Meditation has started to become one of my daily non negotiables over the past year, and the benefits I’ve personally gained from it are one for another blog post. After speaking to a few people and a “fuck it moment”, I thought it would be good idea to attend a ten day Vipassana meditation course whilst I’m away. Nine days of silence and ten days without my phone, laptop or e-reader. I chose the Kamala Dhamma Centre in Prachinburi with very little research, expectations and on the basis that it was close to Bangkok.
On arrival at the centre everyone was in high spirits; the sun was shining, I was chuffed that I had my own room with a bathroom and the surroundings were beautiful. Noble silence was enforced later on that evening and then the “festivities” kicked off. The next morning I was woken up at 4am by a recorded gong sound, I jumped up, showered and decided to meditate in my room (less pressure) - the sessions outside of the three daily compulsory ones could either be in your room or in the meditation hall. This was a beginning of 90 minutes of rotating between my mediation cushion, my chair and my bed… The latter made me fall back asleep to then be woken up again by chanting being blasted through the speaker outside my bedroom door. The first 8am - 9am meditation session was pretty daunting, to be completely honest I’ve never meditated for that long. We were tasked with concentrating on our breathing and noticing how the air enters the nostrils with not changing the breath in any way, just observing. That was it.
As the first three days progressed, we graduated from merely concentrating on the breath, to also noticing the sensations inside the nostrils, around the nostrils and the space above the upper lip. It also took me those three days to work out a decent seating posture; finally settling on crossed legged with about a million cushions, and alternating to hero's pose/ sitting back on my heels. My upper back screamed with pain - in particular my right shoulder which I’m putting down to shit posture, years of being desk bound and playing too much with my phone. Alongside this, tension was gradually building up in my right knee - accompanied with a shooting pains that jolted me in the afternoon of day three. The girl that was initially sat to my left had caved earlier on that day and asked for a chair. I looked across the room longingly at her new seating arrangement, but then reminded myself that a chair would be another tool for faffing, so threw the being kind to myself out of the window, changed posture and sucked it up.
Up until day four I was feeling relatively mellow about being there. The food at the centre was VERY good and I enjoyed meal times however, the metal trays with different sections for your food made me feel like I was in prison. I also wasn’t really struggling with the noble silence that much, I enjoy my own company and tend to struggle with eye contact at the best of times so this wasn’t an issue. However, I was beginning to suffer with the heat, to the point where I was starting to dread the compulsory afternoon session. Of course they had fans in the hall, but if all of them weren’t on, I’d find the frustration start to build up which lead to heat building up in my body. I’d be pouring with sweat, my concentration would be lost and I could feel said sweat trickle down my front and back. This then started to make me feel itchy, and as soon as I’d attended to one sensation and scratched that part of my body, another itching sensation would swiftly crop up. There was also a lady sat behind me wearing tracksuit bottoms that made a rustling noise every time she moved… Which was about every two minutes. So this became something else for me to react to and there were a few moments where she almost had a blue cushion hurled at her head.
Then day four came round, a two hour afternoon session where we would learn the Vipassana technique. Beforehand I’d fallen asleep by accident and woke up groggy and agitated. Throughout this session we weren’t allowed to leave the hall, react to a sensation, open our eyes or change posture. It was hot. I’d manage to wind myself up. I was itching, sweating, my knee hurt. Tracksuit bottom lady was annoying me. I felt like the instructions were going too quickly for me to follow. Did I mention it was hot? I broke one of the rules, opened my eyes and looked across the room and noticed that the girl that had asked for a chair was gone. She had left the course. I felt the anxiety start to rise and as soon as the session was over I ran to my room, turned the shower on so no one could hear me and burst into tears. Day five was seemingly better. My sobbing session may have released something and I haven’t had a good cry in forever. I brushed the previous day under the carpet, made my way to the hall at 4:30 am and managed to stay there for an hour before heading back to my room.
The technique of Vipassana is moving your attention to different parts of the body working from your head down to your toes, noticing any sensations that crop up without any judgement and reacting to them. In theory, you then develop this and fine-tune your mind to start to feel your cells changing. So a tingling sensation on the skin. This then evolves to sweeping the body en-mass and eventually working towards what’s called a “free flow”, so feeling a pleasant tingling sensation all over the body and working on the areas where there’s pain, numbness or discomfort. The idea behind this is that you’re sitting with the reality based on what you can feel in the body, and knowing that anything that would be labelled as unpleased will pass. This is essentially re-wiring the unconscious, conditioned mind to not simply to react to sensations and to observe and avoid any craving towards those that are pleasant, and aversion to those that aren’t.
After breaking down the day before, on day five I’d allowed myself to surrender to the course. I decided that I had nothing better to do, so may as well try properly instead of working myself up about things completely out of my control. I’d found that I was able to cope with the heat better, my knee and back pain was gone, I didn’t notice tracksuit bottom lady at all. In one of the sessions, I also had a glorious moment where I felt all of the muscles in my face release - I didn’t even realise how tense I was there.
Midway through, I’d also started to adapt to the routine and managed to fill my rest periods with various activities, some of these include...
- Removing any unwanted body hair
- Lying on my bed in my underwear with the fan on full blast
- Learning how to tie a ribbon around my big toe using the bunny ears method (which I’m now a pro at)
- Filing my nails right down as I’d clawed myself to death in one of the dreaded afternoon sessions
Towards the end of the course, boredom really started to set in and I found myself being unable to keep a level head. In short “get me the fuck out of this place” was a consistent mantra that was running through my mind. However, the end was very much in sight and like those last six miles of a marathon, you endure and push through. That said, I did really enjoy the discourse lectures in the evening. Once again, in hindsight I’m not sure if this was because it was mental stimulation, but I found that they really gave context around what we were doing whilst we were there.
On day ten, noble silence was finally broken. We were allowed to talk. The energy was completely different, and it was incredible to see people’s faces change! These already beautiful women (men and women were segregated throughout the ten days), looked even more stunning. I was one of the four foreign females there, and was overwhelmed with the Thai women who came up to me in the dining hall to introduce themselves, talk about their experiences and in short, fuss over me. At 10am that day, we did a Meta Bhavana meditation, a beautiful meditation where you which loving kindness on yourself and others. This was rather soothing compared to the previous nine days. The course ended at 6:30am the next day, and shortly after 8am we were one the bus back to Bangkok. Entering back into reality was a bizarre haze, I was tired spaced out and unable to process what had happened and also unable to really label it “good or bad”… I guess I never will.
So my personal takeaways from this experience…
- Comparison to others - there were so many occasions where I’d open my eyes and look across the room and everyone would be relaxed, still and completely in it. I’d start to panic and wonder why I couldn’t look that zen. Why were all of these things coming up for me and me alone. Of course you have zero idea of what is running through other people’s heads at the time… And you also can’t talk to them. After sharing experiences, I released that a lot of them were freaking the fuck out as much as I was. In day to day life, we’re very good at making up stories about others good or bad however, that’s what they are, merely stories they’re not reality at all.
- Procrastinating and finding excuses - so even when I’d found that my pain had gone, tracksuit bottom lady wasn’t aggravating me, the temperature was to my liking, I’d still always find something wrong… I’d find another excuse as to why I couldn’t concentrate. I’ve got a particular knack for putting things off and looking for excuses because various conditions aren’t right. So some of those things which I’ve been putting off or shit scared to do, I just need to do it.
- Sitting with the reality of the situation - these are things that I cannot control and not reacting to negative situations. Hurling a blue cushion at someone’s head isn’t going to change anything, I can’t change people, I can’t change certain situations so instead I have to accept and work with what I have.
Everyone’s vipassana experience is different - positive or negative, and I’m glad that I went in with very little expectation or knowledge about what I was letting myself in for. So my advice to anyone that’s thinking about doing this? Don’t overthink, and go for it.