The first time I heard about Vipassana, an intense 100 hours silent meditation retreat, I thought WHY THE HELL would you do that to yourself?! People must be crazy! Sit on your arse 10 hours a day during 10 days, WHY???
Then as I discovered meditation at the ashram and heard about near-sci-fi meditation stories from my friends, I told myself that I too wanted to get out of my body and meet the blue light and have sky rocketing meditations! Which is a great set of bad motivations to do meditation.
But then the more I thought about it, the more I thought of how it could help me in my life. First of all, if I could sit through 100 hours of meditation I might be able to sit through a 45 minutes lecture at uni while staying focused. Last time I was there there was a monkey running loose on my brain wrecking havoc and there was no way I could understand what was going on in class.
I had also set myself out here for a year to try to find myself, so sitting 100 hours with this person sounded like a huge potential progression in my quest.
As I regularly practised Amrita I am meditation during my stay in Amritapuri, India, I realised how it helped me focus and quiet my mind (and some times encounter cool things in my brain).
So I looked it up, did loads of research, and finally decided to sign up. I planned to attend the course in India, but suddenly taking 10 days out of my 2 months there seemed like too much and didn’t fit in my schedule. Vipassana retreats are held in centres all around the world, and all follow the same strict schedule. I made the choice to attend the course in Nepal, and decided on the Pokhara centre, located above a lake with a view on the Annapurna mountain range. I was very happy with my choice! It was a small and nice centre, with only about 15 students of each gender as opposed to most centres which host several dozens of students.
So, was it hard?
To be honest, I had mentally prepared myself to be so beaten down by the hardships of sitting 10 hours a day that it came out easier than I had imagined. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was easy, far from that.
But I seriously imagined it would be The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done (like many students reported) and that every single cell of my body would be screaming FUCK THAT SHIT and trying to run away that when I realised I wanted to stay and enjoyed the teaching I was quite surprised at myself. “You?!” *suspicious introspective looks* and I went through it. It was not an easy ride. There was pain. There was Explosive Diarrhea. There was no hot water. There were freezing nights. There was the 4am wake up gong. But I made it. Without ever trying to run away!
To compare the experience with my exam study sessions, or other very stressful moments of my life (like managing an international open source project, uni projects, my teaching job and some technical writing gigs and still having to organise my birthday party), this one was “easier”. In other moments where I was under pressure, the stakes were high: my education, my job, a good salary. And there was no way I could escape with a nope card.
These days I’m talking about, I had so much to do and yet couldn’t focus on anything, was lacking tons of sleep and still had to bear important responsibilities. I dreaded every single waking moment, trying to procrastinate my way through it and making everything more urgent and just wanted to crawl in my bed and hide until it was over. But there was no way of escaping these moments, I had not only to go through them, but also be serious enough to get good results. There moments were HARD.
Here, it was different. I had signed up for this, after thoroughly studying the deal and the outcomes. And even though at that point I did want to stick through it and had signed a paper saying I will stay for the entire duration of the course and given up my passport, I still knew that there was an escape door if I REALLY wanted/needed to escape.
But hey, when the teacher says you’re learning the technique that the Buddha used to become enlightened and that you could get rid of human misery, that sounds like a cool thing to stick to right?
There were many moments where I wanted the meditation session to be over, where I wanted to run away from my meditation cushion or just give in to my thoughts. Sometimes I did walk up and go for a walk outside. But I always came back.
What about the pain? Did it hurt?
But at some point you understand that it is exactly the point of this meditation technique.
“now can you show me where it hurts? […] now I’ve got this feeling once again [….] and I’ve become comfortably numb” this song got me through the meditation retreat
The first 3 days were the worse pain-wise: the exercise was to observe our breath through narrowed sensory patches, and with nothing else to do of course it was easier to think about every part of the body that hurt. Observing the breath is BORING.
Eyes closed, during meditation, you could hear the entire class shifting, moving around, scratching, stretching and trying to find a more comfortable position. At breaks, everyone would be stretching, pacing the path and walking up and down stairs to get our joints moving. You could almost smell the pain in the air.
Once we were taught the Vipassana technique itself, which is basically body scans from head to toe, my mind was very happy for half a day! A task! Something to do! Something less boring than Observing The Breath!
Unfortunately the excitement of discovery didn’t last and I soon got list into my thoughts once again, but there was something cool to come back to.
The point of these body scans is to analyse sensations on every single part of the body, and to observe them with equanimity. “This too will change”. Annicheee. Annicheee. Annicheee. (inside joke for fellow meditators). So pleasant feelings shall not be craved, and unpleasant sensations should not be considered with hatred and rejection. Every sensation experienced is impermanent.
Of course, in the beginning, you only feel pain. Pain. Pain. Pain.
You feel it, then you get to analyse it. Where it is exactly located, how far does it extend, and let me see how long it lasts?
Yup, I’m a tough one.
I had a series of sharp points in my upper back, exclusively on the right side, that I was working on during every single vipassana session. If there’s any Chinese Medicine guru or otherwise knowledgeable person out there who knows what it could mean let me know!
At some point I was prodding the “gross sensations” from my back with an imaginary meditation finger and was nearly playing whack-a-mole, chasing the pain across my back!
I also had the really cool experience of having my period and being able to fully follow the coming and going of a cramp, starting from upper left, moving sharply to the right then back to the centre again. Sweet.
The day vipassana was taught, we were also told to meditate with “Strong Determination”. That meant that we shouldn’t move AT ALL during the full hour of the sitting. I made it through a few of those, wiggled my toes through others and mostly pretended that adjusting my spine was not moving. Well it does give you another perspective on pain!
When I first decided to sign up for vipassana, I was terrified of the physical pain. I had a scoliosis with unbearable lower back pain for the past 4 years at uni, and figured out that if I had to sit in class for more than 24 hours a week I would suffer a lot and need physiotherapy to get through the pain, but if I sat down less and on a yoga ball or air cushion, while doing more standing and moving activities with extra sports I could almost have a normal life.
So sitting for 100 hours in 10 days basically scared the shit out of me. Until I realised on day zero that sometimes, at uni, I did have 8 hours of class a day AND would be on my arse another big amount of hours before project deadlines and other moment like that. Yes, I could do it! And I’m definitely more comfortable sitting cross legged than in a chair!
The impressive thing here is that I had NO lower back pain. Only a slight hint that always comes along with my period, but nothing like the I-just-want-to-roll-in-foetus-position-and-die kind of pain I was used to and feared. Yay!
Other meditators shared similar experiences: one girl had a knee issue that causes her knees to swell up if she keeps them bended for an extending period of time. She didn’t have any swelling! One more also had a form of chronic back pain but no occurrence during the retreat.
“Observe your diarrhoea with equanimity”
Vipassana wasn’t as hard as I expected, so logically I had to be extra-challenged. What about diarrhoea?
I had the first symptoms on day 5, and by the end of the day I felt like there was a witch brewing some very bubbly toxic potion in my belly. It felt horrible, I needed to go to the bathroom at least every hour and was so tired I kept nodding off in meditation.
I asked the server (meditation helpers) if there was any way to see a doctor if it doesn’t get better. She told me to talk to the course teacher, who in turn advised me to watch my diarrhoea with impermanence. I nearly cried.
A hand written note from my father in my pharmacy comforted me a bit. After getting some anti acidity pills and going through an entire strip of immodium pills my digestive issues almost became manageable.
Bean soup for breakfast was probably not the best idea, and from then I decided to eat mostly plain rice and I wouldn’t even be excited by the meal breaks anymore. 4 more days to go…
One evening, at tea, I managed to (un-purposefully) trick the server: she saw my orange and apples and asked if my stomach was better and why I wasn’t eating my fruit. I had eaten my orange but peeled it in a nearly perfect way to reconstruct the empty fruit! Haha.
The monkey in my mind
One day, there were monkeys jumping all around the centre, they even woke us up by running on out roof!
These monkeys outside were appealing to my monkey inside. The same day, the teacher had requested us to deepen the focus of our practice by not looking around and admiring the landscape anymore. These monkeys were a challenge.
On the first three days, I felt like a toddler petting a cat. Pat pat pat. Oh, it’s gone, come back here! Pat pat pat. Oh, it’s gone, come back here!
That was also a fact to notice with impermanence: “oh, the mind has wandered off!”, without any resentment, we had to come back to our breathing.
On day 4, when we were taught the Vipassana technique, I had a few wonderful sessions. With the novelty of the practice I was entirely focused on my body scans, and entered what I called The Flow. My mind didn’t wander off and I could actually feel the sensation exactly where I focused, an amazing sensation!
But then I got sick and unfocused, but I did get back in The Flow in a few focused sessions, when we had gotten even deeper in the practice.
My brain got better at multitasking, or rather pretending to be doing a proper body scan while thinking about something else. Then I got all confused and realised I hadn’t even paid attention to the sensations. Hmm.
Endless conversations with myself
So in all these mind wandering sessions, what did I think about? First of all I learnt that I would never run out of conversation subjects with myself! I’m such a cool company to me!
I thought about massive veggie burgers and nachos, about my mum’s cooking, and how to veganise some recipes. You might have realised that I’m not much of a fashion follower but I kept having ideas for designing beautiful dresses and skirts. I thought about the trekking equipment I’ll need to pack, I thought about the girls I have kissed and I thought a lot about the MASSIVE party I’ll throw once I come back home (actually I spent hours and hours planning out that one, from the food to the guests and the photography exhibition). I thought about the stuff I have at home I want to get rid of.
I had an amazing scenario rolling out when I felt sharp pain in my chest and pictured myself being flown out into Mumbai to get an emergency operation and my parents struggling to get a visa to come and see me.
One other day I had the idea for the book I’m going to write (because apparently this was a thing I wanted to do right away) and the whole story just started writing itself in my mind and I couldn’t shut it off!
As the teacher said it was all either craving or aversion, future or past. That’s how we can label our thought patterns.
They did evolve over the week though and when I had enough of one subject my mind just switched on to the other.
My mind is such a chatterbox that this silent retreat didn’t feel silent at all! I was talking all the time, though only to myself.
And another cool thing was the discourses in the evening. They played a recording of the teacher speaking about our daily practice with loads of funny stories and always cracking up jokes that would make us all laugh. We all looked forward to the evening discourse!
Wait, what are you guru doing on a tiny cloud?!
Sometimes, especially in the beginning, I caught myself in a dream-like state probably on the borderline between meditation and sleep. A little guru was sitting right there on my shoulder or never too far from my face giving me instructions on what to do in my meditation. Suddenly, I would realise and scream in outrage (in my head) “Heeeeey what are you doing here?! You’re not even real!”. Who knows, maybe he was!
Oh those vivid night dreams! I had a dream where we were on the bank of a river, and a wave was coming from the hill above. I grabbed the kid sitting next to me and pulled him to safety, and later on talked to the husband of the woman who was sitting next to me and died in the event but it wasn’t even sad.
I dreamt of meeting a person working on my Ricycle project back in India.
But most of all, the day dreams/memories were WEIRD. I have up to 5 memories of dreams I had had years ago coming up every hour. Dreams that I didn’t even knew I remembered. So many of them! And most of the times, I could connect these dreams to known locations that didn’t connect at the time of the dream.
The food and sleep and cold showers
How did I deal with not having a proper evening meal, waking up at 4am and not having a hot shower in 10 days?
Well I wouldn’t say it was enjoyable… But I realised that if we switched breakfast (bean soup, pasta or porridge) and tea (fruits with rice crispies), ironically, it almost made the meals seem normal.
The breakfast was filling and I often over-ate and felt bad about it. If you have the chance to try popcorn with porridge it’s surprisingly good. Lunch was dhal baat, the traditional Nepali meal which I grew very sick of when I couldn’t eat most of it. And as said above tea was a few pieces of fruits with rice crispies.
It took us a few days to adapt but I went along with it surprisingly well, as long as we had 2 small bananas at tea. With other fruits I would get hungry in the evening.
But still, that orchestra of empty stomachs crying for food in the morning!
Waking up at 4 was also surprisingly okay, except that I would have a super hard time focusing on the morning meditation. I always expected the chanting to start signaling the near end of the session but would always regret the feeling as soon as the chanting started. Let’s just say he’s not the best singer I’ve listened to.
I took a nap after breakfast, then another long nap after lunch. Meditate, Eat, Sleep, repeat!
If I didn’t follow that schedule I would definitely nod off during the meditation sessions.
And the showers… Let’s just not talk about it…
The feeling of having super powers
The cool thing about Vipassana is that you build the capability to feel sensations on every part of your body! I love scanning the outer rims of my ears, and each individual toe. Okay maybe it’s not the best super power ever but the teacher said that next level is scanning inside your body (I’m not there yet!) until you DISSOLVE YOUR BODY!
And then I say “I want to do that!” and it’s craving and I’ve lost the purpose of my practice. Damn.
Coming back to speaking on day 10 felt awkward and exciting. When I walked out of the hall and saw another girl, we looked at each other in the eyes and smiled and it was beautiful.
During 10 not only we weren’t allowed any kind of verbal communication, but all sorts of non-verbal communication were also prohibited. No signing, no eye contact, no physical contact. It was amazing to simply be able to smile to people again.
Talking gave me a buzz, and I felt it totally drained my energy and I felt I was almost about to faint. I could feel the noise in my ears. Luckily we still had a few meditation sessions to give our ears some rest.
And then on day 10 we came out into the real world and more, it was Holi! And then you can read about that and my first vipassana “proof” in my article about Pokhara.