I love the Vipassana course concept because, although the meditation was taught by Gautama Buddha, the meditation itself is completely secular in its nature. Vipassana courses are based on donations and all the people who run the courses are volunteers. The courses aren’t associated with any religious institution either.
I attended a 10-day Vipassana course decades ago in India and always wanted to do another one, but never found or took the time to do so. My last attempts to attend one in Europe failed due to COVID. When researching the possibilities in the Americas, I came across a course taking place near Buenos Aires at the time of our stay there and applied for it. Since spaces are always in demand for these 10-day courses, I was super happy when I got it confirmed. I was really excited about the course, but closer to the start I also got a bit nervous about it. I hardly remembered the first course I took and wondered how well I would cope. Since this was my second course, I would be considered an “old student” and would not be able to eat after noon.
When arriving at the Vipassana meditation center, Dhamma Sukhada, near the small town of Brandsen, I was told that my first course was too long ago and therefore I would be considered a new student. I was very happy about this decision! I texted Bee that I had arrived safely at the center and handed over my phone to the management, since no communication is permitted during the course. No communication means that you are also not allowed to talk with fellow students or communicate in other ways, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc. Students should cultivate the feeling that they are working in isolation.
All participants arrive in the afternoon before the official start day, and after a light dinner and some introductions, you call it an early night around 9:30pm, since the wake-up bell will wake you up at 4:00am every day. You are not allowed to bring books to the course or electronics (like an MP3 player) and you should not write a journal either, so there is really nothing to do but sleep once the activities of the day are over.
My first night’s sleep was definitely too short for me. I got only a bit over 5 hours of sleep. After the first meditation session from 4:30 to 6:30am and breakfast at 6:30, there is a small break until 8:00. I took this as an opportunity for a short 20 to 30 min nap. In the first 2 days I needed these small naps during some of the 3 breaks you get in the day, to make it through the long meditation sessions and the many hours of meditation a day (around 10 hours). By day 3, I was accustomed to the new sleep pattern and didn’t need naps anymore.
Three times a day during group mediation you are supposed to sit for an hour without moving or opening your eyes. This was especially hard in the beginning and also sometimes later in the course. I don’t meditate regularly, so sitting on cushions for so long without moving was sometimes pretty painful. In the short breaks between the sessions I soon started to consistently stretch a bit, and in the longer breakfast, lunch and dinner breaks, I would walk on the walking trail to get some kind of movement. On the grounds of the center not much was going on: a few times a fox would visit and you could watch some birds. You could therefore see a lot of students, including myself, discovering a whole new world of insect life on the walking trail. During our breakfast break we could witness beautiful sunrises, at times with such strong red colors reminding me of Namibia. On day 8 of the course, we had a full moon and throughout the course the moon seemed enormous and near. When getting up in the morning as well as in the evenings, we could clearly see the stars. Sometimes during the breakfast break I would stand half an hour in the dew-wet grass and just look at the beautiful colors of the sky during sunrise.
Dinner was always at 5pm and consisted of 1.5 pieces of fruit and a hot drink. I think by day 7 I decided to just have tea for dinner, because I noticed that I don’t really need more. There were plenty of food choices for breakfast and lunch, but I tried to keep my food intake rather low to facilitate a better concentration during mediation. I think I lost some weight in that process.
I was often surprised how deep I went into the meditation, when I opened my eyes after an hour and realized that there were around 60 more people with me in the room. The meditation technique is a true mind workout and helps you to be more aware about your mind/thoughts/emotions outside of meditation and therefore overcome unhealthy patterns of mind and body. It’s hard mental work to sit for 10 hours a day and to concentrate on meditation. Every day had the exact same schedule, and after a while, I was sometimes not sure anymore which day of the course I was in or whether it was morning or afternoon.
During a Vipassana retreat you are alone with yourself and your own thoughts for a little over nine days. While you should concentrate on meditation and not think about things, naturally a lot of thoughts & emotions come up. I usually don’t cry often but this intensive retreat uncovered feelings inside me that I didn’t even know existed. On day 3, around 4pm, after the group meditation hour had ended and the individual meditation continued, I suddenly had this profoundly sad feeling thinking about my late grandparents and suddenly burst into tears. Once the floodgates opened, there was no way of stopping it. A similar thing occurred on day 8, when I realized the impermanent nature of life on some level I hadn’t before. Sometimes, also rather trivial thoughts, like pictures of food, came out of the blue and passed my mind, even though I am not a food-driven person at all.
On the 10th day after the 9:00am group meditation hour, we were allowed to speak to fellow students. I talked first with a Chilean from Valparaiso (I love this town) and noticed how good it felt to speak again: it was instant happiness. Language is such a blessing if used right and the retreat has helped me to focus on the right use. It turned out that the person sitting diagonally from me during all food times was Uruguayan with German family roots and lived the last 20 years in Germany, being fluent in German next to Spanish. I was the only non-Spanish-language course participant and the course management, the meditation teacher and the volunteers took great care that I had all the information and all audio teachings available in English or German.
So what’s the verdict? This 10-day course was very hard, especially the first few days, but was also very rewarding for me. It centered me and helped me make peace with various issues in my life. It helped me to be more aware of my feelings and thoughts and less of a victim to them.
It’s encouraged that you attend one course a year and if I get the time I could definitely see myself doing a course again, although I know now itself it’s not gonna be a piece of cake.