Do you remember when you parents punished you by putting you in the corner with no talking for 15 minutes? Imagine a similar scenario for 10 hours per day for 10 days! According to a group of death row inmates in the documentary film, “The Dhamma Brothers”, “these 10 days were tougher than any time on Death Row!”
The Gong Guy
As mentioned in my last post, I decided to round out my journey by taking a meditation course called Vipassana.
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of the world’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills.
Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations within the body. The end goal is to achieve a balanced mind, full of compassion. Simple, right? NOT!
Upon arrival, I felt like a wrongly accused man entering a prison. All belongings and material items were confiscated and not accessible until the 10 days were complete. During orientation, we reviewed the rules which included:
- No talking for 10 days
- No eye contact with anyone
- No physical exercise or any movements that may draw attention to yourself
- No computers, music, books, or writing utensils
- You must stay all 10 days
Vipassana Center in France
The facility is situated in the remote countryside of central France with a long tree-lined driveway leading up to the center. A well-manicured garden provided a natural warm greeting. Men and women were separated, except in the meditation hall. There were walking paths flooded with tall, skinny trees, perfect for afternoon strolls.
The bedroom was divided up into “cells.” Each person had a small sectional, more like a bathroom stall with dividers which did not reach the ceiling. We had a curtain for a door.
Food was offered twice per day, once at 6:30am and again at 11:00am. The food was 100% vegetarian and usually soup, rice or noodles, salad, and herbal tea. At 5:00pm, a snack consisting of 2 fruits per person and tea was all you ate until breakfast at 6:30am the next morning.
So I was to live as a monk for the next 10 days. They made it crystal clear that it was dangerous to leave at any time during the 10 days, which was a bit scary. The explanation given was…”you are engaging in mental surgery…a mind operation…if this was an actual surgery, you wouldn’t leave halfway through…the same rationality applies here…you must not leave.”
After noble silence was initiated, it quickly turned from the likeness of a prison to that of a cultish mental ward. I felt like Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”. Strangers walking around with their heads down. Blissed-out volunteers with glowing eyeballs. Eating across the table from a stranger without talking or eye contact. There were over 30 males spanning all ages and very little noise existed outside of the faint zipping of a nearby fly or the rhythmic chirp of birds in the distance. “What am I doing here? I don’t belong here!”
The Meditation Hall
And the 10 hours of meditation per day were brutal, especially the first few days. I can’t sit for 10 minutes, much less 10 hours! Some intervals were 2 hours long. From a technique standpoint, all we were asked to do the first 3 days was “OBSERVE YOUR BREATH, specifically within the nostrils, whether it be the left one, the right one, or both of them simultaneously.” This became extremely frustrating. My mind would wander within seconds. And so the mind wandered…
…at first, I started quizzing myself on movie titles, sport’s heroes, names of all the random strangers I met on my trip, etc. One day I was quizzing myself on actor names and I had an embarrassing brain fart on who played The Godfather! I rambled through all the names that started with M. Marvin, Markus, Milton, Morrey,…and finally after hours and hours, Marlon Brando surfaced. I quietly raised my fist in celebration! This was all I could do to prevent myself from going insane!
And so for the next few days, I talked to myself in my head at the meditation hall, the dining hall, the walking path, the bedroom, the shower, and everywhere in-between.
Myself and I talked about everything from the deepest childhood memories to what I did yesterday. I also focused on my breathing but I found it impossible to avoid my mind from escape…it’s like my jump shot back in the day…you can’t stop it, you can only contain it! 🙂
The instructions during each session were a recording of a man named S.N. Goenka, who is the current leader for Vipassana all over the world. His voice guided us through the ancient techniques. By day 4, we moved from observing the spot around the nose to observing sensations throughout the body. Each sensation represents a past moment in
life, usually one of guilt, fear, anxiety, etc. In your mind, you were able to dive down to the root of these sensations…usually late at night. The process started on Night 6 for me!
I fell asleep and at about midnight, I started conversing with myself.
Exiting the Meditation Hall
This is the part where each person’s Vipassana experience is different. For me, I felt hypnotized, but in full control, and super aware of everything in and around me. Each night, Goenka provided a 1.5-hour discourse explaining the wisdom of living pure. Messages of impermanence, compassion, the laws of nature, etc. I apparently was eating it up as his voice got into my head and Goenka and I discussed and debated various ways of living, all night long.
Day 7 to Day 10 were full of more conversations in my head as well as more consistent meditation sessions with less wandering. When things became too intense, we were instructed to “be equanimous”, Goenka would advise, “all things pass.”
What findings surfaced? All I can say at this point is that I hope to live with less emphasis on me and more emphasis on nature and my surroundings. Nobody changes in 10 days or even
365 days. But as Steve Jobs so eloquently explained in his Stanford commencement address, looking back, all the random events have meaning. All the run-ins with philosophers, Gandolf-looking street mutes, hippies fashioning their freedom with dreadlocks, entrepreneurs, students, vagabonds, religious figures, and everyone in-between…all the encounters seem to make sense if you can apply focus.
After the noble silence was lifted, the 60+ individual strangers became one. We all battled individually but became interconnected in the process. Of course, many theories and stories were discussed through the night but one thing was certain, everyone felt like the personal gain was worth the hours and hours of pain.
The Eiffel Tower
After the 10 days, I stuck around and volunteered for 4 more days. It was free, the food was great, and I was not mentally ready for the intense Paris scene. Another traveler, Oliver, also stayed. We were put to work digging up rocks and making walking paths of rock.
I eventually made it to Paris but, still somewhat blissed- out, the chaos of the big city made it a challenge. My stay was brief. From Paris, I made a random stop in Ghent, Belgium, mainly to relieve myself of the hustle and bustle of Paris. Ghent, being small and quaint, ended up acting as a perfect “halfway house” between the meditation experience and western culture.
Castle in Ghent
From Ghent, I made it to Amsterdam to catch my next flight. Outside a visit to the Van Gogh museum, I kept it local. I was fortunate to reconnect with peeps I had met in Africa earlier this year. Jaspar, who owns a local restaurant in town called IJ-Kantine, treated me to some
high quality wine and food. I was also able to reconnect with my friend Olga, who I met in Uganda on the plane from Zanzibar.
Both were successful in allowing me to experience local Amsterdam life versus the touristy party traps.
The Mona Lisa @ The Louvre
Only one more destination before American soil remains on my journey…a brief stop in Iceland. At this point, I felt light as a feather and mentally strong as a rock from the “10 days in the hole”. Only time will tell how long this connection to nature and others lasts, but I can honestly say that ENDING my journey with this mental surgical procedure was an excellent decision. The future is destined to be rewarding. Stay tuned!