About a month ago I realized time was ripe for me to finally undertake my second ten-day Vipassana meditation course. I completed my first one in Portugal almost 3 years ago, and the experience was transformative – even though I slacked off on my meditation practice pretty fast afterwards, I always knew I wanted to do more.
I signed up to the waiting list for a small, female-only course run at Dhamma Ujjala in the Clare Valley and about a week before it started received confirmation that I had a spot. My response was excitement laced with smugness – I’d worked really hard on the first course, and at times had gone super deep into meditation. This time, my ego was confident I would be the meditator everyone else in the room wanted to be! I would absolutely nail it!
Narrator: she did not absolutely nail it.
Wait what is Vipassana?
Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’ and is a meditation technique discovered by Gautama, the Buddha, 2500 years ago. Through it, we can teach ourselves to respond to the ups and downs of life with equanimity rather than craving and aversion. In doing so, we stop the wheel of suffering that is the human condition, and (gasp!) become happy. We are stopping the creation of new “sankharas” (which are traces left in the psyche by our cravings and aversions) and can even remove old sankharas. This brings us closer to – dare I say it – enlightenment.
There are about 200 Vipassana centres around the world, and every course is essentially exactly the same in structure and content. The reason this is possible is that the entire instruction in meditation is not given by individual teachers, who would each lend their own nuances, terminology and personality, but by recordings of S.N. Goenka, the awesome Burmese guy who brought Vipassana to the west during the course of the late 20th century. A teacher sits at the front of the room for many of the sessions, but their role is to press play and stop on the recordings, and to answer brief questions you might have about the technique (you can sign up for a 5-minute interview with the teacher during the lunch break).
The teacher this time was a tiny woman who seemed to embody the very tranquility, attentiveness and equanimity we were being constantly told by Goenka to seek. Although it felt like she was judging me the entire 10 days for being a terrible meditator, I suspect this might have been me projecting my inner judge onto the only person in front of me I was allowed to look at.
This second course was much, much harder than the first. But despite the intense and agonizing moments, I came away feeling positive. Aside from the sense of achievement, I dealt with some deep-seated past shit.
These were my takeaways.
- Don’t use the term retreat to describe this
No reclining on a verandah with a cup of herbal tea and a Buddha-esque smirk. No booking a massage, or opting out of a session, or journaling about all the amazing insights you’re having, or debriefing over a wine at the end of the day. Vipassana is a course, or a camp, and with a total of over 100 hours of non-negotiable meditation, it should really have the word ‘intensive’ somewhere in the title too. From 4am until 9:30pm, there is no focus other than meditation. Or at least, that’s the intention.
- Silence is the easy part
Everyone wonders if it’s hard to shut up for 10 days, but this was the least of my worries. The hard part? Dealing with the machinations of the mind. On day 2, my brain had the following ACTUAL thought: “Last time was too easy. This time, I’m really going to get you”. This was not an idle threat.
My thoughts worked hard to distract me, taunt me, consume me, torpedo my meditation. I’ve always known my mind has been uniquely gifted at undermining my confidence and harmony. Given the struggle I have had with feeling down recently, it should have come as no surprise that my mind really took things next level during this Vipassana.
- Do some physical preparation
My “physical preparation” was a bunch of trail runs followed by two days of nothing. My quads were sore, my knees troubled, and my lower back twinged. This was a terrible way to go into 10 days of 4:30am-9:30pm seated meditation. The physical pain I experienced was at times excruciating. I would love to be able to blame someone else for this.
By day 4, I went to the teacher and pleaded to be able to lie down during the meditation sessions I conducted in my room (there are compulsory group meditation sessions in the hall but at certain times you’re allowed to continue meditating in your own quarters). She looked at me thoughtfully then responded “lying down isn’t a great idea. …It sounds like there are some major, negative sankharas coming up to be released. Why don’t you stop trying so hard to avoid the pain and see what happens when you just feel it?” As it turns out, this advice was frustratingly on point.
So, no crazy major exercise, but a decent yoga session or two in the days leading up, to optimize chances of not weeping with agony because your ego made you smash train runs all weekend.
- The hardest work is sitting still on a cushion
We associate hard work with extreme physical activities or pulling all-nighters in a corporate environment. But the hardest work I’ve done has been during these two Vipassana courses, digging deep to find the patience and sheer will to keep going when I feel hopeless or overwhelmed. Particularly around the middle of the course, days 3-6, when initial enthusiasm has ebbed, and the end seems eons away, the temptation to flee the scene is searing.
I cried, I wanted to leave SO BADLY I was having fantasies about getting a tap on the shoulder and having the course manager inform me sadly that Mum had called and there was bad news from home. I know, I know. My psyche was willing to throw a family member under the bus (or at least under a bicycle or something) to get me out of the course without me having to admit personal failure. I hate myself sometimes.
Ultimately, my meditation went far deeper and felt far more rewarding than the first course. My ego was smashed to pieces and what remained was determination, patience and clarity.
- Keep up the Vipassana practice
After my first course I meditated regularly for a few months, and then it dwindled to almost nothing. My excuse about not having the time was pathetic – I just didn’t make it a priority. In the coming time and in lead up to my next course I will make a point of continuing the practice. It’s just too annoyingly beneficial not to.
I’m already looking forward to my next course. Hopefully third time will be a charm.