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Goenka Vipassana Meditation: My Personal Experience (Part 1 of 2)
Dhamma Malaya Vipassana Centre, Gambang, Malaysia
The Symmetrical Layout Map (left for females, right for males)
The Goenka Vipassana Meditation Center That I Went To
This article is in 2 parts. This is Part 1. In this article, I am sharing my personal experience on the 10-day Goenka Vipassana meditation course. This is my personal experience during the 10 days that I spent at the Goenka meditation center. If you are not familiar with the 10-day Goenka Vipassana meditation course, you may like to read my article first on “What Is Goenka Vipassana Meditation”.
I attended the 10-day Goenka Vipassana meditation course on 5 December 2012 at the Gambang center near Kuantan, Malaysia. The name of the meditation center is called “Dhamma Malaya Vipassana Centre”. This center is set on a 20-acre land beside an oil palm estate. In fact, the only entrance is through the oil palm estate, where one drives for more than a kilometer along the narrow lane, lined on both sides by beautiful oil palm trees with their over-flowing leaves forming a natural canopy above. It gave me the feeling of entering into a Club Med Resort rather than a meditation training center!
The center is in a secluded place, surrounded by trees and shrubs where one can enjoy the intermittent melodious sound from the different types of birds roaming freely amongst the natural luscious foliage. The center is dominated by an imposing main meditation hall. The dining hall and the main meditation hall are specially laid out symmetrically to allow segregation of the male and female students. The female students stay on the left side while the males occupy the right side. Along the male section, there are 5 rows of single-bedded accommodation complete with attached bathroom. Each row has about 8 rooms. I would assume that the female section has similar layout. This means the center can accommodate about 100 participants for each course session. The main meditation hall can easily accommodate 100 meditators at any one time. It was full house for this session, with more than 10% foreign Caucasian students.
Arriving At The Dhamma Malaya Vipassana Centre
The Main Entrance
More about the center
Throughout the 10 days, meals were served by center volunteers. Breakfast at 6.30am; lunch, the only main meal for the day, at 11am; and light refreshment at 5pm. Only vegetarian food was served at the center.
There was a course residential manager to assist us should we have any problem with our accommodation. The female section had its own female residential manager.
A male meditation teacher was in charge of the meditation training assisted by another female teacher specially for the female students. However, the male meditation teacher would answer all questions from both the male and female students. We were fortunate to have Mr DV Kumar direct from India to teach us. He is a very tall person, towering well above 6 feet!
Throughout the period we were not allowed access to reading materials and the internet. In fact we were totally cut off from the outside world. We had to observe “noble silence” throughout the period, up to day 9. Another requirement was that we had to observe 5 basic moral precepts:
1. Not killing.
2. Not stealing.
3. Not committing sexual misconduct.
4. Not telling lies.
5. Not taking intoxicating substances.
All these requirements were supposed to help us in our training during the entire course. They were imposed for good reasons which were explained to us as the course progressed.
The Imposing Main Meditation Hall (Taken from outside my room)
Another view of the Main Hall
The Mini Hall
A little background about me
Different people would have different experiences during the 10-day course. That is why I need to provide some information on my background. I think, age and prior meditation experience would make a difference in one’s response to this course. I am 62 years old. I also have a fair knowledge of meditation, both theory and practice.
More than 30 years ago, I learned Anapanasati meditation, similar to the one taught by this Goenka course on its first three and half days. This meditation involves watching the in-breath and the out-breath around the nostrils to achieve better concentration of the mind. Along the years, I joined informal meditation sessions where we sat and watch the body sensations, not fully understanding how or why we could achieve the realization of true insight. Over all these years I have not come across any meditation teacher who could explain to me what exactly was Vipassana meditation on the experiential basis. That was why I have not been very enthusiastic about practicing Vipassana, which was not completely clear to me in the first place. So most of the time my meditation was on Anapanasati to gain concentration and tranquility.
I also have a fair knowledge of the teachings of the Buddha; in fact I answer questions on Buddhism too. Ironically, I can explain what Vipassana meditation is all about, but only in theory. Now that you know my background, I shall proceed to describe my personal experiences during those 10 days.
Inside the Main Meditation Hall (I sat on the 4th cushion, left of the aisle)
Dhamma Malaya Meditation Center In Gambang, Pahang, Malaysia
The center is inside an oil palm estate.
Early morning scene
The first unit was my room
Inside my room
Enthusiastic Day Zero
Although my course proper was supposed to start on December 6, I was required to register at the center on December 5. The course proper would start at 4.30 in the morning of December 6.
After registration and checking into my room, all participants were provided with early dinner at the dining hall. This was followed with a briefing by the course residential manager. From then on, “noble silence” commenced, and we were given our respective meditation seat numbers. Just like obedient school children, we quietly followed the leader towards the main meditation hall. It was around 8pm by then. The entrance to the hall was covered by overlapping white curtains to prevent insects from entering. My first step inside the hall was awe-inspiring; it was very dimly lit but I could see the very high ceiling, providing an airy ambiance. Straight in front, seated cross-legged upright in meditation posture on a raised platform each, was the imposing 6-footer teacher on the left, and the lady teacher on the right. The first impression, if nothing else, was most impressive. We took our rightful places on the floor with the low cushion provided, facing the teachers. Gentlemen sitting on the left half of the hall, and ladies on the right. The whole atmosphere was surreal. The silence was loud!
Without any introduction, the teacher started playing the Cd, which would become a familiar standard procedure in the days to come. The voice of the Master came out crisp and clear, that of Goenkaji himself, with a distinct Indian accent. Throughout the 10 days Goenkaji would start off with his peculiar throaty chanting and instructions. I think for those who were totally new to this scenario, would experience an initial shock of their lives. Without any warning or introduction we were to sit on the cushion on the floor and start meditating for about an hour! My secret heartfelt sympathy for all those newbies, especially the Caucasians who were not used to sitting cross-legged on the floor! And for one solid hour!!
The initial ordeal was over in no time, and all returned to their respective rooms for the night. One surprising observation for me was that the students, for a start, were not being introduced to the various sitting meditation postures. From my experience, in other meditation centers, new students would usually be shown the various sitting meditation postures before they start the meditation proper. Well, I supposed over here, they considered us big boys and girls, and we should know how to sit properly!
Tiring Day One
My day began at 4.30 in the morning with a continuous 2-hour meditation session. Breakfast was served at 6.30 and after a rest, the meditation session resumed from 8.00 to 11.00. Lunch break and rest were from 11 to 1pm. Those who wished to ask questions could meet the teacher from 12 noon.
The afternoon session was from 1pm to 5pm. Special group meditation was from 2.30pm to 3.30pm. Well, there wasn’t any difference whether group or not. You just sat still and meditate, except that during group meditation, the teacher also sat with us and Goenkaji’s instructions and chanting were played on Cd.
We were given a short tea-break from 5.00 t0 6.00pm. And another group meditation sitting would start from 6.00 to 7.00pm. This would be followed by the very essential and important discourse by Goenkaji on Dvd from 7.00 to 8.15pm. This discourse would explain the day’s practice. It was from these discourses that Goenkaji would explain in detail, the various aspects of the meditation techniques and some salient principles of universal truths that were pertinent to our meditation practice.
[ Day-1 Discourse : Goenkaji reminds us that the first day usually causes great difficulties and discomforts because we are not accustomed to sitting on the floor for such long period. He reminds us that we are here to learn the art of living peacefully and happily with oneself and with the society. Our first task is to find out the cause of our miseries. The cause is within us. The first day was the start of this journey, by attentively observing our breath. This observation of the breath is a natural tool that everyone can agree with. It is universal without any religious or dogmatic label. This practice of observing the breath is to develop a concentrated mind. From a concentrated mind, we can then proceed to purify the mind. ]
After the discourse, there would be a final group meditation session until 9.00pm. From 9.00 to 9.30 it would be question time where students could seek clarifications from the teacher and ask questions.
The grueling daily routine would be the same for the next 9 days! From 4 o’clock in the morning till 9 at night! Meditation, meditation, meditation!
My first day was very very tiring. With a bit of “cheating”, I would still have put in about 7 hours of solid sitting meditation. By afternoon I was worn out because of the pain on my left leg and the acute pain on my back. Leg pain from sitting long period cross-legged was nothing new to me; but the acute back pain was a “new intruder”, not the least welcome! By 9pm. I was so exhausted that I fell asleep once I touched the bed.
Painful Day Two
Day 2 was a very painful affair. My back pain was becoming critical and I had to request for a “back support” to help ease my pain. A “back-support” is a wooden gadget with two planks fixed at right angle, where the base is pushed under the cushion with the upright plank serving like a back rest of a chair.
Throughout the day and night, pain was my only companion. Pain was actually a teacher as well a sensation for observation for this Vipassana practice, as one would gradually and eventually come to realize.
[ Day-2 Discourse : The discourse touches on the purpose of the observation of the breath. It is to develop awareness of the present moment while at the same time maintain full concentration on the area around the nostril, without reacting to the sensation, that is, to remain equanimous. When one achieves this state, one is said to have the right type of concentration of the mind, “samma samadhi”, which is essential for the further progress towards Vipassana meditation. ]
Persevering Day Three
By day 3, I was beginning to accept the “present-moment” body discomfort and pain that would come and go like uninvited guests during my meditation sessions. For some sessions, the sittings were a breeze because there was no back pain. But for most sessions, leg and back pain were my banes.
[ Day-3 Discourse : Goenkaji explains the progress from keeping moral principles, right concentration of the mind, to the development of wisdom through Vipassana meditation.These are the three essential steps taken in order to explore the intricacies of the relationship between mind and body and how they influence and affect our characters. These three steps are "morality", "concentration", and "wisdom". In Pali language (the language of the Buddha), Sila, Samadhi, Panna (pronounced as pun-nya). The first three days are for developing concentration through observation of the breath.This is to develop the faculty to experience the activities of the mind. Without this faculty, one is only able to understand on the intellectual level and accept on the devotional level, which is no help to oneself, as one cannot relate in the experiential level. The past three days gave one the training to gain a certain degree of experiential ability to actually experience the activities of the mind. The rest of the seven days will be for utilizing this faculty to cultivate wisdom through Vipassana meditation. ]
The first three days were to develop a certain level of mind awareness of sensation on the limited area around the nostril, without displaying any like or dislike on these sensations.This method of meditation on awareness of the breath around the nostril area is called anapanasati. We were learning the art of pure detached observation of sensations which appeared and disappeared consistently around the nostril area. By watching this phenomenon of constant “appearing and disappearing” sensations, one realized the phenomenon of incessant change taking place in one’s body. With prolonged practice of watching with awareness of these changes, the mind became more concentrated on the object of meditation.This concentrated state of mind is called samadhi.
My experience was that I could feel the subtle sensations around my nostril area, and was also able to maintain concentration for a longer period. Of course my mind wandered every now and then, but with better concentration, I could bring it back to observe the breath again. This would be the exercise that I had to repeat endlessly during my 10 days. In fact, most probably, it will be for the rest of my life.
By the end of Day 3, we would be ready to take on Day 4, when we would be taught the Vipassana meditation proper. The real journey would begin on Day 4.
Please continue reading at Part 2; click here:“Goenka Vipassana Meditation; My Personal Experience (Part 2 Of 2)”
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