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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Should You Take a Vipassana?
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:
- If you missed by day-by-day account of the journey your mind goes on over the ten days, read it here.
- Jodi from Legal Nomads shares a deeply personal account of her journey through Vipassana.
- My friend Dan shares his Vipassana experience.
- This is a fun and interesting read from Men’s Journal; they broke a lot of rules!
- Andrew Sullivan, a well-known writer and blogger, reflects in NY Mag on how meditation allowed him to reconnect to his life that he had masked with internet, technology, news cycles, and noise. It’s a fantastic long-read.
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.
- A Beginner’s Guide to Vipassana Meditation (available on Amazon Kindle or as a downloadable PDF): Practical advice to decide if you should take a course, as well as thorough information on how to prepare.
- Mindfulness in Plain English: A recommended reading for those interested in Vipassana and the theories around mindfulness.
- Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness: An acclaimed book by a western Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein.
- The Art of Living: This is next on my “to read” list as it is a book sanctioned by S.N. Goenka to distill down his teachings.
- The Discourse Summaries: If you’ve done a course, consider this summary of the discourses. I found these discussions provided many of my profound shifts throughout the 10 days.
- My Vipassana story was including in the To Nepal With Love anthology of stories.
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 (Nepal Travel 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.