"May All Beings be Happy."
That is ultimately the premise and goal of the 10-day Vipassana meditation course. A simple and powerful phrase - yet one that seems so unattainable for many people.
It was after meeting a Polish and a German girl at a yoga training center in Varanasi, India that propelled me with an inquisitiveness to pursue such a mad goal. They had gone through such a course and were discussing their experiences and being in one of the most spiritual places in the world, I became quite intrigued. While I did understand the overall benefits of meditation...but why would anyone in their right mind sit for 11 hours a day for 10 days?!
Being in the adventurous and explorative state that I was in, I tried (with not much urgency) to find a course in India and later in Thailand. But none really fit my schedule, and I wasn't in the mood to sit for 10 days straight. However, upon returning to the States and realizing there was a center in Vipassana Meditation Center in North Fork, California, I decided to check it out while I still had the time. Unfortunately, there was a waitlist (these courses are popular), but I was luckily drafted out of the waitlist.
Once you are accepted, correspondence through emails are pretty descriptive and all information can be found on the website. All courses are run entirely on donation basis, which is a pretty amazing model. The course is split up evenly with around 50 men and 50 women ranging from all walks of life with male and female volunteer servers aiding with the clean-up, food preparation, and course management. One must remain completely silent for 10 days, which helps with the process of introspection and awareness. The course is taught by a S.N. Goenka, who is half teacher, half comedian, and 100% Legend. Born into wealth in Burma to parents of Indian descent, he escaped the rat race to spread happiness and compassion to all around the world through Vipassana. Interestingly, they decided to use audiovisual recordings of Goenka to teach the class (as he has since passed away), so you will be listening to him talk with the assistance of two assistant teachers. But surprisingly, it works because Goenka is such a fantastic teacher.
When you accept the course, rideshares are coordinated through the website and email. I ended getting a ride in San Francisco from Marvin, an older gentlemen and second-timer, who is a software developer by trade. We wound up picking up Barbara, a native Russian, who moved to the Bay Area to work in venture capital. It would be a 4-hour ride to get to North Fork...
So what should I bring? The course website suggests a bunch of stuff, but for the North Fork Center, you really don't need much as they provide most of necessities (unless you want to bring your own). Please don't pack as if you're going on vacation, all I really needed was my backpack:
- Bedding (they provide unless you want your own)
- Clothing - 10 days worth but you can get by with less depending on time of season. Would recommend layers, a jacket, and beanie for the Fall and Winter courses. Sunglasses are nice when the sun is out. Comfort is key
- Meditation Cushion (they provide unless you want your own)
- Watch - while they provide alarm clocks, a watch to tell time is extremely useful as no cell phones are allowed
- Shoes - would recommend shoes that are easily removable because you'll be switching in and out a lot!
The list is simple because it should be simple. The majority of your time will be spent meditating, eating, and walking around. You're not going anywhere fancy. Besides, they provide literally everything from bug repellent to alarm clocks.
Here is daily course offering:
4AM - WAKEUP!
4 - 630AM - Meditate in Meditation Hall (Hall) or own room
630 - 8AM - Breakfast (buffet style mix of oatmeal, cereal, grains, fruit, tea, and coffee)
8 - 9AM - Group meditation in the Hall
9 - 11AM - Meditate in hall or based on teacher's instructions
11 - 1PM - Lunch and break
1 - 230PM - Meditate in Hall or own room
230 - 330PM - Group meditation in the Hall
330 - 5PM - Meditate in hall or based on teacher's instructions
5 - 6PM - Tea break
6- 7PM - Group meditation in Hall
7 - 815PM - Goenka's Dhamma Talk!
815 - 9PM - Group meditation in Hall
9 - 930PM - Question time
930PM - Lights out
All in all , it's about 11 hours of meditation per day. Don't worry, that sounds excruciating, but it gets easier over time. Additionally, for the almost the entire time, there is no interaction between men and women with each respective separated into their own meditation grounds.
What about the food? It's basically buffet style, and you only get two real meals with breakfast and lunch. For first timers, you will probably overeat the first few days but realize it will ruin your meditation practice. As the days go by, your stomach and appetite will naturally adjust to the schedule as well. Breakfast is usually the same mix of cereals, oatmeal, grains, fruit, toast, and tea/coffee. Lunch is a rotating mix ranging anywhere from rice and curry to pasta and potatoes. All in all, the food is pretty darn good and it is a lot!
What about facilities? The North Fork center is quite simple yet amazing compared to what one would expect. The place is located in the foothills of North Fork, far removed from society. The facility has remodeled itself with a brand new pagoda for serious meditation. The grounds are literally located in nature; even deer and tarantulas were spotted! The fall sunsets are amazing and can best be viewed at the pagoda. You'll get a few hours a day of your own time to walk around and do mini hikes around the grounds. There are newer facilities and quads, where one gets his or her own private room and bath. Otherwise, you may share a shared facility dorm-like accommodations, although they do try to give everyone their own private rooms.
Alright, with the basics out of the way. Here is my experience from Days 0 - 11. Please keep in mind that everyone's experience is different!
Day 0 : Picked up by Marvin at a Peet's in San Francisco at 10AM and picked up Barbara in Menlo Park. Arrived in North Fork at around 2PM for registration and check-in. After getting an orientation, paperwork, and getting checked into your room, you have some time before dinner and your first meditation session at night in the Meditation Hall. Noble Silence starts, which is absolute silence and no communication. And so it begins...
Day 1 : 4AM wake up. Holy crap...am not used to this schedule. It's a cold walk up the hill to the Hall, but it's still dark out and the whole cast of stars are out tonight. The first day is tough, as I try to find the meditation posture I want to keep. I end up switching positions probably over 50 times during the day. My feet, legs, and back hurt like hell. What is all this chanting?! It's still Anapana meditation for first 3 days (respiration), so it's not entirely new. But what is new...is the 11 hours of meditation compared my previous best of 1 hour. The Dhamma talk at night is enlightening and a breath of fresh air from all that sitting...Goenka talks about how our worries of the past and future lead to anxiety and of the wandering "monkey mind." Instead of the cult-like leader we believe him to be from all that chanting throughout the day, he comes off as a comic legend with wise jokes and insights. The group would eventually fall in love with this guy.
Day 2 : Finally got some good sleep after a few restless nights. But still extremely sleepy and kept dozing off during the morning sessions. However, Day 2 proved to be one of the most intense and hardest days for me. While distant and forgotten childhood memories popped up, at the same time, the biggest worries and anxieties brought upon by the subconscious monkey mind came out. Additionally, some wild thoughts like giant spiders in the bathroom and a big bear that somehow saved my life came to fruition...I have a wild, monkey mind. I had to walk out for some air several times to recompose. The evening Dhamma talk was about mastery of the mind and how one needed to work hard to control our monkey minds.
Day 3 : Much more composed and relaxed. However, the monkey mind was still wandering and swinging from thought to thought. How cruel you are. How do I make it stop?! Breathe...observe your respiration...don't fight it...just observe. It's the quintessential theme of the practice of Vipasssana to just observe and be aware and it will pass. Change is one thing we all have in common in life...it will all pass. The evening Dhamma talk introduced the concepts of Śīla (moral conduct), Samādhi (mastery of the mind), and Prajna (wisdom). Something Goenka said really resonated with was the impermanence of life...while it sounds tragic, we must learn to appreciate death because every moment we live, we are also closer to dying.
Day 4 : Morning feels a bit easier. The groove of waking up early has now become more ordinary. Sitting for long periods of time is also easier. Today, we are introduced to the Vipassana meditation technique, which required us to sit 2 hours straight without moving! That was probably the hardest part as we were just introduced the technique of becoming aware of our sensations around our bodies. I can't tell you how torn apart my body felt after that. But one must observe all sensations...even the pain...as it will all go away eventually (it does!). The evening Dhamma talk introduced Saṅkhāra, or motivations and dispositions of the mind.
Day 5 : Crazy dream. I've actually been dreaming every night. I was driving my 2009 Honda Accord vertically up a building of stairs, and then I woke up. But besides that, today was much, much easier. While understanding the concepts was still a bit foreign, meditating was become a lot easier. I could now sit an entire hour without moving. It seems the entire class gets it too, as one can notice the silence in the Hall - everyone is actually meditating. During the daily walks around the grounds, I notice an increased awareness in my senses. Sounds are amplified and the smallest sounds are noticeable. Sight is more visibly aware to my natural surroundings, as I begin staring and being amazed at Mother Nature. I remarkably notice an ant hole on the trail with thousands of work ants moving in and out...I stare in amazement for a good 10 minutes. Along the path, another guy is peering into the blue sky. Another guy is examining a tree and its bark. Another guy is staring into the bushes. This is what LSD must feel like. The evening Dhamma talk reverberated the notion that cravings and aversions lead to attachment , which leads to misery. How to get rid of these attachments? Through observation of our sensations (you'll get this concept by the end).
Day 6 : Another intense day. I felt like I was penetrating deep into my subconscious as if I were looking on as a third-person from a dream. Again, a lot of nasty worries came swinging from the monkey mind. But by becoming more aware, I began realizing the importance of observing everything instead of reacting and repressing. I spoke to the teacher, and he explained that through observation of our physical sensations, we learn to eliminate the effects of our worries. The Dhamma talk that night went further in depth with Vipassana and how it can lead to liberation. Again, lots of funny stories woven into the talk.
Day 7 : Again, a lot of mind vs. the future. Stop! Had a slight headache throughout the day, which passed by evening. The Dhamma talk stressed the importance of relieving cravings and aversions and the impermanence of life. However, by the end of the night, everything seemed more sensible and it was tonight where I kind of got the message. I realized it took the pain of the process mixed with the intellectual words of insight to truly understand Vipassana.
Day 8 : Best day yet. Whole day of fully concentrated meditating and simply, living. The mind was clear, and the monkey mind seemed a bit more tamed. Being able to meditate for hours felt amazing. Walking around was bliss, and I did a lot of reflecting on life. The Dhamma talk consisted of awareness and equanimity in the process; basically, we must keep a balance in our sensations and emotions in order to be "liberated." There was a story about a scientist who wanted to learn and realize the effects of meditation, something that science couldn't truly explain.
Day 9 : Started off tired because I had such an awesome Day 8, that I treated myself to a sugar-heavy milk tea the previous night and couldn't sleep until 1AM. And then woke up at AM. The afternoon turned out to be amazing, as many of us silently and introspectively watched the sun set into the pink sky atop the pagoda hall. Life seemed precious and beautiful. Noble silence is removed that evening, and we are allowed to talk outside the Hall. The Dhamma talk that evening introduced ways to keep our lives balanced and we all control our own happiness (and miseries)...it's all in our minds.
Day 10 : It's Day 10! Woke up early excited to finish up the final full day. The schedule is a bit different today, but a lot of the day is spent finally interacting with other students. It was great to see the faces on each and every single face. A sense of accomplishment. At the same time, a palpable sense of happiness drifted through the air. People were laughing and smiling and excitedly sharing.
Day 11 : Final meditation in the morning before the final cleanup. We must clean up and prepare for the next wave of students who were due to arrive in a week. Many of us exchanged contact information and hoped to continue our practices in our communities. I rode back with Chuck, who oversees audio and music for Sony's PlayStation platform and is an avid musician and artist, and Mike, who was a history teacher who quit his job and hiked 3 months on the Pacific Crest Trail. A great bonding time on the way back to San Francisco
What can I say? The 10 days aggregated people ranging from business people, artists, and scientists who wanted to learn more about themselves and train their minds. As a first timer, I was a bit skeptical and had no idea what I was truly getting into, but I am so happy that I had this experience and encounter. Of course, with anything in life, one must continue practicing for anything to be effective. But I do believe that training of the mind is of utmost importance, as many of our day-to-day problems do stem from the mind. So much time is spent on training ourselves to be best we can be for the exterior world, but we leave the mind untouched.
(Will write more about my thoughts on the 10 day meditation course in a later post!)