Sunday, April 1, 2012

10 Days of Growth: Vipassana Meditation Retreat

How does one write about ten days spent alone with oneself?

I've been wondering since Day 1 of my silent meditation course. I think my tone would have been different had I written on any one of the days, depending on the day. Look -- my words are falling over themselves! Do I focus on the philosophy or the routine? The time spent meditating or the time spent thinking in between sessions? Each aspect was equally educational, equally revealing. I actually became so overwhelmed wondering where to start this post that I had to meditate for a few minutes to focus myself and calm down. How cute.

I'll rely largely on questions from you all to fill in the gaps of this post, but I would like to share at least some part of an experience which has been different from any I've had before, to say the least.

The gong belched its announcement at 4am each day.

From bed to the meditation hall (or sometimes, meditation in bed). We "start[ed] again," aching for the morning chanting to start, announcing that breakfast was just half an hour away. Half-sleeping, half-observing, we stumbled our way through that first session and made it to our morning meal.

It's 6:30. Porridge time.

The porridge was my favorite. Plain, bland, white porridge. One of the highlights of my day. Not one cordial "excuse me" was spoken, no "thank you" to the fellow meditator who'd offer you a ladle to serve your breakfast or hand you a towel to dry off your plate. We observed strict आर्य मोन, or Noble Silence -- quietude of voice, facial expression, and gesture. But why talk anyway? From "wasn't the hall cold this morning?" to "I had the most amazing experience last session!" what is there to say, really?

The course is about oneself.

We throw around "know thyself" more often than perhaps proper; I know I say I "learned a lot about myself" when I have an educative experience. But what else is there to learn about when you're in a room for ten days and the most "fun" thing you do daily is count down the days in the dwindling multivitamins you have left?

8:00 and it's back to the hall.

You're satiated, you've bathed -- you feel fresh. This session requires अदिथन, strong determination -- you're not to move your body or open your eyes for the hour. You make it through half before starting to fidget; you promise to be more disciplined next session. Finally, the loudspeaker utters the Hindi word for "impermanent" (everything is impermanent) and the time is up!

Just in time to meditate some more.

You're in charge of yourself for the next two hours. No motivation from the other closed-eyed students sitting around you -- it's to your room or your cell and it's your responsibility to use your time well. (Meditation in bed often turns into a nap -- everything is impermanent.)

That gong again!

But this time a pleasing sound. Lunch. The spread is delectable; the company can become monotonous -- Ratna. I had lunch with Ratna daily for the past ten days. And breakfast with Ratna. And tea with Ratna. Ratna.

And now it's truly naptime.

Whether you rest or you dream, the next hour is yours. Yours to hear songs in your head and not sing them; yours to be unable to sleep now though you always fall asleep when you're not supposed to.

1:30 and you're your own master.

More individual meditation. All up to you how seriously you take it, how much you imbibe the technique, how much you push yourself.

2:30 and it's back to the hall.

Another still session. If you open your eyes, you promise not to move your body. If you move your body, you promise not to open your eyes.

3:30 and I need to meditate more?!

Again, alone. Self-driven. Self-motivated.

Tea at 5:00 couldn't come sooner.

Puffed rice and bananas have never tasted this good.

Finally, something to look at!

The afternoon is when most people would come out for a stroll. By the end of a week you could recognize any of the other 39 female meditators just by a glance at their feet. You generalized about them; made up their life stories in your head. You gave them nicknames -- "Coughing Auntie," "Skinny Didi," "Runner Lady."

The 6:00 session was smoother.

With your circulation flowing it was easier to concentrate. Still nearly impossible not to shift about, but easier to observe one body, one's thoughts.

The best part of the day!

A discourse in the evening, when our doubts were clarified while Goenka, our guru, made us chuckle and think.

One last short meditation session.

And after that, bed.


I plastered the Vipassana Timetable all over my blog before leaving, but it only dawned on me while I was there how much meditating there was. I mean, of course, but what to do for a break? One's options included brushing one's teeth and looking out the window. No reading or writing. No singing or dancing (I mean, I did dance a few times). Of course, the schedule is not all that I would like to discuss about my experience, but I think it does offer a view into the intense nature of the course.

I'm sure the philosophy of Vipassana will permeate my next few days' posts, but in the meantime, please feel free to post comments with questions about the technique and my experience with it. Don't be afraid of asking too personal a question. I am grateful to have received this experience so early in my life, and eager to share it with you all.


  1. you are too amazing. hope we can meditate together sometime!

  2. Hey - nice to have you back! I don't know how you retained your sanity through ten days of silence, especially given how much you enjoy connecting with people. Weren't you afflicted by loneliness and boredom, apart from craving for junk food? It's really creditable that you saw it through - hope the after effects are good!

    1. I think that ten days of connecting with myself were almost like connecting with someone new, if that makes sense. It was fun to observe myself! Well, in spurts . . . I mean I spent most of my "free" time counting down the seconds until the course would end. It wasn't that I wanted to be anywhere else; it was just that I couldn't believe how slowly the time seemed to pass, even the last few days! Loneliness wasn't terrible but boredom YES and I kept imagining random chocolates and ice creams I wanted, even though I'm not much of a foodie -- crazy. Now I just need to practice! Two for two days so far!!

  3. Ratna, why does the quality of writing in your posts continually assure me that, someday soon, you'll write the next great Western classic or something? When that day comes, I expect a free signed copy. :)

    1. You can have the unpublished manuscript. :)