In December 2015, I accomplished my first Vipassana 10-day silent meditation course in Shelburne Falls, MA. The months preceding it were very intense for me, and I was starting to lose it. Then, I got an email about open space for the December course.
“Yes, please, I am taking it!” I cried out loud.
A little while later, I had a conversation with a friend.
“Oh you are going… I am still afraid to go,” she told me.
“I’m afraid of not going…” I replied.
So, I wrote this my-very-human-account for:
– people who are still afraid to go
– people who went, can relate and have some laughs about it
– me. For fun.
It’s 2 weeks after the course now, and I am still in euphoria. My sinking ship was patched up and I intend to stay afloat by continuing to do what I was taught.
***It’s important to note that while my experiences were pleasant, this is not always the case, and it’s all very personal as with any practice. Also all of Goenka’s teachings described here are purely my interpretations. For a true source, you need to check the official Vipassana site.
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I leave my house for the unknown at noon. This is my first time going to something that I haven’t planned thoroughly, and I am excited for the experience. The center looks welcoming: servers guide you through the process of filling out forms and getting to your room.
I learn that we still can talk until 9pm, so I use this time to meet people. I fill out questionnaires with Veronica, a young Russian girl from NYC with cool green hair. She runs out of space while filling out the “substances used in the past” section and has to ask for extra paper. Mine stares back at me, completely empty. She’s wise and insightful, and she works as a life coach. I get my session right on the spot: lucky me! She promises to connect me with people that provide ayahuasca, poisonous frogs and san pedro cactus in NYC. I’m all ears for her experiences.
I also meet a Polish girl from NYC, Agnieszka, who works as an art director in a marketing company: her outfit proves her artistic nature. Then there’s Rose, a preschool teacher from Boston. People there are from 20 to 80 year old, coming from all professions, nationalities, and paths of life. There are 110 people total in this course: 60 women and 50 men. I’m happy to get my own room — clean, cozy, warm, and well-lit — that comes with a bathroom and shower. Even the floor is warm, so you can walk around with socks everywhere. The meditation hall is big, and that’s the only place where men and women sit together. The living quarters, dining rooms and outside walking areas are separated. You get a big meditation pillow at the meditation hall, along with a variety of additional pillows and benches. You can ask for a chair or back support, as well. The center is truly genius in how it provides you with everything you could possibly need to do serious work and learn Vipassana technique. It’s hard to believe that there’s no fee — it’s been paid for you by other people who believe in the technique. After you finish a 10-day dharma course, it is your turn to donate for others to come. You donate whatever you feel like giving. This is part of your Vipassana practice – to give to others, and to serve people. Everyone is happy to give at the end, be it money, cleaning, serving, volunteering in building or maintaining the center. You also can’t donate unless you did the course: you have to do your share of work first and believe in it to invite others to follow. I had never seen such a concept, but it is truly working. The center is flourishing, and it’s hard to believe everything is funded by donations only and built by people who choose to serve.
Your phone and car keys are locked away for the duration of the course, you get to bring only clothes and toiletries – no books, pens, or paper. We are embarking on a 10-day monastic lifestyle to truly experience the technique without any disturbances of a busy intellectual and social life. This is the experience that most of us have never had, and it gives us the opportunity to slow down and really feel everything you are doing.
The course is conducted by audio and video of S.N. Goenka, the Burmese-Indian teacher who brought old, forgotten Buddha teachings to the masses.
He gives you instructions and motivates you to work diligently, patiently and persistently. You get detailed instructions from him every 1-2 hours, so the schedule is very busy; there’s no time to be bored. Everyone takes a vow of silence and honesty, and Goenka explains why this is an important part of the technique. You are not to talk or have eye contact with people because it is purely your practice. We will have the 10th day to discuss our experiences, he tells us. For now we are to concentrate on the “area under our noses,” feeling the sensations of “our breath and our skin.” That’s all you need to do. Sounds easy!
We head to our rooms to rest at 9pm. My contraband snacks go far under my bed, never to be seen again. You are not supposed to bring food with you, and I just took a vow of honesty, so no, I will not be nibbling on nuts and crackers in between meditations.
I’m very excited to be here. Getting up at 4am ends up not being an issue. At 4:30, I’m in the meditation hall trying to follow the instructions. My thoughts are all over the place though: ideas, plans, all exciting things. I quickly step outside to see the sunrise and head to the dining room. Breakfast is very good: oatmeal with prune compote (yum), cereals with a variety of milks, quality yogurts, coffee, jams, peanut butter, breads. My heart and belly are singing in happiness!
At afternoon meditation, I’m still excited with ideas and plans. Lunch is tasty vegetarian food: baked tofu, curried veggies, salad, tahini sauces, cookies, coffee. I love the food here!
At afternoon walk, I have tons of plans. I go through 3 vacation ideas, my travel application that I want to write (too bad I cannot write anything down), party ideas, and home design. Then I meet the teacher, an old lady with sparkling eyes and a compassionate smile. I share my excitement with her, and she concludes:
“You are suffering and have to put your ideas aside.”
“I am not suffering,” I say. “I feel quite good in fact.”
“No,” She insists. “ You are suffering, otherwise you would not be here.”
That one is hard to argue against. I am here, that’s true.
“You crave things, and that’s human suffering,” She explains. “You either have cravings or aversions, you either want something badly or want to get rid of something badly. That’s human nature and the source of all our suffering.“
Sounds true. I do badly want:
I badly don’t want:
So, yeah, sounds like she is right.
“Now it is time to work. That’s what you’ve been asked to do,” She continues. “There is time for everything, and now is the time to work on your meditation technique.”
So I am trying, trying more, but my heart is still pounding with excitement… I should go easy on coffee tomorrow. One cannot meditate with all this excitement, and caffeine definitely doesn’t help.
Goenka’s lecture at night is very informative and entertaining. He is a very charismatic and motivating teacher, and this makes a difference. We are here to teach our subconscious mind to work on a sensational level and stop creating cravings and aversions. When we grasp the technique, we will be able to be aware of good or bad sensations, but will not create reactions. The law of nature states that each moment is new, and there is no point in reacting to something, that will pass in a moment or two. Instead of concentrating on what is causing the reaction, we should concentrate on sensations in our body such as rapid breath, tightness in the chest or uneasiness in the belly. We should observe how these sensations go away, just like other physical sensations such as itch, pain, and numb legs go away during vipassana meditation. Goenka also tells lots of stories about his past student’s experiences. Some are very funny, and some are very inspiring. He himself came to the forgotten buddha teaching while being a very successful and rich businessman. He studied the technique in Burma, and once he discovered his joy in life, he went to help his parents in India. He ended up running class after class as more and more people wanted to join: everyone needed it. Since then, 165 centers have opened around the world. Vipassana is a suffering relief technique, not a religion that you need to convert to, and not a cult to worship. It works for everyone in all paths of life. You achieve enlightenment for yourself, and then help others achieve it as well. That definitely works for me – let’s rock! Now, I’m crashing into bed – the first day is over! 9 more to go…
Right from the morning, things are bad. There is no resolution to any of my problems, and there is no way I can ever finish my long and never ending to-do list. In addition, no one around can be trusted; it’s just me out there with tons of unaccomplished stuff. My life is constant annoyance and dissatisfaction. How can anyone enjoy this?
I slept through the meditation, that’s great. I will now concentrate in the next one. Things are still bad, even worse since I can’t meditate because I keep dozing off right from the start.
Sleep… Things are royally bad… Sleep…. The same old…
I sleep through all meditations that day. Short breaks from my sleep consist of walks to the the dining room for food and my room for water, all while still being in a horrible mood. I even manage to sleep through Goenka’s evening lecture. I distantly hear him saying that today should be better already. Yeah, right… I doze off.
I consult the teacher:
“I slept through the whole day. What should I do?”
“That’s not good,” She says in a strict voice. “Did you come here to sleep? He (Goenka) asked you to work. Sleeping is an enemy of the meditator.” Then she softens a bit.
“If you keep your back straight, it may help you stay awake.”
Oh… so I’ve been too comfortable with a back support and pillows. Ok, I will switch back to the meditation bench tomorrow and may be will manage to concentrate. Now I’m crashing into bed, finally!
The sunrise is amazing! The sky has cleared, and it’s bright red and yellow behind the forest. I’m motivated, well-rested, and ready to rock. I work hard, but find no concentration. I have no bad thoughts, not even exciting ones, just memories, movies, past events. Thoughts are flowing into my head in a steady stream, one after another, not leaving even a minute for meditation. I am struggling with all my might to concentrate on the “area under your nose” with no luck. What can you possibly do with such a brain? What a pile of garbage…
I am noticing that one lesbian girl is constantly looking at me. That’s surprising considering the number of young pretty girls here. Thanks though, even though I am not into that stuff at all…
Goenka says we’ve should’ve sharpened our minds by now and should’ve been able to feel the subtle sensation of the skin under the nose. My mind is a senseless, unconcentrated blob, and I am clearly failing this course. Ok, you are going to do this course all over again until you get it, I tell myself. He is going to give us the vipassana technique tomorrow, as the first 3 days were the preparation period. I didn’t master any of the required skills yet, so no way I would be able to grasp the next ones either.
Sunrise is astonishing again, and it’s warm and fresh outside. Life is beautiful. Before Goenka gives us the new technique, I have my first half of the day to catch up what I missed in previous 3 days.
I sit and hypnotize myself:
“Concentrate on the skin under your nose, each moment is new. Concentrate on the skin under your nose, each moment is new. Nope… no thought allowed. Concentrate on the skin under your nose, each moment is new. Nada… not thinking. Concentrate on the skin under your nose, each moment is new. Net… I am here. Concentrate on the skin under your nose, each moment is new.”
What is it? The thoughts are gone… Where am I? I feel like I am in a capsule with no thoughts coming in. Anybody there? Problems, excitement, memories, anything? Don’t jinx it! Just sit there. Wow. I think, I’ve got it. That’s probably the vipassana — I’ve got it all. I guess I can leave now. Too bad the vipassana video course is starting.
No, vipassana is quite different and not as exciting as my recently discovered capsule. You have to go through your body in 2” squares and feel the sensations. It takes a long time and it’s boring, but at least it’s more entertaining than the area under your nose. I can concentrate half of the time with this technique: that’s progress. I look around – I can’t believe all these serious and respectable people are now busy with sensing their body sensations: itching, tingling, feeling heat, cold, pain. It’s hard to believe thousands of people have been doing it generation after generation. My technique is coming along nicely though. This is an amazing concept, every moment being new. It really helps put all my problems and excitement into proportion. During the evening lecture, Goenka explains how vipassana can be used every moment of our lives. This is called dharma living. This sounds very handy, so I will start using it immediately.
I make a great discovery in the morning. I am short 2 shirts for the duration of my stay, and that means I get to do the laundry! When one misses the activity of life, they really get to appreciate every small opportunity to do something! I get to explore the lower level of the center, hand wash my shirts, play in soapy hot water, rinse my clothes with cold water and hang them on the rack. I can even add my pants in to make it all longer! I cannot wait for the break after lunch; I am even planning on skipping my outside walk for this exciting activity!
My meditation is going well today, but lunch time presents opportunity for practice of my newly acquired skills. My lesbian co-meditator sits right in front of me at the lunch table with a winning and defiant smile. That’s very unfortunate, as we have a super exciting lunch today: fragrant lentil dahl with rice, greens, herb-crusted bread (regular and gluten free,) followed by chocolate chip cookies.
My anticipated indulgence is being disturbed, and I feel like moving somewhere else. “Wait though,” I tell myself, “Aren’t we practicing dharma living now? Aren’t our sensations temporary, stateless and material-less? Isn’t next moment going to be new?” I continue with my eating pleasure and just look somewhere else, on artistic Agnieszka and gracious Aksana. I’m not hurrying to get out of the situation as it is temporary and will change soon anyway.
I had a great meditation day yesterday, but today I can’t concentrate for a single moment. My mind is all over the place – nothing especially good or bad, just no concentration to be seen anywhere in reach. That’s so frustrating and feels like such a waste of time – my whole morning is gone in a fruitless battle with my thoughts! I am heading to lunch, mad and frustrated, all while getting coffee and a bowl of peanut butter with jam. I don’t care about what will happen after. What’s the point anyway. I get another coffee and peanut butter with jam. I will probably get a high and then crash with all this caffeine and sugar. Now life is getting better and my mood is improving. I will go to my meditation cell and will try it all over again. Personal meditation cells are given to us for secluded meditation in the pagoda. They just were built and smell like fresh wood, they remind me sauna. They have a very light door with no lock, meditation mat and a weak light with switch. It is very pleasant to be inside despite closet like look.
Once in the cell, I start my hypnotizing method again: – “Be here, be now, no to thoughts.”
In no time, I am landing again into my magical capsule of no thoughts and really happy feelings. It seems, I ended up getting high on caffeine and sugar, but with that I found my concentration and peace. Wow, what a magical place! From here, I can see everything very clearly. I am not feeling my body much either, no pains of long sitting — so cool. I am going through my life matters one by one with complete clarity. The course assistant is coming to look for me; it’s time to go to mandatory afternoon meditation. I’ve been missed in the meditation hall.
“I am not going,” I state. “I finally found my concentration, and I am not moving.”
No way I am losing this magical state. She leaves and comes back:
“The teacher requested for you to come to meditation hall,” She insists.
Ok, ok. Still flying in my nirvana, I drag myself to the to meditation hall and plop down on the pillow. After 3 hours of flying and going through the matters in my life, I’m getting myself to dinner with not much appetite. I should probably check with the teacher about what exactly is happening. Maybe I already bypassed all the needed work and reached paradise?
“Is this what he asked you to do?” She asks me sternly. “You came here to learn and practice vipassana, not some other practices you had before.”
“Not really, I wasn’t trying to practice anything,” I mumble.
I’m not mentioning all this caffeine and sugar though. She is not happy with me:
“You can either do vipassana here or go away and do what you want to do at some other place.”
“Also, make sure you come to all mandatory meditations, otherwise you and I are going to have a problem.”
“Yes, teacher. Thank you, teacher.”
God, I hope she is not going to make me leave the course! Can she ban me from the practice or the center? If she bans me from the center, would they also see that in other centers in the US? Do they have a centralized database with a column in the members-table that’s titled “banned”? If so, they will open my profile, and it will say: Ella Goren, banned from vipassana centers – check. Horrible. But there are vipassana centers all over the world, right? Let’s take Bangladesh. I don’t believe they have a direct connection to the US database. There are lots of abused and poor women there. I don’t think I am doing worse than them. I should be OK for their vipassana center, right? Meantime, I will behave here, no more coffee and … well… maybe a little peanut butter with jam…
I am excited right from the morning. I ride one wave of excitement after another. What is it? Men… mmmmm… yeah, about time. Let’s see who we have there on the left side of the meditation hall. Some guys look pretty decent, hmmm… Memories, dreams, romantic movies – no meditation for me today. I have one big sensation, and it is NOT GOING AWAY despite the law of ever changing nature. Today, it seems, nature directs me somewhere else… I will go to the teacher after lunch and ask for advice. I will not tell her though the source of my excitement, I will call it “excitement for life”.
That lesbian woman staring passionately at me again during lunch. That’s not helping either, even though I am not in that stuff really. Teacher says:
“Don’t entertain your exciting thoughts: work diligently and seriously. You have suffered enough from excitement before, otherwise you would not be here. Have it as a radio in the background, while you work through your body and feel sensations.”
I come back to the hall and work. Dear guys, you will have to wait in the back of my mind until the time comes. It better come soon! I cannot wait for it!
Every morning the meditation ends with Goenka’s very sweet chant. It really feels like you are chewing sweet caramel candy.
“Sabika mangala, sabika mangala, sabika mangala hoya re,” his and his wife’s singing fades away.
It makes me want to hop around in happiness. If I get outside when it’s still dark and no one is around, I will do exactly that. My meditation comes along nicely now. I am successful in doing vipassana most of the time. We learned the last piece of the technique, which is feeling sensations not just outside of your body but inside as well. I heard about feeling inside sensations from the guy who does 10 days vipassana course every year. Vipassana is the only thing that allows him to release all the tense muscles and untwist all the nodes in his back and shoulders. His words were the last drop in my determination to make it to vipassana. My shoulders are permanently tense, and I never saw relief from anything I have ever tried as far as I can remember myself. It does seem to be relaxing, when you are aware of the tense areas. Your body starts working on them once it (you) notice them, really.
The third meal of the day is called tea time. It is at 5pm. They serve fruits: oranges, apples, bananas, pears. That’s for new students. Old students are only supposed to have lemon water with honey. If you have any issues with your health though, you can ask for a container and store some lunch food in the fridge. That’s what I did, because I am not very good with fruits. Each tea time I can’t help but notice how Rose and Agnieszka sit with their cup of lemon water, while others, including me, chomp happily on their food or fruits. To me, they seem so sad with their cups. I can’t imagine it being me on my next vipassana visit. How on earth can you eat only until noon each day?
I am packed. Yesterday Goenka said that we have finished learning, and now have to practice hard to get most of the benefits of the lessons. I will practice at home already, later. Can I go now please? I am really eager to go back to life; I cannot wait one single moment. I study the cleaning instruction paper in my room in great detail and plan every minute of my 11th “back to life” day. I will preclean all I can the night before. I will be first to use the vacuum right at 4am before morning meditation, and I will be out with my bags by breakfast. Then I plan every minute of that day. That is, until I stumble. As always, when you think you are done… there is more to come. I don’t have a good place for lunch in my busy schedule. I have decided that I will have fixed meal times as at the center now. I can’t believe, it all broke the first day I am back to real life. What is it, worry? I can definitely feel it now under my left rib. Let us continue with the technique that wise Mr Goenka has taught us. I will now go through my body and feel all sensations, knowing the law of ever changing nature. Each sensation is stateless, materialless, and it will pass soon as everything else does. Every moment is new, and life is constantly changing. No, I will not die from hunger in the middle of the highway with food exits every 5-10 miles. I don’t think anyone ever did die like that. Let’s face it, my meal schedule is a clear craving that I have developed. Now I know better. Sometime in the beginning of the course I developed the evil plan of stealing one breakfast bowl and taking it with me. I will eat breakfast from it every day and feel great, as I do here at the center. I absolutely need that particular bowl for that. I wish they would sell them as souvenirs here: vipassana breakfast bowl – 10$, or even 20$. I would be first in line. No, I will not steal it at the end of the course. I will let life manifest itself as new at every moment, and I will find another breakfast bowl for myself. The worry under my rib meantime has gone, and I feel relieved of my constant meal planning and hunger anxiety. I am excited to see how the “back to life” day will unfold for me and don’t mind staying here one more day.
We are all excited and uncertain at the same time. At 9am we will be able to communicate. How will it all go? We are still silent at breakfast, but look curiously at each other, awaiting that special moment of human communication. My meditation is so-so because I don’t feel like working. Goenka teaches us the last “spreading the love to the world” meditation, and he chants until his voice fades. We wait for instructions from the teachers. Usually it is:
“Now you can have a short break for 5 minutes, then come back for afternoon instructions.”
But this time they quietly fold their blankets, stand up and walk away. I feel abandoned. What do you mean: you’re just going to walk away like that? Why are you leaving me without instructions? What am I supposed to do now? I look around – everyone seems to be in the same confusion, and no one is talking. I feel really uneasy, so I get up and go to my room. From my shelter I start to hear distant laughs, conversations, people exchanging their emotions… Ok, Alla, you’ve already learned by now that there is time for everything, and now it is that part where you overcome whatever this is and go out. I bravely open my door and get into the first pile of happily chatting women. I look for Veronica, but she is nowhere to be seen. Boy, I am tired of talking after 15 minutes. I go back to the meditation hall and slide into vipassana, calmly and joyfully accessing my sensations. It feels great — what a refuge from people matters.
At lunch things get very active. We can’t stop talking, and everybody is at the peak of excitement. There is so much to say and hear: people are so interesting. Everyone smiles and looks completely different then during the course. Our course manager, an Israeli girl, is very young. She came from Israel for 3 months to serve at the center. She is nowhere as serious as before, laughing and telling stories of her travels and other centers she saw, giving tips on how to continue. My new polish friend Agnieszka tells us about her Indian travels and other courses she did in India. She also gives us valuable advice in the fashion world. She is a true artist and I enjoyed her modest but very tasteful outfits each day. A French woman from NYC tells us about her light architecture work, and how it is all about light these days. A burlesque dancer from NYC will find performers for me in Boston for my party. A news media entrepreneur from Kazakhstan, who got a Kazakh government grant to study her Masters Degree in the USA and then start “New Yorker” style magazine in Kazakhstan, traveled the whole of Asia in-and-out and is now heading to teach monks English in Thailand for 3 months.
Finally, I see Veronica:
“Where have you been?“
“I was hiding,” She says. “Couldn’t take all this commotion.”
We exchange experiences. She was flying around the first days, talking to her dead grandfather, visiting the under and upper worlds, until she had a serious talk with our strict teacher.
“What do you think you are doing?” the Teacher said. “You are supposed to do vipassana here. You can go and practice your other stuff somewhere else.”
Veronica was worried that the teacher would send her away and ban her from the center. Ha, ha – so we both may go to Bangladesh then. That’s exciting…
Being able to talk also brought back all the usual behaviors for most of us. Hot chocolate and cookies, and nachos with cheese have been served – we all overeat while chatting. You can hear from every corner:
“Why did I eat so many nachos” and “why did I have 3 cookies?”
Everyone doesn’t feel so great.
Meditation is not possible today: I am flying in excitement. I stay late to talk more, wish I would have more time for that lively human exchange.
Early morning meditation: my intention is to feel through it for the last time of the course. My heart beats in happiness during Goenka’s chant. I feel waves of joys through my body, and my whole being is illuminating with love during “sharing the light” meditation. The course has ended, the much awaited moment has come, and yet it feels so sad. I am going out to see the sunrise for the last time. I make it exactly on time, and it is astonishing as always. The sky is changing every moment, and I am filled with happiness. It feels so light, joyful, fresh. Can I preserve it somehow? We chat intensively again at breakfast; there is so much to discuss, and it’s so hard to leave. We all just met, and so much needs to be said, heard, exchanged. Dear Mr Goenka, why didn’t you plan an additional 10 days for catching up in the talking we missed in the previous ones?
We drive out from the center with Rose, sharing the ride to Boston. It is the moment we have been dreaming about. We pull out our phones casually, exchanging contacts, information. We are back to technology while just a moment ago we didn’t even have a pen and paper to write on. We are stopping in a cafe close by, a sweet cozy place with holiday decorations and a festive spirit. It is hard to believe that we were a mile away from it all this time, yet in a completely different world, far from holiday buzz and cheerfulness. We enjoy coffee and cookies, get presents, and hurry back to the busy lives that await us. We chat and share the events that brought us to the vipassana course with each other. Somehow we talk about them calmly and insightfully now, wondering why were we so stressed about them in the first place. I ask Rose how she managed to survive on just lemon water in afternoon.
“I saw horror and compassion in your eyes at tea time,” She said. “I really wanted to tell you that it is not difficult at all,” she assured me. “You should try it next time.”
“Ehm… not sure… I may…”
My hubby calls, and I hear the sweetest voice in the world. It crossed my mind not once during the course: what if he is not waiting for me? What if he is gone somewhere? Many thoughts cross your mind there just because there is too much time and opportunity for them to cross. For example, I got very concerned about Europe at some point. I was wondering, how is it doing there without me knowing about it? Also, how is the rest of the world? What if everything is gone, and no one is telling us yet, just so we enjoy our last sunrises and tranquil times here. Despite my concerns my hubby is still there for me and is happy for me to be coming home. He admits that he also had his share of concerns about me being brainwashed and running away with some hairy guru. We definitely share at least one quality in common: rich imagination.
I drop Rose off in the train station and spend the rest of the day with my family. I don’t remember if I ever enjoyed them that much. I don’t even unload my stuff from the car. I keep listening to them, looking at them, afraid to miss any word or sight of them. Later at night I return to my meditation with Goenka’s on youtube. His voice, so pleasant and dear to me, instructs me again: to work passionately, diligently, continuously, and while always remembering the “nature” of every moment being new.
“I will, dear Mr Goenka, I really will. Thank you for what you have done for humanity and for giving me such a precious gift of life. All you asked in return is to share love and light with other people, and I fully intend to do so!”
“Sabika mangala, sabika mangala, sabika mangala hoya re” – May all beings be happy.