Could ten days of silence be the ticket to enlightenment?


Originally published on on March 2010

Courtesy of the Vipassana Research Institute

As the 4am wake-up call rang out, my roommates and I peeled back the heavy blankets from our bunks and shuffled outside in the dark towards the bathroom. There were no calls of “Good morning” or “Ohayo gozaimasu,” not even nods of acknowledgment. In joining a ten-day Vipassana course, not only had we agreed to live in monk-like conditions, we had also vowed to refrain from communication of any sort. Whether this would prove an otherworldy experience or just plain infuriating, only time would tell.

Vipassana is a meditation technique that’s been practiced in India for millennia. According to S.N. Goenka, its most prominent contemporary proponent, it represents the unadulterated teachings of the Buddha himself; continued practice combined with a commitment to living a moral life sets one on the path towards the final, fabled goal of enlightenment. But it’s not just for would-be monks: Goenka stresses that Vipassana is for anyone who intends to live a happier, more peaceful life. It’s hard to argue with that.

Photo by Rebecca Milner

No monk himself, Goenka was once a successful businessman in his native Burma before chronic headaches impaired his ability to work. After trying a variety of treatments, he turned to Vipassana. It was an auspicious move: today he runs the Vipassana Research Institute just outside of Mumbai, and oversees a network of 145 meditation centers around the world.

These centers offer new students risk-free trial courses (a vestige of Goenka’s former mercantile impulses, perhaps). To join, participants agree to accept the teachings at face value, participate fully in all meditation sessions, and follow the code of conduct for the full ten days. In return, they are granted instruction by one of Goenka’s assistant instructors, along with food and lodgings. At the end of the course, those students who feel that they have gained something may choose to make a donation.

I’d actually first heard about Vipassana half a decade ago while traveling through India. At the time, I couldn’t get my head around the idea of sitting still for ten hours a day, for ten days straight. However, with my 30th birthday just around the corner, I started to feel that nagging call to slow down and look inside.

Courtesy of the Vipassana Research Institute

Having expected this sort of thing to attract hippy types or hardcore stoics, I was surprised upon arriving at the Dhamma Bhanu center in Kyoto to find a bunch of rather ordinary-looking people. Most of my partners in meditation were in their late 20s and 30s, and many had come out of curiosity or the urging of friends. No one mentioned religion or philosophy, and some confessed to never having meditated in their life. My bunkmate, Tomoko Kakeda, had heard about Vipassana from a co-worker: “He said it was the toughest thing he’d ever done in his life!”

Trying to concentrate while the mind engages in a tireless assault of randomness and your legs and back furiously protest from sitting so long did prove to be tough. There were better days (staying still and focused for a whole hour at a time!) and worse ones (crawling out of the meditation hall in pain and in tears). Over the course of the ten days, I felt my usual worries and tensions gradually replaced by a heightened sense of physical awareness—an invaluable development for someone who spends an unnatural amount of time in front of the computer, stressing about deadlines and a vague future. Yet old vanities die hard, and one of the more pleasing outcomes was having a friend exclaim shortly after, “What happened to you? Your skin and eyes are so bright!”

The biggest challenge, however, remains to come. Back in the real world, beyond the incubating environment of the Dhamma Bhanu center, old stresses and new demands on time return with a vengeance. Though continuing Vipassana requires no religious conversions or pledges, it does require setting aside time to, well, actually practice.

Dhamma Bhanu runs 10-day bilingual introductory courses throughout the year. From the fall, similar courses will be available at the newly constructed Dhammadicca center in Chiba. For more information, see