Vipassan-ah or Vipassan-ouch? Could A Silent Retreat Help Your Well-being?

On 22nd October 2014 I embarked on a trip to Kintamani in Bali to start a 10-day Vipassana course. Now, I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into when I signed up for Vipassana. I had heard so many great things, mainly that it was learning a meditation technique and most concerning for me that it was 10 days of noble silence! For a chatty girl not the easiest of things to do but a challenge I was willing to take on!

A bit of background on Vipassana for you from

“Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an Art Of Living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant, highest happiness of full liberation.

The course requires hard, serious work. There are three steps to the training. The first step is, for the period of the course, to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, speaking falsely, and intoxicants. This simple code of moral conduct serves to calm the mind, which otherwise would be too agitated to perform the task of self-observation. The next step is to develop some mastery over the mind by learning to fix one’s attention on the natural reality of the ever changing flow of breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. By the fourth day the mind is calmer and more focused, better able to undertake the practice of Vipassana itself: observing sensations throughout the body, understanding their nature, and developing equanimity by learning not to react to them. Finally, on the last full day participants learn the meditation of loving kindness or goodwill towards all, in which the purity developed during the course is shared with all beings.”

So, that’s what I knew going in…

On arrival at the Ashram, men and women were immediately segregated and we registered. This was followed by a very pleasantly surprising Indonesian buffet dinner, noble silence was not yet enforced so it was great to talk to some of the other girls taking part. After dinner we went into the meditation hall to have an introduction to the course and after that noble silence begun and everyone headed to bed (it was about 9pm).

The next day was the first day and we were woken up by a gong at 4am, 4am! The timetable for the whole 10 days was as follows;

4:00am – Morning wake-up bell

4:30-6:30am – Meditate in the hall or in your room

6:30-8:00am – Breakfast break

8:00-9:00am – Group meditation in the hall

9:00-11:00am – Meditate in the hall or in your room..

11:00-12:00pm – Lunch break

12:00-1:00pm – Rest and interviews with the teacher

1:00-2:30pm – Meditate in the hall or in your room

2:30-3:30pm – Group meditation in the hall

3:30-5:00pm – Meditate in the hall or in your own room.

5:00-6:00pm – Tea break

6:00-7:00pm – Group meditation in the hall

7:00-8:15pm – Teacher’s Discourse in the hall

8:15-9:00pm – Group meditation in the hall

9:00-9:30pm – Question time in the hall

9:30pm- Retire to your own room. Lights out

Yep, you added that up correctly, 10.5 hours of meditation per day! I am someone that if I commit to something, I will give it 110% and so I got up every day at 4am (apart from 2 mornings) and was in the hall for every single meditation session, that doesn’t necessarily mean I was meditating though, I slept a lot, sitting up and I have never been able to do that so I consider that as one hell of an achievement to take away from this.

And so the days continued as per the above timetable, long, long days with two teachers, Doris and Volke, a married couple from Germany. We then had an audio by S.N Goenke which we listened to at the beginning of most meditation sessions and a discourse in the evening which was a DVD of S.N Goenke. I really looked forward to the DVD’s, S.N Goenke always managed to sum up the day so well and with humour, which was very much appreciated. These are the three people who represent what it is like to live a life on the ‘path of dhamma’, which you are on by practicing Vipassana.

Every day that passed I realised I was really enjoying the silence and this ‘thinking’ time I was getting whilst I should have been meditating but I felt I was doing it wrong if I was thinking. The whole technique was to teach us to quiet our minds, to sit in the same position without moving and to then observe the sensations in our body remaining ‘equanimous’ with everything. This means if you are feeling really comfortable and have no pain, you mustn’t ‘crave’ that and if you are in pain, you mustn’t have an aversion to it, you must realise that the sensation is impermanent as is everything in life. This I liked, not the torture, but the realisation of the fact that everything is always changing and that’s ok!

Now, the issue with this for me was that if we were having an comfortable sitting and didn’t ‘crave’ it or a painful sensation and didn’t have an ‘aversion’ to it, we would be eradicating all of our deep-rooted ‘sankharas’ (impurities) but if you did not remain ‘equanimous’ you would be muiltiplying your ‘sankharas’. I mean really, sitting there in absolute agony and not thinking ‘aaaaaaahhhh when will this hour be over?’ is pretty hard, so I was constantly thinking I was multiplying my ‘sankharas’ rather than eradicating them. That was when I decided to just let whatever felt good to happen and so the magic began…

When I started allowing myself to be free in the meditation, I never felt pain, I easily sat for one hour without changing my position and my thoughts were so creative and so positive, I began to really sort some things out that I hadn’t been able to previously to Vipassana because of always having distractions around. I started to really appreciate my ‘meditation’ time because the ideas would just flow and I would make so many decisions about things. I hated not being able to pick up a pen and write it all down but my memory seemed sharp so it wasn’t necessary.

The other side of this though was I also had a lot of time to wallow on some negativities, like my skin, it was getting bad whilst I was at Vipassana and that made me feel anxious and because of there being no distractions I thought about it a lot and that brought my mood down. I knew though that this was coming up for a valid reason and I mustn’t shy away from it.

By the 7th day I was struggling but I was determined. I noticed about 5 girls had left! I wondered what had come up for them and what they were finding hard to deal with and felt sad that they weren’t able to continue.

Each day I thought about this more and more, I realised we are always going to feel a variety of emotions, experiencing highs and lows and that’s the excitement of it, to LIVE is to FEEL, be an adventurer, take risks, challenge yourself, some things might not work out and some things will, but just do it anyway (there is a reason Nike created that phrase). Do what you love and enjoy every moment but do not become attached to all of these things.

To remain equanimous is to see that no matter what happens, good or bad, you remain your true self, nothing can phase you and ultimately in that stillness, happiness is found.

And so was this Vipassan-ah for me or Vipassan-ouch? I would have to say Vipassan-ah.

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