My interest in meditation goes back to my first visit to Thailand in 2013. It has never been a passionate interest but enough for me to open the Calm app a few times a week for 10 minutes.
Over the last few years, people have mentioned completing a 10-day silent vipassana retreat. 10 days of silence? Crazy. But not impossible crazy and the idea of attending one would float through my mind from time to time.
Out of nowhere on March 15th I found myself applying for a 10 Day Vippassana meditation course at Dhamma Malaya in Malaysia.
Application accepted. The course dates? April 11th until April 22nd. That’s some scary shit when you factor in:
Super duper scary shit.
But I’m still alive today (and no, I didn’t leave early…smart arse) and completed the course.
So this post is my vipassana meditation review thingy. FAQ-style.
Most questions about the course are more or less along the same lines so I’ll answer these with my take on everything. There won’t be much about the technique, you’d feel like a three-legged cat doing yoga if I attempted to explain things.
You Didn’t Talk For 10 Days?
Essentially. From when I arrived on the 11th, I didn’t say anything to anyone besides a few questions to the assistant teacher and course manager at scheduled times.
It was tougher though as the course observes noble silence. This means no eye contact or glances. The no glances and eye contact made things so much harder. When walking past someone you try to look into the distance or down at your feet. Anything you can not to make eye contact. There was one time I gave someone an accidental head nod. Fail.
Add to that no phones, no writing, no exercising, and no reading and you’ve got a lot of time to think in your own world.
On day 6-ish the course assistant let us know we’d be able to talk at some point on day 10. That was super motivating. There was even a chance we could mix with the females! About that, we shared the meditation hall. Ladies on one side, men on the other. Otherwise, there was total separation between sexes. That no sexual misconduct rule is pesky.
Who Runs The Course?
The teaching of the Vipassana technique is from those taught by S.N. Goenka who is helping to preserve the technique that dates back to the Buddha two and a half millennia. S.N. Goenka started to appoint assistant teachers who are able to teach Dhamma – the way to liberation. This has let thousands of new students learn the technique every month at sites around the world.
So on site were two assistant teachers (one male & one female), four course managers and servers. The course managers and servers are students who have previously completed Vipassana courses and are providing service to allow others to experience the technique (the whole Vipassana eco-system is based on donations, no one takes a salary).
The course managers were brilliant, they were everywhere. Organising everything and we could ask them admin related questions if need be. I’d ask have all the fans on in the meditation hall. Meditating is sweaty work!
The kitchen staff and cleaners (we didn’t interact with them) are servers. Now that I’ve completed a course, I can be a server. At the end of the course, they emphasise that the best way you can give back is by serving. For more info on serving, this is a good resource.
What Did You Bring?
I’ve got my life in my backpack, so everything came with me. They took all my electronics and books for safe keeping. Well more to remove the temptation, but you get what I mean.
Before arriving I needed a couple of things based on the rules:
31.90 RM (above) later I was set. I wore my All Blacks jersey a few days as well, but otherwise, I washed my gear every couple of days and let them dry overnight. They weren’t the most comfortable of clothes in the heat :(. Tightarse Jub should have paid more for better fitting clothes.
What I did forget to buy was spare toothpaste. On the first night we had already started observing silence when I realized I was near the end of the tube. Do I break the rules and signal to one of the other students to borrow their toothpaste? Should I ask the course assistant? Ration?
I chose to ration, using about a quarter of the normal amount. We were breathing in and out of our nose while meditating and no one could comment any bad breath. Totally justified.
Turns out I missed the memo and the course managers can help us get stuff that we’d pay for afterward. Oh well.
Oh, and being in bare feet for 10 days was awesome!
What Is The Daily Schedule Like?
I’ve taken this straight from the Dhamma website:
I slept until 7 am on the first morning (hadn’t found my alarm clock yet) before hearing a knock at my door. It was a course manager (shit they were good to us) making sure everything was okay and letting know breaky was finishing soon. Legend.
We could do the first meditation session of the day in our room or the meditation hall. That flexibility meant most people didn’t wake up at 4.30 am. I never woke up to the 4 am or 4:30 am bell so would wake up with my alarm between 5.30 and 6.30.
Not going to lie though, getting to sleep at 10 pm wasn’t easy even with these crazy early mornings. I passed out before 11 pm on two nights.
What Do You Do Besides Meditate?
I had some routines established from day two. After breakfast, I’d walk around this rectangle made with concrete tiles 10 times. I’d then do another 10 laps at the tea break (lunchtime was a sweat fest).
My lap times around the rectangle varied depending on what I was feeling and how many others were walking around at the same time (it was awkward overtaking people). What I can tell you is there are 165 tiles on the outside, and 157 tiles on the inside and it took roughly 200 small steps to complete a loop. We had a lot of spare time.
My other goal was to drink 3 liters of water a day. This was easy with filtered water always accessible.
Otherwise, it was a lot of lying on the bed doing silly things:
- how long I could hold my breath for (82 seconds)
- how low I could get my resting heart rate (40-something beats).
- Consciously counting to 1000.
Around the grounds there was a monitor lizard I saw most days who I enjoyed staring contests with (shit, does that mean I broke the noble silence?). There were a couple squirrels and a shit load of ants. Ants who decided one day my shower was a good place to make a trail through. Technically I killed some of them with shower water, but I couldn’t wait for them to move on. Ah, and a couple stray dogs towards the end, dislike.
Was It Hard To Concentrate While Meditating?
Yup, and even after the course I battle to keep my focus for more than a few seconds before I drift off. Some days were better than others, but even one hour would be great, then the next hour would be shocking. Some hours were better than others.
My worst hour of concentration was on the afternoon of day 9. I started thinking about all the golf balls back at Dad’s place (10,000+) and how to get rid of them. I thought about creating a mini putt golf course in the backyard and things continued going on from there for the whole hour. The ideas kept going, there was no stopping them. I’m excited to take action on these ideas.
The first few days I was having lots of sexual thoughts, fantasies, and stuff from past relationships/romances etc. That pesky sexual misconduct rule. That weirded me out, but I’ve looked into it and it’s not uncommon during a Vipassana course. Yay, I’m normal?
Between the sexual thoughts, for the first few days I was thinking about the past. Childhood memories even popped into the mind. I’m not sure what day it was but I started thinking about the future. Ideas for this blog and travel plans dominated but also random stuff popped up from time to time(see mini golf above).
The most frustrating thing was not being able to validate the travel ideas right away (feasible and whether they were affordable), and not being able to write down bigger ideas for the future.
Oh, It’s Actually A Course?
Yes! I wasn’t aware of that either. I thought it was more of a place where you learn a different bunch of techniques (lying, walking, and sitting meditation) then you’re left to your own devices for the day.
The course is structured so the skills build on top of each other. On the last couple of days the recordings go deeper into technique for when you’re ready to move onto the next steps of your progression (they were a long way off for me). The hour-long discourse at the end of the day is an hour long VHS recording of Goenka going through the day’s lessons. He talks about the technique and share stories. I was dreading these, but he managed to throw in some jokes to keep it interesting.
I could chat lots more about the techniques, but I’m not qualified and wouldn’t want to lead you astray. Although everyone does appreciate a three-legged cat.
What Was The Food Like?
I ate like a king! Granted I was expecting rice and beans. For breaky there was a rice porridge thing, a couple of carb options, fruit, toast (jam and PB), oats, tea, and coffee. Better than any of the free hostel breakfasts in Malaysia.
Lunch was always different but wholly shit, these lunches confirmed something for me. Malaysia does the best variety of fake meats, tempe, and tofu in the world. Lunch was usually rice with two or three things to go with it and a soup. They left the oats out too, winning.
Dinner was simple. 2-3 pieces of fruit per person and herbal tea. This is what most people struggle with. People are often eating their biggest meal for dinner so they struggled given it was at 5 pm and it was a small serving. I found it alright and often passed on the dinner due to my silly intermittent fasting routine.
Everything is vegetarian and most is vegan.
Others at the end of the course weren’t raving about the food like I was. Perhaps my low expectations skewed things?
Did You Ask the Interviewer Any Questions?
Yup sure did. We could schedule five-minute interviews from midday to 1 p.m. and after our last mediation session at 9 p.m., we could wait to ask some questions if need be.
From what I recall I had two lunchtime interviews and waited behind after 9 pm twice. I was surprised so few people asked questions.
A few of the things I asked from memory (and my interpretation of the answers):
Why do we have to have our legs folded? Sitting with your legs folded is the best way to stay comfortable for long periods.
Why is the guy on your left always listening in on our chats? Turns out he was the mentor of our course assistant. Our course assistant was a boss!
If I want to stop my Coke (the cola) cravings, how do I go about that based on Vipassana techniques? It’s all about observing your body and the sensations when you think about Coke and disassociate any emotion towards the sensations. When I think of coke, I have this goosebump like feeling along my upper arm. Still struggling with putting this into practice :/
I don’t feel like I’m doing this right, why are we moving through the steps really fast? I didn’t realise at the time Goenka was discussing the techniques for the future as we progress on our journey.
What does a ‘cross sensation’ mean? Turns out he was saying GROSS sensation. In context, it now makes a whole lot of sense but was so confusing at the time.
If I run a marathon, how am I not supposed to stay calm? I’m going to be stoked as I finished. You don’t need to meditate all the time. Don’t worry about observing your observations immediately after the race, enjoy the moment.
How Many People Were There? Who Attends These Courses?
According to the website, Dhamma Malaya can cater for 108 students. We weren’t quite at capacity, maybe 100 students? From what I could tell no one left the course early which surprised me big time.
There was approximately a 45/55 male/female ratio, with most from Malaysia and China. There was about a dozen western males and half a dozen western females. I assume the there are a lot more westerners who do the course in Thailand and Indonesia.
What Was The Hardest Day?
For me it was day 3. I had a freelance assignment due which I’d finished before the course started. But I freaked out thinking the email hadn’t sent. It was all I could think about for most of the day.
Do I ask the course assistant if I can use the wifi (was there wifi)? Should I leave the course? Could I leave in the night and return before breakfast undetected?
So many possibilities. In the end I got over it. There wasn’t much I could do but it got to me worried (I had sent the email).
I’d broken down the days into 10% chunks and at the end of day three I was thinking shit I have to do this two more times then I’m nearly finished? That didn’t help things.
The two days people struggle with most are day 2 and day 6.
What Was It Like To Talk Again?
Weird as fuck. My first words were:
“Sweet pants dude.”
In reference to a lad wearing some crazy pants with pictures of fries, burgers, and speech bubbles on them. As days went by, people seemed to push the boundaries on the clothing rules.
To start hearing your voice was weird, there was no soothing voice of Goenka that had dominated our ears for 10 days. It didn’t take long until everyone was back into the swing of things.
Of course, the previous 10 days dominated the chat. I was gutted to hear I missed out on the Mimosa pudica. They’re the plants that close when you touch them! That would have been exciting to find as there’s only so long you can look at armies of ants doing their thing.
Why Did I Sign Up?
Beyond the curiosity and challenge, there was no deep reason (that I’m conscious of). I knew about the retreats for a while, but I guess it was right time right place. As one who hates making plans, applying for a course four weeks in advance was nerve wracking.
Would I Do It Again?
Yeap. After the course, they recommend you keep going with the Vipassana techniques we learned. They suggest:
- One hour in the morning and one hour in the evening
- Five minutes in bed after you wake up and before you sleep
- Attend one group meditation session each week
- Attend 1x 10-day course once a year (as a server or student)
That’s a bit intense for me, and honestly I’ve been slacking since the course. I put too much pressure on myself to do too much and lost momentum. Doing a 10 day course once a year is something I’d like to do going forward though. We’ll see…it’s not that hard to survive without technology, promise. Like anything in life, you can do more than you realise.
Give us a shout in the comments or send me an email if you’ve any questions what so ever.