Vipassana is something that you can really only talk about once you’ve been. Every so often I meet someone else who’s done it and we put our heads together and chatter and leave everyone else in the room out a bit, because it’s kind of like a big secret club – something I enjoy a lot, but am a bit conscious and wary of. I did my vipassana in September 2015 at the Dhamma Dipa centre in Herefordshire. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back. I have a lot to think about, with regards to it, even now, two and a bit years later. I think I will, at some point, but I catch myself holding a lot of resistance to the thought of doing it. However – it did me the most good that anything has ever done me. I went from crying every time I missed a bus, panicking at the concept of being late to things, sick with worry about worst case scenarios a couple of years into the future about being unemployable and jobless and empirically worthless, wanting to kill myself – from those things to feeling okay. At first, I actually felt great, but it subsided into okay. But I’ve never been so worried about things that aren’t even likely to happen again, even now in the throes of nearly-graduate anxiety.
So, what is vipassana?
Initially, it’s a ten day long retreat, though after doing the first one you can switch it up and go for three day refreshers, or longer retreats (a lot of our course volunteers were there for thirty or forty days). Its disciplines lie in Buddhist mindfulness meditation techniques. Every retreat runs exactly the same way. Each day is split into chunks, but all of the chunks see you meditating a lot – some sits are in the hall, where you’re held accountable to the others around you to make sure you’re sitting and staying and Really Doing It. It’s scheduled as following:
Wake up at 4:30am
Meditate in your room or in the hall until 6:30am
Meditate in the hall, 8-9am
Meditate in a location determined by the facilitator, 9-11am
Break and interviews with the facilitator, 12-1pm
Meditate in your room or in the hall, 1-2:30pm
Meditate in the hall, 2:30-3:30pm
Meditate in a location determined by the facilitator, 3:30-5pm
Tea break, 5-6pm
Meditate in the hall, 6-7pm
Discourse in the hall, 7-8:15pm
Meditate in the hall, 8:15-9pm
Questions in the hall, 9-9:30pm
So, let’s break that down.
First off, the courses are gender segregated. Like, going in, they literally put a giant barrier up that prevents you from seeing any men except for walking into the hall and in the hall itself. There are separate paddocks to walk around in. The whole place is divided squarely in half, even in the hall.
There are two facilitators per course – both very experienced vipassana meditators, and both sit at the front of the hall from 4:30am until 9:30pm, with the exception of the designated break times, when they retire to their quarters. If you do your first vipassana, you will almost definitely talk to the facilitator (dubbed the ‘teacher’ there, but I prefer not to use that terminology) at least once. The facilitators are there to assuage your fears, calm you down when you want to go home, and answer any burning questions you have about the process (and there’ll be a lot, because it’s really boring and that’s when you think of every question ever to probably exist). You get to talk to the facilitator at the end of every day during question time, where everyone queues up in the hall and waits their turn and has a very hushed conversation with them (I don’t think any of mine lasted longer than three minutes). This is enough, usually. But if it isn’t, you can have a private sign-up meeting with them, too, during the hour after lunch. I think I signed up for that six or seven times – often in tears, often feeling the pressure of wanting to go home badly. My roommate left on day three, and left me this tiny secret note that said ‘fresh start’, and I held that note really dear. I thought about handing it in, about what I should do with it, but in the end I kept it, and lost it after a while. But I valued that motivation. Every time I wanted to go home, I thought about her, about her watching TV,
A very important note is that this course rules that you go off any meds you’re on – if you’re not in a position to do so, I suggest you don’t attend. They seldom select anyone who discloses a mental health issue – which may not sit well with you, and I wouldn’t fault you at all for feeling that way. It’s an act to cover their asses, because the courses are volunteer-run and there is no psychiatric help of any kind available there, so they can’t condone that you don’t take meds if you need them to function happily and healthily. Follow the rules at your own discretion, and if something isn’t right for you, flag it, but don’t end up without adequate support because you lied about medication or your needs.
Meditating in your room
You’re left to manage your own time to a large extent – but the thing is, there’s very little to do, if you’ve followed the rules. I handed in any method of stimulation at the very beginning, and every time I would find myself thinking, ‘God, I don’t want to meditate anymore’, I’d immediately follow it with, ‘Well, there’s literally nothing else to do, so a-meditating I shall go!’ Disciplined only by limitation.
I will say that I did try the early morning sit in the hall on the first two days and after that I decided that I was going to sleep through that morning period. I slept for that period with the light on and the curtains drawn so that no one would check on me. Cheeky, perhaps, but I just couldn’t do that period of time. I have no regrets about taking that small bit of time for myself and my needs. A lot of people slept in the time that they were supposed to be meditating in their rooms – I would not suggest you do it if you don’t need to. But 4:30-6:30, I definitely needed to. The time is largely about surrender to the protocol and not about striking individuality. You’re also allowed to go for walks in the paddock during your meditation time if you really need a break, but they don’t encourage it – if my wander got too lengthy, I would usually see the volunteers out and about. Usually their presence was enough, but once or twice they had to verbally chivvy me back inside.
Meditating in the hall
Hall sits were merciless at first. For the first three and a half days, we were supposed to focus on the small space between the nose and the lip – where the air comes out, and to just focus on the breath. Just that. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. For three and a half days. I must stress that ‘and a half’, because despite my prior reading, I bounded into the hall on day four excited for something new, and was crestfallen because we weren’t due to learn it until the afternoon sit. Totally crushed. I’ve never known disappointment like knowing I’d have to sit through another eight hours of focusing on my breath. It’s important though, because developing that kind of sensitivity on a smaller scale really paves the way for the fourth day.
The fourth day, you learn vipassana itself, which you might have heard referred to as the body scan. It’s scanning from head-to-toe, or toe-to-head (I preferred starting at the top but I think I’m in the minority), registering sensations with as much neutrality as you can muster. And I found that a lot more fun and a lot more fulfilling – there was so much more to concentrate on, so much more room, and I found it much easier to focus on hour-long sessions. I found that I could do five body scans an hour – you’re meant to go faster, but I much preferred to be slow and thorough and do one every ten minutes.
At that point, you’re encouraged to have your hall sits be sits of discipline and strength – that is, not moving at all. I managed to do this a few times, and it was good for me to do. I have eczema, and often struggled with itching, but I was able to dissect it pretty easily and have it dissolve into vibrations by day five. I actually had some very enjoyable meditations, though that’s not the point – the point is to cultivate a sense of non-attachment. That’s not actually what helped me, I thought – at least partially. What did help me was failing over and over again, having to constantly drag my mind back to square one, and realising that the world wasn’t ending. Like, yeah, I’m a failure, but no one even knows, leave alone cares. It was also a relief to stop attaching a story to things – but actually, the most poignant thing I took away was a sense of feeling okay about myself, for the first time since I was four years old.
That didn’t come from a sense of self-love. It came from figuring out experientially that everything is in flux, including me. So I didn’t have to love myself, because I’m constantly changing. I could just be neutral about it. I’ve actually since lost that to an extent, though I definitely don’t hate myself as extensively now, I just struggle with my worth whilst knowing that my worth is inherent. But the intellectual knowledge isn’t enough anymore. The point is, in the moment, and for a few months after the moment, it worked for me.
Every evening we’d get to sit and watch an hour long recorded lecture by Goenka himself – the guy who brought these retreats to mass popularity. These lectures are honestly the most interesting things ever, because you’re totally lacking any other external stimulation. But they’re very timely and poignant, and designed to emotionally resonate with where you’re at in the course. He has lines for everything – for being tired, for seeing things, for not seeing things, for wanting to go home, for wanting to talk to other people, for hating where you’re at, for pain, for joy, for not really liking the things he’s saying. He really does cover it – a lot of the questions I wanted to ask the facilitators were quelled in this portion of the day. He crystallises a lot of the points I was going through experientially of figuring out how to overcome my desire and aversion to certain sensations.
You can watch Goenka’s lectures online, but they won’t seem super revolutionary out of context. They’ll look like a wise old man spouting a bunch of fables. They are absolutely brought to life by the places that meditating takes you.
Breaks were pretty much for walking, laying down in the paddock (I would advise doing your retreat in a warm season for this reason), showering and doing laundry if you needed to. It was very pleasant to have the time to spend with nature.
With regards to food: the food is excellent, and it’s vegetarian. Oatmeal with stewed fruit and toast with peanut butter or honey and fresh fruit for breakfast, and usually a stew or a curry and rice for lunch. Sometimes dessert. Normally you don’t eat anything large after midday – in the evenings you have tea and a piece of fruit. People who’ve sat more than one course don’t eat fruit or have milk with their tea – they just have tea or hot lemon water. This limitation caused some real interesting reactions, actually – I remember a lot of people eyeing the bananas with distinct envy. But I will say that you’re definitely not physically active enough to be very hungry, and I adapted to that quite quickly.
Do make the volunteers aware of your dietary needs prior to the course beginning, and if you suspect something is up with your food, take aside a volunteer and tell them. They aren’t always careful – I’m allergic to nuts, and despite my declaration, one meal made me throw up so I had to miss the afternoon sit in the hall. They do make accommodations for this – I got a couple of pieces of toast that day during the tea break. But it wasn’t the last time it happened – they were particularly wary of me after that, but a meal of mine on the seventh day had visible cashews in it, so I had to flag that. Don’t be afraid to ask for the recipe if you get a stew you’re dubious about.
The last day
The last day you’re allowed to talk to each other. Compared to the first day, everyone was bright and happy and peaceful, and full of laughter. Everyone was friendly and people I’d made up narratives for just to make something up and have something to do proved themselves to be completely different. It was incredibly light and interesting, like years were sloughed off the room.
In conclusion: Ten days seems long, and it feels like the longest ten days ever, but it’s not in the grand scheme of things, and it does need to be that long for you to learn it properly. The difficulty is all concentrated, so it feels longer when it’s happening. Each step is important – if I’d gone home in the middle, I don’t think I’d have returned home with a sense of calm so much as one of upset and guilt. If you’re tired and filled with anxiety, if you’re making stories out of everything, attaching meaning to things, this will probably help you, but it will also be super hard and require you to surrender a lot of your ideas and just go with it. But overall, if you’re feeling like that, it’s a lot easier than carrying on being the way you are.