It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to do a ten-day vipassana course. At its most concise, I think I can say that a vipassana course is like a self-imposed minimum security prison with mental solitary confinement. It’s a test of mental discipline; a roller coaster of emotional baggage repeatedly kicking you in the face; it’s experiential proof that meditation can be a really powerful tool; and maybe, just maybe, it’s the first step on your path to enlightenment.
Surprise! You’re here to meditate.
Going into this course, I thought that the hard parts would be not talking, writing, or using technology. These were hard, though not talking was actually the easiest of all of the rules to follow. No, the hardest part was contending with the TEN AND A HALF HOURS of meditation scheduled every single day. That is a long effing time my friends. A long effing time.
I must have read the schedule at some point months ago and thought something like, “I’ll get used to it. It’ll be hard, but I’m tough, and it’ll just kind of work out because that’s what everyone will be doing.” NO. It does not work that way. To give you the full picture, here’s the daily schedule for ten full days:
- 4:00 Wake up
- 4:30 Meditate in the Dhamma (meditation) hall or in your room
- 6:30 Breakfast
- 7:00 Rest
- 8:00 Group meditation in the Dhamma hall (required)
- 9:00 Meditate in the Dhamma hall or in your room (according to the teacher’s instructions)
- 11:00 Lunch
- 11:30 Rest
- 13:00 Meditate in the Dhamma hall or in your room
- 14:30 Group meditation in the Dhamma hall (required)
- 15:30 Meditate in the Dhamma hall or in your room (according to the teacher’s instructions)
- 17:00 Tea break (you get tea, a bit of fruit, and puffed rice instead of dinner)
- 17:30 Rest
- 18:00 Group meditation in the Dhamma hall (required)
- 19:00 Discourse (watching a recorded Dhamma talk by S. N. Goenka)
- 20:30 Group meditation in the Dhamma hall (required)
- 21:00 Bed
I’ll say again, that’s 10.5 hours of scheduled meditation either in the Dhamma/meditation hall, or in your room. Oh, and every meditation period is opened and closed by 5 – 20 minutes of god-awful recorded chanting blared at volume over speakers in the Dhamma hall. The first moment I heard this chanting I had to actively stifle my laughter. You see, while the teacher who’d recorded this chanting (this guy named Goenka) could definitely sing well if he wanted to, he, for some unfathomable reason, chose to gurgle his chanting instead. Have you ever seen the movie The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Early in the movie an alien species called Vogon captures the main characters. These aliens are all bureaucrats by nature and love paperwork and boring policies and regulations. They also use their unique Vogon poetry to torture humans and individuals of other species. Although it’s not quite the same, this is what I pictured every time the chanting was played. Later on, some new chanting was added, which sounded very similar to Dori when she’s speaking whale.
I was not a very good vipassana student.
Despite the, ahem, unique chanting, I really did try for the first 4.5 days or so. I even thought I was getting the hang of it on the fourth day when we started doing actual vipassana meditation rather than the preparatory annapanna meditation. Unfortunately, this feeling did not last, and I soon was finding ways to reduce the number of hours of meditation I was doing each day.
One way to do this was by escaping to my room at every opportunity (leaving anywhere from 4 – 6 hours of unavoidable daily meditation). Fortunately, no one’s monitoring whether you’re actually meditating when you’re in your room, but you pretty much have to stay in there (in a 5 x 8 ft room in my case, which I was lucky enough to have all to myself). And, of course, you’re not allowed to write, read, use technology, or even do yoga while you’re in there. So, essentially, either meditate or have a timeout. To be clear, here are all the rules:
- Don’t kill (not people, bugs, or animals for food)
- Don’t steal
- Don’t lie
- Avoid “sexual misconduct” (abstain from sexual desires)
- Don’t take intoxicants
- Keep “noble silence”, meaning don’t talk, gesture, pass notes, make eye contact, or even walk with another meditator (though you can talk to the teacher during specific times to ask practical meditation questions)
- Don’t read or write
- Don’t use technology
- Don’t jog, do yoga, or do any exercise other than walking
- Don’t meditate outside (apparently, nature is distracting. WHAT?)
- Don’t mix with the opposite gender (basically impossible to do anyway because men and women are kept almost entirely separate)
The first thing to go was the 4:30 – 6:30 am meditation. Not because I didn’t want to wake up early–I actually don’t mind as I’ve gotten quite used to waking up at 5:30 during my yoga teacher training course. This was the first to go for two reasons: 1) because it was the time slot that was most in my control to cut out; and 2) I could try to sleep instead of being stuck having a timeout in my room. The day could just get a little bit shorter.
Escaping to my room at greater and greater frequency helped, but I had a lot of time on my hands and very little to do with it. Very quickly, the simplest tasks became focal points of any breaks or timeouts in my room.
Napping became a genuine passtime. There was a day (when I was still attending 4:30 – 6:30 meditation) when I napped three times before 1pm. THREE TIMES. And it’s not like I was doing lots of physical activity to tucker myself out. That morning looked like this: I woke up, sat in a room for two hours, ate breakfast, napped; woke up, sat in a room for 1.5 hours, napped; woke up, ate lunch, napped. How is that even possible??
Other very, very simple activities became centrepoints of any free time I had. For example, needing to use the bathroom could be stretched into a solid 10-minute break if you walk slowly to your room, get your toilet paper, walk slowly to the bathroom, take your time, wash your hands slowly, and walk back to your room to return your toilet paper.
There were two exciting incidents in which I got to handwash my undergarments. I genuinely looked forward to this because I could take 30 – 45 minutes to do this if I tried.
One time when I was “meditating” in the Dhamma hall I instead counted the number of bricks I could see in the section of wall in front of me (working around the curtains and the girl blocking my view, of course). There were 314. I remember because Pi. I later found out that I was not the only person to count bricks in the Dhamma hall.
Here are the rest of my key pastimes (that didn’t break any rules…):
- Stitching up holes in everything I owned. (I managed to stitch up 8 small holes in some very worn-in pants, one hole in the crotch of another, and reinforce some stitching coming apart in my backpack. Thank god for my little sewing kit.)
- Watching monkey parents teach their monkey children to climb things
- Flossing and brushing my teeth
- Plucking my eyebrows
- Staring into the forest
- Staring out my bedroom window
- Staring at the ceiling
- Organizing my tampon stash in its ziploc bag. Yep, did that.
Alas, even with all of these new pastimes, I still had a lot of time on my hands. So I broke a rule. Two rules actually. Or maybe I broke one and bent the other, you be the judge. The first, I started doing yoga in my room. After shifting my night table around, I managed to just barely fit my yoga mat in the space immediately adjacent to my bed, the door, the wall, and my night table. I even had to duck my head under my bed to do a wide-legged forward fold, but it was so, so worth it. I ended up doing yoga every other day or so and it made me feel normal again for a few hours.
The second rule I broke/bent/whatever was that I started doodling. I say bent because technically it wasn’t a rule that you couldn’t draw. Though I was supposed to lock up my notebook and pens along with my tech, valuables and book, so I admit that it was kind of implied. But this doodling was marvellous! Never have I truly appreciated the magic of how time passes when one draws.
You start to lose it a little.
Despite this rule breaking, you start to go a little crazy. Once when I was trying to jailbreak from my timeout, I did my best to look meditative as I paced thoughtfully back and forth down a 100m path at the back of the property. (I tried to stand back here once staring into the forest and a teaching assistant kindly told me that it was meditation time and I should be in the Dhamma hall or in my room. So I learned to make myself look busy and meditative). I paced that path 20 times. It took me about 40 minutes. I wondered to myself whether it would take the same number of steps walking one direction as it did the other. Turns out it took 137 steps in one direction but 145 going the other. Fascinating. I theorized that it takes more steps to go downhill than it takes to go uphill. Around lap 8 I was thinking about how grateful I was for this little path, how it was keeping me sane. I started calling it the Path of Salvation, because it saved me. My neighbour entered onto the path and I welcomed her with open arms–come child, you are welcome on the Path of Salvation. I had to stifle the huge smile that burst out when I thought this to myself until she passed me so as not to look like a total weirdo. Around lap 12 I found that same neighbour next to the Path of Salvation picking something out of a pile of dirt. By lap 14 she was arranging small white pebbles into the symbol for Pi on a small concrete slab. The second time Pi had come up. Curious. I again stifled a hysterical smile and kept walking.
Another time, I saw a woman sitting very close to a tree, meticulously examining the ivy growing on it. Someone else told me that she started counting the number of shades of green she could see, because she had literally. Nothing. Else. To. Do.
Going into this course I’d heard mixed reviews, though mostly positive. Many people say that vipassana has changed their lives. They start to break down their ego and experience the reality of the law of impermanence. Fantastic. I’d also heard of an experience in which someone desperately wanted to leave every single day. My experience was more like the latter, though I think many people experience both.
But I think I’m glad I did it. Ya. Yep, I’m glad I did it. For one, because it was on my bucket list. If I hadn’t done it, I would’ve always wondered about it. Second, doing this has helped me discover other options for learning about and practising meditation and Bhuddism that aren’t so intense, which maybe I’ll try another time. And third, although I didn’t practise vipassana “properly” as Goenka would say, I did try to apply vipassana’s key elements: awareness and equanimity (neutral observation). Yes, I let my mind wander pretty freely during meditation, but when I ran into painful baggage that I’m carrying around, I tried to catch myself and observe my reactions with equanimity. Despite this not being quite the intent of vipassana, I found it very useful. I started to chip away at some of the negative stories I’m carrying around. It’s certainly going to take a lot more work, and I’m nowhere close to enlightened, but it’s a start, and that’s good too.
I do have one clear takeaway: with a kind of Bhuddist foundation, vipassana teaches that we should observe the law of nature that is impermanence. This law of constant change is called anicca (pronounced a-NEE-cha). When something happens, remember that it is impermanent. Instead of reacting, just observe the sensations that arise in your body. See how long they last. Watch them as they pass away. If there were a motto for vipassana it might be, this too shall pass. In day-to-day life and while traveling, I’ve learned that whether this moment is the absolute best or absolute worst you’ve ever had, remember, this too shall pass. So don’t get attached to this moment. Don’t crave it or avoid it. Just enjoy it while it’s here or take solace in the fact that the storm won’t last forever.
Anicca. Anicca. Anicca.