My First Vipassana Retreat: Part ONE: What it IS – Why I Went – What you DO

The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things….

I attended my first 10 day Vipassana Course in December at the Ontario Vipassana Centre.  It has taken me a while to work my way around to talking about it.

I very much want to share the experience with you, but it seems that every time I begin to talk or scribble about it – so MUCH pours out at once that it is… a tad overwhelming.

I must begin somewhere, if I am to begin at all … so I’ll start with an intro and see where we land up.

Intro: What it IS – Why I Went – What you DO


Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation.  It is, in short, a body-scan technique wherein the practitioner moves her attention from “head to feet – feet to head” paying attention to the sensations that are present on (and in) the body.

The technique is taught at Vipassana Centres around the world – beginning with a 10 day residential course.

There is no cost for these courses.  In fact you cannot pay or even donate any money to the centres until after you have completed one 10 day course.  And they are SERIOUS about this.  There is no pressure at all to hand over cash.  At the end of the course, there is an opportunity to donate money in order to help keep the Centre alive and to allow others to experience an introduction to Vipassana,  but they do NOT pressure you to pay. They are very grateful for any donation and will give you a receipt for your donation.  One can also offer to volunteer at future courses as a Server. Or inbetween courses to help with the maintenance and upkeep of the centre.  This service is HIGHLY valued.

I enjoyed the reasoning behind this “no pay” policy.  It goes beyond the desire to make Vipassana available to all.  It is an exercise in itself for us to be there… on someone else’s dime.  We are there, being taught, with a roof over our heads and food in our bowls because someone else paid for us.  It may be the first time some of us had the experience of “charity” of this sort. And it adds to the experience of living like a monk.  We are grateful for the bed we are given and for the food in our bowl.  We don’t go running to complain to someone if we don’t like the food or accommodation or if the teaching seems “too hard.”  Well, most of us don’t. It’s a good system.

You can find more detailed information, that includes the history of the technique and quick overview of the courses over at the OVC’s Introduction to Vipassana Meditation page.

Why I went:

I’ve been exploring different meditation techniques for a few years now.  Mainly working with mindfulness meditation – sitting and paying attention to the breath as it comes in and out, watching my mind wander hither and yon.  I’ve done body scans, guided meditations, worked with mantras… lil of this… lil of that.

I was sort of … overwhelming myself… with different ways to meditate.  I would jump aboard different meditation challenges – and do them, but end up feeling that I was somehow only dancing on the surface.  That there was … too much going on.  I was trying to do too many things at once, or there was too much to think about when what I was trying to do was… NOT THINK.

I yearned to… spend longer on … ONE THING…  Choose one mantra or one technique or… something… but I kept leaping from one teaching to another.  Unable to settle.  I longed, mostly, for a way to find… REST for my mind.  To find a still spot where the wandering would stop – even for a moment.  I’d begun to feel that stillness, briefly, but mostly I was learning to just… sit and observe the mind as it flitted about from thought to thought.  Restful enough, but I wondered if I could find that really still place within.

The idea of a 10day Silent Retreat where I would JUST MEDITATE was extremely appealing.  And… the price was right.  I am so shit-arsed broke right now that any sort of RETREAT seemed beyond my means entirely.  Until I came across Vipassana and the Ontario Vipassana Centre.

I did some research to make sure I wasn’t headed into some crazy cult situation.  I read articles and blog posts for and against Vipassana and its teacher, S.N. Goenka.  I read posts and watched videos about people’s experiences at these retreats or “courses” as Goenka refers to them.

It became more and more appealing.

I have to confess that the idea of a hot shower every day and a warm bunk also appealed.  Last winter was hard and long at the shaky shack. The idea of hot running water and warmth and two tasty meals per day sounded pretty darned good.  And though The Raggedy Man and I lead a pretty quiet life, I was also intrigued and lured by the idea of 10 days in complete SILENCE.

So I applied and was accepted for a course running from Dec 11-22.  I was nervous and excited.

I am very very glad I went and very very grateful for all that I received.

If you are at ALL drawn to attend a 10day course, I encourage you to do it.

It was hard hard hard – as I will write about in this series of posts, but it was also absolutely great.  And, I believe, the beginning of something wonderful for me.

What you DO:

The day you arrive, you settle into your room, fill in some registration forms and hand in things like cellphones, computers, books, journals ect for safekeeping.  I shared a room, but there are some private rooms as well.  The hardest thing for me to “hand over” was my scribble book.  I was ready for some silence and to disconnect from the cell and the ‘puter world – but how oh how would I survive without a book to read myself to sleep and my beloved Scrib to take notes in?  My belly did a flip-flop as I handed it over to the kind-faced woman who would be our Manager for the course.

The Manager is the person who takes care of all the logistics during the course.  She was the only one we could speak with, aside from the Assistant Teacher.

There are two assistant teachers.  One for the women and one for the men.  They are called “assistants” because Goenka is the main teacher – though we see him only on Video and hear him on Audio throughout the course.

There were 75 people at the course, plus the Servers and some old students who dropped in to sit with us on different days.  I think the split was about 50 women, 25 men.  But I didn’t actually count.

We all ate supper together.  The food is amazingly tasty and plentiful.  We had an intro talk where we could ask questions and then we all headed back to our rooms.  We met at the Meditation Hall at 7pm and the course began.  After that… it was Noble Silence until the penultimate day of the course.  On the tenth day, we would resume speaking and ease our way back into the regular world.

Noble Silence is defined as: silence of body, speech and mind. Meaning that we aimed to keep our focus on our selves and not communicate in any way with our fellow meditators.  We were free to talk to the Manager about any material needs and to speak to the Assistant Teacher about the technique.

I have much to say about the Silence.  About how large my ears felt as they reached for every sound.  About what it was like coming out of the Silence.  It deserves a post of it’s own.

That first evening, we received our instructions on Anapana Sati – the observation of our NATURAL respiration.  We spent the first three days of the course learning to focus on our breath as it came in and out of our nostrils.  We began by focusing our attention on the entire nose and the upper lip – feeling the breath come in and out.  Then we narrowed our focus to sensations on the upper lip.

The main idea being to notice the breath and the sensations on/in the nostrils and upper lip AS THEY ARE, not as we WISH them to be.  Meaning not trying to force anything, not changing our breathing, just paying attention to the sensations that occur.

It’s harder than it sounds.

And here we come to one of my major discoveries during the course.  I was prepared for the wandering monkey mind.  What I hadn’t really thought about much was… the physical aspect of sitting for 10 hours each day.  By Day 2, I was a fiery ball of pain.  I’ll speak more about this in an upcoming post on Pain and the Brain.

We stuck solely with the Anapana practice for the first three days.

The Daily Schedule:

  • 4am – Morning wake-up bell (Seriously – 4am!!!)
  • 4.30 – 6:30 Meditation on your own –  in the meditation hall. your room or your cell (more on the Cells later)
  • 6.30 – Breakfast and rest
  • 8am – 9am Group meditation in the meditation hall (and often, instruction and meetings with the Assistant teacher)
  • 9-11 – Meditation on your own
  • 11 – Lunch and rest
  • 12-1 – Meetings with the assistant teacher
  • 1-2 – Meditation on your own
  • 2-3- Group meditation in the meditation hall
  • 4-5 – Meditation on your own
  • 5pm – Tea break and rest
  • 6pm – Group meditation in the meditation hall
  • 7:15- 8:15 –  Discourse in the meditation hall – video talks by Goenka
  • 8:15-9 – Group meditation in the meditation hall
  • 9-9.30 – Time to ask questions of the Assistant teachers
  • 9:30 – Retire to room
  • 10pm – lights out

I know it seems — INTENSE — and it is, but I came to love those early morning sits best of all, and the schedule really does allow enough time for resting and sleep.  I felt great and found it easy to stick with it.

Part way through Day 4, we received instruction on Vipassana and began practicing that – using Anapana to help us focus when necessary.

Vipassana, like I said above, is a body-scan technique – working from the top of the head to the tips of the toes and back up again… and back down…and back up… and so on for the entire hour.  The idea being to feel the sensations on each and every body part.  To feel what is ACTUALLY there, not what what we WISH was there. So no… relaxing or attempting to change or create some kind of sensation. Just… paying attention to what we feel.  Heat. Cold. The cloth touching our skin. Wracking physical pain that Goenka calls “solidified unpleasant sensation”. The ZipZap electric strangeness that comes sometimes… whatever.

The point being to feel these sensations – the pleasant and the unpleasant – and to know that the nature of all these sensations is that they arise and grow in intensity and then… pass away.  The sensations are in constant flow and flux – as EVERYTHING IS.

That is the main point of this tecnique.  It is a way to feel and observe – IN YOUR BODY the … impermanence of … everything.  We are to use these sensations and their arising and passing away to develop… equanimity.

Meaning that we do not crave the pleasant sensations, nor do we harbour hatred and aversion for the unpleasant.  They are what they are and they will change.

We scan from head to feet, feet to head, encountering sensations on (and in) the body and we do not deny them, or ignore them, or try to change them.  This sensation or that sensation makes no difference. Equanimity is most important.  We keep on developing our equanimity based on the impermanence of the sensations we experience.

That’s it.  That’s the whole thing. That’s what you do.

And it is totally different for each person.  That is what makes it hard to talk about in some ways – because if I tell you what it was like for me – you might think “ah I will feel this… or I will feel that…” and you might not.  Which could make you crave the sensations that I had.  Some people see light.  Some people get electric zings.  Some people weep and weep and weep.

Even the way you “sit” is unique to yourself.  When you first enter the Meditation Hall, you will find a spot with your name on it that has a mat with a rectangular pillow on it.  These are “the basics” but there are benches, chairs, pillows and cushions of all shapes and sizes to choose from.  I’ll talk more about finding my “most comfortable” or “least painful” way to sit in another post.

I cried the first time we did Vipassana.  I thought I might.  Any type of “body work” can open up vats of emotional pain for me.  I though I would cry during the scan, but I didn’t. It wasn’t until later – walking to the dining hall for our dinner that I suddenly started sobbing.  I stopped and stepped off the path and stood there crying trying to be silent, but sobbing my heart out.  An old student stopped beside me.  She just stood there. Looking at the ground, but standing with me.  I sobbed a bit more and then, we moved on.  It was lovely, actually.

As the time went on, I often wept.  Mostly outside on my walks.  I walked every day after lunch for about 1/2 hour or more.  I wept at… beauty… mostly.  At the full moon.  At the sound of water running down in the ravine or a far off train whistle.  At birdsong and crazy squirrel maneuvers.

It was a good weeping.

And hey – as to that question about finding a place where the mind “rests” where the chatter stops – YES.  I did find it.

More on THAT later, as well.

I’ll stop, for now, as this post has already run longer than I’d planned.

Some possibilities for future posts about my experience:

Thanks for stopping by.

Before you go – here’s a short vid of the Dude himself – S.N. Goenka giving a quick session on Anapana.

If you have any questions, please leave a comment below or drop me a line.  I hope to continue this series each Monday.

Go easy ~p

Here are some interesting posts by others:

Questions and Answers About Vipassana

Awareness and Equanimity – I love this one!  Very detailed and well thought out.

The Low Down Dirty Deets on Vipassana

The Truth about 10 day S.N. Goenka Vipassana Meditation Retreats

10 Days of Silence: Is a Vipassana Boot Camp for You?

And a great series I found today over at Somebody’s Travel that starts with: Ten Days Dhamma/Vipassana-meditation – Ten days of torture and brain-laundry?  The blog hasn’t been updated since 2008, but I’m quite enjoying the series on Vipassana.

10 Comments on “My First Vipassana Retreat: Part ONE: What it IS – Why I Went – What you DO

  1. Pingback: Vipassana: The Grace-filled Dance of Silence | pambustin

  2. Pingback: Vipassana: Into the body – out of the mind | pambustin

  3. Pingback: Vipassana Baby-steps – Valuing the Experiential and Keeping an Open Mind | pambustin

  4. Pingback: Vipassana: Musing on Pain and the Brain at a 10 day Retreat | pambustin

  5. Pingback: Wrapping up the June Moon with a Solstice Retreat… | pambustin

  6. Hi Pam, I love your writing about your experience during Vipassana 10 days course. I admire your courage to share this with others.

    I did my 10 days Vipassana course at the end of December, 2015. It was the hardest, best experience I never had. I feel words just can not describe how I felt during the course and after the course. It opened a new world within myself. I have been meditate twice daily since, I am still digesting the sensation, let it go through me not react to it. Took this 10 days course was the best thing could happen to my life.

    Lots matta!

    • Hey Lisa, thanks 🙏 so much for your lovely words.
      So great to hear from a fellow meditator.

      I have just returned from my third sit at Dhamma Torana.
      So good.

      With metta -p

  7. Hi! I am new to Canada. I have been doing vipassana for the last 3 years. Looking for fellow meditators in toronto. I live in the York region. Let me know if there is group or place where a weekly/monthly/regular group meditation is done. Its good to meditate in a group apart from one’s own meditation.

    Metta to you!!


    • Hello Monika and welcome to Canada!
      I actually live up North, so I don’t know of any groups other than The Ontario Vipassana Centre as mentioned above. I think there are weekly sittings in T.O., I just don’t know where or when. If you contact the centre they may be able to help.

      I return to the centre each year to either sit or serve for a 10 day course. You will find wonderful people there 💜🙏🏼❤️

      With metta~p

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Starting Over

Because there's never enough time to do it right the first time but there's always enough time to do it over

Ailish Sinclair

Stories and photos from Scotland

Cathy Standiford

Historical fiction, poetry, essays

Keeping the Dream

The Healing Journey and Covert Abuse

Starting Over

Because there's never enough time to do it right the first time but there's always enough time to do it over

Ailish Sinclair

Stories and photos from Scotland

Cathy Standiford

Historical fiction, poetry, essays

Keeping the Dream

The Healing Journey and Covert Abuse

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