Even though we’re only a few weeks in, 2017 has been a bit of a whirlwind for me! I’ll elaborate on the rest of my month as January comes to an end next week, but I wanted to make a post to share my experience and answer some of the questions that my friends and family have had about the 10-day silent Vipassana meditation course that I completed at the Dhamma Java Center in Bogor, Indonesia, just a few days ago. Before I begin, I just want to mention that this post is not intended to push or forcefully encourage someone to do a course in Vipassana meditation, nor is it meant to discourage anyone from the course. As someone at the Dhamma Center told me, people have to find Vipassana themselves. If that results in them taking a course then that is fantastic! But, as you will find out, it is something that one has to do very much on their own.
I heard about Vipassana from a fellow backpacker when I was in Da Nang, Vietnam. He mentioned that he was doing a 10 day meditation course in northern Thailand, and sent me the info about the place when I asked him. It happened to be a Vipassana centre, and after a few hours of research, found out that there are Vipassana centres all over Southeast Asia. The courses are free to attend (donation only), and follow strict guidelines about etiquette, clothing, and speaking. Since I would be travelling for another couple of months with Ariel, I decided to apply for one of the courses in Bogor that would take place after we were due to part in Indonesia. About a week after submitting my application, I was accepted to start the course on January 11-22, 2017. I was pumped!
Basically the only preparation I had to do was to make sure that I had a couple of pairs of loose-fitting, modest clothing. I actually did have to buy a few things, since I’ve been mostly wearing shorts and tight-fitting clothing (to combat the heat – it is so hot in Asia, I actually miss Canadian winter). Other than that, all I had to do was show up.
Important Note: Although Vipassana meditation has its foundations in Buddhism (the technique was practiced and spread by Buddha, and he described it as the path to Enlightenment), Vipassana is not Buddhist. It is completely secular, is not dogmatic in any way, and is in fact intended for people of every religion, or no religion. S.N. Goenka describes the technique as the method by which one can end their suffering, and their misery. And if you think you don’t have misery in your life, think again. Unless you are fully enlightened, you are certainly living in misery. Also, the wisdom gained by practicing this technique is experiential, as in, you can only gain the wisdom of this technique by practicing it, and actually feeling the benefits. In this way, it is beyond intellectual wisdom or blind faith. Okay, with that in mind, here we go!
Day 0: When I arrived at the Denpasar airport in Bali at 5:00 am, I cried. Cried because I was saying goodbye to Ariel after 4 months travelling together, and because I was finally and completely alone in a foreign country where I didn’t know anyone or the language. I had also only slept for one hour the night before, and was extremely tired. At barely 9 am, I landed in Jakarta and hugging my backpack, found my way on the public transportation to the city of Bogor. I arrived too early to go the meditation center, so killed some time at a sterile mall near the Botani Square that provided none of the warmth and comfort that I needed in my time of intense loneliness. Eventually, it was time for me to find someone to take me the 30 km into the mountains, and I hopped on the back of a motorbike, trusting that the driver knew where he was going.
I arrived at the Dhamma Java Vipassana Center just after 2pm, where I was directed by a friendly Irish girl to the registration room. I had anticipated that the students would be mostly middle-aged men and women and was surprised to find that all the people waiting to register looked like, well, me. The women’s side of the room was 90 per cent women in their early 20’s, and the men’s side was similar, but was actually a slightly older demographic. I immediately clammed up, because honestly, seeing a room full of bright-faced, outgoing young women is a bit intimidating. Though some people don’t know, I am an introvert, and throwing myself into talking to my peers is not always easy for me (another fact about Emily: I feel much more comfortable striking a conversation with someone many years my senior than an energetic young person – is there something wrong with me? I don’t know.)
After registration, we were interviewed briefly to confirm our commitment that we intended to stay for the entirety of the 10 days. Lunch was provided, and then I was given a package of bedding and directed to my quarters: a small, white-walled room containing a single bed, a bedside table, and a set of clothes hooks (pictured below). It didn’t take me long to unpack my belongings onto the table and stow my backpack under the bed. I was told to return to the dining hall at 6pm for dinner (the last dinner I would be eating for the next 10 days) and a series of announcements and rules about the next 10 days under the Dhamma Center’s care.
- You must give all cellphones, laptops, books, notebooks, and writing materials to management for safekeeping. (What am I going to do for 10 days?)
- After 8pm tonight, you are to maintain Noble Silence until the end of the course. This means no talking to others, no eye contact, no smiling at others, no gesturing, no writing notes, and no physical contact. (Not even eye contact! Shit, son.)
- Men and women are not to interact at all. If you need to talk to a course manager, please make sure to talk to the manager belonging to your gender. Women stay on the east side of the complex, and men stay on the west side. There is a barrier between the sides, which is not to be crossed under any circumstances. (Alright, I wasn’t expecting that one. Bye, boys.)
- All religious objects, rosaries, prayer, and ceremony are banned. (There was actually a rosary in my room, given to me by my Opa for safekeeping. Oopsie. I guess no hail mary’s for me.)
- You are to wake up every morning at the 4:00am wake up bell, and follow the daily schedule which included set times for meditation, bathing, washing clothes, and eating. (4am? Yikes.)
- You are not allowed to take food outside of the dining hall, and there is no eating allowed after noon. Only new students will be provided with a small snack of fruit and tea at 5pm every day. (No dinner. No dinner. But, I love dinner.)
- You are to follow the code of discipline to ensure that you are following Sila (moral conduct) during the course. This means no stealing, no killing, no sex, no lies, no intoxicants. Old students are also supposed to abstain from eating after noon, from “sensual body decorations” and from “high and luxurious beds”. The reason behind this is because only when you follow Sila (as monks and nuns do at all times), can you minimize the ego, and purify the mind to learn vipassana correctly.
- No yoga or physical exercise is permitted, except for leisurely walking around the grounds of the center.
- Clothing is to be modest, comfortable and loose. No tights, leggings, shorts, tight clothes, etc., are allowed.
Honestly, there are more rules, but these were the important ones. Basically: don’t talk, keep your head down, be inconspicuous, follow the schedule, and you’ll be fine.
During dinner, I talked to the girl sitting next to me in the dining hall (who ended up leaving the course after Day 3) and secretly felt happy that we would be in Noble Silence for the next 10 days. It is amazing how a single phrase, opinion or perspective from someone else can influence your experience. This is something one does alone, and the silence was absolutely essential in managing the purity of your mind and thoughts.
After dinner, we a short orientation about what Vipassana actually is, a one-hour meditation period in the Dhamma hall (I kept falling asleep – remember, I had basically no sleep the night before), and then were sent to bed at 9 to prepare for an early start (thank Dhamma)
Starting on Day 1, we followed this schedule:
4:00 am : Wake up bell
4:30 am – 6:30 am: Meditate in the Dhamma Hall or in your room
6:30 am – 8:00 am: Breakfast and rest
8:00 am – 9:00 am: Group meditation in the Dhamma Hall
9:00 am – 11:00 am: Meditate in the Dhamma Hall or in your room
11:00 am – 12:00 pm: Lunch and rest
12:00 pm – 1:00 pm: Interviews with the teacher (you could request these, otherwise you could meditate/bathe/wash clothes/etc.)
1:00 pm – 2:30 pm: Meditate in the Dhamma Hall or in your room
2:30 pm – 3:30 pm: Group meditation in the Dhamma Hall
3:30 pm – 5:00 pm: Meditate in the Dhamma Hall or in your room
5:00 pm – 6:00 pm: Tea/fruit and rest
6:00 pm – 7:00 pm: Group meditation in the Dhamma Hall
7:00 pm – 8:15 pm: Discourse (where we watched a video of a talk given by S.N. Goenka – these were the highlight of everyone’s day)
8:15 pm – 9:00 pm: Group meditation in the Dhamma Hall
9:00 pm: Sleep!
With that schedule in mind, on Day 1, I woke up at 6:09 am. Shit. Great start, Emily. I didn’t have my trusty phone alarm anymore, and completely missed the bell. Guiltily, I was just in time for breakfast at 6:30. I immediately set my nifty Cambodian digital watch to have an alarm at 4:00am, hoping that I would wake up for that the following morning. This was the first day of serious meditation, where we were taught to focus on the area at the end of the nostril, and practice this all day. Imagine trying to focus on your nostril for approximately 12 waking hours. Honestly, the whole day there were 10 million thoughts running through my head – I don’t think I had one moment of mental quietude. I missed Ariel, missed my Aussie friend from Bingin, missed my parents, wanted to go home, and felt more alone than ever. I found Guh in my bag, a stuffed doggo that Ariel gave me for company, and perched him on my table for easy access and company.
By 5:00pm, I was starving. When we got to the dining hall for our “snack”, we found we each had half a small cup of banana avocado smoothie. I looked around the room and saw looks of sheer defeat as the other women spooned their smoothie down in 4 gulps. All night during the meditation and discourse, my tummy was growling. By the time 9:00 pm came, I passed out immediately from tiredness and to escape the hunger.
The watch alarm helped, and I woke up at 4:00am, determined to meditate in the Dhamma Hall for 2 hours to make up for my missed morning the previous day. The previous night, Mr. Goenka warned us that Day 2 would be one of the hardest, and boy he was right. We were taught to focus on respiration and the area around our nose and nostrils. I still had a thousand and one thoughts that I couldn’t turn off during meditation, and scheduled an interview with my teacher. I was at the point of tears, and her response to me was “Focus on your respiration, in the area below your nostrils. If you want to cry, then cry, but keep focusing on respiration.” I went back to my room, and holding Guh, cried and wondered if the whole 10 days was going to feel like this. I felt better after that, because I had no choice but to accept that I couldn’t do anything but continue meditating. Although my teacher’s “advice” seemed like nothing at the time, it actually did help. I spent most of my rest time that day attempting to meditate and getting frustrated. I was happy when sleep time came.
This was a breakthrough day, since I discovered the buckets and hand-washing station behind the bathrooms. I washed a bunch of my clothes and loved that I had an hour-long task that didn’t involve sitting or meditating. Meditation did become slightly easier on this day, as we progressed in the technique and focused on detecting sensations in our bodies.
During rest breaks, I started experimenting with braids in my hair, and decide it’s my personal mission to have a new braided hairstyle each of the remaining 7 days.
When I went for a walk around the center that afternoon, I found that one of the women had used the fallen leaves on the ground to make a beautiful art piece around some of the trees. This made my day, and later found out that it also made everyone else’s day. I also found a really huge spider outside one of the dorms and spent a long time watching it.
By the evening on Day 3, I wasn’t hungry anymore. I was used to no dinner. This made life at the Dhamma Center easier.
When I woke up and climbed the steps of the hall, I found a sign declaring Day 4 Vipassana Day! In meditation, we stopped focusing solely on respiration, and started learning the technique of observing sensations all over the body, which is the foundation of Vipassana. This made the time pass more quickly during meditations, and actually brought some focus and quiet to my mind. We also started Adhittana during group meditations, or “the sitting of strong determination”, which meant that for the full hour three times a day, we weren’t allowed to move, change our positions at all, uncross our hands or legs, or open our eyes. This became painful for the back and hips, but necessary to quiet the mind.
I washed my backpack and random dirty things that were in my backpack after lunch. At some point during the day while waiting for the Dhamma hall to open, I stood at the top of the stairs, and, looking over the barrier to the men’s side, saw a dude staring at some vines for a full 5 minutes. I presume there was a bird or butterfly or something there, and that he wasn’t just looking at unmoving leaves. I also saw a girl staring at an ant hill for a while.
Another art piece popped up on the stairs, that in the days following was added to by approximately 5 different people. I took a picture on the last day, as it remained there the whole time (pictured at the top of this post). This was so awesome, and made everyone so, so happy. Shout-out to the artists who made this. It was beautiful.
Even though I felt like I was trapped at the Dhamma Center for eternity, I was really used to the routine by this day. Waking up at 4am was easy, and I found it hard to imagine living any other way. I liked having full days, and sleeping at 9pm. I felt great!
As usual, I wake up at 4:00am, and Jesus. It’s the morning, meaning that I still have 6 full days left of this. By the time the night rolls around, it will be half way. THIS IS THE LONGEST DAY EVER. Meditations are still becoming easier, though. I happily ask the teacher a few questions this day, and her answers were helpful and encouraging. I got a really cool tingly sensation all over my body during meditation which inspired me to want to go further in the technique (even though we weren’t supposed to crave sensations – it was hard not to see the light on this day). A girl from my dorm spent at least 4 full minutes crouching outside looking at a lizard.
This is hell. This will never end. I was finally half way through, but that meant I still had half way to go. By this day, I had a pretty good routine going of “planning my day” meaning that I would plan an activity to look forward to after lunch like plucking my eyebrows, shaving my legs, doing more laundry, or walking around the complex. Goenka assured us that night that things were going to get easier after Day 6. I hoped he was right.
Only 3 days left! Wait, this day counts too. 4 days left. Ugh. Goenka tells us that we have only 2 more days of “serious” meditation, and should take advantage of every moment. With this in mind, I became even more focused during meditations.
What a great day! I felt the most focused on Day 8. It was really beautiful outside: sunny, but cool with a bit of rain in the afternoon. I tore apart my backpack, meticulously sorting and hand-wash everything that was even a little bit dirty.
We learned more about the ten Paramis, or the ten “Perfections” of Buddhism, and I started to become rather familiar with many of the Pali phrases and their meanings. Pali is the ancient and sacred language of Theravada Buddhism, for those who don’t know. I didn’t know that before I started the course. Goenka’s discourse about the Paramis was really enlightening, and completely struck a chord with me. I have included a graphic (stolen from Google) below, which provides them in English and Pali.
The last day of serious meditation – most people spent their rest time in their rooms, meditating. I meditate during rest breaks, knowing this was my final chance to make notable progress during my time at Dhamma Java. I felt great, I felt focussed! And, I could see the light! We are told that the Noble Silence will be broken the following morning, meaning that after 9:45am on Day 10, we could talk again (still no physical contact though).
During the discourse, we were reminded that these courses are run solely by donation. Not just monetary donation, but the donation of 10 days of time from all of the course servers. They were there, volunteering from 4am-9pm every day, in order to spread the invaluable technique of Vipassana and help others find Dhamma. Goenka told us that monetary donations were helpful, but encouraged us to volunteer as servers for a course, as this was in the true spirit of Dhamma. This would truly help spread the message, the technique, and help in our own meditations. I silently thanked all of the servers and started thinking about where in the world I could go to volunteer.
After our morning group meditation, we were taught a new part of the technique, which took us out of our bodies and mind, and taught us to silently ooze love and compassion out of every pore in our bodies into the world around us. This may sound fluffy, but trust me in that after spending 10 days focussing on myself and my body, it felt amazing. When we reach the bottom of the steps of the Dhamma Hall at 9:45am, I heard nervous laughter all around, and then one of the men on the other side made the first sound. The whole center started buzzing with the sounds of people talking. We followed a different schedule this day, with only the group meditations remaining consistent from the old schedule. When we arrived at the dining hall for lunch, we found the curtain between the men’s and women’s sides had been taken down, though we still weren’t allowed to cross into the other side. Woah, I forgot about men! I talked to a really nice Canadian guy named Sol from across the room, and he told me this was his second time doing a Vipassana course. He had done his first course in Montebello, Quebec, a couple hours away from my home town of Ottawa! I had no idea there was a center there! After that, I felt like a normal human again.
This day flew by. I finally connected with the women from my dorm, 2 of whom complimented me on my singing (on Day 2 or 3 I started singing a song in my room out of boredom, and unknowingly the whole building heard. Oh, the embarrassment, and the shame of breaking the Noble Silence). I talked to people from Indonesia, America, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, Australia, and we exchange our experience about the course, travel stories, and life stories. This was a great day. We all made great connections and plans to meet up with each other in Bali (pretty much everyone was going to Bali at some point after the course, or lived there).
By the time evening rolled around, all of our heads were buzzing with the hangover of chatter after having 9 days of silence. Our excitement meant that we are all hungry, and were fed dinner. I was really tired from all the talking by the time night arrived, and fell asleep easily.
After one final discourse from Mr. Goenka, and an hour of listening to chanting, and meditation, we were sent back to the dining hall for our final meal, and to retrieve our cellphones! I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I was rather giddy to get mine back. In my defense, I had zero plans about where I was going or what I was doing after the course, and really needed my phone to look up hostels, train tickets, etc.
I was happy to check my email and find a message from a Workaway host in Yogyakarta who offered to host me at her homestay, in return for a few hours of work per day. I send her a text asking if I could start the following day, and make arrangements to get to Jakarta so I could take a train to Yogya. I left the center with an Aussie guy, a German girl, and a handful of Indonesians who helped us get on the commuter train to Jakarta, and that was it! Goodbye Bogor and Dhamma Java!
Completing 10 days of Vipassana was not easy, but it was extremely rewarding. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what it felt like to descend the steps of the Dhamma Hall on Day 10 after oozing love into the room around me, and finally start connecting with the women that I shared the experience with, and really looking at their faces for the first time. I have never in my life noticed so many people’s eye colour, and the joy, the brightness and happiness in their faces. I truly started looking at the world and at people in a different way. The post-Vipassana high was like a drug, but it was totally natural because I had made my own brain that way. It’s hard to explain, but it felt amazing.
I am really glad that I did the course. The hard part is yet to come, because the next few weeks will determine whether I can develop the self-discipline to actually sit down for an hour a day to do Vipassana (though Goenka recommends 2 hours a day – one in the morning, and one in the evening). Honestly, the last few days I have kept myself pretty busy, because I have felt like I needed to just not meditate for a couple of days. However I have full intentions to give this technique a chance. Mr. Goenka’s shared wisdom was truly a gift, and I intend to cherish it.
Thank you to all of the course servers, and to Mr. Goenka for spreading the love, and spreading Dhamma. This was an experience that I will never forget.
Be Happy 🙂