I’m here to stay. But is it going to be at the cost of my sanity?
Let’s start with the obvious: A ten days silent meditation retreat is pure madness. It’s crazy to think that people would willingly put themselves in lockdown, effectively checking themselves into a prison in order to dig deep and look beyond the foundation of their minds knowing there is something else out there that they must find. A lot of us are very determined, restless seekers.
All I knew about Vipassana before signing up was: free(based on donation), noble silence and lots and lots of meditation. It’s also notorious for being a very tough course. Sounds right up my alley and yet before diving in I needed more convincing.
I found out about these retreats from a TED Talk months before starting my travels and considered signing up somewhere in Thailand. However, at that time, I came to the conclusion that my emotional state wasn’t ready for such an intense course as i was going through an internal change and turmoil. Keeping that opinion even after starting traveling, I began meeting a lot of people who have done it and encouraged me to do it as their experiences were very beneficial despite feeling like pure torture.
Convinced, i finally decided to sign up and after making it on the waiting lists in Malaysia and Thailand as the courses were already full, the next available country was Cambodia and off I went to challenge my limits, ready to face the unknown world inside. The words that stuck with me from a traveler that has done it before were: Be prepared to run every single day. It doesn’t get easier. It definitely didn’t get easier but I was there to stay – no running at any point during the course.
Vipassana is a technique of meditation revived from the times of The Buddha in the modern world by S.N.Goenka – a spiritual teacher who after noticing it’s beneficial effects decided to teach the technique to as many people as possible. To this date there are hundreds of meditation centres around the world ran by old vipassana students (previous students who have taken a ten day course before and returned to volunteer to other courses) and Goenka’s discourses can be listened in about any language.You’ll be surprised how many people choose to challenge themselves. Vipassana retreats are so popular worldwide that it’s easy to find yourself on a waiting list if you decide to sign up a few days later after the registration is open.
Basics: The foundation of practice is silla– moral conduct. Sila provides basis for the development of samadhi– concentration of the mind; and purification of the mind is achieved through panna– the wisdom of insight. All the students who attend a Vipassana course must follow five percepts (sila-moral conduct):
- To abstain from killing any living creatures;
- To abstain from stealing;
- To abstain from all sexual activity
- To abstain from telling lies
- To abstain from all intoxicants
Old students follow three more precepts:
- To abstain from eating after midday;
- To abstain from sensual entertainment and bodily decoration;
- To abstain from using high or luxurious beds.
Me- being the absolutely not very perfect human that I am, regrettably broke two of those five rules…repeatedly. No one said it’s going to be an easy course.
Day 0 arrived and after coming of a ten hours bus ride from Phnom Penh and going through the registration process, I found myself in the doorway of my room (-cell as Goenka calls the student accommodation quarters).
We got lucky.
The big majority of the foreign students and a group of nuns were assigned to the new building which meant we got our own fresh and clean room with bathroom and balcony.
The other dorms…well, they’ve probably seen way better days as they looked like legit prison cells with tiny rooms divided by walls but with a common roof for more than 20 students. We are in Cambodia after all, unfortunately not everyone gets modern accommodation.
First days were easy. Things were new and exciting, I was trying my best to keep up with the schedule by taking at least one “Lying down” meditation a day. This meant I would lay in bed concentrating on my breathing and suddenly it’s 40min later. Express time travel into the future:) Come on, you can’t expect me to follow the schedule right from the beginning.
I mean, look at this:
By Day 2, I introduced myself to the ant mafia residing in my room. I traced them down to their headquarters ( needle holes in the bathroom) and I started to study their business affairs. I can solemnly declare that the scientists who are studying ants nowadays, simply had absolutely nothing else to do with their lives. It’s a trap really, it becomes so fascinating to study them, the moment you’re sucked into it, you’re a goner!
By Day 3, I befriended the spiders and evacuated 2 geckos because those tiny little lizards in disguise make a sound that deserve its own role in an opera play. I might’ve or might’ve not started my karaoke sessions on that day as well. The full picture included me (during free time), sitting on the floor, leaning against a wall , looking outside behind the mosquito net trying to sing all the wrong lyrics I could not remember from the most random songs. *No regrets*
By Day 4 I started to get used to the long meditation hours, working on my patience (with the different noises inside the meditation hall) and I had gotten used to the schedule so there was no need for “lying down meditation” anymore. That was the day when we got introduced to the actual technique of Vipassana and…I hated it.
– Cristina, are you scanning your body and following equanimity? Is it going well? the teacher asked me.
-Yeesss?! (did you say to abstain from telling lies? I probably misread that part.)
The only thing I’ll share about the technique is that it’s Body Scan. How it works exactly, what it does and how it helps I’ll leave it for you to discover. The thing with all types of meditation is that everyone has their own personal and unique experience with it. If I tell you what i felt, seen and experienced by practicing meditation, most likely you will expect a similar experience and will become increasingly frustrated when my journey won’t materialize itself in your journey.
Some things are sure though: Your level of awareness will sky-rocket and your new favourite word will be: Anicca- everything is impermanent.
Ex: Hey, my phone broke; -Anicca
Hey, my cat died; – Anicca
On Day 7 I needed The Talk. No, not THE Talk but nevertheless I felt I needed some help. As I mentioned before, body scan wasn’t my favourite activity at all, so I was mostly doing breathing work but my mind was tired, exhausted, craving for freedom. When I talked with the teacher during the break she told me I was on the right path. Craving and Aversion is something all meditators (and the entire human kind) deals with. We’re always craving for something better in the future so we deny the present moment. If you observe your thoughts right now for a moment, you will come to the realization that you were either thinking in the future or thinking of the past.
So I was feeling down because I was failing to enjoy the moment(no matter how tough it was) by dreaming of a fictional love story with Nick Jonas (Don’t even ask where did that come from 😂).
So yes, it was hard. The pure torture though was during the 3 separate hours a day when we had to meditate without moving an inch.
Work diligently, diligently and ardently, work consistently...” – Goenka’s words would grind on my ears right when the back and leg pain was becoming a little too much to handle. There were a couple of times where I had to scoop my legs carefully and set them on the floor urging them kindly to start working. However, nothing could beat the feeling of achievement and happiness when I would go through sweat, pain and almost tears and complete that full hour without moving, proving that I can overpower all the antics of my mind.
Regarding the other rule I broke…well, some ants and mosquitoes unfortunately didn’t make it. I proudly saved a scary looking crawly from the toilet one day, after throwing him in there in the first place (out of fear) but then remembering that I was supposed to be a better human being, I managed to scoop him out and let him go on his merry way.
Also how can I forget the night when there was a big storm and the entire scary population of the Upside Down (aka Stranger Things) was crawling around my door as if looking for a sacrifice – I wish I had a picture of that but I haven’t touched technology until after Day 10.
The tenth day was music to my ears. The noble silence was broken and everyone started to share their success (or not really successful) stories. In 10 days, 2 girls and 3 men left early out of almost 150 people.
The best part was the connections I made with my fellow meditators without even talking. In the last day I felt I was talking with friends, sharing our experiences, lives, laughing and sharing the feeling of achievement. We all made it! It made me realize that I don’t always need to talk to build meaningful connections. A shared spiritual experience will have the same outcome.
Don’t expect easy. But also don’t go there with the mindset that you are going to give up. Of course it’s going to be hard, you will feel lonely, craving for connection, missing the outside world and at times you’ll feel you are going crazy, but all the good things require time and hard work. A journey inside the depths of your mind is no easy task. It all depends on how strong and determined you are to jump on the tracks and start walking, observing all the distractions along the way but not giving in to any of them.
At the end of the day I loved the Vipassana Retreat (tough love really) with all its ups and downs and I will consider doing another one in a couple of years. It’s a good way to clear up your mind, find your determination and become a better person. Yes, I recommend it fully but listen to yourself first. You will feel when you are ready.
Until then I’m off to find other challenging experiences. After all, aren’t they the best part of life?