I thought that not speaking for 10 days would be the hardest part. Nothing turned out to be more untrue. If I would have properly read up on the meditation technique of Vipassana, the 10-day course that I had signed up for, I would probably have known. Maybe I instinctlively sensed that it was better to let it surprise me, because if I would have known I were about to meditate for 10,5 hours a day (EVERY DAY!) for the length of the course, I am not sure that I would have gone.
Almost immediately at arrival I was confronted with yet another challenge that I could have been prepared for if only I would have done my homework properly. As soon as I had a good look at the daily timetable, I realised that there was something wrong, very wrong. An entire meal – dinner – was missing from this schedule. Coming from the Netherlands, where dinner is typically the most complete meal of the day, the idea of no dinner seemed just abominable to me. The most food-related words I could find around dinnertime were ‘tea break’ (at 5 pm). I inclined with the management, who informed me that for new students one piece of fruit was served during tea-time. I must admit that I suddenly wasn’t so sure about this whole Vipassana thing anymore. How was I going to survive these 10 days without dinner? Clearly I still had a long way to go until enlightenment.
Despite the fact that ‘they’ showed us mercy on arrival day and served us a light vegetable soup by means of dinner, I passed out during the first half hour of the first morning meditation the next day. Overwhelmed by the early hour, heat and hunger, dreaming of richly stuffed tacos covered with a criminal amount of cheese, everything went black. Once again I felt hopelessly far removed from illumination.
Practicalities aside, let’s talk spiritual things. Day 1-3 of the retreat were all about getting into the rhythm and finding focus. I must admit that it felt a bit ridiculous -and rather self-involved- at the beginning doing nothing but to observe my own breath for more than 10 hours straight, but S.N. Goenka -our goodhearted Indian meditation god whose warm voice instructed us by means of an audiotape- assured us that it was of utmost importance. And, being a good student who had committed to submit myself to his wisdom for the length of the course, I decided to do as I was told. Quite to my surprise, I found myself sinking into a deep focus after a while. I guess that it’s not really like you have anything more important or interesting to do while you’re there, so you might as well give it a try. And, to be honest, I felt really quite relieved not having to worry about anything else than my own breath for a change. It was quite nice to have no phone, no empty chattering to overhear, no obligated conversations, no unnecessary information… Nothing more than just breathe and be.
I was just getting into the rhythm and quite starting to like this whole meditation thing, when day 4 came around. The timetable announced a change of schedule, and this was worrisome. After having felt slightly upset about this change in timetable all morning, I sat down for the longer-than-normal afternoon session, nervous about wat was in store. Soon after we started the otherwise so soothing and calming voice of our guru announced a change: “From now on,” he said in his deep voice, “you will remain seated in the same position for the entire group session.” He also said that we were no longer allowed to open our eyes during group sessions, but I was already not listening anymore. My worrying mind had taken over. The words that I had heard were that, even if I would be extremely uncomfortable and/or bored to death, there would be no escape anymore. I felt an uncontainable urge to move (run! run!) all of a sudden. How brutal to subdue us to such a horrifying rule! How quickly had my tenderness for our wise and all-knowing teacher turned into a deep hatred. I seriously wanted to travel through time and space and smash the man’s face!
In retrospect, I realise why my response was so extreme. In the moment itself however, I just felt overwhelmed by irrational and outrageous anger rushing through my vains. And as always when I feel angry, I started crying. Sobbing on the back row of the meditation hall, I felt utterly hopeless (and at the same time guilty for disturbing the public order and keeping everyone away from Nirvana). How different had I envisioned my journey towards enlightenment.
In retrospect -now that I find myself a little closer to illumination, that is of course- I also understand why Goenka was telling us to sit still: we had to learn to control our blind reactions towards sensations. One of the key-ideas behind the Vipassana technique is namely that all human suffering comes forth out of two basic responses toward our sensations: craving and aversion. Something happens and we either like it (and want to experience the same sensation again), or we dislike it (and want to avoid feeling that sensation in the future). Vipassana wisdom says that if we realise that all sensations have a passing nature, in other words that they arise just in order to pass away again, we don’t have to develop neither craving nor aversion towards them. We simply experience the sensations as they come, without clinging on to them or fighting them, and realise that they will pass away eventually. The idea underlying the technique is that if we can apply that principle physically, we can also apply it to the rest of our lives. Understanding the passing nature of things, one will neithered feel bothered by nor attached to things so strongly, and ultimately live a more balanced life. Moreover, as one will be more aware of one’s sensations and where they originate, one will reconsider one’s primary responses toward the outer world (and have more self-control).
Obviously, ‘resetting’ your response towards sensations (and especially towards ‘unpleasant’ sensations) is very, very hard and takes a lot more than 10 days. All the more because your ego, manifested in your body and mind, will do anything in its power to sabotage the change of this pattern. The ego feels that it is about to be dissolved, and so it fights back quite literally as if its life depends on it. For me, my ego pulled everything out of the closet in order to keep things the way they were. First, my mind tried the strategy of distraction. Meanwhile, my body was hurting all over, making it almost impossible to remain seated in the same position, but I resisted the urge to move. Then, when I was beyond the physical pain and it didn’t bother me anymore, my mind pulled another trick. I got terrible itches all over my body, as if there were milions and millions of ants crawling all over me. One can more or less control one’s response to pain, but not one’s reflexes. My legs went all sides and I must have looked like a drowning cat, but -realising that getting up was equal to letting my ego win the battle- I stayed right where I was. The key to success in Vipassana does not lie in having perfect concentration, but in remaining calm and equanimous under all circumstances and, luckily, Goenka did not fail to repeat this over and over again. I think that for the rest of my life, when in any sort of distress, I will hear the teacher’s deep voice in my mind, speaking his mantric words: “Have a calm and quiet mind. Equanimous mind. Alert and attentive. Alert and attentive.”
From day 4 onwards we were to shift our attention away from merely the breath on to the entire body, examining our bodies part by part, noticing and registering every sensation -gros or subtile- that we felt. And even though I wasn’t able to concentrate as many times as I wished, I started to feel things going on in my body that I had no idea of. At day 6 or so I found myself wondering how on earth had I not felt these things before, because they seemed so obvious now. With this new, sharpened awareness, a walk through the centre’s garden became an epic experience. The trees around appeared to be cut out of paper, that’s how sharply I perceived their lines. It was like I was watching the world in high-definition after having having watched it in black and white so far. The grass seemed greener. Birds sang louder. Had flowers always been so bursting with colour? Hello moon, hello stars, hello breeze softly carressing my ankles, hello strangest-looking caterpillar I have ever seen, hello lizard catching a fly. I realised that it had all been there before. It had been there all along, just waiting for me to be noticed. I just had never before felt so alert and attentive, so… alive.
And then there was the silence, the beautiful silence. What I thought would be the hardest part of the course, turned out to be the greatest blessing. Not being able to speak nor communicate in any other way to the people around you makes life, at least in case these circumstances are temporary, endlessly more simple. There is no need to worry about what others think of you, whether you have made a good impression, whether you made an impression at all, whether you may or you may not have said something wrong. In the same manner, there is not an awful lot to have an opinion about when it comes to others, as there is not much to like or dislike about them. And no need to worrry about ’em boyz on the other side of the aisle (although I found myself staring at them all the time) – they were simply out of my reach.
All in all, when I came out of the meditation hall on day 10 and encountered the sign announcing that ‘noble speech’ was permitted from now on, I found myself panicking a little. While hiding in the bathroom, I realised that I did not want to break the silence just for the sake of chattering, but that I wanted my first words to mean something. And so I was on my way back to the hall, determined to remain silent a bit longer, when I ran into a German girl I had been talking to before the course had started (and with whom, despite the strict Noble Silence, I had had occasional giggles over the days because we just couldn’t help ourselves). So far for my plan. As soon as we started talking, I realised how relieved I was and soon my fear to break the silence made way for an intense feeling of profound joy and connectedness. Joined by several others, we talked and laughed all afternoon, sharing our experiences and realising that we weren’t all that strange and unicorn as we thought.
Community is something wonderful. Here we were, about a 100 like-minded souls that had found each-other in space and time, happily chatting like it was the first day of high school. For more than a week we had seen each other at our most vulnerable moments – getting out of bed at 4 in the morning, bursting out in tears out of nowhere, compulsively walking around the yard between meditation hours – cranky, tired, hungry and overwhelmed most of the time. We had heard and smelled and tolerated each other’s farts, burps and nervous sweat for days. And yet I cannot describe the excitement we all seemed to feel being able to talk to one another now that we finally could. Yet nothing but love vibrating through every cell of our bodies. I personally could not help but smile, talk, laugh, listen.
I was glad that we had the time to learn how to talk again before getting back into the big bad world again on day 11, because otherwise our return to society had come as a complete shock. Nevertheless I still felt quite overwhelmed when I got off the bus Mexico City around noon. I almost got hit by a truck on the first road I was trying to cross, and it’s only through a miracle that I made it to the city of Oaxaca in one piece. I was lucky to have some lovely company along the way, so that I could cherish and hold on to the feeling of community and connectedness a bit longer. I am still in Oaxaca, as I wanted to give myself a couple of days in this city before heading down to the coast, in order to process, organise my thoughts, put them into words, translate them into ideas, into plans, a timetable, a rhythm. To find an equilibrium.
Equanimity. It is still a long long way before I will reach that final goal, but at least I have started walking.
Curious? Interested to do a 10-day retreat as well? More info and the closest Vipassana centre near you on the website of the worldwide Vipassana organisation (Dhamma).