Signing up for my first Vipassana retreat was super scary. Keeping silent for 10 days? It seemed impossible not only to me, but to my friends and family as well. I was trying to envision what superficial experience I’d have and whether I’d actually manage to finish the course. A few times I was thinking, what have I gotten myself into this time?
By September 4th we landed in Yangon just in time to head straight to Joti Vipassana Centre. The only thing I knew about what to expect were the guidelines they sent us via email. We had to inform our family and friends of our whereabouts and tell them not to worry if they didn’t hear from us.
We arrived in the afternoon and at reception were asked to fill out a form with a few questions about any health or mental issues. Next they took us to the “father” of the center and he has a word with us regarding the rules, such as no smoking during the next 10 days, no interaction between females and males, and that you are expected to finish it. I agreed to all of these terms, and we were asked to lock up all our personal belongings such as our laptops, phones, diaries, wallets, etc.
All eight of the foreign girls congregated and started chatting about why we decided to come, and got to know each other a little before the 10 days of complete silence commenced. It was interesting to hear what we all thought about the retreat, and I couldn’t stop wondering what the outcome would be like.
During your stay they provide you with vegetarian food; breakfast is served at 7 a.m., lunch at 11 a.m. and then a little sweet nibble at 5 p.m. Because you don’t exert too much energy they didn’t give us dinner, but they also believe that this is a much healthier way of living. “Noble” silence was to be maintained during the course of the retreat.
Once started, the schedule is rigid and you don’t get a lot of personal time. In the morning you wake up at 4:30 a.m. in time to start the 5 a.m. meditation. The first morning I overslept, woke up startled, quickly dressed and ran to the meditation hall where most of the students were already on their personal assigned pillows laid out in rows on the floor facing the teacher.
The speakers sounded loudly and the famous S. Goenka, who has passed away a few years before, greeted us. He has such a calm, kind manner and voice to him and we were instructed to focus on our breathing, only on the inhalation and exhalation through our nose for the next day. We were meant to have natural breath and not to force it, just to let it flow freely at a comfortable pace in and out. Also, we were instructed to get comfortable and find a position in which would be able to sit still for the whole session. This was one of the hardest parts for me during the course.
During meal times I faced a wall and had real trouble to not look at my friend Mary, who joined me on the journey. Knowing your friend is sitting two seats away from you and you can’t exchange any form of contact at all is really hard.
The next day I woke up in time, but felt worse from getting sick. The flu managed to make its way to my chest so not only was my nose blocked, but I was coughing a lot which posed a challenge for my meditation. We were instructed this day to narrow our focus or area on our nose and draw a triangle from the base of our top lip to the tip of our nose between our eyebrows. It’s amazing how wild our minds can be – it’s like monkeys swinging from one branch (idea) to another.
The third day was extremely challenging to maintain my posture, but I managed to pull through even though I noticed some students had quit. I woke up the fourth day feeling very bright and optimistic after the teacher gave me some medicine. But soon my body started aching with sharp shooting pains, and I rubbed it with so much tiger balm that it felt on fire. This seemed to aid me with our new objective, which was to focus on the sensations we experienced all over our body with each inhalation and exhalation.
The fifth day was a turning point. I still hurt everywhere but slowly started focusing my intention for up to half hour without losing control of the objective at hand. We were asked to focus on the sensations, acknowledge them, and move on. It was almost like an invisible rod was being swept over our bodies and we had to identify each sensation that popped up, to not judge or make up a certain set of ideas about it.
By the sixth day I noticed a girl sitting to the right of me shaking vigorously during the meditation (yes, I peeked fairly often at my fellow students although we weren’t supposed to). I wondered whether she had a health condition she failed to inform the teacher of. I kept my eye on her during the whole session, but noticed the volunteer informed the teacher, and the teacher seemed completely calm about it. Then, I realized the girl had an out-of-body experience deep in the meditation. Later we found out that she felt this happening to her but didn’t fight the feeling and just went with it. She said she felt completely electrified with surges of energy that she had to convulse to release it.
After that I was thinking, am I doing something wrong that I haven’t had that happen to me yet? The only significant thing I felt once was that I was riding on a magic carpet. During the discourse we learned that everyone is different and experiences things differently, and we should not act with wanting and craving. The whole purpose of Vipasanna is to observe things objectively and not react.
By the end of the 10 days I couldn’t believe that we all have made it so far. I was scared of talking and how overwhelmed we all would feel in the real world. I actually started enjoying the silence and felt proud of the progress I had made. We were encouraged to try and continue practicing once we left the center, but I knew that it was going to take a lot of effort from me to continue this regime in the real world. I didn’t want to make any promises to myself that I wouldn’t be able to up keep.
Instead, I thanked myself for taking the time to learn a new technique of meditation. It was what I needed after years of stimulation from the outside world, and the pressure of reality and “how things should be.”
We closed the retreat by giving a donation to the center in order to make it possible for someone else to have the opportunity of the same experience we did. For anyone who is interested in signing up, you can do go to www.dhamma.org. There are centers located all over the world and a few in Southeast Asia, and since we all know traveling is quite stimulating, so you might want to consider putting 10 days of your life aside to this magical experience. Go on, if I could do it, so can you!
About the author:
Alicia Bodington is from South Africa and is truly an adventurer at heart. Most recently, she decided to leave behind her career as a yacht stewardess and start a yearlong journey of traveling new parts of the earth. Now, 13 countries later, and with many more plans on seeing the rest of the world, she’s finding ways to turn those dreams into reality. In the meantime, she likes to share her travel knowledge and is interested in sharing new experiences with anyone who’ll do the same.
If you’d like to read a bit more of her travel stories, don’t hesitate to have a look at her blog: http://aliciabodington.com