Those first few days I was thinking about all of you guys back home, wondering if you’d ever choose to remove yourself from society and go into a Vipassana silent retreat for 14 days. Then it occurred to me that you’ve likely never even heard of Vipassana if you don’t run in yogi circles or travel in Southeast Asia. I was thinking how grateful I am to have seen so much and that I’ve had this slow rate of exposure to things I would’ve said, “hell no” to in the past. There’s a big world out here and there’s much we are isolated from in the U.S.
I first heard of Vipassana in India from my friend Jürgen, but it sounded too intense for me then, so I opted for a 10-day Intro meditation course, you remember. Jürgen went on and on about it though and said, “You must do Vipassana one day.” Oh, alright, alright, one day.
I visited Jürgen in Munich later on in my trip where we waved goodbye to his partner who just happened to be leaving for a Vipassana retreat. I later learned that they both do these retreats every year.
I still was in no hurry to try Vipassana, but I noticed how content and happy my Munich friends were, leading a very simple but valuable life. It occurred to me that the life they chose to live, which included Vipassana meditations were likely a big part of that.
After my emotional split from J and leaving Africa, I was feeling a little lost and unsure of my future, so I figured this might be a good time for Vipassana to regain some clarity.
Days 1 to 3
The first day I was shown around the small monastic village, where to eat, where I’d sleep which was a shared house with three other women, several meditation halls and then finally the meditation routines. I remember thinking at first, ‘Oh, this is all I have to do?’ By the end of the first night, it was, ‘Oh, this is all I have to do.’ The realization hit me; I would be eating, breathing and sleeping these monotonous meditations during all waking hours for the next 10 days.
After the orientation of the property, I was set free to go do meditations in any of the locations I was shown. Only problem was I didn’t really care for meditation that much. I’d completed the intro course back in India a year earlier and found it extremely valuable, but admittedly I’d found it nearly impossible to discipline myself enough to meditate on my own after the class ended. I realized without the classroom atmosphere, this would be a much more difficult routine and would require firm self-discipline that I was not prepared for. The class in India had propped me up in a way, even though there was no verbal support, I was supposed to be in a certain place at a certain time to listen to their teachings and participate in their guided meditations. This was totally different. I was on my own to practice, except for daily meetings with my teacher.
By the end of day two I wanted to quit.
I found myself slacking off with the routines and taking longer breaks than I was supposed to. Meanwhile, my mind was waging a war inside. This is stupid! This is mind numbing! I can’t do this for 10 days! I don’t get it, how will this benefit me? Screw this!!! At times I felt like a detainee being prepped for interrogation, given mind numbing monotonous activities to perform 16 hours a day with complete sensory deprivation; no talking, no music, no writing, no reading and no food after noon. Say whhaaattt? Did I close my eyes and wake up in a CIA facility? Oh wait, I voluntarily came here. Sigh.
I felt the intense urge to leave so I talked to my teacher who had recently informed me that the basic course was 14 days, not 10 as I’d thought. I told her I didn’t think I even wanted to stay three days, so it was unlikely that I would complete the course. She encouraged me to stay. “It’s normal to question the practice. Everything is impermanent.” I don’t remember what else she said, but amazingly I felt like staying after meeting with her.
Then I had a little talk with myself. Ok Eryn, if you’re gonna stay here and put yourself through this hellacious routine, you’ve gotta mentally get on board with it. There’s no point in being here if you’re going to do it half ass.
I asked myself a few questions. If you were to quit, why would you be quitting, because it’s too hard? Hmmm. Are they asking you to do anything that you’re not mentally or physically able to do? No. Do you feel something good will come from this process? Well, ok, probably.
I thought of my friend Jürgen. Then I thought of a few friends I’d met along the way who had tried it and dropped out. I carried on.
Days 4 to 10
The 4 a.m. wake up wasn’t so bad by the time day four rolled around. I was getting used to only six hours of sleep; and it does seem to be true that when all you’re doing is meditating you need less sleep.
I’d do walking meditation for 20 minutes, sitting meditation for 20 minutes, then 20 minute break – all day. The walking and sitting times increased daily and although my body resisted at first with aches and pains in places I’d never imagined, it slowly began to adjust.
When I’d get frustrated or bored I’d look at my timer to see how long I had left, but I realized quickly how pointless it was because I just had to start the routine all over again. And again. And again.
By day seven I was up to 50-minute meditations. For the majority of the day(s), I was mentally on board with the routine and was following it with relative ease. There was a certain comfort in the routine and my mind was opening. I did however have the occasional internal hissy fit often accompanied by a crying spell. Like a screaming five year old. I don’t want to do this anymore! I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna! I carried on.
4 a.m. to 6 a.m. – Meditating and bathing
6 a.m. to 7 a.m. – Breakfast
7 a.m. to 11 a.m. – Meditating
11 a.m. to noon – Lunch
Noon to 10 p.m. – Meditating
10 p.m. to 4 a.m. – Sleep
My big entertainment was flossing my teeth. With nothing else to do on my breaks besides hand washing my laundry, I decided flossing would be good fun! LOL. It also correlated nicely with these thoughts swirling around in my head about how our teeth and our minds are similar in a way. (Funny how these thoughts came up when I thought of how I would explain all this to you, my people back home.)
Like our teeth, we build up this sort of metaphorical plaque in our minds as we go through life. So many things happen to us on a daily basis and from childhood that hardens us, makes us guarded, instills fear in us, jealousy, anger, insecurities, low self esteem, emotional eating, OCD, depression, etc. As we experience life, we’re unknowingly forming these crusty layers of plaque in our minds and this effects how we relate with the outside world.
We brush our teeth every day and go to the dentist twice a year, but we do nothing to clean our minds. Our brain is the most important organ in our body and no one teaches us how to proactively take care of it. It’s startling really when you think about it. In my opinion, and I say this with no exaggeration, if people would learn meditation at a young age there would be less violence, less mental illness, fewer divorces; I could go on and on.
By day nine I was up to 60-minute meditations and I’d started practicing primarily in my room most of the afternoon since the meditation halls were so incredibly hot. The Chiang Mai heat this time of year is brutal and with no A/C that made it more difficult to stay strong in the practice. My room was on the ground floor and shielded from the sun by the second floor, so with my two fans it was bearable. This was a big deal for me though to switch to my room because I’d previously preferred being in a meditation hall where I could still be propped up a tiny bit by the others; but now I was getting stronger.
The 9th night my teacher said I should reduce sleep to 5 hours.
The 10th night reduce sleep to 4 hours. Say whaaaaat?? You crazy!
I asked about the psychology behind the sleep deprivation. My teacher told me it’s like the boiling water effect – warm water boils faster than cold. We want to keep our mind in a meditative state. Huh. Ok, sounds logical I suppose. I saw it as a way to break down the natural barriers of our minds. We can be so guarded and defensive by nature. The barriers have to be down to see things clearly. Both logics seemed to make sense although I didn’t like it!
I met with my teacher the morning of day 11 and she told me these final days would be the ‘days of determination’. Oh shit! She said, “Many years ago my teacher told me you have to have a lion heart to practice Vipassana. Eryn, you have a lion heart.”
I’ll be back with you soon on days 11 to 14 and tell you how it all came together for me.