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Ten-Day Vipassana Meditation Course — Part I
Ten-Day Vipassana Meditation Course — Part I
1 Feb 2009
Part I (Overview)
Part II (Breath Meditation)
Part III (Vipassana Meditation)

Vipassanā meditation is traditional Buddhist meditation, taught by many teachers worldwide. In India, S N Goenka rejuvenated this tradition in 1970s. Today, 10-day courses are taught at over 80 meditation centers worldwide. The website for these courses is http://www.dhamma.org.

My motivation for writing this article is twofolds. First, to promote awareness of the 10-day course because it benefited me greatly; I have attended the course two times since 2007. Second, when people hear that such a course is being offered, they often express interest in attending. However, they have questions like "How will I manage to keep quiet for 9 days?", "What is the cost?", "10 days is too long! Are there alternatives?", "How was your experience?" and so on. This article attempts to provide answers.

Who Meditates?

Loss: Some are drawn to meditation when they go through major loss due to death, divorce, disease, injury or financial mishaps. Meditation helps us take the vicissitudes of life in our stride with equanimity, without losing the balance of our mind. We learn to accept that many events are out of our control.

Stress: Some realize that modern life is stressful and wish to develop skills for coping with stress in daily life. Meditation is one of several techniques advocated by positive psychologists to boost our happiness levels. Please read The How of Happiness (384 pages, 2007) by Sonja Lyubomirsky, for example. Meditation trains us not to react with anger, hatred or ill-will when stressful situations arise or when events beyond our control happen.

Health: Some are drawn to meditation because of health benefits — meditation is effective for myriad psychosomatic ailments like migraines and depression. Such ailments are typically our body's response to loss or chronic stress.

Who Am I?: Some people are drawn to meditation because they are intrigued by deep philosophical questions like "Who am I?", "Why was I born?", "What is my role on this planet?" and so on. Meditation can provide insights and a path towards discovering these answers.

Tradition: Meditation is part of many religious traditions. For example, many South East Asian countries have a tradition of ordaining boys as 'novice monks' from anywhere between a few days to a few months.

Curiosity: Some people, upon hearing positive experiences of others who have pursued meditation, become curious and give meditation a try.

Meditation: Books and Courses

Meditation is an integral component of all Eastern religions. So there are many different lineages of teachers from different countries. The book The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditative Experience (240 pages, 1996) by Daniel Goleman is a comparative anthology of different meditation practices worldwide.

Books on Meditation: For Vipassanā meditation, the book Mindfulness in Plain English (224 pages, 2002) by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (Bhante G) is acclaimed. It is written in a style that would appeal to an American audience. The book is also available for free: here, here and here and in PDF format. Bhante G (1927-) is originally from Sri Lanka. He has been a Buddhist monk since 1939.

Learning from an Authentic Teacher: Books on meditation are useful for reference. However, to get started with actual practice, one should learn meditation from renowned teachers whose schools have maintained the purity of techniques over centuries. The 10-day course taught by S N Goenka is one such option. The techniques taught at the camp, the lineage of teachers and the discourses are authentic.

What technique is best for me? Some people try out different techniques under different teachers to see which one resonates most with their personality and lifestyle. Within Buddhism itself, there are 40 different techniques for meditation (see Part II for more details). By enumerating Buddhist techniques that developed in other parts of the world, and Indian techniques from major spiritual traditions like Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism, the number probably swells to more than a hundred. However, one should not keep on trying out new techniques forever. It is important to pick one and stick to it with devotion and perseverance. Meditation techniques from two different traditions should not be mixed together!

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: In the West, some practitioners have adapted or borrowed from traditional Eastern meditation techniques to create programs like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Such programs do not lead you to nibbāna (liberation) but help you with stress, depression, pain management and so on. If that is your goal, you may get started by reading books by Jon Kabat-Zinn (amazon), the leading light behind MBSR. After getting an overview of MBSR, you should also attend the course. Every class has group meditation, a lecture and an introduction to some stress management exercise other than meditation. The MBSR course provides a 'gentle introduction' to meditation. If you have benefited from programs like MBSR, you might want to get a taste for meditation in its pure form. The 10-day camp is one good option.

Meditation In Silicon Valley, USA: Meditation in Silicon Valley is an article that lists myriad options available to residents of Silicon Valley. Vipassanā meditation, as taught by S N Goenka, may be learnt at the meditation center in North Fork, CA, which is 60 miles south of Yosemite.

The 10-Day Course: Camp Environment

Location: Camps are located away from the hubbub of cities, in peaceful sylvan locations. Camps are accessible by road and never in wilderness.

Food: Vegetarian food is served thrice a day. Breakfast is from 6:30 to 8:00. Lunch is from 11:00 to 12:00. Fruits and tea are served from 5:00 to 6:00. Students who have completed one 10-day course in the past are deemed 'old students'. They may not eat fruit or milk-based drinks after noon. The food is Sattvic. So people accustomed to spicy, oily, salty and sugary diets would find this change refreshing. The human body adjusts remarkably quickly to two meals a day. Since camp participants sit and meditate almost all the time instead of doing rigorous physical activities, less daily caloric intake suffices.

Accommodation: Residential quarters are provided for all students. Rooms might be shared by two or more persons. Some locations allow participants to get their own tents. There is always a building with either individual cells for meditators or a large hall for group meditation.

Couples: Many couples attend the 10-day camp. However, men and women stay separately throughout the course, in their own quarters.

Cost: The camp is free for participants, run by volunteers with charitable contributions from former students. Only those who have finished a 10-day course may donate. The idea is to donate for the benefit of others instead of paying for services rendered to you. So participants are encouraged to donate only if they believe that learning the technique would benefit others. Donation to pay for one's lodging and food, the way one pays at restaurants and hotels, is discouraged.

Teachers: S N Goenka himself teaches only at a few locations. The worldwide centers have "assistant teachers" chosen by S N Goenka. These teachers answer technique-related questions during Q&A hours every day. The actual instructions for meditation and the daily instructions are given through video tapes recorded in S N Goenka's own voice.

Five Precepts and Silence: Participants must observe five precepts: no killing, no lying, no stealing, no sexual misconduct and no intoxication. Silence is maintained for nine days, except for talking to course management or asking questions to assistant teachers. An important reason for maintaining silence is to follow the precept of 'no lying'. On the tenth day, participants may start talking to each other.

Daily Schedule: The daily schedule is daunting! However, only four hours of "Group meditation in the hall" and one hour of "Teacher's discourse in the hall" are mandatory. If you do not show up during these hours, volunteers shall request you to go to the meditation hall. The rest of the day allows for flexibility. For example, not everybody wakes up at 4:00 am because it is not mandatory. Moreover, during the hours of "Meditate in the hall or in your room", some people do not meditate at all — this is not recommended but nobody keeps a watch over you.

 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
 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 room
 5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
 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

For further details, check out Code of Discipline for the 10-day camp. Questions and Answers provides more information.

Meditation techniques: In Buddhism, progress is made by developing sīla (morality), samādhi (one-pointedness) and paññā (wisdom / insight). Understanding what these words mean, how these are inter-connected and how one develops these three qualities in oneself through meditation is a fascinating exercise! Parts II and III of this article provide an overview of these concepts.

During the 10-day course, students learn three different meditation techniques. The first technique, breath meditation, is for developing samādhi (one-pointedness). Students make progress in breath meditation for three days. On the fourth day, the second technique, vipassanā meditation is taught. The goal of vipassanā meditation is to acquire paññā (wisdom / insight). From the fourth day onwards, vipassanā is developed through a series of steps. On the tenth day, the third technique, mettā-bhāvanā (cultivation of loving kindness) is taught. Parts II and III of this article describe these meditation techniques as taught in the 10-day course.

Concern: The format of the 10-day course is fixed for all students; there is no flexibility. My concern is that different students would make progress at different rates. So perhaps, the second step, vipassanā meditation, should be introduced later for some students, when their minds have become sufficiently concentrated and sharp. I wonder if this is the style adopted at monasteries where students stay for months to learn meditation techniques. Also, with 40 to 50 students per assistant teacher, individualized attention is lacking during the 10-day courses. So I feel that the camp is likely to be more beneficial to those who are independent by nature and can work by themselves with little guidance.

Daily Discourses: S N Goenka gives an hour-long discourse every evening from 7:00 to 8:15. These discourses are technique-oriented, they provide ancillary guidelines, answers to frequently asked questions and pitfalls to avoid during meditation. These also describe the philosophy underlying the techniques being taught and how meditation affects you. The discourses are actually fun because S N Goenka makes people laugh many times through stories and anecdotes.

The daily discourses given during the 10-day course may be purchased in book / CD or DVD format at http://www.pariyatti.org. The CDs / DVDs should appeal to a broad audience. The book by S N Goenka is very good. However, it is likely to be of value only to those who have completed a 10-day course. I found the book by William Hart too verbose and discursive. I did not gain much by reading it.

Personal experience: I was able to follow all discourses except the one that covered difficult aspects of Buddhist philosophy: The Five Aggregates and Dependent Origination (the wikipedia article is too dense; the discourse by S N Goenka is much simpler). This particular discourse used too many concepts, and it was not clear as to how one would verify all these concepts through personal experience -- over time, by practicing meditation, perhaps?

Lineage of Teachers

S N Goenka (1924 - ) is a leading industrialist from India. He spent his early years in Burma, becoming a wealthy businessman in his twenties. His business had international offices in countries like Japan and Switzerland. At the same time, he also got serious migraines that could be cured only by weekly morphine injections. In search for a cure, S N Goenka went to Sayagyi U Ba Khin's 10-day course and never looked back. After fourteen years of regular practice, in 1969, he visited India to conduct a 10-day course for his parents and some acquaintances. As participants benefited, knowledge of the course spread by word of mouth. So he started conducting more and more courses. After forty years, in 2009, there are over 80 international centers where "assistant teachers" help.

Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899-1971) grew to become a top-ranking civil servant in the Burmese government. He learnt Vipassanā from Saya Thetgyi. A famous Buddhist monk Webu Sayadaw asked Sayagyi U Ba Khin to start teaching Vipassanā when the two met by chance. One of Sayagyi U Ba Khin's prominent students is Mother Sayamagyi, who continues to run his meditation center in Burma. In 2009, the center has grown to six international centers. The USA branch of International Meditation Center is close to Westminister, Maryland, USA. The formats of the 10-day course offered at these centers and at S N Goenka's meditation centers are identical.

Saya Thetgyi (1873-1943) was a wealthy farmer in Burma who learnt meditation from Ledi Sayadaw. When he was thirty, a cholera epidemic swept away his wife, son, daughter, nephew and brother-in-law. This massive tragedy prompted Saya Thetgyi to search for answers. With a companion, he traveled all over Burma and eventually found refuge in Ledi Sayadaw.

Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923) was a famous Buddhist monk from Burma who studied under multiple teachers. He not only had a thorough knowledge in Buddhist scriptures but also was accomplished in their practice. He also wrote several expository books and commentaries.

Health Benefits of Meditation

With the meditation techniques learnt at the 10-day course, one becomes more peaceful by nature. One also gets healed of myriad psychosomatic ailments like migraines and depression. In Buddhist tradition, such benefits are said to be of minor significance when compared with the much larger goal of nibbāna (liberation). However, in both the East and the West, many people are drawn to meditation for health benefits.

Talks on Google Campus: Health benefits of meditation were expounded by two speakers invited to Google campus:

(A) Jon Kabat-Zinn has pioneered the incorporation of Eastern meditation techniques into Western medicine. He is Professor Emeritus and former Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The 8-week MBSR course was developed after 10 years of experience in treating patients at U Mass Medical School. He gave two talks at Google: Mindfulness (1hr 12mins on youtube) (2007) and Mindfulness, Stress Reduction And Healing (1hr 14mins on youtube) (2007).

(B) Dr Philippe Golden gave a talk in 2008. He is a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist at Stanford University. He studies meditation techniques for treating psychological disorders like social phobia and depression. His talk is quite technical and widely acclaimed: Cognitive Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation (48 mins on youtube).

Buddhism and Psychology: Serious students of clinical psychology may peruse through Buddhism and Psychology (wikipedia). This article showcases the relationships between Buddhist insights into human behavior and the principles underlying clinical techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs. Both have been developed over the last 30 to 40 years, with many studies confirming their efficacy for depression, anxiety, pain management, personality disorders and so on.

Personal Narratives from All Over the World

Most people who attend the 10-day course find it illuminating in some way or the other. Some find it stressful, a few leave in between.

Happy Experiences: Barnaby De Palma from Australia — Sandy Song from Hong Kong — Spencer Isaac from Vancouver, Canada — Smita Poudel from India — Graham Waldon from California, USA — Mark Steele from New Zealand — Nipun Gupta, founder of CharityFocus from California, USA — Anne Aula, USA — Sameer Sampat from California, USA — Roberto Loiederman from California, USA, wrote an LA Times article — Suam Varughese from India — "RecordMyMind" from Singapore — Prof P L Dhar, a Vipassanā teacher in North India — Dr Manish Agarwala from India — Letters from Vipassana Course Participants maintained at dhamma.org — Senior Administrators from India: Part I, Part II and Part IIIPrisoners in IndiaShri Ram Singh, Former Home Secretary of Rajasthan, India — Sheetal Rawal from USA wrote an article in the magazine IndiaCurrents.

Unhappy Experiences: Amit D Choudhary from Wisconsin, USA — Jeffrey Brooks from California, USA — Melissa Maples from Turkey — Harmanjit Singh from India — Discussion Thread.

Sayagyi U Ba Khin Camp Experience: A Thousand Lives Away — Buddhism in Contemporary Burma (22 pages, 1964) by Winston L King. A short essay on King's personal experience at a 10-day camp in Burma in 1964 under Sayagyi U Ba, who is S N Goenka's teacher.

Journal Article: Experiments in Insight Meditation by Rod Bucknell, Australian Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 3 (1983), 96-117. The author spent over four years practicing Vipassanā meditation in two different monasteries in Thailand, in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw. This article is likely to make sense only to dedicated meditation practitioners.

My Personal Experience: My first 10-day course in 2007 gave me calm and quietude of such magnitude that I had not experienced since 1994. During the course, I struggled with posture but made steady progress. Upon returning, I was convinced of the great potency of meditation for stress reduction. Phrases like "mind chatter", "awareness" and "quietening of the mind" now made sense to me. I was also convinced that there is a path, a series of well-documented steps, towards a goal that I do not fully understand. However, progress towards this goal makes you a better and better person, and that the path has been traversed by many before.

Before attending the camp, I had read some books and some online articles on meditation. After attending the camp, I realized that reading books and articles is so incomplete without actual practice. And after learning meditation in practical terms, I felt no need to read these books any more. I came to understand why 'knowledge' acquired through 'personal experience' is so valued in Eastern spiritual systems, over and above knowledge acquired through books / discourses and knowledge acquired through mental analysis. I also felt empathy towards people whose actions had generated misery for me. One reason for empathy was the realization that I had also made mistakes in the past. Forgiving oneself precedes forgiving others, as they say. A second reason for empathy was the realization that these people had not yet been exposed to Eastern spiritual techniques for acquiring calm and quietude. So I wondered how they take care of themselves in times of distress. After attending the course, one has to maintain a regular practice of daily meditation. I have found that particularly challenging.

My experience at the second course was quite different from the first one. My posture problems got solved and I could sit for long hours, including several 'sittings of strong determination'. However, I did not return as calm and quiet as I did after the first course. After talking to friends with much more experience, I came to understand what was going on. I shall narrate my experiences at both courses in detail in a few months from now.

Summary: On the whole, the 10-day course is a 'boot camp' or a 'crash course' that teaches you a lot! I believe the teachings are pure and authentic; it is difficult to find such teachers or groups in the world.

Part I (overview)Part II (breath meditation)Part III (vipassanā meditation)

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