On beginners’ vipassana meditation in the Himalayas

I have never meditated before, but for some reason – I don’t even remember how or why – I thought doing a meditation retreat was what I should do when in India. I had planned to visit a beautiful area called Ladakh in the north west in the Indian Himalayas and thought there’s probably not a better place to start than here. Unbeknownst to me, until a short time before I was due to arrive, I discovered the retreat is vipassana. It means insight meditation designed to help you deepen your understanding. But it’s probably most famous for the fact that it is a silent experience: no talking, reading, writing. Usually for 10 days, somehow I’d luckily fallen into the pathway of a three day retreat. Not sure I would’ve completed 10 days.

I had timed my arrival so that I would go straight to the retreat. I reached the Mahabodhi Centre in town, and was ushered onto a yellow school bus with 23 others. We were a mix of predominantly westerners, from spiritual seekers to trekkers in the area.

The campus is a 20 minute drive out of Leh, and is situated between rolling sand dunes and steep mountain. Atop a sand dune that runs alongside the uphill entrance are a set of tall prayer flags that flap repetitively and rhythmically as they catch the persistent wind – one of the many sounds that form a backdrop to my meditative experience.

The sessions are run by Bhante Rahula who has been a Buddhist monk for 40 years. He is charismatic, funny, which for some reason catches me off guard. He is from the Theravada school of Buddhism, and in spite of his light nature is solemn when delivering the lessons of the Dhamma (laws of nature, according to the Buddha’s teachings).

I find it easy not to talk. Perhaps it is because I am more introverted. 3 days with myself as company doesn’t frighten me in the slightest. There are couples on the retreat who steal glances, touches and whispers, and I can’t help but think that they aren’t getting the full effect. But each to his own, there are a number of reasons why anyone would come on one of these retreats so I can’t judge.

The meditation itself I found quite challenging. Quite foolishly with my immediate arrival, I was feeling the nausea and shortness of breath common to visitors of Ladakh in the first few days due to its altitude of around 3500m. So a day of thinking about my breath wasn’t a real help. But by midday of day two I had managed to mentally set myself the space to meditate.

The schedule was intensive and any spare moment I had was devoted to napping. Concentrating for that long is surprisingly tiring.

5am: rise
5.30-6am: yoga outside
6-7am: guided meditation
7-7.30am: walking meditation
7.30-9am: breakfast and personal time
9-9.30am: instructions
9.30-12pm: standing, sitting and walking meditation
12-2pm: lunch and rest
2-3pm: Dhamma talk
3-4.45pm: standing, sitting and walking meditation
4.45-5.30pm: tea
5.30-6.30pm: yoga outside
6.30-8pm: dinner over the sunset
8-8.15pm: optional puja (chanting)
8.15-8.30pm: Q&A (questions written and submitted at meals)
8.30-9.30pm: Metta meditation
9.30pm: bed

On some of the days we made some particularly gratifying excursions to meditate in a cave, or in a shrine, or ringing a great Dhamma bell to make a wish and hear it reverberate around the valleys. The setting for the retreat couldn’t have been better.

Traditionally in vipassana meditation you are meant to focus on deep breaths as they come in and out of the body through the sensations you feel on the tip of your nose. You would ideally sit on your sitting bones with them 3 inches higher than your crossed knees (ie on a cushion) – and if possible your feet in the lotus position (both feet up on top of the other thigh). You sit, focussing on your breath, noticing sensations in the body, and thoughts that may enter your head, but not engaging in them. This is particularly hard at first, but itches will go away without scratching them, and self-controls tops your meditation session turning into a daydreaming session.

Bhante Rahula laid out a number of different methods to help focus the mind and body together if the tip of the nose isn’t for you:
– Feeling the beginning, middle, and end of each breath from the nose to the lungs and back.
– Counting breaths. Try from one to 10, and back down again. Repeat.
– After relaxing the body with breath focus, do a body scan, sending your awareness to the different parts of your body from your toes to the crown of your head.
– If there is a thought that continually interrupts your meditation, confront it in a controlled and conscious way in order to understand why it keeps coming up, and therefore why it needs to be let go.

Personally, I didn’t agree with some of the Buddhist philosophy that we were to engage in and gain insight over. I can see why one might, but it isn’t for me.

However, there were aspects of it that I think more broadly have a universally positive impact. One of them is the concept of Metta. Each evening we would do a Metta meditation, which is where you send love and happiness, first to your close ones, and then to all beings as part of the Buddhist practice of benevolence to all living creatures.

The other part I found particularly good was during the guided meditation. Bhante would begin a meditation by asking you to confront someone who you need to forgive (perhaps even yourself) and offer them immediate forgiveness. He said “there is no time lapse on letting go”.

It is worth adding that the Mahabodhi centre also do a number of wonderful charitable things – multiple schools for girls, boys, people with visual impairment and disabilities, care for the elderly, a free hospital…the list is really endless, and the good work that goes into the community can be in no way faulted.

Meditation is different for each person, and I know that the insights vipassana is aimed at developing aren’t for me. But there are some spectacular elements of tranquility and love for which I am grateful. And there is no way better to learn about something than first hand. That’s one of the reasons I travel. Not because I’m going to love everything, but because I will learn.

On beginners' Vipassana Meditation in the Himalayas

3 day vipassana meditation

3 day vipassana meditation

3 day vipassana meditation

 

On beginners vipassana meditation in the Himalayas

  20 comments for “On beginners’ vipassana meditation in the Himalayas

  1. Dominic
    November 17, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    I am looking to plan a trip to one of these places do you really recommend it? any insight would help very much thank you !

    • Bec
      November 20, 2014 at 1:13 am

      Hi Dominic! Thanks for getting in touch. It depends on where you’re planning to go and what you want to get out of it. Leh is a phenomenal place to visit, you must make sure that when you’re planning to go you will be able to access it, and it’s the right time of year for the weather you would like. If you’re looking at meditation, the Mahabodhi Centre where I went to was, I believe, a great 3-day representation of what Vipassana is. I would do a bit of research around types of meditation, as Vipassana is quite intensive. There are a number of places in Leh to do meditation if it isn’t for you! Let me know if I can be of any more help 🙂

  2. April 16, 2015 at 9:03 am

    I have never done a Reiki class before, as a first timer should I start with Reiki 1 and 2 class?

    • Bec
      April 26, 2015 at 11:34 am

      I haven’t done one either! Keep me posted how it goes 🙂

  3. Tabea
    April 27, 2015 at 5:58 pm

    Hi Bec,
    I miss a friend who did this meditation trip this week and now he is missing because of the earthquake. Could you please contact me and tell me who are the organizers of this? And where exactly was it? I need any information, thank you…Tabea

    • Bec
      April 27, 2015 at 6:36 pm

      Wow Tabea, I’m so sorry to hear that and really hope your friend is okay. Here are all the details of the centre http://www.mahabodhi-ladakh.org/contact-us.aspx – it’s only a few kilometres from the town of Leh in Ladakh. There’s very limited mobile phone reception in that part of the world, but there is internet, and they should be contactable on their landline too. Keep me posted, I’ve got all of my fingers crossed.

      • Tabea
        April 27, 2015 at 6:46 pm

        Thanks for your answer. Thats what he posted at least on facebook:
        “Ok, so I just got invited to do a 10-day trek near the Himalayas with a group led by Insight Meditation Teachers. They walk half days in silence and only speak once they’ve reached camp. There are morning and evening meditations and we would sleep in tents. It’s with a group of 15 people and the ones I’ve met I connected to very deeply. It costs $350 which is a lot to me at the moment, but it seems like a rare opportunity has fallen into my lap.”
        Does it fit to what you did? And if yes, where exactly was it? Because nobody knows where the tour was. A day before he wrote “I can see Tibet”.
        I wrote Meditation Centre thanks for the link!
        Tabea

        • Bec
          April 27, 2015 at 8:04 pm

          I’m afraid I don’t know anything about meditative trekking – there are a lot of trekking companies in Leh. Are you sure that your friend was in Leh before he left for his trek? Have you tried the tourist office? http://leh.nic.in/pages/contact.html

          If you think it will be helpful I can write a post asking for help for more information? If so I’ll need as much detail as you can give – his name, age, nationality, last known destination and when, etc.

          • Tabea
            April 28, 2015 at 6:34 pm

            Hey, I dont know if it was in Leh. These are his details: Seth Krentcil, 33 years old, from Boston, US, last known in Kasar Devi before he went to the meditation trip. Last contact was on April 17th. He is 1,80 m and has brown hair and a beard and he was a buddhist monk.
            Thats it..
            Thanks :-*

          • Bec
            May 3, 2015 at 1:03 pm

            Hi Tabea, any news on Seth? I’ve been doing some research that I’d like to send to you. What’s your email address?

          • Tabea
            May 3, 2015 at 4:09 pm

            Bec! He is alive! Its unbelievable, he came back from the trip and they didnt recognize anything of the earthquake! Only a storm! So he is well and back in civilization. I thank you so much for your help!! Big hug and take care! Tabea

          • Bec
            May 3, 2015 at 4:13 pm

            I’m so so glad, the best news I’ve heard all week. What a relief! X

  4. pris
    May 18, 2015 at 4:52 pm

    Hey Bec!
    Sounds like a wonderful experience you had! I am planning on visiting Ladakh by the end of june and wanted to ask you a few questions! How did you get to Ladhak? i am arriving in delhi alone , so just wanted to know if your trip can give me a few ideas, annd also how much did you pay for the 3 day retreat? And the last one 🙂 ; did you hear or know about any possibility on going to the center as a volunteer or kind of what you do in workaway ?
    looking forward on hearing reading your answers! xx

    • Bec
      May 31, 2015 at 2:29 pm

      Hey Pris – thanks for dropping me a line. SO excited for you to be going to Ladakh, it’s just a really truly magical place! I took a flight from Delhi to Ladakh – it isn’t the cheapest option but it’s the fastest and in my opinion, the best. The view when you fly over the Himalayas is just spectacular so if you do fly make sure you get a window seat – it’s just an unforgettable experience. If you’re strapped for cash, you can also take buses to get to Ladakh (and I think at some point you may switch to a jeep because the roads get windy…and not so much like roads but pathways) but it’ll be a really long haul from Delhi by bus so your best bet is to stop off at a few places along the way to break it up (e.g. Dharamshala). The Mahabodhi retreat cost me Rs.4000 and included food, accommodation and transport to/from Leh. It was great, but again if cash is a concern you’ll be able to find cheaper options in Leh – it just depends on what you’re after. They gave us a presentation at the end of the retreat which mentioned volunteering so it’s definitely a possibility. They have lots of different things running in the centre like a school, and a home for the elderly, etc. so I think you’d have a lot of options. If you haven’t already just drop them an email on mimc.sambodhi@gmail.com 🙂
      Let me know what you decide to do! x

  5. Vijaya Shetty
    July 24, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    Awesome write-up. Thanks Bec. M really excited and looking forward for this.

  6. Mohit
    October 5, 2015 at 7:45 am

    Hi
    Thanks fr sharing your experience
    I was curious to know about the weather in ladakh when u visited , was it okay or tough to bear ?

    • Bec
      November 1, 2015 at 12:09 pm

      Hey Mohit! The weather was great when I was there. Warm but not too warm 🙂

  7. Tee
    January 1, 2016 at 5:40 pm

    so glad that i have came to this blog. thanks a lot for sharing. i am actually searching for some information about volunteering and meditation in mahabodhi centre, and on the other hand,i didnt get email reply from them till so far. Can i join them directly when i reach there? any suggestion will be helpful. Thank u so much.

    • Bec
      January 3, 2016 at 1:55 am

      Hi Lee, happy new year! They have an office in Leh, where you can drop in and get information and make bookings. If you haven’t tried already they’ve probably got a phone number on their website too, or just keep trying their email! I booked my course online through their booking form. Enjoy your trip!

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