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10 days of me, myself and I: My first Vipassana experience

"That honestly sounds like living hell", or something along those lines, was what I first uttered when I heard about the 10-day Vipassana meditation course six months ago. 10 days, no technology, no books or journals, no speaking, eye contact or gestures, and sitting cross legged in in silent meditation for about 10 hours a day... just... no. Why on earth would I subject myself to such pain, boredom and the slight risk of actually losing my mind!?


Fast-forward to April 15th and I had officially completed what was probably the most challenging 10 days of my life - I had come to the end of my first Vipassana meditation course.

The women's accommodation, Dhamma Pushkar

Sat still and silent at Dhamma Pushkar in Rajasthan, India's desert state, my Vipassana experience was both everything and nothing like I had expected, both not as painful, and far, far worse than I had anticipated. It's such a crazy and unique experience, sitting alone with your mind for so long, and an experience that is incredibly hard to articulate - but I will do my best to tell you all about it. Here's what's ahead:

If you are currently planning, or have your own Vipassana coming up soon, I would recommend staying clear of reading about mine and other people's experiences. It's best to go into the course with an open mind and no expectations. However, if you're looking for words of wisdom before going into the course, I'll share what a lovely friend said to me before mine began: "remember that it is only 10 days, and that it will end".


Please note that everything written below is based on my own interpretation of the learnings, and own personal experience - others who have completed the course may not necessarily agree with everything I am about to say. Ok, with that all said and done, let's get into it.


What is Vipassana?

The word 'Vipassana' means "to see things as they really are" and the meditation technique is one of India's most ancient. The technique has Buddhist roots but is secular in its teachings today, so it attracts people from all walks of life and religious backgrounds. It also completely free / donation-based and there are hundreds of centres all around the world, so it truly is for everyone.


Vipassana, at its core, is all about training your mind to not react, as the only thing we can control in life is our own reactions. It teaches you to sit still (usually for one hour at a time), and simply observe the pain, tickles, scratches and other sensations as they appear on your body from an objective stand-point, and to not react by moving or scratching etc. You are taught all about the impermanence of these sensations and are reminded to adopt a "this will change" attitude when observing them. By training your mind not to immediately react to these sensations as you meditate, you are then, in turn, training it not to react in everyday life settings.


The technique seeks to provide you with a more calm and clear mind, and wants you to allow love and compassion to lead the way in life. The teachings suggest that 100% of your misery, happiness etc. is because of you, not because of any external factor like your relationship status or job situation. If someone hurts you, the Vipassana technique calls on you not to hold onto hatred towards them or to cling onto your sadness over the situation, as these things only make you miserable, but instead feel compassion for the person who hurt you, as only hurt people hurt people, as the saying goes.


In Vipassana, you are reminded of the level of control you have over yourself and your emotions. The course is actually being taught in prisons in India, helping people take responsibility for their actions in the past and take the necessary steps to move forward in their lives.


What does a 10-day Vipassana course involve?

Each day of the course has quite a simple instruction (that you are usually taught the night prior) that looks something like this (in my own words):

  • Day 1: focus on the natural breath coming in and out of the nose. Don't breathe deeper / influence the natural breath at all, just objectively observe it.

  • Day 2: focus on where you feel the natural breath coming in and out of the nose. Which nostril does more work? Where do you feel the breath inside the nose? Which walls in the nostril? What about just outside the nose on the upper lip?

  • Day 3: observe the sensations that appear in and on the nose and the upper lip area - itches etc. Don't react to any of them, just observe.

  • Day 4: observe the sensations that appear ONLY on your upper lip. This day is also when you are first taught how to do the Vipassana technique, which is like a full-body objective scan looking at sensations that appear all over your body - heat, fuzzing, heartbeat, scratches, pain, etc.

  • Day 5: practice Vipassana, beginning at your head and making your way to your toes, then starting again at the head.

  • Day 6: practice Vipassana, beginning at your head and making your way to your toes, then from your toes to your head and so forth.

  • Day 7: practice Vipassana, this time scanning simultaneously down both sides of your body.

  • Day 8: practice Vipassana, attempting more of a whole body flow, up and down the body, being aware of even the tiniest sensations.

  • Day 9: practice Vipassana, again just getting better at scanning over the whole body like a big flow, also getting deeper, under the skin etc.

  • Day 10: speak! (and a little bit of Vipassana).

The meditation hall at Dhamma Pushkar. You sat in the same place the whole time.

The schedule shown on the left is the same in every centre around the world, and is pretty intense. In your time off, you eat, walk around, shower, chill in your room etc.


Each evening you have 'teacher's discourse', which involves watching a video from Goenka (the lead Vipassana teacher). These videos are so important and helpful, Goenka makes you feel really reassured and says exactly what you're thinking and feeling at the end of each day.


In regards to accommodation, every centre around the world is different, however Dhamma Pushkar was really nice. On the women's side (as men and women were kept completely separate at this site), there was usually two to a room with a simple bathroom attached with a western toilet and tap and bucket for a shower. Each room had a fan and you were given a pillow case, bottom sheet and blanket.


Why I chose to do it

I first heard about Vipassana when I was in Nepal six months ago, and, as I already mentioned, the concept of just sitting cross legged on the ground in meditation for ten hours a day for ten days straight did not appeal in the slightest! So, what changed in those six months to make me go from thinking "that sounds like living hell" to signing up to complete a course? As corny as it's going to sound - me, I changed. I experienced and saw a lot during my time in Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam and, on arrival in India, felt far more in touch with myself and my environment than I ever had before.


While the course is not as popular or common in Thailand and Vietnam, you can't avoid the topic in India. And, when it came up again in conversation, I realised that my mind had switched from "that sounds like living hell" to "wow, that would be a big challenge" and that's kind of what decided it for me. After so many months of travel, I was feeling well-equipped to handle the challenging 10 days, and I was also in a bit of what I call a 'headless chook' phase. Despite what it might look like on the outside, I occasionally get into travel slumps where I don't really know what to do with myself and struggle a little with how pointless my travels can sometimes feel - it feels like I'm running around like a headless chook (or chicken!). So, enter Vipassana, a challenge I was ready to undertake, and one with a clear goal (survive the 10 days) to end my 'headless chook' phase.


I then found Dhamma Pushkar and saw that this location had vacancies for a course at the beginning of April (just before I would wrap up six months in Asia and head back to Europe) - it just felt right. So, I booked it in about three weeks before it began, and the rest is now history.


My personal Vipassana experience

Though I tried to enter into the course with no expectations, I did have a few things that I anticipated my mind might focus on. These included; every bad thing I've ever said or done in my life, every bad thing someone else has ever said about me, and every insecurity I have or have ever had... I thought I would cry a lot (I was adopting a "what's the worst case scenario here?" kind of attitude)! I just figured that 10 days inside my brain would bring up some things that potentially I had buried quite deep, but this was honestly (and thankfully) not the case at all. So here's a summary of my experience:


The hardest part of the course

For the first three or so days, my biggest challenge was boredom - I found myself actively trying to come up with things to think about, as I was very over just observing my breath. While this may sound like a perfectly manageable challenge, it was really tough to be thrown into a situation with so little stimuli, when I was used to travelling around India, which is involves nothing but stimuli! My day-to-day life for the past 11 months of travel has involved meeting new people, seeing new things and always having my phone by my side to speak to family and friends abroad, and to share my travels as I went, and all of this was just... gone. It was tough! Physical pain was also bugging me a little bit, but I simply moved every 15 minutes or so to manage it - disregarding all instructions about staying put and ignoring the pain as I felt like my knee pain (which plagues me in everyday life) was simply impossible to ignore.


My cell - no. 26

As it got further into the course, feelings of boredom were replaced with feelings of doubt. What was I doing with myself? Why did I think sitting in meditation for 10 hours a day would be worthwhile for me? What even in this 'Vipassana' business and how on earth is staring at my breath and sensations all day everyday going to 'change my life' as it has for others? I even had one interesting hour-long meditation during my first time in my cell (which is a tiny little room with a meditation pillow in it, just for you!) where I got a little too deep and begun to consider whether or not I was even a good person !! (I had a giggle over it the moment I stepped out of the cell and into daylight - dangerous little room, that one!). In these middle days, the physical pain was also intense and I had begun to reprimand myself and feel guilty whenever I moved, which certainly wasn't helping.




From about day seven onwards, things got considerably better, however my struggle here was that I was just over it. One week of this was enough. I wanted to journal, I wanted to have some other form of entertainment over playing with the stopwatch on my watch and reading the labels on every product I had in my bag. I wanted to be someplace that wasn't so hot (it would get to about 39°C in the middle of the day), I just wanted something to do other than sit and meditate! The knee pain was also excruciating by this point - I would often force myself to sit still for the entire hour but would then struggle to walk comfortably afterwards due to the pain it had caused my knees. I found I could ignore the pain / view it objectively for about 40-45 minutes of sitting before my brain would then get sick of meditating and promptly remind me just how much pain I was in. Most days I would end out with a headache due to the crazy amount of focus it took to ignore the pain I was experiencing.


I honestly really struggled to get to the end of the 10 days and would've packed my bags and left if given the opportunity up until about day five or six. The concept of sitting and meditating all day everyday for 10 days sounds alright but it's tough!


The best part of the course

At a basic level, there is a lot I loved about the course. I loved living in one place for 10 days straight, being able to unpack, do my own washing etc. was really nice after moving around for so many months. I enjoyed waking at 4am and going to sleep early. I loved the food and enjoyed eating in silence. I found pleasure in just taking in the natural environment around me. I liked being away from my phone (but really missed my journal). And, despite the 'chatterbox' label I am frequently given, I really really enjoyed not speaking!


Some photos below of what day-to-day life looked like there (all taken on the final day when I got my camera back).


The best moment in the course for me, was during the 2:30-3:30pm meditation on day nine. Usually my least favourite meditation block of the day - I simply couldn't focus in the afternoon, especially with how hot it was (it would get to about 39!) - something changed in this hour period. All the pain in my body completely disappeared and I felt some crazy sensations from ants all over my body, my right arm moving away from me without my doing, losing all feeling on one side of my body and feeling like I was going to faint at times due to the overwhelming amount of sensations. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before, and I made my way through the hour-long sitting with ease and ended it just thinking "wow, ok, we got there".


The impacts / how it's been since

It was initially pretty overwhelming completing the course. Day 10, where you get to finally speak and get your phone back, was actually one of the most challenging days for me - I didn't like hearing about other people's experiences with the course and didn't feel equipped to talk about my own. My phone was just an overwhelming little box of stimuli and, after catching up on messages from my family and telling them I was alive and well, I promptly turned it off completely and tucked it deep within my bag - I didn't even want to look at it! I did, however, love getting to know the other women and walked around with my camera all day snapping photos.


On the day we left the centre (day 11) I shared online that I had finished the course and got flooded with wonderful messages and questions that, while I appreciated, left me feeling overwhelmed once again. I knew I would eventually write this blog post, but wished it was written there and then so that I could make sense of my experience, and have something to send people instead of having to formulate thoughts and words. While I kept my phone switched on, I turned off all notifications aside from Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp to help me manage, and my settings remain in that way to this day.


Since being able to process it all and get used to the chaos of daily life in India again, I have already noticed some of the positive impacts of the experience. Specially, the idea of "this will change" and the impermanence of thoughts and feelings has rung true to me. If I'm feeling a little off or sad, I've found that remembering that how I react to my feelings dictates how I feel, not the feelings themselves, and that the feelings are impermanent, have helped me get out of some moods I prefer to avoid. I've enjoyed feeling more connected with my emotions, leaning into them more in a method of understanding them, not letting them consume me, has been really empowering. I also think my relationship with my phone, or more specifically social media, has changed in many ways for the better.


It's worth me noting that there is plenty within the technique that I didn't connect with and don't plan to take on board. For example, the course speaks a little about love, and how you never really love other people, but simply love yourself and view them through this lens of your own... self? I didn't fully grasp what they were trying to say but disagreed with the concept of not loving others - my heart would beg to differ! Some of the dialogue around detachment left me feeling the same way, while it's good to be able to observe your emotions and control your reactions, I think I'm allowed to have a cry here and there. But this is all ok, the course is all about you so you don't have to agree with everything they teach you - I certainly didn't.


Other's personal Vipassana experiences

As each Vipassana experience is so unique, I thought I would also ask a few friends who have completed the course to speak to their experience.


What was the hardest part of the course?

  • Louise from Wales, completed her Vipassana in Nepal: "The hardest part for me was definitely the physical pain felt from multiple hours sitting in the same position. It was my hips that got to me, the pain was excruciating but magically it disappeared on day 5, day 4 I spent with tears overflowing down my cheeks in complete anguish over how I was going to continue for another 6 days. I learnt from the experience of the physical pain that it is not the pain that is distressing, instead it is the thoughts of "you must move" and "this is awful" and "this is so unbearable", once I stopped listening to those thoughts and looked at the sensations of the pain, of heat and texture, the pain disappeared."

  • Jagdish from India, completed his Vipassana in India: "The initial 3 days were very hard for me, especially sitting for 1 hour in the same posture - it was very difficult as I was only able to sit in the same posture for 10-15 minutes."

  • Claire from France, completed her Vipassana in India: "Staying seated for one hour, not being aware in the beginning that everyone is suffering and I'm not the only one, staying focused for 10 hours of meditation a day."

What was the best part of the course?

  • Louise "Overcoming physical pain through the power of mind! But also not talking for 10 days and slowing everything right down, walking around during breaks super slowly and staring in awe and amazement at the beauty in a blade of grass. The food at the centre I was at was also incredible, some of the best food I have ever eaten so I highly recommend Begnas Lake Vipassana centre in Nepal. It also has a view of the Himalayas and is the smallest centre in the world but cold showers only."

  • Jagdish "You don't talk to anyone so there are no negative vibes that come to you and you get lots of time for your self to be introspective"

  • Claire "I liked remaining in silence, being with yourself, getting bored and looking more attentively at the nature, eating consciously."

How has completing the course impacted your life / what have some of the benefits been?

  • Louise "I have a far far greater understanding of my desires and impulses and how to overcome them by simply not reacting to them. I wouldn't just give that advice to someone as it's incredibly difficult, but through my own experience of not reacting by moving to relieve physical pain, it disappeared, and I have realised now that I can just not react to the desire to eat a doughnut and it's fine! I also feel like I felt my brain actually changed and I am quite different now, when I drink alcohol it doesn't feel the same in my body and I don't enjoy it anymore and I have no desire now to drink it, only a few months previously I had been drinking daily. The course helped me to understand that I am a pleasure seeker, and it has given me the tools to overcome these desires leaving me more in control and ultimately much healthier."

  • Jagdish "I go de-addicted from excessive mobile use, I feel more sharp at my work and more focused, I don't take life very seriously, anytime I face a problem I know it's a temporary thing that will change. So, after vipassana I'm more content in life and more loving with family and better at work."

  • Claire "I feel less anxious / stressed, living more in the now and less worries for the 'close' future, more positive".

Some key lessons (in my opinion)

  • This will change / the impermanence of feelings and emotions.

  • All you can control are your own reactions / detachment / the pain is there and it hurts but I am fine, the pain is separate to me

  • 100% of your pain, happiness, sorrow (any emotion) is because of YOU, not because of your external environment.

  • You cry when you break your expensive watch but not when your friend breaks their own, identical, expensive watch. You don't have to take everything so personally and to heart. Things aren't happening to you, things are happening and you are reacting.

  • Let love and compassion lead the way / hurt people hurt people - don't take their hurt personally and as your own.

The last day at Dhamma Pushkar

Is Vipassana for you?

While I think Vipassana is a technique that could certainly be of benefit to most people in life, I also think it is worth considering how comfortable you are in yourself before diving into something like this. 10 days is not a short period of time when it comes to such an intensive meditation course like this one. Your brain will have ample opportunity to delve into whatever deep, dark topics it likes, and you don't have anyone else, or even a journal, to talk through what you're thinking and experiencing. While there are people around you, you can feel very alone and isolated, and it sometimes feels like you're the only one struggling through the 10 days. Ultimately, only you know yourself best to know whether or not this is the course for you, but I felt a word of warning was necessary.


It is certainly an incredibly challenging, empowering and inspiring 10 days that will stay with me for a long time into the future. They recommend completing one 10-day course each year, so we will see how I feel come April 2024! If you're interested in completing a Vipassana, you can find a location near you via their website (it is the one website for all sites all over the world).



As always, thanks for reading my Insights and I hope I have answered any and all questions you had. If you have any other questions about the course or my experience, pop them in the comments below or send me a message via Instagram or email.


-N xxo

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2 Comments


Dom Auton
Dom Auton
May 01, 2023

My daughter Jess met you in, I think Thailand but could have been Vietnam or Laos, and subsequently sent me your article...thanks for sharing your experience.

A very insightful view on topics I have long considered addressing in my life.

Will I do the course as a result of reading this? Possibly...your balanced and often raw insight into the experience will help me to decide...I may even write a blog if I do it!

With love (I agree we do love people, my heart bursts with it like yours seems to!)

Dom

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N.Harrison
N.Harrison
May 04, 2023
Replying to

Hi! Thanks so much for your kind comment, I am glad you found my words insightful and potentially even inspired you to undertake your own course. It certainly is a unique and challenging experience that I think could be of value to a lot of people. It's not often you get the opportunity to just sit quietly with your mind for so long, and I realise how privileged I am to have just had 10 days to play with! Do get in touch if you do the course and write about your own experience sometimes in the future - I'd love to read about it.

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