Be the silent watcher of your thought and behavior. You are beneath the thinker. You are the stillness beneath the mental noise. You are the love and joy beneath your pain.
– Eckhart Tolle
This is an in-depth detailed report on my personal experiences of my first two 10-day Vipassana meditation courses by S.N. Goenka. If you’d like a summarized overview of the things that I have learned from practicing Vipassana, you can read my post on that here. I have since joined another 10-day course, which I’ll be reporting on soon!
A silent enemy named silence
Being an introvert, I always considered myself to be rather comfortable with silence and solitude. Because of the large age gap between me and my siblings, I grew up spending a lot of my free time playing and exploring the world by myself. Oftentimes I would wander off into my fantasy world and have myriad adventures all on my own, and be perfectly okay with it. Growing older I continued to spend a great deal of my spare time engaging in solitary activities, be it reading, walking in nature, browsing the net or reorganizing my room.
So although you could say I was quite familiar with being in with silence, I had never regarded it to be an activity in and of itself. I was very resourceful at using the space created by the absence of outside noise and the engagement of other people as an opportunity to fill it with distractions of my own choosing. I was never really being present in the moment, but merely escaping into fantasy worlds, trying to achieve a state of contentment and bliss.
Although I had been reading about meditation for a while, it wasn’t until my second year of college that I was first introduced to the actual practice. It was the week before my exams started and while sitting in a beginner’s yoga class, the teacher told me to envision the sun shining into my crown chakra and spreading light throughout every fiber of my body. This all seemed very abstract to me at the time and I remember thinking it did not do anything for me. With all that I had read online about meditation being the catalyst for the most profound spiritual experiences, I was expecting it to sway me off into a dreamlike state of bliss.
But there I was, agitated and distracted by the aching of my left knee and the heavy breathing of the guy next to me, and if anything even more confronted with my thoughts obsessing over the upcoming exams. If it wasn’t going to take my racing mind off my worries, then what was the point in doing it, right?
Going Eat, Pray, Love
Somewhat discouraged I did not come back to meditation for a while. But I still desired to gain that spiritual insight that I had been reading about. So when my boyfriend and I started making plans to travel through Asia for a year after our graduation, I decided that would be the perfect time and place to go join an ashram Liz Gilbert-style and have the life-changing experience I longed for. I had no idea when or how this would take place, but as I had my mind firmly set on it, things naturally started to align with my intention.
In the Malay jungle, we met a fellow traveler who talked about Vipassana. He hadn’t taken a course himself, but friends of his had and he was planning to go to one of the centers in Cambodia. I was intrigued by his story. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for! A couple of months later we found ourselves confronted with a time gap between the expiration of our Thai visa and our next flight to Myanmar, and it turned out the Vipassana center in Malaysia was hosting a 10-day beginner’s course in that exact timeframe. This was divine timing.
The boot camp of meditation
We read up on the details of the course on the international website and for some reason, the strict rules and rigorous timetable that you have to agree to did not throw me off one bit. This was going to be IT! For those of you that are not familiar with the rules of a Vipassana retreat, I will recap them. The set of rules is called the Code of Discipline, and one can safely say discipline is in order!
For new students there is a list of five precepts:
- to abstain from killing any being (this includes ants and mosquitos, by the way)
- to abstain from stealing
- to abstain from all sexual activity
- to abstain from telling lies
- to abstain from all intoxicants
Additionally, you have to agree to:
- suspend any religious, spiritual and/or healing practices;
- abstain from all forms of exercise, except for walking around the grounds;
- observe noble silence during the entirety of the course, this means no gestures as well;
- maintain complete segregation of men and women;
- abstain from all physical contact;
- not bring any religious objects or crystals onto the site;
- wear modest clothing;
- have no outside communication;
- abstain from listening to music, reading and writing;
- and last but not least: not take any pictures or make recordings.
And then there is the strict daily schedule you must stick to:
Morning wake-up bell
Meditation in the hall or in your room
Group meditation in the hall
Meditate in the hall or in your room, according to teacher’s instructions
11:00 AM – noon
noon – 1:00 PM
Rest and interviews with the teacher
Meditation in the hall or in your room
Group meditation in the hall
Meditate in the hall or in your room, according to teacher’s instructions
Group meditation in the hall
Teacher’s discourse in the hall
Group meditation in the hall
Question time in the hall
Retire to your own room, lights out
Yep, that’s right, it includes over 10 (!!) hours of meditation a day…
Not something you would jump into lightheartedly, right? If someone had told me years earlier that I would be signing up for something like this I would probably have laughed at the ridiculousness of such a suggestion. But somehow it just felt right, and so without second thought we signed up for it.
When I almost got cold feet…
The doubt only started seeping into my mind a few days before the start of the course. What was I getting myself into? What if I couldn’t do it? I certainly could not leave the course without my boyfriend! As I am a bit of a control-freak, I started to experience some serious resistance building up. Luckily, in the end, I managed to pull myself together and we went anyway.
The center we went to, called Dhamma Malaya, is a little oasis isolated in the middle of the palm oil plantations that (sadly enough) cover a large part of the Malay inland. The building has been completed in 2007 and there are private rooms with attached bathrooms for every student. The grounds are planted with lovely flowers and greenery, making for a serene environment.
After settling in, we had a delicious evening meal, all vegetarian and mostly vegan, which would be the first of many yummy wholesome meals that were served during the course. We had a short instruction and then we were shown our seats in the large and airy Dhamma hall for the duration of the course. After our first group meditation, it was time for bed.
Challenging my ego
The following days proved to be immensely challenging. In hindsight, I can see that I was still very much caught up in my old patterns and to be honest, in my own BS. My ego was making up stories about every single thing, trying to keep me comfy and ignorant, and I completely fell for it most of the time. I realize now that I wasn’t as comfortable with being in silence as I had always thought. Unconsciously it was actually my greatest fear and I was trying to smother this anxiety by allowing myself little treats and special privileges, not realizing that I was being tricked out of doing the work I came there to do!
To give you a little insight into the nifty works of the ego I will give you some examples of the traps I fell into during the first days of the course.
Every time I heard the ring of the wake-up gong at the unholy hour we were supposed to get up in the morning, I convinced myself that it was all right to sleep for half an hour longer. I was going to meditate in my room by myself anyway, so what was the point in getting myself ready half an hour in advance? As you can probably imagine, half an hour turned into an hour and after a couple of days, I just slept until breakfast. I convinced myself my rest was more important than trying to meditate and then failing because I was too sleepy. I have always needed more sleep than the average person, so I figured I could bend the rules a little.
During the day I would long for the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I allowed myself to have at lunch as a reward for all the ‘hard work’ I was doing. A little guilty pleasure sure wouldn’t hurt anybody. But soon I found myself already obsessing over that sandwich while going to bed at night.
Next thing I convinced myself it was all right to allow myself a little off time during the afternoon meditation in my room. I would meditate for an hour and then lie down on my bed and daydream and sing songs in my head for the remainder of the time. Before I knew it I was checking my alarm clock every 10 minutes to see if it was already time for my private break.
It all seems so silly to me now, but at the time I was totally oblivious to what was happening. I found myself counting the hours and the days until the course would be finished and I could talk to my boyfriend again. I was fully consumed with living towards that final day and I missed the whole point of being present and making the most of every minute and every opportunity I got to work on myself.
Riding an emotional rollercoaster
On the fifth day of the course, I started experiencing some strange feelings. It started out very subtle, as just a slight sense that something was off. Later, while I was sitting in the dining hall for the afternoon tea break, I started to feel like someone or something was creeping up behind me. Suddenly a strong sense fear and panic came over me. My stomach cringed and it completely took my breath away. I quickly finished my tea and made my way out of the hall. Not knowing what was happening to me and how to react to it, I decided to take a walk around the grounds and try to focus on my breathing, while thinking positive and calming thoughts. As I was walking I constantly felt the urge to look over my shoulder. As there was no apparent outside reason for these emotions, the thought flashed through my mind that I must be going insane. The thought flashed through my mind that Vipassana might have triggered a dormant personality disorder…
Like tidal waves, the paranoid and fearsome feelings came and subsided over the rest of the evening. By bedtime I was so tired I fell asleep almost immediately, only to wake up at 1:00 AM in cold sweat with intense shivers rushing through my body in waves from top to bottom. I was shocked at the disconnection I felt with these symptoms of intense fear manifesting in my body. There were no scary thoughts, no nightmares, nor any visual objects or sounds that triggered this fear. I was purely experiencing the bodily sensations of intense fear, without being able to identify the source of it. As I lay there I was almost prepared to sneak out and go to my boyfriend’s room and demand we’d leave immediately. But then again I didn’t want to interrupt his experience and so I decided to just breathe and stick it out. It lasted for a good 40 minutes and by then I was so exhausted I fell back to sleep.
The next day I couldn’t wait until lunch break because then I would have the opportunity to talk to the female teacher. I was anxious to gain some insight on what happened the day before, as nothing of the sort had been discussed in the evening discourses yet. I sat down and cried while I explained to her what had taken place. She kindly explained to me that what I had been experiencing was a manifestation of old emotions that had been piled up and gotten stuck in my subconscious and that were now being released by practicing the Vipassana technique. She smiled and congratulated me on my progress. I felt a wave of relief wash over me… This was actually a good thing! With her reassurance, I gained a strong sense of calmness and faith and I immediately felt the tension leaving my body.
When I left that room I felt like I was walking on air. This technique was working! I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited that I almost couldn’t wait to share my experience with my boyfriend. But I also felt a little surprised, and at first, I didn’t know exactly why. Later that day it occurred to me that I was surprised that the technique was working, because deep down I knew I had been cheating my way out of doing it. And for that reason, I didn’t feel I really deserved the results that were now being presented to me. While in hindsight this was a very profound realization, I was so overwhelmed with the experience that it didn’t really sink in. However, I did step up my game and committed more seriously to the practice and the schedule for the remainder of the course.
Breaking the silence
On the 10th day of the course after the morning meditation, we were allowed to talk to our fellow students, to ease back into the transition to the outside world. I rushed to find my boyfriend, curious about his experience and eager to tell him about what happened on my 5th day, as I was convinced that nobody could possibly have experienced anything more groundbreaking than I had.
I will never forget the moment we met again. His eyes were the clearest and most vivid I had ever seen them, he had a serene Buddha-like smile on his face and there was this whole sense of peace and contentment surrounding him. He talked for an hour while we sat outside and this whole new persona that had emerged from him over the course of 10 days baffled me! It was still him, actually, it was more him, being in his true essence more than I had ever seen before, but the transformation was astounding.
Although I was overjoyed that he had made such amazing progress, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed in myself that I hadn’t made the most of my time at the center, like he did. Seeing what I could have accomplished if I had really surrendered to the technique, it finally clicked that I had fallen into my own traps and that I had been wasting a lot of potential. I felt so foolish… Although I took away a lot of knowledge from the insightful discourses and the overall experience, I immediately sensed something greater was in store for me, if I were to give it another try.
In the days after the course, my boyfriend wrote a 36-page manifest on all the insights he had gained about himself, his life, his patterns, and what triggered his behavior. Every mistake, every lie, every deception, he laid it all out on the table. Absolute honesty and transparency prevailed. He gave me a look right into the core of his soul. When he read it to me in a 4-hour streak in our Burmese hotel room the tears of relief streamed down his face. A major weight had been lifted off of his shoulders. I remember just sitting there in complete awe at the transformation he had undergone and what he had accomplished. This was pure magic.
That’s when I made the decision for myself that I would do it again. I would go and join another 10-day course, this time I would go for it all the way. No excuses, no BS. This sh*t just got real and I prayed I would be gifted a second chance.
Going for a second round
Soon after that, the opportunity presented itself again. A volunteer project in Japan we signed up for got canceled last-minute and again we had to bridge a time gap in our traveling schedule. We signed up for a 10-day course at the Dhamma Bhanu center, just outside of Kyoto, mid-October. This time around there was no resistance whatsoever. I felt in every fiber that I was ready now and I was determined that I wouldn’t let my ego get in my own way again. But most of all I was just grateful for the opportunity to join another course.
Now that I was considered an ‘old student’, there were three more precepts to be observed:
- to abstain from eating after lunch;
- to abstain from sensual entertainment and bodily decorations;
- to abstain from using high or luxurious beds.
I happily accepted them. We stayed in a beautiful traditional wooden building, slept on futon beds and wandered the lovely garden with persimmon trees, the fruits of which we ate at breakfast. From day 1, I just surrendered to everything the course had to offer, not wanting to alter anything. And to my surprise, when I stopped resisting the strict discipline actually helped a lot with my meditation practice. I started appreciating the natural flow of the day. I had nothing to worry about, everything was taken care of and I could just focus on the technique and myself.
I started to develop a deeper connection with nature. During breaks, I would sit in the garden, soak up the autumn sun and feel the fresh air filling my lungs. After dark, I would gaze at the night sky filled with a sense of connectedness and oneness. I would look at the moths drawn to the garden lanterns and feel love and happiness for their being part of this world and my experience.
Diving in deep
My practice quickly deepened and from the 5th day on I would experience an array of different emotions manifesting each day. One day it was sadness, the next it was anger, the day after that I felt shame, and so it went on. During break times insights started to pop into my head and it was as if I could just grab onto that train of thought and reel it in by its tail. Whole patterns started to unfold. It was like my whole life I had been trying to make a jigsaw puzzle, fitting little bits and pieces together, and now someone gave me the box and I could see how it was all interconnected. The complexity of it all was mind-blowing, but at the same time, it all made perfect sense. There are simply no words to describe it.
One day the song ‘Torn’ by Natalie Imbruglia started playing in my head (I know, right, I’m a total 90’s kid). I had heard that song a hundred times before, but it was as if I was listening to it with a whole new understanding of its meaning. Suddenly it all started making sense to me.
How I had been projecting images of my ideal friend, roommate or partner onto different people that came into my life and how I had unconsciously been measuring them up to those expectations.
How devastated I was when it did not work out and I saw everything fall through.
How resentful I was for them not living up to what I believed they had promised me to be.
I felt victimized and broken, not realizing that it was my own castle of illusion and projection that had collapsed in on itself. I had not been seeing these people for who they really were from the very beginning. It was all me, all along! I had unconsciously been choosing to live like this. I was creating my own reality and it was definitely not serving me in so many ways.
Vipassana is translated as ‘to see things as they really are’ and I can tell you it sure showed me the truth about myself on many different levels. Layers and layers of false beliefs were shedding every day. I could almost not comprehend the extent to which my mind had been fooling me into believing my own distorted version of the truth about my experiences. At first, I was felt a lot of anger and resentment towards my ego. Why in the world was I deceiving and sabotaging myself? But later on I realized my ego was only trying to safeguard me, it is just overly protective and extremely risk-averse. My ego is not my enemy, it doesn’t need to be eliminated. I just shouldn’t let it be in first command!
That was also the moment that I realized that this “I” that I am, is separate from my mind/my ego (whatever you prefer to call it). I grasped the concept of the silent observer that I had heard Eckhart Tolle talk about in an online interview, but that hadn’t made any sense to me until then.
Looking into the mirror of the past
I also started to see more clearly what had happened during my first Vipassana course in Malaysia. As I had not been ready yet to give up all control, I had been playing out certain behavioral patterns that my mind was unconsciously trying to protect me with. Somehow I was afraid that I would fail at Vipassana, that I would not have the same profound insights and results that others described to have gained from meditation and that I had also hoped for. So instead of going for it and putting myself in a vulnerable position, I held back. Because if in the end, it didn’t work out, I could at least attribute that to the fact that I hadn’t given it my all. At least my dedication was something I could control. My capability was not. Moreover, I had not been ready yet to face everything that the technique could reveal to me.
And thus I had resorted to what I had been used to doing with silence since I was a child: fill it with distractions, daydreaming, fantasies, and clinging to cravings like my PBJ-sandwich and reaching the final day of the course. My mind was still my all-controlling master and I didn’t even realize I was its slave.
It wasn’t until my second time taking the course that I realized silence is an activity in and of itself. Being in silence allows us to tune into our inner radio station and listen to the broadcast of the subconscious. All the answers are already inside, we just need to find the proper techniques to tap into that wisdom.
Vipassana teaches us that suffering is the result of only two things: cravings and aversions. When we crave, we want something that is not in our current reality. When we have an aversion to something, we want something to be gone that is in our current reality. In both cases, we are not accepting the reality as it is, at this moment. By realizing that everything will eventually come and go, that there is no need to create craving or aversion, we can experience real peace. It is only when we face the reality of the present moment without wanting to interfere with it in any way, that we reach that dreamlike state of bliss that I had been looking to achieve by escaping into distractions and fantasy worlds.
Peace, love, and gratitude
It is in those tiny moments of blissful peace, that I got a glimpse of what is at the base of human interaction with the world. Love and compassion for all that is flow freely when your mind is balanced. At the end of the last day of the course, we practiced metta, also called loving-kindness meditation, which focuses on sending out love and light into the universe and to all beings it encompasses. As I sat on my pillow that had grown to be so familiar for the last time I remember very fiber of my being filled with gratitude for everything that had brought me to that moment.
The days after the course ended I felt like I was on cloud nine. The profound honesty and openness that I had witnessed in my boyfriend after the first course, I was now experiencing myself. In a stream of consciousness, I wrote my own manifest that I read to him later as I poured my heart out. I felt so much relief as I was shedding light on some of my darkest memories and secrets that had been bottled up inside for years. Finally, I was able to unpack some of the baggage that had been becoming way too heavy for years.
Surely this was only the start and there is still a very long way to go. But I am utterly grateful for having been shown this path. My experience with Vipassana has opened me up to the world of spirituality and personal growth. It has propelled me towards the holistic journey that I am on now, expanding my awareness, deepening my yoga practice, switching to a plant-based lifestyle and finding more ways to take better care of myself and the world around me. All while finding the way of compassion and grace.
If you have any questions on my experiences of the 10-day Vipassana meditation courses please feel free to leave a comment below or send me an e-mail. I’ll gladly answer all of your inquiries. If you are considering joining a Vipassana course, find out here where the center nearest to you is located and make sure to check out my personal tips on how to prep yourself!
Love and light,