Vipassana: a workout for the mind

It’s two months later and I have finally decided to share my well promised (and promoted) Vipassana post. I don’t know if it was Vipassana, the fact that I was leaving Bangkok/Shanghai/Asia or the Muay Thai camp I followed afterwards, but I’ve been quite zen for the last two months. And somehow it took me this amount of time to kind of “land back again” and pick things up from where I left them (in a good way).

So Vipassana… here’s a short summary of the questions I’ve been asked the most

Duration: 10 days 

Where: Kanchanaburi, 6 hours from Bangkok at a place called Dhamma Kancana. But there are centres everywhere, check out the full list here 

The program: in essence 10 hours of meditation and 6 hours of sleep every day. The rest of the hours you spend on the 2 daily meals and me-time.

What was my experience? This is the question I’ve gotten the most the past couple of weeks, and maybe harder to answer. My first instinct is β€œIT’S EXERCISE FOR THE BRAIN!”. The same designated schedule every day gave focus and actually not talking to people under the pressure of “being social” made the entire experience super calm and focused.

I honestly felt it disciplined my mind and has made me more conscious of my actions and thoughts every day, putting things into perspective. It definitely made me calmer during the retreat, and also afterwards – I would like to believe I’m also calmer now, two months after the experience.

What did you do there? See above for the program. You could not talk, not use technology, not read, not write, not workout. In summary: you could only sleep, meditate, walk around and eat. Also, you were allowed 2 meals a day, beginners could have a light meal in the evening – all vegan, which for me was no problem at all. I loved the Thai vegan food. I was not hungry once.

What was so special? It’s different for everyone – what stood out for me was that on day 3 we were instructed to sit still in a cross-legged meditation position, without moving at all. This was hard: after 30 minutes you’ll start to feel uncomfortable, after 45 minutes you feel your legs can fall off your body any moment now and during the last 10 minutes I would quietly scream to myself in my head to “MAN THE F UP AND SIT STILL, THE PAIN WILL BE ALL WORTH IT!!!”. We were taught that all bodily feelings are “just” sensations, also pain and that we just had to sit and observe. We had these hourly no-moving sessions 3 times a day for the rest of our course (during the other hours of meditation, you were allowed to move) and you actually started to get used to the “pain”. Some sessions I really did experience it as “just bodily sensations” and my mind was super calm and could observe the feelings of losing my feet but being calm about it. During other sessions I would struggle so much I had to mentally shout & motivate myself through these “sensations” (PAIN PAIN PAIN PAIN! SWEAT, OMG OMG I’M NOT GOING TO BE ABLE TO WALK ANYMORE!!! THIS CAN’T BE HEALTHY! GET UP!!!! THIS CAN NOT BE GOOD!!! ALARM BELLS!!!!!!!!!!). It was really good though – I could notice my mind would go super serene, breathing was super calm and rhythmic and my mind wouldn’t just “travel” somewhere anymore. I GOT SO FOCUSED! After the first couple of sessions I’d feel like superwoman and so “awakened” – I was so impressed by what our bodies can actually handle. Pain is pain, discomfort doesn’t have to be reacted to every time we notice it. We can just still and observe. And we can get our minds so calm, so focused, so present at the moment – it feels like you can handle the entire world in a state of mind like that.

The number 1 learning they teach you is that

All sensations are impermanent; they will eventually pass.

I think that’s the “challenge” or trait of our generation: whenever there’s a tad of discomfort, we shuffle, we reposition, we try to make ourselves comfortable again. We forget that it’s not always needed and that not all sensations have to be reacted to. “Just because it’s uncomfortable, doesn’t mean you need to quit/stop/change”.

Was it intense? Yes, but in a good way – I was intensely aware of myself, of my thoughts and body. Some people had really eye-opening and intense experiences where they cried every day – and then on the last day, the crying stopped. Our reasoning was that you’ve been going thru the same thoughts 9 days long and on day 10 you’ve gotten enough of it. You have in a way repeatedly been going through the same experience over and over and finally accepted to move on.

It was intense because our mind goes ballistic the first couple of days, it thinks about everything except for the one and only task: to focus on the present and “observe bodily sensations”. The main aim was to focus on what was happening to your body while you were sitting still and meditating – you had to observe and let “cravings” and “aversions” go and solely focus on the little sensations or bigger feelings you could feel. You’d be surprised how many “cravings” and “aversions” pass by when you actually start paying attention to them.

What are your biggest takeaways?

  1. Craving and aversion are sensations that cause suffering.
  2. All sensations are impermanent.
  3. You do not need to respond to all sensations you experience, whether they’re comfortable or uncomfortable.
  4. Breathe and observe, just breathe and observe.

We had daily sessions where we’d be told what Vipassana stands for, the entire philosophy and some of the building blocks. Below is an excerpt of the main terms that were used. I had multiple occassions where I’d go back to the board (they would hang these definitions in the hall) and re-read the definition of

Equanimity: To completely accept whatever you are actually experiencing, moment to moment: without a struggle to avoid or get away from painful experiences (mental, emotional or physical); without craving, grasping or trying to hold on to pleasant experiences.

Vipassana - Goenka
The Terms that were repeatedly used during Vipassana

Another learning is the awareness and confirmation that our minds are SO busy, so chaotic and that we have this animal voice that keeps talking to us the E-N-T-I-R-E time. I always thought that we had an “animal mind” (the crazy chaotic one) and also a part of the brain that grew along with evolution and represented the wiser part, the part that makes up our consciousness and awareness. I realized that awareness does not have an opinion – all the opinions and point of views are produced by the animal mind, even the “sane decisions and thoughts”. Awareness just observes. I realised that sometimes we need to stand still, breathe, take it in and take longer than a minute to take it aaaaaallll in. Often wise when we respond rapidly and readily, it is our animal voice/behaviour.

Would you do it again?

Yes, without a doubt. I would like to incorporate this on a half-year basis. I saw there are some centres in Europe too.

Do you still meditate?

You are supposed to meditate for 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the evening. I meditate 1 hour a day in total (most of the time) – either in the morning or evening. You’d think it’s crazy much time – but realistically we’re spending a crazy amount of time on social media, Netflix and snoozing our alarms.

Would you recommend it to others?

Only if you are ready for it yourself. I went into the retreat knowing what the program would be like (ok, not exactly but to a certain extent) and was ready to give it my full. I think if you’re not ready for it, or you don’t really want it, you might not get the entire benefit of the 10-day course.

I heard about Vipassana 2,5 years ago from a colleague, back then it sparked my curiosity but I thought it was crazy to spend my precious 10 out of 25 vacation day on a silent retreat in the middle of nowhere, without talking, without restaurants and without excitement. Back then I would definitely not have been ready for it – perhaps not even needing it. For me, now was the best timing – in between jobs, in between moving countries and while being in the heart of meditation Walhalla, Thailand.

Did you do anything else before/after the retreat?

I took it as a little holiday and was gone for 4 weeks in total. I went for a week of Bangkok chill , 5 days of diving in Koh Tao and 2 weeks of Muay Thai camp in Koh Samui afterwards. The combination of Vipassana and Muay Thai was perfect for me: I trained, disciplined and integrated a routine of mental exercises for 10 days, and afterwards exchanged that for 14 days of full-on physical exercise. It was s-w-e-e-t and made me appreciate both types of health workouts even more.

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