|Photo by courtesy of: Inoursuitcase blog|
I heard for the first time about the Vipassana retreat nearly 6 years ago when I was doing a one month Buddhist course at the Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu. A girl told me about her experience and I immediately liked the idea. 10 days of intensive meditation sounded just awesome. When I started this journey, over a year ago I knew I was going to do it at some moment or another, I was just waiting for the right time. I kept meeting new friends who would tell me how awesome the experience is and highly recommend it to me.
Finally I got the opportunity to do it in Kathamandu, Nepal. I was a bit nervous before the retreat. I kept asking myself... "will I make it? will I be able to finish it?" I have practiced meditation before but I never did such an intense practice ever. Luckily I did survived ;-) It was a great experience and I can definitely recommend it to anybody
But no, I didn't became enlightened and I still can't levitate ;-) After the retreat I came back to Thamel, a very touristic area in Kathmandu. Not spiritual at all but very convenient since you can find everything here. In the nights while walking in the busy streets of Thamel every five meters there is always someone trying to sell me Hashish or Marihuana. I get so annoyed and some times I just feel like giving them a good kick like when King Leonidas kick the Persian messenger down the well and shout "This is Spaaaarta!"... I would shout "I don't want Haaaashish!". click here to watch Leonidas' kick. (warning: watch it at your own risk). But at least I'm aware of my negative emotions ;-)
Ten days of noble silence
One of the requirements to do the Vipassana retreat is to practice silence for the 10 days of the duration of the retreat. It is called noble silence which means to avoid any sort of communication with any body, even hand gestures or eye contact, no reading, no writing and certainly not listening to an mp3 player. Actually right from the beginning they asked us to deposit our books, notebooks, any writing material and/or any mp3 player and mobile phones in the safe room. One of the reasons for the noble silence, as explained by Goenka, was to avoid telling any lies, which is one the of the five Buddhist Precepts.
I didn't find the silence difficult at all. Actually I didn't "feel" the silence. Maybe because there were so many people in this retreat, about 170! or because we had to listen to the evening discourses. But the main reason is probably because I have already spend plenty of time by myself. I've been traveling alone in India for already one year and although I have met a lot of great people I have also had the opportunity to spend plenty of time in solitude like my stay in Kukuchina, Dunagiri Hills in North India.
And I thought I would have "withdrawal symptoms" for not being able to use my iPhone and the internet.... for ten days! But surprisingly I didn't miss them at all... The funny thing is that as soon as the retreat was over the first thing that I did was to recharge my phone and spend hours and hours online :-P
There were some moments when I found the silence a bit uncomfortable. I was sharing my room with another guy and it was very weird not to talk with him. When we were both in the room I had to ignore him to avoid any communication and in the evening and mornings it just felt weird not to be able to say "good night" or "good morning". Well, is not a big thing, at the end of the retreat we all laugh about this.
Ten days of intense meditation
We had quite a busy schedule. From 4.30 am till 9.30 pm doing nothing but meditation, mediation and meditation. I loved it. The days felt pretty long and sometimes after finishing a meditation session I would feel like it is lunch or dinner time but then the teacher would say "take rest for 5 minutes and then come back to the meditation hall, take rest". Then I would think "Wow, another meditation session? Awesome!"
A fun experience. Don't take life too seriously
Believe it or not although it was a silent retreat I had lots of fun. I found so many reasons to laugh about. For instance every day we had a morning meditation starting at 4.30 am until 6.30 am, yep two hours straight of sitting meditation. The meditation would end with a chanting by Goenka that lasted for about 30 minutes. Now, I really like Goenkaji, he is a really nice man, but chanting is not his thing. Well, I'm sure some people would find it beautiful.
After one hour an a half of sitting meditation you are already struggling with the mind and then Goenka's chanting starts.... some days it would become almost impossible for me to continue. Definitely a good way to practice equanimity. And just when you think "Oh finally... it is over!" (you'll know it cause every lecture and meditation ends with an specif mantra that is recited at the end) he starts chanting again. It just makes me laugh.
I like how Goenkaji's speaks, he always like to repeat some words twice or three times and veeery sloooooowly. When starting a meditation session he would say "staaaart again...... staaaart again..... staaaaart with a caaaaalm and steeeeady mind.....". Other words Goenkaji would say are "Aniccaaaaaa (pronounced Anitcha: impermanence)...., aniccaaaaaa.....;" and at the end of the meditations "take rest.... take rest...". And my favorite one "you are bound to be successful.... bound to be successful....". I love that one. I was repeating it very loudly in my mind when I was trying to stay completely still for one hour regardless of the pain "you are bound to be successful.... bound to be successful...."
The coughing, burping and farting meditation
Another thing that made me laugh constantly was the coughing, burping and farting. We were around 170 people, probably 95% were Indians and Nepaleese and only 5% westerners. In rural areas of countries like India and Nepal burping and farting is nothing to be ashamed about, even for women. I had previous experiences when working at an Indian office somebody talking to me would barp directly at my face without even blinking an eye and continue the conversation like if nothing had happened.
One day, probably around the 6th day, after the morning mediation was over and Goenka's chanting started, right after the first word of the chant somebody farted pretty loud. Guess what happened.... silence or no silence we all laughed.
There were also a lot of people with throat problems, specially in the mornings which I attribute to lack of cleanliness and humidity in the rooms. When these people would cough it sounded like their lungs were coming out of their chest (none of the westerners had throat problems) and sometimes the coughing seems to be contagious so when you are in the meditation hall if somebody cough then another person might cough and then all of a sudden it would be like a coughing concert.
All this didn't bother me at all, it didn't really disturb my meditation, it just put a nice smile on my face. One thing that did bother me was that as soon as we would leave the hall some of this coughing people would clean their throats with a horrible sound and then spit whatever they have inside just right after the sign that said "Do Not Spit Outside Meditation Hall". It felt almost like if somebody was spitting on my neck! And this happened not only on the male section but also on the women area.
Oh by the way, men and woman were located in different areas to avoid any contact and they did a very good job because you couldn't see them at all. We would only see each other in the meditation hall. All men had sit on the left side of the hall and all women on the right side and all western men were located on the leftmost side of the hall and all western women on the rightmost side of the hall. I guess they don't trust western habits ;-)
The morning rituals
Early in the mornings upon wake up time, around 4 am, you can hear how local people clear their throats. This is a very common practice in India and I guess is something like Dhauti, a yogic cleansing technique where one force himself to through up after drinking saline water to clean the digestive track. One morning one guy was so loud that we didn't need any bell to wake us up, my roommate and I start laughing at 4am after listening to this guy morning "rituals". A good way to start the day.
So I would always started my meditations with a good smile on my face. I would even laugh at myself when I would think about my behavior when playing with the insects around the meditation center.
What to do on the free time? Spider watching!
We had two "long" breaks during the day, after breakfast and after lunch from 7.00 till 8.00 and from 11.30 till 13.00. Since it was not possible to read or write I found in the insects around the center a good way to keep myself entertained. The Kathmandu Vipassana Center is located in a beautiful wildlife reserve so you can find all sort of weird insects and animals.
I loved to watch the spiders (as long as they are not in my room I'm ok with them). It was nice to see how they build their spider webs. I learned a lot about them just by observing. But unconsciously my inner child came out and I decided to "feed" the spiders. So every time that a mosquito would approach me I would catch it and through it to the spider web. Now, this is definitively not the kind of thing that you do in a Buddhist retreat, specially because right at the beginning we took the five precepts (something like vows) and one of them was "Not Harming Any Sentient Being"! Finally after a FEW days of playing I asked myself "Why am I doing this?.... well, I'm just feeding the poor spiders that don't catch anything almost all day long.. Come on, be honest with yourself! ok ok... I just want to see how they do it, how their spider web works and how they catch their food"
So from that moment on I decided not to continue with this habit pattern and just observe the spiders without interfering with their life, or the mosquitoes life. I thought about the mosquitoes and the relationship that I've had with them since I was a child. A love and hate relationship, they love me and I hate them. They love me so much that I even got Dengue when I was at school!
But then I thought about how difficult their life is. Just think about it, every time that they need to go for food they risk to be smashed by somebody's hand and on top of that their bodies are so fragile and they are not as quick as flies.. luckily. So finally I made peace with them and left behind all those years of war. But... it didn't last too long... a day after the retreat was over I was having breakfast in the garden of a restaurant in Kathmandu and I unconsciously smashed a mosquito as soon as it landed on my arm. I guess we need to review that "peace" agreement. :-D
Now you must be thinking... "this guy is really weird". Well.... What did you expect after 10 days of intense meditation? All that negative stuff is coming out!
Ok, that was fun but is you really want to know about the good stuff then continue reading