On Sunday I returned from a 10-day Vipassana meditation course just outside of Auckland. 10 days of no talking, no contact with the outside world, and nothing but meditation for 11 hours a day.
It was tough.
There’s a million things I could say about it and, truth be told, I’ve already written a first draft of this blog post with everything I wanted to say….which is currently sitting at over four pages long and isn’t anywhere near being finished. Suffice to say, I’m scrapping that and offering my story to you this way:
- A blog post (this one) with my overall experience and feelings (edit: still turned out to be three pages long SORRY!)
- A blog post (next one) with some stuff you should consider if you’re thinking of taking the course.
- A video about my experience. Because I showered and put on mascara specifically to do that today and we can’t let this rare opportunity go to waste.
I’ll start by saying that the centre was absolutely gorgeous. There are centres all over the world that teach this technique (you can find a list of the centre nearest you on their website) so I can’t speak for the others, but the one in NZ is just amazing. Set in the middle of nowhere with no sounds but waterfalls, rushing rivers and birds. The facility was bright and clean, we each had our own individual dorm rooms, which were simple and comfortable, and the walking paths around the facility were beautiful. It was great!
The daily schedule was like this:
4am – wake up gong
4:30-6:30am – meditate
6:30-8am – breakfast and rest period
8:00-11am – meditate
11-1pm – lunch and rest
1-5pm – meditate
5-6pm – tea (not as in “tea = dinner”, as in “tea = tea and some fruit”)
6-7pm – meditate
7-8:15pm – discourse/discussion on the technique
8:15-9pm – meditate
9pm – bedtime
It was long, long days, living life by the sound of a gong.
The meditation technique itself is just that – a technique. It’s the technique Buddha used to become an enlightened being or whatever, but please PLEASE don’t think of this as a religion or bullshit or anything. It’s actually really far from religion, and basically says “Yo, don’t believe blindly in that god or this scripture, because when it comes down to it, the only person that can make you happy is you. So just chill, dawg.” Even though he talks about Buddha, it’s more of a “Here’s a system this dude developed to do X. Let’s study it!” (after all, Buddha isn’t a god or something to be worshipped…he was just a dude who figured out how to be happy). It gets pretty scientific at times, too.
The technique starts with focusing on your breathing for three days (seriously), then concentrating on the sensations you feel on and in your body for the next seven days. It’s a hell of a lot more complicated than that, but I won’t get into it. Read this if you want to know more.
Okay. My overall experience and feelings:
This course was hard. I knew going into it that it would be, but it turned out to be hard for reasons I hadn’t thought of.
Physically, it’s demanding. You don’t realize how hard sitting for 11 hours a day is on a person (though you *do* get breaks and you don’t have to be totally motionless the entire time). My back was in agony for a couple days, my jaw and forehead started tensing up, and my head had this light/heavy feeling for the last few days of the course which, at one point, I honestly thought was some kind of blood clot and I was going to die. I actually mentioned it to the course manager in a “hey, if I keel over, this is what I’ve been feeling like so make sure the doctors know” sort of way.
Emotionally it was even harder. I was on this rollercoaster of absolute crazy half the time, going from these magnificent highs to these crushing lows. One minute I’d be feeling nothing but love and compassion and excitement and connection with the world, the next minute I would be SO ANGRY at something trivial that I wanted to punch a wall just so I could feel pain. It was bad. Once, I got so angry and so sad that I cried for over an hour and a half. And I didn’t have any Kleenex in my room, so I had to blow my nose in a dirty sock. More than once. Dudes. That’s low. Other times, I would be meditating and burst out into tears feeling so happy and wonderful and light…there were a lot of weird tears.
The mental struggle was probably the hardest for me. The first couple days I found it very awkward to not be interacting with anyone else. The no-talking thing was fine, but you weren’t supposed to look at anyone or interact with them at all (it’s all about being with yourself, on your own). It’s one thing to refrain from talking about the weather, it’s another thing to not be allowed to say “excuse me” when you’re trying to get by someone, or smile at them when you pass them on the path. For 9 days I was living, working and eating side by side with these women, but I couldn’t have any interaction with them at all. It was weird.
Another big mental struggle was just being with myself for 9 days. Just me and my brain. During meditation, it meant that my brain was going a mile a minute just blah blah blah the entire time. Rest periods were bad the first few days, since you were literally just hanging out with yourself. No writing, no talking, no tv, no internet….nothing. Just you and your brain sitting around doing nothing. You can only floss and do your laundry so many times each day…
At the end of the first day I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to hack it, and was *this* close to calling my friend to pick me up. My brain would NOT shut up! I thought about anything and everything, planned my wedding, planned your wedding, developed a play, wrote a book…I did it all. Eventually, though, things settled down. My brain never fully shut up, but by the end of it I was able to meditate calmly, and when thoughts came over, I was able to let them float away. I was surprised and relieved.
I also found that I was actually using my brain and thinking about things. I never really think about things, y’know? Like, I’ll feel one way and write it down, but I won’t actually sit there and really contemplate it and try to figure it out. While I was alone with my brain, not distracted or able to write anything down, I was really able to think things through and find answers for myself. It forced me to use my brain for the first time in years (and I think this is why I had a weird headache/tension for a few days…baby was tired!).
Around the middle of the course, I fell pretty hard. I had experienced this amazing thing…and then I lost it. Losing it made me lose everything and I felt like I was right back at square one again. Luckily I pulled myself out of it, realizing that I tend to need to learn things the hard way, which is why it was a good thing that happened (which is also, I realized, why I tend to have breakdowns before having breakthroughs).
On the 10th day we were able to talk again, and it was…weird. You’d think that after 9 days of no talking/communication I’d be dying to say hi to someone, but it was the opposite. I felt awkward and uncomfortable and wasn’t sure what to say or where to look. I got over it within five minutes, of course, but still felt like I needed to escape for a walk to clear my head and be quiet again. Once we were able to talk to each other, it was a relief to know that I wasn’t alone in feeling things; other people cried, got indescribably angry, felt odd sensations and had so many weird dreams they hardly got any good sleep. This said, being able to talk totally ruined my ability to meditate, so the rest of the 10th day was pretty much shot.
I feel like I’m rambling on and going all over the place, so I’ll finish this up quickly.
In the end, I enjoyed my Vipassana course. I don’t think I got as much ‘amazing’ out of it as some people do (some wanted to stay on right away and do the next course that was starting three days later) but I definitely got something out of it. I’m not sure how I’ll keep the practice up at home, or if I will, really. I’ve been home for three days now and already I feel like I’ve forgotten everything I learnt and I haven’t meditated for more than 10 minutes (I really felt like I needed a break and some terrible TV). Daily life gets in the way of my path to enlightenment, and I get so easily distracted by internet and books that I’m not sure how I’ll maintain what I set out to achieve with this course.
This said, it could be that I just need a few days off and next week I’ll be back into it. I’m one of those people that goes into overload and then needs to shut down for a few days to clear my brain out. Meh. We’ll see.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Vipassana meditation, go to www.dhamma.org or just shoot me a message. I’m more than happy to talk more about my feelings/thoughts. I don’t think I can get into everything on this blog, but I’ve definitely got thoughts and shit about the technique that I’d be happy to discuss. Don’t be shy!
If you’ve ever thought about taking this course, or ever thought about really giving meditation a go, I’d really suggest trying this out. It was a very cool experience and I learnt a lot about myself, meditation aside. If someone went into it with an open and curious mind, they’d get a lot out of it.
Plus, the food was great.