Last month my partner and I took the 3 Day Vipassana residential meditation course for Old Students at Dhamma Sukhakari, in Saxmundham, Suffolk, UK. The course is a refresher or sorts for students that have already taken the 10 Day residential course.
Dhamma Sukhakari means ”Giving the happiness of Dhamma”, and the atmosphere of the center and it’s helpers definitely reflected that spirit. Everyone was really friendly, helpful and respectful during induction and course end. Of course, as with all Vipassana courses, we practiced in complete silence for the entirety of the course once the bell was sounded.
The course felt very different to the 10 day course. For starters, everyone there had experience with Vipassana, knew the rules and already had some modicum of discipline in meditating in stillness. Talking to fellow meditators before the course begun, it was very interesting to hear how Vipassana had changed their lives or helped them in ways they couldn’t have imagined. People of all ages and walks of life, each with their own stories and backgrounds, many from other countries, all gathered to practice this simple but powerful meditation technique. It was a wonderful experience to meet them and be inspired by their stories.
For me, my intention was to top up my basic practice and confirm its direction, to make sure I was staying on track. Being forced to spend 3 days doing nothing but meditating to revisit the experiences I had while on the 10 day course were part of my goal in signing up. I actually wanted to do another 10 day course, but with precious little time to spare, another 10 day course in less than a year seemed overzealous at best. So we opted for the 3 day.
If you aren’t familiar with Vipassana and the 10 Day course, I wrote three posts detailing everything about the experience. Here are links to check them out:
The structure of the 3 day course, including the schedule, the rules and the food were all maintained from the 10 day course. It seems the organizers of this group that practice around the teachings of S. N. Goenka are very coordinated and go to great pains to make sure the experience is consistent from center to center. Even the kneeling mats were the same.
The major differences for me at this center were in the size of the premises. In Twentynine Palms USA, there was space for long nature walks and our own bedrooms with private bathrooms. This made working in silence much more easy to do. There was much more sense of isolation, with minimal chance of contact during group meditation and dining hours. In Saxmundham, UK however, the quarters were tight, with 4 bunks per room, only 2 toilets, and 2 showers for 18 girls on the female side.
Trying to remain isolated without eye contact, physical touch or speech really was quite hard, especially with the British inclination to apologize to everyone, each time you so much as cross someone’s path. I heard numerous accidental “Sorry”s muttered under the breath during these crowded times.
Even separating males and females was impossible to do in this center, as is the practice at Vipassana centers. Our quarters were separated by a single door inside, which was sufficient, but by a thin hedge on one side of the garden, and an awkwardly positioned trailer on the other. On the first day, a male wandered on to the wrong side of the garden and saw me in my bedroom, thankfully clothed. Needless to say, this was distracting, though not intentional. It took a day or so for everyone to get used to where the undefined boundaries really were, to avoid each other.
Male helpers would walk through the girls’ quarters frequently through necessity. The layout of this center doesn’t allow for multiple separate entrances to the kitchen. I didn’t find this distracting however. It was noticeable, especially with the male meditators on the 10 day course, that by day 10 many of them were gawking at the girls. But on this very short course of experienced meditators, the atmosphere was much more focused.
Walking in the garden was especially awkward, as it wasn’t really big enough for more than a couple of people to move around in without getting in each other’s way. It was cold in January, so this wasn’t much of a problem, with most girls staying indoors wrapped up in blankets.
I feel like as an Old Student (as one is automatically called once completing the 10 day course), the challenges of the center were chances to use the skills I had learned. I do feel like this center would have been too challenging for me as a New Student, and this is perhaps why this center is more focused on 3 Day courses. I felt a sense of claustrophobia and no sense of privacy. I spent much of my down time from meditation observing these feelings as sankaras.
The constant distraction made it feel difficult for me to get back to the level of focus I had attained on the 10 day course, and by day 2, this was bothering me. I was also having a hard time with the heat. The heaters in the center were all cranked up full blast, and sleeping in the top bunk, with up facing heat fans blowing on you, isn’t a pleasant experience, even when it is cold outside. I’m usually someone who runs cold, and had expected to be chilly on this course, bringing only warm clothes to sleep and meditate in, given the weather and British tendency to only use the least amount of energy possible to take the edge off. By the middle of the first night, I was burning up, sweating and having trouble sleeping.
I tend to get insomnia anyway and am a very light sleeper. My bunk mates were heavy sleepers who snored, but would wake up numerous times throughout the night to pee, then fall right back asleep. This led to me being woken up constantly through the night, taking a long time to fall asleep again, only to be woken at 4am with the morning bell. I was very grumpy.
By Saturday lunch time I was sleep deprived and overheated. Every time I closed my eyes, I would fall asleep. Every time I tried to sleep, I would be woken up. Every time I opened the window to get some relief from the hot air trapped in my top bunk, a girl from the bottom bunk would close it. I was frustrated and exhausted. Unable to express in any form of communication how hot it was on the top bunk, made it impossible to make her understand that my situation was unlivable. I had however noticed that the girl on the other top bunk was similarly hot, as she too would open the window every time it was closed. Knowing that I wasn’t the only one suffering did help, but didn’t fix the situation.
During morning meditation on Saturday, I had to leave the meditation hall to remove clothes, as I felt like I was going to pass out. By this time, I was very disappointed and frustrated that my experience wasn’t going as planned. Vipassana rules include not being allowed to wear revealing clothes, including sleeveless tops, vests, shorts, leggings etc. I felt trapped in the heat, and this created its own additional heat in the form of anger and frustration. By lunch time, I seriously considered packing up and leaving. I sat alone outside in the freezing cold for over an hour contemplating my situation and cooling off my body temperature.
While sitting there, I realized that this experience was part of a sankhara I needed to address. I had started to become angry and had started deflecting that anger on to the girl on the bottom bunk, blaming her for my situation. It wasn’t her fault. She didn’t know what it was like on the top bunk, and we couldn’t talk to each other. It also wasn’t anyone else’s fault that I have a problem sleeping and wake up at the smallest whisper or movement. So I sat there in my anger trying to understand it and let it pass. S. N. Goenka often talks about anicca – pronounced “Aniture”, the concept of everything changing constantly. Each moment, each feeling, each experience passes and is replaced by another. We crave the good sensations and try to avoid the bad ones. When things don’t go our way, we get sad, angry, remorseful, fearful. I focused on this philosophy and sat there feeling my body cool down in the freezing air.
It was then that I realized that I was experiencing the same exact sankhara I had visited during my 10 day course. I had been uncomfortable and frustrated, and deflected that anger on to the girl sitting in front of me. On that occasion, it took me 4 days to realize everything I was experiencing was of my own design. It was a real revelation for me, and practicing Vipassana has allowed me to understand and break this habit without internalizing my anger in an unhealthy way. However, it is a lifelong habit and a hard sankara to dissolve. So once again, here I was, surfacing the sankhara again. To my credit, I didn’t get anywhere near as mad as I did on the 10 Day course, and I recognized my frustrations and anger for what they were within hours. That’s a massive improvement by my math!
Of course, as we sat down on Saturday night for S. N. Goenka’s evening discourse, things became very clear. He talked about expectations during Vispassana. He explained that chasing the feelings you achieve during deep meditation take away from the goal and impact of the meditation, and that to do that means that you aren’t practicing Vipassana. To have expectations is to misunderstand Vipassana and leads to incorrect practice and frustration.
The technique of Vipassana is to observe one’s sensation with equanimity. To acknowledge the sensation, understand that it isn’t permanent, and observe it going away. Not to crave the sensation. Not to avoid it. Just observe it.
By observing and understanding every sensation and treating each with equanimity, you can break the cycle of blindly reacting to the sensation. A situation that causes both yourself and others to suffer by your actions.
Goenka explained that if you spent the entire course observing your inability to focus, found nothing but blockages and couldn’t manage to even observe any anapana* meditation, yet alone a sequence of Vipassana meditation, as long as you observed these facts with equanimity, you had successfully practiced Vipassana. If you observed these failures and reacted negativity to them, but then noticed this and observed the sensations, you had practiced Vipassana and perhaps even uncovered a sankhara. However, if you considered your experience a failure because you hadn’t achieved the clarity of mind you once had in a previous course, you had missed the entire point of Vipassana.
The point of Vipassana is to notice sensations, understand that they are not permanent, observe them, understand anicca and thus remain equanimous towards the sensations. In doing this, you can break the cycle of misery caused from craving or averting sensations, and become happier and more present.
Some days you will have amazing clarity, alertness and feel a sense of progress with your meditation. Other days you will feel sluggish, blocked and will be unable to focus. Other days you will roller-coaster between clarity and fogginess. None of it matters. Each time you observe the sensations you are feeling, you are practicing Vipassana, and you have been successful.
We are the sum of our parts and to ignore or avoid part of yourself, whilst focusing and craving on other parts of yourself is to create imbalance and unhealthy dependence on something; akin to a junkie trying to get a fix. Vipassana in my mind teaches me to recognize this pattern of craving and aversion and catch myself reacting to it in order to retrain my bad habits. When I say bad habits, I’m talking about negative thoughts, knee jerk reactions, anger, fears and sadness, but also attachments to love, happiness, exhilaration and other enjoyable sensations. Coveting the good sensations only leads to disappointment and upset. Equanimity enables you to walk day to day experiencing the present moment for what it is, whether it is happy, sad, good or bad.
Being present is the purpose of many types of meditation. However with Vipassana, I have found that presence is more attainable and more of a practical goal, less of a philosophy or mystical state of being.
For me Vipassana makes perfect sense. It allows me to develop as a human being and takes the mystery out of being present, having successful meditation sessions and what that really means. I highly recommend giving Vipassana a shot if you’ve never tried it. It is a big commitment to take 10 days of your life to dedicate to this. But I assure you that for everyone I’ve met who practices it, the benefits far outweigh that of any vacation, spa membership, yoga retreat, therapy or drug. If you can manage it, it will change your life for the better.
As for the Dhamma Sukharkari center in Saxmundham, I would take this course again, this time with no expectations. The center has everything you need. It is clean, well stocked and despite being in the center of a residential neighborhood, is surprisingly quiet. The center is a challenge for sure, but overcoming those challenges makes for a great experience in learning about oneself. I definitely got what I needed out of the course, and I expect if I do it again, new and different experiences await me.
If you have an experience with Vipassana, I’d love to read your comments here. If you want to learn more, I’d be happy to try and answer your basic questions or refer you to the proper resources to guide you further. (Since I am not trained to school the practice and am still in the early stages of my own journey, I can’t answer questions that don’t relate to my personal experience, and wouldn’t want to misguide anyone by attempting to teach this practice.)
For more information, check out the Vipassana website where there is constantly updated information on courses, educational materials and ways to contribute to the centers. Vipassana centers are 100% funded on donations. Even the staff donate their time. Vipassana courses are free, including board and food. You are encouraged to donate time in service to help others, but it isn’t mandatory. You can also give by signing up for amazonSmile, where amazon donates to a charity of your choice based on purchases you make. You can also donate services if you are in a profession needed to maintain, promote or manage the centers. Donations are not accepted from anyone who has not taken the course.