10 Days Inside My Head
Prior to my trip to India, I was searching online for breathwork sessions there and somehow ended up on the Vipassana website. 10 days of silence? Sounds interesting. I then read a few blogs from others who had done it and it sounded pretty challenging which enticed me even more. I honestly applied without really even thinking about it. Previously, I had only meditated about 3 hours per week max (but usually more like 1 hour), in a group meditation setting, on my lunch break (Class Pass was the best). When I applied, I didn’t know anything about the Vipassana technique itself. Only that during the 10 days of the course, one is to follow a strict schedule including over 10 hours of meditation per day, and keep noble silence the entire time. Perfect for me because I actually prefer not talking over talking.
WHAT IS VIPASSANA
Vipasana: To see things as they really are, [to see] the true nature of reality
Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient types of meditation, a way of “self-transformation through self-observation”. Although it is said that Vipassana was discovered by the Buddha, the technique itself, along with the courses, are nonsectarian (not affiliated with any religion). What makes Vipassana different from other types of meditation is that it aims to get to the root cause of all suffering, by focusing on the physical sensations in the body. Vipassana teaches us to not react to the physical sensations we feel, while keeping in mind the law of impermanence. There is no feeling we feel that will last forever.
MORE ABOUT THESE PHYSICAL SENSATIONS
Think about standing across from a person you love, a good friend or lover, looking directly into their eyes. They look at you you and tell you that they never want to see you again and turn and walk away. Immediately, you feel your heart drop, or your heart starts beating faster, or there is some sort of reaction in your body. When this happens, it signals to your brain to react. You don’t like feeling this way and want it to go away. So your brain starts thinking of ways to make this physical feeling go away, prompting you to react either through thoughts, actions, or words.
Now think about when you throw a rock into a pond. It will sink to the bottom. If you just observe it, the ripples will spread out and slowly fade away. But if you keep throwing rocks into the pond, it will cause lots of splashing and chaos. The rocks are like reactions, your words, thoughts, and actions. When something happens like in the above scenario, it causes you to feel anger, or sadness, or anxiety. If you simply notice the feeling without reacting to it, it will eventually fade away. But If you throw more stones at it, reacting with thoughts (How could they do this to me?) or words (I hate you!) or actions (You punch them!), you are only creating more ripples. By observing your anger without reaction, you are able to see that it is simply a physical sensation in the body that will pass. We don’t need to label it as good or bad, or react to it at all.
NOW TO MY VIPASSANA EXPERIENCE
I arrived at Dhamma Setu Meditation Center right outside of Chennai to start my course. I had no clue what to expect. Upon arrival, we turned in our cell phones, reading/writing materials, camera, basically anything that stimulates the brain, serves as a distraction, or allows us to communicate with the outside world. Noble silence (no talking, no eye contact, looking down while walking) started that evening and would last until the 9th day. Since the course was not fully booked, I was given my own room with my own bathroom. Inside was a twin bed, a blanket, and a mosquito net. Day one wake up call was at 4:00am so I went to sleep right away.
DAYS 1 - 3
I wake up to the assistant teacher ringing a bell loudly outside of my window. I open my eyes, get up, and begin to get dressed. She starts knocking. I open the door and she whispers, “Come.” while pointing to the Dhamma hall. “Now?” I ask, and then immediately realize I already broke the code of silence. Eeek! (Although talking to the assistant teacher is actually allowed.) I look up at the clock outside. 5:20am. Shit. I overslept. Not sure what type of alarm system they have going on here but obviously they don’t know about my ability to sleep through anything. I will need to talk to her about this later. I hurry to join the others in the silent hall for the remaining hour of meditation before breakfast.
Today, we are to focus on our breath, breathing normally. Direct all concentration to the air coming in and going out of our nostrils. Whenever your brain trails off, simply notice and bring your attention back to your breath. Day one, it is hard for me to physically feel my breath coming in and going out of my nose. But after 10 hours of meditating, I finally notice the spot inside of my nose where air hits when it comes in and the slightly different spot the air hits when it blows out. This feels like a huge win for me that day.
My brain does not want to play this game. I can barely turn off my thoughts for even a few seconds. Inside my head, every single memory I have from ages 12 to 18 has replayed itself. Even memories I wasn’t aware I still had. Everything in my life I have done wrong. Everything I have done right. All of my past relationships. Thoughts about future relationships. Thoughts even popped in my head that make no sense at all, like a dream. A cat wearing a scarf walking across the road in front of me, stopping to turn its head and look at me. I am losing it. No wonder people in solitary confinement go crazy. It hasn’t even been two full days. Our brains crave stimulation and create it if they aren’t given any. I can’t do this for 8 more days. I am a horrible meditator.
That night, we watch a video featuring Mr. S.N. Goenka (whose teachings currently lead the course via recordings). Every night you watch a discourse with him explaining what happened that day and what will happen the next day. In the video that night, he describes my struggle that day perfectly. He says, as you were able to see today, your brain does not want to be controlled. Jumping from past to future and future to past. It will try anything to remain in control. And that is okay. Your only job is to keep bringing your attention back to your breath. Keep doing this without judgement and you will be successful. Okay that makes me feel better. He says today is one of the hardest days and as we continue to work, it will get easier. I hope so, otherwise this is going to be a long eight days.
I can noticeably tell the difference. It is like I cleared out my brain storage bank and the thoughts popping into my head have quieted down. I have more control over my thinking and awareness. I catch myself more quickly every time I start chasing a thought. Progress. But 7 more days is still quite a lot of meditation. During the discourse that night, he says that today we should have felt we were able to quiet our minds more easily. He gets it. Maybe there actually is a rhyme and reason to all of this. Tomorrow we will learn Vipassana. We haven’t already? Okay, cool. I am actually looking forward to it.
THE PAIN IS PART OF THE PROCESS
The course is not only challenging mentally. What is hardest for me is the physical pain. I never knew that sitting down could make your body so sore. I feel like I ran a full marathon followed by going ten rounds in the ring with a champion boxer and lost by knockout. I can barely walk to the meditation hall each morning. Sitting with my legs crossed? Maybe for a few minutes and then I have to switch poses again and again to relieve the pressure on my knees.
Today we are told that we will have 3 hours per day (one hour at a time) of strong determination where we are to try and sit in the same position for the entire hour without moving any part of our body. The whole point of this is to really strengthen our minds by not reacting to this pain.
For some reason, during these hours, my legs fall asleep within seconds and I lose all circulation. It is like they are saying forget this and giving up on me completely. It seems like this would make it easier since I don’t have to feel the pain, but it worries me. Is this bad for my health? Will this make my circulation issues worse if I just let them remain numb for 3 hours per day? But each time, after the hour is over, I slowly regain feeling as I start moving my legs again. This confirms even more that no feeling is permanent. Nothing is permanent. When you don’t attach thoughts to your pain and label it as good or bad, you are able to just let it just come and go. By the sixth day, the pain and numbness are there at times, but it no longer controls me. I am able to direct my brain to watch my breath and not pay attention to other areas of my body.
I LIKE IT HERE
DAYS FIVE – EIGHT
I feel so much lighter. I have more energy and clarity in my thinking. Might be due to the whole not drinking alcohol, not smoking cigarettes, only eating natural vegetarian foods, drinking plenty of water, and meditating on a daily basis. I can completely feel the difference and for a moment start to feel sorry for what I have put my body through during my lifetime.
I become aware of how to stay equanimous and not react to triggers in the outside world (the girl next to me who is snoring the entire time I am trying to meditate – how can she sleep for 11 hours a day and then sleep at night. I think her snoring was definitely an added test for me) or to any of the internal physical feelings I experience (the intense pain and throbbing I feel in my kneecaps). To not judge them as good or bad, to just feel them knowing they won’t last. Nothing is permanent and it is our attachment that causes our misery. Becoming aware is one thing but practicing it is another. If this course can help me even once out of every ten times, to not react and to stay at peace, I think it is a success.
Noble silence is lifted as we start to make our transition back into reality. We are now allowed to talk to each other. Ironically, I find I have lost my voice. But that is okay with me as I still don’t feel a need to talk just because I now am allowed to. It is slightly overwhelming for me hearing everyone speak again nonstop. We get our phones back as well. I turn mine on but with slight anxiety. Like when I used to go OTG during work and have an anxiety to check my email for the first time when I return. I don’t think I am ready for the real world yet. I will wait until tomorrow. I keep it on airplane mode.
I finally emerge from my room and start to engage with the others as we share about our experience. It is amazing how you can go through something so intense together with a group of people, not even talking, but feel so close to them. It is like we are now bonded for life.
DID I REMAIN SILENT FOR ALL 10 DAYS?
The main question people ask me when they find out I did a course is, “Were you able to stay silent for the entire 10 days?” The answer is, no. I don’t know if I even made it one entire day without talking. Which is surprising if you know how little I talk at times anyways. But let me explain. I did not talk to any of the other women completing the course along with me. Every other day, you meet with your teacher and she asks you questions, so I did say about one sentence every two days to answer her. Outside of this, I spoke 6 times. To a gecko. A spider. A frog. A pig. A puppy. And to myself, once. Each time, it was completely a mistake and came out before I could control it. For example, I got back to my room and there was a really, really fat frog sleeping under the doorstop of my door, preventing me from opening it. I nudged him and he opened half of an eye and then kept sleeping. So I said, “Dude.” Another time I walked into my room and a gecko on the wall flinched, completely startled that I had walked in. I said, “Awww it’s okay.” The next day a jumping spider was sitting next to my bed and I said, “Oh, hey there!.” Anyways, you get the point, I talk to animals. This is okay though because the whole point of noble silence is so that you don’t get any outside sources of thought or stimulation. You experience things for yourself without comparing your experience to that of others.
THE MAIN TAKEAWAYS
Overall, this course was nothing like I had imagined. It was so much more. I am now a huge believer in Vipassana and plan on continuing down this path. You would think a meditation retreat would be relaxing but these were some of the most challenging days of my life. A lot of stuff surfaced that I never thought I would have to see or think about again. But the course helped me clear everything out. Become a stronger person. And become more aware of my feelings and reactions. If you think that meditation is easy, just for hippies, or won’t benefit you, I challenge you to sign up for a Vipassana course. This may change your mind. But you definitely have to put in the work.
The main learnings I walked away with. 1) Vipassana meditation is the only type of meditation I have practiced that seems to get to the root cause of all suffering. 2) Meditation is a constant practice and I have a long way to go on this path, but am making progress. 3) We are taught so much that the cause of our suffering is outside of us. It is time we all look inside of us to realize the true laws of nature and really understand our bodies.
Although I haven’t even continued to meditate for even one hour each day like I told myself I would, I will continue to practice Vipassana mediation. I do intend to complete another course, most likely once a year and also would like to volunteer at one to help others have this experience. The course is entirely donation based. At the end, you can donate if you found it beneficial, by giving money or your time by volunteering to help run a future course. If you are thinking of doing a course, I highly recommend taking these 10 days to invest in yourself and your happiness. For a list of locations all over the globe, and more information, check out the Vipassana website. Feel free to comment below with any questions as well!
DHAMMA SETU INFO
Dhamma Setu is located right outside of Chennai, India, about 10km from Chennai Airport. Dhamma Setu is rated one of the top 10 centers in India and I would highly recommend it. Although close to the city and the airport, you still feel as if you are in a hidden sanctuary.
Courses are held in centers located all around the world. All of the information you need can be found here. Every course follows the exact same teachings and course schedule. The only difference would be your teacher who guides you along the way and is there to answer any questions.
Cost: Courses are free of charge, 100% donation and volunteer based.