The very first thing I did during my trip around the world was going to Nepal and spend ten days in a Vipassana meditation retreat. It’s an experience that can change lives. It was a place called Dhamma Pokhara, close to the city of Pokhara, and it is located in the middle of a beautiful mountain scenery, overviewing a valley with a big, blue lake.
The meditation technique that is taught there is called Vipassana. I went to the place completely uninformed, having no idea at all what Vipassana was about. The only thing I knew was that me and my 29 meditation buddies from all over the world would have to spend ten days in complete silence.
Luckily, we were still allowed to talk for a few hours after arrival. I had expected to meet a few nutty expats and misfits, but the people that had registered for the retreat all seemed like quite normal and down-to-earth people. Unlike me, most of them had already had some kind of history with meditation.
View from the retreat on a clear day
Before dinner, we sat down in a circle and the catalogue of don’ts was introduced. During the next ten days, we were not allowed to do anything that could possibly distract our concentration. This included: no electronic devices, no books, no pens (we had to deposit all of these items in a safe), no exhausting physical activities, no tobacco, no provocative clothing and of course no communication with our meditation buddies, not even body language or eye contact. Men and women were strictly separated. All of our efforts would be rewarded with a vegetarian diet that would consist of the same meals (in different variations, though) every single day.
Meet Guru Goenka
Once dinner was served, the period of silence had officially begun (this was still day zero, by the way). After a meal consisting of curried rice and flat bread served with all kinds of vegetables, we were led into the meditation hall. Awaiting us were fifteen small mats on the left and fifteen small mats on the right, separated by perfectly sized intervals and an aisle in the middle. Each person was led to his or her place and sat down.
The teacher, completely clad in white, walked into the room and sat down on his chair facing us. Everyone expected him to start talking, but instead he quietly uncovered a small TV, grabbed a DVD and pressed play. A very witty and impish man appeared on screen. His name was Satya Narayan Goenka, and he was the guru of the specific type of Vipassana that we were about to learn.
Goenka told us what our next few days would look like: Get up at four o’clock in the morning. Meditate. Have breakfast. Meditate. Have lunch. Meditate. Have dinner. Meditate. Go to bed, sleep and wait for the morning gong. Start over again.
The meditation technique
Take ten minutes out of your day and find a quiet place. Sit down in Indian style, straighten your back, and focus on the touch of your breath in the nostrils or on the upper lip. Don’t visualize, don’t verbalize: Simply focus on the respiration. Can you feel the breath? Does your back start hurting? Where are your thoughts at?
That’s pretty much what we had to do for ten hours a day. After a few days, we were taught that we now had improved in controlling our mind and focus, so we moved on to focusing on all parts of the body.
The goals of Vipassana
We were trained to sharpen our senses and become aware of every single physical sensation: the touch of the cloth on the body, the smooth feeling of the meditation mat beneath the toes, the heat and the pearls of sweat on the forehead, the subtle pulsation of our veins. And of course the sharp pain in the back.
It is important not to judge any of these sensations as good or bad, not trying to avert or induce any of them. By keeping a neutral perception of our sensations, knowing that they are all impermanent, we become aware of our cravings and aversions as well as of our reactions to certain stimuli. This leads to a better understanding of our mind and a better control of our actions (this description is very, very incomplete; check the last paragraph for more information).
My personal experience
I managed to finish the course and I also managed to stay silent for ten days (with the exception of one conversation with the teacher, asking questions about the technique, which was completely „legal“). Following the exact same daily routine for a week and a half was as unproblematic as enduring the absence of contact with other persons.
Breakfast was the same every day
But it was extremely hard work to tell myself over and over again to control my inner voice, not to let my mind drift away and always be in the here and now. I learnt that meditation can be hard work. With pictures of Himalaya’s mountains and Thailand’s beaches in my head, I stopped working after seven days and addicted myself to the pleasures of a freely flowing mind.
That’s what was in my head
To justify that, I told myself that Meditation as well as controlling one’s thoughts and judgments was a great thing, but it was not for me. I was too young, too vivid. I didn’t want to be incarcerated in this place anymore. What I did was quitting without quitting: I sat on the meditation hall on my meditation mat, right next to my meditation buddies, but I thought about anything except for meditation.
The stone in the pudding
Every evening before we went to bed, Goenka appeared on the TV screen and taught us more about Vipassana. In one of the last sessions, he told us a story that I still remember perfectly clear.
There once was a boy who was very hungry. He sat down at the table and his mother handed him a bowl of delicious milk pudding, with dried fruit and good rice. The young boy grabbed his spoon but before he started eating, he spotted a small black stone in the bowl of pudding.
„I won’t take the pudding“, he told his mother.
„Why“, she asked, „what’s wrong with it?“
„There is a black stone in it“, he said.
„It’s not a black stone, it’s cardamom“, his mother said. „Try it, it tastes very good.“
The young boy still did not want to eat the pudding.
„I won’t take it. There’s a black stone inside! A black stone! It’s tainted“, he yelled, and smashed the bowl against the wall.
Enjoy the pudding
Goenka followed up by telling us that if there are some parts about Vipassana that we don’t agree with, if there are some black stones, we should not reject the entire technique. I realized that I had behaved like that boy there. Not only during the retreat, but also in many other aspects of my life. At least for ten days, at least for my time in Dhamma Pokhara, I should have given Vipassana a solid try.
On the morning of the eleventh day, we were allowed to talk again and oh boy, did we talk. Some people screamed enthusiastically and jumped through the area like Orang Utans. We all had done the exact same things for ten days, but our experiences had been very unique. Everyone had different stories to tell, everyone had come to different conclusions. 28 out of 30 people had completed the retreat.
I was one of them, and I have to say that I was quite proud about it. I didn’t continue meditating during my world journey, but about one year later, I started again. Not Vipassana, but a different technique that suits me better. It’s still not perfect though, and sometimes, an imaginary black stone appears in my mind. Once that happens, I try to take it out of the imaginary bowl, I grab my imaginary spoon and enjoy the sweet, delicious taste of my imaginary milk pudding.
There is so much more to Vipassana than the little that I can explain here. There are Vipassana retreats all over the world and the courses are free (including lodging and food), financed by donations only. If you are interested in learning more about the technique, here are some links:
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