My year at a Vipassana Center: How it came about I

We were all siting at 142 Lea Bridge Road, London, a place of cultural get-together, free exploration and all kinds of young hearted shenanigans. My introverted nature did not put me at the forefront of events, yet I was part of the mix, due to my newly found connection, Shiv – an overtly expressive, dashingly charming, attractive and convincing young Indian man. What he was describing seemed like some rite of passage, some challenge or test, that only those with true conviction can survive. It wasn’t until he said the words “complete silence for ten days” that my attention fully merged with his delivery. “That sounds cool,” I thought to myself. “I have to try it one day.”
Soon after, I spent a year in India, traveling to various parts, including the Himalayan Mountains. In a place called Parvati Valley, where days were met with a customary charras (Indian hashish) culture, I spent a lot of alone time walking through the mountain-top forest. During some of those walks I recall hearing the voice of a male, chanting ancient-like sounds, sounds I would only recognize some time later during my first ten day retreat.
It is said that those who have the calling of Vipassana from a previous lifetime cannot resist upon finding it in a current lifetime. When the seed has been planted, it must grow.
From India I went back to Cape Town, where I had to make the switch back to real life. My life there felt in contrast to my yearning for spiritual fulfillment and even though my practice of Tai Chi and Qigong, which I almost religiously held on to, was a savings grace, something was pulling on me.
One night, I found myself suddenly sitting upright in my bed. It was time to try this Vipassana thing.
Arriving at the retreat center you are assigned a bed and a small space to unpack the limited belongings you brought with you. You are requested to make do with what is given and not a have unreasonable expectations for luxurious accommodation. The retreat center is about an hour outside of Cape Town at the foot of a mountain slope in a beautiful natural setting.
I regretted that the sleeping bag I packed in to sleep in was not enough. In stark contrast to the attitude of abundance I now know is at the core of Vipassana, I felt inhibited to ask for an extra blanket to keep me warm at night.
At lights-off time, I relaxed into the warmth of my body through my mind, while in fact it was absolutely freezing cold. During the day I would work diligently as suggested by the teacher. There was no switching off for me, my mind was at constant awareness in relaxing into what was. I look back now, and think of this discomfort at night as one of the reasons the technique caught hold on me so strongly. Here’s why:
Towards the end of the course you are guided to direct your awareness, observing a rapid flow of energy through your whole body. One night I was lying in bed, still unable to differentiate between mental effort and mental observation. I applied my, then, very concentrated mind to this task of observing the flow of energy. (In actuality this is rapidly observing the energy as it is naturally, appearing as a rapid flow.)
Every time I applied strong effort, the wind would pass by in a gust, to stop as quickly as my my mental effort did. I experimented with this for some time. Was it real? Was I imagining things? Was I manipulating the weather? I was astounded at how this could be and even though I knew it was real, the I did not exclude the possibility of being in a disillusioned trap of the mind. I knew it was real, though. The confirmation would come many months later.
The next day was Mettā-day. The silence would be broken and we’d engage in light communication with the other participants. I had just started enjoying the new world inside, only accessible through silence, which was now sadly coming to and end.
Yet, I was curious. What was the others’ experiences like?
To be continued.

My year at a Vipassana Center: Introduction

What many of you may not know about me, is that I spent a year living at a Vipassana center. For those of you who know Vipassana, don’t freak out. It does not mean that for 365 days I was meditating 11 hours a day, as we do at the 10-day retreats, however there are some pretty strict guidelines for staying at a Vipassana retreat center, which I will outline later. During this time, I’d seen quite a number of students come and go as they participated in the meditation retreats. Many of them were interested in my life there, what I was doing, experiencing and observing, as I was interested in theirs.
I have had some insightful experiences and some more light-hearted stories to share too. I thus decided to write about these in a few blog posts, highlighting some of the incidents I remember. For those who are unfamiliar with the Vipassana technique and organization, I here is a short summary. The rest you can read up on at
Vipassana is a meditation technique, believed to be the exact technique Guatama Buddha discovered enlightenment through. It means to see the reality for what is, without delusion, fantasy, and falsehood. It is the technique to release suffering which is a result of our attachment to the world we perceive as real. The technique is taught by S.N. Goenka on 10-day silent retreats, during which very specific instructions are given in specific order to learn the technique.
Vipassana centers are found worldwide and are funded and managed entirely by volunteers. Donations in the form of service or money are only accepted from those who have completed a ten day retreat under the guidance of an assistant teacher. During periods of service, a server is expected to maintain a minimum of 3 hours meditation per day. Reading material is limited to that issued by the Vipassana Research Organization. Strict segregation of men and women during meal times are maintained, and in general, conversation is asked to mostly be limited to functional communication.
Persons volunteering their time as dāna (a Pali word for donation) contribute to the atmosphere of the center by keeping their thoughts and emotions clear, if not, filled with love and appreciation, compassion and peace at all times. The Pali word to describe this offering is called “mettā” (loving-kindness.)
In the lives of Vipassana students in general and on all Vipassana centers the following precepts are to be observed at all times: 1. To abstain from killing or harming others. 2. To abstain from stealing, or taking what is not given. 3, To abstain form telling lies or wrongful speech, 4. To abstain from sexual misconduct, 5. To abstain from all intoxicants.
I hope this gives you sone insight into the setup of a Vipassana Center. I look forward to sharing my experiences with you. The way these stories are written, is with the intention to have each individual event read as individual story, however in actuality all of them very much makes sense consecutively, as elements build upon each other and the understanding of events, lessons and occurrences very much flows into the context of another.
Read about how my year at the Vipassana center came about in the next post.
Photo credit: @wellnessstockkphoto