25 centuries ago lived a man – a prince – by the name of Siddartha. As he approached his late twenties, he started to realize that all of the luxuries in the world couldn’t bring him happiness. Everywhere he looked he saw misery was in everyone – and that it couldn’t be stopped. Even the richest of them all would never be able to escape death or disease. He decided that if he wasn’t going to be able to experience true happiness as a prince, then he was going to leave it all behind to find it. He spent the next 7 years of his life searching for inner peace and happiness through studying the practices of yoga and meditation. And then one day, he became impatient. He walked out to a forest in a place now known as Gaya, India. He sat underneath a tree – and proclaimed that he wouldn’t move until he understood the meaning of life, and how to truly and completely….be happy. Several days and nights passed until finally, this man – this prince – became what is known as “an awakened one”.
On this day, Siddartha became Buddha.
Fast forward to today, the year 2018 – and somehow, some way, what the Buddha learned at the base of this tree is not only still being taught, but is thriving as it spreads like wildfire throughout the world – country by country.
The first thing I need to be clear with here is that right now we are not talking about Buddhism. For the latter 45 years of his life, the things the Buddha taught were completely universal and did not fall under a specific religion. It wasn’t until after he left his body that his followers built up a religion around his name.
What the Buddha taught, Vipassana, is a universal remedy to eradicate all suffering from human life. The coding to create a personal heaven on Earth for yourself. The blue print to controlling the mind. The path to being able to see things as they really are. The word itself, Vipassana, means exactly that.
The country now known today as Myanmar was the only country in the entire world to preserve this incredibly sacred and powerful gem of a technique exactly the way the Buddha himself had taught it. It was prophesied that 25 centuries after the Buddha, there would be new teacher of Vipassana – and that this teacher would spread it to the entire world.
This man’s name is S. N. Goenka, and he is absolutely perfect. He was an Indian man born in Myanmar and after growing up to become a rich business man, started getting really bad migraines. He traveled the world searching for doctors that would be able to help cure him. And nothing worked. That is until an Eastern doctor recommended Goenka try something that he had heard of – a 10-day silent meditation called Vipassana. He had heard wonder stories about how this experience not only healed emotional but also physical wounds by its practitioners.
It was quickly clear that this was not just the medicine Goenka had been searching for, but it was also without a doubt…his life’s purpose. Goenka studied under his teacher for a long while as he went deeper and deeper and deeper into the practice. Then, he became a teacher himself. And went back to India in the 60s, where it had started, to teach groups of people. And just as it had done with the Buddha, it started attracting flocks.
The biggest Vipassana sitting he ever lead was to India’s most dangerous prison, with 1,000 attendees. And the results were astounding. The world had finally found it’s new teacher – and he was spreading it to the world. His previous deep education allowed him to be multi-lingual and lead these sittings in different countries, in different languages. And fortunately, before he passed away in 2013, technology was able to capture precisely his presence at a 10-day sitting. Which is why through speakers and videos, Goenka is still the teacher at every single Vipassana center on Earth today.(Image from Google)
“I do not wish to convert people from one organized religion to another; I have no interest in any of these organized religions. My interest is in the truth, the teachings of all Enlightened Ones. But conversion is involved: from misery to happiness, from defilement to purity, from bondage to liberation, from ignorance to enlightenment.” – S. N. Goenka
What is Vipassana?
As mentioned above, Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’ and is a technique to gain control over the mind and to rid yourself of all misery and suffering.
This does not come with an easy ticket.
The process is taught through a 10-day silent meditation, and is the exact same process no matter what center you are at. There are 5 main rules that you have to agree to before even signing up. That for the entire 10 days you will abstain from stealing, lying, killing, sexual activity, intoxicants. Taking these 5 rules upon yourself allows you to acquire the first step of Vipassana, – morality.
If you agree to this, then the real work begins. For the 10 days, you must abstain from speaking, eye contact with anyone, exercise of any kind (besides a little walking), human touch, technology (you put it all in a locker for the duration of the time), writing, reading, music, etc. – essentially, you must abstain from doing absolutely anything but meditating, eating and sleeping for 10 days.
Everyday the morning bell goes off at 4am, and meditation begins at 4:30. With the exception of three breaks throughout the day for meals and resting – as well as the occasional five minute break to walk around in between long meditations – you are meditating until 9:00 at night. The meals I should also mention, are quite bland and do not provide a lot of variety. Dinners are also just a very little snack – typically a little fruit. Meditation is able to go a lot deeper when your stomach isn’t full because your body is able to use its energy for other purposes instead of digestion. Old students and any monks or nuns participating in a course don’t even eat the snack at dinner time.
There is typically a meditation hall in which everyone meditates together, though men and women are kept completely separate throughout the entire process. You are given a 2 foot x 2 foot square cushion, and a few little pillows to sit on – and you must sit up straight the entire time. No laying down, no resting your back against a wall, just….sitting. The first few days you best believe this is painful and hard – but by the end you are able to it with (almost) ease. Some centers also have private meditation cells in a pagoda that participants will go in from time to time, but ours was under construction.
Each group has their own personal, trained and qualified teacher that sits up at the front of the room and is available for deeper clarification – or to talk to, within a one-hour time period during break each day, if any participants need to ask questions. He or she also is in charge of playing the recordings of Goenka’s voice that fill the entire room up with his booming voice nearly once an hour. The entire 10 days is essentially one huge guided meditation. And every evening, you get to watch a video recording of Goenka himself giving an hour and a half lecture explaining the process according to whichever day you are at. With the personal teacher and the lectures, I often found that every answer that came up would be answered in one way or another without me having to say a word.
The actual Vipassana technique isn’t even taught to you until day 4. This is because the mind needs to be cleared out enough to even absorb it. So, the first three days you are trying to essentially just focus on your nose. Something that should be so easy. And it is absolutely impossible. These first days are spent slowing the “monkey mind” down and clearing out all of the rampant thoughts that course through it all day – something that is only possible when shutting down all senses and only sitting in silence with yourself. This first process leads us to understand the second step of vipassana – control over the mind. I guess also the realization of the LACK of control we have over our minds.
And day 4, onwards – you are taught and are practicing the Vipassana technique itself. This is a technique to understand the third step – removing the impurities of the mind. This process is deep. Once you clear out all of the rampant and fast thoughts the first few days, most people are left to sit first with all of the things they push down so they don’t have to deal with it. It is a very hard time of the process and there are typically many tears – however, it is equally a beautiful and incredibly releasing process. To have the time and space to feel, to experience, and to let go of so many things you haven’t dealt with (or didn’t even know you weren’t dealing with), makes you feel so light and free and clean of all of it once you come out on the other side. Once you reach the other side, typically the fun starts. By day 6/7 most people are so clear in their mind that they are able to drop into and get SO MUCH benefit out of the Vipassana technique. Please also be clear that this was MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE, it may not be the same for you.
This deep technique is essentially a way to help you gain control over your emotions by observing them. Showing you that you suffer not because of things that happen to you, but because of your reactions to them – and what this feels like when it happens inside your body. And then to go to the source if it (the pain, sadness, anger, impatience, etc.) and pull out the huge long deep roots buried under the soil of your subconscious – so that you can plant new seeds and create true change in your life.
When we do this, and when we successfully learn to live within the three steps of Vipassana, we are able to experience Dhamma – the universal law of nature. We are able to see clearly that when we do good, speak good, act good, think good, etc., nature literally rearranges itself to bring good back to us in return and provide us always with exactly what we need. When we don’t, this isn’t able to happen, and we spend our lives running in circles trying to figure out why nothing ever changes. Dhamma is the ultimate goal, and every center is called “Dhamma __________”.
I was extremely fortunate to experience Vipassana right on the land of the Bodhi Tree that the Buddha sat beneath 25 centuries ago to achieve this knowledge. I attended the Dhamma Bodhi center in Gaya India on April 16-27, 2018.
One quick thing I want to mention before going deeper into this center, is that all centers are COMPLETELY FREE. Yes, how incredible is that? Hundreds of centers around the world provide participants to live, eat and sleep completely free for 10 days. This speaks volumes to the power of this process and how attendees are constantly donating to allow others to come and get the experience for themselves. The fact that it is completely free also allows for ego to be dropped for the 10 days. You aren’t able to claim this is “my room” or this is “my food”…because it is all given to you based on the kindness of others.
Essentially no matter what center you go to, you will pretty much feel like you are in prison. However, upon exiting you realize how crucial this is to the experience. It is all so perfectly planned out and executed that if you are attending, I encourage you to just surrender to the process and not try and figure it out until the end.
As I said, the Dhamma Bodhi was a bit under construction during my time there. They are transitioning the center to change from a place that allows 80 participants – to a place that allows 500 participants. Every month. Twice a month.
I had my own room which was nice, but no A/C (because that would be a luxury). I had a ceiling fan but that at times was still hard with being there in the dead heat of summer – but I survived. The cot was smaller than a twin size bed, the mattress and inch thick. We were given tapestries to put over the mattress and a pillow, but had to have our own towel and blanket. Luckily they provided me with a mosquito net because bugs were all over my room. Something that is funny when one of the rules you sign onto is not killing anything. I learned to be friends with the spiders and mosquitoes and ants. I had my own bathroom as well with a sink, toilet, and spout that was about 2 feet off the ground I had to crouch below to shower. No toilet paper was given and there were no bum guns….luxuries people! We should all learn to appreciate the small things in life like toilet paper, eh?! Don’t worry, lots of showers…I stayed clean.
In the kitchen where you have your meals you have an assigned seat, just like how in the meditation hall you have an assigned seat. When you stay in a place for a while you actually build up energy that stays in that space, and so returning to it time and time again allows you to maintain and increase the energy, getting into meditation easier each time. Anyways, in the kitchen everyone faced the same direction so we couldn’t look at each other. As I said, the meals were bland Indian meals – typically some rice, chapati, and a vegetable for lunches. Breakfasts were weird. and fruit for snack at dinner time. Masala chai tea was such a treat and honestly that is what got me through the first few days. When you finish, you wash your own dishes and return them to your spot.
The meditation hall was pretty straight forward. Teacher at the front (who was amazing), everyone facing her on their cushions and in assigned seats. We had about a foot of room in between each person. There was again no A/C in this room but they got creative with sprinklers on the roof and wet basket type curtains by the windows which actually kept it pretty cool in there.
The grounds themselves weren’t very exciting, just cement walkways between the meditation hall, dining hall, and rooms. Plants are slowly popping up but a downfall was not having lots of nature or green space around to relax in during rest periods (though it was almost too hot to be outside during the day anyway). The pagoda there is absolutely lovely and I would go admire the gold roof of it during sunset break as SOMETHING that could serve a little eye candy.
My Experience / Recommendation
There were moments when I wanted to leave so bad. During a few of those hard days in the middle I went through a time where I was sitting with each emotion. For example, I sat with my jealousy for about 3 hours one day. Crying, feeling, looking inside wounds, hurting again, getting angry at myself for not being able to control it. In moments like that it sometimes felt too much and I wanted so bad to stand up and be done.
Moments where I would realize everyone around me, including myself, looked like they were in a mental hospital. Everyone so deep within their minds and without human interaction that we were all just bodies moping around and not smiling and there was a few times it would drive me crazy, I wanted to feel human! Though, now I realize I was more alive on the inside than i’d ever been, even if the outside looked like there was no soul in my body.
Equally, there were moments of bliss where I felt so much love for all of my friends and family I couldn’t bare not speaking to them and wanted to leave to call them and tell them how much they meant to me. Moments of being so excited about what was coming in life after the Vipassana that I wanted to to be over so I could just start already.
Each day had so many gifts inside I would go to bed every night thinking “wow, that was intense. I got what I came for. There can’t possibly be anything left for me to understand here.” But of course, the next night every night – the same thought would come.
What allowed me to be able to push through and do it was constantly returning to the fact that this was an OPPORTUNITY. I wasn’t ACTUALLY in prison. I was going to be able to leave in ‘x’ amount of days. And even though times got hard, what a beautiful chance this was for me to heal and understand myself on levels that I would never be able to outside of a structured course exactly such as this.
I have been meditating for a few years now and so was able to handle this with a little more ease than the average beginner. However, there were of course still days that felt like ten years. And oppositely 3-hour meditations that felt like 10 minutes.
By the last few days, I was so light and clear and full of clarity that I could FEEL the impurities, bad habits, and loss of control over my mind leaving my subconscious. I used the time at the end as well for visualization. You aren’t supposed to do this, but being a yogi and also someone who practices the ‘Law of Attraction’ – I couldn’t NOT! My visualizations were so intense during this time I would often come out and realize I had tears streaming down my face out of the beauty. I could ask any question I wanted about anything and get answers so clear and precise – even sometimes WATCHING in my mind like a movie how to go about them, that it was astounding.
Speaking after 10 days felt almost like how your voice sounds after a concert that was super loud – like a foreign vibration new to your ears. I coughed pretty much constantly the first few hours as my throat learned to work again. And I couldn’t stop smiling but it hurt SO BAD because my mouth hadn’t moved in 10 days. It was funny.
When silence broke the final day, the high that was experienced in my mind, body and soul was that of a bliss I have never known the existence of. I had a complete new gratitude again for every single little luxury in life upon re-entering into civilization. I was able to interact with and view every person I came into contact with with complete sincerity and compassion. I felt like I had done a major spring cleaning sweet throughout my body and was so light I could fly if I wanted to. I was scared to do yoga at the thought of muscle and flexibility loss in not moving for 10 days…but surprisingly, I was able to get into positions i’ve never dreamed of with ease. It goes to show HOW MUCH we store energy and emotion in our bodies when we aren’t clear in our mind. I could move like i’ve never been able to move before. The high lasted a few days and it was extremely beautiful.
I’m now about 3 weeks out of Vipassana. I’ve flown back home to America, seen family, working on growing my business, and all around been extremely busy. That quiet peace seems a little further away, but not out of reach. I find extreme comfort in knowing what I have found inside of me and that it awaits on my meditation cushion. It’s almost like I went deep into my soul with a flash light to depths I’ve never known, and though i’ve come back out – I know the route to get back there because i’ve walked it. I’ve EXPERIENCED it, and this is what is going to allow me to teach it and keep going deeper with it all – which I plan to do, on different levels.
The thing I’ve learned most is that this isn’t something that is obtained in ten days. The ten days just allows you to glimpse into the power of it, and provide yourself the space to plant new seeds. The true work starts now. Continuing this in daily life and adapting it to the areas of my life I really seek change and control.
I took a before and after picture of myself because I was told even your face changes throughout the process. LOOK AT THAT. You can literally see the stress manifested in my face in the before picture (left) taken a few hours before entering, and the lightness and clarity from releasing it in the last picture (right) – taken after silence broke on the last day. Incredible.
I have also shared a longer, more detailed video version of my experience on my YouTube channel that can be watched at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F46gudA3Mcc .
To find a vipassana center near you, visit : https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/index .
Love & light….thanks for reading! xo, Katie (www.katie-blair.com)