• theGREENtravelbug

Vipassana: Battling the brain for 10 days

Mis à jour : 3 déc 2019

Ever since I had heard about silent retreats, where people meditate more than 100 hours in 10 days, I was intrigued by the concept and wanted to try it. I never researched it much and I always regarded it as some future project. One day I would try it out. Probably it would be a part of my planeless trip. When I arrived in Malaysia, I soon realized one of the only moments I could try it according to my planning and itinerary was four days later in the Eastern part of the country. It would be a challenge and it would be difficult at times, but I did not have too many expectations. Meditation was always something I wanted to make a habit, but I never got to the point of fully incorporating it in my life. Besides several attempts at meditation I was barely prepared. Only two weeks before I had finished reading 'the power of now', a book about living in the moment and I recently had listened to a podcast about master meditators. Both turned out to be helpful for my 10-day retreat. With very little preparation or research, I took off to the Dhamma Malaya Vipassana centre to experience the 10 most psychologically intense days of my life.

A quick introduction to Vipassana

Vipassana literally means 'to see things as they are'. The vipassana technique is about observing the body and mind while accepting 'Anitcha', the law of nature, which states that everything is impermanent. In nature nothing lasts forever and this logic can be applied to everything in life. According to this theory, people often feel miserable without understanding this law.

When you crave something that is not there because it is over, in the past, or not available because it is in the future, you become dissatisfied with the present. When you strongly dislike something and feel aversion towards it, whether it is in the present, past or future, and it is impossible to change it, it creates dissatisfaction as well. The theory states that if something is pleasant, you ought to enjoy it in the moment, knowing it won't last forever. If something is unpleasant, you accept it, knowing it won't be there eternally either. The more you understand this, the more peaceful you become in the present. This way you slowly take steps on the path of enlightenment, just as Buddha and thousands of other did before.

This is a very short summary of all the information given throughout the course. Each night, for 10 days, there was a discourse, which lasted for about 75 minutes. All this adds up to a lot of information to take in.

The information can be compared to the menu of a restaurant, just by looking at the menu we can see the food will be delicious. When we see others enjoy the food, we are almost certain it will be tasty and nutritious, but the only way to truly experience the food is to taste it. That is what the retreat is for, a taste of the technique, a surgery of the mind, while knowing the theory and understanding it has helped thousands to find peace.

A day in the retreat looked something like this:

Here are some of the main rules of the code of conduct.

  • Acceptance of the teacher and the technique

  • Noble silence

Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow students, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is prohibited.

  • Separation of men and women

  • No physical contact with others

  • No yoga or other physical exercise

  • No drugs, alcohol or tobacco

  • No outside communication in any form

  • No music, reading or writing

I hope you like the menu so far. Let me try and explain how the food tasted to me and maybe one day you can try it for yourself.

Day 1: What the hell did I sign up for?

Instructions for the day Anapana technique: focus on the natural breath - sit still on a meditation cushion and change posture if needed - focus on natural breath without forcing it - feel the air on the inner walls and outer rings of the nose - don't condemn thoughts, accept them and go back to the natural breath

After receiving the instructions, I started focusing on my breath but, rather soon, I was distracted by past memories. After a certain train of thoughts, I looked at my watch and saw only a mere 5 minutes had passed. Since every sitting was either one or two hours, I started to realize how long these 10 days were going to be. Every ten minutes I changed posture, not only to get rid of pain or discomfort, but mostly to battle the impatience. Still, time crept by slowly. I started giving in to my thoughts and actually went looking for it, digging in my past. I saw my childhood, puberty and young adult life. Old friends, events and memories passed continuously in front of my eyes.

Day 2: There must be a way to escape!

Instructions for the day

Focus on sensations in the triangular area from the top of the nose to the bottom of the upper lip

- Focus only on sensations in that area, not somewhere else

- If you feel an annoying itch, observe it and see how long it lasts

- Be aware of any sensation from temperature to itching, tension, pain or pressure

According to the schedule there were two to three sessions during the day where we could meditate in our room. When I tried meditating in my room, I tried it while lying down in my bed, resulting in deep sleep very soon. I was actually glad the time had passed quicker and I felt like I had found a way to escape the long meditation sessions. Each opportunity I used to sleep and escape. I lied to myself by saying I never intended to fall asleep and that it had just happened by accident. To reinforce the lie, I always started with meditation before falling asleep. After as many naps as possible and slow snail-like meditation sessions, I got through the day. Getting through the night would be harder. When the lights went out and everybody went to bed, I was wide awake. I had slept too much during the day and I was suffering the consequences. Still the bell rang at 4 AM and I had to wake up after a very short night.

Day 3: Throbbing headaches and growing fear

Instructions for the day

Narrow the focus. Instead of focusing on sensations in the triangular nose area, focus only on the mustache area above the upper lip. This will sharpen the mind.

After a night with barely enough sleep, the bell woke me up at 4 am. I had a strong, disturbing headache. During meditation I was fighting the fatigue and the drowsiness. Several times I almost fell forward or sideways. Whenever I managed to focus, I was actually getting closer to proper meditation. Even though I had spent way too much time following my thoughts or skipping the sessions, I had gotten slightly better at focusing my attention. Still, the fatigue was bad and hard to manage. The headache was even worse. Each time I closed my eyes, I could feel the pain even stronger. It was pulsing so hard I did not want to meditate anymore but I had to stay. I started to become afraid the headache would prevent me from sleeping once again, making me more tired and making the mandatory meditation feel like torture. This trickle of doubt and fear soon grew into an unmanageable anxiety, something I had never experienced before. My hands started trembling, sweat dripped down my back and face and I was breathing uncontrollable. I could feel my heart beating fast in my chest. I could not make it stop.

When the session finished, we had a five minute break and I rushed to the teacher for help. When I explained how I felt, he told me he could not make the headache stop but that the anxiety meant something else, it was probably a manifestation of suppressed fear from the past. He asked me what I did for a living and when I told him I used to be a manager, he told me the pressure I used to be under could be the cause of this fear. I was not sure if it was true but it got me thinking about several unconscious fears I might have suppressed. Besides his analysis, he also taught me a technique to deal with the fear and the headaches. Instead of 'looking' with closed eyes at the area I had to focus on, I was to leave my eyes open and fix my gaze at one point. Instead of breathing naturally, I was to take slow, deep breaths until I calmed down. This technique helped me survive another day, but it was not easy.

Day 4: Am I going to die here?

Instructions for the day

Introduction to the actual Vipassana technique

- Focus on each part of the body separately

- Go from head to feet while scanning each body part

- Observe any possible sensation

- Stay 'equanimous' while observing, which means having no craving or aversion towards sensations (this is to change the habit pattern of the mind, the habit of getting attached to pleasant sensations and strongly disliking unpleasant sensations)

- Realize 'anitcha', impermanence, the law of nature which states that nothing lasts forever and everything is always changing

In the afternoon, we were going to learn the actual vipassana technique. I was excited. Since I had stopped sleeping during the 'meditate in your room' sessions but I was not ready to meditate the full ten hours, I became agitated. I felt the constant need to do something. Everyday I washed my clothes in the shower, brushed my teeth as long as possible and flossed five times a day. I had no idea I could enjoy flushing that much! Still there was emptiness. I really wanted to read a book or write my thoughts down, but I couldn't.

One thing I could do during restless moments was walking around the terrain. I knew one walk took ten minutes if I took my time to observe the trees, the ants, the squirrels and the two big lizards I came to know so well. I was on one of those walks after lunch. One more regular session and Vipassana would start. I had no idea what it would be like and I felt nervous. Nervousness and doubt grew. Many questions started to take place in my mind. 'Is this for me?', 'Will this actually work?', 'What am I doing here?'. To calm myself down I repeated a quote I often used when something new was about to happen: "Freedom is not 'doing what you want', it is 'not knowing what will happen and embracing it'". I smiled. Many times I had embraced freedom and it was almost always worth it. And then the most poisonous thought entered my mind: 'What if liberation from misery means death?' I started to think of 'The invitation', a movie with a not-so-happy ending and I started to believe something similar could happen. We were not allowed in the kitchen, so maybe I was going to be poisoned. My passport and valuables were locked away, so running away was not an option. I was going crazy. The bells rang and the mandatory session was about to start.

As I sat down, I tried to calm down and rationalize these insane thoughts. I started to think of people I knew who had done Vipassana and had talked to me afterwards. I could not think of anyone. It could not be possible that more than a hundred people came here to die and accept 'liberation'. I was not sure. I had not done enough research. I was scared to death. The fear I had experienced the day before was nothing compared to this. I tried to think happy thoughts, but each person or memory I tried to remember soon turned into something negative. I felt absolutely miserable. The whole session, I stared in front of me, petrified. Before the Vipassana session would start, I hurried to the teacher once more to ask for help. He gave me more advice to get rid of fear. Focussing on the palms of my hand and the soles of my feet would calm me down. After the advice I just had to ask if we were safe, I just had to know. When he replied in the calmest way possible that everyone was safe, I calmed down a little bit.

When Vipassana began, we started by focusing all our attention on the top of our heads. I could feel my headache intensely. We then scanned the rest of the body from head till toe. The teacher than said to go back to the head to check if we noticed a difference. I was delighted to find out that the headache, which had been bothering me for two days, was almost completely gone. This gave me new energy to get through the rest of the day. Before I went to bed, I noticed my intense and absurd fear had passed and was impermanent, just as everything else.

Day 5: strong determination

Instructions for the day

-We continue scanning the body from head to toe without judging any sensations.

- Three times per day there would be a 'strong determination' session, where we could not move at all, no matter how painful things got

Since there was a new technique, I felt slightly better and had found some new motivation. Going from head to toe took me ten minutes at first. So I did six rounds in one hour. Soon I went faster and one round was two minutes. The hour felt again like it would never end. If I went slower, I would lose my focus, if I kept up the faster pace, I would only grew more impatient. This impatience was not only present during the sessions, but also during breaks. In my room, I had arranged a system with my socks. I used them to count every session until the end of the ten days. The need to do something or to talk to someone was very strong but both were impossible. Surrounded by one hundred people I felt isolated. Everyone was always looking at the floor to avoid eye contact. There was no way I could share my agitation or impatient with someone else. The day passed, slowly, and I went to bed feeling very lonely.

Day 6: The aversion paradox

Instructions for the day

Go from head to toe. Then from toe to head.

4 am, the bells rang and I hated it. They rang 18 times every ten seconds for 7 seconds. I had counted it, just as I had counted the 1040 tiles in the shower. Another day of meditating, obeying, fighting the mind and wishing for the end of each hour. This technique was supposed to rid me of harmful craving and aversion but the opposite was happening. I felt aversion for the technique and the course. Whenever the voice of Goenka said: 'Start again, start again', I resented it. Repeating the same thing over and over again was annoying me and the feeling was so overwhelming I could not focus anymore. Somehow I knew that this feeling was temporary and that it would fade away. The best way to get through this was by using the technique. The technique I resented was the solution to my problem. An aversion paradox.

I wanted to run away, but my passport and valuables were locked up so I could not leave. I started pacing around the terrain, full of anger and frustration. I stopped to look at a tree that got my attention. I noticed some colorful leaves around it and decided to gather all the yellow ones. They were the kind of yellow which was the favorite color of my girlfriend. I arranged them next to each other on the path and started to fill a square tile. After a while I started to add bright green and dark orange leaves. Shapes started to form and when I paused and looked the result was rather pretty. I don't have a picture of course since no photos were allowed. One of the other students passed, looked at the little artwork without saying a word and moved on along the path. He came back two minutes later, kneeled down, without making any eye contact, and put down about 20 dark red leaves. It was a simple gesture, but this small moment of human 'interaction' felt amazing. I glanced at my watch and realized I had been sitting there for over an hour. The anger had faded and I was calm again. I looked back at the colorful leaves, thinking they would not last for long. Wind, rain, animals or just decomposition, it had a short lifespan. It was impermanent, just as my anger which was intensely present at first and had left again one hour later. I felt lighter and felt ready to start meditating again.

Day 7: Dripping sweat and biting mosquitoes

Instructions for the day

- Go from head to to and from toe to head.

- Do the scanning symmetrically, two sides at the same time

By day seven, everyone had created their customized 'pillow castle', adding support to the basic meditation cushion. It was interesting to see the different compositions people tried out. I had also gradually added more pillows to create more comfort. On day seven, however, I felt like accepting the pain and discomfort. 'Pain is pain' I thought to myself, as I put away all my extra pillows. It was rough without the soft comfort below my legs, but I managed to survive most of the one hour session. After 50 minutes, my feet and most of my legs had gone completely numb. I could not stand up after the session until I got the blood flowing again. I guess it was too extreme.

The next 'strong determination' session I opted for a chair, which was allowed for some people, to give my body a break. The fan did not cool the chair area so it was pretty hot and humid. Soon, several sweat drops started ripping down my back. I felt every inch and I could not move. I focused on meditation and accepted the sweat, only to encounter another obstacle. A couple of mosquitoes were feasting on me. I felt them moving on my skin, I felt the sting and the slow swelling after the bite. It was a challenge not to move and just observe. When a second bite followed and then another and a fourth one, I absolutely had enough. I preferred pain over this and moved back to the meditation cushion.

Pain, sweat and mosquitoes were a challenge, but my main problem was still impatience. Each time I did not want to glance at the clock, I would not do it, but then I did and it made it worse. Only three more days, I repeated to myself, it is almost over. During the evening discourse I even found out that there were only two serious days left and that the last day would be easier. I felt positive about the last days.

Day 8: Breakthrough

Instructions for the day

- Go from head to toe and from toe to head.

- Do the scanning symmetrically, two sides at the same time

- When you feel a lot of subtle, pleasant sensations you can 'sweep', scan the body quicker.

- If you don't feel subtle sensations, you scan part by part again

- Subtle, pleasant sensations in the whole body at the same time is called 'free flow'

When I heard about the new, quicker technique, I realized that what I had been doing for the last five days was really close to it. Therefore I created a system where I combined the techniques. I would start with two quick scans of the body, followed by one slow 'part by part' scan and finish it off with a symmetrical scan. It worked! The hour went by easily. The impatience and aversion were no longer there. I did not enjoy it that much that I was craving for each session, though. I was just content, equanimous, balanced. That day I made a lot of progress. There was less pain and I felt more and more subtle sensations on different parts of the body.

Day 9: I was melting, dissolving

Instructions for the day

- Go from head to to and from toe to head.

- Do the scanning symmetrically, two sides at the same time

- When you feel a lot of subtle, pleasant sensations you can 'sweep', scan the body quicker.

- If you don't feel subtle sensations, you scan part by part again

- Subtle, pleasant sensations in the whole body at the same time is called 'free flow'

Piercing my body was a very strange feeling. I had never felt something like that before. Each time I pierced my head, my body, my organs and muscles from all possible angles. I was not looking for sensations on the inside, I just focused strongly on my chest, for example, and then moved my attention to getting to my back, my destination. When I arrived I would feel subtler sensations. Soon I got more and more free flow on the skin. By the end of the day, I felt ready to search for free flow inside my body. On the skin I was already feeling many tingling subtle sensations. As soon as I moved my attention inwards, I felt the same subtle sensations as on my skin. There was also a strong, sudden pain in my spine. I slowly scanned my spine and the pain went away. For four full seconds, I felt tiny vibrations inside and outside my body. I was melting away, floating and dissolving. It was inexplicable. When I reopened my eyes I could not believe what had just happened. I felt great, but strange. Light, but a little dizzy. The pain in my spine was stronger than before and even continued after the sessions. I had enjoyed that special moment and accepted how short it had been. Since then it was easier to find subtle sensations during meditation sessions. I experienced more pleasant sensations and less pain, except for my spine.

Day 10: Sharing the experience

Instructions for the day

- Allowed to talk again

- Learn a new soothing technique after nine intense days

At 11 am we would be allowed to talk again. In between the morning sessions I was wondering what it would be like to talk to the others. What should I say after nine days of silence? I decided I would mostly listen to others instead of talking.

The first hour I didn't talk to anyone and observed how the whole atmosphere was changing. The place that Thad felt so isolated before, felt warm and dynamic. Once I started my first conversation, the talking did not stop. There was so much to share. Many others had experienced intense moments and had dealt with pain, fear, aversion and impatience. We talked about two people who had left right before the end. Some people asked about my art projects, several were scattered over the terrain by the end, and I explained how it had saved me when it got rough. Stories were shared continuously and time flew by. Meditation was enjoyable and soon the day was over. And before we could realize it, the course had ended. It was over.

Day 11: The aftermath

The morning after the course, we got our valuables back and cleaned the place up. Everything went smoothly with more than a 100 people volunteering. Slowly everyone left the center to go back to their regular lives, back to society. I carpooled with four others, sharing stories and lunch on the way back. We said our goodbyes and we all parted ways.

When I got back at the hostel I remembered that, during one of my darker moments, I had wanted to hear a different opinion about Vipassana. I wanted to learn about the criticism to understand both perspectives. Googling, I didn't find much except one small forum where one person who'd done the course and two who hadn't were arguing Vipassana was a cult. The little doubt in me grew again and a voice in my head told me it was possible I had been manipulated. I went for a run to clear my mind. During the run the doubt stayed very present. I took a break and sat down. I remembered I also wanted to know what some of my favorite authors would say about the technique. Soon I found praise, positivism and a long list of benefits. I was reassured and was glad I had sharpened my mind and learned some moral lessons for life. No cult, no manipulation, just beneficial meditation techniques.


Do I feel a change now?

Yes, I do. I feel several small changes, but the main difference since the course is that I no longer get unnecessarily upset because of injustices or hate politics, something I used to do very often. I still don't like it nor agree with it, but I won't get angry, since that won't change the situation anyway. The only thing it would affect, is how miserable I feel.

Am I a Buddhist now?

No and that is not the point either. I do believe in some points of Buddha's philosophy and will take some things with me in my life.

Will I continue the technique?

It is recommended to meditate one hour in the morning and one hour at night, but that is a bit too much for me. I will try to maintain it on a daily basis though.

Do I recommend the course?

Absolutely! Even though it was very intense and I wanted to leave several times, I felt great at the end and I enjoy the benefits everyday.