Days 28-40 (Oct 3-15, 2014)
Alright everyone, here it is. I have finally had a few days back at home to (somewhat) catch up on sleep, settle in, and compose my thoughts enough to write my final post about the last part of my trip, which everyone has been asking me about but I literally do not know how to even begin to answer. So much has happened that I know that the only way I’ll be able to tell my story properly is to write it all down.
Before I start, I’d like to warn you; this will be long. I’d also like to remind you that I spent 10 full days in noble silence with none of my valuables and no contact to the outside world, so if you think that reading this post is too much “work” for you… then by all means, quit while you’re ahead, this is not a post for someone who just wanted something “fluffy” to read over their morning coffee. This will be a lot of information, a lot of personal details, and a lot of honesty. I can’t promise you enlightenment or a brighter future should you carry on reading, though I can promise that you will learn something, and hopefully will gain a bit of a different perspective on some things. I do hope that if you’re still with me, you’re prepared to hear the ups, but even more so the downs of the final portion of my trip, and if not, I am perfectly content in writing this post for myself.
Either way, I hope that you too will push yourself in your life to do things that make you uncomfortable, knowing that each time you do so you will grow.
It is only when we stop making progress that we die, so may you spend each breath making changes in your life for the better, and finding true love, peace and happiness.
This is my story.
Arriving at Dhamma Thali Vipassana Centre, Jaipur
Day 28 I took a taxi from my hotel to Dhamma Thali Vipassana Centre, Jaipur. The centre was just outside of the walls of the city, about half an hour from the hotel/airport area, and it was up in the hills surrounded by mountains and greenery. When I arrived, I grabbed my bags from the taxi, and as the driver pulled away I got a sinking feeling in my stomach as I realized that I was now completely alone, and that this was it. I had been mentally preparing myself for this course for months, and after everything I had been through up until this point in my trip I felt like I could not have been more ready. Naturally, that meant I was terrified.
I knew that fear was part of the process, and that you’re only real concern going into a course like this would be if you found yourself signing the papers without any hesitation or fear, because it is almost impossible to be unafraid when you sign a paper stating that under no circumstance will you be allowed to leave until the end of the course. As myself and several other students signed our papers and completed our registration, a young man waved for me to sit beside him. His name was Emmanuelle, and he was from Mexico. It took all of 5 seconds after we introduced ourselves before he turned to me, looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Promise me that you won’t leave halfway through.” I smiled, and as he held out his pinky finger I hooked it with mine and said, “Only if you promise too!” We made a deal, and I felt a sense of relief in a way, knowing that now I couldn’t back out and run away, because someone else’s success depended on me, in whatever small way.
We were called into separate line-ups after that and we didn’t speak again for the duration of the course, though I never forgot our promise.
There was very little direction given to us on the first day, but I suppose that it was part of the process in making us feel like the floor had been pulled out from under us. We signed our papers, surrendered our passports, put our valuables into plastic bags with tags and handed them to the staff. It was at this point that I freaked out for a minute. I had just turned off my phone and handed it in, along with my money, passport, and camera. These were the items that hadn’t left my side since I left home, and here I was handing them to some stranger to take care of for the next 10 days. I felt sick, and also like I had so much left to do. I felt like I should have sent one more goodbye text, or made one last call home, but it all had happened so fast that there was no time, and I didn’t have anything in particular left to say, though I felt like now that it wasn’t an option for me to say anything, I suddenly had so many things that I needed to say. It didn’t matter either way, it was done. I was handed a slip with my room number on it and was sent off to find my new home.
The centre is set up kind of like a small village. The main building consisted of the office area and some storage rooms, with a foyer area in between. It was connected to the main dining hall, which like the rest of the centre was separated into two sections: the male area and the female area. Outside of this building were several Dhamma Halls, (the places where the students all meditate). The main hall was Hall 3, which was the largest, and was where all students meditated together for the majority of the day.
Since most of the day there was no instruction given, it didn’t matter what language anyone spoke so we were all together. During the evening discourse, and other instructed parts of the meditation, we were separated by languages, so myself and about 20 other men and women went to Hall 2, for English speaking students. Hall 5 was where all foreigner students who spoke anything other than English or Hindi went, and these discourses were taught through individual headsets, so that anyone of any language was able to understand the information.
The Pagoda was right in the centre of the grounds, and was quite beautiful. It had a gold roof that came to a point, and was round and wide at the bottom, full of individual cells where old students (and later new students) would meditate during parts of the day within their own small space. These buildings all followed one main path in a line, and on either sides of the path were the male and female areas. Within each area were many tiny houses/rooms, which each person was assigned to separately.
I wandered up through the levels of houses until I finally arrived at my room, G1, except it wasn’t my room at all: it was Reema’s. Reema was a short woman from Dubai, and she was beautiful. My first thought when I met her was, “Oh great, now I am going to look like even more of a schmuck with my hair in a messy bun on my head and no make-up, sweating uncontrollably in my clothes that haven’t been properly washed in a month, next to a woman who couldn’t possibly look like anything less than a medium-complexioned, big-eyed, gorgeous-haired, adorably petite actress who just walked off of a movie set, even if she tried.” I was completely right in thinking this, because she continued to look calm, collected and unfairly beautiful for the following 10 days. We talked a bit during the first day (before noble silence started), and I was nothing short of disappointed knowing that we wouldn’t be able to talk again until the 10th day. We had both been assigned the same room by accident, so I went back to the front and was assigned room G2, right next to Reema’s.
At this point, because of the mix-up, I had seen the inside of Reema’s room, which was small with concrete walls, a single bed, and a bathroom in the back. It didn’t look half bad in terms of cleanliness, but that was because Reema had arrived about 6 hours before, and had been cleaning and setting up her things since she got there. When I opened the door to my room, I’ll have to admit it took a lot of will power to step inside without crying. The rooms are left in the state that the previous tenant left them, and I’m guessing that this person’s mother never taught them how to clean up after themselves.
It was filthy, and not just by my incredibly OCD standards, but by anyone’s. The room was a small square, and the single bed had a thin mattress on top of a wood plank, though the mattress was so old that the entire centre area was worn down to basically touch the plank without any padding. The length of the bed took up just about the entire length of the room, which also had a small bench for a suitcase, as well as a short table area to put toiletries etc. The back wall had a door that lead to the bathroom, which made me miss home the most. I do have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to see an actual toilet, as opposed to a squat toilet, though it didn’t flush properly, and was covered in what I like to pretend was dirt.
There was a small sink, mirror, and two taps on the wall over a bucket. This was my shower. The taps ran mostly cold, though sometimes I’d get lucky and have some hot water, which filled the bucket, and I then had a small cup to scoop up water from the bucket and dump it over my head. Needless to say, I didn’t rinse much shampoo out of my hair using the cup, and by the end of the course my hair was uncomfortably greasy and full of soap, shampoo and I’m guessing several small ant colonies. The water from the “shower” ran into one of the two drains in the floor of the bathroom, and the entire tile floor usually stayed wet 2-4 hours after each time I showered. The room also came with a small soap dish, a really small broom, a toilet/bathroom cleaning brush and a garbage bin.
After a few minutes of hard breathing, I composed myself enough to start cleaning. I had to go to the front to buy soap and toilet paper for my stay (which I purchased using paper slips that we would later pay off at the end of the course since we had already surrendered our wallets and valuables). I cannot stress enough how much of a mess the room was, and how many bugs were in every crack and corner. I cleaned the bathroom first, using the toilet brush and soap on literally every surface, inside and out. I filled up the bucket of water and dumped it down each entire wall and the toilet at least 5 times between scrubbing, until it felt like I had gotten rid of most of the grime. I used the broom to sweep all the cobwebs and dust off of the ceiling and from under the table, bench and bed, which of course meant having to deal with hundreds of spiders and ants with each sweep.
After a couple of hours of cleaning, I set up my belongings, put some sheets on the bed (and a pillowcase on my book-sized, dense and dusty pillow), had a shower, (or rather a bucket), and was finally able to sit down. After cleaning, the room wasn’t so bad. It had a fan at least, and 2 windows in the main room as well as one in the bathroom. The windows were small and didn’t close properly, but the screens didn’t have too many holes in them so bugs weren’t a huge problem for me after the initial clean up. It was small, hot, and far from comfortable, but it was my new home for the next 10 days, so I knew I would have to learn to love it.
At around 7pm all of the students met in a hall near the front entrance for a briefing. We were handed our daily schedules (with the strict time table that is consistent among all Vipassana centres worldwide), and were given the general run-down of how things worked around here. It was vague, and I didn’t fully understand everything that was explained to us, but took comfort in knowing that no one else around me seemed to have a clue what was going on either.
Our First Meditation
Afterwards, we headed to Hall 3 (the big one) for a short group meditation before retiring to our own rooms. As we waited outside before the meditation I spoke a bit to some of the other women. I met a woman named Cecilia, from Chile, who had kind eyes and a beautiful accent. I also spoke to a few women who were taking the course for their second or third time, which made me feel a bit better… since they were still alive (and even smiling). We talked a bit about where we were from, and what we did for a living, not knowing that it would be our last conversation until the course was over, because after our first group meditation, the noble silence began.
Noble silence is pretty self-explanatory, but just to be clear it meant complete silence, other than speaking with the staff/instructors with questions/concerns, and avoiding unnecessary communication with anyone. Eye contact/body language was to be avoided, and any physical contact with fellow students, male or female, was strictly prohibited. Now if you know me, and you’ve met me more than once or twice, you’ll know that I am an extremely affectionate person. I love many and I love lots, and anyone who is loved by me will never wonder if I love them, because I make sure that they know. I love to love and be loved in return, and to not even be able to even SMILE at anyone or say something as simple as, “have a good night!” was surely going to be my biggest challenge over the next 10 days. (By only a few days in, it got to a point that I would literally race ahead of everyone to meditation just so that I could hold the door for a few people, in the hopes that they would look up and smile, which of course many did, (not that it was a big offence or anything), but I just was having such a hard time without any human contact or communication.)
The first meditation session was hard. We simply sat for about an hour and were just introduced to the idea of meditating and being silent and still, but all I was thinking about was how hard this was already, and it wasn’t even day 1. We were told to just focus on our breathing, naturally without trying to change it, which seemed easy enough but proved to be near impossible as my mind buzzed about every person, place and thing that I was missing back home, and the list was endless.
The meditation ended with an announcement that this was now the beginning of noble silence. We had been given our schedules on cards at the briefing earlier, and so we were to head to our rooms to rest, before our first real meditation session the next morning. I cried myself to sleep, as I tried to remember that it was only ten days of my life, though it was impossible to convince myself that the word “only” was applicable here, because it felt like it would be years before I was home again and back to the life I knew.
Day 1 & Understanding the Daily Schedule
Meditation Day 1 began with a wake-up bell at 4am, and we headed to Hall 3 for our morning meditation. Before I continue, I might as well take this opportunity to explain the full daily schedule, as it is the same every day during the 10 day course, and is consistent across all Vipassana centres worldwide. 4am is the wake-up bell, and by 4:30, all students would be in Hall 3 for two hours of meditation from 4:30-6:30am. After meditation, 6:30-7am breakfast was served, and from 7-8am, there was a rest period. 8-11am was the next period of meditation, followed by lunch from 11-11:30. From then until 1pm was a resting period, with time to speak to the instructor (if necessary) from 12-12:30pm. From 1-5 was another meditation session, followed by 5pm tea break (dinner time, though it was just a snack and tea). 5:30-6pm was a rest period, followed by the final hour of meditation from 6-7pm. From 7-8:30, we were sent to hall 2 (for English speaking students) for the evening discourse. This was a video lesson, taught by S.N. Goenka, who was a teacher of Vipassana for many years before his passing in 2013. His videos continue to be used for instruction throughout all Vipassana centres. After the discourse was a short half hour group meditation with instruction, followed by an optional question time with the teacher. 9pm is lights out and rest.
Like I said, each day’s schedule is the same, and incase you lost track, that’s a 17hr day, 10hrs of which are meditation, with 1.5hrs of discourse, and 30mins of instructed meditation each day… it was a lot of sitting.
The female instructor’s name was Mrs. Meenu, and she was an extremely petite Indian woman who spoke little English, though any time I spoke with her she looked into my eyes as though she knew exactly what I was thinking. She was kind and compassionate, even when she didn’t entirely know what it was that I was saying, and every time she looked at me, my heart would slow down, and I could feel my breath grow longer.
When we arrived for our first official meditation session, the room was filled with rows of perfectly placed square pillows, about 2 x 2 feet, with smaller pillows on top, to slide under your bottom where you sat. I was in seat 39, out of about 45 on the female side, and I am guessing there were 70 or so men on the male side of the room. The seats were assigned, and would be our seats for the duration of the course. The instructors sat at the front on a slightly raised stage, sitting in their respective seats, and controlling the audiotapes of Goenka that played (in both English and Hindi) any chanting or brief instructions throughout the day. My seat was in the final row, and it felt extra lonely, knowing that behind me was only empty space. The only thing that made me feel at home was looking over to my right to see a young Indian girl next to me whose profile looked exactly like that of my cousin, Sarah. Her jawbone, nose, eyes and forehead were all the same. If Sarah were to darken her complexion and dye her hair, this would be her. Seeing this student made me feel like maybe home wasn’t so far away.
4:30am Meditation for 2hrs
The first meditation session from 4:30-6:30am on Day 1 was painful, both mentally and physically. I’m not totally sure about how everyone else was feeling, but I was absolutely exhausted, and staying awake was in itself a challenge. We were then instructed to focus only on the breath, without trying to control it in any way. It’s easy enough to say, but to actually sit for two hours and even attempt to stop the mind from wandering was incredibly challenging, especially since I generally have a very active imagination and mind. We were told to focus on the breath, and to calmly bring our attention back to the breath each time our mind wandered, without feeling frustrated or defeated.
Physically, it was also pretty tough to sit cross-legged for that long without getting up to stretch. I went into the course thinking, “All I have to do is sit up straight and I will have a much improved posture and a stronger, healthier back after 10 days, it’ll be so great!” but of course that was much easier said than done. After even 10 minutes of sitting with perfect posture, you start to slump and twist and try to get comfortable. By the end of the 10 days I had made much improvement, but it was far from easy, especially in the beginning.
Breakfast & The Dining Hall
After our first sitting, the gong rang and we were sent to eat. Breakfast was simple; porridge, some sprouts/beans, and a piece of fruit (usually an apple or banana, both of which were very natural, and far from the glistening, wax-coated perfect fruits that I’m used to back home). I didn’t eat much the first morning because I just didn’t have much of an appetite. I did however drink lots of masala tea, which was my saving grace. The cafeteria area was, (not to sound dramatic) like a prison… It was colourless, with stainless steel tables running from one end of the room to the other, and the chairs lined up along only one side of each of the tables so that everyone faced the same way. We lined up for our stainless steel plates, spoons (our only utensil), cups and bowls, and were served buffet-style. I usually tried to sit near a window, and would try to sit near Cecilia (the woman from Chile who I spoke with before noble silence). Not that we could talk, but it was nice to feel a familiar presence next to you, however small. After eating, we washed our own dishes in the back of the cafeteria, and returned to our individual rooms.
The Day That Never Ended
The next meditation period lasted 3 hours, and afterwards was lunch and rest. It was at this point that I realized that the day was only half over. Let me make one thing absolutely clear to you, incase you hadn’t already figured it out: the days were long. The hours didn’t pass quickly and silently, they dragged on 99% of the time, and if you made the mistake of looking at the clock at the back of the hall, then they would only drag on for longer.
When I realized that after what had felt like an eternity of sitting I was only halfway done meditation for the day, I had a small meltdown in my room. I just wanted it to be over, and I was constantly bouncing between telling myself that I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to, and convincing myself that I didn’t want to leave even if I could. All I knew for certain was that with each ring of the gong calling us to meditate I was one session closer to the end.
In the afternoon of the first day I experienced a power outage in my room, which lasted for the remainder of the day, until the following morning when I realized that this particular instance had not been a power outage, but was the result of a staff member switching off my power because I had accidentally left my fan running when I was outside. Power outs were a regular occurrence, though they usually only lasted a few hours. The main hall often had an outage during our 1-5pm-meditation session, which was the hottest time of the day. You could feel everyone in the room hold their breath for a brief moment when we heard the power shut off, as the ever so quiet buzzing of the ceiling fans came to a stop. This made the 35-40’C air from outside flood the hall and sit still on top of each student, like a heavy blanket weighing down on us as we sat in our own sweat for several hours, our hair and clothes dripping by the time we left the hall.
Goenka & Vipassana
In the evening of the first day was our first discourse, the videos of Goenka, teaching about the practice of Vipassana. Now for those of you who don’t know about the technique, here’s a basic run-down of what it is and how it works. Vipassana means “to see things as they really are”, not as they appear to be. The practice was re-discovered by Gautama, the Buddha over 2500 years ago, when he had experienced the misery of life when he was a wealthy man, and also when he had nothing. He knew that there must be a middle path, a universal truth that was the key to happiness. This was when he sat beneath a tree for some time until he had found the truth, and attained “enlightenment.”
Vipassana therefore is a process of self observation, starting with the breath and bodily sensations, which sharpen the mind when observed, and eventually allow one to see the ever-changing nature of the body and mind and understand the universal truths of suffering, impermanence, and egolessness. In understanding these truths, one purifies the mind of all ignorance, freeing it from feelings of craving and hatred, which ultimately lead us to misery. Vipassana, otherwise known as the Path of Dhamma, has nothing to do with God, or any kind of religion or sect. It is truly universal, and is far more scientific than anything else, based on one of the most basic principles in science: impermanence. For this reason, Vipassana may be practiced by anyone and everyone, however it is asked that for the duration of the 10 day course, each student suspends the practice of any other religion or spirituality, from prayer to yoga, reki or hypnotism.
Only in surrendering oneself entirely to the practice of Vipassana can one truly benefit from it. The practice’s aims are simple: to help an individual understand the universal truth about life and existence, mainly being the impermanence of all things. This releases tensions in one’s everyday life, as one begins to react in more balanced ways to both pleasant and unpleasant situations in life without losing the balance of the mind, and while remembering that all things, good or bad, shall pass. This positive mindset and freedom from hatred and misery is the ultimate goal of Vipassana, which betters both the individual and society as a whole.
Now of course, a 10-day retreat is by no means enough time to pull an individual out of his or her old habits entirely, and to say that anyone will be “enlightened” or “free” afterwards is unrealistic. The Path of Dhamma is a life-long journey, which over time will help one to make changes in their life for the better. It is not a ritual or a duty that must be fulfilled once a month/year for one to be a “true” member of any kind of “group”. It is simply a universal practice that spreads love, kindness, compassion, and true happiness.
The precepts, which must be observed throughout the course, are relatively simple: No killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no telling lies, and no intoxicants. All students are also asked not to physically exercise throughout the course, or listen to any kind of music, use any electronic devices, read/write (though I allowed myself to jot down a sentence or two each day to remember a few things for my blog afterwards), or consume food outside of the strict vegetarian diet provided.
Incase you were also wondering, there is absolutely no charge for the course. The cost of all boarding is met by the donations of old students who have practiced and benefited from the course. In this way, Vipassana is true to the bone in allowing each student to take on the life of a monk/nun for the duration of the course, with each meal and all services and accommodations being charity from old students. Old students donate in discretion without being given any incentive to donate other than the satisfaction of passing on this gift to future students. Centers have no other sources of income, and all staff members are volunteers or old students. This is a key component in removing any feelings of entitlement from the student, which would naturally arise should students have to pay a fee for the course.
At the end of day one, I made a small circle on a piece of paper and filled it in, followed by 9 empty circles, which I would fill in as the days passed, to remind myself that it is, in the end, only ten days. I stared at the ceiling from my bed, tears streaming from my face, as I prayed that the universe would do me a solid and just fast forward the next few days. Eventually… by nothing short of a miracle, I got to sleep.
Meditation Day 2, we began to sharpen our focus during meditation, bringing our attention to the nose, nostrils, and area between our upper lip and tip of our nose. In this way, we sharpen the mind by focusing on the sensations experienced in a particular part of the body. It was challenging, though I could actually notice myself getting a bit better at keeping my focus. My thoughts still wandered, but I was able to catch myself and bring my attention back to the breath and nose.
Physically, the pain on the second day was terrible. My back was literally burning, and as I sat through meditation I actually tried to visualize knives sticking into my back, to help relieve the tension, because it hurt so much. My body was in physical revolt, and there was nothing I could do about it other than stick it out, which felt impossible at the time.
My Major Meltdown
By lunchtime, I was a mess. I went to the cafeteria to get my lunch, but when I sat down I just couldn’t eat even though I had hardly eaten since breakfast the morning before. Food had lost its taste. Somehow, my state of mind was literally turning food rotten in my mouth, and I could not bear to swallow it. I fought the urge to throw up, and Cecilia saw me struggling from her end of the table. She brought me a glass of lemon water with sugar, and smiled as she handed it to me and went back to her seat. It was the first thing I had put in my mouth that actually tasted somewhat good, but I was so hungry, and so miserable that it wasn’t enough. This was when I had a full-blown meltdown.
I don’t even fully remember how things got as bad as they did, but all of a sudden I was sitting over my lunch, my head in my hands, bawling my eyes out in the middle of the cafeteria. 3 of the workers came over to me, comforted me and said, “It’s okay. Sometimes this happens in meditation.” One of them hugged me and kissed my forehead, while the other one told me that after I finished some lunch I was to go meet with Mrs. Meenu and she would help me. An older student from Switzerland walked by me and put her hand on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, “I cried during my first meditation too, you will be okay.” It meant the world to me to feel compassion and love from people I didn’t know, but I was still such a mess.
When I went to Mrs. Meenu, I cried and told her that I was okay, I just missed home, and it was very hard. Mrs. Meenu looked at me with her calm eyes and asked, “Do you wish to go home?” I answered “No” without a moment of hesitation. She smiled, looked at me and said, “Vipassana is a surgery of the mind, and sometimes it is very hard. You must remember, in breath, out breath, it will pass. It is okay to be upset. Observe your feeling, and do not react. In breath, out breath.” I knew she was right, but it was just so hard to handle. It felt like I had been there forever, and I was only halfway through Day 2.
Later that day I was greeted by a gigantic lizard in my room, which scurried across the floor and into the drainpipe, which it left wide open behind it. I ran outside, grabbed a big rock, and put it over the drain in the bathroom. The rock remained in this spot for the rest of my 10 day stay.
Goenka’s View on Religion
During the evening discourse, Goenka spoke about religion and anger. He said that all anger is universal, and misery is universal. It is a simple truth, but one that we tend to forget. Regardless of one’s religion, one experiences the same feelings of anger and agitation, which harms the self and others, and leads to unhappiness. The problem in this world, Goenka says, is not that people of different religions believe in doing “bad” to each other or anyone else. Each religion is based on the idea of love and compassion and showing love to one another, the problem lies in each religion’s definition of what “good” and “bad” means. If we take this, and wipe away these definitions, we could say that “good” things are things that we should do, and would like if they were done to us, and “bad” things are things that we should not do, and would not like if they were done to us.
The idea of specific religions being exclusive and fighting over who is “right”, a matter of ego, is defeating the basic intention at the root of all religion: to act in a good way, and refrain from acting in a bad way. Vipassana is a practice which trains the mind, whether it be a Christian, Hindu, Muslim etc., mind, to deal with simple emotions of craving, anger, and agitation, which are the same emotions no matter what one’s background or beliefs are, because they are based on our feelings at an experiential level. This is why Vipassana has no place for god or religion, as it deals with universal truths at an experiential level.
Meditation Day 3 was a turning point for me. I had still been periodically crying since lunch the previous day, and I was a bit of a mess. I was starting to eat a bit more, and I was feeling a little less miserable, but I definitely wasn’t skipping my way to meditation. It certainly didn’t help when I looked to my right to find an empty seat this morning… The girl who looked like Sarah was gone, and her pillow had been removed. I had already figured that even though you are told you “cannot leave” that if you started kicking and screaming and demanding to leave the course, they wouldn’t have much of a choice but to let you walk away, but knowing that someone had given up, especially when it was someone who had reminded me so much of home, was devastating.
After the 8am-11am meditation, everything changed for me. As I walked up to my room, tears in my eyes, I noticed a small piece of paper sticking out from under my door. I quickly opened the door, grabbed the folded paper, and shut myself inside, shaking as I began to read. It was a letter from a fellow student, who hadn’t identified herself in any way, other than speaking about experiences that only an old student would know, who had been through this before. I Cried before I even started reading, knowing that there was someone who cared enough about me to write me any kind of letter, which was strictly against the rules. I wiped my tears as I began to read…
“Message From God: My sweet, loving and dear child, why are you crying? Why are you in so much pain? Why are you feeling lonely? One thing, I would like to tell you, that you are blessed child of God. God loves you so much that he chose you as a lucky and divine soul to walk on the divine journey. You come alone, you will go alone. Detach yourself from all the traps of materialistic world, relationships and your own body. You are a pure, loving, peaceful, knowledgeable, divine soul. You come to Vipassana because you were destined to come and learn this technique. And help or guide others to walk on this Buddha enlightenment journey. “Passana” (in Pali language) means “to just look at things as they appear” eg: Just giving an outer look onto its beauty, colour, texture, shape, etc. but “Vipassana” means “to see things as they really are” in their truthful state of existence, eg: Look more deeply and experience the truthful quality, expression, colour, shape of anything etc…
The initial 5 days are very tough, because you were enjoying life in a noisy city. And your body and mind were used to it. But here there is noble silence, 5 precepts to follow. So many people around but nobody to talk. Here you talk with yourself. Your body and mind has never experienced this that is why they are revolting inside to run away from this discipline. But my dear child, my sweet lil’ child, after 5 days your mind and body will be used to this routine and will start liking the peace within. And when you’ll enter the phase of Vipassana, your entire body pain, your discomforts will vanish automatically. Because by then you’ll train your mind to see body pains as they really are. Have patience. Be bold and strong and face all the challenges of life. God is always with you. God loves you a lot.
At the end of this program you’ll love this technique (if you practice well) and feel enlightened (you will be thankful to God). If you are missing your friend, lover, pets or family then don’t worry dear, they are all well and doing good in their 10 days, like you. But you are lucky to be here, not they. They are not chosen to be here. Many foreigners have come from London, Japan, USA, China, Russia etc. They have never eaten Indian food in their entire life. But still they are enjoying and relishing their meals properly every time. Respect food. Pray and express gratitude to God for at least giving you a plate full of lovely meal cooked with effort and love. Think of those people who work so hard, get exploited every day and face so much torture, beg in front of people for just one piece of bread to eat.
Don’t forget you are blessed. Take only little food and enjoy it, do not waste it. You are a very strong-minded girl. Don’t crib like a 5 yr old child. You are a grown up young woman, soon you’ll have your family. If your kids cry and crib like this, then how would you feel? Nobody can help you here. You have to wipe your tears yourself, help yourself, check yourself, love yourself. After 10 days you’ll sometime miss the Indian food taste and I’m sure you’ll come back again to India (sometime later). Be strong, be smiling, be happy. Be a good learner, good student (daily), grasp each and every lesson deep into your mind. Because when world will come to an end, people will face crisis and a lot of panic and chaos will be all around, then you as God’s child will be strongly standing firm against all odds of life. You will be able to survive and stay calm and composed in any worst situation of life, just because of Vipassana. So stay happy, calm and at peace. –Your angelic friend and messenger of God, do not tell anyone about this letter.”
I sat for a few minutes, going over everything that had been said, feeling a thousand different kinds of emotions. I looked out the window and whispered “thank you” for whatever it was worth, and laid down on my bed. The letter had said everything that I needed to hear. At first, I didn’t know exactly how to feel about all of the God references, because I’m not necessarily a believer in a specific “God” per se, but the more I thought about it, the more everything came together. The letter was sent with love. It let me know that I was not alone, and that someone out there was loving me and looking out for me, while at the same time telling me that I could not rely on anyone or anything else for my happiness, and that I WAS alone, in the physical sense. I came into this world alone, I would leave alone, and in-between, whether I choose to live in denial of the fact or not, I am alone.
I needed to pull myself together. There are people on the streets, which I had seen only days before, begging for the simplest things in life. Here I was, with a roof over my head, and food to eat. I was reminded of my choice to be here, and of the fact that I must accept the challenges and push through them, knowing that they will make me stronger. Most importantly though, the letter said, “If you are missing your friend, lover, pets or family then don’t worry dear, they are all well and doing good in their 10 days, like you,” which I had needed to hear most of all. I was constantly thinking about home, trying to imagine what I was missing, and picturing so many terrible scenarios in which I would return home to my house burned down, or my dog hit by a car, or my boyfriend leaving me. My thoughts had been running wild, and I needed this reminder that it was only 10 days and that realistically I wasn’t missing much.
In thinking about her references to God, I realized a lot of things all in a matter of seconds. I realized that it didn’t matter what kind of “God” she was referring to, even if she was referring to a God of a particular religion which I was not a part of. She had sent me this letter, with only love and compassion in her heart. To me, that in itself, was God. Now try to keep up with me here, because it is hard to explain the things I was feeling, but I’m going to try my best; in this letter, I had found God. Except God wasn’t a person, or some spirit in the sky who decided whether or not to grant my wishes. God wasn’t a thing that I needed to pray to 5 times a day, or complete a certain ritual for in order to get into his kingdom. God was not a singular, tangible being, but rather, “God” was a simple name, used to describe a force. God was a force that brought me this letter, a force that made whoever the author was, feel compassion towards me and write words that would stop me from giving up on the practice and myself. This force was God, and God was love.
God connects us all, and sitting in my bed I realized that this wasn’t my first encounter with God since leaving home. I found God in Philip and Olivia in Israel, who showed me that it is possible to be completely loved and accepted by someone even if they know that you will never share their same beliefs, and that they are okay with that, and accept you as a friend regardless. I found God in the man at the airport in Tel Aviv, who bought me a diet coke when I had thought that nothing in the world could have put a smile on my face. I found God in Danny, the airport worker who was assigned to me in Tel Aviv, who must have been a Buddha in his past life the way he smiled at me through my tears, and told me that everything would be okay. I found God in Josmy, who reminded me that some things are beyond our control, but that doesn’t mean that a bad experience can’t have a positive outcome. I found God in Emmanuelle, who showed me that it is okay to admit your feelings of vulnerability when you are doing something that scares you, and in Cecilia, when she handed me a glass of lemon water with sugar, and smiled at me in my time of need.
Now, I had found God in this letter. This God was love, compassion and selflessness. It was not a person, place, or thing, but a quality which is within us all, beyond all explanations given by science or religion. It is a web that ties us together in ways that we will never understand, and causes us to cry when we see someone in pain, or smile and tear up and get a lump in our throats when we witness, or even read about acts of pure, selfless love and kindness towards others. This was what this letter meant to me, and it was exactly what I had needed. I knew that there was no way that I was going to go home without saying that I had completed the 10 days, and I knew that it was going to be easier to stay by choice, rather than to fight it and tell myself that I wished I was home but could not leave.
I went to lunch, and for the first time since the day of arrival I finished every piece of food on my plate. The most surprising part, however, was the fact that while I was served the exact same meal as the day prior… today it didn’t even taste half bad. In fact, I kind-of enjoyed it.
Meditation Day 4 was the first official day of “Vipassana,” and was where we started to “really work,” though I didn’t fully understand what that meant until we started. Starting on the 4th day, for three separate one hour sessions each day, we would sit with strong determination not to move, and to sit through any sensations we were experiencing. Instead of focusing on the nose and upper lip area, we now were instructed to move our attention from the top of the head to the tip of the feet, slowly, but without lingering on any specific area or attaching us to the feelings experienced in any particular spot, be it good or bad. I was unable to sit completely still for the full hour either of the two times we practiced this technique on this day. I had bugs land on me, which happened a lot, but sometimes I would realize that it was not a bug, it was just a hair blowing on my face or sweat dripping. The odd time it was an actual bug though, which happened often enough to convince me that any small sensation was a tarantula walking across my body.
I sat still for almost the entirety of each session, but there was always one thing or another that stopped me from maintaining perfect stillness for the full hour. I reminded myself not to get frustrated, and to simply accept that I would continue to work, and would have many more chances to sit for the full hour in the days to come. The fact that no-one really cared or said anything to you if you didn’t complete the hour, and that there was no reward if you were successful, actually made the idea of completing the goal even more appealing to me. I knew that I had nothing to prove to anyone other than myself, and that no one would benefit or be hurt by my failures other than me, and I knew it was only a matter of time until I was able to say that I had done it.
Meditation Day 5 I continued to work diligently and patiently in my continuous efforts to sit still for the full hour each of the three times in the day with strong determination not to move or open my eyes. Again, I was unsuccessful, though I remained positive knowing that I had done better than the day before, and had come much closer to completing the full hour by the end of the fifth day than I had the previous day. Now, I know it sounds like it couldn’t be that hard to sit for an hour, so please allow me to shatter your perception of how easy it was…
After several days of sitting with no back support, my back and neck were burning and aching non-stop. The room was at least 30’C at all times, and there was absolutely no sound other than the (extremely quiet) buzz of the fans, and the odd thumping of a monkey or peacock landing on the roof or making noises. The second you sit down, assume a comfortable position and close your eyes, you lose absolutely all sense of time.
I didn’t realize until I started this practice how much our minds subconsciously use sound and sight as gauges of time. When you’ve sat and talked with someone in daily life, I’m sure you’ve heard yourself say, “Oh I lost track of time,” but on a subconscious level, you had a sense in your mind of how long it had been, ie. that it was more than one minute, and less than ten hours, or more than one hour, but less than two days. During Vipassana, over the course of the hour, it becomes absolutely impossible for the mind to know how long you have been sitting. Thoughts buzz through your head as you bring your attention to your bodily sensations, moving from head to feet. After I’d say about a minute, your sense of time is lost. In the same way that some dreams can seem to last a lifetime, even if you’re only sleeping for a few hours, the thoughts in your head seem to be taking up far more time within the context of your other thoughts, than they are in reality.
From the second minute, until the final minutes of the hour, I had no idea whether it had been 3 minutes or 43 minutes, and it drove me absolutely crazy. As the hour dragged on, I began to think, “It has to have been an hour. At least 45 minutes. I have to pee, what if it has only been 5 minutes? Okay now it has been an hour for sure. When is this going to be over? Oh my God, this is never going to end. Is that a bug on my arm? I am so sweaty all I want to do is move. I’m going to move. I can’t move. This isn’t so bad, everything is fine. It may have only been half an hour by now, and that’s okay. I’m just focusing on my bodily sensations and not paying attention to time. It will pass eventually. I am at peace…OH MY GOD HOW IS THIS STILL GOING!? I AM GOING TO DIE HERE!” I can only explain the feeling as being trapped in your own body, screaming in silence.
By the time Goenka’s voice came on the audiotapes and started to chant, speaking words of the Buddha for about 5-10 minutes with the hour ending as soon as he stopped, I felt so relieved that I could cry, even though by the end of the 5th day, I had still yet to sit a full hour without at least opening my eyes a few times, or swatting a bug off of my face. Surely, this hour of practice would be my greatest challenge in the days to come.
Meditation Day 6 was a good day for me. By now I was over halfway done, which felt incredible. We were assigned our individual cells in the Pagoda this afternoon, which I had pictured as being a peaceful, quiet, breezy room to myself. Instead, it was a small cell that looked the way that I had pictured solitary confinement in prison, with mouse poop in the middle of the floor, a small stained pillow to sit on, a lizard on the wall (harmless, but it freaked me out), and no windows, whatsoever.
We were given a choice for many of the meditation sessions from here on out to work either in our Pagoda cells or in the main hall. Needless to say, I opted for the main hall anytime I was given the choice. By now, it still felt like I had years before I would be out of there, but knowing that I had survived the first full 5 days was enough to keep me smiling. During the evening meditation, I sat for my first full hour in stillness, and gave myself a silent round of applause.
By now I was beginning to understand how it all worked. I was understanding the things Goenka addressed in our evening discourses, which made so much sense that they were impossible to argue with. Goenka told us that all of our misery in this material world comes from either craving or aversion. He goes on to say that when we experience pain, or have an experience that we perceive as negative, we associate that feeling with hatred or aversion, and we wish for it to go away. If it does not go away, we are miserable, and if it does go away we are constantly wishing for it to stay away. Then, on the other side of the same coin is the idea of craving. When we experience something that we perceive as being a positive experience we are full of joy, and we do not want this joy to go away, so we cling onto it, and crave it the second it has passed. In each scenario, we find ourselves at the mercy of the sensations that we get from our positive or negative associations with any kind of experience, and unless life is going to only hand us the things that we desire (which we all know is never going to happen), we are going to be miserable.
This is why Vipassana teaches us about my favourite word in Pali, “anicca,” meaning impermanence, a word that is used to remind us that as we sit in meditation, much like in life, many sensations will come up that are either positive or negative. Then, as we remind ourselves of the law of nature and the truth of impermanence, we sit and acknowledge this feeling knowing that it will pass. When we experience pain we say, “this will pass eventually, there is no sense tying myself up in knots over it,” and when we experience happiness we say, “this is wonderful, and it too will pass, which is okay, and I will not be in misery when it is gone.” Life, in this way is like a river. We can stand at the edge of the river, constantly trying to change the direction of flow, or we can sit peacefully, knowing that it will always be moving, and that we cannot stop the flow.
Meditation Days 7-9 were productive. I worked hard, and sat patiently for almost every single hour-long sitting, and was sitting noticeably more still throughout periods of the day which weren’t even intended to be times of “strong determination.” It had become my most focused meditation time, and I was actually feeling as though I was progressing in my practice. As we focused our thoughts less on individual areas and more on larger areas of the body, I could feel subtler and subtler sensations as I swept from head to feet and feet to head. There were several times where I was so focused that I could feel the natural vibrations of my body, and the blood pumping through my veins. It was completely surreal, and it made all of the struggles up until that point worthwhile.
I had grown in my awareness of my bodily sensations, and in my ability to remain equanimous, regardless of the sensations being good or bad. At the question period on day 9, I went to Mrs. Meenu in the hall. I had been thinking so much about whether or not I had been meditating “properly”, and how to know if I was doing it right or wrong, so I figured I should just ask her. I went to her and asked, “I feel as though I am making progress, but sometimes I still have so many thoughts in my head that I’m not sure if I am doing it right… how do I know?” She asked me if I was feeling less sad and upset, and I said yes. She then asked me if I felt that I was making progress in my ability to meditate and focus, and I said yes. Then, she opened her hands, looked at me and said, “Then you are working well.”
I realized at this point that there wasn’t a “perfect” way to meditate, and that even if there was, that it wouldn’t matter if you could meditate perfectly if you were unable to make progress from that point. What was most important was the development of one’s own ability to bring the practices learned here into daily life, and the changes that are made in each individual life for the better. This was far more important than one’s ability to sit completely still for any extended period of time and meditate “perfectly.”
Day 10, Breaking the Silence
Meditation Day 10 was the final day of meditation, and at 10am we were all released from the hall and the noble silence was ended. At first, none of us knew what to do. We stood outside of the hall in silence, slowly walking away from the entrance. It wasn’t until one of the assistant teachers walked up and hugged me that I realized we were actually free to talk and touch each other. We instantly all started hugging each other and crying, congratulating one another. I was finally able to hug my friends who I had hardly spoken to until then. I was so overwhelmingly relieved, happy, and actually a little bit sad that it was all over.
In the back of my mind, I wondered who it was who had written me the letter, but I had a couple of people in mind who I thought it might have been. For the past week or so, since receiving the letter, I had been thinking a lot about who may have sent it to me. Looking back now, I’m happy that I didn’t know right away. Not knowing meant that any person I looked at, I considered to potentially be the person who had written to me. In a way, the anonymity of the letter had made it so that I was open to feeling a profound love for each and every person around me. It was only when I came to this realization that I decided that even if I did find out who sent me the letter, that I it didn’t matter. Whoever she was, she was looking out for me with love in her heart, and without even realizing it she had put me in a position to look at not just her, but at everyone around me with the same kind of love in reciprocation. I hugged every single woman I met on the final day as though it was she who had written me the letter that had meant so much to me.
We all had lunch together, and chatted nonstop. It took us 5 times as long to eat our food as it had during noble silence, and later that afternoon we were given our valuables back. I took some pictures of my new lifelong friends, knowing that only they would truly be able to understand what I had been through. We exchanged e-mails and phone numbers, and I told them all that if they could bare the drastic change in climate, they were welcome to visit me in Canada anytime.
The Women of Vipassana
It was strange to finally be able to talk after so long. My throat was instantly sore, and my ears felt plugged. I was completely overwhelmed, and after lunch I actually went to my room alone for about half an hour, laying in silence to give my ears a break. It felt like I had gone partially deaf over the course of lunch, and everyone sounded like they were speaking through a pillow. Thank goodness they ended the silence on the 10th day, and not the next morning when we were departing, or I’m not entirely sure I would have been able to handle all of the noise when I left the secluded meditation grounds.
In the afternoon, a young Indian woman came to me and introduced herself and we chatted for a few minutes about where we were from and what brought us to meditation. She was about 30 if I remember correctly, and as our conversation dwindled down she looked up and said, “I am hoping my letter found you well…” I was in shock. I didn’t even know what to say. There was nothing to ask, nothing to confirm, she was the one who had written to me. I hugged her and cried, and told her that it had meant the world to me. She said that she didn’t know if she should tell me, but that she couldn’t help herself, and that it was just a message that she felt she had to send to me.
I could not thank her enough, as I thought to myself, “This is the woman who I’ve been thanking in my mind for the past week, and I hardly even noticed her presence in the room before she introduced herself just now.” Before she had told me that she was the one who wrote to me, I had thought that perhaps it was Cecilia, who sat near me almost every day at lunch and brought me lemon water with sugar the day that I was such a mess. I also thought it might have been Carmita, the old student from Switzerland who had told me that she too had cried in her first meditation. Another part of me thought it was Supriya, a woman from Delhi who always looked at me with kindness in her heart. There were several other people I had suspected, including one of the assistant teachers, but I had never suspected the person who it actually was. For the sake of anonymity, I won’t tell you her name. I’ll only tell you that her letter and her decision to tell me who she was, taught me that sometimes love and kindness come from the places you’d least expect, and that just when you think you’re alone and lost, there is always someone out there who will love you and care.
We all said our goodbyes, and I cried like a baby knowing that I may never see these incredible people again in my life. Cecilia told me she had been so happy to have someone just to sit near and pass the occasional smile to at lunch, and I told her I felt the same. I am truly grateful to have met each individual woman who had shared this experience with me, and I know that even if we never speak again, we will all be friends for the rest of our lives.
Day 11, Leaving Vipassana
Day 39 of my travels, I said my goodbyes, and found Emanuelle and thanked him for keeping his promise not to leave halfway through. We shook hands and parted ways.
I left the meditation centre and headed to the airport, where I waited 12 hours (my flight was cancelled and I had to wait for a later one) before boarding my first of three flights that would take me home to Toronto. While in the airport, which was about the size of a small public school back home, I made friends with a shopkeeper named Krishna, and we talked for hours about our different lives. Later, Reema arrived at the airport and we sat and talked until her flight left. I was so happy to have had the pleasure of meeting her, and we shared stories over our first non-vegetarian meal in 10 days. Sad to see her go, I was once again officially on my own.
I boarded my flight later that evening, and could not stop smiling, knowing that I was on my way back home.
Making my way Home After 40 Days & Reflecting
Day 40 I arrived home in the afternoon, and it felt like I was dreaming as I walked through the airport in Toronto, though that might be because of the fact that the screaming babies on the plane had kept me up for nearly the entirety of the past 24 hours.
I had seen and done so much since leaving home, and I had been through so many different experiences that I was almost afraid to have to answer people’s questions about how my trip was, and what I did. It felt like I had changed.
I know that when people see me and talk to me, they will think that I’m the same, because I’ve always been a relatively bubbly and energetic person, and I am still that way. It’s hard to explain, but life feels different now. I’ve changed so much in how I see the world when it comes to the real things that matter. I might be going back to my same life that I had left about 6 weeks ago, but my entire thought process and the foundations on which I base my own identity have changed in ways that I will never be able to explain on paper. I’ve met so many people, who I know I will never forget, and I’ve been through so many experiences that have changed the way I see the world but I think that the most important thing that I learned on my trip by far was to believe in love.
I get that this might not make total sense, because I’m not talking about the kind of love between two people who are in love in the romantic sense, but I have learned so much about the love between all people, all over the world. I had been through a lot of experiences, some good and some bad, and what got me through each experience was confidence in the fact that all people are fundamentally kind and compassionate. I truly believe after my experience that there is a force that holds us all together and that has been buried inside a lot of us as we live our busy modern lives, but that exists at the core of all of us. Call it what you want: God, collective consciousness, an unknown scientific particle, magic… I call it love.
To me, this is God. The quality that made me feel like no matter what I was doing or where I was going or how alone I was, that there would always be someone to turn to; that is what it means to believe in true love and compassion between all beings. Sure, it was hard to believe it all the time, especially when you’re being interrogated in an airport in Israel and held at security for hours. Similarly, it was hard to remember this when I was having different souvenirs shoved in my face in the market, or was being pushed past in various line-ups and knocked around in crowded train stations and airports. However, I believe that people all have bad days. We do things that are unkind; we call each other names, and shove each other around. We take the people we love for granted, or we push them away. Sometimes, we refuse help when we need it out of pride, and sometimes we refuse to give help when someone else needs it out of selfishness. We are stubborn, and we hold grudges, but at the end of the day I think that regardless of our background, country, race, religion, beliefs, and most importantly our flaws, we are all capable of showing love and compassion to each other in times of need. When we set aside our pride and our differences, there is not a lot that separates us all.
I knew that this trip was going to be hard, especially being alone for a lot of it, but I am truly confident now in my ability to do just about anything, go just about anywhere, and face just about any obstacle life throws at me knowing that even when I am by myself, I am not alone.
When I got home, I emptied all of my bags and found the small keychain with a green shoe and a ring on it that Josmy had given me after my airport fiasco in Tel Aviv. I smiled as I clipped it to the rest of my keys.
The world is in a constant state of flux, as are the people in it. At the end of the day, we have come into this world alone, and we will leave alone. In the end, there is only one thing that freely flows between us all, holding us together even after death when we’ve left this physical world. We are all capable of it, though we sometimes forget its importance. It is often left in the shadow of our daily lives and personal problems, though it is never far away, and it doesn’t take much for it to have a great impact on our lives, all we have to do is let it.
This thing is love.