Inside the crazy world of a Vipassana Meditation Retreat

Deep in the Japanese countryside, surrounded by nothing but peace and calm, harmony and greenery lies the ground of a Vipassana Meditation retreat that I have recently joined. You need to be a bit lucky to get on one of these 10-day, “noble silence” courses. Noble silence means you are not supposed to speak, interact, or make eye contact with other participants during the course. You are supposed to approach this as if you were alone.
Just you, your meditation, your thoughts and your teacher.

The Vipassana courses are usually fully booked and there is a waiting list that you will find yourself on, should you not have applied early enough. Early enough means about 15 minutes after the course opens. It’s in high demand. I of course found myself on such a waiting list and I was lucky that someone else had cancelled. A week or so before the course started I got my confirmation that I could join.

Vipassana Meditation centres are spread all over the world. Eva did her course in Malaysia and I have decided to do mine in the Chiba prefecture in Japan.
It is a 90-minute train journey, plus a 30-minute bus ride, plus a 15-minute shuttle Taxi ride away from Tokyo.

 

Zooming in closer to the Vipassana retreat itself you will find there is not much around. You do feel cut off from the rest of the world while there and the stage is definitely set for an undisturbed 10 days of silence and meditation.

Satellite image of the Vipassana Retreat in Chiba, Japan

You can Google Vipassana meditation yourself if interested but in a nutshell, Vipassana means “to see things as they really are”, as opposed to seeing things how we want them, or wish them to be.

Here is a good summary that I have taken from Medium of what the 10-day meditation course tries to achieve:
First we concentrate the mind. Once the mind is focused/sharp, you can begin to feel subtle sensations and feelings in the body you don’t normally feel. These sensations can be pleasant or unpleasant, but the key is to recognize that they are impermanent; they will eventually pass. The habit pattern of the mind is to react to pleasant sensations with craving (I want more!), and unpleasant sensations with aversion (Away with you!). The key is to understand that sensations cause reactions. Learn to observe these sensations, and not react, because these sensations are impermanent and will eventually pass. This process of observation without reaction is referred to as developing equanimity.

Translated to real life, the goal is to stay equanimous, or not to react to ups and downs in ones daily life. Hence, progress of the Vipassana meditation is measured by your ability to remain equanimous and not react to both pleasant and unpleasant sensations.

Again, above is just a very brief summary and if interested feel free to research more. In this post I want to focus more on what I was thinking during the course and how my thinking changed from
“This is the shittiest, most stupid, most idiotic thing I have ever done” to “Oh my God…, Wow!”.

I also want to say that I have done some critical mistakes before joining the course, mistakes that made it much harder for me during the various meditation routines and I believe made the course less effective than it could have been. The absolute biggest mistake I’ve done was to approach Vipassana with an open mind. This meant for me, the less information I had before the course the better. Therefore, I didn’t research anything about Vipassana except for its very fundamentals. I also asked Eva not to tell me about her experience, as I thought it is very subjective and I didn’t want to go into the course in any way biased, but wanted to find out myself what Vipassana could do for me. I treated this like a Game of Thrones episode that others have already seen and I would try and stay away from as many spoilers as possible. Big Stupid Mistake (BSM).

The other “mistake” is more character related. I’m sceptical, often cynical, I like to question things rather than follow blindly like a sheep. Things have to somehow make sense and the question “Why?” is a close friend of mine.
Why is something like this and not like that?
Why is something supposed to be done in a certain way.. etc.

While this might be good in a work environment to improve certain work routines or processes, it is not a good characteristic in a meditation retreat.
If you only have 10 days, the “Why?” question turns from closest friend into the biggest freaking enemy, because it slows progress down and because ultimately all the “Why?” questions will be answered, even sufficiently and yes, even for a sceptical mind, but I was wasting time asking these questions in my head in the first place.
The day-to-day structure of the course is also not helpful for a critical/sceptical mind. You are asked to do certain things first and the explanation why you do this, or what the purpose is, is explained later and often rather vague, leaving me wondering for a whole day or more.

Knowing myself a little bit, while I was on the bus on my way to the retreat I told myself that I will just accept things the way they come and try not to question. I will just follow whatever is asked of me. But if you are generally not like this, it is not an easy thing to do. It’s not like hitting a button and you stop questioning stuff and despite having told myself to try, I definitely fell short in the first couple of days of achieving it.

Here is a rundown of the 10-day course and what I was thinking.

Registration and Welcome:

After the train and bus journey we got picked up by a shuttle taxi from the retreat. It was pouring down. I had to come with all my travel stuff. Big rucksack, laptop, camera and equipment, all clothes, all that I own, as I couldn’t leave this anywhere for the 10 days. We were 8 people in the taxi. Nobody spoke. The course hadn’t started yet but everyone was already practising the “noble silence”.
This worked for me. Not a big fan of small talk in the first place and I had nothing to say anyway. I knew from the start that not speaking for 10 days will be the least of my problems and actually something I was looking forward to.

After we arrived in this secluded retreat, we assembled in the kitchen for registration. Most people had already arrived at lunchtime. I came with the afternoon group. It’s hard to guess the total amount of people who were on the course. Maybe 70 students? Maybe more. People consisted of “New” and “Old students” and in addition there were “Servants”, a course manager and the assistant male and female teachers.

New students are people who did the course for the first time. Old students have done it before and did an advanced version. Servants are old students who voluntarily helped out in the kitchen or doing paper work and so on. Vipassana courses are totally free and are financed solely by donations from people who have completed the course. Not commercialising Vipassana is a core pillar. I was surprised how many young people were on this course. I would say that almost half of the people were younger than 30.

They made us fill in a registration form, then we handed over our belongings including of course our mobile phones. No electronics, tobacco, alcohol, masturbation or anything at all fun related for the next 10 days. Just a flash light, alarm clock, clothes to change and toiletries. Then they gave us bed sheets, explained us the layout of the retreat and we were off to our sheds to make our beds. Male and female all separated of course from the very beginning. Even the kitchen was split for registration into male and female.

The layout of the retreat and the various accommodation looked like this:

Vipassana Retreat Layout, Chiba, Japan

And this was our schedule for the next 10 days:

The Course Timetable

The lights went out at 9.30pm sharp and I was already very sceptical if I was in the right place.

Day 1

A gong in addition to the 20 alarm clocks of the 20 men in our shed woke us up at 4am. Of course, some alarms went off at 3:55, some at 3:58 and others at 4:05 as everyone had set the time differently. Great!

Armed with a flash light, freezing and in rubber boots to protect against possible snake attacks, I went to the shower facilities to wash myself.
At 4.30 another gong. We all had to go to the main meditation hall, male and females separated even using separate entrances, where we sat down cross legged and were told to close our eyes. Then the chanting from SN Goenka started from some low-quality audio recording. SN Goenka is the main Guru of the Vipassana meditation technique and he would participate in our mediation with chanting at the beginning and at the end via audio recordings. He spoke brief instructions of what we were supposed to do first in English, followed by a Japanese translation for non-English speakers. The recordings are played by the Assistant teacher and in the evening a video was played of Goenka with a sometimes vague explanation why we did the things we were doing all day.

The chanting went like this, take a listen:

Are you shitting me? It’s 4.30am, I’m in a freezing cold meditation hall sitting cross legged with 70 other people listening to THIS? It was bizarre. I was ready to burst out laughing, just waiting for someone else to start first. Inside I was dying. This can’t be serious. This guy is taking the piss with randomly made up noises. At 4.30am you can’t sell this to me and tell me this is serious stuff. He sounds like a Newcastle United fan whose team has lost against Sunderland and who has drowned his troubles with 12 pints of Fosters and now he is lying on the sofa making random noises.

I slightly opened my eyes to see who I could join laughing. Nobody did. Not a single face in the meditation hall moved.
Really? What is wrong with you people? Come on…
Nope, nobody. LOL…, how come I’m the awkward guy in this?
It was 30 minutes into the official schedule on Day 1 and I was already convinced that I’ve signed up in a mental institution.
A feeling I should repeatedly get over the next couple of days.

Then we were told to “Observe our breath”. Observe how we inhale and exhale. That’s it. Why this has to be done at 4.30am and not at 10am after breakfast, was beyond me. But I didn’t mind very much. I instantly fell asleep the day before, so waking up at 4am was fine. Much more difficult than waking up at 4am was the challenge to avoid laughing at the chanting that was still ringing in my ears. My god my belly hurt.

The “official” main challenge of the first day however was to focus on the breath. The mind will wander. It will go elsewhere, think other things and you were supposed to gently get the mind back to focus on your breathing again. We did this the whole day long. I was thinking if I was the mind and someone would tell me just be still and focus on some breathing going in and out of some nostrils all day long, I would say Screw this!, I’m going elsewhere.
So I was not angry with my mind wandering off. I could perfectly understand it. Still, I tried and focus as much as possible. To be focused on your breathing for more than a minute at a time before the mind wanders off is considered good. Not achieving this is considered normal. We practised this for 10 hours, interrupted by lunch and short tea breaks (see schedule).

Funny thing was as soon as day one started, all other people seemed to turn into Zombies, walking really slowly around the compound with a blank face expression. From the meditation hall to the shed, from the shed to the shower, all movement happened in slow motion. And because you can’t interact with each other and any body contact – accidental or otherwise – had to be avoided, people usually walked behind one another with a safety distance, very slowly.
I found this slow walking speed unnecessary, inefficient and rather stupid. I walked normally, meaning most of the time I overtook everyone else. As a result, I was usually the first in the kitchen, first for breakfast, the first in the shower, first in the meditation hall and first having a rest.

Vipassana Compound in Chiba, Japan
Vipassana Compound in Chiba, Japan taken from dhamma.org

The food at lunch was rather good. Full vegetarian: Miso soup with tofu and seaweed, a choice of brown or white rice, pickled vegetables, things like this flushed down with decaf coffee or decaf tea. Meditation gets you really, really hungry. So I was surprised to find a note in the kitchen at dinner time saying every student can only take half an apple and half a pear and that’s it . A joke surely? I was looking for a second note telling me the first note was a joke. It wasn’t there. I didn’t show my feelings. True poker face. All perfectly normal. I did pretend I was not expecting anything else. Let’s see, it’s 5pm now, half an apple and half a pear is all we get until breakfast at 6.30am. Cool. Thanks.
Good night.

Day 2

Gong at 4am plus 20 alarm clocks. Rubber boots, freezing cold, pitch black, flash light, wash, then main meditation hall. The chanting was still funny.
Day 1 was “Focus on your breath.”
Day 2: “Focus on the feeling of your breath going in and out of your nostrils.”

You can’t be serious.
But they were. All day long. Nostril style.
And sitting crossed legged all day makes you feel your kneecaps are exploding and someone rips out your spine. You shift and reposition to make it less painful, but all it does is to relief you of the pain for 30 seconds before it hits back. Full force. And every repositioning gets you out of your meditation. What am I doing here? I could be drinking Sake and eat Kobe beef non-stop in Tokyo. I could tease Eva. Instead I’m in never ending pain. My mind tells me I should get out as soon as possible.

At 8am after the first break, I saw the first guy leaving the retreat. Smart chap. I’m jealous. What did he say? What was his excuse? I went through all exit strategies in my head already. Nothing was convincing.

At lunchtime I was sitting outside the main meditation hall in the sun observing another student, a fully grown up man, chasing grasshoppers.
He did so by moving like a grasshopper himself. I couldn’t believe it. It was a scene straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and it reinforced my feeling of being in an institution for the mentally impaired.
I could not stop laughing until I was convinced I’m going crazy.

Later that day I learned that day 2 and day 6 are the hardest. Goenka told us so in a video that they show of him every night. With each passing day there was a new video of him explaining things and what to expect the next day.
In the video he also said that nobody should leave the course early and that “teachers will not allow you to leave”, as this wouldn’t be good for you. That was a bit creepy considering the secluded place, far from any civilisation, the feeling that apart from you everyone else is a Zombie, or the follower of a hardcore version of Jehovah’s witnesses. That I have seen someone leave the retreat earlier that day was comforting in this context. But did he really leave, or did someone find him 2 days later in some Tokyo river? I don’t know.

The nostril and the grasshopper were the new things. All else including the pain was just like on Day 1.

Day 3

“Focus on any “sensations” or feelings that arise on your upper lip as a result of your breathing from the nostrils.”

I cried. I’m leaving. This bullshit at 4.30am.
For some reason I stayed. I still don’t know why. I found the whole thing ridiculous. You tell me to focus on any sensation that might arise but not to artificially look for a sensation. It has to be a “natural sensation”.
A “real sensation”.

Yeah, right, it is the same as if you told me not to think of a pink elephant. Of course, the first thing everyone does is to think of a pink elephant. And of course, after some time I could feel a tingling sensation on my upper lip. And how could I not? It’s not exactly magic, is it?
Furthermore, probably to increase the odds the audio recording told us that it could be “any sensation” that people can feel.
An itch, a tingle, the feeling of breath going into and out of your nose, heat, perspiration, coolness, dryness, any physical sensation you can feel. The sensation isn’t important, the observation and focus on it IS.

What a load of crap. 10 hours observing any sensation on my upper lip.
By this time the pain in my body along with the question “Why?” have become my worst enemies.

When we watched the Video of Goenka that night he told us that with the end of day 3 the real Vipassana meditation would start. Day 1-3 was to sharpen the mind to get it to pick up subtle sensations. On day 4 this is put to the test. It was a really important day. The better we were on day 1-3, the more we would get out going forward. I hesitated. All my questioning, all my ridiculing, all my making fun of the Zombies around me caught up with me. Was my mind sharp enough yet? I was unsure. But I told myself that despite all my cynicism, I took the mediation parts seriously. And I picked up the bloody sensations on my upper lip. I was not imagining this. Self-comforting thoughts in an uncomfortable environment.

S.N. Goenka speaking at the United Nations
Day 4

Instead of just scanning the upper lip for sensations, we started scanning the entire body. Piece by piece. Top of the head, back of the head, sides of the head, forehead, eyebrows, nose, ears, cheeks, lips, jaw, neck etc.
From top of the head, down to the feet. Most of the body parts where I set my mind to, I could feel some sensation after some time. Some subtle, some stronger. Observing them in a neutral way like from a 3rd person perspective was as interesting as much as satisfying.

When I set my mind to my heart area, the heart would skip beats or speed up, which is probably normal when you focus on your heart. What wasn’t normal was that when I tried to move my mind from the heart area to the right-hand side of my chest, my heart would pull my mind back. As if it was a magnet.
Yes, it felt exactly like a magnet would feel and it felt very weird.
See, using the word “weird” here is not good. It puts a label on the sensation. What I should really do is to accept the sensation for what it is, just observe and acknowledge it, without judging or labelling.

When I came down to my lower right arm and set my mind to it, my arm went numb in less than a minute. That was the point when all the questions and the cynicism stopped. This was real and it was powerful (Labels!). I had to make a conscious effort to get my arm moving again, to get some feeling back into it. It took me real mental strength just to move my fingers. I was too much of a beginner and this sensation was too strong, to just observe it and let it go. I opened my eyes, and looked at my arm just to confirm if this was real, but there was of course nothing to see. My arm looked fine, it just felt numb.

Day 4 was the day everything changed. The chanting was no longer funny, I noticed that I was no longer first in the kitchen, first at the shower facilities, or first back in the shed. I walked in line with the other Zombies. I turned into one of them and it didn’t feel weird. It felt right.

Day 4 slowed me down a lot. We kept scanning our bodies for the rest of the day. On this day, I got a glimpse of how powerful a tool Vipassana could be. Not so much because my skull felt like it was invaded by a billion insects when I set my mind to it, or because my arm went numb. These were just indications or prospects of something bigger. Because if this can be felt with a cynical mindset like mine, thinking further ahead, when I would become more convinced of the technique and more proficient, what then could be done? What other sensations could be triggered? Especially once we move from scanning the outside of our bodies to the inside in the advanced sessions. When slowly digging ourselves down to the root of an unpleasant sensation, observing it, understanding it, possibly eliminating it.
This prospect was for the first time something real, something tangible, something I understood and something I could set my mind to.

Day 5

“Scan from the top of the head to the feet over and over looking for sensations.”
From day 5 onwards you were no longer allowed to shift your seating position if at all possible. No matter how painful the legs and back were. They called it “strong determination”. What I did instead was to scan to the root of the pain, by focussing the mind to it. Down, down, down to the very root, the core of the pain and then observing it. Just observing it and knowing all sensations including the pain was temporary. When it worked, the pain would dissolve into heat. If it didn’t, the pain just remained crazy, crazy pain.

Day 6

Was a repetition of day 5 but getting more proficient in picking up sensations. It’s not a linear thing though. Some meditation sessions were going great, with a laser sharp mind, while during others, I was unable to focus even for a little bit. Again, this was something I found out later was completely normal and to be expected.

On Day 7

we were supposed to “Scan both sides of the body at the same time, passing from the top of the head down to the feet, and then from the feet back up to the head”.

Day 8-10

didn’t work for me so I rather keep this short. But it wasn’t a problem as I had the feeling I already learned a lot. On Day 8 you are supposed to “Pick up free flowing sensations, making the whole body scan quicker.”
It’s OK not to have these free flow sensations as it is advanced. If you don’t have them, just keep scanning your body. Same for Day 9, where internal scans start. You “Scan from the front of your body through to your back”. It didn’t work for me. Maybe because my mind wasn’t as sharp as it could have been because of my weak start.
I don’t know but it wasn’t a problem.

Day 10

You are allowed to speak again to slowly prepare you for the outside world. I did not have much to say though.

Was it all worth it?

If you fight your way past day 4, definitely. So much so that I want to do it again. This time together with Eva in a different retreat, in a different country and now with a very different mindset.
The pain is serious though. For a total meditation beginner, I should have prepared myself better by doing hour long mediation sessions before the course. It’s really tough but the understanding of the basics of Vipassana are convincing.
Still, big regret about the time wasted being cynical. However, by doing the research about Vipassana afterwards, I found that very many people were equally sceptical and cynical for the first couple of days Until Day 4, when Vipassana started. Also many people said that your mind will come up with a billion excuses to leave the course early. Basically from Day 1 onwards. Exactly what happened to me. So, I’m not alone in this and I was wondering how many other people on my course were going through the very same struggle.

And now? Have I changed? Do I see the world differently? Do I react differently? Not at all. It’s not life changing, but I was not expecting this from a 10-day course giving you the mere basics. It is convincing though. Convincing enough for me to repeat the course and see what I can get out of it now that I know what to expect.

Exhale

 

 


If you’ve done a Vipassana course and you stumbled across this post, I would honestly be interested how the experience was for you.
Get in touch at:
signal@fstop2.de