In this Part-2 of the 10-day Vipassana experience, I am sharing my thoughts about my experience during and lessons learned from the retreat. You can always refer back to Part-1 for a brief introduction to Vipassana alongside with the course rules, precepts, and timetables.
WHAT MADE ME WANT TO JOIN THE RETREAT?
I first heard about Vipassana from my sister and from a friend who regularly joins the course every year. I had been considering to attend for quite some time and feeling very grateful that I finally got the chance to participate in the retreat this year. I remember a rush of nervous excitement when the retreat days got closer yet I had no clue on what to expect. I know that it was part of my spiritual journey and that my intention in joining the course was to gain a better understanding of myself, of the Self. The idea of challenging myself also motivated me.
And what made this retreat even more special was that both of my parents and my eldest sister were attending the retreat as well. It was just exciting to see how this all would go without being able to talk to them at all throughout the course while still seeing them everyday. Thinking about it now always makes me smile. And yes, it turned out to be challenging yet fun.
From day 1 to 4, we were taught to practice Anapana technique by focusing the awareness on the breath, paying attention on the natural flow of breath as it entered and left the nostrils, feeling any sensation on the area below the nose and above the upper lip as we breath in and breath out. I remember questioning myself during this time, wondering if I did the meditation correctly.
This period of adjustment was the most challenging time for me during the retreat as I was trying to find a comfortable sitting position on the floor. I was feeling quite impatient as well, imagining that the days would go by fast, fast enough that I would be free from such boring and annoying feelings. At times when it was hard to concentrate, I just sat there in silence and my mind would wander.
Other than that, I started having a sore throat followed by some nagging coughs. There were couple days where I had to step out of the room because of the non-stop coughing that would suddently hit me. Thankfully, the management provided more than enough cough drops everyone could get outside of the meditation hall. ☺️
A side note about the weather in Joshua Tree that was quite interesting. On some days, we could hear sounds of big wind coming from outside of the meditation hall. Sunny mornings would suddenly be greeted with super windy afternoons/evenings that would make us feel like being blown away when walking outside.
In the evening of day 4, Goenka introduced us to Vipassana technique that was to be practised from day 5 onwards. Goenka made it clear that one should master three pre-requisites, the foundation of Vipassana practice: 1. Sila (moral conduct), 2. Samadhi (concentration of mind); and 3. Panna (wisdom). This explains why we spent several days practicing Anapana before moving forward.
Day 5-9 was still challenging, however, I finally figured a more comfortable sitting position, meaning that I could sit still for a longer period of time. From this day onwards, we started practising the Vipassana technique learned from the previous night, observing sensations throughout the body and developed equanimity by learning not to react to them. We committed to sit in Adhittana, a strong determination sitting, for three hours a day.
We started by placing our attention on the top of the head, the soft spot we once had when we were just born. The attention then moved to the forehead, the space between eyebrows, cheeks, nose, lip. chin, neck, right hand, left hand, front body, back body, right thigh, leg and foot, left thigh, leg and foot and moved back up, part by part. We could also work on the front part of the body first, top to bottom, and then switching to the back part, bottom to top. Note that order is not all that important, consistency is.
Various physical/bodily sensations such as of itching, pulsing, trembling, tingling, pain, etc. might come up and one’s experience might differ from others. The sensations could be subtle or gross, pleasant or unpleasant. We might also encounter blind spots, the spots where we simply not feeling any sensations. By being aware and observing the changes happening in our bodies, we learned how to stay equanimous and not react to the sensations. And by not knowing what kind of sensations we were going to experience, we learned to let go of cravings and aversions.
On the evening sitting of day 6, we learned to scan the body simultaneously and symetrically. Towards the end of the retreat, students were recommended to interchangeably scan the bodies both part by part and simultaneously. Again, order is not important, we can go in any preferable order as long as we do not skip on any body parts.
I could not believe that we were on day 10 already! Day 10, noble talk! We were allowed to talk mindfully right after the morning group sitting. As mentioned by Dr. Goenka, we could see the noble talk as a shock breaker before going back to the outside world again. I love his sense of humor.
Another interesting thing after everyone was allowed to talk was that most of us felt like we were not sure how or maybe reluctant to initiate conversations with our new silent friends. We had grown accustomed with the silence and simply wanted to be with it just for a little bit longer. However, as soon as we opened our mouths and started chatting, seemed like we could not stop. My fellow roomates and I, we spent almost an hour in the restroom, chatting before having to end it so that we could make our way to the next afternoon group sitting.
We got back to the last afternoon group sitting at 3:30 PM. It was indeed harder to concentrate once the noble silence ended, however, trying our best to concentrate was the only wise choice that all of us could make. It went well and we learned another new technique, called Metta Panna meditation, at the end of the Vipassana sitting. Metta Panna is a loving-kindness meditation, a method of developing compassion towards ourselves, to the people that we care and love, and ultimately to all living beings. I felt so peaceful and joyous afterwards.
All students gathered in the hall at 4:45 – 6:30 AM to listen to the final talk and chanting by Goenka. Breakfast was served after and we could decide whether we wanted stay to help with the cleaning, preparing the center for the next group. At this time, we could get our phones back. No cell phone for 10-days felt quite liberating indeed! ;p
And so, that marked the end of day 11 of the Vipassana meditation retreat. It was sad to part ways with others, but the idea of non-attachment here reminded me to move forward and to be grateful that I had a chance to spend and practice together as a community.
I have learned invaluable life lessons from this retreat which I believe it does and will benefit me in so many ways. Below are several wisdoms I have gained from the retreat:
1. Vipassana is indeed a challenging and yet an incredible experience. The entire practice is a mental training. Some days would be harder than other days and some days would also be easier than the other days. Deep stillness and calmness on good days; boredom and agitation on the not so good days. I remember occasionally during the group meditation, I would find a relief hearing Goenka’s chanting of Bhavatu Sarva Mangalam: May all beings be happy, signaling that we were close to the end of the sitting.
2 . Self-discipline. Yes, most of us have been accustomed to have a set schedule ever since we were a little kid. Name it for school or for work. Here at the center, once again there was a set schedule, which reminded us not only to be discipline, but also served as a reminder that we were our own leader. We were the one who decided if we wanted to meditate or to sleep during the meditation hours, especially when we meditated in our own rooms. However, sometimes even though I tried my best to stay awake when meditating, I was still not able to do so. This brings us to the next point below 🙂
3. Self-compassion. The 4:30 AM meditation schedule was the hardest time for me to meditate. I often fell asleep during this time. Also, when I could not concentrate and felt any sensations during meditations, I would be hard to myself, questioning “why am I feeling like this, am I the only one who feels like this?” Agitation, restlessness, and other negative thoughts would come up. But then I would remind myself, just take it easy, this too shall pass. So if you ever feel that way, remember to be kind to yourself, to be compassionate to yourself, not only during meditations but also in life.
4. Gratitude. Vipassana has taught me to be grateful, to find gratitude even in the little things in life. I remember looking up to the sky in the evenings, watching the beautiful constellation in the clear night sky gave me a sense of awe, calmness, and peace. Gratitudes that I am here on this Mother Earth, alive, and being able to witness God’s magical and beautiful creation. And even though there were no exchange of words, I could feel that the other fellow meditators felt the same way too.
5. Anicca (in Pali language): Impermanence. Towards the end of group sittings, one word that Goenka often repeated that sticks in my mind was “Anicca, anicca, anicca…Changing, changing, changing”, which reminds us of life’s impermanence. Understand that both the physical as well as the emotional sensations that come up during meditations are completely okay. Life is impermanent and change is the only constant. Remember that “This too shall pass.”
6. Equanimity and non-attachement to cravings and aversions. Sometimes, there are moments in our lives, when we really wish something that we really want would happen and something we do not want would not happen. Rather than clinging, craving on something pleasant or aversing on something unpleasant, Vipassana teaches us to understand and develop a sense of equanimity and non-attachment. Being at ease with what is, with what we feel at the present moment, without wanting to have certain feelings or to be reluctant to some other feelings.
7. We trained our tolerance muscle. Many people got sick during this retreat and we learned to tolerant of others, of the surrounding noises that might come up during meditations, such as coughing, sneezing, swallowing, farting, growling stomach, etc. Putting ourselves in someone elses shoes and be gentle with other people.
8. Mindfullness in everything. With no talking or access to cellphones, we almost practiced mindfullness everyday and be conscious on what we were doing at the moment. Often times, we could get distracted and not fully present when doing one thing, such as eating. Here in the center, we practiced mindfull eating. Just focusing on eating and doing nothing else indeed made us enjoy and appreciate our food more.
In conclusion, one of the many valuable lessons I have learned from the retreat is that everything in life is temporary. We can feel excited and happy at one time and sad or angry at another time. Through Vipassana, we learn equanimity, the art of non-reactivity, to be the watcher of our thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall and practise less reactivity.
Understand and remember that when we are feeling angry, sad, or agitated in life, rather than reacting to our emotions, learn to pause and take a deep breath. Putting it into practice is indeed more challenging, however I believe, just like our muscles, the more we train ourselves to be the watcher of our thoughts and emotions rather than reacting to it, the better we will be. And so, we are one step closer in creating a better life for ourselves, for our family and friends, for our community, and eventually for the whole world!
I would like to thank you all for being here and reading this blog story. I hope it helps you to get a better understanding about Vipassana retreat. And as always, feel free to reach me for any questions! Love and light to you all, Namaste! 🙏
✨ “What is Life, but One Great Adventure.” ✨