Is 10 Days of Complete Silence the Key to Better Mental Health?

Photograph courtesy Kait Hurley

Is 10 Days of Complete Silence the Key to Better Mental Health?

There’s no way around it: Vipassana is hard. Ten days of silent, self-observing “mental training” is intense. Which is probably why people who practice Vipassana say it’s the most rewarding work you can do for yourself. “Vipassana is a technique to face ourselves and come out of misery,” says Barry Lapping, a founding member of Dhamma Dharā, a Vipassana center in Shelburne, Massachusetts. “Cleaning up our minds leads to real happiness.”

One of India’s ancient meditation practices, Vipassana involves developing an acute understanding of the mind-body connection and how—and why—we suffer. During the practice, students learn to acknowledge their thoughts and sensations without reacting to them. The goal is to decondition the mind, which can assuage inner turmoil. In other words: “You come here so the rest of your life is better,” says Lysha Smith, an administrator at Dhamma Dharā.

Such a life-changing practice seems as daunting as it does fascinating. We asked Lapping and Smith to walk us through the process.

A Q&A with Barry Lapping and Lysha Smith

What is Vipassana?

Lapping: “Vipassana” is a Pāli word—the spoken language of the Buddha—that means to observe things as they really are, not just as they appear to be. Though discovered by the Buddha more than 2,500 years ago, it is not Buddhism, nor is it a philosophy. It is the science of mind and body. The purpose of the Vipassana technique is to develop an understanding of how we continually multiply our mental conditioning. We can multiply our misery and suffering, or we can decondition our minds and come out of suffering.

Smith: Vipassana is one of India’s ancient techniques of meditation. The practice is based on self-observation and focuses on the deep connection between the mind and body, something that students learn firsthand, experientially.

How does Vipassana differ from other forms of meditation?

Lapping: There are many types of meditation. What is unique about the tradition of Vipassana is the emphasis given to morality and developing a particular kind of concentration, which is necessary to develop wisdom. And it is wisdom—the understanding of the impermanence of all conditioned phenomenon—that helps us to come out of our misery. So morality, concentration, and wisdom are all essential in this tradition.

It is important that whatever we learn during a Vipassana course is applied in our daily life. Our teacher, Goenka, was very fond of saying that Vipassana is an art of living. Otherwise the purpose of coming to a course like this is not properly served. It is a unique and profound opportunity to learn a technique that will give beneficial results for the rest of our lives.

How did Vipassana meditation become a practice?

Lapping: Vipassana meditation originated in India more than 2,500 years ago when Gotama Buddha, observing his own mind and body, discovered this path to mental purification. He had previously practiced many types of meditation and physical disciplines, but they did not reach the depths of his mind where the roots of his impurities remained, and therefore he could not experience full liberation.

He understood how the mind is conditioned and, consequently, how it can be deconditioned of all its complexes. Just as the law of gravity is universal, the natural law of how our minds and bodies are conditioned is also universal. The content of who we are may be different, but the process of how we keep on multiplying our complexes is the same.

Since the time of the Buddha, the technique of Vipassana has been handed down by a long line of teachers. Our teacher was the late Satya Narayan Goenka. We are grateful to him and all of these teachers who have maintained the integrity of this technique.

How does the course work?

Smith: It is rigorous mental training. The technique is taught step-by-step over a ten-day course. The student receives straightforward, pragmatic, easy instructions throughout each day. You will be given a set of tools for observing the mind-and-body phenomenon.

Lapping: The first thing we do when starting a course is to take certain formalities, which are the foundation of the Vipassana practice. The first formality is taking refuge in the triple gem: the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Saṅgha. Taking refuge in the Buddha does not mean you are being converted to Buddhism but that you are taking inspiration in enlightenment—in the seed of enlightenment within yourself. Taking refuge in the Dhamma means taking refuge in the nonsectarian universal law of nature. That is getting established in morality, mastery over the mind, and wisdom. And when you take refuge in the Saṅgha, you are not taking refuge in a particular person but taking refuge in those who have come before us and reached certain stages of enlightenment.

The next formality is to take five moral precepts. For the full ten days of the course, we abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking any intoxicants. When we abstain from these activities, the mind begins to calm down. This is the foundation on which we build the practice of meditation. It is essential.

Next, we make a formal request to learn the technique of Ānāpāna meditation. This is the observation of the incoming breath and the outgoing breath. We practice Ānāpāna for three and a half days to develop our faculty of awareness. We don’t try to change the breath, nor do we try to manipulate the breath. We merely observe the incoming breath and the outgoing breath. As we continue to do this, the mind becomes subtler and subtler, more and more sensitive, and more concentrated on an object of reality. By the end of the second or third day, you begin to feel some physical sensation at the entrance to the nostrils or inside the nostrils or below the nostrils, above the upper lip. This develops mindfulness and concentration.

On the afternoon of day four, we learn the technique of Vipassana meditation, and we spend the next six days developing it. With the concentration we developed during Ānāpāna, we move our attention systematically through every part of the body, feeling all of the different physical sensations. We begin to understand that the nature of mind and body is that it is constantly changing. And when we react to this changing phenomenon with craving or aversion, we keep on tying up knots within ourselves. This causes suffering. But when we understand the changing nature of these sensations and gradually come out of the reactions to them, we come out of our suffering.

On the morning of day ten, we practice the technique of Mettā Bhāvanā, or loving-kindness. We share our merits and feelings of goodwill with all beings. This is the closing part of the technique of Vipassana meditation. After Mettā, we break silence and begin the process of extroverting and talking to our fellow students.

On day eleven, the course is over and we return to our daily lives with a technique to help us maintain a much more balanced mind through all of the ups and downs we encounter.

How many hours are spent meditating?
  • 4 a.m. Morning wake-up bell

  • 4:30 a.m. – 6:30 a.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room

  • 6:30 a.m. – 8 a.m. Breakfast break

  • 8 a.m. – 9 a.m. Group meditation in the hall

  • 9 a.m. – 11 a.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions

  • 11 a.m. – 12 p.m. Lunch break

  • 12 p.m. – 1 p.m. Rest and interviews with the teacher

  • 1 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room

  • 2:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. Group meditation in the hall

  • 3:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions

  • 5 p.m. – 6 p.m. Tea break

  • 6 p.m. – 7 p.m. Group meditation in the hall

  • 7 p.m. – 8:15 pm Teacher’s discourse in the hall

  • 8:15 p.m. – 9 p.m. Group meditation in the hall

  • 9 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. Question time in the hall

  • 9:30 p.m. Retire to your room; lights-out

What happens as the course evolves?

Smith: You begin to see that there is an intrinsically deep connection between mind and body. During the period of Ānāpāna (observation of the breath) and Vipassana (observation of the body sensations), this connection becomes clearer and clearer. For example, when a thought or memory arises in the mind, say a difficult memory, the meditator quickly notices that there is a reaction in the body—the breath becomes irregular, for instance. In this way, the connection reveals itself to the student through their own experience.

Lapping: We begin to experience how the mind and the body work together. They are like two sides of the same coin. Whatever arises in the mind manifests as physical sensations on the body. In the English language, we say, “I feel anxious” or “I feel afraid.” This is because we feel these emotions as physical sensations in the body and we react to how we feel to these sensations. This reaction multiplies our anxiety or our anger or our fear. As the course progresses, we understand this experientially and begin to change this pattern—from reacting to not reacting, just observing. We develop the wisdom that all of these sensations are impermanent. When we cling to what is pleasant, we make ourselves miserable. When we try to push out the unpleasant sensations by reacting with aversion, we also suffer. Observing this habit of clinging and aversion helps to soothe the reactions, which consequently leads to a balanced mind—and happiness. We come out of suffering.

Who is the practice for?

Lapping: It is for anyone; you do not need to have any spiritual background.

Smith: We have students come to courses from every demographic, every age group, every religion. Our teacher often talked about how everyone faces the problem of suffering—as the malady is universal, so must the remedy be.

Is a ten-day practice required?

Smith: Everyone must start with a ten-day course to get a complete introduction and foundation to the technique. It is a rigorous experience. You’re doing what our teacher, Goenka, called a “deep operation of the mind.” In that sense, it is not for everyone. You have to be of stable physical and mental health to start doing that mental surgery.

Lapping: For one who has never taken a Vipassana course in this tradition, the ten days is a must to learn the bare outline of the technique. Although it isn’t always easy, the ten days of silence and discipline are very helpful to successfully learning the technique. When you cut yourself off from the world—meaning no external distractions, like computers, televisions, and phones—you give yourself an opportunity to develop this practice and go to the depths of your own mind. After you have completed a course of ten days, you are welcome to return for shorter periods, like a three-day course or even a weekend to refresh your understanding of the technique.

Any words of encouragement for your hesitant students?

Lapping: We do not want to scare anyone. This is the hardest work you can do but also the best and most rewarding work you can do. To have the opportunity to learn to observe ourselves is rare. One who gets this opportunity is a fortunate person. A Vipassana course of ten days is that good fortune. Cleaning up our minds, or deconditioning our minds, leads to real happiness. Otherwise we keep on trying to run away from ourselves and only multiply our problems. Vipassana is a technique to face ourselves and come out of misery at a deep level of mind. There is nothing better.

Smith: I’ve been doing this for about eight years now and I still get butterflies when I’m about to do a course. My mind knows it’s going to have to face itself. It’s always a challenge. But it has certainly gotten easier, likely because of that balance of mind—this equanimity that Barry talks about. That manifests for me in my day-to-day life.

How can you prepare beforehand?

Smith: Often the hardest thing for people is just getting here. It’s not easy to take ten days out of your life, with all the responsibilities and such. Anyone who has signed up for a course should be aware of what they’re signing up for. There will always be challenges that make it hard to get here, but it is such a good use of one’s time. So finding that time and being really committed to using those ten days to learn this technique in a surrendered way are the main things to do beforehand. When you come here, you will need to give up any other practices that you’ve tried, so you can really find out the benefits of this technique.

While you are here, you will get support. There will be an assistant teacher here to answer any questions. Also, there will be someone to help with the more mundane—we will get you toothpaste if you forgot that, for instance.

Lapping: There is not a lot to do to prepare for the course. If one is a regular user of drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes, it will be helpful to abstain from all of these well before arriving at the center. This will make it easier once the course begins.

What is the cost?

Smith: All Vipassana centers in this tradition operate on a donation basis. We do not charge for our courses. Everything you receive while you’re here—room, board, food, teaching—is provided for you by the generosity of previous students.

Lapping: When you come to a Vipassana course, there are no fixed charges. While you are here, you live on the charity of those who participated in previous courses. They were benefited by Vipassana and gave a donation for the benefit of those who would come in the future. At the end of the course, if you feel you have benefited from the practice, you are welcome to give a donation, according to your own capacity, for those coming in the future. Students may give one dollar. Students may give large donations. The amount is not important, but rather the volition to help others is what is important.

How many courses do you offer?

Smith: We generally have a course every two weeks, with fifteen to twenty ten-day courses each year. The courses usually start on Wednesday afternoon and end on Sunday morning. We also have one- and three-day courses each year for students who have already done the ten-day course.

Each year, at this center, we also offer longer courses for the more-experienced students—usually we have a thirty-day and a forty-five-day course every year, and a few years ago, we offered the first sixty-day course outside of India. These longer courses are for students who have been exclusively and diligently practicing this technique for many years.

How do the centers differ?

Smith: There are seventeen centers in North America (11 in the US, 5 in Canada, and 1 in Mexico), and more than 185 across the world. Dhamma Dharā, aka VMC, is the oldest center outside of India. The course format and the teaching of the technique are exactly the same at each of these centers across the globe. The only difference is that each center varies in size. Our capacity is about 140 students.

How can you incorporate the practice into daily life?

Lapping: You attend a ten-day course to learn the outline of the technique. You apply it in your life by practicing every day, one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening, according to your own schedule. By making a strong determination to practice daily, you keep your mind sharp, more sensitive, and much more aware of the sensations within your body that are related to your mind. This will help you stay mentally balanced with the ups and downs of life. As we take a shower to clean our bodies or we eat well to stay healthy, we practice Vipassana twice a day to keep our minds healthy.

Smith: The practice is about incorporating it into your daily life. When you take a course, you learn the technique over those ten days. Hopefully you get enough of an initial training that when you then return back to your life, you continue to work, as Barry mentions, with a regular daily practice. This daily practice helps you to become more and more aware of what is happening, more aware of the connection between mind and body, more aware of the transient nature of things. You are better able to be balanced and equanimous for what comes up. And that takes practice.

I like to use the analogy of a fire burning. Let’s say, for instance, that somebody starts to berate you in front of your coworkers. You can start to feel yourself burning inside. If you become aware of it, just that awareness alone will make that burning less intense. On a deeper level, you can now understand that if you respond to that fire and you spew it at the person, it’s going to make you burn even more. So you don’t—and that is the wisdom that helps that fire go down. It helps you in the moment. You learn over time to not throw fuel on it, to not get as angry, to not perpetuate it.

Barry Lapping and his wife, Kate, are the overseeing teachers at the Vipassana Meditation Center Dhamma Dharā, in Shelburne, Massachusetts. He first met Satya Narayan Goenka in Bodh Gaya, India, in 1970. They were two of the founding members of the center in 1982.

Lysha Smith and his wife, Leannette, are part of the Center Management Team at VMC. He learned the Vipassana technique in 2010 and has spent the past eight years as a long-term server at the center.

To learn more about the center, visit dhara.dhamma.org, and to learn more about the technique of Vipassana, visit dhamma.org.