The SCVC is situated close to Joshua Tree National Park. It’s extremely hot and dry in the summer and gets a little chilly in the winter months. Students are encouraged to dress in layers, and bring warmer clothes in the winter, even though it’s in California. The desert nights can get quite cold.
I was pleasantly surprised by the standard of the quarters at this facility. I had expected a very basic level of quality, knowing that the center is 100% funded on the charity of past students. Clearly their generosity and gratitude towards the center is huge. The center has high quality amenities including many individual private quarters with built in bathrooms. Some quarters were shared dormitories, but these were also more than adequate. Everything has been thoroughly thought out to give you the best experience. I’m not saying it’s a 5 star hotel. But what you get is exactly what you need to be distraction free and focused on your task. There are noise free toilet lids, soft closing door mechanisms, separate air conditioning for each room so you can control the temperature for your own comfort at all times. Cushions, mats and blocks are provided for meditation in the main meditation hall, but you can use your own if you wish. The main hall would get cold during group meditations. Many of us would bring sweaters and shawls to wrap up in, as well as socks, then remove them all after sessions.
There’s a ¼ mile nature trail on each of the men and women’s sides of the center and walking it is encouraged during rest periods. The trail is full of protected nature. Exercising is not permitted on the course, so stretching one’s legs on the trail is almost a necessary contrast to the hours of sitting in meditation. The animals on the trail are incredibly friendly and not threatened by humans. Rabbits, snakes, chip monks, lizards will all walk with you fearlessly. Doves and bats have made their homes in the roofs and trees around the residences. It’s a refreshing change to see untamed wildlife living so care free around humans.
The food was pretty good and a lot of options were provided, all vegetarian. I prefer to eat a vegan diet, and there was always plenty for me to choose from. Meals containing dairy, nuts and gluten were labelled. I was able to avoid wheat and dairy the entire time without feeling hungry or malnourished. Meals included Lasagna, kitcheree, burritos, noodles, tofu steaks, cake desserts, soups, stews, curry and every day there was a salad bar, breads, cereals, fruit and a large selection of soft beverages to choose from.
Difficulties during the course:
It is apparently normal for at least one person to give up and leave the course. Our course was no exception. Someone left on Day 2. Many others became overwhelmed at various stages throughout the course, packing their bags and trying to leave, only to be talked out of it by the teachers.
My partner Rick reports that he really wanted to leave on Day 2, but found the muster to suck it up and get through it. By day 4 the benefits he was getting stopped any further thoughts of leaving early.
For me, I didn’t feel the urge to pack up and leave, but I did have trouble on numerous occasions mustering enough enthusiasm to drag myself to each of the group meditation sessions. Day dreaming, and wandering thoughts, not to mention falling asleep at times made it challenging and frustrating.
Our schedule everyday looked like this:
- 4am Wake up bell
- 30-6.30am Meditate in hall or in room
- 30-8am Breakfast
- 8-9am Group meditation
- 9-11am Meditate in hall or room according to teacher’s instructions
- 11-12pm Lunch
- 12-1pm Rest
- 1-2.30pm Meditate in hall or room and/or teacher’s interviews
- 30-3.30pm Group Meditation
- 30-5pm Meditate in hall or room according to teacher’s instructions
- 5-6pm Tea
- 6-7pm Group Meditation
- 7-8.15pm Teacher’s discourse
- 15-9pm Group Meditation
- 9-9.30pm Group Meditation and questions
- 30-10pm Rest and lights out.
That adds up to over 100 hours of meditation. By the 5th day, it was encouraged to practice “noble stillness” during group meditation, meaning trying your hardest not to move an inch during the sessions, working through discomfort using the tools given to us. By around Day 4, most people were aching all over and having trouble sitting in any position at all. The Day 5 rule really helped create focus and by day 6 almost everyone was practicing in complete stillness.
I have been nursing a Psoas injury that was making sitting on a floor mat particularly painful. There were others like me with pre-existing injuries. We were allowed to sit in a chair as needed. I had to be mindful not to use the chair at the first signs of discomfort and only use it when my injury became unmanageable.
Another difficulty came with withdrawal symptoms for reading, writing and media. I found myself reading the back of my Vitamin D bottle, curiously interested in where it was from and anything else it said in small print.
Being left with one’s own thoughts is a daunting experience. I equate it to solitary confinement of sorts…but with guidance on how to best get to know your own mind. Some days I would sit and cry during rest times, through sadness, frustration, and sometimes through happiness. It was definitely a very emotional journey, full of self-reflection, self-realization and self-discipline.
My most profound experience came around Day 4. Our meditation mats in the hall were close to one another, and rules as they were, we were not allowed to touch anyone else. So everyone carefully stepped over everyone else’s mats to get to theirs, and stretched themselves out around each other’s spaces to get comfortable as needed. Nursing my injured joint, I would stretch my leg out a lot in front of me to avoid exacerbating my injury. The girl sitting in front of me would knock my foot, reach back and grab it from time to time while adjusting herself and almost stood on me numerous times. I started to become sensitive to this behavior, getting mad at her for trying to hurt me, and in my head purposely trying to make me feel like I was being an inconvenience to her, despite her having plenty of room. In the 3 days that this happened, I became more and more annoyed by her behavior, calling her names in my head, making up stories about where she came from and what an awful person she was. During meditation I started imagining scenarios where I could call her out on her about her behavior.
It was around this time that my hip joint was getting especially painful and I had asked for a chair. Despite getting my chair, I still wanted to sit on my mat when I could, but developed an aversion to sitting behind this girl. I really didn’t want to be anywhere near her. I started feeling like she was causing me to not get any benefits out of my time meditating. I became very frustrated that my mind could only think about what was going on between us. I got so angry that those thoughts started to become violent, and with no other outlet, verbal or otherwise, I started day dreaming about punching her in the throat UFC style. My thoughts had grown wildly out of control and I felt I wasn’t getting anything at all out of the course, rather regressing. I went to my teacher to ask to be moved to avoid the distraction and find focus since my violent thoughts were starting to disturb me. My teacher smiled and said “no”. My descriptions of violence and anger didn’t faze her at all. She explained that it was perfectly normal and expected to start having these types of thoughts. That this was one of my sankharas surfacing. She told me that I needed to stay sitting behind her and work through my sankhara to understand it. She also commented that this girl and myself would probably end up being best friends by the time we left the course.
I went away and contemplated this discussion, slightly peeved that I hadn’t gotten my way. That evening, Goenka (who teaches via video in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ban Khin, having died some years ago) started talking about these types of thoughts and sankharas and what they meant. Every evening his discourse was so profound to me, that it was like he was reading my mind…. But truthfully, this fact speaks volumes about the structure of the course and the predictable nature of the mind. In essence it’s a scientific method of understanding and controlling one’s mental faculties. But I digress. Geonka’s explanation described everything that had been going on in my head with this situation. I retired for the evening realizing that I had created this situation and manifested conflict, anger and upset in myself without cause. That I had been doing this with so many things in my life that my stress levels had become intensely high for no good reason. So many of my worries and conflicts were unnecessary and only hurt myself, no one else.
The next morning during group meditation, I changed my thinking. I used my new found knowledge to step away from my emotions about my situation and see things as they were. I realized that the girl in front of me was having a really hard time sitting still and focusing. She would fidget a lot and move around in frustration. She couldn’t get comfortable no matter what she did. I realized that what I had perceived as animosity was actually just frustration. All the anger that I had developed melted away. Half way through the day, she grabbed a kneeling bench and was precariously trying to balance it on her foam floor mat in her space so that she could sit on it. It was really unstable. She started trying to shift her mat forward, encroaching on the space of the girl in front of her, seemingly because she knew I used the space behind her for my outreached leg. In this moment, I broke my vow of non-communication momentarily for the sake of her comfort. I reached forward and grabbed the kneeling bench and put it over my foot, behind her mat, where it could sit on the sturdy floor. I looked up and smiled at her mouthing “It’s fine”. She smiled back at me with a look of relief on her face, giving me a thumbs up. Suddenly, this girl who had been the devil’s right hand in my mind a day ago, was a nice, well intended person who, just like me, was trying her best to get through the challenges of the course.
I can’t tell you how fortunate I was to have experienced this during my course and have the opportunity to address this thinking that had been weighing me down for so long. Now I’m back in the real world, I’m applying these lessons and making new observations every day. Rick and I have great conversations about behaviors and emotions that we’re noticing that were too subtle to realize before our training. We’re definitely able to process our emotions and thoughts so much more effectively. We are able to be present and have become better versions of ourselves because of it.
Day 10 was a special day where we were allowed to talk to our fellow students. It was a really interesting day, learning about people that we had been living, eating and sitting with for 9 days in complete silence. You inadvertently make up stories about who they are and what they do simply from observing some physical attribute about them or some physical action they have made. How wrong we can be about people. It’s an interesting exercise in perception. The girl who sat in front of me in the hall turned out to be more like me than I could have imagined. My teacher was right. We are now friends.
The journey is so different for everyone that experiences the course that I can’t tell you what the experience will be like for you, and it would be remiss of me to try to explain the method to you, simply because I don’t have the training to do it, and to teach it incorrectly would be an injustice to you. I can only recommend the course whole heartedly no matter what walk of life you’re on.
The course is 100% free and everything is provided for you. Just bring bedding, towel, toiletries and enough clothes to last 10 days. No laundry services are provided but you can hand wash and hang your clothes outside. There’s no obligation to donate money at the end. They actually encourage service over payment to help you grow spiritually. The center staff are all volunteers who have taken the course, and no one, including the teachers are getting paid a penny. Even the facilities are provided as donations in money and time by skilled workers. You can sign up for amazonSmile to have a portion of the money you pay for goods bought on amazon go to your Vipassana center, at no cost to you.
I can tell you that we are now strong practitioners of this meditation method and will most likely return to do the course again. If you have any questions about the Vipassana course, I would be happy to respond if I can. If you have questions about the practice, there’s lots of information on their site about the theory, practice and history of Vipassana, and I recommend you check it out.
If you’re at all interested in enlightenment, happiness, brain training, or meditation for mental or physical reasons, this course is the real deal. The course has given me the tools to deal with anxiety, depression, attachment, anger, and also to more fully experience happiness and love.
My life has become so much more vivid since finding Vipassana. I am so grateful for the experience and wholeheartedly recommend giving it a go.