Excruciatingly painful, but so rewarding. If the idea of a 10-day silent meditation intrigues you, here’s what you need to know.
I was meditating about 8 hours everyday, and observing 10 days of noble silence, which basically means zero verbal, physical and written communication with anyone. Any external stimulants from phones, music, books, writing materials, religious objects and intoxicants such as cigarettes and alcohol are strictly prohibited during the ten days to minimise distractions. Students are also not allowed to exercise outside of their rooms to prevent distracting other students. You can read more about the teaching and full code of conduct on the official website.
Seriously, I was so intimidated I cancelled my first booking and flew to Myanmar for a vacation instead.
I didn’t feel ready so I backed out. I’m kinda glad I did because when I finally went later in the year, I was as well prepared as I could realistically be – mentally, emotionally and physically. Listen to my friend’s story in his Mostly Yoga podcast, where he shares how he ran away from his Vipassana course (that’s also me in the podcast talking about teaching yoga).
What is Vipassana Meditation?
Vipassana meditation is an ancient nonreligious technique that has been taught and practised for over 2,500 years, with the goal of achieving the highest level of happiness and liberation though self-observation. A big part of the teaching revolves around the ideas of impermanence and equanimity – concepts which I hold very dear today.
“Vipassana” means “to see things as they really are”, without our tinted lenses accumulated from our own past experiences.
It is a requirement for all new students to complete a 10-day Vipassana meditation course – no more, no less.
There are plenty of locations all over the world but after much research and recommendations from friends, I decided to head to Kuantan, Malaysia. I chose this location because:
- It was close to home, and
- It has private rooms
There’s a 1-hour direct flight from Singapore. From the Kuantan airport, it’s also extremely easy and inexpensive to book a 20-minute taxi ride to the Vipassana center. All I had to do was to step out of the airport, say “Vipassana” to a lady mending the the taxi booth, got a receipt and got into a car.
During the ten days I said to myself – never again. But when I went back to my regular day-to-day, some changes really stuck with me. I found myself back on Vipassana’s website, looking for suitable dates for this year’s retreat.
What was put into perspective for me in those 10 days went beyond what I have learnt over the last 20-30 years of my existence. OK I might be a slow learner but better late than never.
Over the ten days, similar themes kept surfacing:
1. Nature takes care of itself, with neither worries nor expectations
2. Living, dying & unconditional love
3. Pain is a function of the body and mind
They have left deep imprints in my mind and have helped tremendously in the events that have unfolded since I came back in December 2019.
Nature takes care of itself, with neither worries nor expectations
I spent the most intimate and magical moments with nature. I love the city and have never quite understood nature or spent heaps of time in close contact with it.
On the morning of day 6, I had a sudden urge to remove my flip flops and feel the ground against my bare feet. I walked on the pavement, then on the soil. The grass was warm, soft, fresh and clean. I looked down and saw two beautiful butterflies near my feet.
On the same day, I went on walks between sessions, paying close attention to whatever that was happening around me. I saw a bee going about its business – I could see its black and yellow stripes so clearly, from an intimate proximity where we co-existed without fear or hurry. I stood very close to colonies of huge red ants, and none of them ever bit me. The next morning, I went back to the same spot and saw big and small water crystals formed on thin spiderwebs. The crystals looked like magic but they’re actually just another beautiful creation of nature.
We had two monitor lizards living in our midst. Their movements were of no hurry. I watched them dig into the ground, catch fish from the pond, and just mind their own business. I took the pleasure of taking time to observe nature and remember that nature takes care of itself, with no worries and no expectations.
“Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t plant or harvest or gather food into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
I started to experience the beauty of nature and understand the desire to be close to it. To be in the midst of the dirt and butterflies and to co-exist peacefully. I tried to recall the last time I touched a mimosa… Oh, at Sunday brunch one morning LOL.
Living, Dying & Unconditional Love
It was the day that my pain threshold was at its lowest, my determination dwindling. At the apex of the pain in my leg and shoulder, I appreciated the concept of finding relief only through death, when there’s absolutely no other way to relief intolerable pain. I started to somewhat understand a patient’s decision to not seek treatment, and the championing of euthanasia.
On the same day, the story in my mind was ‘what is my pain’ in the grand scheme of things. I had flashes in my mind of an old lady in a hospital bed all curled up, with tubes all over her. I had flashes in my mind of war scenes filled with murder and torture, and being forced to watch the torture of a loved one. I had flashes in my mind, of the people who came before us, who built up the world that we call home today, a success we often take for granted.
In those moments, I experienced the insignificance of my own suffering.
It was humbling.
I’ve said many times that a big fear in my life is to learn unconditional love, something that I’ve never believed in, and I was worried that I was getting closer and closer to believing and actually feeling it.
Pain = f (Body x Mind)… & Levitation
Each day, from day 6, we practised three separate hours of “Sittings of Strong Determination”. These are sessions where you set a strong resolve not to move an inch, and not to open your eyes, regardless of how much discomfort you’re in.
I sat through all of them faithfully like a good student and by day 9 I was sitting through and tearing half the time, unsure if I was in pain or simply tearing from boredom and my desire to go home. I quietly renamed these sessions “Sittings of Sheer Determination” – because that was literally how I got through each one of them!
The physical pain that I experienced during these sessions were pain that I’ve never experienced or expected. The back pain that I’ve anticipated did not show up. Instead, I had excruciating pain in my left shoulder and both my legs.
There was, however, one particular afternoon session where the pain dissolved into a sensation of tiny little movements in my body, underneath my skin. My mind was so quiet and eventually I stopped feeling the ground – that is the feeling of “levitation”.
It is also worthy to note at this point, that pain is a function of the body and mind.
The mind has the power of amplifying and dramatising the pain.
As the mind stills and quietens, the physical pain become less apparent and less dramatic.
During the 10 days I worked with these uncomfortable sensations with the knowledge that all these will eventually end anyway, and I looked forward to being back with the people I love. Eventually everything ends. Relationships end – in death or otherwise. Pleasant and unpleasant times end. Impermanence is a natural state, and I hope that this concept can serve you as well as it has served me – in being okay with discomfort, in cherishing beautiful moment, and being fully present with people you love.
Till we meet again 🌻