I am having a hard time putting my recent experience at the Vipassana meditation centre in Ontario, Canada into words.
It could be because for 10 days I didn’t utter a word, or because any and all forms of recording devices were locked away for the length of the course.
I might not be able to tell you exactly why, but I can tell you with confidence is that these 10 days changed my life.
Vipassana is an international organization run solely by volunteers. They emphasize a non-sectarian approach to teaching the Vipassana meditation technique, as taught by S.N. Goenka, and make it extremely accessible for any and everyone who wishes to participate.
It all sounds a little too good to be true, am I right? Just about anyone can attend a Vipassana course, so long as they are serious about giving a fair trial to all that the course requires of them.
On the first day of the course all students take a vow of “noble silence”—not uttering a word to other students and avoiding all gesturing, glances and non-verbal communication. As a student, you commit to a daily schedule that includes a 4 a.m. wake up call, 11 hours of meditation, two daily meals with no dinner, and the relinquishment of any reading, writing or personal entertainment materials.
Still not convinced you want to go? Here are 10 reasons why you should consider giving Vipassana a try:
1) No cell phone
Before beginning the course, I was very much looking forward to giving up the phone. In our modern society we treat our cell phones like a fifth limb, and I am all too guilty of this. Relinquishing the phone felt like a huge sigh of relief! I like Instagram as much as the next person, but I realize that it has become a crutch and an unneeded distraction. For 10 days, I can honestly say that I didn’t miss the phone once, and part of me wishes I could have left it with them. I found it funny that “thumb scrolling” and typing took some time to get used to again!
2) “Baggy and boring” clothes
The packing list that Vipassana provides specifies that you bring clothes that are “baggy and boring.” Hello, sweatpants and ugly sweaters! There is really no need to dress to impress at this course; no one is supposed to be looking at you anyway!
3) Gender segregation
Yes, that’s right. For 10 whole days you will not cross paths with anyone of the opposite sex. While you might sneak a glance across the meditation hall at the seemingly elusive men or women, you will not get within 10 feet of each other until the final day. Whether or not this convinces you to give Vipassana a try, it’s an interesting experience regardless. Funny things happen when large amounts of estrogen are congregated—for example, everyone getting their period at the same time. Thank goodness the staff were on the ball!
4) The food
“Simple vegetarian meals” are provided twice a day for the duration of the course. While you are expected to make do with fruit at dinner (your appetite naturally decreases with all the sitting), breakfast and lunch were absolutely delicious! The volunteer “servers” (students who have completed a course in the past) are responsible for the cooking and they do a bang up job. There was lots of variety, accommodations for dietary restrictions and plenty for seconds. Some highlights were tofu green curry, hearty soups, Indian curries, and steel cut oats with stewed fruit at breakfast. I nearly jumped for joy when vegan chocolate cake was presented for dessert one day, and I ate two pieces with a smile on my face.
5) Movies every night
Every night there is a “discourse”; a lecture delivered by Goenka via recorded video circa 1991. These discourses became my favourite part of the day, because not only did Goenka offer insight into the work we were doing in our meditation, he is also a really funny dude. His “Goenka-isms” and “stories from my country” would have the whole room howling.
6) Early to rise
I am normally an early bird, so getting up at 4 a.m. each morning to meditate wasn’t a huge stretch for me. That being said, arising from sleep in the dark of night is an adjustment. The gong rings twice as a wake up call, and proves to be a very un-threatening alarm. Being able to observe the beautiful night sky sans light pollution was enough to convince me to get out of bed.
7) Get serenaded many times a day
Recordings of Goenka chanting the words of the Buddha take place multiple times a day during the meditations. I’ll admit it was distracting at first, since I wanted to know what he was saying, and I am by no means fluent in Pali. When the instructor explained that they were words of love and encouragement, I came to accept them as that.
The silence was not at all difficult to adhere to. Since no one else is talking either, you quickly learn to dance around others without a word when waiting in line for food or a bathroom stall. It was really interesting how all the students learned to tune into each other without speaking a word. I’ll also mention that while you are strongly discouraged to communicate with other students, you are freely allowed to speak with the teaching staff and management with any questions or concerns.
9) Cost is not a barrier
Vipassana makes it very clear that you do not “pay” for your time at the course. If you do choose to give a donation at the end, it is meant to be for the benefit of other students attending in the future. How nice is that? Also, as an “old student” (someone who has completed at least one 10 day course), you are welcome and encouraged to come back to serve a course as a volunteer cook or handyman or some sort of staff member.
10) It just might change your life
The whole purpose of the course is to learn the Vipassana meditation technique in its truest form. You take on the lifestyle of a monk or nun for these 10 days, and in the process radical things can happen. As I mentioned above, this experience certainly changed my life. I feel as though I see the world through a different coloured lens. That being said, ongoing meditation is still a practice—and a challenging one at that. In our modern society we all too often shove our feelings down and suppress their true expression. We resort to maladaptive patterns of thought and action that end up harming us and others. Vipassana really shone a light on what it really means to be a loving and happy human being.
I am forever grateful for this experience and am so glad that I took refuge in this amazing place. Despite how challenging it was, I know I will be back in the future. I hope that you consider investing 10 days in yourself as well.
May all beings be happy!
More about Vipassana:
dhamma.org (the official site of worldwide Vipassana courses)
The Art of Living (book)
Dhamma Brothers (documentary)
Author: Suzanne Poldon
Editor: Emily Bartran
Facebook is in talks with major corporate media about pulling their content into FB, leaving other sites to wither or pay up if we want to connect with you, our readers. Want to stay connected before the curtain drops? Get our curated, quality newsletters below!