Vipassana Meditation Retreat

One of the big things I failed to write about during my last month in the U.S., but has remained on my mind since then, is the 10-day silent meditation retreat that I went to between April 22nd and May 3rd in Blue Ridge, Virginia. I have talked about it at length with most of you who are reading this thought right now, but I think it is worth writing about and sharing with anyone who is interested in it, if for no other rather than that it is one of the most worthwhile things I have every done in my life. It has really changed the way I look at things for the better.

The meditation technique we were taught during the 10-day course is called Vipassana (vi-POSH-ana) meditation and it goes back more than 2,500 years to the time of Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha. Vipassana means “to see things as they really are” and is a process of self-observation to understand universal truths through continued awareness. Buddha, meaning “Enlightened One”, is said to have taught this technique to hundreds of thousands of people around what is now India during the last 40 years of his life. It has everything to do with how you live and very little to do with what you believe. In fact I think Buddha sums it up well with his famous line, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” The retreat provides participants with the time and space in which to concentrate, observe one's thoughts and then move past them to a deeper state of awareness. There is minimal instruction, less than one hour a day, and maximal time for meditation, about twelve hours a day. There are also times built into the day when you can ask questions of the meditation teachers who are present during all of the group meditations. Below is our daily schedule, which is the same for all Vipassana meditation courses throughout the world.

4:00am Wake Up
4:30-6:30 Group Meditation
6:30-8:30 Breakfast
8:00-11:00 Meditation
11:00-1:00 Lunch
1:00-5:00 Meditation
5:00-6:00 Tea Break
6:00-7:00 Group Meditation
7:00-8:00 Teacher Discourse
8:00-9:00 Group Meditation
9:00-9:30 Question Time
9:30pm Lights Out

I was nervous about the course at first. I worried about meditating for hours a day when I had only previously meditated for a maximum of 15 to 30 minutes at a time. I worried about eating vegetarian food for 10 days straight when I had never even eaten for one day on vegetarian food alone. And I worried about the people who I would be sharing my time at the retreat with, what they were like and what living with complete strangers would be like for ten days. Everything turned out great, but I think these were very valid concerns - ones that might even keep someone from attempting the retreat in the first place. So when I got back from the retreat I wrote down a lot of questions that I had as I went through the process and the answers I came to:

How hard is the course, am I really going to be able to sit for that long at a time?
The course is as hard as you make it, meaning if you really dig deep and give a lot of effort and attention to what you are doing then it will be quite a challenge. However, if you complain a lot and don’t actually pay attention to what’s really going on, the course will be more frustrating than difficult. Personally I found that pain and discomfort were very necessary tools for me to get to where I needed to be mentally. When I was too comfortable, such as when I was sitting in a chair during a meditation at my cabin, the actual physical act of sitting became too easy and it became harder to concentrate my attention. When I sat on the floor the coarse, painful sensations were there for me to study and experience and then they gave way to more subtle, pleasant sensations and on and on. It was hard to understand at first, but pain is not the enemy and comfort is not the goal. In fact, for me, both became irrelevant in terms of causing a reaction within me. The first step in meditation, as I experienced it, was being able to focus all of my attention on the present moment and to experience the present moment within the framework of my body. Thinking about the past and the future, singing songs in my head, fidgeting around in response to discomfort, as well as a myriad of other distractions only took me away from the present moment. Pain in the present moment, pleasantness in the present moment, itching, stinging, pressure, heat, cold, these are doors to understanding what is really happening around me. There are some cases where chairs or back supports are necessary for meditators, but one of the best people to make that call is your teacher. Talk with your teacher during the question and answer sessions each day, try out new poses and meditation benches, and most of all give each session your honest attention and best effort. Coming into the 10-day course the longest I had ever meditated was 10 minutes straight. Sitting for longer than that seemed like it would kill me. I talked to my teacher and he recommended working little by little to build up my mind’s ability to handle it. He was absolutely right. By the end of the course I was sitting for an hour and a half without moving an inch, blinking an eye or making a twitch. I was also doing this in more than one position. You can absolutely do this and you will amaze yourself.

Is eating vegetarian for ten days difficult?
I found the food provided to be very enjoyable and healthy. I had never in my life eaten vegetarian for more than a day or two, but even after eating vegetarian for ten days I didn’t feel like I was skipping a beat. I felt very healthy and well fed. During any given day we had several choices of cereal, breads, jams, peanut butter, salads, fresh bananas, oranges, apples, milk, soy milk, rice milk, pasta, water, coffee, tea, orange juice, oatmeal, granola, soy beans, and cookies.

What are the people like who attend these courses?
I can obviously only speak for the course I attended regarding this question, but I found that the people I met were from an incredible variety of backgrounds. In my cabin of eight people we had a retired surgeon, a carpenter, an artist, a linguist with the Department of Defense, a graduate school student, a recent high school graduate, a computer programmer and me, a Peace Corps Volunteer. Religious beliefs represented in our cabin alone included Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Atheism, with the course overall including Taoism, Islam, Sikhism and Catholicism. Also in the course at large (I probably met about 1/3 of the attendants), there were teachers, chaplains, ministers, stay-at-home moms, graduate students, returned peace corps volunteers, high school, college and graduate school graduates, engineers, government employees and law enforcement officials. In short, I was very impressed by the people I met during my particular retreat. They created a diverse array of personalities, cultures, beliefs and professions that I found very enjoyable.


How is waking up at 4am every day?
I actually found this to be very enjoyable as well. In fact, I wish I could do this more often in my every day life. I found my day to be much more full and productive when I woke up early and went to bed early. It’s a little hard at first, but I really am glad they have the schedule for the course the way that they do.

How is this not a cult?
Michael Lee asked me this question and I think this is a very important question to ask of any organized religion, meditation retreat, course, group, club or organization. In my experience cults are groups believe that what they think is absolutely correct and superior to the beliefs and practices of others. Also I have found that in a cult reason and personal experience is treated as inferior to faith and the experiences of someone else. The faith could be in anything or the experiences could be those of a religious leader or the author of a scripture.

On faith and reason, opposite of a cult, this meditation retreat stated what the Dalai Lama himself has said, “Buddhism relies more on one's own effort, on reason rather than faith.” Also, on the value of personal experience, both the retreat and Buddha himself stated, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” I like both of these insights very much and think that they made the entire retreat very comfortable for people of all faiths as they spent time on their own self-awareness. Closing the course Vipassana teacher stated very clearly that there are many ways to arrive at truth in the world and that an individual’s personal experience is more important than anything that was said or done during the retreat. He also repeated what he had said several times over the course of the retreat, “Take what is helpful from this meditation practice and leave what is not helpful.” The Dalai Lama has a similar saying which I really admire, “If anything I’ve said seems useful to you, I’m glad. If not, don’t worry. Just forget about it.” Truth be told, I did hum the Dharma Initiative song from LOST when I first got to the camp...

Where there times when you wanted to quit?
There were certainly times where I felt frustrated at my lack of progress, or felt like I should be achieving something that I wasn’t achieving. But ironically, these were also the moments where I was closest to a breakthrough, as I later found out. A very important part of meditation for me was realizing how influential desire had become in my life. I wanted to experience something incredible, I wanted to feel something special and I felt like I was supposed to be somewhere other than where I was. For me the important thing to realize was that the present moment, no matter how un-incredible or un-special, no matter how incredible or special, was what needed my attention. When my mind became sharpened to the point that I was truly experiencing the reality around me, the sensations on my body, the experiences happening every moment, that is when I started to make progress and notice the changes that were always happening every moment. Words of wisdom can enter the mind as a thought, but experiencing wisdom is something else, I think. This happens naturally for everyone, but wanting it to happen can slow it down significantly. The sooner I let go of my expectations and desires, the more I was able to experience. I suppose that also helped me get through the moments of frustration very quickly. I am very glad that I stayed and that I experienced the entire course, I think staying open-minded and eager to learn was the best thing I could have done.

To find out more about Vipassana meditation, you can visit their website at www.dhamma.org and sign up for a retreat of your own at any time. Good luck and let me know if you ever need any help!