11 Days of Meditation Retreat

I reached Dhamma Patthana around 2:30pm. Dhamma Patthana is constructed on 7 acres of green land in Kamaspur village, approximately 45 kilometers from  Delhi and have separate and dedicated facilities for male and female students, including 59 Individual cottages with attached bathrooms/toilets, which can accommodate 33 male students, 22 female students and Dhamma workers. Other facilities include a pagoda having 63 meditation cells, 2 Dhamma halls, kitchen/dinning hall and teachers’ accommodation.

After a warm welcome the copy of “Vipassana Code of Conduct/Discipline,” along with application forms was handed to me. I was asked to read, understand and sign the code of conduct. Since I was the early comer, I was given a choice to pick my cottage among available ones. A clean set of bed-sheets, pillowcases and a laundry bag were given to me. A locker was assigned to deposit all valuables, phones and any writing or reading materials.

After the check in formalities I made my way to the cottage. The residential room was about 6’ X 9’ with attached bathroom and had a small verandah. It had a single bed with mattress, pillows, a chair, mosquito net and meditation stool. Once settled in, I went for a short walk to familiarize myself to the place. The lawns were lush green, nicely set with small pockets of seasonal flowers, there were lots of trees shadowing the pathways/cottages, I saw peacocks and other birds wandering in the quiet sections of the center.
When I looked at the watch, it was only 3:30pm, it seemed that the time is now on stand still. To pass the time I started reading the evening schedule which I done reading in 5 seconds and started wondering how I am going to kill the time till 6:00pm. I assigned myself a task to remember the daily schedule, another 10 minutes of my day got utilized going through it, and we were hours away from 6:00pm. The best thing to do at that time was to have a long afternoon nap.

What is Vipassana?
Vipassana is a Pali (Ancient Indian Language) word which has two parts, “Passana” means seeing, and prefix “vi” means “through.”

Medi Vipassana is the oldest meditation practice. The method comes directly from the Sitipatthana Sutta a discourse attributed to Buddha himself. Vipassana is a direct and gradual cultivation of mindfulness or awareness, and a form of mental training that teaches to experience the world in an entirely new way. This meditation technique  is gentle and very thorough. It is a process of self-discovery, a participatory investigation in which we observe our own experiences while participating in them as they occur. We learn what is truly happening to us, around us and within us.

The course spans over a 12 day period and one develops enough concentration to quiet the mind and suppress mental impurities such as anger. Once finished, students are expected to continue the meditation in our daily life.

The Retreat
The retreat was fully residential and free of cost. The retreat begins in the evening of the first day (which they call Day Zero) and ends on the morning of the 12th (Day Eleven). On the day of arrival, students must arrive between 2:00pm — 5:00pm.

Tea Time

I made my way to the dinning hall at 6:00pm. The queue was forming in the serving area. For dinner there were few snacks, bananas and watermelon pieces. Drink options included pre-made tea, hot milk and lemon water. Everyone quietly had the meal and made way back to their respective cottages.

Start of Day Zero

At 6:50pm I heard the sound of a gong and I got back to the dinning hall. Seating arrangements were done towards the end of the dining hall, one side for women and another for men. After everyone assembled, an audio was played in Mr. S. N. Goenka’s voice going over the code of conduct covering each point in detail. The center management team covered the local regulations, terms and other required information. Students were given a choice to leave the center if they disagree with the rules or think it’s too much to handle.
Permanent seats & cushions were allocated in dinning and Dhamma hall, along with dedicated meditation cells in Pagoda. We were instructed to always use the same seats.
At 8:00pm we made our way to Dhamma hall. There was a dedicated entrance for male and female students. Left side of the hall was for male students, had sky-blue cushions, and right side for female students had pale yellow cushions. Cushions were nicely arranged facing an elevated stage. The stage had wide and low chairs, a screen, projector and control panel with iPad connected to it.
Once everyone settled down on the assigned cushions, we went through formal vows, which were as follows:
1.    The Three Shelters: Thrice in Pali, that we hereby gets sheltered by the three gems

  • The Buddha (the Enlightened one)
  • The Dhamma (the noble eightfold path)
  • The Sangha (the community of seekers and monks)

2.    The Five vows for the following ten days:
New students

  • To refrain from stealing
  • To refrain from killing
  • To refrain from telling lies
  • To refrain from sexual misconduct (in this context, to abstain from all sexual activity including self-stimulation)
  • To avoid all intoxicants

Older students take three extra vowels:

  • To refrain from eating after noon
  • To refrain from any bodily decoration (ornaments, etc.)
  • To refrain from sleeping on high or luxurious beds

3.      The Three Surrenders: We surrender for the next ten days to:

  • The teacher
  • The discipline
  • The teaching

4.     The Request: We made a formal request to be taught Anapana meditation.
Once the vows, surrender and requests were done, we were introduced to “ANAPANA” Meditation. This involved focus on the nasal region and to start observing our breathing as it is naturally happening. At 9:00pm, we all retired back to our individual cottages. At 10:00pm all the lights were out.

Day One
At 4:00am gong went off indicating its time to begin the day. The gong sound repeated at 4:20am and I heard bells ringing far away. In a few seconds the bell sound was almost close to my cottage. As I walked out of the cottage, I discovered one of the management team members walking around with bell. What a technique, I muttered to myself; “Noble Silence communication tools, to be used to make us aware of time, cool idea”.
By 4:30am everyone was in the Dhamma hall nicely seated on the assigned cushions. A set of instructions was played for us to remind the process of Anapana meditation. Anapana meditation involves observing the breath as it is naturally occurring, as we inhale or exhale. The focus remains in the nasal area and on remaining aware of whether one is using one or both the nostrils while breathing. We were suggested to breathe a little hard for a few moments, if we are unable to concentrate our minds or if we are unable to feel the breath.
Around 5:45am the teacher walked in and sat on one of the chairs on the elevated stage. At 6:00am he started an audio, which was again in Mr. Goenka’s voice, chanting some verses in Pali language.
Sitting 2 hours was not easy, concentrating on breathing was even tougher when tummy was rumbling and legs were numb. A gong sounded again at 6:30am (what a relief that was), and teacher instructed all to go have the breakfast.
After breakfast we went back to our respective cottages. As I was walking I saw a peacock dance at the kitchen rooftop. It was a mesmerizing view.
The gun went off again at 7:50am, accompanied by bell sounds; which was signalled to get back to Dhamma hall.
Group meditation session started at 8:00am with audio instructions in Mr. S. N. Goenka’s voice. The instructions were played in two languages Hindi and English and lasted approximately 15 minutes, reminding the technique of Anapana Meditation. 5 minutes before the end session the voice started chanting some verses in Pali language and ended by saying “Bhavat Sarab Mangalam” thrice. The older students said something, which I was not able to get. (In the evening discourse, it was explained that “Bhavat Sarab Mangalam” means “May all be Happy” and what the student said was ‘Saadhu, Saadhu, Saadhu’ serves as a response to the prayer)
We were given 5-minute break at 9:00am to stretch our legs. The sound of bells reminded us to go back to the hall. Meditation session started again, which lasted till 11:00am. During this time, we were called to have one to one with the teacher to go over questions or concerns. Students were permitted to leave the hall and come back in case they needed to attend nature’s call, drink water, etc., but instructions were to keep quiet to minimize the distraction to fellow meditators.

The Gong went off at 11:00am indicating the lunchtime. Lunch was really decent, oil and spice free. The menu included seasonal vegetables, lentils, rice, Chapati, yoghurt, buttermilk, salad and cut fruits. After lunch, everyone made the way back to individual cottages.
At 12:50pm gong and bells reminded us to get back to get back to the Dhamma hall. Total duration of the meditation session was 4 hours(1:00pm — 5:00pm), which had group session from 2:30pm to 3:30pm with similar instruction as a morning group session.
A Gong sound at 5:00pm indicated the teatime. We made our way back to the dinning hall for light snacks and tea.
At 5:50pm gong and bells started ringing again. We had another group session from 6:00pm to 7:00pm with instructions. Evening discourse by Mr. Goenka was played on a projector and big screen explaining/covering various things. The discourse finished around 8:45pm and we had another meditation session for 20 minutes. The teacher was available for any questions, or we were free to retire back to our rooms.
At the end of day one, it was clear — this is how the rest of the days going to be – ‘VERY QUITE’

Day Two
The meditation involved observing the breathing as day one, with the added awareness of where the breath is touching the skin in the nasal region. The focus area was from the top of the nose to the upper lip.

Day Three
The awareness of breath included what sensations we are feeling on the skin in the nasal region, with more narrowed area (on the nostril rings and below the nose and above the upper lip).

Day Four
There was a minor change in the schedule; afternoon group sitting time was changed to 2:00pm-3:00pm. Till 2:00pm the awareness of breath continued, with a further limitation to focus and experience the sensations. The new area of focus was limited to below the nostrils and above the upper lip.
At 2:00pm, we made a formal request to be taught Vipassana and the teaching commenced.
We were instructed to move the focus to the top of the head and systematically move it through each part of the body till the focus reaches the tips of the toes, feeling the sensations in each part of the body as they traverse the body. We were instructed not to either like or dislike the sensations, and to calmly and equanimously observe them as being temporary phenomena.
In the evening group meditation session, we were encouraged to remain still and not move hands, legs or to open the eyes during the entire one-hour period of all future group meditation sessions for the remainder of the retreat. These three sittings were renamed to “Sittings of Strong Determination”.

Day Five
Vipassana continued as taught on day 4.  We had a choice to meditate in Dhamma Hall or in assigned meditation cells. Newer students preferred to stay and meditate from Dhamma hall. Serious meditators preferred to meditate from meditation cells.

Day Six
Further instructions were given to focus through the body in both directions; from the head to the toes, and then from the toes to the head. Sensations are to be observed equanimously with the understanding of their briefness.

Day Seven
The day was similar to day 6 with added instructions to focus through the body simultaneously and symmetrically through both the arms, both the legs, etc., moving in both directions.

Day Eight
On day 8 we were asked to proceed through as many parts as possible, simultaneously (i.e., through the entire body, if possible, in one go). If we could shift the focus easily through the body because of uniform subtle sensations, we could feel that free flow. After one or two such free-flows, again pass the attention through the body part-by-part.

Day Nine
Similar to day 8, we focused through the body in a free flow, and then part-by-part.
Those who could feel subtle sensations all over the body were asked to see if they could feel the sensations in the body as well by moving their focus piercingly and penetrate through the body. Those who can feel subtle sensations inside the body, were asked to see if they could pass their focus through the spinal cord.
After this, the students who have been able to feel their bodies inside out were asked to do spot checks by taking their focus randomly on a body part and to see if the mind immediately feels a sensation in the area of focus and if the sensation remains limited to the area of focus.

Day Ten
After the morning group session, we were taught Metta (Goodwill) meditation. We were instructed to fill the subtle sensations with love and compassion and to let the subtle sensations infuse in the atmosphere. There were verbal chants to forgive and forget, to love all and to distribute one’s merits. After this session at 10:00am, the noble silence ended and we could interact with each other in designated areas. We were not allowed to leave the center till next morning.
It was certainly happy day the center. We all had trouble speaking after being quiet for 10 days.
In the office books and audio/visual material on Vipassana were displayed for sale. The donation box was set on the side if anyone wanted to donate. Lunch had extended menu and dinning hall was lively.
The afternoon and evening group meditations happened as usual. The discourse in the evening was not followed by meditation.

Day Eleven
In the morning at 4.30am, we gathered in the Dhamma hall for meditation followed by a final video discourse, which continued till 6.30am. This discourse had advice on how to continue the meditation practice at home and concluded with a final session of Goodwill Meditation.

We were free to leave after the breakfast as per our convenience.

I was going through the roller coaster of emotions – happiness, sadness, joy, calmness,  confidence, satisfaction, relief were all part of my mental state.

Some Highlights (Things I remember from Daily Discourse)

  • The suffering is due to craving, aversion and ignorance. Craving and aversion are for impermanent states and phenomena is a habit pattern of the mind.
  • The conditioning, which leads to craving and aversion, is passed from birth to birth and can take many lives to get rid of, by assiduous practice of Vipassana.
  • The freedom from suffering lies in a timeless, formless, non-sensory state of bliss and not in the temporal, tangible and sensory realm.
  • The mind can be divided into the superficial part and the deep part. The superficial part is the intellect and the conscious mind, the deep part is the unconscious mind.
  • Changing the superficial mind and leaving the deep mind unchanged will not lead to liberation from suffering.
  • The deep mind functions at the level of, and reacts habitually to, bodily sensations whereas the superficial mind works logically and intellectually.
  • Any sensory or relational experience in life, if interpreted as pleasant, leads to pleasant bodily sensations and vice versa, which are then reacted to with craving or aversion, respectively, by the deep mind.
  • We should become masters of our minds. The superficial mind should be brought under control by moral strictures (called Sila), it should be focused by a concentration practice (called Samadhi), and the reactive habit patterns of the deep mind should be changed by training the mind to become aware of the bodily sensations and not react to them.
  • To understand the sensation as impermanent, full of suffering, and as egoless (this understanding is called Pragya).
  • Not like or dislike the sensations, because they are impermanent.  It is almost a principle for Vipassana (Anicca, Anicca, Anicca which means “impermanent”).
  • As the mind becomes unattached and equanimous towards sensory experiences, it can experience the non-sensory, timeless bliss, which will lead to freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

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