Updated: Jan 22, 2022
Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.
I have attended three Vipassana 10 day silent courses. My first was in 2012, second 2014 and third was in 2015. The most life-changing was definitely the first one, I wouldn’t say the others were too different, they were really just a chance to dive into the technique again, so I will really focus on my first experience of Vipassana. Some aspects may vary at different Vipassana centres on a practical level but the structure of the teachings will be identical.
I came to this course never having meditated before, not really understanding what the purpose was or what would happen, but my attitude was that whatever I was told to do, I would do my best to do it. I would surrender to the experience and trust in the process. That is really all that is needed. It is 10 days where you do not have to do anything except try your best to do what is being taught to you – and what is taught to you is an extremely simple process.
I am very lucky to have the beautiful Dhamma Rasmi Vipassana centre close to where I live on the Sunshine Coast. It is tucked away in Pomona with a view of the majestic Mt Cooroora – I would sit every day and look at the mountain as the sun set, just saying a silent good night to it. The grounds are green and surrounded by bushland, and a family of kangaroos are often present. One of the best things is the wildlife - with nothing else to do in your free time just sitting and observing nature becomes captivating.
A good friend of mine had sat a course and so the idea had played on my mind for a few years until one day I just signed up. You apply on the website – there is often a long waitlist and I have been waitlisted every time I have applied for a course but have always gotten a spot so don’t be discouraged by this.
Although it says 10 days you really need 12 – you arrive the afternoon before and leave the morning after, so it is a full 10 days of the course itself plus an afternoon and morning.
When you arrive you are given a room – the rooms are simple, some are shared some are single - at Dhamma Rasmi they often put first time students in a shared room. It is good motivation – if your roommate is up meditating you feel motivated to do the same rather than give in to the temptation to sleep instead.
There is time to mingle and talk to the other people sitting the course and share a meal together. You are then taken to the meditation pagoda – this is a space where group sittings take place. You are shown the spot you will sit in for the duration of the course – old students (who have sat at least one course) sit at the front – they are a great motivation and example to new students, as you see how still and straight they sit. I had a problem sitting cross legged as my leg would go numb and distract me – I observed an old student sitting on a pile of cushions more in a kneeling position so I tried it out and now that is how I also sit.
You have a mat and cushion laid out for you but there is a pile of spare pillows and it’s a good idea to go into the hall during a break period to grab some extras if you need and set up your seat in a way that is comfortable for you. You can also take pillows back to your room to make a seat there.
The teaching is delivered by a recording that plays at the start of a sitting. There is a timetable up every day that tells you where you need to be, and a gong that announces the start and end of different sittings. Every night there is a video that further explains the technique as you learn it, and I found it would always perfectly address questions or observations I had.
The first 4 days are simply spent focusing all your attention on the point under your nose, and the sensations that occur as you naturally breathe in and out and air passes over this area. That’s it. All your focus, for about 12 hours a day, is spent on that. The purpose is to calm and quiet your mind. With no other distractions - all food (which is vegetarian and so delicious – when you have nothing else to focus on food is a major pleasure of the day) is prepared and served to you, there is no talking or interacting with anyone else, no writing, phones or entertainment – you realise how busy your mind is. How badly it wants to be distracted. By continually trusting the process, surrendering to it, coming back to the technique no matter how many times your mind wanders – it does start to quiet. You have moments of true focus and clarity.
The next 6 days you learn and practice the actual Vipassana technique, which is to scan your body top to toe continually, observing any sensations you encounter. Again, very simple. The purpose is that no matter what you observe in your body, you do not react. Our natural action is to react blindly to sensation, to feelings – something happens and we react, and we attach emotion to it – they describe it as aversion or craving. We either decide we do not like a feeling, and therefore try to avoid it, or we like a feeling, and we want it again. Sitting in the one position pains arise in your body – your natural instinct is to try and move and alleviate the pain, as your mind is telling you oh I don’t like that pain! Make it stop! Sitting and just observing the pain but not reacting to it – this is what Vipassana achieves. Same thing if you encounter a sensation you enjoy – you just observe it and keep your attention moving, rather than craving to keep feeling that sensation only.
A common reaction to Vipassana courses is about the silent part - apart from the teachings and being able to ask for assistance or clarification if you need to, you are expected to be silent for the 10 days. Being silent is not difficult as everyone else is silent too, and it is with respect for your fellow meditators that you avoid interaction so they may have their own experience. The purpose of being silent is obvious when you are there – it is to allow you to avoid comparison and distraction. It is a real gift to have so much time for yourself, to fully focus and keep your energy just for you. When you are allowed to talk on the afternoon of the 10th day it can be quite overwhelming and strange to hear your own voice and to suddenly put energy into interacting with others. It is also beautiful seeing everyone smiling and their faces so expressive after observing them all with eyes down and serious expressions for 10 days.
The major things Vipassana have taught me that carry through in my everyday life are that everything is continually changing and we must accept whatever our present reality is. That whatever happens, all we can do is accept it and deal with it in that moment, without letting an emotional reaction take over. It taught me how mentally strong I am. They also teach that by doing this meditation technique, old energies and emotional blocks are cleared. I had very intense dreams during each Vipassana course where I was releasing so much emotion, and definitely felt lighter, more clear headed and free after them – my relationship improved hugely, I felt less self-conscious and so much happier and grateful for life. I use Reiki now to actively clear blocks for myself and others, and I believe that works in a similar way. Do I mediate every day with this technique? No I don’t, I personally got the most out of being there immersed in the experience, and from the wisdom of the teachings. I don’t believe I would have gotten through my cancer journey as well as I did without having the mindset and technique Vipassana taught me – I used it during any uncomfortable or painful procedures to stay present and not let emotion take over, and it helped me accept whatever had to be done to my body.
If you feel called to try Vipassana I whole heartedly encourage you to do it – it is truly a life changing and enriching experience that will give you a new outlook on life. It is such a gift as well, as these courses are 100% free – these centres operate solely from donations. When you sit a course at the end you realise that you are there because of the kindness of others. There is zero pressure to donate, they do not try and make you, but of your own accord you may feel compelled to (as I did) so that someone else may have the gift of experiencing Vipassana.
For more information on the Sunshine Coast branch, visit https://rasmi.dhamma.org/index.html