What is a Vipassana?Vipassana is a meditation technique. Several courses to learn the technique are offered all around the world. These courses can last 1, 3, 7, 10, 20, 30, 60 or 90 days. As a start I went for was a ten days meditation course in Bodhgaya, India. It was not just any place – it was the place Buddha became enlightened thousands of years ago. A place that is now visited by millions of tourists, pilgrims and monks every year. However, there are various centres all over India and in many other countries of the world.
What do you do during a Vipassana?During the Vipassana course you are not allowed to talk or interact with anyone. You will stay in silence and avoid making eye contact with other fellow practitioners. You will just focus on yourself for the duration of the course – ten days in my case. During these ten days I lived in a Vipassana meditation centre. I had my own room which was very simple but provided everything I needed. The whole room was made out of dark stone walls, the floor and bed in black, the walls white. I slept on a matrass on the cold stone with a mosquito net above to keep me from being eaten by these little beasts. A mosquito net was truly necessary as you are also not allowed to kill or harm anything or anyone during these ten days – which also counts for mosquitos. It was winter when I did my Vipassana and, in the north of India, it could get quite cold during the wintertime. There were, of course, no amenities. It was as simple as it could be. A room made out of cold stone, one shelf for belongings, blankets and a mosquito net. Then a simple bathroom with bucket showers and a toilet without toilet paper. Nothing more. I wasn´t there to spend a holiday – I was there to meditate. And the lesser the distractions the better.
Rules of a VipassanaIn a Vipassana, you are not allowed to do anything than meditate. After I entered the gates and had signed up for my course, I had to leave all my belongings in a safe until the end of the course. During the course you are not allowed to read, nor to write, nor use your phone or do anything else than to focus solely on yourself and your meditation. To prevent distractions, personal belongings have to be left behind. Which was surprisingly easy to get used to. Men and women are separated as well and would only be allowed to meet after the course was over.
Noble silenceUpon our arrival to the centre we were still allowed to talk to each other as the course had not yet officially started. However, after the first introduction and the servers showing us our rooms, we were asked to be silent and stay in silence for the next ten days to come. At first it was weird to stand next to people I had just been chatting with and all of a sudden we weren´t allowed to interact any longer. However, it didn´t take long for me to be caught up in my own world and didn´t even think about the others anymore. Once I entered this space of being occupied merely with my own thoughts and actions it was no longer hard not to interact anymore. The more I got absorbed in my thoughts the less I felt the need to talk anymore.
TimetableFrom day 2 on we had a strict timetable for the entire day. Being woken up by the bell at 4:30am we started to meditate at 5am. This meditation lasted 2 hours until breakfast. Our meals were always simple vegetarian (and mostly even vegan) meals prepared by the volunteers who served in the vipassana. The breakfast with a small break lasted until 8. During this time hot water was available to take a shower. Otherwise, we could take a shower later with cold water. Which was not as pleasant as it was quite cold during that time – it was December in the north of India and the nights were freezing cold. Afterwards, we met again in the meditation hall to meditate for 3 more hours until 11. During this time our teacher sometimes took us out of the hall asking us how we were doing and if we had experienced any problems during our meditation. This was the only time we could and should talk. We could also talk to the servers if we needed some help. Afterwards the talk with our teacher we had lunch until 12 and a long break until 1pm. During this break we could do whatever we wanted – wash our clothes or walk around on the paths of the centre. As the centre was not very big, this was maybe done within 5 minutes. I, as many others, discovered the square in front of the biggest meditation hall as a perfect spot to just lay down and enjoy the sun – midday was the only time it really got hot outside. When the end of our break was again announced by the sound of the bell we knew we needed to make our way back into the meditation hall. The entire time I had no watch and had to solely rely on the ringing of the bells. There was also another watch hanging outside of the meditation hall. Like that it was easy to lose track of time. We found ourselves in the meditation hall to meditate until 4pm – with two breaks in between. Then, we could have some tea, puffed rice and fruits. This break was also something I was very much looking forward to as it got already late and it got harder and harder to concentrate. The tea break lasted an hour, then it was time to go back again. In the evening, we were listening to a talk of Goenka, the founder of the Vipassana centres, on TV. He usually explained what we would feel and experience on the particular days of our meditation. He was always the highlight of my day as he would tell stories and explain which problems we might be experiencing in all detail – and he usually was right. Afterwards, we had a half hour of meditation again and then, at 9 pm we were already going to bed.
How do you meditate during a Vipassana?In essence, the technique of a Vipassana is to learn to see things as they are and not how you would like them to be. It also teaches you not to react to a certain stimulus right away, but to take your time to reflect and accept conditions as they are. The ultimate goal is to change the habit pattern of the mind. In our everyday life we are used to reacting. Even a tiny event can cause a big reaction within some people. This kind of behaviour, however, doesn´t always serve us best. To avoid acting imprudently, the main meditation technique of a Vipassana is to scan your body from head to toe, starting from the head down to the toes and upwards from the toes again – for an hour or longer. During this body scan you will feel and observe certain sensations in your body. A tickling, tingling, prickling, vibrations – whatever it is – you are merely here to look at them, accept them as they are and move on. For me this particularly hard during our one hour sitting we had to try every day. In this sitting we were supposed to meditate for an hour without moving or changing position. After a while I already felt pain in my feet, legs, arms, neck – anywhere and everywhere. But I was not supposed to react to it. I was just there to absorb the pain and accept it. To reach this state was hard, but once or twice I managed to even embrace my pain. As soon as I did I didn´t have any power over me any longer. Sooner or late it would disappear. I myself experienced this several times. Sometimes my whole body hurt from sitting in the same position for such a long time – but it made me realise that indeed nothing lasts forever. Everything, no matter what will disappear eventually. This realisation is even more powerful if you experience it within the framework of your body.
How did I experience the Vipassana?The first few days were hard. I did enter the Vipassana without any expectations as I wanted to make my own, unbiased experiences. The first days, however, I didn´t make that much of an effort to meditate. Looking back, I knew that I should have done it, but I was so occupied with a lot of questions in my head. Questions about what to do in the future and with my life in general. And now I finally had time to think. To think what I really wanted without any distractions. Which I was in desperate need of. On top of that I did the Vipassana during new years eve. That evening when I realised the old year was over and the new one stared and there I was, sitting in silence, meditating and listening to Goenka was certain that I never experienced a more powerful start in the new year. This time I had time to map out my goals in my head, to think carefully about what I wanted to accomplish in the year ahead of me. It was only after new years eve that my thoughts got more and more quiet and I could finally focus solely on my meditation. As a new student I was not able to focus the entire day, but it got better with each hour I spent in silence trying to focus.
After the VipassanaBut what happens after a Vipassana? Would I continue meditating that much and is that even possible in everyday life? Goenka would have the answers for this matter which he told us on our last day. But would I listen to them? Would I implement it in my daily routine? And what now half a year after my course? These are questions I will leave for next week as I will be doing my second Vipassana (this time an only one-day course) this weekend. Afterwards, there will be even more experiences waiting to be told.