And I am back! Back from my 10-Day Vipassana experience! I had come back to life on the 19th of April, but have been recovering, gathering my thoughts, and quite frankly… been extremely lazy. There are way too many things to talk about, so will try my best to pen them down in as organised a way as possible.
I’ll start off by talking about the Vipassana experience and then about my learnings over the course of the 10-days.
The Vipassana Experience
So it all started off with me leaving for Ras Al-Khaimah (UAE) on 8th April. I had the driver drop me off to the location. So throughout the journey I was on the phone, nervously saying good-bye to family and friends. Two hours later I was at the Ain Al-Khat Resort, where the course was held. I got out of the car, and knowing that I won’t be able to keep any communication devices on me, handed over my cell-phone to the driver. My hand reached out to the driver…hesitantly, my eyes on the phone, he reaches out to grab it, and it was gone. I’m thinking, “no worries, I’ve forgotten my phone at home a few times. I’ve been lazy about recharging my phone after the batteries drained out, for a whole weekend at times. I don’t need you, you anti-social piece of metal”.
I then walked over to the registration desk, and then towards the room I was supposed to spend the next ten days in. Thoughts of “whats the toilet like; whats the bed like; who’s my roommate” running through my head. I reach the room, and it’s not too bad. Can’t expect much from a 2 star resort. More importantly, can’t expect much when it’s all for free!
I then met-up with my 2 room mates. We exchanged the hellos and where are you froms. We also connected with a lot of the other students there. Lots of people from Iran, India, Europe. Everyone humble and easy to approach. Many there for their 2nd or 3rd course, and many shopping for their next spiritual fix!
Throughout this orientation phase, my hand reached towards my pocket in search for that worthless cell phone; I realize, I laugh, and move on until it finally set in, I’m not going to see it for the next ten days. Good bye my worthy friend; goodbye my usual portal to Nirvana!
All the chatter and commotion was then interrupted by a management presentation, highlighting the do’s and more so the don’ts during our time there. They were like this:
– No communication: verbal or non-verbal (not even eye contact, ideally lower your gaze)
– No exercising
– No sexual activity
– No physical contact
– No reading / writing
– No killing (humans, animals, plants)
– No intoxicants (cigarettes, booze, drugs etc)
– No stealing
– No entertainment (music, TV, radio etc)
– No praying, no fasting
– No religious objects, talismans, crystals, rosaries
– Separation of men and women (except during group meditation sessions)
Basically, the only permissible verbs were: (1) Meditate, (2) Eat, (3) Sleep, (4) Walk, (5) Shower/Pee/Poop, (6) do nothing else. Yikes!
We then excitedly got-down to the much awaited first meditation session, trying to sit in one place for an hour and control the mind from wandering. I quickly realized that I couldn’t keep my mind still at all, once you close your eyes even 10 seconds seems like a long time (seriously…try it). It was as painful as looking out the window at a passing bullet-train…while sitting in one moving at the same speed. The Vipassana teacher said that “the mind is like a monkey, swinging from one branch to another”, branches being our thoughts; unlike us, the monkey probably having some control.
After this first meditation session, we began observing Noble Silence — the no communication rule. This is where it all gets awkward. One second I am trying to get to know people around me, and the next I have to act like I don’t know anyone there and don’t even want to get to know them!! Anyways, its 9:30pm, I head towards my room, and lights out!
The first three days were all about settling in, getting use to the laws of the land and the schedule. The schedule was intense, but manageable post Day 2. Wake up at 4am, meditate, lunch at 11am, rest, meditate, tea break at 5pm (note: no dinner AARGH!), meditate, lights out 9:30pm. In total 10 hours of meditation a day!!
[I’ve got a detailed schedule for you at the end if you want to check it out.]
The first three days I learnt a technique called Aana-Paana, which is all about focusing on the breath. It first helps quieten the mind, and then sharpen it allowing you to feel subtle sensations on the body. At first this was a tough exercise because as soon as you close your eyes the mind goes baboon on you. But over time, it gets better. I could still my mind for longer and could quickly bring it back to focus, even if I caught it ditching me for a steamy time with Russian women’s volleyball team.
This is where I started learning the actual technique of Vipassana. I moved from focusing on the breath to observing sensations all over the body. It was quite cool cuz I could feel these subtle vibrations all over my body, strongest in the head, arms, and legs. Even while trying to sleep at night, I could feel these sensations and it would keep me up for a while.
However, these next six days were also some of the most challenging days of my life. I have never been struck so hard with boredom…ever. I knew these ten days were going to be tough before I jumped into this course, but I had no idea it was gonna hit me so hard!! Nevertheless, this is also where most of the learning happened (details in next section).
The best part of every day was S.N.Goenka‘s video discourse (here is a link to the Day 1 discourse). He would talk about Buddha’s teachings, the Vipassana technique, its values, and its potential impact on our lives. He was simple, factual, non-sectarian, and very funny at times. Though the videos are not meant for visual entertainment, it was a welcomed hour in the day.
I won’t go into the more intricate details about the technique itself, but I think that the technique can make a positive impact on people’s lives, considering they practice it regularly.
Finally, Day 10 had arrived. I managed to survive the journey along with 51 other participants. Four of the initial 55 people had left the course. Get the feeling they may have been looking-out for an incensed meditation hall, soothing music, thick bearded teachers wearing long robes, chanting, gongs, or aimless spiritual chatter throughout the day. Vipassana is none of this. It’s not about putting on a show, sectarian views, blind faith or practice. It’s about keeping it real, it’s about understanding what you practice, and its scientific.
Day 10 was different. It had a slightly different schedule and lesser meditation time, but the best part was that we could start talking again. So around 1pm onwards, we could start exercising the tongues that had been idle for what seemed like ages. It was really exciting! I could finally reach out to my roommates and ask them how their experience was. There was lots to talk about.
Many people ask me what my first words were. Besides asking someone “can we really talk now?”, I clearly remember walking up to a group of guys and asking, “Any idea if Donald Trump is still in the presidential race?”. Was good to finally hear a few chuckles!
– The value of freedom: I had good food to eat, a nice bed, clean toilets, clean air, beautiful views of the resort. I had all the basics covered. But, every day post Day 4, the pain levels kept beating their personal best. Why was this happening? The lack of freedom. I didn’t have the freedom to do as I wanted to, and I hated it. I couldn’t read, write, exercise, not even look outside world from the resort gates. I had everything, but I had nothing!
Made me think about people living in oppressed environments. Kids can’t go to school or play outside, no freedom of speech, no freedom of movement etc. Made me imagine how miserable they must be.
Lesson: value the freedom you have. The freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to write/read, freedom of movement, all of it!! You might have all of worlds luxuries, but nothing compares to any one of your freedoms!
– The value of the words “How are you?”: Days 6 and 7 were the most excruciating. The coupling of missing home and the lack of communication were just unbearable. I just wanted someone to reach out to me and ask me how I was doing. And I wanted to ask my suffering room mates the same question. I knew they were in pain, there were even moments when I almost spoke, and there were moments I thought my room-mates were about to crack and say something to me. But somehow we all held our ground till Day 10. This experience made me realize how underrated the words “How are you?” are in our daily lives. We ask people how they are and yet without even waiting for an answer, get to the point: “what you doin?” or “where are you?” etc.
Lesson: Sometimes our family and friends suffer deeply with issues they aren’t able to communicate. Hear them out and connect with them in a way that allows them to share their pain.
– There are only a few people in our lives who really matter: We all know a lot of people and we go out of our way for them. Go out of our way to please them, go out of our way by letting them judge us, go out of our way by prioritizing them in our lives even above our dearest family and friends. It may be fine to some extent, but when shit hits the fan and you are at your lowest, it’s only the very few dearest to you that really matter. It’s these few who are going to show up to rescue you. It’s the memories and emotions you’ve generated with them that you will miss when they aren’t there and remember till the day you die.
I can count the number of people who I really wanted to be with during the course, and I am happy I have them all in my life! Blessed indeed!
Lesson: We need a small piece of paper to write the names of people who are our dearest. Keep them close, let them know they matter, don’t let negative people in your way.
– I learnt an awesome meditation technique: Over the course of 10 days, you WILL learn the technique. I remember that there was ONE person in the group who didn’t “get it”. Vipassana, compared to whatever I have come across so far, seems to be the best technique. It goes beyond calming the mind or giving you the ability to focus. It aims to make an real impact on the way we observe life, think, and make decisions. Even though the great Buddha asks us to stray from such thinking, the way I like to think of it is: Buddha…THE ENLIGHTENED ONE came up with this technique 2,500 years ago. There can’t be game bigger than this!?
– The Power of vulnerability: Look back at the times you’ve learnt your life’s most valuable lessons, and think about the circumstances then. Were probably times when you were somehow suffering, hurt, or broken — basically you put yourself in a vulnerable situation and failed? You braved taking a tough exam but failed at it over and over, you started a business and your partner cheated you, you fell in love and were cheated on, you take on a tougher role at work and get fired. These are all examples of making yourself vulnerable, you trying your best and yet failing. But these are also the moments that will help you learn lessons you can’t learn otherwise. They help you discover yourself, through your actions and the character you show during this time.
Failure has been my best teacher and I am thankful for every moment of failure I have endured. By taking this course, I was indeed vulnerable. I knew these ten days were going to be tough and as expected I learnt many lessons, some of which I have shared above.
Lesson: don’t be scared of putting yourself in vulnerable situations, these are the training grounds of the strong!
Would I recommend Vipassana to you?
As a meditation technique and interesting experience: YES. Does it work or did it change me as a person: I can only respond to that once I have spent enough time practicing it. I did not experience a life-changing moment, nor did I see THE light. The post-course effects on me did involve a real sense of calm, I felt very relaxed and content. However, it did take some time to rehabilitate myself back to my old self.
Besides this, there were a lot of teachings of the Buddha that were really inspiring and its worth making some time to look into them.
I’ll wrap this one here! There are a few more finer points obviously, but I will save them for my one on one discussions
As always, I look forward to your hearing from you. Until next time…meditate and slow down that monkey in your head!
Related material below
The Daily Course Schedule
4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30–6:30 am Meditate
6:30–8:00 am Breakfast break (Tea, Milk, Cereal, Toast, Butter, Fruits)
8:00–9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00–11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00–12:00 noon Lunch break
12 noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00–2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30–3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30–5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00–6:00 pm Tea break
6:00–7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00–8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15–9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00–9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room–Lights out