Change is the only constant or what happened on a Vipassana meditation ‘retreat’

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When I signed myself up for a 10-day Vipassana meditation course I did not know what it is really about; I knew a little bit about the daily routine but I knew nothing about the meditation technique. I just thought, Ludo, Tom, Jonas did it, I surely can too, so I found a Dhamma Vipassana center in Indonesia and was happily expecting the days to come. In the end, the thought of my friends making it through kept me going for 10 days, alongside with my curiosity what change I will experience at the end of the course (if any).

As we were not allowed to keep a diary so now after the course ended, I of course feel different about it than I had felt during it. I will try to delve on my memories here and describe my experience as honestly as I can.

Head start!

I overslept the early meditation on the first day and woke up after breakfast, thinking everyone must have done so as I didn’t hear the morning gong, but I later found out that everyone was there. Never mind, I had unconceously shortened my first day and the real work began on the second day for me, when I had to focus on nothing else but my breath. Yes, it sounds easy, but trying it, it’s incredibly difficult to focus the mind on something so banal and so natural as the breath and I found myself thinking more about the future plans or the past than being in the moment with my breath.

We started learning the Vipassana meditation technique on the 4th day by paying attention to all sensations on our body and observing them equanimously (I had no idea such word existed until then). That was also the day, when I had a panick attack and couldn’t take a deep breath (I still don’t know why, my theory is that my lungs were unnaturally captured by my rib cage that left no room for natural breathing) and my back started to hurt from the long hours of just sitting, but I told myself that I can survive that as long as I can change my position whenever I feel the pain.

Fighting my pain

That would’ve been a great strategy, if we weren’t told that from the 5th day we have to sit movelessly during 1-hour long Sittings of strong determination. So I asked for a back support to be able to make it through these sittings – which due to persisting piercing pain in various spots on my back I still wasn’t able to finish all three sitting a day.

The back pain was something I wanted to understand though – because it didn’t make sense to me. I would not normally feel it when I was not sitting straight during the meditation and even then, it came unexpectedly, sometimes after 10 minutes, sometimes after half an hour, sometimes straight from the beginning, regardless the position I sat in. And I, for sure, had no problems with my back before the course. So I had thought the pain must be in my head and made a ridiculous connection (or maybe not ridiculous after all?) of this feeling of the physical pain to my psychical fear of getting hurt or showing myself as a vulnerable person. I had thought the back pain is the manifestation of this fear.

I was trying to only observe this pain and move on to other sensations, but at times it completelly occupied my mind; it was that strong and I often stopped practicing the Vipassana technique just to be captivated by raising, moving and ongoing pain that never fully dissolved. So I created an aversion to this pain – exactly what we were not supposed to do during Vipassana: no aversion and no pleasure as all are only sensations that shall pass. I didn’t care anymore, I didn’t experience nothing Goenka was telling us that we should (experience the feeling of raising and dissolving sensations until we realise we are no more than a pulsing mass of sensations) and I resignated on the 8th day, continuing the sittings but not expecting anything from the last day.

Being in the moment and feeling the energy passing through

If we stop expecting things, they will happen – I knew this from my past and it again had proven to be true. In few last sessions I had experienced the ‘flow’ of warmth and vibrations throughout my body, in which my back pain completelly dissolved and merged with the flow. That was my evidence that it is possible to not to feel pain and gave me energy to endure settings that didn’t bring this relief.

What Vipassana gave me

Not knowing what Vipassana is all about turned to be a very good strategy for me, because curiosity about learning about new aspects of the technique everyday and getting new instructions every evening had kept my dedication strong throughout the course. Having said that, I also have to admit, there was not a real excitement about it, because due to my back pain it was not at all an enjoyable experience until the very end.

Once I reach the 6th days, it will be fewer days ahead of me than behind me. That was another very powerful kick for not giving up. I might seem that I did not want to do the course at all when I was setting myself all these milestones, but for me it was a challenge I wanted to go through regardless the obstacles and I needed to encourage myself on the way. Not expecting anything at the end helped me to take it day by day and to be grateful for little discoveries, pleasures and times where the pain didn’t come.

N.S. Goenka, whose discourses we listened to every evening, was at first very annoying for me with all his out-of-tone chanting and talking how we’ll be liberated from our misery with this technique. Hearing this the first 3-4 days I started to think that Yes, when I finish the course, after these 10 days, I will indeed be liberated from this misery. Looking back at these thoughts, I had so much negativity in me at the beginning, despite having decided freely on taking this Vipassana course. But as I usually finish what I start, my strong dedication had never let me want quit the course. And as time went by, Goenka’s discourses started to accurately point on the challenges we are facing during the meditation (and pretty much in everyday’s situations), such as craving, aversion, listlessness, doubt and I knew I am not alone in experiencing these – everyone is on the same boat.

I thought my mind would be messing up with me during the majority of my meditation time there as I had some dark memories stored in it from my past. But Vipassana is not about freeing your mind to wander and look at what had happened; it is about strong and solid concentration on being in the moment. While focusing on my breath and sensations around my nose had proven to be difficult during the first 2-3 days and I was thinking a lot, later I found myself free from the thoughts and be able to easily and fully concentrate on the present sensations in my body. This is also very relevant in real-life, when I can observe my feelings arise and go away and decide calmly how to react to them. However, this is easier said than done and I’ve been in situations where I had been overwhelmed by emotions and could not handle them calmly. What I observed then though, was that I do realise my feelings are ruling me and I should calmly bring myself under control, but for that I would need to practice Vipassana longer.

The 9-day of Noble silence was important for not getting my mind ‘poisoned’ by thoughts of others. I discovered that when I meditated after the silence had ended and I found it extremely hard to focus. But hey, this will be my life from now onwards – learning how to meditate in the real world full of emotions, sensations and impressions. I also felt strangely close with people to who I was again permitted to talk to after the Noble silence ended, having the feeling that I know them somehow because we had spent over a week with each other’s company, not talking to them, just feeling them around. The conversations between us were somehow deeper and we shared our personal emotions easier…

I had moments when I sometimes genuinely wondered why I am putting myself through all this (mostly) pain and to who from my friends and family I would sincerely recommend it to do it. I think that everyone needs to decide themselves based on the information it’s out here, if they feel like going through such course, knowing the basics and being fully determined to persevere until the end. It is an enriching experience that could change the way one lives – if he wants to. Having said this, I honestly have no desire to do it again in the nearest future, though. It had been a great challenge for me and I am glad I did it and would continue practicing Vipassana in a lower intensity. Because after meditating 11 hours a day, I can now meditate an hour each morning without problems – whereas before I was itchy after 15 minutes…

P.S. The food we were given was the most delicious I had eaten in Indonesia – I admit I was craving breakfast and lunch against Vipassana rules every day!

All of us, strong ladies, made it through
All of us, strong ladies, made it through

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