“So, what is your plan for the holidays?” “I’m going to a silence retreat.” “Aha…”
10-day Vipassana Meditation Course is certainly silent, so at least that part I got right. But it is far away from a retreat. It is more like a living hell.
A few years ago a friend of mine suggested me to attend this course. “I have just done it and I feel wonderful! There is a centre in New Zealand and you should take advantage of it while you are there. It is hard, but very rewarding. And the food is very tasty.” I always wanted to learn how to meditate. I also really liked the book “Eat, Pray Love” (E. Gilbert) and wanted in a way to relive it myself. And Neza said that the good is food. So how bad it can be?
Well, I was scared of doing it. But I’ve been thinking about it for a long time and I really wanted to try it. Besides, I had no other plans for the holidays. I had to take leave as we closed our office over Christmas and New Years. I spent all my money in Bali, so couldn’t really afford any travels. I didn’t want to go to Raglan as my friends would mostly be away. And my family is far away, so I will only be missing them over these family-orientated period.
I felt ready and I was determined to do it. Until the day before the course started. I saw a schedule when I applied for it, but I guess I never really paid much attention to it. Wake up bell at 4 am. 2 hours of meditation. Breakfast. 3 more hours of meditation. Lunch. 4 hours of meditation. Break. 3 more our of meditation. Sleep. “One, two, three… twelve hours to meditate?? Every day? For 10 days?? Are they insane???” I called my dad crying over Skype that there is no way I can do this. “Then don’t do it.” But that was not an option, I was way to curios to let it go just like that. Sooner or later I will have to try it, so I better do it now.
To cut it short, the following 9 and a half days I spent in serious misery. It was a torture. I never really thought about how the hell looks like, but I think I have just found out. I hated every single moment of it. I wasn’t counting down just days, but hours and minutes. I was in pain, mental and physical. I hated myself and the whole world around me. I knew it was going to be hard, but I could never picture it to be that hard. But… somehow I did it… I kept thinking “what is behind that door?” I was too curious. And I felt if I walk away now I would have actually thrown away one, two three, days of my life and I just can’t afford that. My life is way too precious to be wasting it like that!
I wasn’t alone. There was about 80, maybe 100 of people there (I found that quite worrying at the beginning…). The first thing that worried me was the fact that we were not aloud to talk. 10 days of complete silence, verbal and non-verbal. At the beginning it felt weird. I felt quite rude as you are not allowed to smile to each other, or say sorry or excuse me when you bump into each other. But I got used to it pretty fast and I wasn’t worried about my rudeness at all. Quite opposite, I was suddenly so annoyed by everyone around me that I was glad I didn’t have to communicate with them. “What was this woman thinking when she was buying these shoes?? And look, his T-shirt is torn. What’s that grin on her face, does she think she’s Buddha or what?? How much are you gonna eat?? Only one biscuit per person, woman, can’t you read?? Oh, I hope I don’t become this person walking around with extra straight back and a fake smile on my face telling the world that I am sooo high, high on happiness…!” Yes, I was quite glad I wasn’t allowed to speak…
I always thought of myself as a nice and kind person. But I was wrong! For the first few days of my “retreat” I felt such fury inside me that I hardly recognised myself. “What the hell was I thinking? Why do I have to do this to myself? Why do I have to try every single thing in this world? Why can’t I just believe others when they say it is difficult. What do I want to prove to myself? Who am I trying to impress?” I didn’t feel angry only towards myself, but also towards my colleagues and friends. I have to actually apologise to Sara, because at some point I was really mad at her. Sara did this course in August and when she mentioned she was going to do it, she just reminded me of it and made me start thinking about doing it finally myself as well. Luckily I didn’t have an excess to my phone, internet and FB, because the message I was going to send her would not be a pleasant one, oh no. And she was not the only one getting her share of my fury :(.
Before the course started, I had thought that I will die of boredom there. We were namely not allowed to have any phones, computers, books, music, writing material, newspapers, magazines, etc. It turned out that that was the least of a problem. The schedule was really tight and the meditation is actually a really hard work. I was constantly tired. That gong that went off at 4 in the morning was just killing me. “But I thought you are a morning person and you always wake up early?” “Yes, I am a MORNING person, but morning starts at 5 am! 4 is still a middle of the night and I have never said I was a NIGHT person!!” The first two hours of meditation were the worst ones. I was tired and I really struggled not to fall back asleep. There were constant battles in mind mind. It really felt like there is an Angel sitting on one shoulder and a Devil on the other one: “C’mon Lana, you can do it!” “Whatever, just go back to sleep, no one will know, no one will care.” And on top of everything I felt hungry as hell. I always wake up starving, no matter what time I get up or how much I ate the night before. The breakfast was only served at 6.30. “Ooooooooh, why am I doing this to myself? 1 hour and 46 minutes to go. 1 hour and 32 minutes to go. 1 hour and… This will never end… :(“. When I finally heard that gong at 6.30 am, I think I was the happiest person in the entire world (but just for a very very short moment as I was still in hell).
The hardest part was sitting. I don’t know what I was thinking but for some reason it didn’t occur to me that meditation is done in a sitting-on-the-floor-with-a-straight-back position. My ignorance was probably a blessing because if I would have tried this at home prior to my “trip”, I would never have gone there. I was not able to sit for 10 min without moving and now I was expected to sit for 12 hours, for 10 days in a row. “WTF??” My neck was hurting, my back was burning, my bum was sore. Who said that you have to do sport to have a fit bum?? Just sit still and after a couple of days you will feel every single muscle in it, as well as all the bones! My knees were giving up, my legs were falling asleep, my head was throbbing… “OK, one thing I don’t get?? People have been meditating for thousands of years, they have invented this cushion, that cushion, mats, stools, bolsters, this accessory, that tool, and yet, they still continue sitting on the floor. Clearly they have figured out it is NOT comfortable. They couldn’t have been waiting for me to tell them this?? Why can’t we just sit in a couch??”
After a while and hours spent on solving this problem (well, I had some extra time…) I realised the pain was part of the meditation. And it was quite an interesting experience, actually. The first few days I was shuffling around. Crossed legs, streched legs, leaning forward, leaning backwards,… I think I invented at least 80 different positions of sitting on the floor. If you need any ideas, please do not hesitate to ask :). And that was kind of all right, painful, but bearable. The forth or the fifth day (my body was in severe pain by then), a new instruction was given by our teacher: “While meditating, please sit still for at least one hour at a time, do not move”. “He must be joking?? No no no, he can’t be serious! This is insane! He is insane! What is this course?? There must be some kind of trick, when will I learn to read the small print…” The pain in my back, in my knees and my legs was horrible. “I can’t do this. I give up.” But all of a sudden it clicked. Yep, there was a lot of clicking going on over the past 10 days :). “I actually need this pain in order to learn to meditate”. If I had known this before… And surprisingly I was able to sit for about an hour in the same position. The pain was suddenly bearable. It was still there, it still hurt, I needed to do tiny stretches and little adjustments all the time, but no, my position, my legs and my arms wouldn’t move.
The first few days were quite boring. “Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale,… and so on for 12 hours a day. Don’t ask me how I managed it. Every day we were given a new instruction, we did another (tiny) step forward, practiced it (a lot) and around the fourth day we finally got to actual meditation. A very beginning step, but I could say I was finally meditating. I almost felt happy that evening, before I fell asleep. However, the night that followed was one of my worst nights ever. It seemed liked I have opened some kind of Pandora box inside me. I had nightmares, spiders were crawling all over me, everywhere I saw ugly and scary faces, I woke up because I couldn’t breath. I was so shocked, I needed a break from sleep and went to the toilet. As we were in the middle of the bush there was heaps of rabbits around, day and night. And so there was this tiny rabbit on a grass that night as well. However, this one didn’t seem very cute to me! Oh no, he was starring at we with this evil yellow eyes that bad guys in cartoons would sometimes have. Aaaaaa, I ran back to my room, locked myself in it, pulled a cover over my head and trembled. “What is going on?? Please stop, please stop.” The crazy thing was that I was fully awake and on a rational level I knew this was not possible, but the fear was there. You can imagine the 4 o’clock meditation the morning after was pretty challenging :).
Within the area there was a short bush track. The first day I walked it, I was devastated :(. “What, is that all? 100 m of a bush track? I can do this 50 times a day, I will get so over it after first two hours, how will I survive for 10 days??” Yep, another disappointment. At the beginning, I was pacing around that track. I really needed to exercise, I needed to stretch, I needed to be outside. I was annoyed by everyone I met on that track. Everyone was walking there so slow and seemed to be enjoying the nature. And as I was in my furious stage, I couldn’t stand them. “What, you haven’t seen a tree in your life??” But somehow my pace was slowing down over the time I was there. I wasn’t running around anymore, I was walking slower and slower. My fear of getting bored of the same track proved to be wrong, as I started noticing new things each time I was there. “Hm, what an interesting tree? How long has it been here for? Oh wow, look at this spider’s net, it’s a masterpiece! Oh, poor bug, it died.” I think I have become an expert on all 100 types of New Zealand ferns. And I was fascinated by the fact that if you turn up-side-down you see a completely different scenery (go on, try it, it’s really interesting!). I noticed that tinkle of a little stream sounds differently in different places. And what a joy it is kicking (gently) a tree and practicing mawashi geris after not being doing karate for 15 years! Well, I really had a lot of time…
And my meditation? Well, I certainly improved from my 44 and a half minutes (I told you I had heaps of time to think…) I had meditated (not in one go though) in my 32 years of life. “Hm, I will try meditating today. How hard it can be? And so I sat down and try to not think of anything. I think these are really looooong 5 minutes? That should do for the first time anyway. Did I set up the alarm? Or maybe the watch stopped working? I better check because this seems really long. 32 seconds?? Oh… but I’m too tired now, I’ll try again in a few months time.” I wasn’t able to take yoga classes as I always found them too slow and there was way too much time to think while being in one pose. I found pilates classes a bit more bearable, until the last 5 minutes when a teacher announced “and now the most beautiful 5 minutes to relax, just lie down and breath”. As soon as I lied down and started concentrating on breathing, I became nervous, agitated, hot and very uncomfortable. “Get me out of here!!!” Why I thought 10-day “retreat” would be a good idea? I wish I knew…
I didn’t manage to stop my mind. It was racing all the time. If nothing else, I was thinking about how to stop it :). I thought about everything. At first I was thinking about my everyday issues, what I am usually thinking about. After a while I got fed up with this. There was nothing I could do about it anyway. So I started solving all the world’s problems. The financial crisis, the hunger in Africa, water issues in Asia, the climate change, disappearing of the rain forest in Brazil, the growing number of human beings,… You name it, I found answers to all the problems. If I was allowed to speak, the world would be a much better place by now :). Further, there were all these amazing memories coming back to me, but mostly only in small parts. For instance, out of nowhere I remembered that I used to take painting classes when I was about 6 years old. I don’t remember anything in particular about it, just the fact that I was standing in front of huge door to enter Pionirski dom in Ljubljana, where my classes took place. And that’s it. I can’t remember how I got there, where this building would actually be, what we were actually doing at these classes or whether I was any good at painting. According to my current painting skills, I sucked. And all the people you remember!
After my anger has ceased and my pace slowed down, my interest in my fellow sufferers increased. I didn’t find them that annoying anymore :). I admired those walking around with a smile on their faces as they seemed to be doing so well. Instead of feeling jealous of them, I found them very motivating. And since I was not allowed to talked to them, I got to know them on a different level. “She must be working for Vodafone, as she is carrying around a Vodafone water bottle. He must be a student at AUT; hm, I think he is mathematician, but he must be doing some philosophy papers as well. This one used to be a runner or she got an Auckland Marathon 2002 T-shirt at a second hand store. This one looks like South American and that one I bet is German. And this one I think has given birth to at least three kids.” It is quite funny when you actually start talking to them and you find out their real stories – some of them actually matches with your perceptions.
The last few days I couldn’t wait to start talking again, but the closer that moment was, more nervous I felt. “What am I going to say?” But the moment we started talking, it all came back to me, not even a trace of awkwardness :). And suddenly I started enjoying my time there. I don’t know why? Maybe, because I knew it was over. Or maybe because by talking to the others I realised that I was not the only one going through hell. Even my “role models” that I thought were doing so great, went through exactly the same issues as I did. And as I had my role models, I was a role model to someone else. If they only knew in what agony I was…
For 10 days I couldn’t wait the moment I will be able to leave. I was determined to be out of there the very same minute the “door” opened. 7.30 sharp on Sunday morning. I would probably break few speeding limits on my way home but I didn’t care. I will not even glance back at the whole thing. However, I packed my car, but instead of rushing away I just kept loitering around there. I finally enjoyed it. And I was somehow nervous about going back to the real world. And when I finally left, I wasn’t speeding at all! I just don’t know whether this has anything to do with my meditation experience or with the fact that I have scored three speeding tickets on three consecutive days the week before…
Now, that I am out, I feel amazing :). The torture is over. I survived! And coming back to the “real” world, was not that bad. I don’t mind if I have to wait for half an hour for a post office to open in the morning, for example. “Ah well, it’s just half an hour with myself and my mind, I sure can do that :)”.
Would I do this again? Hm, if you would have asked me that at any of the 9 and a half days, my answer would be straight away “No! No way! Never again! Not even in my dreams.” Now, my answer is slightly more hesitant. Certainly I wouldn’t do it because it is a fun way of spending holidays. It is not! But, I do like the whole philosophy about the meditation and I would like to continue with it. I am only a beginner. I have just done a two-hour beginner surfing lesson on the beach. I found it hard and challenging, but I managed to get a few clumsy rides on the white water. Does this make me a surfer? No. But I do want to continue, I want to improve. It is going to be a long way, but seeing those surfers charging the waves out there, I believe it will be a very rewarding experience. And that’s how I feel about this meditation. I would love to continue, to improve, to finally quiet my mind and if I will manage to practice, I would probably attend the course again. When I am ready.
Well, Happy New Year! I didn’t have a chance to say this “on time”, but you can be sure that you were all in my mind 🙂