*Originally published at “Just Travelling” travel book.
“A calm and attentive mind … oommmmmm … Patiently breathe, diligently, calmly … oommmmmmmmm … if you work hard, you’ll persevere…”
These were the first instructions of the meditation guru to a group of sixty students. It was only four thirty in the morning, and I was already up (actually in lotus position) at the Vipassana meditation center, where I would spend ten days trying to learn one of the harshest and most ancient meditation techniques known.
The training method I was about to undertake was a creation of Mr. S. N. Goenka, an Indian man born in Burma who has a legion of followers, and a non-profit organization with activities on all five continents. The guru passed away in 2013, and his meditation disciples use videotapes and audio recordings to spread the words and teaching of the master to new disciples.
My experience was at a meditation center in the outskirts of Kandy, a city in the heart of Sri Lanka. It has the space to receive up to eighty students at once, who can apply for stays of a minimum of ten and a maximum of forty-five days. Accommodation, food, guidance, and everything else necessary is offered for free. It’s all straightforward. Buildings without finishing touches, hard beds separated by sheets, thin and old mattresses, cold showers, and a latrine.
The menu was entirely vegetarian, with curry lentils, rice, and vegetables in all meals. Sometimes a banana, a couple of crackers and milk tea in the afternoon. A poster at the canteen alerted: “Eat wisely. Not to look better or to be stronger, but to remain in good health.” The teaching method is rigid, and all the students must follow what’s called the “five codes of discipline:”
To abstain from killing any being
To abstain from stealing
To abstain from all sexual activity
To abstain from telling lies
To abstain from all intoxicants
It’s also necessary to keep absolute silence during the entire time in the center — in my case ten days. A careful look at the manual of conduct reveals more details: “All students must observe total silence from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last day. Total silence means silence of the body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with colleagues, either by gestures, sign language, written notes, is forbidden.”
I arrived on a Saturday afternoon to confirm my participation in the course and was asked to leave all my things in the office. I was advised to bring only a handful of clothes, primary hygiene products, a torch, and an umbrella. Once directed to my room, I placed everything beside my bed and went to sleep early, not having anything else to do or a possibility to ask what was allowed or not. I also knew we had a tight schedule during the following days, so I did my best to fall asleep as soon as possible.
4:00 a.m. — At the deepest stage of my sleep I heard a weird noise that got mixed up with my dreams. A bell rang many times until it was made clear that it was time to wake up. And it hadn’t been long since I had finally been able to fall asleep.
4:30 a.m. — Everyone in the Meditation Hall. Men on one side, women on the other. Numbered mattresses and pillows were symmetrically distributed among the three hundred square feet of the room. I was in position number sixteen, in the back, with a panoramic view of my meditating companions.
Absolute silence for the start of the first meditating session. As a first-time meditator, I closed my eyes and tried to get somehow comfortable with my legs crossed, always expecting to hear the first directions on how to do the thing. It took a while until a deep voice resonated around the room: “oommmm — ooommmm — ooommmmmm… attentive mind, calm mind …. focus your entire attention on your breathing … your mind may be wandering, bring it back … attentive mind!”
That was all. Our master Goenka was a man of few words. The same sentence was repeated a few more times and was followed by a deadly two-hour silence.
A break here for those who have never meditated before. If you have never tried, please do it now. Go to a quiet place, cross your legs, close your eyes and try to stay like that as long as you can. I bet you won’t be able to stand more than 20 minutes. Then imagine what it’s like to do it for two hours at five in the morning.
6:30 a.m. — A little bit more oommmmmm, and my first meditation session was finally over. Again, the bell rang, and it was time for breakfast. White rice, curry lentil, and milk tea. Everyone had to eat facing the same side to avoid eye contact. At the end of the meal, each person was responsible for washing and drying his/her metal bowl and mug. There was no cutlery in respect of the local tradition of eating with your own hands. The unattractive menu and impossibility of talking to my meditation buddies forced me to go straight back to my cubicle to take a nap. Furthermore, I had woken up too early, and I was already feeling exhausted.
8:00 a.m. — The fucking bell again interrupted my dreams of a sunset somewhere in Thailand and brought me back to cold reality.
I returned to mat number sixteen, facing the ground all the way so as not to break the rules. Precisely as the day before, the mantra started and just a few minutes later we were in total silence again. I was in complete despair. Where were the lessons about how to meditate? I had no clue if I was doing it right and had nobody to ask. I decided that the focus should be on finding the best body position possible. One that would relieve the crazy pains I was feeling on my back and knees. I tried many ways: the traditional crossed legs, seated with stretched legs, one leg extended and the other crossed. Spreading my legs relieved the pain in my knees, but it killed my back. Relieving my back meant making my knees or ankles suffer. It was a losing battle. As time passed, it just got harder to forget all the thoughts and the pain I was feeling, and that’s what meditation expected of me.
In three hours of meditation, I got to know some muscles in my body that may be useless for normal life activities but essential to meditation, and they hurt a lot. I had time to think about the most relevant happenings in my life over the last five years, and there was still time to spare.
11:00 a.m. — End of a session and lunchtime. Rice, curry vegetables, a banana and a piece of cream cracker. After that, another nap to make up for someone that doesn’t wake up at four in the morning very often.
1:00 p.m. — I returned to my mat and decided the focus. It seemed too much complaining — when I notice of a group of fifty-year old nuns in the first row. Just like the other sessions, the first minutes were more productive, but half an hour later I was back to the agony of too many thoughts and body pains. A big headache followed. I wasn’t allowed to interrupt the meditation or even open my eyes. It was tough. I waited and waited for the bell to ring, but it never seemed to come.
3:00 p.m. — The teacher interrupted the session saying that beginners could choose to continue meditating in their rooms. I didn’t think twice. For the first five minutes, I tried to meditate sitting on my bed but ended up falling asleep. I woke up to one of the center volunteers calling me for a private meeting with one of the masters.
That was my chance. In a faint tone of voice, he asked me how I was feeling on my first day. I told him everything, trying to put it as a big drama but not knowing what exactly I wanted back from him. I guess I just wanted him to feel sorry for me.
He had a genuine answer for every problem I raised, and that made it very hard to me to keep going. He said my back pains were natural, and he could give me more pillows, adding that my lack of experience in meditation seemed to be a blessing as any other method could be harmful to Vipassana learning. He had to see another pupil, and I received good luck and a few more pillows.
5:00 p.m — Dinner wasn’t part of the schedule in the meditation center. Only three salt crackers, a banana, and a little bit of tea for the people trying to finish the ten days course for the first time. Experienced students weren’t allowed to eat anything.
6:00 p.m — From the canteen straight to another meditation session. This time only an hour of work, interrupted by the first lecture from master Goenka on DVD. With a gentle, calm voice, he told us a little bit about the origin of the method and the goals of meditation. According to him, the purpose of Vipassana is to clean the impurities of the mind. All religions are welcome; there are no discriminations. At the end of the lecture, there was time for a little more meditation.
9:15 p.m. — End of the first day. I took a quick cold shower and tried to fall asleep. I had a hard time shutting down my brain from waves of thoughts of everything that happened to me. For sure one of the longest days of my life, that also went on during the night, taking the form of strange dreams, only interrupted at four in the morning when it all started over again.
That was it for four days. After some time, I found myself more comfortable with the meditation positions and my concentration improved. At a certain point, it seemed a possibility to not think about anything for half an hour.
But for every minute of actual meditation, I had hours of physical and psychological struggle. Meditation was entirely new to me, and I had thrown myself into the high sea to learn how to swim before even getting inside a kids swimming pool. The initial excitement wasn’t there anymore, and that high feeling of going through a new experience started to die.
Like a grumpy old man, I started complaining about everything. The spicy food, the dirty and hard bed, the endless meditation sessions, the master’s sleepy voice, and even the noise other people made in the dorms. Every new meditation session was a torture, and I could only think about how to convince the master I should leave the retreat.
It wasn’t an easy task as they kept my passport in a safe and wouldn’t give it back without one of the master’s consent. He was reluctant to approve it and had excellent answers to all my arguments, so I decided to leave the next morning anyway.
Despite having pretty much run away from the meditation center, the feeling of trying something different was a good one. I also learned a lot about meditation in a practical way, having the chance to feel on my skin the difficulties of a life that, especially in Asia, many people choose. For those four days, every aspect of my ordinary life seemed superfluous. After a long day of a meditation retreat, nothing is too essential anymore, as I had left everything outside the center. When you don’t talk to people anymore, your mind slowly gets empty of the noisy thoughts. I left the place a different person. With a broad smile on my face, I walked to the first bus station and greeted anyone on the streets, from the old ladies cleaning their house porches to the tuk-tuk drivers chasing me for a ride. The first sip of coffee had a different taste. The first beer bottle I had once back in Kandy I just can’t describe.
Kandy, Sri Lanka- October 2013