Vipassana - post-course

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April 27th 2019
Published: May 5th 2019
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April 27, 2019 – Vipassana

*Spoiler alert If you’re interested in taking a course, you may not want to read about my experience, as it’s different for everyone.*

The Location

The course was held at Borok, a children’s summer camp about an hour outside of Minsk. It was in a nice location, with a small wooded area that we could walk in during free times. There were several residential buildings on site, but we all stayed in one, with women on the ground floor and men on the floor above. I was in hallway 7, room 3, bed 14. There were 8 beds in the room, and only 6 had numbers, so that seemed ok. The layout of the room was such that the beds were arranged so that there were 4 on each side of the room, one, two together, and another one. My bed was in the middle, so I thought I basically had a double bed. Eventually, there was someone in every bed, so I was sleeping rather close to another girl, but it was fine. The room itself was spacious and it wasn’t the issue I had imagined it would be. There were two bathrooms, with two toilets each and only one shower (for about 50 women!), so there was a shower schedule you could sign up for each day. I ended up only taking a shower three times. I forgot my flip flops, and it felt a little gross to stand in the shower without them. Luckily it was rather cool out, so not much in the way of sweating.

The dining hall was in a separate building, with the girls eating on one side and the boys on the other. The meditation hall was in a third building, and we took out shoes off before entering. We each had a numbered place to sit during the meditation sessions, and it was quite a tight fit. I was number 20, quite close to the door and near the front. Apparently, there were more people than expected, so it was more crowded than it would normally be. But it was ok.

I spent free times walking in the woods, or more often sitting on a rock or cement block in the woods, as the wooded area was not really that big to allow for so much walking. There was also another spot to the campus that was separated by a gate, and the gate was always open, so sometimes I would go there as well. It has a shallow river on the other side of the gate, and the gate was unlocked. I went twice to the river when no one was watching, and it was wonderful.

The schedule

Every day the schedule was the same, with minor exceptions occasionally.

4am: Wake-up

4:30-6:30: Meditation in the hall or in the dorm. I always chose the hall.

6:30-8:00: Breakfast and then showers, rest, etc. I usually walked in the woods and then laid down for 25 minutes or so.

8:00-9:00: Meditation in the hall

9:00-11:00: Meditation in hall or residence

11:00-12:00 Lunch

12:00-13:00 You could ask the teacher questions or have free time (showers, sleep, walk, etc). I usually walked and about half the days I also waited to asked the teacher questions.

13:00-14:30: Meditation in the hall or residence. I started with the residence but moved to the hall after a couple of days.

14:30-15:30: Meditation in the hall

15:30-17:00: Meditation in the hall or residence

17:00-18:00: Fruit and tea and free time.

18:00-19:00: Meditation in the hall

19:00-20:30: Nightly discourse in the hall, but for us two English speakers, we watched a video in the dining area.

20:30-21:00: Meditation in the hall

21:00: Get ready for bed and sleep. (There was also a nightly session to ask questions of the teacher in a group setting right after the meditation, but I didn’t know until the last time. It was quite good).

The food

All of the food was simple, but good.

Breakfast was always porridge, sometimes oatmeal, sometimes some other grain. It usually had raisins or some other fruit mixed in. I added sugar and sometimes jam. It was always good and hot, which was so nice on the cold mornings. And maybe it was because I hadn’t eaten for over 12 hours, but I always really enjoyed it. There was also bread and butter and jam, but I didn’t really care for the bread and didn’t have much at all.

Lunch always had a soup as well as one of three other warm dishes – pasta, rice or (I think) bulgur. Sour cream featured prominently and became my favorite condiment. It went in the soup and on whatever bread I ate, and in whatever main dish there was. Soy sauce was also present at every meal, but sour cream was by far the most important for me. I stopped eating the soup after a couple days when I realized I wasn’t really enjoying it. Even though I was eating less, it didn’t make me more hungry. I originally thought I might lose weight here, but perhaps not, with all the sour cream?

The 5pm fruit was either apples and bananas or bananas and oranges. They were always pre-cut and everyone always took two of each, so each night my dinner was basically half a banana and either half an apple or half an orange.

The people

I talked to a few people the day we arrived, starting with Andrey, who drove me there, and Alexandra and Aleksey who also got a ride with us. They were all from Minsk, all spoke English and were all nice. In my room there were seven other women, and I met four of them that first evening, though I didn’t get any names. Two were from Ukraine, and two were from Minsk. One of them offered to let me borrow her shampoo when she found out I had forgotten mine. Secretly, I made her my best friend (in my mind) at the camp for the next 10 days, and named her Anna, since all Russian–speaking girls seemed to have that name . She had no idea, since we couldn’t speak, but it was fun for me. All of them were very cute and young, and my first thought was how we would ever go from all of this excitement and talking to complete silence for nine full days? The woman I slept next to I never spoke to until Day 10 when we could talk again. We were both sitting in bed and she just turned to me and started speaking in English. Surprised me. She is also from Minsk and her and her husband, who suffers from depression, were both in the course. I was impressed with her openness about his depression, and was happy to see that there did not seem to be such a stigma with mental illness. I don’t know if that is cultural or just personal, but it was refreshing. She was very down to earth but before that all I knew about her was that she was the best sleeper I have ever seen. She would be the first one in bed and be asleep within minutes, at any time of day. The woman whose bed was across from mine I never spoke to directly, but she was very fitness oriented. We couldn’t really exercise there, except for walking, and she did a lot of power walking in a very tiny area every lunchtime. The final woman was…different. I just referred to her in mind as the crazy girl. Until she got sick and couldn’t stop coughing. Then she was the coughing girl. Or the crazy coughing girl. She seemed to have no awareness of others. She would open and close the door loudly, clomp around the room loudly, took up the entire dresser table with all of her lotions and ointments and what looked like an IV bag. But the worse for me was that she an open-mouth cougher. She just kept coughing, and always like a child who cannot remember others may be infected. She just coughed straight ahead into the air, quite pathetically. She also talked to the two managers quite a lot, and bothered the heck out of them too, from what I understood. On the 9th night, she was in and out of the room all night long, and when 4am hit, she flipped the lights on and started packing. She left on the final day, so she didn’t finish the course. I’ll admit I was happy. And we all slept better that night.

I also met Florian on the first day. They gave an introduction in Russian, and then remembered there were non-Russian speakers, so they gathered me, Florian (Swiss), and a Portuguese guy together and gave us a very abbreviated version to let us know how things would run in general. I sat with Florian every night for the evening discourse video, but we were separated by a row of chairs for the men’s and women’s side, and we always had a babysitter with us. I suppose to make sure we didn’t talk? I never saw the Portuguese guy after the second night. I don’t know if he learned Russian or left the course.

That first night started the silence, and I couldn’t talk to any of them again until Day 10, so instead I created names and personalities for different people I saw. There was the startled girl, the pregnant girl, the serious girl, the other speedwalker, Penny, the awkward girl, etc. Everyone always looked so dour or had resting bitch face. But when you can’t communicate with others, there’s not much else you can do with your face.

There was also our teacher, Jurgen. He might have been German and has been meditating for 40 years, and studied directly under S.N. Goenke, the man whose voice recordings we listened to for instructions with the meditation and whose video discourse we watched each night for the nightly discourse. I could read Jurgen’s bio in Russian, but someone told me later. He was there to start and stop the recordings, to meditate with us, and to answer our questions. He seemed quite stern, but was really kind of funny.

I noticed over the week that more and more girls stayed in their rooms to meditate when possible, whereas the boys were mostly all present in the meditation hall. This surprised me.

But on Day 10, we could start speaking as of 10am, and everything changed quite quickly. Everyone had a personality again, everyone was smiling, and everyone was friendly. So many people spoke to me and asked me what I was doing in Belarus. Everyone was really nice and the girls in the room were fun again. I found out that my new “best friend” Anna really was named Anna! Pretty awesome. She was also the very first person I spoke to that day. She was the only one in the room when I got back and it was so fun. We went for a walk and chatted and had a nice time.

Another girl I really liked was an Old Student, someone who has taken the course before. It turns out this was her third course, and she has volunteered as a server on a 4th course. She is from Kyrgyzstan and lives in Germany, selling John Deere products to Russian-speaking countries. We actually met again at the airport and checked in together. I was flying Frankfurt-Munich-Basel and she was flying Vienna-Frankfurt. So weird, since it was the same airline. I thought I could get her email info, but I got stopped at immigration and her flight left before I got released. Bummer.

From my one experience, the people who take a course like this seem to be pretty down to earth, cool, pretty deep people. I really enjoyed them and the time we got to speak.

The Silence

I wasn’t sure what to expect with nine full days of silence, but it was really pretty easy. When everyone is not talking, it’s easy not to. And there was no trying to figure out where everyone is, who to hang with, etc. It was just me and whatever I wanted to do. If I needed anything, I could speaking to Anna, one of the managers of the camp who organized things. I could also sign up to meet with the teacher at lunch, and spoke to him about every other day. Anna would call us in, one by one, and it alternated between boys and girls. She came in with all the girls. Of course, we were all men and women, but all of the Russian-speakers translated this into boys and girls when we spoke, and I think it’s quite charming, so I’m sticking with it here.

There was also a policy of no electronics, no reading, no writing, no exercise. I did cheat a little on the no writing policy, as I wanted to be able to remember certain things, so I scribbled some basic notes here and there.

The Meditation

Before this course, I had done some minimal mindfulness meditation, with 10 minute guided meditations. But this was full on, 10 hours of meditation a day. I honestly was not prepared for what I had gotten myself into. I can say without hesitation that I have never experienced anything as difficult as this. It was physically hard on the body, sitting for so long each day. Everyone had their own prefered set-up. I brought my own yoga mat and meditation cushion, but I was not experienced enough with it to know what would be comfortable. There were about three different positions I would adopt over the course of the day, and when it came to sitting still for a full hour, I chose to forgo the cushion and sit cross-legged on a piece of foam on top of my yoga mat. This was the most comfortable position I could find for myself. And it actually mattered which leg was crossed over which.

It was also the most difficult thing I’ve ever done mentally before. I really found it hard to focus for 10 minutes together, let along one or two hours at a time. My mind kept wandering away, which I know is normal, but I never felt I improved very much in the 10 days. There were some improvements, but then major setbacks. I saw in pictures for about two days while meditating. Crazy stories. Then the rest of the time it was more thoughts than pictures.

The main idea behind this meditation is the mastery over your own mind and the purification of your mind. It should allow you to become more even and balanced in your reactions and responses, so you are not overly worried, concerned, angry, miserable, etc. It has three major parts - Sila (morality), Samadhi (mastery over your mind) and panna (wisdom and purity of the mind). Buddha practiced this method and eventually became enlightened. It is not religious or a sect, and works with or without someone’s personal beliefs and religion. There is the idea of awareness, and being aware, and of equanimity within this awareness. The idea of anitya - impermanence - is also prevalent. Everything comes and goes. It is what it is. This too shall pass. These statements are what anitya is to me. What I took from it is enjoying (or enduring) the moment as it happens. Nothing lasts forever.

Some of the things Goenke said in all the recordings really stays with me: “Start with a calm and quiet mind. An alert and attentive mind. Work ardently. Work diligently. Work patiently and persistently. Pass through the whole body with a free flow. Move through each part individually. May all beings be happy. Awareness and equanimity. Sila, samadhi, panna. Anitya. Anitya. Anitya.”

A daily breakdown of my time there:

Personal Daily Enlightenment Scale

1 Where is the ice cream?

2 Nope

3 I think I feel my breath

4 I need more sour cream

5 Yes, there is breath here

6 I’m feeling peaceful

7 I am one with nature

8 I’m not associating Goenke with the cartoon chanting

9 I can feel all the sensations in a free flow and it’s all good

10 Fully Enlightened

Day 0 - Chaotic check-in. Lots more people than expected. Dorm room with 7 other women. I forgot my flip-flops. Where are my slippers? I’ll have to walk around in socks? In the bathroom? Silence begins. First meditation session. Guided instruction features chanting. I keep picturing the recorded voice coming out of an animated frog or wolf.

Enlightenment rating: 1

Day 1 - Focus of the day - feeling the breath in the nostrils.

This silence thing is ok, since no one else can talk either. Getting up at 4am is not a problem - who knew? Sitting for 10 hours a day hurts. My mind is messing with me, won’t focus. I only see in crazy story-telling pictures. I should write books! Movies! But wait, what were they about? More like a dream sequence you forget immediately. Asked teacher questions at lunch. Video Discourse in evening really good (as they will continue to be). Now picturing the recorded voice belonging to a cartoon Goenke with a big belly dancing dramatically.

Enlightenment rating: 4

Day 2 - Focus of the day - feeling the breath in the nostrils.

During meditation, I’m still seeing everything in pictures, like crazy dream sequences. So hard to focus. So hard to sit for so many hours a day. Asked more questions at lunch. Everyone makes so many sounds by moving, burping, digesting, etc. All that gas moving around sounds like the internal farts they are.

Enlightenment rating: 3

Day 3 - Focus is now on feeling the sensations in the triangle of the nose and above the upper lip.

Easier than the first two days, but not easy. Girl hard-core snoring in one session. I’ve become the first to the food. I’m not so much running toward the food as away from the meditation, I fear. One kind soul gave me slippers tonight in the bathroom. Amazing. I’ve noticed Russian-speakers are incredibly thin. And don’t wear bras. And have lots of tattoos. I’m spending much of my free time in the forest. Forest bathing.

Enlightenment rating: 5

Day 4 - Focus of the day - Awareness of the sensations just above the upper lip

I’m finding the focusing harder. I have become first to get to the 4:30am meditation. Sour cream has become my condiment of choice. Met with teacher. He said that my brain was messing with me (drifting away, telling stories, drowsy) but that practicing the focus trains your mind to be less reactive and more happy. First cloudy sky of trip. Becoming a professional sitter. I’ve noticed all the ladies doing crazy “Soviet” exercise movements, like weird rotating stretches and squats holding onto poles. First one hour session with NO MOVEMENT. It was SO silent - aside from the groans. And painful. This will now happen 3x per day.

Enlightenment rating: 3

Day 5 - Focus of the day - scan the whole body for sensations and be equanimous about all.

A little rain after breakfast. Big thunderstorm during one meditation session. Back hurts, sitting hurts. Focus difficult. Can I go home now? Love listening to the birds in the forest.

Enlightenment rating: 4

Day 6 - Focus of the day - scan the whole body for sensations and be equanimous about all.

Blue skies again. I don’t drink much, just some water while everyone guzzles tea at all hours. I feel like I am getting hydrated each day just by watching the others. I can now manage the hour of sitting still pretty well. A lot of poor focus today. Met with the teacher.

Enlightenment rating: 5

Day 7 - Focus of the day - scan the whole body for sensations and be equanimous about all.

The room is sounding more like the infectious ward of a hospital each day as people get sick. Trouble focusing. I’m getting the plague. After evening discourse, we should start 24 hour mindfulness and awareness whenever we’re not meditating. The final two serious days are up next. I’m ready to go home now.

Enlightenment rating:8

Day 8 - Focus of the day - scan the whole body for sensations and be equanimous about all. Mindfulness and awareness.

Stopped eating soup at lunch. Not my favorite. Am not feeling very aware. Focus has decreased. I am very good at sitting and focusing on sitting, but not meditating. Met with the teacher. He said 3-4%!e(MISSING)ffective meditating time is normal. Forest bathing continues in my free time. Big breezes bring “forest rain” - needles and other things always falling to ground that you would not notice just walking through. We go through an awful lot of toilet paper. Am I ready to leave so soon? (WTF?)

Enlightenment rating: 7

Day 9 - Focus of the day - scan the whole body for sensations and be equanimous about all. Mindfulness and awareness.

Pretty poor meditation sessions overall, until 6pm. Then I had a good 30 minutes. I can meditate! Stayed after the 9pm session to ask a question and realized that a lot of people stay every night. It was actually a lot of fun, listening to everyone else’s questions. I’m disappointed I did not know about this sooner but glad I was there tonight. My slipper lady is a veterinarian.

Enlightenment rating: 9

Day 10 - Focus of the day - scan the whole body for sensations and be equanimous about all. Mindfulness and awareness. Loving-kindness.

Talking started again. So nice. A lot of people wanted to chat. Loving kindness meditation introduced. Less time for meditation today, more time to move around and interact. Took a walk alone by the river. Felt naughty - it was great. Donated money to the course, so others could attend in future. Took walk with roommates at 9pm and stayed up late (10:30pm!).

Enlightenment rating: 6

Day 11 - Course has ended. Final discourse was at 4:30. Should practice two hours a day at home, to keep up with it. Drove back with Andrey to Minsk. Bought bus ticket to airport, dropped off bag and then waited in a McDonald’s for my roommates. Two of them have a birthday today so we shopped for cake and snacks for a little impromptu party. I had to leave right after the shopping, so I bought some food to take with me. Got stopped at immigration - problem with my registration. Reprimanded and had to sign Russian statement with English statement saying the Russian statement was accurate. Five houseguests when I arrive - Jeroen’s family. I made the nachos I had been dreaming about. All good.

Enlightenment rating: 1

The burning question - will I continue to practice? I hope so, but it will have to wait until my houseguests leave.

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