Months ago, I had signed up for a Vipassana meditation course in Taichung. I was on the waiting list, but then shortly before the course began, I received the e-mail confirmation.
Many of you might be wondering why I wanted to meditate because I do that automatically all day anyway while I’m spending so many hours cycling. That’s true, but 4 other long-distance cyclists recommended the course, so I was simply curious and wanted to try it out.
Meditating and being silent for 10 days lay before me and I was quite nervous as I drove that morning toward the meditation center. I saw a few western faces, which calmed me down a bit, because I knew I wouldn’t be the only one who was doing this voluntarily.
The daily schedule looked like this:
4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00-12:00 Lunch break
12:00-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room–Lights out
The rules were very tough.
Silence. You could only ask the workers about the daily routine or speak with the teacher at certain agreed times. Shower times were strictly set for only 20 minutes per day. Also the cabins were designated. I was assigned a specific place in the dining room and in the meditation room. I was also just a number.
We slept in a dorm on extra hard beds. We were also assigned a boundary of only a few meters on the premises and were not allowed to leave that area. Men and women were strictly separated.
Everything we had was taken away from us and we weren’t allowed to read anything, write anything and had no contact with the outside world. I was not allowed to use my camera, so there are no images for this blog.
No smoking, no alcohol, no sex, no food outside of meal times. No killing was allowed, which meant we also couldn’t kill insects, and since there were mosquitos everywhere, it wasn’t easy. Also exempt were stealing and lying.
For those who wonder what something like that costs, the course is based on donations.
I had a brief opportunity to talk with the others and learned that the two hardest days were the first two; afterwards, it would become easier. Well, that was predictable and calmed me down a little.
Once all the formalities were organized, the first round of meditation was ready to begin and when I heard the Lord Goenka of India, the founder of Vipassana, singing for the first time (the music ended each meditation session), I had to resist the laughing spells that I sometimes get. His singing voice was really funny and he had obviously not inherited a talent for singing. So I thought, “this can’t be for real; I have to listen to that for 10 days?”
The English speakers, and we weren’t many, were always shown the original video presentation in the evening. For one hour we saw the latest ideas and instructions from Mr. Goenka, played with an immensely strong Indian accent, and after the first presentation was shown, from then on we had to remain silent.
The man had humor and one time or another I had a really good laugh at his lecture.
We were wakened at 4 o’clock in the morning with a gong. As a person who is a lazy starter in the morning, it was absolute hell for me. The first morning I got up and trotted with everyone else into the meditation hall. There were about 80 of us all tolled – both old and new students. There were significantly more women than men.
But after I found myself more asleep than able to concentrate, I went back to bed and already decided on the first day that I would start the day from then on with breakfast at 6:30. I still had plenty of time, namely as much as 9 hours of meditation a day. It was more than enough for me anyway.
The technique was simple. You were to focus on the nasal cavity and feel the breeze on the nostrils. I’ll say quite honestly, it was just boring. Everything went through my head and I was traveling all over the world, just not where my nose was.
The first day was probably the longest day of my life. I just sat there for 11 hours with my eyes closed. I waited every minute for the song of the old Indian, so I could present myself the reward of 5 minutes on my feet like some kind of mentally disturbed person.
The worst thing was sitting still, cross-legged, with my back straight and not moving. For me and all others around me, it was absolutely impossible to remain quiet for hours and not to fidget. The pain went into infinity. I had cramps and due to sheer pain, I couldn’t concentrate on the essentials, but that’s the way it is probably supposed to be and it was totally normal.
The time just didn’t move; an hour became an entire day.
The teacher was only present at certain times. At first I was very impressed by the calm behaviour that she radiated. As she calmly unfolded her blanket, sat down in slow motion and then didn’t move at all any more.
Every now and then we had to come forward in small groups and were asked if we had understood the tasks and how we felt. I always sat with a French woman and an American, so I heard that they went through the same problems as I and that calmed me down somewhat. Unfortunately, I was not able to ask them directly.
When we sat together in the video room after the first day, we all groaned, everyone to themselves and did gymnastic exercises, because we were all in pain from sitting so much. I thought to myself “I’ll never be able to hold out for another nine days, it’s impossible; it will be hell”. It’s like a combination of jail and prison-of-war camp, but certainly not rest and relaxation.
I knew I wouldn’t experience enlightenment out here anyway. Why should I do this to myself? And inwardly, I felt honestly sorry for Siddartha Gautama, who had spent half his life sitting still to become Buddha. In any case, that would never be my calling.
I traveled for many years in Asia and I had actually always vowed never to enter an ashram and now I had landed here and asked myself constantly “why am I doing this anyway?”
What I heard repeatedly from other successful candidates was “never break it off, because otherwise you won’t get the desired effect.” I wondered what kind of effect that was supposed to be. They couldn’t reinvent the wheel here and I was feeling all right, so what’s the point?
On Day 2, the difference between the athletes and the marathon sitters was clearly recognizable, because the athletes ran back and forth in the 100 square meters that they had available like they were mentally handicapped. I stretched after each meditation session and was always glad when I was able to shake out my legs again. While the marathon sitters sat around somewhere during the breaks even after several hours in meditation.
At least I knew now how a tiger in the zoo must feel that paces repeatedly back and forth in its cage. That’s what I felt like. Back and forth, again and again, 5 meters forward and 5 meters back again. I thought I was going crazy and decided that day never to go to a zoo again.
The meals were a welcome variety, which we were happy to enjoy, but from my point of view, a thinking error had been made here.
For breakfast we had the same thing as for lunch, but the plates at breakfast time were significantly fuller than at lunch time. Lunch was already at 11:30 a.m. and it wasn’t until 5 p.m. when we received some kind of fruit and a strange rice powder, which were stirred together with hot water to form a kind of paste. I had the impression that many of the people attending the course only thought about food.
As soon as the gong sounded, we went for the food like vultures. Only the 2 nuns in the group were allowed to go first; they arrived minutes before us and calmly filled their beggars’ bowls. Considering the snail’s pace at which they were going, they could have cut their toenails along the way. It was funny to watch.
The thought process that went along with the tiny bit of food that was provided is something I never really understood. Supposedly, you can’t meditate very well on a full stomach. My personal feeling is that a growling stomach is much worse. I always loaded up with an extra portion of rice powder, so I still had something left over as a treat at night; although eating that powder was more like taking needed sustenance and eating out of frustration. In any case, it wasn’t tasty at all.
On the third day, I had already packed everything and was ready to leave in the morning. I wouldn’t last much longer, and I couldn’t sleep half the night for all the pain, so I told the assistant that I was going to leave. She explained the situation to me. “You have to wait a bit longer so you can say goodbye to the teacher; after that, you will be able to get your things.”
The teacher convinced me to stay with a couple of clever arguments. Her final argument included the fact that it is not at all a very long time, only 10 days, and it would give me significant added value for my future, that I should persevere and in the end, I would be grateful to her. Oh well, although I didn’t know what the benefit could be, I let it stand, unpacked my bags again and decided to stick it out to the end. I have to admit, I was curious about it anyway.
On Day 4, the first attendee disappeared from my room and left the course. Thus, there were only 3 more in my room. Two of them were constantly whispering to each other; the third seemed to take the course seriously and meditated continually. The other two were sleeping more than they were in the hall. One read in her books or made notes.
Some more participants disappeared over time. One man was already missing on the second day. Overall, I guess it had probably been 10 dropouts.
Each evening, Mr. Goenka had the gift of making fun of what we had gone through during the day. Somehow, I didn’t find these pieces of information of any help and I wondered what the purpose was that he was doing it. His lofty wisdom was nothing new to me.
Eventually, I began to communicate with my room mate and I had the impression I had an ally who thought like me. She too had her doubts about the course.
In the afternoon, we were introduced to the technique of Vipassana, a strange theory with which one is able to rid oneself of bad thoughts. It is based on a “natural law.” Nothing is permanent, including bad thoughts; you just have to bring them to the surface from the subconscious and they would then extinguish themselves.
I exchanged thoughts with the French woman from time to time on slips of paper, like I used to do in school and figured it was somewhat like what you always hear about prisoners who are preparing to break out of jail together.
The silence with each other was sold as pleassure to us as a measure to not be distracted by other thoughts and to allow us to achieve a deep state of meditation. My theory about this is that you couldn’t possibly allow the course to proceed, because if people were allowed to talk with each other, they would all complain incessantly and you couldn’t force anyone to accept this form of concentration camp.
I found it scary to see how easy it was to control 80 people. They were all promised a happier life and so they followed the most ridiculous things. Actually, it was always all about our unhappiness. Again and again we were bombarded with the same words. Anitsche, Anitsche … Misery, misery ….. At the end, I couldn’t listen to it any longer. Anitsche is a term in the Vipassana practice which is of great importance, but in the end it didn’t interest me in the least what was really meant by it.
His singing was getting more and more on my nerves and somehow I felt like we were all being made fools of. In the hall only Mr. Goenkas tape was played; the teacher had to repeat the task that he had already dictated anyway. “Rest, take rest.” The last words before the night began.
There were some Taiwanese in the room, who were always loud. Belching was fully acceptable and the lady next to me probably belched all her bad thoughts to the surface; it was really incredible. I personally don’t know how anyone could continuously burp so loud.
On day 6, I gave it everything I could; I obeyed every instruction, which since the fourth day was different from on the third day. One was supposed to feel changes in the body – heat, cold, spasms, pain – everything that could happen to the body. You are to divide your body mentally into cubes and feel in each area separately whether something was happening there. If so, you should deal with the next section immediately.
Strangely, I really felt things that I had never felt before. And so I tried to concentrate fully. But in the evening I was so exhausted, I was in pain all over my body, so I said to myself “I cannot stand this any longer, and I can’t see any reason why I should continue to do this.”
It also didn’t seem to be getting easier. I found every day brutal.
I wasn’t a machine either, no longer 20 years old; I was a human being and I didn’t want to torment myself. I also didn’t want to have to go through any more pain. I was completely fed up with the whole thing.
I had already been told by the other 4 cyclists, “you’ll see that it’s the most brutal thing you’ve ever done” and that’s how it was. I had the strangest and most brutal week of my life behind me. But there were still a few days ahead.
That evening, I decided to leave again the next day, but in the morning it was raining and I postponed my departure until the next day. But even then it was raining cats and dogs. I had already mentally checked out of the course, because I simply didn’t believe the theory and just wanted to leave. However, I found the alternative – riding in the pouring rain on the road – to be no better.
In the evening, we experienced an earthquake. During the meditation the whole floor moved under us. It was eerie, but also fascinating.
When we met to look at the video, I spoke aloud for the first time to the others and said, “Wow, did you feel that earthquake, incredible.” No one responded. That can’t be true, I thought. You can’t possibly consider so much brainwashing to be good. And I thought to myself, “that was an earthquake people. Have you totally withdrawn from reality or what’s going on here?”
On the last day, however, the French woman explained to me that they already talked about it before I came into the room, and they were instructed by the assistant not to respond to any statement anymore.
The last days I simply sat out and didn’t deal with Anitsche and all the other garbage and simply waited for the rain to stop. From then on, I felt much more relaxed, and I could live with those conditions.
I had time to observe all the others. Well to be honest I had observed them from the very beginning. I saw the others suffering the same way. The two Americans were not able to sit still for an hour either, nor could the French woman. There was a Taiwanese girl, who told me at the beginning of the course that she is a repeat student and would meditate every day for one hour. She sat there straight as the figure “1” and never moved.
The teacher invited me to talk with her and asked me how I was doing. I told her my opinion quite frankly, and she was very surprised, but she responded very professionally. She said again, “on the last day you will be happy.”Inside, I thought to myself, “Right! Happy that I can be a free person again.”
Somehow, I was also curious to know how the others felt. I was curious as to what they had gleaned out of this whole experience.
On the tenth day, after the 100th gong, we were allowed to talk with each other again and were led to a place in the men’s section where we got our stuff back. Immediately afterward, we were asked for donations. We were surrounded by pictures of a temple and a huge building in India, which I would describe more as a huge palace that had certainly cost a lot of money.
The Indian continuously introduced himself in all the videos as the super nice guy who just wants to do good things and who had helped so many people throughout the world and that his theory is so awesome and would, therefore, also help many other people.
The day before, Goenka often mentioned that donations are collected and that it is good for our karma if you would volunteer as an assistant.
For several days, I had already felt that a sect was behind this event. When I saw the pictures and donations given by several people my assumption was confirmed immediately.
At last I had the chance to ask the others about their opinions. One American said he had found it OK, but also in no way believed in the theory that was behind it. The other American was still completely fascinated and said it was a great experience for him. Especially with him, I had the impression that he had particularly suffered. The female American asked me how I had actually ended up here, because she had asked herself the whole 10 days what I was doing here. I laughed and replied that I had no answer; I didn’t know why myself. She said for her, it was the right thing to do, but from the very beginning, she figured I had probably lost my way.
The French woman, I couldn’t judge, because, on the one hand, she was probably disappointed with the result, because she had expected more, but on the other hand, she also found it good.
Two ladies from Singapore, who came to Taiwan especially to attend the course, expressed an equally positive effect, and I was even more irritated, because I was the only one, who couldn’t find anything valuable in the whole 10 days – with the exception, of course, of the others that had left during the first few days.
One thing though, about which we all agreed, was the fact that we had all endured a lot of pain and no one really knew what for.
Am I too skeptical? Am I different? Do all the others sit at a desk all the time and were happy to experience something else to think about themselves – something I do all the time anyway? This, however, contradicts the recommendations of the other cyclists, because they had benefited from it, otherwise they wouldn’t have recommended it to me.
What exactly in the end should have happened and what was supposed to make us happier on the last day, no one could answer, because no one seemed to have sensed that. Some had also not perceived any feelings in their bodies.
The sun came out and it was time for me to leave the course. The teacher said, “but the course isn’t over until tomorrow, and if I wanted to take the course again, I would have to participate as a beginning student.” Just let it be, I thought. I was never going to attend a course again anyway.
In the afternoon, there would be a presentation about volunteering as assistants, a few more hours of meditation and some more rice powder with water. No thanks, I’d had enough.
I said goodbye and felt more free than ever before. I had made it, 10 days of compulsive sitting still were over and I was proud, because it had surely had had something of an effect, even if it was just experiencing the feeling of enduring a prison camp.
Bye bye Vipassana…