For 10 day whole days I will be sitting in silence, without internet, a mobile or a book. Why? Because I have signed up for a Vipassana meditation retreat...
During a Vipassana students observe a noble silence that prohibits communication- whether by speech, gestures, sign language or written text- and meditate from 4am to 9pm each day. Now believe it or not but this is a beginners course, introducing novices to a pre-Buddhist meditation technique that was revived and popularised by SN Goenka. His courses are taught all over around the world, are open to all and are completely free, placing every meditator in the position of being a bhikshu (monk), who possesses nothing for 10 days. All of the centres observe the same schedule: meditation, meditation and even more meditation (scattered with several short breaks for rest and food!) Traditionally, Vipassana was taught in retreats lasting seven weeks but with the dawning of the 20th century teachers experimented with shorter lengths of time in order to suit the demands of contemporary living. However 10 days is considered the minimum time required for new students to gain sufficient experience of the technique.
Yet even in its compressed state, the course still demands a great deal of commitment: in our often time short society, setting aside 10 days to solely meditate is a challenge in itself! There’s not much space for meditation in the modern day and I still struggle to fit in- and focus for- 30 minutes every morning. So a concentrated 10-day course in meditation is almost beyond comprehension! In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced even a single day without some sort of interaction. I’m a natural chatterbox and I struggle to sit still so it’s really going to test my patience and perseverance! And since signing up and blocking out the dates in my diary I’ve sensed a mix of apprehension and amusement: why is such an unassuming challenge so daunting?? The instructions are quite simple after all: follow the breath and notice change. What could possibly be so stressful about that?
Vipassana simply means "to see things as they really are" and is a process of self-observation: for 3 days you follow the breath and for 7 days you follow the body. You sit still and listen to the signs and the signals that the body is giving you. Which is something that I seldom do. I blame ‘being busy’ but in reality it’s because I choose to numb and ignore what I’m really feeling. Take for example the standard ‘I’ve had a stressful day at work’ scenario. Whether I need it- or want it- I quite often turn to the wine/chocolate comfort blanket to distract myself from what I’m really feeling. During Vipassana I can’t eat or exercise my way out of a problem: I’m going to have to ‘sit with my shit’ so to speak and see it for what it really is. It is a process of self-purification by introspection and is said to “eradicate suffering” enabling one to “face life's tensions and problems in a calm, balanced way.”
Balance and calm are certainly my two main motivators for meditating. After a year of intermittent practice I have finally managed to make meditation a daily habit, with a morning routine consisting of alarm, pee, cushion (coffee comes later!) So I’m not stumbling into Vipassana completely blind: I know how difficult it can be but I’ve also experienced its benefits. On the occasion when I wake up too late to meditate (or simply can’t muster the enthusiasm) I really notice the difference. If a silly something like “my stomach looks fat” pops into my head, it takes me away on a rollercoaster ride for the rest of the day. Yet if I’ve meditated I seem to be able to see it for what it is. Its impact is subtle but it helps me to separate myself from my thoughts, which brings to mind Pema Chondron’s well-worn saying “You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather": meditation helps me to see the weather for what it really is.
I’m just worried about how much ‘weather’ I’m going to have experience during Vipassana…
-https://www.dipa.dhamma.org - the main centre for UK course based in Herefordshire.
-https://www.dhamma.org/en/about/vipassana- more information about what to expect from a Vipassana.
-https://www.dhamma.org/en/about/code- the 'rules' for retreat!