Many times in my life things happen like this: I hear about something for the first time and my mind very often pays little attention to it. However, when I hear about it for the second or third time my mind starts getting interested.
This is what happened to Vipassana.
The first time I heard about it was in 2012. I was sitting in a little restaurant close to the beautiful lake Fewa in Pokhara/Nepal waiting for my food to arrive. I was just reading the book ‘The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama (that time I was more of an expert on the Art of Unhappiness). On the table next to me sat a young Dutch man. He commented on the book I was reading and we started talking. He told me that he had just been to a retreat where he was supposed to sit for around 10 hours without moving, 10 days without speaking a single word and no dinner. He also commented on the positive experiences he had, however, my mind being more focused on unhappiness during that time found it easier to remember the not so pleasant things he said about the retreat. Even though some part of me was interested another immediately put it on my “Make sure you never book something like that” list.
Anyway, over the next few years and within the circle of people I started finding myself in (and with whom I connected the most) the name Vipassana kept on popping up again and again. Still, pretty much every person I talked to, who had done Vipassana, described it as one of the hardest but at the same time most beneficial experiences.
Six years after I had heard about Vipassana for the first time (and quite a few ‘less demanding’ meditation retreats later) the time was finally right. The part inside of me that was interested overpowered the part who had put it on the “don’t be stupid” list.
I found myself on the official Vipassana website http://www.dhamma.org where you can find courses, which are now available all over the world.
Before I continue lets answer the question What is Vipassana? (I took the content from dhamma.org – because after all they are the experts)
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an Art Of Living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.
Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.
The scientific laws that operate one’s thoughts, feelings, judgements and sensations become clear. Through direct experience, the nature of how one grows or regresses, how one produces suffering or frees oneself from suffering is understood. Life becomes characterized by increased awareness, non-delusion, self-control and peace.
It all sounds very good, doesn’t it?
In Europe there are 17 official Vipassana centres. What really took me by surprise was that all of the courses in Europe were already booked out weeks and months prior to their start date. Really? What was going on? Was there a masochistic tendency in many people or was the course really that beneficial? Or had it to do with the current trend towards mindfulness all over Europe?
I soon made up my mind that I wanted to do my Vipassana course in Spain or France (to combine the hard work with some sunshine). Courses seemed to take place pretty much constantly, however, all the ones that accepted applications were already booked out and the ones that were still available did not accept applications yet. So I picked a course and set my alarm for the day when the course started taking applications. However, I made the mistake that I just set the alarm for the day, irrespective of the hour when the application opened. When I accessed the website a few hours after the course had opened I had to find out that there was already a waiting list – the course had booked out within an hour or two. Amazing.
So all it could do was to put my name on the waiting list – which I did for three different centres (two in Spain and one in France). The French rejected me pretty much straight away (and even told me off for not reading their website appropriately – which they were right about) whereas the Spanish just kept me on the waiting list for many weeks without any updates (could that be a cultural thing?) However, one night (I was just gazing at the stars close to the beach in Valencia) my stargazing was interrupted by a beep sound from my phone. And there it was. I had been accepted to one of the courses in Spain. Yay.
All I had to do now was to reconfirm my place – if you do not do that within five days they give your place to someone else, because there are always a lot of people on the waiting list.
How could you possibly prepare yourself for a course like that. Probably you cannot. At least that was my perception. All I did was increasing my daily meditation practice from 10 min to 13 min. Three days before the retreat I stopped drinking alcohol (that makes me somehow sound like an alcoholic) and for the last two days I stopped drinking coffee and eating sweets (which was unnecessary cause you could have coffee and sweets there – but still an interesting experience: gosh, how I missed coffee).
The centre had offered to arrange transportation from Madrid for a very reasonable price. When I arrived at the pick-up point two busses were already waiting (and for those who know me – yes, I was one of the last to arrive and almost missed the bus). When I stepped onto the bus almost all places were taken. I sat down next to a lady who greeted me with a big smile – usually not what people do when you take the seat right next to them (depending on the culture and on a few other determinants, of course). She was already a very experienced Vipassana meditator (this was her 12th retreat) which made her a really interesting conversation partner.
When we arrived at the retreat men and women were immediately separated – and this is how it stayed until the last day. There was a registration table for men on one side of the dining hall and one for women on the other side. We had to sign a few papers which kind of made us hand over our little lives to Vipassana for the next ten days (kind of, only kind of). For instance, we signed that we would not leave the course early but give this technique a fair chance for 10 days (obviously, if you really wanted to leave this was still possible – and a few people did – however, they really wanted you to make conscious choices and not just leave as soon as you encountered a bit of discomfort). We also had to hand in our phones, books, pens and notebooks and anything else that could distract us from our meditation practice.
After registration we moved into our rooms. The male and female residence area was completely separated. I was in a 6-bed dorm, which would be my home for the next 10 days.
There was a light dinner before the introduction session and we were being told that after this session the course would start – including noble silence for 10 days. No communication whatsoever – no talking, no sign language, nothing. (You were allowed to speak to the teachers or the servers, if you had any questions or needed any help – but you were not supposed to speak to any of the other participants). So obviously, just before noble silence started many people tried to get as much talking in as possible. During dinner it was so loud that it was almost impossible to understand the person next to you.
But it was also nice to make some friends before we started the experience. It made me feel more connected with them. And it kept my mind from fabricating creative stories about them during the retreat – so there were at least a handful of people with whom my mind had to stick to more realistic stories.
Even though the dining hall was one big room they put up a curtain right in the middle of it so that the ladies could not see the men and the men could not see the ladies.
After the introduction and the first meditation session the retreat officially started. The people you just had animated conversations with turned into moving bodies. In order to avoid any sign language most people just stared at the ground when passing by. When I got into my room I realised that I had only spoken to two of the girls. The other three were complete strangers (in a way) I would be sharing the room with. But then again, does a stranger become a friend only by communicating with them?
The centre I had been accepted to was the Dhamma Sacca, 2 hours from Madrid, in the town of Candeleda in the province of Ávila, with 10 hectares of rural land, protected from the north wind by the Sierra de Gredos mountains, and with stunning views of Pico Almanzor (2,592 m). It is still a very new centre which was only being opened in August 2016. With a capacity for 120 students and 30 servers it belongs to the large Vipassana centres. Due to the fact that it was still very new parts of it looked a bit like a construction site.
The kitchen/ dining hall and the meditation hall formed the centre of the retreat area. To one side there was the female and to the other side the male residential area – so that the only contact point between males and females were the dining hall (which was separated by a curtain) and the meditation hall (where there were separate entrances and a division of seats).
There was also a male and female walking area – which was very popular, keeping in mind that meditating involved not much physical activity.
What proved to be a bit of a challenge was the bathroom situation. Four rooms shared one bathroom – so approx 20-25 people shared one bathroom. Obviously, I can only talk about the female residence but there was ALWAYS someone in the bathroom. So, if for any reason you were in need of privacy to do one business or the other, that was almost impossible. More than once, I stepped into the bathroom and I heard a sighing sound from the direction of the WCs. Someone had potentially hoped for a moment of privacy and then I walked in and ruined it (it happened the other way round as well, of course). It was certainly a good place to get over the shame of doing something everyone does – because, if you could not, then you certainly had to spend quite some time and do some serious planning in order to tackle this problem.
This was the schedule for most days. 4am wake-up bell sounds hard? Yeah…it does.
And here is a brief and simplified version of what the meditation looked like:
Day 1 and 2: Focus on how your breath touches the inside of your nostrils – and do that for 10 hours a day.
Day 3: Focus on how your breath touches the little area below your nostrils (yeah, that area of the infamous Hitler moustache) in order to sharpen your mind even more.
Day 4-10 The start of the Vipassana meditation. Scan your body for sensations but stay equanimous. Meaning: whether you feel any amazing prickling, vibrating, pulsating sensations (and I am not only talking about the lower part of your body) or whether you feel severe pain in your legs, shoulders, neck or whatever, just notice it and move on to the next body part. Also from day 4 all the group sessions (3h each day) were turned into something that they called: the hour of determination. This meant, we were asked to not move our arms and legs and keep our eyes closed for one hour. While you do this meditation always keep the concept of impermanence in mind – everything arises and fades away. Nothing in this world is permanent.
Lets start with the personal challenges I encountered during the meditation retreat.
- Keeping the mind interested
If you struggle to concentrate on a single task ,like eating your food without doing anything else, than focussing your mind on the feeling of how the air touches the hair underneath your nose for 10 hours a day can almost drive you to insanity . It certainly was difficult for me. It usually went like this: Focussed my attention on the area, seconds later realised that the mind had gone shopping for shoes, brought the mind back to the area, moments later the mind started to send more or less interesting pictures of past memories (sometimes quite unusual pictures I have to say – but hey, it was trying hard to impress me), brought the mind back to the respective area, moments later the mind got really interested in the sound of the breath of the person behind me, brought the mind back… and so on and so on and so on. Another stragegy of the mind was to introduce a strong feeling of fatigue every time I entered the meditation hall. While I felt kind of okay outside this feeling of fatigue started as soon as I heard the word meditation. It was as if the mind tried to keep me from doing what I wanted to do. As if, there was something it did not want me to discover. Cheeky little thing – the mind is…
- Trying not to wait for the session or the whole retreat to be over
Each mediation session started with a recording of a chant and a few words by the late Mr Goenka, the foremost lay teacher of Vipassana of our times. And each session closed with a chant. And what did my mind do? It had quickly figured out how long approx .an hour was. So for the last 10 minutes of the hour or so my main task was to bring the mind back from counting the minutes or just waiting for the session to finally be over (there was also a strong urge to look at my watch, which was very hard to resist). Another occurence which made my smile a little were the words Mr Goenka often used when a session started: “start again, start again.” (he liked to repeat words, maybe knowing that the student’s mind was still absent the first time something was being said). Not only could I feel my mind screaming for help: “noooo, I do not want to start again” (especially later in the day and after already a few hours of meditation) but additionally, I could hear some deep breaths from the people around me – they might have gone through a similar experience.
- The toilet situation
Already mentioned above. The less you care, the easier your life, I guess.
- Stopping the mind from fantasising
Similar to what I have mentioned above the mind does have the tendency to fantasise. Quite often, after all the meditation sessions for the day were over, I officially gave it the allowance to do whatever it wanted to do. And it happily obeyed – for once. Separating males and females was certainly (for my particular sometimes rather naughty mind) a good measure. However, at least my mind is creative and flexible enough to find a ton of new exciting and exhilarating stories it can create. So sometimes it was really hard to bring the mind back from the vacation I had granted it.
- No dinner
You might have seen, when checking out the timetable, that dinner was missing. A typing error? No. There was no dinner. But that’s not entirely the truth. All new students (meaning students that did Vipassana for the first time) could get two pieces of fruit for dinner. Additionally, it was allowed to drink milk tea. Now, because the human species is quite clever (at times) I saw a few people turning dinner into a proper meal. They chopped up their two pieces of fruit and put them in a bowl, filled the bowl up with milk and added chocolate powder – and voila, there you have your dinner. Old students (nothing to do with age but rather with whether you have done Vipassana before) were only allowed to drink some lemon water – no real opportunity to cheat here, I guess.
- Sitting still for many hours
Another challenge was to sit still. Especially during the hour of determination we were asked not to move our legs and arms and in general, to move as little as possible and if we really had to move – to be aware of each movement. And this was hard. Usually, almost unconsciously we change a position as soon as it starts feeling uncomfortable. It sometimes is even hard to catch your hand before it almost automatically moves to your head were it had received a signal from your brain to itch. All of this is pretty much automatised, which certainly has its advantages. But if you, and not your crazy monkey mind, wants to be in charge then it is interesting to be aware of these automatisations so that you can choose whether you want to react to an impulse or whether you want to ignore it. Same with pain. Sitting still for many hours (usually without a backrest) certainly brings a lot of pain with it. People came up with all sorts of solutions for that. Many people built themselves castles made out of cushions to try to make it a bit more comfortable. After a while all the places next to the walls were taken, especially by tall people who suffered from back pain. Shorter people, it seemed, struggled more with their legs and you saw them with chairs (chairs without legs), little benches and the like trying to improve their situation. I guess, each person had to know their own limits – but sometimes it was good to push the limits a litte and not to immediately respond to every impulse or sign of discomfort. After class you could see many people stretching outside the meditation hall. All sorts of yoga poses, legs up, arms up, bottoms up… Once I even saw, while peeking over to the men’s quarter, one men walking on his hands and on his feet with a straight back. It looked a bit funny, but I am sure he enjoyed a good stretch.
- No phone, no internet
I am not advocate of a life without all modern gadgets but i did find it extremely liberating not to have any connection to the outside world for a little while. And had I missed anything while I was being cut off from “the world”? No, nothing at all. Life had gone on, all the craziness, all the good and the evil, all the photos of delicious lunches on social media, yeah, all of that and much more happened and I had missed out on it. And yeah, I felt OK about it. Most of the time we just read the news, get angry/frustrated/sad, post a photo on facebook and then continue with our lives. Would it not be much wiser to pick one or two things which we think need changing and really focus on changing these – in our own lives or whatever we feel is possible for us? Additionally, I realised that I spent much more time living in the present moment. I spent much more time watching the trees, the ants, other people (hopefully not in a creepy kind of way). And even though we were only allowed to talk to each other on the last day one could feel the connection that had built – even without words – during those 10 days. If we were allowed our phones it would have probably been a very different experience.
- The food
I always get excited about food. And if you feel you have not much to look forward to (this is how my mind saw it at times) at least there was food. Food was basic but healthy and good – and due to the circumstances it probably was even more delicious. Breakfast was usually bread and porridge whereas for lunch a salad buffet and some amazing vegan dishes and a tasty dessert were being served And well, dinner, yeah, dinner was rather unspectacular – however, even an apple (or the rare and much sought-after banana – people started queuing for food early just to get the bananas — ah, the ego, the ego) was much appreciated.
- The walking area
Another highlight certainly was the walking area. There were two walking areas. One for women and one for men – far apart, so that we could not see each other – start fantasising about each other or jump on each other (I don’t know if this would have equalled reality, but the mind… the mind). The female walking area started at the female residence, lead down a little hill, passed through some trees and then lead to a meadow full of flowers and fern. Right next to it were cows that wore bells around their necks grazing, which gave it a very nice background noise. Anyway, walking in the walking area was one of the exciting things to do. First of all, what a relief to move your body. Even though you were not allowed to run many people did a lot of fast walking – just to get a little bit of exercise in. Additionally, and with a limited choice (and a crazy mind), the whole walking area turned into a real adventure park, it was a bit like a walk through the jungle where you do not know what was going to happen next. There was a lot of wildlife. The most exciting animals were surely the ants – if you watch them for a while you will probably also be amazed! But there were also many other insects, birds and I even saw a snake one day. And there were ticks, lots of them. All part of the adventure. Will I survive? Will I end up with a disease? Obviously, the walking area was also a very popular spot, hence quite often you walked in a stream of people. However, early in the morning or late in the evening or during meditation times (how do I know about this??) you sometimes had it all to yourself (as in no other human beings).
- The discourses
Certainly, my biggest highlight every day were the teacher’s discourses every evening at 7pm. Not only was the main part of the meditation over, but it was also a good time to relax (well, sitting was still as painful as before, but at least your mind did not have to do any work). The group was being divided for the discourse. In the main hall they played the Spanish audio, other languages could be listened to via headphone and in another small hall there was the English group – which were the lucky ones who watched the original recording on TV. Honestly speaking, I am not sure whether I would have stayed if I had not watched the English discourse. Like many other highly accomplished meditation practitioners Mr Goenka had a fabulous sense of humour and it was also kind of a stress relief, after hours of meditation, to just laugh out loud during the discourses. He knew exactly what we, the students, were going through and made fun of many of our struggles (e.g. “so you know you do not get dinner – I know what you will do. You will eat double the amount for lunch” — uhm, yeah. Damn, it. How did he know about it). The people who had listened to the audio translations told me after the course that all the humour had gone lost. Maybe it was not really what he said, but how he said it that made all the difference.
- “I did it” feeling
One thing I was sure of before I started the course was that I would see it through, no matter what. Even though it was hard at times (a few people left the course early) I did it. I did follow the schedule as best as I could. I always got up at 4am (OK 4:20am) and except for one time (where my mind went on a complete strike and I did my clothes washing instead) I took part in all meditation sessions. And yes, that was something I was a little proud of, because many times in my life I had walked away when things started to become uncomfortable – but not this time. On the last day of the retreat noble silence was lifted. After a short period of hesitation (does my voice even work after 10 days – isn’t it weird to speak to other people) it seemed 10 days of held-back ideas, suffering, joy, stress and whatever other emotion each person had gone through surfaced. It got so noisy in the dining hall that quite a few people escaped outside – just to get a bit of peace. Friends were being made instantly, because it seemed we all bonded over this experience – and all of the challenges we had been through. And we all were high on the feeling: I did it. We did it.
What Vipassana is not (I took that from the little Vipassana brochure we received – and added a few points from my own personal experience)
- It is neither an intellectual nor a philosophical entertainment. Yes, it is very practical and you have to work hard. It is not like reading a book and then lean back and do the things you always do.
- It is not a rest cure, a holiday, or an opportunity for socialising. To be honest, after a Vipassana retreat you might actually need a holiday ;). And even though there surely are a lot of interesting people participating, your main task is to focus on yourself – and not on others. Even though this is exactly what your mind suggests you to do all the time. It would be much easier, wouldn’t it?
- It is not an escape from the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Well, like with all retreats or similar events that happen in a sheltered environment the real practice actually begins after you leave. However, this kind of environment is wonderful to do some serious investigation, start with a practice and if possible, start forming new habits, which you will later be able to repeat in ‘real life”
- It is not a rite or ritual based on blind faith. I cannot really judge this. However, they do stress that you can pracise any religion and still benefit from Vipassana. And honestly speaking, I do not know how Vipassana could interfere with any religious belief. It is more like a practical method to work with the mind.
Who is Vipassana for?
- People who are interested in learning a technique that might help them eradicate – or at least limit their suffering by understanding how the mind works and how to influence how the mind works.
- By limiting ones own suffering and understanding how the mind works it might be possible that one can make positive contributions to society. Just imagine, if everyone would be able to not react to the impulse of anger or desire – but would make their choices from a much calmer point, maybe a few conflicts could be avoided.
- People who are interested in seriously giving this practice a fair trial. Who are interested in finding out how the mind works and who seriously see or would like to explore the benefits of working with the mind.
No doubt about it, a 10-day Vipassana retreat is a challenge. At times the mind might be telling you: “I hate this”. You might be tired, hungry and bored shitless. Your mind wants to escape to the colourful worlds of memories or fantasies about the future. And you have to say: no. But it is also a chance to really focus on your mind. To find out how your mind works, what it does to distract you. To see that you are not forced to react to every impulse. That it may be possible to sit for an hour without moving. That you can get up every morning at 4am. That you can do all of this for 10 days. That some of the things you learn can be beneficial for your own life – in the ‘real’ world.
Would I do it again? Maybe not this year. But yes, I could definitely imagine doing it again – as an old student then – with only lemon water for dinner. OK, I better don’t think about it. 🙂
Vipassana retreats are run by volunteers and only accept donations. So everyone can participate. Even if you can only pay 1 EUR you can participate. And if you want to donate 1000 EUR, you can do this too. No one is judging you for that. What a wonderful idea. What a wonderful concept.
Maybe something you want to explore for yourself – maybe not. 🙂