I came to Nepal with the luxury of having 2 weeks or so of free time on my hands. Unplanned solo travel can often lead to interesting situations. In this situation I decided to sign up on a whim for a Vipassana course in Lumbini on the recommendation of a friend.
Why not? I thought to myself. After checking the website for the course schedule I found out that the course was starting in only two days, just enough time for me to hop on the 12 hour bus ride from Kathmandu all the way to the town of Lumbini. And after reading up on Lumbini, I discovered that it is the officially recognized birthplace of Buddha himself.
It felt like fate was calling my name.
Vipassana, in a nutshell
If you’re asking yourself what on earth is Vipassana, let me explain. Vipassana is an ancient meditation technique involving observing the natural sensations occurring in the framework of ones own body. Pain, numbness, tingling, tickling all arise and pass away, arise and pass away over different parts of the body. The technique proclaims that by observing these sensations, without any reaction of either craving or aversion, suffering can eventually be overcome.
It is most often taught as an intensive 10 day course where the participants are completely silent and forgo all contact with the outside world. That means no cell phones, laptops, or Bluetooth. Not even writing or reading materials are allowed. Same applies for knitting!
I’m not sure why, but the sound of this appealed to me. I’m a fairly introverted person by nature, and didn’t feel like the silence would bother me as much as some other people. Also, I liked the idea of being able to stay in one place for 10 days and settle down for a bit.
With all of this in mind, I entered the brass gates of the Dhamma Janani Vipassana Centre.
“You do realize that this is for 10 days right? And you cannot leave before the 10 days are over?” I was told by one of the volunteers.
I contemplated this as I sat down and filled out the registration form, observing the tall brick walls surrounding the centre.
It was only 11 am, and the course didn’t officially start until much later that evening. I began to run my mind through the reality of the situation. Because I had already entered the centre and signed in, I was now officially not permitted to go back to the outside world. I had not come prepared for this, I thought to myself. But it was too late to back out now.
Although we still had permission to speak, the mood of the newcomers was fairly quiet. We asked about each other’s backgrounds, experiences, reasons for coming. I was happy to realize that I wasn’t the only one who had no idea what I was getting myself into. Most of the others were also first timers. I wondered how long each of us would last, and who would crack the soonest. We came from all different corners of the world, each with our own unique stories. There was an American journalist who had just moved to Kenya, a Dutch who would be spending the next year exploring every corner of India and Nepal, a Japanese on a secret around the world trip hidden from her parents, a Russian who was getting ready to move to LA to meet her fiancé … And then there was me, the knitter who could not knit and who would (sadly) be going home in just over a month!
I shared a small room with a girl from the small country of Estonia. The room was simple and modest. The mattress was as thick as a folded up blanket, and I rolled it out onto the concrete platform which was to be my bed. The bathroom, I was happy to see, had a western toilet. But where was the toilet paper? Where was the toilet paper? I realized that I should have packed some. Never again would I go anywhere in Nepal without a roll of toilet paper, I promised myself.
It was going to be a long 10 days.
As the day slowly dragged on, I felt as if I was in some sort of twisted “Orange is the New Black” sitcom. Except we weren’t wearing orange jumpsuits. And we were all here of our own free will. Using our last moments of speech, I quickly devised a plan with my roommate on how we would live in such close quarters without speaking to each other. She had come much more prepared than I was. A watch?! What an excellent idea, now that my only way of telling time (cell phone) had been stripped away. A flashlight? Hmm, might come in handy considering Nepal’s frequent power outages day in and day out. Our plan consisted of a simple “what’s mine is yours” system of sharing. Which, due to my lack of preparedness, was much more to my advantage than vice versa!
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Diving into Vipassana
Soon, the time came for the official start of the course, and the silence fell upon us. There was to be no more communication with anyone taking the course, although we would be able to communicate with the volunteers and teacher if we ran into problems. But with the other prisoners students, we couldn’t so much as make eye contact. The upside of this meant I know longer had any need to make any effort at having a respectable appearance since no one would be looking at my face anyways!
At dinner that night, I gulped down my food. The dinner was delicious, home cooked vegetarian Nepalese food that seemed to warm my soul. But the atmosphere felt so gloomy, with everyone staring down at their plates. As I looked around, i almost felt the whole situation to be rather comical, and felt like laughing. It was simply so depressing that it felt funny! How on earth were we supposed to “discover ourselves” in this kind of atmosphere? The worst part was, the words “be happy” were added to the end of every posted message. For example, “leave your shoes outside. Be happy!” And so forth. I came to the realization that my happiness often depended on interacting socially with others, even if I did consider myself to be an introverted person.
“Hello darkness, my old friend” crept into my head. That same tune kept floating back to me over the following days.
The Snail Saviours
Those following days crept along at a snails pace. Literally. Never had I seen as many snails as I did at that centre. They covered the trees, the plants, and the foot paths. At night, when the electricity would sometimes randomly shut off, I would have to carefully follow the footsteps of whoever was in front of me, in order to avoid the unpleasant sounding “crunch” of a squished snail.
We had made a commitment to not break any of the five precepts during the course, and “no killing” was one of them. I didn’t want my karma being ruined.
Some of us would spend our limited free time simply watching the snails move along. Where were they going? What were they doing with their lives? Did they realize that they were doomed to suffer as they were a far way off from the path of enlightenment? Or were they blissfully ignorant of the meaninglessness of life? We had so many questions for those snails. Many of us would pick them off the foot paths, one by one, in order to save them from any chance of a future death.
It doesn’t get easier
Really though, we were all trying to save ourselves, inside those brick walls. Every day felt like torture to me. The sound of the bell first thing in the morning brought dread, whereas the last bell signalling we could all go off to sleep brought sheer joy. Although I knew my concentration was slowly but surely improving, I still felt like the demands of the course were just too much.
On the fourth day, the practise of the real Vipassana began. Up until then, we had been practising the technique of Annapana, of focusing on ones natural breath in order to develop awareness and concentration. With Vipissana, not only would we be observing our natural breath, we would also be observing the sensations naturally arising throughout our body. Pain, tingling, sweat, vibrations. Our goal was to observe these sensations, and not to react. For three individual hours out of our 10 hours of meditation per day, we were to participate in “group sittings”. During this time, we were not permitted to move even a finger, or even open our eyes. These sittings quickly became what I dreaded the most. The first sitting I barely lasted 30 minutes before having to stretch my legs. On the second try, I vowed to myself I would see it through. I think I lasted just 45 minutes, before I felt as if I would scream in pain. It felt like my left knee cap was going rip off. “Anica, anica” I muttered to myself, the words to signify the impermanence of everything. This too will pass. But it didn’t. And when I couldn’t handle it any longer , I stretched out my legs. Was the pain all in my head? I wondered. But if that was the case, why was the pain in the same knee that I had injured while running 2 years before? And why was it still sore when that painful session finally ended and I had to gingerly walk out of class? Could you really injure yourself just by sitting in the same position for one whole hour? I didn’t want to find out, so I promised myself I would be kinder to my body the next group sitting.
All was going relatively well, with some sessions leaving me feeling wonderful and others disappointed, until day 5, when the teacher asked us if we were able to hold our positions for the full hour.
Everyone replied yes. Everyone that is, except for me. Was I doing something wrong? Was this supposed to be easy? Was it easy for everyone else? Or were they just better than me? My ego was taking a beating, and I didn’t like it. My frustration grew, as did my resentment towards the course. Maybe I really wasn’t fit for this, maybe it just wasn’t for me.
But when you’re forced to meditate for 10 full hours a day, you start to understand a few things. I knew my resentment and frustration wouldn’t help my situation, only make it worse. And as I let go more of my feelings, my meditation took me to a different level. In one particular session, my whole head was thrumming with energy, and I had a strange feeling that I can only compare to the feeling of being high. The pain was still in my legs, still in my back, but the sensation in my head was so pleasant that the pain didn’t even bother me. I felt strangely detached, as if my head was floating above, a bit like a bobble head, separated from my body below.
Craving and Aversion
According to the Buddha, craving and aversion are the causes of all human suffering. Only when we are able remain “equanimous”, with neither craving nor aversion in reaction to any sensation, do we have any chance of getting out of the cycle of human suffering.
And yet I yearned (craved) for another bobble head experience, even though it never came, and still dreaded (aversion) the sound of the bell indicating the return to meditation after my afternoon nap.
On the 8th day, it finally clicked. I made a firm resolve to simply observe, and continued with my observations even outside of the meditation hours. I felt as if I was slowly beginning to understand what I had failed to see those 7 previous days. During the last few days, I stopped thinking about the bell, and instead truly focused on the present moment. With the thought of the bell far from my mind, it would often appear suddenly, and unexpectedly. My sensations changed each session. I realized that I had been unconsciously tensing muscles in my hips, which was what had lead to the intense pain in my knees. Once I relaxed those muscles, the pain soon went away. I still had back pain up until the end of the course, but it varied in intensity from session to session and I learned to observe it rather than let if affect me. The more I thought about the fundamental teachings of Vipassana, of the impermanence of everything and the causes of suffering, the more I started to understand how I could live a happier life. Or I had I just been unknowingly brainwashed? 😉
Readjusting to Reality
On the 10th day, we were allowed to talk. It was the strangest feeling to suddenly open your mouth and interact with all the people that you had been struggling to ignore those 9 days prior! My brain became overwhelmed with new information. In the subsequent meditation sessions, a whole new set of distractions arose, as I replayed many of the discussions I had just had with my fellow students. I couldn’t believe it, but part of me started to miss the silence and peacefulness that I had slowly become accustomed to! Now, walking along the footpath, instead of the sound of birds, it was the sound of chitter chatter everywhere. Humans are very noisy beings.
On the 11th day, we had one final morning meditation. Before I knew it, it was over. And my environment, which had started out feeling like a prison cell, had slowly morphed into paradise. (Okay, paradise might be a slight exaggeration, but still! I was enjoying it!). Leaving the centre brought me a bittersweet feeling. I was happy to return and get on with my everyday life, but the full experience of walking out those doors to encounter new faces, traffic, and feelings, felt a bit overwhelming.
Still, I felt like my experience had given me armour. Armour that would shield me against future inconveniences or sad truths to come. Like when I realized that I had lost my computer charger (a sad truth indeed), I didn’t feel nearly as frustrated as I would have felt beforehand. Obviously, the bigger the inconvenience, the bigger the aversion, the more difficult to overcome. But those last days of meditation brought me such satisfaction that I felt motivated to continue with the meditation for the rest of my days. We’ll see if that actually happens. But at least for now, by carving out that extra hour or two a day for myself I return to the real world feeling more aware and at peace than I ever have before.
The following day I had all to myself in Lumbini. I decided on visiting the Maya Devi temple and strolled around the perimeter, in a walking meditation. I never imagined myself saying “this experience changed my life”, and in any case, it’s much too soon to actually tell. But whatever the outcome, this experience caused me to reflect on the impermanence of life, and of making the most of the time we have. I also realized that “making the most” doesn’t have to mean traveling around the world. It also doesn’t have to mean sky diving, or climbing Mount Everest, or Macchu Picchu, or any of those other “once in a lifetime” experiences everyone is always telling you you have to do before it’s too late.
In the end, I realized that it couldn’t matter less where we are, or what we are doing. Whatever we do, wherever we are (even if where we are feels like a prison cell) we are the ones in control of our own happiness and the determiners of our own fate.
How to Prepare for your First Ten Day Vipassana Course
Here are few tips that might come in handy for those of you interested in taking a Vipassana course some time down the road.
- Don’t bring any expectations with you. Yes, I know it’s hard to not come with certain aspirations, such as attaining enlightenment or even killing your ego, but the higher expectations you bring, the more you are distancing yourself from any chance of attaining the true goals of the course.
- Hard work and perseverance really do pay off. There will be times you feel like quitting, almost guaranteed. However, by remaining committed to complete the course from day 1, no matter how difficult, and by following as closely as possible the daily teachings, will give you the greatest chance of success.
- Focus on the teachings even outside of the meditation hours. Because we meditated for such a long period in a day, I assumed that once I had left the hall, I was free to think and feel as I chose. It was only near the end of the course that I realized that this had actually slowed my progress, as I was so focused on “getting back to my real problems” in each and every break period. Once I applied the teachings of impermanence and observing my reactions to thoughts even outside the meditation hours, things started to make a lot more sense.
- Bring a little luxury. Okay, so some might completely disagree with me on this one because it completely goes against the teachings, but I decided to treat myself to a face mask that I had brought with me, to be used only once I had reached the 7th day! It felt so good to use and really boosted my morale. I feel like chocolate could be used in a similar situation to celebrate you reaching a certain day in the course. Although it should be noted that this is technically against the course rules.
P.S. This entire post was typed out on a tiny iPad, and I didn’t even feel an ounce of frustration or regret of not having my computer to type it! Ok, maybe an ounce … But that was it! How’s that for equanimity? 😉
P.P.S. Almost all of the photos used in this post were taken in my few days of exploring Lumbini (except two taken in Durbar Square in Kathmandu). Although the town of Lumbini itself doesn’t have so much to offer, it’s incredibly peaceful walking around the temples and exploring the area.