If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to go to a meditation training or you’re curious to see what goes through a person’s mind while doing it, this post is for you. It will give you information about the technique and the daily flow, but also about the internal workings and questions in my mind as I progressed through it. I hope you will smile (at me and with me), wonder, and maybe find some insights about your own life.
How it all started. 4 years ago, my former boss, a towering Indian guy with a fiery attitude, stared straight into my eyes and said: “You should try Vipassana meditation. It will be good for you!” His tone was clear that this wasn’t a conversation starter. So I ended up googling it all day long.
At that point, I had been meditating irregularly for about 5 years, for 15-20 minutes at a time, using techniques I learned from different people. But I had no real practice and no structure. And then, this guy that didn’t even know I meditated came up with Vipassana. It took me 2 seconds to realize he was right and to know it in my gut that I’d do it. It took me another 3 years to convince my doubtful side, find a course in Europe, and join it.
Vipassana, or “to see things as they really are,” is an ancient meditation practice in which you’re supposed to self-transform through self-observation. The basic technique seems easy: follow your breath. Learning it is anything but.
You know those boot camps where you go in a couch potato and by the time they’re done with you, you’re a potential Navy Seal? Well, Vipassana is THE boot camp for the mind. You go in distracted and chaotic, you leave focused and clear-minded. It’s taught over 10-day residential courses that follow strict requirements intended to strip you of everything that might divert you from looking inwards, and to make you dig as deep as possible.
What is asked of you is to:
- Attend the full 10 days
- Wake up at 4:30
- Be silent and not communicate in any way with anyone (inside or outside the campus)
- Keep separated – gender-wise
- Spend almost 10 hours a day meditating
- Eat a strict vegetarian diet
- Abstain from reading or writing, from any physical activity other than walking, from any kind of sexual activity, from killing any living being (not even bugs)
There are 4 more pages of rules that you have to sign when joining.
If you’re worried about cost – don’t. Everything here is free. Only if you choose to, you can make a donation at the end of the course. All the money goes towards future students’ meals and maintenance costs. The teachers and servers are working for free.
So there I was, in front of the massive iron gates of the camp, armed with the intention to survive the experience. And scared shitless.
Would it be like joining a sect? What if I really wanted to leave and they wouldn’t let me? Would I starve? What if I change so much I won’t fit in when I’m back? What if I lose my mind in the process? And who the fuck meditates for 10 hours a day?
Day 0: Orientation. From the moment I set foot on campus, I felt like I voluntarily signed myself into a nice-looking prison. Instead of regular fences, there are dense plants that create a barrier so solid that there’s zero noise coming from the street.
The camp has three separate buildings: cafeteria, sleeping quarters, and a meditation hall, all set up in a green park webbed with narrow paths.
100 people are in the campus at any given time: 80 trainees, 18 servers, and 2 teachers. I already notice the “serious” ones: a Jesus-looking dude meditating in a perfect lotus pose under a tree, a woman walking as if she’s levitating, and tons of “I’m at peace with the Universe” smiles. And then there’s us: a bunch of first-timers with stiff bodies, that “deer in headlights” look, moving only our mouths to ask “What’s this going to be like?”
Then, you receive the schedule…
4:30 Wake up
5:00 – 6:30 Meditate
6:30 – 8:00 Breakfast
8:00 – 9:00 Meditate
9:00 – 11:00 Meditate
11:00 – 12:00 Lunch
12:00 – 13:00 Rest and questions for the teacher
13:00 – 14:30 Meditate
14:30 – 15:30 Meditate
15:30 – 17:00 Meditate
17:00 – 18:00 Dinner/Tea
18:00 – 19:00 Meditate
19:00 – 20:15 Discourse in the hall
20:15 – 21:00 Meditate
21:00 – 21:30 Questions
22:00 Lights out
Meditation hall. The first time you enter, one of the servers calls your name and whispers a number in your ear. Each number corresponds to a seat (a thin rectangular sponge) you’re supposed to stick to until the end of the training. The less experience you’ve got, the further back you’re assigned… and there are only 5 more women seated after me. There’s also a small hallway where you’re supposed to leave your shoes and water bottle. I see meditation benches and wierd looking chairs. There are blankets and pillows of different shapes and sizes. Hell… most of those things I don’t even know how to use.
The technique. They consider the first 10 days as an introduction, so the teachers start from the very beginning. You follow your breath and observe the sensations in your nostrils. If any thoughts or feelings arise, you’re asked to let them be and focus again on your task. Mind wanders, you bring it back. Again and again.
Then you focus sharply on the tiny area where the air first enters your nostrils. You feel your brain struggling to “see”. The more you work on it, the stronger all the distractions become. The more you work on it, the more your mind starts learning how to focus.
You then begin to scan your body. It’s a technique where you use the same “observing” mind. It’s like imagining a magic circle flowing down on your body while you notice the sensations that arise while it passes.
Your support in this process: the questions you ask the teachers and the daily videos in which Goenka, the man who re-discovered the method, explains its technique and makes jokes out of your struggles.
Day 1. Here we go again, on my own. I wake up before the gong tells us it’s 4:30 and I’m ready to go. We move like ants through the common spaces and bathrooms, looking at each other’s slippers, fighting hard not to make eye contact while still being nice and polite.
Another gong and we start moving towards the hall. This morning, long stretches of rope “adorn” each side of the path. It reminds me of “Police line, do not cross,” but I chase that thought away. There’s a straight line to the meditation hall, another through the back of the house to the dining area, and a space the size of a tennis field to roam free. As free as you can, with signs all over warning you of ticks and Lyme disease. And why do men have the bigger park and why is their path in the front of the house?
We move in straight lines, slouching from the cold, clutching our water bottles. And my mind starts singing: “Oh, oh… You’re in the army… in the army now…”
What have I gotten myself into?
5:00. Gong. I take the last pillow and a blanket from the shelves with meditation goodies and feel confident. I inhale deeply and know I can make it. I’ve done this before. Nothing else to do other than follow my breath. In, Out. Noticing the sensations inside my nostrils. Goooooing in, goooooing out. But then my feet start hurting, my mind is back home, and I start dreaming of breakfast…
In a Vipassana training, eating is not something you do when you’re hungry. It’s a task you’re supposed to approach mindfully. Like everything else here, it’s done on a schedule. You hear a gong and you head to the kitchen. You hear the second gong and you know the food will be taken out. The dishes are simple, but they’re not plain. And most of the time, it’s the most pleasure-filled part of the day. Dinner is especially exciting. The “newbies” – people who are here for the first “round” – get two small pieces of fruit. A banana cut in half is considered two pieces. The “oldies” get… tea.
In the cramped women’s dining room, most of the tables are arranged facing the wall so you’re not tempted to make eye contact. You enter, take a plate, get some food and sit down. You hear the cutlery hitting the plates, someone’s bite in an apple, a sudden cough, but not a word. And there it is, this tiny note glued to the wall at eye level: “DO NOT OPEN THIS WINDOW. IT IS PERMANENTLY CLOSED.” Yet, it’s always open.
Day 2. You spin me right round baby, right round. It’s afternoon. My legs are stiff and my back is unhappy and I need to move. 243 steps to circle the women’s park once. A second later, my FitBit buzzes – I’ve done 10.000 steps.
Day 3. Rock-a-bye baby. Nothing works anymore and my back feels like midgets are playing football with my vertebrae. I open my eyes and see someone stretching from side to side with a scarf, which gives me an idea. I’m going to create a “chair” for myself. I bring my knees close to my chest and wrap the scarf around my back and knees, so that by pushing against it I make a boat. Aaaaahhhh…
Day 4. …You probably think this song is about you. I’ve got this – I know what each trinket in the hallway does and I’ve built a throne for myself: a double pillow for my buttocks, a rolled blanket under each knee, another one to keep me warm and a shawl close by, just in case. 10 minutes later, I’m in the middle of an emotional breakdown and my brain starts singing 90s music: “Never ever have I ever felt so low/ When you gonna take me out of this black hole…”. People talk about finding and making peace with your “shadow” in a Vipassana training. Crap. You know what you’re really made of when you realise you know all the lyrics from an All Saints’ song.
Day 5. The ego takes it all. I’m starting the body scan. Clear mind, no thoughts, calm as a pond frozen over. I feel a tingling sensation moving throughout my body, like a warm and gentle stream. It moves faster and faster and I feel my body dissolving. There’s no boundary between my mind, my body and my soul. Even further, there’s no boundary between me and the others, or the plants, or this building… There is no more ME. THIS IS IT!!! “We are the chaaaampions my frieeeeends, and weee’ll keeep on…” Aaaand I come crashing back. Back to square one.
Focusing on the breath – air coming in, air going out… Hell… “I cloooose my eeeeyes – Only for a moment, then the moment’s gone…”
Day 6. Strong determination. Half way through the training and the “next level” is the “Strong determination meditation”. You choose a posture and you’re not allowed to move a muscle for the entire hour.
There’s something about the chanting today. I close my eyes and I see the face of one of my former managers, a really amazing guy that I owe a lot to. As I look at him, I start seeing, one after another, all the people that have made a positive impact in my life. I see my grandparents, friends from high school, teachers, colleagues, lovers, and a wave of pure gratitude crashes into my heart and tears start rolling down my cheeks, and I just can’t stop them. I sit and listen helplessly to the conversations in my head:
A: What the hell is this? Stop it!
B: Oh, isn’t this the most amazing feeling…
A: No, it’s not! And your nose is filling up so you won’t be able to breathe soon!
B: Doesn’t matter… I’m grateful from the bottom of my heart. There’s so much love in the Universe…
A: See, you’ve done it! You can’t breathe! What the hell are you going to do now?
B: I’ll gently move my hand down to my foot, take off my sock, blow my nose in it and go back to meditating. See? It wasn’t that bad… Chill, woman!
Day 7. My voice. I haven’t heard my voice in a week, but this freakishly annoying guy sitting next to me is going to force me to use it. He’s gulping for air and snorting it out like he’s got a party up his nostrils. I am “going slightly maaaaad”, and since violence isn’t allowed, I’ve got the next best thing: a pair of earplugs! I’m not sure it’s allowed, so I brace myself for the meeting with the teacher.
I go into the waiting room, write my name on the board, and wait. A bell rings, and I’m shown in. I’ve got 2 minutes to ask and receive my answer before the bell tells me I need to leave.
I explain my problem and potential solution as condensed as I can, rushing the words and sitting in awe of my capacity to talk, at the same time. And the teacher slowly tilts her head and whispers: “Oh, so you are bothered by someone else’s breathing. Hmmm…”
But I remember now. I came here to train my mind not to react, but to respond. I came here to focus. This was just another situation where I have no control over the stimulus, but I have full control over my response. The earplugs were just the easy way out. (Oh crap, and to think I teach self responsibility to others)
“You don’t need those earplugs, do you?” she adds. “No, I don’t..” and I head for the exit.
It still amazes me how the guy’s breathing improved right after this… incredible coincidence, don’t you think?
Day 8. Jumping unicorns. I’ve been sitting in meditation for a while and I start seeing a green frog jumping in circles across my body, front to back. It’s not the first time I’ve “imagined” things in meditation, so I let it be and return to my breathing. But this stubborn thing starts jumping faster and faster so I’m forced to pay attention to it. I catch the beast and start rocking it in my arms, like you would a baby. I send it love and affection, hoping it stops running around. Slowly, I see it transforming into Agnes from “Despicable Me” – God, I’m definitely losing it! – But I keep going. It’s not like everything that happened here was fully sane, anyway.
I ask her what she needs from me. I like her. And she says: “A fluffy unicorn!” I make the promise and now she’s smiling. She’s sitting next to me and I can go back to my breathing. I really like her…
Mental note: find unicorn after I get out of here and watch Despicable Me again.
Day 10. The finish line. My hands are shaking as I take the phone and dial my husband’s number. It’s been 10 days since I last spoke to him and heard the concern in his voice when he said: “If this is what you feel is good for you…” and I hear it again now when he asks “Honey…?” And with this, I’m gluing myself back together.
You die a little when you don’t see another person’s eyes for so long. When you don’t touch. When you don’t connect. It breaks you into small pieces and confuses you. But reconnection brings you wonder, and spark and gratitude of a different texture and depth when it happens again.
Instead of a closing: Escaping the prison of the mind. When I started Vipassana, I had no doubt I would make it through the full course. But it turns out my “endure and survive” attitude created layer upon layer of armor that didn’t allow the practice to take root and grow.
When I started Vipassana, I thought I was checking myself into a nice-looking prison. It was only much later that I relized it wasn’t the walls of the camp I was having a tough time escaping, but the prison of my own mind. I needed to free the mind from the mind.