Thursday, March 3, 2011

10-day vipassana meditation course: Course schedule and instruction

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

We are now ready to dive deeper into some of the details of the course.

Course timetable

First off, even though the course is called a 10-day course, it actually requires 12 days -- the day of arrival and the day of departure are not included in the 10-days. For the actual 10 days of the course, the timetable is listed here, and is reproduced below.

4:00 am - Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am - Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am - Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am - Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am - Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
11:00 am-12:00 noon - Lunch break
12:00 noon-1:00 pm - Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm - Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm - Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm - Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
5:00-6:00 pm - Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm - Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm - Teacher's discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm - Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm - Question time in the hall
9:30 pm - Retire to your own room -- lights out

As you can tell, there's a lot of meditation time in the schedule -- over 10 hours! All of this is sitting meditation, either at your assigned seat in the meditation hall, or in your room. Walking meditation, as taught in some other schools of meditation, is not permitted. The only time that we are allowed to take walks is during the breaks. If they notice too many people violating this, the course manager will put up a large notice outside the meditation hall.

While this is more-or-less the same schedule for all of the 10 days, there are some slight variations. On the 10th day, silence is broken and the schedule differs quite a bit. Any changes to the schedule are usually communicated quite clearly -- there is a notice board in the dining hall where the "schedule of the day" is posted.

Let me now talk about each of the activities listed above in more detail.

Wake-up bell

The bell is usually rung by one of the old students that has volunteered to do this. They go around all the cabins ringing the gong-style bell. In my experience so far, there are many people that continue sleeping past the wake up bell. You have a steady continuum of actual wake-up times between the wake-up bell and breakfast time. How strictly they try to enforce it depends on the course manager, but I think it's pretty easy to sleep past the wake-up bell and first meditation session. I wouldn't recommend it though -- part of the purpose of the course is learning how to deal with the resistance of the mind to discipline.

Meditation sessions

If you pay careful attention to the schedule, there are 3 types of meditation sessions.
  • Meditate in the hall or your room: These sessions are where you can meditate on your assigned seat in the hall or in your own room. The meditation hall is typically only 50% occupied during these sits. 
  • Group meditation in the hall: These are groups sessions where all participants are required to be in the hall. If you're not in your assigned seat, the course manager or one of the course servers will come looking for you! Empty pods are indicative of students that may have left the course (either because they are "old students" sitting the course part-time or because they are "new students" that decided not to complete the course), or they may have moved to the back of room so they can rest against the wall (towards the end of the course many people migrate to the part of the hall where they can rest their back). 
  • Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions: During these sits, everyone is required to be in the hall at the start of the sit. We start the sit together and then the assistant teacher will either require "new students" or "old students" to continue to be in the hall, while the other group can either continue with their meditation in the hall or in their rooms. The individuals of the group that are required to stay back are called by name to come up to the teacher and are asked a question about the practice; e.g. "Are you feeling sensations in the body?"
Some time around the middle of the course, participants are told to maintain adhitthana during each of the 3 1-hour group sittings. These are "sittings of strong resolve" where the participants are encouraged to sit as still as possible with no significant adjustment to the hands or legs and eyes closed, no matter what comes up. The reason for this is that even the slightest movement of the body creates ripples in the mind and that affects the depth of meditation.

As mentioned earlier, walking meditation is not allowed during the course. There are walking paths but these are mainly used for getting light exercise during the breaks.

Does everyone really have to sit for all 10 hours? While that is what the schedule says and what the course organizers would like you to do in order to do justice to the time spent at the course, there is no one policing course participants to see if they are actually meditating during all of that time. Other than the required sitting periods identified above, many people spend time in their room meditating for only parts of those periods and perhaps taking short naps in between. The things that are probably not tolerated are taking walks or doing personal chores during those times. When I took my first course, I had trouble getting to 6 or 7 hours of meditation and that was by the end of the course. In the following courses, I was actually able to sit for most of the scheduled meditation time, although whenever I had the option, I chose to be in my room rather than in the meditation hall.

Method of instruction

All of the meditation instruction for the course is provided by audio recording of the voice of S. N. Goenka. Every meditation session is guided. Most sessions are a repeat of instructions previously provided. The exceptions are the 3 1-hour required group sittings. Any new instruction is provided at one of these, typically the one in the afternoon. The technique is presented in a very step-by-step fashion starting with very simple instruction and slowly build up until all aspects of the technique have been covered.

There is no official publication (paper or audio) that contains the instructions provided during the course. The only way to get this instruction is to actually attend a course.

Q&A sessions

There are 2 Q&A sessions every day. One is in the afternoon after lunch, and the other in the evening after the discourse. The afternoon one is a private session with the assistant teacher in a dedicated room and requires prior sign-up earlier in the day -- there is a sign-up sheet available during breakfast and lunch. In the evening session the questions are public in the sense we just queue up in front the teacher in the meditation hall and ask our questions.

There is strong emphasis that the Q&A sessions are for clarification of the technique only and not for philosophical discussion. One of my friends that I had talked to before taking the course told me I should take full advantage of the Q&A session. During my first course, I signed up every day for the afternoon Q&A session for multiple reasons:
  • I just wanted to say something after a whole day of silence! 
  • To get feedback from the teacher about my interpretation of the previous day's instruction and to fine-tune my practice of that instruction. 
  • To get tips on dealing with any distractions (emotional and physical) that were affecting my ability to practice.
Personal time

There are very few slots for "personal time" during the course. There are short breaks between the sessions during which people usually take short walks and a few longer periods during which people try and schedule showers or official naps (as opposed to the unofficial naps that are sometimes taken during scheduled meditation time!).

Evening discourses

The evening discourses are provided are by a video recording of S. N. Goenka. Everyone is required to be present in the meditation hall during the discourse. Following the discourse, there is a Q&A session and one may ask clarification questions about the discourse from the assistant teacher.

The discourses are supposed to go hand-in-hand with the "practice" providing the "theory" portion. It explains in detail things like the basis of technique and the importance of morality in the practice. Without understanding of the theory behind the practice, it may become hard for the course participant to appreciate the reason for the strict code of conduct required by the course. I found the information quite useful and S. N. Goenka is definitely an engaging speaker, something which I experienced at the time I heard him speak at DeAnza college. There are several videos of him on YouTube, for example this one which is an introduction to the course.

A summary of the discourses given on each of the 10-days of the course is available in html form (free) and in print form. If you search on the 'net, you'll probably even find a pdf copy of it. Finally, it's also available as a collection of DVDs as well. From an introductory standpoint, I personally think that the Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation by William Hart is a better place to start.

Meals

There are 2 meals served during the day -- breakfast at 6:30 am and lunch at 11:00 am. There is tea and fruit at 5:00 pm. Fruit is only supposed to be taken by new students. Old students are not supposed to eat anything after lunch.

The diet is lacto-vegetarian - no meat, no eggs, but milk/cheese/yogurt are present. They do try to accommodate special requests to the best they can (usually by asking you to skip the items that don't meet your criteria). Being in the US, the breakfasts usually consist of a variety of hot and cold cereals, regular milk, yogurt, soy milk, rice milk, bread (with a toaster), butter, peanut butter, jelly, and fruits. Lunches usually consist of rice and/or pasta, vegetables, and salad with some sort of theme like Indian, Mexican, or Chinese.

2 comments:

  1. Your information on this 10 day meditation was very informative. I do have a question, do you practice meditation on your own? If so, what are your schedules, how often and have you been back since? Thanks in advance.

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  2. One of my earlier posts http://anoopsplace.blogspot.com/2010/11/meditation-techniques-that-ive-been.html might answer some of your questions. Also, my first post in this series (there is a link to it in the very first line of the post) talks about how many times I have been to a Vipassana course. If you need more information, please feel free to contact me by email. The address can be found by clicking the "view my complete profile" link.

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