What happens in Vipassana

10 days Vipassana meditation retreat - a field report

photo: moi

- S.N. Goenka

In this post I report about the experiences I made during a 10 day course in the Vipassana Meditation Retreat in Sweden (Homepage: Dhamma Sobhana).

There are a few interesting insights into this. So read it if you want to know more about your self-awareness and how you can train it.

Ok, what was this course about? Meditation, of course. Every day. 10 days in a row. 11 hours a day. There were a few special features that had to be observed:

  • Get up at 4am every morning ... No problem.
  • Keeping complete silence the entire time ... No problem.
  • Don't eat anything after noon ... No problem.
  • Sitting through the “sessions of strong willpower” completely and not changing the posture initially adopted ... Not entirely without it.
  • Taming the mind for 11 hours and constantly drawing attention to the here and now ... A huge challenge!

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Taming the Mind

A brief introduction to meditation: Meditation is primarily about bringing the mind under control. Why is it important? Because you act far too often in familiar patterns and routines without being aware of them and thereby create a lot of unnecessary suffering (for yourself and others).

Example: You have had a negative experience with a person. Every time you meet this person or when they come into your mind for whatever reason, a bad feeling arises in your body. If you can become aware of what is going on in these situations, then you can prevent this self-inflicted suffering.

Another example: Many people do not eat because they are hungry, but because they want to suppress emotional pain. They associate food with good feelings and that's why they automatically run to the fridge or the nearest McDonalds. If you are vigilant in these moments, become aware of your mind and your thoughts, recognize the pattern, then you can let go of the emotional pain on a spiritual level and thus prevent putting in another hamburger that only solves the problem for a short time .

Another example: we often subconsciously put ourselves down. "I did that wrong" "I should have done this one and I couldn't do it again" and "I screwed up the same thing again". These trains of thought can continually drain energy and create a bad mood. Sometimes we walk around in such a state for days without really realizing it.

So engaging with your own mind, recognizing your own routines and patterns, and becoming aware of your flow of thoughts is a very rewarding thing to do. (If not THE most rewarding thing ever).

The crux of this, of course, is that it is not that easy to get your mind under control. We are much more slaves than rulers in this game. This becomes very clear when you sit down for 5 minutes and try to tell your mind not to think about anything. (Try it out!)

The mind is like a wild horse. He jumps from A to B, neighs and lashes out and gallops to infinite distances if you are not careful for just a millisecond. As soon as you think you have it under control, it has already wandered off again into dream worlds and other ideas. Exactly when you think: now I've got it, now I can rest for a second, a few moments later you find yourself in some strange films and you have to start all over again.

So that's exactly what it was all about in those 10 days. The point was to put this wild horse on a leash, train it and bring it under control instead of being led by the nose by it.

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The special features of the Vipassana course

In these 10 day Vipassana courses there is a strict daily routine that is meticulously adhered to (see below) and some rules that must be adhered to:

4 o'clock get up. I generally don't mind getting up early, but I need the necessary sleep (8 hours) to be top fit. Since I usually get up at 5 a.m. anyway, that one hour earlier didn't bother me too much. The bigger problem was the reduced sleep cycle of only 6-6.5 hours. From day 5 on I could clearly feel my energy drop. I had to lie down and rest every now and then during the short breaks.

Noble silence. During the whole day it was not allowed to speak or otherwise communicate with other people or the outside world. All electronic devices were handed in on arrival, including books, MP3 players and writing materials. For the next 10 days you should have the opportunity to go inside yourself without distraction and avoid external stimuli as far as possible.

I don't mind talking too much. I even like it when there is no constant babble. Most of our daily conversations are redundant stuff anyway, so I was really happy about this arrangement. However, after a while you can develop the belief that the people around you are in a pretty bad mood or are not in a good position, since eye contact - if it happens by chance - is not reciprocated and any other type of non-verbal gesture is prohibited.

After 12 no more food. After 12 noon there was no more food and only a small tea break at 5 p.m. with herbal tea. Since I already try not to eat much in the evening and have fasted completely for five days this Christmas as well as last Christmas, this regulation did not cause me any problems. The food was vegetarian and simple, but tasted all the better because it was reduced to two meals and you couldn't just snack in between.

Sessions of strong willpower. This is where I got my first problems. I meditate at home almost every day for up to two hours, but I had never tried to remain in one position all the time. Usually I change my feet at least after 20-30 minutes, also because the outer foot often falls asleep. In these sessions it was not only not allowed to move the feet, the hands had to remain closed and of course the eyes were not allowed to be opened either. That was pretty exhausting. On the one hand, of course, my feet fell asleep again and, on the other hand, my knee began to hurt after a while. But I persevered in every session, even though the pain in my knee and the numb feeling in my feet were quite severe.

Tame the mind for 11 hours. These Vipassana courses are really only about one thing: sit down and meditate. The total time of meditation is 11 hours per day. And that 10 days in a row. It wasn't that difficult to sit still (although it was a big challenge because I usually do sport every day and it wasn't allowed there). But the hardest part was getting your mind under control. Over and over again the mind wanders off to old past experiences or dreams of something in the future.

It is really hard work and can be very frustrating from time to time to focus the mind on the breath over and over again and practice the Vipassana technique (more on this below). But this is exactly where the first exercise lies: not to judge yourself, to stay calm and just keep going.

The daily routine looks like this:

4:00 amMorning wake-up bell
4: 30-6: 30 amMeditate in the hall or in your room
6: 30-8: 00 amBreakfast break
8: 00-9: 00 amGroup meditation in the hall
9: 00-11: 00 amMeditate in the hall or in your room according to the
teacher's instructions
11: 00-12: 00 noonLunch break
12noon-1:00 pmRest and interviews with the teacher
1: 00-2: 30 pmMeditate in the hall or in your room
2: 30-3: 30 pmGroup meditation in the hall
3: 30-5: 00 pmMeditate in the hall or in your own room according to the
teacher's instructions
5: 00-6: 00 pmTea break
6: 00-7: 00 pmGroup meditation in the hall
7: 00-8: 15 pmTeacher's Discourse in the hall
8: 15-9: 00 pmGroup meditation in the hall
9: 00-9: 30 pmQuestion time in the hall
9:30 pmRetire to your own room - lights out

Vipassana - The technique

Vipassana is the method that Buddha practiced and taught 2,500 years ago. Vipassana means "to see reality as it is".

The first three days, an easier method is practiced to slowly work your way up to the Vipassana technique. The first day it was all about watching your own breath through the nostrils. One should only observe how the breath flows in and how it flows out again. On day 2 we should then observe the air flow through the nostrils and register any sensations (cold / warmth / tingling / pulling / etc.) on the inner walls of the nostrils. On day 3 you should concentrate fully on the area between the upper lip and the beginning of the nostril and observe any sensations there.

It was always important to remain calm. The mind will wander over and over again from the task of observation and must be brought back. The moment you find that the mind has wandered, it is important not to judge yourself, but simply to focus the mind again on the breath and move on with equanimity.

On day 4 the time had come and we started with the actual technology. And it works like this: You scan your body, from head to toe, in individual parts and see whether you can observe a sensation (tingling / pulling / warmth / cold / tension / moisture / etc.). So you start at the top of the scalp, stay there a little bit with your consciousness and see if something happens. If something happens, move on to the next part, the upper half of the forehead. Then to the lower half of the forehead. Then part of the eyes, then part of the nose, then part of the mouth, etc. until you get to the feet. If nothing happens, you stay there for a minute or two on that part and then you move on.

It doesn't matter whether a sensation arises or not. It's just a matter of calmly observing.

The point of the matter is to experience the "law of nature" on your own body and to develop equanimity towards it. Now what is the "law of nature"?

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Anicha, Anicha, Anicha

The “law of nature” or (in Sanskrit = old Indian language) called “Anicha”, says that everything is impermanent. Everything comes and everything goes away. Pain comes and pain goes away. Joy comes and joy goes away. It's the nature of things. Nothing is permanent, everything comes once and everything passes again.

What does this insight bring? Well, when you realize this fact on a deep level, when you know deep down that everything will pass once, then you will no longer try to hold on to things. Because that's exactly what causes so much suffering. We try to hold onto good moments and whine after them when they are gone. On the other hand, we try to suppress bad moments and thereby only make them stronger, instead of realizing that these moments are fleeting just like everything else.

So the goal of Vipassana meditation is to see things for what they really are and to remain calm, regardless of whether it is something that is desirable or something that is undesirable.

E.g. your nose itches during meditation. Usually this is a rather undesirable feeling and you would rub your nose to get rid of it. What you do now, however, is not to categorize this feeling as good or bad, but simply to recall the “law of nature” and just observe the feeling. Lo and behold, after a few seconds the feeling disappears again. The same now applies to all sensations that are felt during the scanning process. No matter what you feel, you should just watch it and stay calm.

So you subconsciously train yourself to react indifferently to experiences (which always lead to a physical sensation), whether positive or negative.

Example: If the traffic light in front of us turns red, a negative emotion is usually triggered. If one has practiced it long enough, in this case one will remain indifferent and see it for what it is, namely a transitory event that one should not be upset about! The traffic light is red, that's the way it is at this moment. Resisting this reality changes nothing at all, except that your head may also turn red.

The goal of any meditation technique, of course, is always to live life more in the moment. To flow with life instead of paddling against it in your head. That is, to take things indifferently as they happen. To cling to nothing, knowing that it will all go away at some point.

It's about becoming an observer and not dividing events into desirable and undesirable. Because the moment is what the moment is. Struggling against it is madness. Instead, it is about seeing reality for what it is and living a more relaxed, calm, better life as a result.

What I have learned

The course was very instructive. On the one hand I was able to practice my equanimity, on the other hand I became aware of how much emotional junk I still carry around in me and how much these things actually affect me on a daily basis. For example, I recently had some negative experiences with a certain person and after that I did not work properly with those things. All these things came up and I realized how often I had been subconsciously excited about them lately and of course lost a lot of energy as a result.

Another thing was that I was very sensitive to sounds at the beginning. The person sitting behind me in the meditation room had loud breathing and that cost me a lot of energy the first three days because it kept throwing me out of my own flow. From day 4 on I was able to deal with it more and more calmly and thus my sensitivity to noises went away bit by bit, until I finally didn't even notice them.

In addition, I have another reference experience of an extreme situation. For hours I sat in positions that sometimes caused severe pain in my knee. But I persevered and just watched the pain. Lo and behold, the pain also goes away after a while. On two days I even sat through the tea break, four hours at a time. During these phases I managed to dive into a deep level where it felt like my consciousness was disconnected from my body. It felt like I was stepping out of my body. Pretty cool experience 🙂

If you want to sharpen your self-awareness, then I can highly recommend such a course. You will learn a lot about yourself and train and strengthen your spirit. However, I would advise you to first meditate at home for a while, because 10 days in a row 11 hours a day is no picnic.

Just start tonight, just 10 minutes. Sit cross-legged, close your eyes and try not to think of anything or to watch your thoughts.

Have fun!

A meditation routine including instructions on how to meditate properly and let everything stressful fall away from you in one fell swoop is available here, Strengthening Self-Confidence - Complete Set.