5 Lessons from 10 days of Vipassana
The modern world revolves largely around living in a comfort zone, wanting instant gratification, and craving pleasure. This perhaps makes sense at a superficial level as it is familiar and conditioned by society — the easy way for most of us. There is nothing wrong with this approach to life as some of these aspects are biological and survival needs.
But, our needs have translated into uncontrolled desires. We are mistaking sensory distractions and temporary pleasure for happiness only to find it fleeting. The ignorance of this illusion is the cause of our misery. But, is there a way out of this vicious cycle?
Vipassana — To see reality as it is
The wise folks believe that the answer lies in looking inward. Vipassana, an ancient meditation technique to purify the mind, had lost its roots in India and was revived by Gautama Buddha around 2500 years ago.
He practised Vipassana to examine the subtle reality of life within his own body and realised the ever-changing nature of mind and matter. After years of intense contemplation and austerity, he achieved enlightenment and went on to share the path of Dhamma (‘Dharma’ in Sanskrit).
The teaching of Dhamma is not ‘Buddhist’ or sectarian, but rather universal and aligns with the law of nature. Underneath the superficial layers of our identity, nationality, gender, and conditioning — we are all connected at a deeper level. We all want happiness and do not want suffering.
The three pillars of Dhamma are Sīla (right speech, action, and livelihood), Samādhi (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration), and Pannā (right thought, and understanding). The precepts followed during a 10-day Vipassana course are based on the above principles of morality/Sīla, concentration/Samādhi, and wisdom/Pannā.
The intent of the article is not to share my personal experience as that is subjective, but to share an overview of what the course entails and potential lessons to learn.
The experience is not for the faint-hearted, and neither a means of escaping from our conflicts and tensions. It is for anyone looking at a shift in life, inner transformation, and self-discovery. Sounds intriguing? Read on…
Premise So, imagine spending 10 days in complete silence with 10 hours of intense meditation every day. There is no access to a smartphone, friends or family, no permission to talk to other participants, no reading, writing, or listening to music. All the things that we use to kill time or interact with the world are taken away.
The only comfort is 6 hours of sleep and 2 vegetarian meals, along with an evening snack. There is also no permission to exercise other than daily walks.
The rules may seem harsh or even absurd to some, but they are essential to lay the foundation and create an atmosphere conducive to deep meditation.
So, it’s 10 days of being with one’s thoughts, emotions, memories, fears, desires, conflicts, and tensions. This can be very confronting for most people as we are used to leading extroverted lives and often ignore inner work due to its cathartic nature.
Schedule For the 10 days, one has to wake up at 4 am, meditate for 10 hours every day with brief breaks for breakfast, lunch, and evening snack. From day-4 onwards, 3 of the 10 hours are meant to be done seated completely still without moving the body — despite the excruciating pain. One goes to bed at 9:30 pm to wake up at 4 am the next day and repeat the same for 10 long, intense days.
Practice The first 3 days involve a preparation technique for concentration called Anapana, where we focus on the natural breath moving in and out of the nostrils. 3 days of only watching the breath at the nostrils! This helps cleanse and sharpen the mind to prepare for Vipassana which is taught from day-4.
The technique of Vipassana is simple yet profound. One has to observe different parts of the body and feel the sensations which could be of pain, pleasure, heaviness, lightness, heat, cold, tingling, pulsing, etc. The intention is not to crave pleasant sensations (eg. tingling) and not have an aversion towards unpleasant sensations (eg. pain, heaviness). This helps make the mind balanced and equanimous.
The physical sensations are after all a reflection of life. There will be pleasant days and there will be unpleasant moments. So with the practice, we begin to accept reality as it is and stop oscillating between craving and aversion — the source of our misery. It also teaches us impermanence and that every moment we are changing at the subtle level of sensations, thoughts, emotions, and beliefs.
5 Lessons learnt from 10 days of silence and 100 hours of meditation
1. Pain can be our greatest teacher. Pain is also temporary, and so is pleasure.
Sitting for 10 hours a day for 10 continuous days is not an easy task for even the most physically conditioned people. The physical pain is excruciating along with the emotional aspect accompanying it. Some sessions or days might feel like the pain is unbearable. But, it does get better and reinforces the temporary nature of pain. We usually take things for granted but pain, physical or emotional, makes us grateful for our blessings in life — which are also impermanent.
Enduring the physical pain of sitting cross-legged for almost half the day, along with the emotional release from suppressed memories is a challenging part of the experience. But, every sensation, memory, and emotion during Vipassana teaches us something about ourselves, reminds us of their impermanence, and helps appreciate the value of every moment.
2. Change is the only constant. Acceptance is the key to equanimity.
We are playing a game of craving and aversion through our likes and dislikes. Our patterns of craving (for something we don’t have) and aversion (to something we don’t like) is the cause of our misery. We are changing at subtle levels every moment. So, acceptance of the ever-changing nature of our body, mind, and the transient nature of the world leads to an equanimous and balanced outlook. Acceptance is also the foundation for any change, and being open to change is a sign of a growth mindset, rather than a fixed one.
The 10-days of the course are not linear, and every day is a new experience. Every session in itself is different, reminding us of the changing nature of internal and external experiences. When we accept life as it is, when we accept the body and breath as it is — we find insights at a very subtle level, often patterns that are unconscious. This realisation can be a very freeing experience.
3. Patience is a virtue. Resilience is the fuel to survival.
In a world of instant gratification and convenience, we have lost patience and expect an outcome immediately for almost every experience. We can microwave food instantly, we order clothes and groceries to our doorstep, we have information available on our fingertips, we cannot wait in long queues, we don’t even let others finish their sentence in a conversation. Isn’t it true that we are losing patience due to us craving instant validation?
Spending 10-days in silence can make us realise the importance of seeing things for the long-term. Even a 1-hour seated meditation will make us realise the value of time and how we can last through tough times with a little more patience. Also, in our effort to lead lives of comfort and convenience, we have forgotten the art of resilience and give up very easily on relationships, jobs, projects, and aspirations. Having aversion to pain will only add to our misery and resilience can help us persevere the inevitable challenges of life.
4. Control leads to misery. Magic happens when we flow with nature.
We seek control compulsively in our interaction, habits, and experiences. But, are we ever in control of the external circumstances? We can perhaps work towards a goal or objective, but the outcome is never really in our control as there are many external factors involved. We are however responsible for our thoughts, emotions, habits, and wellbeing. Our need for control is usually evident when we feel helpless and unable to influence a certain outcome. It is from a place of resistance and fear of the unknown.
But, resistance is futile and when we let go of the need to control, we start to surrender and flow with what life is offering. The first step to surrender is acceptance. Acceptance of our insignificance in the grand scheme of things and acceptance of the ever-changing nature of life. During the 10-days of the course, we have almost no control of the external factors and experiences. But, we can learn to be responsible for our perception and actions by building self-awareness.
5. The mind and body are inextricably linked.
During Vipassana, one may realise how the sensitivity and focus of the mind helps with body awareness, and how identification with the physical pain impacts the mind at an emotional level. Our perception and experience of our mental process and physical body manifests as our immediate external reality through patterns of judgment, acceptance, control, attachment, insecurity, love, kindness, peace, etc. When we build subtle awareness of our body and mind, we become aware of these patterns outside us, and let go of the limiting ones while cultivating healthy patterns.
The body is a storehouse of every memory and emotion in the form of physical sensations. An experience which invokes a pleasant memory will have a comfortable sensation, and vice versa. Most modern-day diseases are caused by stress and suppression. They are psychosomatic (psycho = mind related; soma = body) in nature where the physical symptoms are caused by psychological triggers. But, there is a way to manage such conditions.
Any somatic practice of movement combined with breath work can be a tool to release stored tension from the body and mind. Similarly, a mindfulness or concentration based practice can calm the mind and induce a relaxation response in the body. Also, the quality of thoughts, food we eat, content we consume, and our relationships play an important role in our physical and mental health.
The Importance of Integration
Vipassana can help us become aware of our patterns at the root level and that can lead to profound transformation rather than surface-level change. But, integration is the key to every experience involving learning and insight. We may pursue courses, read books, watch videos, share quotes, but it is effective only when we take action inspired by that experience. Else, it is a mere intellectual game.
Do I recommend this 10-day spiritual ordeal to others? Definitely! As long as one is stable mentally and emotionally. A stable foundation is integral when we are exploring deepest parts of the unconscious mind. Having a serious intention to transform and cultivate a meditation practice will also make it worthwhile.
Just the way a marathon runner or mountain climber would prepare the body and mind for the experience, one would benefit from doing some groundwork for a course of such nature. Wake up early, Exercise, Breathe deeply, Eat clean, Meditate, Sleep well.
May we all be happy, healthy, and peaceful!