I did my first ever Vipassana Meditation retreat at the end of last year over the festive period from 21 Dec 2016 to 1 Jan 2017 in Dhamma Malaya, Kuantan, Malaysia. It was something on my to-do list since I was told about this meditative practice 2 years ago by my yoga teacher, and also drawing resonance from a silent yoga/meditation retreat I did in Bali. Moreover I noticed an aura of peace and oneness that my Yoga teacher exuded, which was inspiring. I had originally intended to do my Vipassana retreat in India, when I was in Bodhgaya in Nov, but was told I had to come back to office in early Dec for a corporate planning exercise – more push to get out of the day job facade. So I found the next best alternative nearest to Singapore, fittingly done over a period which normally represents a lot of superficial external celebrations. Little did I know that I was going to go Deep, go Dark, go Progressive in a journey like no other.
The Build Up
I booked a coach departing Singapore for Kuantan at 9am on 21 Dec, Wed, and was pleasantly surprised to find 2 other lone travellers to the same Vipassana course. They were experienced meditators who had done Vipassana before, and it was good chatting to them. As the coach crossed the causeway into Malaysia, I stared at my phone one last time, aware that I was soon to be disconnected from the world of whatsapp, facebook, instagram, internet – often the sources of our identity and reality. I was to become connected to my inner self instead, to realise the true nature of reality. Removing the blinkers, so to speak.
At 6pm we reached the Dhamma Malaya compound (via a local taxi), located in very tranquil settings amidst a plantation, far away from urban life. I had received pretty good vibes upon entering, and was immediately reminded of my Bali retreat as well, in terms of the environment. The first thing we did was to surrender all of our electronic devices – phones, laptops, ipods, ipads – everything. You are not even supposed to have books or writing materials with you, but I guess this centre was a bit more lenient. It seems a bit hardcore, but as the retreat progressed I began to understand the rationale of cutting away all distractions and focusing fully on your inner journey. ‘Day 0’ marked our day of arrival. We were treated to a delicious vegertarian dinner – a taste of things to come – followed by a briefing on house rules (mainly to remind us to be determined to finish the 10 days and respecting silence) and a short meditation. We retreated to our cells at 930pm – the latest lights off time each day. We each had a small and simple room equipped with a thin sleeping mat and a toilet, that’s all.
Before I go into the retreat proper and day to day details, let me summarise the ethos of Vipassana meditation. Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills. 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.
There are three steps to the training. The first step (Sila) is, for the period of the course, to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, speaking falsely, and intoxicants. This simple code of moral conduct serves to calm the mind, which otherwise would be too agitated to perform the task of self-observation. The next step is to develop some mastery over the mind (Samadhi) by learning to fix one’s attention on the natural reality of the ever changing flow of breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. By the fourth day the mind is calmer and more focused, better able to undertake the practice of Vipassana itself towards developing wisdom (Panna): observing sensations throughout the body, understanding their nature, and developing equanimity by learning not to react to them. Finally, on the last full day participants learn the meditation of loving kindness or goodwill towards all (Metta), in which the purity developed during the course is shared with all beings.
Everything is ephemeral, arising and passing away every moment – Anicca; but the rapidity and continuity of the process create the illusion of permanence. The only way to break the illusion is to learn to explore within oneself, and to experience the reality of one’s own physical and mental structure. Upon enlightenment, the Buddha found that the entire physical structure and material world is composed of subatomic particles (Kalapa). These particles are the basic building blocks of matter and are themselves constantly arising and passing away. In reality there is no solidity in the material world – it is nothing but combustion and vibrations. Modern scientists have since confirmed the findings of the Buddha. As the understanding of Anicca develops within oneself, one realises there is no ‘I’, no ‘mine’ – there is nothing that lasts more than a moment. If one tries to possess and hold on to something that is changing beyond one’s control, one is bound to create misery for oneself. Having this understanding at the intellectual level will not lead you out of misery, you can only do so when you have experienced it directly yourself. The practice of Vipassana meditation allows you to do so, by scanning your body for sensations, you become aware of the ever changing state of body, and train to become equanimous to pleasant or unpleasant sensations.
You are reprogramming your mind to act rather than react. When one is ignorant, sensations are a means to multiply one’s misery, because one reacts to them with craving or aversion. When our sense organs picks up external stimuli e.g. sight, sound, taste, our minds perceive it to be good or bad, which give rise to physical sensations (change in breathing or biochemical reactions) which are pleasant or unpleasant. Our minds generate mental reactions to them (Sankhara) – liking or disliking, craving or aversion – which multiplies and causes misery. Any moment in which one does not generate a new sankhara, one of the old ones will arise on the surface of the mind, and along with it a sensation will start within the body. If one remains equanimous, it passes away and another old reaction arises in its place. One after another the sankhara is eradicated, misery is eradicated if one develops wisdom and does not react to sensations. The Buddha was not unique in teaching that one should come out of craving and aversion; teachers before him had advocated practices to do so in India. The unique element of Vipassana lies in his identifying of physical sensations as the crucial point at which craving and aversion begin, at which they must be eliminated. By eliminating all sankhara, one eventually reaches Nibbana (or Nirvana) – liberation.
Of course, achieving so is easier said than done. The 10 days of Vipassana Meditation, with 10 hours of meditation each day, were some of the most challenging, profound and overwhelming personal experiences for me. The regiment reflected that of almost monkhood, with the severity depending on how serious one chooses to commit throughout. I am quite surprised that many online reviews of Vipassana experiences state overcoming boredom/nothing to do in the retreat as their main challenge. These people must not have meditated fully in the personal time or grasped the teachings and intentions of the Vipassana practice by Goenka! As I will outline in detail my experience each day further below, it was a challenge on the physical, mental and emotional planes for me, with experiences I never thought would occur during a supposedly ‘peaceful’ activity like meditation. This is the daily routine for the 10 days:
|4:00 am||Morning wake-up bell|
|4:30-6:30 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|6:30-8:00 am||Breakfast break|
|8:00-9:00 am||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-11:00 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|11:00-12:00 noon||Lunch break|
|12noon-1:00 pm||Rest and interviews with the teacher|
|1:00-2:30 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|2:30-3:30 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|3:30-5:00 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|5:00-6:00 pm||Tea break (just fruits for first timers, nothing for repeat participants)|
|6:00-7:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|7:00-8:15 pm||Teacher’s Discourse in the hall|
|8:15-9:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-9:30 pm||Question time in the hall|
|9:30 pm||Retire to your own room–Lights out|
I was surprised that I could even wake up at 4am! I struggled during the morning 2 hour meditation, as I dusted off the cobwebs of an inconsistent meditation practice in months leading up, and fought the drowsiness and pain of sitting still for long duration. A lot of physical pain came up during the meditations in the first day – I wondered how I was going to last 10 days! Anapana meditation, focusing on the inflow and outflow of breath at the nostrils, was the agenda for the first 3 days. As I progressed through the day, my meditative focus improved, and gradually broke the inertia. I enjoyed the serenity of just walking amidst nature during our short breaks in between meditations (well I guess there was nothing much else we could do :p). Fresh air, just being, and staring at a near by mountain/hill, listening to the rustling leaves, birds chirping and observing butterflies of all colours whilst walking the path always makes my day.
I was enjoying the morning meditation, and felt I was making progress (have never meditated longer than 1 hour prior) until the final stretch where Goenka’s chanting in Pali came in. It felt like an eternity, and I wasn’t used to chanting in Pali, while also questioning how secular this practice claimed to be. I became quite agitated, because I thought I was close to completing 2 hours of meditation and was waiting impatiently for the chanting to end (it went for 20 – 30 mins) before we break for breakfast like starving souls. Because we literally don’t eat dinner, I felt the need to eat a lot more during breakfast and lunch (didn’t help that the vegetarian food was quite delicious and wholesome). This affected my afternoon meditations as I was too full to breathe properly. I learned to take a more balanced approach (less insecurity, letting go) as my body adapted to a new way of living. My favourite part of each day was hearing the discourse by Goenka. His teachings are clear, and resonate deeply as it stresses that the Buddha’s teachings are universal (no intention to convert anyone from one organised religion to another), purely concerned with passing on a technique that depends on self to alleviate suffering. He explained how the retreat enables all participants to walk the path of Dhamma by observing Sila (e.g. by not speaking, we won’t risk speaking ill), practicing Samadhi to develop mastery over one’s mind, and finally practicing Panna to develop wisdom, of insight, to totally purify the mind.
Meditations become more focused and enjoyable. I realised at times in the first 2 days that I was meditating for the sake of meditating rather than actually enjoying each moment. I realised also that the mind was not as receptive due to us just focusing on a technique which I perceived that I already knew. I softened my mind and perceptions, the word that came in was Malleable. Across the first 3 days, I saw quite a few flashbacks and memories of the most random stuff, some of which almost drew laughter during meditation (recalling a scene where I drew a giant penis on the ceiling of the NYJC study area etc). Just when things were looking up, I was hit by a sharp tooth ache in the evening. I worked on acceptance of the situation to tide through. I soaked in deep into why I was doing Vipassana and seeking refuge in Dharma as motivation to finish the retreat. Hearing Goenka’s discourse again, I felt tremendous gratitude to be able to embark on the actual path that Buddha took towards liberation, beyond just theory. Experential awakening thrumps intellectual awakening.
Shit gets real. Leading up to being taught the actual Vipassana technique itself, we were observing sensations just purely on the tip of the nose and upper lip area to sharpen the mind in the morning. Somewhere in late morning, I felt my heart starting to beat faster. I thought it was just a case of me being overworked, so I rested for a bit during lunch. Afternoon, we started Vipassana proper. Goenka’s instructions guided us over 2 hours of detailed analysis and scanning of the entire body for sensations. I had never done this before, and the sensations that I picked up surprised me. I felt an emergence of full blown fear and panic, causing my heart to race super fast half way through. I opened my eyes and grasped for air, engaging in deep breathing in an attempt to calm shit down – didn’t work. I just carried on meditating, surrendered and went into the body. What transpired was an experience full of intense sensations, pain popping out over random spots of body and energy patterns in various regions of my body which I had never felt before! The intensity and heart rate softened towards the evening thankfully. Goenka spoke about Sankhara that we are clearing during the meditation, by accepting the true nature of reality – all things change, passing and arising, and we must let go of cravings and aversions. Vipassana is an art of living that allows us to cherish life and approach death more consciously.
Phoenix rises. I had struggled to sleep the previous night – my heart beat was still fast, body sensitive and agitative and I felt a restless energy throughout the night. I consulted the master teacher overseeing the retreat – an elderly Malaysian Chinese who looked like a typical kungfu master from movies. He said that I had unlocked a certain energy within last night, and that I should concentrate on breathing to calm down, otherwise I will not be able to sleep. When all else failed, I turned to yogic breathing (Ujjayi), which actually helped a lot. In half lotus pose, I enjoyed Vipassana for the rest of the day. Each hour that I sat in meditation, I felt my body becoming stable like a rock, letting the fuel of concentration eradicate the concept of time. Somehow all the acute physical pains I felt in my back in the first 3 days of sitting had disappeared. New pains/itches/unpleasant sensations, new battles were emerging throughout my body. These were random, with no logical reason for occurring, which added to my determination to remain aware and equanimous in the practice.
Inside the meditation hall, where we spend most of our days. Very good vibrations inside
I realised through the meditations that by not reacting to sensations, we eliminate the power they have over us and each pain or itch eventually subsides; the mind finds a new sensation to grapple to. There were many passing and rising thoughts, emotions, memories (of fear, sex) and delusional imaginations (messiah complex). It was like watching a projector in my mind playing out all of these, and just observing. Occasionally one gets sucked in, but I could get out of the spiral soon enough. A new challenge had emerged – having glimpsed the tingling subtle vibrations coursing through my body since day 4, I consciously or subconsciously went into each meditation session hoping to feel more of those. Only by the end of the day did I realise that I was actually craving for such pleasant sensations, which in turn disrupted my meditation, because of the anticipation that led to unease and excitement, making it harder to be still and present to feel every subtle sensation. I learned how hard it was to remain equanimous to pleasant sensations, which was why we were practicing Vipassana, to train this aspect. One’s progress on the path of Vipassana can be measured only by the equanimity one develops towards every sensation.
The struggle with remaining equanimous in the yearning for pleasurable subtle energetic vibrations persisted. I realised this was also a cause for my excitable heart rate. Again, was quite amused at how this meditation retreat had caused such anxiety and excitement to arise. I had to enjoy each moment, even the ‘boring’ or as Goenka calls them, the blind spots of the body or gross surface level sensations. The key is to accept the true nature of reality, not struggle to attach to what the mind would like it to be. The universal law of nature is in play, everything is constantly changing, in a state of flux. No meditation session is the same, no pain stays, no peaceful state stays. I learnt not to compare or cling to past experiences or others. Every moment of our lives is a meditation, and we should be awake and present to the sensations of each moment, to live and act rather than be swayed or reactive in ignorance.
On the physical front, there continued to be battles and challenges – the itch that was now progressively rampant throughout my body seemed more than just insect bites. Even in clothed areas, rashes were developing despite good hygiene and insect repellent. Something weird was happening and I had to be still and allowing to sleep through the passing itch at night.
I woke up to extreme hunger, and was very displeased that the lack of dinner has caused me to be tired and lackluster for the morning meditation. I had some questions about the Vipassana regime as well as the practice and went to consult the teacher after lunch again. I asked why we couldn’t have dinner and do other activities throughout (e.g. yoga). He said the regime was in place to train our minds, to focus on the inside and produce the best conditions for meditating. He urged me to continue training to be equanimous – craving for sensations leads to an unbalanced mind; an unbalanced mind will not be able to sense subtler sensations. Day 8 marks the determination to win the fight against inner instability and fear/ego. This was marked by a great focused afternoon scan, where my racing heart was finally calmed. I also realised that my racing heart was linked to similar past experiences of fear driven situations (in school or work). I know that time and continuous practice will yield the light on the darkness. Goenka’s discourse again hit home. Awareness and Equanimity are two equal wheels of the Vipassana vehicle.
Again I find myself plagued by new pains, fears and sensations. I couldn’t sleep the previous night as I had somehow developed a numb left hand hand with weird sensations to my left shoulder and heart, which persisted throughout the night, in addition to my itching and on/off tooth ache. I was fearful that I was having some sort of panic attack or heart issues. Which would be mind boggling to happen at this retreat! I then realised that our minds always find something to cling on to. Any sort of pain it finds will yield into fears bigger than real nature if left to foster. Through observation, I know that the sensation and pains passes and arises. Following that, another incident happened in the afternoon. I walked into my room for short break from meditation and saw a rat running through my clothes! The rest of my meditation sessions I was left wondering: whats the rat doing, I need to chase it out! So I was trying to keep stillness and equanimity while dealing with this new rat equation – great training.. Good thing was that I managed to get the rat out of my room at night.
I slept better the night before, and found calm amidst the tide of physical volatilties. I surrendered more to each meditation, with less expectation and was starting to feel a lot more vibrations and energy coursing through. By remaining equanimous, naturally one will find sooner or later, that sensations start to appear in areas that were blind, and that the gross, solidified, unpleasant sensations begin to dissolve into subtle vibrations. In the afternoon, we were taught a new dimension to the practice: Metta. After each Vipassana meditation, we would hold in our hearts the purity developed during the retreat and share with loving kindness to all sentient beings around the world. It was a beautiful practice, although I didn’t feel 100% to do so, given my volatile journey. We were allowed dinner that night and noble silence was broken (can speak to other participants woohoo!) as Goenka said he would ‘patch us up at the end of the journey’ after this deep surgery on our mind. I was relieved to talk to my neighbour, but yet I couldn’t talk too much as well.. clearly still in shock at my own personal experiences and battles. As I lay in bed on the final night at Dhamma Malaya, amazingly I felt subtle vibrations coursing through most parts of my body, many of which were blind spots the past 9 days. It felt amazing and relaxing, and I dozed off to the best night sleep yet.
After a final meditation session in the morning, we adjourned for breakfast, our last meal before leaving for home. Everyone was all smiles, uplifted. It was bittersweet for me, as I was still recovering from the physical battles. Many of the participants, more than half in fact, were repeat meditators. They saw the bite/scratch marks all over me, and told me not to worry – these were signs that my body was purging the sankharas and toxins out of my system. I smiled weakly and hope that was true! I made friends with several good hearted Malaysians there. I overheard an interesting conversation behind me: they were speculating whether in the final guided scanning of body by Goenka, where he urged those who already subtle vibrations flowing through every part of the body (Bhanga) to scan up and down the spinal column for vibrations, that he was referring to Chakras. This pretty much set the tone for the rest of my journey up to now too.
The Vipassana Mediation retreat taught me valuable insights and lessons, and has made me more aware of sensations when I delve into negative states or emotions. I feel I am better able to snap out of negative spirals before they get full blown now. I have also developed a consistent daily morning meditation practice since the retreat, which has energised and given me more focus and immunity (physical and mental) throughout the day. I also realised that I had a lot of darkness within to dissipate, more so than I realised, and this is part of the journey – the shining of light on the darkness. The biggest takeaway for me though, and one that is probably not intended by Goenka, is that I am now very much aware of the energy and vibrations within us. Which has piqued my interest in other energy healing modalities and meditations. For example, while scanning my heart region on days 6 – 8, I could see very vivid mandalas appearing in my visuals. I can feel biochemical sensations and energy coursing through my body which I had not felt before. I know there is so much more to this 3 dimensional reality we live in. I am thus in the midst of exploring reiki, sound healing, pranic, vedic, chakra and shamanic based practices or any form that resonates. My meditation practice now consist an intertwining of Vipassana, Anapana and Chakra based approaches.
I recommend Vipassana for everyone who already has some sort of meditation background, if you feel you wish to go deeper within and really uncover your unconscious mind body patterns and issues. I definitely won’t recommend it for beginners to meditation, those with no prior knowledge of Buddhist philosophy or have depression/mental illness – you may not feel the full effects, get depressed even more or leave with a negative impression of Buddhism.
Information source and Vipassana sign up: https://www.dhamma.org/en/about/vipassana