What is a Vipassana meditation course?
Vipassana meditation is a specific technique originally mastered and taught by the Buddha two and a half centuries ago. It’s now taught at 10-day residential courses all over the world. These courses are the only way to learn Vipassana. Once committing to the entire ten days, students take an oath to abide by five precepts: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct and no intoxicants. Furthermore, students take a vow of noble silence. No talking, eye contact, writing or even reading for the entire ten days (with the exception of questions for the teachers or staff). I looked for a retreat or someplace I could learn meditation. It must have a teacher not seeking profit or connected to any religion or sectarian practice. That’s how I found Vipassana.
Why I left my first 10-day Vipassana meditation course on day four
My first time to a Vipassana center was on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal. After three months in India and two weeks trekking in Nepal I was mentally and physically drained, but determined to get my meditation on. On day 0, a couple hundred people met in the city center at the Vipassana main office. Teachers interviewed students one by one. They went over our application, asked questions and cautioned us accordingly.
We tossed our luggage on few vans, packed in and headed toward the Himalayan foothills. After an hour of bumpy, winding roads, we arrived to a what looked like a compound surrounded by a fence with razor wire. Yikes! But the Kathmandu center itself was beautiful. Footpaths led around the gardens to a gold stupa, the meditation hall and to our rooms. Birds chirped. The sun shined.
After settling in our rooms we ate, then got introduced to the technique. We accepted the five precepts: abstain from killing, stealing, sex, lies and intoxicants. And of course, the vow of noble silence. Ten days without contact of any kind.
Lights out: 10:00 pm.
Loud Gong: 4:00 am. Meditation hall by 4:30.
The day is seventeen hours. Students meditate for ten of those hours with a few breaks. There’s a 90-minute breakfast break and 2-hour lunch break with vegetarian food. Dinner was a 1-hour break with fruit. In the evening was a video discourse from the late S.N. Goenka. He taught the way to understand everything surrounding the practice of Vipassana meditation.
Bed time, repeat.
The first day was doable, but my mind was loud. Pain burned in my legs and back. “What is this!” I thought. “Have I come to suffer the problems of my body and mind? I can’t do this.” Determined to go on, I asked for a small rectangle cushion like some other students had.
The second day was about the same. I felt “sitting pain” in my back and legs. My knees felt rubberized. Thoughts raced. I didn’t see a route to benefits, which became another thought racing through my mind: “You can’t do this, Jesse.” To make these normal difficulties worse, an old sciatic nerve problem arose. It hadn’t bothered me for months, but sitting so long irritated it. Pain pumped from my left hip to my knee. When I came out of sitting to stand, pain shot from hip to foot like a lightning bolt. I asked for a second cushion.
The third day all I could focus on was pain and racing thoughts about the pain. I couldn’t stop thinking about reasons to quit. Temptations from outside the razor wire beckoned me. “But I must stay if I want the benefit! I can’t quit this time. I quit too much.” But the seed had been sown. I had given in to craving and aversion. The habit pattern had control over me. Versions of how to leave, and justify it, flowed through my mind. The only thing that distracted me from the pain.
On the fourth day I told the teacher that I wanted to leave. He was an old Nepali man with a wrinkled face. He had compassion and offered me a chair in back of the room. During the next session I sat in the chair, but my leg still throbbed from hip to knee. It drove me crazy. I had the same craving: “Get out to the city, to a bed, to a beer.” I had the same aversion: “Stop the pain, stop the racing thoughts.” I requested to see the teacher again. “I think I should leave. I don’t want to cause damage to my leg,” I said, pretending to know what I was talking about. I amplified concern about permanent damage, that I should see a doctor. He asked me to lie down and meditate in my room. After a few hours I went to him again and asked permission to leave.
My reaction upset me. I felt the burn of failure and kept in my cycle of stubborn ignorance. “You can try again. There are centers in the U.S.” my teacher said, attempting to make me feel better. “If you try again, you will be successful.”
I packed up and went to the gate. It slowly opened. I passed through and the gate-man closed it behind me. The peaceful meditators were inside practicing. I was outside in the busy, stressful world having strayed from the path of Dhamma—the path to enlightenment.
I didn’t make it through that time. But I did try again. Less than a year later I went to Dhamma Pakasa in northern Illinois. There I completed the 10-day Vipassana meditation course. Read my experience of the full 10-day Vipassana course here.