• 12 minute read •
I first wrote this back in 2016 but never shared it before… until now. A few days ago while organising my files, I found these notes about my first experience with meditation, and today, more than three years later, some things have changed, but pretty much everything described here remains relevant. So, whether you’re starting on meditation, interested in knowing more, or just curious, here’s my story.
[June 2016, from an airplane seat] I’ve never been into meditation, the closest I’ve been to a similar practice is Yoga, as it makes you focus on your breath while building body postures, allowing you to leave all your thoughts aside for a moment. It is really relieving for the mind and body, but meditation wasn’t something I thought I was going to do or introduce to my life as a habit.
I had first heard of a 10-day meditation retreat from Simo, my husband -he did one in India before we met, and it was an experience he talked about sometimes. We were living in England, and after a few years, we decided to take a break from work, travel through Central America, and look for a new place to live. During our trip, he signed up to take this meditation course again in Nicaragua and proposed to do it together, but I denied.
We travelled for four months before it was time for him to go on the retreat. And during this time we met a guy, Anthony, who coincidentally had taken this same course, several times before. He was a very nice guy, so calm, who explained and transmitted very well the benefits of meditation. So I started getting curious about it…
Vipassana meditation is one of India’s most ancient techniques. It has been taught in India more than 2500 years ago, and I knew this retreat consisted of staying 10 days apart from the outside world, keeping silence. I feared I couldn’t take anything like that.
When the time came, and Simo went to attend his course at the capital, I travelled to a beautiful beach in Nicaragua, Playa Gigante where I started volunteering at a hostel, taking surf classes, and doing Yoga… (I know!) nothing to complain. During my time there, I started reading about Vipassana meditation and this specific 10-day course. It turns out that the owner of the hostel, John, another really cool guy, had also taken the Vipassana courses, several times before!
This coincidence, signal or however you want to call it, increased my curiosity, so I researched some more and checked out the Vipassana courses available in Latin America. I had made my decision of going on to one of those 10-day retreats. I signed up, but it wasn’t until three months later that I was accepted to one in Colombia, so I made arrangements to travel.
And here I am, writing this while my flight lands in Bogota and this new adventure awaits. I’m planning to write the second part of this story in 10 days when I’ll have (hopefully) completed the legendary Vipassana meditation course.d the legendary Vipassana meditation course…
[10 days after…] Silence? Only in the outside…
As I promised, I’m now about to write how was the 10-day Vipassana Meditation course I’ve just completed, two days ago. Well, all I can say is: I survived!… this is the first feeling I had when the last day ended. However, after lots of conversation and further reading about others taking the course, I’ve noticed the experience is very different for each.
There are many things involved in an experience like this, and we’re all affected in different ways. I’ve been trying to put my notes together for a couple of days, and I’m finding it difficult to write in an organised way about my own case… it is beyond description. However, what I’d like to share here is how it was for me, hoping to give you a good idea of what it feels to start a meditation path this way and (hopefully) transmit the peace of mind and gladness I feel now.
Vipassana (as described in their official website) 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 that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.
The noble silence
Once the course starts, you are isolated from the outside world. During the 10 days, you won’t communicate with your friends or family, and you commit to keeping in silence. No phone, or tablet, no music, no books, no speaking, or gesturing or touching. No communication at all.
I had thought this was the hardest part, as I’m a very chatty person and I love socialising. But not talking to family or friends for a few days wasn’t a problem for me, living abroad and having loved ones here and there around the world, I’m kind of used to that.
As a new meditator, I struggled trying to control my thoughts. I never imagined the mind was something so independent, big, and obstinate. It is like a wild animal, really hard to tame (but not impossible). So forget the others, I really wanted to focus! And to get into this meditation technique I was just starting to learn…. The outside silence was necessary.
For some people, the diet at the Vipassana centres can be a big change. During these 10 days, you’ll eat a simple, almost vegan diet, low in fat, salt, and sugar. The food is prepared by the course organisators and you’ll eat only at certain stipulated times.
I actually enjoyed the food a lot. I don’t mind eating vegetarian (update 2019: remember this was 2016 and I wasn’t all about plant-based eating yet…), and even though I’m a real foodie, I keep a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, cereals, and good fats.
The thing here is that mealtimes are three a day only, and I’m used to snacking between meals. Breakfast is not until two hours after you wake up, and dinner is really small, and as early as 5:00 PM. You’re also advised to take small portions for lunch, to be able to meditate, your stomach should be 3/4 full. (update 2019: none of these are problems for me anymore 😊).
This sounds very restrictive, and it was hard at the beginning. The first few days, I was getting so anxious close to mealtimes, that I was unable to concentrate. But just like everything in life, you get used to it. And it all becomes part of the routine you agreed on following during the course.
The actual technique
As briefly explained above, while you’re meditating you’re asked to observe the sensations through your body, part by part. By observation, you will learn how to be aware, find a connection between your mind and body, and understand that you, but no other is responsible for your suffering.
You are in complete silence all day and you’ll have 10 hours a day to practice the technique. This requires discipline and determination. You’ll be listening to your body, as you might’ve heard you should, but this is a great opportunity to do so, and (at the same time) bring your mind to this moment of listening, and interrelate the two.
You will also have the opportunity to ask questions to the professor in private 5-minute sessions daily, or after the discourses every night. These are really helpful! The discourses are clear and encouraging, resolving some of your doubts and guiding you through the process. Additionally, the sessions with the professor will clarify your questions and reinforce the reasons why you are there. Or at least for me, this was the case.
As you learn and practice the technique you also learn a lot about you. For me, it was an experience like no other in life, with no one but myself. When I asked the professor about “my progress” she explained this is not a competition or a job, and that I should not set goals, or see progress. Each meditation session is different, and it is for you to observe, doing nothing about it, being equanimous.
Vipassana means to see things as they really are.
I couldn’t write about this experience without mentioning the people I’ve met there, even though we had little time to talk, they become new friends, and you feel like you’ve met them before or that you already know them somehow. It is a weird feeling.
On the first day, I met two guys on the bus, on the way to the meditation centre. We had plenty of time to talk during the 3-hour trip. Really nice and interesting guys. Once arrived, I had another almost three hours before the course started in the evening, but since I had already given my phone and other distractions for the organisers to keep until the end of the course, I offered some help in the kitchen. Where I met other girls helping out and some of the volunteers working for the course. I loved everyone here, even though we were meeting for the first time, we worked together really well that afternoon. It was so nice to meet other newbies, as well as experienced meditators that came as volunteers.
Finally, right before the course started that evening, I met another two guys. It’s funny but I felt a special connection with these people, and right after on day 10, when the silence brakes, we hugged (I learned after you’re not supposed to) and greeted as if we were best friends meeting again after a long time apart!…. (update 2019: these are Daniel and Bambos, we still keep in touch! Daniel is from Bogotá and we’ve met a couple of times over there, he recently moved to Medellín and I’m sure I’ll see him more often now; Bambos is an English man living in Singapore, who hosted me for a few days while my recent travels in Asia. We also speak often. And they both keep in touch too! We’ve talked about a reunion, the three of us! How cool would that be?…anyway…)
It could be the intensity of the experience, or how thankful I feel with those who work to make these courses happen. I felt like I just discovered a new family 😊
Apart from new friends, connections, a different perspective of the emotions, and maybe a new you; what remains is not only a story to tell, an unforgettable experience you keep talking about for days, and something you’d want to share with everyone. For me, the Vipassana 10-day course was a huge learning, a life lesson; a very intense introduction to meditation, and a great opportunity to be on my own, to sit in silence. Me and my crazy thoughts.
I’ve always considered myself to be a happy person, but obviously, there will be hard times in life or just bad moments on a regular day, and only the idea of being free of suffering is very attractive. But how to achieve it?
Once you have learned to love yourself, forgive yourself, and understood how to be free of suffering, through pure experience, you can also love others, and act with compassion but no attachments… this is liberating! However, 10 days are not enough. During this course, you only learn the basics. Once you’re out back in touch with the external world, you’ll need to build a habit, and work on changing what your mind is programmed to do, so you can be the real owner of your actions, reactions, and thoughts.
I’ve survived not only the course but also my own life until now, and I’m so glad I made this decision. I’ve now experienced meditation, and I’m working on making it part of my life. It’s the perfect complement to what I’ve been doing so far, and I’m certain that I can be even happier.
Final update 2019: Ever since 2016, I’ve completed a couple more Vipassana meditation courses: one 1-day course in Medellín, and two 3-day courses, one in Italy and one in Mexico. And I’ve made a few other meditation friends too! Clau, Beto, Fabi, Susi, Gabriel…
And even though I’ve been on and off my regular practice, still, I’ve experienced the benefits. I’m still working on building it as a more consistent habit, I try to meditate at least 15-20 mins daily, and I recommend it to almost everyone I have a deep conversation with. Because I still think that some questions can’t definitively be answered by Google and that the answers are deep within ourselves.
What’s your experience with meditation? Let me know in the comments 😉
If you are interested in taking a Vipassana course, these are given worldwide in all languages, for FREE! (you just give a donation of your choice at the end).
Visit https://www.dhamma.org/en/courses/search to find out more.