I think we often underestimate how difficult the journey inwards can really be. Perhaps that’s why many of us never go there. Perhaps there’s a reason why we lock our deepest emotions/ traumas/fears/etc deep in the depths of our souls hoping to forget they ever existed. Ignorance is bliss, right? But the thing about wounds is that they need to heal. And to heal, you must do the work. Often, the only way out is through.
Vipassana meditation is a type of healing, a relentless technique that puts oneself in the midst of physical or emotional suffering to enable us to realise that most of our pain is, in fact, psychosomatic – that at any time we have the power to manipulate our mind to choose to focus on the pain or move away from it. “Whatever you focus on will manifest itself,” states the teachings. Vipassana essentially takes the concept of ‘mind over matter’ to a whole new level.
I didn’t know what I was expecting walking into that Dhamma centre 6 days ago. I hadn’t exactly done my research, aside from testimonials from travellers I had met who found the experience to be life-changing. I was craving silence and a lack of stimulation and so I figured, as an avid meditator, why not take a course that would allow me to quieten my mind and body for 10 days and deepen my practice. I’m a curious being and so I followed my curiosity to the foothills of the Himalayas at the Dhamma centre in Pokhara, Nepal.
Little did I know I was about to experience some of the hardest days of my entire life, simply by sitting still.
I arrived at the centre around 1 pm on Sunday for check-in. The centre overlooks one of Nepal’s great lakes nearby the city of Pokhara. Situated on the hills, the campus overlooks Begnas Lake and in the distance are the mountain peaks of the Annapurna ranges.
One by one we signed in, handing over our stimulants – phones, laptops, pens, books, basically any form of distraction. Vipassana follows a simple code of moral conduct that serves to calm the mind, which otherwise would be too stimulated to perform the task of self-observation. In order to curb these distractions, students must hand in the above-mentioned items as well as take a vow to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, speaking falsely, and intoxicants.
The vows were easy. I couldn’t harm a spider even if I wanted to. I was also very ready to part with my phone. I actually couldn’t wait to see the back of it. My phone and I had developed a type of dependency that felt rather intoxicating. We definitely needed a break.
I was among roughly 20 other students from all walks of life. I was curious as to what brought these people here. They were young, too. The average age may have been around 30. For someone so young to want to embark on such a deep journey surprised me, but then again I was one of them.
From the time we entered the grounds, men and women were separated. This is aimed to reduce the distraction caused by the opposite sex. Fair enough, I thought. If they’re taking away our books then they may as well take away our ability to examine each other. I preferred the all-female zones anyway, especially the sleeping quarters and the bathrooms.
The facilities were basic but comfortable. It was the view that wow-ed me. A path wove through the grounds complemented by uninterrupted views of Begnas Lake with the snow-capped mountains as a backdrop. The main dining hall was at the entrance to the centre, segregated into a dining hall for men and a dining hall for women. The room was set out with a bench placed along the walls. Each seat along the bench had a number, that was the same number corresponding to your dorm bed and your meditation cushion in the Dhamma hall. Students would be requested to take meals here daily, facing the wall to remain in concentration, washing your dishes as you finished and maintaining the vows of silence.
As you exit the dining hall, to the left were the female dorms. They were 4-bed dorms with detached bathrooms and showers. If we were lucky, the solar heating would warm the showers at midday, any other times we were subject to the icy, refreshing water flowing from the mountains. You come to know that hot showers are a luxury in Nepal, and something you don’t take for granted.
To the right was the Dhamma hall, one left-side entrance for the women and one right-side entrance for the men. The Dhamma hall had a clear line running down the middle so that men and women did not mix. The only time we were within close proximity was during the meditation itself when we remained in silence.
At 8 pm that evening the silence began. It was all very fresh for me, and I still felt excited. I was unfazed by my inability to speak, that was going to be the easiest part of it all.
I woke to the sound of a ringing bell at 4 am. I’d intentionally kept my sleeping patterns from the previous Australian timezone so waking up was easy. Meditation started at 4:30 am and would continue until 6:30 am.
The room was silent. No music, no words. Just the sound of bodies moving, breathing. The brushes of cloth up against the cushions, a cough, an occasional yawn. At 5:30 the teacher entered. He sat at the front of the room on the male’s side, dressed in white. He was a Nepali man, with a calm essence and a slight smile on his face indicating his peaceful aura. Next to him was a stereo player. At 5:30 he hit the play button.
A deep voice projected through the speakers, it was in a language I didn’t recognise at first. Some kind of verse, repeating three times. The voice then spoke in English: “Start with a calm and quiet mind. Focus on the flow of breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. Work patiently, diligently, for you are bound to be successful.”
For the next hour that’s what we did. We breathed. “This isn’t so hard,” I thought to myself. And then the agitation came. I would have a period of calmness, and then a period of unrest, and it continued like this for the next hour. A rollercoaster of zen and frustration. We were only two hours in and I was already fidgeting, anticipating how many minutes had gone by since I last closed my eyes. I wasn’t used to meditating in silence. I often use music, crystals. I often lay down, I rarely sit up. This was a very new playing field for me, and I was uncomfortable.
The bell rang for breakfast at 6:30 am, a feeling of relief ran through me. 2 hours down, 118 to go. You bet it, I had already pre-calculated the number of hours we would meditate during our time at the centre. My mind already preempted the future before I had even taken my next breath. Writing this now, I think this is one of the strategies Vipassana uses to make us realise the power our minds have over us. The fact is, all we can really control is the breath we take in the present moment. And if we think more deeply, can we even control that? We are just animate beings part of this divine mechanism that surrounds us. We breathe in and we breathe out, ever-changing, ever decaying, until one day we don’t breathe anymore and fall back into the oneness we were birthed from.
The first morning consisted of segments of a calm and quiet mind, followed by segments of intense anticipation, and it continued like that for the rest of the day. I found comfort in watching the mountains over the lake; in taking laps of the grounds, observing one foot stepping in front of the other, learning how to be present or unlearning how not to be. I enjoyed the meals and admired the kindness of the servers. Karina, one of the female servers, was also from Sydney. We spoke a little before the course started. I asked her why she chose to be a server (volunteer). Her response moved me: “I want to learn how to serve people selflessly, to show true compassion to others without receiving anything in return,” she told me.
On the first day, I resonated with the values of the practice of Vipassana. For one, it is a non-sectarian practice. That means it does not follow any dogma, it does not discriminate against any religion, faith or caste. To me, that value is so important. So often practices like this are sectarian, holy places are reserved for that of their own kind. The difference with the Dhamma centre is that Dhamma itself is not a religion. Dhamma means ‘to uphold’ and in this context, it means ‘to uphold the natural order of the universe’. It is a practice that lets individuals take control of their own presence, their own reality, and feel their existence in the most natural state. The idea is to observe reality as it is, not as one would like it to be.
I had completed one full day’s schedule which meant that it was imprinted in my mind. I knew what to expect, the element of surprise was no longer there to get me through the long periods of meditation. I woke up that morning feeling good. “I came here to work and so I am going to work,” I said to myself.
The morning started the same. 4:30 to 6:30 was meditation. 6:30 to 8 was breakfast. 8 to 9 was meditation in the hall and 9 to 11 was meditation in our rooms. Or so I thought. 9 am came around and my anticipating mind had already envisioned the scenario of meditating in my room, on my comfortable bed out of the Dhamma hall and in new surroundings, a little less pressure in case I decided to stretch my legs, just like the day prior. You come to crave the breaks in between the meditations, and this is one of the habits Vipassana tries to eradicate. Craving and aversion are two of the mind’s biggest weaknesses, they are key elements in the wheel of suffering:
If craving and aversion arise, attachment occurs;
If attachment arises, the process of becoming occurs;
If the process of becoming arises, birth occurs;
If birth arises, decay and death occur, together with sorrow, lamentation, physical and mental suffering, and tribulations. Thus arises this entire mass of suffering.
I hear the teacher speak: “Old students meditate in their room, new students meditate here.” My heart sank. I thought, “Another two hours sitting here?!” I wasn’t anticipating this. In reality, I shouldn’t have been anticipating anything at all but I wasn’t advanced. I had 33 years of old habits ingrained in my mind. I anticipate; I anticipate a lot.
So I spent the next few hours trying to move through the discomfort I had created in my own mind. All I had to do was sit there but I was recovering from the disappointment of a reality that differed to my expectation, like a child having their favourite toy taken away from them. It seems illogical, but when you are in the midst of discomfort it’s astonishing what the mind craves. Humans tend to prefer the path of least resistance, and why would we not? Comfort zones provide safety, happiness and joy. I’m sure most of us don’t even know how comfortable we really are; how many get-out-of-jail-free cards we have to play with at any given moment. Take those away and it creates a very deep, uncomfortable level of suffering.
The meditations that day helped me work through some of that discomfort. By focusing on your breath for so many consecutive hours you remain present enough to observe that all sensations are merely passing. The technique really allows you to gain an objective perspective on everything that is happening in your own mind at any given moment and, assuming you participate in that observation long enough, you begin to learn how to separate yourself from the cravings of the mind. You know that everything is fleeting, the good and the bad.
I was in the midst of a dream. My mum was there, she handed me a phone so I could call her if I needed to. At that moment the bell woke me. For the first time in my life, I woke from a dream into a reality that felt like a nightmare. All I wanted was to go back to sleep, back into that dream. I wanted the dream to be real. I wanted my reality to be a dream. I wanted my mum. Those cravings spiralled me into a series of negative thoughts about the current moment. I felt like I was in a prison. No, worse than a prison. In prison they let you speak, you can write, read, play games, watch TV. I hadn’t even smiled or made eye contact with someone for 2 days. When I am feeling vulnerable I turn to friends, I turn to my community, I write my feelings, I embrace hugs and words and intimacy. Here, there was none of that. All I could do was sit in the discomfort and realise it would pass, try to learn the rules in this arduous game of ‘mind over matter.’
I hugged Stevie, put her on my head and went to morning meditation. Oh, you haven’t met Stevie yet. On day 3 I was so lonely that I nicknamed an inanimate object and started talking to it. I had a real-life version of Wilson from Cast Away in the form of a winter hat. Trust me, there are crazier stories of things that happen inside those walls. What does one do to pass 10 days of silence and solitude? Our minds are very creative, imaginative tools. I was two days in and my cravings were breaking me, turning me mad. But this is what the practice is designed to do, isn’t it?
I sat in the morning meditation. The first hour I managed to find some sort of zen rhythm. “I’m OK,” I said to myself. “You’ve got this.” But then, almost in an instant, the cravings began to arise, this time they were so strong that tears started to fall from my eyes. The bell for breakfast rang and I went to my room. I told myself that I could no longer stay one more moment inside this prison and approached the server. “I’m really struggling,” I said to Karina, eyes bloodshot from the tears. She looked at me with a concerned kindness. “I’ll get the teacher,” she replied. At this point, I was experiencing what the practice would describe as ‘aversion’. I had cracked the ‘abort’ button right open.
We knocked on the teacher’s quarters and he welcomed us in. I sat on a cushion in front of him. “What’s wrong, daughter?” he said to me. “I’d like to leave,” I replied. At this point, I was feeling intense bouts of shame and failure. I had barely lasted 3 days and already felt broken. Why was I the only one feeling this way, and everyone else managed to hold it together? “If you want to leave that is your choice, we will not force you to stay. But know that if you leave here you take your misery with you. If you don’t face the sadness, it follows you. Have you eaten? Take some breakfast, take some rest. You will feel better. These feelings are just ailments rising to the surface.” I looked at him, tears rolling down my cheeks. I didn’t want to hear his words, I wanted to leave. I had already packed my bags. My mind had made the decision already. But in some way, I didn’t want to disrespect him or disrespect the practice. He was being so kind to me. Karina was being so kind to me. What was really wrong anyway? I couldn’t sit still for a few hours? That’s nothing to cry about, it’s absurd to cry over that.
I sat at breakfast a right mess, trying to hide my tears and emotion so I didn’t disturb the other girls. I took a few spoonfuls of my oats and went into the room to lay down. Perhaps I could sleep it off, or let it pass. But the spiral kept going deeper and deeper. This time I was angry, I don’t think I had ever felt so trapped, even though I wasn’t actually trapped. If anything, I was trapped in my own mind. Maybe this place wasn’t the prison, maybe my mind was? All I knew was that these situations had triggered a feeling of my freedoms being ripped away from me. And we all know that my freedoms to move and freedoms to be are the most important values to me. I had found myself in my very own nightmare, created and manifested by the mind of none other than yours truly.
I waited for the students to enter the meditation hall and took my bag upstairs to the exit. The staff had already gone to fetch my phone and other personal belongings. While I waited, one of the male servers sat opposite me on the other side of the table. “I came up to ring the bell and saw you here,” he said. “What happened? What came up?” His words caused another bout of tears to erupt, this time even stronger I could barely speak. “I don’t know,” I answered. “It was all just too uncomfortable, I just felt trapped.”
“You know, I have seen many people sit where you are. It is very common for people to leave on the third day and the sixth day. Those are the hardest days. And you know what else? I bet almost everyone in that room wants to leave. This practice is designed to make you uncomfortable so you can observe that most matters are simply psychosomatic.”
By this time I think all the tears I was able to generate had subsided. Were this man’s words true? He was so genuine and wise, was he even real? I was starting to reach a point where I didn’t even know my own thoughts anymore. His words seemed to be coming from a place of kindness and made something shift in me so, in the end, I chose to soldier on and stay. I was so grateful for that conversation. I slipped back into the daily schedule from lunchtime. I’m pretty sure most of the girls never realised anything had happened, given the fact that we have our heads down and eyes closed most of the time. This made me happy. The last thing I would have wanted was to disrupt someone’s progress. I knew I wasn’t the only one struggling. I could hear people moving in the meditations, sighing when the bell rang, stretching out the physical pain we all were enduring from sitting for hours upon hours. I admired each and every one of them for making it this far.
At the end of day 4, the real practice of Vipassana started.
The technique was different today, which complimented the meditation practice with a new challenge. The previous 3 days had been a preparation to still the mind so that it was able to start to feel sensations throughout the body. “Start with a clear and quiet mind. Scan your body from head to toe, in order, observing any sensations you may feel – tingling, vibration, heat, cold, itching, pain, lightness, heaviness – all these are sensations. Our bodies are constantly changing every single moment. What is there one second, is not there in the next. Watch these sensations, objectively. Do not pay attention to them. If you focus on the sensation it will manifest. The idea is to scan the whole body, continuously, objectively. Then you will truly know impermanence.”
I did feel sensations in my body, it wasn’t new. I had felt these kinds of tingling sensations before in other meditation practices, although this technique was different. “Leave no area of the body unattended,” the instructions said. I observed the instructions and witnessed impermanence. If I felt pain in one area, once my focus had shifted to another area the pain was gone. “Whatever you focus on will manifest,” I remembered these words from previous work. You manifest pain and you manifest bliss. We have much more power than we realise.
The technique required very serious concentration and for a while, I managed to stay still and watch the feelings objectively, as requested. The moments I was in concentration were great, the time would pass quickly. It was the moments outside of concentration where I began to slip back into the monkey mind, anticipating the end and checking the time. What is time anyway? Does it even exist? Why does time fly when you are unfocused on it, and then slow to a snail’s pace when you look at the watch? That’s what was happening in the sessions. When I looked at the clock it was torture, when I was in another mental place and time passed by unnoticeably I would do a little dance inside. In the outside world, my distractions help the time pass but in there I didn’t have any distraction. I had to try and unlearn the concept of time. And boy was that hard. I can’t even tell you the number of times I looked at that watch.
Was I missing something here? About half the room was agitated, I could tell by their movements. However, half were calm. I swear one man didn’t move the entire time. I would love to be inside his mind and see what he sees. But there is no manual for this, no cheat code to further yourself in the game. Every student experiences something different, and neither should we expect anything. The expectation is also a deep cause of suffering because it leads to craving.
At that point, I was starting to feel as though I wanted to take my big bag of suffering back into the outside world and live a human existence just like I was born to do. I thought, “well, if I was born human that why to bother trying to be enlightened. I have a pretty fine existence, suffering in tow.” And the counter-argument came, “well, why are people here then? What is it that is so life-changing? Are we broken? Did I miss something here!”
That afternoon I tried my hardest to fall back into flow. I realised that it took approximately 4 minutes and 25 seconds to do a lap of the garden. It’s amazing the concentration you can have when you don’t really have much to concentrate on. I thought about my close friends, and family. I missed them. There’s something about being away from the things you love to make you appreciate them even more. I’d been far from them before, but this was a different type of distance, they felt further away. Or maybe I felt further away.
That night the rains came, it aided my meditation and I slept with positive feelings for the days to come. But of course, moments are fleeting.
I woke up the morning of the 6th day feeling frustrated. My optimism of lasting until the end had dwindled into a distant memory. “Give yourself today, and see how you go,” I told myself. I grabbed Stevie, and Scarfie (yes I named my scarf too) and went to the meditation hall. By the time lunch came around, I had started to resent the practice of meditation altogether. I’m pretty sure I sat there for most of the morning with my eyes open, just staring into outer space.
When the early afternoon meditation finished I told Karina I wanted to speak to the teacher again.”Sit this one out, take the meditation to your room and meditate there,” the teacher advised with a kind sentiment. I relished in this, knowing all well that I’d once again decided I wanted to leave. But it helped subside the anger that may have arose had I had to spend one more hour in that hall with my eyes closed.
As I was sitting in the room my dorm-mate entered. She had been next to me the entire time and I felt close to her even though we had never spoken or exchanged eye contact. I had felt her agitation too but had not wanted to make contact and risk misreading how she was feeling. We both sat there in the room for a few minutes in silence. I wanted to talk to her so much that I started smiling to myself, I felt ridiculous. “Are you ok?” she asked me. I was so relieved that she spoke to me. Our eyes met and we both burst into a fit of laughter. “I’m struggling,” I replied. “I was going to leave yesterday,” she said. “Me too! I had my bags packed on Wednesday and was up at the entrance ready to go.” We both let out laughter that had been contained for almost a week. “This feels like The Shawshank Redemption,” she said. “I know! I’m escaping!”
I was relieved to know I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t resonated with the practice. While I have all due respect for what Vipassana is helping people achieve, I just couldn’t connect with it at this point in my existence. Either that or I had not had the ability to reverse the patterns of my human mind just yet. I left that evening with my bag of misery in tow, but I didn’t feel miserable. I felt brave, I felt wiser and I felt like I had really tried my hardest. Perhaps next time I’ll try harder, perhaps I’ll come back in some years and look back on this moment at a different girl. After all, Vipassana teaches us that we are constantly changing, decaying; a mere congregation of atomic particles that make up a part of this natural world. We may be governed by the mind, but as much as the mind creates suffering it also creates the most beautiful euphoria. Where there is darkness there is light, and it is through some of my greatest times of suffering that I have grown a magnificent strength to fly higher than I’ve ever flown before. That’s the wonder of the mystery of life, and the beauty of free will.
I’m grateful for the past 6 days. I did disconnect, I did stop the external stimulation and I found some beautiful new aspects of the internal. I know we can manipulate the mind but for now, I choose to live this human existence for all that it is.
Bianca version 1.1 signing out.
Love and light to all of you dear friends. May all beings be happy.