“Donnnnng, donnnnng, donnnnnng, donnnnnng”. I open my eyes slightly and realise this is the first of the 10 mornings with a 4am wake-up call in order to start the first morning meditation at 4.30 am. True to my old habit I just turn around and close my eyes to steal another 15 or 20 minutes of sleep, but the opening and shutting of the doors down the hall and the running of water in showers and toilets don’t let me sleep any further. So I get up and get ready for the first session of this 10-day meditation marathon. The ten days of the Vipassana meditation course have begun.
You might be asking yourself, why would anyone want to go on a 10-day meditation course, which on top of all, is conducted in complete “noble silence” (during which you are allowed to talk only to ask relevant questions to the meditation teacher and staff of the meditation centre).
Every one of us seating in the meditation hall at 4.30 am on that first morning had their own reasons … Most people have come across meditation, perhaps by reading about it, hearing people speaking about it or knowing someone practicing it. To majority of people it sounds mystical and different. So very spiritual, and often weird. There are many prejudices about meditation and people meditating. I experienced that myself when I told people that during my sabbatical I planned to do a meditation course. This was often met with odd looks and comments like “Why, are you planning to become a nun?” or “Make sure you don’t join some sect…” 🙂
So, why do it then? I came across meditation several times in the past. Everyone that does a bit of yoga sooner or later attends a class where there is 5 to 10 mins of relaxation and meditation at the end. Then, a few years ago, after my move to Brussels, when going through rough times trying to adjust to everything new in life, I attended a course on breathing techniques that help one to reduce inner tensions and daily stress. This was my first serious encounter with meditation. I had no idea what to do when we were told to “do nothing” for 15 minutes at the end of each day of that breathing course. But seating there, with my eyes closed, trying not to move and making an effort “to do nothing”, was the first time when I caught a glimpse of inner calmness – until then a feeling quite unfamiliar to me.
So of course, I started wondering “How to meditate?”. I did a short meditation course, but was left feeling empty and disappointed at the end, mostly because the organisers took a very commercial and corporate approach to the courses. So I though “there must be more”. There must be somewhere another way of learning, without this commercial feel around it, I thought. As it usually happens, what you seek, finds you – one day a friend of mine told me of Vipassana: a 10 days, free, donations-based meditation course, completely done in silence. Besides my growing interest in finding pure meditation, my curiosity was piqued by what it would mean to spend 10 days in silence. So here I was, a few months later, on that chilly morning, ready to start learning.
There are more then 100 various meditation techniques, we were told, many based on repeating a mantra or visualising an object. Vipassana is a 2500-year-old technique, based firstly on observing the natural breath and then your own body sensations. Such sensations could be an itch or a tickling feeling, a pleasant or an unpleasant sensation. To be honest, after sitting for more than 30 minutes in a still pose, these sensations mostly range from minor to major discomforts of the body – or, as we are used to calling it, pain 🙂
But in Vipassana you are expected not to react to such sensations. For example, if a fly lands on your neck while meditating, you accept feeling that tickling sensation, but you should not move to get rid of the fly. If you have back pain and feel like changing your sitting position, you should resist this impulse and simply observe that sensation with neutral and equanimous mind, accepting it patiently. By continued and consequent practice of observation of the body sensations, keeping an equanimous mind, you start getting rid of old aversions and old cravings, that are well hidden in our subconscious and very common to all human beings. This way in meditation you start cleaning your mind of old impurities, such as agitations, impatience, cravings, doubts, worries and so on. And by cleaning all the old layers of impurities in the mind, inner happiness is just one step away. Or so we were told several times a day.
Many people were joking that someone like me, that talks as much as I do, will never be able to spend 10 days in silence, but I am telling you, this was the easiest part :). What was more challenging were the “non-stop” meditations. Literally, non-stop. First session started at 4.30 and lasted until 6.30. After breakfast and a short break, the first “seating determination” followed at 8 am, which consisted of sitting completely still for one hour. This meditation session was followed by short break and another almost 2-hour long session, when morning instructions were given. After all, this was a course and students (yes, we were called students) have to learn the technique step by step, every day a bit.
Lunch was served at 11 am. I guess I don’t need to stress that for all 10 days we were on a vegan diet. Rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner, accompanied by soup or vegetable curry. And lots of tofu and peanuts. After lunch break the afternoon sessions started. Another 4 hours of meditation, split into 3 sessions, until dinner time at 5 pm. But this wasn’t the end of the daily routine – at 6 pm we had the final seating determination session of the day, followed by a discourse on wisdom and knowledge, while we “wrapped up the day” with a 30-minute “before sleep” session. By 9.30 we were all in our beds, getting ready to rest, as the next day at 4 am the four “doooooongs” went off again. And so day after day. Adding up all the meditation session hours, we come up to about 9-10 hours of meditation each day. You can imagine one needs quite some strong determination to go through.
Yes, I admit, we all regularly dosed off during the morning 2 hour session. After the second day, feeling tired and disappointed that I couldn’t stay fully awake during the first morning session the teacher explained to me that this was is ok, in fact, it was normal. He said, it was ok to leave the meditation hall and go for a short 5 minutes walk to freshen up and to stretch your legs if needed. What a relief 🙂
Men and women were strictly separated into two divisions during those 10 days allowing no contact, not even by sight, except in the meditation hall, where we all sat in the same hall, but were also divided into two separated areas.
Besides the challenge of staying focussed on my own breath, and staying with my own thoughts and body discomforts, its sensations and pains, for almost 10 hours daily, there was also another side to this meditation experience. The experience of sharing the space, time and daily routines with around 80 or so other women out of which around 20 were nuns. During meditation times we also shared the meditation hall space with 40 men, of which 16 were monks. It was a very unique feeling of sharing the energy of a meditation hall with fellow humans, knowing we are all learning and practising the same meditation technique.
Day 3 was a bit boring and a bit tough, but come day 4 I fell into the daily routine and somehow we all got used to the daily agenda and long meditation hours. I also suddenly didn’t have to move so much, and it felt like a wonder… An hour longer seating determination meditations actually became doable. Who would have thought, because when they had told us so on the first day, there was no way I could have believed this would be true. But yes, we actually did manage it.
But it was not all just about learning Vipassana meditation during those 10 days. It was also an amazing way to get to know a lot about the daily routine of the Cambodian women and sharing some of it with them. It was interesting to see how they bathed, wrapped up in a cloth, similar to a sarong, using a bucket of water instead of a shower, how nuns shaved their heads, how those ladies scrubbed their heals on the rough stone, put freshly cut aloe vera into their scalp and hair, daily cleaned their tiny cells, how some of them slept on hard wooden beds, removing thin mattresses from the bed, as they were not used to them. It was also very enriching to share an open washing area with them, doing laundry next to them, being offered soap for the laundry without even asking… And all this with hardly any contact, because remember, we needed to respect the noble silence, which meant also no smiling, no eye contact, not any other further means of communication. Many of those women were in their fifties and sixties and when I saw that those old ladies could sit for all those hours, my determination to get through the whole 10 days got even stronger.
We were seven “Westerners”, as they called us. Two left during the course, 5 of us stayed until the end. My neighbour in a neighbouring cell (yep, rooms where we slept looked like prison cells, really basic and tiny, but very clean and somehow comfy – not much more space as for a bed and a meditation corner) was Portuguese, a very interesting girl, my neighbours in meditation hall an Italian and a girl from UK on the other side. On the last day, when we were allowed to slowly start breaking the silence in order for our minds to get slowly used to the sounds and noise around us (it was also the day when we could take some first photos in the afternoon 🙂 ), it was an amazing feeling to finally get to know each other. We had spent 10 days together, practically living together, but on the other side we didn’t know each other at all, as we were walking past each other as if we didn’t see each other, as if the others didn’t exist.
So, now that the course is over, what is different within me, you might ask? How does it feel? What I can say is that I ended up much more exhausted than I could have imagined. I hadn’t expected that. Not at all. Only now, some days later, while writing this post on my basically private terrace of the restaurant in the tree here on the Ko Chnag Island in Thailand, I am slowly recharging. Coming back to reality also caused quite a few old anxieties to appear rather soon, sooner than expected, especially when I had to choose the accommodation here for this island (me and decision making: oof oof, tough… Always difficult to decide…). As for the rest…. Time will show…. However, Vipassana doesn’t stop with the last day of the 10-day course. This was just the first step on the path towards liberation from old miseries and the first step towards a more purified mind. 🙂 🙂 As we know, every path starts with the first step and after that, it all depends on us and our determination, whether we continue walking further and not giving up…
If this post has inspired you to perhaps look into Vipassana, I can recommend that you simply google it and give it a try. Because it is definitely an amazing experience, not to mention the special “banga” state when you experience the free flow of the body …