My Experience with Vipassana Meditation

I attended a 10-day Vipassana meditation course at the end of August. It was such a profound experience that looking back, the complete lack of Internet access that I thought was a big deal was just a trivial side note.

The meditation technique has its roots in Buddhism. The founder of the course in its current format, S. N. Goenka, teaches it in a way that is accessible to people with any religious background. Everyday we’d start practicing at 4:30am according to his instructions, and then listen to him explain the theory in the evening “discourse.” He explains the idea of Vipassana in a very logical manner, tells various stories from “the time of Buddha” with a great sense of humor, and actively encourages critical thinking.

While I was naturally drawn to the theory, the real learning came from practicing the technique on an experiential level. Sitting on an uncomfortable meditation cushion for hours on end without moving, and not communicating with fellow students through any means—we weren’t allowed to talk, gesture, write, or even have any eye contact the first 9 days—was what made all the difference.

For the first two days, we started with observing our breathing—not controlling, just observing as it is. This turned out to be incredibly hard—the mind has a tendency to wander away and not stay in the moment. Lots of childhood moments that I didn’t know was still part of my memory would appear out of nowhere, and elaborate envisions of the future would occupy my mind. Still, we were supposed to recognize the fact that the mind likes to wander, not be frustrated, and calmly move our attention back to breathing when we realized it.

The third and fourth day, we observed sensations in the small area below the nostrils above the upper lip. As expected, I felt nothing at first, and that was okay. We were not supposed to imagine any sensation or crave for any feeling. After a while, the mind became sharper, and I could feel dust particles in the air landing on my skin, creating a slight itching sensation. I could feel that the air coming into my nose and going out was of different temperatures. Occasionally I would feel my heartbeat creating a very weak pulsation in that small area under the nose.

It turned out all that was just preparing our mind. Starting the fifth day we were taught the actual Vipassana technique, which involved scanning the body from the top of the head to the tip of the toes and trying to feel sensation in every part of the body. Again, I couldn’t feel anything at first, and that was okay. We were supposed to stay on each body part for a minute, and if there was no sensation, to just calmly accept it and move on. After about a day, I would feel the same dust-induced itching sensation I had under the nose all over my face and on my hands. After another day, I could feel a bubbly sensation under the skin of my face and my legs, with other body parts like the chest and the back feeling much less. In the evening of the ninth day, I suddenly got bubbly feelings under my skin throughout the body, and wherever I moved my attention, the bubbles there would vibrate particularly strongly.

I can’t describe that sensation very well, but it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. But as hammered into us by Goenka, enjoying this sensation is not the point of Vipassana; the point is to train your mind to be equanimous—no craving for pleasant sensations, and no aversion for unpleasant ones. It’s to realize that everything is impermanent—no matter how painful it is to sit for an hour without moving, that sensation too will subside. By observing the bodily sensations objectively and not reacting with craving and aversion, the theory goes, you break the old habit of the unconscious mind and slowly start to deal with people and events on a day-to-day basis with a more peaceful mind.

The “noble silence” ends on the tenth day, and we finally get a chance to talk to our fellow students. Here are some random and interesting tidbits that I experienced during the course that other students echoed:

So overall it was an awesome experience. It wasn’t a vacation; it was very hard work. But I’m glad I did it at a time in my life without too many responsibilities so I can just disappear for ten days. Even though it’s going to be hard with all the distractions, I’m going to try and keep meditating everyday and see where it leads me.