A Turbulent Vipassana Journey Through Mind And Ego
The original article about my Vipassana experience was published in German on www.yogaeasy.de
Slowly I walk up the steep path to the forest monastery and meditation center Wat Kow Tham on the Thai island Koh Phangan. Ten days of Vipassana meditation lie ahead of me and I had only a very general idea of what to expect. The sweat was already running down my back and I suspiciously eyed a sign warning me of the biting brown dog. At the same time, however, a pleasant feeling of calm and clarity radiated through me. This was the right place and time to face the Vipassana challenge.
Vipassana means „insight“ and is a mindfulness meditation that has its origins in Theravada Buddhism. The goal of Vipassana meditation is „to see things as they really are“ (S.N. Goenka). It is about recognizing that everything is inherently transitory and that appearances like emotions and thoughts are not our „self“. As long as we do not see it, we identify with these things and experience suffering „dukkha“. Vipassana meditation is a way of overcoming suffering and achieving nirvana, a state without dukkha. Although the tradition of Vipassana meditation can be traced back to the mindfulness discourses in the Pali canon of the historical Buddha, this technique is independent of religion or culture. Buddha has distinguished himself from religions and ascetics in his environment and has taught a pragmatic, individual approach to meditation and mindfulness.
Immerse into the world of Buddhist forest monks
In the central residence building, I meet my companions for the next few days. Twenty men and women from all over the world, with different expectations and meditation experiences. Wat Kow Tham has offered monthly Vipassana meditation retreats for more than 50 years. The monastery is funded solely by donations, so everyone has the financial means to participate. The goal of the retreats is to spread the Buddhist Dhamma (Pali), Dharma (Sanskrit), the teachings of the Buddha.
On the first day we meet our teacher, the monk Phra Dr. Know Marut Damchaom. He is (about) 70 years old and lived before his ordination, a quite „normal“ life as a lecturer at various universities and research institutions. Accordingly, he speaks understandable English and is well versed in the confusions and challenges of our „mortal lives.“ Dressed in his traditional orange robe, he sits smiling on a rise before us. Wrapped in his serene, wise aura, he would introduce us to the essence of the Dhamma and explain various meditation techniques.
Not only for monks and nuns: Taking the eight precepts
There are some rules of conduct when attending a Vipassana retreat in a monastery. Participants must wear appropriate clothing, must not leave the grounds, comply with silence, and should always respect Buddha statues and monks. Men and women live and meditate separately and women are not allowed to touch monks. In addition, we vowed in the morning and evening chants to abide by eight precepts. Monks have to stick to over 200 rules, for nuns and retreat participants, these eight are: Take no life (no mosquitoes!), do not lie, steal or eat at the forbidden time (11 am to 7 pm), no sexual misconduct, dancing , singing, jewelry or cosmetics and do not use luxurious or high chairs and beds.
The stony path to my silent mind
My experiences with meditation have been very mixed in recent years. Although I have practiced yoga for so long, I never got through to a regular meditation practice. My thoughts dominated every attempt, which always scared me off. I hoped from this Vipassana retreat to finally bring some clarity and calm to my mind. As expected, the first day was hell. We meditated „only“ 45 minutes at a stretch, but for a total of over seven hours a day. Alternating meditation while walking and sitting. Soon my body ached from the shoulders, over the back to the knee joints. I was constantly drifting away, falling asleep sitting and watching annoyed the many meaningless thoughts that came up again and again. When walking meditation in slow motion my legs were so heavy that my hip joints hurt. Startled, I realized the many negative thoughts in my head: „He’s on my side!“, „Why is she walking so fast?“, „The fan is annoying“. This was the first step to mindfulness: perceiving these thoughts and getting to know the patterns of your own mind.
No luxury: Sleeping on stones, dealing with nature’s noises
The first night did not bring much recovery. In my little wooden hut I lay under a canopy of perforated mosquito nets, on a rock-hard mattress. Anxiously, I listened to the jungle sounds around me. When I felt movement and rustling in front of the dilapidated door, all I could think was that I could not shut it off and my imagination went through with me. At four o’clock in the morning I was finally torn from half asleep at the same time by the melodious gong, the scream of the roosters and the loud barking of dogs. On the way to brush my teeth, I was relieved to see that the dear white Buddha dog on the terrace had been watching and responsible for the noises of the night.
Everyone carries a Buddha in them
Starting this morning, a small wooden meditation bench became my best friend. We began our day with 45 minutes of sitting meditation, followed by ritual bowing to the Buddha statue and Buddhist chanting. So we honored both the person Buddha and the calm, clear Buddha nature that lies within each one of us:
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma-sam-buddhassa
Homage to the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Supremely Enlightened One!
This was followed by an hour of mindful yoga, which is not common in a Vipassana retreat. My muscles and joints tough, were very happy about it. After another meditation, at 7 am, we had breakfast and time to do our duties such as sweeping, leaf chopping, toilet cleaning or kitchen service. We were able to register for these chores at the beginning of the retreat and they are part of the mindfulness practice. After a quick shower with a water bucket, we received meditation instructions from the mischievously smiling Dr. Marut.
Inhale. Exhale. Meditate like Buddha?
Primarily, we meditated with the help of Anapanasati „mindfulness of breathing“. Through the continuous observation of breathing as a meditation object, samadhi, a concentrated mind and Vipassana, the insight into the nature of all things, can be attained. It is also said that Buddha was enlightened by Anapanasati. For all of us, the first step was to bring our mind under control. It is important to keep the focus on breathing again and again as soon as you realize that the mind is active. The thoughts are perceived, then lovingly let go. Two things that helped me a lot were telling my mind again and again, „There is no place to go now. Just stay here. In the Now.“ And the Buddhist story of the shepherd and the bull. Here the bull stands for our wild mind and we are the shepherd, who has to find the bull first, in order to tame it bit by bit.
We first systematically observed our breath from the nostrils, over the chest to the abdomen. During long breaths the breathing is followed up and down. Dr. Marut advised us to hold our breath for a few seconds, to focus again, if thoughts took over. Tirelessly, I kept bringing back my mind. The next step was to focus the mind in one spot. The breath becomes very soft and is only registered by the feather light movement at the top of the nostrils. This precise perception leads to a very sharp concentration of the mind on the present moment.
Walking meditation to effectively catch the drifting mind
The Anapanasati meditation was supplemented by walking meditation. This meditation method is a little bit coarser, but not necessarily easier. On the grounds of the monastery there was a beautiful, shady area where we could give our feet full attention under trees. Walking meditation combines conscious breathing with concentration on the feet. At the same time, one is fully mindful all the time, aware of every small movement: „Focus on the right foot, lift it, move it forward, set it down, be aware. Concentrate on the left foot, lift it, move it forward, lower it, be aware, etc.“ Like a robot, I moved in slow motion, watching my feet, breathing, and mind. The walking meditation helped a lot, because I became aware of my drifting thoughts much faster and could bring the mind over and over again into the now.
Happiness with mindful eating
Every day we got our second (and last) meal for the day at 11 am. A nun cooked delicious, traditional Thai dishes every day, which we ate mindufllly. Before we were allowed to eat, the „food reflection“ was read out. So we thought that „we will eat this food thoughtfully, we are not greedy, we will not overeat, just eat to make our body survive and eliminate the feeling of hunger.“ One of the biggest lessons I took from this retreat , is to reconsider my eating habits. It is so important for the health to eat consciously, taste every bite and appreciate the food. The feeling of fullness sets in faster, you do not eat too much and during the week it was no longer a problem to not eat for almost 20 hours.
The key to happiness according to Buddha
From 1 to 5 pm we met again for four sessions of sitting and walking meditation. In between, Dr. Marut lectured on Dhamma, the Buddhist teachings and the central theme „dukkha“. Things that we can not change, hold or influence, because everything is subject to constant change. Our body, mind or ego suffer because we cling and do not know any better. The Vipassana meditation helps us, realizing the four noble truths of Buddhism by recognizing this suffering, understanding the reason and solving the problem. We probably will not get rid of the trouble one hundred percent, but working on it alone will have an unimaginable impact. His motto is simple: „be happy – life is simple – here and now!“. After his inspiring talks, we got the opportunity in the evening to speak to Dr. Marut in personal interviews. Afterwards the evening chants were celebrated and two more hours of meditation, before we fell blissfully, but quite exhausted, on our hard mattresses.
There was NOTHING and EVERYTHING in my mind
There is not much distraction at a Vipassana retreat. The silence and mindfulness in everything I did was very hard on the one hand, but on the other helped me to gradually calm my mind. It was getting calmer and clearer in my head day by day, so that I soon found myself in a very deep concentration. Through the role of the observer, I was able to clearly perceive my inner space, away from emotions and thoughts. I grasped the processes in my mind and could just let go of them. Relatively quickly, my body got used to the new exertions. Already on the second day I could consciously perceive the flow of my breathing for a long time, undisturbed by thoughts. The quiet movement of the breath happened automatically and eventually the remaining thoughts simply dissolved. Soon I experienced these moments of total silence, up to an hour in complete absorption.
Who is it, this silence in my head?
I watched this nothingness in my head. A black, meaningless, silent emptiness. A condition that seemed to connect me to the whole universe at the same time. I felt an itch, aching knees, heard noises, but none of it penetrated as if it happened on another level. Every sensory sensation dissipated. My body seemed to have parted from the spirit. Is that what they call duality? My breath was barely noticeable, as if I would no longer need oxygen and could just stay here forever. There was no feeling of happiness, just being. Somewhere on the edge of this awareness had to be a space where thoughts and feelings arise. However, I am not those thoughts and feelings. I do not observe anything. Who am I when there is nothing but emptiness? The observer? At some point, I felt my brain was bursting, I panicked, I did not know what to do with this condition. There was nothing left, nothing that I could or should think about.
When the mindfulness remains
After these meditations, my mind miraculously remained in a meditative state of mindfulness. Carefully I got up, waiting to see if thoughts would rush back. The silence remained. I moved very consciously, I flowed through endless love, in the smallest details around me, in nature, the animals and colors I saw so much beauty. I was hundred percent awake, concentrated and focused in the now.
Throughout the week, I experienced some of these deep states in my meditations. I could almost feel my brain changing. During the breaks, I suddenly had the most intense memory flashbacks of my entire childhood. Situations, feelings and experiences that I could not really remember. They were beautiful, positive memories that made me infinitely grateful and showed me who I am and where I came from. And yes, I shed many tears. Torn between „when will this finally end?“ and „I never want to go back to reality“, I lost the awareness of time and space again and again. By 11 am, my day was already as long as a day’s work. I did not know how long I had been there and sometimes even forgot that I was here in the middle of an island in the Thai Gulf. Just being in the present, existing in the now. What an experience …
Develop equanimity no matter what
However, a Vipassana retreat does not only bring the challenge of meditation. Even if every participant practices for himself, no-one speaks or interacts nonverbally, certain dynamics and energies prevail. There are always people who can not handle the silence and feel the need to just say something. Participants who radiate uneasiness and trepidation have the potential to become a great lesson. Because that’s what it’s all about: do not get angry or even complain about it and solve the whole issue in the outside. The task is to observe what happens in the mind, to develop wisdom and „just sit with it“.
Interestingly, it was the men who could not hold still. One of the participants seized every opportunity to ask questions or say something. On the third day, during walking meditation, he was standing nearby with another participant and I heard them philosophizing about Buddhism. This was definitely too much for my inner peace and serenity! But: I watched VERY exactly what happened in my mind at that moment. As the emotional anger impulsively aroused in me, I felt that unpleasant tug in my stomach and my pulse rate increased. Everything in my mind was focused on the conversation. I or my ego, felt attacked, unappreciated, and annoyed at their ruthlessness. They destroyed the precious contemplative Vipassana energy. But what would it change if I puzzled over the next few hours and poisoned my mind with annoyance? There were several similar situations during the week during which I was also partly involved in a conversation. Gradually, this precious feeling of equanimity unfolded in me. By developing compassion and understanding for the behavior of others, I was able to let go and stay with them.
Just watch – happiness is not the goal – emptiness!
What happened to me, frankly scared me and I sought the interview with various local monks and supervisors. They reassured me that although the development from „no meditation“ to such states was a bit quick, I was on the right track. Dr. Marut explained to me that the goal of the meditation is not to get into a blissful state that we just cling to again. I should just watch the space, because the goal is to recognize the void. Therefore, often the circle is used as a symbol of samadhi and meditation. It is important to know that in Buddhism there is no idea of “the self“. Anatta (Pali), Anatman (Sanskrit), means „non-self“ and faces the Indian philosophy of the self, the „Atman“.
Ajahn Nim, a wandering monk from northern Thailand, took many hours to analyze the condition and the experiences with me. It was important to him that I would not be discouraged if the meditation changes after the retreat and I will not regain these clear states so soon. Expectations of meditation quickly becomes a problem and an obstacle. It is much more important to stay „sabai, sabai“ (Thai for „relaxed“) and practice mindfulness in everyday life. All thoughts and states can be turned into something positive because there is no „bad meditation“. Whatever comes up may become a meditation object. So we gradually get a tool to control our happiness, because nobody can make us unhappy. It is only our thinking and when we have realized this and learn to control our thoughts, then we determine our happiness. The key is the breath: it is the anchor over which we center ourselves again and again, and find happiness.
Perseverance and personal responsibility at Vipassana
My most important tip for a Vipassana retreat: don’t think about it too much and have no expectations. No matter how hard and meaningless it appears in the beginning, our brain and mind can actually be trained like a muscle. One should not question too much, let oneself be discouraged and must always try to calm the mind. Even if the thoughts in many sessions do not stop and appear indiscriminately. The mindfulness will improve, more and more often it will be possible to concentrate on breathing for a longer time. At some point, the moment of silence comes unexpectedly. In the next meditation it can look very different. That’s why it pays to keep training. Until the mind is so clear and stable that it can withstand the noisy everyday life. At the end of the retreat we were only 12 out of 20 participants. Therefore, I can say, that it takes some willpower to do a Vipassana retreat, and not be discouraged or infected by others, ending the week earlier.
The hardest thing at the end: meditation after Vipassana
The first days after the retreat, I was still completely in a „Zen state“. Totally mindful in everything I did, I meditated twice a day and tried to get used to reality again. Slowly everyday life and work crept back into my life. And yes, with time, the feeling subsides. I had to keep reminding myself to focus on my breathing. Not only in meditation, but in everything I did, from scooter driving to washing up. I still meditate every morning, but I have to catch up much more often. The memory of the enriching Vipassana experiences motivates me to stick with it. On some days the meditations are really frustrating and I find it hard to find the positives in them. On other days, there are these meditations, when my breathing carries me, as if on a soft cloud, through my consciousness…
„The significance of the Buddhist teaching
lies in the fact that it’s not an attempt to tell us
how things should be, it’s more a way of bringing our attention to the way things are.“