I admit: I sucked at meditating. I tried, I tried: alone, with meditation tapes, guided meditations, meditation at the Buddhist center, at yoga centers and just myself. I couldn’t sit still for more than a few minutes and had difficulty making it to 5 minutes meditating. 10 was an exciting day. 15 minutes happened maybe a few times. My meditation was a joke: it was more like sitting quietly trying not to fidget. Movement meditation worked well, but sit down once didn’t. For some reason I wanted to learn to meditate. When I heard about Vipassana I knew I needed it. 10-days of meditation in silence: that will challenge me, that will teach me. I didn’t know anything about the technique, but my heart knew I had to experience this. So I went in and today is my first day out from a 10-day Vipassana Silent Meditation Course… And yes, I can sit still and I can meditate now….
So what on earth is Vipassana?
Vipassana is one of the most ancient meditation techniques rediscovered by Gotama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It encourages us to observe the sensations of our bodies in the present moment in order to liberate ourselves from our suffering that’s caused by our cravings and aversions. It is an incredibly challenging experience referred to as a mental surgery by Goenka the teacher of my course.
Unlike many other meditation techniques Vipassana does not involve breathing techniques, visualization, guided imaginary, guided texts, mantras, religious figures, symbols and anything else. In fact, during a Vipassana course one must stay away from not only these other meditation techniques but also any other rituals, habits, psychological techniques, energy healing methods and whatever else we use. Vipassana is supposed to be a stand-alone technique and during the 10-day course one if required to give it a 100% shot without the disruption of any other technique or belief. It is believed that while other techniques – mantras, visualizations, breathing techniques – help to concentrate and calm the mind they work only on the surface whereas Vipassana digs deep to the roots of the mind cleaning up everything deep down therefore actually creating true happiness.
(You can read more about Vipassana and the course here.)
Again, it is a difficult experience, not for the faint-hearted and not for everyone.
Admittedly these 10-days were extremely difficult for me but it was definitely worth it. I am incredibly glad that I did it:
*I am incredibly proud that now I can sit straight and still for 1 hour (several!!! – many!!! – times a day) meditating. Whether or not I continue to use Vipassana or learn another meditation or visualization technique this will be helpful. I am so happy and proud of myself as before I could not sit still for 5 minutes (gosh, even for 2 minutes).
*I experienced silence in my brain, just observing, existing and being in the moment.
*I got to know my body in a different way, sort of on an energetic level.
*I had many break-throughs, recognitions, worked through some blocks and continued working on some traumas from the past, many downs, some ups, deep looking inside, deep work…and coming out in the end… I am incredibly HAPPY and PROUD right now.
Some difficulties and challenges I expected and/or encountered:
Noble silence, no communication: During the course we have to keep noble silence. This means talking, no touching, no smiling, no eye contact, no gestures, no nothing. Obviously no phone and no internet. And no writing or drawing… Not talking wasn’t difficult (as needed we could talk to our teacher and manager keeping it short and to the point), but not being able to write was. I am a writer, I even like taking notes! Journaling is an important tool for me… Having writing taken away from me was tough and I missed it. But I had to learn to deal in a different way and really use Vipassana. It worth but it was tough.
No running, lack of exercise & constant sitting: During the course you can’t run or do any crazy exercise but are limited to walking in the small walking area (though many did some yoga). I knew it would be tough but it was incredible tough not being able to run. I started walking laps around the walking area during breaks while most people were laying around or perhaps doing yoga moves. I knew people thought I was nuts – they did question me after breaking the silence – but I didn’t care. For me, I was walking slow actually. I am generally active, I run a lot, walk place to place and include pilates or something as I feel like it. Being limited to this little walking was nothing and challenging for me. Sitting for 10 hours a day I also needed to move. In my mind laying around in grass was crazy. People are different I guess…
Food & digestion: The food was a challenge again. Breakfast was served at 6:30 am, lunch at 11 am and at 5 pm we got one piece of fruit (old students actually got their fruit in the morning because they were not allowed to eat past noon). Being limited to one piece of fruit (sometimes not even an entire piece!) was tough for someone who lives on fruits and veggies. Otherwise, while the food was vegetarian it was challenging for me. Breakfast was porridge, oats, corn flakes, bread, jam, cinnamon and cocoa powder. I not only hate porridge but it leaves me with an ill, bloated feeling completely sick so I skipped that. I found that oats and the corn flakes didn’t work well either, neither did the white bread. In the end, I ended up picking out raisins from my oat mix (it was oats and some raisins, sometimes even dried bananas), some jam and cocoa power bothered me the least. Occasionally a bite of a bread too. Health coaching clients: this is not something I recommend as a healthy diet, I would never eat this way, but this bothered me the least. It was interesting to observe myself eating this weird combination… For lunch there was often soup, some hot dish (potato or pasta usually) and salad (in the beginning it was plain lettuce but eventually they discovered that adding cucumber, carrots and pepper is not a bad thing). Eating soup as a starter is a normal Hungarian habit I left behind fourteen years ago. Trying it I discovered that it wasn’t working with my system. I ended up having salad for lunches and depending on the hot meal I ate some of it too. I didn’t eat much but strangely I was never ever hungry during the entire time (except on day #7 I got incredibly hungry around 7 pm). My stomach wasn’t tolerating the lack of fruits and the unusual eating schedule. I started dreaming about fruits. It was tough.
Chocolate: Chocolate is not only my weakness but my not so healthy choice of escape. This year with all the happenings (eg. my grandma’s death) I started ‘using’ chocolate as a tool and as an escape more than I would like to admit. I thought this would be the toughest part. I was dreading withdrawals as well. Strangely I not only had no physical withdrawals but I didn’t miss it at all. Now I have to think about what it is about chocolate when it’s available.
Loss of freedom: This was very difficult. As a nomad and traveler, one who follows her heart and is rather independent I value and need my freedom. Here I lost all freedom: I had walls around my, a strict schedule, set meal times, set meals, no choices or anything. I could not control and I could not move freely. I knew this would challenge me but it was much more difficult than I thought it would be.
Waking up at 4 am and the schedule: The gong went off at 4 am every morning and the meditation started at 4:30. In the beginning I want up to the hall but in the end I stayed in the room. Not once, but the very first and very-very last day I managed to make it through the entire 4:30 – 6:30 session. I ended up napping, falling back asleep, being ‘awake-sleep’ and just putting my head down. Interestingly enough I was not tired the rest of the day. I felt rested but was ready to sleep at 9:15 after the last meditation each night and slept soundly till the gong.
In case you are interested, on most days this was the daily schedule:
4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00-12:00 Lunch break
12 -1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room–Lights out
And now, here is my detailed experience:
Day #0: We all arrived on August 13th (I was able to catch a ride with some awesome people), got our rooms assigned, were taken our means of communications (phone, laptop, tablet, pen, pencil, paper, notebooks and so on) and personal belongings we needed to kept safe (keys, wallet etc), had a light dinner then the silence began with our first evening meditation. Obviously there wasn’t anything crazy, scary or difficult this evening though it was already challenging trying to sit through a meditation.
Day #1: With the 4 am gong the day started…and it didn’t want to end. The day before it was still extremely hot in the high 80s but by the morning the temperature dropped to the 60s (or even 50s? obviously I couldn’t check the weather). It was cold, grey, rainy and depressing. The day was dragging. Sitting through a session (heck, sitting for 5 minutes) was difficult and uncomfortable. I started to feel like I was in a prison. I wanted to cry and leave. Why did I do this to myself? Seriously?! I felt like a prisoner. A caged animal in a zoo… My muscles were getting more and more sore by the minute. Sitting was difficult. Focusing was difficult. My mind was racing. I was having some great conversations, fights, pity parties, screaming and crying inside my brain. I didn’t know what to do with myself. The day seemed like a year. Or longer. Somehow it ended though.
Day #2: Apparently it is one of the most difficult days (besides day #6), but for me it was a little easier psychologically. The day passed quicker, perhaps because I knew the schedule already. Maybe because it was less rainy? However, physically this was the most challenging day. EVERYTHING was hurting: I mean everything. All my muscles. I couldn’t sit or stand in a way I wasn’t in extreme pain. How will I survive this?! Even after my marathon I wasn’t in such pain. I also had difficulty focusing. Focusing on my breath, the air, the sensations and keeping my eyes closed. My mind constantly wondered of thinking, day-dreaming, talking, chatting, arguing, crying, yelling and debating. Why am I here? I questioned if this was a good idea. I knew I would not leave but I had no idea how these 10 days would ever end. Ever…
Day #3: Physically it was easier. The extreme pain from my muscles was gone. I had mild soreness and some bad pain here and there but nothing compared to the day before. Focusing on my breath (doing Anapana) was easier as well though my mind was wondering off and chatting away still. But the prisoner-life started to get to me. I actually saw a girl running a few laps around the walking area in the morning so I decided to try during lunch. I took my lunch, put it in my room and went running. I ran about 5 minutes and started to feel better: I can sneak in 5-10 minutes of this every day, it is nothing yet something. I got caught of course and was told not to do it. This is when I started my apparently crazy walks: walking up and down and around the walking area at breaks trying to get some movement in. I wanted to cry: I am in a prison, locked into this tiny place, can’t run, can’t walk fast, can’t eat what I want, can’t write – I can’t do anything. As a traveler, I need my freedom. Sometimes I feel this is all I have. And I lost it. Why am I in a prison? I put myself here… Why did I put myself in this prison? Oh, but it’s not a prison: I can leave and I electively choose to be here. But why don’t I leave? Why am I here? How can I use this time? How can I survive? What is the point? Will this ever end? This is only day #3… My mind was clearly racing…
Day #4: On this day we actually started Vipassana. It was actually somewhat exciting. It was something new. Scanning my entire body was also more interesting than watching my breath. I felt more focused and actually for the first time ever I sat through an entire hour without movement. Okay: I moved my arms, stretched my back and moved my neck, but I was still sitting in the same position from waste down. I was excited for day #5 coming up and soon being half-way done. I wasn’t happy by all means: I still felt like a prisoner, I still missed running and writing. But I felt more hope: I can deal with this.
Day #5: It was an interesting day. I had lots of ups and downs. For one: senna tea works but also causes extreme stomach pains and the worst cramps. Lesson learned: never again. I also had a very interesting experience. Despite being around people at all times I obviously wasn’t able to communicate: no talking, no smiles, no touch, no eye-contact and no nothing. The first days I did entertained myself people-watching: seeing people’s habits, reactions, analyzing and also creating stories. The former-psychologist-social researcher and current health and life coach in me loves to observe people’s behavior and emotions, loves to analyze and to understand and the writer in my loves creating stories. But the point of Vipassana is to look inwards so eventually – by Day #4 maybe – I was able to completely give up on this habit. I somewhat still noticed people, but I stopped analyzing, understanding, judging, questioning and making up stories. I started completely looking inwards. As far as looking at someone and having eye contact goes the only person I had any interaction with was myself. I started looking into my eyes as washing my hands or brushing my teeth. I started looking at my body in the mirror as waiting in line at the bathroom – and certainly not to check out how pretty I looked in my baggy meditation approved clothes. I started noticing my body more and differently than before. (I’ve been working on positive body image and developing a better and better relationship with my body anyways, but this was different: less conscious, more natural.) Once as I looked into the mirror I actually found myself beautiful. I felt deep love and compassion for myself. It was an unexpected and random thing as I was washing my hands but I will not forget. Otherwise with stomach pains it was a tough day, but it passed. Anicha (impermance of things, this is a word that we heard about 100 times a day).
Day #6: This is supposed to be a tough day: day #2 and #6 are supposed to be the most difficult once. And oh god, it WAS a tough one. First, I woke up with stomach pains. Uh. I got my period (sorry, tmi, but hey, I am a health coach). Way early. It is great news about not having babies, but it wasn’t welcome, it was early… Yay for new situations and living with many women throwing my system off whack. Anyways, anicha. It will pass. The entire day was dragging, full of sadness, dragging and I felt like it will never end. Day 10 will never come. Then the silence broke… We have already noticed that we had a mouse in our room but after the last meditation a few of my classmates got overly anxious about it. We were still not talking but looking for the mouse together. Eventually I decided it was silly and went to bed. Another girl did the same when she noticed the mouse on her pillow… This is when the craziness started. We were all looking for the mouse as it went into my shelf running through my clothes, climbing into my backpack, running away and so on. We called the manager and with some other servants they started ‘hunting’ for the mouse. They eventually got it. It was crazy and funny: and yes for a few minutes the silence broke. It was needed: it brought some life into my world again.
Day #7: It was a tough day again. I knew the end was coming. There was only 3 days left yet it seemed so far away. The day was a crazy emotional roller-coaster: I was sad, frustrated and angry then felt high and happy from a meditation session just to fall into deep depression then into happiness again and so on. A lot of things came up from deep down: happiness and sadness. It was a long and tough day. Meditation was getting easier. My mind was becoming quieter and less talkative (less chatty, less argumentative, less analyzing, less planning, less conversations, less craziness entertaining my brain). I was noticing things more and more mindfully. I was more present, yet I was having a tough time.
Day #8: It was finally an easier day. Except for one thing. Meditation was getting easier and easier: I was able to observe my body better and better, I felt more and more focused, and sitting still was nearly no problem. My mind got quiet too. Okay, not for the entire day, but several times I felt quiet and still. I heard the birds, the cars, the wind, the train, noticed the people, the animals, the sky but I didn’t feel distracted: my brain wasn’t talking, but it was noticing. Unusual and new experiences for me for sure. I also had a low point. My grandma died in the Spring which I still have a difficulty dealing with and I honestly never cried my heart out. During Vipassana her death and my feelings around it came up rather often and I cried several times. On day #8 I completely broke down during an afternoon meditation. (The day after I actually received some great advice from our teacher how to deal with this through Vipassana.) This was the low point but generally it was an easier day.
Day #9: I was getting quite excited that we were winding down to the end. I was ready for this to end. The last day was coming and we were told the silence will break after the morning session. I was ready to be done with meditation. Possibly because of this but things went well, easily and smoothly: I was sitting still and focused during meditation, was mindful, enjoyed my mindful ‘crazy walk’ and was excited when I went to bed… Only until the morning…
Day #10: I nearly broke down crying when I saw the schedule. Knowing that we would break the silence after the morning session I expected no more meditation. The board stated otherwise: after breaking the silence (meaning: we could talk but not touch) we would still have several meditation sessions and lectures and on the top of that day +1 (day of leaving) we would still have a 4:30 am 2-hour meditation session before breakfast and leaving. My heart sank. I wanted to die and go home. Why? Day #8 was good, day #9 went so well…why can’t we just stop. No more meditation. No more Goenka! Let me go. Then I took a deep breath. Anicha. It will be. Now, I actually understand how it was benefitial to add the meditation sessions in. After breaking the silence it seemed impossible to meditate: too much stimulus, too many thoughts. But it was possible and it was good. It was a good way to show a glimpse of real life and show how it is possible to meditate during a busy day of racing minds. We also learned the mata meditation for lovingkindness and happiness. Breaking the silence was awkward at first but also great. All the people around me that I first analyzed and created stories around and later didn’t notice… We lived, suffered, worked and meditated next to each other yet without communication we didn’t know each other. The human experience came back to our lives and we learned about each other. I met some awesome people.
Day # +1: Waking up at 4 am was tough. But somehow we got through the morning session, had some nice chats during breakfast, packed and left. I got a ride back to Budapest again and got to know 4 amazing woman during the ride. I got home happy. I was ready for my run, my fruits and got back online (spending way to much time here) catching up on life. Strangely I had fruit at 5 pm (randomly), wasn’t hungry for dinner, meditated (no joke!) and passed by the chocolate aisle like a champ.
It is suggested to meditate twice every day: minimally 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the evening. It is suggested not to mix Vipassana with any other meditation or healing technique…
It is for certain that 1 hour of meditation twice a day will not be part of my day anytime soon. Maybe 15-20 minutes twice a day or 15-30 (even 45) minutes once a day. That sounds more reasonable.
I definitely plan on continuing to meditate but I may want to experiment with other techniques too. For now I will stick with Vipassana for a while, as I am familiar with it, but I am not against, in fact open to and more than happy to learn other techniques. I will certainly not give up my other tools like journaling or affirmations or gratitude.
Vipassana will be part of my practice but not yet certainly how strongly.
I am certainly not running back to a course anytime soon, but I am hoping to serve maybe next year. Then see. No plans just following my heart.
Generally I am grateful for this experience and so proud of myself. I certainly benefitted from it and incredibly glad I did it. Only life will tell.
(Written: August 24, 2014)