Ten days in silent meditation- exploring Vipassana


I thought I was done with Cambodia but got a reply from the Vipassana center in Battambang that they still had space available in their early July 10-day course; which I immediately took. So after a few days in Bangkok with my friends from LA, I returned to Cambodia and headed to Battambang.

I had heard of the Vipassana meditation technique from friends that I met in India and wanted to try it for myself.  Vipassana is a word in Pali (Indian language used in most Buddhist scriptures); which means to see things as they really are, in their true nature. This is a technique rediscovered by Sidartha Gautama, (aka. Buddha) around 2,500 years ago; which led him to his own enlightenment. This technique consists of purifying the mind through the work of meditation. As explained by the teacher S.N. Goenka, it is the science of mind and matter, the understanding of how the mind influences the body and in turn how the body influences the mind.

My understanding of what I learned in the course…

Every experience in life comes to us as sensations, our conscious mind perceives these sensations as good or bad; which we turn into a craving or an aversion. The craving turns into a clinging, which turns into an attachment; which is then able to cause suffering. The cravings and aversions become the impurities of the mind; which keep it from being balanced and at peace. In Vipassana you learn the basic principle of the law of nature; which is impermanence. The understanding that everything (cravings and aversions) will come and pass away. If you understand this law well then you begin to accept that nothing is forever. What you perceive as good or bad, as pleasant or unpleasant, as pleasure or pain will come and go. This practice is about working at the root level of the mind and its connections to the body through these sensations. It is about learning to treat and accept all of the sensations with the same importance, not giving preference to one vs. the other, not clinging or attaching to any of them. In Vipassana we learn to purify the mind by applying the two principles of impermanence and equanimity. We learn to be the master of our own mind by teaching it to focus with precision on the individual parts of our body (one at a time) and observing whatever sensations we feel, without reacting to them. Simply observing them, not giving them any importance and understanding that whatever they are, they will pass. Once we rid the mind of all impurities we can gain liberation and freedom from all suffering.

Of course it takes A LOT of practice for most of us to reach this point. As Buddhists explain it, it may take many lifetimes. Some of us like me have a “monkey mind”; which constantly goes from thought to thought and reacts to everything that is happening internally and externally. Needless to say this practice during ten days kicked my butt, but that just means that I truly need it.

In conclussion…

With the continued practice of the technique, we begin to master our minds and become aware of all sensations without reacting with a craving or aversion. The mind becomes more pure and becomes free of negativities.  Once this happens we can begin to generate emotions of love, compassion, goodwill; which is obviously good for you and good for others. These new good emotions will be reflected in your dealings and interactions with the external world. You will begin to live a life of harmony and peace; which will spread to others around you. It may take a ton of work and practice to purify your mind and body and clean them of all previous fabricated mental dispositions, known as Saṅkhāras in Pali.

The very strict daily routine…

We followed a very strict discipline of complete silence during the first nine of the ten days. We had meditation practice for about 10 hours a day in one-hour intervals and 5-minute brakes in between. We began our days at 4:00 am and ended at 9:30 pm. The hardest part for me was not being able to share any of my experiences with anyone and hear about anyone else’s challenges.  But this is in fact part of the training, to learn to quiet your mind, it is important to avoid being influenced or stimulated by dialogue with others. The only opportunity for talk was with the teacher who was ready to answer any questions during one hour after lunch and 30 minutes after the last meditation. I pretty much saw her everyday after lunch. In one of my interviews with her, I asked about LOVE and how we could avoid the attachment and suffering that comes with loving. She told me that both of these happen because we often fail to love with compassion. In order to avoid suffering, we must love others with COMPASSION; which means to give without expecting anything in return. If you love with the pure intent of having the other’s well being and happiness as priority, then you are not expecting to get anything for yourself.  But when you love with compassion, chances are that others will love you back.  🙂

The fun part of the day…

The easiest and best part was listening to the teachings of the Vipassana teacher S.N. Goenka (pre-recorded on video). Goenka is a Burmese-Indian teacher who learned the practice in its purest form from his teacher in Myanmar and decided to bring it back to India. Thanks to him and the people that have learned from him, this practice is now available to all people in many countries around the world. Vipassana understandably is connected to many Buddhist principles but it is not attached to any religion, a sect or a cult, and it can be practiced by anyone. As explained by Goenka, Vipassana is scientific in character, it is the understanding of the relation of mind and matter. Goenka says “The Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught Dhamma – the way to liberation — which is universal”.

Finding a little entertainment wherever I could…

We could not talk, read or use any electronics so I had to find other ways to entertain myself during the little free time that we were given after breakfast, lunch and dinner. The local wildlife made up of rats, lizards, toads and all types of insects provided a lot of amusement on a daily basis.

During the day we had times when we could choose to meditate in the comfort of our own room. I always took these opportunities to give some rest to my body. I was guilty of laying down on my bed at times and staring at the wall until I fell asleep. I stared at the lizards that walked up and down the walls looking for insects. One day I saw a baby rat trying to get through a hole in the netting that (ironically) kept our living quarters free of rodents. The rat tried to get through the hole but it just wasn’t strong enough to push itself through it. Then I saw momma rat take the baby by the neck, and off they went into a pipe.  Really amazing!  I guess you had to be there…

The things we fixate on when we have nothing better to do…

We had three very good meals a day made up of different types of vegetable curries, salads, tofu, noddles, and rice. Sometimes we had cookies and we got to try some incredible local desserts too. In the first days I noticed that the girl sitting next to me in the dining hall always had a packet of Nescafe 3 in 1. This is a mixture of instant coffee, powder milk and sugar in a small packet.  They offered Nescafe instant coffee with breakfast but we had to mix our own with milk and sugar.  The milk provided was soy (which I don’t like) and sweetened condensed milk.  I started coming early to the dining hall thinking that a few of these packets were available on a first come-first serve basis, but that had only been the case for one day.
I started developing a ridiculous craving for these to the point where I wanted to offer the girl a US$5 bill for one of her packets. I was so jealous that she had these. I even resented the fact that she had broken the rules and had brought her own food into the dining hall; which we were not supposed to do. One day she even spilled a little bit of the contents of one packet on my left arm and didn’t even try to apologize by making any signs! how dare she?! So silly the things that occupy your mind when you are trying to quiet it. After the course I chatted with the girl, who is now my friend Tiffany. We had a good laugh over my silly story.

Coming out of silence…

The last day of the course we were able to break out of silence after 10:00 am. Talking again was very overwhelming for me. As much as I wanted to talk to others, it just didn’t go very well. I wanted to say so much but my words just didn’t make much sense. I was just blabbering non-stop. I actually got a pretty bad headache shortly after and my hands were shaky, as if I had had tons of caffeine.
It was great having that last day to connect with the other (foreign) girls as we could all speak English.  We also had quite a few things in common as most of us were travelling long term. The Cambodian women seemed sweet and nice but not many of them could speak English.  A lot of the local women in the course were nuns, it was incredible to see how they could sit and meditate for two hours in a row without even flinching. I met a really great group of ladies including some expats Vicky, Marina, and Ruth and others that were traveling around like me, Ruby, Tiffany, Emma, Maria, and Lucia. After the course almost all of us were heading back to town in Battambang so we hired a couple of tuk-tuk’s to go together. We celebrated our “freedom” by having some of our favorite foods in a couple of great restaurants in town.  The next day I left early in the morning to take my bus back to Bangkok so that I could catch a flight to Laos the following day… but things did not go as planned, read my next post.

Categories: Cambodia, Lessons learnedTags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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