“Students say that this course is the toughest endeavor of their life.”
I scan this line in my email over and over again. I am hoping my plans will become less frightening. It’s not working.
In a few hours, I am heading off to a 10 day vipassana meditation course. The rules are strict. For these two weeks, you are supposed to live like a monk or a nun.
You wake up at 4am. You eat only 2 meals per day and graciously accept what is given to you.
No talking. No reading. No writing. No contact with the outside world.
For some reason, I thought this would be interesting to do close to the birthplace of Buddhism. So here I am in Nepal, stuffing my face at a tourist restaurant. A few hours of freedom left.
It feels like my last meal. I ordered dal baht, Nepal’s national dish. The food is simple food, but you are always offered a second helping for free. How much can I eat right now? Enough rice and lentils for the next two weeks?
I arrive at the meditation centre by taxi a few hours later.
There are two vipassana meditation centres near Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. There is a large one is at the edge of a national park with space for 100+ students. If you know someone who has done a vipassana course in Nepal, it was probably at this centre.
I am at the other one, Dhamma Kitti. It’s a very small centre located up on a hill in a nice suburb. We are surrouned by trees, flowers and birds.
After checking in, I’m given a quick tour by one of the volunteers. These volunteers have completed a vipassana course. Now they have chosen to give up two weeks of their lives to serve us. They help the teacher guide us through the course. They live with us, serve us food and meditate with us.
I am assigned one of many beds in a long hall. There are little half walls between some of the beds, built to allow them to fit more beds in one room. There are 10 of us in this building. My stomach start to tighten. There will be absolutely no privacy at all.
As we are still allowed to talk, I start to get to know the 17 women I will be meditating with. Most of us are doing a vipassana retreat for the first time. We new students are mostly from Europe and India. There are a few women who are returning for another course. Most of them are from Nepal.
Men and women are kept separate during the course. Not just our sleeping quarters. We have different places to eat. Different places to walk.
We will meditate on opposite sides of the hall. I’ve seen the line of plastic flowers in pots that is supposed to divide us. As a queer person, I am annoyed by all this. Why is enlightenment reserved for those of us who identify only as male or female?
The next morning, I hear a bell gong. My eyes fly open. It cannot be 4 am already, can it?
My roommate sighs but doesn’t move. I start getting ready. What do you do at 4 am to get ready to meditate for 2.5 hours? Brush you teeth? Change your clothes?
I fumble around in the dark, trying not to disturb her. I cannot even remember her name or what country she is from. Not that it matters. We will not talk to each other for 10 days.
Before I know it, the bell gongs again. Time to head to the meditation hall. My roommate has not moved.
Before I can decide what to do, one of the volunteers comes into our room. She shakes the blanket in order to wake her up silently.
This place is ruthless. She is our a prison guard!
I’ve been to weekend retreats with similar rules back at home. But on those gentle retreats, the rules are just suggestions. They encourage you to follow them for your own benefit. But if you don’t, no problem. Just try your best.
I have a feeling that “trying your best” is not going to work here.
This course was developed by S.N. Goenka. He was an Indian man born in Burma (now Myanmar). He started to study to vipassana meditation after a very stressful and success career as a businessman.
Goenka claims that the technique we are practicing is the exact same one that the Buddha used 2,500 years ago to become enlightened.
Perhaps what makes Goenka’s technique so appealing to people all over the world is that he says religion has nothing to do with vipassana meditation.
This is very attractive to West Coast Canadians such as myself. I long ago stopped believing in god, but I have a yearning for some sort of spirituality to help me understand the world.
The first time I cry is at breakfast on the second day.
I am very allergic to a common food. I contacted the centre before I came to tell them about my food allergy. I asked if I should bring my own food. They said no, there would be something at every meal.
At breakfast, I’m starving. Our previous meal was at 11 am the day before. We also get a few apple slices and tea in the evening, but I am not counting that as a meal.
And today’s breakfast — it’s a buffet of things I cannot eat.
I wish I was making up this food allergy. I wish I was just “eating clean” or trying to lose weight. But no. If I eat this food, I could die.
I try to talk to one volunteers about my allergy. She is having trouble understanding me, so we are whispering back and forth. Another volunteer comes over and tells me to be quiet. “Please!”
Eventually I spot some beans. I silently hold my little bowl and get a half scoop. I go back to my seat and eat them.
It doesn’t occur to me to ask for seconds. Or other food. Or that the volunteer who told me to be quiet doesn’t know why I was talking.
I am so set on being miserable and suffering. I cannot help but cry. I really hate my prison guards.
Goenka says hunger is good for meditation. I guess I am going to be really good at meditating.
“We are trying to teach you equanimity. Everyone feels pain. Even the most fit meditator.”
I have been summoned to meet with the teacher. I sit on the ground, looking up at him.
I have named him Darth Vader, a villian in Star Wars. I don’t know his real name.
I am convinced he is the only thing between me and feeling better. (I later learn this is not true, but for now I’m happy blaming other people.)
We are supposed to sit on these little two foot square pillows for hours on end. I am surrounded by returning students. They don’t even scratch an occasional itch.
I do not look like one of these little Buddhas. I resemble a fish out of water. Flopping around hoping to save my live.
Like most Westerners, I don’t sit on the floor much. So it’s uncomfortable.
But on top of that, I had a very serious back injury a few years ago. It kept me from walking for months. And the pain lasted over a year and a half.
I haven’t any problems for a while, but chronic pain leaves an emotional scar. Every little twinge or ache makes me shift positions. I’d do anything to avoid that kind of pain and limited mobility.
Yesterday, after moving around every 5 minutes, I just started crying in the meditation hall.
I don’t want to be here. I got and went back to my room and laid down. Nothing can hurt me in my bed.
Which is how I got summoned to visit the teacher. You are not supposed to leave in the middle of a meditation sessions.
After talking to Darth Vader more about my injury and my pain, he lets me move my little pillow to the wall.
“Don’t worry.” He smiles. “Almost every problem has a solution.”
Vipassana teaches you to to observe at physical sensations in your body in a systematic and objective way. You scan from top of your head to your toes. And then you back again. Over and over again for hours.
Sometimes the sensations you find are unpleasant. Sometimes they are pleasant. Sometimes they are very strong, sometimes you feel nothing.
It doesn’t matter what they feel like. You just obseve them and move on to the next body part. You are not supposed to cling to the pleasant ones or hate the unpleasant ones.
Everything is temporary.
Several days into the course, one of the prision guards arranges for me to have fried rice for breakfast. She remembered! She does not want me to starve!
Now I am only as hungry as everyone else. An improvement.
Now that my seat is near the wall and I have a bit more food, I can sort of focus on meditating.
I scan my body, looking for sensations. I feel the tug of my pony tail on my head. A little itch on my nose. My right shoulder feels nothing…
There was a spider on my arm! My left hand moved to kill it before I even got a chance to think about it. I open my eyes, but there is no sign of this spider.
I try to go back to the meditation. Ok, my left shoulder…
Where are all thes little spiders coming from?
I close my eyes again. The creepy crawly spiders are now all over my body. Why am I in this bug infested corner of the room …
Then I realize that it’s hair! Hair! The hair that everyone has all over their skin. Because we are human.
Goenka teaches that you have these sensations all of the time. You just aren’t aware.
How cool is it that I can feel something as subtle as this?
The hair / imaginary spider feeling is with me the rest of the day. I start teaching myself to not smack myself all the time and just observe the sensation.
During the last meditation period of the day, I am determined not to smack any more imaginary spiders.
In the last few minutes, I swear I feel something crawling over my foot.
Wow, my brain is getting really good at playing tricks on me! I sit still and keep my eyes closed.
Sometimes I just make things much harder for myself. I make up all these problems in my head that aren’t even real!
As I am gathering my things, I feel someone looking at me. We are not supposed to make eye contact. But I turn to look. My fellow meditator has turned on his flashlight and is pointing it at the ground in front of me.
What is he doing?
And then I see it. A five inch spider. Right at my feet.
I start to scream and try to hold it back. Some noise comes out because everyone is looking at me
One of our prison guards runs outside. She comes back with a broom.
She starts starts swatting at the monster — gently. We are not supposed to kill anything during this course, not even spiders. Another woman grabs her shawl and picks it up to carry it outside.
I cannot call the volunteers prison guards anymore.
One saved me from a giant spider. The other one got me rice for breakfast.
Even though they do not know me, they know vipassana. They think we will benefit from this. All of this.
They are giving two weeks of their lives to help us learn.
And they are trying their best.
It’s day 7. I’ve been summoned again to see Darth Vader again.
I have perfected the art of sleeping while sitting up. He is not impressed.
“You need to try to sit without the wall. Only when the pain is unbearable, then you can use the wall. You concentration will be better.”
I had been determined with to stay awake. But I just couldn’t.
If you are barely eating or sleeping, it’s really hard to stay awake. As soon as my body is leans against something, I fall asleep. And stay alseep.
I knew the teacher was right, but I still felt a my torso and face flush with warmth. Anger. Embarrassment. Denial.
I tried to go back to meditating after that conversation, but I found my mind was just racing.
I AM GOING TO HURT MY BACK AGAIN. I AM NOT BE ABLE TO WALK FOR TWO YEARS NOW. THESE PEOPLE ARE NUTS. I AM LEAVING.
Another voice inside me kept nudging me back to meditation. A new voice. A calm, reasonable voice.
I don’t think I was able to concentrate for more than a few moments at a time the whole day. But I kept trying.
That evening, we listened to a recording of Goenka as we always do. He talked about using vipassana in the real world. How the way to deal with anger and fear is by looking at the sensations in your body. Not by distracting yourself with taking a walk, blaming other people, drinking alcohol. All the usual tactics.
This is the way you realize how you are solely responsible for your own happiness and misery.
It’s now that I realized I could not keep calling the teacher Darth Vader. He wanted the best for me, even though he did not know me.
I turned his few words, said with compassion, into an all day argument. Inside my own head. With myself.
That’s the funny thing about silence. It makes you realize just how much you’re making up about other people. Making up your own misery.
Near the end of the course, I was served a little bowl of dry, white flakes for breakfast.
When I asked one of the volunteers what it was, she said rice. I closely examined her face to see if she was joking. She was not.
I took my food back to my seat. I tried a few flakes. Cruchy. Flavourless. It seemed like uncooked instant rice. That, or Nepal has really disgusting breakfast cereal.
I poured my little glass of warm milk into the rice and let it soak a bit. Edible!
I then skipped out of the room, laughing at just how bothered I used to be about food. I felt full, that was enough for right now.
My legs however, are another matter. My legs were burning from sitting cross legged for so much. It hurt constantly, to the point it was hard to walk and hard to sleep. And my back just needs extra care. I could not sit another two days on the ground.
I arranged to have a chair moved to my spot. This was not easy, as it was totally out of the teacher’s routine. But I was firm and determined. I told him I meant no disrespect, but I could not sit on the floor one more moment.
I could feel this determination coming from my heart, out of compassion for myself. Not out of fear, like it had been a few days before.
It’s been over a week now. I’m working hard to regain the weight I lost. My creeky joints don’t totally feel the same yet. I’m finding it hard to get back into a normal sleep schedule. These things are difficult.
My brain isn’t the same either. I’ve had a glimpse at another way to live.
A way that lets you see things how they truly are.
A way where you can choose to be happy, regardless of external circumstances.
A way that lets you react with love and compassion to every person.