Missed out on Part I? Read it here.
Day 3: Mama Hen says ‘no’
On the morning of the third day I wanted to try and meditate in my room. The guruji told me I could always do that outside of the group sittings, if I don’t want to be distracted by external human sounds. When I informed Mama Hen that I would stay in my room, her answer was plain and simple: ‘no.’
I was somewhat surprised. ‘Um, yes I am. I’m meditating in my room.’ I said carefully.
‘No.’ She said again.
‘But guruji told me I can meditate in my room.’ I stammered.
I felt the agitation tense up my body again and sighed. As I didn’t feel like starting an argument at 4.15 in the morning, I decided to let it go for now and just meditate in the Hall.
That day my meditation practice went much better. I managed to regain my focus each time I got distracted, and my thoughts weren’t as ridiculously all over the place as the day before. Goenka had explained to us during the Discourse that the first 3 days are all about sharpening the mind. We were preparing ourselves for the actual practice of Vipassana, which would be taught to us on day 4. I was pretty excited to finally learn the technique, as practicing anapana (focusing on just the breath and sensations on the upper lip) for 11 hours a day became a little old.
In the afternoon we were called to sit with the guruji one by one, so he could check in with us and our practice so far. When it was my turn, Mama Hen told him that I claimed to have permission to meditate in my room. To which he responded: ‘yes, that’s correct. Everyone is free to meditate in their room outside of the Group Sittings if they prefer.’ I was very glad he cleared that up for us.
“It felt as if someone kept stabbing my thighs and lower back on multiple places with a blunt dagger.”
Day 4: The first day of Vipassana
I meditated in my room that morning, which I very much enjoyed. It was nice to meditate by myself again for a change and not being distracted by the burps, coughs and sniffs of others.
In the afternoon they finally taught us the actual Vipassana technique. But they also introduced us to adhitthana, the practice of strong determination. This basically meant that from now on during Group Sitting, you were to maintain stillness in your posture for the whole session. So no more breaks in between, no more physical adjustments or movement (not even your fingers), no more opening the eyes. We were to sit completely still for the entire hour. And let me tell you that yes, especially the first time, this is as painful as it sounds. Goenka described the technique as performing deep surgery on the mind. The coming days we would have to start operating on old “wounds” that never properly healed. Open them up and let all the old puss come out. It wouldn’t be a nice process to go through, but it would be necessary.
The first half hour went alright. I was very focused on my Vipassana practice without moving an inch. I felt like a little Buddha statue, and was pretty sure that if I kept this up I would reach Enlightenment before lunch time. But then my legs started to tingle. Those tingling sensations turned into sensations of soreness. And the soreness turned into extreme pain. The whole second half of the hour it felt as if someone kept stabbing my thighs and lower back on multiple places with a blunt dagger. Sweat had started dripping down my back and forehead. ‘It’s just sensation…’ The little angel on my right shoulder whispered. ‘It will be over soon… Just accept the reality as it is… It will be over very soon… You’re doing great…’ Meanwhile the devil on my left shoulder was shouting in my ear through a megaphone: ‘This is torture! What are you doing to yourself? You won’t be able to walk anymore after this! Just stretch your legs for a minute. Just a minute!’ My whole body started shaking out of protest. Yet I didn’t want to give in. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this. Then the sound of Goenka’s chanting filled the Hall. ‘OK, Giv. 10 more minutes. You’re almost there.’ The shaking of my body got worse and worse. I was now drenched in sweat. I heard Goenka chant the closing words: ‘bhavatu.. sabba.. mangalam..’ (may all Beings be Happy). ‘Sadhu.. sadhu.. sadhu..’ My shaky voice whispered in response. The sweet vibrational sound of the gong redeemed my body and mind from their suffering. I slowly opened my eyes and started crying. For some reason I couldn’t move out of my cross-legged position. I sat there for another 5 minutes staring at the wall in front of me and just cried, allowing whatever the practice had stirred up in me to come out.
According to Goenka, all sensations that arise in the body during meditation are called sankharas. They are basically old emotional traumas which rooted themselves in various places in the body. As my negative emotions were mostly stored in my hips and thighs, I would feel the most painful sensations in those areas. The only way to fully eradicate those deeply rooted sankharas, is to sit through it and try your best to maintain perfect equanimity. ‘Just accept the reality of the present moment as it is. As it comes naturally.’ Goenka would keep repeating. When you just observe the sensation without wishing for it to go away, it will actually disappear completely. Because, according to the Law of Impermanence, nothing in this life is permanent or forever. And in the coming days, it did go away. With every day, the pain in my thighs and hips became less intense. And with every day, my emotions and mental state became less heavy.
Day 5: Mrs. Spider
I was able to deal with the physical pain better and better with each sitting. Apart from my thighs and knees, the rest of my body didn’t experience any pain at all. During the early morning meditation, I even experienced a moment of bliss. Like I was glowing. I couldn’t stop smiling that morning. I sat with a permanent smile on my face during breakfast, thinking: ‘girl, look at you acing this Vipassana thing. These next 5 days will be easy as pie.’
That smile faded from my face pretty quickly once it was time for Group Sitting. As I sat down on my cushion, I felt my neighbor behind me hitting my back with a piece of paper. I turned around to her, as I wanted to know what she did that for. She pointed to something in front of me. My gaze followed her pointed finger to what she had hit off my back and my face turned pale. In front of me sat a hairy, brown spider which was about the size of my hand. My arachnophobic self wanted to run out of the Dhamma Hall screaming, but I didn’t want to make a scene in front of everyone and be ‘that’ girl. So instead I just sat and stared at the spider with big, horrified eyes. One of the male servers made its way over to the female side, as he had noticed that something was going on. My neighbor pointed to the spider, but the server must have forgotten to put his contacts in, because for some reason he didn’t see the huge monstrous thing. My neighbor rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue in annoyance, leaned forward and pointed again. Her finger almost poked the spider, making it, and in response to that me, flinch. This time the server understood what the problem was and rubbed his hands eagerly to fix it for us. He lifted his hand high and swung it down like a golf bat, aiming for the spider to fly through the air towards the nearest exit. Now this could have been an amazingly successful rescue operation, hadn’t it been for one tiny detail that our hero of the day had overlooked: the door of the exit was closed (seriously, someone take this man to the local optician!). Our eyes anxiously followed the poor spider, who was heading straight to the solid wooden door, only to crash into it with a loud thump. The spider crawled up into a small corner by the door, clearly shocked of what had just happened to it. It was time for us to meditate, but I wasn’t able to concentrate as I was sitting only two meters away from the door where the spider now was. I kept opening my eyes to see if the spider had left its corner to pursue its revenge on the entire human race, knowing that I would be the first on its menu if that was indeed the case. Everytime I looked, the spider thankfully hadn’t moved an inch. I started talking to it in my head: ‘listen up, Mrs. Spider.’ (I tried to picture it with a cute pink sun hat with flowers to make her seem somewhat more approachable). ‘If you stay in that exact corner for the next hour, I promise I will help you to get outside. Trust me, you don’t want to be stuck in here for the rest of your life. It won’t make anyone happy. Please, just stay there and I will help you.’ The hour went by slowly but steadily, and when the gong rang, my eyes flashed to the corner. Pfew. Mrs. Spider was still there. I picked up the laminated piece of paper that had my seat number on it and walked over to her. My heart was beating in my throat. I carefully opened the door without startling her and with a little swoosh I pushed the spider out of the Hall and into the wide world. She lifted one of her legs and it looked like she was waving at me or inviting me in for a high five. Either way, I just gave a polite little nod and closed the door. Wishing her well and that we would never encounter each other ever again, for the benefit of all Beings.
Day 6: Despacito
Individually, the days went by pretty fast. But the overall 10 days seemed to go by at a snail’s pace. I caught myself counting the days until I would be free again, followed by feeling disappointed in my ability to just live in the present moment. I missed reading my book and writing in my gratitude journal. I missed exercising and doing my yoga practice. But the hardest part for me was that I couldn’t sing. God, I wanted to sing SO badly. At times when I was in my room I would secretly start singing whatever song I had in my head, very quietly. And I always have a song in my head. 95% of the time it might look like I am deep in thought about something serious, when in fact I’m just singing or listening to a song in my head. I used to date someone who’d always ask me what I was thinking about during those moments, and I would make something up like: ‘oh you know, Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence…’ to impress him, rather than admitting that I was completely lost in Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ (such a tune, though!).
During meditation I would hear a lot of songs come by in my head. Some good, some bad, some just very random. However, on the 6th day my inner peace got drastically disturbed by one song in particular that my mind kept playing over and over and over again: ‘Despacito’. No matter how much I tried to focus on meditating, my mind would just crank up the volume and hit me with the chorus of the 2017 summer banger even harder. It was painful. I was arguing with myself in my head, like a cranky old lady yelling to her upstairs neighbors who were throwing a student party to keep the noise down. But the more I tried to fight the song, the louder it played. It went on like this for the entire day. My head had turned into a typical bar somewhere in Southeast Asia, where they try to lure in thirsty tourists during Happy Hour by playing that one tacky hit from the West on repeat. As soon as I sat down on my cushions and closed my eyes, the guitar intro would begin. Halfway through the day I realized it was a fight I wouldn’t win and decided to ‘just accept the reality as it is’. At least my mind tried to switch things up every now and then by playing the Justin Bieber version.
By the end of the day during the final Group Sitting before Discourse, it seemed that my mind had had its ‘Despacito’ fix and quieted down. I was exhausted, but it felt great to have my focus back and feel the inner peace return. But of course, my mind wouldn’t be my mind without playing some music in the background. And for the last 10 minutes of the Sitting, my thoughtful mind (see what I did there) had come up with the perfect motivational song to accompany me during the final stretch: ‘Jingle Bell Rock’.
Day 7: Homesick
I didn’t cry as much during the course as I initially thought I would. In fact, I hadn’t properly cried since day 4. But today I felt very homesick. I missed my mom so much, that her face would appear to me during my meditation that day, and I just couldn’t hold back my tears. I hadn’t seen my family for almost a year now since I left the Netherlands in December 2018, and I really felt like going home for a bit to be with them. That day I felt extremely lonely and sad. I wanted the course to be over. I had enough. The technique had gotten old now, and every day was just the same. I was tired and bored out of my mind. Also my legs were now so sore from sitting, that I couldn’t properly walk anymore. I kept telling myself: ‘Don’t think about tomorrow. All you have is now. Nothing is permanent. This too, shall pass.’ And it did. As every day, once we sat down for Discourse and I would hear Goenka’s sweet and inspirational Zen stories, I remembered why I had chosen to do this, which lifted my spirit and filled me with the strength and motivation to keep going.
Days 8 & 9
The last few mornings when I would meditate in my room, I had developed the bad habit of shamelessly falling asleep. It really was a struggle, as the Drowsiness Monster had made it its mission to thwart my every attempt to regain focus, and seduce me back to sleep. So, to prevent myself from slacking, I decided to meditate in the Hall again for the last mornings of the course. After all, I wanted to get the best out of the last 3 days and make my time worthwhile.
During the Group Sittings I noticed that my ability to remain equanimous was at its peak. No matter how many painful sensations I felt in the body, I was able to sit through them and just accept them for what they were. I noticed that each sensation that appeared would disappear again after a while. My mind was calm and sharp. I wasn’t resisting or craving anything. No feelings of sadness or agitation. I was able to simply be.
The pain in my hips and knees, however, had also reached its peak. I went to see the guruji during Question Answer Time one last time. I told him that I couldn’t sit, stand up or walk anymore without being in a lot of pain. ‘Are these still the sankharas, or have I just injured myself by sitting cross legged for too long?’ I asked him. He assured me that it definitely wasn’t an injury: ‘Whatever it is that has rooted itself there, it only now decided to come out. You just have to go through it and trust that it will disappear eventually.’ He smiled, and continued: ‘You have worked very hard, already from the first day. Every time I looked at you, you hadn’t moved an inch! Maybe prop up a cushion or two under your knees, just for today. Be determined.. But remember to also be kind to yourself.’
And so I took the guruji’s advise and propped up some cushions to support my aching knees that day. I could feel that my legs were thankful for that little break.
Day 9 was the last ‘serious’ day of the course, as it was the last day of Noble Silence. From tomorrow we were allowed to speak again. I felt pretty excited about that, as I was feeling intensely bored. Sure, I had accepted it – but I was still bored.
Day 9 was also the day that the pain in my hips and knees completely subsided. I didn’t feel any pain anymore whatsoever. Instead, my whole body was pleasantly tingling from the energy that was now able to flow freely during meditation, and it felt awesome. ‘Would you look at that.’ I thought amazed. ‘This Vipassana thing actually works!’
Day 10: PSY & Noble Chattering
The last day of the course had arrived. After the Group Sitting from 8-9 AM, the Noble Silence would officially be over and transition into ‘Noble Chattering’, as Goenka humorously called it. So this morning’s Group Sitting was my last chance to give it my all, and I would make it count.
For the past 3 days our neighbors on the property next to us were celebrating a wedding. Which meant that from early morning until late evening the sounds of loud, traditional Tamil party music filled the air and penetrated our ears. The quality of their sound system was so painfully good, that the wedding could have well taken place in the Dhamma Hall, while we were trying to meditate. I had gotten used to the music after two days though, so it didn’t really disturb my meditation anymore.
I sat down for Group Sitting and started meditating. My mind was calm and quiet. I was focused, aware and present. It promised to be my best sitting yet. Suddenly my awareness caught a glimpse of the hysterical wedding music. It had been easy for me to ignore the music before, because I didn’t know any of the songs they were playing. But the beat and melody of this song sounded familiar, and I couldn’t help but shift my attention to the music to figure out what song it was. I had to hold back my snicker once I had identified the mystery song. Of course, the Universe had to challenge my equanimity once more during my last serious session. This time with the K-pop hit ‘Gangnam Style’. It turned out to be an extra long remixed version, too. Try meditating seriously with that song pumping in the background, I dare you.
The Noble Silence was over, and before I knew it I was surrounded by my fellow female students that had been dying to talk to me. ‘Where are you from? How old are you (they were fully convinced I was 18)? What do you think of India? What do you think of Tamil culture and food? Are you from China (seriously, since when do I look Chinese)?’ They were shocked to hear that I was almost 27 and not married. That I hadn’t seen my family for a year because I was traveling. ‘Are they searching for you? When will you go back to the Netherlands? Wait, you’re NOT going to live in the Netherlands with your family?’ It became clear that our cultures were significantly different. It was nice to talk again though, and to get to know my fellow students better after those 10 days. That evening we all sat on the balcony floor chatting. Some of the women were singing songs in Tamil, which everyone knew except for me and the Swiss lady. Then one of the girls said that I should sing a song, which was an opportunity I gladly took after 10 days of not singing. I sang Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’, and it felt so good to free my voice like that again. The group applauded, surprised that I could actually sing, and asked for more. It was a great last evening of our 10-day journey.
The next morning the bell would wake us up at 4.00 AM one last time. Instead of the usual two-hour meditation however, we listened to a talk by Goenka and did a metta practice in which we directed loving kindness to ourselves and all beings. We also practiced forgiveness: forgiving everyone, including ourselves for any harm or suffering caused, intentionally or unintentionally. I couldn’t help but shed a tear once the gong signaled the end. I did it. I made it through the 10 days. I actually did it. I put my palms in front of my heart center and smiled in gratitude. What a journey it was. I left the retreat center feeling happy and grateful for all the lessons I had learned about the teachings and myself.
Looking back, it was an intense 10 days. But so rewarding in the end. Something has clearly shifted in my consciousness and changed my perception of the world around me. Vipassana is a technique that simply works. No doubt about it. I have been keeping up my practice every day since, and I haven’t had any days where I felt particularly heavy or depressed anymore (and I was depressed and on medication until about 3 months ago). In fact, I’m pretty convinced that I am genuinely happier than I have ever been (so far). I wouldn’t say that the Vipassana course has been my main healing tool for that. It’s definitely a combination of multiple things, like developing a strong spiritual practice in meditation, yoga, routine, no more alcohol/drugs, eating healthy, letting go of situations and relationships in my life that were toxic, etc. But practicing Vipassana has helped me understand one big, important key to experiencing real happiness: acceptance. To just accept my reality as it is. To just experience and accept all the highs and lows that come in life without attempting to change or protest them. Because ultimately, that will only lead to more suffering. And a suffering being isn’t a happy being.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. In fact, I am on the waiting list for another 10-day course in January 2020! This time in Europe.
Would I recommend it to others? Yes. However, I recommend establishing a solid foundation in silent meditation first. It was very helpful for me to already be used to sitting in silence for 1-2 hours per day. But I am highly convinced that doing a Vipassana retreat is good for anyone, at least once in their lives. It is, in my opinion (and I know thousands of old students agree), the greatest gift one can give oneself.
May All Beings, with Absolutely No Exceptions, be Happy.