A 10-Day Vipassana Mediation Retreat Makes an Impact
It is Christmas morning, 4:00 a.m. The sound of a gonging bell can be heard throughout the Will-A-Way Campgrounds at Fort Yargo State Park and over 100 students arise to begin their first meditation of the day. They have come from all over the world to practice Vipassana meditation together and their backgrounds and ages are as varied as the myriad colors of the sunrise over the lake in the center of camp. Russia, Spain, New Zealand, China, India, Burma and Belgium are some of the countries represented here and students from North America traveled as far as Canada and the west coast to be part of this 10-day course which took place near Winder, GA, an hour outside of the city limits of Atlanta.
“One of the interesting things I find about the ten day courses is the large variety of people who come to this course. Vipassana meditation attracts people from all types of backgrounds and this speaks to the common universal principals of the teachings,” said Bruce Stewart, one of the assistant teachers who traveled from Massachusetts with his wife, Maureen (also an assistant teacher) to help lead and guide the students through the Vipassana course which began on December 24th, 2008 and ended on January 4th, 2009.
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is an ancient Indian form of meditation whose sole purpose is to purify one’s mind through self-observation. It was brought to the west by S. N. Goenka, who conducts the course via audio and video tapes during the ten days. Assistant teachers attend courses to answer student questions and to help students with any difficulties that may arise as they sit the course. This specific technique of meditation was originally taught by the Buddha over 2500 years ago, although, as most Vipassana meditators will be quick to tell you, this is not a type of meditation exclusive to Buddhists or taught with the intention of converting anyone to Buddhism.
“It is truly a universal technique,” states Stewart. “This is a course that makes you a better human being. It makes a Christian a better Christian, a Hindu a better Hindu, a Buddhist a better Buddhist and so on. It makes us better human beings by eradicating the impurities of the mind, the negative habit patterns of the mind, to help us become better people.”
And how does one purify the mind? Through an intensive daily schedule that requires a great deal of self-discipline. “This is the best thing I have done for myself in a long time,” stated Viren Bhandari, a new student at the start of this course. “However, I must caution new students that this course is not a vacation. This is very intense and requires one’s determination to be successful.”
During a Vipassana course, the morning bell chimes at 4:00 a.m and students meditate until about 9:00 p.m. Men and women remain segregated throughout the course (including those who volunteer to serve the course) and all students take a vow of noble silence; they agree to disconnect themselves completely from the outside world and refrain from making verbal or non-verbal communication with each other. “The purpose of this course is to go deep inside the mind and to do this we need to create a monastic setting,” states Stewart. “For that you need to have segregation of the sexes. For deep meditation, you need the least amount of distraction and part of us creating this environment is to create an atmosphere of silence, although students are permitted to ask questions of the assistant teachers.”
“The schedule seemed impossible before I got there, but within one day, it was second nature. I am amazed how my body and mind were able to adapt to all of the demands I placed upon it,” said Ursula Lentine, an Atlanta realtor who took the course for the first time this December. “There are so many aspects of Vipassana I find valuable. And I greatly appreciate that the experience is a gift. Someone has paid my way and afterward I am free to donate to pay someone else’s way. I love the respect of integrity it upholds me to.”
Lentine is referring to Dana, or the donation of an old student towards the cost of a new student taking a Vipassana course. One of the most important aspects of Vipassana courses is that they are run on a donation-only basis. Only old students (students who’ve completed a 10-day course) are allowed to donate money. Some old students choose to also donate their time and volunteer to serve at the course, to cook food and to clean for the students who are meditating.
“In this way, all ten day courses are supported by those who have realized, for themselves, the benefits of the practice,” stated Manjit Parkash, who has served a countless number of courses. “Thus, the spread of Vipassana is carried out with purity of purpose, free from any commercialism.”
Nanci Muriello, who owns a hot yoga studio in New York, flew in to serve this course after completing her first Vipassana course only five weeks ago. “It just feels so good to support other people and to make their practice easier. When you’re serving and when you’re giving Dana, you are doing it so that someone else can experience Vipassana.”
“I love how I interact with others once I sit a course,” stated David Stiller who recently completed his 5th course. “People at work or friends see this burden of life get lifted after you sit a course. But the trick is to maintain the practice in daily life. Vipassana is a life-long path.”
“I’m much calmer. I take life as it comes and I’m not worrying so much about what might happen anymore,” stated Patty Healy, who is currently in training to become an assistant teacher. “I’m happier. I feel happy and content inside, not wanting, wanting, wanting.”
Stewart, who has been practicing Vipassana with his wife since 1977, spoke about the benefits of Vipassana in regards to relationships. “When you sit a ten day course, you reflect on your misgivings and hence you are less likely to blame others for any kind of unharmonious relationships that might be going on. Vipassana can also really help couples in their marriages.”
Stewart and his wife conduct 3-4 courses a year, including one at a maximum security prison in Alabama.
Although this course was conducted at Fort Yargo State Park due to the large number of registered students, regular courses are conducted at the Southeast Vipassana Center in Jesup, Georgia. Visit www.patapa.dhamma.org for course listings and more information.
- Gabrielle Gujjari
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