Vipassana: learning through pain

This is quite a long description of my experience. Feel free to skip to the conclusion paragraph for a summary.

I first come across the technique

I first heard of the Vipassana retreat after reading “Sapiens: a brief history of humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. The sheer scope of the book astounded me and the clarity of thought displayed was exceptional. So I decided to learn more about the writer. In his Wikipedia entry, it states that he practices Vipassana medidation and attributes his focus to the technique. That sounded quite intriguing so I looked into it a little.

This sat at the back of my mind for quite some time until I read my yoga teacher’s blog who described her attendance at a Vipassana retreat. I was intrigued by the coincidence. From two different paths; Vipassana was presented to me.

I worry about my back

When reading about the schedule (around 10 hours meditation per day); I immediately worried about back pain. I know from experience that after 10mn of crossed legged/straight back pose; I start being in discomfort. 10 hours of this for 10 days sounded more than daunting!

The other imposed restrictions; complete silence, only fruits after 12, wake up at 4am, no form of exercise (except walking), total gender segregation, no communication with the outside world, no reading, no writing, no electronic devices, modest dressing; all seemed feasible to me. In fact I positively welcomed some of them. No talking in particular sounded like a liberation and I had no doubt that being away from my mobile phone and my laptop would do me a world of good.

So I needed to check about the back worry! I emailed my yoga teacher who had attended and she responded that there were lots of props (true) and that you could sit on a chair (somehow less true). I really wanted to do it and this provided the reassurance I was craving for.

Registering: a lot of questions asked

I immediately sought to register on a course. There was one not too far away in time and  distance so I was ready to register as soon as the registration opened (I mean that I registered about 30s after the registration were opened; I was keen!).

There followed a questionnaire with some questions that I felt were quite intrusive;  details about the medication I took, details of any mental health issues, health history, etc… But I thought OK, they seek to make sure that people who register are well enough to attend the course and benefit from it. It is a way to protect us against something that could potentially be disturbing. So I gave some brief and truthful details.

Then followed not one but two more questionnaires sent about a couple of months apart. I thought this was quite excessive. I had suffered from depression in my late teens/early twenties and had said so in the form. I assume it is why I received additional forms. I was now asked what medication I was taking and for how long when I was suffering from depression. As it is over twenty years ago; I do not remember. To be honest I felt a little irked by the level of details that was required. Yes, I had been depressed for a few years but I am well now and have been well for quite a long time.

Why do they need to know that level of personal details?

However, I was really keen on going, so again I provided truthful but brief details. Outlining that my depression was while back and that I was well.

When I received my place confirmation, it felt like it was something special and that I had passed the veto process. I was over the moon!

The big day has come

Here I am, nervous and excited! To be honest I couldn’t wait! I set myself to be lucid enough to check my expectations.  I am not going there with the idea that I will come out at the other end perfect and enlightened. This retreat will not resolve all the problems in my life. This is an adventure of the mind. I am going there with an open and curious mind.

So I drove there and arrived well in time for check in. Two young ladies where at the registration desk (they looked like 15 years old to me but I am in my forties so clearly they were much older than that!) . They gave me a form to fill in (yes, another!) in which I had to agree to a certain number of things. This was fine I already knew about the silence and the other rules. But I was also asked to write a biography…why? Again, this seemed intrusive but giving them the benefit of the doubt (I am here to learn) I gave a brief outline.

I handed back my form and I explained that I would like to medidate in a chair as my back is likely to give me a lot of pain. They asked whether I had a back injury; no I haven’t. They told me that they would talk to the teacher about it. I thanked them and was quite satisfied.

I am asked to put my mobile phone and valuable in a locker. I do this but somehow decided to keep my car keys. It wasn’t a reasoned thing but just an instinct. The lockers will become out of bounds (which I didn’t know then) and were themselves going to be locked behind doors (again I didn’t know this; we were not told).

I go make my bed and work out where things are, get acquainted to the place and find my bearings. I am lucky enough to have a room to myself. It’s basic but absolutely fine; I quite like it surrounded by trees. It looks a bit like a wood cabin: perfect!

I walk around the grounds and everywhere there are little notices “student boundaries” or “female boundaries”. They do take that gender segregation quite seriously. It does strike me though that not everyone is heterosexual so that the boundaries are somehow inefficient. How about trans? Where do they go? And how about people who are gender neutral? But this doesn’t overly preoccupy me ; I assume that they would have the required discussion on a one to one basis. It’s still a bit baffling.


When will the silence start?

I expected that we would not be permitted to talk to other students as soon as we arrived. This was not the case and it really surprised me. What is the point of getting to know each other when we will have no contact whatsoever? Won’t that make things harder? Harder not to talk to someone when you know them rather than if you don’t. I am here to be alone with my mind not to socialise. Anyway, I go along, these people know what they are doing and it’s OK if I don’t understand everything. I have a chat with a few people. In particular, a delightful lady who is a writer and a feminist. Her conversation is very interesting and I make a mental note to make sure to talk to her before I leave and perhaps give her my number/email address. I would love to talk some more with her.

Finally, after about one hour, a partition is drawn between male and female. The big room is now separated by a room divider. This is quite dramatic; at last we are starting. Silence falls and the center manager addresses us. She is female and I am thinking that a male must be addressing the people on the other side of the partition.

She is really quite impersonal. She doesn’t smile and just reads a long list of rules (again). Clearly, we can’t say we did not know! We are allowed to ask a few questions which we do. We then have a delicious supper and chat amicably through the meal.

We are informed that from the first medidation we will not be allowed to talk.

The first hour of medidation

The first medidation takes place at 8pm in the medidation hall. We are asked to wait in the hall’s vestibule and approach the course manager when our name is called. When I am called, she gives me a letter and number and tells me this is where I will be sitting. I am D7. I go and find my place. I see a few chairs in the room and think great one of them is for me! But I discover that D7 is on the floor. There is a medidation cushion but no chair. That’s fine. I will see how I go. I am here to try new things and I am guessing the teacher hasn’t had a chance to either talk to me or put things in place for me.

When we are all seated we are provided with some information. It is a recording of S.N Goenka who tells us that we can shift position when we need to but that we need to be as discreet as possible (makes sense), that we are not allowed to lie down or stand up in the meditation hall (ok again perhaps it is too noisy and there is not enough room to lie down without moving place). We are also not allowed to point our feet towards the front of the room (is the sole of our feet insulting somehow? Again, I keep an open mind).

Our instruction is to keep a straight back and a straight neck and to concentrate our attention to the air passing in and out of our nostrils. I can do that or at least keep on trying to!

The Assistant Teacher then speaks. I had hardly seen her. It’s dark in here plus I am in the meditation hall so my eyes are already closed. At the sound of her voice I raise my head and see her at the front. She is sitting higher than us on something that looks like a vegetable raised bed on legs. Her voice is impersonal, neither friendly nor unfriendly just really neutral. I am a little surprised by the lack of kindness exhibited but, again, it may be a good tool to help us to keep us focused on our minds.

So I sit there for one hour. The back pain start pretty quickly as I knew it would but I am concentrating on the air passing my nostrils and after a little while realise with delight that sometimes I do not feel the pain. Great! I can do this thing without being in too much pain! I don’t even have to shift that much; whereas my neighbours….But I shut down that thought very quickly! I have a big ego sometimes and it needs to be ignored which I do. Each of us are doing the best we can and this is just the first hour so let’s stay humble and not be pleased too soon.

We then go to bed at around 9pm. I switch off the light and fall asleep almost instantly.

My first … and last day!

I had set my alarm clock for 3:45am to be sure that I would be ready. At 4am the sound of the gong went around the site. I got up and went to take a shower. I had prepared my clothes ready so within 5mn I was under the shower. I cleaned up after me; there were very precise instructions on how to do so. I was impressed!

I brushed my teeth, went back to my room. I tidied it up and waited for the gong to go to the meditation hall.

This morning medidation would be two hours and we had the choice of either coming to the meditation hall or staying in our rooms. Like most of the other participants, I chose to go to the hall. I was decided to test the newfound sensation of disappearing pain. I told myself that even if there was a chair waiting for me; I would sit on the cushion and see whether I could experience the same thing I had the day before.

I went to my cushion (no chair there for me) and noticed other people bringing lots of props. Other cushions of different sizes and blankets. I hadn’t noticed that there were lots of props stacked against the back wall we could help ourselves to. I decided to go and take a blanket. I had my shawl but it was quite nippy that early in the morning.

The medidation began and I concentrated on the sensation of the air getting in and out of my nostrils. Interestingly I could feel the pain shifting from my lower back to my upper back; then crawling into my abdominal muscles. I noticed again the pain disappearing at times. At the top of my inhalation and the very beginning of my exhalation my muscles didn’t have to move very much so during each breath, for a few seconds I was free of pain. This felt good but now I had worked out why I was pain free, the wonder disappeared. And with it the feeling that I had accessed something untapped before.

There were some astounding moments of silence in the room. Sometimes, there were absolutely no sound (all of us were shifting position slightly at one point or another so there were frequent noises). These moments of absolute silence were truly amazing. I almost could feel each and everyone of us creating an energy and it made me feel awed. Somehow the sum of our silence was more that each of our individual silence put together. I had never experienced this so intensely before and I really liked it. It opens a sense of wonder and possibility that creates much joy for me.

I was either really into it or falling asleep (perhaps both; I can’t honestly be sure) because when S.N Goenka started to chant I felt like it brought me back down. The chanting was very unfamiliar and not pretty. But there were some reassuring vibrating long notes and he made some funny noises that were quite entertaining.

I had no idea what time it was; how long I had been there or what the chanting signified. But I stayed there and tried to keep my attention on my nostrils. To be honest the chanted irritated me after a while. I liked the silence.

Eventually a gong informed us that it was the end of the two hours. When I stood up my neck and my back were beyond stiff and I nearly fell as one of my leg had gone to sleep without me realising it. I caught myself just in time and made my way towards breakfast.

The pain and stiffness in my back were noticeable so I decided to do a few stretches in the privacy of my room after breakfast. Breakfast was really lovely with an abundance of choice. I particularly liked the cooked prunes and raisins mixed with my cereals.

Back in my room I stretched. I was feeling a bit guilty we had been told no yoga and I was clearly doing some yoga postures. Was I truly breaking the rules? I had seen other people doing yoga outside in plain view. I wasn’t sure whether a few stretches counted as yoga? I needed to stretch my body though; it was in quite a bit of discomfort.

After an hour and half break where I laid down on my back on the bed trying to rest my muscles, I went back to the mediation hall for one hour. There were another two hours after this but the teacher would specify who could stay or who could go.

I spent an hour again working hard on concentrating on the sensation in my nostrils breathing in and out. I was really into the bits of silence and into observing my mind shifting, bringing it back and loosing it again into some weird chain of ideas. My back was very painful, burning; my neck was getting completely stiff and I started to shift on my seat. Trying to ease the pain. Finally I realise it was more painful to move than to stay immobile so I did my best to bear the pain. When at the end of that hour the teacher said that the new students could be in their room I was very relieved. Everyone had a short break and many students were stretching their back, lying on the grass and looking like they were suffering too.

I spent the next two hours lying on my back on the bed. I did start to try meditating while resting my back on the wall as we had been told to do but even this was really uncomfortable.

We had been told that the teacher would receive students between 12 and 1pm each day. However we were not told how to put our name down to get seen. Of course with the silence rule it felt a little awkward to ask. Fortunately I spotted a list on the door of the meditation hall and added my name. When the time came the hall’s lobby was full of students and I was wondering when I would be seen. My back was so sore that I didn’t want to sit down. I needed to lie down; this was the only way to get relief from the pain. So I decided to be courageous and I asked the manager (who was there) in a few timid whisper when I could see the teacher. She said I had a good 10mn so I went and lied down on the grass.

I came back a little while after. I was seen within a few minutes. The teacher was still on her high platform and I sat on the floor lower than she was. The power relation was set. She is high and I am low but then again this could just indicate she is the teacher and I am the student. Was that an Eastern way of doing things that I did not know? I explained to her my back was very painful and that I had asked whether I could have a chair when registering. Could I have a chair? She asked if I had any injuries and I said that I didn’t but that as I worked on my laptop a lot I regularly had back pain which was very well controlled with a few yoga stretches every day. I think she appreciated that I was honest and didn’t bullshit her. She was a little warmer but not much. I was happy to take that crumb though.

She said that often the negativity we had in us manifested itself by pain where our body had a particular weakness. I thought that didn’t ring quite true to the experience I (and others) were having. I was in pain because my back muscles were not strong enough to support my upper body weight for hours. But in the spirit of being open minded I didn’t voice anything and tried to accept the idea. The teacher explained the chair was a big step (was it? why? this was utterly bizarre to me) but that if I wanted I could have a back rest. I thanked her and said I would only use it if I really had to.

On coming out, I asked the manager to provide a back rest for me; she went and checked with the teacher that this was the case. Clearly I wasn’t to be trusted!

The start of the afternoon session was one hour compulsory meditation in the hall and then one hour and a half for some students. This time new students needed to stay. The first hour went by where I tried to use the back rest as little as possible. My back felt very sore and the pain intensified. I kept on refocusing my mind the best I could. We had a little break; I lied down on the grass again. Many students were either stretching or lying down. When going back in I was determined to keep trying to do my best. This time I took some props to see whether I could try to be more comfortable. I noticed that the lady in front of me had piled up about 5 rectangular cushions that she sat on and had her legs sticking behind her. The crossed legged position was obviously becoming painful and many of us were trying to make ourselves more comfortable.

The teacher said she would call some names up and that we should go and sit in front of her to medidate with her. My name was called very quickly, within the first group of 6 or 7 people who went up. She asked us individually whether we were managing the technique OK and if we had questions. When she had spoken to each of us, we medidated with her for a few minutes and where sent back. Was there a reason behind the order the names were called in? We had been told previously that we were free to go in and out of the meditation hall apart from the compulsory session (4 per day). This wasn’t one of them so I knew I could leave if I wanted to but I was determined to stay and keep trying the technique and find some beautiful time in the silence. I used the back support more and more. It provided a little bit of respite but my back eventually was sore even when resting it against the prop I was given. I stayed until the end. My back was screaming; moving was painful, not moving was painful, walking was painful and lying down was painful.

We had our tea which was a couple of pieces of fruits and a drink. We also had a little break during which I lied down on my bed. I had thought that we only had one hour compulsory medidation left but realised with something closed to dread that the lecture/instructions were also going to take place in the hall which meant more time on the cushion without resting my back.

When the gong rang, I waited as long as I could to go and sit down. My back was burning and I felt spasms of hot pain going up and down. I sat down but very quickly I did nothing but imagining how I could make this pain stop. I couldn’t walk out now; I didn’t want to disturb the other students. But I could not go back to the hall once this was over. I wasn’t going to be given a chair, that was abundantly clear so I had another 9 days of increasing back pain to look forward to. The pain was already severe and I wasn’t recovering from it quickly. A night sleep might do it but I had another 10 hours to look forward to the next day with a back rest that wasn’t that helpful. I decided to leave the retreat. I felt bad about it, I was a weakling, wasn’t I? I could barely stick one day out of ten but why did I need to be in pain to learn the technique? The unfriendliness of the people also didn’t feel right. Medidators tend to be relaxed and cheerful, open and patient, warm and gentle. I had experienced the opposite of this.

As I went out of the hall I whispered to the manager that I had decided to leave. She said I needed to speak with the teacher. And I thought OK I owe them that courtesy. While I waited for an hour and a half to see the teacher (she was busy in the hall during that time), I stripped the bed, packed up all my stuff and carried it over to my car. I didn’t want to break the concentration of any of the other students and sought to be very discreet in my leaving. I wanted to speak to the teacher and then be on my way immediately after.

When I went to retrieve my stuff that was in the locker (my mobile phone, my house keys, my wallet) I discovered that the lockers were themselves behind locked doors. I couldn’t get to my phone, my house keys and my wallet. This made me feel trapped and I didn’t like that. I understand that it was to make sure that our stuff was kept safe but at the same time; I felt really vulnerable and thanked my instinct for making me keep my car keys.

Finally at 8.30pm I was taken to the teacher’s interview room. Same set up, she was higher up and I was lower down. I explained to her that I wanted to leave because my back was so painful that I wouldn’t cope with 9 other days like this one. She said twice she had very little time. She said that I could sit at the back of the hall with my back against the wall. I thanked her for her kind suggestion and told her that my mind was made up and that I would leave tonight. She said that I couldn’t and that I should spent the night at the center. All the while she came across as irritated and on the border of being angry. I told her I was packed and that my things were in my car already. I told her I wanted to respect other students’ concentration and wanted to be as discreet as possible about leaving. She was quite angry when she said “Go away then”. I said that I needed to retrieve the stuff that was in my locker. She told me to “go to your room and wait there for the manager”. She then pronounced my name and surname and said is this your name in a tone that seemed to want to curse me and my family to the 13th generation. I repeated my name clearly and said she was correct. I said bye and left; I expected her to be behind me so I held the door for her. She turned around and went in another room.

I waited outside; somehow I really felt like defying her order to go to my room. This was ridiculous! I am 43 years old and have been an adult for some time now. I thought I am going to give 30mn for the manager to give me my stuff back failing that I am going to become a little more assertive and perhaps a little louder too. The behaviour of the teacher had shook me up and frankly I was shocked to see a medidator so angry and resentful. Also I had clearly stated I wanted to leave; this was disregarded and a lot of pressure was applied for me to stay. Fortunately, I was able to remain strong in my decision.

After 10mn had passed the young manager came to me and opened the locker room for me. I retrieved my stuff and thanked her. She asked me to wait outside the office where I heard my name and surname spoken out loud. She came out of the office and wrote my name on a piece of paper with other notes. I asked her whether there was anything else she needed me to do. She said no. I thanked her and said goodbye. Why did she need me to witness that little scene where my name was again pronounced and written on a bit of paper? Was I getting a little paranoid?

I sat behind the wheel of my car, set my sat nav to home and left the place with much much relief.

Concluding remarks

The first thing that I must say is that I stayed only 28 hours in the center so I cannot offer any conclusions as to whether the technique is helpful or not. I haven’t learnt it.

There are two different narratives here that can both explain the chain of actions described above.

One is that all that happened was justified by a care from the staff to make sure the students stay strong and have an effective experience.

The other is that the staff is perhaps a little too fanatic about spreading their method and that this sometimes push them to become manipulative and perhaps even a little bullying.

I cannot say for sure which is which. However what I can say is that nowhere was I warned that we were learning to concentrate our mind through a haze of pain. Mortification and ascetic disciplines are well known practices and I believe they work well for some. This is not something I wish to do and had I known this in advance I would not have signed up.

I cannot explain the frustration and anger of the teacher and it seems out of place to me in a meditation center where we learn to master our emotions. Of course none of us is infallible.

Vipassana has got some good reviews and many people have found there a useful technique. Be warned though that you will have to endure a significant amount of pain to get there.