Where it started
For years I’ve known of meditation as a recommended practice for my over-active life, although I’ve never felt able to sit for 1 minute focusing on my body and mind. Indeed, getting involved in so many projects and being in touch with so many people at the same time has been my strategy to avoid facing my own self, which I used to consider worthless and unattractive. In 2016, I started to switch from “outer travels” to “inner travels”, realizing that discovering “the way things work inside” could be as interesting as exploring the world.
I then heard about 10-day Vipassana courses and the whole concept of silent meditation retreats, in centers that are run by volunteers and donations, not affiliated with any religion or sect.
Learn more about it here.
Such a concept caught my attention and it became a new personal challenge that I wanted to do at least once in my life. I called for feedback on social media: “Hi friends, have some of you heard of this Vipassana 10-day course?” I surprisingly got many interesting answers and comments from my international community of friends, basically ranging from “go for it, I did it and it is life changing” to “be very careful, it can be traumatizing as a beginner meditator ”. Two years passed before I successfully registered into my first retreat, during this time I started to meditate 10 minutes here and there on my own, using apps such as Calm and Headspace that help to focus on your body sensations. Even though no practice is required before your first Vipassana course, I consider that a light training is better than nothing.
In June 2018, I enrolled in my first class after a 12-month contract abroad and before going back to settle in my country. But I could not have hoped for a better transition and I like the idea that such retreats can help you separate “life chapters”. I did enjoy my first retreat despite all the expected ups and downs. While I do not remember every moment, I do remember finding a sentence on my first retreat’s last day that sums pretty much my feelings:
“Vipassana hurts your back at first, then it starts to heal your soul.”
Below are a few more insights about my experiences.
Work, work, work
While stepping into a Dhamma center for the first time, I quickly realized that Vipassana has nothing to do with resting or relaxing: it is not a wellness retreat as you can find many (despite all the warnings). Being called a “student”, I was constantly reminded to “work very seriously, diligently, continuously, ardently”.
The course is designed to sit for 8 to 10 hours a day on your cushion, away from any distractions and entertainment which requires discipline. All the center is silent except the bell that rings several times a day according to a precise timetable. The contact prohibition (visual, vocal, genders separated, no sexy clothing) forces you to remain with your own self during the whole time with very reduced number of activities: Meditating, drinking water, stretching, eating, laying down, showering, hair brushing, teeth brushing, clothes hand washing, hearing the evening discourses, sleeping.
It is a cultural shock to dive out of time and space, in such a monastic routine and I am thankful to have embraced it – although I would not live like this every day, I kind of almost miss it once in a while!
A balance to find between awareness and equanimity
First, I want to remind the reader that I do not feel credible enough to share about the technique itself in detail: this article is just about my own experience and takeaways.
I understood that both the techniques that are taught during a course (Anapana and Vipassana) are tools to clean the stack of misery generated constantly through en-rooted mind patterns (craving and aversion) that causes negativity. I learnt about equanimity as the concept of not reacting (or observing as neutrally as possible) when encountering a thought or sensation. Remaining equanimous would hence help oneself and indirectly all other beings “to feel real peace, real harmony, real happiness” and then, in a way, working for a better world.
Although embracing Vipassana has been beneficial for me, I would say that it can be very tough: no pain avoided –mental or physical. To me, rather than avoiding the pain or discomfort (mental or physical), it is all about managing it to prevent it from turning into suffering which becomes much more unbearable. By practicing the technique I regularly get to face my own misery and frustrations, which is of course painful at the start, but so necessary to improve afterwards. It is about understanding the impermanence (Anicca), in other words: it is not because I feel miserable right now that I have no value and that my state of mind can’t be fixed in the next hour.
Body and mind’s unexpected power
The technique had me digging quite deeply into myself. Some memories I had never remembered before came up, like a big introspection. The only time I requested an interview with a teacher was to share my issue of having random music playing in my mind, almost all day long! She comforted me saying that such things are normal for some people (I am born in a family of musicians) and that I should just keep on focusing on the technique without trying to suppress it.
I had real surprises about how my body could sit for so long and recover so quickly, despite the daily back pains especially while waking up every morning. I also realized that it seems easier to overcome the ups and downs when you already love yourself. Being the only company I would hang out with every day and night would have been much more difficult back in time when I was struggling with my self-esteem.
The Metta day (last day) of both of my courses were very powerful moments and I think many other students would say so. Twice, the last meditation session made me feel a lot of love, compassion and forgiveness, all very liberating. The permission to talk after that last hour of sitting suddenly turned the silent center into a real, euphoric beehive. I was surprisingly not excited at all to have my personal items returned and it took me a while to switch on my phone, a first step back to this crazy world!
About being a servant
Between my 1st and my 2nd retreat I volunteered as a servant for a 5-day “sit & serve” and really enjoyed working with like-minded people, feeling the peaceful atmosphere of the centers and having the opportunity to maintain the practice 3 times a day, complementary to the working hours. I wish I could enroll in another class soon and then manage to alternate courses as a student and as a servant, maybe one per year.
One last word
If you haven’t done any Vipassana course and you are curious about digging into yourself and taming your mind, go for it! Although I admit it may not be for everyone and maybe not for every moment of life. An advanced student once told me that the first course is not always the hardest, even though you know what to expect when you enroll in your next courses. It depends more on what kind of burden you arrive with, and therefore essential to remain patient and aware that everything is impermanent.
For me, it is well worth the effort.
If you’re interested in reading more Vipassana stories, click here.