My Vipassana meditation experience was a profound lesson in Buddhism and the art of being uncomfortable.
Here is my story of the 3 days
In 2014 I had my first Vipassana meditation experience at Wat Ampawhan in Thailand, a few hours north of Bangkok in the Sing Buri province.
It was a 3 day retreat program, however. If you have never tried this practice or you are new to meditation in general, I would not hastily join one just yet. Because I had been meditating for a few years and thought I knew what I was doing until I experienced this.
And will confess there were times I struggled to hold it together!
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, Since the time of Buddha, Vipassana has been handed down, to the present day, by an unbroken chain of teachers.
We arrived late in the afternoon hoping to begin the evening session. But first we had to register and being what appeared to be the only westerner there out of around 500 people I had to see a master monk first to make sure I was actually suitable to join the retreat.
This is where Angella, my wife and I parted company having collected our white clothing to be worn for the next 3 days.
The general protocol is that men and women have no interaction. You are technically not supposed to talk to each other or even look at women either. The women wear absolutely no make-up or jewelry. We are not even supposed to take phones or books in with us.
I was directed up to a Temple and some rooms around the back where I had to wait for the monk.
My teaching with the master monk was actually very informative. He asked about my experience with meditation and to demonstrate my technique. He then gave me some teaching on the Vipassana method, it’s meaning and how to practice walking meditation. It took me quite a few attempts to get it right actually.
After my tutorial and what turned into quite an interesting chat for about 40 minutes that I think he actually enjoyed as I got the impression he had not met too many westerners prepared to tackle Vipassana meditation, I was directed to the sleeping quarters.
Very basic is an understatement.
Sleep on a thin straw mat on concrete floor in a room full of around 50 other men…all Thai. Cold manual showers and toilets with no flushing just the water bucket…which is actually quite common in Thailand.
A couple of Thai guys who could speak a bit of English took me under their wing and showed me around and filled me in on what was going to happen because before that I had completely no idea.
Talk about fish out of water!!
I was supposed to meet Angella in the garden but had got completely side tracked with everything and when I finally got there, after looking for it for about 20 minutes she was quite surprised that I was feeling quite settled and had some new mates.
And so on to the evening session.
Sit for a whole hour on the floor and listen to the monks talk. In Thai. Which I could not understand. I was already uncomfortable and after the talk it was 1 hour seated meditation.
Followed by another hour of standing meditation. This was in one of the big Temple areas with about 300 people men and women and all Thai from what I could tell.
After that it was off back to our quarters for showers and then settle down to sleep. We would be up at 3am for the next session.
I think I only managed to get a couple of hours actual sleep on my nice not so comfy straw mat, sandwiched between two other guys and another that I was head to head with. It was all becoming quite surreal now as I was constantly woken by various men getting up and getting ready.
3am session and off we went again.
- One hour talk by the monk
- One hour seated meditation and
- one hour standing meditation.
I should point out that although there was carpet on the floor in the Temple meditation area it was very thin and stuck directly on concrete. When you normally meditate on sand at the beach, grass or soft mat at home it does become quite arduous to sit for such lengthy periods.
But this is the point of Vipassana meditation. It is not supposed to be comfortable because the aim is to live with discomfort and transcend it.
Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind.
A break for breakfast
I was looking forward to breakfast as I had not eaten anything since the previous afternoon and there is no eating after mid-day at the retreat as part of the ritual practice.
My new buddies helped me find the eating area and I joined the very long queue for vegetarian food.There is a protocol as to how and where you eat and silence is again observed while eating.
By this time I was wondering how Angella was getting on. Although considering this was her seventh retreat I knew she would be fine with it all. She would be wondering about me though and so I finished breakfast and headed to the garden area to meet her and have an illegal chat.
We then had some free time before the next session. Time to shower, freshen up and do a little reading and walking around the huge grounds. I did some writing and then got talking ( quietly ) to a Japanese man. I think we deduced we were the only 2 non Thai people there. He was on a seven day retreat and had already completed five of them.
The afternoon session and the endurance test begins!
The format was the same each time, but it was in this session I started to feel slightly unwell. I wasn’t nauseous but I felt like I had a cold or hay fever. My nose had started to run and my throat felt dry and sore.
I really was trying to embrace the whole experience but this was a distraction. Not to mention another discomfort to endure. Meditating with a runny nose is not exactly fun and I started wanting to sneeze too.
After that session I went straight back to the sleeping quarters to shower again and try and sort myself out. I went to the toilet and was horrified at was coming out of my rear end, excuse the graphic account but I really felt like I was crashing by this time.
I later realized that it was my body detoxing. At the time though I thought I was getting sick and the whole retreat was becoming more of a physical battle with myself rather than an enlightening experience.
Or so it seemed at the time.
I spent my free time just trying to get myself together doing more meditation…seriously. I was at a meditation retreat doing meditation in my time off from…meditation!
The evening session
For the evening session once again into one of the huge Temple halls.
Let me tell you a little bit about what actually goes on in these sessions.
If you can imagine a Temple hall with about 300 people in it. There is no air conditioning, just fans. Everyone is in their white clothes, men and women.
Everything is pretty organised until you do the standing meditation. This involves walking too which is where it gets quite funny because everyone is walking in slow motion, with eyes mostly closed in meditation, trying not to bump into each other or walk into walls.
The word surreal is the only way to describe it and by this time I was half way through the retreat. Feeling the way I did was like being in a dream.
I remember actually nodding off in the seated meditation and was nudged by one of the monks to wake up. He didn’t look to happy actually. But I was knackered, my body was aching, i had a streaming nose, sore throat, lack of sleep, lack of food, black stuff coming out my rear end and in the middle of Thailand in humid heat.
So off we went again. After that session which I managed to find Angella again in the garden. I didn’t tell her I wasn’t feeling too well as I didn’t want her to worry. She was there to mediate not worry about me.
We spent a little time together and then went back to our quarters to shower and bed. I had some throat lozenges in my bag so I popped a couple of them and got my head down to try and get some real sleep this time.
Up at 3am again…Fortunately I slept really well on my hard straw mat bed. I actually didn’t feel too bad and so I was looking forward to the early morning session.
This was my best session so far.
Maybe it was the sleep but my body seemed to have calmed down a bit. I wasn’t sneezing and my nose had stopped running. I really had a good meditation proven by the fact that I can’t remember anything about it. I completely zoned out for large periods and managed to get through the entire seated session without needing to move or relieve my legs from discomfort.
I could barely stand up afterwards they were so numb.
The scientific laws that operate one’s thoughts, feelings, judgements and sensations become clear. Through direct experience, the nature of how one grows or regresses, how one produces suffering or frees oneself from suffering is understood. Life becomes characterized by increased awareness, non-delusion, self-control and peace.
I felt really good after this session. I had breakfast with Uichi my new Japanese mate after which we went for a walk and talked about our meditation experiences. He was a very experienced meditator. Even though I had been meditating for a few years Uichi was very advanced. It was a really informative talk and I learned a lot from him.
I felt like I was getting into some rhythm now and it was almost a shame it would all be over later that day with only one more session to go.
Final session – Just when you think you are winning!
The final session was to be held in a different Temple Hall and there would be a ritual ceremony to conclude the retreat. I was looking forward to it as everyone was lining up to get into their spots. To my slight concern though I saw that the floor was wooden. We would be sitting on hard wood floor. For about 3 hours!!
As soon as I sat down I knew this was going be tough. Hard floors are difficult to meditate on. They hurt your feet and your arse after a while. It really is a test of focus to manage that pain. I failed many times during that session. I just couldn’t sit still for very long.
But I enjoyed the ceremony. There was singing and chanting. It was very hypnotic and beautiful. The combination of voices was quite something and even though most of the chanting is in Sanskrit I started to catch on to the words, rhythms and tones and actually enjoyed myself.
And that was the finale.
After that it was back to the sleeping quarters to get our things, get changed back into civilian clothes and meet my wife again. I hadn’t seen her for ages.
What I learned and how it has changed my life…
I realize now that my vipassana meditation experience was a kind of detox. Physically and mentally as after we came out I had miraculously become well again.
But the most profound lesson I learned was the art of living with discomfort, which is one of the corner stone tenets of Buddhism.
This is what the Master Monk had told me before I went in and I have never forgotten his words. He said: “Normally we try to avoid things we don’t like, we run away from discomfort or try to fix it in some way. With vipassana meditation we let it in, we allow it and we live with it”
But that lesson was only imprinted on me after the 3 days of enduring my physical and mental battles.
The lesson for life I have subsequently learned is that just as Buddha said, “Life is suffering”.
The Art of Living is in learning to live with those times of discomfort when life is not so much fun. When things do not go your way and you feel pain or frustration it is in those times to draw strength from this lesson and practice the art of acceptance to live with it and transcend it.
It is perfectly fine to experience the feelings of anger, frustration, disappointment as those are our natural human 5 senses but the purpose is then to detach from those and not let them dominate our behavior. Not to permanently dwell on them and thus expand the suffering but to let them go.
Because surely as these situations and feelings come they will surely also go. Everything must come to pass in the natural rhythm of life.
This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.