The first day of a 10-day Vipassana course is difficult, but it’s not complicated. Everyday is virtually the same and a large schedule is posted. It looks more or less like this, only without the commentary:
- 4:00 am: The Morning Wake Up
Someone walks through the dormitories ringing a gong for about 5 minutes. It’s a slow, resonating sound, not unpleasant and quickly familiar. It’s used to call people to the hall and to signal the beginning and ending of meals. You hear is so much during the course that the first day back in the world I missed it. In the morning you have 30 minutes to use the bathroom, brush your teeth, and get ready for the first sit of the day.
- 4:30 – 6:30: Meditation
The gong comes round again. You begin meditation. Either in the Meditation Hall or your “cell” (your room). Most new students go to the Hall because they don’t really know what they’re doing yet.
- 6:30 – 7:15: Breakfast
Two more rounds of gonging, before and after breakfast. The food is simple and vegetarian. One bit of advice given is to eat sparingly, only what you need and never until you feel full. My first course I took that advice and never had to experience trying to meditate with too much food in my belly. You can hear the results of others ignoring this advice in a silent meditation hall.
- 7:15 – 8:00: Break
you can either collapse in your bed or walk around a small yard about the size of half a football field.
- 8:00 – 9:00: Group Meditation in the Hall
- 10:00 – 11:00: Check-ins with the teacher
After the first Group Meditation of the day you go in small groups from your assigned spot in the Hall to sit with the teacher. Here you’re asked in a whisper, yes or no questions about how you’re doing with the technique. You’re not to break Nobel Silence with anyone else around you. You then meditate with the teacher for about ten minutes before you’re dismissed to continue meditating in your place in the Hall or your cell.
- 11:00 – 12:00: Lunch
- 12:00 – 1:00: Take Rest
During Rest periods you are asked not to meditate. You may walk around or lay in bed. You may also meet privately with the teacher with brief questions if you signed up beforehand.
- 1:00 – 2:30: Meditate in your quarters or the Hall
- 2:30 – 3:30: Group Meditation in the Hall
- 3:30 – 5:00: Meditate in your quarters or the Hall
- 5:00 – 6:00: Break
Tea for New Students Only. The New Students are also offered fruit to eat. There’s no dinner for anyone. Old Students are allowed only lemon water. Everyone takes Rest.
- 6:00 – 7:00: Group Meditation in the Hall
- 7:00 – 8:15: The Daily Discourse
A recorded message from Satya Narayan Goenka, the head of the whole practice, with instruction and reflection on what you have done that day.
- 8:15 – 9:00: Group Meditation in the Hall
- 9:30: Lights out.
Although it’s not complicated Vipassana Meditation is mentally, emotionally, and physically the most demanding thing I’ve done.
Caveat: The following is not meant as instruction. I’m no teacher and no description of technique could substitute for the experience of an official course.
First you find a comfortable position in which to sit. You can sit cross legged, you can kneel, you can do anything but point your feet at the teacher. Once meditation begins though you don’t move. The pain is certain, but the technique is meant to turn you into an observer. So you’re asked to observe the sensations of pain, but not react to them. If it becomes unbearable you can move, but as slowly and slightly as possible.
Next you learn Anapana, or the observation of breath. The first full 3 days your sole focus during meditation is to observe your own breath. How simple does that sound? Aren’t we always aware of our breath? I thought so, but it must be your natural breath. Meaning it can’t be influenced in any way by your thinking about it.
“This is not a breathing exercise”
you’re told during initial instruction,
“You’re not to control your breath in any way. You’re only here for these 10 days to observe.”
As it turns out the observation of your breath is simple, but only after you have a quiet mind.
Oh. Is that all?
My mind on Day One was anything but quiet.
My mind most days (after 3 of these courses) is still anything but quiet. You worry about money, health, future, traffic, you stress about everything. And during a sit you can’t think about a pleasant memory from your past, your favorite activity, your favorite person, your anything. Your full awareness has to be completely focused on what your breath is doing. You’re only supposed to focus on the flow of breath entering and leaving your nostrils. So none of that relaxing in through your nose out through you mouth controlled breathing.
Why is it hard? Well, while you’re sitting there in unmoving increments of one hour, learning to observe your breath and push all other thoughts out of your head, you’re just becoming aware of how much pain your body can produce elsewhere. You aren’t supposed to ignore it exactly, but to accept that the pain (like pleasure) is a transient experience and that the point of that present moment is to observe your breath. You’re told this like it’s the simplest thing in the world to forget that your right calf is a festival of tingling, hot, stabbing pain and just quietly focus all your attention on your nostrils.