14 Aug Start Again – How Vipassana changed my life
It was a beautiful sunny day in summer. I just came back home from running errands and sunk into the couch. All was good.
At least I thought it was… until I burst into tears. I was sobbing. and it confused the hell out of me.
It´s not that I never cry. It just came so unexpectedly. Why the hell? And how do you stop if you don´t even know what caused it in the first place?
I can´t exactly remember what happened next. It doesn´t matter anyway. Looking back, I understand everything. My mind was scared and for a damn good reason!
But let´s rewind a bit more:
There was this girl I met during one of my travels. We connected well and had interesting conversations. One day she told me about this meditation center, where everyone was welcome free of charge, to learn to meditate. To take back control of the mind.
The course lasted 10 days and every participant had to abide to a stringent set of rules, the Code of Discipline. It includeed
- No talking (including glances or gestures) at all during the 10 days
- No sexual contact of any kind (in fact all physical contact between any persons is strictly prohibited)
- No intoxicants (drugs, coffee)
- No mobile, no writing, no reading, no music
In short, no stimuli of any kind. So, what the hell are you supposed to do all day? Well . . .
4:00am Wake-up Gong
11:00-1:00pm Lunch + Rest
5:00-6:00pm Tea Break
7:00-8:15pm Teacher´s Discourse
So, basically, apart from eating and sleeping you were not allowed to do anything except sit on your ass and meditate. Sounds like a challenge! Ah, and if you broke any of those rules or if you quit before the course ended, you were not welcome there any more ever again.
I was intrigued.
I always wanted to meditate. I mean, it was one of those things you keep reading about (at least I do in my echo chamber ;-). The alleged benefits sounded like the package insert of a super smart-drug:
- Increase mental strength and focus
- Better memory retention
- Boost creative thinking and cognitive skills
- Help with problem solving and decision making
- Help to process information and ignore distraction
- Lessen anxiety and worry, stress and depression
- Improve resilience against pain
- Enhance self-esteem
Great, right? Ha, I am not even finished. This is what it was supposed to do to my body:
- Improve immune system and energy level
- Improve breathing and heart rates
- Reduce blood pressure
- More longevity
- Lessen inflammatory disorders and asthma
- Help prevent Arthritis, Fibromyalgia + HIV (that´s not a typo)
Happy and healthy, smart and sharp. Sounded way too good to be true. But then again, haven´t we all heard stories about monks who can do those incredible things, defying physics and whatnot? Aren´t they meditating? And what about the scientific studies, brain scans, etc., backing these bold claims? Perhaps, after all, there was some truth to it.
As said, I’d always wanted to give it a shot. In fact, I’d tried for years to get a meditation routine going. It was awful.
I spent hours and hours sitting and… Wait. Apologies. I got this wrong. I wasn´t meditating for hours and hours at all. It just felt like it.
I was like, yay, today I am going to start meditating. 10 minutes is what many beginner books recommend. 10 minutes! Ha. That´s fucking easy. I mean, 10 minutes is nothing. My alarm snooze is 10 minutes. They don´t exist, they are gone in seconds / in a flash.
I would be highly motivated, knowing exactly what to do, what to wear and where and how to sit. Theory was the easy part. Practise not so much.
I would sit down, close my eyes and take a deep breath. I’d love to go into detail now, problem is, there is nothing I could tell you. Just close your eyes for 5 seconds. Yeah, now. Do it.
Back? Alright, that´s exactly how it would feel. Like nothing. Just darkness.
My eyes would be closed and I would be like, what now? I would try to calm my mind and focus on my breath, but, as a matter of fact, my thoughts would be racing through my head like never ever before. But, but… it doesn’t matter. At least that´s what I would keep telling myself. It´s written in the books, too. Just go back to your breath. And I would.
After a while I would have thought that I did/fared well so far. I would wonder how much time was left. Psst, back to the breath. No, but seriously, it would be good to know how long… Back to the breath. Yeah, yeah, I GET IT. Time doesn´t matter. But I need to go to work, and this feels much longer than 10 minutes. Perhaps the alarm didn´t work. Oh my god, maybe Ive been sitting already for hours, I need to know what time it is. NOW. So, eventually, I would give in and glance at my watch. 2 minutes. 2 minutes???? I was now meditating for 2 fucking minutes? That´s it? This is horrific. Despite this setback, I would somehow manage to finish the 10 minutes. Of course, not without checking the watch another 3 times and daydreaming the better second half of the meditation. And to be perfectly honest, I probably ended the farce at minute 8 or 9.
The next day I would be horrified just by the thought of going through this again. So I would make up excuses, or simply (and conveniently) “forget” until next time something would trigger me to try again. This went on for about 2 years. Brrr, I get the shutters / uncomfortable just thinking about it.
So, when this girl told me about the meditation course, I sensed an opportunity and decided to apply.
It had been a couple of months since I last tried to meditate on my own, which meant that the veil of oblivion had plenty of time to set over the memories of my countless failed attempts. I still remembered enough, though, to know that I should not, under any circumstances, try to meditate again before this course. I wanted to forget as much as possible. I had to. How else could I go there to meditate all day every day when I could not even to keep my eyes closed for 10 minutes.
I got accepted and forgot about the whole thing.
Summer 2015. The day I was crying for no apparent reason. It was the day before my departure into the Blue Mountains, where the Mediation course took place. I was in a good mood, no obvious distress or anything like that.
There was just something inside me… something sensing the radical change that was about to happen….
Like always, I waited until the last minute to pack my stuff. Sheets, sleeping bag, clothes for 10 days, meditation cushion. My motorbike looked like I was about to go on a round-the -world trip.
On Day One you are supposed to show up at night for the introduction. From where I lived in the city, it was roughly a 2.5-hour drive up to the Blue Mountains. About half-way through, it started to rain. Within minutes I was drenched but I felt nothing.
I arrived late. It was already dark. I parked my bike and entered the center. From what I could see, it looked a bit like a park with many signs: “male area”, “female area”; “Please respect noble silence” ….
I knocked on the door that said something like “Registration” and entered, where many people were busy, talking, eating, filling out forms.
Someone handed me a piece of paper and asked me to fill in information about myself, such as whether or not I take drugs, suffer from depression, anything like that before, my background etc… I had a weird vibe about all those personal questions. I am pretty sure I didn’t answer all of them truthfully. Why does all that matter?
Anyway, the volunteers who made us welcome and gave us a run-down on everything were lovely. But also so ordinary. Normal people. Not sure why that surprised me.
They explained the rules, the most important one being “Noble Silence,” which means silence of body, speech and mind.
I remember that they warned us about poisonous snakes in the area. For example, the deadly brown snake. Seeing one did not warrant / allow breaking the Noble Silence to warn others.
Wow, so they take this non-talking thing pretty seriously, I thought. Why would become crystal clear in the days to follow.
Every gender group was assigned a “manager,” who would help us with any problems we might have. WE had to learn a special sign language to be able to communicate with him. No, just kidding; we allowed to speak to the manager.
Other than that, the course was led by a so called Assistant Teacher, in my case from Tibet. Every day´s routine (which was mostly the same anyway), was pinned onto the wall in the dining hall. A gong would always mark the next agendum and also be the alarm clock for wake-up at 4 AM.
I watched couples kissing each other good-bye. as we were separated by gender. It is to minimize distraction, we were told. For the same reason, you are not supposed to wear singlets or tight clothing. After a couple of days of celibacy, I completely understood that rule. Damn, that was hard.
When we were finished I walked to the room I was assigned to. There are a couple of single rooms (I believe even with en-suite bathrooms), but mostly it was dorm rooms, with mattresses separated by curtains. It was a big place, for about 200 people in total. A couple of houses, spread out on a simple but nicely arranged landscape in the middle of the Australian Bush.
I got a private room, I thought. Though it was actually a small space in a shared house. Without a door. Also, the room was part of a “sun room” with zero insulation. It was tiny. The single bed barely fit in. It very much looked under construction, there were heaps uncovered pipes on the walls. Soon I would learn that they were sewer pipes , which meant that any time any one of the 20 people in the house would go to the toilet or shower it would flush straight through my room, mercilessly blasting through the Oropax I wisely took with me. And so it began…
Life at the Vipassana Centre
I won´t go into too much detail about my meditation sessions. It would probably be boring as everyone´s experience is different. I´ll talk about the meditation technique and practical benefits in the next paragraph, first let me run you through to a typical day:
4 AM wake-up was hard on the first day. The gong kicked me out of sleep, and I woke myself by splashing my face with cold water. *Freezingly cold water.But not just the water. I was actually suffering and freezing the whole night. In the days to follow I would wear every single piece of clothing I brought with me, which made these chilly summer nights up in the mountains somewhat bearable. Getting up early became easier, too.
I would then take my torch (yeah, no, it didn´t help that it was pitch black dark when we had to get up) and walk to the meditation hall, where we were supposed to gather and meditate according to the instructions we were given the day before. There was also a tape running, Goenka, the founder of these centres, explaining what to do in English. He was also singing. Goddamn it, he was actually singing a lot. Like, at least the first 30 minutes of the morning meditation. Then again, the last 20. All in a language I could not understand. All while you are trying to fucking focus your mind. Would you please shut the fuck up already?!
However, as the days went by I learned to use this distraction as a tool, just like the mind-numbing pain that would soon catch up with my practice.
The hall was separated in the middle, male on the left, female on the right. It was the only time we were together in one room. All other areas, including the walking areas, were completely separated. Everyone was assigned a spot, and we could choose from an array of simple cushions to sit on.
I´ll elaborate on that later but, as you can imagine, one of the biggest challenges of sitting and meditating all day is the pain it causes. Actually, if you´ve never tried, you can´t imagine. Sitting sounds comfortable to most of us I reckon? We like to sit.
It is entirely different when you
1. sit for 10 hours a day and
2. try to move as little as possible.
The pain is excruciating, especially after the first day. No cushion provides lasting relief.
Remember, Noble Silence says that you should not look at others? Well, you do look at others. At least I did. Every distraction was welcome. and occasionally watching my fellow meditation apprentices struggle, just like I did, was definitely one of them. Some would build pillow thrones, growing in height after every break, in a futile attempt to counter the pain.
If you ever go there, let me tell you, make do with 2-3 pillows and accept the discomfort. There is no way around it. More pillows just put your body in imbalance, which causes more pain or even injuries. There are certain tricks though. For example, you can use your blanket and wrap it tightly around your lower back. It offers great support.
Anyway, so we would sit there and meditate until the gong called for breakfast, which was eagerly awaited at that point, as you can imagine. Food, which was served buffet-style, was always a very welcome distraction, it the only link to normality. They were simple vegetarian meals. but they meant the world! A big problem was to balance between wanting to stuff your face because you only really eat twice a day (at night it´s only 2 pieces of fruit) and knowing that a full stomach will greatly and negatively affect your ability to meditate later on. I love food, so most days I was eating a ton, nonetheless.
The first days I would take a walk after breakfast or even sleep for a little bit. Later I learned that stretching (yoga is not allowed) helps a lot for the hours and hours of sitting. The area around the center was beautiful. There were walking paths through the bush. Beautiful trees and flowers. A stunning view down the valley. Kangaroo families feeding close-by, like, literally only meters away.
Especially further into the course your attention-starved mind would actively seek distractions or “something to do”. I liked to watch the salamanders chasing flies or gazing at glittery stones. It might be interesting to note that, from your second course onwards (you should do one every year), you are supposed to “abstain from any kind of sensual entertainment.” Yes, that means you should not look at flowers or anything really. Inwards only.
Also fun was reading the messages others carved on trees. They were like a message boards with desperate cries for help, mockings of the phrases commonly used by the teachers or enthusiastic words signalling relief and happiness. It pretty much presented a sample of all the emotions floating and flying around in this space, where all gathered to fight against our very own minds.
Once the gong gongs we made our way back to the meditation hall to sit down for the group meditation. There are three 1-hour group meditations per day, where everyone is supposed to meditate in the hall. During other times you can also meditate in your room. It was called “the hour of strong determination,” because during this hour, you should try to not move at all.
Wow. I´ll never forget my first hour of strong determination. I was like, I can do this! I swore to myself that I would not move, no matter what. It was hard. As soon as you decide to stay still, everything starts itching and all you want to do is change your posture. Itching turns into pain. Pain turns into “Oh my god I am dying, get me out of here.” I am not kidding. The pain was excruciating. In my case, it was the legs. They felt as if someone tried to cut through them with a knife.
Interestingly, the more I tried to ignore the pain the more intense it became. On top of that, you can´t look at your watch, so you don´t know how much time you have left. It was torture. There is no other way to describe it. Don´t think that meditating helped in any way during this first hour. Calming your mind? Ha. Good joke. My thoughts were racing. All I could think off was pain, pain, pain. Eventually I would sit there and breathe heavily and consciously (exactly what you should not do) in a desperate attempt to distract myself from the sharp pain, intensifying every second. I´ve never ever in my life felt something like that before. I was convinced that I would not be able to walk after that and that it would take me days, if not weeks, to recover. I still held strong, basically accepting that my legs will be injured. If that´s what it takes to learn to meditate, so be it, I told myself. Don´t think I calmed down though, I was spiralling into more and more pain, and it was literally all I could think about. Finally, Goenka started to sing.
Remember, the meditations were guided by recordings, and the speaker and founder of Vipassana, Goenka, sang in most of them. Not particularly pleasant. At this time, however, it sounded like angels singing, as it marked the desperately awaited end of the hour. The thing was, it was the beginning of the course, so I hadn´t developed a feel for time yet. I didn´t really know whether he would sing for 15 min or for 5.
Do you know the feeling, when you need to pee urgently, you make your way to the toilet, and the closer you get, the harder it is to hold it in. That´s exactly what happened when he started to sing. The pain multiplied, my body was screaming for me to move. I kept breathing loudly. It probably sounded like moaning. And I kept still. And Goenka kept singing.
At one point I couldn´t bear it any more, I was about to collapse. I seriously thought I’d pass out any second. But then, all of a sudden, something remarkably happened:
I zoomed out of my body.
It´s hard to describe the sensations of this moment. Everything was far away and felt kind of unreal. I could see myself from above. It was strange to say the least, but it did its job. Time did not matter anymore. Pain did not matter anymore. I stopped thinking and just was. And that´s how the rest of the hour went by. Gong. We were free to move.
As I’ve said, I was convinced I would not be able to walk after that. At least for a week! I mean, with a pain so strong it felt as if someone tried to cut through my legs, of course there will be an aftermath, I thought.
Now listen to this:
I stretched my legs and let my blood flow through my body. I then rolled onto my side and attempted to get up. Not too bad, I thought. I got this. Once I stood up. I realised that there was NO PAIN WHATSOEVER in my legs. Nothing. Not the slightest discomfort. Can you believe it?
This pain I felt, this excruciating, mind-numbing pain, it subsided the very second I got up. You´ve gotta be kidding me, was my first reaction. What is going on here? Pain serves a purpose right? Was it all just in my head?
It was then that I understood how my mind played games with me. Wait, what is “me”? Am I not my mind? Apparently not, and this insight proved to be very helpful in the days to come. The pain stayed with me, but how I reacted to it changed dramatically. This was the fight I was supposed to take on, and the fight I was determined to win.
“You are bound to be successful, you are bound to be successful.” Often Goneka would say these words in encouragement, motivating us to keep going, to not give up, to keep focused, to try to calm our minds, to regain control, really. Because it wasn´t just pain. That was only one trick up “his” sleeve. When you try to stop thinking. your mind will do anything to keep you engaged, to stay in charge.
I didn´t respond to pain that time (I did plenty of other times though), so the next sit I would have all those nostalgic thoughts from my past, my childhood. “Oh, so pleasant, such nice thoughts. Why not dwell on them a bit? I almost forgot about that, when we were playing in the woods all day, oh, it was amazing. What a beautiful memory. Wait, no. That´s not what I am here for.” Back to the breath. Then another time I would suddenly have all those worrying thoughts about the future. “Didn´t I forget to send out this note? It was important! I have to think about that now, fuck meditating, that´s seriously important.” Ha, I´m starting to see through this, it´s just another attempt to keep me from shutting down my goddamn mind. This bastard. Tries everything to stay in control. Positive thoughts, negative thoughts, urgent thoughts… All just attempts to make me think about something.
It was as if my mind was my enemy who tried to stop me from breaking free. Game on, I thought, and the rest of the days were constant battles, and bit by bit, hour by hour, day by day, I grew more powerful, and my mind became weaker.
After this hour of strong determination, we would mediate until lunch. Then eat, then sleep or walk or both.
“Start again, start again.” Another one of Goenka´s famous sayings. I can still hear him saying it. It´s pretty much the most concise meditation instruction there is: As your mind wanders all you can do, all you should do, is go back to your breath. Again and again and again. Distracted? Start again. Start again. Start again.
The afternoon meditation is followed by a tea break. Two pieces of fruit and tea. I smuggled in nuts, which I would eat outside with my fruit, all while watching kangaroos during the sunset. Gong. Back to the hall. Start again.
The day would be concluded with a discourse, which was a videotape with Goenka and his wife.
To be quite honest, after the first day, I was exhausted. No way I can do this another 9 days, I thought. No fucking way. I believe I wasn´t the only one thinking like that. There was some sense of disenchantment in the air. Or was I just projecting?
Anyway, the discourse made all the difference. Goenka knew exactly how we would feel and he knew exactly what to say to make us better. To keep us going. His sensible words went straight into my heart and paved the way for the stony road ahead. Each and every night.
After the discourse there was another short meditation of about 45 minuntes, then off I went to bed. And I was even looking forward to next day´s meditation, that´s how powerful his words were.
The next days pretty much followed the same routine. And it was exactly that routine that kept me sane. The days flew by so fast you would not believe it. It was still hard, there were heaps of struggles and pain and discomforts and failures, but, slowly, I started to understand the words: You are bound to be successful. You are bound to be successful.