First Hearing About Vipassana
When I first moved to India, I was on a self-healing journey that started with my yoga teacher training. Just after I had finished it, I heard from some who later became a close friend about this meditation course called Vipassana. It is an ancient Buddhist meditation method, however has nothing to do with religion and can be done by anyone.
After I first heard of this 10 day meditation and the benefits it had for him, I was really interested to do it myself. But I didn’t quite feel ready for that level of internal work. He said that past traumas in his life that he had completely forgotten about were brought up again in his first vipassana. He wasn’t expecting it, but he was glad that it happened as he was able to work through a lot.
After that initial conversation, I heard about it through a number of other people. They had also done these courses and really benefited from them. As the technique originated in India, it made sense that I was hearing about it for the first time here. One part that greatly appealed to me is that the course was completely donation based, there was no set cost. You simply pay what is within your means and what you feel accurately reflects what benefits you got out of the course. So that other people can also experience the benefits. This is how all vipassana centers are funded. And I found that to be such a humbling operation as it gives everyone the opportunity to clear their mind and heal from the past.
A few months later when I was in Sri Lanka I was finishing the latest book by Noah Yuval Harari, 21 lessons for the 21st century. His final lesson in the book was on meditation. He mentioned the benefits he had received and that he does one course every year since his first vipassana at the age of 26. He stated he never would have been able to write Sapiens, my all-time favourite mind-blowing book, if he had not taken part in his first vipassana. As I am also in the process of writing a novel (that has had no movement in the past 2 months even though I am about 75% of the way through). So this was really appealing for me and I decided to give it a go.
Choosing My Place
I found a course in South India around the time I would be down there and decided to apply. The application process was quite intense and I answered the application form as honestly as possible. Including my history of substance abuse and was told that I would have a response within two weeks. Two weeks came and went and I had no response. I continued to meet many people who had done a vipassana and kept gaining information about it. One person said they had a response to their application within two days, which was quite disheartening.
It makes sense that I was hearing so much about vipassana in India. Because India is generally the place that people come when they have something to heal from. I met people who had done up to 6 vipassana’s. And I had also met a number of people who only made it to day 3 and then left. It was a pretty intense course. I learned that you have your phone and all electronics taken off you. All reading and writing materials taken from you and anything that could potentially distract you from the 10 hours of mediation you would be doing every day.
Eventually my email came with my approval for my course to start on the 15th of January. I was really excited for it and continued to meet other people that had experience with them. I tried to find our as much as I could so I knew what to expect from my first vipassana. But I don’t think anything could quite have prepared me for what I came into. I prepared what I could, and basically that was just my mentality and a stash of Oreo’s, a vegan godsend!
On day zero, a bunch of 60 people arrived, approximately 40 males and 20 females. At this point we were able to talk. But everyone was a little hesitant because we knew that we were here to meditate. And for the following 10 days were not supposed to have any form of communication. Be that verbal, written or even any eye contact with a person other than the staff members. We had our orientation and a few people went up to discuss their health issues. I spoke of my allergies, being dairy and peanuts. The instructor almost didn’t write down peanuts because he was adamant they never cooked with them. But I told him to write it down because that one was very important.
I very naively didn’t mention the disease in my spine, which I later realized was a big mistake. I am so stubborn when it comes to my health. And honestly wanted to believe that I had healed from it, and that it would not bother me during the 10 day course.
On day one everything went quite well. We get woken up at 4am with a gong and bell that seems to go forever. And then we all start meditating in a big hall at 4:30am. It felt very eerie, a group of people all with their eyes diverted down walking into this hall. taking their seats and meditating in silence. It seemed to be almost cult like. Which was only further enhanced when you saw people walking around the centre grounds at an impossibly slow pace. And I mean they were hella slow! I can’t even begin to describe. But I guess the best I can do is think of a 90 year old person who should be using a walking frame but isn’t. Yes, I am serious, some people were that slow.
The day went by quite well and I was really excited to start to seriously work on myself and heal from my past. We had meals twice a day, once at 6:30am and then again at 11am. We were then able to have a light snack at 5pm. On the first day it was this rice flake thing and as I was eating it I came across a nut. They were pretty adamant that they didn’t use peanuts. Still I examined it in my mouth and determined it wasn’t a peanut. But then I came across another and my mouth instantly gave it away.
I got up and immediately went to one of the ladies who was assisting and asked if there were peanuts in the food we were served. Her instant reaction was to say no. But I got her to check with the kitchen and she came back and said yes they were. I told her that I needed her to go and get my passport and wallet and to call me an ambulance. She just simply smiled back at me. I repeated myself a little more sternly before another American lady who was volunteering got up and said she would help me. I asked if she knew how to use an EpiPen, she didn’t but said we would work it out.
Trying to get to a Hospital
We went to our room and attempted to use it, however it was unsuccessful. I said that I was running out of time and that we had to get an ambulance in immediately. So we set off in search of the manager. I was completely shocked when I heard the response from the manager. He essentially yelled at the volunteer who was trying to help me and refused to call an ambulance. He said that we were unable to ask anything of him and had to go and speak to the teacher. We had to get permission for me to leave and to call an ambulance. She attempted to explain that this was a life and death situation, but he would not have a bar of it.
We had no option but to go off in search of this teacher, who no one seemed to know where he was located. On the look for him my body started to fail and I had to sit down. Which then turned into vomiting and laying on the ground. I opened my eyes at one point to see there was about 15 people standing around me. Just watching, giggling and speaking to each other. None of them trying to help me other than the girl who was running in all different directions trying to find a teacher to get permission to save my life.
I heard her yelling at the people around me saying that I was going to die if they did not get their shit together and help me. There was a laugh from someone and a voice said, “no she isn’t”. Eventually she tapped me on the shoulder and said that a tuk-tuk had arrived for me. I was in pure shock that this was happening. By this point I was lying on my back putting every ounce of effort I had in me to just keep breathing. And they had sent a tuk-tuk! But hey, I had no other option. And an ambulance wouldn’t arrive faster than this tuk-tuk could get me to the hospital.
She basically lifted me into the tuk-tuk and got me to lay down on her. She could see I wasn’t capable of holding myself upright. By this point my body had started to seriously fail and I was hardly breathing. I could hear her saying my name and telling me to breathe. I knew I had to but I just couldn’t make my body do it. By the time we arrived at the hospital I was taking about two breaths per minute and my heart rate was below 20. That is basically preparing for a flatline.
The staff at the hospital were amazing and managed to save my life. Within an hour or so I was conscious and breathing again. My heart rate back above 40. I vaguely remember faces of the staff members coming in. But again they didn’t seem overly phased about the situation I was currently in.
When I was feeling better and able to sit up, I spoke with the girl who had saved my life. Indigo Monae is her name, and she is an absolute angel. If things had have been delayed even a further 5 minutes, I would not be sitting here writing this blog. I am so thankful to you Indigo. And also so apologetic at the traumatic experience you went through because of me. We discussed the whole event and now that I was in the clear we were able to laugh about it.
Trying to make them understand
Indians do not understand allergies because they don’t really exist in India. It’s more of a western thing, which is really lucky for them. But also something they should be aware of when they are dealing with people from the western world on a daily basis and taking them into their care. We got back to the vipassana centre at about 8:30pm. I was asked if I wanted to stay, and they were unsure at this point whether they would allow me. The rule states that anyone who leaves during the course does not come back. I said yes as I really wanted to keep working on myself, but that my body would need some time to recover.
As they don’t understand allergies, they also didn’t understand that by my body fighting so hard for survival, I would by quite weak for a few days. I attended only 5 classes a day for the following 2 days, which were the group sittings and discourses. By the fourth day I was back attending classes. But my back was in pure agony due to everything that has happened and it being forbidden to do any form of yoga.
When question time with the teacher rolled around, I asked him if I could have a special allowance for yoga due to my issues with my back. I attempted to explain the situation with my back and my previous inability to walk properly. However he was not interested in hearing what I had to say. He was adamant that rules are rules, regardless of an individual’s situation. This really frustrated me, but I eventually held my tongue and I left. Deciding that I would do it anyway regardless of the rules as I was sure as hell not going to allow my body to go back to an immobile state.
On day 5 I had done some yoga in the morning during one of the meditation classes, where I was doing it in my room rather than in the hall. I was of the impression that this was ok. We were told on day zero that it is strongly recommended that we used that time in the hall. I guess me being the opportunist I am took that ‘strong suggestion’ as there was an option to do it ourselves. But I learned the next day this was not the case and that I should again seek permission from the teacher.
During the 12pm question time I asked the teacher if I was able to use the individual mediation time to meditate in private. He interrupted me before I had finished what I had to say, which again really frustrated me. I asked him to hear me out before he spoke. And to answer the question I was asking, not to give me some other line that was not relevant. This saw a battle of ego emerge between the two of us and neither of us willing to back down. I don’t know how many of the readers of my blog have seen me in an argument. Especially when it is related to what I am and what I am not able to do. But I do not give up without a fight! Especially when there is no logic or reasoning being a blatant dismissal.
He stated that I had been full of disruption from the start. First with my allergy then all of my requests for allowances. This again got me more fired up as I felt like I had done the right things the whole way through. I told them about my allergy. I asked for the ability to do yoga rather than just doing it without permission. Even though afterward I did without permission, but that wasn’t the point. And was now again asking for private meditation in the sessions that were of my understanding dedicated to that.
In the discourses we listened to every night, Goenka would tell us that we should not have blind faith. That we should question everything including religion and whether things are practical or not before we accept them. We should not accept things as they are as that is all we have known. But to do our own research and have our own experiences to establish for ourselves what we believe to be correct. We should also not have faith born out of fear of the consequences as that is again not faith being true to yourself.
I could not believe that a teacher who was giving guidance based off this method of meditation was able to treat one of his students the way that he was. It was blind dictatorship to which he could give no reasoning to. Other than we were stuck in a power play and he was in a position of authority. Being the naturally dominant person I am, which has usually led me to being in the positions of authority, I was unable to accept his leadership as to me it was arrogant and ignorant.
I understood that I would not win this battle. Especially since I had unintentionally damaged his ego in front of his peers. This is when I requested that he listened to my request before responding and not to cut me off while I was speaking. I told him that I would make an attempt for the next 24 hours. During our next meditation session it was all I could think about. I could not think of a time where I had been in a position like this, being held under such a tyrannical leader.
Then all of a sudden it hit me and I burst into tears. I knew what it reminded me of. And that was not something that I was quite willing to face just yet. I was reliving my childhood and he was my mother. I sat and meditated on it for a while. Thinking that now I have been able to mend the relationship with my mother. If there is anything I would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight. I basically came to the immediate decision that no, there isn’t. The only thing I should have done differently is leave earlier. Before further negativity manifested that lead us to have no relationship whatsoever for 14 years.
Deciding to Leave
It was in that meditation session that I decided that I would be leaving my first vipassana the following morning. I knew that this was something that I would be needing to request the teacher’s permission for. But I also knew this was not something that he would refuse.
When I met with him again I very kindly advised him of my decision to leave. And that I would like to offer a quick workshop to the staff members on allergies so that they could be better prepared for next time. He accepted that I would be leaving and said he would speak with the management team about my offer.
The following morning I gathered my belongings from the manager and advised him of my offering for the workshop on allergies, which he very tactfully ignored. So I was then set on my way with no clue where I was going.
After walking for a while and decided to go to Kochi for a week before heading to Delhi to meet up with a friend. I still really wanted to do finish this meditation course, but I was unable to complete it in that centre. After the numerous issues I had there, the place had a negative feel for me. And it was not one that I would have been able to effectively practice in and work on myself. Especially knowing that I was unable to have any form of effective communication with my teacher due to our mismatching personalities.
I understand that my decision to leave was based partly on preserving my health, but also a large part of it due to my ego. This is why I know that I need to complete my first vipassana course. To help to free myself from my demons and stop being so damn stubborn all the time. I remember my dad and a few other people telling me when I was younger that I had a problem with authority. That may be the case. But again it’s likely my ego telling me that it was his ignorance that infuriated me, not his authority.
I will certainly be completing another vipassana, well I should say my first vipassana. Because this one didn’t really count. And hopefully, it will be towards the end of this year. I definitely see the benefits that can be achieved through this method of meditation. And I am still very intent on healing myself. Squaring up with my demons and removing the negative impressions deep within my brain from their roots, so that they don’t hold me back in life any longer.
I learnt a lot about myself in the first few days that I was in there when I was able to meditate. And I do believe that I could receive many more benefits out of completing the course. On take two of my first vipassana, I will be more prepared. I have learnt from my mistakes. The next course I go to I will be sure to speak about the history of my spine and ensure that they are understanding of what an allergy is.
Although it seems that my experience was overall negative, there is certainly a positive element. And that is that I will continue to pursue vipassana and working on making myself a better person.
One note I would like to share for those considering doing their first vipassana, bring laxatives! If you are generally an active person and then go to no movement immediately, this will cause issues with your digestive system!