I have tried a 10-day Vipassana meditation course as taught by S.N. Goenka mid-October 2019, but only made it to the fifth day. This post is dealing with my arrival and the first four days of the retreat. You find my account of the last day and my conclusions in next part. If you are interested in why I decided to try this, have a look here.
I don’t go into much detail about the daily routine and peculiarities. So if you are looking for details about the schedule or other details, have a look at these two blog posts from people that actually made it through:
There isn’t any dedicated Dhamma retreat center in Austria, so these retreats are held in different places all over the country. The one I am going to is held in a hotel in the Hochkar ski resort in the Austrian Alps.
It is late afternoon and the weather is cloudy. Fog crawls through the valley while I drive up to the address given by the organizers. When I reach the ski resort the deserted ski lifts and inns somehow look like an abandoned industrial area. At the indicated address a few people are milling around and a part of the building is cordoned off by barrier tape. Otherwise nothing looks out of the ordinary. Nothing hints at what will be going on here in the next few days.
I grab my bag from the trunk and walk into the reception area. Now it becomes instantly obvious that this isn’t a normal hotel. In the lobby barriers have been erected and signs indicate that the female area is to the left and the male are to the right. I read the explanations that have been put up and go get registered.
During signup I hear another attendee thank the clerk for getting the single room he asked for. This is the first time that I realize that I should have prepared better. Even in the best of circumstances I don’t fall asleep easily and sharing a room with multiple people never helps. But I already have my room number and bed and so I walk up to my room to get settled in.
In my room, I meet my roommates for the next days for the first time. They don’t seem to be particularly happy about this situation. And I get it, the thought of sharing a room with two others for 10 days is something that dampens my mood considerably. We make a bit small talk and discuss if we should open the window during the night. It is already quite cold during the night and I feel my sinuses a bit, so I ask if it’s ok to have them closed.
After that I start exploring my new home and to get a feeling for the area. Everyone looks a bit dense. Small wonder, as most of us have no idea what is to come. I get to know a few more of the attendees and find that all of them are nice guys from all walks of life.
First glimpse of what is to come
A light dinner will be served before the course starts, so I walk to the dining room at the indicated time. The dining room isn’t split into male and female areas yet, but the barriers are already erect. We have vegetable soup and chat a bit more and then the gong sounds the first time.
One of the organizers explains what will be required of us. We are expected to keep Noble Silence, so no talking, no gestures, no interaction at all. We are allowed no technology, no books and are not allowed to write. There is a separate male and female walking area in the athletic fields outside and we are allowed to walk there during recess, but we are not supposed to run or use the playground (which I find slightly amusing). After this explanation the course begins and with it the strangeness.
As we aren’t supposed to interact, everything feels awkward. People looking down, moving out of the way without looking at each other. In the public areas this feels strange, but I don’t mind it that much. In our private quarters it’s a completely different kind of beast. Just imagine living with a roommate or your spouse in a 25m² one-bedroom apartment. For days you don’t talk with each other, avoid each others eyes, basically just ignore each other completely. It might be just me, but it feels incredibly passive-aggressive and really unpleasant. Not a good sign to begin with.
We all move to the meditation hall and the introduction by S. N. Goenka is played on the speakers. We have to repeat the official request to be taught and then the first meditation starts. Goenka chants in Pali, a chant we will hear a lot in the following days. My back starts hurting already after a few minutes of sitting still, but it is only a hint of what is yet to come. At around 22:00 we are done for the day and sent to rest with the notice that we will be woken at 5:00 instead of 4:00 the next morning, as it is already so late.
I’ll go to bed and start tossing and turning, thinking that maybe it would have been a good idea to get used to the changed sleep cycle. In the other beds, my roommates toss and turn as well, each of us alone with our thoughts. Hours later sweet sleep finds me.
The first morning
5:00 comes way too soon (surprise!), but I jump up and get ready anyway. After only a few minutes of meditation my back already hurts, my thoughts are racing and I am desperately tired. It gets harder to sit even reasonably still with each passing minute. This can’t be just an hour, they have to be kidding. After what feels like hours the gong finally indicates breakfast.
I really need something to pick me up and the breakfast buffet actually doesn’t look too bad. I grab black tea with milk and oatmeal and sit down in front of the window. Sitting alone with your thoughts in a room full of silent people feels strange again, but by looking out of the window, I feel less trapped.
After breakfast I walk out to the walking area and move around slowly, very much concentrated on every step. My fellow meditators are weaving between each other, not interacting at all. On the other side of a cordoned-off no-man’s-land, female attendants are walking among themselves. But the way it feels they could just as well walk on Mars.
The two 45 and 90 morning meditations pass as a haze of pain, racing thoughts and shuffling from one sitting position to another. The air in the meditation hall is dry, people are coughing, and I have already started to develop a sore throat. That didn’t take long. But the second session is in our rooms, where I can lean back against the bed frame, which makes my back hurt a lot less.
No light on the horizon
After seemingly endless hours it is 11:00 and the lunch gong rings through the corridors. Me and my roommates get up – ignoring each other – and go to the dining hall. The food is some kind of vegan curry with pasta. It is tasteless and bland – not bad food, but definitely not something I will look forward to. This is the first real taste of the struggle to come – I enjoy food and this could have been a glimmer of hope in otherwise desolate days. But I grab a cup of black tea with milk and move on anyway.
After lunch I go to the walking area again. Moving feels good, despite the biting wind and grey sky. I alternate where and how I walk and concentrate very much on all of the sensation I experience. Feeling every step through my shoes, feeling the cold wind in my face.
Why did I do this to me?
At 13:00 I go back to my room to start the first meditation session of the afternoon. My two roommates obviously prefer meditating in the meditation hall, which suits me perfectly well. The first 45 minutes I feel fine, but in the second half I have increasing problems to concentrate.
In the second session the real struggle begins. Basically from the start I have intense back pain. I try to meditate anyway. When I can’t stand the pain anymore I shuffle my body a little bit and continue. Rinse and repeat for an hour.
After a short break it is back to the hall and on with 1,5h of meditation. Now I am really fed up with the whole thing. My thoughts start racing even more, circling and circling. Why did I get myself into this? I actually don’t care for Vipassana meditation. Why am I doing this? I can’t stand this anymore. There isn’t even anything to look forward to – dinner is fucking fruit I can’t really eat (I am fructose intolerant) and tea. There is literally nothing to look forward to in the next 9 days. I have to get out of here. There is no real reason but idle curiosity I am in this in the first place. WHY THE HELL DID I DO THAT TO MYSELF???
But these feelings pass. I tell myself I can go. I am here out of my own free will and I can leave whenever I want. Nothing but myself is holding me here. Also, just eat the damn fruit. What is the worst thing that could happen. Somehow this makes it better. Not good, but bearable for the remaining half hour. I doubt I managed to practice at all in this session, but so be it.
A little bit of redemption
Dinner time comes and I grab two bananas and milk with hot water. It isn’t much, but this and walking outside helps to improve my mood a bit. It’s still not good, but at least good enough to help me through the next session.
Afterwards, we sit in the meditation hall for the first lecture by S. N. Goenka and it is surprisingly interesting. Goenka obviously knows what we are going through (who would have thought) and his witty and sympathetic way helps me to keep going despite my back hurting horribly after a whole day of sitting.
After another short session of meditation it is off to bed. Let the horror begin. Even worse than last night I toss and I turn. I listen to the others struggling endlessly, then snoring and talking in their sleep. After an eternity I finally fall asleep.
As on all of the following days the gong rings at 4:00, I jump out of bed, get ready, and at 4:30 start meditating in my room. I struggle to concentrate for lack of sleep, but keep going, try and try.
I have found the conviction that I can do it and that all will pass. Just one step after another, just one minute of meditation after another. Just one restless night after another.
After breakfast, my mood is definitely improved and I meditate in some state of equanimity and sometimes even joy. A few times this morning I experience some interesting hallucinations, like the feeling of keeling over while sitting perfectly still (I’ve actually experienced this before). Or endlessly spinning around myself without ever getting dizzy.
During the morning and lunch I brace myself for the struggle during the afternoon sessions. It is hard work to meditate for 4,5 hours with minimal interludes and I WILL struggle, that much I can be sure of.
I still don’t enjoy the rest of the day, but I find a little joy in black tea with milk and – due to the incredibly warm and sunny day – in stretching out in the sun. The afternoon and evening pass in pain, but it is bearable. I have found the conviction that I can do it and that all will pass. Just one step after another, just one minute of meditation after another. Just one restless night after another.
Just as every day up to now, morning meditation sucks. I can barely keep myself upright and struggle to concentrate massively. I promise myself a hot shower before breakfast and keep going. Little pleasures.
The rest of the morning is actually ok – I just keep going, accepting the pain. Just another minute, just another session.
Lunch break brings some relief. It is a nice and sunny Saturday afternoon and people have come to the area for hiking. While chewing on my food I watch the world outside of my little bubble. Just like the women on the other side of the row of blankets that divide the dining hall, the world outside feels detached, surreal even.
After lunch I go out again and lie down in the sun. I look at the mountain peaks, at the people walking up and down chatting. At the same time wanting to be out there and not.
Why do they hate me?
Equanimity is gone though instantly after lunch when I move back to my room for meditation. One of the servers – the people ringing the gongs and who are also responsible for supporting us – stops me in the hall and asks me if it would be ok to open the windows during the night, as one of my roommates requested this. A completely reasonable and harmless request and I relent, despite my worries about my sinuses. But afterwards, somehow, the emotional load of the whole situation – the immense pain, sleeplessness, living together with seemingly passive-aggressive roommates in this tiny area – comes crashing down on me.
The afternoon is a real struggle. With every minute sitting it gets worse. It blows completely out of proportion. I can’t get the whole thing out of my head. Why do they hate me? What have I ever done to them? I just want this to stop, but my thoughts turn and turn and turn with just this tiny thing. Everything hurts, I can’t sit still even for a few minutes. I can’t meditate at all and just ruminate.
A little bit of relief
Then a line from a song pops into my mind:
I find solace in this. All of us hurt. All of us struggle and the passive-aggressive behavior is just the result of this high-stress situation. Somehow this makes these thoughts stop. “Now who’d have thought that after all, something as simple as rock ‘n’ roll would save us all?”, as Frank Turner sings.
By no means this makes the rest of the day a stroll, though. Just by stretching, walking and drinking hot tea in the awfully limited breaks, I get through the afternoon. I still despise the whole setup and just want the pain to stop. Despite all of this I don’t consider to quit.
In his lecture S. N. Goennka’s mentions that everything up to now as really just a prelude to the real thing – Vipassana meditation – and tomorrow we will get to know it. This actually really excites me and makes me look forward to the next day.
Just leave already
My excitement doesn’t last long. This night is actually worse than the previous three. One of my roommates comes back to the room much later, long after lights out. While trying to sleep, I had been secretly hoping that he was about to bail and the hope of this bringing some slight relief during the following nights. At the same time I was feeling guilty about it – I don’t want anyone to fail, I just want to sleep. As if all of this wouldn’t be enough, my sore throat has now moved to the nose and I start having the sniffles.
I suffer for hours until long after midnight, just wishing for my own bed so I can suffer alone. I actually imagine getting a bad cold just so I could drop out without me feeling like I failed. At the same time having the intense need to persist and push through. Eventually I drift off, just to wake maybe two hours later. The sniffles are gone, the night is nearly as well. I drop back into sleep anyway, for a few more precious minutes anyway.
Oh so bright the morning glow
The start of the day is actually ok. Yes everything hurts, but I am actually doing fine. I manage the pain by resting my back against the wall if I’m meditating in my room, which is perfectly ok. And I somehow push through the group sittings in the hall and actually manage to meditate for most of the time.
During lunch break I notice that something has changed in our schedule. The private meditation time has been reduced to 1h, followed by the normal 1h group sitting and a 2h Vipassana introduction. During this time we won’t be allowed to leave the meditation hall. This is at the same time scary and exciting!
At the start of the Vipassana introduction I am already tense and it doesn’t get better. S. N. Goenka explains that for Vipassana we are to practice Adhitthana – strong determination. We are not supposed to open our eyes, nor move our feet or hands at all for the whole duration. After the last 1h session and the 15-20 minutes of introduction we have sat up to now, my back already hurts a lot. The thought of not moving at all for more than 1,5h now is just plain insane. None-the-less, I resolve to go through with it anyway, shuffle my position one last time and start sitting completely still while Goenka starts his instructions.
The rest of the session is plainly crazy. I hurt. So much. But I push through and scan through my body, noting dispassionately every sensation I come across – painful, pleasurable or neutral – just as I am supposed to do. After some time, something incredible happens – the pain doesn’t go away, but it somehow moves to the background. It is still there when I move my attention over this body part, but if I move away it doesn’t pierce my consciousness anymore as it did before.
After more than an hour it is actually less the pain that makes me move, but some kind of vertigo. It’s incredibly hard to keep my eyes closed. I feel trapped. I start taking a few deep breaths and compromise with myself to move my hands just a bit, which helps to get me through the last few minutes. And then it is over.
I stand up and move out to the walking area. Everything seems more intense. The sun on the mountains in the distance, the colors of nature, the ground below my feet. I feel ecstatic. I feel like crying, not due to pain but because I tried something unbelievably hard and pushed through.
I’ve moved through the worst, nothing now can be harder. The next days won’t be easy, but they will be manageable. Just more of the same. I’ll just keep on going, one step after another.
Already the next group meditation after dinner pops this bubble – all group sittings (3 times 1h a day) now have to be done with strong determination. Starting right now. Who would have thought…
All elation is gone, but I arrange myself and get started. I hurt, but I persist. Only shortly before the end I have to move again. It is hard, very hard. But I manage. One minute after another.
Then comes the night. And again the sniffles creeps up. Again I am lying awake, listening to the tossing and turning, and talking and snoring. Again I fall asleep after midnight. This time I wake up again at around two in the morning. All sleep is gone. And my thoughts go round and round until 4 in the morning and the wakeup gong.
These have been the first four days of the retreat. At this point my back hurt – even at night – and I was emotionally exhausted. But I still thought I’ll make it.
You can read about what made me finally cave here.