A Little Reflection… Vipassana Meditation: Was it Worth It?

In the months and years since I took a ten-day Vipassana Meditation course in Nepal,  friends and readers have asked me to share my thoughts, now that I have distance from the experience. I jotted a few sparse notes during the course, and journaled on Day Eleven to chronicle my ten-days in a Vipassana course. Those entries shared the raw thoughts and feelings as I processed each day of meditation and course teachings. During the course, I was deep in the middle of the pain and difficulty. There was little room for reflection.

The Women's section of the Yard - What a View!

What the Heck is a Vipassana Meditation Course?

I dubbed my time in Vipassana meditation as my ten day stint in “solitary confinement.” It’s how it felt at the time. And even in retrospect this intense mediation course as one of my wackier decisions. It’s one of the most structured and regimented forms of meditation. The rules are strict and the entire process is tightly control. This course was the hardest thing I have ever voluntarily chosen. More than six months later, I was endlessly thankful that I was able to complete it, that I had the support and stamina during the course finish. And now, seven years later I still look at that course as a formative foundation on how I approach life.

A few of the strict rules:

  • You cannot speak or communicate (non-verbal communication like eye-contact is a no-no)
  • No reading or writing
  • Food is restricted after the mid-day meal
  • You must adhere to the meditation schedule of 10+ hours of meditation and an hour of discourse in the evening

vipassana meditation beginners

What is it Like on the Other Side of a Vipassana?

The course kicked my ass. Raw feelings bubbled up throughout the intense ten days. I started the course cautious and fearful of what it would be like. Then I had anger and resentment during the middle. By the final day, I swelled with well-being and happiness.

And now?

Pride.

I feel proud that I was able to complete the course. This was one of the hardest obstacles in my life to complete. Growing up I was a dilettante. And while usually that’s one of the cornerstones of being a child — experimenting, learning, and discovering new interests — changing interests so frequently impacted my personal self-views. I have always considered myself a quitter.

Machapuchare and Begnas Lake

Back in the day, I loved synchronized swimming. I even won state and national awards. Then I quit that and moved onto tap dancing. Tap wasn’t as fun as jazz, which then gave way to pottery. Then there was that brief stint in ballet, then Irish dance, followed by several years of piano lessons. I dabbled in art, more styles of dance, and went back to competitive Irish dance in high school. All that took a backseat to theatre — the only thing I stuck with. Until I didn’t; I left my LA acting career to travel the world.

On day four, when I wanted to quit it was more than that. I needed to quit. I begged to quit. I spazzed out in my head with a need to abort the decision and save myself from finishing the course. I didn’t like the trainwreck of thoughts I faced each meditation session. I desperately wanted the opportunity to relieve myself from the pain. Teacher persuaded me to stay. He assured me that I was strong enough. That’s it. That I was strong enough to finish.

And in staying, I proved to myself that I was strong enough to honor my commitment.

This personal lesson is not the point of Vipassana; but it was one of the things I proved to myself on the trip thanks to the course. And it was one of the many things I took from that course. Six years later, the course teachings continue to shape my ideas about the world. I think about impermanence when I process my brothers death, or when I’m faced with debilitating life challenges. In the depth of my depression in 2014, when all seemed futile. It’s then that a niggling piece of my brain reminded me that I knew a technique to climb out of the hole and find help. It took a lot to come out of the depression, but Vipassana was surely a tool that allowed my brain to lift from that pain.

Many have wondered if I kept Vipassana as a part of my life. Do I still practice the technique, which requires two hours a day of silent meditation?

No, I don’t. I have perhaps ten times in the six years since I took my Vipassana course. I have friends who aim for 20 minutes a day in the weeks and months after their course. I learned a lot during those ten days, but ultimately I continued my round the world trip and somehow allowed the Vipassana to fall aside, with the practice not integrated into my life, but the teachings have remained a part of me forever.

Dhamma Hall

Dhamma Hall on the grounds of our Vipassana center in Nepal, on Begnas Lake

Should You Take a Vipassana?

advice for taking a vipassana course

The crux of the question for many is if they should take a Vipassana course. It’s highly personal. This is not a question I could ever decide for someone. I can’t tell you if it’s the right next step for you, but I can give you a few thoughts I’ve had since then.

I found benefit in the course because it gave me a lot of perspective I needed in my life. On a weekly basis I find my mind reframing situations with the lessons and teachings that you listen to each night. These lessons weave together Buddhism and Christianity to come aware with core truths all the major religions advocate. Goenka teaches these lessons via video tutorials each night. These lessons offered me clarification, peace, all of that happy spiritual-ness that I sought. It didn’t fix my issues, but it gave me a new perspective.

Vipassana is not a cure-all, nor a magical solution to life’s problems. It doesn’t solve anything when you come out on the other side of the ten days. Instead, Vipassana is a tool. It’s a training technique that gives you another way to shape your mind — and yourself — into a person better able to face the world. The ten days are only the introduction to the technique. From there, it’s up to you how much you get out of it. The program provides ideas and a framework for viewing suffering and pain. It was a way to see the world that I had never before considered. It reframed entire swathes of how I view my life.

And one thing my teacher told me has always stuck with me. He said, “Not everyone has heard of Vipassana, but it comes into your life when you need it. When you can most benefit from learning the teachings and technique.”

5 Pieces of Advice for Those Taking a Vipassana

Additional Vipassana Resources

Other online stories:

Books About Vipassana:
These books all either cover Vipassana in depth, or they are the breezy travel reads that include the author’s experience in a course.

Find a Vipassana course:
The official Vipassana site has a directory of centers. Friends who took the course in a Western location report slightly higher levels of comfort. Each center is equipped differently; some offer each student a private room, others are shared rooms. My center in Nepal (country guide here) offered shared rooms and rustic accommodations. Food is always simple and vegetarian, but will vary greatly depending on your location. Many centers near major centers are booked out months in advance; do your research and book your course early.

 

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25 Responses to A Little Reflection… Vipassana Meditation: Was it Worth It?

  1. John R September 28, 2017 at 12:54 pm #

    Great post. I related to a lot of what you’ve written here and it reminded me of my first course. It has been over a year since I’ve been to Vipassana and this has made me think I should book in for another one soon (ish!). Thanks for sharing. I also wrote a post offering advice to first timers.

  2. Cindy September 7, 2017 at 9:48 pm #

    Hello Shannon, I’ve just discovered this blog and am really enjoying it. Getting ready to take off on extended travels in January and appreciating all of the really helpful info here. Also, the notes about your brother and thoughts about addiction. I’m so sorry you lost him.

    I’m wondering, have you talked about your depression anywhere? I’m just starting to process the fact that I’ve lived with it most of my life and am interested in how it’s affected other people as well as how they’ve dealt with it. I’m fortunate that medication has recently made an enormous difference to me but I’m curious about how others have overcome it ‘on their own’.

    Anyhow, I just appreciate your insights in general and this is another area that I’d be interested in hearing your take.

    Thanks so much, for all of the wonderful information, inspiration, and resources you offer here. It’s enormously helpful!

    • Shannon September 12, 2017 at 11:57 am #

      Hi Cindy, I am so glad to hear that the stories have resonated. I haven’t talked much about depression, just mentioning here and there that I suffer from it, and that the constant travel has exacerbated it, at times. I was always more conscious of ensuring that I didn’t have signs of the mental illness that runs in my family, and when serious depression hit in late 2013, I didn’t pay much attention. Being on the road in Africa for the next six months — having no friends or family nearby and moving constantly sent me into a deep spiral. It’s not the travel, of course, but more that I wasn’t creating for myself the environment I needed to see my way out of it. In late 2014 I stopped in one spot, where I had friends nearby, and I started trying to address it without medicine (I didn’t have insurance at the time, so it was a combination of hoping to avoid medicine if possible, and also no affordable access). So, I’ve not used traditional medicine, but instead treated it after many months of 5-HTP. I’ve experimented with other natural ones that increase serotonin and such (SAM-e), and they work really well for me. I’ll admit that I haven’t fully found my balance point in the years since that very dark time, but I am determined never to let myself wait as long before I seek help. I am more aware and active about adjusting my travels/life/medicines as soon as the tip into depression starts.

      Are you heading out solo? For me, that’s often a trigger when I am too long away from friends and community, or just moving too frequently. Please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email if you’d like to talk more. ~Shannon

  3. ShannonOD December 21, 2009 at 9:51 pm #

    Thank you :-) As you say, it's really hard to articulate just what it was
    like throughout the 10 days, and then harder to quantify what it may have
    brought to my life 6 months later :-) Oh, and they do have tours in the US
    (and all over the world for that matter) if you find yourself needing a
    break :-)

  4. Cheryl December 21, 2009 at 1:50 am #

    Wow…I think being proud of completion is wonderful…I wish for an opportunity too to experience this…surely words are hard to describe the experience…

    • ShannonOD December 22, 2009 at 4:51 am #

      Thank you :-) As you say, it's really hard to articulate just what it was
      like throughout the 10 days, and then harder to quantify what it may have
      brought to my life 6 months later :-) Oh, and they do have tours in the US
      (and all over the world for that matter) if you find yourself needing a
      break :-)

  5. Mary R December 17, 2009 at 7:43 am #

    Sometimes I have fantasies about participating in this kind of class… but that may be because I thrive on being alone. I like it a little too much sometimes! Who knows, maybe I'll give it a try. I DO want to go to Nepal. Glad to read that there are all kinds of approaches there

    • ShannonOD December 17, 2009 at 3:20 pm #

      If you're interested and not scared away by all of that solitude then you
      really should consider. They have Vipassana centers all over the world too,
      so you find some outside of Nepal as well. :-)

  6. Mary R December 17, 2009 at 12:43 am #

    Sometimes I have fantasies about participating in this kind of class… but that may be because I thrive on being alone. I like it a little too much sometimes! Who knows, maybe I'll give it a try. I DO want to go to Nepal. Glad to read that there are all kinds of approaches there

  7. ShannonOD December 15, 2009 at 7:34 pm #

    Thanks Steph! I think it's good for the “Maybe Someday” list – in the
    program that emphasize that you only find Vipassana when you're supposed to
    :-) So, well, when you're supposed to take it you'll find your way into a
    class! :-)

    • ShannonOD December 17, 2009 at 8:20 am #

      If you're interested and not scared away by all of that solitude then you
      really should consider. They have Vipassana centers all over the world too,
      so you find some outside of Nepal as well. :-)

  8. Stephanie December 15, 2009 at 7:34 pm #

    I remember learning about Vipassana in an “Anthropology of Healing” course in college. I thought it was really interesting then and wondered if it was something I could get through. It's interesting to hear from some one who has actually done it and to read about your experiences. It's definitely something I have on my Maybe Someday list.

    • ShannonOD December 16, 2009 at 2:34 am #

      Thanks Steph! I think it's good for the “Maybe Someday” list – in the
      program that emphasize that you only find Vipassana when you're supposed to
      :-) So, well, when you're supposed to take it you'll find your way into a
      class! :-)

  9. Stacey December 15, 2009 at 6:06 pm #

    Okay, never mind, I just started reading your Solitary Confinement post. Hypoglycemia trumps curiosity, and that early wakeup call is in exactly the wrong place in my sleep cycle. My head would explode by day 2.

    Heavy-duty retreat experiments shall remain vicarious. Good on you for making it.

    • ShannonOD December 15, 2009 at 7:34 pm #

      Well, it doesn't take long to get twitchy, trust me, at times I was going
      out of my mind! :-) Funny you should mention the hypoglycemia though, I am
      too, that's why I made them feed me more food at night…and I refused to
      surrender some protein and granola bars that I had brought – and they
      agreed…I just had to promise not to eat in front of the others outside of
      the set meals :-)

      But yeah, unless you're really jonesing for something that intense, there
      are other retreats that sound really amazing that don't involve so
      rigorously affecting your food/sleep/body.

      PS: They have Vipassana centers all over the world if you're tempted ;-)

  10. Stacey December 15, 2009 at 6:01 pm #

    Reading that post makes the idea strangely tempting. Maybe it's the work burnout talking… I spend a lot of time alone since I work solo, so I might have a head start. I wonder how long it would take me to get twitchy.

    Hmm.

  11. Amy @ The Q Family December 15, 2009 at 2:20 pm #

    Wow! 10 days of no communication!! That's a really big accomplishment. I don't care if you don't learn the secret of the universe but you sure can be proud of yourself. Now, I will venture out to guess that you are a Gemini just because I married one. :)

    • ShannonOD December 15, 2009 at 2:40 pm #

      Thanks Amy! And as for me, I'm a Capricorn (but I've been asked if I was
      Gemini before ;-) but I'm pretty spot on as a Cap!

  12. Stephanie December 15, 2009 at 12:34 pm #

    I remember learning about Vipassana in an “Anthropology of Healing” course in college. I thought it was really interesting then and wondered if it was something I could get through. It's interesting to hear from some one who has actually done it and to read about your experiences. It's definitely something I have on my Maybe Someday list.

    • Stacey F December 20, 2009 at 6:50 pm #

      Wow…I think being proud of completion is wonderful…I wish for an opportunity too to experience this…surely words are hard to describe the experience…

  13. ShannonOD December 15, 2009 at 12:34 pm #

    Well, it doesn't take long to get twitchy, trust me, at times I was going
    out of my mind! :-) Funny you should mention the hypoglycemia though, I am
    too, that's why I made them feed me more food at night…and I refused to
    surrender some protein and granola bars that I had brought – and they
    agreed…I just had to promise not to eat in front of the others outside of
    the set meals :-)

    But yeah, unless you're really jonesing for something that intense, there
    are other retreats that sound really amazing that don't involve so
    rigorously affecting your food/sleep/body.

    PS: They have Vipassana centers all over the world if you're tempted ;-)

  14. Stacey December 15, 2009 at 11:06 am #

    Okay, never mind, I just started reading your Solitary Confinement post. Hypoglycemia trumps curiosity, and that early wakeup call is in exactly the wrong place in my sleep cycle. My head would explode by day 2.

    Heavy-duty retreat experiments shall remain vicarious. Good on you for making it.

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