This is the last part of a 3-part series on meditation, its benefits and how you can learn to meditate yourself.
- Part 1: 10 Reasons You Should Meditate
- Part 2: How to Meditate In 5 Easy Steps
- Part 3: Vipassana Meditation 10-Day Course
(Originally written and published on Jul 13, 2009)
I just returned from my Vipassana 10-Day Meditation Course! 😀 The past 10 days has been some of the most well-invested 10 days of my life. After some 100 hours of intensive meditation – (think continuous, non-stop meditation (save for a few breaks in between) from the wee hours of 4:30am all the way till 9pm every day for consecutive ten days) – I’m now feeling filled with an inner sense of calmness or equanimity, which means a balanced and even mind. I’m in quite a zen and peaceful state as I’m writing this post now.
(On a separate note, I am now faced with an overflowing inbox of nearly 200 emails though, so that’s going to be a large piece of clutter to deal with!)
The most important thing is, this is not going to be a one-time effect that will dissipate afterward – something common in many motivational and spiritual courses alike. While I’m now back in the real environment where there are many consciousness-lowering noise and clutter (as compared to during the course, when we are kept offshore and away from the hustle and bustle of city life in the serene recluse of St John’s Island), the course has equipped me with the knowledge and skill to practice the technique by myself, so I can continue reaping the benefits as long as I keep up with the daily habit of practicing it, albeit in a less intense manner.
Since I found this really beneficial, I decided share my experience with Vipassana meditation, so others who have not participated in the course before can consider if they wish to do so after reading it. If you have not heard of Vipassana or you have not experienced it before, I highly recommend you to join this course to experience for yourself. Of course, if you have no interest in meditation whatsoever, please skip this article. Otherwise, read on!
Before you continue though, I should make clear two disclaimers –
1) I’m not being paid to write this; neither am I affiliated with the organization which conducted the course. This is probably pretty obvious, but it’s good to highlight it anyway.
2) This course is not affiliated with any religion or any sect of any sort. I have an acquaintance who, much to my surprise, mistook this course as part of a religious group when I told him I was going on a meditation retreat. It’s really quite the opposite. This course is not linked with any religion, sect, denomination, order, cult, or communion of any sort and does not involve conversion or denouncing of religious faiths. It doesn’t matter whether you are Buddhist, Taoist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Atheist. It’s for any person who wants to self-improve and live a better life.
Meditation as a practice has never been limited to a particular sect or religion anyway – it is a universal practice which all the great spiritual leaders, religious or not, have always been practicing. Over the centuries, certain forms of meditation started to become sectoral in nature due to the certain rites or rituals they are performed with, but this is not the case for Vipassana meditation. It’s a non-sectoral, non-religious meditation technique.
The intent of this 10-day course is to teach you the fundamentals of the Vipassana meditation technique so you can apply it and experience the benefits. That’s the reason why this course has been so popular among people from all walks of life, religions, nationalities and social classes, because it’s not secluded to a particular community or sect of people. All these people have attended the course before and walked away experiencing tremendous benefits from it regardless of their values or belief system.
Personally, I’m non-religious; I seek what’s the highest truth, based on my own conscious exploration and experience. To date, I haven’t written anything explicitly on religion on the blog, because religion typically involves deeply rooted beliefs and values, which results in very sticky discussions beyond what I wish to be handling at this stage. For now, I want to be focused on the more immediately applicable frameworks of self-improvement.
If you have been reading the blog for a while, you will know that I actively encourage you to always consciously evaluate what you see and hear, including what you read here. Decide for yourself what’s your truth. It is not my place to convert you to my viewpoints nor do I desire anyone to unconsciously buy into what I say.
I’ll share some background on Vipassana meditation and its benefits in the first half of this article and cover the details of the course in the second half.
What is Vipassana Meditation?
The term Vipassana literally means to ‘to see things as they are‘. It is said this is the meditation technique Buddha used to attain enlightenment. In my previous meditation post, I highlighted 3 main categories of meditation – still/mindfulness meditation, moving/walking meditation or concentration meditation. Vipassana meditation falls under still/mindfulness meditation.
To be honest, before attending this course, I thought I had kind of read and seen it all when it came to meditation. Sure, we can use meditation to concentrate our mind, remove the clutter, heal ourselves, visualize the future, communicate with our subconsciousness, and a whole series of other benefits. My original intent when signing up for the course 2 months ago was to sharpen my meditation skills and permanently instill the habit of meditating into my life through an deep dive into it. Little was I expecting to learn a totally different meditation technique with a different purpose – to purify the mind and body, at the fundamental particle level. That’s what Vipassana meditation is about.
Purification of Mind and Body
What does it mean to purify? In our daily life, we experience different emotions, ranging from pleasant to unpleasant ones. The untrained mind deals with these emotions with a sense of attachment, or clinging. This results in craving for pleasant experiences and aversion toward the unpleasant ones. Over time, people’s happiness becomes hinged by external events. When they achieve a certain outcome, they are happy. When they don’t, they become miserable.
However, these are just objective occurrences. If something happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. The negativity we generate are really a product of our own creation.
Based on the philosophy of Vipassana, every negativity we generate creates a form of impurity in our mind and body. Bit by bit, these impurities accumulate. It was never directly articulated during the course, but the insinuation is that over time, these impurities manifest outward in the form of physical ailments or diseases. Common solution is to use medicine but that’s just dealing with the problem at a symptomatic level. Sometimes they don’t work; sometimes they work. When they do work, the physical problems return again later on, since the original framework of the mind that creates impurities (due to attachment, craving and aversion) was never dealt with.
That’s where Vipassana comes in. It lets you purify yourself at the particle level. When you purify your mind, your body starts becoming purified as well. To do that, you have to stop generating attachment, cravings or aversions. Meaning, a completely objective state of mind to anything that happens – i.e., equanimity.
How do you do that? By becoming an observer of yourself and the reality as it is. During the meditation, you turn your observation, inward, and objectively observe your respiration (as it is, not through regulating your respiration in any way) and sensations all around your body.
Being an observer of the reality means that if there’s any unpleasant sensation during the meditation (perspiration, aches, pain, numbness, itch, external disturbances etc), you observe it without generating any form of negativity or aversion. If there’s any pleasant sensations (cool breeze, nice music, etc), you observe it without generating any form of attachment or craving. When you achieve the state of perfect equanimity regardless of what’s there, the impurities of your past will start clearing away, layer by layer.
No chanting, verbalization or visualizations take place because these involve alterations of reality which deviates from what reality truly is. This is why the technique is different from the mainstream ‘healing’ techniques. Those typically involve being a ‘creator’ of some sort, through visualization or imagination such as white light surrounding your body.
While it sounds simple, there are several steps to take before one can accurately do so as the technique requires. During the course, they trained us to be objective observers during the meditation, without resorting to verbalization or visualizations of any sort. Then, they taught us how to sharpen our mind’s focus such that we can sense minute level sensations in our body. We also learned how exactly to go about ‘observing’ our sensations. There is a good balance of theory and practice during the course.
Because the Vipassana technique is more complicated than your regular run-of-the-mill meditation techniques, full explanation of what it involves and how to apply it is beyond what can be done with an article. If you are interested, I highly recommend you take the 10-day course and experience it for yourself under the guidance of the teachers, its facilities and controlled environment, so you can reap the most benefits. The cost is free and donation based anyway, so if you don’t like it, you can choose not to donate at the end. I’ll share more on the course later in the article.
Benefits of Vipassana Meditation
Of course, the course does not directly claim to be a remedy for illnesses or medical conditions, though there have been many cases of people whose physical and mental problems became remedied after they practiced the meditation technique.
I haven’t mentioned this before, but since the past year, there were often times I couldn’t sleep totally flat on my back. Whenever I tried to do that, there would be an unbearable pain on the base of my spine. I think it was partially due to my previous poor posture when working at the desk, which resulted in pressure in my lower back. Because of that, I usually sleep every night on my side or curling up.
Since I didn’t know about the background of Vipassana even till the day leading to the course, I only learned about it as the course was unfolding. I had no knowledge on its lauded benefits of this technique or experiences of others so I wasn’t holding any specific expectations other than the standard increased mental clarity and concentration from regular meditation. Physical healing was definitely one of the last things on my mind.
Yet during the first few sessions of meditation, I started to be able to lie on my back at times. It happened so naturally that I didn’t even realize that this was an abnormality until after a few days. Towards the end of the course, I started being able to lie completely flat on my bed fully, something which I very much welcomed 😀 .
During the course, the teacher S.N. Goenka (you can check out his wiki profile) shared that he experienced acute migraines many years ago while he was still in his previous profession as a highly successful businessman. Consultation with many top doctors around the world brought fruitless results.
After that, he sought out Vipassana meditation as a last resort for his migraines. Somehow, after practicing it, his migraines went away. Just like that. Since then, he has since committed himself to a life of sharing and spreading the technique to others.
This probably sounds ludicrous if you are a very pragmatic person. How can this even be possible? Some will be quick to say that it’s just all in the mind, like it’s all made up or imagined. Probably a placebo effect?
All I can say is, don’t take my word for what I say here. Try it out and experience it for yourself. The truth can only be experienced on your level. That’s something I really like about the course. S.N. Goenka repeatedly emphasizes on discovering the truth as you experience it, not because he teaches it. In no stage did I feel like I was imposed upon with any of their views.
There were also other benefits that came out of it, such as increased concentration ability (probably an output of all forms of meditation), being present to the moment, inner calmness from having cleared all the chunks of clutter in the past 10-days (about 100 hours of intensive meditation!) and an increased sense of objectivity or equanimity. I had quite a few deep revelations about myself during the ten-day period, though some are more of a result of being given time alone to think rather than from the technique. I’ll be sharing these over time through future articles.
While Vipassana meditation is very powerful, I still see the benefits of other different meditation techniques though, such as for problem-solving, to brainstorm, to consult our subconsciousness and so on, so I’ll still be using the other techniques as the situation calls for it. For now, I’ll start using this for my morning and night hourly meditations, until I know of a technique that is gives even better benefits. (By the way, if you haven’t cultivated the habit of meditating regularly, perhaps it’s a good time to stop reading about it and start doing it now through the 21-Day program!)
Different Vipassana Techniques
After Buddha’s time, Vipassana continued to be widely taught in India and countries for many centuries, until people started altering the technique and the original technique became lost. According to Goenka, the purest form of Vipassana continued to be taught and passed on from a limited line of teachers to pupils only within Burma. It was only a few decades ago when the Vipassana movement got triggered and spread beyond Burma, extending across Asia and even to the West.
Today, there are many different variants of Vipassana taught by different groups all around the world. One of the participants previously went to another retreat which taught the Vipassana technique which was different from what was taught in the course. Goenka claims the Vipassana technique he teaches is the purest form of the Vipassana technique as taught by Buddha. Frankly speaking, it seems to be legit, and I don’t see any reason for him to lie. To date, the technique has delivered a tremendous scale and depth of benefits for tens of thousands of people since he started teaching it about 40 years ago.
If you have learned Vipassana meditation from a different group, it is likely a variant form. The best way to contrast the benefits is to try out this 10-day course yourself.
Information on the 10-Day Course
If you are interested to take part, here’s some information which might be helpful.
While the course I went to is in Singapore, it’s offered all around the world, including US, Malaya, Burma, Indonesia, Taiwan, Europe, Australia). You can check more at the full list of locations at the official site. There are different languages offered, based on the location. The retreat locations are typically located in a rural and quiet place away from noise and clutter typical of city life.
The frequency is dependent on the location. For Singapore, it’s held thrice a year – in April, July and November. In some countries like Taiwan and Malaya, it occurs as frequently as once a month or even twice a month. Check the site for more details.
The size of the course batch varies based on the center you are having the course and the number of people who apply. They definitely try to take in as many people as possible. In my course batch, there were about 80+ course participants in total, half male and half female. Almost half of them were Burmese (since this course is already well-known in the Burmese community), and the rest were people of different nationalities. There were numerous old students as well – people who took it before and were retaking it again, to reestablish themselves in the technique or as a regular retreat practice.
As for the people running the course and the assistant teachers, they are all volunteers who took time out of their busy schedules to help out. Extremely kind and benevolent people who have a nice harmonious aura around them. It was a pleasant experience taking the course in their presence. 🙂
I thought I should mention that the food was really quite amazing, notwithstanding that the course is free to begin with! I was probably eating better and more variety of food during the course than in my regular meals. When I was talking to one of the volunteers after the course, they revealed that there was a regular chef who would cook for every retreat. The recipes are specially catered to suit local tastes. For example, the Singapore retreat typically has Burmese and Chinese participants, thus the menu is dominated with Burmese and Chinese dishes. Quite a lot of effort has been put in just to maintain the welfare of the people.
By the way, the food served is vegetarian, in adherence with one of the moral codes of Vipassana, which is not to kill living beings. Since I’m a vegan, I didn’t have to make adaptations of any sort, though it shouldn’t be a problem even if you are not vegetarian. Most, if not all, of the participants are non-vegetarian and found the food to really amazing as well. Some of them told me they felt really clean and clear in their stomachs from the dietary change in the 10-days. Meat-based food take longer to digest than plant-based food.
As mentioned above, the course is entirely free and run solely on donation from previous course participants. Even all the food and accommodation provided throughout the 10-days are free, which I thought is very gratuitous. At the end of the 10-days, you can make a donation based on your own capacity and desire from your own experience. It is entirely voluntary – the donation box is never handed individually for donations.
If not limited by financial reasons, I don’t see any reason why one wouldn’t donate – the course is well run, the people are great, the food is amazing and most importantly, the meditation technique taught has invaluable benefits. If anything, it’s really quite priceless.
All the money donated goes directly to running of future courses. Neither the volunteers nor teachers are paid.
If you are interested to read more about Vipassana meditation, you can do so here and in the Q&A on Vipassana. Information on the course and how to sign up can be found at the respective country sites. If you do join, let me know how it goes for you – I’m sure you will get wondrous benefits out of it as many have too. 😀
This Meditation Series is part of the Cultivate Good Habits Series. Be sure to check out the full series:
- 21 Days To Cultivate Life Transforming Habits
- 21-Day Lifestyle Revamp Program
- Waking Early: 9 Reasons to Wake Up Early | 21 Tips To Wake Up Early
- Quitting Soda: 5 Reasons To Quit Drinking Soda (& How to Do It)
- Improve Your Posture: Benefits Of A Good Posture (& 13 Tips To Do It)
- Be TV-Free: 10 Reasons You Should Stop Watching TV
- Being On Time: 17 Tips To Be On Time
- Meditation: 10 Reasons You Should Meditate | How to Meditate in 5 Simple Steps
- Manage Emails Effectively: 11 Simple Tips To Effective Email Management
- Run Barefoot: 10 Reasons You Should Start Running Barefoot
- Weight Loss: 25 Of My Best Weight Loss Tips
- Emotional Eating: How to Stop Emotional Eating (6-part series)
- Better Oral Care: How to Attain Healthier Gums and Teeth – An Important Guide