Some things we simply need to sit out
– 10 Days Vipassana Meditation Retreat –
“Alright, ready to go, cross-legged on my meditation cushion, eyes closed. Now just focus on the breath. Ouch. No, that won’t work, my knee is on fire. Moving a bit forward on the pillow. Yes, better. Eyes closed again, go on. No, now it also hurts on the ankle. Okay, I’ll put a cloth under the my foot. Ah, perfect, much softer. Alright. Close your eyes and concentrate on the breath. Yeah, I did 10 seconds. Damn, I want to focus on the breath, not on the time. OK, again from the beginning. I can feel the breath in my nostrils, in, out, in, out, in, ouuuuch. My back is cramping. Oh no, what can I change about that now? Rounding my back, then again in the upright sitting position. Concentrate, Danie! In, out, in. Never – my back is killing me. What time is it? 4:45 am! I have only 15 minutes of 12 hours of meditation today. And it’s day 2 out of 10. I’m going crazy.”
Danie on the morning of Day 2 of the 10-day Vipassana course
Two days after Danie’s first meditation low she could easily feel it: A finely tuned mix of fear and despair! What had happened? The following was revealed to us on Day 4: From now on, we should stay three times a day for one full hour in the exact position we had chosen in the very first minute (“Sittings of strong determination”). Neither pain nor itchy noses should bring us out of our position. Even before we experienced it for the first time, the prospect of it pushed the sweat out of our pores (which we could not even wipe away in those same hours). Almost reflexively each of us had the same question in mind: “What again made us to come here?”
In fact, Danie’s PhD supervisor had awakened her interest in such a course more than 10 years ago, which later also made Ralf curious. Our understanding of such a “Silence Retreat” was to avoid everyday life for 10 days and to be silent. The silence would inevitably lead to a confrontation with one’s own thoughts, fears or problems. Retrospectively, this view appears rather naive, which proved to be helpful. Thus we went fearlessly into this adventure, which we perceived as one of the hardest of our lives. Only when we registered for the course, we realized that the goal of it was to introduce ourselves to the Vipassana meditation technique. Meditation was exciting for both of us, but over 100 hours of meditation in just 10 days seemed pretty brutal to us.
Once arrived in the course, we quickly realized several things:
- Meditating for over 100 hours in just 10 days while sitting on the floor IS brutal.
- Silence was crucial for success, because without the spoken words, also the ones in our minds disappeared, leaving more room and capacity for concentration.
- Concentration was more than needed. Because Vipassana meditation is exhausting (mental) work, far away from “just free your mind and relax”.
- The schedule filled with meditation exercise required strict mental discipline and left no time to dwell on one’s own thoughts. However, our own weaknesses, claims, convictions struck back in a way we did not expect it.
“My plan to think about my weaknesses while having enough time and mental capacity during the course did not quite work out. There was no time left besides 12 hours of meditation every day. Excitingly, our weaknesses came up anyway; in a much more direct way, that is as what they are.”
Danie, Day 10 of the course
As a result, Danie was not able to intellectually explore where her impatience comes from and how she can handle it. Instead, impatience itself drove her to despair already on the second day (as described in the first quote). Later, on day 7, her strong desire for variety showed up when she didn’t want to focus on her body sensations for the fifth hour in a row, simply yearning to do something else again. Like an accelerant, “boredom” ignited a fire that seized her whole body; and our “awkward” situation left her with no choice but to sit out that emotion gradually wearing her down. The same despair, but with a completely different trigger, bothered Ralf on day 6. As always driven by ambition and discipline, he had been able to ride through the first days on a “wave of success” and to feel what the teacher had described in all the exercises. Then, however, the first problems appeared and instead of fine sensations on the skin he felt either simply nothing or naked pain. Cramped and slightly panicked, he searched in his body for the vibration described by the teacher, cramped even more, and felt even less. in return Like a house of cards, the conviction about the method and its own ability, built on the shaky foundations of perfection and ambition, collapsed. What remained was doubt and displeasure.
“I live the dream of my life with the man of my dreams. I could not imagine a happier state of mind.”
Danie, Day 3 of the course
Luckily, we had enough time to just sit out our lows. And as much as these experiences took us down, we soon had to laugh about them. Countless times the teacher had pointed out that the real purpose of our exercises was to train a calm and relaxed mind and not to identify with our sensations. With our way of savoring our despair, we had missed that goal fabulously. However, these misfortunes helped us to develop a better understanding of the Vipassana methodology.
When we finally met again on the 10th day, the wounds were still fresh and even 11 hours travel time on the following day was not enough to work it all out. But we were already reconciled. Not only with the course and the method, but also with us. Those tough days made it clear to us that we are very happy … with us, with us traveling, and with us in our lives. And as a litmus test of our habits, the course showed that we had quirks but no stifling vices or addictions. For example, we only realized that we had not missed our smartphones when they were returned back to us on the day of our departure. Later that day we had a big reunion with Danie’s longest school friend and her family. Other than expected, the return to the “normal” world posed no major problems to us… besides from our rediscovered smartphoneophilia. The small red numbers on the app icons on our displays reminded us constantly and for several days to answer the 389 unread messages.
“I am glad that Goenka was not a yogi with a cowl and a mustache, but stood with both feet firmly on the ground of reality. That made it much easier for me to access Vipassana. To experience and to hear from Goenka that Vipassana is not meant to lead its practitioners to a life as hermits, but invites them to actively participate in the society, was truly relieving.”
Ralf, the day after the course
If and how we will continue with our meditation practice is difficult to answer. Although the impression of the course is deep, it is by no means consolidated. And the “enemies of meditation” (tiredness, doubts about the method and oneself, impatience and perfectionism, etc.) lurk in everyday life. Time will probably decide how often we retreat into silence. Speaking of “retreating into silence”: while one hopes to sink deep into the depths of one’s own sensations during meditation, Vipassana does not convey a concept of withdrawal. The honest interest in and open-mindedness towards others gave us the refreshing certainty of not understanding Vipassana as an exit but as an entry into society. We are certain to enter the “prison walls” once again, elsewhere in the world, to participate for 10 days as volunteer servers, not as students. Vipassana centers don’t request any payment for the course, instead they work only with donations and volunteer support from former students.
Our financial donation was supported by a true friend, who wanted to sponsor a special experience on our journey: Vincenzo Antenna, surely one of the wisest men we have met so far. Thank you, Vince!