10 Day Silent Meditation Course
Oh, my! Can you believe that 1. I participated in a meditation course and 2. I lasted the entire 10 days? I am going to guess your answer was a simple “‘No!” Good, we are on the same page. Oh, wait… let me blow your mind a little bit more. It was a SILENT meditation course. How do like me now?! Eh?! Alright, jokes aside the course was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. Needless to say I wasn't the one who suggested going to one of these courses but Loren really wanted to do it and I wanted to be a good sport so here we are. I should mention that I am writing this whilst seated in my meditation cell. Yep, I am not supposed to be writing in my cell, actually not at all… but more on that later.
Again, Loren was really getting into meditation even way back in the States and she thought it would be really cool and beneficial if we did a meditation retreat while traveling, especially while visiting India, the motherland of meditation. So she did her homework and stumbled upon Vipassana - a meditation technique famous and offered almost everywhere around the world (click here to see the schedule for the courses). We knew we would be in India in November so she chose a class that worked with our dates and we were set to go! Now, before all of you “Eat, Pray, Love” freaks get excited..notice that I have not mentioned the word retreat at all… Class, Course, Boot camp, Torture camp are more suitable to describe what we had signed up for. Why? When I hear the word retreat a picture comes to my mind - a lovely resort complex located in a serene, spiritual area in the middle of some stunning landscape, birds chirping, people sitting under a tree, meditating, becoming one with nature while enjoying some delicious, vegan, grain-free, gluten-free snacks made by a world renowned chef…
Ours was kinda like that…..except a few small differences:
1. Rules (yep, rules…)
- no talking, no sign language, no communication of any kind with your fellow meditators. They call it “noble silence”
- no exercise (except slow walks around the path are ok)
- no reading, no writing (yes, I am still writing this during the course)
- no WiFI, no phones, no technology
- dress code - given we are in India, this one isn't that surprising but still worth mentioning. So the specifics: no tank tops, no shorts, no leggings, nothing revealing shoulders or knees, no see-through or anything too tight
- no sex - with yourself or someone else
- no contact with anyone from the opposite sex
2. The Schedule:
4:00 am Wake up
4:30 am - 6:30 am Meditation
6:30 am - 8:00 am Breakfast / Rest
8:00 am - 9:00 am Group Meditation
9:00 am - 11:00 am Meditation
11:00 am - 1:00 pm Lunch / Rest
1:00 pm - 2:30 pm Meditation
2:30 pm - 3:30 pm Group Meditation
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm Meditation
5:00 pm - 6:00 pm Tea / Rest
6:00 pm - 7:00 pm Group Meditation
7:00 pm - 8:30 pm Discourse (Theory time)
8:30 pm - 9:00 pm Group Mediation
9:00 pm - 9:30 pm Questions with the teacher
9:30 pm Lights out
A few specifications:
*Group Mediation - the entire group meditates together in the main hall: no breaks are allowed, meaning no one can leave the hall, no moving
*Meditation - held primarily in the main hall, sometimes in the private cells located inside the Pagoda; short breaks allowed (5-10 min)
3. The course in NOT associated with any religion and it accepts people from every race, religion, nationality, etc.
4. It is completely FREE
Again, if you want something out of “Eat, Pray, Love” then this is definitely not the “retreat” for you. But if I still haven't painted you a clear picture, then let me start with day 0, the day we arrived. From the minute we got there we were in for a shock. We didn't expect a 5 star resort given it’s a free course but we also didn't expect what we walked into… First, we had to sign in so we were directed to a building situated in the middle of the complex. The walls were sort of falling apart, scraped tables were set along said walls and dirty, plastic chairs were placed in front of the tables. Hung on one of the walls we spotted a sign “Dining Hall” so we were like “Great, no better place to have a meal after waking up at 4 am and spending our day meditating for 14 hours.”
Enough complaining though…moving forward with the story…
It was simple enough, we filled out paperwork which included writing down the same information in 3 different books, completed one form (the same as the application we had to submit online before being accepted), and showed our passports and we were finally checked in. Full disclosure : we lied and said we didn't know each other although we didn’t try very hard to hide it as we had the same emergency contact and home addresses… Now you know we broke 2 of the rules but the only reason why we did that was to get a room together otherwise I don’t know if I could have made it.
Mission successful, room #23 was ours! We located our home for the next 10 days and surprise numero dos (that’s Spanish for number 2) it was worse than the dining hall. Again, we expected pretty basic accommodation (I know, we sound like such brats but I swear we are not that bad…) but what we were given was pretty rough primarily because of the cleanliness and the strong mold smell filling the room. Our sleeping quarters were made of two cement beds atop of which were very thin mattress pads, two luggage shelves each, a fan, a light, clothing lines and a bathroom. As an added bonus to the mold smell we also got crumbing dry wall, a dirty and smelly bathroom, mosquitos, roaches and other fun insects. As budget travelers we are used to staying in pretty basic accommodation but the deal breaker for me is mold and the smell of mold… Aside from the health risk, it’s just gross. Since, I wasn’t too keen on being there in first place - I was already being a Debbie Downer and contemplating leaving. I sucked it up though…. I had to support my other half despite how much it sucked already.
The rest of the complex consisted of a meditation hall, a pagoda, our residential quarters and a small path. Since men and women weren't supposed to be in contact during the ten days we had completely different areas but I assume the men didn’t get anything different or better than us. Oh, yes! I almost forgot to mention that the Dhamma Setu Complex is located near the fairly busy Chennai International Airport. So it’s really f$%#^&* zen. I admit now that towards the end I was thankful for the plane noise… it broke the silence a little bit and it reminded me that there is a world out there where people enjoyed life.
The official start of the course wasn't until after dinner so in the meantime we got the opportunity to meet some our fellow meditators. Then, after a simple meal of Upta (nickname for the Southern Indian dish) and a brief presentation we began our 10 day silent journey into the world of self-development and meditation.
I won’t bore you with more daily details since most of my days were spent meditating but here’s the important part of the how, where and what the meditation was.
How and Where - we were all assigned a pillow on the floor which we were supposed to occupy every time when summoned to the Dhamma Hall. Sitting crossed legged on the thin pillow for over 10 hours a day was a bit of a challenge. Ok, that’s an understatement…. It really freaking sucked. We westerners are not used to sitting crossed legged to begin with, but for someone like me who has back problems it was even more painful. Even the first day I knew I wouldn't last 10 days sitting like this. I know, I wasn't the only one experiencing pain but after 2 days my knees, lower back and neck were throbbing and I felt helpless. Since some women were allowed to switch from a pillow to a chair I decided to ask the teacher for one of those magical, plastic chairs. To my despair, the teacher declined my request explaining that chairs are only for older women, women who have had surgeries or disabilities. The idea of packing up my bag and leaving seemed more and more tempting. In my defense, I had just endured 3 weeks of severe pain caused by muscle spasm and some sort of nerve irritation brought on by our awesome road trip through Vietnam (more on that soon). I swear, I wasn't being just a big baby, I had serious reasons to ask for that damn chair!
Anyway, I put on my big girl panties and continued to struggle during meditation. If it sounds sort of counterproductive it is… The pain is supposed to teach you a lesson, you are supposed to reach a state of mind during which you recognize that the pain is temporary so you should overcome it and you become unbothered by it. Well, easier said than done! The pain was so strong that I couldn't think about anything else but about how much my body was hurting. So yes, counterproductive is the only way to describe it.
Day 4 is when I really hit rock bottom… The pain, the mold smell and just being a prisoner really got to me. Somehow I made it passed lunch and while I was sitting there pretending to meditate and deliberating whether to stay or go, one of the teacher’s assistants came to me to tell me that I wasn't focused and that I needed to stay calm. Damn right I wasn't focused let alone calm! She took me to the teacher who also told me to calm the f%^& down and focus which opened Pandora’s box… As calm and politely as I could, I explained to her that my back pain was so bad that I couldn't focus or sit still. I knew I wouldn't get a chair so I asked to move next to the wall hoping I would be able to lean against the wall and get some relief that way. What happened next blew my mind… the teacher gave me this puzzled look and said, “Why don't you grab a chair? You should have asked me earlier!”. Inside my head I was like “I did! I asked a few days ago! You are the one who told me NO!” but all that came out of my mouth was, “Thank you!” I guess mediation was already working... I would have gone off on her before. Five minutes later one of her assistants brought a chair out for me and I was saved from the pillow torture. What bliss! The rest of day 4 and going forward was a lot more productive and enjoyable.
So what is Vipassana? Simply said, it’s a meditation technique which focuses on breathing. There is no constant chanting during meditation, no music, no beads to count and no extra “help” so to speak. We were supposed to observe our breathing pattern without changing it, observe different emotions without reacting to them, observe sensations of the body without doing anything about them (no scratching if it itches, no moving if it hurts, etc).
Before the course even started I was worried about the schedule. Waking up at 4am doesn't sound very fun or easy. I consider myself an early riser but waking up before dawn is a little too early even for me. Another potential issue in my mind was the food schedule. I am one of those people that gets hangry. You know the feeling when you get angry because you are hungry? Yep, that’s me! To my surprise neither the sleeping nor food schedules were a problem. The food was quite good and there was plenty of it, so no complaints there. The vow of silence was also a concern but since everyone was silent there wasn’t much temptation to speak and being silent was actually pretty nice.
So what’s the verdict you ask… Was it worth it? Did it change me? Should you do it?
YES, YES and YES!
I won’t lie that being there for 10 days is hard - both mentally and physically. Being a prisoner with 50 other people and not being able to talk about everything happening is hard. Being tired and in pain is hard. Sitting still for 10-12 hours a day is hard even for the laziest, non-active people. But in the end I have to admit that I am glad I did it and I didn't quit half way. I am not one for meditation, maybe not in the conventional way at least, since it’s hard for me to sit still and not think about anything. I believe I have found my own way to meditate - driving a motorbike through Vietnam - for example, is one of them. I manage not to think about anything while I drive and just enjoy the changing scenery passing by me. Maybe I shouldn't call it meditation but for me it has the same effect.
The course however gave me time to think and since I was the only person to keep myself company - I guess I really got to know myself which was hard and liberating at the same time. Modern day society, especially our generation the so-called millennials are too busy all the time, we don't take the time to just be alone since we are always at work or with friends, or in front of a TV or a computer. We know so much about everyone else through Instagram, Facebook, gossip tabloids and news sources but what do we know about who we really are? Not the image we try to portray through our social media accounts but really, truly who we are? Dang, that’s all so philosophical but you have to agree with me. We have forgotten to take time to be alone and look inside our own lives rather than into everyone else’s.
Another part that I really liked was the philosophy of Vipassana, it is similar to other Buddhism-related philosophies which teach love and compassion. The biggest difference here is that Vipassana is not associated with any religion… Although, it is intertwined to Buddhism you do not have to be a Buddhist to practice Vipassana. It is more of a lifestyle than a religion. There are no shrines, temples, churches or mosques to visit. There is no man in the sky to praise day and night. It is all up to you! You and only you can change your life for the better, you and only you can learn how to be compassionate and how not to get obsessed or stressed over the small things.
So should you do it? Yes, please do! Do not let my experience deter you. We are all different people so the course will give you a special and specific experience as it will be unlike anyone else’s. What you get out of it depends on you and only you. Whether you go there to learn how to meditate or to just get out of the hustle and bustle of your daily life the class will teach you something and you have nothing to lose since it has the attractive price of free. Donate though, pay it forward and help someone else get closer to a better life. Learn more about Vipassana here.