Is vipassana detox right for you?
Imagine experiencing 10 days of absolute peace and quiet in picturesque surroundings that invoke a feeling of tranquility. All the meals are vegetarian, prepared and served to you daily with love. You are left to your own devices, to use your time there as you wish. There are people ready to assist you with any personal needs or queries. Imagine a place where, regardless of your background, religion or lifestyle, you are welcome. Here you will learn a technique that will help you advance on your path of liberation, discover freedom from suffering and know real happiness. The technique is Vipassana.
Vipassana is available in Australia and many other parts of the world including France, England, Spain, USA, Thailand and India. Thousands of people have tried it, and most have stayed for the whole 10 days to discover something unique. There is no charge for this experience — any donation is entirely up to you. So do I hear you ask, "Where do I sign up?"
Well, as with most things that sound too good to be true, there are some conditions that must be considered, and considered quite seriously, as they may be a little difficult for some. The first thing you must know is that men and women are segregated into separate sleeping, walking and dining areas and you are asked to wear modest, loose, non-revealing clothes. This leads to the first condition or precept, which is to "abstain from sexual misconduct" with yourself or anyone else. It is part of the practice to refrain from any physical contact.
Cigarettes, coffee, alcohol and drugs are not allowed at the retreat, as the second precept is to "abstain from all intoxicants". It’s not really surprising that many people find they don’t have the desire to go back to their habits afterwards. That’s not to say there aren’t a few moments of withdrawal, though.
The next two precepts are to "abstain from killing" and "abstain from stealing". Incidentally, Vipassana meditation has been introduced into jails in India and the USA with remarkable success in rehabilitating hardened criminals. The fifth and final precept is to "abstain from wrong speech". So how can we rely on ourselves not to speak untruths? By taking a vow of silence. This vow of silence also extends to non-verbal communication, such as hand gestures and eye contact. The idea is to have absolutely no distractions from yourself. It’s like living the life of a monk or nun for 10 days, which was long enough for me, though there are 30- and 60-day courses for dedicated students. People can talk to the managers regarding any problems they may have and there are allocated times for talking to teachers, but this is kept to a minimum.
For me, this vow of silence was the most challenging part of the whole experience and everyone I spoke to about going on the course said there was no way they could not speak for 10 days. However, I decided to take up the personal challenge for many reasons. I’m engaged to be married, my father recently passed away and I was at a crossroads in my life with my career. I needed some clarity and resolve about where I was in life. So I agreed to all the conditions and made a commitment to myself that I was going to stay for the entire 10 days.
I attended the Vippasana Meditation Centre (or Dhamma Bhumi to resident meditators) in Blackheath, NSW. This beautiful centre is set in the bush, complete with lily pond and amazing views overlooking a valley. After registration, I took my bag and sleeping gear to my allocated dormitory, made my bed and set up my things. I became aware this would be my home for the next 10 days and wondered what would transpire for me in this time.
We all gathered for the briefing of the conditions and an outline of what was to happen during our stay. Part of me felt like I was back at school camp — except I had voluntarily brought myself here. The evening began with everyone being allotted a cushion in the hall. This became "my own space" for the duration of my stay. At the front of the hall, the assistant teachers sat cross-legged and completely still. Everyone started to settle and a quietness washed over the room.
A cassette tape played and a male voice began chanting. This was a little strange at first, but I got used to it. The chanting stopped and in a deep and friendly tone a man named Goenka, started our journey. I was there with an open mind and an interest in understanding more, so I just sat and listened as he explained what I was there to do. He told us that Gotama the Buddha who sat under a tree over 2500 years ago became enlightened using this very technique.
We were taught that enlightenment is simply turning on the lights within oneself by changing the old habitual patterns of the mind. Without any rites or rituals, this is a pure, very practical technique that can be known only by experiencing it. Goenka’s voice is one I became very familiar with over the next 10 days and, to this day, his words still echo in my mind — with love and compassion.
And so it begins
It’s 4am and a wake-up gong is sounding. I roll over and cover my head in an attempt to ignore the fact that it is time to get up. My internal dialogue argues and asks why am I doing this? It’s only 10 days, I tell myself! If I’m to get the most out of this, I must put my most into it. And so I rise out of bed. @BC2:From 4:30am to 6:30am I can meditate in the hall or in my own room. It’s tempting just to sleep in, but the quiet of the morning turns out to be the best time to practise — perhaps because I’m still half asleep? Meditation is followed by a silent breakfast from 6:30am to 8am, watching the sunrise. Breakfast is usually porridge, stewed fruit, sometimes rice, an assortment of breads to toast with a selection of spreads and herbal teas — there is black tea for those ardent tea drinkers.
There are three compulsory one-hour sits in the hall each day and everyone is required to attend. These are the times when Goenka’s tapes are played and he explains more about the technique and how to evolve the practice. From 9am to 11am I can meditate in the hall or in my room, according to the teacher’s instructions. After day four, each student is called to the teachers and they check that you are discovering the technique properly.
Lunch, served at 11am, consists of plenty of delicious, healthy vegetarian food. Salads, vegetables, rice, pastas, curries — it’s a surprise every day and, as I don’t have to make it or clean up afterwards, I am very grateful at each meal. One trick I learnt is not to eat too much, because when you’re sitting for so much of the day, it’s very easy to get clogged up, which can be a major embarrassment and distraction. As a guideline, a meal the size of your fist is adequate. On about day three, Senna (a natural laxative) is put out on the table for those new students who are in need.
After lunch, it’s my own rest time until 1pm. I shower and wash my clothes, go for walks and just hang out soaking up the beautiful surroundings. It’s also the time when the assistant teachers are available for questions. Between 1pm to 2:30pm and 3:30pm to 5pm is meditation time in the hall or in my own room. As you can gather, there’s a lot of time for meditation each day — 10 hours, in fact. The whole 10 days is a process and each day you take a new step in discovering the technique, so it takes this much practice to actually experience the different stages of understanding. I can only really appreciate this now, having completed the course.
From 5pm to 6pm we have a tea break. New students are allowed only two pieces of fruit and some herbal tea, while old (returning) students may drink only lemon and ginger water. There is no dinner, as the body is given some time to rest. So as well as learning a meditation technique, it’s also a really healthy time out for the body.
At the end of each day, between 7pm and 8pm, a video is shown of SN Goenka giving the discourse for that day. He has a lot to say and there is plenty to grasp during these times; I find it fascinating and very enlightening. Vipassana is actually quite scientific in its explanation and the whole process of experiencing the 10-day course is a process of self-purification by self-observation. It is described as a "deep mental operation that is performed to remove the defilements of the mind, and bring us out of suffering" and I can believe that. Goenka is quite a humorous man, so there is some light relief during this time of learning. And just when you think this must be it for the day, we all sit for one more meditation and then it’s lights out at 9:30pm.
All this is probably enough to make people say "No way!" Not surprisingly, I found many friends — including my fiancé — were aghast at my intended sabbatical, especially the more I told them about what I was doing and what it involved. To be fair, I had undertaken this journey several years before, so I knew the benefits it would have for me. It was a test for me to sit still for longer than 10 minutes at a time and my mind was constantly full of excuses and reasons of why I should leave this place, yet something kept me going. I knew that it was only 10 days. I knew this technique had been practised by Buddha and I knew that many people had done it before — and they all talked about how clarified and easier their lives became after completed the course. Whatever it was that helped me to stay, I’m grateful for it.
It took a few days for my mind to begin to be quiet. My mind kept distracting me with all sorts of thoughts and when I did bring my awareness back to my practice, my emotions would kick in and I’d have some kind of emotional release in my mind, like laughing or crying or screaming. I was amazed at how loud it was in my own head when I was sitting in complete silence. Some moments were rather cathartic, and really difficult. The personal conflict was really intense at times yet there were also times when I felt a peace I had never known before and a sense of harmony I had never stopped long enough to appreciate.
I could have gone to therapy to deal with what was going on in my life, but instead I chose to discover my own truth and reality through this technique. I’m not suggesting this can replace therapy; it’s simply a wonderful tool I now have to assist me in dealing with everyday life. By the end of the course I had developed a genuine affection for Goenka and his teachings. There is real peace and compassion in this man that are contagious. I felt a renewed sense of connectedness to myself, and the perception of my surroundings was acute. It was a huge accomplishment to sit still for a whole hour. The moments when my mind was still and I was able to observe the sensations through my body became the highlight of my day. I came back with a certainty about my relationship and a great sense of peace about my father passing. Since then, my work life has taken off in a direction I could never have dreamt of. The funniest part about not speaking for 10 days (which isn’t that hard, really) is that I realised how much rubbish people, myself included, speak most of the time.
I can say I came away with an incredible sense of accomplishment. When I returned home to Sydney it took a little while to readjust to the madness of city life. I felt myself wanting to go back to that quiet space. My life took on a whole new perspective and I’ve told my friends since then that Vipassana did indeed change my life. I was happier and calmer and able to deal with different circumstances of life in a clear and balanced way. These are my perceptions and experiences of Vipassana. Of course, each person’s experience will be completely unique to them.
For further information go to www.dhamma.org. Barbara Behal is co-host on YTV.