Imagine no internet access, no computer nor phone access, no reading, no listening to music, for 10 days. Imagine you cannot talk to, touch or even keep eye contact with anyone. Imagine sitting and meditating for 10 hours a day, in complete and utter silence. This is what I did in Thailand this month. Got your attention? Read on, but this is going to be a long one (with hardly any photos).
When my partner let me read an article about Vipassana meditation from a former participant – LingboLi, it interested me enough. After thinking about it for a little while we both decided we’d want to give it a try.
There are dozens of Vipassana meditation centers worldwide, most of them spread around Asia. As we had planned to visit South East Asia, this sounded like a perfect opportunity to start our trip with. And doing it at the beginnings of our vagabonding, we knew participation in silence retreat would affect the rest of the trip.
We chose Prachin Buri in Thailand, as it was an easy, 2,5h ride from Bangkok. They even offered us a chartered bus service too, which we gladly used.
Funnily enough, a couple of months before quitting my job back in Poland, I was reading Tim Ferris’ book 4-hour-work week, one of the most inspiring reads I’ve ever had. Anyway, he wrote something that struck me, more or less he said: “[when you quit your job] consider yourself to go for a few days of meditation retreat in silence”. Funnily enough, I had already secured my place by then.
After months, it finally happened. And let me tell you a secret – I was very nervous. On top of all the rules mentioned in the first paragraph, men and women were to be separated. This meant I was going to be separated from my partner for 10 days, meters away yet miles away. For the 3,5 years we have been together, there has not been not a single day where we wouldn’t at least talk (if not saw each other). It was hard for me to comprehend, how I was going to not talk to him for 10 days?!?! Not to mention not being able to talk to my Mum?!?
The arrival and check in process went quickly and smoothly. I was assigned to a “server”, a girl who would assist me with anything I needed. I had to leave all of my electronics (including my camera *sigh*) in a locker within the office. At dinner 1 of the volunteers asked me if it was my first time at the meditation center and to my reply she said: “Remember, be patient with yourself”.
The rooms were surprisingly decent. Simple, yet they provided everything you needed for a comfortable stay – a bathroom with shower, toilet, sink, wardrobe, fan, single bed with bedding and a meditation stool.
On the first night the thought of what was actually going on hadn’t sunk in yet. I only then realized that the day of arrival (afternoon) and day of departure (early morning) were not counted as the course days. So actually I was going to be here for 12 nights. S**t.
Day 1 and 2 were pure hell. On the second night after arrival I cried myself to sleep. I am a people person and keep on eye contact with anyone who I talk to, or even whoever passes me by. Here I felt like everyone was ignoring me, no one would look me in the eye. No one would hug me, and I needed it. But that was because we all agreed to that, not because I was being ignored. I knew that, but still found it hard, and weird.
My meditating time felt like a failure. My mind desperately wanted planning. What were we going to do when we get off the meditation place? And what about my future job when I get back to Europe? Is my Mum ok health-wise? Have I paid off my credit card in time? Now that I write about it, a scene comes to my mind. Have you read a book of Elizabeth Gilbert “Eat, pray and love”, or watched a film under the same title? There is a moment where she is at a meditation center in India (a different method than I did though) and tries to focus on meditating but she can’t. Her thoughts are flying out and about. Now I knew exactly how she felt. My mind kept wandering back and forward – from past to the future, from future to the past, past to deeper past, future to further future… I could not focus on the instructions I was given. We would listen to them in the meditation hall, as the recordings of our “guru” [I am very careful with that word, as it can bring sectarian associations to one’s mind] teacher S.N. Goenka.
It didn’t help that I couldn’t find myself a comfortable position to sit on a floor – despite having cushions for my bum and legs I kept wiggling about, my back hurt and so did my knees. On the 3rd day I was asked to go and see one of my 3 teachers. I was thinking: “Shoot, I’m not ready, I’m supposed to ask ‘smart’ questions about the technique and I don’t know what to ask?” So I told him about my back issue and he offered me a back support seat. That was helpful. And then I told him that I was unable to focus, that my mind was going back and forth. He told me not to worry, that it was normal, especially for new students. That was reassuring.
I tried to follow the schedule to my best ability. This meant waking up at 4 am and start first meditation for the day from 4.30am until 6.30am. For that particular time block you could choose to meditate in the hall or in your own room. I would religiously get up every single day at about 4.10 am, get ready and go to the hall. I knew that if I stayed in my room, I would most likely get back to sleep. I am NOT a morning person, and this task alone was a big struggle for me. Even though I meditated in the hall, a couple of times I was so tired that I’d fall asleep while sitting, and after 1 hour or so would go back to my room and lie down.
On the 3rd night something weird happened. I woke up suddenly, turned the light on and realized it was 5.20am. “Shoot, I have missed already almost an hour of the meditation” – I thought. I could have sworn I had heard the wake up gong, but how did it not wake me up? So I got up and as quickly as possible got myself out of the room. It was pitch dark. As I walked to the meditation hall, I saw an amazing view of moon shining brightly above the hall. I stopped for a few seconds, just to stare at it. By the time I got to downstairs of the hall, I saw there were no shoes left. Now that was odd. We were supposed to leave the shoes downstairs, before entering the hall. Why was nobody there? I looked at the watch again and realized that it was… midnight. I was so messed up that I had put my watch upside down and did not realize that! So all I could do was go back to bed for another 4 hours.
Our schedule was strict: we were either meditating, or eating, or resting. The food was very decent, however only 2 proper meals per day were provided – breakfast and lunch. The 5pm meal was not a dinner, it was so called a tea time. Proper dinner was provided only to those who had requested for e.g. health reasons. The rest of us had to manage with a tea, some fruit and, if really needed, a sliced bread with jam or nutella. I would always make the best out of breakfast (at 6.30am) and lunch (at 11am). On my day 1 I thought that I wouldn’t be able to manage this regime of tea time and stuffed my mouth with bread as well as took a banana to my room for later. That was naughty as we were not supposed to keep food in our rooms to not attract the insects. On the following days, I decided that at tea time the bread was not necessary, and I would just have fruit and tea. My stomach was alright actually and would not protest until early hours of the following morning, just before the breakfast would be served. Only then it would start rumbling. The side effect of such a diet? Between day 3 and day 10 I lost 3cm around my waist and about 2,5cm around my hips. Not complaining about that!
The whole meditation was based on natural breath. To begin with, we needed to focus on our nose area, then it would narrow down to the area between the nostrils and our top lip. Already on the second day I felt something. It was like a gentle electrical shock / shiver that went from my nose down to my stomach and back. I thought: “WOW, what was that?” But that was one off and it wouldn’t come back until day 6. I’ll write about that later on.
On day 4 we were asked to sit still, without moving at all, for 1 hour. 3 sittings in the meditation hall a day, no moving, eyes closed. First couple of them felt like self-inflicted torture. Despite the back support and small cushions support for my legs, sitting with crossed legs for longer than 15 minutes was painful. After about half an hour it would become a torture. Just about 45 minutes into it, the pain in my knees and back would become almost unbearable. Then speakers would go off and S.N. Goenka would start chanting. I knew only a few minutes were left by that point. Then he would say “Bhevete, salve, mangele” which in old Pali language means “May all beings be happy” and I knew that was it, the 1 hour was over. What a relief!
Vipassana, as the whole meditation technique, is clear from any religious inclinations, rites or rituals. Although it was established in Buddism, it is based on 3 things: morality, control over your own mind and wisdom. And these are universal for anyone. People come to meditate to the Vipassana centers from all kinds of cultures and religions – Hindu, Buddism, Christian (including nuns and priests), Judaism and Muslims, too. We agreed not to kill a living thing for 10 days. I managed to keep mosquitos out of my room, but 1 tiny fly flew into my eye and ended its life there. Oops. By the way, all the food provided was vegetarian – really yummy. We agreed not to steal anything. For most of the time I kept the door of my room open, only with mosquito net “door” closed - and nothing disappeared from it. Most other women would do the same. We were training our mind to focus, to control it. Facing some discomfort and observing our natural respiration was an important part of it. All of that led to getting deep inside our unconscious mind and getting rid of bad things that happened to us in the past – bad experiences (when other people hurt us – mentally, physically, in some cases sexually), bad habits (smoking, drinking, drugs etc.), negative feelings that our mind created in the process of life. People come to the meditation center and quit drinking. My partner told me afterwards that there was one guy in his group that on day 3 of the course decided to quit smoking. We weren’t allowed to drink or smoke for the entire course anyway, so if somebody was e.g. a smoker and could make it through to day 3 without a cigarette, why not to keep it like that for the rest of their life?
Every evening we would listen to about 1 hour disclosure recorded talks by the teacher S.N. Goenka. He would explain the technique there more, and give some life examples. There was a man who came from a wealthy family, a businessman. Long story short, by the age of 25, he developed severe migraines that no doctor in his country could treat (he came from Burma). He went to travel to Germany, Switzerland, UK and USA, consulted best doctors in those countries. None of them could treat his migraines. They administered morphine, as the pain was so bad. One of the doctors warned him though, that morphine was a drug, first taken to alleviate the pain, but with time he would start getting addicted to it and take it for the sake of taking it, for the sensation it was causing in him. Then he heard of Vipassana meditation and he thought he’d try it. He mainly went because he wanted to free himself from the migraines, although the teacher had told him that if it was the only reason, he was no doctor and could not cure him. Either way, he tried. Needless to say, he’s been free from migraines (for the last 30 or 40 years). As time passed by, he started teaching Vipassana. Years after his first experience, he is now in spreading it around the World. The man I am talking about is S.N. Goenka himself.
I was bullied at school, big time. I did not look different than other children, but my family were not wealthy and I didn’t wear fashionable new clothes. My father was an alcoholic so my Mum raised me and my brother as a single parent. Children picked on me because I was shy, wore second hand clothes and on top of that had an usual name and surname. There was especially 1 girl who was cruel to me – not in a physical way (although I got beatings from other children a couple of times), but was very mean to me. We both had the best marks in the class. So I think part of it was a competition as well. To not bore you with the whole story, coming to adult life, she requested to be my friend on a social platform. At first I was very hesitant. After thinking about it, I thought we both were adults now and I should forgive her. But I never forgot what she did to me. Now, during one of the disclosures S.N. Goenka talks about forgiveness and compassion. We have a certain image of people in our heads. If we saw someone last time 10 or 15 years ago and we were great friends, we will think “Oh, this person is so wonderful”. But in the meantime the person could have changed. It goes the other way around. Someone hurt us 15 years ago. We think: “This person is cruel, mean, nasty”. But it’s been so many years and that person could have changed also and become a good person. Everything changes. So I came to the conclusion that the children who bullied me at school age, could be totally different adults now. I should not judge them by the past.
I have suffered from acne since I was a teenager. Within a few days of coming to the meditation center, my facial skin cleared, spots disappeared and it became smoother than it has been in years. Maybe no make up for 10 days and extreme humidity with sweating all the toxins out helped. Or maybe it was a clear example of a psychosomatic thing? Couple of days out in the real World and I am seeing new spots again!
S.N. Goenka also talked about selfishness, how we get attached to things. When we break them or lose them, we become angry, sad – generate negative feelings. Before coming to Asia, I made a huge clearance of my stuff. I sold some old CDs, books and a couple of electronics that I decided I could live without. I gave away quite a few things, including ¾ of my clothes and kitchen equipment. It felt great giving it to someone who I knew would need these things more than I did. The rest of the stuff, mere 350kg (between me and my partner), we shipped to London to a very understanding friend who’s going to keep it for us until we get back in a couple of months. Sitting and thinking now, I reckon I could have probably got rid of another 50-100kg of stuff that I kept because I thought that I’d either need it for later, or out of pure sentiment.
As days went by, I noticed that my mind would wander off less and less. I trained it and kind of started giving myself little “prizes” – “Ok girl, 1 more session of focusing on each part of the body, you can do it.” And when I did the whole cycle, I’d say to myself (in thoughts of course): “Well done girl, now another one…”. Something happened on day 6. I started feeling kind of delicate vibrations in different parts of my body – limbs, stomach, face. A couple of times the vibrations went like a wave throughout the entire body. I hardly felt any pain in my back and legs anymore. If it came, it would go. It felt so… good. At the same time, I terribly missed my boyfriend. I wanted to hug him, talk to him, wanted to share all I was going through with him. I saw him in the meditation hall on the men's side, but we weren’t even allowed to look at each other. On night 5 or 6 I felt him looking at me and I looked back. Those couple of seconds said it all. He missed me, too.
At the same time doubts started raising in my mind. I was raised Christian and have a strong belief in Jesus Christ. And Goenka mentioned Buddha here and there, although I knew the meditation technique in itself was not religious. That night I didn’t sleep very well. I was awake from 3 am and couldn’t shut my eyes again. After breakfast, I felt shattered. It was 7am and I had been up already for 4 hours. I lay down, had 1 hour to rest before another meditation session but I couldn’t sleep. Instead I started to cry. Tears were going down my cheeks and I couldn’t stop them. I missed my boyfriend, I missed my Mum and my family, and I was praying to Jesus to understand me. During meditation session, tears were coming down again, silently. I had to break my still sitting to blow my nose. Some time into it, I actually calmed down and felt better. After lunch, I decided it was time to speak to one of my teachers. I asked her 2 questions:
“S.N. Goenka talks about not getting attached to things. But what about getting attached to people, or, to be more exact, to sensations they cause in you? Like, I would give anything to hug my partner now.” [my face frowned again and I had to use all my might to not burst into tears].
She smiled and answered: “We’re human. Every desire is a desire, whether it’s wanting something material or something non-material. As long as you know it’s a desire and as a definition of desire you can’t have it; and it’s ok not to have it, you’ll be fine.”
I kind of liked that. Then I asked my second question: “I know that Vipassana meditation as a technique in itself is clear from any religious rites or rituals. However, it does have its roots in Buddism, Goenka talks about it. I am Christian and I have strong beliefs. Although I can feel the benefits of the meditation already, I have doubts. How do I put 2 and 2 together and make it work?”
This is what my teacher said: “When you finish this course, go out and find out about Buddha qualities. It is about his qualities, not what religion he represented.” Again, I liked that. Funnily enough, Goenka spoke about Buddha qualities that evening during disclosures. It was as if he heard my questions.
That day (day 7) was like a breakthough. First a storm, but then I felt my mind calmer than ever. I started coming out of meditation sessions feeling extremely good, and calm. I was also given an access to a cell where I could meditate if I wanted to, except for the 3 obligatory sittings in the hall. I tried it a couple of times and found that I could focus there a lot better than in my room.
So what did I do in my time off if I was not allowed to read, write, do sports (except for walking), make phone calls, listen to music or browse internet? And trust me, I didn’t miss it. I would do laundry every other day if not everyday. With the humidity in that region of the World in June/July, I was sweating profoundly and had to change clothes even twice a day (although we could use payable laundry service if we wanted to). Of course, I showered – 2 up to 4 times a day. And I have never invested so much time in pampering myself (my skin). It felt like an everyday spa routine – shaving legs, washing hair, facial scrub and masque, cleaning nails, spreading lotion all over my body… Yep, I did all that. There was not much more else to do. I sewed all my clothes that had holes or falling off buttons. Late in the afternoon, when the temperature would get reasonable, I would walk around, or sit on a bench and smell the flowers and trees. These was that particular kind of a white flower, growing on trees, that smelled intensely. I would sit on a bench, pick one that fell near me and look at it in silent admiration. The whole place was silent from human voices, but the birds in evenings and early mornings especially made up for it. Never heard so many distinctive voices!
Last couple of days felt really good. Maybe it was because I knew that the course was coming to an end and the whole Asia adventure awaited me around the corner. Or maybe the meditation sessions felt better and better. On day 8 during one of the sessions I felt an extraordinary pain in my left knee. Despite sitting still, my body was jumping up and down, as if I was getting strong electric shocks in my legs. I could not control them. I explained to myself: “it will go, it will go, it’s temporary”. And it did.
On day 10, about 10 am our vow of silence was over. I saw my partner in the dining hall during lunch and immediately went towards him, throwing my arms around his neck. He very gently pushed me away, saying: “Honey, I don’t think we’re still allowed to have a physical contact, not until tomorrow”. My heart sank. I could see him and talk to him but I couldn’t touch him. “I wanna touch you, I wanna squeeze you” – I said, feeling tears coming to my eyes. “Soon my baby” – he replied. I asked him how he was. One of the first things he told me was that he felt generally happy. This was exactly how I felt, too.
What was also a nice surprise, suddenly all the women started smiling at me and greeting me. I was only 1 of 2 European women there (the other one was from Holland). There were a few females from
Asian countries such as Philippines, China or India, but the majority of them were Thai. Amongst about 100 participants altogether about 70 of them were women and less than 30 were men. And after
10 days of silence and what felt like a collective shunning from them, they suddenly wanted to talk to me, doesn’t matter whether they spoke fluent English or just a few words. All of them wanted
to know where I was from and how was my experience with the course. On that last day I found it a lot harder to focus on meditating, as my mind was flying everywhere again.
On the last day also one could make a donation towards future students and/or new Vipassana centers being built around the World. The whole course is based on donations and volunteers work only. You give as much as you want and can afford.
Being a few days out of the place, I noticed I am a lot calmer. I do not get agitated about things that easily. We are in Cambodia now, travelled here with one of the students – a Khmer Buddhist monk. All 3 of us got a lift to the border with 1 of the women who volunteered at the course. Prior to the course I was worrying how we would get to Cambodia. I didn’t particularly want to go back to Bangkok just to travel to Cambodia, as I knew we were near to the border already. And now it seemed to resolve itself. Being in a tourism place such as Angkor Wat for the last 3 days, we came across a lot of street vendors – children and adults – that would insist that we would buy something from them. Previously, it would annoy me. Now it did a lot less. Only once I nearly lost it (but I didn’t) when one girl, after nearly 10 minutes of following me and insisting that I buy bracelets or magnets from her, she said “I have no money to go to school”. Well, in fact I knew that giving those children money, sweets or buying stuff off them discourages their education. So I took a few deeper breaths and just said “No, thank you sweetie” once again. So even if those 10 days were for calming me down and releasing my stress, it was well worth it. And I feel that the relationship with my partner is stronger now. What I will do with the rest of the experience, is up to me.
Oops, I think I got a bit carried away. Time to finish for now. If you would like to find out more about Vipassana meditation courses, you can visit dhamma.org. I am not here to convince you to go. I just wanted to share my story.
May you all be happy.
Thank you for reading.
Hello stranger! My name is Bogna, but you can call me Boogie. I come from Poland, but have lived in a few different countries, including UK, USA and Australia. I am the author of BoogiePlanet.com This website is all about my travel experiences. And photography. I am a photographer, and I try to capture those magical moments in different places, as much as I can. I have travelled to over 53 coutries so far. I am hungry to see more. You can help me fulfill my dream by liking my page on Facebook, or following me on Twitter.