Vipassana course at the Southern California Vipassana Meditation Center

My Second 10-Day Vipassana Course: Was It Worth It?

“My goal is to become enlightened in this lifetime, then teach others how to do it,” the young daughter of a Buddhist nun said with confidence and looked at me, “What do you do? I mean, what are you doing with your life?”

 “Well…” I blinked and paused. “What AM I doing with it, really?” rushed through my head. That was the first time someone I just met asked me the question. “Well, I’m not sure if I’d get enlightened in this life, but I’d like to make the benefits of meditation more accessible to everyone and that’s why I am here, working on my practice, learning,” I responded.

That was the last fifteen minutes of talking on Day 0 of our meditation course before we stepped into the Noble Silence for the next ten long days. No talking, reading, writing, music, devices, yoga or any other distractions. Not even making eye contact with other humans for the next 10 days. No alcohol or any other mind altering substances. It’s just you on an exclusive one-on-one with a raw and naked mind. Welcome to Vipassana! 

Vipassanā means “insight” or “seeing things as they really are” in Pāli, the language of the Buddha. It is one of India's most ancient meditation techniques that was discovered 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 uses the human body as a tool to develop self-awareness and self-acceptance that can be learned and applied by anyone. This meditation technique is taught at residential donation-based courses of ten days.  

Previously, I did one 10-day course at the Twentynine Palms Center and one 6-day Vipassana self course at home. I was long overdue for another deep dive on-site.

Meditation Hall at the Twentynine Palms Vipassana Meditation Center in California

The difference between New and Old Student experience at Vipassana Course

They say you should never compare your vipassana experience with others or even with your own past practices because everything is constantly changing so there is no use for this comparison. You don’t want to generate any sort of craving “Oh, I want to feel the kind of sensation they have experienced” or “Oh, I felt such bliss last time, why can’t I feel it again this time?” The purpose is non-judgemental observation of whatever reality is manifesting itself in you through your physical sensations at any given moment. And each and every moment - is brand new. 

However, it might be helpful to outline the main differences between the very first course and subsequent ones for new and old students:

  • New students can eat fruit and drink tea with milk at 5pm. Old students get only lemon water or tea without milk.
  • There is technically no recess time for the old students between meditations as they are supposed to be observing the breath and/or body sensations continuously during and outside of meditation hours.
  • Instructions for new and old students slightly differ but are given at the same time.
  • Old students typically sit in the front rows of the meditation hall - the Dhamma hall - because they can usually remain still better which helps inspire more calm and stability for the newcomers sitting behind. 

"Don't Look Back" a woman's top in front of me reminded myself. Students sit within just a couple of feet away from each other so you can't help but notice such things.

"Just Passing Through" printed on the back of my graphic long sleeve by REEF, very much in Vipassana style. 

As an old student with a regular practice, I have already built some foundation  and thought the course would be a nice refresher for me. I did not anticipate any major difficulties. Boy, was I wrong! “Am I actually ready to do this all over again?” minor panic cropped up once I have checked in to my room.

Student room at the Southern California Vipassana Center in Twentynine Palms

 

The experience turned out to be more challenging for me than I had anticipated from the physical, emotional and mental perspectives. But it also went deeper and allowed me to feel emotions I have been blocking from conscious awareness.

Vipassana Course Structure

A traditional Vipassana course consists of two main phases and follows a strict schedule from 4am to 9pm:

  1. Anapana meditation (Observation of Breathing) - for the first three days the students can change a position as they see best fit. The goal is to sharpen the mind and develop the skill of concentration for the next phase. 
  2. Vipassana or Insight meditation - On day 4, with the introduction of the Vipassana technique, students start sittings of Strong Determination (adhiṭṭhāna). That means meditating as seriously as possible without changing a position, moving or opening the eyes for one hour each session to help “achieve Nibbanic peace within yourself.” 
  3. On Day 9, the Noble Silence ends and students can talk and socialize with each other as a way of helping to prepare for a return to the world on Day 10.

    Vipassana Course Schedule and Timetable

    4:00 am  Morning wake-up bell
    4:30 - 6:30 Meditate in the hall or in your room
    6:30 - 7:15 Breakfast
    7:15 - 8:00 Rest Period
    8:00 - 9:00 Group meditation in the hall
    9:00 - 11:00
    Return to the hall after the break, and then either meditate in the hall or in your room
    11:00 - 11:45 Lunch 🎉
    11:45 - 1:00 pm Rest and interview with the teacher
    1:00 - 2:20 Meditate in the hall or in your room
    2:30 - 3:30
    Group meditation in the hall
    3:30 - 5:00
    Return to the hall after the break, and then either meditate in the hall or in your room
    5:00 - 5:30 Tea break
    5:30 - 6:00 Rest period
    6:00 - 7:00
    Group meditation in the hall
    7:00 - 8:15 Evening discourse
    8:15 - 9:00 Meditation in the hall
    9:00 Take rest for the night. Lights out by 10 pm

     

    One of the advantages of sitting at the center is that you can have an interview with a teacher and ask about any issues with your practice. So I went for a lot of interviews at this course.

    Me: I think my equanimity is getting worse, not better.

    Assistant Teacher: That happens, don’t give up and keep trying. 

    Me: Yes but maybe I’m doing something wrong? What could be going wrong with my practice?

    Assistant Teacher: You are getting upset about not being equanimous and that generates tension so you continue to roll in negativity. That’s not what we want. The purpose is not served. Remember the point is to just observe without reacting. Remind yourself that this is how things are now and that they will change if you just continue to watch and be patient with yourself. Do not blame or condemn yourself.

    After that conversation I had a breakthrough session. It started like a regular afternoon sitting of Adhiṭṭhāna. For a couple of days leading up to that I’d been feeling hot, achy and unsettled during meditations. My spine would heat up and felt like a hot rod in my back. During that session, I was able to better maintain the balance of the mind and suddenly the floodgate of sensations burst open. Sensations of hot were replaced by the feeling of piercing icicles running up and down the back. There were vibrations, currents and pulsating throughout the body. I sat quietly, simply being present and witnessing whatever reality was manifesting in me.

    At the end of the session, I had an insight that felt like a lightbulb going off in my head. The sadness and grief of loss of loved ones that were still waiting to be seen on the inside. Witnessing that blind spot was like casting light in the dark cave of unprocessed emotions carefully tucked away in the subconscious mind. I sat in that cave for a long time crying and letting it all out until it was empty, quiet and peaceful. I felt exhausted but relieved when it finally passed. Perhaps, it was a Sankara coming out.

    What is a Sankhara in Vipassana?

    According to Goenka, a famous Burma-born teacher of Vipassana meditation, it is a mind purification technique that “clears away the old stock of Sankhara” and then trains the mind to be equanimous. That way the “new Sankhara is not generated” when we face the ups-and-downs of daily life. When all the sankhara has been cleared away, one's mind becomes clear and free from suffering.

    The teaching of Vipassana takes its origin from the Buddha. Buddhism defines Sankhara as habit patterns of the mind, our automatic reactions and mental processes embedded by old conditioning. Both cognitive neuroscience research and clinical practice suggest that unprocessed trauma is stored in the body and can have a big impact on both physical and mental health, according to Harvard Medical School research. So it’s not just “in your head”, it leaves a real imprint on the body and changes the brain. Observing physical sensations without reacting as a way to deep clean the mind is the essence of the Vipassana technique. The scientist in me gets all giddy when ancient wisdom gets validated by neuroscience.

    Gong at Viapssana Center

    After the Sankara-releasing incident, the rest of the course was a smooth sailing, I was once again impressed and inspired by how powerful the technique is in getting the mind in better shape. In the beginning of the course I preferred meditation in the hall as meditating solo in my room felt too isolating. Even lonely. Funny how that changed: toward the end of the course, I gravitated more toward meditating in my room vs in the meditation hall as I felt greater peace and depth in solitude.

    Meditation Hall at Vipassana Meditation Center in Southern California

    Bottom line

    One way to look at transformative experiences is through their potential to provide knowledge that is often inaccessible to us until we have that experience. That was one of the effects Vipassana had on me, even more so the second time. Home is a state of mind. 

    A new Vipassana friend, an Irish BBC anchor who I met at the meditation center, told me that the second Vipassana course is often the hardest. I’m not sure if that’s the case for everyone, but for me it was more mentally challenging than the first one. Not that the first one was easy in any way. The second course seemed to have an even deeper, more profound impact.

    Similarly to diving, at the first open-water diver level the depth limit is 60 feet (18 meters). As you advance, the depth limit increases and you can go deeper, up to 100+ feet, and explore more things. It takes time, patience and understanding developed by a mindfulness practice to immerse deeper in the depths of a mind. 

    It was very helpful to get a couple of important reminders on how to practice correctly, receive direct feedback from the teacher and see how some areas of my home practice could use more attention, like remembering to constantly move awareness through the body and not to linger for too long in one spot when experiencing pleasant sensations.

    I was amazed at how my mindset was reset and elevated from the negativity that I felt at the beginning, it was like pushing the factory reset button. I went from “not doing another Vipassana retreat ever again” half way into the course to “definitely want to sit again, hopefully soon” at the end. The sense of clarity and inner peace have noticeably increased. If I compare how I felt before and after the course on a 10-point scale, it went up from 3 to a solid 9.

    Smiling and feeling content with everything, I drove my SUV through the vast desert back to San Diego straight to my favorite surfing spot. “It was like 5 years of therapy done in 10 days,” my therapist commented when I shared my realizations from Vipassana.

    Last but certainly not least, I got to meet some amazing people and share our experiences. Here are just a couple of their highlights from Vipassana:

    “I have definitely felt a shift in my meditation. It's gotten deeper, and I can tell this technique is doing some good! This is after practicing zazen for years!” Anne T.

    “I was an intense meat lover since I can remember. Surprisingly, during the 10 days, I did not even miss the meat at all. After the retreat, I still do not have the desire to eat meat,” Jhade L.

    And a personal favorite embodied by my new friend Mary G: "A time to love is always now."

    A time to love artwork by Stevie Wonder on a t-shirt

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