When we started preparing our round the world trip, one of the tips we related to the most was to build your trip around experiences and things you want to do, rather than just places you want to visit. One of the things that made that list was a meditation course. So after visiting Yangon for a few days we entered the world of vipassana meditation in the Dhamma Joti Vipassana center, just a few steps away from the beautiful golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar’s biggest city.
If you want to know more about vipassana meditation, you can read all about it on the website of the center. We entered the ten day course, knowing we wouldn’t be able to speak to each other, look at each other or sleep in the same room. On top of that we would also be having only 2 meals a day. There was a strict time schedule, starting at 4 am and finishing around 9 at night, with only three hours of free time and ten hours of meditation per day. And yes, even after taking into account all of the above, we still wanted to do the course. Hesitant, but curious about the whole experience, that’s how we walked into the center, leaving our passports, money, smartphone and other valuables behind in a little locker. We spent that ten days in the same center, but that’s really the only thing we shared. Our experiences were so different we’ll split this posts into two, you can read Sem’s experience here.
I feel like this experience still needs a bit more time to sink in. Maybe it’s too early to sum it up. But I do have some random and not so random facts I’d love to share with you:
I absolutely loved the food during the course. All of it was vegetarian, according to one of the five principles “to abstain from killing any being”.
In the morning, we would get either soup or stir fried noodles (it takes some time getting used to a savory breakfast instead of a sweet one), and some bread with butter, jam and fruits. A few days we even had Nutella! The other western girls and I soon discovered the toaster. It took 2 minutes and 20 seconds to toast two slices of bread. When you have to live in silence for ten days and only get three hours of rest per day, you have time to count those kind of things. One day, we even had chapattis for breakfast, a kind of Indian fried bread that actually just tastes like pancakes. I ate them with the jam instead of the curry and I felt like a little child who just got pancakes for breakfast. Again, when you only get two meals a day, you get very excited about things like that.
At lunch, we would have rice, some sort of curry (I absolutely loved the one with beans and eggplant), stir fried vegetables, soup, and a mixture of fried nuts as a side dish. Really delicious, but after chipping my tooth on a little piece of stone in it, I just didn’t dare to take anymore. For dessert, we got fruit and sometimes yogurt. One time, we even had ice cream! Too bad they handed it out at the same time as the rice, so almost all of the ice cream had melted when we finished our meal. Still felt like a treat though!
There were some basic rules we had to follow, some of which I found harder to live by than others. Not killing any being (I did kill one mosquito…), not taking any food to our room (I ate my banana for dessert during tea break on some days), no communication whatsoever, no eye contact, no speaking, no writing, no reading, no listening to music. I did (try to) make eye contact with Sem quite a few times, mostly when we watched the teacher’s discourse video for an hour. Writing my diary during lunch break was the only rule I intentionally broke from the beginning, because I really wanted to have some memories and collect my thoughts and feelings during these ten days.
For me, the non-communication rule was by far the hardest one. I realized that our experience of the world mostly depends on comparing it to the one others have and the beauty of most things gets multiplied when you can share it with someone. Or the other way round, things maybe don’t seem so bad when you don’t get to share them. On day II for example, a bunch of girls and I saw quite a big scorpion on our way back to our room after evening meditation. No one screamed, everyone just walked quietly around the animal. The way we communicate about things, often determines the way we experience it. So when you cannot share anything about your experience, you’re left alone figuring out exactly how you feel about it. Stuff to think about I guess… Maybe I dealt better with some things (my chipped tooth, the mold in the room, the dogs outside, …) because there was no-one to whom I could whine about it. Come to think of it, maybe that’s the biggest lesson for me.
The foreign students (most of the more than hundred students were Burmese, something I didn’t expect beforehand) slept in a building, in rooms with two beds, a bathroom and a toilet. Compared to the sleeping facilities we had on our trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake, those were quite comfortable conditions as we had running water, a real bed above the ground, a real toilet and a mosquito net. Compared to western standards this was really very basic, the bed was a tiny mattress, there was no hot water (although the cold water really helps you wake up at 4 in the morning). One of the girls in our dorm was an ‘old student’ and had already done multiple courses, she said these were the worst conditions she had seen in any meditation center. I personally had no problems with these living conditions, but the mold in my room and the stray dogs outside made it harder for me to focus on the meditation.
So much for the practical details of our stay in the meditation center. But how did it go? The truth is, I still don’t know what to answer when people ask me how it went. I just don’t.
At times it was really hard, more due to the surrounding conditions than due to the meditation itself – I’ve meditated before so I knew what it was like, but that also came with some expectations.
Most of the time, I just kept on going, thinking that if I would get through the next hour of meditation, soon the lunch break would follow, then the meditation in the afternoon wouldn’t last very long and then I just had to sit through the video at the end of the night, and another day would have passed without me noticing it.
Sometimes meditation felt really good, when I had a breakthrough and I focused on my breathing and all of the sensations in my body for a whole hour, when my mind didn’t wander off into whole meal preparations in my head, days of reliving a holiday with friends in France or thinking how badly I wanted to see my family.
There were a few days where I just felt like giving up, when my tooth chipped during lunch. Or that one moment when Sem and I looked at each other – even though no communication, verbal or nonverbal was allowed – and we saw in each other’s eyes we were about to break down because we just didn’t want to spend another minute meditating. But we looked away, not wanting to influence the other one and his experience. Or that moment when I noticed that due to the humidity in the rooms my sandals had mold on them, and after cleaning them, the day after the mold was back, and the day after, and the day after…
The thing is, this was such an intense experience, sitting down and meditating for ten hours a day, not speaking to anyone, getting up at 4 am, sleeping alone on a wooden plank in a constantly humid building surrounded by stray dogs barking all night long, but also getting to know your limits, learning a lot about your mental flexibility, living together with total strangers but somehow feeling so connected to them as you sat and ate beside each other for ten days, without even knowing their names. It’s just way too hard to describe how it really was.
While writing this down I guess I did learn a bit more about myself. I’ve learned that things eventually move on and get better, you just deal with them and it goes away. One step at the time usually does the trick. Or it doesn’t, but that’s also fine. I am super proud though that I didn’t give up and that Sem didn’t either.
If you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them. Feel free to leave a comment!