You may be curious about different types of meditation. Perhaps you’ve tried a few guided meditations or practicing mindfulness in an attempt to get closer to enlightenment or, at the very least, have a little more peace of mind and concentration of thought. The following is my own personal experience of Vipassana meditation which may help you in making your decision to attend a 10 day retreat.
Curious about Meditation
For a few years now I have been dipping in and out of meditation to try to establish some sort of routine that worked for me. I had read about the benefits of meditation and it seemed that many successful and prominent people value the practice in their daily life and attribute much of their focus, success, creativity and balance of mind to their meditation.
I had never taken any formal instruction on any particular type of meditation apart from a few minutes of mindful breathing at the end of a yoga class. I had also tried some guided meditations available online. But it was through a family member that I came to learn about Vipassana. All I knew of it was that there was a 10 day silent retreat that one could attend at no cost. However, if the participant felt that someone else could benefit from the course having finished their own course, only then could they make a contribution of any amount so that another might gain from the experience in the future.
As part of my on-going personal development I decided to sign up for the 10-day course to see what I could learn from it. Along with my confirmation e-mail was a list of strict guidelines that were to be adhered to during the course. While I was going there with an open mind I couldn’t help but think how I might cope with 10 days of silence without any interactions with others including eye contact, gestures or through writing. Having kept a diary of my thoughts for 21 years it bothered me that I wouldn’t be able to write about my experiences and offload my thoughts from the day onto paper. Determined to give it a fair try, I reluctantly left my diary at home.
Fear of being ‘Hangry’
Apart from the silence, I anticipated being hungry for most of the time! As a person who loves their food and is quite susceptible to being ‘hangry’ I worried not only for myself but for those around me, too! Much like a child, I need to be fed regularly or I get cranky and intolerable! Lunch would be served at 11am as the last meal of the day with only two pieces of fruit at 5pm if you were a new student. Only lemon water for ‘old’ students.
Meditation and Determination
To my delight, neither the silence or food was an issue! The food was actually delicious and plentiful and the 11am meal saw me through until breakfast the next morning at 6.30am. What I hadn’t anticipated was the monotony and boredom I would experience. Everyday was like groundhog day, waking up, doing the same thing, at the same time, surrounded by the same people. I literally counted seconds going by on my watch. There was more than 11 hours of mediation per day scheduled. 3.5 of those hours were compulsory sittings in the dedicated meditation hall or Dhamma Hall. During this time students were not allowed to move, open their eyes, hands or stretch their legs out for an entire hour. I appreciated the reasons behind this – to remain equanimous when observing the sensations of the body – but it was an incredible test of determination.
On day two I started to question what the hell I was doing there. As I thought ahead I realised that even in a weeks’ time I would still be there, doing the same thing, hopefully with my sanity intact but doubtful that it would be at the rate I was going. I actually saw a person leave that day and I envied their freedom and cursed the lucky *@%*!
On arriving at the centre on the first afternoon it is obligatory to hand over your phone, purse and car keys to the management. I began to understand why on that second day. I fantasised about getting in my car and speeding away from the place, not looking back, leaving my belongings behind! I didn’t care! I just wanted out! And it was only day two!
Another thing that all students must do is promise to abide by five precepts, eight for the old students. One of these precepts was to promise to abstain from killing any being. I thought to myself, is this really necessary to promise? Again, around day four I began to realise that yes, indeed it was necessary! I understood now why they ask students to promise not to kill any beings because the frustration is very real! Now, admittedly, it never crossed my mind to actually kill anyone but I found myself becoming more and more irritable. The way people walked began to annoy me, the way people coughed began to annoy me, the way people breathed began to annoy me!! While I never actually wanted to cause harm to anybody it did cross my mind to throw some soft furnishings at some individuals. Of course it really had nothing to do with the other people but more to do with the fact that I was irritated with myself.
Working the System
I soon discovered after a couple of days that I didn’t have to get up at 4am for the 4.30am sitting. I devised a system to increase the likelihood of keeping my sanity. When the bell rang at 4am I got up and dressed and went back to bed until the bell rang again at 6.30am. This signified that breakfast was being served, at which point I would get straight up out of bed and head for breakfast.
A few days in I began to crave something to read. In desperation I resorted to reading my shampoo bottle and I am happy to say I can now instruct people how to wash their hair in three different languages! I am glad to say I wasn’t the only one doing this! I witnessed at least two other people in my dorm room reading their bottles with great interest, in a bid to occupy their minds. That’s a testament to how little time we give to just sitting and being with our own thoughts. It’s seriously tough after a few days.
Breaking Noble Silence
It was an odd experience when we finally got to break our noble silence on the morning of day 9. In my quiet time I had given names and personalities to the ladies I had spent the last 9 days with. Some of their faces I had never even seen before. People were recognising each other by the colour of their trousers they had been wearing during the week. It was liberating to finally exchange our experiences, our ups and downs, and explain why I face-planted the bed a few days earlier in sheer desperation to communicate my frustration!
What I will take away from the retreat
It seemed that most people were leaving the retreat with something positive despite most of us being in tears at one stage or another. Writing this four weeks on, I think I can safely say that I will not be rushing back to sit another ten day course anytime soon. However, I can appreciate the benefits of such a practice. The most bizarre experience I had during meditation was when my physical body became nothing more than tiny parts of vibrating energy and I was no longer my body but only my mind. If that does not make sense I am not surprised! But that is the best way I can describe it. The other message I will take away from the teachings of Vipassana is that ‘This too shall pass’. I have realised the impermanence of everything in this life and to know that both the good and bad will pass given time.
Would I recommend it? Yes! Even after being close to losing my mind I would suggest to anybody to give it a try. Be warned though, it is not for the faint hearted or weak minded. You will learn a lot about yourself and besides, how often do you get the opportunity to be absolutely disconnected from the world for ten days? It’s both challenging and rewarding. If you do decide to go, stick with it until the end, as difficult as that may seem at times.
This too shall pass
So I encourage you to enjoy the good times and be as present as you can in those moments of peace and joy. Remembering, too, that when you are going through rough times, trust that they will also pass and that better times are on their way.