This passage details my Vipassana experience and how I failed to complete the 10-day vipassana meditation course.
“Let’s get out…let’s get out…let’s get out now!” – one of the voices in my head screamed out.
“Hold on. Just focus on the imaginary square on top of your head and ignore the agony.” – another calming voice inside my head countered.
My legs were trembling with pain – pain from sitting cross-legged on the floor, for the past several days, and nearly ten minutes that morning.
My body’s pain sensors yelled at me to shift positions, but I didn’t heed. I wanted to beat the pain by ignoring it, by focusing elsewhere.
If I succeeded, I would learn the art of remaining calm and not reacting immediately to any disturbing events around me.
While I tried to maintain a calm exterior, a thousand voices inside my head were battling it out – half of them trying to convince me to quit and half trying to make me stay there as long as possible.
I had almost defeated the voices urging me to quit when this loud, gruff, hoarse voice boomed: ‘Start again… start again…!’
That was the tipping point on the sixth day of my 10-day Vipassana course when I decided I was done here.
I had learned everything I had to learn and needed to get out immediately. And thus, I exited the 10-day Vipassana meditation course midway!
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The 10-day Vipassana Meditation course: How I landed up there
I had heard how several popular personalities had benefited from Vipassana experience, and how it was an effective tool to tame one’s mind.
My friend Smiling Buddha (you know him from our earlier escapades), too, had heard about it, and it was on his insistence that we decided to try it now. I was curious to discover how Vipassana would change the me inside me.
What is Vipassana Meditation
The Vipassana website explains it beautifully as follows:
“Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an Art Of Living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.”
One Mr S. N. Goenka brought back the Vipassana meditation technique to India.
What is done in Vipassana Meditation?
The 10-day Vipassana experience revolves around meditation by focusing on one’s breath.
- The days start early, around 4 am, with group meditation. The breakfast break is at 6.30 am, followed by more meditation sessions.
- Lunch is served at 11.30 am. After a short break, the meditation sessions continue from 1.30 pm. The last meal of the day is served at 5.30.
- The day ends with a videotaped discourse of Mr S.N Goenka. 9.30 pm is bedtime.
What is incredible is that you don’t have to pay a single rupee for the 10-day stay and food! The Vipassana course fee is zero – the movement runs on donations.
During these 10 days, participants must follow the code of discipline, per which, among other things, one should maintain noble silence (i.e., shouldn’t talk) and shouldn’t make eye contact with others.
My Vipassana experience at the Dhamma Madhura centre
So back to our story. Once we decided to attend the session, we checked their website to find out how to register.
The good part was that vipassana centres are spread all around India (and the world), so, finding a centre near us wasn’t a challenge.
We found one on the outskirts of Bangalore (Dhamma Paphulla), so we visited that centre one weekend.
It was a peaceful experience, and we decided to register for the course at this centre.
On checking with the administrative person there, he mentioned that registrations for a course would open a few weeks before the course start date, and we would need to register online.
So, we waited for the registrations to open. On D-day, around noon, we hopped on to their website. To our amazement and shock, we found the course was already filled.
The same was the case with all the centres in Karnataka. We checked for other nearby places and found a few slots open in the Dhamma Madhura centre.
We submitted our registration forms. (To register, one must fill out their background and write about why they want to attend the course.)
I don’t know how they shortlist the attendees from all the applications they receive, but I got a mail after a few days stating that I had been shortlisted. Smiling Buddha, too, got a mail.
There was a checklist of items we had to bring (apart from our turbulent minds) – comfortable clothing, an alarm clock, a torch, mosquito repellents, and such.
Checking in to the Dhamma Madhura Vipassana experience centre
We drove to Madurai from Bangalore (a 7-hour drive) and decided to stay there for a day before checking in to the Dhamma Madhura centre.
Since we would be going without much food for the next 10 days, we decided to explore all the lovely eateries in Madurai. We did what bears do before hibernation – eat as much as possible.
We ate to our heart’s content from all the popular eateries of Madurai. (The eateries around Madurai Meenakshi temple, Madurai Bun Parotta kadai, and Chandran Mess, to name a few). Here’s a short video about Madurai Bun Parotta Kadai:
The following day, we drove to the Dhamma centre. The drive was scenic and enjoyable, especially since the centre is located at the foothills of the Sirumalai range. I love driving through Tamil Nadu, I love the food, and this drive made me love the place even more.
When we reached the centre around 3 pm, the registration and check-in of participants were going on.
We filled up the forms and deposited our phones, wallets, and car key at the front office. The centre had single and multiple occupancy rooms. We were allotted individual rooms.
Since we wouldn’t be allowed to talk while we were there, Smiling Buddha and I devised a few hand gestures to communicate. (The most important among them was the ‘abort mission’ gesture – which we would use if we had to get out midway.)
I retired to bed early, at around 9 pm that night.
The Vipassana experience
At 4 am, I was woken up by the sound of a gong followed by the fierce ringing of bells. It turned out that one of the volunteers was walking around our rooms ringing the bell. This would be the wake-up alarm for us for the next several days.
I got ready and proceeded to the main meditation hall to find most participants seated cross-legged on cushions on the floor. I looked for the number they had assigned me and found my seat.
The first three days were about calming one’s mind. The technique (Anapana) focuses on one’s breath – specifically on the triangular area between your nose and upper lip, and then be aware of the breath that goes in and out.
During the first three days, I realised that the second most difficult thing for me was to sit cross-legged on the floor without shifting positions.
A few minutes into sitting in that position, my knees would start aching, and parts of my back and sides that I never knew existed would make their presence felt.
Adding to my woes, my mind would spin off thoughts like crazy – I surprised myself with the kind of imaginative mind I had.
I mentioned earlier that sitting cross-legged on the floor was the second hardest thing for me. Do you want to know what the hardest thing for me was?
It was to mediate while Mr Goenka’s chants played on the loudspeaker. No offence to the great man, but I couldn’t bear listening to his raspy voice (Here’s a sample: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqEWTlaweaM ).
Despite that, I tried to concentrate on the triangle on my face. I visualised the impurities in my mind settling.
I kept straying, and sometimes opened one of my eyes to peer across the room. I would find my co-meditators in different seating positions, trying hard to meditate. Some were seen fidgeting, some sitting like a rock, while some snoring away to glory.
On some days, strains of old Tamil movie songs would float in and cut through the silence of our centre. There must’ve been a temple festival going on nearby. The songs would break my meditation and transport me to a happy place (I love old Tamil songs).
During the breaks, I would stroll around the centre and stare at the Sirumalai range looming over us, with clouds covering the mountain tops.
Over the course of the Vipassana experience session, some participants requested and got backrests, which helped make their endeavour a bit easier. On one occasion, I put in a request for a backrest too, but it was rejected. (I think you can request one while registering).
On the fourth day, they taught us the next technique in Vipassana meditation. It was to first scan a small area (an imaginary square) on top of one’s head, and progress downwards, scanning the entire body, one square at a time.
During the process, if you feel discomfort in any part other than the area you are scanning, you are to ignore the discomfort.
Mr Goenkas’s voice on the loudspeaker kept giving suggestions about the sensations one may feel during the process. (“…Maybe heat or cold, throbbing or pulsing or some other sensations…part by part….piece by piece…”)
I sucked at meditation. If I considered a one-hour period, I would’ve meditated properly for only about 4-5 minutes. For the rest of the time, I would be thinking about where else I could have been, what else I could have done, my past and things I should be doing in future. Mr Goenka’s voice irritated me more when I tried to tame my monkey mind.
I just wanted to get out, roam free and maybe eat a vada. A hot, crispy, melt-in-the-mouth vada. With some tasty Tamil Nadu Vengaya sambhar and spicy chutney.
Instead, here I was, eating rationed portions of healthy millet.
Meals in the centre were simple, and I found them tasty. Since squatting on the floor with a full stomach was difficult, I usually ate light.
Around the sixth day, we were asked to try and sit without any movements or shifting positions. This was to practice Adhitthana, or ‘strong determination’.
That is when things got unbearably tough for me. Until now, I had managed to sit through the sessions, frequently changing positions to temporarily relieve aches and pains. But now, I wouldn’t be able to do that.
The thought of doing this for the next four days, the irritation from listening to Mr Goenka’s voice while attempting to meditate, thoughts of how I could be doing a road trip through Tamil Nadu right then, and the boredom from doing the same thing for many days – all culminated in my deciding to call off my Vipassana attempt.
Now I had to check if Smiling Buddha, too, would be ok to jump out since we would have to drive back together.
I had done the ‘abort mission’ gesture on the fourth day to him, but he had ignored my sign. So I wasn’t sure if he would be open to getting out now.
During the morning break, I signalled to him, and to my joy, he nodded in agreement.
We spoke to the teachers in charge about our decision to get out. I cited my inability to sit still (attributed to knee surgery I had undergone a few years back).
The teacher tried his best to talk me out of it – even offering me a chair for the remainder of the course, but my mind had already given up and wouldn’t entertain any thoughts of staying back.
Smiling Buddha used his most potent weapon – his reasoning and debating skills – to convince the teacher why he needed to get out.
Later that afternoon, we collected our belongings and checked out of the Dhamma centre.
I can’t describe the relief I felt when I drove out of that compound. It was so liberating that I wished I could bottle it up.
The first thing we did after getting out was to stop at the nearest tea shop to have tea and a couple of vadas. Since we had a few more days of vacation left, we decided to drive to nearby Karaikudi. That turned out to be a great experience. My previous post talks about this experience – read it here: https://sampathmk.com/chettinad-houses
I have compiled some of the sights from that trip in a video here. Please watch it:
Now, if you plan to attend a Vipassana course, this post may appear discouraging. But please understand that my experience is mine alone. Your context and experience would be unique to you.
The course has benefited millions of people. Millions can’t be wrong.
Many go back to doing it every year. It is valuable and teaches you how to attain focus and peace. It has helped people get over grief. It has helped people write better. It has helped people govern better.
So please use this post to a) learn from my failure and b) understand how you must prepare.
Looking back, I can see why I couldn’t complete the session.
- I landed up unprepared. I didn’t do much research about what to expect and didn’t plan. I just expected to show up and get transformed.
- I didn’t put in the work. I wasn’t ready to put up with the rigour that was needed.
- I wasn’t serious about the course.
- And the silliest reason: I was not too fond of Mr Goenka’s voice.
So, will I ever do a 10-day course again? I don’t imagine myself doing it ever again. Plus, they probably have blacklisted me.
Additional reading and material on Vipassana experience:
- Yuval Harari (Author of Sapiens) on how Vipassana helped him: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1_YhlXiuxE
- A good write-up by Jodi Ettenberg, blogger at legalnomads: https://www.legalnomads.com/vipassana-meditation/
Ones I found funny:
- An account by Ivy Kwong (She, too, didn’t like ‘the’ voice): https://humanparts.medium.com/what-really-went-down-at-a-10-day-silent-vipassasna-meditation-retreat-taught-by-s-n-goenka-7c3ad60d027e
- Found this video (and comments people left) funny: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5_VUIXbJrU
You must try Vipassana meditation once – it may work for you. I would love to know if you have tried the Vipassana experience already.
“May all beings be happy; May they all be secure.”