Ten Days of Solitude (Part 2) – My Experience
If you’ve missed part 1, the “Intro to Vipassana” and how I ended up in a “Ten Day Prison” click here.
MY JOURNEY BEGINS
Day 0 – Friday: Welcome All
Registration day! I was excited and nervous at the same time for the challenge that was ahead of me. I arrived at the Dhamma Mandala Vipassana Center in Mandalay at 5:00pm. I checked in, received my room assignment and settled into my private bungalow – which would become my sanctuary for the next 10 days. Surprisingly, the private bungalow with an on suite, was better than some of the private rooms I’ve rented during this trip. The bed, however was made of wood and the only cushion present was from the blanket and sheet provided by the facility. The absence of a shower didn’t faze me one bit, as I was already accustomed to using a bowl and bucket of water to bathe; one of the skills I learned during my budget travel adventures.
Just before the last dinner meal was served, around 6:00pm, we were instructed to turn over our passports, mobile phones and any other valuable items for safe keeping. This was also a provision made to help avoid the temptation of phone usage during the ten days. I won’t mention more about the food in this post, but I will say that 99.99% of the time the food we were served was absolutely delicious. The food in Myanmar food will most likely always be extremely oily, but when served hot and flavored well, I have absolutely no complaints.
After dinner, we had a break just before going into our intro discourse session around 7:00pm. All lectures were previously recorded by the late Satya Narayan Goenka. Around 8:30pm the lecture was over and we were instructed to begin noble silence as we walked to our rooms to prepare for bed and an early morning start.
While walking to my room, I thought about the simple things taken for granted such as, alarm clocks and watches. Certainly, my body was not programmed to wake at 4:00am on its own. My immediate thoughts were, first day of meditation and I’m late, great!
Day 1 – Saturday: Let’s Do This
It’s morning and I quickly discovered how powerful a human alarm clock could really be. Dong, Dong, Dong the sound of a gong hit by one of the volunteer staff members to ensure that everyone was up at 4:00am. The sound was so loud that even the hardest sleeper would have raced out of bed.
We arrived at the Dhamma Hall for meditation at 4:30am. I realized punctuality would not be a challenge as the gong sounded at the start and finish of every session. Additionally, the local town bell chimed every 30 minutes and again on the hour. Upon arrival, we stood at the front entrance and awaited floor assignments, which became our personal meditation spots for the next ten days.
On this day, we focused on observing respiration, but more specifically, the way in which it flows naturally through the nose. Changing the pattern or strength of the breath was discouraged, but for me this was the start of the challenge. The moment I was able to completely focus on the natural flow of my breath, my mind caught on and the pattern changed from natural to controlled and I wasn’t the least bit surprised.
A life where I was controlled by the thoughts of my mind was one I was way too familiar with. If the ten days were going to be anything close to familiarity, I was certainly going to be in for a ride.
Discourse Highlights: 1 “Today you were asked to observe only the physical function of respiration, but at the same time, each one of you were observing the mind because the nature of the breath is strongly connected to one’s mental state. As soon as any impurity, any defilement arises in the mind, the breath becomes abnormal – one starts breathing a little rapidly, a little heavily. When the defilement passes away, the breath again becomes soft. Thus, the breath can help to explore the reality not only of the body, but of the mind.
One reality of mind, which you began to experience today, is its habit of always wandering from one object to another. And when it wanders, where does the mind go? By your practice, you have seen that it wanders either in the past or in the future. This is the habit pattern of the mind; it does not want to stay in the present moment. Remembering the past and giving thought to the future are important, but only to the extent that they help one to deal with the present. Yet, because of its ingrained habit, the mind constantly tries to escape from present reality into a past or future that is unattainable, and therefore this wild mind remains agitated, miserable.”
Day 2 – Sunday: This is Insane, It’s a Mad Monkey Race
Today was a repeat of day one, except we were now instructed to focus on the flow of breath and how it enters and travels up through the nostrils, along with the sensations that arouse. We were to maintain our focus on the triangular area of our face, across the top of the upper lip reaching the corners and up to the bridge of the nose, this was the start of the practice “samma-sati” (see part 1 for full description). The practice was facilitated through training oneself to remain aware of whatever reality manifested at that moment. Ultimately, the goal was to develop the ability to be aware of reality and sensations at all levels.
This day indeed, forced me to question whether Vipassana was for me. I found it challenging to control my thoughts longer than a minute. Experiences, encounters, and visions from the past, and future, all transpired during meditation. Honestly, I felt a bit delusional and couldn’t help but wonder about the sudden sense of instability that plagued my mind.
As I reflected back, I realized I faced the same struggles about eight years ago. My thoughts ran wild and uncontrolled, and as a result my mind was at a constant state of agitation and restlessness. Back then, I frequently entertained the thought of jumping in front of moving train, simply because the weight of my mind felt heavier than I could bare. The feelings then were very similar to the ones I felt on this day, with the exception that I did not experience feelings of wanting to jump. Instead, I felt an immediate conviction that there was way too much at stake for me to simply walk away from this process.
I shared a few weeks ago, during my first Instagram takeover on @whatdevondiscovered’s feed, that I reached a season in my life where I was ready to deal with the hard places I suppressed over time. That moment had come and it was time to face my reality within.
Discourse Highlights: 1 “The second day is over. Although it was slightly better than the first day, difficulties still remain. The mind, which is far more powerful and dangerous than a wild elephant, must be tamed and trained; then its enormous strength will start to serve you. But you must work very patiently, persistently, and continuously. You must do the work; no-one else can do it for you. You must take steps yourself, fight your own battle, work out your own salvation. Understand what is the path on which you have started waking.”
Day 3 – Monday: I Made It Through Another Day
Things were a little better, but it was still a battle field of the mind and the words, “…it’s ok if your mind wanders off, but the moment you realize it, regain control and start again,” was a huge relief. The pressure was off to “perform” and I felt like I could continue through the process at my own pace and not at the pace I imagined everyone else performed.
Our focus for day three was similar to day two, except we had to narrow our focus to just the area directly below the nostrils and across the top lip. By doing so, it allowed us to become more sensitive to the sensations that developed during observation of the natural breath.
Discourse Highlights: 1 “Everything is ephemeral, arising and passing away every moment – anicca; but the rapidity and continuity of the process create the illusion of permanence. The flame of a candle and the light of an electric lamp are both changing constantly. If by one’s sense one can detect the process of change, as if possible in the case of the candle flame, then one can emerge from the illusion. But when, as in the case of the electric light, the change is so rapid and continuous that one’s sense cannot detect it, then the illusion is far more difficult to break. One may be able to detect the constant change in a flowing river, but how is one to understand that the man who bathes in the river is also changing every moment? The only way to break the illusion is to learn to explore within oneself, and to experience the reality of one’s own physical and mental structure.”
“When one experiences personally the reality of one’s own impermanence, only then does one start to come out of misery. As the understanding of anicca develops within oneself, another aspect of wisdom arises: anatta, no ‘I’, no ‘mine’. Within the physical and mental structure, there is nothing that lasts more than a moment, nothing that one can identify as an unchanging self or soul.”
Day 4 – Tuesday: “FREEZE” It’s Vipassana Day”
We were introduced to a new technique which is the official practice of Vipassana – “the law of kamma – importance of mental action – four aggregates of the mind: consciousness, perception, sensation, reaction – remaining aware and equanimous is the way to emerge from suffering”.
In this practice, we were required to sit for three one hour sessions every day no moving of the original yogi position of choice, no opening of the eyes or hands and the mind had to be completely focused on the moment. Our focus shifted from the area under the nostrils to the top of the head. We surveyed the entire body, head to toe, and observed the various sensations; this included itchiness, tingling, pressure, pain, throbbing, etc. When we felt sensations, we were encouraged to remain aware and reminded of the law of nature. In other words, we embraced impermanence; things are always arising and always passing. If, by any chance, we surveyed an area of the body and discovered there were no sensations, we were instructed to wait in that area for a minute and then move on. Ultimately, there were sensations happening in every area of our bodies, but hadn’t yet developed the sensitivity of mind to recognize the subtle sensations. More importantly, we were to avoid developing a craving (liking) for a sensation or aversion (dislike) towards the blind areas. Whenever we began to develop a craving, or aversion towards an object, situation, person, etc. we began to lose balance of the mind, which is the opposite of what is taught in Vipassana.
For some strange reason, shifting the focus to the top of our head seamed to help me to concentrate a bit more. I felt the cool, itchy and prickly sensations on different parts of my body. I also noticed when a new technique was introduced in the morning, I was more attentive. However, it was a completely different experience in the afternoon. I’m pretty sure it had a lot to do with my “aversion” towards repetition, and my “craving” towards keeping things spontaneous and fun. This very craving and aversion is what I learned keeps discipline knocking at my front door.
The process of discovery begins…
Discourse Highlights: 1 “We began exploring the truth about ourselves at the level of bodily sensations. In the past, because of ignorance, these sensations were causes for the multiplication of our misery, but they can also be tools to eradicate misery. We have taken the first step on the path to liberation by learning to observe bodily sensations and to remain equanimous.”
“There are three types of actions: physical, vocal and mental. One who learns to observe oneself quickly realizes that mental action is the most important, because this is the seed, the action that will give results. Vocal and physical actions are merely projections of the mental action, yardsticks to measure its intensity. They originate as mental action, and this mental action subsequently manifests as the vocal or physical level. Mind precedes all phenomena, mind matters most, everything is mind-made. If with an impure mind you speak or act, then suffering follows you as the cartwheel follows the foot of the draft animal. If with pure mind you speak or act, then happiness follows you as a shadow that never departs.”
Day 5 – Wednesday: “Mentally Exhausted”
I felt a bit relieved that I made it halfway through the course. However, by this point I also felt mentally exhausted and I could barely keep it together. Plagued by fatigue, I ended up sleeping more than I meditated. I desperately wanted to use my imaginary, one time, can’t get out of bed free card, but I realized I was dreaming.
Physically trying to remain in a single position for an hour long was impossible. The constant numbness in my foot made me think that I would never walk again. Perhaps that was a bit extreme, but I was convinced I was causing permanent damage by continuously ignoring the lack of blood that circulated through my leg and down to my foot.
The technique on this day was similar to day four, except we were encouraged to avoid the urge to respond to the sensations. After the first sitting, we noticed a sign posted on the wall outside of the meditation hall, it was a sign of freedom. The sign was placed there to remind us that Vipassana was not about being tortured by the pain that we felt, but rather how to obtain a balanced mind through the pain. Therefore, if one felt the need to adjust their position they were permitted to do so with as little movement as possible.
Discourse Highlights: 1 “Pain exists, misery exists. Crying will not free anyone of misery. How is one to come out of it? How is one to live with it?”
“One begins by learning to observe without reacting. Examine the pain that you experience objectively, as if it is someone else’s pain. Throughout life, one encounters things that one does not like and is separated from things that one likes. Unwanted things happen, wanted things do not happen, and one feels miserable. Simply understanding this reality at the intellectual level will not liberate anyone. It can only give inspiration to look within oneself, to experience the truth and to find the way out of misery.”
“If there is a cause, then there must be a way out, by removing the cause. Once the cause is removed, that very thing will automatically be removed. The first step is to accept the fact of suffering. Suffering exists everywhere; this is a universal truth. But, it becomes noble truth when one starts observing it without reacting. When one starts observing the First Noble Truth, the truth of suffering, then very quickly the cause of suffering becomes clear and one starts observing it also; this is the Second Noble Truth. If the cause is eradicated, then suffering is eradicated; this is the Third Noble Truth – eradication of suffering.”
Day 6 – Thursday: A “Revelational” Time Machine
Once a day, at 7:00pm, the new English speaking students gathered together in one room to watch a seventy-five minute pre-recorded discourse session by Goenka. Every night, when I sat to listen to the lecture, something deep inside reminded me that I was right where I was supposed to be.
For 20+ years, I struggled on and off with a particular issue in my life. However, it was not until my thirties when I began to see how it negatively impacted me. Day six was a day of liberation, it was so powerful that I completely forgot about the challenges I faced since day one of the course – at least for the remainder of that evening. I tried to answer the question why for many years, but on this day, it suddenly became clear to me.
After our discourse session, we returned to our last group meditation for the evening. As I reflected on what was shared during our lecture, an image of me in 5th grade flashed before my eyes. My mind recalled every detail about that day; the environment, the feelings I felt, the weather, etc. I felt I had just experienced what it would be like to travel through history in a time machine. I relived that moment all over again, but analyzed it as if it were someone else’s story. I saw how a specific “sensation” and “craving” was created as a result of that 5th grade moment, and how that same craving manifested itself in my life over and over again. It was like a game of connect four and my brain assembled all the missing pieces (forgotten memories), and then strategically placed them in the grid to win the game.
Do you know the feeling you get when you’ve been working on a 10,000-piece puzzle for weeks, maybe years, and you finally connect the last piece to the puzzle? That is the same feeling I felt in that moment. It was like a huge burden had been lifted from my life and I will forever be grateful for that moment.
Discourse Highlights: 1 Dhamma teaches us to accept the bitter truth of suffering, but it also shows the way out of suffering. For this reason, it is a path of optimism, combined with realism, and also ‘workism’ – each person has to work to liberate himself or herself.”
“All sankhara are impermanent, when one perceives this with true insight, then one becomes detached from suffering; this is the path of purification. The word sankhara, in this since, means not only mental reactions, but also the result of one’s own actions, that is one’s sankhara, past or present. Hence the meaning is, “Everything that arises, that becomes composed, will pass away, will disintegrate”. Merely accepting this reality emotionally, or out of devotion, or intellectually, will not purify the mind. It must be accepted at the actual level, by experiencing the process of arising and passing away within oneself.”
Day 7 – Friday: Pain, Pain Go Away
I looked forward to the times we were scheduled to meet with our teacher, collectively and individually. It was the perfect time to ask questions that would bring clarity on parts of the technique that was difficult to understand. We also used this opportunity to address our inability to deal with the pain we felt in our body, as a result of sitting for an extended period of time. We each took time to share the challenges and successes we faced during meditation, and it was comforting to know that I wasn’t alone.
The pain became unbearable once again. I piled pillow on top of pillow to cushion my rear, straighten my posture and add comfort to my legs, but nothing seemed to help. The childhood position I once found comfortable, sitting with my feet to the back like an ‘M’ or ‘W’, was no longer working. During our discussion with the teacher, she instructed us to identify the exact location of the pain and then imagine a current of water flowing through it, forcing out the pain through the finger tips or toes. In our next scheduled group sitting I did exactly what the teacher recommended, but unfortunately it only made things worse.
I needed a break, I could feel the craving arising inside of me for someone to sound the gong. I began reciting to myself, “everything is impermanent, these sensations are always arising and always passing and I am not obligated to respond to what I’m feeling”. I had to remind myself that pain and pleasure will always come, but it’s in these moments that I had to train my mind to neutrally respond to both, free of cravings and aversions.
Discourse Highlights: 1 “There are two aspects of the technique: awareness and equanimity. One must develop awareness of all the sensations that occur within the framework of the body, and at the same time one must remain equanimous towards them. By remaining equanimous, naturally one will find, sooner or later, that sensations start to appear in areas that were blind, and that the gross, solidified unpleasant sensations begin to dissolve into subtle vibrations. One will start to experience a very pleasant flow of energy throughout the body. However, the purpose of practicing Vipassana is not to experience a certain type of sensation, but rather to develop equanimity towards all sensations. Sensations keep changing, whether gross or subtle. One’s progress on the path can be measured only by the equanimity one develops towards every sensation.”
Day 8 – Saturday: Hurt People, Hurt People
Did I travel back in time to day two? The question I knew the answer to, but my thoughts reflected differently. From one image to the next, the instability of my thoughts resembled the monkeys surrounding the campus, jumping from one tree to the next. I felt overtaken by exhaustion; physically and mentally, or perhaps it was just me craving for a different scenery.
During meditation, an old memory flashed before my eyes. It was one that I was extremely familiar with, but never knew the role my pain and my insecurities, at that time, played into making it an uncomfortable situation for myself and possibly the other person involved. For a few years, I walked around unconsciously harvesting ill feelings towards someone, and I didn’t realize it until that moment. At the surface level, I was never deliberately rude or disrespectful to her, however there was always the silent elephant in the room. I saw how my actions kept me at a distance, but more importantly, I saw how it kept me from getting to know her as a person and experiencing the wonderful gift she was to this world.
I heard the phrase before, “hurt people, hurt people”, but it wasn’t until that moment in meditation when I came to understood exactly what that meant. As I sat there meditating, tears began to roll down my face and I couldn’t hold back. I excused myself from the meditation hall to regain my composure and deal with the reality of that moment. It was painful for sure, but no one ever said the process of making peace with your soul and becoming whole would be easy.
Day 9 – Sunday: Flat-lined
Flat-lined, the process by which my brain was unable to recall anything from this day.
Day 10 – Monday: My Throat Hurts
We anticipated the 4:30pm gong to sound to release the first words, in ten days, to our fellow course-mates. Upon the sound, majority of the females quickly exited the meditation hall; I was amazed see and hear what happened next. The sounds of laughter, relief, accomplishment and everything else, filled the air as our vocal cords verbalized words faster than ever before.
After lunch, we talked for several hours and then complained our throats were on fire. It was interesting to hear how different the experiences were for each of us. Some felt encouraged to continue the process after the ten days, while others alluded to day ten being the last of their Vipassana experience forever. Three hours passed and it was time for our next meditation session. Interestingly, I noticed that my ability to focus was a lot easier than it was in the previous days.
Side note, I personally think the course should be adjusted to allow the students to converse with each other for a maximum of twenty minutes a day, with the exception that you are not allowed to discuss your personal progress during the course. #WishfulThinking
Day 11 – Tuesday: Pack up, Let’s Go
It’s morning and it’s all over! Well, not quite yet. We still had two hours left on the schedule, one hour for our final discourse(4:30am) and the other for our final group sitting (5:30am). Once we were done, it was like a rat race, rushing to pack, take pictures with our course-mates and teachers, eat breakfast and then board the bus back to the city.
I met some amazing people during this experience and gained a lot of insight on how the body processes the experiences and even the unconscious moments of our everyday life. I certainly had my ups and downs, as you’ve read, but I came out on the other side and I’m glad I could share my experience with you. I’m already looking forward to my next ten day session. I also began entertaining the idea of me and my family experiencing Vipassana together, once I return to the states. Stay tuned for that experience. 😉
Thanks again to everyone who wished me well during this journey, your encouraging words and prayers definitely helped pushed me through.
Love you lots,
**Capturing the Final Moments**