Vipassana – A silent retreat

Can you imagine yourself not speaking for 10 days at a stretch, waking up before 4 am and going back to bed by 10 pm, eating very light food and that too thrice a day before sun sets, and meditating for 10 and half hours a day?

I went on one such silent retreat to Vipassana Research Institute at Dhamma Giri, Igatpuri near Nashik, Maharashtra. Vipassana is one of the world’s most ancient meditative techniques. Vipassana belongs to school of Theravada Buddhism.  It was practiced 25 centuries ago by Gotama Buddha, who said he had rediscovered a much older practice. For five centuries Vipassana helped millions of people in India. After Emperor Ashok adopted Buddhism he spread the message of peace and prosperity. He sent his ambassadors to all neighboring kingdoms spreading both the practice and the words of Buddha.

Vipassana Research Institute at Dhamma Giri, Igatpuri was established by S.N Goenka in 1985. It is the first Vipassana center in India. S.N Goenka was a Burmese- Indian teacher of Vipassana meditation. S.N Goenka was born in a rich business family in Burma. In 1969, he was authorized to teach by U Ba Khin. He left his business to his family and along with his wife devoted his time to teach Vipassana in India. Today, Vipassana courses, in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, are held at 227 locations in 94 countries, of which about 120 are permanent Vipassana meditation center.

U Ba Khin was the first Accountant General of the Union of Burma. He is principally known as a leading twentieth century authority on Vipassana meditation and an influential leader of the Vipassana movement.

How to reach Vipassana Research Institute at Dhamma Giri, Igatpuri

It is 3 hours of drive from Mumbai. Nearest station is Igatpuri. There are good options for train from Mumbai to Igatpuri. From Igatpuri station you get share auto at Rs 20 fare that will drop you at Vipassana centre.

Technique

10 days’ course is just an introductory course. For first three and half days one has to observe one’s breath known as Anapana. One has to observe the sensation it causes in the inner sides of the nostrils, on the lips and the triangular section between the nose and lips. When one begins observing the natural breath it sharpens the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the bodily sensations and their nature of arising and passing away without reacting or responding to sensation. This is called Vipassana, it is done for next 6 and half days along with observing breath. This leads to realization that nothing is permanent and one should not generate craving or aversion towards anything. All the emotions and feeling we go through are impermanent. Craving and aversion towards them makes our mind lose clarity and stability. It is a process of self-purification, self-observation and introspection where one realizes the law of impermanence.

The technique can be freely practiced by everyone, at any time, in any place, without conflict due to race, community or religion, and will prove equally beneficial to one and all. During my stay at Dhamma Giri,S.N Goenka in his discourses emphasized that the Buddha’s path to liberation was non-sectarian, universal, and scientific in character.

The Course at Dhamma Giri

The technique is taught at ten-day residential courses during which students are mandated to follow a prescribed Code of Discipline. A student has to stay for the entire period of course without any contact from outside world. The technique requires hard work and mental focus, therefore rules and regulations have been developed for the benefit and protection of the meditators and is an integral part of the meditation practice. Following are the rules and code of discipline one has to follow: –

A. Students are not allowed to interact whether it be by speech, gestures, sign language, written notes among themselves for all 10 days. Students can interact with the teachers at specific time allotted for discussion regarding practice of the technique. If students need help regarding food, stay or any other thing they can interact with Dhamma Sevika who give their selfless service and time during the course. The men and women are segregated. This is done in order to abstain one from distractions which might be an obstacle in learning the technique.

B. The precepts (Sila)

One who attends the course have to conscientiously undertake five precepts: –

  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

C. Students are asked to suspend any form of exercise, yoga, prayers or rituals. This is not to condemn any other technique or practice, but to give a fair trial to the technique of Vipassana in its purity.

D. Students are required to eat simple vegetarian food. One is not allowed to eat anything after sunset (after 5-6 pm tea break). If there are health concerns one can discuss with the teacher. 

The foundation of the practice is sīla — moral conduct. By following the five precepts, one starts practicing Sila. By training one’s mind to remain focused without craving or aversion one starts developing Samadhi- mastery over one’s own mind. Now working diligently purification of the mind is achieved through panna — the wisdom of insight. One will penetrate to the depths of the unconscious, to eradicate all the impurities hidden there and enjoy the real happiness- happiness of liberation.

Who should take the course?

The course is for people who want to take a break from their hectic life, want to learn to deal with anxiety or just for an experience.

My experience and observation:

I heard about Vipassana some ten years back when I was in school. The method and routine to be followed appeared to be very challenging. That very moment I had decided that I would go for the course for an experience. It appeared to me quite exciting. This July 2016 after much research and reading up articles on internet I picked Vipassana Research Institute at Dhamma Giri, Igatpuri as my Vipassana center. My course commenced from 27th July evening and ended on 7th August morning.

Igatpuri is a beautiful hill station surrounded by Western Ghats or Sayadri Mountains. August is a peak monsoon time. During monsoon the spectacular western Ghats look green and fresh with huge white clouds hovering over the mountains. The scenery is picturesque and breathtaking. If you are planning for a Vipassana course during monsoon, then this place will be a great choice. Don’t forget to take a jacket, shawl, stole and an umbrella with you because it becomes cold with rains pouring all day and night.

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View from the campus.

While entering the center the beautiful entrance gate and surrounding hills welcomes you. The campus is beautiful and is adorned with small gardens, stunning pagoda, tall trees, exotic species of flora and fauna, calm and serene surrounding and huge water reservoir that would never fail to fulfill the water requirement of the residents.

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Entrance gate at Vipassana center, Igatpuri

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         Entrance at Vipassana center, Igatpuri

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  Gardens and small ponds add to the campus beauty

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         Water reservoir inside the campus

 

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Posing in front of Pagoda. Jacket, shawl, umbrella and water bottle are what I used to carry all around in the campus

I reached Dhamma Giri at 12 pm. There we had to complete the registration, choose quarters where we would be staying for 10 days & surrender our phone, laptops and money keeping some miniature amount for emergency. The process continued till 5pm. There are both single and double sharing rooms. Below are the photos of the quarters and the room I was allotted. My room was small and tidy with an attached bathroom. We had to clean our room and toilet by ourselves. My room had a hill view and the scenery was simply mesmerizing making one lost in its beauty. My room was at the foothill of the mountain on which the campus is located. I had to descent down a flight of stairs to reach my room. If you are afraid of darkness or suffer from creepy crawly syndrome, then avoid taking a room in this block. Because while one returns to room at night after the meditation it becomes quite dark. But I loved the scenery and being so close to nature so it didn’t bother me much. But it was nightmare for some and they had to change their rooms.

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Flight of stairs that led to the room where I stayed

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Room that I was allotted.

 

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Residential blocks close to the Pagoda

At 5 pm everyone assembled at mess for snack. Around 6pm there was instruction about the rules, regulations and timetable to be followed. The noble silence begun. We then proceeded to the Pagoda for meditation. It was a huge hall with about 250 cushions lying on the floor. We had to sit on those cushions for meditation. There were pillows and small cushions kept if someone required for support while sitting. There were 4 teachers and each teacher was assigned 50-60 students. We were taught Anapana, observing one’s breath as it goes in and comes out without altering it.

We retired to our rooms early setting up our alarm clock to 4am. Next day was the beginning of the course. The time table was exhibited all over the campus and it was by hearted by now. Before coming for the course I had read a lot on blogs about how it was strenuous physically as well as mentally. I had read a lot of negative reviews too of how some of them left the course in between. I was determined to complete the course anyhow but was a bit intimidated by the reviews on net. Following is the timetable that had to be followed throughout the course duration.

 

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There is a beautiful structure as in the picture below which houses a huge bell. This bell is rung when there has to be a change in the activity. There are other smaller bells in the campus which are rang after the bigger bell is rung.

 

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As I mentioned earlier, first three and half days we mastered Anapana. Next six and half days we practiced Vipassana along with Anapana. Vipassana is to carefully observe sensation in the body, moving attention from top of the head to toes and vice versa. At first I could not feel any sensation and on the second day of practicing Vipassana I felt very intense sensations of pain, tingling, numbness, and pulsating. One has to observe these sensations very carefully without changing position or responding to them. One realizes that all these sensations are impermanent and any kind of craving or aversion towards it is meaningless. That’s how one understands that in life one has problems and there are times when one feels anxious, angry and helpless all these emotions are impermanent.

On the last three days the new students were allotted shell or shunyagar which are small rooms for one person to meditate. The room has a small dim bulb. The old students were allotted shunyagar much earlier. In the picture below the small honey comb like structure with circular windows are the Shunyagar.

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New students are allowed to have food thrice a day, the last meal is light snacks consisting murmura (puffed rice) with banana and tea or milk before sunset. Breakfast and lunch are plain wholesome vegetarian meal. Food is nutritious and delicious. But if you have acidity problem you are suggested to keep biscuits or light snack. You can discuss your problem with the teachers. Dinner is also available if there are health concerns. Old students are allowed meals twice a day. During snacks they can only consume lemon water.

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Initially it was boring. There were times when I dozed off unknowingly during meditation. But overall experience was good. The evening discourse at 7 pm was always entertaining and inspiring. In the discourse it never happened that Late Shri S.N Goeka didn’t make us laugh. After meditating for so long the whole day the discourse filled energy and determination in us and prepared us for the next day.

On the 10th day around 3 pm we broke the noble silence. That’s when I realized why humans are called social animal. All of us were happy and relieved. We all felt connected and it seemed as if we knew each other for very long. It was very interesting to realize that when we don’t speak or communicate with each other but are compelled to stay together, even then we humans develop a bond. We feel connected and we feel we know the other person quite well. We all laughed, talked, giggled and clicked photos like never before. Every one of us exchanged numbers and promised to stay in touch.

The question – Has it brought any change in you?

This is a question I was asked by many when I came back from Vipassana. I would say yes. It did. It changed how life appeared to me. I understood and appreciated the law of impermanence. I felt more disciplined than before. They advise practicing it every day. Practice gives one mental peace, self-control, improves concentration and one deals with pain and suffering better than before.

Also it is an overall a very different and challenging experience.Make sure that if you plan to go for a Vipassana course you go open-minded without any expectation. Decision of joining such a course must be only yours and not forced upon you, then it will be a great learning experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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