I completed a 10 day retreat on St John’s Island in Singapore, learning the Vipassana technique of meditation. In this part, I write about my thoughts relating to the less mundane parts of the course. Before reading the below, you may want to first look through Part 1, which was more about the hard facts of the retreat.
People who go to the course are often worried about having to stay silent. Honestly, this was mostly no issue. I have always been independent and enjoy time to myself; I also disliked small talk, so much so that I did feel a sense of dread for Day 10, where Noble Silence was broken.
That being said, being silent tends to make your mind move at a different speed. I ran through the Tarot Major Arcana and the Lenormand cards in my head, I struggled to remember obscure song lyrics from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and also thought a lot about work.
On the night of Day 7, while lying in bed sleepless, I had some sort of breakdown. I looked at a lot of the things I’ve done in my life and suddenly felt great guilt, especially towards my family. I resolved to let them know in notes once I got out of the retreat but instead, over dinner on Day 11, I burst out in tears and apologised for so much.
I believe it was a combination of having no stimulation to distract yourself along with the meditation drawing out deep-seated unconscious feelings. I used that some of these past actions were justified and because of others. I now know it was all me and my failures and I’m glad I have had that realisation. I only hope that I can understand this going forwards.
Breaking Noble Silence was an incredibly interesting experience. I was dreading it, having to talk to everyone; but it ended up being great. It is so strange that you don’t speak to people for 9 days, not even giving them eye contact, but you end up being so connected through what we went through and what we have earned. In Part 3, I will talk more generally on how I feel with the friends that I’ve made through the course.
The Principles behind the Vipassana technique
The method is as taught by S.N. Goenka, and is also based off what was taught by Shakyamuni Buddha. In summary, Vipassana meditation is the key to walking the Middle Path so we can be liberated from the cycles of Samsara.
Goenka keeps repeating that the technique itself is non-sectarian and this is true. The technique teaches equanmity, and while your brain may understand the concept intellectually, it is something extremely hard to put into practice.
I myself have read on the basics of Buddhism previously. The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and the Six Sense Doors – so what Goenka spoke in all his discourses were things not new to me. However, what was new is how the Vipassana technique ties the experiences during the meditation to these principles. This technique will train you to become equanimous.
Even if you are not looking to escape the cycles of samsara, learning to be more equanimous will be helpful to anyone from anywhere.
The Rigorous Meditation Timetable
Looking at the timetable above, you will know how rigorous the schedule is. However, how it is enforced really depends on the meditation teachers you have. In my case, the teachers were pretty tame; but from what I hear, other teachers will ask the volunteers to wake everyone up at 4am for the meditation at 430am. In contrast, a lot of people during my time stayed in the dorms to rest (i.e. sleep).
My advice is to always go to the meditation hall for every session. While I have to admit that I took breaks really often between 430am and 630am from the hall, I found that it is an interesting experience meditating at different times. The sensations that you feel are completely different.
On top of that, like Goenka mentions during the discourses again and again, we already made time for the 10 days – why not make the best of it? Going to the meditation hall only strengthens your resolve to at least attempt meditating.
And on the meditation hall…
The Meditation Hall
There’s something about the meditation hall, even when it is honestly the same type of housing as the dorms when you’re going to the retreat in Singapore. While structured exactly the same, when I meditated in the hall, there’s some sort of energy that really was conducive to my meditation.
I think that’s the difference between having a solo practice and a group practice, especially if guided by the teachers. At the end of the course, it was briefly mentioned that our teachers who joined us for the meditation sessions were not simply doing what we were told to do; instead, they were practicing metta meditation i.e. meditating on loving-kindness. This meant they were concentrating on well wishes for us, the students, to be able to meditate well and liberate ourselves in the long run.
Did this make a difference to the whole aura of the room? I honestly don’t know if it is due to these sincere wishes, but I have to admit that the hall was very conducive, even if it was not the best meditation hall. Now that I’m back home, there’s a marked difference between my meditation sessions, compared to back there. The atmosphere really makes a difference.
Goenka mentioned that if you could dedicate a space to meditation, and practice metta there again and again, the place itself changes to become more inviting. While this is not possible where I stay because of space reasons, I’m interested to see if the atmosphere in my room changes with daily sessions done.
Ten Parami (Ten Perfections)
The 10 Parami is based in Theravadin Buddhism; and it was something I’ve known of but always just assumed to be out of reach. They are called perfections – that itself implies that they are almost unattainable. These perfections are seen as part of the path for a bodhisattva and is significant to those looking for arahantship. These virtues are as follows:
- Dana (Generosity)
- Sila (Morality)
- Nekkhamma (Renunciation)
- Panna (Wisdom)
- Viriya (Effort)
- Khanti (Tolerance)
- Sacca (Truth)
- Adhitthana (Strong Determination)
- Metta (Loving-Kindness)
- Upekkha (Equanimity)
Guess what? We practiced (or were given the chance to practice) every single parami during our retreat. Realizing that made me feel so joyful. When Goenkaji explained how the whole course was designed so we practiced most of the Parami, it lit me up from the inside.
Just looking through the list and relating it to the rigor of the course, I believe you guys can see how the retreat was helping with each of the parami. I was given a chance to donate and I also renounced all material things when entering the course for free. This concept was honestly mind-blowing for me.
And what was best? It made me realize that even small actions here and there still added up to the parami. Goenkaji likened each of these virtues to an empty bucket and every single droplet of water (i.e. action) still counted for something.
It is also interesting that I have the 10 Parami listed in one of the planners I bought this year – the Metaphysician’s Day Planner, pictured above, which I’ve sadly neglected. I’ll make an effort to remember how to apply myself to these Parami.
In Part 3 and the last part, I’ll just talk about everything else that I didn’t know how to fit into Part 1 and 2. How I felt when I met an acquaintance there serendipitously, when the person beside me quit the course, how my practice has become since I’ve come home and if there were any effects, short-term and long-term.