I Went to a Vipassana Meditation Center for my Birthday and Survived

A jealous sigh of “oh mah gawd, that sounds relaxing” was the common response when I told people I was heading to Kelseyville for a meditation retreat at the Northern California Vipassana Center (Dhamma Manda) over my birthday. I had to explain it would be an intense 10 days of meditating from 4:30 am to 9 pm, living without our phones, the Internet and any contact with the outside world, including access to new episodes of Game of Thrones (but thankfully also all overzealous Game of Thrones tweets and Facebook posts — the universe has a way of balancing things out).

We learned the importance of equanimity in the response of stimuli, that we should remain objective to how we react to things that would habitually cause us to react with aversion or craving. This is not a concept unknown to many of us, however we are also taught the difference between understanding this on an intellectual level and practicing it on an experiential level. Through meditation, vipassana is a practice that can help one break out of the aforementioned habit patterns through the objective analysis of body sensations, with the understanding that all things are impermanent and destined to fade. We are told to release the past and not dwell on speculations of the future, that the time for change comes with the present moment, the one we ought to observe.

There were frequent one-hour addithana sittings when we were encouraged not to change positions. Pains in the legs and back were definitely tests of my equanimity, as was being placed on the zabuton directly in front of the one guy who didn’t seem to comprehend repeated farting in a silent and full meditation hall as a complete faux pas.

The sensations I experienced were intense; pulses, electricity and heat. Of course, there were the completely random memories that came flooding to mind, strange symbols and, because I lived in a dorm with dudes who somehow still peed with the toilet seats down, the intro scene for Danny McBride from This Is the End.

Noble Silence was enacted, meaning we couldn’t speak or even gesture to others for the majority of the course. (It’s a weird thing to know intimate details about someone like whether one is a before-brushing-flosser or an after-brushing-flosser before even knowing their name.) Not socializing, I wandered the woods for hours each day during breaks, taking in the symphony of bird songs, giving names to trees and even composing a poem about them (scroll to the very bottom). There were many beautiful moments, the best being the illumination of once-invisible spider webs, shimmering diamond strands in the subdued morning sun. On the limited number of paths, we explored with our newly enhanced imaginations, creating stone art and playing with sticks like Lost Boys (without the mommy issues) or the kids from “Lord of the Flies” (sans the child murders — spoiler alert).

Stone Art at Dhamma Manda Northern California Meditation Center

Stone ogre along the men’s walking trail

I lost track of the days, barely realizing I had numerologically grown a year older. In meditation, I contemplated the food item I craved the most (obviously, this was before the lecture on inhibiting cravings). I concluded that I wanted a something-like-a-burrito-but-less-heavy or a something-like-a-veggie-wrap-but-more-satisfying. For lunch that day they offered a burrito and salad bar, allowing me to create this mythical food item and satiate my desire. I had manifested this lunch wrap, I concluded, and the universe was looking out for me (this was apparently also before the lecture on deflating the ego).

I’ll admit it was not easy, and I felt relieved to be returning home, however I already miss it and suspect I will likely attend again as a server (an old student who both volunteers and meditates). It was an amazing experience, and being back home and feeling fundamentally changed seems more jarring than it was after returning from Italy after two months, even though I was only at Dhamma Manda for less than two weeks. I’ll keep up the practice. Here’s hoping it sticks.

If you have any questions, please leave a comment. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go outside and experience the nowness of now now.


Part of a global network of self-sustained vipassana centers, the meditation course at Dhamma Manda is taught primarily through audio instructions and video discourses by the late Satya Narayan Goenka, a brilliant and amusing instructor from Burma, with the assistance of a small staff that administers the sittings and fields any questions on the practice. The course is completely free, and, no, it’s not a cult or a scam or a trick to make you join any religion. In fact, it can complement most any crazy faith. Vipassana is appealing because it’s not only pragmatic in its beliefs, it’s also a practice that yields observable benefits in the current life.

If you are thinking of attending, the Dhamma Manda website offers pretty much everything you need to know about your visit, including the Code of Discipline and Course Checklist (including items to bring and directions to the center). Here are some points that might help you out that aren’t explicitly mentioned on their site:

– If you’re new to meditation, I highly recommend practicing at home to get used to sitting in various poses before attending. There is no “wrong” position (they only ask that you keep your back and neck straight), though it’s helpful to have a few in memory to test out which works best for you over long periods of time. I learned that my preferred position was good for an hour but not sustainable when meditating for as much as one does at the center.

– The addithana “sittings of strong determination” are encouraged but not strictly enforced. You meditate for an hour without moving to make the sittings more effective. Like much of the course, how hard you push yourself and how much you get out of it really depends on your own determination. If you experience severe pain, moving is definitely allowed. Just don’t leave the hall until it’s over.

– A bell sounds whenever you need to be someplace, so a watch really isn’t necessary. Still, it’s a useful way to keep track of time if you’re the type to zone out so much you miss the sounds of things. Personally, I think not having a watch makes the days flow more smoothly.

– You should bring everything you need, of course, but should you miss anything, most items are available at the center, including extra blankets, toiletries, alarm clocks and flashlights.

– I attended in May, when nights were cold and days were warm. Layers are particularly helpful, especially light, long-sleeved tops for wandering the woods and protecting yourself from mosquitoes (they offer mosquito repellant as well).

– There are plenty of cushions in the Dhamma Hall, though you may want to bring one you know you like. If you can’t sit on the floor, they also have stools, backrests and chairs.

– Dhamma Manda is entirely run by volunteers and they have no full-time staff, so reserve some time during the last day to help clean up. If you drove and have space in your car, you may be called upon to provide rides for others, however this is not mandatory.

– Please don’t fart repeatedly in the meditation hall.

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Entrance of Dhamma Manda Northern California Meditation Center

Dhamma Manda Northern California Meditation Center

Meditation Hall at Dhamma Manda Northern California Meditation Center

Tree at Dhamma Manda Northern California Meditation Center

Walking Trail at Dhamma Manda Northern California Meditation Center

“Tree’s Company”
There once was a lonely tree,
who needed some company,
so a rock came down and hammered the ground,
splitting the one to three