Many roads, a sole driver, one destination. These should sum up the diverse meditation techniques, all aimed at guiding ourselves towards that peaceful place we’re supposed to find within. I read somewhere about Vipassana meditation. As always, I did the minimum research about the topic. However it turns out to be, I’d love to have my very own, unbiased experience. I sign up. I am accepted. Even so, I cancel last minute. I’m once again giving up my personal projects hoping to catch a ghost I’ve been chasing for some time. Little did I know then… before being a priority in someone else’s life, you have to first be a priority in your own life. But all good, we’re all here to learn and in any case, learning from other’s experience was never my thing 😉
Exactly one year later, Vipassana’s calling again. Meanwhile, I’ve decided to give myself another chance to discover who am I when I’m not tagged as a friend, colleague, lover or whatever. And if possible, in the process, to tame the relentless chatterbox in my head and find a way to reach those quiet depths. So here I am, right after Christmas, in a beautiful garden in Guatemala, about to check out from the whole world and check-in to that noble silence as they call it and into my own universe.
So, the rules of the game, for the next 10 days of silent retreat:
- No talking or eye contact with other students (including my roommate with whom I’m sharing the solitude and the bathroom)
- Men and women are segregated (eat & sleep in different buildings; sit together just in the meditation hall; however, in different groups)
- No intoxicants, sexual activity, stealing, lying, killing of any living being
- No reading or writing, no music, no phones or any other means of communication
- Strictly respecting the Vipassana method during the 10 days (no other religious rites, praying, no yoga etc.)
- Most important of them all, don’t leave before the end of the 10 day course
I love to talk. And oh, boy, I can talk. A lot. With anyone. About anything. I even talk sometimes with the girl in the mirror. So, in the beginning, not talking for 10 full days sounded like a big commitment. But funnily enough, not talking was by far the easiest task I’ve been given. The moment I sealed my lips, a terrible, unstoppable storm of thoughts was triggered in my head. A constant, violent chatter, a mix of past guilts and future dreams. What did I just get myself into?
The daily schedule
4:00 am – Wake-up
Every morning, sharp. On the bright side, with an unspoken, mutual consent, my roommate was the first to shower. Bless her. This would give me some extra minutes to stretch in bed, fight my sleepy body and mentally prepare for the first torture of the day: a lukewarm shower. Ten mornings in a row I’ve never missed one and I hoped, until the very last day, for a liquid miracle made of hot water. But somehow, that tepid stream became a symbol: no matter what, everything is just impermanent. And it’s entirely up to me how I choose to react to every present moment.
4:30-6:30 am – Meditate in the hall or in your room
I chose to be in the meditation hall, every morning. With a first layer of painful goose bumps, topped up with two sweaters, a jacket, leggings and loose pants I was leaving the dorm, stopping for a few seconds to stare at the still dark sky, taking some deep breaths of fresh, frozen air and somehow landing on my designated meditation spot. The hall was almost empty some early mornings, but I recall those hours as times of deep peace. A clean body slowly warming up and a quiet mind allowing my soul to freely float in between worlds.
6:30-8:00 am – Breakfast
I’m a very slow eater but it took even longer to queue for the food or to wash my dishes. Sixty silent women about to start yet another day in search for that inner peace. But to each her own, as I can only be sure of my own struggles and little victories. However, for ten days, three times a day I’m seated at the same table, with the same neighbours. I’m not supposed to watch anyone but once in a while I catch a gesture or a look that stands for thousand words. I feel them.
8:00-9:00 am – Group meditation in the hall
Instructions are given every morning. For the first three days we’re supposed to focus solely on the air coming out of the nostrils and on the sensation felt on the upper lip. I wish I could, but my monkey mind drags me down so many memory lanes and I can’t resist, I follow and I’m trapped in an avalanche of scenarios, a million what ifs and should have and could have.
9:00-11:00 am – Meditate in the hall or in your room
I know myself well enough to be sure it just won’t work to meditate in our room. So no exception, I show up to every meeting with myself in the meditation hall. Still, my mind is thinking a hundred times faster than I could ever type and I am constantly getting lost in my own maze of overthinking. I wasn’t sure if all that was supposed to come in a package with the noble silence but I was confident I could have successfully competed for, if there was one, a Nobel prize for constantly beating myself up with my own thoughts.
11:00-12:00 pm – Lunch
I’m not very picky with food in general. Coming from someone who can eat days in a row just potatoes or cheese with cucumbers because I simply adore them, I found the vegetarian meals pretty good. Until it turned out that the few main ingredients were repeating themselves in ever more watery combinations and shrinking portions. (It was only at the end that we came to know the struggle the organisers have gone through for that intake of meditators. As the rent for the location went up last minute it was the food budget bound to go down).
However, it’s incredible to observe yourself in relationship with food. I found myself craving for sugar so badly that I ended up having fantasies with apple cakes and ice cream and eggplants. A skinny me amused my table companions with all the bread and jam I could eat for breakfast. But on the other hand, it’s amazing to see how your body stays faithful and adapts to whatever limits you’re pushing it to. You learn to pay attention, to listen to its reactions and distinguish between a real physical need and an imagined one.
12:00-1:00 pm – Rest & the option to speak with the teacher
I have decided to be silent at all times. I don’t ask for any further clarifications regarding the tecnique, I have no unbearable pains to complain about.
This is my time to walk in the garden, lie down under the wonder-lemon tree full of flowers and ripe and green lemons, all in one. I walk along the row of banana trees or spend a few moments close to the roses. There is one particular rosebud I’ve been observing since I got here. Daily, a new layer of soft, rosy, silk petals unfolds right under my eyes, teaching me that life is easy and always comes just one day at a time.
1:00-2:30 pm – Meditate in the hall or in your room
When it’s sunny it’s hard to get back into the meditation hall. But I’m here for a light that doesn’t come by default with the warm weather. So I go back, grateful once again to my friend’s mom for the pillow and the blanket I brought with me from the city. They are literally saving my ass from sitting 10 hours a day directly on the hard floor.
2:30-3:30 pm – Group meditation in the hall
I think it’s day 4 when we’re finally going to practice the true form of the Vipassana technique. We have moved from focusing just on the sensations felt on the upper lip to mentally sweeping through our bodies, from head to toes and back again, noticing any sensation. And here comes the time when we’re supposed to sit in meditation without moving at all while maintaining perfect equanimity of mind.
3:30-5:00 pm – Meditate in the hall or in your own room
I don’t know how long I’ve managed to be still when a new wave of frustration hits me again and I’m asking myself for the zillionth time what am I doing here and why? Almost instantly, I hear this loud and familiar voice. It’s coming from somewhere inside me, it’s between my ears, but it’s not me. In this confused second, the voice is crystal clear: You are bound to be successful. Seconds later, the bell rings and the time is up. For the first time I feel the storm has stopped.
5:00-6:00 pm – Dinner
Most evenings, a single fruit, a few pieces of watermelon or musk melon were labeled as dinner.
It’s December 31. We’re half way through. It’s my first New Year’s Eve so far away of any familiar context. On my plate: one single banana, smiling at me. At least I won’t have to wash any plates 🙂 With every bite I’m whispering self-made mantras of peace, abundance, love, beauty and cool adventures. This year has been a rollercoaster of emotions. Staring at these empty plates I think about my friends in Asia - they already said hello to the new year. The ones in Europe are about to pop the champagne while here I am, having no clue about the outside world. Strangely, I’m not sad. I’m not particularly missing anyone or anything. I just am. Here, now, me. And this simple lesson of humbleness: no matter what I think, the world keeps going on without me. And it would continue to do so even if I were to stay here 100 days or disappear all together. And on the other hand, I also keep breathing and being. Just me, without this world.
Fireworks wake me up at midnight. The window is above my bed so I kneel in front of it and I watch this gift of colors and lights. I make a wish for my new year. My roomie wakes up and catches some last sparks. She wishes me happy NY but in my stubbornness of not breaking the noble silence I am not sure my whisper reaches her back.
6:00-7:00 pm – Group meditation in the hall
They say energy flows wherever the attention goes. My mind still wonders at times but I stop fighting it. I’m patiently just observing myself. I’m all together my mind, my body and none of them.
‘Work diligently, patiently and persistently...patiently and persistently and you are bound to be successful’. Ah, this voice… but then, after timeless moments of stillness and no thoughts, a sort of electrical, liquid spark tingles my lower back and I’m about to take off to a land of pure bliss.
7:00-8:15 pm – Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
Each night, one hour of stories with meaning, unbelievably well spot on, humorous descriptions of every day’s challenges. Goenka, the organisation’s founder, is also the main teacher of the technique through recordings taken from his previous retreats.
8:15-9:00 pm – Group meditation in the hall
You know it’s the last one, you have lived through yet another day which seems like just another life. With a tired body and a surrendered mind you’ve just become a being of light.
9:00-9:30 pm – Question time in the hall
Once the meditation time is up, I wobbly stand and walk the one way road towards my bed.
9:30 pm – Bed time
With no more energy left for mental dialogs, I was constantly falling asleep almost instantaneously. There were nights with vivid dreams, others with cold shivers under an always too little blanket in a too breezy room. Other nights were blessed with just a restful sleep.
One day dissolves into the other and on day 10 we are allowed to talk. It’s a bit weird to hear my own voice again after so long. I don’t get to talk to every single person but there’s mainly one conclusion: there’s nothing special about any of us. Artist, traveler, entrepreneur or social worker, wealthy guy or business woman, we’re all made out of the same dough. And doubts for that matter. And light. We’re all longing for that place of inner peace.
Of course, Vipassana is not a magic wand but a working tool. One to take home and use in your daily life. It teaches you to accept life as it comes, knowing that nothing, good, bad nor anything in between, lasts forever.
All Vipassana meditation courses offered via the official website are 100% donation-based. You will never be asked for any contribution up front. Donations come exclusively from old students (people who have completed at least once a 10 days course). This way, you are not paying for your stay but you are receiving a gift from old students and you are making a gift to the new ones. People from all faiths and walks of life are welcome to try its benefits.