My year at a Vipassana Center: How it came about II

On Mettā-day, the purpose of this whole technique is taught, or this is how I feel about it at least. For 9 days we’d been deprogramming ourselves to have a clear mind by day 10. This is important, because whatever thoughts, wishes and desires are there with you on this day, is likely to be with you for much longer than you may anticipate.
For the 10-day duration of the course, all meals are prepared and served very punctually for the participants. Generally the food tastes amazing and is very nutritious. Some days I’d sit and dream about too cooking for large group of people. What an honor I thought it must be to feed and nourish many. How rewarding it must be to provide deep care, deep nurturing and to ad an element of unexpected value to the life of another, I thought.
Occasionally during the course a quiet, but interesting looking person would enter the meditation hall to meditate with us. Sometimes I used to see him pass by my hut to the property next door. He must be working there, involved with the operations of the center. Should I try and speak with him after the course? He must be interesting to speak with.
I never did speak to the mysterious wonderer, but I received a phone call from him about a month or two after my course, to know if I’d be available to help out during the next course. I said yes. I arrived, I was put in the kitchen. We were only a few, so we all learnt at a steep learning curve. By Mettā-day, day 10, finally we’d have a handle on things and could enjoy the calmness that came with this day.
Walking to throw out the compost just before 6 am one Mettā-day morning, I watched the full moon hanging close to the earth. I had never felt so much contentment, fulfillment, purpose and belonging in my life and so I looked at the moon feeling at one with her, as if she’s just an extension of me not very far away and I said: “I want to come back.
I had not yet learnt the manifesting power of these Mettā Days. The next month I was back in the kitchen, and also the month thereafter.
When an older student asked me if I wouldn’t like to come help out at the center long term I said: “I’d love to, but……. there is life
Have you ever heard the saying that anything before the “but” in a sentence makes it redundant? Well this was the opposite. My heart confessed its truth before the “but”and only the truth was heard. Before I knew it I was back in the kitchen, this time to stay for an extended period of time.
However, there was only one problem… I was in strong resistance to the teacher S.N. Goenka.  His voice bugged me, his way of speaking bugged me, and he seemed way to overpowering to my liking. I’d hear people talk about him as a big teddy bear, but I got none of that.
On my first night of a being long-term server, I sat on my bed, not quite sure what to do with this lack of regard for the main teacher of the technique. Of course he lived in India, it was not like I was going to run into him at any time, but it didn’t feel right being at the property without admiration for the person who created the very opportunity.  That night I had a dream. S. N. Goenka was in it. He sat on my bed, simply looking at me. His eyes were as shiny as they appear on all his photos in the books, only much, much more, like beams of light it looked straight into mine. I woke up the next morning with nothing but love for him, and that stayed.

My year at a Vipassana Center: How it came about I

We were all siting at 142 Lea Bridge Road, London, a place of cultural get-together, free exploration and all kinds of young hearted shenanigans. My introverted nature did not put me at the forefront of events, yet I was part of the mix, due to my newly found connection, Shiv – an overtly expressive, dashingly charming, attractive and convincing young Indian man. What he was describing seemed like some rite of passage, some challenge or test, that only those with true conviction can survive. It wasn’t until he said the words “complete silence for ten days” that my attention fully merged with his delivery. “That sounds cool,” I thought to myself. “I have to try it one day.”
Soon after, I spent a year in India, traveling to various parts, including the Himalayan Mountains. In a place called Parvati Valley, where days were met with a customary charras (Indian hashish) culture, I spent a lot of alone time walking through the mountain-top forest. During some of those walks I recall hearing the voice of a male, chanting ancient-like sounds, sounds I would only recognize some time later during my first ten day retreat.
It is said that those who have the calling of Vipassana from a previous lifetime cannot resist upon finding it in a current lifetime. When the seed has been planted, it must grow.
From India I went back to Cape Town, where I had to make the switch back to real life. My life there felt in contrast to my yearning for spiritual fulfillment and even though my practice of Tai Chi and Qigong, which I almost religiously held on to, was a savings grace, something was pulling on me.
One night, I found myself suddenly sitting upright in my bed. It was time to try this Vipassana thing.
Arriving at the retreat center you are assigned a bed and a small space to unpack the limited belongings you brought with you. You are requested to make do with what is given and not a have unreasonable expectations for luxurious accommodation. The retreat center is about an hour outside of Cape Town at the foot of a mountain slope in a beautiful natural setting.
I regretted that the sleeping bag I packed in to sleep in was not enough. In stark contrast to the attitude of abundance I now know is at the core of Vipassana, I felt inhibited to ask for an extra blanket to keep me warm at night.
At lights-off time, I relaxed into the warmth of my body through my mind, while in fact it was absolutely freezing cold. During the day I would work diligently as suggested by the teacher. There was no switching off for me, my mind was at constant awareness in relaxing into what was. I look back now, and think of this discomfort at night as one of the reasons the technique caught hold on me so strongly. Here’s why:
Towards the end of the course you are guided to direct your awareness, observing a rapid flow of energy through your whole body. One night I was lying in bed, still unable to differentiate between mental effort and mental observation. I applied my, then, very concentrated mind to this task of observing the flow of energy. (In actuality this is rapidly observing the energy as it is naturally, appearing as a rapid flow.)
Every time I applied strong effort, the wind would pass by in a gust, to stop as quickly as my my mental effort did. I experimented with this for some time. Was it real? Was I imagining things? Was I manipulating the weather? I was astounded at how this could be and even though I knew it was real, the I did not exclude the possibility of being in a disillusioned trap of the mind. I knew it was real, though. The confirmation would come many months later.
The next day was Mettā-day. The silence would be broken and we’d engage in light communication with the other participants. I had just started enjoying the new world inside, only accessible through silence, which was now sadly coming to and end.
Yet, I was curious. What was the others’ experiences like?
To be continued.

My year at a Vipassana Center: Introduction

What many of you may not know about me, is that I spent a year living at a Vipassana center. For those of you who know Vipassana, don’t freak out. It does not mean that for 365 days I was meditating 11 hours a day, as we do at the 10-day retreats, however there are some pretty strict guidelines for staying at a Vipassana retreat center, which I will outline later. During this time, I’d seen quite a number of students come and go as they participated in the meditation retreats. Many of them were interested in my life there, what I was doing, experiencing and observing, as I was interested in theirs.
I have had some insightful experiences and some more light-hearted stories to share too. I thus decided to write about these in a few blog posts, highlighting some of the incidents I remember. For those who are unfamiliar with the Vipassana technique and organization, I here is a short summary. The rest you can read up on at
Vipassana is a meditation technique, believed to be the exact technique Guatama Buddha discovered enlightenment through. It means to see the reality for what is, without delusion, fantasy, and falsehood. It is the technique to release suffering which is a result of our attachment to the world we perceive as real. The technique is taught by S.N. Goenka on 10-day silent retreats, during which very specific instructions are given in specific order to learn the technique.
Vipassana centers are found worldwide and are funded and managed entirely by volunteers. Donations in the form of service or money are only accepted from those who have completed a ten day retreat under the guidance of an assistant teacher. During periods of service, a server is expected to maintain a minimum of 3 hours meditation per day. Reading material is limited to that issued by the Vipassana Research Organization. Strict segregation of men and women during meal times are maintained, and in general, conversation is asked to mostly be limited to functional communication.
Persons volunteering their time as dāna (a Pali word for donation) contribute to the atmosphere of the center by keeping their thoughts and emotions clear, if not, filled with love and appreciation, compassion and peace at all times. The Pali word to describe this offering is called “mettā” (loving-kindness.)
In the lives of Vipassana students in general and on all Vipassana centers the following precepts are to be observed at all times: 1. To abstain from killing or harming others. 2. To abstain from stealing, or taking what is not given. 3, To abstain form telling lies or wrongful speech, 4. To abstain from sexual misconduct, 5. To abstain from all intoxicants.
I hope this gives you sone insight into the setup of a Vipassana Center. I look forward to sharing my experiences with you. The way these stories are written, is with the intention to have each individual event read as individual story, however in actuality all of them very much makes sense consecutively, as elements build upon each other and the understanding of events, lessons and occurrences very much flows into the context of another.
Read about how my year at the Vipassana center came about in the next post.
Photo credit: @wellnessstockkphoto