The sound of silence is punctuated by some heavy breathing, joints cracking, and a quiet sneeze here and there - it’s allergy season. For the last hour, I’ve been trying to sit exceedingly still, not moving a muscle and certainly not opening my eyes, hands or feet. However, the knot under my right shoulder blade is slowly becoming unbearable. Careful not to unfold my sweaty palms or lift them from my pretzeled legs, I quietly twist my back until it cracks. Momentary relief. What seems like an eternity later, but were at 10 minutes, I hear the faint click of the CD player and S. N. Goenka begins his chant: “araham samma-sambudho bhagava...”. To my untrained ear, the chanting still sounds like drunken homeless person trying to sing Christmas carols at 4am, complete with gargled vocals. However, by now I have learned that the Pali words indicate the end of my one hour torture, and I am determined to endure the final minutes of agony without a trace of movement.
After this sitting of “strong determination”, a 1 hour session of Vipassana meditation where students hold absolutely still while mentally observing their bodies in minute details, I emerge into the sunlight. Quietly, I shuffle my stiff joints along the well worn path through the grass behind the female dormitory - one round is 200 steps, so about 200m. I counted it. I’m also counting rounds: this is my 24th round today. Others shuffle along with me, scarves wrapped around shoulders. In our exemplary modest clothing, revealing neither skin nor body shape, we resemble a group of homeless women on the way to a food shelter rather than the participants of a silent Vipassana retreat. This is day eight of ten - one more night, and we’ll be allowed to break “noble silence”, which prohibits us from communicating through body, speech or mind. Secretly, people have been whispering under their breath, here and there, when it was inevitable. Such as when I and my four roommates were meditating in our dorm, and a huge bumble bee started attacking one of the girls. She shrieked, muttered “I thought the sound was a fart!”, and we silently but excitedly coordinated our effort to expel the bee using the “insect relocator” (a plastic cup and piece of cardboard). Killing of any kind is one of the things that is not allowed during the retreat, and that includes insect extermination. Hence the relocator.
The first three, four days of the retreat were hard. Really hard. Without reading or writing materials, phones, internet or music, you’re stuck with yourself. My mind kept screaming “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here”. Or, at the very least, give me something else to think about than myself. I oscillated between boredom at having to focus on my breathing and nose, and agony of being stuck in the same thoughts over and over again. I kept telling myself, “one more breath, one more breath”. One more hour in the meditation hall. One more round in the garden. Just take it step by step. By day five, it got easier. I started noticing changes. My attention span and my attention to detail increased. Suddenly, I could feel things on my body that I hadn’t noticed before. Tingling sensations, like tiny waves, running from head to feet and back again - like a constant, minute, pleasant shiver caressing my arms and legs, and tingling on my face. I felt it in the meditation hall, but also outside, or while eating. On the morning of the seventh day, I was eating my porridge, staring into space. Suddenly, a new flavor. What was this? I tasted another spoon. It felt spicy, but different - a prickling on my tongue. Another spoon, until I suddenly realized: the porridge was hot! I had misidentified heat as a taste. I felt like an infant tasting hot baby food for the first time, screwing up my face at the sensation.
By day eight, I have gotten into the grove. Rise at 4am, start meditating at 4:30, breakfast at 6:30, meditate again from 8 to 11, lunch, meditate from 1pm to 5pm, tea, back to the meditation hall for some more meditation and a videotaped discourse on the technique and buddhistic teachings by S. N. Goenka. In bed by 9pm. Highlights of the day are the bland but oddly satisfying meals, and the discourse, where the grandfatherly Goenka who built out the world-wide network of Vipassana meditation centers explains the technique, intermingled with bhuddistic teachings. Having passed away in 2013, his eternal presence has to rely on video tapes from 1991 and of charmingly amateur quality to get the message across. Goenka is a good orator and narrator with intellect and humor, and for over an hour we get to sit and watch TV, satisfying our craving for external stimulation.
By day eight, I am also quite happy with my progress so far, and eager to learn more. I start observing interesting sensations all over my body, and my meditation feels deeper than before. But then, the burping starts. In the meditation hall, I am sitting on my assigned spot behind a lovely grad student from Indiana. Unfortunately, the mental and physical stress of the meditation causes her to burp. A lot. I can’t keep myself from counting, and count past 30 in one hour. I’m desperate to meditate properly, but can’t get into the grove because my mind keeps jumping at each soft burp. No chance to stay equanimous, as the technique wants me to. After the 6pm session, I decide that I have to do something, that I can’t risk my progress anymore. With the permission of the slightly perplexed assistant teacher, I move to a new place. Just as, quite happy with my move, I settle into my new spot, the discourse starts. “You are here not only to learn equanimity, you are here also to practice other qualities. Like tolerance and compassion. For example, when in a meditation hall someone interrupts your meditation, because they cough. Or burp.” He actually say the word “burp”. The room chuckles, and I can feel my face turn red in the darkness. Here I am, in my new seat, and my celebrity mind is back to square one.
On the last day, a Sunday, I am preparing to leave. Having finally changed out of my prudent outfit of XL T-shirts and saggy tracksuit bottoms, I feel like a person again. I have counted down the hours to this moment of freedom. Now that it has come, I realize, I could probably have gone on for a few more days. It’s fascinating to watch the mind develop, and to learn more about oneself in the process. I’ve thought harder about my life in those ten days than in the past year combined. Actually, I may come back to this at some point in the future. And bring ear plugs.
If you’re interested in trying Vipassana yourself, you can read more on Wikipedia or on the website of the Vipassana organisation. 10-day introductory courses are free and are organized worldwide in different retreat centers, which are run by volunteers and financed through donations. If you decide to go to a retreat, be aware: it’s going to be hard. This is a mental bootcamp. I recommend commiting yourself to staying the ten days, no matter how difficult it may be. You won’t start feeling benefits until about halfway through the course. Any questions, feel free to contact me.