nepal | vipassana meditation

presse agent Charlene Lo 

Arriving in chaotic Kathmandu, from our home-away-from-Hong Kong, my friend Sanaz and I decided to stay a couple nights in Thamel and checked into the Ambassador Garden Home (thanks to our host Bicky!). We wanted to acclimatize to Nepal before heading to Pokhara – the site of the Vipassana Centre, where we would be spending 12 days in silence. Seriously.
Now I know you have questions, so let’s start with what it’s NOT:
#1 It is not a little getaway for people looking to unplug for a few days and chill out in a pretty retreat centre. If that’s what you’re looking for, go to a yoga/surf camp in Costa Rica, or on a Caribbean cruise.

#2 It is also not for those who want to check it off a list of personal challenges, or are curious to see what ‘this meditation thing’ is all about. Day 4 will break you. That is, if you make it past Day 2. DO try it if you are really resolute on making changes to any negative thinking patterns, or establishing a serious meditation practice. So now for what Vipassana actually is:

Described by S.N. Goenka, the modern-day-businessman-turned-guru of this practice, as “a meditation technique that purifies the mind by observing reality of oneself through awareness of breath and body sensations.”
The premise behind Vipassana is that the root cause of all our suffering in life are our attachments and aversions to sensory objects. We become miserable when we crave or cling to something we want, or try to avoid something we don’t want. The practice is to train the mind, through breath observation and body scanning, to remain balanced and perfectly equanimous to all subtle sensations – as everything in life is ‘annicca’ (impermanent). Makes sense in theory, right?

By Day 2, my definitions for Vipassana vacillated between a) A great weight loss program, and b) A great experience for law-abiding citizens who want to know what a 12-day jail term feels like. In practice, it meant enduring a mental and physical rigour that I have never experienced before; sticking to a strictly enforced, daily schedule of meditation, meditation and more meditation. 12 hours a day of silent sitting with morning bell at 4am and bedtime at 9:30pm. No deviations, no substitutions, no exceptions. No reading. No writing. No meals after 11:30am. No speaking, no gestures, no non-verbal cues whatsoever. We each took vows of noble silence from the evening before Day 1 until the morning of Day 10. By Day 4, the whole experience had become part concentration camp, part Fear Factor, part wilderness survival, part sweat lodge, part Jenny Craig. I was having hallucinations from the crushing monsoon heat, physical fatigue, hunger and mental exhaustion. My bags were packed that night – I was leaving in the morning. My ego was not interested in its dissolution. But something happened overnight. Maybe it was the ‘dhamma discourse’ given the night before by Goenka, encouraging us to give the technique fair trial in order to emerge from ‘this lifetime of suffering’. Maybe it was the little voice inside that told me to stay and face all my fears, phobias and anxieties that presented themselves in one place. I woke up and committed to staying one more day, and faced the battlefield that was my meditation cushion with steely nerves and ‘adhitthana’ (strong determination). One day, turned into two days. Meditation cushion to dining hall stool to bed. Back to the cushion. Bed. Cushion. Bed. Stool. Cushion. Bed.

Day 7 was my birthday. The day was marked by two special things: the first happened when my dorm-mate and warrior sister, Sanaz, broke silence to whisper a furtive ‘happy birthday’ as we were bumbling around the bathroom at 4am, rushing to get to the dhamma hall before the next gong. The second happened at our 5pm snack time – which usually consisted of dry cereal, 4-5 peanuts and a slice of apple. Today it also included a banana. A banana! I was overjoyed. It was as though the Birthday Gods were smiling down on me. You could say my 37th passed with considerably less fanfare and extravagance than past years, and I was perfectly fine with that. All I could think about were the 31 hours of silent sitting that lay ahead, and the 84 I had already conquered.

By Day 8, I started to see the lotus through the mud. The vice grip on my brain loosened and I experience my first blissful meditation session, complete with subtle body vibrations and an energetic calm.

Day 9. The vice grip is back. I fight through the relentless heat in the 4-hour afternoon stretch, as the temperatures mercilessly climbed over 40 degrees. No fans, no open windows, no water. We grit our teeth through the headaches, back pain and sweat… Only 600 minutes to go.

Waking up on Day 10, we were in the home stretch. The group that started with 14 men and 14 women was now down to 13 men and 12 women. Those of us left stared down the final seven hours of meditation, our bodies finally adjusting to the humidity, our knees to the sitting, our minds to the absence of chatter. Sensations arise, pass away, arise, pass away. We observe our breath and our bodies with great discipline. We observe the finish line and we pass it.

On the morning of Day 11, we are sent back into the world with some final words of wisdom from Goenka:
“A seed of Dhamma (teaching an enlightened person) has been sown, and has started sprouting into a plant. A good gardener takes special care of a young plant, and because of the service given it, that little plant gradually grows into a huge tree with thick trunk and deep roots. Then, instead of requiring service, it keeps giving, serving, for the rest of its life. This little plant of Dhamma requires service now…meditate one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. This regular, daily practice is essential… may Dhamma spread around the world, for the good and benefit of many.
For me, the experience was intense, insightful, confronting beyond description. As I gain more distance and perspective from the experience, I really am glad I stayed in the end. My sila, samadhi and panna (morality, concentration and wisdom) went through an evolution. But, would I do it again? Not a chance.

A final word:
For all you seekers, explorers, soul journeyers out there, there are many Dhamma Centres around the world, including four in Canada. If you’re thinking of heading into the silence, here are my recommendations for a ‘Vipassana comfort kit’ – small things I had in my bag that helped take the edge off:
Lavender eye pillow. You’ll probably be in a dorm so it’s also helpful to keep the light out if you hit the sack earlier than your roommates. Trust me, you will be exhausted from all those hours of sitting!
Citronella. Because it’s no fun to observe the sensations of your mosquito bites, but not actually be able to itch them.
Meditation scarf or blanket. Having something cozy to wrap around yourself will make you feel both comforted and focused.
Echinacea and oil of oregano. Sharing space with so many people also means sharing germs… keeping yourself healthy and your immunity up is key.
A thermos. After your tummy realizes its last feeding is at 11am, milk tea in the afternoon/evening will help satiate the hunger pangs, especially in the early days.

Essential oils. I always have lemon, peppermint and lavender on me: a little drop of lemon in my water bottle to purify and for flavour, a little dab of peppermint on pulse points and under nostrils to ward of drowsiness, and a few drops of lavender on my pillow before bed.

Charlene Lo is an avid yogini and toured the world to teach and train during a sabbatical in 2013. She is a creative strategist and seasoned communicator currently taking on PR projects in Asia and Canada.

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