The time has come to write about what I experienced during the course at Dhamma Sobhana Ödeshög. Of course, this is very individual. My experiences might give you an indication of what you can expect if you were to attend one of those courses.
If we start from the beginning. We enrolled to the course on the Wednesday between 13:00 and 17:00. In that process you were appointed to a bed, but in return they took your mobile phone, your valuables, books, recording devices and video cameras. The point of that was that you shouldn’t have any objects that distracted from the task at hand. Afterwards they held a short information meeting about the all the rules. When we had made our beds we were given a vegetarian meal in our respective dining room. The men and women were separated from the very beginning. After the food we had our first meditation sitting. Our teacher S N Goenka sang for us (!) in Pali, the language that Buddha used on his time.
This is part 3 of my stay at the Vipassana course on Dhamma Sobhana. You can find part 1 here.
This may be a good time to state that Vipassana meditation is said to be the exact type of meditation that Buddha used when he reached enlightenment 2500 years ago. I don’t know if this is correct, or how many mediation techniques that states the same about their doctrine.
Then we had to vow to follow the five regulations (not to steal, kill, lie, have sex or drink). We did this in Pali, so I don’t think that our swearing was legally binding, but it was a nice ceremony. Then we reverently asked our teacher to teach us Ānāpāna meditation. When this was done we received instructions about that we weren’t allowed to speak for the coming nine days. Then the meditation started. I sat there confused an looked around. Most of the people in the room satt crosslegged, in the lotus position. Their backs were straight, their eyes were closed and they breathed calmly. They seemed to know exactly what was expected from them, so I tried to mimic their behaviour. About 15 minutes later, Goenka spoke to us again and told us it was time to go to bed.
The first day
In the morning, the first day of the actual course which I will reffer to as the first day, we were awakened at 04:00 by a gong. One of the servers had been given the task to walk around in the house with the gong to wake everyone. I had been a bit worried about this gong part. Usually I sleep quite heavily. For some reason, though, my body was set to wake up by the gong and I never had any problems to get up in the mornings.
After at short morning walk and some stretching I sat down in the meditation hall for two hours. I started out in the lotus position, but after a while my legs got numb so I switched positions and pulled my knees up to my chin. During all this time I fell in and out of sleep. Sometimes I was awake, sometimes I slept. Sometimes I was somewhere in-between. I had not yet received any information about what I was supposed to do, so I just sat there and tried to breathe deeply and not think about anything at all.
When about 20 minutes remained of the sitting, Goenka started singing again. It was a very strange song, where he talked more than sang, and his voice creaked a bit at the end of each sentence. I had a really hard time to focus during this singing. The words were in Pali, but the intonation and the sounds was very much like Swedish. I tried not to listen to the singing, but I couldn’t help hearing Swedish words in the song. Sometimes I heard really funny sentences in Swedish.
After breakfast we entered the hall again for our first group sitting. At this point we finally got some information about what we were supposed to do. How to sit, and what to think about. Apparently, we should start with Ānāpāna meditation. This means that you observe your breathing. In and out. In and out. While you do that you concentrate on the sensation of the air entering and leaving the nostril. The thoughts that appear in your head – Did I pay the electricity bill? Did I remember to call aunt Assie? I need to paint the fence back home. Have I received any mails? I want to Google Ānāpāna.
All those thoughts should be gently put aside when they appeared. That wasn’t easy at all. Sometimes I realised that I was planning in detatail about how I should arrange the frames in my livingroom to get them at an exact angle. I also realised that I had thought about that for the last five minutes. It’s very difficult not to think.
In this way, the first day passed in a haze. I meditated, slept, went to my room and meditated again, fell asleep, woke to the gong, had some food, meditated, rested, meditated in the hall, meditated in the room. When the day had come to an end I had a bad headache and I found myself staring at the closed gate through which we had entered the site the previous day. I stood there thinking about what in earth I was doing there. Was this really what I wanted?
I don’t really remember what it was that made me find this meditation center on the internet. In February I decided that I wanted to go. I checked with my wife and with my calendar when the time was right. We decided that the best time would be after our regular vacation when the kids were back in school. I set an alarm in my calendar that would remind me when the registration had opened on their web site. Then I forgot all about it.
One day in the end of May, the alarm went off and I entered the website and registered. I guess I was the first one who registered for that course. Then our vacation started, we celebrated midsummer, traveled to London, had barbecues, drank wine, visited friends and then it was time to go to the center. Had I really thought this through? Shouldn’t I be back home with my family? Those kind of thoughts passed through my head when I was looking at the closed gate and I felt really deprived of my liberty. I had a sudden realization what it must feel like to be in prison.
At 7 PM we were shown into the smaller meditation hall and were given the daily lecture. A recorded voice told us that we probably experiencing headaches, sore backs and that we are thinking about what we are doing here. He declared that the second and the sixth days were the hardest ones. Oh, really? Tomorrow would be worse? During the lecture they told us funny stories of the type “my life sucked, but meditation helped”. A bit pretentious, but it was nice to laugh a bit and when we left the hall I felt a bit better. I was really tired and after a short meditation in the grand hall I fell asleep in my hard bed.
The second day continued in the same way. When I think back on it all, everything mixes a bit. As I said, I was not allowed to bring paper and pen to the course. The exact days that everything happened in this post should not be taken as an absolute truth. What I do know is that on the second day after lunch, something happened.
I am a rather creative person, but during the last ten years a lot of things has happened back home. We bought at house, renovated it, got children, raised them, went to kindergarten meetings, school meetings, gave rides to activities, renovated a bit more, switched jobs, started a company. In short, an ordinary parent life where the focus has not been on me. There have been talking, sounds and noisiness around me all the time. I’m not saying that this is bad, but when life goes on the creativity is held back.
After the lunch on the second day I was sitting in my room, meditating, and suddenly all the thoughts in my head started running so fluently. It’s like when you have mowed the lawn and switch the lawnmower off and remove your earmuffs and suddenly hear all the sounds all around you. I was filled with some kind of euphoria and during the coming 3-4 days I planned the coming 5-10 years. The future of this blog, my books, my music and everything around it. That was a great feeling.
During the second and the third day we continued with the Ānāpāna meditation. As the time passed we were told to focus on smaller and smaller areas around the nose. At the last Ānāpāna meditation we were only to focus on the small area just below the nose. You know the area where Hitler had his mustache. That’s where the focus should be.
On the fourth day, we left the Ānāpāna meditation and started to practice Vipassana meditation. I’m not going into any details about that. There’s a lot of information about it on the Internet. In short, it’s about feeling all the sensations on your body and inspect them objectively. You focus on one area at the time. The shoulder, the upper arm, the elbow, the lower arm, the palm of your hand, the finger tips. All the time you are focused on any sensation at that point at that moment.
Does it itch? Does it tickle. Are you hot? Do you feel cold? Are you sweating? Is there some kind of pressure? Is it blowing? All these sensations should be noted, but you should not react to them. Do you have pain in your ass? Oh, yeah, but never mind. All sensations will pass, so it doesn’t matter. If you are in pain now, the pain will disappear. Just notice the pain and don’t do anything about it.
When there was a short break between the meditation classes I took some rest in the shadow under a tree. Suddenly I was struck by one of these old painful thoughts that tend to appear when the brain gets to wander around a bit. Ah, this place smells good. I think it’s the tree that smells. Last time I was lying under a tree like this was in a park in London. That’s right, I was there with whats-his-name, and we went to the pub and… Oh, no! That’s when I made a complete fool out of myself! Why did I say that to her, and why did I do that!?
You know what I’m talking about. The stomachs turns into a knot and you think about how you should have acted if you could do it all again. But not this time. Suddenly I realized that I could look back at those moments objectively. Oh, I was a bit intoxicated and didn’t know better. How should I have known that that guy with the nose was her boyfriend. After a while, that moment has been unarmed and you realize that it doesn’t matter anymore. If my mistakes are no bigger than that, it may not be such a big deal.
Over the days, a lot of those memories rose to the surface, and I managed to look at them objectively and disarm them. That felt really nice.
When we reached day seven (I had no problems with day six, which was said to be the hardest one) I suddenly realized that I had a hard time to concentrate. My mind was planning my future, and I had really forgot what I was doing there. I decided to leave the rest of my planning for another time and I started to concentrate on the meditation again.
Day seven we where instructed that the three group meditations between 8:00-9:00, 14:30-15:30 and 08:00-19:00 should be held in “absolute devotion”. This meant that you were not allowed to move during the meditation. If the back hurts, just ignore it. I you had pain in your legs, just ignore it. If your ass burnt, just ignore it. Sit still, breath and focus on your body for one hour. An eternal hour. You were sitting there, wondering if the hour hadn’t passed yet. Was the teacher awake, because apparently more than 60 minutes had passed. Maybe 70 or 80?
In the end, this also became something out of the ordinary. Sitting still throughout the group meditations was no longer a problem.
During the last three days some other feelings surfaced. Big things that has shaped who I am came up to the surface. I found myself defining what is important for me. My biggest fears and my biggest sources of joy. It was like I suddenly came to realize why I react the way I do to my surroundings. A lot of truths came to me during those days. Some of them was painful, but every time I was broken I found myself calmer afterwards.
The last two days we were ordered to meditate between the scheduled meditations as well. When we were eating we were told to really focus on eating. If we were taking a shower we should focus on the sensations of the water trickling over our bodies. When we had to go to the bathroom we were told to… No, they didn’t say that, but you get the point. Where ever you where, and what ever you were doing, you should do it meditating.
During all those nine days all of us, 42 grown up men, were walking around staring at the ground. We tried to keep ourselves as far apart from each other as possible. If someone had passed the center they must have had a laugh looking in at us. Especially those last few days when we were told to feel the sensations involved in moving around. We must have looked lik zombies walking around in that yard.
On the tenth day, at 09:00, the silence was finally broken. When we left the group meditation we were allowed to speak again. I went out to my room mate Linus and started talking to him. But the words didn’t quite remember how to get out of my mouth. I had a hard time forming the correct sounds and it took me a couple of minutes to get my speech back to normal. Everyone were eager to share their experiences and everyone seemed to want to take back the 9 lost days of not hearing their voices. After a while, the contrast of no sounds and the great buzz of voices got to me. I had to go for a walk in the forest by myself. The lone wolf.
The schedule was a bit different on the tenth day and when the gong hit 17:00 we were served dinner!
During the evening the three of us room mates went back to our room. Me, Linus from the Stockholm area and Mads, the danish guy. We sat there, comparing our experiences and talked through life in general. Even though we hadn’t spoken to each other in nine days we still felt like we knew each other. We had some kind of connection after spending so much time together.
After the morning group meditation between 04:30 and 06:30 the last day we helped each other to clean up the center. Then we were served breakfast and then we went home.