Vipassana is an ancient meditation technique that was taught by many including Buddha, Sardartha Gotama 2500 years ago and has reemerged through the teachings of late S.N. Goenka in tradition to his teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Vipasanna means as it is or reality, asyati. The technique begins by sharpening the mind through breath observation (Anapana) which leads to observing the changing nature of body and mind to experience the universal truth (suffering, impermanence and no-self). This truth occurs through direct experience of this practice (Dhamma).
The foundation of practice is Sila – moral conduct; Samadhi – concentration of mind; and Panna – wisdom of insight (realization)
The course is 10 days in duration and begins with taking five precepts:
1.) To abstain from killing
2.) To abstain from stealing
3.) To abstain from all sexual activity
4.) To abstain from telling lies
5.) To abstain from all intoxicants
In addition to these 5 precepts one must practice noble silence (silence of body, speech and mind) and be willing to practice the instructions through the duration of the course. It is strongly recommended that all other practices (rites, rituals, forms of worship) be discontinued throughout the duration of the course in order to give fair trial to the technique. There is a separation of men and women throughout the course. You also have the ability to seek guidance from teachers during assigned time.
As someone who has practiced meditation regularly for 15 years under the guidance of various meditation teachers it was very important for me to allow my mind to be open to receiving the technique of Vipassana as taught by Goenka. The first few days were spent focusing on the sensations inside and outside the tip of the nostrils. The concept is called Anapanasati. By focusing the attention to such a small area the mind is able to be concentrated to prepare for observing the sensations throughout the entire body. On day 3 the attention is expanded to the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip. At times, it was very easy to get distracted by thoughts and various sensations throughout the body but it was encouraged to continue to focus on this region. On day 4 Vipassana was taught. Vipassana involved continuously moving the attention (awareness) throughout the body in order to observe the changing reality of sensations. By this point, my mind was committed to sitting in the hall for ten hours a day. On Day 6, Addhitta (Determined practice) was introduced in which 3 times per day for 1 hour each, students were encouraged not to move their posture throughout the entire duration of the sitting period. During this period of meditation, I began to see that sensations that had been sitting in my body for many years began to arise and fall away. There was a point that I began to see that pain was not pain but a very strong sensation. As I allowed myself to let that very strong sensation, I could feel the changes happening even within that sensation. As days continued, I began to see if I could practice Vipassana during sleep as Goenka suggested. There were a few nights in which I would continue to observe sensations across the body throughout the evening. Interestingly, my body was not tired in the morning even though I had spent the entire evening watching my sensations. By Day 9, I had sat 80+ hours and had developed a very uncomfortable and repetitive sensation in my glutes which made me realize my ego was running the show and I needed to listen to my body. When I asked the teacher about this he stated that equanimity and awareness are to remain throughout practice.
For any beginners reading this article please know it was not necessary to sit every sitting period and most people listen to their bodies which was a large wake up call for me. Day 10, noble speaking (mindful speaking) was reintroduced into the environment which most people were very easy able to acclimate to. For me, this was a difficult transition as I had appreciated the silence and was not ready to be introduced to speaking but I was able to transition and eventually I was talking as much as all the other students. As we continued to sit over the tenth day, my focus was somewhat augmented by the reintroduction of speech so it took me much longer to be able to keep my attention focused on the moving sensations throughout the body.
As students shared, it seemed whether someone had had many years of meditation practice to no experience with meditation, everyone was able to benefit. Overall, the 10-day Vipassana retreat had been a positive experience in which I was able to see the truth of the changing nature of reality (anicca, anatta, dukkha). I believe that Vipassana meditation can serve as a valuable tool to anyone willing to work with the technique. I think it is also important to add that students should not become overwhelmed by the rigor of the technique. If you need to move or skip a sitting period, it is more important to trust your body than to force it. The reason determination is important in practice is because the mind will continue to move toward the strongest stimulus. By keeping the mind neutral we develop a much more balanced attitude toward life and its many experiences. One of the main take always I received was there should be a balance between equanimity and awareness. If you have considered enrolling into a Vippasana meditation be kind to yourself. This is an incredible opportunity that I hope you may find to be enlightening.
Bavatu Sarva Mangalam
May all of you enjoy real peace, real harmony, real happiness – S.N. Goenka
For more resources:
Vipassana Meditation as taught by Goenka – https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/index
Southern California Vipassana Center – http://www.vaddhana.dhamma.org – Center in 29 Palms outside of Joshua Tree. Excellent accommodations, excellent food, excellent teacher. Overall very positive experience.