10 Days of Vipassana silent meditation over... and first things first: it was by far one of the hardest, most intense and painful things I've done (hopefully now marathons will seem like a walk in the park!). Mentally, physically, on many levels. I'm kind of still coming to terms with it (my aching back still reminds me of the hours of endless sitting though!).
And it was hard in a way completely different than what I thought.
I mean, I expected that there would be hard moments but I felt so ready to just BE - be with nothing, no distractions, just myself, my mind and whatever comes up and having the space to reflect on the past and vision my future goals and mission.
In hindsight, I was completely naive to what Vipassana really consisted of! It's not just any old meditation, it is a very specific technique, and what S.N. Goenka calls "a science of mind and matter", to explore how the mind is influencing the body and vise versa. It aims to liberate you from the deep habit patterns of the mind of craving and aversion, to be able to cultivate a state of equanimity by working in the framework of the body.
It’s hard to describe how a 10 day Vipassana retreat is. I think it’s just something that has to be lived to be understood. And every ones journey is so different. I think everyone will experience a very unique and personal journey when they go through Vipassana - what I struggled with, someone might not even think twice about it, and what I found easy (EDIT: wait, that was nothing ;P), someone may find to be the hardest part for them.
To be honest, it was just one, big, monumental struggle for me - but that is why I learnt so much.
I pretty much only saw the light at the end of the tunnel once it was over, but it is really starting to shine bright now!
Meditation Masochism: Painful but amazing
I think a lot had to do with the duration - I didn't think 10 days where a lot, but when I got there, it felt like a really, really, reaaaaaally long time! I could have dealt with 3 days no problem, but after that I really started counting down. I broke it up to be able to mentally digest it - at Day 4, I told myself I was "basically half way" - I mean, the last 2 days can be forgotten about, right?! My rational mind going crazy, I really just wanted 10 days to be over, but as I came to surrender to the whole process, that changed. I still wanted the 10 days to be over haha, but I knew I couldn't be at Day 10 without Day 9, I couldn't be at Day 9 without going through Day 8, etc - and that it was the courage to be present in each moment and take these days as an opportunity to work on myself that really counted. I can't skip the hard work and still expect to reap the benefits.
Albeit slightly disappointingly, I didn’t transcend matter or start seeing having superpowers of telepathy nor clairvoyance, no levitating or seeing Devine Light or having all of my chakras perfectly aligned. Not even the slightest sensation of dissolving into the Ultimate Truth of subatomic particles that unite us all.... Maybe with practice ;)
However, now that I have a experiential understanding of what it is and really what to expect and over the initial shock!, I think that if I were to do it again, I could go much deeper into the technique and "enjoy" it much more in the moment.
On the website it does state that they serve "wholesome, vegetarian food", but I knew for me that meant not many options hehe! Being sensitive to nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, dairy and pretty much every vegetarian stable meant that I knew that their prepared food probably wasn't going to be suitable for me. I emailed them in advance and asked if they serve plain vegetables, or if they could make me a separate plate. They responded a bit hesitatingly (but very nicely!), and said they will cater to medical issues but not for preferences, so I had to make it clear that it wasn't out of pickiness or taste preference (serve me plain steamed broccoli each meal, I'll be happy!), but just to have an option of at least one thing I could tolerate with my food sensitivities. I actually didn't get a reply back, but when I got there I found out they had made note of it and would serve me a separate meal for lunch. I found out that 3 or 4 people also had different requirements, so I wasn't alone :=)
The food was served buffet-style, and the mornings were bowls of fruit (apples, oranges, bananas), and porridge, stewed dried fruit and yogurt. There were always tea, coffee and organic soy milk available.
The lunch was a main dish of some kind (usually involving lentils or a curry), and then bowls of salad, and cut up plain veg (tomatoes, cucumbers) - awesome!
The evening - well, there was no food, just tea for the "first timers", and "old students" had the option of lemon-honey water. Woohoo!
I did have to compromise slightly while I was there, but nothing major and I really didn't want the food to interfere with Vipassana experience. The staff were super nice and always willing to help out. For breakfast, I usually had a ginormous plate of fruit - in fact, after the retreat ended and we could all talk to each other, a few women I talked to asked if I was fruitarian hahaha! Noooot any more!
I loaded up on the salads for lunch, and decided to add some more energy by adding the olive oil they had, and fresh lemon juice. The first 3 days, the "special meal" (that's what they called them :) had lentils and grains so I couldn't eat it, and never found a right time to talk to the managers about it. I did get quite hungry by the 3rd day of eating just 1 meal of fruit and plain raw salad haha! But once I managed to talk to the managers they kindly made me plain steamed veg, and I also had baked potatoes (I LOADED my plate on those days hahaha!) on some days when it was available. I will admit to fantasising about food in meditation by the 7th day! ;=D
So a tip for anyone with allergies or food sensitivities going to Vipassana: don't worry! and they will cater if it's based on medical needs! For me, I found out it was much easier just asking for a plate of cooked plain vegetables, rather than giving them a list of all the things I don't tolerate and them having to guess what to serve me ahah! I don't blame them - it's a long list! :P I knew it was just for 10 days, and actually it was a nice break from what I usually eat, and not having to focus on preparing food.
The highlight of my days: Movie Time!
I really fell in love with the teacher, S.N. Goenka (who we heard through audio at the beginning of each group meditation) and his heavily accented voice became a comforting lullaby, and his words rang so true to me, and kept reconfirming my commitment to stick it out the full 10 days. His discourses were littered with hilarious stories, little anecdotes and analogies and metaphors (insider joke: MASS OF BUBBLES!!!) to illustrate the concepts and technique and "process of liberation", and during each lecture the meditation hall would erupt with giggling ( which must have looked funny to onlookers, as we were stifling full blown laughter and trying to still avoid eye contact ;).
Each evening teaching was based on a theme, and he often described day by day with frightening accuracy, a developmental and emotional stage we where probably going through. Though in one way it's no surprise with his experience of guiding thousands of people through Vipassana retreats over the course of this time as a Vipassana teacher, that there are certain patterns we all go through, and Goenka managed to identify each one. Often he so closely verbalised what I was feeling that day that I just had to laugh out loud, as you feel as though it must only be you suffering, rebelling and rejecting, but then you realise everyone around you is going through the same - each experiencing it in our own ways based on our own backgrounds and make up, but nonetheless united in our communal suffering! My roommate and I especially bonded through this! Each going through our own journey and keeping to our own business but being together in the room really created a strong bond, even in silence. I am so lucky to have had such an wonderful roommate, and it was so much fun catching up verbally once we could talk to each other.
Another saving grace were my daily lunchtime walks. Being winter, the breaks we had in the morning (breakfast was from 6:30am-8am) and the late afternoon (5pm-6pm) were pitch black, so I took the opportunity at the lunch break to walk everyday for between 20-60minutes (depending on my energy levels), rain or sun. We had a lovely walking circuit in a field that also entered a little forested area, and I would find it fascinating looking at all the trees and the patterns in the bark, and shape of the trunks and branches. I wasn't the only one, and I found it hilarious to think of the neighbouring onlooking farms having a few of us going in circles around this field and prancing around in silence hugging the trees, or just standing looking out at the countryside view :=D
The next day, logging onto my computer, that other reality hit me - that one of modern life. Floods of emails and messages, and things to do and assignments to write, and exams to prepare for, and goals to work towards. But to be honest, I have also come to accept and to love a chaotic and meaningfully busy life, for me, that is where the fun and excitement can be :=) But I tend to be able to get easily swept away, and so periods of silence bring me back to my core to be able to show up with more integrity and authenticity. And now I really am motivated to incorporate periods of silence into my everyday life - even if it's just a minute or two. S.N. Goenka reccomends 2 hours (!!!) (1 hour in the morning, 1 hour in the evening) of Vipassana meditation, but I knew that was totally not realistic for me as I would personally rather dedicate that to training (which I can also make into a sort of meditation by being mindfull and present :). For me, consistency is the most important, especially for setting a habit in place, so I commited to making it a non-negotiable habit to do at least 1 minute of meditation a day. Just 1 minute!! If I can show up for that, and keep that up, I know it builds momentum which can then lead to increasing the time and duration. So far, since the Vipassana has been over, I have managed to do that one minute each day, and I can feel the benefit of even just that. When I have time, I do more, but being consistent on a daily level is more beneficial for me than doing 1 or 2 hours randomly when I can (which wouldn't be often!).
Was it worth it?
The location at Hereford was beautiful, the staff so kind and accommodating. The other people I met, who I finally got to talk with afterwards, were awesome, and I made some very strong connections.
This was just dip into my personal experience, but I would really encourage anyone who is interested in Vipassana to sign up for a retreat - however hard it is, it is one of the only things that I believe ANYONE could find benefit from and something I believe that you will not regret.