What I learned from 10 days on Vipassana
Going on vipassana meditation is essentially like living your life like a monk for 10 days. Your life consists of waking, eating, meditating, maybe a little walk around, and not much else.
I had heard about vipassana from a few people prior to attending the course, but to be honest hadn't given it much thought beforehand, as my life was incredibly busy.
All I thought about was the physical aspect of sitting in meditation for an hour, and how my back might ache.
I got there early on the day, and had a few hours to meet others and chat. The course was due to start at 8pm, after which 'noble silence' was followed. This means that in order to establish 'mental quietness', you needed to not talk to anyone (only to the course leader or teacher if you needed something), and not to establish eye contact with anyone nor communicate by way of gestures.
Being an introvert, I was rather looking forward to the peace and quiet after a manic few months. Our phones and valuables were put in a locker, and I took my things to my room, a small little wooden hut, sharing with one other girl (who I had to pretend was invisible, which was very strange).
We started with a meditation and discourse that evening (which was the teacher imparting some wisdom about the course and technique). I loved the stillness of the hall. You got your cushions, a huge big cosy blanket and basically cocooned yourself in that.
With 100 other brains in the room meditating, the energy was INTENSE. Coupled with that, the discourse explained how powerful the technique was and it suddenly dawned on me that this was going to be a psychological cleansing of sorts - I'd not even considered that. I got a huge headache and felt sick, I had to go to bed early! The reality of turning my attention inwards for such a long time began to make itself clear.
The brutal schedule:
Morning wake-up bell
Meditate in the hall or in your room
Group meditation in the hall
Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
Rest and interviews with the teacher
Meditate in the hall or in your room
Group meditation in the hall
Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher's instructions
Group meditation in the hall
Teacher's Discourse in the hall
Group meditation in the hall
Question time in the hall
Retire to your own room – lights out
Day 1: I say the schedule was brutal because it was; it was by no means easy. Just reading the timetable is enough to put many people off.
Day 1 and the 'gong' going at 4am made this schedule really hit home.
I was here - I was doing this. Oh crap. I decided I wasn't going to punish myself by following the schedule to the T (although they advise this), I was going to take a relaxed approach. (Snoozing until 6:30am, when it was time for breakfast).
The internal monologue which is my only company for the next 10 days starts: 'Ooh, porridge. And with those- what are they? Prunes? Oh lovely, a bit of toast I see at the back, I think I'll have that too. I don't think I'll have caffeine - what's this barley cup stuff? I'll try that.'
The group sittings were mandatory; the rest you could meditate in the hall or in your room. I decided I was going to be very gentle with this, and ease myself into it - just stick to the mandatory ones and then do the rest if I felt like it.
Internal monologue: God, this is hard. I am relaxing like I've never relaxed before. But at the same time, there's things about this experience I have craved for so long. Like walking into the woods to watch the sunrise. Like sitting and watching the birds. I like those moments.
I start to get bored easily, clock watching and already getting excited for 11am mealtime (we never know what's on the agenda.) Today is peanut satay with rice, spinach salad, and sometimes, we get a pudding. Sometimes not. The enthusiasm in the room is high at mealtimes.
The only other eating time is 5pm, where we have fruit. My lowest part of the day. I'm not a massive fruit fan (I prefer vegetables) and you can only have two pieces and a cup of tea. I'm starving! We sit in silence, slowly munching, trying to avoid eye contact with the person that is sitting opposite us at the other side of the table. Grim.
For the last few days, we've been focusing on something called 'anapana' which is about observing the breath. The whole technique is based on observation and awareness only. By this day, I'm completely relaxed. Sometimes I'm so relaxed, I can't relax myself any more. It's like a meditation marathon, I think to myself.
I have what I call 'good sits' and 'bad sits'. On a good sit, the hour can go quite quickly, as I go quite 'deep'. On a bad sit (usually when my mind is more alert), I'm twitchy, bored, and restless, and I just want the teacher to start chanting so the meditation is over (the chanting is really, really weird by the way. I almost burst out laughing when I first heard it).
I realise that in order for me to have a good sit, I just have to let things be what they are (something they drill into you constantly whilst you are there). If I put too many expectations on the process, or get too attached to 'going deep', then I'll have a shit time. Sometimes, the moment when I say 'fuck it, I'm just going to have a little rest', is the moment I then go really deep. Hmm. Mental slackness is important, then.
What also starts happening is that because I am deeply relaxed, my mind is not so much generating thought as receiving thought. Things bubble up into my consciousness about the past, and about the present, and I see things with greater clarity. I start to realise that a calm mind, is a very clear one.
But god! I'm really getting bored. I'm telling myself I'm starting to do some good work, but still, this is tedious. I start to invent little 'hacks' to make the day go quicker - take an extra walk around the block when I visit the toilet, make a trip to the canteen to fill up my thermos, make an extra trip in the evening to fill my hot water bottle.
No reading material means I've already read the vipassana booklet a thousand times. I miss music. When alone in my room I start to quietly hum some of my favourite tunes. God, I'm bored.
There's a board in the dining hall that outlines the schedule, and today is different. Today we go into 'strong determination', where we basically try not to move for an hour. But before that, we're given instructions later today for 2 hours. 2 HOURS! Fuck. I mentally plan my day so I can be in the hall as little as possible.
I've contemplated asking the teacher for a chair at this point, as my back has ached now and again, but I have found quite a good position. I realise that the point is to go so deep into the mind that you sort of forget about the body (a bit like sleep), so I think, I'll just see how I go.
I get very angry later. I feel as if the teacher is putting instructions and suggestions into our heads, and after studying hypnosis I know that relaxing the conscious mind is the way to embed commands. I am raging inside and want to leave. I even want to talk to people - but I can't, and don't, it would spoil their experience. So I seethe to myself and wonder if I should ask to leave tomorrow.
I get lifted later on by the discourse. They are quite funny, and the teacher shares a lot of wisdom from the Buddha and his life. He talks about negative emotions, and how we create our own suffering. He mentions anicca, which means impermanence, and that the way to create happiness is to observe emotions and not react with craving or aversion.
It makes sense - but I can't do it. It's too difficult.
I'm getting used to the porridge, I quite like that breakfast is the same. Lunch changes every day, and the food is incredible - really, really good. I start to see the same people around, and sometimes I sit with them, even though we don't speak.
I want to leave though - I've had enough. I mentally work out that if I leave now, I can have a few more days at home, chilling and watching Netflix, instead of this punishing schedule. This isn't fun, I tell myself. This is too hard.
Although something inside told me to stick at it. They do too 'It's only ten days of your life', they say. I feel really cut off from the outside world. Anything could have happened!
I do continue to get valuable nuggets of information from my meditation sessions, though. Things bubble up from nowhere and I know they're important. This is naughty, but I realised I had paper instructions for my digital alarm clock and I had found that I had a pen. So I wrote down snippets of the wisdom that the mental clarity was offering. It seemed too valuable to just gloss over and forget.
The fruit at 5pm was again a low point. This is like being in prison! I had my head in my hands, willing the time to pass quickly. A girl who I'd spoken to at the beginning came over and silently picked up my scarf which had fallen on the floor and placed it on the back of my chair. This felt like a gentle support. It encouraged me to push through.
If I can get through these next two days, I'll be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it will get easier, I thought. I started to see how my day consisted of highs and lows.
Highs- Crunching my feet along the frosty grass in the morning. Seeing the autumn leaves fall like confetti. Sunlight streaming through the trees. How the water droplets on blades of grass look like diamonds. Putting my feet on the hot water bottle at night. Pure, unbroken silence. Getting jacket potato with cheese and beans for lunch (internal monologue: oh yes!)
Lows - The never ending 'start again' of the teachers voice (internal monologue: oh, just fuck off now). The slow munch of my banana at 5pm. Looking at the clock and it's still another hour before something interesting happens. My back, legs, and mind aching from all the bloody meditation. Boredom.
Things are starting to take shape in my mind, which is now ridiculously serene at times. A girl and I stop to watch a blackbird hopping along. I start to become more comfortable with the contents of my own mind.
I realise that I am very impatient at times, and sometimes selfish, and start to accept these qualities instead of beating myself up about knowing them. The world starts to appear like a mirror for my own mind, now I've began to clean it.
I fill my thermos with Barley Cup and take it to the foyer of the meditation hall. I can't spill this on this lovely white rug, I think, that would be so embarassing. Later on that day I pour myself a cup in my bedroom and the cup flies off the table, soaking the rug in front of my roommate who is trying to meditate. SHIT! I exclaim, in my head of course. I can't apologise to her either - how awkward!
The meditation trains you to be an observer. I start to feel energy coursing through my body when I go 'really deep'. This must be quite healing, I think, and then want to go to that state all the time. But the teachings tell you that craving is also to be avoided, because over-attachment also leads to suffering.
I realise that I have been over-attached to virtually everything in the past.
I'm getting there! Yay! I have decided by now I am going to stick with it. The day I wanted to leave I couldn't have got a lift anyway, and I partly wanted to stick it out to chat with the other girls too, I wanted to see how they found it.
The men were in a separate village, we only saw them in the meditation hall. One day I came in to sit and I saw about four looking at me, I don't know why but I felt uncomfortable. The idea of the course is to separate yourself from anything that may cause a distraction, the opposite sex being a big one for most people, I can certainly identify with that.
After the initial mistrust of the teachers, I began to see that they had good intentions for us. In fact I realised that purity of intention is one of the most important things in life. As the teachings explain, everything in life contains good and bad. This course is one of them.
The goal, and the key teaching that is repeated to you constantly is 'equanimity'. This means having a balanced mind. Seeing things as they are, not how you want them to be. Recognising the good and bad in everything. This really helped me become non attached to things because no matter what you want in life, there is always an aspect that may feel not so good to you.
As long as your intention is right, you can't go far wrong.
I'm learning so much about why I have reacted the way I have in the past, and how I now see things differently. I am really proud of myself and grateful I have done this- it takes courage to look inside your unconscious mind.
I realise that the ego wants to cling on to things, but the nature of life is impermanence and change. If we step back from the ego into awareness and presence (i.e. full attention in the present moment), then the ego ceases to be. We also relinquish suffering. It makes us happier!
As I start to understand my own suffering, I can understand other people's. The teacher talks about compassion, and how we all share the same emotions. I vow to make this a central part of my life going forward.
I don't miss my phone or the outside world now. Although I want this course to end, I really like being in this state of peaceful awareness. I don't want things to speed up.
After meditation at 8-9am, noble silence will be lifted! I'm looking forward to it and not at the same time. After battling through a stormy, unbalanced mind, I've got to the place where I really like this still, calm, balanced me. I don't want external things to distract me from this sense of inner peace, and I'm concerned they will.
Noble silence lifts, and the whole village erupts into animated conversation. I go to the toilet on my own, and then join a group and talk. It feels weird - like I am watching myself talk. There is no judgement either, and the words are flowing.
The dining room opens up to both sexes, and everyone is talking, drinking tea and eating biscuits. It's overwhelming for me and a few others so we go outside and chat in the fresh air. I feel on a high - elated really. Some have had similar experiences, some haven't. I feel different. I can't wait to get out and tell people how I feel.
I speak to my room mate - an incredibly headstrong, grounded and calm woman, the same age as me. She talks about the inner reality being truth as nonchalantly as the fact the sun rises every morning. The external world is a projection of your unconscious mind? I couldn't get my head around it but I had felt that my experience mirrored it on this course. I was in total shock - this is what I'd been reading all my life but never experienced on the experiential level. You cannot know truth, the teacher had said, you have to be it. And by truth I mean the ever present, unchanging awareness. I know you are not your mind - but we are trained to believe we are! We are awareness.
We got our phones back. One girl had 242 whatsapps. Another had 700+ emails.I just laughed. It seemed so silly, so insane that we all distract our minds so much in this modern age. I couldnt be bothered to reply to my messages. Why did we want to put our lives on fast forward? I rather enjoyed time being slow, and the stillness and clarity it brought to my awareness.
I decided that I wanted to live in that mindful state more, not be caught up too much in the thinking and processing mind.
Watch this space... :)