Vipassana meditation in the land of Dhamma
10 days of joy, silence, physical pain, emotional torment, doubt, brief fleeting moments. A question of self sanity, a battle between perseverance and determination, a challenge of concentration and focusing on awareness. To claim that going through Vipassana was a breeze would be an understatement.
I arrived on the first day and was introduced to my room mate, Katrina. We got along so well that my immediate concern was “how are we going to NOT talk for 10 days?” but we did it, we uttered NOTHING to each other throughout the whole period, compromising and living in silence. Never have I felt more close to someone that I have never spoken more than a day to. It was some sort of a special bond. But it wasn’t until later where we’ll learn that keeping the vow of silence wasn’t the most difficult part of the course.
& SO THE THE JOURNEY BEGINS…
The schedule was initially difficult to get used to. There would be over 10 hours of meditation a day, 2 meals a day before midday and none anytime after. Having to wake up at 4 in the morning wasn’t the tough part. Instead, it was the Command of the Gongs – responding to gongs that would determine the next thing on the timetable for the next 10 days. It felt almost as though I was running on auto pilot whenever I heard this sound; like a droid that was programmed to function and react to one specific sound alone. There was such a love-hate relationship with this sudden yet peaceful gong that would fade out ever so slowly, somedays, I’d rejoice when the gong meant that it was time for a meal, and other times I dreaded having to get up and march to the Dhamma hall for sittings.
We spend the first three days concentrating on breathing and our noses. This is when we experience all sorts of body aches and figure out which positions would be best for long hours of sittings. After which we start to observe any sensations. It starts with nothing initially because I was unable to grasp the concept, but it slowly evolved and I understood my task – simply to observe. I recall succeeding in my first full hour of meditation without distraction.
Falling sick halfway through the course was the real test of my determination. I haven’t had the flu in ages, and somehow it couldn’t have attacked my immune system at a better timing than midway through a meditation course. I was close to giving up on the third consecutive day of being ill, after having rolled tissues stuffed up my nostrils, and the inability to breathe or even feel snort dripping down on my upper lip. The only focus was the throbbing in my head and the teary eyed sneezes that overwhelmed me and served as a distraction to others. I brought in a fresh packet of tissues to each sitting, and left with an overly stuffed pack of fluffed up tissues with germs. Never in my life have I ever used that much Tiger Balm, or felt like my life was depending on it. Because of the dreadful flu, I had to excuse myself from two sittings that day to lay down in my room after having a fever. I was frustrated, helpless and felt absolutely horrible for disturbing other meditators with obscene noises of intense nose-blowing. But no, I told myself not to let this take me down, and I did get better and recover slowly but surely. I returned from a post-lunch walk one day to find some nasal drops left outside my door, which I later found out was given to me by Andrea, the lovely neighbour that felt sorry for me being so sick. Such kindness in silence ! 🙂
We also get discourses at the end of each day, where we were showed daily videos of Goenka talking about the technique. The days get harder, then easier, then difficult again. I recall Day 6 being one of the tough days because, #1 Goenka said so, #2 because this was when I started to get really ill and #3, because we were served rum and raisin ice cream without the rum at lunch (what a treat!)
Break times were my favourites. Most people choose to nap between post-meal breaks, but many times I struggle with naps, falling asleep only when break time is almost over. Hence I spend that time pondering, doing laundry, spacing out at the balcony and things that kept me sane. I took many walks after meals, brushed my teeth more than I should have, making sure I scrubbed each pearl thoroughly, tweezed the stray fine hairs off my eyebrows. Evidently, 10 days worth of break time was a lot of free time given to do absolutely nothing. Being rid of all entertainment mediums surely proved to be tougher than not speaking. Our mind simply doesn’t know how to comprehend nothingness these days.
In between over-grooming myself in free time, the challenge of avoiding eye contact with everyone I passed slowly became easier and easier. “Continuity is the secret to success” – this signboard was the first thing I noticed when I arrived at the centre for registration. The self realisation that if I persevered on the initial struggles, things would gradually become easier, and it sure did.
The days go by and slowly my mind starts to wander a lot more, all the thoughts I chucked at the back of my head has now emerged. I break down in the pagoda cell one day thinking about my mother, I laughed at the thought of sharing silly stories with friends, (like how I slipped and fell with mud all over my pants and the inability to explain myself to people who think I shat myself thanks to the vow of silence). I feel super energised and positive one day thinking that I can become a better person, and the next day my mind was filled with random negative thoughts about the littlest things. This crazy wide range of emotions getting in the way of my concentration was sure challenging. I never had to face my problems the way that being in isolation for 10 days forces me to. And when I finally did and embraced it, it felt as though a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders and this happiness, this lightness in my mind secretly made my tear ducts excited.
We end the course with metta meditation – a meditation of care, concern, tenderness, loving kindness, friendship; a feeling of warmth for oneself and others. Where we wish all beings to be happy, with no expectations of anything in return. This made me feel really good and positive, which was a really good way to end the course. The vow of silence could be broken after metta bhavana. “is it over?” was the first real words that I croaked out, and Alix bursts out into laughter right in the silent Dhamma Hall. It was such a liberating feeling to have after accomplishing something like this ! All of the foreign students talked to each other non-stop thereafter, we simple had SO MUCH to share and to ask each other!
To be honest, I thought I knew what I was going into – or rather, I was ready for the physical aspect of it. There was a certain level of preparedness as to what I was going to face coming into this. After months of contemplating vipassana, I finally showed up in Yangon with an open mind. But what I didn’t know was that it challenged me the most mentally. I predicted that being alone with my thoughts was trouble. There were issues in my life that I expected to ponder about, and somehow I was expecting them to all go away once I was done with the course. But this isn’t what vipassana is about. My issues are still very much there, the only difference now is that I’m able to see it from a new perspective and accept that things are the way it is. In fact, I was spending so much time focusing on concentration that my mind didn’t have the time of the day to think about my issues. Whenever I thought about anything else apart from meditating, I divert the attention back to concentration. But there are days that I just let it slip; allowing my thoughts to wander and engulf me emotionally.
There is no doubt that I took away values and understood how to live more harmoniously with myself, but I haven’t followed up with daily meditations since completing the course. It’s not easy to stick this kind of habit into my daily life as much as I wish I could. But if there’s one thing that I think people should know before they try vipassana for the first time, is that you shouldn’t be expecting to find something within yourself, or think that after completing the 10 days course, you’ll become someone different. Because I had such expectations after reading multiple websites/blogs about personal experiences, where everyone seemed to talk about their day to day experience and what they did. But what they failed to mention was that you don’t become someone else. Instead, you see things in different ways and learn new values, you understand the meaning of passing on happiness, eradicating suffering and showing compassion in places that you least expect. You will probably be a lot more patient with your thoughts, and understand the true meaning of impermanence. But these things within your mind could potentially revert back to the way it was if you don’t practice meditation or positive thinking within yourself and your own mind. Vipassana is serious stuff, and it makes me want to spread the practice to everyone I love but really, nobody should do it unless they’re truly ready to.
I’m going to end this with a bit of metta bhavana:
May all beings be safe.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be healthy.
May all beings live with ease.
P.S: In case you were wondering about the photos, they’re all taken after the completion of the course and after the vow of silence was over. Upon registration I locked up all my devices in the lockers provided and had no access to them throughout.