Why I sat in silence for over 200 hours

VipassanaMy adventures started! After a few days in Istanbul, I ventured out to Mount Soleil near St. Imier, Switerland for a 10-day Vipassana meditation course. This was my first Vipassana course and something I looked forward to for a few years since first learning about it through various friends in Washington, DC.

What is Vipassana?

“Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an Art Of Living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.

The course requires hard, serious work. There are three steps to the training. The first step is, for the period of the course, to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, speaking falsely, and intoxicants. This simple code of moral conduct serves to calm the mind, which otherwise would be too agitated to perform the task of self-observation. The next step is to develop some mastery over the mind by learning to fix one’s attention on the natural reality of the ever changing flow of breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. By the fourth day the mind is calmer and more focused, better able to undertake the practice of Vipassana itself: observing sensations throughout the body, understanding their nature, and developing equanimity by learning not to react to them. Finally, on the last full day participants learn the meditation of loving kindness or goodwill towards all, in which the purity developed during the course is shared with all beings.”

What is the Schedule?

The general timetable:

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 pm Lunch break
12:00-1:00 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 own 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

Who teaches the course?

The course is taught by the late S.N. Goenka. Every course is the exact same, using the same recordings and videotaped dhamma talks. There is also one female and one male teacher on site available to answer any questions one may have about the technique and their experience.

My experience:

When planning my 2014 adventure, I decided to start with Vipassana. I figured it would be a good way let go of the old and accept the new to come. Besides that, I had few expectations or goals. I didn’t even read up on the technique much before arriving. I wanted the experience to be completely new.

All I really knew was that I would be spending ten entire days in silence and most of the time would be seated with crossed legs. If I had to choose which I was more nervous about before arriving I would probably say sitting. However around Day 3, I realized silence is much more difficult. The body’s physical endurance is stronger than the mind’s. I’m sure those who practice yoga and others have experienced this mind/body struggle too.

Let’s get down to the details! Here is a play-by-play of my 10-day Vipassana experience. Silence meant not only verbal silence, but one could not read, write, or make hand gestures during the course. No communication of any type. My daily descriptions are short because of this.

Day 0

We arrive at the Center, still allowed to talk I meet a few interesting people: an actress from Paris and a lingerie designer from Geneva. The latter is one of my four roommates! The two of us also had a nice moment where we ripped off our bras deciding we wouldn’t need them for the next 10 days—liberation! A few hours after arriving we take our vow of silence and go to bed. I sleep well but have some crazy dreams.

Day 1

Silence isn’t too difficult. The food is pretty good (mushroom risotto on the first day!). Yet my stomach is hurting from not eating much (no dinner). Meditation is pretty easy, awareness of breath called Anapana. I can do that, easy. Caught up on sleep, more crazy dreams.

Day 2

I discovered a new love for rice cakes and peanut butter—yes! There was peanut butter at breakfast everyday. Towards the end, this is the only reason I got out of bed for breakfast. I realize I haven’t been outside much and decide to walk outside in the designated area more. I then start to wonder (which never stops): What do the neighbors think? I also sleep a lot– my self-discipline sucks sometimes. My stomach still hurts.

I like the dhamma talks at night, Goenka tells funny stories that make me smile. I miss smiling, I miss laughing. We learn about misery during the dhamma talk and how we create our own misery by either craving or aversion (hatred). This makes sense to me.

At the end of Day 2 I come back to my room and my lingerie designing, bra-hating roommate’s things are gone. She quit the course. Beginning of sleepless nights.

Day 3

I think: Why, really WHY are we still focusing on our breath and the nose region. I’m SO bored. Please, Goenka add something to this technique! The day drags on a bit. My restlessness begins.

Day 4

Surprise (to me at least) today is Vipassana Day. We’re going to move away from Anapana and now bring awareness to the whole body.  I really enjoyed the two hour seated meditation that guided us through the technique. This might have been one of the only times I was able to keep my concentration on the technique the entire time.  Some sankaras (karmic burdens) started to come up and pass away….

Day 5

First thought: Halfway finished! Wait, no. If you do the math, I really have six more days…crap. I’m getting bored. I’m not sleeping. I’m starting to crave yoga— I’m creating my own misery.

Day 6

Anxious, started counting anything I could like number of chairs, windows, etc. The silence was really starting to get hard for me. Although we weren’t allowed to practice yoga or do any exercise besides walking, I needed to stretch my hip that was aching from an old injury and the cross-legged sitting. Secretly, I discovered simple poses that made my hip feel like magic.

Day 7

It’s really starting to feel monotonous, repetitive. I want to hear something new, do something new. A lot of cravings are surfacing and they simply wont go away. They are driving me crazy! At some point a cat ventures onto the female walking ground and a group of us stop at a window to stare at the cat. I laugh out loud to ease the tension in my mind. I think we’re going crazy.

At the end of Day 7 I come back and another roommate has left. Now there are just two. I begin to send very good vibes to my remaining roommate: please don’t leave me.

Day 8

I start walking vigorously outside during all the breaks. I have to get my mind off these cravings and the repetition. Of course it does not work.

Day 9

It’s almost over. Tomorrow we break the silence. Just get through today. We had brownie at lunch, OMG we had brownies. I ate two.

Day 10

Extra-long morning sit followed by permission to break the silence. Talked endlessly to my roommate (the only one who stayed!) and laid in the hot sun. Just with talking, I felt 100 percent better. I could stay longer if I needed to!

Day 11

Final 4am wake up and two hour sit. Followed by final rice cakes and peanut butter. Cleaned room and bathroom, put on a dress I was saving and left for Zurich—very excited to be reunited with friends there!

A lot of people want to know what happened spiritually during the course for me. I’m not sure I know quite yet. I do know I dealt with some sankaras and definitely realized habit patterns in my brain. I also compared the Vipassana practice to yoga, asana a lot. And I found many similarities in practice, philosophy, and results.  Learn more by reading my next post: What I learned about yoga through Vipassana.