It was a typical hot and humid Thai day. Sweating and heavily breathing I was making my way up the stairs to a temple on the top of a mountain. I was about to take a Vipassana meditation retreat for ten days with no internet, no food after noon, no talking. I didn’t know anything but the fact it was going to be a completely new experience for me. I suddenly heard a voice: “It’s worth it, believe me.”
As I was short on time I just passed by the temple and went straight to the meditation center. When I finally found the meditation center — a big four-storey building — I saw a wooden sign on it, saying that eating meat is not allowed on the premises. Actual meals were served only twice a day — at 7 and 11 a.m. After 12 you are not allowed to eat any solid food. Half of the food was rice. Another half was boiled vegetables, noodles, soya meat. The only thing that could make it have flavor was chili.
After a quick registration I got a key to my room. There was a bed, a rack and a socket. That was it. On the floor there were a lot of black dots that turned out to be ants. I swept them out of the room thinking that I got rid of them. We were supposed to practice two types of meditation: walking and sitting. First, you slowly walk back and forth for 15 minutes trying to acknowledge all your thoughts and feelings and then let them go. Then you sit for 15 minutes and do the same. Have a 5 minutes break and do it again. Daily schedule was quite simple too: wake up at 5 a.m., dharma talk at 6, breakfast at 7, meditation till 11, an hour for lunch, meditation till 6, singing mantras for an hour, meditate and go to bed at 9. It sounds simple and frightening. You are on the top of the mountain, far away from civilization, friends and family, you can’t even make new friends. But you are not alone.
First morning my meditation was a disaster. Most people meditate in a special hall with several Buddha statues, long rugs on the floor for walking meditation and a pile of cushions for sitting meditation. You are supposed to sit on a cushion with your legs crossed or sit on your legs. But if you feel uncomfortable or pain is too bad you’re allowed to sit as you like. Actually there are a lot of meditation centers where you can do anything you want. If you do it in your room then no one knows if you do it in public — no one cares. It’s your experience, your life, just don’t distract others.
Being an inexperienced meditator a person usually goes through several stages while meditating. First, you think about something that happened recently, then you remember more and more distant past. Then you start thinking about future, your plans and hopes. When you’re out of real things to think about you start imagining fantastic ideas. How come, you may ask, aren’t you supposed to sit there with clear mind free from any hustle? Yes, sure. But it’s not what your brain used to. We get loads of information every minute, solving two problems at a time, keeping so much useless facts in our heads. When you take this all away from your brain, it tries to keep the rhythm and you think about everything you’ve never thought about trying not to do it.
Every day after lunch everyone has a private meeting with the teacher — a lively monk who speaks with a funny accent. He tells you that you need to focus on meditation and adding five minutes to it every two days. He also does the dharma talks in the mornings. It’s cold in the mountains at night and all you want to do at this point is to sleep and you don’t even care that the last time you ate something was 18 hours ago. But you dream about the breakfast and feel better. At 6 a.m. the teacher tells you some wise thoughts that might already have crossed your mind once or twice. He talks a lot about letting things go and how useless and harmful hate is. He tells you exactly what you expect a Buddhist monk to tell you.
I started sleeping more at night and less in the day. I ate less in the afternoon and put more pepper in my completely vegan meals. I meditated more. Ants realized the floor was dangerous and climbed up on the bed. I was trying to get rid of them and gave up. Seems like it was the purpose of the whole retreat. Ants on your bed don’t harm you unless you care too much. The same with your soul. Vipassana retreat is not going to solve your problem or reveal a secret way to happy life or take you to nirvana. It will give you a tool, which you can use to improve your life. Meditation is like sport for your body. Even if you did it for ten days, not much would change unless you turn it into a habit. You don’t have to pay for the retreats, but you can donate as much as you want.
On the ninth day I was supposed to do 35 minutes meditation. Walking for so long is easy, but the last 10 minutes of sitting meditation were hell. When the timer finally went off I lied on the floor of an empty dimly lighted hall, on the top of the mountain, above the city I didn’t know, thousands of kilometers away from people I love and my home, but with a clear understanding of all things good or bad. Enjoy it while it lasts and let it go when the time comes.