Blinding pain stabbing in my back, so vivid I could almost see it flashing white behind my closed eyelids. It consumed my mind, my whole body. I wanted to move, but couldn’t. I stayed silent, unmoving, legs crossed, mouth and eyes closed. Back feeling like it’s being twisted by burning claws……A recorded Indian accent broke through the deafening sound of my breathing and heart beat:
“A sensation appears, and liking or disliking begins. This fleeting moment…is repeated and intensified into craving and aversion, becoming a strong emotion that eventually overpowers the conscious mind.”
Welcome to Vipassanā (meaning ‘insight’ in Palī,) a form of Buddhist meditation usually taught in an intensive 10 day period. Beginners are welcomed, but it is not for the faint hearted. You are thrown into a very controlled regime which involves a lot of meditation, self-reflection and sitting.
My stomach expanded with an inward breath and collapsed as I breathed out. I moved my focus down from my back to my legs. Away from the glaring pain in my back. To the numbness and tingling of my extremities.
Feelings of frustration overwhelmed me.
Why was I here? In continuous silence, sitting 10 hours a day, experiencing pain and boredom when I could be exploring the diverse and incredibly exotic Thailand? Unable to speak, read, message, write, draw, exercise or even make eye contact with a fellow human?
Goenka’s voice echoed in my head:
“Vipassanā is the art of living. Not the art of escaping.”
So I endured. Unlike many, who find the seemingly endless and solitary meditation too challenging and leave. And it was worth it. Meditation sessions varied a lot; sometimes I would feel angry or upset, but sometimes peaceful and even ecstatic. Intensive meditation brings all emotions to the surface while it “cleanses” the mind.
Abruptly, a moo-like warbling wail cut into the silent hall. Goenka’s chanting in Hindi had a glorious significance; another ‘Sitting of Pure Determination’ was over. Now we could leave for food, for a break, or to meditate in our own rooms.
Sitting of Pure Determination? Whaaat?
The ‘Sitting of Pure Determination’ is something introduced on Day 4 of Vipassanā, its a full hour where moving is not allowed. You sit straight backed, cross-legged, eyes closed and must not change posture, not scratch an itch, not make a noise. The sittings are incredibly difficult at the beginning; a small itch becomes intensely uncomfortable and consumes your thoughts, a small pain grows to take over the whole back and neck, a numb tingle in the toe would reverberate in your very being. But at the some point in the retreat, the hour begins to pass surprisingly quickly. During the last few days, pain came and went and eventually I felt nothing but pleasant tingling sensations throughout my body.
I chose the Dhamma Kañcana – a Buddhist centre in a jungle, 4 hours bus ride away from Bangkok
The setting was beautiful. I slept in half a wooden bungalow with pillars to hold it up from vividly green life-filled jungle floor. Every night I dozed to the worryingly loud shrieking of geckos and other creatures. I shared my bathroom with a gigantic black spider. During break periods from meditation, without phone or communication with fellow humans, I would simply lie on my bed or wander around the walking zone. Genders were separated, and I came to recognise all of the women strolling pensively or watching the giant blue butterflies flutter in the green yellow light, although we averted eye contact. After all, this meditation was supposed to be a very introverted time, not about making connections with others, rather journeying deep within the self.
After all, according to Vipassanā,
“If there is no peace in the minds of individuals, how can there be peace in the world? Make peace in your own mind first.”
Should you do Vipassanā?
Ok so it was painful sometimes, it could be difficult or boring. But it was also (eventually) incredibly mentally soothing. By the end I found the sharp routine meant days slid away smoothly, and I understood myself better and was more at peace. At the beginning the desire to check my phone was overwhelming, but on day 11 turning the phone on to face all those notifications filled me with dread. Living in such a peaceful way was lovely, free from the complexities and anxieties of day-to-day life was relaxing for psychological and physical state. And the benefits of meditation are scientifically proven.
Maybe it is slightly more intense than necessary, I mean I don’t see the harm in a bit of yoga or exchanging smiles (both not allowed)…But at the end of the day, it was definitely a worth-while experience. Everybody gets something different from doing a Vipassanā. Just 10 days, but it could change your viewpoint on life forever.
[All quotes are from Goenka’s recordings. Goenka is an Indian-Burmese influential teacher of non-secular Vipassanā]