving or aversion.
Occasionally I felt drowsy and caught myself dozing off a few times. Experimenting with various configurations of blankets and meditation cushion, but still struggled to find my sweet spot and had to take short breaks and switch legs once or twice each session.
By now my attention was supposed to become like a surgical knife or an MRI scan. Not sure I am there yet as the mind keeps wandering away, hiding from the Present in the Future and the Past. Ready or not, tomorrow I’m starting to practice Vipassana.
Day 4 - Vipassana begins
I had already listened to all 10+ group sitting recordings on the Dhamma.org app, including the one for kids and teens. I have a list of the three favorite ones that I alternate between or play a random one for my sittings. Sometimes I sit in silence interrupted only by the fridge noises. Silence had become more profound and peaceful. Turns out the early morning hours between 4:30 and 6am are the best time to meditate in an apartment complex, it’s so quiet.
I now know there are two owls in the trees outside of my apartment, must be visiting from the nearby canyon. They hoot to each other at night. I am aware when my neighbors come and go by the sounds of their car engines. I feel like I can hear every single dog bark, the roar of motorcycles and growls of muscle cars passing by. These are the inevitable nuances of doing a self-course at home: life carries on all around. My job is to accept the impermanent nature of interruptions without reacting to them and continue to cultivate bits of equanimity. Anicca, anicca, anicca… (Pali: “impermanence”)
My first sitting of Vipassana was also my first sitting of strong determination (adhiṭṭhāna). That means meditating as seriously as possible without changing a position, moving or opening the eyes for the whole hour. It was uncomfortable and painful, I must admit. At one point my body started to generate a lot of heat; I couldn’t believe how long that hour lasted.
From the start of Vipassana, I am now to do three one-hour sittings of strong determination per day through the end of the course. Feeling a little nervous at the prospect of doing even one more of those, but trying to keep focus and remain equanimous. It helps to remember that I have already been through this at my first Vipassana course in 2019, and was able to work through the unpleasant sensations there. According to Goenka those are necessary - not for the purpose of torture or restraint - they are needed to help break our habit patterns of aversion for the unpleasant sensations and craving for the pleasant ones - the cause of human suffering - which may come to us from every aspect of life: health, money, career, relationships, possessions, everything ego-related that we consider “I” or “mine”.
Why sensations? The way I wrap my head around it is that sensations are our main interface to experience this world directly with our five physical senses - vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste. They can also arise from contact of the mind with any thoughts, emotions or memories. Whether contact is of physical or mental origin, it generates a sensation in the body. These sensations are then processed by our existing software: the mind with all of its old conditioning, unhealed trauma and unconscious biases embedded by the past.
Next, a reaction is triggered in response to a sensation: a thought, action or feeling. The sensation might be essentially neutral, but as soon as the input is evaluated by the mind, a value is attached to the incoming data. The sensation becomes pleasant or unpleasant, wanted or unwanted, liked or disliked. “In this way each reaction becomes the cause of future reactions, all conditioned by the past and conditioning the future in turn,” the Art of Living explains. This process is how we become stuck in old habit patterns. Observing sensations equanimously, i.e. without reacting, enables us to break the cycle of reacting blindly and to choose the most beneficial course of action in any situation.
I like how William Hart described it in his book:
“Sensation is the link through which we experience the world with all its phenomena, physical and mental. These are the gates through which we encounter the world, the bases for all experience. Unless something comes into contact with the five physical senses or the mind, it does not exist for us.” This was a key discovery of the Buddha. As he expressed it, “Whatever arises in the mind is accompanied by sensation.” Therefore observation of sensation offers a means to examine the totality of one's being, physical as well as mental.”
One of the most transformational moments of my first course at Day 4 (Introduction to Vipassana) was when I transitioned from the state of “CAN’T DO IT!” accompanied by a wide range of unpleasant sensations like pain, numbness, and restlessness, into a calm space where they faded away and gradually dissolved into the feeling of peace.
I was able to understand at the physical level that the pain was mostly mental and if so - it can be controlled. If you can let it be by just observing it without reacting and remembering that every sensation is impermanent like a wave, rising and passing away, the discomfort miraculously shrinks and goes away. I was still aware of it, of course, but it no longer controlled my mind as much.
The opposite is true though, once I felt emotions and reactions coming up to the surface again, the pain and agitation instantly came back, ready to flood the body and overwhelm the mind. It’s a seesaw process, which helps us to get closer to becoming the masters of our own minds.
Day 5 - Vipassana Day 2 - The Storm
learning how to breath
and be okay
when my mind
feels dark and gray
this passing moment
or lasting fear
to know that
the clouds moving through me
do not define who i am
or who i will be
Clarity & Connection, Yung Pueblo
Day 5 was the darkest, hardest day of my self-course. I did all three of the sittings of strong determination plus 7 hours of regular ones. The sensations I started getting were more subtle, like a flow of vibrations through different parts of the body. At one point, my whole body felt like it was vibrating and it was pleasant. I reminded myself not to give it any importance: full focus remains on the body.
Moving my attention systematically from head to feet and from feet to head, going through every part of the body and pausing here and there to observe sensations. Getting distracted and starting over again. Time went by very slowly. Change will wipe this all away…
I had some stark realizations; intense emotions started to come up and hit with truckloads of sadness and worry. Observing silent tears, I even thought that maybe that was enough and time had come to end the course. "Going through a moment of personal turbulence," as they say.
Yet, it is a normal part of the healing process. In fact, it shows that the mind detox is working and mental junk is getting released from the system. The key is to keep going and let those stormy moments pass:
“The meditator has undergone a process analogous to a surgical operation, to lancing a pus-filled wound. Cutting open the lesion and pressing on it to remove the pus is painful, but unless this is done the wound can never heal. Once the pus is removed, one is free of it and of the suffering it caused, and can regain full health. Similarly, by passing through a course, the meditator relieves the mind of some of its tensions, and enjoys greater mental health,” The Art of Living.
Day 6 - Vipassana and Metta
Finally, at peace. On the last day of my course I started practicing Metta: the loving kindness meditation, which develops love and compassion toward oneself first and then expands to all others. Works like a soothing balm! Mindfulness thought leaders say goodwill practices like Metta and others ripple into the world to touch many people and create a positive change at the collective level.
Something magical happened that day. To be clear, there’s nothing mystical in the practice of Vipassana, it is a very pragmatic technique based on the universal law of nature (Dhamma in Pāli). But I did not have a logical explanation at first.
During my morning adhiṭṭhāna, I saw the light while sitting with eyes closed, like if I was facing to the morning sun with eyes closed. In Vipassana, special effects like this are considered mere distractions so I just sat there and carried on with the meditation.
A few days later I read in The Art of Living, "All these so-called extrasensory experiences are merely indications that the mind has attained a heightened level of concentration. In themselves these phenomena have no importance and should be given no attention. Nor should one expect such experiences; they occur in some cases and not in others. All these extraordinary experiences are simply milestones that mark progress on the path."
With that experience came a deeper calmness of the mind and most of my physical pain and discomfort gradually subsided into the background. I have never been more comfortable sitting still for a full hour! Furthermore, I felt like I could go on to meditate like that forever. There was nothing to worry about in that moment and time stood still.
From that moment on, all my sittings of strong determination became rather effortless with very little to none of the unpleasant sensations. My legs somehow stopped falling asleep although my sitting posture did not change: in a cross-legged position on my meditation blanket, straight spine, eyes closed. I sat on a cushion to keep pelvis tilted slightly forward. This way the body naturally comes into anatomically-optimal alignment for meditation.
Along with the calmness after the storm of Day 5, a compassion for all flowed more naturally and my heart filled with a warm and fuzzy feeling I could best describe as the energy of love. My self-course felt complete at that stage and the next morning I went back to ordinary life, embracing a change inside. I tested negative the day after, I think COVID prefers parties.
Vipassana at home retreat is totally doable, provided you have successfully finished at least one 10-day course at a center and are serious about completing your self-course. I had zero prep and no intent to do it on my own to begin with, but was encouraged to explore this option due to COVID.
In fact, I was previously convinced that I could only do a Vipassana course at a meditation center in the supportive atmosphere surrounded by others on the path. Goenka talks about self-courses in his Day 11 discourse, but I had so many doubts regarding my ability and discipline to follow the timetable, to abstain from eating after 12pm, to completely disconnect from the outside world during the holidays, and to meditate properly for 10 hours a day, especially during the sittings of adhiṭṭhāna.
It all worked out perfectly fine once I started making steps. I gained a new perspective on the technique, which is so powerful and simple at the same time. You literally just need to create a proper environment, put yourself in it and start the work of self-observation. It is not going to be easy or instantly blissful, oh no - it’s hard work. A few days after completing the self-course, I can say that the level of equanimity and inner peace is comparable to how I felt after a 10-day Vipassana retreat on-site.
I discovered once I began practicing with strong intent, the practice itself started to support and help me along the way. Eventually, ‘the wisdom starts rising’, the truth inside reveals itself little by little and the letting go begins giving way to a new, lighter and happier you.
Although self-courses are not a replacement for residential ones, my new practical understanding that it can be done by anyone on their own was an inspiring aha moment to me. I would still like to go for a course at a Vipassana center at some point, but self-course has proven to be an excellent tool for refreshing and strengthening my meditation practice regardless of external circumstances.
2022, I’m excited for you!
Sending love to all.
for far too long i was unaware
that the only way for life to improve,
for my relationships to feel rich,
and for my mind to finally experience ease
was for me to explore and embrace
the anxious unknown that dwelled within.
Clarity & Connection, Yung Pueblo