What is Vipassana Meditation:
Vipassana Meditation is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques, lost and then rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago. The word Vipassana means to see things as they really are. It’s a process of self-purification by introspection.
The technique begins by observing one’s breath and leads to a sharpened awareness as one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind. The mental purification that results allows one to face life’s tensions and problems in a calm, balanced way.
Donation based Vipassana centers offering 10-day silent retreats can be found all over the world. In July, 2014, I attended the Southern California Vipassana Center. I first heard of Vipassana meditation while house sitting in Joshua Tree. I was having lunch at a cafe in town when I randomly met Dorian, the center’s manager at the time, and he invited me over to give me a tour. While I was interested in learning more about the practice, I remember thinking, “Who in their right minds would want to sit in silence for 10 days?” But being the ever-curious person I am, a year later it turned out to be ME.
The Southern California Vipassana Center:
Registration. So it begins:
Dining hall in the background and a gong used to notify when it was time to meditate:
The Meditation Hall:
Men and women are strictly separated throughout the duration of the course:
There are rest periods during the day when you can stroll through the walking path:
Beautiful desert gardens surround the center:
I had never seriously meditated before and therefore was extremely nervous before going. My biggest concerns were that I couldn’t sit still comfortably for that long, that I would be starving since there’s no food served after midday, and frankly, that I would stand out like a sore thumb amongst serious meditators.
I remember reading a review that said, “you’re going to do everything to talk yourself out of it. Just GO.” That was me exactly: I took every hardship, like struggling to find subletters for my apartment and coworkers to cover my shifts as signs from the Universe that perhaps I shouldn’t go after all. I even searched online in hopes of discovering bad experiences and warnings not to go but couldn’t find any. Instead, I discovered that almost everyone who attends gains something positive from the experience. So off I went.
I arrived and settled into my private room. After a light vegetarian lunch and presentation reiterating the practice and rules, the course began. The first few days were spent focusing solely on respiration. For hours on end, I observed my breath as it entered and exited my nostrils and brushed over my upper lip. As the course progressed, we were told to move on to full body scans. Guided audio recordings were provided throughout the day, and each evening there was a video presentation. Teachers were also present to guide and assist. Soon the real world and all its concerns drifted away as I began to spend every waking hour in silence, contemplation, and meditation.
I finished the 10 days with relative ease. In fact, throughout the course I found myself really enjoying it and not wanting it to end. I was overcome with feelings of gratefulness for the center, the practice, and its volunteers. I was amazed by how much I had learned about myself and how much more I felt at peace in a relatively short time. I instantly wanted to tell everyone about Vipassana mediation as I felt like I was given such a gift.
The Days Since:
Once leaving the security and routine of the center and reentering the real world, I found it’s not exactly easy to practice everything I’ve learned, but a lot has remained ingrained, and long-term effects become even more apparent as time goes on. For example, my ability to remain equanimous in many situations that would have previously led to a reaction of fear, pain, anger or sadness continue to strengthen. My ability to sit in silence and not feel like I must always be doing something has improved greatly as well, and I’ve also been able to let go of certain regrets, pent up frustrations, and pain that I had been holding onto.
The practice meant so much to me that I’ve since returned to the center numerous times to serve as a student manager and kitchen server, meeting some amazing people from all walks of life in the process.
A thought that continuously passed through my mind while at the center is that everyone needs to try this at least once. It may feel selfish and seem ridiculous to carve out ten days in your busy life just to go sit somewhere in meditative silence, but once you’re there, and after the initial shock wears off, I believe you’re going to ask yourself how you could have spent your entire life up until this point not doing it. Soon all your worries and concerns, fears and hopes, regrets and memories, once examined, will fade away. You will then begin to better understand the meaning of impermanence, and soon find yourself living in the wonderful here and now. It’s truly a treat for the soul. You don’t have to already be a serious meditator or yogi or follow any certain religion or dogmas; all you need to begin is an open mind and a thirst for exploration into yourself. If it doesn’t work for you the first time around, don’t be afraid to try again at a different time. Go easy on yourself no matter what your experience turns out to be.
Further Reading and Information:
Spiders, Farts, Torture and Enlightenment – One woman’s hilarious account with corresponding pictures to boot.
That Misery Called Meditation – It starts out rough for Tim Yu, but trancends as time goes on.
I would love for you to leave your experiences in the comments and I would be happy to answer any more questions or concerns you may have.