Hello everyone! I just completed a 10 day retreat on St John’s Island in Singapore, learning the Vipassana technique of meditation. In this part, I want to talk more about the mundane aspects of the retreat, specific to my experience in Singapore.
A quick TL;DR summary on the retreat from my point of view here:
- It is a 10 day course where food and lodging is provided for free where you do nothing but learn the technique of Vipassana.
- It’s a silent retreat i.e. no forms of communication, not even writing down your own thoughts. There is also no communication with the world outside as well: your phone is kept safe by the management on your behalf.
- It’s an intense schedule where you work from 430am to 930pm.
- There are rules that you have to follow, including cutting out any intoxicants.
- The meditation technique is based on certain Buddhist principles. These principles are secular and non-sectarian, so it is true that this is not religious dogma.
Where you need more details on the retreat held in other countries, I believe the organization’s website here can provide you more details.
I need to cover the above points because I don’t want you to have the wrong idea about what this retreat is about. It is not a relaxing meditation retreat on some sunny island. It is not a method of meditation where you simply follow the instructions. Goenka, the late teacher of the technique, requires you to understand the principles behind the technique so you may best apply it to life.
Now that the above has been covered, I’m so glad that I went for the course. It was a great experience; I have seen others call it life-changing, but this honestly depends on my own effort in applying this after returning to reality. Learning the technique and its principles were easy during the course; the application while being a salaried employee in Singapore is the difficulty.
Facilities at St. John’s Island
It’s a shared dorm of about 25-30 people, so it is not the most comfortable. The mattresses are thin, and the pillows are lumpy and old. Depending on the block you get, sometimes the breeze does not come in; where I was, it was extremely hot and sometimes stuffy. I think I’ll best describe it as spare.
I spent most of the time outside. I also barely slept throughout the whole time I was there, usually managing about 4-5 hours of sleep a night – but this was not only because I was getting used to a new environment. The meditation teacher at the retreat explained that it could be a lot of old subconscious trauma that was resurfacing in forms of discomfort or an overactive mind. This did reach a peak on Day 7, and I will talk about this in one of my later parts.
Rules to follow
Women and men are segregated for the most part; we only saw each other at the shared meditation hall and during the nightly discourses, but even then, we are not supposed to turn to them. My friend’s mother was told to focus on herself when the meditation teacher caught her taking more than a few glances at the men’s side of the hall; and this was done rightly so. We are encouraged to make full use of the 10 days on ourselves, so I recommend going there alone to cut out such distractions.
There are five Precepts that we have to agree to:
- to abstain from killing any being;
- to abstain from stealing;
- to abstain from all sexual activity;
- to abstain from telling lies;
- to abstain from all intoxicants.
There were some that I broke, but regretfully so. For example, there were ants everywhere, some swimming around in the latrine that we were using, but I had to flush the bowl. Further to this, there is also a dress-code of long pants and t-shirts with sleeves. This is to reduce distractions with regards to the opposite gender.
There are other rules relating to not doing other religious rituals or bringing certain items, but this can be seen in their Code of Discipline.
The retreat is stated to be 10 days long, but really, it is 12 days because the first and last days are not counted.
We generally also have the same timetable everyday:
- 4am: Wake Up
- 430am – 630am: Meditation by yourself
- 630am – 800am: Breakfast
- 8am – 9am: Group Meditation
- 9am – 11am: Meditation by yourself
- 11am – 12pm: Lunch
- 12pm – 1pm: Consultation with Teacher
- 1pm – 230pm: Meditation by yourself
- 230pm – 330pm: Group Meditation
- 330pm – 5pm: Meditation by yourself
- 5pm – 6pm: Snack
- 6pm – 7pm: Group Meditation
- 7pm – 815pm: Discourse
- 815pm – 9pm: Group Meditation
- 9pm – 930pm: Consultation with Teacher
- 930pm: Rest and then lights out.
While you can have a break during your self-meditation sessions by meditating in your dorm, I highly recommend doing this in the meditation hall. Not only did I always feel like I had to maximise my time at the hall, I felt that the meditation hall had the optimal energy to do your meditation.
Of course, there were some days where I had to take a break in my room LOL. I’m not going to pretend I had so much self-discipline to be able to push through 2 hours of meditation at 430am all the time.
Technique Timetable & the Techniques
The technique is taught as follows:
- Day 1 to 3: Anapana meditation i.e. concentration on breath.
- Day 4: Basics of Vipassana
- Day 5: Starting of Adhittana (strong determination), where you are not supposed to change your posture for the whole hour during group meditations.
- Day 6 to Day 9: Deeper Vipassana
- Day 10: Metta meditation and breaking of Noble Silence.
Anapana was something I was familiar with as I worked with it when I was attempting to follow The Mind Illumninated. With the carved out break from work, and the Noble Silence, my mind managed to reach a point of concentration I was unable to achieve while I was in my mundane life. This made me feel appreciative of the time I managed to take.
On Day 4, we started to learn Vipassana, the body scanning technique, and I kept smiling to myself because I felt so happy beginning learning the technique. I also felt self-conscious about being too happy so I had to try to stop myself from laughing.
Adhittana scared me at first but honestly, you learn to not change positions. However, I did keep adjusting my back because I was not good with my posture. Oh well – EQUANMITY! I did my best 🙂 hahaha
Metta is always a great practice but I was unable to honestly practice it while I was there because I was unable to focus well on Goenka’s chanting during the meditation. Now, I should have instead focused my energy on the love I am emitting to the world.
I share in Part 2 my personal experience to do with the less mundane parts (e.g. Noble Silence, the secular Buddhist principles) and in Part 3, personal things I want to mention that did not fit anywhere.