Vipassana is an ancient Indian technique of meditation that has made quite a comeback, gaining global popularity in recent years.
The 10-day Vipassana retreat has been attracting tourists and spiritual seekers from across the world. But the course is rigorous and intimidates many who consider going for it. After all, it’s hard to go through even a single day in isolation and silence, let alone 10!
Despite this, most participants find that the stringent requirements for silence and solitude are not as challenging as they appear from the outside. However, a little planning and preparation is highly recommended for first-timers, as I discovered myself.
The following suggestions will go a long way in preparing you physically and mentally before you begin your 10-day silent vipassana retreat.
1. Prepare to sit for long hours
Right from the first day, you’re required to sit cross-legged on the floor. Although you can use a meditation cushion or folded blanket for support, this can still be quite challenging if you’re not used to the practice. On most days, you will be seated for up to 10 – 11 hours [with breaks in between], and certain meditation sessions also restrict any bodily movement until the session concludes.
But don’t let this put you off or give you second thoughts. If your concerns stem from an underlying ailment, simply make sure to mention your health condition in the application form. At the Markal centre, Pune, where I did my vipassana course, chairs were made available to all participants who had done so. The rest of us had to sit on the floor, no matter how much we griped about the pain to our teachers.
The human body is more resilient than we realise and you will adapt fairly quickly to the practice. Yes, some aches and pains may surface if you have no prior practise, but vipassana retreats wouldn’t be popular if they were as easy as checking into a Holiday Inn. Aside from having to stay in that seated position, you won’t be sleeping on a soft comfy bed, but on a thin mattress on a hard surface. This can be a hard shift for most of us, but the challenge can still be rewarding if you prepare mentally and physically for it.
So, how exactly do you prepare? Practice—that’s the long and the short of it. In order to prepare your body for all the sitting, start practising cross-legged sitting at least a month before your course begins. Use cushions and blankets and try different sitting positions like vajrasana or sukhasana to figure which one works best for you—in terms of both comfort and duration. If you have a meditation chair or cushions, check with the centre whether it’s okay for you to carry them along to use during your course.
2. Start having lighter dinners
From personal experience, this one’s harder to endure than any physical challenge—but only if you don’t prepare for it. During the course, you are served breakfast at 6.30am, lunch at 11am and tea at 5pm, along with a light snack [rice puffs in my case]. Here’s the shocker—there’s no dinner.
If you’re used to having heavy dinners, it’s imperative that you start eating light at least a week before your course, if not earlier. As someone who has always enjoyed a hearty dinner, this could have been a challenge. Fortunately for me, I had already made the transition to eating lighter dinners a couple of months before the course. If not for that preparation, I would have struggled to adapt to the ‘no dinner’ schedule.
If you simply can’t do without dinner or are on medications that require you to have dinner, make it clear in the application form and the centre will make special provisions for your meals.
You will be expected to go to bed by about 9.30-10pm, which again can be tough if you’re not used to it. If you don’t make an effort to sleep early, you’ll regret it later as those hunger pangs invariably start to surface.
These timings are actually part of a healthy daily routine and the disciplined structure also extends to other practices in the day.
3. Stick to the rules
The 10-day course is well-structured and practical. Although some rules may seem extreme to you, they’re all there for good reason. If you can accept and respect the rules, you’ll reap plenty of rewards. As the course progresses, you will gradually settle into the routine, making each successive day easier than the last. With approachable instructors, you don’t just learn more, but can also get help in addressing any concerns or doubts that you might have.
Mind you, the retreat is not at Guantanamo Bay, so don’t expect enforcement authorities to coerce you into complying with the rules. You need to do so out of your own discretion because it’s for your good.
During my course I noticed some people talking to each other, slipping fruit into their pockets to snack on later, and keeping cell phones with them to use in private. If you’re already planning on breaking the rules, perhaps a 10 day silent vipassana retreat is not for you.
4. What to pack
As with any travel, clothing is your most essential requirement. Carry comfortable and modest clothing, as most vipassana centres have restrictions on shorts or sleeveless attire. The Markal centre that I visited had a laundry service, but that’s not necessarily the case everywhere. Find out before you head to the retreat and if necessary be prepared to do your own laundry or make sure to carry enough clothing for the 10 days.
Footwear isn’t really a big concern, but for your convenience carry slip-ons to make it easier to remove footwear before entering the dhamma hall and dining areas.
In addition to clothing, remember to carry a water bottle or flask, as drinking water may not be available in all accommodations and you’ll have to walk back to the dining hall [which is usually at some distance from the residence quarters] every time you need water.
Medications and toiletries may not be available in the vicinity of the retreat, so make sure to carry them too. It would be a good idea to pack a pillow or pillow covers and some bed sheets or blankets if required. As you will have to deposit your phone at the registration office of the centre, it would be wise to carry a small alarm clock with you.
The 10-day Vipassana retreat may seem demanding but it’s all a matter of giving up on a few habitual conveniences and enduring the silence. Staying with your thoughts for hours together and observing your body’s reactions can be tough. But such heightened awareness brings with it the wonderful reward of connecting you with your “self”. Take my word for it: the challenge is worth it!
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