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An Honest Review of My Time at Vipassana Centre (Dharamkot)

Updated: 4 days ago

In this post, I will tell you all about my experience at a Vipassana Meditation Centre, and the one I chose was in Dharamkot in Himachal Pradesh, North India.


I know many, many people who sing the praises of the Vipassana method, and I had wanted to try it myself for many years.


This blog post is not meant to encourage or dissuade anyone from trying Vipassana meditation for themselves. This is just an honest account of my humble experience at a Vipassana Meditation Centre in Dharamkot in 2023.


So this is how it went for me, and it certainly was no the blissful reckoning I had been hoping for...

We lasted 5 days out of 10.



CONTENTS




 


Why Vipassana?


The Vipassana Meditation Centre in the little village of Dharamkot in Himachal Pradesh is one of many globally that run 10-day courses to teach the art of this specific meditation, led by their guru; S.N. Goenka (he died in 2013, his lectures are played on video).

My husband Joe and I applied for the Vipassana Meditation course because I have heard so much about it over the last decade, and it seemed like the perfect time and place for us to give it a try.


I have attended many meditation classes in the past and mostly enjoyed them. I find it challenging because I am naturally impatient, but all the Yoga helps.


We applied for the course online three months beforehand and secured our places, Vipassana is run solely from donations from students who have completed their ten days. They email you the code of discipline, which is long but seemed manageable with some effort.



 


An Honest Review of My Time at a Vipassana Meditation Centre (Dharamkot)



About Dharamkot


Dharamkot is a lovely little hippie town surrounded by mountains - and we really enjoyed spending a week there before the commencement of our Vipassana course. Dharamkot is just a short 40-minute cab ride from Mcleodganj, home of the Dalai Lama's Buddhist Complex, so this area has very spiritual leanings.


There is no road in Dharamkot (hoorah) - so the endless cacophony of Indian traffic feels like a distant memory. The town is surrounded by beautiful hikes, and filled with cute cafes and yoga shalas.


You can reach Dharamkot easily from New Delhi by taking the bus to Dharamshala and grabbing a cab from there.



 


Arriving at the Vipassana Meditation Centre in Dharamkot


As we strolled up the hill under the Vipassana archway we were excited. The people at the enrolment table were very friendly, they gave us our laundry bags and our ‘cell’ numbers, C-13 for me, and we dropped our bags into our rooms. Women to the right of the compound, men to the left...no mixing.


After dropping off our backpacks Joe and I went for one last Chai in a local restaurant to pass the rest of the afternoon. We couldn’t help but laugh at how prison-like the centre was. Walkways covered in a hab-dash of chicken wire and barbed fences. Joe’s room was particularly dank. All of this was to ‘keep the monkeys out’. I couldn’t help but scope for fire exits, there were none.


We returned at 4pm and said our goodbyes to one another. We knew it would be difficult to spend 10 days apart, but we were prepared to give the experience our all. I really, really wanted to get the most out of this life-changing technique that I had heard so much about. Handing in our valuables meant no photos, however we were able to take a quick snap of our rooms when dropping our bags.



My shared room in the Vipassana Meditation Centre
My shared room in the Vipassana Meditation Centre


This is an HONEST review of my time at a Vipassana Meditation Centre for a reason, and I will be sharing a large amount of detail about the day-to-day...


Once I entered the compound I milled about for a bit, walked the very short length of the caged walkways (about 5 minutes end to end), unpacked, cried, and stared at the wall. At 6pm we had a light snack in the dining hall. My ‘cell number’ was taped to the wall, and after collecting my metal plate and utensils and being served some rusk, dal, and chai, I ate facing the wall, in silence.


We were introduced to our 4 female servers, previous students who had come back to do their bit. We were then given our cushion numbers, mine was E3. After filing into the Dhamma Hall we sat on our cushions and waited for ‘Guruji’ to lead the first meditation. He is called the ‘assistant teacher’ because the actual teacher, S.N. Goenka, is dead. But apparently, he died smiling and if we meditate hard enough we can do that too!


We listened to an utterly grim recording of Goenka chanting (see audio link below) - I couldn’t help but snigger. It turns out this chant would be played many, many times throughout the day (there was a 10-minute version, a 45-minute version.. one of the many things that did my head in).



Goenka Chant Here




 


Learning Vipassana


I counted 25 female students and 4 servers. A mixture of new students (like me) and those returning. We shared the Dhamma hall with the male students so I was able to sneak a glance at Joe who was sitting about 15 metres away from me. It was very difficult not to be able to talk to him.


In this first session we were introduced to the first stage of the technique: breathing softly and observing the sensation of air leaving and entering our nostrils. That’s all, for an hour.


We were then told from that time onwards we were to maintain noble silence for 11 days. No talking, no eye contact, no touching. I shared my very small cell with another girl, and we soon got used to staring at the floor while we lived around one another.


Okay, so that’s Day zero, bed at 9pm - alarm at 4am the next day. See the timetable below.


The daily timetable at Vipassana
The daily timetable at Vipassana

Yep, that’s right, 11 hours every day of sitting in the Dhamma Hall observing the breath leaving and entering my nostrils.


Gaps filled in by meals (no dinner though), staring at the wall in my room, pacing the 5 minutes up and down the walkway cages. There were many signs saying not to look the monkeys in the eye, so as not to antagonise them, even their galavanting on the outside of the cages couldn’t provide much entertainment. It was a very strange feeling being the one in the cage, with the monkeys on the outside taunting me with their freedom.


The first day I cried pretty much all day. Meditation was spent thinking of injuries I could get to get me out of it, nothing too serious to ruin our trip though. I came up with a trapped nerve or a severe panic attack. I wasn’t wanting to self-impose these injuries, just willing them with all my might to occur.


I spent a long while envisioning David Cameron screwing a pig, until I pulled my thoughts back to what the f*ck am I doing? Breathe in, breathe out.



Some determination


Even though I was miserable, I still wanted to stay for Joe. I couldn’t tell if he was enjoying it as we couldn’t talk, but I didn’t want to leave him in there alone for 10 days or make him leave because I was giving up too easily.


In the evening we had a video lecture from 7.00 - 8:30pm. In the Dhamma Hall, the video was played in Hindi, so any English speakers shuffled off to a small side room. Yes! This was my one opportunity to be close to Joe, a mere two cushions away from me! We managed a few seconds of eye contact.

Goenka was pretty funny, and what he was saying in the video did make a lot of sense to be fair. He said the situation is difficult, but it breaks all mental habits, and after a few days, we would feel better and start to purify our minds.



 


DAY 2


Day 2 was marginally better than the first day, still a lot of crying, but THAT BELL.


Ten minutes before every meditation session the servers would loop the compound ringing a bell to drive us all into action. When I closed my eyes to try and rest it would still ring in my ears.

I realised at that time that the reason I was feeling so distraught is that normally when I am upset I can talk to someone, or distract myself in many ways, TV, clean, work, whatever it is. There was nothing like that there, so I just had to sit with this never-ending spiral of despair.


The evening's video lesson was fruitful, as I managed to shuffle out directly behind Joe and squeeze his hand. This is technically breaking noble silence but I thought it was harmless and it made me feel a little bit better.


I genuinely thought that each day would get a little bit better, but my mind seemed to be unreliable, with distorted thoughts and a vague feeling of hopelessness I couldn't shake.



 


The Struggle



DAY 3


On Day 3, during one of my many thought spirals in morning meditation, I thought that if I could squeeze Joe's hand, then I could pass him a note. Genius!


I just needed to know how he was feeling. If he wanted to ditch it, great, me too! If he wanted to stay, that’s OK too. I would have to accept I was not going anywhere and hopefully, that would give me closure and the determination to finish the course, we were in this together after all.


So after returning to my room, I resolve to write this note. All writing materials are banned, no pens. I then see my little yellow timetable, great, I have paper. After scouring my room I realise I have a nail file and AHA! I can carve a letter. I did it, it took a good 30 minutes. Please see below. It read:

I HATE THIS - WON’T LEAVE WITHOUT YOU.
TOMORROW 9AM, BLINK ONCE IF YOU WANT TO STAY.
TWICE IF YOU WANT TO LEAVE TOGETHER AT 1PM.
LOVE YOU ALWAYS


An S.O.S. note carved with a nail file on a Vipassana timetable


I was so impressed with myself. Now the hard part was to pass on the note, the servers were on me like hawks. I kept it in my pocket all day and finally, after 11 gruelling hours of observing my breath, we had the evening video lecture. 90 minutes later I time my exit perfectly and shove that note into Joe’s hands. I was high off of the success of my mission.



DAY 4


Day 4 arrives. I meditate and wait patiently until 9am, and as I finish meditation I turn around to ‘tidy up my cushion’ … I look at Joe. No blinking. Not once, not twice.


I cried for the 10 thousandth time. My conclusion was that:



A. He wanted to stay and I should stop distracting him.


or


B. Someone saw me pass the note and confiscated it.



In reality, there was nothing stopping me from striding over to him and asking him, but I just couldn’t. I guess that’s how cults work. Divide and confuse. I am not saying this was a cult, just that there were some very strange practices, perhaps that have diverged far from the original pure intention of sharing the technique of Vipassana.

All day 4: "cry-cry. But I must just try for one more day, tomorrow will be better. I can’t do this, I’m going mad. Oh Aimee, it’s not that bad, David Cameron f*cking a pig. That's it, I’m leaving. No, I can do this!"

Back and forth like this, each day feels like a year.


I can't help but think that my attention was so far from where it needed to be to meditate.



 


Oh, but Day 4 is actually when you learn Vipassana though!


Oh yeah, the first 3 days of observing the breath were just to prepare ourselves for the real deal. I was actually mildly looking forward to the big revelation. At 3pm, ‘Guruji', our Assistant Teacher, the man in the white robe who sat on the throne at the front of the Dhamma Hall, just played a recording of the lesson. It seemed his only purpose was to just press play and pause the entire time.


I must add that Day 4 was the first time anyone actually spoke to me personally, even though I had been visibly upset and on-off crying for three days straight. A server took me aside and asked if I was OK, to which I said “no not really, I am feeling very unhappy but slightly better than yesterday.” She said to trust the process, it’s always hard at first. Ok, I’ve got this. Joe didn’t blink, so we’re both staying.


So as it turns out the Vipassana technique is a 2-hour meditation, without moving an inch, mentally scanning your body from head to toe. It’s actually very soothing, I remember in this lesson that I have actually practised this technique before, in Rishikesh several years prior.


So with Vipassana, you are supposed to think about the tip of the head and linger on that place until you feel a sensation there. Goenka's explanations were often extremely long-winded, it could feel like ants crawling, warm, cold, tingling, prickling, scratching, etc.


You now think about the forehead until you feel a sensation, it could feel like ants crawling, warm, cold, tingling, prickling, scratching, etc. You now think about the eyebrows until you feel a sensation, it could feel like ants crawling, warm, cold, tingling, prickling, scratching, etc.…


It carried on all the way to the toes. You get the point, right?

Anyway. More meditation, blah blah blah.


Today's video lecture... I did initially like Goenka, but he started saying a few things that made me feel uncomfortable. “If you want to leave you should stay and persevere, anyway your teacher won’t let you leave’’ or “weak-minded people will try and leave” … along this rhetoric.


Soz Goenka, but I refuse to believe I am weak-minded if I decide to take myself out of a situation that doesn't feel right. However, after four days of mental confusion, I began to question my own sanity.


At the end of the video, I bent down to put my shoes on to leave and I saw Joe’s red fleece in my periphery. I looked up and saw him mouth ‘’7am’’ in a stressed manner and disappear around the corner.


Could it be? Did he want to leave too? At 7am? Did I get that right? Or did he say 11am? Or did he say anything? It all happened so fast.

I barely slept at all that night with the imaginary bells ringing and the anticipation of my escape.



 


Prison Break



DAY 5


I woke up at 4am and set myself up to pretend to meditate on my bed (for this one 4:30-6:30am session you had the option to meditate in your room, the rest of the day was in the Dhamma Hall)


Don’t worry! The servers ring the bell directly outside your cell door for 45 minutes so there is no chance of falling back to sleep. My roommate went to the hall and I packed and sat on my bed until the coast was clear.


Joe said 7am (I think), that was breakfast time. I had a feeling leaving would be difficult and I didn’t want to make a scene whilst everyone was eating, so I scuttled out at 5:45am to place my bags by the exit. My plan was to have them ready so that I could tell a server at 7am I was leaving and swiftly move towards the door.


I was (irrationally) extremely nervous and shitting myself that I would get seen, and when I got to the gate I saw that it was wired shut.


What a joke!


With my 18kg backpack on sweating like a motherf*cker, hands shaking, I figured out a way to unwire the gate, it was sealed up well. Luckily everyone was in the Dhamma hall and I was able to hide my bags in time, leaving the gate unwired and pulled to.

I sat patiently outside of the breakfast hall until 6:45am, an hour felt like a minute after four days at the centre. I was waiting for a server to tell them I was leaving, and I would need my valuables back.


Eventually, I caught the attention of the young server and told her “I want to let you know I am leaving, I have tried my best but I don’t feel happy, I'll wait by the main entrance for someone to come and give me my phone and passport”.


When she saw my bags she immediately became irate and said I couldn’t go. She quickly positioned herself between me and the gate.


I said, “Yes I can, I am a free person”.


She said I had to get written permission from Guruji (who I later found out would have also said No), and that would be later in the morning and I should sit in my room until then. She physically blocked my path and refused to 'let me' go perhaps four or five times. All I can think is that luckily my bags were down the exit corridor and the gate was unwired. Who knows how this would have played out otherwise? This whispered exchange went back and forth for a while, I was growing increasingly panicked.

I wasn’t even sure Joe would be waiting, but I knew at this stage there was no turning back. I was so freaked out by her refusal to let me leave, it only made my determination to do so stronger.


I made my way around her, saying how uncomfortable this was, shaking, carrying my load, while she jumped around me trying to block me telling me I’m not allowed. Eventually, I reached the exit gate and to my relief, Joe was there.


Let’s go.


When she saw that she was outnumbered she ran to get help and the other servers came out and told us we were not doing it the right way, permission permission. Another student even came out and tried to escape with us. It was bizarre!


When they realised we were (calmly) refusing to get written permission and (politely) demanding our passports back, they eventually relented. We waited for an hour for this to be organised.


During this time one of Joe’s servers, a very kind Spanish man, came out and told us not to worry, we had done really well, and it’s not for everyone. He was the only person who showed any kindness to us after we had decided to leave and we felt relieved by that. That one Spanish server had no issue with us leaving, so I am not sure why there was such a huge disparity in how we were dealt with from server to server.


The whole ordeal feels quite surreal, and Joe has filled in a lot of the gaps since we left. Apparently, on Day 4 he had asked for reassurance that I was Okay and they had lied to him and told him I had met with Guruji and I was doing well (this was completely fabricated).


I think I would have left with no bad feelings towards Vipassana if they had just let me go without a fuss. Instead, they essentially tried to keep me against my will, and at the very least the way the servers are trained for their position needs some serious reviewing.


Anyway, this is just one person's account, with many more segue stories, I haven't even mentioned the incessant burping and farting coming from the men's side of the Dhamma Hall and the fact I didn’t poop for 5 days due to stress. I will leave you with that. It feels good to be free!



" You can leave whenever you like..."



 


So this is an honest review of my time at a Vipassana Meditation Centre. If you enjoyed the read please consider subscribing to my blog where I post articles once a week about my current travels.


If you have any questions about the particularities of the course please leave a comment, I promise to reply with unbiased details!


On a more joyous note, if you'd like to explore this beautiful north part of India check out my blog post on travelling Himachal Pradesh!



Happy Travels

xxx

1 Comment


Monica Szczupider
Monica Szczupider
Oct 02, 2022

I wrote this email to some friends 12 years ago when I tried Vipassana in India. From reading your blog post, I can predict that it's probably still not for me. Hugs Aimee!! Love, love, love. Enjoy incredible India! I am a bad, bad girl. Sometimes I am also a good, good girl, but at the moment, I am a bad, bad girl. Right now, I should be meditating at Dhamma Thali Meditation Center during my ten-day silent Vipassana course in Jaipur. Meditating, and concentrating on my breath as it flows through my nostrils. My left nostril, my right nostril, or perhaps both nostrils simultaneously. Does the breathing tickle? Tingle? Irritate? Is it dry? Warm? In my little wor…


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