Sunday, February 20, 2011

10-day vipassana mediation course: The first day

This is one of multiple posts related to my experience at a 10-day meditation course. The first post is here.

I took my first course at Dhamma Mahavana in North Fork, CA. I was only about 4 hours away from the center by car so I drove myself. For those coming from out of town, a ride-share page is provided to try and coordinate rides which is especially useful for those flying in to a nearby airport. The centers tend to be in remote places and getting there by public transport can get quite expensive.

On arrival you have to checkin at the registration desk and get a room. As I mentioned in my earlier post, you have to fill out a paper version of the registration form that you filled out when you first registered for the course.

Room assignment

At this particular center, there are older dormitories with bunk beds and regular twin beds, and there are newer residence buildings with individual cells. There is a lot of emphasis on isolation, hence the individual cells. From what I know, most of the newer accommodations at existing centers tend to be individual cells. On my first course, I was assigned a bed in one of the dormitories and at my second course (also at the same center) I was assigned an individual cell. Regardless of the type of accommodation the bathrooms were shared. They have wheelbarrows to get your luggage from the car to your room.


At around 5 pm on the day of arrival is a light meal followed by an orientation. In the orientation, we are told about the code of conduct, and various course logistics such as the location of the men's and women's areas. We are also asked once again to commit to beingat the course for the full duration and are given the opportunity to leave should we decide that it might not work for us. We are also told about the names of the assistant teachers for the course, and are introduced to the course managers -- one for men and one for women.

The course manager is the one that you are supposed to talk to about any logistical problems during the course and things like not feeling well, etc.

The assistant teachers are the ones who run the meditation sessions. They are also the ones who answer specific questions that one may have about the technique. There are two times in the day when one can ask questions of the teacher and I'll write more about this when I discuss the course schedule in a later post. It should be emphasized that they really are assistant teachers. The main teacher for the course is S. N. Goenka himself; the meditation instruction is provided via an audio recording and the discourses are provided via a video recording.

Seat assignment

Following orientation is a short break after which everyone assembles outside the meditation hall. There are separate entrances for men and women. The course manager starts calling names and assigns seat numbers; each one of us goes into the hall and occupies our assigned seats. That seat is the one that you use for the entire duration of the course. The teachers sit in front facing the rest of the hall, the course managers and the servers sit in the first row, and seats are typically assigned such that "old students" are towards the front, and "new students" towards the rear of the room.

The "seat" is simply a square foam cushion with a cover on it. There are additional cushions provided. The cushions are usually all gone by the second day of the course because people in pain keep adding different kinds of cushions.

When I took the course the first time, I picked up only one cushion. I found the base foam cushion very uncomfortable. Instead I chose to get rid of it and used a couple of blankets to take place of the cushion.

It would have been really nice to get some instruction on posture. Unfortunately none is provided and newbies tend to really struggle with trying to find the right posture. without correct posture, it becomes very difficult (almost masochistic) to try and hold steady for long periods of time. Fortunately, I had been meditating for some time and had been alerted to the issue about posture and already had a "favorite" one. I just had trouble being comfortable in that posture on the original base cushion and had to replace that with blankets.

From this point on, there really won't be an opportunity to speak so even though you'll be surrounded by the same group of people you won't be able to say a word to them!

The first sit

Following the seat assignments, there is a brief video discourse during which Goenka repeatedly refers to the course as a "deep surgical operation of the mind". He says it is bound to bring up unpleasant experiences and we should make a firm resolve to stay for the entire course no matter what unpleasantness we may have to deal with so that the operation can be brought to a proper completion rather than being halted abruptly.

After the discourse, there is audio instruction during which everyone is asked to formally make a request for instruction of the technique. The first steps of anapana are taught by taking everyone through a guided meditation.

Following the first sit, the period of "noble silence" begins for the next 10 days.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

10-day vipassana meditation course: Registration

This is one of multiple posts related to my experience at a 10-day meditation course. The first post is here.

Registration for the course is quite easy. They have a website with online registration. You select a center -- they have several all over the world. Each center has its own course schedule posted. Even though the centers all teach the same course, they are actually supposed to be autonomous; each center maintains its own finances and has its own managing committee, all of who are unpaid volunteers (at least as far as I know).

Course availability

For each of the courses they list availability for men and women. Even if a course is wait-listed, there is usually a very good chance of being accepted in it. Because there is no charge for the course, there is nothing to be paid at the time of registration. As a result, many people register and then cancel later because they cannot make it. Courses around holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas fill up quite fast.

Once you have taken a full 10-day course, you are considered an "old student" (as opposed to a "new student"). As an old student, you are eligible to sit courses part-time (i.e. only attend a part of 10-day course), but even with old students, they usually give preference to those that want to sit the full 10-day course. Only old students are eligible for serving at a course and for enrolling for shorter duration courses (3-day and 1-day courses) and longer duration courses (30-day and 60-day courses).

Registration form

Once you decide on a course, you fill out the online registration form. You will be asked to read the code of conduct before filling out the form. There are a few weird things about the information that is requested. They ask about current spiritual practices and other forms of meditation that the applicant may have been exposed to. They ask about psychological health, medications, etc. I wasn't ever questioned about things I wrote but it's possible they may be trying to determine the suitability of the applicant to participate in such a course -- it is after all quite physically and psychologically demanding.

One thing I would recommend with the registration form is copying & pasting a copy of the responses. I didn't do that and I kind of regret it. If you go for subsequent courses, or if you cancel and reapply later, then you will have to answer all of the same questions again. Also -- and this is really weird -- you have to fill out the same form again in paper form when you arrive at the course.

Once the registration form is submitted you get contacted soon after, usually within a day or two, about whether you have been accepted into the course or placed on a waiting list. If registering for a course far in advance of the course date you will be requested to confirm your intent to attend two weeks before the beginning of the course.