On January 14th, 2013 I made my way from Hilo, Hawaii south to a small farm a few miles south of Pahoa, Hawaii in order to attend my first 10-day Vipassana Meditation trip. The following is an account of my experience.
The first section attempts to answer any questions potential new students might have about the experience. After that comes my personal account of the retreat.
On my confirmation email it said arrive between 2 and 4pm, but that didn't matter too much. I ended up arriving at 1, and I was able to talk to some of the men and women that were also attending the course. This surprised me. I had assumed that I would have to be silent once I arrived. In hindsight, I am happy that I was able to get to know some of the people. It put me more at ease to know about my fellow meditators, even if I couldn't talk to them. I would recommend focusing a bit more on talking to people of your own gender, since males and females are segregated during the course.
The first sit begins at 8pm on Day 0 in the group meditation area. Once everyone gets settled, the assistant teacher starts a recording by S. N. Goenka. This recording begins with ~20 minutes of chanting in some old indian language. This happens prior to any instruction, so I ended up just sitting there wondering what was going on. Eventually he explains the chanting during the day 1 video. He says that the chanting is "the teacher spreading good vibrations", or something like that.
After the chant, you are introduced to the course and asked to take and honor 5 precepts for the duration of the course:
1.) to abstain from killing any being.
2.) to abstain from stealing.
3.) to abstain from all sexual activity.
4.) to abstain from telling lies.
5.) to abstain from all intoxicants.
After the intro is over, the first instruction is given: "Try to keep your focus on your breath while maintaining your natural breath. Your focus will drift. Whenever you notice this, bring your focus back to your breath without any negativity." This is what you will work on for the next ~10 hours of meditation.
After the first sit ends at 9pm, you go back to your residence and sleep. The morning wake up bell is at 4am, so try and get as much sleep as possible, as sitting all day and meditating is (unexpectedly) pretty exhausting.
From Day 1 to Day 10 the schedule adheres pretty closely to the following*:
*Between any two non-break sessions there is a ~10 minute break that is not specified in the schedule.
Anytime you can meditate in your residence, it essentially becomes an optional meditation period where you can nap instead. Try to limit doing this, but do whatever you need in order to get through the 10 days.
Here is what you focus on each day (May be slightly off after day 4):
Day 1 - The breath itself.
Day 2 - The feeling of your breath inside the nostrils or on the rims of the nostrils.
Day 3 - The feeling of any sensations on your upper lip, due to breath or anything.
Day 4 - "Vipassana Day" - Scan your body "part by part" from head to toe, trying to feel any sensation that occurs on the part that you are focusing on, but view each sensation with "equanimity".
Day 5 - Same as day 4, but after each head to toe pass, you start from the toe and go to the head.
Day 6 - Try to feel sensation on symmetrical parts of your body at the same time.
Day 7 - Try to move your attention as if it was simultaneously washing over as many parts as possible.
Day 8 - Move your attention in a free flow if you can (I was never able to), or flow in any part that you can, do this one or two times, and then scan the body part by part.
Day 9 - If you can get a free flow, then try to pass a plane through your body, and if you can do that, try to feel tiny areas in any random part of your body. (I never got to this either.)
Day 10 - You learn a new meditation of how to spread your "loving-kindness" to all beings, or something like that. This is to be done for a few minutes after Vipassana. Also, you get to talk at ~10 AM on this day, and so you end up doing only the group sit in the afternoon, and the evening schedule remains the same.
You are required to wear clothes that cover the body from the shoulders to the knees. I wore t-shirts and jeans. If you want to wear shorts, they must cover the knees. A lot of people had very loose fitting clothing, which is probably more comfortable than jeans, but from my sits at home I knew that jeans would be fine for me.
Don't worry at all (unless you are really picky). The food served is all vegetarian (with an option to be completely vegan), and very delicious. I always told myself that if I wanted to leave after lunch that was a really bad sign, because the food always helped my mood. One thing to be careful of is eating too much. I usually took a bit of each thing offered, filling one plateful of food, and I never had any problems. Obviously, each person is different, so start with a moderate amount and adjust based on how you feel.
Boredom wasn't really an issue, the breaks were fairly short, and the time I wasn't meditating I spent either taking care of body maintenance, or trying to sleep. If you find yourself bored, just remember that you choose to attend in order to learn how to meditate, so if there's nothing else to do, just meditate.
If you have really made your mind up to leave, they won't stop you. During my course, 11 men (I noticed 5), and 1 lady left (due to falling and breaking her hip =( ). If you are feeling pressure and start to have a desire to leave, I wholeheartedly recommend talking to the teacher even if you don't have a specific question. Just saying a few words to someone about my experience, or really anything, helped me to deal with what was going on.
I would advise trying to find a posture that is comfortable for you to sit without moving for at least 40 minutes before you go to the retreat (as you will improve more with practice). Beginning on the 6pm group sit on day 4, the three 1 hour group sits become sittings of "strong determination" meaning the goal is to try to not change your posture for the whole hour (as little back movement as possible, but don't open the eyes, hands, or legs). My advice for this is: Don't torture yourself. Do whatever it takes to get yourself through the 10 days. I told myself that my "strongest determination" was simply to complete the course, and gave up on sitting still when I felt like that goal was in jeopardy. I ended up spending the final group sit on day 9 with my feet flat on the floor in front of me, eyes open, just trying to survive (I was having a hard time which I'll detail in the personal experience section). It's not a competition and there should be no ego involved, but try to make the most of your time because you are choosing to be there.
The course I attended provided cushions to sit on, and by the end of the course, everyone has their own setup of cushions. I found all the different "thrones" to be quite amusing, but ended up just sitting in half-lotus on a single square cushion.
As the course went on, I found myself getting only around 4 hours of continuous sleep per night. For me, I think this was due to a combination of sleeping in a tent on the ground, and the effects of the meditation. I would recommend finding a center with lodging that you are comfortable with. Sleep is very important for being able to focus on your meditation.
Discourses (video lectures from Goenka) were probably one of the most entertaining parts of the day. Goenka is quite the character. He had already hosted a large number of meditation retreats by the time the videos were made (sometime in 1991), and in these discourses he often nails exactly what you are feeling at the time. He also tells quite a number of entertaining stories. However, when he is teaching, he sells his version of Vipassana, and he sells it hard. So hard that I often felt uncomfortable at the prospect of being expected to just accept everything he says as true, without the opportunity to experience the changes that his method would bring to my everyday life. During the 10th day, I talked about this with some of the other guys, and one of them mentioned that at one point Goenka says that "Everyone's reality is what is true for them", which is something that I _can_ accept. If you are capable of fully immersing yourself in the teaching for the 10 days while being confident that you will be able to step back from the experience after it's over, I recommend that route. If not, and you go and have a similar discomfort, just hold on to that phrase.
After the course, Goenka recommends that you sit for 2 hours each day: one hour in the morning, and one in the evening. I think that setting such a high bar is discouraging to people, as I met a few old students that haven't kept up with practicing. My goal is 30 minutes per day, but during this vacation I haven't had a good place to meditate, so it's been more like 20 or 15 minutes. Still, I think that a little practice is way better than none. As Goenka says "Continuity of practice is the secret to success".
Disclaimer: its hard to remember exactly when things happened, so the days of some of these events may not be accurate.
Day 0: I decided to take a bus to the site of the retreat. On that bus, I met two other guys who were also headed there. (They would later both drop out, one on day 2, one on day 5.) The bus ended up dropping us off about 5 miles from the actual site, so we decided to try to hitchhike, and were blessed by the kindness of a local within 10 minutes. We ended up arriving at 1pm, and the silent part of the retreat didn't start till 8pm, so we had plenty of time to meet our fellow students. I'm glad that I was given this opportunity because seeing these people stick it out helped give me the strength to do so as well. 8pm eventually rolled around, and we gave up our electronics and headed to the meditation tent after having been fed a delicious dinner. At 9pm when we headed back to our tents, I realized that I had left my tent partly opened (one of my many noob camping mistakes). This was my first encounter with bugs in my tent, this one being a crazy looking flying spider thing (which seems similar to a daddy long legs, but I'm still not sure what it was). Since we had agreed not to kill anything for the duration of the retreat, I captured it in a plastic bag and set it free outside of my tent. This concluded day 0.
Day 1: I made a few more camping mistakes on day 1. First, day 1 was a very rainy day, and in the process, my shoes got very wet. Wet feet were terrible for my mood. Second, I stupidly decided to take a shower at 5:30 during the rain. This was awful for several reason: The shower had no hot water, my pants got wet from the rain, and I got ~5 mosquito bites from the mosquitos that inhabited the shower. (These shower mosquitos were a constant annoyance, lying in wait waiting for some poor soul to try and clean himself.) In addition, I didn't properly dry my hair, which made me cold, which made my nose run. It's hard to meditate with a runny nose. Needless to say, my spirits were quite low. This day was also my first anxiety spell wondering if I would survive all 10 days. This passed, and the urge to leave was manageable. The only redeeming quality was that I could tell that my focus was getting better through the practice, and the evening discourse was quite entertaining.
Day 2: My shoes dried out, and I was starting to adjust to the schedule, and I moved my shower time to after lunch. (Unfortunately the mosquitos where still there.) The day went well enough until the evening. I had problems dealing with day 2's evening discourse. I found the way Goenka presented his teaching uncomfortable at times because he sells it so hard. I experienced this issue during several of the evening discourses. Still, I could tell I was making progress so the urge to leave was manageable. I had scheduled a noon interview but couldn't figure out where they were held. I asked the teacher about it that evening so I would know for future reference, but I couldn't remember my original questions at that time.
Day 3: The morning was awful, it was very cold so my nose was running, but I had no tissues. I stupidly decided just to stick it out, but I would have been better served by leaving the tent and going to the portipotties to get toilet paper to use as tissues. I decided to schedule an interview that I actually showed up to and used the opportunity to express the problems I was having. I told him about my troubles with camping, and cold, and bugs. His response was essentially "You just have to deal with it.", but simply talking to him helped my morale, and I could again tell that my focus was improving even more.
Day 4: This was my first experience intentionally skipping parts of meditation. I skipped the second hour of morning meditation in order to get a bit more sleep. I think this was a good decision. Day 4 was also vipassana day which changed the afternoon schedule a bit to allow for a 2 hour block where Goenka introduced the technique of scanning one's body. After it concluded, I remember walking out thinking that I had just experienced something profound. After dinner, we had our first sit of "strong determination", which I lasted 52 minutes of, but gave in shortly before the end.
It was around this day that a mosquito got into my tent, and since I was unable to kill it, I was forced to learn a new skill: How to push a mosquito with my hands. This even happened ~3 times during my stay, and so I have become quite practiced at it.
Day 5: More Vipassana. I think it was this day that I had another strong anxiety spell. I eventually calmed down enough to just start breathing and understand that it too would pass. After it was over, I was able to step back and think about what happened, but I still wasn't sure how I should have handled it. I again scheduled an interview with the teacher. Through this conversation, I realized that all emotions manifest as sensations on the body, and my body reacts to anxiety with a tight feeling in the chest. In response my brain would get anxious and cause my chest to get even tighter. I realized I was simply feeding off of my own anxiety, and that the best way of dealing with it was to step back and observe the initial anxious sensation without reacting.
Day 6: Still more Vipassana. By the end of day 6, I thought I would be able to survive the next 4 days without any problems. Little did I know...
Day 7: I started off day 7 with a bang, attempting to make every sit a sitting of strong determination and wanted to attempt to sit for the full ~11 hours per day. By the end of the afternoon group sit, my back was in quite a bit of pain, and it was still hurting during the evening group sit, so I gave up on my "strong determination" instead saying I would instead have a strong determination to make it through the course. It was around this time that I was having a lot of trouble concentrating because my focus was so exhausted, and I was having trouble getting more than 4 hours of continuous sleep. I was also having trouble falling asleep, because I had been training my body to focus whenever I closed my eyes and started breathing, which is exactly what you do when you try to sleep.
Day 8: I was throughly exhausted and started trying to rest as much as possible during the optional mediation times.
Day 9: One would think that by day 9, things would have gotten easier, but this turned out to be one of my hardest days. As stated before, I hadn't been sleeping well, and by the 5pm meal, exhaustion had set in. During that meal, one of the other guys started laughing (which I later found out was started because one of the fruits was unexpectedly extremely sour). This contained laughter spread to some of the other guys, and although I didn't know what was funny, I was having difficulty not bursting out into laughter. I had to just get up and walk away. I started to panic, thinking that I was cracking under the pressure, that I was being brainwashed, and other ridiculous things. After 9 days of no distractions, my mind was very quiet. This quietness combined with my exhaustion made it feel like I could not even generate a thought to distract myself. In addition, I was feeling very strong vibrations all throughout my body. I felt like I was losing my identity, and this added to my anxiety. Eventually I anchored myself on a thought, and spent this "strong determination" sitting with my eyes open, and legs bent out in front of me just breathing and thinking "this too will pass". I eventually survived the sit, and things got a little bit better, but that night I fell into a semi-conscious state in which I again experienced strong vibrations throughout my body, experiencing the "arising and passing away" of each moment realizing how pointless it is to become overly attached to any temporal feeling.
Day 10: I awoke with enough energy to have an easy time during the morning group sit (I skipped the 4:30 sit). Then just one more hour until I could talk. Talking was way more relief than I expected it to be, and with the easy schedule that day, I knew everything would be fine.
Day 11: There was a short early morning sit, followed by a discourse, and the we ate, packed up, and left. I was back in Hilo by 10am still trying to make sense of everything that had happened. But that is a different story.
Although I had a difficult time (I don't think there was a day where I didn't consider leaving), I am very glad I went and stayed to the end. It was exhausting, challenging, and uncomfortable, but I think I had some very profound experiences that will stay with me. I plan to go back at least once to serve a 10 day course in order to pay forward the opportunity to have such a unique experience.
I think the main benefits that I have and will hopefully continue to receive from the course are: Lower anxiety, greater tolerance for unpleasantness, better focus, increased desire to help others, increased awareness, increased openness, decreased ego, better patience.
I don't think there are long term benefits without continuing to practice, so I plan to make a habit of meditating daily.
If you have read this far and this seems interesting to you, I definitely recommend trying to do a 10-day retreat. However in the interest of fairness, I will leave you with this Buddhist saying (and I'm not quite sure what it means) - (In reference to the path of buddhism) "Better not to start, once started, better to finish."
If you have any questions, additions, or corrections feel free to message or email me.
Bonus for people that have attended: