Recently, I attended a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in a rural village in the South Indian state Tamil Nadu. This meant 10 days of Noble Silence. So no talking, no eye contact or any other form of communication with anyone, other than the assistant teacher during the daily scheduled Question Answer Times. It meant 10 days without my little mobile hand device to Instagram the whole thing. It meant 10 days without music, or reading, or writing. 10 days without exercising. 10 days of waking up at 4.00 AM. Oh, and 10 days of meditating close to 11 hours a day.
Why I decided to do it
Before I went, people had been asking me what motivated me to do something as “radical” as a Vipassana course. People normally don’t just randomly decide like: ‘hey, I still have 10 days of holiday days left, might as well kick back and relax at Vipassana while I’m at it!’ For me, the Vipassana course was kind of the missing ingredient in the life I had chosen to live during, but mostly after my one month Yoga Teacher Training back in August. During the YTT something had shifted in me. One could say I had a mini spiritual awakening, and it led to my whole life (insert Will Smith voice here) being flip turned upside down: my relationship had ended, I was homeless and I had run out of my prescribed medication, which I thought I needed to function properly.
End result: I was forced to a Rebirth. I decided to live a more fulfilling life practicing yoga and meditation, eating healthier and to lay off the intoxicants (including medication), which I had grown so accustomed to using frequently back when I was living in Amsterdam. Even though my life had somewhat fallen apart, I felt the happiest I had been in a while. Maybe even ever. My meditation practice got better every day, until I was able to sit for one full hour twice a day (there was a time I couldn’t even make it up to 10 minutes). But my mind would often times still get distracted, making an hour fly by without me being aware of the present moment for even just a minute. I was in need of more guidance. Of a meditation crash course of some sort. So after talking to people who had done it, I decided to apply for one of the many 10-day Vipassana courses on offer, in a little village in the South of India called Chettiyapatti. I had no idea where it was or how to get there. I had never even been to India. It was a totally impulsive decision. But it didn’t matter. I felt excited and ready for the next step in my journey towards true happiness.
So off I went to India. I had a flight from Bangkok to Chennai, and a connecting flight from Chennai to Madurai – where I ended up staying in an Airbnb with a friendly and motherly lady for a few days prior to the course. From Madurai I took a local bus to Chettiyapatti which took 1 hour and cost me 35 INR, equivalent to 0,44 Euro cents. It was a bumpy and sweaty ride to say the least. I was cramped up with all my stuff in the front with the other females, as the bus segregated male in the back and female in the front. All the actual seats were taken, but I was lucky enough to claim a spot, squeezed in between two local young women on some sort of upholstered bench built around the gear lever. Every now and then I would feel the lever being pushed into my back by the bus driver when he would rather aggressively switch gears. Everyone in the bus was staring at me like I had a purple rabbit with a top hat on my shoulder. I didn’t blame them, as I was the only foreigner on the bus. Plus I had gotten pretty used to the staring in Madurai, as I also seemed to be the only foreigner there at the time. I tried to make conversation with the girls I sat next to, but they didn’t speak any English. They did however smile a lot. So the whole hour I sat next to them we just exchanged endless smiles and polite Indian head wobbles. Until we apparently reached my stop and they gestured that I had to get off. I stumbled towards the exit of the bus, tripping over bags of groceries and stretched legs, managing to awkwardly wave and head wobble one last time at my new friends before getting off the bus. I found myself on a road of nothingness. There was literally nothing but the road and red sand. I decided to follow the few other people that had gotten off the bus with me to the other side of the road. There I spotted an auto, which is the Indian version of a tuktuk, and asked him if he could take me to Dhamma Madhura meditation center. ‘Yes.’ He said. ‘200 rupees.’ Knowing that was way too much, I bargained it down to 150, which was still too much considering he agreed to it immediately, but I couldn’t be bothered. I got in and the friendly chap drove me to the center, which was hidden in the midst of beautiful hills and lush green nature, 6 km away. ‘It is a good place.’ The auto driver assured me.
Upon arrival I had to fill in some registration forms and leave a signature here and there. Then they asked me for my phone. Funnily, I was a bit hesitant to give it to them. But without thinking too much I switched off the device and handed it over. The rest of my valuables and reading/writing materials I had to hand in later in the afternoon. First I had to check into my room and have lunch.
I was pleasantly surprised when I entered my room, which was on the first floor of the female residential building (men and women are completely segregated during the entire course). It was big and pretty clean. There were two beds, but I would end up with the luxury of not having to share the room, so one of the beds became my modest little closet. It had a basic but neat ensuite bathroom. There was no shower. I had to fill up one of the big buckets and use a little bucket to scoop up bits of cold water and pour them over my body. Luckily this didn’t come as a shock to me, as I was first introduced to this way of showering when I was 14 and visited my grandfather in Indonesia for the first time.
Someone knocked on my door. It was the girl I had been chatting with downstairs at the registration office (she had asked me if I was from China, to which I asked: ‘do I look Chinese?’ to which she replied convincingly: ‘yes.’). She gestured for me to come with her. ‘Lunch.’ She said. ‘Come, come with me.’ And pulled my arm. In the canteen she picked up a plate and started filling it up for me with the delicious looking local food from the buffet, and gestured demandingly, yet kindly for me to sit down and eat. She sat next to me without a plate for herself. Apparently she had already eaten. She just wanted to make sure I had lunch, and obviously turn me into her first foreign best friend. Her name was Nevi. She was my age, so 26, but lived a radically different lifestyle from mine. She was married to her husband who lived and worked in Singapore, had two kids aged 6 and 10, and had a secret boyfriend who her mother banned her from being in contact with, because he was a Christian and she was Hindu. Her mind was in a bad place because of that, I could tell. She kept saying how much she missed him and how much she loved him. I felt sorry for her, and at the same time felt blessed that I am fortunate enough to be with whomever I choose to love, always.
That evening everyone gathered in the Dhamma meditation hall for an introduction. I looked around and saw that I was again the only foreigner. Apart from one older caucasian lady, who turned out to be from Switzerland. She looked like she had been in India for a while, though (after the course she told me she had been living in India for 20 years). The course instructions were given in English, followed by Tamil, the official state language of Tamil Nadu. During the course I would rather painfully find out that the length of a simple sentence in English would be three times as long in Tamil. So to give an idea, instructions that took about 5-10 minutes to explain in English took about 15-20 minutes in Tamil. At 9 PM when the introduction had finished it was time for bed. After all, the next 10 days the wake-up bell would ring everyone out of bed at 4 AM sharp. Luckily that wasn’t much of a shocker to me, as my new yogi lifestyle had me waking up every morning without an alarm between 4.30 and 5.30 AM for the past two months anyway (trust me, I didn’t know I had it in me to become an early morning person and love it too). As soon as my head touched the pillow and my body had made itself somewhat comfortable on the rock hard mattress, I dozed off to sleep.
Day 1: Agitation
I woke up from the distant sound of the gong coming from the meditation Hall. I was surprised by how effortlessly I hopped out of bed and into the bathroom. I filled the bucket and started pouring the cold water over my body slowly to get used to the temperature. And as I held my breath I poured the cold water over my head and neck. If I wasn’t fully awake before, I now sure was.
I heard the ringing of a little high-pitched bell approaching my room. It was our Dhamma Sevika, waking up all the snoozers. A Dhamma Sevak (male) or Sevika (female), which means servant, is someone who has done one or multiple Vipassana courses, and voluntarily applies to work during a 10-day course as a way of giving back. She was more like a manager, though. Or even more precisely, a Mother Hen that made sure her chicklets would never leave her eyesight and would always do exactly what they were told to do. You can probably guess that our relationship started out on a bit of a rough patch.
The morning meditation would start at 4.30, so I slowly made my way to the Dhamma meditation Hall. I felt nervous, yet excited. I sat down on my cushions and started meditating. We were instructed to focus on our respiration and nothing else. No biggie, I thought. I got this.
And I did at the start, I was very focused. But after a while my mind decided that it was bored out of its.. well, mind. My body started aching in multiple places and my feet were falling asleep. From that moment on I had to take a break and adjust my position about every 10 minutes. Every time I brought my attention back to my breath, my mind would come up with another story to distract me and my body would introduce a new painful sensation on another part of the body to which I had to give in. It felt like the longest two hours of my life. At one point my mind started getting agitated: ‘This is ridiculous. These two hours should be over by now! Why is this taking so long? Why isn’t anyone ringing that frickin’ gong? Maybe they forgot about it?’ I opened my eyes to see if maybe everyone had already left and I somehow missed the signal. Nope, everyone was still there. I glanced at the time on my watch, which filled my heart with instant regret. Only. One. Hour. Had. Past. I closed my eyes in despair (I think I even shed a little tear) and shifted my attention back to my breath, which had become concerningly heavier. Then the recorded chanting of Mr. Goenka filled the Hall, which meant that the end of the longest two hours of my life was finally near. Actually the chanting would take another 30 minutes, but it provided me with the necessary motivation to pull through. Then, finally, the sweet sound of the gong rang (I definitely teared up this time) and the first meditation session of the course was over.
With my legs still half asleep I shuffled and stumbled towards the canteen for breakfast. The food they served us during the entire course was amazing. All local, South Indian cuisine, which I love. I filled my thali (traditional metal plate) with homemade pongal, sambar and coconut chutney, sat down at my assigned seat facing the wall and slowly started eating (skillfully using my right hand instead of cutlery like a true local, of course). One of the older women sat down next to me in her assigned seat, while I was very focused on mindfully eating my breakfast and enjoying the silence. That joyful silence however, quickly got disturbed by the woman’s loud eating noises, which instantly triggered my misophonia (which I didn’t realize was so bad until that moment). I don’t think I had ever heard someone smack and chew their food so loudly. When everyone had finished their food and stood in line at the sink to wash off their plate, some of the women started talking to each other. I looked up at the Dhamma Sevika (AKA Mama Hen) to see if she would say anything about it, but she didn’t. In fact, she was joining in on the conversation. Maybe they had something important to discuss about the course. I couldn’t tell because I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, but I was pretty sure it was against the course rules. It kind of annoyed me. When it was my turn at the sink, I had just opened the tap to start rinsing off my plate and rub it with soap. ‘Dhennik!’ (my last name is Deenik) I heard behind me. It was Mama Hen, who ran up to me and started yapping at me in Tamil. I looked at her with questioning eyes. Clearly I did something wrong, but I didn’t understand what. One of the girls translated for me, saying that I was using way too much soap and water and that that is not how you wash a plate. At that moment I noticed my level of agitation rise even more. I felt belittled. Like I was seen as the ignorant spoilt Western girl that had never washed a dish in her life before and doesn’t care about saving water or preserving the planet. But as triggered as I was, I didn’t say anything, as I wanted to maintain Noble Silence. I just nodded, finished washing off my thali and went up to my room to spend the last half hour of my break lying on the bed in savasana (a yoga resting pose), thinking: ‘this is going to be a long 10 days.’
” It was as if Paul McCartney & The Frog Chorus, minus Paul McCartney, had entered the Dhamma Hall to perform for us.”
After the breakfast break it was time for the next sitting. It was the first official one-hour Group Sitting (there were 3 Group Sittings a day). I felt a bit more relaxed and ready to give it another honest attempt. The session started with Goenka chanting, followed by instructions and advice to help us focus, first in English, then in Tamil. After 15 minutes of that, we were left to continue meditating in silence for the rest of the hour. My mind was pretty focused and it seemed like I had a better start than earlier that morning. Suddenly the sound of a loud burp coming from the male side of the Hall startled me out of my focus. ‘Well, that’s a little rude.’ I thought briefly, and then regained my focus back to the breath. Then another burp, coming from another male student, broke the silence and echoed through the Hall. And then another person released a burp. ‘What the hell…’ I thought, disgusted by the unpleasant sounds. Every time I tried to lead my attention back to the breath, another burp would penetrate my eardrums and send shivers down my spine. It was as if Paul McCartney & The Frog Chorus, minus Paul McCartney, had entered the Dhamma Hall to perform for us. It went on for the entire hour. Of course, my agitation level had reached its peak again. I tried some breathing exercises to calm myself down, but every time when another burp got released I flinched. The last 10 minutes I just sat and stared at the floor, asking myself why I thought doing a Vipassana course in a rural Indian village, where the culture was so very different from what I was used to, was a good idea.
The rest of the day the meditations seemed just as much a struggle. I slowly started being OK with it, though. Every time I felt I needed to stretch or take a break in between, I did. Every time the burping sounds became too much for me to bare, I would just go outside to cool down for 5 minutes and come back renewed. I knew that this was still allowed at this stage. In the evening it was time for Discourse. In the video Goenka talked about the technique, explaining its benefits and what the rest of the course would look like for us. The Discourse would from that moment on be my favourite part of the course. Every time Goenka explained why we did what we did that day, and how much it would benefit us for the days to come and even for the rest of our lives, I felt highly motivated to keep going. Plus, the man had a very charming and sweet sense of humour. He always had me laughing out loud (yes, laughing was permitted according to the rules of Noble Silence). After the Discourse and 5 minute break, we sat in meditation for the last time that day. The last sitting after Discourse was always kind of a mini meditation session, as it was only for 30 minutes (when you get used to meditating for 60-120 minutes, 30 minutes is nothing, trust me), where Goenka would provide us with new meditation instructions for the following day. At 9.00 PM the gong rang, and everyone retired to bed.
The infamous Day 2
Ah, the second day. Goenka had warned us about the infamous second day. Apparently there are two days of the course that people tend to struggle the most (some people even decide to throw in the towel): day 2 and day 6. Now day 6 wasn’t as much of a struggle for me, but day 2 was quite the emotional rollercoaster. It started with the two-hour morning meditation. For some reason I had a hard time staying awake. Every time I closed my eyes and tried to meditate, I dozed off to some sort of mini sleep. I would then be woken up by the heavy weight of my head tipping forward. The whole session I had to keep fighting the drowsiness. The only thing that seemed to help me was to regularly go outside for 5 minutes and take a little stroll in the fresh air. But when I would come back to start again, I would just keep dozing off back to sleep.
During breakfast, my inner peace (or what was left of it after the previous day) got disturbed again by my loudly chewing/mouth smacking neighbor. Since I wasn’t fully recovered from the day before, my body instantly filled itself with frustration. How was it possible for such a small woman to produce such loud noises?! I wanted her to know that her way of eating was not OK, so to prove my point, I very passive-aggressively started chewing my own food even louder. Of course this had no effect whatsoever. She probably just thought I was enjoying my kitchari as much as she did.
After washing up my thali (with the permitted amount of soap and water this time), I went upstairs to go to my room and bumped into Nevitha on the balcony. I had been trying to avoid her, because since the Noble Silence had commenced she had been trying to communicate with me numerous times. She would try to lock eyes with me and say something, and if I didn’t respond she would tap me on my shoulder or even pull my arm. I tried to keep looking down as I passed her, feeling that her gaze and energy had shifted towards me, but she didn’t say anything this time. I went into my room and quickly shut the door. As I was doing my laundry, someone knocked on my door. It was Nevi, of course. ‘Sorry for the disturbance,’ (‘no you’re not’, I thought), ‘can I come in?’
Many questions arose at that moment: ‘why do you want to come into my room?’, ‘why do you keep talking to me when we’re not supposed to?’, ‘why are you even doing this course if you don’t respect the rules?’ ‘why is no one here taking the Noble Silence seriously, except for me?’. But instead I took the opportunity to say: ‘no Nevi. And please, Noble Silence. Please. It’s important to me.’
‘OK, sorry.’ She said, and went back into her room. I closed the door and sighed. Hoping she had gotten the point this time.
During the group meditation, my mind was scattered all over the place. Goenka called it the ‘monkey mind’ that very actively swings from branch to branch, each branch resembling a new thought. And active it was indeed. I would find myself reliving the most random memories. Some pleasant, some sad, some traumatic. Some from my childhood, some from just months ago. My mind came up with all these past experiences that I had either completely forgotten about, forcefully pushed away or not yet fully processed. Within minutes my emotions would go from anxious to angry to happy to sad to horny to very anxious to very sad to angry again. The fickle rollercoaster ride just kept on going, taking unexpected turns and nauseating loopings. This would happen regularly during the following days of the course, and the overall ruling emotions were sadness and anger. But with every day it would become less and less.
After lunch I found myself in my room lying in savasana again. This time I was crying my eyes out. The previous meditation had me feeling so much sadness and emotional pain. And I didn’t want to feel all those feelings. I understood why they had come up, but I didn’t want to deal with them. I wanted to get out of that place. Why did I think I was even remotely ready for this? Clearly I wasn’t. I allowed myself to cry it out and let my thoughts rant for a bit. After some minutes I noticed that my mind started to quiet down. The tension was leaving my body. I rolled on my side holding the pillow like a child would a teddy bear, and with my face still wet from my tears, I fell asleep. I woke up about 20 minutes later, making it the perfect powernap. It was Question Answer Time, and since I did have some questions for the guruji (the assistant-teacher) I decided to go see him in the Dhamma Hall. The guruji was an old Indian man, always dressed in white, with very little hair left on his head and kind, sympathetic eyes that seemed to look right through one’s soul from behind his small frame glasses. I grabbed a small pillow and sat down in front of him on the floor. The guruji looked down on me from his chair and smiled. ‘What is it that you’d like to ask?’ He asked kindly. I explained to him that the sounds of endless burping, distracting me from my meditation, agitated me. That the loud eating noises of my neighbor during the meal breaks agitated me. That the fact that no one seemed to be taking the Noble Silence seriously, except for me, agitated me. That feeling agitated by all these events I had absolutely no control over agitated me. The guruji could tell that I was agitated and smiled. ‘I see.’ He said. His advice was to try my best to practice equanimity. To try and feel love and compassion during those moments, as I wouldn’t gain anything from being agitated. Honestly I already knew that that was the answer. I guess I was hoping he would maybe make an announcement before the next Group Sitting about the importance of Noble Silence and that burping was also against the rules. But of course he wouldn’t. I knew the only solution for me was to change my attitude and focus on remaining as equanimous as possible. In which I actually succeeded the following days. At one point I wouldn’t even hear the burping anymore. And when I would notice my neighbor’s eating noises, I managed to be truly happy for her and think: ‘well, isn’t it nice that she’s enjoying her food so much.’ I guess the guruji was right.
“At one point, I even felt like setting the whole Dhamma Hall on fire, laughing maniacally and hysterically like the villain from a bad cartoon.”
During one of the sittings in the afternoon, my mind had at one point decided it had enough. My body started feeling tense and restless. I wanted to jump up out of my seat and start running around the Dhamma Hall like a 6-year old with a sugar rush. I wanted to roll around over the floor screaming. Do cartwheels until I would collapse from dizziness and nausea. I wanted to make ugly faces to the guruji and the servers to mock and trigger them. I wanted to kick the cushions of the other students from underneath them and throw them through the Hall, yelling: ‘f**k this sh*t! F**k you all!’. I visualized myself doing all that in my mind. But from the outside it probably looked like I was very deep in meditation, as I didn’t move an inch. At one point, I even felt like setting the whole Dhamma Hall on fire, laughing maniacally and hysterically like the villain from a bad cartoon. For the remaining 15 minutes or so, my mind decided to introduce all the Disney soundtracks it could remember, and make a totally offbeat and chaotic medley out of them. I swear, if the movie ‘Inside Out’ had chosen my mind as its set, it would probably be banned from the theatres for being too disturbing for a Disney Pixar production.
-End of Part I-
Continue reading Part II