Vipassana was one of the most intense, challenging and rewarding experiences I have had. I lost my mind, got lost in my mind and finally managed to come back to my flavour of reality again. It’s taken me 3 months to write about it, mainly due to the fact that the experience was so personal but also I wanted to be detailed. Grab yourself a coffee as this one is a novel!
Through chance encounters, the course found me rather than me seeking it out. Meditation is not something I practice or know much about. I usually skip the meditation at the end of yoga classes out of boredom. But a friend told me of this course where you go to a retreat to meditate for 10 consecutive days and make a donation at the end if you wish. My initial reaction was that it sounded awful. We’ve all experienced moments where minutes feel like hours. 10 days of nothingness was sure to feel like a prison sentence which I felt no desire to serve.
The next time I heard of the course was through a friend in Nicaragua who had attempted to do it and left half way through. He said the course was amazing, but just too intense. Hearing of his experience and the teachings sparked my curiosity and I joked around about attending the course and completing 6 days, even if I wanted to leave after 5 so I could one up him.
After that things got a little too coincidental. I had an instant connection with a total stranger in Esteli, a different city in Nicaragua. A meeting I felt happened for a reason. First we talked of some bad experiences I had had and he gave me a lot of good advice. Then he asked if I wanted to know about a meditation course he had just come from. Vipassanna of-course. After a few other random encounters and coincidences my mind was made up. I would attempt 10 days of silence in Colombia. The consensus from friends was that I would last two days.
To give you some background:
“Vipassana means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an Art Of Living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.” More info here
Admittedly my preparation had not been brilliant. No meditation, drinking, smoking and a lack of sleep. I do enjoy diving into new experiences head first though. So I anxiously hopped on a bus and made my way to Choachi a small mountainous town an hour from Colombia’s capital, Bogota. I took a drag of my last cigarette and proceeded towards my new home with an open mind.
Initial impressions of the venue were as expected for a donation based course. It was to be held in Seminario Monfortiano, a beautiful but neglected old three story stone building forming a U-shape around a courtyard covered in thick moss. Beyond the yard was a field which hosted the occasional cow and a spectacular backdrop of steep forrest covered mountains.
I was to be sharing a room with a british lady and we had about an hour to get acquainted before the noble silence began. We chatted excitedly about what was to come and I was happy to be sharing a room with someone good natured and easy to relate to.
The room was basic and similarly run down. Creaky floorboards with large holes, 2 rusty old cots with a thin mattress and a musty smell hanging in the air. We were greeted by a friendly member of management who brought us extra blankets and some pieces of wood to cover the holes in the floor. She seemed a little concerned and mentioned the organisers weren’t supposed to put people in this room due to the floor but she was pleased the curtains had been replaced.
A bell rang and we were summoned to the dining hall for an evening meal and a briefing. Attendees were locals and travellers aged from mid 20s to 60s. Around 30 males and 40 females segregated down the middle of a large hall. Rows of tables each had eight neat little stacks of white crockery. We were reminded of the rules and strictly prohibited activities:
no talking or interaction with others
no reading or writing, all technology and books must be surrendered
no exercising other than a light walk around the designated area
leaving early is not allowed
attendees must attend compulsory meditation as instructed by the guide
attendees will be summoned by bell for meal times and meditation
no showering outside of designated times… and the list went on
The final words almost came across as a warning; “You must work hard”.
After a light healthy vegetarian meal we began our noble silence and gathered in the chilly meditation hall for our first session. The hall had high ceilings and some broken windows covered in paper that rattled in the wind. Each person had a small numbered square on the floor to sit. Our guide silently walked in and sat upon the alter in front of us. He was an older gentleman who resembled Mr Burns. His clothing blended into the white alter and he looked like just a torso leaning forward over us with a stern expression. This was a sight I would become very used to over the course.
The guide pressed play on a small device and the deep rumbling voice of Goenka resounded throughout the room. Goenka was a self described “cunning businessman” who had an encounter one day and decided to study Vipassana for the next 14 years. He then went on to to teach for 45 years and spoke at the millennium world peace summit. His recordings are used worldwide for consistency with the practice. Goenka briefly guided us through Anapana mediation – which is to focus only on the breath through the nostrils. He chanted for a while, occasionally repeating the simple instruction and then we practiced in silence.
I nodded off a couple of times during the session and was relieved a few hours later when we were permitted to take rest. Apparently there are a lot of dogs in Choachi and they howled and howled from sunset to sunrise. Despite the chorus of dogs I slept like a baby as soon as my head hit the pillow.
I was awakened by the bell at 4am and dragged myself out of bed, throwing on about 4 layers of clothing and a blanket before making my way outside in the cold darkness to the meditation hall. Like the previous night I was drifting in and out of sleep and horridly uncomfortable sitting on the floor. Sitting still for two or even one hour on the floor is impossible. I could hear constant fidgeting and rustling as everyone tried to find comfort. Laying down was strictly prohibited during meditation sessions. I tested the policing of this on the second day, accidentally falling asleep and being awakened by the floor manager with a shake as she passed.
Two hours went by and then the delightful sound of the breakfast bell. Back to the food hall and we lined up to receive our watery porridge with fruit preserve, small bread roll and piece of water melon. I was relieved to see tea and coffee.
After breakfast we queued for the solitary hot shower which alternated between scolding and freezing. We then attended a one hour focussed meditation session. There were three of these each day. Slightly more awake than I had been in the early session it was a struggle to focus my mind. I spent the hour fidgeting, chasing thoughts around in circles and trying to focus only on my breathing. The time was not as insufferable as I had expected however. I found if I worked hard at the technique time would soon pass. If I really didn’t have the determination to practice the technique I would just engage my mind with other thoughts, friends and family back home, anything else that had been bugging me that I wanted to find clarity with. And looking around to see what the other little blanket mounds were up to.
Lunchtime came around shortly after – salads, soup and rice with more fruit and a sweet plantain for dessert. This was the main meal of the day, served at 11am and there was enough food to feel full but it was advised not to eat much.
The days proceeded this way being woken by the bell at 4am and working my way through 1-2 hour meditaion blocks with a few meal and rest breaks in between. The evening meal at 6pm was always a piece of fruit and 2 crackers and some herbal tea. Then more meditation, a video of Goenka about the technique and a final sleepy hour of meditation before dismissal at 9pm to take rest.
I went to my room briefly after the video on the second evening and was shocked to see red smears in several places all over the bedroom walls. I looked closely at each smear and told myself it could not be blood but feared the worst. I didn’t know what to do but I was so exhausted after the final session that I opted just to sleep and deal with it another time.
Mealtimes were always something I looked forward to. Out of boredom I stretched out each sitting as long as I could; arriving late, playing with my food, taking small bites and cutting my fruit into tiny pieces, a second cup or herbal tea mid meal. I’m sure it was annoying to those sitting around me but I didn’t care.
I learned not to arrive late after the first night when I discovered all the crackers had been taken. Only an apple for dinner. I didn’t really mind as the meditation was starting to work, I wasn’t hungry, just observed the hunger sensation. To my surprise someone had noticed I missed out and snuck me one of their crackers.
The following day I found out why the crackers were scarce, two older ladies at my table took 2 servings. The girl who had split her cracker allocation with me the previous night returned to the table crackerless. I was happy to return the favour and offer half of mine. Hoping the ladies that took extra noticed. I couldn’t help but laugh at this cracker ordeal. How life had changed!
I also had more time on this day to study the red marks on my wall. The smears and splatters definetly looked like blood, all around the room. I knew this course could make people crazy, Had someone killed them-self? Turned on their roomate? Was I seeing things? I wondered why the lady on the first night had said “they weren’t supposed to put anyone here”. She was happy the curtains had been replaced. I couldn’t handle it any longer so I spoke to our floor manager that evening. Without speculating I told her the red marks looked like blood and I would be happy to clean the walls as they were distracting me. She said she would move me in the morning. I asked about my room mate and she said she would move her too and not to mention anything. Her cold reaction reaffirmed my worst fears of how the marks arrived. I spent another night in the eerie room but through sheer exhaustion I managed to sleep.
By day 3 I had caught up on my sleep and worked diligently on meditating and focussing my mind. It was a constant battle but I was getting better. I forced myself not to change positions and to keep my eyes closed for an hour at a time. The pain in my joints and lower back manifested itself as flashes of black and orange behind closed eyes. I would rock forward and backward which helped the pain to subside mildly but then I had to endure it as it intensified once I was still again. I found it was easier to manage a consistently high level of pain and tried to remain perfectly still. Towards the end of the hour my breathing was shallow and I thought I would cry out or pass out. By about day 5 I could sit for longer before the pain set in and it became easier. My body or mind had become stronger, or perhaps a combination.
People-watching at mealtimes was like a soap opera for a mind starved of stimulation. I discreetly watched everyone, paid attention to changes in their moods, what they ate, what they were wearing. I noticed at dinner one of the ladies who had been taking extra crackers arrived late. Everyone else had left and I sat finishing my food slowly as always. This was unlike her, I figured she must have been asleep. She sadly sat down at the table with only a cup of tea and I offered her half of my passionfruit and a cracker which she declined. Despite feeling as though this was karma, I really wanted to help her, I got the attention of one of the volunteers and asked if there was more food. She shook her head. I sat down awkwardly finishing off my passionfruit in front of the lady with no food. I saw a tear run down her cheek.
The meditation technique progressed very slowly and almost a week in I was not convinced it was helping me in the way I had hoped. I was bored and distracted and found humour in everything to entertain myself. I played out a million scenarios in my head of inappropriate things I could say or do during dinner or meditation. Making sarcastic remarks about what great company everyone had been. Pretending I had gone crazy and just peering up at people over my knife while they were eating. I had mopped up some fruit with my white cloth on one of the first days and my splodgy cloth looked a mess next to everyone else’s that were still white. I found this hysterical one day and couldn’t contain my laughter, which only made it more funny. I could feel the sideways glances around the table as I was overcome with snorts and laughter in the silent hall. Perhaps it wasn’t necessary to fake insanity after-all.
Whilst I had started to go a little crazy I was nothing on some of the others. I watched them as they did their laps of the court at break times. Taking slow steps around and around. Hunched over and being careful not to make eye contact. Some looked like giant chickens – stretching their legs up and out and slowly placing their feet down again. Others would poke around in the dirt of the flowers, scratch their names in the walls, agitatedly kick the small patches of grass and moss. Some with wide insane eyes and big grins, some looking morbidly depressed and anxious. It felt like an insane asylum. One day I was observing a few of the men in their designated area of the court and I noticed one pop his head up from behind the grass on all fours like an animal.
The strict vegetarian diet seemed to upset a few people’s digestive systems and silence made it impossible to be discreet. An older lady walked passed me one day, farted loudly and then quickened her gait out of embarrassment. I giggled to myself as I thought maybe I could muster a sympathy fart to make her feel better. Crazy crazy crazy. During meditation a lady farted really loudly and tried to mask it with a cough. Silence. Then a cough, and another, and the room quickly erupted into a weird contained giggle at the failed fart-cough.
I was battling with ways to pass the hours after a while and amused myself with some casual rebellion. It was quite tame in general but in this environment it was totally badass. I snuck away from one of the 4am meditation sessions half an hour early to use the hot shower. Just once I told myself as I needed to wash my hair. I wondered if the stone faced floor manager would be waiting silently outside the cubicle to escort me off the premises for breaking the rules. Or ban me from any further showers. My heart raced as I crept silently back to my room and got ready for breakfast, I hoped my damp and deliciously clean smelling hair would not give me away! Naturally I continued this routine for the rest of the course.
Exercise was the other way I rebelled. I couldn’t handle the crazy laps. I put a blanket on the floor in my room and snuck in sit ups, push ups, yoga stretches and anything else I could at every opportunity. And a bit of scribbling with a pen I had found in my bag and some old receipts. I even made a little count down to freedom!
It was apparent at one point that my roommate and I would need more toilet paper. We had to supply our own so I went on a little mission and managed to find a roll and took it back to the room. I couldn’t resist from grabbing my roomies attention, pointing at the toilet paper I had acquired and feigning celebration! We both laughed. This brief moment was the first time I had laughed with someone in days and I realised how much I was missing social interaction.
I reached day 6 without too much trouble but was starting to get agitated and wanting to get out. I still didn’t feel quite like the meditation was doing what I had hoped. I kept thinking I was travelling and supposed to be out having fun and adventures, instead I was stuck with a group of crazies sitting painfully in a crappy old hall.
What inspired me to stay was the short video we watched each evening. Goenka radiated a sense of calm and peacefulness. He was well spoken and had words of wisdom and funny little anecdotes that would lift the mood of the room. He just seemed to get it, without any arrogance or condemnation. A little old Indian man with a fat belly. His deep voice commanded authority but through his squinty dark eyes shone a sense of contentment. He did not make rules or instructions, just gave powerful reminders of how to be present. To feel. To listen to our bodies and awaken our senses. We forget sometimes how powerful we are and what we are capable of. Just continue to live habitually. He reminded me of the importance on not craving things. To think, act and live purely. To let go what is not useful.
By day 7 I realised that 3 days had passed and I had not progressed much. I had mentally withdrawn from this particular evenings meditation session. Reluctantly I tried one more practice – and then it happened. A soft tingling glow started behind my eyes and engulfed the top half of my body with ferocity. With my mind I could extend the sensation throughout my torso and worked on extending it down to my feet. My entire body was alive with sensations and I knew I had delved into my subconscious mind. It had taken 7 long days. The feeling was extraordinary.
We were never told what we were supposed to be achieving throughout the course, just to keep practicing. I watched the video that night and Goenka described the feeling I had felt only minutes earlier. I wondered how he knew. How was it possible that this happened to everyone after approximately the same period? He explained people got addicted to the feeling of their subconscious but that if you willed it to happen, the feeling would never come. I could see how the sensation could feel amazing but Goenka’s advice only to observe had been drilled into me so deeply that I felt no desire to experience it again.
During meditation on day 8 I could feel this sensation again but still struggled with the course in general. I wanted to focus on mental impurities, not buzz along in a meditative state, I wanted to leave and spent the day talking myself out of it. When you have nothing else to do I can assure you that it is an incredibly long day. Then another significant moment occurred. Without any conscious attempt, my subconscious mind began to connect every subtle sensation to my thoughts and emotions. I became aware of many “defilements” as Goenka called them, one after the next. Some smaller things which I was still punishing myself for, thoughtless mean words I’d said to others at an early age. Moments that I had said things or done things to hurt people that I have reflected on and deeply regretted years after the events. I imagined these thoughts dissolving and the burden lifting. I experienced more significant realisations of what was eating away at my happiness too. These would take time. It was intense, saddening and unpleasant. Ultimately I knew it was what I had come for.
This continued on Day 9. We had been told we had one final learning session on the morning of day 10 and then the noble silence was over and we could talk to everyone and have a buffer between our course and getting back to the real world. All I could think of was that there were still another 2 nights in this prison. I decided to leave about 20 times that morning and talked myself out of it. At lunch time I began to pack my bags. I knew I had some things to deal with but the problems I’d spent a lifetime creating were hardly going to disappear with another days meditation.
Leaving the course early was not permitted and I had prepared myself for the worst. I alerted my manager that I intended to leave and she gave me a 5 minute time slot to discuss this with Mr Burns. They had my ipad and we were locked in so I knew I would have to be very convincing.
I was firm and the teacher was not happy. I explained the course had been life changing, but that I would prefer to practice the technique in the real world rather than being surrounded by these people who appeared to be going mad. Also it was emotional. While each of us were “in solitude” we really were not. The guide looked at me angered “You will have no success and without waiting until the course closure, you have wasted everyone’s time and will never work through any issues”. I asked he respect my decision and told him I still intended to donate money but he responded that it would not be accepted. I calmly explained that he couldn’t stop me from donating. Frustrated he turned his back on me and told the floor manager I could not be persuaded and walked away. She helped me to get my ipad and escorted me to freedom.
I didn’t feel bad about the encounter with the guide. He said some awful things but he was just doing his job. He simply has unwavering faith in the technique. Nor did I take on board his condemnation of my ability to practice the technique. The guidance is invaluable but ultimately it’s up to the individual so having someone tell me I can’t (enlightened or otherwise) really makes no difference.
Whilst the end of the course was difficult, I did find a lot of enjoyment throughout. The teachings were truly inspiring and I was constantly impressed by discovering my own physical and mental capabilities. There is so much we know on an intellectual level about what is good for us and vice versa but that knowledge alone is useless. For example we know smoking or eating the wrong foods is bad – but we still do it. We know holding on to anger only makes us more angry – but we still do it. In my opinion, Vipassana bridges the gap by letting you explore the sensations and thoughts associated with why we do things we know are unhealthy.
It also reminded me to stop and feel. To listen to my instincts and be empowered from within. Whilst it was very strict, at times creepy and extremely confronting, the Vipassana practice is not a cult that promotes blind faith. You are encouraged to practice and apply intellect. You make your own guided discoveries rather than being preached at.
As for me, I love the idea that we have so much power inside us. We just need to spend some time tapping into our abilities and working through what it is that stops us from achieving what we want. It reaffirmed my beliefs in the laws of the universe, and to live with pure intentions.
If you are thinking of doing the course I would encourage you to take the leap. Like me, you may shudder initially at being alone with your thoughts for 10 days. Many people I speak to are terrified of the idea of exploring their minds. It’s totally normal but just let that resonate for a bit and see how ludacris it is. We are scared of our own thoughts and seeing things as they really are. You do definitely need to be ready for what you may uncover, but the sooner you do the closer you will be to happiness.