Before we began our journey all across Canada and the United-States, we decided to go on an inner journey through a retreat at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Montebello. We signed up for ten-day retreat in which we would learn meditation techniques in complete silence and segregation in a beautiful location!
First, here is a definition of Vipassana meditation according to Wikipedia.
Vipassanā (Pāli) in the Buddhist tradition means insight into the true nature of reality, namely as the Three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering or unsatisfactoriness, and the realisation of non-self. Presectarian Buddhism emphasized the practice of Dhyana, but early in the history of Buddhism Vipassanā gained a prominent place in the teachings.
Vipassanā meditation has been reintroduced in the Theravada-tradition by Ledi Sayadaw and Mogok Sayadaw and popularized by Mahasi Sayadaw, V.R. Dhiravamsa, S. N. Goenka, and the Vipassana movement,] in which mindfulness of breathing and of thoughts, feelings and actions are being used to gain insight into the true nature of reality. Due to the popularity of Vipassanā-meditation, the mindfulness of breathing has gained further popularity in the west as mindfulness.
Farther on, a description of the method on the website :
Vipassanā-meditation uses mindfulness of breathing, combined with the contemplation of impermanence, to gain insight into the true nature of this reality. All phenomena are investigated, and concluded to be painful and unsubstantial, without an immortal entity or self-view, and in its ever-changing and impermanent nature.
Mindfulness of breathing is described throughout the Sutta Pitaka. The Satipatthana Sutta describes it as going into the forest and sitting beneath a tree and then to simply watch the breath. If the breath is long, to notice that the breath is long, if the breath is short, to notice that the breath is short.
By observing the breath one becomes aware of the perpetual changes involved in breathing, and the arising and passing away of mindfulness. One can also be aware of and gain insight into impermanence through the observation of bodily sensations and their nature of arising and passing away.
Here is the daily schedule at the center. For more details about the rules that are to be followed during the retreat, you may refer to the website of Montebello Vipassana Center.
This the time schedule of a meditation day:
- 4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
- 4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
- 6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
- 8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
- 9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
- 11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
- 12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
- 1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
- 2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
- 3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
- 5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
- 6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
- 7:00-8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
- 8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
- 9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
- 9:30 pm Retire to your own room–Lights out
I went on a first Vipassana 10-day retreat in summer 2014 and on a second one 5 months later. In December 2015, I decided to serve during a retreat. It is upon my return from that service that Laurent and I first talked about the possibility of travelling together the following year.
This third retreat was distinct from the previous ones, with its own difficulties and successes.
During the first three days, I met again the foe of sleep. I struggled to stay focused and meditate : as soon as I was cross-legged, my back upright, and closed my eyes, my body soon became heavier and wouldn’t stop twitching. My meditations back in the dormitory were rather short, the bed luring me into napping. During group meditation, I couldn’t keep my mind focused on the task of observing by breath as it passed through my nostrils.
Then, on the fourth and fifth day, the foe of “doing” took over. My mind would wander off outside of the centre, into the truck, thinking about what work was left to be done on it. I was often thinking about Quebec City, about all that I had experienced over there, doing a kind of survey of the past to better welcome what was to come, feeling gratitude towards all the people that had helped me on the way.
But this wasn’t the time for assessing my life. I was supposed to concentrate and observe each part of my body with neither avidity nor aversion.
On the fourth day, whenever my mind started to be calm and focused, I felt a strong tickling sensation somewhere on my back. “Don’t react”, I told myself. Be equanimous, that’s what you’re here to learn.” On the fifth day, I still wasn’t equanimous. The sensation persisted whenever I was sitting, and my mind would be agitated thinking back about Quebec City, the future, my family and about Laurent who was probably having his own experience.
To be in the same place doing the same thing for 10 days without seeing each other, that was complete nonsense! I wanted to leave…
Everyday, I would take a walk during lunch time. I would look towards the parking lot and would see the Snail : Laurent is still here, he hasn’t left, I told myself, a smile on my face.
On the 6th and 7th day, my mind was getting more refined. I could feel the sensations on my body, scan specific body parts and the tickling sensation came and went but it gradually faded until it became a light tingling.
Then, you realize there is nothing permanent, that everything is continuously changing. A nice sensation on your body can transform into something unpleasant 10 minutes later. That is life and that is what Buddha taught through this meditation method.
On the eighth and ninth day, I felt like I wanted to skip those days, be reunited with Laurent and use what I had learned in my daily life during the trip.
On the 10th day, I had a wonderful meditation in the morning before we ended the noble silence. After 9 days, we could finally connect with the men and women around us. The segregation was over. I was excited and a bit anxious to see Laurent again, to speak with him without any physical contact.
After Vipassana, my conviction was great and I intended to make meditation part of my daily life.
Ever since I’ve known Audrey, I have heard about Vipassana meditation, about those retreats during which you can’t speak. The idea sounded interesting. When I first learned about the existence of this method, I had just started transcendental meditation, for which I had been initiated by a member of the Accorderie of Quebec City. I was in between jobs, doing a lot of yoga, running and as recommended by the method, I meditated 20 minutes a day, twice a day. I could feel the benefits, in the sense that meditation has an inherent resting effect, both physically and mentally. For me, the morning meditation was like a smooth wake-up, whereas the evening meditation was a way to let go of the day’s worries and to slowly transition to evening activities.
It lasted about 6 months. Then, I started my job at the Accorderie and my commitments for social justice started to take up more of my time. So, as many people do, I chose to stop doing certain things, lack of time being my excuse. I did not intend to drop out, I just gradually stopped, thinking : “I’m tired this morning” or “It’s getting late” or “I’m late for work.” The system started to get the best of me, and my schedule became more important. However, in my job, I often talked about time, because we are a bank of time. It is important to value what really matters to us, not what the system imposes on us. My choice was a conscious one. I liked my job and in fact it didn’t take up too much of my time. It was my point of view on things, I think. In the end, meditation was completely out of my life.
But now, I had left my job and two years later, I was about to set out on a road trip. That was a whole new game. Audrey had done three retreats before and wanted to do one more. Every time someone told me they had done one or were going to do one, I said it was a good thing for them to allow time for that, but that I personally could not do it with my job. Now I was still hesitating but I didn’t have an excuse, so when Audrey talked about it, I thought it was the time to make it happen even though I had some apprehensions. Also, we were leaving our home in March and sleeping in a truck at the end of winter didn’t sound very fun. So the retreat would be a way to postpone the road trip 2 weeks until it gets a bit warmer.
So on March 15th, we arrived at the Vipassana Center of Montebello. It was a wonderful place in the country surrounded by a forest. The Center is located in the old Sendbergh, a boarding school where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended.
As soon as we arrived, we saw two waiting lines, one for women and another for men. First, they give you a little booklet to read. It describes Vipassana meditation and what to expect from the 10 days to come. It also says that if you are feeling incapable of doing this, you should leave now or commit to doing the full 10 days. When you sign up on the Internet, it is mentioned that you must stay for the whole duration of the retreat, of which 9 days are in complete silence, without physical or eye contact with others.
Once you have read through the whole booklet, you sign up officially and you are assigned a room. Usually, new students sleep in a small dormitory whereas seniors sleep in a room for two.
At 6:30 pm, they serve the last dinner for the next 10 days. Then, there is the first meditation, during which they explain the rules and the “Noble Silence” starts.
On the 9th day, the silence is broken and we can speak again and interact with the opposite sex in the afternoon. I will not describe in more detail the rules and conditions of the retreat. A lot of information about this can be found on Wikipedia or on the Vipassana Centers’ website.
So what’s left for me to talk about is my impressions. Even though I was happy to do this, I had apprehensions. From 6 am to 9 pm everyday, I would not be able to read, write nor go on long walks. I would just meditate… So what was I going to do during the breaks?
The first and second day of the retreat (after the day of the arrival) went by really fast, because I slept for a big part of the time. I did try meditate at 4:30am, but could not do it. I woke up on the first day, I tried, then went back to sleep. On the second day, I sat down but fell asleep before I started. It’s crazy how much you can accumulate the need for sleep. The previous months, making changes to the truck and planning our trip had been hard work. We had never taken one day off and my body reminded me of that. That is part of the reasons why I thought starting the trip with meditation would be a good thing.
The remaining 8 days, I went back and forth from wonder to resilience. Mornings were nice because they went by fast : waking up, breakfast, group meditation, relaxation and lunch. But afternoons felt longer. The idea behind the rules and procedure of the retreat is to allow the students to focus only on themselves for 10 days. But students can also come and do a service retreat, cooking, cleaning and doing other chores. When you are a regular student, you have nothing to do but to focus on the Vipassana meditation method. That is also why you can’t talk, read or write, things that can stimulate you mind.
Even without external stimulation, just the fact that you can’t do any activity pushes you to be with yourself and you become conscious of the fullness inside.
Meditation during the remaining 8 days was not easy, because you have to deal with all the things that come through your mind. It was an interesting way to start off the trip, but it was not restful. Everyday, you do what you must and you try to empty your mind to fully experience meditation. Vipassana meditation is about observing your breath and paying attention to the sensations in your body. The mind is not always the best ally in that. Fortunately, there were places where you could walk in between meditation sessions in order to let yourself go.
Finally, the whole thing was not easy, but after 10 days I was happy of what I accomplished. It was a good place to start our trip from. Then, I knew I had to put into practice in my daily life what I had learned during this time at the temple.