First things first, if you prefer an ignorance is bliss approach like me maybe don’t read the rest of this post, instead just apply for a Vipassana course at the next opportunity – long story short, it’s worth it. If you want to have a bit more idea of what’s involved, read on..
I won’t go into the ins and outs of the actual technique because I wouldn’t want to cloud the experience with my feelings and thoughts, or give any preconceptions about the actual Vipassana itself, so here’s just some of the details of my experience.
I did the Vipassana at Dhamma Java, about 1.5 hours from Jakarta airport, the centre arranged the transport for us (cost 150,000 IR each way, about $15), when we arrived we got through the admin, handed over our phones and passports (they had to check there was sufficient visas in them), men and women were separated and the silence begun. No screens, no eye contact, no exercise, no talking, no reading, no writing….
The food throughout the course was incredible, all vegetarian (mostly vegan in fact) and so tasty, there were two meals (this was a devastating surprise on day 1 when I had rationed my first two meals thinking there was going to be too much only to turn up for evening “tea” to find out it wasn’t the meal “tea” but just the drink!). There was a LOT of rice, which isn’t something I have that much of in my day to day diet, so two rice based meals a day was a lot but always plenty of veg, fruit, tofu/tempeh and most importantly flavour. My main frustration with the silence was not being able to find out what the meal actually was I’d just eaten so they sadly remain a mystery!! I know that the food for each course is different but I can confirm the Java centre was brill, though I did find myself pretty hungry in the evening and early morning – not the ideal recipe for meditation, for me at least. As in life, looking forward to the food helped me get through the day and each meal was a nice surprise too.
As I mentioned, exercise wasn’t on the agenda except some walking around the gardens. I think the men had a bigger space to walk, ours was pretty limited but nonetheless it gave some respite during the breaks for a wander. Other than that I walked barefoot most of the time to keep my feet working if nothing else, and did some daily stretching, the inactivity definitely contributed to the challenge!
Our mornings started with a 4:00am bell and our first meditation at 4:30, from there we had a break for breakfast (and a nap) at 6:30-8:00, another for lunch 11:00-13:00 and our tea break in the evening 17:00-18:00. The rest of the time was spent meditating except for an hour or so of evening discourse which was a filming by the rather unique S N Goenka giving us a bit more information about Vipassana and the principles, and some entertainment. I have to say, sometimes I was so tired, hungry and uncomfortable from all the sitting, I didn’t always focus so my post course to do list includes rewatching some of these to get a better grasp.
The meditations themselves were mainly in the meditation hall, where we would sit on a cushion – I can tell you now I never realised how difficult sitting could be, but when we were also meant to stay still (all part of the technique), it got 50 times harder. Some of the daily meditation could be done in our own rooms too, just depended on the teacher.
Over the course of the ten days, as you can imagine sitting with your own thoughts, there was a lot of “stuff” to deal with, from past, future, all over – things i was aware of, things I hadn’t even considered, sometimes I just found myself baffled with where these thoughts or memories had come from, it was fascinating and unsettling, a mixture between the brain wanting to entertain itself, do anything but meditate and also taking the opportunity to face these things that perhaps I’d not dealt with or ignored, intentionally or unintentionally. It was dark at times, and there is so much for me to still process and reflect on – day 1 post course and I think the best word for my current state is “reeling”.
My mind pulled out songs from thin air that I craved being able to listen to, questions cropped up I wish I could remember to google or at least write down (examples: who played Tommy Shelby? (proudly managed to get this, sans google on day 6) How do you tie a sarong properly? What’s what in an Indonesian bathroom? How do you make ginger tea taste so strong? What’s the religion in Sri Lanka? Honestly it was endless), amongst many, many other strange thoughts.
On day 10 our noble silence was broken, which honestly was a little overwhelming at first – going from ten days not talking, to ten days of catching up with the people you’ve shared it with was a lot and I found myself hiding at first, not necessarily being one for large social groups anyway. After I had acclimatised, it was so great to speak to all the wonderful people on the course – it always surprises me how when you follow your interests you meet so many like minded people. I even had a numerology reading down by one of the ladies on the course (it was quite emotional, so in hindsight maybe not the best idea!!) and a tarot too which was very cool and not something I’ve done before – more food for thought! The experience each of us had was different and I’m really grateful for the silence so we weren’t swayed by what came up for others, but it was really interesting to compare notes post silence. I also think the experience I had was very specific to my current situation, I have a lot of unknowns at the moment so I think if I do the course when I am in a more settled state I would get something completely different from it.
You can do the Vipassana course as many times as you want, one man on the course has done it 28 times! I can barely contemplate doing it once more (though I know I want to deep down!!) so I am nothing but in awe of those that do it regularly.
Other notable things about the course – you had to cover up to knees and shoulders at all times and no tight clothing (this was a challenge on my limited wardrobe which is mainly leggings, shorts and little tops) but there were sarongs to borrow which helped. There was no toilet roll (had I read the email properly, I would have known this…but of course, i didn’t) but you could buy some there – it felt a lot like camping at times! And there were more insects than I have ever seen in my life, possibly because it was rainy season (we were up in the hills of Java – lots of big downpours, dramatic thunder and lightning daily – pretty cool), and i got bitten at least 30 times, probably more – my insect repellant was useless! Also, during the course we were not to intentionally harm any living creature – so despite the automatic response to swat a mosquito…that wasn’t allowed!
I am expecting to spend the next few days at least reeling from the experience, I’ve been feeling pretty emotional yesterday and today and I think there are lots of ongoing aspects to mull over. I am feeling extremely grateful to have had this opportunity and would 100% recommend to anyone that is lucky enough to have the time to spend 10 days on the course, I know that’s not always feasible, but it has been well worth it for me – for the experience, the people, the knowledge, the future practice, everything.
Happy to answer any questions you might have about the Vipassana, in case you don’t know there are centres worldwide.