Have you heard of Vipassana, a 10-day silent meditation course?
I did not know much. I heard about this technique from people I met during my travelling in India. They all talked about an intense experience. And they also said something like “don’t leave the course before the end!” Why would I leave earlier???
So here I am, at Dhamma setu center near Chennai in India, giving my last good-bye to all my friends and family via what’s up before my phone will be switched off for 10 days.
You have to leave all your electronics, books, writing materials, religious objects (all yoga objects in my case), and so on…materially naked, you voluntarily enter a 10-day meditation prison! And not just any prison, a silent one! No talking with anyone (apart from the teacher during ‘business hours’ and servants during ‘SOS times’), no eye-contact with anyone, no reading, no writing, no praying, no yoga (this one is a killer for me) and many other ‘no’s’ I don’t remember anymore.
Meditation Olympics starts only the next day so you are still allowed to talk to others. After meeting my roommate, I wished we were already keeping silence. She can’t stop talking!
Later on, men and women are being separated to different sections. Sections are quite small with residential area, dining hall, outside corridor for daily walks, dhamma hall where all meditations are being held and pagoda for individual cell meditation (yes, we meditated in 1x1m size cells!). We all get an assigned meditation seat which we are not supposed to change during the course. Actually, it is not a seat but a pillow on the ground. My pillow is right next to the wall, thank God!
4am: Drastic bell rings right in front of your door until you get your ass out of bed. “Did you take my toothpaste?” Here we go, first day and she already talks, my roommate. Seriously, why I would take her toothpaste! I ignored her because Vipassana’s rules allows you to ignore others. Love it! I wish we could ignore others more in a real life.
4:30 – 6:30am: Everyone goes to the dhamma hall for the first meditation. You are instructed by an unknown recorded voice to sit in any comfortable position and observe your breathing. “Narrow your awareness to your nostrils and observe your breath as it is and not as you would like it to be.” Confused by instructions, the only thing I can think of right now is how to stay awake. I’ll observe my breathing later…
Around 6am, that same voice starts chanting for half an hour. OMG! With all respects, I can’t listen to this chanting. Better going out for a walk and counting down the minutes. This place is seriously in a different time galaxy.
One minute = One hour!
6:30am: Breakfast. Everyone runs to the dining hall and the fight starts. You have to fight for the place in the queue, at the table, to wash your plate. This is India, make your way through or leave. A servant gives you a big spoon of porridge with coconut chutney without looking at you. You don’t have to say thank you because here nobody talks! I still wonder what that porridge was made of…
7-8am: Break. Every day local women start washing all their clothes, rooms and bathrooms. Except my roommate who likes to wash her clothes at midnight and keep me awake! And another foreign girl who spends her free time putting all her clothes into plastic bags then transporting them from one room to another, from inside to outside. What a funny way to deal with the silence!
(after few days, I learnt she had bed bugs in her room. Who would ever think bed bugs can be such a blessing and keep your mind busy in the silent prison?!)
8-11am: Bell rings again for another meditation. This one includes one hour group sitting during which you are not allowed to leave the hall. “Sit in any comfortable position and observe your breathing as it is, as it is…” The voice likes to repeat everything twice. If you make it up to two minutes to observe your breath without any distraction, congratulations! After two minutes your mind is gone in all directions and the struggle starts.
Our mind is a master of distraction, constantly jumping from one object to another. The mind needs a distraction and since there isn’t any, you become an object of your own mind. It starts attacking with so many thoughts and memories. The more you want to control it, the more you realize how much you are a victim of your own mind and have absolutely no control over your thinking. It becomes unbearable. What a fucked up mind!
11am: Lunch time, hallelujah! Everyone is heading to the dining hall and the fight for places starts again. You get rice, two chapattis (an Indian bread), dal, two types of curry and buttermilk. Definitely a good deal for the next 10 days. You can serve yourself as many times as you want, which you obviously do as this is your last meal of the day.
11:30am – 1pm: Break. Another laundry session starts because all clothes, rooms and bathrooms need to be washed. Again!
1-5pm: Bell starts chasing everyone back to the dhamma hall for the afternoon meditation. This one is hard core, four hours. This is the moment when you remember others saying to stay until the end and not leave earlier. Now it’s clear, this is what they meant! You somehow manage for the first half to stay in the hall. The second half turns into a hell of counting down minutes, going out for a walk and coming back, changing seating positions every five minutes…
At this stage, you don’t have to deal only with your twisted thoughts but with something even more demonic – emotions. All anger, frustration and fears are coming to the surface. Emotions you don’t recognize as yours because you have never taken the time to understand them. Out there, there is always someone else responsible for what we feel and how we feel. But here, who else to blame?
5pm: Finally, tea break! We get an Indian chai and some fruits = this makes my day.
6-7pm: Chai kicked in and you are fresh for another meditation. This one is only one hour, easy. “Be aware of your breathing. Narrow down your awareness to the area of your nostrils. If your mind wanders, bring your awareness back to your breathing, work gently and persistently…”
After few minutes of meditation, the mind starts playing you again that movie of your life, doubts, fears and worries. And there is nobody you can tell, no what’s up to text your friends, no paper to crash your thoughts, no music to listen, no internet to surf…nothing that can distract your mind! Just you with your fucked-up mind and that painfully sharp silence. And you have to deal with it, alone! You just want to run. But there is nowhere to run. You signed a contract with a demon. Wherever you go, your demons go with you…
7-8:30pm: The time for discourse, silence is over. Some funny guy talks to you from the video. He has familiar voice. Oh, it’s Goenka-ji, the founder of this ‘torture’ technique. The recorded voice who was giving us instructions all day long. “You are miserable,” he says. Am I, or is he suggesting I am? At the end of the day, you hardly see the difference between what is your true feeling and what is being suggested to you.
8:30-9pm: Only half an hour of group meditation. After 10 hours of meditating or better pretending meditating, fighting your demons, struggling with your mental and physical pain, you are ready to get instructions for the next day.
Tomorrow will be better, right? Tomorrow is always better!
9-10pm: Bed time! Let’s have a quick shower and sleep. Oh no, water shortage! Remember, in India you don’t take shower when you want to but when the water is available.
The first day is over, 9 more left.
The technique is being progressively taught along the course via recorded instructions and the meditation practice. We train the mind to be aware of the breathing during the first three days. The fourth day, we are finally introduced to the Vipassana technique. The principle is to observe pleasant and unpleasant sensations on all parts of your body without reacting to them. From the sixth day on, you have to remain in the same sitting position without any movement during one-hour group sittings which occurs three times a day. You can eventually experience a free flow throughout your body. By the end of the course, we go to meditate to cells a few hours a day to deepen the practice.
The main essence of this teaching is that nothing in the universe is permanent and everything is constantly changing. We suffer because we tend to attach to sensations that come and go away. Being attached to something that exists only in the moment creates our misery. By conditioning the mind to observe sensations, thoughts and emotions without reacting to them, we create a new pattern of thinking with no aversions or cravings for things, thus we become liberated.
Along the course, you truly get a chance to experience the law of impermanence with your body. Moments of anger change for moments of happiness and positive thoughts are being replaced by dark thoughts. Everything is happening so fast that at some stage you lose the willpower to control it and you just observe present moment without remaining in the past and persisting to the future. You become a spectator of the flow of life and observe where this flow is taking you.
I think it was day 9. I managed to sit for more than one hour without any movement, yeah! On top of that, I observed myself without too many thoughts or emotional disturbances. After some time, the mass of my body started to dissolve in the space and completely merged with everything. A strong vibration suddenly appeared at the deepest bottom of my being and I had a feeling like I was everything and nothing at the same time. It feels like I am in another dimension of space. I guess, this was that free flow thing. It was one of those beautiful and unique moments you want to last forever!
Course completed, I made it! The noble silence is over and ordinary life back, starting with a photo shooting session. This is India, random people ask you for a selfie and next day your worst shots appear on Facebook.
But do I really want to end this ‘torture’ and get back to that same ordinary life? Once you sit through your own shit and start getting liberated from the prison of your mind, you don’t want to get back. Life is still ordinary but the way you see it has completely changed.
I still can’t decide if this course was more a torture or liberation. However, I can surely say I went through a deep transformation.
Living in the present moment is a hard work, it seems. But it definitely worth it!