Truth about the silence meditation/Vipassana and my fight with the handcuffed monkeys
Vipassana meditation: Most people think that it’s all about sleeping well, meditating sometimes to some nice relaxing music, a little reading, and they will come out at the end totally refreshed.
If they do, then they will get the shock of their lives, as it will be the complete opposite!
I have never meditated before and I had heard that this form of meditation is one of the hardest. I knew I need to be prepared for the worst, and yes it came handy as it was just as bad as bad I imagined. SO much so, that I do plan on doing it again someday.
The new trendy meditation
I had not realised how popular this Vipassana was until I tried to find a place at one of the temples. I found that all of the temples across Thailand and Cambodia were full until May (but I was looking for places in January). I started to discuss the meditation with other travellers and discovered that most of them had heard about it and wanted to try it. It seems as if it has become quite a trendy thing to do now.
After some hard searching, many applications and a very tough telephone interview, I managed to secure a space at a temple in the North of Thailand.
Main audience of Vipassana
I started as part of a group of 20, but in the end, only 4 of us finished. Out of this final 4, 2 couldn’t wait to get out to freedom (and slept through the last 2 days), 1 was an experienced meditator returning regularly over the past 20 years. The last person was me, and I decided to stay on for 4 days longer!
1. Who say “Lets try this new trendy Vipassana stuff that everyone talks about.” They don’t have a clue what they getting themselves into. They usually last 1.5 days and will never return.
2. There are also people dying to flood their Facebook and Twitter pages with spiritual messages or the ones who are dying for a spiritual tattoo. They somehow manage to survive the 10 days with lots of sleep and talking secretly. They will never return and will never get it what is all about. They are just coming so they can tell everywhere they have done it.
3. Experienced meditators who are coming back every year.
4. Does not have a clue how will end but knows it is extremely hard work and will do everything to improve. Stay till 10 days or even longer and comes back one day.
How does it work?
Vipassana is an insight meditation. When you spend so much time on your own, without any outside interruption, day after day, you start to see yourself more clearly. For this process to start, you need to go to a temple and avoid any contact with other humans or media or any other interruptions. You also need to work extremely hard for every single second whilst you’re awake. You can only sleep for 6 hours at a time as time spent sleeping is considered wasted as you’re not concentrating
How hard is it?
Imagine that you wake up in the morning and you know that you will be awake for 18 hours, and there will be not a second that you can enjoy or just forget about your difficulties. You must concentrate for every second which is extremely hard. You also have to bear with the physical pain as all day, you must sit for 20mins, then walk extremely slowly for 20mins and then repeat, over and over again. At the end of the 10 days you have moved up from 20mins to 1 hour! Time seems to move very slowly then and every second seems to last an hour!
Deprived from every single joy of life
At the temple it is strictly forbidden to enjoy anything. You cannot enjoy the food, or breaks (as you must walk head down and you still need to concentrate even in breaks). You cannot enjoy sleep as I usually sleep 8 hours, not 6! Coffee, conversations and exercise (even yoga) are strictly forbidden. Any enjoyment can distract from the meditation.
3:30 Bells are ringing. Wake up and meditate until breakfast.
6:30-8 Morning prayers and chanting before breakfast. Breakfast and then sweep outside the accommodation.
10:30-12 Prayers and chanting before lunch. Lunch then shower and clean the room.
5-6 Waiting for the teacher. We spend only a few minutes with the teacher where we report what happened during our meditation. She listens and then usually raises the meditation time by 10 minutes and instructs us to focus on more body parts during the meditation.
Drinking afternoon tea\soup.
It hurts when sitting in the lotus position for hours each day. I had pain in my legs, back and knees. From the slow motion walking I had pain in my back and shoulders. I am a very active person and during these motionless days, I felt my muscles becoming weaker.
When I told my teacher how much pain I was in, particularly when sitting, she said that the 20 min at the beginning will give me as much pain as much 1 hour will give me in a few days. She was right, my body started to get used to the pain and it was more bearable.
Life in slow motion
You even need to concentrate when going to the toilet, this means an extremely slow walk to the toilet.
Whilst meditating, I heard a leaf breaking off and slowly falling down the branches underneath and then the last noise when it reached the floor.
I saw an ant dying (I did not kill it).
The birds flew near me and it is unbelievable how many animals are underneath our feet and what a busy life they live. If I did not concentrate and walked slowly I could have killed hundreds.
A lizard fell asleep next to me during a long sitting meditation.
Do what you were told and do not ask!
Our monk was very strict and only gave orders:
Sweep up! Clean your room! Respect Buddha! Don’t talk! Put your head down!
On the first day we were told how to meditate and then let loose and you either did it or not. You were not allowed to talk, which meant you could not have asked for any help.
The only time you could talk is when you were at the teachers in the evening. Even then, if you asked something there was never much of an answer. You just have to do it and not ask!
Your phone, all your electrical devices and books/kindles are taken away (well you give them or not). Luckily I bought an alarm clock so that I could wake up in the mornings just to make sure I wake up if the bells would not be loud enough.
During the first days, I was looking outside of the gates and could not believe that people were talking with each other or on the phone. They were eating ice cream. It just seemed so impossible. After the 4th day, I had got so used to being at the temple that I didn’t even noticed the gate.
Meals and handling hunger
We got fed in the morning at 6:30 and then at 10:30. In the evening you could drink a soup or tea.
Men and women ate separately.
The food was not bad, it was traditional Thai food. Main ingredient is rice. In the morning we had rice soup or soup with noodles. For lunch we had rice again with 2-3 sides.
We always consumed the food lukewarm or cold as we prayed so long before eating it.
I am the person who snacks every 2 hours so I was very scared what will happen at the temple. I have not thought that it will not be a problem at all. Maybe I suffered and hated it so much that a thought like being hungry did not cross my mind.
You eat everything they put in front of you, particularly the lunch, as you know you aren’t getting anything else for the next 20 hours.
Sometimes I just did not know what to eat and what not to eat. One day, one of the side dishes was a tree branch. I did not know if I had to eat it or I if I should bless the food with it. It was not allowed but I looked around to see what the Thai people did, they ate the green bit, so did too, but it was very bitter.
Sometimes we had bug in the food, but you could not send it back.
The kitchen was always spotlessly clean, but it was an open kitchen. They don’t kill animals and the bugs were obviously attracted to the food.
Sometimes I just swallowed the food whole as I did not fancy to chew and taste it.
You can eat as much as much you like, but if you over eat (one of the main sins) then the afternoon meditation will be a struggle as you get sleepy. Even though sometimes I wanted to eat more I just did not do it.
Sleeping and accomodation
I had my own room after 2 days as my roommate fled from the temple. I also had my own bathroom. The bed was very uncomfortable as it was very hard. You cannot sleep in luxury and enjoy sleep and I woke up many times as my shoulder was hurting. I could only really sleep on my back or stomach.
You can only sleep for 6 hours and it is forbidden to sleep during the day. I was not sleepy in the mornings, only after lunch. During the first sitting meditation after 20 min my head just went and I fell asleep for few seconds. After overcoming the sleepiness I did not have any problem till 9pm when I got very sleepy and hungry, but it was not far until bed so it was ok.
Refrain of killing anybody or anything
You cannot kill any living creature during your meditation. It means you cannot even step on an ant. If a mosquito flies on you then you can only shake it off but not kill it.
I must admit I accidentally killed a mosquito and severely disabled another one.
I prayed the very first time here at the temple. We prayed and chanted half an hour before the breakfast in Pali and Thai/English language. I was very good at Pali during the 2nd week. Before lunch we only prayed for 20 min. My nicest moments of the day were there praying/chanting.
Every building and the gardens had a Buddha sculpture which meant that I had to go down my knees and reach my head to the floor 3 times before Buddha. You must do this once when entering the building and once when leaving. The same respect had to be paid to the teacher.
Weird rules I did not obey
Dry the knickers under waist height.
I could only sleep for a week in my white dress but I should have done it for the whole period.
Men and women have to dress strictly in white. This means even knickers and bra. In addition women have to wear a scarf over their breast.
How much does it cost?
It works strictly on donation. At the end you put as much as much you like in the temple pot. It means the person before me paid for my place and I am paying for the next person.
Fight with the handcuffed monkeys
According to this meditation every single thought is symbolised by a monkey. There are hundreds of monkeys dancing and jumping up and down in our head. The first days I had many thoughts in my head. Even such a thoughts like “Is Justin Timberlake married or not.” I had many useless thoughts in my head as I had to try to concentrate but at the first days this is really doesn’t work. I had basically had 18 hours to think. After days of hard work the useless thoughts are disappearing and more serious thoughts taking over.
I heard that the brain clears after 3-4 days. I thought that this meant that I would be able to meditate and will not have thoughts. Well, this was not the case. On the 4th day though, I handcuffed the monkeys! They were less able to move and I realised that this “clearing the brain” means that I actually will be able finally concentrate properly on breathing and the steps. My thoughts were all quite busy in the background until the last day and the last second.
Did I learn to meditate?
No. You cannot learn it in such a short time. I know now what to do, but when I came out my life went against it back into the fast lane.
It is like getting small lego bricks from the temple, but you have to build up after whatever you want to build.
So what can you expect from Vipassana?
Nothing. You cannot expect anything as it is one of the main sins. You need to go to the temple selflessly and offer your time. You will either gain something or not. You need to go in with an open heart and an open mind.
I can approximately tell you what I gained, as everybody is different.
Vipassana is based on the fact that every single person is good. Everybody was born as a good person even the mass murderers. After you were born circumstances shape everybody’s life.
When you spend so much time isolated in your own company, completely isolated form other humans or other disturbances you slowly start to see your real you. Just how you were, when you were born. I really thought about many of my choices and now I see that in many decisions the circumstances decided and not me. I can see now what would have been right and what is right in the future. It looks like all the decisions I made in the temple are solid as they are not formed by circumstances, just by me. If I would go to Vipassana every year I would never have any doubt over my decisions.
In the outside world we only decide on the surface. There are far too many interruptions and no time to go to temple to think about it. I can see now what I have done wrong in my past and the future seems a lot clearer now too.
The Vipassana insight should not be mixed up with self-fulfilment. I reached self-fulfilment a few years ago and I thought that is where it finished. Vipassana showed me there is something much deeper.
So what is it good for?
I did not expect much and just wanted to try something completely different, something that is very far from me. Everything I have done in my life, I done wholeheartedly (like this meditation). This is the only way you can do Vipassana. If you are not giving 100%, you will only waste your time and I don’t like wasting days of my life, so that is why I just worked extremely hard at the temple. You can survive the 10 days with lots of sleep and talking to other people and having lots of breaks but then it is just a waste of days and you will not gain anything. Meditating is something you cannot cheat on.
Unfortunately this meditation based on suffering, so the more you suffer and lower you feel, the more you going to improve.
Every single second I was aware how extremely long is and I just wanted to scream and throw a tantrum and run until I collapse. I wanted to say to the world that how horrible I feel and I do not want to do this, but the gate was always open and I could have walked out at any time. Nobody would have questioned me.
What would anyway the monk say to me?
“This suffering is cool, don’t go anywhere.”
The monks knew very well that nobody can convince you to do this only yourself. This is why they only tell you on the first day what to do. After this you either do it or not, it is your choice.
I am not a person who gives up easily, but for these two weeks I need all my strength to go on.
On the 8th day I felt that 10 days would be not enough. I had suffered so much and I felt that I have not gained anything so I asked for a 4 days extension, which was granted straight away. I knew if I left the temple after 10 days, I would leave with bad memories thinking about how much I hated it. I would have felt I lost 10 precious days of my life, and would not be able to truly understand what Vipassana is all about.
On the 12th day I, realised I have to suffer and I did not fight against it any more. All my thoughts had cleared up, I calmed down and felt some kind of inner peace. I did not want to scream anymore and I knew 1 day I will be back for a month. I felt ready now to leave the temple.