I’m on other side of my ten-day meditation course. It was intense. Looking back, I still can’t pinpoint why I decided to take this spiritual boot-camp. Before this course, I had never meditated in earnest. A few short sessions here or there. A guided meditation at a spiritual shop near my house when I lived Los Angeles. I had heard others talk about the benefits of meditation in their lives, so I was curious but not well-versed.
And maybe I took this course exactly because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I signed up. I had read one woman’s hilarious and intriguing recounting of the course in her memoir and from there I knew that it was something I wanted to incorporate into my round the world trip.
But the details of the course, and what it would take for me to complete more than 100 hours in meditation — well that realization only bubbled to the surface as I signed the contract that first day at the center. I scribbled my John Hancock on the line and agreed to stay for the entire ten-day course. The contract also outlined the many restrictions that went along with the course, including “Noble Silence” and no writing. I joked with myself — in my head of course — that I had volunteered for solitary confinement. It was a rigorous course, but on the mental level, not the physical level. I had hiked through the Annapurna Circuit of the Himalayas the week before. I was strong. I was confident. I totally cracked on Day Four. But I stayed, and I learned. And I’m glad for it. Let’s journey back across those 11 days at the Vipassana center outside of Pokhara, Nepal.
All ten-day Vipassana courses follow the same set of rules. Abiding by these rules is a hard and fast requirement of taking a course. The rules read benign enough at first, but which rule challenges each of us depends on our own unique personalities and mental resistance.
Participants sign a contract stating they will stay for the entire course. “Noble Silence” means no spoken or nonverbal communication with anyone except the server and teacher. Noble Silence also means no reading and writing; these are considered both a form of communication, and a meditative activity. Since communication and outside meditation techniques are verboten, you will need to abstain from both of these things as a part of your Noble Silence. There are also Five Precepts to which all abide: No killing of any living creature. No lying. No stealing. No sexual activity. No intoxicants. And finally, participants are asked to suspend all religious practices such as prayers, mantras, and rituals.
Food is restricted. Former students take lemon water at the evening tea break — new students receive a small dish of fruit or puffed rice, and milk tea. Although they prefer you to abide by these, they can often accommodate some health issues. I requested an additional snack to handle my hypoglycemia; they obliged by serving me milk and biscuits at 9:00pm.
4:00am Wakeup Bell
4:30 – 6:30am Meditation
6:30 – 8:00am Breakfast
8:00 – 11:00am Mediation
11:00 – 1:00pm Lunch and teacher interviews
1:00 – 5:00pm Meditation
5:00 – 6:00pm Tea-break
6:00 – 7:00pm Meditation
7:00 – 8:15pm Video teachings with Goenka
8:15 – 9:00pm Meditation
9:30pm Lights out
Pre-Course: Arrival Day
What a gorgeous spot for a Vipassana meditation center. Even after spending last week hiking around the Himalayas, the nature here still wows me. Taxi driver drama filled ensued on the drive out to the center — he wanted to charge us more than our agreed price, which I had verified was a fair rate for the journey. I’m rarely agitated by the daily travel dramas like that, but I was worried that I would miss the orientation and be booted from the entire course before it had even started.
We made it in time. My cousin, friend, and I all shared the cab since we were traveling together — once they heard that I was taking the course they signed up as well. And we plopped our butts into the seats surrounded by about two dozen other people. I’ve heard that some classes have a few hundred students, but our center doesn’t look like it’s capable of holding that many. So it’s just this ragtag group: A handful of other foreigners, and then a large contingent of Nepali and Indian participants too. I’m not sure what I expected, but since the materials on the website were all in English, I suppose I thought there would be more Westerners representing.
The Teacher took control once we had all arrived and began to explain more about the course expectations and what we were looking at for the next ten days of our lives. Ten days had sounded short a year ago, when I decided that I would take a Vipassana course. I had sat in my bedroom dreaming about my yearlong trip around the world. “Why not attend a Vipassana course,” I had thought on a lark.
Now, we have just 45 minutes until Noble Silence begins. Like looking down the barrel of a shotgun, I am staring into the abyss of my innermost thoughts, fears, and feelings. I’m wigging out. I fear the unknown and uncertainty of these coming days.
Can I handle a dozen hours a day of looking inside my own head? In ten days, will I recognize my brain? How much can I learn in ten days?
Those ten days loom on my horizon like an albatross blotting out the light from the sun. But then, ten days is also a just this small chunk of time on the continuum of my life. In any given year, ten days seems insignificant. And yet the clock is ticking toward the beginning of what promises to be the hardest voluntary experience of my life. The inability to take back this decision is rattling me. Mere minutes until Noble Silence. And so it begins.
Day One: So Many Thoughts
The gong startled me from sleep at 4am and within the hour I learned that I had just one task for the day: Focus on the air entering and leaving my nostrils.
For ten hours and forty-five minutes I set my mind to this single goal. My mind raced with thoughts, each thought jammed and jockeying for space in my mind like rush-hour traffic squeezing into the streets of Los Angeles.
My mind wandered. As I pulled my focus to my nostril, suddenly one thought would leap from the window of my car and race through the traffic on a mad dash. I’d careen through time, passing a car filled with memories of my childhood. As I raced past another car, I glimpsed snapshots of every event large and small. Throughout the day, Teacher instructed us to simply pull our focus back to the breath each time our mind wandered.
It became one run-on sentence of a day. No periods, just a chain of thoughts that I would pull away from to refocus on my breath.
There I am eating a peanut butter sandwich at nine-years-old — man, I used to love those, with that thick, gooey feeling on the roof of my — wait! Breath, air, nostril — is that an itch on my nose — OK, whew, got rid of it, kind of like that time I had a cast on my arm… man, did that thing itch to high heaven, but I had read those horror stories of people getting gross infections and so I never — GAH, the breath, right, air coming in, air exiting slowly, too slowly: Alert the troops, Left Nostril is working overtime because Right Nostril is only taking in about 20 percent of the breath — am I getting sick or is this a normal thing that I’ve just never noticed before… is it even possible that Right Nostril just doesn’t show up to work every day?
And so this litany of thoughts continued. Sometimes, instead of listening to the traffic report, my brain would flip to a music station. That’d be fine if it was good music, but instead I have the Nepali trekking songs stuck in my head. I jammed out to Chaati Ma Mero while attempting to keep my focus on the breath and barely succeeding.
Near the end of the day, Teacher allowed groups of two to four people to approach and ask questions. I had some serious concerns, pressing issues of utmost importance. “Teacher, I can’t stop falling asleep, what do I do?”
Teacher responded, “Yes, you are rather fond of sleep aren’t you?”
Hah. I thought I had gotten away with it. Between bouts of song, traffic, and breath focus, I couldn’t always stop my head from doing that jerky head-bobby thing as I fought to stay awake. Teacher told to focus harder on the meditation, double down on my curiosity and attention to detail in the breath. When I did that, he said, I would stop falling asleep. Well, we shall see.
Day Two: Goodbye Cousin of Mine
Another pre-dawn wakeup call and then hours of meditating, but this time the morning meditation included a soundtrack to supersede the one created by the Nepali trekking songs stuck in my head. Goenka’s slow, measured voice fell into the room like a trickling stream of pebbles. His voice is gravely during the changing and I’m having difficulty staying level and measured. Each time Teacher starts the recordings, I shudder a little and try to block it out while I attentively study the nasal cavity.
Oh yes, we graduated from the nostrils, and now can observe our entire nasal cavity. Left Nostril is still laboring alone, with Right Nostril not even pretending like it wants to show up to work. For hours I pulled my thoughts to the nasal cavity, using this focus and time to simply observe the breath. Nothing more, nothing less. Just the breath in my nasal cavity.
The mental traffic continues — there is no beginning or end to my thoughts, they are a stream of babble narrating my every waking, silent moment. Only upside (barely) is that my internal soundtrack changed. I fight to keep it all quiet and meditative in my head, but Madonna’s Like a Prayer sounds across my consciousness in the rhythm of my breathing.
After a full day of sitting yesterday, I am stiff and I was likely a better meditator because I was just too tired to move. Instead I plopped into my place during the evening discourse, trying not to notice that my cousin left earlier that day. She broke my Noble Silence by talking to me, but all I did was blink and sort of shrug in response when she told me that she was returning to Pokhara. I try not to dwell on the fact that she left. Part of me yearns to also go to Pokhara and gorge on food and walk the streets and chat with locals. But I want this — I want to finish this course.
Day Three: It Never Ends
The days are interminably long. Just me, in a hall, on a lake, in Nepal. All day I sit there and focus on my breath. We’ve expanded our task again: Focus on the sensations in the nose area.
Yippee. My enthusiasm wanes and I considering going on strike, just like my Right Nostril, which still isn’t functioning as an air intake hole for my face.
With my cousin gone, I wonder if I should just leave too. I’ve quit so many things in my life — dance, piano, acting. What’s another thing on the laundry list of partial accomplishments? And yet… there is progress. If I’ve done nothing else, I have mastered my ability to focus and easily stay awake. My mind is a steel trap of focus, attentiveness, and awareness.
And yet, my back pain today was intense today. It’s been a couple of years since I last threw out my back, but this could do it. I spent hours just shifting, trying to alleviate the shooting pain pulsing in my butt and back. All the while, I return to my breath. Shooting pain. Sensations in Left Nostril. Numbed ass cheek — oh right, wonder what’s going on in my nasal cavity.
It’s all fun and games over here. I am loving this, really.
Day Four: Desperate to Leave
Like a cosmic joke, Don’t Stop Believing blared through my head. The lyrics bounced around my head, echoing in the early morning quiet. Journey was always the song I used to get pumped up for a night on the town, and now it’s like my mind decided I needed this motivation as I learn the actual Vipassana technique today.
Up until now, we were preparing our minds and bodies for the real work of Vipassana. Three times a day we will now be asked to sit perfectly still for one entire hour. We should refrain from shifting, itching, or any movement of any kind. It was torturously painful and I never made it to the hour mark before succumbing to the urge to shift and release the tension and pain in my back.
I was ready to get the hell out of here by the day’s final session, just before the evening discourse. But when I voiced my desire to leave to the woman serving our course as a volunteer, she indicated that I should talk to Teacher before making any decisions. She also added that I am in the middle of a mental surgery and it’s not safe for me to leave in the middle of the operation.
Each evening, after the final video discourse, we have the opportunity to discuss any issues or problems with Teacher. I waited my turn and then blurted out: “Goenka’s singing is slowly killing my soul.” I pleaded with him to let me go and save me from the urge to kick puppies that comes every time I hear Goenka’s voice.
Teacher, unperturbed by my outburst, asked, “So you want to join your cousin, yes?”
I sputtered, focusing on the fact that I have these violent thoughts careening through my head when I sit for the hourlong Vipassana sessions. His didn’t even pause, he just told me to get sleep, then he grinned when I dragged myself from the question cushion and crawled across the floor in dejection.
Day Five: Resigned to Continue
I made a desperate plea to leave again today, but Teacher effectively shut down all of my arguments. I even brought the teachings of His Holiness Dalai Lama into the discussion. Ultimately, I couldn’t come up a rebuttal for his final question: “How can I say that Vipassana meditation is not for me after just four days of a ten-day course?”
Teacher pointed out that I am only partway through a process that I had committed myself to learning five days earlier. And he has a point. So I stayed. Here I am.
I am struggling through it. Bad memories and past pains geyser from my subconscious during every session. The Vipassana technique is meant to relieve layers of grief and suffering we’ve built over the years. We build these layers of suffering as we pass through our lives and create attachments and aversion toward all manner of things. By practicing the technique, we learn how to peel back those layers no longer hold that suffering within us.
But it’s painful. Even the discourses offer little relief; talk of the afterlife and death remind me of the unfathomable loss of my brother four years ago. All of these hours every day. And so many days left in the course. Thoughts of Bruce fill the moments when I’m not desperately trying to scan my body and focus on the sensations. Any thoughts are better than dwelling on his death.
Day Six: Relieving Tedium
Today we were instructed to continue observing sensations in our body, both pain and pleasure — but to cultivate a non reaction. By default, many of us observe things in our lives and immediately attach a viewpoint of craving or aversion toward that observation. But the Vipassana technique is teaching us to observe equanimity.
In practice, this means that if I observe intense pain shooting through my leg and pulsating across my butt, I should observe the sensation but not wish for it to go away — that would be showing an aversion to the pain. And if a cool breeze enters the hall and flutters my hair across my cheek, I should not wish for it to blow again, but instead observe the sensation without attaching craving to the observation.
And so, I sit. And I observe pain. And my mind drifts to visions of me starring in a kick-ass karate movie. I leap from my spot on the floor with uncanny grace. Then I serve a roundhouse kick to the ninjas surrounding the silent meditators. With their eyes closed, they are unaware of the looming danger. I alone have discovered the dire situation and I alone can save us all. Through an impressive series of flips and punches, I intimidate the ninjas and they flee, leaving the mediators in peace. And I settle back into my seat in the middle of the female side of the meditation hall. And I remember the task at hand. Oh, how could I forget it. Instead of escaping on a cloud of happy, kick-ass visualizations, I focus on my breath and the sensations in my body. Which are pain, so much mental and physical pain.
Day Seven: Not too Bad, Actually
During today’s morning session I discovered that I no longer cringe when I hear Goenka’s singing. What once grated too heavily has become a pleasant addition to the gentle sounds of rain pattering on the meditation hall each day.
We’ve learned of Anicca these past days, the idea that everything in life is impermanent. Nothing lasts forever, no situation and no feeling. It’s because of the very fact of impermanence that we are learning to cultivate a pattern of non-reaction in our lives. If all things are transient in our lives, from pain to joy, then we should not react with craving and aversion — it’s that reaction that creates the suffering. If we crave joyous events, and they don’t happen, then we suffer. Instead, if we observe and move through the joy and pain in equal measure — observing both as impermanent experiences in our lives, we are better able to cultivate a balanced reaction to life.
Each day has bled into the next, with our schedule fixed and never-changing. And yet, life is unexpected and gifts the strangest experiences. The Spanish woman who shares my dorm room — she talks and guffaws in her sleep, which is not a part of this story, but funny nonetheless — walked in on my naked today. The lock on the shower door is faulty, so even though I had it locked, it didn’t stand up against her tugging. She was looking down brushing her teeth while I stood stark naked in the shower stall. Because of my vow of Noble Silence, I refrained from speaking and instead cleared my throat. She squealed and threw the door closed. Minutes later, when I was dry, clean, dressed, and ready to exit, I realized that she had locked the stall from the outside! With not much else to do, I knocked on the door. After about five minutes, she rushed to the shower stalls and when she opened the door we both just burst out in laughter. It all has nothing to do with Vipassana, but it was the humanest of moments in the midst of all this silent introspection.
Day Eight: Feeling Pretty Good
Teacher’s stern face warned us today that we should work very, very seriously in these remaining days in the course. All of the students took this to heart and there is a renewed sense of focus in the meditation hall during our hourlong sittings of “strong determination,” where we try not to move for an entire hour.
I have to admit, this whole thing has gotten easier. Either that, or some part of my consciousness finally caught up with my decision to stick out this course to the end.
I find it easier to now sit for the entire hour. Finding the right sitting position has been key to making it through the sessions. If you had asked me three days ago, I would not have foreseen a day that I could sit in this hall for 11+ hours each day without desperately craving a distraction. And yet, it’s all just not so looming and huge in my head now. I’ve accepted the fact that I am here and my brain is finally focus on the task a hand.
And without the raging thoughts of desperation about leaving the course, a certain balance is creeping into my thoughts. I kinda like it! I don’t know if everyone else feels the same, but I’ve felt a lightening this past few days that have me smiling as I go about my day.
Day Nine: The Home Stretch
Today is more “very, very serious” meditation and I am containing the impulse to dance through the center. Just one more day left. I’ve grown to like the technique in these past few days, and the evening discourses offer intriguing perspectives on life, suffering, and happiness. I wish I could journal all the swirling thoughts, but it’s forbidden. They slip away on the breeze instead, as I refocus on the sensations in my body.
Noble Silence ends tomorrow in the late morning, and we will have discourse for the rest of the day. It’s hard to believe that there are a finite number of hours left in this course. I’m proud of myself for sticking it out. I’m ready to leave, but I’m also so glad that I stayed and worked through the self-doubt, the fear, and the desperation to leave.
Day Ten: A Breath of Fresh Air
Our chatter echoed in an a strange cacophony across the lake this morning. Once we were able to break Noble Silence, our thoughts burst forth like a damn releasing its crushing load of water. Although we will still make our sittings of strong determination throughout the day, we’re also looking outward at how the technique has been used around the world to help eliminate suffering.
The documentary on implementing Vipassana meditation at Tijar Prison, one of India’s toughest prisons, proved fascinating. As a technique and tool, Vipassana focuses on a taking personal responsibility for your suffering. Implementing it in the prison was a calculated move to help the prisoners gain control over their reactions. The program at Tijar turned out to be a surprise success. Many prisoners found solace in the practice. By using this tool, they were handed a structured and specific way to deal with situations out of their control.
Craving and aversion are the root of personal suffering. Since nothing in this world is permanent, Vipassana is a way to develop the mental control that stops suffering at its root. Learning to control your reactions to life allows you to control your personal suffering. Vipassana has given me a technique that I can hone that reprograms my default mental processes responding and reacting to the world around me. I have found value in learning the grounded theory behind Vipassana, the rules of practice, and also stories of how it’s changed the lives of others.
As we chatted, we were all proud to make it through the course and to have learned this valuable tool. Where we all go from here — whether any or all of us continue practicing each day — it’s an accomplishment to have committed the ten days to learning the technique. Tonight as I journal this experience these past days, I feel lighter and able to cope with both positive and negative situations in a balanced way. I have a few more days traveling Nepal, and I hope to continue my travels with an eye toward cultivating equanimity in my life.
Considering a Vipassana course? Download the Beginner’s Guide to Vipassana Meditation — it has all of the practical advice and information you need to decide if you should take a Vipassana Meditation course, as well as what to do to prepare.
Also, this post shares my analysis from six months and eight years later, as well as other recommended readings for anyone thinking about taking a Vipassana meditation course.