Vipassana at Dhamma Thali
Last week I came back to Bali from India, after attending a 10-day Vipassana course. I am still processing everything that I have learned and experienced during this period and it has taken me some time to sit down and write about it. It’s hard to explain what happened, as it is something that I think you have to experience yourself to fully understand. So in this post, I’ll try to give you an insight into what Vipassana is and what you can expect, if you decide to apply for a course as well. At the end, I’m also sharing a few of my personal experiences.
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana is an ancient meditation technique that originated in India. The aim of Vipassana is to find liberation and enlightenment. It is not related to any religion, rituals or belief. Vipassana is universal and taught to let people experience harmony, peace and happiness. It teaches you to observe objectively and to analyze your behavior patterns, deep down until its roots. This can lead you to find the causes of any mental impurities, so you can dissolve them, in order to live a balanced life.
For new students of Vipassana, you can apply for a 10-day course at any Vipassana center in the world. After attending your first course, you are entitled to attend as well short-term courses at any center after. It is advised to do every year a 10-day course once at least and also to volunteer for one every year as a server. All the courses are free and based on donations. Most of the centers offer the courses in their local language and English. The Dhamma website has all the information you need about locations and course dates.
Dhamma Thali in Jaipur
This year, I did my Vipassana course at Dhamma Thali in Jaipur. It is the second largest Vipassana center in the world and is located just outside of Jaipur. Jaipur was easy to reach from Bali, as I flew to KL first and then took the direct flight from KL to Jaipur. Once in Jaipur, the center is roughly around 30-45 minutes outside of the city center. The center itself is surrounded by hills and nature, and it makes you feel like you are at the end of the world. There are no houses or any traffic around, it is very peaceful and quiet.
The center itself is very simple. The accommodation provides you with a bed, some storage and a bathroom. Some of the rooms were newer than others and depending on which one you get, you may have a shower in your housing or just buckets to shower yourself. The same goes for the toilet, as you may get an accommodation with a standard toilet or a squatting pan. There is a fan in the room and depending on the season, it may get a bit chilly during the night. I was there during dry season and it was totally fine sleeping during the night with a fan without it being too hot. The center also provides sheets for you to use for your bed but if you need a blanket, you have to bring it on your own. In case that you forget something, the center also has a small shop with toiletries etc. so you can make your purchase there as well in the first few days via the servers. A few other helpful items I brought with me was an alarm clock, my own plate and cutlery and a torch.
The food that you get is vegetarian and very simple. Sure, the variety is not great and after ten days it might become a little bit boring, but it was good quality. In the morning, you will be mostly served porridge and beans together with tea, whereas during lunch there are more dishes to choose from. Usually you will get rice and bread together with some daal and curries. During your afternoon break, you can get more tea and there will be some snacks as your supper. There is no dinner.
Before the silence
Once you arrive at the center, you have to give away any writing and reading materials, phone, valuables, intoxicants and sacred threads. During the ten days, you should not have anything with you that can distract your mind, so you can fully focus on what you experience through the Vipassana meditation. Men and women are separated throughout the entire course. You will be given an accommodation, once you arrive and a meditation cushion in the meditation hall. This is where you will be spending most of the time during the entire period. I arrived quite early at the center and got a single room. The later you arrive, the higher the chance that you will be sharing a room with someone else.
10 days of silence
4am: Waking up
4.30-6.30am: Meditation on your own
6.30-8am: Breakfast and rest
8-9am: Group meditation
9-11am: Meditation after teacher’s instructions
11-1pm: Lunch and rest
1-2.30pm: Meditation on your own
2.30-3.30pm: Group meditation
3.30-5pm: Meditation after teacher’s instructions
5-6pm: Afternoon tea and rest
6-7pm: Group meditation
7-8.30pm: Teacher’s discourse
8.30pm-9pm: Meditation instructions for the next day
12-12.30pm and 9-9.30pm: Questions for the assistant teachers
On the arrival day, the silence starts with the first group meditation in the evening at 8pm. During the entire period, we had two assistant teachers in the meditation hall with us that were giving us instructions. Besides that, we were listening to Goenka’s teachings during the sessions. Goenka was the latest teacher of Vipassana and has recorded audios and videos for the courses to pass on his knowledge to students.
No silence also means no gestures, so we were not allowed to interact with anyone whether it is a smile or just eye contact. The servers and assistant teachers are very strict and will warn you, whenever you break the rule of silence.
Above is the timetable for the entire course. Every day is the same and this timetable is as well the same in all Vipassana centers. Depending on if you are a new or old student, the instructions change and old students are also given a cell in the Pagoda. The cell is a tiny room with a meditation cushion on the floor, where you can meditate in solitude.
All in all, we meditated for about ten hours each day. If you are not used to sitting in a meditative seat, this can be very painful in the first few days. There are options to get more pillows or a support for your back to make it as comfortable as it can get.
The first three days we were taught Anapana meditation, where we learned to focus on our respiration. This was the preparation before Vipassana, so we can train to focus our mind and become aware of the ingoing and outgoing breath. On the fourth day, we started with Vipassana by beginning to observe any physical sensations we experience on our body. We went deeper into the technique day by day and the objective was to observe the sensations objectively. Without any craving or aversion towards what we experience, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. During teacher’s discourse we watched Goenka speak in videos, where he explained to us further the meaning of Vipassana and the different steps throughout the 10-day course. What the purpose is behind this practice and how it can help us to become liberated and live in harmony.
It all starts with moral conduct - Sila. During the course, you abstain from killing any being, stealing, sexual activity, telling lies and taking any intoxicants. This is the foundation of Vipassana. As a next step, you develop the concentration of the mind - Samadhi. It is samma samadhi that should be achieved during Vipassana, which means to live with a pure mind. A mind that is equanimous towards all sensations and that is not only concentrated but also liberated of all cravings and aversions. That can observe, face and accept. The last step is the wisdom of truth - Panna. To understand the changing nature and impermanence - Anicca. That every sensation we experience is transient and nothing is permanent.
On our last day, we were taught Metta meditation. It is focused on compassion and kindness, where we simply direct these values to everyone around us. After all, this is the key learning of Vipassana - Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam. May all beings be happy.
My personal experience
This Vipassana course was one of the hardest things I have ever done so far. It was not hard for me to be in complete silence for these days, in fact I was very much looking forward to it. I was working a lot and not treating myself very well leading up to this course, so I was happy to just spend a lot of time with myself without socialising and distractions. What was hard for me was to stay focused and concentrated. It takes a lot of energy and training to be constantly attentive to your mind. Especially in the morning meditation, I had moments where I was falling asleep, which was also a reason why I just meditated on a simple cushion, so my physical body needs to be awake to sit upright. What I noticed was that my mind became sharper with every day, as there is no distraction around and meditating is the only thing you can do. It is also quite scary to see where your mind wanders and what thoughts arise. I had a few visions during my meditation which seemed very real and eye-opening but also very intense. It felt like I was in another world and had left my physical body. One day I found myself in a vision that showed where I would end up, if I would still be in my past relationship and it showed me an outcome of my life, which was not pleasant. Another time, I was thrown back into a moment last year where I experienced a lot of pain and saw with clarity why it was so painful and why I ended up in this specific situation.
As you learn not to react and observe what you experience objectively, you also find out why you behave in a certain way and where this pattern comes from. The most valuable lesson Goenka has taught me is that we create our own misery. There is no one out there that is creating pain and discomfort for us, it all starts with our own mind. And as we create our own misery, we are also the only ones that can stop it. Sometimes we react to situations thinking it will make us feel better by letting of some steam or being right in a discussion but in the end we don’t really feel better and certainly do not the people on the opposite side as well. Whenever we are getting hurt by someone, it is our own choice what we do with this sensation we have. We can take action for ourselves and find a solution, or we react to it by feeling sad and asking ourselves why this has happened to us and feeling pity. We shouldn’t be angry at whoever caused us harm but we should be compassionate towards them, as they have their own impurities in their own mind, thinking that their action is a right thing to do. This was so valuable to me as I started to not only see from my perspective but also what I cause others by reacting to every sensation. It is an ongoing learning journey and I catch myself still in my old behaviour patterns but it is already a step forward to realising what I can improve and where I need to work on in order to live a balanced life.
Another valuable lesson was that there is no reason to hold on to the past. What is done is done, and the same goes for anyone that has passed away. Being sad and putting ourselves in misery does not bring the person back into our lives and the only thing we can do is to take an action here for ourselves and move on. My mind very often wanders and thinks about what would have happened, if things were differently. But in reality they are not and what is in the past can’t be changed. We often crave a feeling that we remember from our past and we try to recreate it but we won’t ever experience a feeling twice. Our life is an always changing nature. And we need to live in the present moment to see the things how they really are - Dhamma. Only then can we follow the law of nature and see the ultimate truth. It sounds easier than it is, or at least for me. It’s a never ending journey of learning and improvement. And Vipassana has given me the tools to learn from my reactions and become a better version of myself every day.
On the 11th day, we had one final group meditation and the final words of Goenka were:
I had a few mental breakdowns during Vipassana, especially on Day 1, 5 and 6. The beginning has been overwhelming and as well after you reach half of the time, you realize how much work you still have to do. But the biggest emotional release I experienced during these final words, as I was thrown into another vision where I saw so many things very clearly with my mind. Situations where I was blaming others but really I had to face myself. The people I love that I have harmed, people that have harmed me and I couldn’t forget or forgive.
In the end, I would recommend anyone to do a Vipassana as it is an amazing opportunity to observe yourself and the way your mind works. We all have our impurities and insecurities in life and Vipassana is a great way to face them and to get to the root of our behaviour. This enables us to remove the root instead of only digging on the surface, as I have done very often with other meditation or healing techniques. It is not easy I admit, it is very hard to be alone with your own mind. But it will be so worth it.