You should all treat me like a Buddha now
My experience as a first time Vipassana Meditation student!
I’ll try and keep this short – but to be honest it’s probably going to be pretty long! Haha!!
I arrived at the Vipassana Center in Worcester (a couple of hours outside Cape Town) Saturday November 1st to register and settle in. We got our own room and bathroom - which felt like a luxury as I've been living in dorms during my trip. The room was simple, but clean and more than big enough for me. And the view around the center was breathtaking with big beautiful mountains and fields.
By five o’clock we had to hand in all our electronic devices, books, music and writing material, and get ready for 10 days without talking, reading, working out or having any contact with the outside world. The only place to turn was inward. I was very exited and couldn’t wait to get started. And then suddenly the sound of the first gong bell echoed in the air, signaling that our first meditation was about to begin.
All the students walked in silence into the meditation hall where we were guided to our own personal spot with a pillow setting with our names written beneath. Approximately 25 men and 25 women were divided on each side of the hall, where we were going to spend around 12 hours a day meditating for the next one and a half weeks.
I struggled not to laugh
Shortly after, a white clothed man entered the room and sat down in front of us on a high chair, that reminded me of a throne, overseeing us all. He didn’t say a word. No one did. The deadly silence was a little bit uncomfortable and - surprise, surprise - I got a sudden urge to laugh. But before I made a fool out of my self, a loud deep voice suddenly boomed out from big speakers in the room. This was my first meeting with the famous S. N Goenka, an Indian-Burmese Vipassana teacher. When he started chanting, the giggles inside of me grew stronger and stronger. That’s how childish I am!! I peeked around me to see if anyone else struggled to keep a straight face, but everyone seemed deadly serious and deeply concentrated, so I felt all alone in my immature world.
You don’t need any previous experience with meditation before applying to join the course, but although I’ve practiced a little bit on my own (nothing serious) I felt like I was the only one who had no clue what on earth I had signed up for. I’m so judgmental that I was positive it would only be crazy yogis and old people doing this course, but the age was actually mainly between 30 and 40 (shut up, that’s NOT old).
The first one and a half day, all we did was practicing on one specific way to breath through our nose, and to feel different sensations in our face without reacting to them. Every day after that, new instructions were given by Goenka that we needed to do our best to learn and follow. We only learn the basics of the technique during the ten days and it's not that hard, what's hard (too me at least) is to be disciplined enough to sit in one position for an hour straight with minimum of movement and concentrate on meditating. It’s freaking exhausting. My mouth went dry, my thoughts started wandering, my back and legs where aching so much I wanted to cry out in pain, and I got bored as fuck doing nothing else than trying to meditate for 12 hours a day!!
During those hours I planned my next five birthdays (you’re all invited) and made up names and life stories for all my fellow female students. I didn’t even mean to do it. It just happened. It’s strange to live in a little community with 25 other ladies without knowing anything about them. Not even their names. And it’s crazy to see what your mind comes up with just to try to control you and make sure you don’t meditate. Sometimes I snapped out of my fantasy stories after a little while, and sometimes I didn’t want to because I had so much fun making up drama in the new lives I created for the girls.
I was flying
After a few days the meditations turned pretty intense for me. It was exhausting to be in the middle of it and a couple of times I felt like I literally took off from my pillow and was floating in the air. That actually got me really exited! I felt like I was one of the best students to pick up on the technique. Very close to enlightenment - already by day four.
To my big surprise the teacher wasn’t impressed at all. He asked me to open my eyes and snap out of it if it felt scary. But it wasn’t scary. It was the most fun I had the last days and now he was being an asshole about it. (We were allowed to talk to the teacher for a few minutes during the day if we had any concerns or question about the technique – that’s why it’s called ”noble silence”).
Every day the morning wake-up bell goes off at 4. am, and by 4.30 you need to be placed on your pillow in the meditation hall where you spend the next two hours. Breakfast is served between 06.30 and 08 and then it’s three new hours of meditation. Every hour there are small breaks so you can stretch your body, go to the restroom or get some water.
I really enjoyed the food though. It’s different vegetarian dishes and we even got chocolate cake and other yummy stuff a few times.
It’s hard to actually explain everything we went through and learned these ten days. I think everyone has to experience it for them selves and make up their own mind if this is something for them or not. But the Vipassana technique means to observe your physical sensations without reacting. If your nose is itching, you are not to scratch, but wait until it passes. It’s to demonstrate that nothing is permanent - everything changes, and a tool to help embrace the present moment without clinging to the great things or trying to escape the not so great things.
I've been dealing with a bad back and a slip disc for the last two years, so one of my biggest concerns doing this course was fucking up my back even more - by sitting dead still hour after hour trying not to move a bone in my body during meditation, and sleeping in a bed on a thin mattress. I’ve tried everything to get better; Chiropractor, osteopath, physical therapy, healing, Pilates and different types of workout.
And it WAS painful for my back and legs to sit in these strange positions most of the day. After half an hour it felt like a big freaking snake was eating up my body. Crawling up and down my back and right leg with an almost unbearable burning pain. I nearly cried a couple of times, but tried to sit in the pain, not giving it attention and focusing on other sensations in my body, like we were told. In the beginning I gave in when it got too intense, but every day the size of the imaginary snake grew a little smaller – and by the last day it had almost disappeared.
I know I probably sound like a crazy person saying I got rid of my back pain through meditation, but it’s totally true. I can’t even describe how happy I am about it, but it’s definitely the most AMAZING thing I got out of the whole experience!!
They say the second and sixth day are the hardest. For me it was day eight. By that time, I felt I had worked so patiently, but was also so ready to get out of there that two more days with 12 hours of meditating and nothing else to do, almost felt like torture. At the same time it’s strange how fast you get used to the routine life when you live there, and people actually sign up for 30 and 45 days too.. Still not lying!! But you can't do that as a first time student.
Vipassana is not a religion or a sect. But sometimes it sure felt like it was. All these rules we had to follow (we were given a pamphlet with carefully written instruction and guidelines on how to behave, and what to do and not to do while at the meditation camp). The teacher sitting on his "throne" - like a king, rarely spoke while supervising us. And he made his assistants run after students who left the meditation hall to pee or stretch an aching leg during group meditation, and bring them back immediately.
May all humans be happy
One of my favorite parts of the day was the discourse at the end of each night. The discourse is a 45-minute video message from Goenka where he explains everything we’ve been through during the day. You have so many questions and no one to talk to, but in an almost magical way he knows what’s on your mind and guide you through it with his wisdom, wit and amazing stories. I had a lot of great eye-opening moments during these sessions!
I also have to say that the people working at the retreat were GREAT (the teacher, the assistants and the kitchen staff). They were all volunteers, not getting paid a penny (and following all the same strict rules as the students), to help us learn the Dhamma technique in the best possible way, in hope of giving us a tool to get a better life.
They offer these Vipassana retreats all over the world to anyone who wants to try it, and everything is free of charge. They think that the more people that learn and practice Dhamma, the more people will be closer to live a life without misery and make the world a better place. The slogan is: May all humans be happy!
I was never afraid that I would quit and leave during my stay (and that’s also not really an option). Personally, I don’t think it was super hard, but I know some people think it can be difficult to be “all alone” with their thoughts and no one to talk to for so many days. I think it was a good mix between challenging, interesting, intense, frustrating, boring and eye opening. AND I’m blown away by the fact that I got rid of my back pain!! That’s just insane!!
I would recommend taking this 10 days’ course to anyone who is interested in or curious about meditation, self help, mental development and personal challenge/change.
It’s already five months since I finished the course and I can without doubt say that this was a really good thing for me to do. It feels like I got back something that had disappeared from my life. A new kind of happiness that makes me feel more alive and precent. But the most amazing thing I got out of the retreat was getting rid of the back pain. I still can’t believe I’m totally fine as I kind of had a feeling that my back would turn bad again after a few weeks. I know I want to do the course again one day. Maybe already later this year
Anyways – go try out this 10 days meditation retreat!! That’s an order. From me and Goenka!
May All Humans Be Happy!!