How To Get Into a Vipassana Meditation Course: Keep Your Drug History to Yourself

By Billy Blackwell II 12/07/16

One hundred hours of sitting in a 10-day period is a rigorous demand. It would be a disservice to the applicant and other participants to accept someone who might be unstable.

A group of people sitting cross-legged and meditating
Meditation may not sit well with you.

The days blend together. It might have been day four. It might have been day five of the Vipassana meditation retreat in the south of Germany. We had been meditating 10 hours a day, broken up by small breaks for meals. The humble face of S.N. Goenka beamed at us from the video screen, extolling the Vipassana meditation technique we've been practicing. We were just starting to see the benefits, he predicted. We were just starting to be able to see the cravings and revulsions revealed. This is what we came to realize. The secret enlightenment that could save us from our various addictions, whether they be drugs, alcohol, food, sex, public praise and esteem or love.

"How odd," I thought. "Here is this cure to free me from the insanity of my drug and alcohol use, and I almost didn't get in because of the insanity of my drug and alcohol use."

It was a long journey to reach this realization. I had to complete the Vipassana course three times to understand the absurdity of my situation. And it took several years and relocation to another continent for me to get into my first Vipassana course.

Vipassana is a donation-based (read: free) silent meditation course. One of the most popular versions of Vipassana was spread worldwide by an organization founded by S.N. Goenka. The instructors are not caregivers or mental health professionals, but simply volunteer meditation instructors who want to be sure that applicants can complete the 10-day course and will not disturb the other meditators.

Like many alcoholics and drug addicts, a history of jails, various rehabilitation centers and mental institutions plague my past. Though I had first applied in California years ago, it was obvious they had kept track of my previous applications and had flagged me as a risk. And even though I had been clean and sober more than 10 years and had sat through the course twice before, I was required to fill out a special questionnaire detailing my drug use and hospital stays. Then on the day I arrived at the course, I had to pass an in-person interview before I was allowed to begin the course.

If you are interested in Vipassana meditation and have a history of drug and alcohol abuse—or even worse, jails or mental institutions—you might find my story helpful:

How Not to Get into a Vipassana Course

After about three years of sobriety, while living in my home state of California, I was still struggling. I had very few psychological or spiritual resources to handle the complications of life, let alone normal day-to-day interactions and decision-making. Still very hardheaded about the concept of a Higher Power, I had heard people in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous talk about meditation. After reading a few books and following instructions, the benefits of meditation hit me almost immediately. It was such a gift, like a grace period between my thoughts and my actions, between stimulus and response, that allowed me to make better choices. I decided that I wanted to learn a meditation technique properly, and for some reason (read: free), I was drawn to Vipassana.

Thinking that they wanted to help people, I presented myself as needing help, I spelled out every overnight drunk tank visit, described the various 5150 institutional 72-hour holds, and tried to describe the various drugs I used.

That was obviously a bad idea.

They sent me a letter telling me, in no uncertain terms, that Vipassana was not for me. My record from that application follows me to this day.

How to Get into a Vipassana Course

Vipassana is credited by many with helping people get over their addictions. Yes, in my honest opinion, it does help addicts and alcoholics understand and attain sobriety. During the course, video teachings by S.N. Goenka explain how Vipassana will help remove the cravings for drugs and alcohol. But their website still warns against enrolling in the course for a specific purpose. There is obviously quite a bit of "C.Y.A." going on at the Vipassana organization. And this is understandable. One hundred hours of sitting in a 10-day period is a rigorous demand. It would be a disservice to the applicant and other participants to accept someone who might be unstable. And no one wants to see the Vipassana organization distracted by lawsuits.

But what are addicts and alcoholics, who commonly have histories scarred by jails and institutions, to do if they want to attend a Vipassana retreat?

Here are some tips:

Don't Dramatize.

If you've read this far you're probably saying, "Duh!!!" But really, don't! This is the mistake that I made. The record from my first Vipassana will follow me for life. They are screening for people who might not finish the course. Not thinking about their situation, I described my history with way too much drama the first time, thinking that it would force them to help me. Don't do that. You want to sound calm and sane.

Be Persistent. Be Personable.

If you apply and are turned down, write your nearest Vipassana center and explain your situation in detail. Some Vipassana instructors have more experience than others and may feel more capable of accommodating your situation. Try to talk to a teacher in person and show them that you are not, in fact, completely nuts.

Don't Lie!

Lying is a big temptation. But it is a bit counterproductive to lie your way into a spiritual program that counts honesty among its primary pillars.

Sadly though, it was probably lying that got me into my first Vipassana course. I was finally able to attend in Germany after a "geographic relocation" led me from California to Berlin. I applied for a second time—taking advantage of the new life my relocation afforded me—and was accepted. Not pretty, but true.

Check Your Intentions!

You don't have to do Vipassana. S.N. Goenka's Vipassana may not be for you. It's not a special club or a rite of passage. It is not the key to sobriety. It is not the only path to healing or enlightenment. It may not even be the best one for you.

It Might Not Have Been Best for Me

My first Vipassana was very difficult. It was very hard for me to sit for even short periods of time. Part of the course is called "Sitting with Strong Determination," where we are asked to sit for an hour without rearranging our position. This was almost impossible for me, but I forced myself. I sat. I sat and stayed sitting no matter what. I sat until my mind finally broke.

Heard it crack, dull, like the breaking of glass in a tank full of fish. I was sitting there, not moving despite the insistence of the intense pain in my legs, forcing myself not to move or scream out, when I heard an audible crack, and then no sound at all. It was beautiful in a way, kind of a serene silence. I experienced thoughts and I knew there was pain, but I was on the other side of them somehow. Then the thoughts fell away, then the pain, and there was just this aware silence. It was so beautiful, such a relief. I perceived my awareness running up and down my body, like a tingling wave of the realization of movement. Later I learned this was called bhanga nana. But I wasn't prepared for it. After that sitting, I was finished. I couldn't form a coherent thought. I was mentally exhausted. I even missed a meditation session. I had to lie down and rest, but I slowly got back into the meditations and finished the course.

The next two years of intensive yoga classes helped with sitting for extended periods of time. During that time, I took another Vipassana course. It was easier this time. The yoga helped my hips a little and gave me a context for some of the things that I was experiencing during the meditation. 

If you are drawn to meditation, keep studying. Keep meditating. Keep seeking groups of like-minded, compassionate souls to support you on your journey. In the end, my path was my path, but there might have been an easier, softer way. Just be careful before you apply to Vipassana, as what you say in that application will be a part of your permanent record.

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