What is Vipassana Meditation based on and what is needed to practice it?
Before signing up for these 10 days of retreat practicing Vipassana Meditation in Thailand, I was well informed to find out what this type of meditation was based on. Wikipedia defines it as a type of Buddhist meditation that is based on a process of self-purification through self-observation.
In order to carry out this type of meditation it is important to follow a moral behavior that is characterized by: eliminating attachment, limiting one’s desires, respecting all living beings and living moderately.
Vipassana Meditation, in short, focuses first on observing the breath in order to concentrate the mind and try to free ourselves from our thoughts. Once freed from our thoughts, with time and a lot of work, through a pure consciousness (mindfulness), we will be able to “experience the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and the absence of ego“.
Although meditation has many known benefits, such as: reduction of anxiety and depression, improvement of concentration, the fight against addictions … The ultimate goal of this type of Buddhist meditation and this philosophy of life is to achieve enlightenment, Nirvana.
Of course, I did not expect to achieve Nirvana in ten days. I just wanted to find out for myself what meditation was, to understand it and see its benefits. Besides, I was curious to see if I could improve some aspect of my life. That was enough for me to be satisfied.
Vipassana Meditation in Thailand – Wat Suan Mokkh
I found on the Internet that they spoke well of a temple in Surat Thani. The place was called Wat Suan Mokkh or Garden of Liberation.
What convinced me to end up going was that I read that the monks spoke English and the whole course was in English. Without a doubt it was an important factor to find out everything they taught you.
I went to the Bangkok bus station and took a bus to Surat Thani without thinking twice. The 10 days of silent meditation retreat begin on the first day of each month. You can’t sign up online or by phone, so you have to go to the place just the day before it starts.
Vipassana Meditation in Thailand – Conditions
Once there, in the afternoon a meeting is held and we are told that the course is going. There are many foreigners so above all they inform us that it is forbidden to speak during the 10 days with the other participants of the course and that it is advisable to avoid crossing glances with people of the opposite sex.
We are told that there will be two meals a day, in the morning and at noon; and then, in the afternoon, a tea or a hot chocolate. We are also recommended to wear comfortable clothes and we are reminded that it is mandatory that the shoulders and knees are always covered.
Everyone is given a task to do at the relevant time. This can range from sweeping the dining room, cleaning tables, scrubbing the floor to even cleaning toilets. The sooner you get there, the sooner you can choose your task. I was quick and took the one to sweep the dining room.
When the meeting is over, you leave all your important things (passport, mobile phone and cameras included) inside their office and they show you around.
The Wat Suan Mokkh enclosure
The place is wonderful, very big, surrounded by nature and far from civilization. There are two natural hot springs, one for men and one for women.
We also sleep in different areas. The rooms are situated in a grid pattern and in the center there is a large courtyard. They give you a small room in which there is only a stone bed with a very fine bedspread, a sheet, a mosquito net and a wooden cushion.
The monks advise to look under the bedspread and inside your shoes every time you wear them to check for scorpions or spiders. Outside the rooms, in the courtyard, there are several fountains where, with the help of a bucket, you can take a shower by throwing water over yourself.
Vipassana Meditation – The Routine
At night we go to our respective rooms in silence. Here begins my experience learning Vipassana Meditation in Thailand. The retreat has begun, and so has the routine:
- 4:00 – The bell rings, it’s time to wake up.
- 4:30 – Morning reading.
- 4:45 – Sitting meditation.
- 5:30 – Yoga.
- 7:00 – Dhamma Talk: Talk on Buddhism and meditation.
- 8:00 – Breakfast and homework.
- 9:00 – Seated meditation.
- 10:00 – Dhamma Talk: Talk on Buddhism and meditation.
- 11:00 – Walking meditation.
- 12:00 – Lunch and homework. Rest.
- 14:30 – Seated meditation.
- 15:30 – Dhamma Talk: Talk on Buddhism and meditation.
- 16:30 – Walking meditation and group mantra recitation.
- 18:00 – Tea Time. Rest (natural hot springs).
- 19:30- Meditation walking together.
- 20:00 – Seated Meditation.
- 20:30 – Bedtime.
- 21:00 – Lights out.
And so on every day, in silence.
Vipassana Meditation – The retreat begins
The wooden cushion, as a monk told us, serves so that when the bell rings at 4:00 in the morning you can’t go back to sleep because it’s very uncomfortable. The truth is that it works.
At breakfast and lunch there is little variety and everything is quite bland, but maybe that’s what it’s all about. For breakfast, each day a stew of rice with vegetables and bananas for dessert; to eat, brown rice, vegetables and tofu with curry. Of course, you eat in silence and finish everything you put on your plate.
During the breaks you can go to the natural thermal baths inside the enclosure to relax, take a walk observing the nature around you or simply stay in the room.
On one of my breaks, sitting on a bench with myself, a five-foot lizard crossed my side. My first reaction was to think about taking a picture of him, but I soon realized that I didn’t have the cellphone with me.
My second reaction was to warn two people who were nearby to share that moment, but I couldn’t speak. In the end, I stared in silence at this majestic lizard, walking slowly but steadily until I saw it disappear between the branches. It was a unique moment and it was just for me.
Types of meditation
All meditation hours are group, except walking meditation which you have the option to do as a group or individually. Also sometimes group mantras are recited, which serve to concentrate on a particular thing and not think about anything else.
Walking meditation is quite curious; it consists of taking four steps, turning on oneself, first turning the right foot, then the left foot, and repeating the same action continuously.
Vipassana Meditation – Proper posture
For the sitting meditation we go to an open enclosure of fine sand surrounded by trees and nature. The men sit on one side, the women on the other and the monks in front on a podium. They give us a mat, a wooden bench and a cushion.
The first thing they teach you is to sit properly to meditate. There are quite a few variables, although they mainly recommend two: sitting with your legs crossed or sitting with your legs bent over them.
A monk tell us that the best posture is the one in which you have a straight back and are comfortable. You can sit alone on the cushion or also use the wooden bench so that the pelvis is even higher and you can maintain the same posture for longer. It’s also a good idea to sit down and try to pull your pelvis a little outwards.
Hands are placed half a span below the navel. The right hand is placed on top of the left, with the palms facing up and the fingertips of the thumbs touching lightly. “Right hand symbolizes the method and left hand symbolizes wisdom; the two together symbolize the union of method and wisdom.”
Sometimes lectures on Buddhism and meditation are given by monks. They are the most interesting and that’s when you pay the most attention. But, most of the time, you get a recording of a monk who was on one of these retreats and, for 3 hours a day, you have to listen to them in silence.
In these talks, the philosophy of Theravada Buddhism, which is the predominant Buddhist branch in Southeast Asia, is discussed. They tell us how living a moderate life, moving away from extremes and excesses and with a morality based on ethics, it is possible to have a happy life. However, this happiness will never be total, since it will be impossible to escape from suffering.
The Four Noble Truths
For one to truly escape from that suffering and thus attain a state of supreme happiness (Nirvana), one has to put into practice the Four Noble Truths on which Buddhism is based:
- Life includes suffering, dissatisfaction or discontent (duhkha).
- The origin of suffering is desire, wanting, longing, thirst (trisna).
- Suffering (duhkha) can be extinguished when the cause (trisna) is extinguished.
- There is a Noble Eightfold Path to achieving this cessation: a method of extinguishing suffering (represented by the Dharma wheel).
Noble Eightfold Path
This method is subdivided into 3 categories that are learned step by step but that must be applied simultaneously in our daily life: Wisdom, Ethical Conduct and Mind Training (meditation).
- Correct vision or compression
- Correct thinking or determination
- Ethical conduct
- Speaking correctly
- To act correctly
- Correct livelihood
- Training of the mind (meditation)
- Correct effort
- Being present or conscious at the right time.
- Correct concentration or meditation.
In a synthesis, they tell us that we should live a kind of life like that of a monk. To dedicate ourselves to study and to live close to nature and to respect all that surrounds us and ourselves. Do not harm anyone or anything. Not to cling to anything and live without attachments, nor desires but above all without excesses. To live in moderation. Last but not least, train the mind daily (meditate).
All these aspects, in agreement and harmony, should free us from all suffering and, perhaps one day, help us reach spiritual liberation, the state of supreme happiness, Nirvana.
Vipassana Meditation in Thailand – First Day
If you have never done meditation before, starting with this type of meditation is quite hard, not to say, very extreme. Not only because of the meditation, but because of the kind of life that goes with it.
The first day is still bearable. You notice that, since you can’t talk, the only thing your brain does is to think and it’s contradictory because it’s about not thinking. But it is impossible to control it.
At the end of the day you are exhausted from thinking so much. It’s been a long day but, being all new, it’s been quite interesting. However, you haven’t managed to meditate for a single second.
Vipassana Meditation in Thailand – Day Two
The second day is one of the hardest. You think even more, you try to concentrate and leave your mind blank, listen only to your breathing, but you can’t. Thoughts come to you everywhere: memories of the past, plans for the future, or thoughts about what you are doing there when you might be traveling. They are, as one monk told us; “clouds that do not allow you to see the clarity of the sky.”
You get stressed because you can’t control them. Your mind is invaded by thoughts at every second and every minute becomes eternal. Every hour that passes is a victory, one hour less for the day to end. That’s the first time that you begin to think that this is not for you but you have promised yourself to endure.
Vipassana Meditation in Thailand – Third Day
By the third day you start to see that a few people are gone. You keep thinking a lot but start to control your thoughts from time to time.
Sometimes you manage to focus on your breathing and not think about anything but it doesn’t last long: you breathe, follow your breathing and concentrate. You feel the air flowing inside you and hear it coming and going. You feel where you are, this unique moment. It’s easy to hear how the breeze moves the leaves of the trees and how the birds sing in the distance. Suddenly you hear your thoughts again and find yourself thinking again. “Shit, I’m thinking again. I’m gone again.”
At that precise moment you realize that we are always thinking about other things; we are never in this present moment. We never fully enjoy the present.
Vipassana Meditation in Thailand – Fourth Day
On the fourth day, the brain finally realizes it doesn’t need to think that much. You are able to concentrate more regularly and for longer periods. When you don’t think it’s like you’re here, and the one you start thinking about is like you’re going somewhere else.
You feel relaxed and in a state of constant bread crumbing. Enjoying the scenery and paying attention to everything around you. Staring at ants climbing trees, small lizards playing butterfly hunting, and a green snake sliding between branches and leaves.
The body also adapts. Even if you don’t eat much, you’re less hungry every day. With this rhythm of life you don’t need much.
At noon I’m completely blank and all sorts of images start projecting into my head. I don’t control them, I can only see that they flow non-stop. I see flashes, lines of colors and even a blue bird flapping its wings. Then, suddenly I lose them. At last, I understand what it means not to think. After four suffering days, I am finally starting to meditate.
Vipassana Meditation in Thailand – Fifth Day
The fifth day I wake up with illusion because it seems that once and for all I learned to meditate and understood its meaning and importance but I hardly eat anymore. Routine is killing me. The day is getting very long.
I’m relaxed with myself but I can’t concentrate. I’m tired of everything. Tired of the food, the wooden cushion, of throwing cold water on top of me with a bucket, of sitting all day long, but above all, tired of the Buddhist talks.
The talks can be the most interesting things, but also the most boring. I have to fight not to fall asleep. I love it when they talk about Buddhist morality, about not hurting anything or anyone and learning to live in moderation, but I get tired every day of hearing that life is suffering and that we should detach ourselves from everything to avoid it.
For me, life is a gift to be enjoyed. Of course there is suffering, but it is just one more element of many others such as: the joy of seeing your loved ones, the excitement of doing something for the first time, the pleasure of getting something longed for, the pain of the lost, the fear of defeat, the shame of looking bad … All these elements, good and bad, are always present and you learn to live with each of them. To avoid and overcome the bad ones and to enjoy the good ones to the maximum.
The monks tell us again and again that we should not be attached to anything, that attachment is pain, that life is pain, that if we endure the 10 days we will be cured of that pain and that disease. I do not consider myself sick and I do not consider that if I am sick in 10 days I will be cured. To live without attachments it’s impossible to me, to detach from my loved ones, they have given me everything and I am what I am thanks to them.
I try not to think about it too much, I just came to learn to meditate. But it doesn’t go out of my mind. I came here to learn to meditate and I’ve already done it. The experience has been good and from now on I can meditate on my own and take advantage of these next 5 days travelling around Thailand.
Vipassana Meditation in Thailand – Sixth Day
On the sixth day in the morning, I’m already thinking of leaving. I’ve almost made up my mind. I want to see how I feel in the morning and then I will decide. And it repeats itself. My mind is no longer here, it’s somewhere else, making other plans.
I can’t anymore, I need to get out of here: go running, go to the beach, eat other things, speak to people. I need to do things and feel alive. So after lunch, I decide to leave. I’m sad that I haven’t finished the 10 days, but I’m glad that I’ve endured 5.
Is Vipassana Meditation Worth Doing?
Not being able to finish the 10 days of Vipassana Meditation it is difficult to give an opinion about the course and its repercussions. I can only say that, as I have been told, it is a unique experience and without a doubt very recommendable. Even so, if possible, I recommend an initiation to meditation before getting into such a “heavy” course.
Personally, those very long 5 days helped me to learn to meditate and to realize that we often think too much. You don’t have to think so much, plan so much or worry too much. Everything is relative, what seems very important to you now may seem silly 10 years from now. That’s why it’s best to enjoy the present, not worry too much about the future and even less about the past.
The past has left us, the future has not arrived.
I encourage everyone to practice Vipassana Meditation in Thailand or any other country in the world at least once in a lifetime. As a personal experience it is something unique. If you are interested in learning more about Vipassana Meditation in general and Buddhism I advise you to look for more information in other sources.
Of course, everything about Theravada Buddhist thought and Vipassana Meditation is very summarized. I have collected some data from the Internet and added personal opinions that are the result of my experiences in the temple.
If you have done Vipassana Meditation I encourage you to leave a comment explaining your experience. And if at any time I have interpreted an idea incorrectly, I apologize in advance and encourage you to write to me to offer your point of view. I hope you enjoyed my article on Vipassana Meditation in Thailand.