Hell & Heaven Within: My Vipassana Experience

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When I first heard about Vipassana,  I immediately thought that I’ll have to undertake it once in a lifetime,  so I just put it on my bucket list and forgot about it. But then my life started to wind up quickly, I felt too stressed and lost, and the thoughts of Vipassana started to cross my mind more and more often. I also started to bump into articles about it. At some point I met with a friend who is also a coach to tell her about my struggles, and her immediate advise was: Vipassana. I believe that everything happens for a reason and in the right time, so in the beginning of January I decided that I have to do it and started to get ready.
Though you can do it anywhere in the world, even in Hungary, I knew I wanted a more authentic experience and full immersion so I decided I’ll go to Asia, as it has always been a place of power for me. Eventually it came down to Nepal,  Myanmar and India, and having compared flights, prices and schedules I booked my tickets and course in Nepal. It was still 2 month to go, but I already was excited and frightened: I don’t know what exactly I was afraid of – it’s not psychoanalysis to get to your childhood traumas and not a concentration camp where you are sent without an option to escape, but the perspective of getting deep inside my mind felt terrifying. What will I find there? Which monsters will come out of the depths of my subconscious?
By the time I began packing, my life had started to get back to normal, the pieces of the puzzle were slowly coming together, but the decision was already there, so I stuck the warm blanket in the suitcase and was off to go.
The literal meaning of Vippasana is to see the reality as it is, not as it seems to be. And to do so you first need to get in contact with your body.
I read a lot about other people’s Vipassana experiences to get an idea and I knew that it will be hard, but no story can transfer the real experience – so won’t mine.
People are asking – did you like it? Well, “like” is definitely a very wrong word here – it was the toughest, most challenging experience in my life to date, both mentally and physically,  but it was also insightful and liberating.
Do you know what are the biggest joys of my life? Good meal, long morning sleep and a nice chat, preferably over a glass of wine. And now imagine me getting up at 4 am every day, eating very plain, same-type food with the last proper meal at 11 am and maintaining complete silence for 10 days. Needless to say wine was not an option. Spice it up with 100 hours of meditation over just 10 days… And no, it’s not a prison.  It’s a totally voluntary experience.
I was mostly scared of early wake ups and hunger, but surprisingly,  I was getting up easily and food was somehow enough. And sometimes it was pretty tasty.  Having bland rice for ten days in a row wasn’t my favorite thing (with a bingo! 8th day – rice for both breakfast AND lunch) but it was still ok and you could eat as much as you want. For breakfast we’d have lentils soup (chickpeas was my favorite) and some grain with curry. Once there were cookies 🙂 For lunch there was always rice with some additions to it. It’s a classical Nepali (and Indian) meal which they call a “Thali” – plate – you get some plain rice in the middle of your plate and then different supplements around it – lentils, spinach, tofu and vegetables.
We were also given milk, and I kept on thinking why there’s no yogurt,  and on 4th day it happened! As well as on the last one. That was a really good one, slightly sweet and tasted like a dessert.
At 5 it was tea and fruit time and I was looking forward to it so much! I imagined abundance of fruit lying on big dishes waiting there for us to be eaten. Imagine my frustration and disappointment when we went for our first tea and all we got was a tiny banana, half an apple and a handful of peanuts mixed with puffed rice. I wanted all of those bananas! But then I saw the “old students” – people for whom it’s not their first Vipassana  (yes, there are people who do it for second, third and even more times!) And all they got was… lemon water. So I immediately felt very happy with my banana and half an apple.
Strangely,  I didn’t crave anything during the whole course. Maybe the utter impossibility of getting anything beyond scheduled meals made cravings irrelevant, but I didn’t want anything special. I would feel slightly hungry at times, but nothing compared to the intense “hanger” I often experience at around 5 pm on an ordinary workday.
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The course is said to be 10 days but there’s also a “zero day” when you first come to the office to register, then listen to the introduction and board the bus to be taken to the center. 10 minutes away from the center the bus stopped – there were road works ahead (though I’m not sure what they were calling a “road” – there was a mix of stones, sand, water and mud) and we had to walk up the hill carrying luggage. “So my Vipassana is starting right here, right now”, was my first thought.
When we finally reached the center, we were asked to deposit our passports, all electronic devices, reading and writing material and food – those items are not allowed as well as any rosary, talismans,  beads etc. Then we were taken to our residence areas – old houses with rooms divided into sections of 2 beds each and a rope to hang your stuff above.  My first thought was – good that I brought my blanket,  even though they had ones too – it was very cold in the rooms despite warm and sunny weather outside. There was a bathroom on the floor and also lots of showers and toilets outside. We were told that there’s hot water in the showers but I never had a chance to experience it – at best case I’d get barely warm water that didn’t freeze my fingers.
I’ve met my “roommate” but didn’t have enough time to even find out her name, just that she was from Switzerland,  and then we had to rush for another introduction and then the Noble Silence started – you are not allowed to talk to anyone but teachers or volunteers (and even that communication should be kept to the minimum), neither can you look in the eyes, use gestures, notes or any other forms of communication.  And then we had our first hour of meditation.
There were over 60 women and over 30 men, we lived in separated areas, ate in different canteens and were sitting in the different parts of the hall for meditation. The majority of people were local, but there was a fair number of foreigners too. Interestingly, most of locals where of older age, some seemed really old – like 100 year old nuns, while foreigners were all around 30. There were quite a few people for whom it wasn’t the first course.
The first meditation was exciting – it was a completely new experience, but sitting was a struggle – it felt like I couldn’t sit still even for 1 minute, was fidgeting all the time and tried to get comfortable – it never happened.
After the meditation we were let off to sleep. I brushed my teeth in ice-cold water and shortly was deep asleep.
20170312_064832And then the first day came. 4 am – wake up bell and I was out of my bed as fast as never in my life. Washed myself with the bucket – there was no hot water in the inside shower but if you were lucky you could get some warm water from the sink tap. Put on as much clothes as I had and rushed to the meditation hall.
After 2 hours of meditating (most of the time I was trying hard not to fall asleep) we’d be served breakfast and I would go back to my room for another hour of sleep – we had free time till 8. Then we’d have another 3 hours of meditation with a 5-minute break, followed by the 2-hour lunch break. I thought that I’ll be taking long walks during this time to get some exercise but the whole walking area was around 300 steps so I got bored on the first day, and was just lying in the sun daydreaming and stretching my back and legs. I remember as on one of the first days I thought that probably there’s more freedom in the prison. I would also watch others – some were washing clothes all the time (later i found out it was because they had to keep themselves busy), most were just chilling out in the sun. One girl was walking furiously fast back and forth and I’m very sure she was counting steps – so concentrated she looked. I heard about a guy who would read the label of his deodorant at some point – so bored he was, but I didn’t feel we had that much of free time to get bored with.  Though I had my own ritual too – at tea time when we were given puffed rice mixed with peanuts, I would eat the rice first and then count the peanuts – on a good day I had 31.5 nuts and on a bad one only 8. This kept me busy for half of the teatime and the rest I would watch the sunset.
After lunch there were another 4 hours of meditation with two 5-minutes breaks, then tea with fruit, an hour of meditation, a lecture about the technique from the founder – Goenka – and last short meditation before going to  bed at 9 pm. I liked the lectures though they were pretty long – over an hour, but the guy had a good sense of humor and it was interesting.  The point of the course is not to blindly believe in anything they say, but to deeply understand how the technique works and then decide whether you accept it or not. On the second day I was so tired that I couldn’t wait for him to stop talking – he could have said it all in 15 minutes but kept on repeating ideas over and over again. Now I understand it was needed to get remembered,  but then it felt like a torture – we were still not allowed to lean against the wall and had to sit on the hard cushion trying to find a proper place for our arms, legs and back. After the second day I accepted it as it is and the anger was gone.
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The first three days I thought that I’m gonna quit, that I’m not gonna make it for another 9, 8 or 7 days. Sitting was a struggle,  back hurt so badly as someone was hammering in hot nails there, but meditating was even a bigger struggle. The mind would wander away every now and then and those wanders were not nice – some childhood fears were coming up, unpleasant memories, unresolved issues and other stuff. I also started to have bad dreams though normally I sleep as a dead person with no dreams at all. I remember couple of dreams which I used to have as a teenager. I kept on thinking that I was happy enough even without Vipassana,  content with my life, so what on earth I’m doing here instead of lying on some nice beach with a cocktail in my hand. But every time I kept on reminding myself that I voluntarily decided to come here and that I had a solid reason to do so. And if I quit, I’ll never find out how it would feel like: to go through the whole course.
On second day I woke up with a feeling that there’s an earthquake (I was talking to people about 2015 earthquake before coming to course so it was on my mind) – I could swear my bed was trembling, but then I realized it was me trembling from cold. Last 2 nights I was sleeping in all my clothes as the monsoon came and it suddenly got very cold).
By the end of third day I suddenly could sit still for the whole hour without barely moving, and that was just in time – from day 4 we were required to sit still, without changing our pose or moving any parts of the body 3 time a day, 1 hour each. And then, on the same third day I was relaxing on the steps after 5 pm tea contemplating the sun going down behind the mountain and all of a sudden I felt so… happy. It was not that neurotic, agitated happiness that we have in “normal” life when we get what we want, but a very quiet, tranquil inner peace.  And at that moment I thought that probably I can make it till the end. At least I will try.
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On 5th day I realized that I can control the pain – if you observe it, examine it, face it – it will go away or at least become bearable. It was such an exciting discovery – of how much your mind is capable of if only you could master it.
Day 6 was one of the hardest – the pain was extreme and my recently discovered technique wouldn’t work, I couldn’t focus and all my fears were there – so vivid, real pictures popping up in front of my eyes. Later I recognized that there’s a connection between the pain and the fear – it would both go to the surface and then both disappear. Same was with memories – mostly of my past relationships and people in my life. At some point I’ve got an insight that it’s not about how much someone hurt me or insulted me but rather who I was with those people – I didn’t like myself, was ugly in my own eyes, and that was the reason why it was utterly wrong.
I somehow managed to struggle through day 6 and on day 7 the pain was gone.  Completely.  It felt unbelievable but was true – it was appearing here and there from time to time, accompanied by fears or other “dirt” from inside, but it wasn’t too bad or too lasting.
On day 8 I could feel that the mind is very tired, exhausted – it was hard to meditate,  I was thinking about future, imagined a whole 6-month dream trip in detail, was doing anything but meditating, but that was so peaceful.
10th day is a day when Noble Silence is broken – at 9 am you go out of the meditation hall and you can talk.  Surprisingly,  being silent for ten days was the easiest – maybe I was too tired and stressed before, but this whole disconnection and information deprivation was a blessing. And it felt so strange to talk. I could finally find out what was the name of my neighbor and we could share our experiences with fellow students.  There was so many smiles on people’s faces, so much pure happiness! Several people left during the course, many thought of leaving,  some even talked to the teachers about how you actually do that – you cannot leave while someone can see you,  it can distract other mediators, so those who left simply “disappeared”. In the end all who stayed were happy they eventually made it to the end.
On 10th day we had sweets for lunch and it felt like a feast!
On that day you could also buy some books and leave a donation which is completely voluntary – no one chase you for that,  you just go and give whatever you feel is appropriate.
There was still an 11th day – as the course would end at 7 am next day, but we hoped there would be no 4 am wake up – there was. As well as the morning meditation though a short one. After the closing lecture and the breakfast the course was over.
Vipassana teaches that nothing is real until experienced.  And it’s a great technique as it gives you an opportunity to experience real things as what can be more real than your own breath and sensations? There’s nothing magical or esoteric in it – it is a method and if one follows it through thoroughly they’ll get the results. I’m sure there are plenty of techniques that can help you become happier and improve your life and thinking, and I’ve even read about many of them. But the problem with them is that you read them, you understand them, think that you’ll now do it right and…. nothing happens. In 3 days you won’t even remember what you have read about. Vipassana takes you through the experiential journey into the depths of your mind. It might not always be pleasant but once discovered, it’s gone, eliminated. It’s a unique experience and I’m happy I got to know about this method and was brave enough to try it.
I think I’d be able to speak whether Vipassana really changed my life in couple of months only, but I feel much more aware and balanced now, more focused and happier. And I managed to write this post in one go,  without being distracted by Facebook or my own thoughts, and that’s a great achievement 🙂
One may argue that it’s some kind a brainwashing or it can be harmful, but honestly, what happens during those days as that you are left 1-1 with the contents of your head. Yes, you might not like what you find there (most likely you won’t!) but it’s already there and your demons and monsters wont disappear if you just pretend they don’t exist and bury them deeper in your mind. The only way to get rid of them is to face them. And it happens gradually, layer by layer, so that you are “prepared” to what is coming on the surface or at least able to handle that. And you learn not to generate more of that shit, react less and thus become happier and more peaceful.
20170312_092033People ask whether I’d recommend Vipassana to them or others, and despite all the benefits, my answer is a definite no, as Vipassana is not something that can be recommended,  you have to want to do it, NEED to do it, be ready for it and if you don’t have a clear answer, understanding of why you’re doing it, it will be extremely hard, if not impossible at all, to get through it.
Before I made a final decision to go on this course, I bumped into a quote by one Vipassana teacher. He was saying that though not everyone knows about Vipassana,  the knowledge about it comes in a very right time,  when your mind needs it the most and can rip off the best benefits. Now you know about Vipassana.  You decide what you will do with this knowledge 😉
Be happy 🙂

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