Review of a spiritual retreat of Vipassana Meditation in Bali
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana means “Insight” in Pali, an ancient language used widely in Buddhist scriptures.
It is one of India’s ancient meditation techniques which was rediscovered by Siddartha Gotama, also known as Buddha more than 2500 years ago.
Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is based on self observation to sharpen awareness. Through your own personal experiences of noticing the changing nature of the mind and body, one can eventually accept impermanence (meaning: lasting for a limited time) and reaching equanimity in all situation.
This technique is made widely known by S.N. Goenka. While he has passed away in 2013, his 10 days silent retreat continues to spread to the world with supporting teachers, students and community. A unique feature of the 10 days silent retreat is the originality of Mr Goenka teaching through hour-long video recording while having teacher assisting to facilitate and answer queries.
Lastly, this is a non-religious meditation. While the theories are from Buddha, the teachings are principles on being a better person which you can learn from it or dismiss it.
10 Days of Silent Retreat
Also known as 10 days of noble silence, it really means no talking to the fellow meditators, friends or family who joined you in the retreat.
The 10 days course is mandatory for all beginners to Vipassana. Thereafter, “old” students have the flexibility to go for 1 day, 3 day or return to take another 10 days course (as many times as you want).
I had a Korean lady in my course who took the 10 days course for the 10th time. More will be shared in the Spoiler section on how I know about it if it is a silent course (I am no mutant ;)).
Benefits of Vipassana
Similar to the benefits of meditation, Vipassana helps you to have an inward review of yourself. Below are the intrinsic benefits of Vipassana overtime that I started noticing on myself and fellow meditators.
- Vipassana helps you to view external situations in a composed manner through equanimity. You respond wisely and not react to the direst situation.
- External simulation and worldly matters matter less. It’s not to the point where you leave your family and friends to live in a mountain! Just not so caught up on material pursuits like the latest gadgets or Black Friday/ 11 11 sales.
- On the contrary to living in a mountain, you will become a more loving person, less judgemental and much more forgiving.
There are no shortcuts: attend 10 days and become a Saint but you will most certainly, incrementally become a better person. 🙂
Vipassana meditation is offered all over the world with a few centers functioning as “headquarters” and multiple locations that are places volunteered by the community (students, teachers or staff).
Where are the retreats held?
All around the world. The schedule of the 10 days course and where it is held is updated regularly online.
The 10 days meditation course is run on a donation basis. My own call out is while you pay any amount, please pay a reasonable amount to at least cover the course expenses (accommodation, food, cooking staff, etc).
More information can be found at https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/index. This should be the main site, with many centers in major states in US. You can search worldwide for the courses available.
Review of the 10-days silent retreat
There are 2 schools of thoughts. Plunge into the retreat with what is available on the official site and experience the 10 days retreat “neat” or get “spoilt” by reading a few reviews from people who have attended the 10 days course.
I offer my views below in the retreat I attended in October 2016 in Landih Ashram, Bali below. I wrote it down 3 months after I finished the retreat in my private journal and I happened to stumble upon it (while clearing my stuff) recently.
While it has happened 3 years, many fundamental learnings are not changed and why keep it private when I can share it online now? Some things like procedures or logistics may have changed but the overall fundamentals of the meditation experience should be similar.
Below will be details on why I attended the retreat, the experience, the locations, my tips and learnings. Lastly, caution given on spoilers below:
I’ve done so the review/ reflection in a Q&A format so that you can zoom in to the parts that you want to read.
How I found out about Vipassana meditation.
I found out through a newspaper article from The Straits Times (Singapore main English newspaper). The article was well written, interesting and a “why not” was etched in my thoughts.
2 of my friends went for the course. While it was not shared thoroughly, the reviews were positive.
Why I decided to go for the course.
It has been on my New Year’s (NY) resolution for two years and I’m proud to complete this in my 2016 NY resolutions (who says NY resolutions do not get fulfilled. Read more on How to do a self-reflection).
In 2016, every book, article and people always give “meditation” glowing reviews. I’ve tried too (around 20 minutes), with visualizations and Om chanting. On days that I was awake, I felt more refreshed, calm and happier, even for a brief 20 minutes. Most days, I was not disciplined enough and decided to go for a “lying down meditation” which simply went to Zzzzz.
So if it’s 10 full days of meditation, I should be an expert by then? Everything looks beneficial, so I decided to go for it.
It’s a donation basis which is very very reasonable. Even if you are tight on money, there is no excuse not to attend the course.
How did I sign up?
I googled and found the course in Singapore to be in Saint John Island, a small island off Singapore. I was not so keen to be meditating in a hot humid island and getting bitten by mosquitos and the rest of the bug gangs.
Desiring a little luxury, I wanted to go somewhere with a better climate, like the one in the Strait Times article, in Bandung, Indonesia. The location is in a cooler altitude. This was the only requirement that I stood for. I can eat the same food every day or bathe cold water but really, just no hot humid weather. I have it every day in Singapore.
I found a couple of places like Taiwan, Thailand and Bali. With Bali being the most familiar out of these 3, plus an extra research on the location and the fact that there is hot water for shower in the location, I took the plunge and registered for the October 2016 course (considering October is not a hot season for Bali too). It’s held in a yoga retreat location called Landih Ashram in a small village called Bangli in the Kintamani area (near Mount Batur). The facilities are basic but it’s a beautiful place.
Filled up an online form and there will be an auto responder to confirm that you registered for the course and instructions to wait for confirmation of your placement.
About 2 weeks or a month later, I received a confirmation email that the placement was confirmed. More information of Vipassana and the emphasis of the 10 compulsory days were shared in the email. I did my registration during July for an October course.
A couple of weeks before the course, I received a final email for you to reply back as confirmation. Transport arrangement was shared in the email.
So what exactly happened before, during and after the 10 days?
I packed based on what the email stated. There was a recommended packing list and arranged a shuttle bus service with the driver via Whatsapp. There was shuttle service from Ubud or Canggu for 100K rupiah (around $8USD or $10 SGD) for 12 PM or 3 PM (note: these were 2016 rates).
I took the 3 PM shuttle from Ubud and arrived at Landih Ashram in Bangli (Below is the Google location). I will highly recommend taking the shuttle even if you are staying in Bali or have a private driver as the road is bumpy and not easy to maneuver around. Nevertheless, I had a couple of course mates who rode their bikes and some arranged private drivers who found the place.
I felt 3 PM was a better time to head up rather than 12 PM as I had time to hang around Ubud, had a satisfying lunch, spoke to some participants who were as nervous as me before going up to the mountain areas. Registration took around an hour and there was sufficient time for some socialization between the course mates. You still can talk till registration is done and instructions will be given by the servers to heads to the meditation hall. After meditating the first time for an hour, the noble silence starts.
I was ushered to a long bunk, hosting around 9 girls. Each of us had a mattress, a blanket, a mosquito net covering the mattress. There is a space for you to put your bags.
Weather was awesome. It ranged around 25’C (77’F) during daytime and 16-18 ‘C (60-65’F) at night. I have forgotten to bring a jacket during the trip, but I had some long sleeves shirts which I made do by putting on a few more shirts at night but it would have been better with a nice warm jacket.
You meditate for around 9 hours every day, based on the schedule. I would highly encourage you to wake up at 4 AM and join the 430-630 AM meditation in the hall. I know some of my bunkmates continued to sleep till 630 AM since the hall facilitators were not so strict. I was thinking since I was already there to experience the 10 days silence and get the benefits, might as well just follow the schedule rather than skipping it.
Meditation was guided by Mr Goenka through audio. There were 2 teachers to facilitate the course and check with you regularly to see if you have any issues.
So how’s meditating?
My very first hour of meditation
Meditation for the first time for an hour was a torture. Everyone shifted around, opened their eyes, massage their arms and legs. I was attempting to do the meditation, with a little of dozing off, singing the latest hits in my head, thinking what I have signed up for thoughts flew through my head. I tried all the visualizations techniques read from books, whatever chanting or songs that I know to get pass that hour. What have I signed up for???!?
I kinda regretted but not to the point that I wanted to be out.
Mr Goenka will guide the meditation through audio. It was odd at first as there were 2 teachers physically there meditating with me, so why did they not go the guidance instead? Over time I realized that it’s because Mr Goenka wanted to keep the guidance experience consistent as he did not want vipassana meditation to be interpreted otherwise by others. By the way, Mr Goenka has passed away a couple of years ago, just fyi. I simply followed the instructions. Tried really hard to focus on my breathe and got much a little better at meditating.
At different phases of meditation, I felt some pain. Pain on the shoulders, pain on the legs and I feel like it signifies some hidden issues of being relatively passive in my life (i.e. Victimizing myself) that surfaces out. I won’t describe further. It’s an experience you should feel for yourself.
As I got more accustomed to meditation, it becomes easier.
So will you recommend meditation?
Yes definitely. In the 10 days course, what it does is to equip me with the techniques to do meditation and to feel comfortable meditating. The course strongly encourage to continue meditation after finishing the course. However, due to my 1001 excuses that are too lame to pen down, I have regrettably not do so. I don’t lose an arm or a leg for not meditating but I’m also not reaping the benefit of meditating. Sometimes the simplest thing is the hardest thing to do.
I do meditate around just 20 minutes a day (recommended is 2 hours daily) and it really set the day correct (for the morning) and ease the day to day stresses of life (at night). I find myself much calmer and able to handle stressful situations better.
Besides meditating and eating, is there anything else?
Yes. While the above were the main activities of my retreat’s daily life, you get to set up meetings with the teachers for meditation advice. You wash your clothes, you shower (there is hot water but it’s rather sporadic). You get to drink coffee and tea, you clean up your dishes after eating. You walk around the compound for the nth number of times but still feel rather entertained. You start noticing things that you hardly do in your usual lifestyle, things like bugs crawling on your table, a beautiful sunset and a huge moon. Things that have always been around but missed.
Like what the course describes. It was a strict regimental routine starting at 4 AM to 9 PM with 2 meals (breakfast at 630 AM and lunch at 11 AM), plus a bowl of fruits at 5 PM for new students. Food was superbly delicious and I looked forward to eating all the time :P. It’s purely vegetarian and it’s by far the nicest vegetarian food I’ve eaten.
What I enjoyed the most
There is a discourse, an hour and a half TV show of Mr Goenka explaining to you the concept of Vipassana and why the course is structured the way it is. It’s entertaining and he was a very charismatic speaker. I learnt a lot of wisdom from the discourse.
What I did not enjoy.
Nothing much from the course except that I was feeling the chills at night. Oh, there is a village nearby and they were playing loud disco music when you are supposed to be sleeping I was really irritated by it at the start but in the end, all of us, including myself have learned to ignore or embrace it. Also, I had earplugs and I secretly thank myself for bringing it!
What to bring for the course that is absolutely essential?
The course I went to had a packing list which was awesomely useful. I would suggest you don’t miss out these:
- A jacket or your own personal blanket especially if you don’t enjoy the cold.
- Small torchlight to navigate around at night to head back to your bunk or to the toilet.
- Toilet paper, though you can buy it there.
- Your own water bottle
- Earplugs. Really useful.
You will be allowed to talk on the 9th day and you will chat like birds. At least I did. We finally talk to the people who you see daily but can’t talk to. Bali was a melting pot of visitors from all over the world from Estonia, Americans to local Indonesian. Surprisingly, many foreigners are permanently based in Bali or have started staying in Bali for at least a month. I still have some as Facebook friends but we don’t keep in touch regularly.
If you are going to or based in Bali, there will be regularly sitting groups offered in different parts of Bali to continue the community spirit :).
At the last day, you exchange numbers, add some new friends to Facebook, arrange transport back to Ubud and you are back to the society once again!
I was so chilled for 3 days before everything sort of “reverted” back but something internal changed along the way. I was much less angsty, I was able to manage my emotions much better. At times I did not even meditate at all and still able to maintain a calm composure.
Above is a rather detailed review of the course. I’m sure there are still questions but I would like to say, just do it. Give yourself a break, find the internal dialogue to know yourself better and come back as a better person.
If there are any other burning questions, I’m happy to answer based on my experience and with much love (called “metta” benevolence in Pali). I’m closing off with some quotes from Mr Goenka and related quotes.
Quotes on Vipassana
“The mind spends most of the time lost in fantasies and illusions, reliving pleasant or unpleasant experiences and anticipating the future with eagerness or fear. While lost in such cravings or aversions, we are unaware of what is happening now, what we are doing now.”~ S. N. Goenka
“Discover real peace and harmony within yourself, and naturally this will overflow to benefit others.”~ S. N. Goenka
“Every sensation shares the same characteristic: it arises and passes away, arises and passes away. It is this arising and passing that we have to experience through practice, not just accept as truth because Buddha said so, not just accept because intellectually it seems logical enough to us. We must experience sensation’s nature, understand its flux, and learn not to react to it.”~ S. N. Goenka