I planned attending this retreat for months. To get a place in it, I had to sign up about 4 months before and was still lucky to get a spot, it was a dual language courses (this one was English – Vietnamese). Ideally you sign up for a course in the night when they open the registration on the Vipassana website.
After spending the day and night before hiking in the beautiful area in the Blue Mountains, I arrived in the afternoon at the center (Dhamma Bhumi in Blackheath) to register. I was suprised how comfortable accommodation and food was, the whole course is by donation and is organised and run completely by volunteers. I shared a double room with a girl that looked super familiar to me, minutes before the start of noble silence I realised: I had attended her Yoga class in Byron Bay months before.
So after the introduction to the center we were still allowed to speak, but in the evening the course starts and from then on I kept my mouth shut and looked down on the floor, only sometimes whispering to myself when I was alone and looking at myself in the mirror.. Most of the course was instruction played from a tape from the founder S.N. Goenka himself, everything translated into Vietnamese also played from a tape. Goenka loves to chant old songs, we listened to a good number of his singings daily. I remember sitting still for the instruction on the first evening and after 30 minutes without moving my legs were in sharp pain. I deeply regretted my hiking activities from the last two days at that moment. But anyway I expected some pain, although I had meditated daily in the last months, mostly around 20-40 minutes per day…
|4:00 am||Morning wake-up bell|
|4:30-6:30 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|6:30-8:00 am||Breakfast break|
|8:00-9:00 am||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-11:00 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|11:00-12:00 noon||Lunch break|
|12noon-1:00 pm||Rest and interviews with the teacher|
|1:00-2:30 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|2:30-3:30 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|3:30-5:00 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|5:00-6:00 pm||Tea break|
|6:00-7:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|7:00-8:15 pm||Teacher’s discourse in the hall|
|8:15-9:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-9:30 pm||Question time in the hall|
|9:30 pm||Retire to your own room–lights out|
Every morning a gong woke us up at 4:00 am and I clearly remember the strong vibrations going through my deeply sleeping body. Although the first two hours you could actually stay in your room and meditate there, I got up every day for one simple reason: Meditation is easiest for me in the early morning when the mind is still fresh, I was hoping for some early “success”. In the middle of the second hour, a tape starts with Goenka’s chanting for about 30 minutes. I was a bit shocked in the first morning, the chanting made me very sleepy and was quite disturbing to me.
Considering myself not a beginner meditator anymore, I had a difficult start that morning. Two hours of chaos in my brain and mind, crazy short thoughts that were even hard to follow. I couldn’t even focus on the breath in my nose for more than 10 seconds. My back didn’t find it’s natural middle straight meditation position, I was unhappy with the pillows they provided… So I quickly got frustrated and it got even worse in the second hour, the chanting made me doze off several times and I did not like it. My thoughts became even more incoherently and I had no control over them. The others in the hall disturbed me, there was lots of movement and coughing. Having been so excited to be here for months, I was suprised about my feelings that morning. The teacher allowed us to meditate in our rooms from 9.00-11.00 am, but that didn’t make it easier for me either, I just couldn’t believe how slowly the time was passing! Longest morning of my life.
So I was by choice back in the hall after the lunch break, knowing I wouldn’t really meditate in my room. This time I tried it with earplugs and finally found a possible position for my body, my legs were numb quickly but at least I could keep my back upright and found a little bit of depth following my breath. In the afternoon I struggled again, it was like my body and mind deeply resisted the whole new situation!
I had so many weird thoughts and never really realized when I was fully caught in them. The moment I caught myself, it was like waking up from a dream, I couldn’t even recall all the things I was thinking about.
In the evening I felt a bit better, I realised that the moment a pain starts in my body, it takes over my perception and is in my focus. Whenever I focus on relaxing and observing my breath, it starts to be bearable. But like with thoughts, I quickly fall back into my old habit of tuning into the pain. I always moved my legs to not having to face the pain anymore after half an hour..
I quite enjoyed the first video discourse that evening, I really liked to listen to Goenka’s explanations and he even spoke about tension. It was a long day though, I was quite tired and definitly not used to 10 hours of meditation in one day.
In the next days I slowly adapted to the retreat situation, I felt my level of awareness rise and my thoughts slow down. At the same time my body still refused to give in, all my muscles started to hurt and I had a strong pain in my upper back. I got really tired and then was very sleepy in the meditation hall. In the end I decided to take it slow – I attended as many meditation session in the hall as I could, but I also took a lot of breaks, lied down for short naps in my bed and tried to relax deeply. I had the feeling that if I do too much, I couldn’t take the tension anymore that was building up in my body. So I would make myself a hot bottle several times a day and lie on it until my whole back was soft. Like that I had a few deep meditative moments where I was able to only observe and follow the instructions. And on the other hand I experienced a lot of struggle and giving in, whenever the pain got too strong, I changed position.
On the third day I went to meditate in the hall after lunch break although I could have stayed in my room. I made it through the hour only changing my legs once, but my back was killing me, it was hard to focus.. Normally we were allowed to have a break and stay in our rooms after that hour, but it’s up to the teachers instruction. So that day they wanted us to stay and meditate another hour. I moaned inside, I was already over it! At the same time I knew that this is just what I need: Some pressure, some desperation. I took a strong sitting position and followed the instruction with strong determination, giving no attention to any body needs. And I was right (or better the teacher), I finally got into the zone – finding focus, ease and deeply tuning into the observed area energetically, although (or maybe because?) my body was not happy at all.
Later that day I could pretty much feel the way the pain impulses reach my brain, making it so hard to focus on anything else and tensening my body and brain area. I know that there is a way to go on another level of experience, but it is really hard to enter it consciously for me. Often I fail and give in, feeling desperate. Some lucky times I suddenly feel like in a higher sphere and deeply connected with my whole body and not only the pain area. One of my big problems is of course, that I value my meditative experiences that way in blissfull, focused, painful, tired and so on. Some of them making me happy, some angry or annoyed.
Goenka reminded us every day not to judge any experience! Whenever I categorize anything as bad I will try to avoid it in the future, whenver I enjoy something, I will crave it in the future and both is taking me out of my non judgemental observing of the complete actual moment. This is the deep root of my suffering and I know it, but it’s all I do and have ever done and it is very hard to get out of that mode. I want to learn to perceive everything from a wide angle and not cling to anything in future or past.
In another meditation session I suddenly perceived myself like a 3 metres high shadow, twisted in itself. The perception of the material body faded completely, I only felt energies and couldn’t really locate them. Until the pain sensation took over and brought me back. Two hours later again, I was deeply tuned into the rhythm of my soft breath, my being super light and heavy at the same time. In the discourse afterwards Goenka described how everything is only vibration, as described in metaphysics and in the old indian scriptures, although we experience the physical as hard and manifested in our daily life. I deeply connected to his teachings in the evenings, doing some light stretchings on my pillow. His instructions are very clear and easy to follow, but in the first days the instructed point of focus for our meditations gets smaller and harder and I definitly struggle to keep my awareness on this point for hours.
It was not easy to wake up in the mornings in the darkness at 4:00 am, often having wild deams and realising that it’s time now to meditate for two hours before breakfast. One morning, the first half hour I kept noding off and then I put all my determination together and sat straight like a candle, pure focus on the hair above my lip for 60 minutes, until I found myself in a deep awareness. Other mornings I just talked to my thoughts and couldn’t believe how useless and frustrating they are.
I have to admit that I struggled with Goenka’s chanting at some point, same with his repeating explanation style and the Vietnamese translation on top, I had many moments, where I felt myself revolting against this form of teaching. At the same time I can totally see where this is coming from in me (some form of fighting ego). And then whenever I felt connected in deep meditation, his voice would vibrate beautifully in every cell of my body. I remember that the about an hour long introduction into the Vipassana technique felt like a never ending torture to me and in the same afternoon when I finally started practicing it, I quickly felt it connecting all my bodyparts energetically.
Finally, day 4 and 5 mark a turning point for me, moving from Anapana (observing the breath in small parts of the body) in the first days to the Vipassana technique (step by step observing the whole body). Observing the body parts one after the other made me more and more feel my body as a whole and took my attention from disturbing thoughts or burning pain. Of course it wasn’t always easy from here on, I changed my legs and back position many times earlier than I was supposed to, my mind gave me lots of things to fantasize about and I deeply wished I could have a chair or a backrest.
In every break I enjoyed the food like a feast (I feel we were extra lucky because some of the cooking volunteers were Vietnamese, it was delicious!), went for short walks soaking in the beautiful nature of the center and made sure I relaxed my body as much as I could. I started to wear more clothes than necessary, because I couldn’t bear any new tension or stiffness and rather wanted to be nicely warm and sweat a little bit more.
While Goenka told us in the evening not to react to any positive or negative feelings in the body or mind to stop the never ending circle of expectaions, suffering and dissappointments, my meditations vary from torturous in the afternoon to enlightening in the evening and early mornings. Quite hard not to react to that! I kept telling myself: Don’t react, just observe objectively and try to feel the whole body, the whole moment, don’t put the focus on one part of it.
One evening I was too energized to fall asleep for a long time, but instead of getting frustrated, I followed Goenka’s instruction and accepted the situation and just relaxed. Since the day when we were allowed to observe our whole bodies step by step, it got easier and easier for me and I quickly added bodyparts together and felt sensations and energies all over my body. A few days later, Goenka instructed us to move flows of energy through our limbs and it was like I waited for this and it came really naturally for me.
I wish I could say that after a few days I was able to be ok with the pain in my legs, but actually only the first hour in the mornings I could take it. Over the day I mostely changed my legs after 30-45 minutes. At the same time I made peace with that: I accepted that the pain will probably never go away, switching to an awareness of the whole body is all I can do. Sometimes I forced myself to meditate through a pain that didn’t feel healthy anymore, sweat running down my back, quite a lot of tension in my whole system – after some time of not reacting and keep feeling all over, there were moments when the pain just didn’t matter anymore or even a feeling of being a level higher than the pain consciousness. The problem was just, that all the next meditations were then even harder, because the muscles got sore from that.. Sometimes I also had to laugh inside about myself, sitting there in pain and super tense but with a fake smile over my lips telling myself: “This is not a new Samkara, not a new Samkara…”
The moments of free time, when I ate, observed nature or lied down and relaxed, brought me deep joy and relief, the food was so incredibly delicious, the trees, leaves, flowers and birds got more colorfull and beautiful every day. Many of us made small pictures with stones and leaves on the ground. Sometimes the kangurus hang out in front of the dorm and I was deeply fascinated by their slow and unusual movements.. But I also helt myself back: I made sure I never eat until I am full (knowing that it will make me sleepy) and stop myself from eating sugar, milk products or white rice (because I was scared to get a cold, like nearly everyone around me). One day I even had to stop watching the kangurus because I just needed to lie down for a moment otherwise I felt I wouldn’t survive the next session.
Already day 7! I was super relieved to realise that the pain in my upper back has faded. My legs were still cramping a lot though and many around me move a lot or have a cough. One person in front of me seemed to be in intense pain, she was shaking for minutes and then broke out in tears. I had problems not to think about all the suffering around me, sometimes I put earplugs in and wore my sleep mask to seperate myself a little bit… It was a harder day, but I deeply soaked in Goenka’s words in the discourse and finished afterwards with a beautiful last meditation. The next morning I started with new power and dissolved myself in energy flow sessions, breakfast afterwards on the balcony was trippy – it seemed like all the treetops were dancing in the wind in a state of flux, why do I normally not see the connection between everything…?
The evening discourse of day 8 hit me – Goenka stressed that Vipassana is not a bliss meditation method, we are supposed to feel the good and the bad objectively and not react to it! I clearly saw how I am running away from the unpleasant sensations and I decided to go through the rest of the course with a stronger determination, I won’t move for an hour each session.
In the morning when we walk to the meditation hall it was still very dark and the impressive sky full of stars. I sat the first hour with absolute determination and didn’t even move for an inch. Same for the second hour, after a short toilet break and I sat back down and freezed, the sun hadn’t risen yet. I was highly motivated and found ways to release tension in my body. It was an intense day, we were working a lot with the engergy in our body and afterwards I felt like I was walking a few centimetres above the floor. The girl next to me was also in her first Vipassana retreat and she seemed to never move which motivated me strongly, but I still sometimes had to switch my legs.
I was not really happy that the retreat would be over soon, I kind of regretted that I started with the strong determination sitting only in the last days. I experienced intense dreams and fantasies about death, family, friends and things I used to do. Half looking forward to be back in “normal” life, on the other side dreaming about living in a monastry, how easy everything would be…
In my first meditation at 4:30 am I suddenly found myself in a kind of nightmare like those when I was feverish sick as a child – my limbs feel weird and woody, it’s like my whole body is alien, I felt like vomiting, more and more saliva collecting in my mouth. Without moving I just observed and keep scanning my body. After about 30 minutes, the feeling just dissapeared. The next two meditations were super deep as well, the last one even kind of pain free. In the end, Goenka taught us the loving kindness Metta meditation, the hall was filled with such a beautiful energy, I could have cried of joy.
And suddenly we were allowed to speak to each other. Quite nice to finally get to know a few of the people that I shared the experience with all the 10 days, I didn’t get to know many before it started. We were eating together and talked a lot. In the evening there was another discourse from Goenka and more meditations, I was surprised that I could still go deep after all the speaking. Knowing from my past retreats, that the deep awareness will fade with time and all the usual distractions will disturb my meditations, I left the retreat a little sad. At the same time I felt a strong determination to practice a lot and come back! I think we all wish we could stay in that deeply connected state, but in the end I have to learn to find this peace in my daily life.
Meditation Vipassana Tips:
- From my Yoga practice I know that it is important to relax the facial area: I always get back to having an inner smile over my face, completely soften forehead, eyebrows, brain and even my ears and the skin around the skull.
- A lot of people get sick in retreats, next time I’ll bring some light medications like salt tablets, nasal spray, eucalyptus bonbons, neti pot and something against coughing.
- Food: I know it can be the only joy on some days, but I really recommend not eating too much and the less sugar the better. For me personally I have to be careful with milk products when I’m scared to get a cold.
- Strong pain in some part of the body? I more and more tried to bring the engergy in my body in a flow and to feel the whole body step by step, it doesn’t helpt to only focus on the painful parts.
- It really helped me to take a few short naps during the day, relaxing every little muscle and being as warm as possible.
- Problems falling asleep? I then try to feel my whole body or focus on feeling my feet. Goenka says we don’t neep sleep if we relax and observe the body.
- I was super thankful for the hot water bottle that they provided at my first Vipassana, I want to bring one for my next retreat. Often I just filled it with the hot water from the tap to have a quick relaxing, warm nap.
I’ll do it again, as soon as I can. <30