Vipassana; 10 Days of Silent Meditation
‘Vipassana is a voluntary prison in which you perform open brain surgery on yourself, with no anaesthetic, for 10 days’ — the welcoming words of S.N Goenka on day one.
Vipassana meditation is all about achieving a state of thoughtlessness. Total presence. The silencing of the mind, so that we can see — for many people, for the first time — that we are not our inner voice. Sounds crazy. Imagine how it feels. Here’s an overview for anyone considering giving this 2500+ year-old meditation practice a chance to change their lives.
What you’re getting into
Many refer to Vipassana as a ‘retreat’. I did too before I did it. I don’t anymore.
Vipassana was introduced to Indian prisons in the 1980s as a way to help inmates change their ways so that when they return to society, they’re in a better place. There’s a reason several inmates chose Indian prison conditions over the option for a Vipassana ‘retreat’ while locked up.
Similarly, there’s a reason the homeless don’t flood into Vipassana centres, even though they’re totally free — donation based — and offer residents 3x meals a day and a place to sleep.
This is no walk in the park. Expect a challenge and prepare accordingly. Having done some meditation in the past is not a pre-requisite, but a big help.
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’. It is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation, taught more than 2500 years ago as a universal remedy for universal ills — an Art of Living.
The technique in a nutshell;
Be absolutely aware,
and do absolutely nothing about it.
To achieve this state of total presence you’re to follow a set of rules and a rigorous schedule.
The 5 Precepts
- Killing any being
- Sexual misconduct
- Wrong speech
On top of this, meditators must observe ‘Noble Silence’, from the beginning of the course through to day 10. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow meditators, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, or anything else, is prohibited.
Universal Daily Schedule
The schedule is the same all over the world and the times are enforced by the ringing of bells. They’re so annoying you’ll start waking up before 4am just to cover your ears. Volunteers will come and fetch you if you oversleep.
You’ll soon realise that the discourse is in many ways the highlight of the day. Mental stimulus and a touch of humour here and there, right before bed.
The ‘BE HAPPY’ at the bottom makes all the difference when you’re up at 4am on day 8 running on 3 and a half hours sleep, nursing a cold and covered in mosquito bites.
The beginning was the hardest for me. I was finding every possible reason to tell the taxi to stop and head back. Arriving, being shown to my (prison) cell, and giving up valuables was uncomfortable. But it gets easier.
Days 1–4 — Anapana Meditation
For the first three and a half days you learn the prequel to Vipassana meditation, called Anapana.
Anapana means observation of natural respiration. Many who have practiced some form of meditation have worked with breath before. The difference here is that you already begin training to silence the mind. You’re not supposed to vocalize anything. No ‘in, out’. And you’re not supposed imagine anything, either. No visualizations. Just observe the sensation of the breath as it enters the nose, and goes out again.
Sounds simple, right? Close your eyes and see if you manage more than 20 seconds.
More on Anapana, here.
Days 4–9 — Vipassana Meditation
After three and half days, you begin to learn the Vipassana technique. And after close to 50 hours watching the air enter your nostrils, it couldn’t come soon enough.
Anapana lays the foundations for Vipassana by helping you get into the groove of becoming aware of your sensations without thinking about them. You do this for a small, concentrated area around the nose. Vipassana extends this to the whole body.
I mentioned earlier that the Vipassana technique can be summed up as ‘be absolutely aware, and do absolutely nothing about it’. During days 4 and 9 you’ll learn to observe — with no judgment — everything happening in and to your body, the good and the bad. You’ll hear the words ‘fully aware’ and ‘equanimous’ once or twice.
Many people say day 6 is the hardest. That’s when you’re really left to practice the technique in its fullness, and if you haven’t been following properly in the first few days, that can be tough. But no worries, you’ve got 3 more days to polish your technique.
Day 10 — Metta & Learning how to speak again
Metta is a meditation of gratitude to direct well wishes to all beings in the world. You learn this just before the much-anticipated breaking of the vow of silence.
There was so much peace, harmony, and love flowing between people who had essentially become familiar strangers. It was a little overwhelming, in the most positive sense possible. I’ll never forget walking out of the meditation hall that morning, being greeted by the teachers, with sunrise over the rice fields to my left, and ear-to-ear smiles all round.
Two Key Takeaways
You are not your inner voice
This was the first time I was able to experience my self and my thinking mind as separate entities for an extended period without the influence of intoxicants or medicines. It’s the kind of experience that I’d wish for everyone on earth to have, because it’s so liberating, and because the realization can have profound consequences on the trajectory of your life and those around you.
Buddhists think of ‘thinking’ as the 6th sense, just like smell, taste, and hearing. That is to say that you and what you think you are, are not the same. The inner voice, also referred to as the ego, is a filter through which we experience reality and it is only concerned with the future and the past. A really powerful tool, until it hijacks who we are and becomes us.
Who are we if we are not our inner voice? Think back to a time when you were creative or playing sports — to a state of flow. There were no thoughts. That’s your true self. Through Vipassana, you can train yourself to reconnect with that self and turn off your thoughts.
You need to experience the extremes to know where the middle is
Just as someone who grows up in mid-Siberia might think that 5 degrees celsius is the definition of ‘hot’, if we don’t break out of our daily patterns of thinking and doing, we too can lose track of the balance point. This has definitely been true for me. I’ve been focused on building organizations for over 5 years and Vipassana showed me that I had a completely warped idea of what ‘relaxed’ is.
Living with high anxiety for years can leave you thinking that if you’re not juggling 100 thoughts for a couple of days then you must be rested. Long weekend? Back to normal. But as Gabor Mate points out in his new book ‘The Myth of Normal’, we’ve completely lost track of what normal is.
Vipassana is an opportunity to experience the other extreme. To answer questions like; ‘What’s it like to not be anxious?’, ‘Who am I when I’m not thinking?’, and, ‘Where is my mind?’ — (to the Pixies, if you’re reading this, you finally have your answer).
Location & Cost
There are centres all over the world, and they’re all free. Vipassana is 100% donation-based. The official website for all centres across the globe:
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India's most ancient techniques of meditation. It…
Tips & Notes
- Even if you become a little disillusioned by what S.N Goenka says, give the practice a fair trial. The practice is the practice, with or without your belief in reincarnation — and the practice brings benefits.
- At some point — either before, at the beginning, or mid-way through, your inner voice is going to jump in and find a thousand reasons why this is stupid, useless, and why you should pack your bags and leave. Push back from a place of positivity by recognising the opportunity in what you’re doing. Finally; total peace and quiet. Finally; no notifications. Finally; no responsibilities, nothing on my shoulders. And in a few days that will all be back — so embrace the moment.
- Choose a centre close to nature and far from urban life. Nature will be all you’ve got for a few days. It can make the low-points more bearable.
- Once you’ve completed a 10 Day Course, you become an ‘Old Student’, and are eligible for 3 day courses, too.
- Practice meditating in the sitting position in the weeks before. It’s true that the pain wears off after a few days, but you might as well get a head start.
This was the first time I didn’t speak for 10 days in 24 years, and I’d do it again. Was it life-changing?
This seems to be everyone’s first question. I’ve saved it for last.
I saw reality as it really is. I was able to watch my thoughts for a week and half, and see whether they’re in the future or the past, positive or negative, and now I know/confirmed what I crave, what I’m scared of, what I hope for and what I miss — I know where my head’s at.
Vipassana brought a deep sense of inner joy, peace, and clarity like I’ve never experienced. That in itself is life-changing in the short term, but I’m confident that if I act on what I’ve uncovered it will be life-changing in the long run, too. I wish the same for you, too.