My Vipassana Experience - Part One
“Be at least as interested in what goes on inside you as what happens outside. If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.”
It’s a surgery on your brain. Except that you are the surgeon. And there’s no anesthesia.
So, be prepared for pain. Lots of pain. Every possible kind of pain – physical and mental, subtle and extreme. Be prepared for emotional outbreaks, frustration, anger, sadness, joy and every other imaginable feeling and reaction. Even if you think you’re a perfectly balanced person. And then learn to disconnect from it all and accept it. Because everything is impermanent.
I first heard the word ‘Vipassana’ when I travelled to India for the first time. I read about it in the guidebook. 10-day silent meditation? No talking? No eye-contact? No reading or writing? Sitting still for 10 hours per day? Uhmmmmm… No, thank you. I couldn’t imagine doing that even for a day! I Iove being around people. I love chatting, laughing and joking. Ten days without looking at anybody? But I can’t even help grinning at random people in the streets! No, that’s not for me, I thought.
But then after I moved to India to follow my passion of yoga and teach full time, things started changing. My views on life, values, beliefs, relationships with people… and the idea of withdrawing myself from the outside world and turning inwards to grow and find answers seemed more and more appealing. I looked at courses on numerous occasions over the last few years and each time something wasn’t right – the dates didn’t work, something else came up, I couldn’t take time off work, the course was fully booked… I took it as a sign. I wasn’t ready. And then my Indian visa was running out this year and I had to go to Nepal to get a new one. I wanted to use these few weeks off for self-development, I felt like I needed some time for myself. I checked the dates at Dhamma Shringa in Kathmandu. My visa run out on March 13th. The course started on March 14th. And the application process was still open!
I didn’t think twice – I filled in the application form straight away and waited impatiently for the reply. A few days later I found a confirmation letter in my inbox. I was officially enrolled on the course! I took a deep breath. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Was I really ready for it? I’ve been doing yoga for over ten years now. But my meditation practice was all over the place. It was always easy to make excuses and skip it at the end of my asana practice. My hips have always been tight and I couldn’t sit in lotus for more than a few minutes. I quickly pushed all these doubts away. I am doing it. There’s no going back now. Something told me it was the right thing to do and the right moment. And a perfect opportunity to get established in my meditation practice. Clear my head. And just see what happens.
And here I am now, on the day of completing the course, in a tiny little village at the footsteps of the Himalayas boasting spectacular views over the highest peaks of the world, completely overwhelmed by the experience, trying to process everything that happened. I feel like I’ve got at least three books of stuff in my head, so words are just pouring out of me as if somebody has just opened the floodgates and all I want to do is sit in the sun and write. I want to remember every moment, every feeling, every thought. But I know it’s impossible. When you sit still in silence for 10 days, trying to disconnect from your mind, there are millions of thoughts in your head. And you realise how little control you’ve got over whatever is going on in your head. It’s not possible to remember it all. I will, however, try to give a fair account on everything that happened in my mind and body, day by day. With all ups and downs. Some thoughts I remember appearing in my head and emotions and feelings accompanying them. If you’re considering doing it, bear mind that each person goes through a different path and it is important to remember that this is my, very personal, experience. So, as soon as you finish reading this, forget about it and make room for your own, leaving all your expectations behind.
I woke up in the morning feeling a mixture of excitement and anxiety. ‘I’m really doing this,’ I thought to myself. I, who hadn’t really shut up for more than five minutes. Who can’t sit still and has to keep on moving. Who loves going out and being with people. ‘Right, I can do it,’ I had to repeat that to myself a few times before I believed it. I packed all my stuff and went to have my last breakfast with my student and friend, Jimena, and Bishnu, a Nepalese guy who we’d met through a mutual friend and who had been looking after us since we arrived in Kathmandu. I ordered lots of food, knowing that for the next ten days I’ll be living on very simple meals – morning breakfast, 11 am lunch and only some fruit and tea in the afternoon. After that my friends walked me to the registration centre, where I handed in the confirmation letter, and was given a few forms to fill in and asked for my passport. I gave the worker a photocopy and explained that the original was at the Indian embassy as I was waiting for my visa.
‘Madam, it’s not possible, we need your passport. This is an official requirement,’ he replied politely, but firmly, and asked me to follow him to the main office room, where he explained the situation to another guy.
‘Madam, not possible,’ I heard again and all sorts of thoughts appeared in my head.
‘What do you mean it’s not possible? Are you sure there’s nothing I can do? Please, I’ve been planning to do this for a long time. I really want to take the course,’ I pleaded. I couldn’t believe this was happening. ‘I’m going to get on that course even if I have to sit here for hours and beg them. I’ll cry if have to. Or find Goenka’s phone number. Well, he’s dead now, so that wouldn’t really help much, would it. But isn’t the main purpose of Vipassana to help people? Seriously, they can’t turn me away for some stupid, bureaucratic reasons!’ I thought to myself. I knew that if I gave up, I’d probably never do it again.
‘Please, I came to Nepal specifically to take the course.’ Well, kind of.
‘Wow, you’re really determined,’ I turned round as I heard a male voice speaking with an American accent behind my back.
‘Yup. There’s no way they’ll be getting rid of me now,’ I replied.
I noticed that the registration guy was making a phone call. When he put the phone down, he smiled at me softly and said: ‘Madam, have you got a receipt from the embassy?’
‘Uhmmmmm, no, not really. I gave the passport to the travel agent and he’s supposed to sort it out,’ I explained.
‘Can you get the receipt?’
I asked him to wait for a few minutes and went to look for Bishnu, who phoned the travel agent and found out that my passport hadn’t been submitted yet, so I could pick it up. Having returned to the registration worker, I asked if it was enough if I just showed them the original and gave it back to the travel agent. He agreed. Bishnu run to get my passport and I sat down to fill in all the forms. I took a deep breath and realized how much I wanted to do it. For the first time there were no doubts in my head. I completed all the forms, read the code of conduct and chatted to Jimena as we waited for Bishnu to come back. The rest of the registration process went smoothly – my Nepalese friend came back within the next half an hour, I showed my passport to the dhamma worker, and then handed it back to Bishnu. I took another deep breath, thanked my friends for all their help and waved them goodbye.
A few minutes later, we were led to a medium-sized room for the orientation. I sat down quietly at the front and had a quick look around. Most people were locals, only about twenty percent were foreigners. A short, skinny man with glasses appeared and asked us why we were there. Nobody said anything. He asked again and having not received any reply, he got agitated.
‘What, you don’t know why you’re here?’ Nobody seemed to have known what kind of answer he was waiting for. Clearly, we were there to take a Vipassana course, but I’m sure everybody had their own, personal reasons.
‘To reach enlightenment,’ said a chubby lady, probably in her fifties. She was wearing a pink fleece and had dark, permed hair. For some reason, I thought she was Russian.
I smiled. To reach enlightenment. Good luck with that.
The teacher ignored her. ‘You are here to take a 10-day Vipassana course.’ Oh, that’s what he wanted. All right. ‘Not three days. Not six days. Ten days. If you don’t think you can do this, you still have time to change your mind.’ The room remained silent. Nobody moved, so he started explaining the schedule. Wake up call at 4 am. Meditation starts at 4.30. Two hours at dusk, three in the morning, four in the afternoon and another hour in the evening, followed by teacher’s discourse. Lights out at 9.30 pm. I took another deep breath. 4 am! That’s more or less when I go to bed on a Saturday night! Is that really necessary? I mean, wouldn’t 6 am be early enough? Maybe they won’t notice if I stay in bed for the first session!
The teacher proceeded to explaining the rules. The main one seemed to be what they called “Noble Silence”. Not just silence. NOBLE silence. Apparently, that means silence of body, speech and mind. So, not only keeping your mouth shut, but avoiding any other form of communication – gestures, writing notes, sign language, making eye contact, etc. No yoga or other physical exercise. I sighed quietly. I hadn’t gone that long without yoga for years now. No reading or writing. Apparently, that’s a distraction. And there should be absolutely no distractions.
After the orientation, minibuses took us to Dhamma Shringa, located around 30 minutes ride from the city centre, at the entrance to the Shivapuri National Park. I was asked to deposit all my valuables, electronic devices, any reading or writing materials, food, and phone. I found it hard to give them my new iPhone. I’d only got it a couple of weeks before, hadn’t even had time to download all the apps! But I knew that ten days without Internet would do me good. I was aware of the fact that I wasted too much time on facebook.
One of the servers showed me to my accommodation, a dormitory room with around 20 beds, divided into small compartments separated with a thin curtain. Each compartment featured two beds with a rock-hard mattress, little pillow, duvet, and a bedside table. I was pretty happy about the duvet – I’d only brought a thin blanket with me and was a bit worried about being cold at night.
After a light meal we were taken into the discourse room, where we watched a video of Goenka explaining the meditation technique we were going to use for the next three days. Apparently, all we had to do was to observe our breath. Sounds easy, right? Well, it wasn’t, as I found out about an hour later when we gathered for our evening group sitting. ‘Have I sorted everything out? All my flights and train tickets? Shit, I forgot to throw the cake out of the fridge. Will I get my visa on time? What will be the first thing I eat when I go out?’ I hadn’t even started properly yet and I was already thinking about finishing. That wasn’t a good sign. I couldn’t concentrate for more than thirty seconds. My hips hurt, my neck and back were sore and I had to move every few minutes. An hour seemed like an awfully long time! How would I be able to survive ten the next day? ‘Do not think, do not think, breathe!’ I repeated to myself. One small step at a time. Stay in the present. When the gong signaled the end of the session, my legs were numb. As I lay in bed that evening, I kept saying to myself that everything was going to be just fine.
To be continued