The past 10 days have been by far the most difficult I have ever endured, both physically and mentally. I knew going into it that it wasn’t going to be easy, but in all honesty if I had even had an inkling of what it was really going to be like, I probably wouldn’t have gone through with it.
Vipassana is an ancient technique of meditation from India that was rediscovered and taught by Gotama Buddha as a way of self-transformation and liberation. It has since been passed down to other teachers and the most current teacher is S.N. Goenka of Burma. Goenka passed in 2013 and the courses are facilitated by assistant teachers but the instructions are given by Goenka through recordings. The courses are run on a donation basis and are offered free of charge; donations are only accepted once a student has completed a 10-day course. All of the workers donate their service in benefit of others and are not compensated on a monetary basis. The rules of the course are quite strict; men and women are to remain strictly separated, students practice “noble silence” throughout the course (no speaking, eye contact or gestures of any kind with other meditators), no access to phones or electronics, no reading or writing, along with several other rules.
The day I arrived, I was already feeling nervous and anxious about what I was about to get into. Upon checking in, I was informed that the hot water was broken. Excellent! Cold showers have got to be one of my least favorite things on the planet…this was already off to a good start. That was only the beginning. Luckily I had my own room, but my room was reminiscent of a jail cell. A small empty white room with a hard bed, a plastic chair, a fan, a couple shelves and a small bathroom. The first night we had dinner and orientation before diving right into meditation. Goenka’s chanting made me chuckle a little, and I think that may have been the last time I laughed until day 10.
The first day was probably the longest day of my life. I couldn’t believe how slowly the time was passing, except during our meal breaks which of course flew by. We spent over 10 hours a day in meditation with short 10 minute breaks in between 1-2 hour sets. I left a detailed schedule below for your viewing pleasure. We were given the option of meditating in our room for a couple of those sets, which I took advantage of at first because there was a chair in my room. I can’t believe the amount of pain my body was in just from sitting on the floor. Every single part of my body ached including my shoulders, arms and wrists. It seemed no matter how many cushions I used or positions I tried I was in excruciating pain and my legs kept falling asleep. We were given permission to sit however was most comfortable for us and readjust our posture as often as needed, until after the fourth day. On days 5-10, we were asked that during the three group meditation sittings we practice “sitting of strong determination” and avoid changing our posture, moving our hands or opening our eyes for the entire hour unless absolutely necessary. I broke the rules and took ibuprofen on days 4-6 to endure the pain. The pain became a bit more manageable by day 7, and actually began to subside by day 9, or maybe the practice was having an effect and I was actually becoming equanimous about it.
And then there was the exhaustion. The last meditation ended at 9pm and we were woken up at 4am, so if I was lucky enough to get right to sleep and sleep through the night I could get 6 ½ hours of sleep, which rarely happened. For me, the work we were doing was incredibly draining on every level. When I would actually relax into the meditations, my head would often begin bobbing forward and back as I fought with sleep and at times my entire body would begin to give out and collapse. Several times I even began dreaming while I was sitting, seeing strange visuals which sometimes happens at night right before I fall asleep.
The physical pain and exhaustion was nothing compared to the emotional and mental agony. I won’t go into detail about the technique, but it essentially began with noticing the breath, progressed to breath sensations, then bodily sensations, and the technique progressed slightly every couple of days but was still very repetitive. I don’t think I meditated at all the first couple of days; I just sat there thinking for hours and hours and hours. I quickly felt like I was going to lose my sanity completely and it was not long before feelings of anxiety and depression began to surface. I suddenly became very aware of how far away from home I was and the fact that I no longer have a home at all. I have never felt so alone in my entire life. All I wanted was to escape this mental torture, but where would I go? My loved ones are thousands of miles away and my TEFL training didn’t begin until after the vipassana course and going back to Chiang Mai and sitting in a hotel room by myself didn’t sound appealing either. Not to mention they had strictly warned us about leaving the course early, I suspect because they’ve had many attempted escapes in the past. There were even course boundaries roped off so we couldn’t leave the grounds or designated areas. I felt like a prisoner in my own personal hell, and the worst part was that I had put myself there voluntarily.
I think where it went wrong for me was that I entered into this in an already vulnerable emotional state. I just uprooted my life to move overseas, walked away from everything and everyone I know and love, and am in the process of healing a broken heart after leaving my boyfriend. All of the work I had done over the past two months in Bali to begin to heal and mend these deep wounds had been completely undone and I was suddenly a giant pulsing, bleeding open wound. And it hurt. More than any pain I have ever experienced in my entire life. I was filled with sadness, loneliness, regret, fear and anxiety. The anxiety was probably the worst of all; I felt like I was screaming on the inside but I couldn’t say a word. I could barely breathe at times and spent many of those meditation sets praying to Spirit to give me the strength to get through it. One of the major teachings of vipassana is that of Anicca, or impermanence. I kept reminding myself that this would eventually come to an end. Ten days doesn’t sound like much, but when you are suffering, every minute feels like an hour, every hour feels like a day, and every day feels like a year. On the afternoon of the fifth day, I decided to give myself permission to take a bit of a step back. At that point, I was no longer concerned about “the work,” it was now just about survival. I felt like I was on the verge of having a psychotic break.
I had been unsuccessful with the early morning meditations because it was just a struggle to stay awake which would eventually result in me giving up and allowing myself to go back to sleep. But that only made me feel more depressed and one day very dizzy. So I decided to instead start doing my physical therapy and a nice long yin yoga practice during that two hours which I had been previously trying to squeeze in during meal breaks. This felt more nourishing to my body and mind than trying to fight sleep for two hours, and allowed more time for me to be outside after meals rather than in that jail cell of a room. I was diligent about attending the group meditation sittings and respecting the sitting of strong determination as best as I could and during those sittings I did my best to really try to practice the vipassana technique. But during the other sittings I started allowing myself to get up and leave the meditation hall and walk around outside if my body was in pain or if I was experiencing an attack of anxiety. I noticed others doing the same and again felt this was more nurturing to my experience than forcing myself to suffer through the meditations. By day 7, I also began alternating the vipassana technique with counting my breaths. We were strongly advised not to mix other meditation techniques to truly give the vipassana technique a chance but I simply just couldn’t keep doing the same thing over and over and over for hours on end. And I broke another rule and allowed myself to write during a few of the afternoon meditations. I had unknowingly smuggled in some pens and paper in my backpack. Pretty much every email, flight confirmation and receipt I had in there ended up with writing on it. I wrote journals, letters and lists. I understand their reasoning for not wanting us to read or write because it stimulates the mind, but I just needed some sort of outlet to get some of the constant chatter out of my head.
These small alterations helped but every day was still a struggle. I kept thinking it was going to get easier as I got closer to the end but it didn’t get easier until day 10 when we were finally allowed to break the noble silence and begin easing ourselves out of the process. Every day felt like an eternity and when each day would finally come to an end, all I could think was, “Fuck. I have to do that ALL over again tomorrow?!” By the seventh day, I was not only struggling with depression and anxiety, but everything began to get on my nerves. The meditation bells, Goenka’s voice, the Thai translations, the emotionless, expressionless faces all around me, and all of the bodily noises constantly coming from the dorms – coughing, belching, farting, spitting. So. Much. Spitting. Equanimity. Equanimity…
There were some peaceful moments here and there. There was a small walking path outside of the cafeteria which was basically a square with a diagonal line through it that I would walk around after each meal. As I would circle around the path repeatedly (much like the repetitive loop of time I seemed to be stuck in), I would watch the other women. There were a couple of speed-walkers, one of which slowed down considerably after about the fifth day. There were leisurely strollers. Many of the women would pick up snails from the walking path and move them to the safety of the grass or let them crawl on their arms. Some women would sweep the path or squeegee puddles of water, seemingly needing a purpose. There was an older woman with an angry look that seemed to be etched into her face. There were three nuns that never walked after meals, but the youngest one would often sit on one of the stools outside and just stare into the mountains. She always looked so peaceful and serene. Watching these women became more enjoyable as the days wore on.
Another highlight of the day was listening to Goenka’s discourse. Firstly, because it signaled that end of the day was near which was always a comfort. It was also something to focus my mind on which was much welcomed. And although I didn’t completely resonate or agree with his philosophies, he was enjoyable to listen to. He often cracked jokes and had a loveable smile.
Now that the course is complete and I am looking back on my experience, I probably should have left the course, regardless of the warnings against leaving. I was not in a stable enough space mentally and emotionally to really get the full benefit of the course and it seemed to just rip open a lot of wounds and leave me in a very raw and tender place. I also had some fundamental disagreements with the vipassana technique and philosophies that I won’t go into depth about, but I feel that this also prevented me from really experiencing the benefit. I do not plan to continue the technique and do not agree that this extreme of an approach is necessary. I do not believe that we need to intensify our misery in order to eradicate it. I also do not believe that any human being, no matter what state they are in emotionally, ever needs to meditate that much. I acknowledge that this is just my experience which was largely influenced by my current emotional state. Many people swear by the technique and repeat the course multiple times. Ultimately in my belief, it is just not for everyone, as with anything else. Just because a technique has been discovered that has helped people and worked in the past, doesn’t necessarily mean that every human being needs to practice it for eternity. I believe that we are evolving beings that are constantly changing and growing, and our practices need to grow and evolve with us over time.
I do feel that I have gone through an intense emotional cleanse and the course was extremely revealing to me about my attachments as well as my dependency on circumstances for happiness. It has helped me to come to terms with some truths about leaving home that I had not been acknowledging up until this point. I am definitely in a different place emotionally than I was before the course and feel that it will largely influence how I proceed along this journey and make decisions in the future, and for that I am grateful.
|4:00 am||Morning wake-up bell|
|4:30 – 6:30 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|6:30 – 8:00 am||Breakfast break|
|8:00 – 9:00 am||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00 – 11:00 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room according to teacher’s instructions|
|11:00 – 12:00 pm||Lunch break|
|12:00 – 1:00 pm||Rest and interviews with the teacher|
|1:00 – 2:30 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|2:30 – 3:30 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|3:30 – 5:00 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|5:00 – 6:00 pm||Tea break|
|6:00 – 7:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|7:00 – 8:15 pm||Teacher’s Discourse in the hall|
|8:15 – 9:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00 – 9:30 pm||Question time in the hall|
|9:30 pm||Retire to your own room – Lights out|