I am on a ten-day intensive meditation retreat. The technique is called Vipassana, and ‘happily relaxing while exploring fluffy thoughts’ is actively discouraged. In fact, if I do experience joyful, marshmallow sensations, the Vipassana technique tells me simply to observe them, and not to develop any sort of attachment. If I crave for pleasant sensations, the technique won’t be effective. Likewise, if I am repelled by unpleasant sensations – pain, for example – then the technique won’t be effective. Equanimity is the key.
There are about 30 males taking this Vipassana meditation course with me, and around 50-60 females. Half the people on the course are Old Students, people who have done at least one ten-day course previously, and I am grouped in the New Students category. At the start of the course we promise to adhere to five precepts for the following ten days:
– to abstain from killing any being
– to abstain from stealing
– to abstain from all sexual activity
– to abstain from telling lies
– to abstain from all intoxicants
Fine, fine. I can promise these things. Not squashing mosquitoes will be a challenge, but I have repellant. As well as the precepts, there are other rules to follow:
– No physical contact with anyone
– No writing
– No reading anything that isn’t affiliated with the course
– No communication devices
A locker is provided to deposit anything stimulating into. There is honesty involved, as the staff don’t check bags, but one remembers that one has abstained from telling lies. I deposit everything except clothes, sleeping gear and essential toiletries into the locker.
– Complete segregation of the sexes
Caroline is taking the same course, but we will have no contact whatsoever for ten days. This is very difficult, but we mustn’t look at each other. We are alone here.
– ‘Noble Silence’ at all times
That means no talking to anybody at all. No eye contact. No physical communication of any kind. You are to behave as if you are alone, and, in a way, you are. You may only talk to the teachers at designated times if you have meditation related questions.
The daily schedule is daunting:
4:00am – Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30am – Meditate
6:30-8:00am – Breakfast break
8:00-11:00am – Meditate
11:00-1:00pm – Lunch break (last proper meal of the day)
1:00-5:00pm – Meditate
5:00-6:00pm – Dinner break (fruit and drink only)
6:00-7:00pm – Meditate
7:00-8:15pm – Discourse (a video explaining the technique)
8:15-9:00pm – Meditate
9:30pm – Bed
The schedule is actually a little bit more broken down, and there are short breaks during the meditation hours, but for the purpose of simplicity, I’ve just listed the basic outline. Clearly, it’s a hell of a lot of meditating.
It’s day one. Throughout the day the teacher, Goenka, has been instructing the students via speakers in the main meditation hall. He tells us to focus purely on our breathing:
“Only natural breathing must be observed. Don’t change anything. If it is sharp it is sharp. If it is shallow it is shallow. It could be from the right nostril. It could be from the left nostril. It could be from both nostrils simultaneously. Just observe, observe. you are bound for success, bound for success.”
All day he repeats these instructions in a voice which defies characterisation. I finally settle on a cross between Emperor Palpatine, and Bella Lugosi’s Dracula. But Indian. And baritone. Occasionally he chants, and when he does his deep, often out of tune singing distracts me from my meditating. Never is this distraction more present than during his little gurgles, which he seems to enjoy immensely, and tacks to the end of most phrases. Imagine the sucking noise that a bathtub makes at the end of emptying, and then cross that with a long, guttural belch. I’m positive he does this to throw us off our practice.
Day two is the same, but now we have to observe sensations happening on the triangular area that forms the nose and base of the upper lip. Remember the amount of meditation there is per day in the schedule above? To save you counting, it’s about ten hours after breaks. Ten hours of sitting with closed eyes, trying to feel sensations on your nose and upper lip.
Day three is the same, but the triangle has shrunk to the base of our nostrils and the base of our upper lip. This focus is to “sharpen the mind,” but my mind is exploding with peculiar thoughts, and I need to keep pulling my brain back from the realms of chaos. It’s like 100 5-year-old children have been given bottles of Red Bull and cans of fluorescent spray paint, and have been turned loose in an art gallery.
Observing breath. Observing breath. Observing breath. Flashing colours. Shapes that don’t exist. Al Pacino with the mouth of a horse. Observing breath. Observing breath. A furby cuckoo clock. Observing breath. A black mountain that is also a triceratops, half of which is on fire. Observing breath. Observing breath. Mice made of wire conversing on a wall, wearing hats. Observing breath. Observing breath. Top half Basset Hound, bottom half slug. Observing breath.
Goenka’s instruction is starting to sound more and more like Doctor Seuss. He tells us – repeatedly – all the sensations we might be feeling on our little nose triangle.
“It could be hot, it could be prickling. It could be pulsing or itching or tickling!”
For me it is a pulsing buzz. How very odd, I think.
It’s day 4. I am ripped from my sleep by somebody calling my name. “..id? …vid, kay? Are you okay? David are you okay?”
“Wha? Wait,” I say, disoriented, and peer up to see a face looking at me over the wall of my dorm. We each have our own basic rooms, but the walls don’t reach the roof. Still, to see a face peering over the wall tells me that the owner is either very tall, or he is climbing in from the outside. We make eye contact and then he drops back behind the wall. I pull on my pants, go to the door, and unlock it, revealing five very worried looking Thai people. Teachers from the course.
“Are you okay? We are knocking, but you aren’t responding,” says one.
I’m so confused. Why am I being spoken to? What happened to the Noble Silence? I slowly realise that although I had been meditating in the hall at 4.30am and had then partaken in breakfast at 6.30am, after breakfast I had had crawled back into my room and fallen into a deep slumber. I had missed the reminder bell and hadn’t heard the knocking and calling at my door. I look at my watch and it’s 8.20am. I’m late for compulsory group meditation.
“We were going to call the hospital,” says one, still looking very worried. “Were you at breakfast?”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes. I just fell asleep.”
From that day forward I never lock my door, and I set my watch alarm (although once I sleep through both alarms).
It’s day 5. My eyes are closed, my body is silent, and I am perfectly still. This hour is called a sitting of strong determination. I must try not to move a muscle. From today onward there will be three of these sittings per day.
I focus on natural breathing for a couple of minutes, then, as the steadily advancing technique has taught me, I scan through my body from head to toes, looking for any sensation I can find, and observing it with equanimity. Soon, my brain starts nagging me.
David, I think something’s wrong with your legs. I’m just gonna check it out, okay?
Sure thing, brain. Just so you know, I’m not going to move them if they start complaining.
David, I just checked, and yes, it seems that there is some pain developing in your legs. Just give them a little stretch, and we can carry on as normal.
You should focus on something else, brain. I can’t feel any subtle sensations in my shoulder, and without those I won’t be able to release sankharas from my body, thus freeing me from the misery I didn’t realise I had. Perhaps you could look into that?
There’s serious pain happening now, David. I’m so sorry, but I can’t look at your shoulder. I’m too preoccupied with your legs. Just give them a quick stretch, and then we’ll take a look at your shoulder after, okay?
Maybe you’re right, brain. You usually are. But no, I’m not going to stretch my legs.
Don’t make me start screaming, David.
I need to breathe… just let me…
HELP! OW OW OW!! WHY, DAVID, WHY?
Must. Simply. Observe. Must…
AAAARGGH!!! SHITSHITHELP ME!! HELP ME!!!! BURNING KNIVES!
And so, defeated, I stretch my legs out. Checking my watch I note that it has been 40 minutes. 20 short of the hour. My brain calms down, and I am able to bring attention back to other parts of my body
Day 6 comes and goes. I am now able to sit still for a full hour, and am beginning to view the pain with equanimity. It is there. It will rise. eventually It will pass away. This is the universal law of nature (holy hell, this repetition must be getting to me…). Seuss returns.
“From the tips of the toes to the top of the head. From the top of the head to the tips of toes.”
I speak to the teachers on day 8.
“Hi.. ahem,” it’s been a while since I’ve used my voice. One teacher looks down at me with a smile, knowingly, from atop her raised platform. I am seated on a cushion on the ground. Behind me is a large, empty meditation hall, normally full of other students. Now there are just three of us. One teacher talks, the other remains silent, no doubt free-flowing though a total dissolution of her physical structure at a subatomic level, or some such enterprise.
“I just…erm, wanted to know if what was happening to me is… normal,” I stammer. The teacher keeps smiling. Proceed, she says without actually saying it.
“I was meditating last night, scanning from my head to my feet, and when I got to my legs they felt like… like… like a lava lamp. Like somebody was squeezing my thighs as hard as they could and moving that squeeze to my toes. It was as if everything inside was being forced from one end to the other. Then I realised that my legs were fully engaged – the muscles were completely tense… and I wasn’t sure if somehow I was deliberately doing this, because when I consciously relaxed my muscles the feeling went away. Is that normal?”
“It’s just sensation. It’s okay. Observe it.”
“Oh… good. I think.”
I’m not sure what to say next.
“The food’s really good here!” I blurt. She smiles again. And I leave.
It is true, the food here is amazing. It is advertised on the Vipassana website as ‘simple vegetarian food’, but it neglects to mention just how delicious it is; mushroom larb, fried tofu and peanut dip, tom yam, green curry, and the desserts; sweet coconut with ice and condiments, pumpkin with thickened coconut milk, ruby chestnuts… heavenly. There are also a selection of biscuits and bread to snack on, and a variety of drinks; teas, coffees, cocoa and juices. I don’t miss meat, but there is one clear moment when I realise that I’m not prepared to become vegetarian:
What light through yonder curry breaks? It is the east, and pork ball is the sun!
I stab the ball with my fork and hold it aloft in puzzled wonder. I am fooled. The small, brown ball in my curry is one of the many possible incarnations of tofu.
Day 9 rises and passes away.
Day 10 rises and passes away.
On day 11 Caroline and I are reunited, and both of us forget to resist the feeling of craving and attachment. Screw that.
By nature I am a very sceptical person, but I do like to experience things first-hand in order to form an opinion about them. Caroline and I have now finished our course, and both of us, although having had different experiences, have felt a slight, but positive change upon re-entering the real world. It’s very hard to explain, but it’s like a lightness combined with a more thoughtful tolerance of any given situation, and an enhanced physical sensitivity. Of course, this could all stem from 10 days of stimulation deprivation, hours of sitting motionless, and hearing only a single voice (Goenka’s) day in and day out, saying things like, “This is reality. This is harmony. This is peeeeeeeeacccccce,” and gurgling like a bathtub, but I do think that I’m more in tune with my body than I was before.
What did all this cost? All the meals, the accommodation, the lessons? Nothing. It is a free course. There are centres all over the world, and anybody can sign up. At the end, if you like, you can give a donation, which pays for food and maintenance for the next group of students.
Taking money out of the equation makes it a bit baffling. On one hand you have classic signs of a weird cult (chanting, deprivation, repetition, promises of peace and harmony), uncanny parallels to scientology (which I haven’t gone in to, but regardless, it predates L. Ron Hubbard’s nonsense by a couple of thousand years), and negative words for people who leave early (“Those who do not have strong minds”). On the other hand there is no man at the top suckling the gargantuan teat of money and power, dribbling squirts of false hope from his silver tongue down to the devotees below.
Goenka, the man who pulled Vipassana meditation from near extinction and spread it to the modern world – east and west – died two years ago. The people who cook, and clean, and teach the courses are all ex-students who aren’t paid, and choose to volunteer if they see a benefit in doing so. The technique has survived for 2500 years, being passed from teacher to student, and the teachers seem to genuinely have the students’ best interests at heart. Once you have learned the technique you simply go home with no strings attached. If you like it, great. Keep practicing, on your own, at home. No fees. No guilt. And no commitment to anybody except yourself. Knowing this makes you want to give it a fair trial. Caroline and I did, and we both think we benefitted.
There is so much more I could write about this surreal experience. I’ve really only touched the surface. Goenka’s evening video discourses alone are another several pages worth of entertaining musings, but I’ve tried to limit this post simply to (some of) my own experiences during the course. There are plenty of other bloggers who fastidiously go over everything pertaining to a 10-day Vipassana retreat, so why should I repeat their words?
Here’s the Vipassana website, where you can register for your own peculiar experience:
We took our course in Phitsanulok, Thailand.