Pic above and below: The Jewish Children’s Camp at Elbert, CO where the course was held
Pic: In the background, the small log cabin where I stayed
Am just back from an intense, challenging and highly rejuvenating Vipassana retreat at the serene and idyllic Elbert, CO. Here is my experience…
The Ponderosa pine tree – Pinus ponderosa
Nestled amongst the Ponderosa pine woods over a hillock situated between Denver and Colorado Springs is the Jewish Children’s Camp at Elbert, CO. This was the venue of the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. At the start about 80 or so men and women registered for the course. Since I had done one or more 10-day sits earlier, I was considered an ‘old student’ and allotted a bed in a log cabin (pic above) where the other 4 male occupants were all old students. There is complete segregation of men and women during the course and the only time we are together is during the sits at ‘dhamma’ meditation hall where we sit on cushions on the floor facing a male and a female teacher respectively.
All old students are expected to strictly observe the following 8 precepts, called Sīla, while new students are expected to observe the first 5 for the entire duration of the course. The idea being, you then inculcate it into your daily life
1. to abstain from killing any being. This means no killing of even the flies and mosquitoes that may annoy you. And no eating of meat, sea-food, chicken as that involves killing for food.
2. to abstain from stealing;
3. to abstain from all sexual activity i.e. complete celibacy.
4. to abstain from telling lies;
5. to abstain from all intoxicants.
6. to abstain from eating after midday. Lunch at the centre was at 11am.
7. to abstain from sensual entertainment and bodily decorations. Meaning no listening to music, reading, watching TV or wearing jewelry of any kind.
8. to abstain from using high or luxurious beds.
During the course it is absolutely essential that all forms of prayer, worship, or religious ceremony — fasting, burning incense, counting beads, reciting mantras, singing and dancing, etc. — be discontinued. All other meditation techniques and healing or spiritual practices should also be suspended.
All students must observe Noble Silence from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow student, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is prohibited.
Students may, however, speak with the teacher whenever necessary and they may approach the management with any problems related to food, accommodation, health, etc. But even these contacts should be kept to a minimum. Students should cultivate the feeling that they are working in isolation. I rarely felt the need to contact the management as the facilities were adequate.
No Fees – According to the tradition of pure Vipassana, courses are run solely on a donation basis. Donations are accepted only after the completion of 10 days.
Wake-up bell was at 4:00am and lights out at night was at 9:30pm. I was the wake-up gong ringer for nine days of the course as my fellow room-mate who had initially volunteered, left the course on 2nd day. I have no idea why, as we were in ‘noble silence’. A few more male and female students also left the course mid-way. At the end less than 50 people completed the full course.
I admit, its not easy and I was very tempted to run away on the 3rd and 6th day. This feeling was there also on other days, but not as intense.
At the end, I was happy and proud of myself that I did not give in and take flight. My inspiration was a fellow senior student, a New Zealander now settled in Boulder, Colo. Since he was the senior most student (me being surprisingly number two), I decided that if he quit mid-way, I would follow suit. In the end we both finished the course. I was touched and amused when he said I was his inspiration and he would have probably quit if I had left midway! Such is the silent strength students derive from fellow participants.
What is Vipassana?
The Pāli word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self- purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. This truth-realization by direct experience is the process of purification.
Although Vipassana was developed as a technique by Gautama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago, its practice is not limited to Buddhists. There is absolutely no question of conversion. Its non-sectarian and preaches the teachings of none of the organized religions.
What Vipassana is not:
It is not a rite or ritual based on blind faith.
It is neither an intellectual nor a philosophical entertainment.
It is not an escape from the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
It is not a rest cure, a holiday, or an opportunity for socializing.
The last part is very true. There were many times during the course when I felt a prison life would have been easier. So do others feel the same.
Why then do I do this course and strongly recommend to all?
Some obvious benefits that I and many students across the world have observed –
* Practice of Vipassana regularly helps reduce one’s ego and selfishness
* Provides you the emotional strength to face tensions and problems
* Increased awareness of people and world around you
* There is a sharper clarity of thought and purpose
* Helps increase inner peace and calmness
* Helps you be in the present and not to dwell much in the past or keep worrying or thinking of the future
* Helps you face fear. So you don’t panic or freak out when what you face scares you. You try and react objectively
* Helps reduce your anger
Such a short 10-day practice cannot work miracles. However, with Vipassana, regular practice brings in benefit. The guiding principle is experiential, meaning that all wisdom originates from within the boundaries of one’s own body and experience. Look within you to understand the entire universe. And as most religions preach, the kingdom of heaven or hell is within you. By scouring the depths below the conscious mind, one eventually comes to realize that we are all ultimately responsible for our own happiness or misery.
There are centers all over the world and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there is a centre in Tehran, Iran. I hope one day soon, India’s neighbor Pakistan would permit centers in their country as there is none now.
Thanks for reading what in my enthusiasm has become a long post. To paraphrase the common Vipassana speak, ‘May all who read this post be Happy’ and share it with others. 🙂