If life puts Vipassana in your way and you are considering to take the course, then it is best to read a little about the technique, and how to be prepared mentally and physically so that you can complete the 10-days course.
The purpose of this article is to tell you, from my own experience, what should be known before hand, what mental attitude to adopt, and any other aspects that can help you. It is a bit of a long read, but I think it is worth it especially that you are considering to take this life changing meditation course.
The advises below do not follow any specific order, but all of them are essential points I discovered when I took the course.
Physical and mental preparation
Waking up at 4am
First things first, let’s get this most daunting aspect of the course out of the way. Honestly, it is not a big deal:
It is discouraging just to think that you are going to wake up at 4 AM daily for 10 days.
The first two days you may feel terrible, but that’s okay because after the second day you will start to get used to it.
Anyway, what I did is sleep during breaks. Even an hour or half an hour nap helps me stay awake during meditations.
If you feel tired because of waking up early, then sleep during breaks but not during the time you should be meditating on your in your own room.
I knew that we are to sit and meditate at least eight hours a day, and naturally physical preparation is needed. But due to my lazy mind, I could not set time to prepare myself before joining the course.
It turned that being unprepared physically is as good as being prepared, because the key is not physical comfort-ability. The key is being aware, whether you are physically comfortable or uneasy, it does not matter.
So do not stress yourself about your physical agility, just join the course and experience it moment by moment.
After the 3rd day, I stared to feel bad and wanting to quit. Actually I kept on saying: “Oh, I still have 7 days” or “Oh, I still have 5 days”, etc, etc…
Remember you did not come here because someone forced you.
You did not come here just like that: You had to take a break from work or perhaps from studies, even from your duties as a householder. So you always remember that every minute you are spending during the program should be justified by your hard work and efforts, otherwise you are wasting 10 days of your life.
Remember why you joined the course and that you are here to learn and to change or learn something about yourself.
Whenever you find yourself counting days and not being in the moment stop yourself and remind yourself of why you joined the course.
Be responsible for every minute because the time you are spending during the course is a special time.
Although I already spoken about waking at 4 AM and feeling sleepy, there is still one important thing to notice: You may feel terribly sleepy during the meditations, even if you slept uninterrupted 8 hours and you took an hour or half hour naps during the day. The reason for this, is because your mind wants to escape the meditation, it does not like that.
Be aware that this obstacle is just temporary. Do not get discouraged, just be patient and fight this sleepiness. Anyway, in one of the nightly discourses, S.N Goenka will talk about this topic.
Don’t be hard on yourself
Since the first day, you will be given instructions on how to do the Anapana meditation. Do not be hard on yourself if you cannot follow the instructions to the letter initially, or if your body and mind are not helping you.
That means, if you are trying to be perfect in your practice, then you will feel frustration if you did not meet your expectation.
They will tell you for example to focus on the breath all the time. Later your mind will start wandering; this is natural. Do not be sad because of that, do not be hard on yourself and start generating negativity (or aversion in Vipassana terms). Instead, gently bring your attention back, continue your meditation and be happy about it. This cycle of wandering then refocusing is natural in the beginning. There is a big difference between being hard on oneself and being responsible.
Please mind that when I say: “don’t be hard on yourself”, I am not asking you to be careless.
It is important to adopt a playful attitude when practicing. Do not be solid and rigid. Respect your mind’s and body’s limitations. Go easy and little by little you will reach.
I remember that on the 4th day, we were taught the Vipassana meditation technique. We were asked to sit for an hour without changing the posture.
Of course this could cause lots of physical and mental uneasiness, but if you are playful, you can allow yourself to change the posture once or twice, but you do that only to help yourself focus and stop generating negativity during the one hour sitting. Bottom line: be easy, playful and responsible. The second time try to limit the times when you allow yourself to move or change your posture.
I am certain that you will remember my words:
Little by little, you will just sit and won’t even feel bothered at all.
I’ve been talking about being playful and not being so hard on yourself. These two aspects are important only if you are responsible.
By responsible means that you know your own best interests. You know that no matter what, you will do all you can to get the best benefits of this program without being too hard to the point of generating lots of negativity (or aversion).
Do not be careless, skip meditations or just sit physically in meditation but mentally somewhere else. Being responsible during the 10-days is of utmost importance.
The course is structured in such a way that you get to meditate three times in the hall and the rest of the time you can meditate in your own room.
You can easily be tempted to sleep or waste the time each time you go to your room, or perhaps not sleep but just lay there in the room and not meditate.
No one is going to police you in the in the room and tell you to meditate or to practice. You are your own police, and that, my friend, is being responsible. You have to tell yourself that no matter what, I respect this private time I am given and I want to meditate.
This realization did not come easily to me. I was still suffering from feeling sleepy all the time, and around the 3rd and 4th day I was still allowing myself to skip some meditations and sleep instead. Only after the 5th day that a sense of inner knowledge and inspiration about being responsible came to my understanding.
As you will learn in the course that:
No truth is a truth, unless you experience or realize it yourself
After that realization, I did not say to myself: “No more skipping meditations, no more counting days, no more negativity”
No! It became clear (a truth for me) that it is important to be aware of what is happening in the mind. If my mind is so sleepy for example, I respect that sign. I go wash my face, go for a walk, and perhaps sleep a little (though the need for sleep will not be a problem after the 5th day). That does not mean that if you feel sleepy go to sleep, but know that whenever you get a chance to sleep more, sleep more, perhaps eat less so you are more energetic.
Be smart and know how to have your mind and body work best for you. Actually, when you act responsibly and respect yourself and your being, then your mind and body will start working for you. Remember, even if the mind is like a monkey, jumping from a thought to another, it still is NOT an enemy. The mind is not something to hate even if it appears to be uncontrollable. Just be patient.
Remember, you are the only person that made your mind like a monkey and no one else. If you could make it turn into a monkey, you can turn it back into a sharp and useful tool.
The nightly discourses
Each night I was eagerly waiting for the discourses. They explain the technique, they answer your questions and most of all, they encourage you to continue and stay until the end of the course.
Mr. S.N. Goenka will be talking about Dhamma, the technique and other things.
You may disagree on many points and start a debate in your mind, or perhaps you may start to say:
“Oh Goenka thinks he knows everything”, or “Goenka is wrong in that or that aspect”, etc, etc…
Do not start a mental debate because of the things you heard that contradict your believes: it does not matter right now.
What matters is to always remain aware of what is happening within yourself.
In the discourse, take what you like and throw what you don’t like. But do not judge the teaching, it is not the time.
Anyway, the very essence of this course is to have you experience truth and not have you intellectualize about it. So whether you agree with what you hear or not, it does not matter, just take what you like and do your best to experience the truth for yourself.
Eating during the course
You will be served breakfast, lunch, and a small snack (not a dinner).
It may seem not enough if you are used to eating 3 or more times a day.
Remember that, essentially, you are not doing any rigorous physical activity so you do not need to eat that much.
Also remember that any overeating will do you disservice. Why? Because overeating will make you feel tired rather than energized. So again, be wise and responsible.
You will have a lot of internal fights. Some thoughts will push you to run away, other thoughts will push you to be negative.
Other thoughts (even more dangerous) will disguise themselves as positive thoughts but yet again their sole purpose is to take you from the moment, the present, or the actual reality.
Do not be fooled to think that thinking negative is bad and thinking positive is good. Remember, if it is not the time to think and imagine, then don’t.
You are asked to focus on your breath (for instance) or on the bodily sensations, then any thought (negative or positive) is not doing you any service. If you want to think positive thoughts, imagine things or find solutions to problem that’s fine, but only do that when it is time to do that and not during your meditation.
Do not be surprised if you suddenly feel you are the most creative person and you have an urge to write. This is another trick of your mind to snatch you from the present moment and your meditation. Treat those “creative thoughts” with no more reverence than how you treat the thought of being present and meditating.
Secret of success
As you will later learn, the secret of success is the continuity of practice, or said differently:
Continuity of awareness
To reiterate the latter in plain English
The secret of success is the realization that you have to seek the truth moment by moment and be aware.
Do not drift into imagination, identification, negativity, etc, etc…
Even when you are walking, be aware you are walking.
When you are eating, be with the eating. Do not chew your thoughts and ideas, instead chew and feel the taste of food in your mouth.
With experience you will learn that there is no such thing as time for meditation and time for daily activity. You will learn to do all your daily activities meditatively, consciously and fully aware.
- Be wise: don’t be hard on yourself, don’t be careless, be playfully responsible.
- Respect the time: every minute counts. You are not here to count the days as to when the program is over. This is not a prison, but a chance for you to grow. Remember to make use of each minute.
- Be aware: being aware is something that you are learning during the program, but it is also important to be one step ahead. That means be aware of what is happening inside your mind and body without being reactive. Just be aware, observe.
That is all I can think of, and hopefully these are the most important points that can help you make best use of this 10-days Vipassana course.
What should you bring with you to the retreat
I have had so many questions about what should one bring with to the retreat. Here are some guidelines below. Please note that you don’t have to bring all of those items if any, I list them just to give you some ideas:
- Bring comfy clothing: Bring comfortable clothing. For example the long loose fitting yoga pants are good. Or just long sports pants but not the tight ones.
- Bring covers: you may feel cold while meditating, bring a small cover that you can lay around your body while sitting and meditating
- Bring meditation cushions: these cushions can help you sit better for longer period of time
- Male or female a alike please bring modest clothing: this helps lessen physical distraction
- Bring ear plugs: if it so happens that you are sharing a room with someone who snores, speaks at night then do not let this ruin your experience and make you angry
- Bring sleeping eye mask: If you are sharing a room with someone, remember that he/she may wake up earlier or come to bed later and then turn on the lights and so on. If you are a light sleeper, then a mask may help you sleep a bit more
- Bring laxative/diarrhea pills: due to dietary change, you may experience an upset digestive system. I experienced constipation for a while and wished that I had the laxative tea bags that could help me get the relief I want. Others experienced diarrhea. For those moments, it is best to help yourself out. Please note that the meditation center may / may not have those items for you.
I would be happy to hear your experience, have a discussion or answer questions.
Good luck to you,
Other applied presences and self-awareness articles you might like:
- The Joy of Modesty
- Metta Prayer and other quotes of wisdom – In the memory of Mr. S.N. Goenka
- This too shall pass
- Introduction to Fasting
- About “taking what’s not yours” and the five senses
- My Religion