My First Vipassana Retreat
Read in Chinese (Simplified) 版
I have just come back from 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat. Haha, I sound like a real practitioner don’t I? (2015 Edit: After this, I did another two retreats, whereby I fared considerably well comparatively. I have been wanting to do a write-up on them, but as with many other things in my life, it’s just another line to my never-ending to-do list. Now that my memory has faded much, I wonder if there is still any meaning or necessity to blog it.)
But this was a real retreat, and indeed, a retreat truly isn’t some easy feat. I joined one, and even came out in one piece! I can’t help feeling I’ve really done something awesome.
This retreat has nothing much to do with vegetarianism, but well, since health is the overall balance of the body, mind and spirit, it wouldn’t be too far away from the theme of my blog I thought. Also, I feel that the logic of Vipassana meditation is very similar to that of fasting. I’ve felt the benefits of fasting myself, so I find it easy to take to the Vipassana method. When we remove the stray thoughts in our mind, that is, stop the input of mental garbage, then the deeply embedded defilements that we have accumulated would surface. As long as we do not face them with our old habitual responses, just as how we do not suppress our physical symptoms with medication during a fast, then the negativities that have surfaced will be purified. Mr. Goenka used the analogy of a surgery, but basically I’m not a surgery person, so I prefer to understand it in terms of a fast. While fasting is the way to healing the body, Vipassana is the path of liberating the mind from all unhappiness.
I’m only a beginner in meditation, an utterly terrible student in fact, so I’m in no position to share anything actually, but I thought, there must also be people who are like me or people who are contemplating to try this method. Perhaps my sharing could be encouragement from a beginner to other beginners? Vipassana isn’t something just for Buddhists, it’s for anybody of any religion.
Because quite a few days have passed, and life in the retreat was basically the same everyday, so things have kind of become foggy in my mind, but the following is a record of how I felt, to the best of my memory.
We took a bus from Singapore to Kuantan, Malaysia, and by the time we reached the Vipassana Centre, it was already about half past 5 in the evening. We did the registration, handed our mobile phones over, and went into our separate rooms. As soon as I stepped in, I felt a slight tinge of disappointment, even though the feeling was only very mild. Oh, what a small room… Well, it really was a very wonderful place, the problem was that I had heard too many positive comments about the place, so in my mind I had carved an awfully beautiful picture of it, a little overdone. Hey, you’re here for a meditation retreat, not a holiday retreat dear.
There was a Caucasian girl whom I liked the moment I saw her. Her head was shaved bald, and she looked lovely. Many times I’ve contemplated shaving my head too, but I don’t have a nice round head, so I’d look pretty weird with no hair. Too much self consciousness, no way I can manage to chop off my hair I suppose… But what attracted me wasn’t just her bald head. She emitted such an aura of calm serenity and gentle warmth, I wondered when I would reach her state of tranquility.
I didn’t sleep very well that night. I was almost asleep, when I felt sudden huge waves of panic. Within me I seemed to feel a strong urge to push away any purification that might come. Leave it till later, leave it till later… I don’t know if I was already dreaming then.
Our daily schedule was as follows:
4 am morning call
4:30am~6:30am meditation in the dharma hall or in our own rooms
6:30am~8am breakfast and rest
8am~9am meditation in the hall
9am~11am meditation in the hall or in our rooms
11am~1pm lunch and rest
1pm~2:30pm meditation in the hall or in our rooms
2:30pm~3:30pm meditation in the hall
3:30pm~5pm meditation in the hall or in our rooms
5pm~6pmtea break (fruit and/or drink) and rest
6pm~7pm meditation in the hall
7pm~8:30pm discourse by Mr. Goenka (recording) in the hall
8:30pm~9pm meditation in the hall
9pm~Q & A with the supervising teachers, or SLEEP!! if you have no questions
The morning bell struck at 4am. By 4:30, I was in the meditation hall. Very soon after I closed my eyes to meditate, I felt a spinning sensation in my head that persisted for about 3 minutes. Oh, here comes the purification, I’ve been waiting for you!… Oops, it was just my lack of sleep I guess, LOL.
Despite having too little sleep, I felt pretty alert during the 1st hour. But by the 2nd hour, I was starting to doze off. As we began the 9am session, the supervising teachers said that new students were allowed to go back to our rooms to continue the meditation practice. I was so happy. I was looking forward to a chance to get back to sleep.
We had just taken the 5 precepts (or 8 precepts for old students) the day before and Mr. Goenka had repeatedly reminded us not to break the precepts or the rules of the retreat. I wondered if sleeping was considered flouting of the rules, but anyway, my eyelids couldn’t be bothered anymore. And so as soon as I reached my room, I fell into a deep slumber. Just slightly before 11am, I woke up with a start, oh, it’s lunch time soon! Haha, a time worth celebrating…
For the days that followed, apart from bed time, meal times were the only times I looked forward to. I lived like an animal, didn’t I? I had considered observing the 8 precepts actually, which entailed not having meals after noon time. (New students were allowed fruit and drinks, but old students could only have simple drinks like lemon juice.) But as I entered the canteen at 5pm and saw the bananas, I thought to myself, hey, this would be the one and only time you can have dinner during a Vipassana retreat, why be silly and deprive yourself of this one and only time dinner treats?
My decision proved correct, or so I think. Because I was in such dire mental states, observing the 8 precepts didn’t seem quite possible. Everyday, I would be one of the few to reach the canteen just seconds before the bell struck for meals, and waited there for the door to open. I probably ate the most, and most of the times was one of the last few to leave. As it is I have a big appetite, but during the retreat, I felt like I was devouring like a beast. Some of the retreatants seemed to be really putting their practice into every action, the slow and mindful way they ate made me so ashamed of myself. Aren’t you a slow eater by nature? Yeah, I’ve always been slow, but it’s never been because of my being mindful of every mouthful, but because I’m naturally slow at everything, and also because I’ve too many stray thoughts, my mind is everywhere when I eat, that’s why I’ve always been slow. But anyway, I ate lots, and was very fast. Whenever meal time was approaching, I would turn happy and feel a sense of relief. But as soon as I finished the last bite, I would fall back into a state of uneasiness. How was I to spend the rest of the time?
I was bored to death.
No, boredom can’t describe the emotions I felt. The days in the retreat were more like a roller coaster ride, my emotions came and went in waves. Just like how BZ has always described how this retreat might be turn out to be for some people. My mood swings were pretty severe I think, and I felt terrible. But actually by now I can’t really recall how I had felt exactly. How forgetful the human mind is, once we’ve gotten ourselves out of the rut and back to our comfortable lives, the suffering that had seemed so real are forgotten!
I was totally vexed, absolutely frustrated. What was there to be upset about? Every meal was taken care of, I had a nice room to sleep in, and they were all for free! All I had to do was watch my breath. Where else could I find such a heaven?
The problem was in watching the breath itself. Once my eyes were closed, thoughts fluttered about, they rushed in endlessly. Scenes of real happenings, stories that I made up myself, they all came non-stop, again and again and again.
As it is, I was feeling pretty much overwhelmed by all the stray thoughts that came in like strong huge waves. And yet I had to give myself more trouble by picking faults with the Chinese interpreter – on his pronunciation and on the choice of words used. Even Mr. Goenka’s voice was irritating. I’m already finding it so tough to concentrate on my meditation, would you please keep your instructions short and sweet? Why is it going on and on and on? And the worst part – the chanting! That Indian style chanting! I’d never liked Indian music nor Indian dance, now I had to listen to it repeatedly everyday! Goodness! I wondered how come nobody had ever mentioned that there was such chanting, I was going crazy listening to it all day long. I have not the slightest intention to speak ill of Indian culture, but I just find it disturbing to listen to such music, I don’t understand this either. Did I have some bad karmic links with India? Perhaps it’s something similar to how some people feel a natural aversion to Chinese characters? (Agree Winnie?)
Watch your breath, watch your breath…
Why can’t you follow such a simple instruction!?
My legs are so numb. They hurt so much! Oh I just can’t stand it.
And so during the sessions, I would keep changing my posture. While I did so, naturally I would open my eyes, and then I would grab the chance to look all around me. Sometimes I would glance at the clock behind me. Sometimes I would watch how the others were doing. And sometimes, I would simply brazenly entertain my wild thoughts with my eyes open. Once or twice, I caught sight of the female teacher looking at me with wide round eyes.
During the 3pm session, new students were specifically told to stay in the hall. We went up three by three to report to the teachers how we were doing.
Gosh, what a shock. Although it was a gentle voice, still I was a little taken aback. She was calling me by my name! Apart from asking me how I was doing with observing my breath, she specifically told me not to open my eyes. Oops… the naughty student has been black listed… But my legs feel numb, and I need to change my posture, can’t I open my eyes then? No. But I feel so frustrated. Don’t follow your thoughts, just observe them coming and going. Sigh. These I know, BZ has been reminding us repeatedly, I know, I know. But… how can it be so easy!
Again, the bell struck at four. I thought I would be lazy, continue sleeping and skip the session. The 4:30 session could be done in the room anyway. But just then, I heard the chirping of a lizard from above, terribly loud and clear, as if it was yelling at me to wake up. Oh it can’t be telling me to get up, I’m continuing to sleep… But then now came the buzzing of a mosquito by my ear. I couldn’t believe it, ok, perhaps I really should take it that they are my spiritual guides making sure I’m not slacking.
Basically the second day was pretty much like the first. I was still as vexed and frustrated. And I had become depressed too.
Every time when a sitting ended, many of the retreatants would put their palms together and bow down reverently. I said to myself, you have to feel grateful, you have to stop being so arrogant! But I simply couldn’t sense any feeling of gratitude, all I could feel was frustration and annoyance.
Dear Fangqi, just 10 minutes of meditation 2 times a day was already too much for you, and you thought a 10 day retreat would create magic? Aren’t you being too naïve, aren’t you asking for trouble? If you want to have better days ahead, you’d better buck up. You’re stuck here anyway, what can you do except meditate? What are you here for? To spend the days in frustration? You’d better enjoy yourself and stop wasting such precious time! You’ve got to fall in love with meditation! But no matter what I said to myself, I just couldn’t turn my emotions around.
During the retreat, we were supposed to observe Noble Silence. That meant not talking with fellow meditators, not signaling with gestures, nor having any eye contact. I’ve always been a quiet person, so this wasn’t something I was worried about. But today, I realized this was something tricky. During the 5pm break, as I was pouring myself some barley drink, I made a mess of it and the water spilled all over. I thought, oh you clumsy girl, and kind of laughed in silence. I thought of filling up the mug of the retreatant behind me, it’s no trouble at all, I’ve to lift up the kettle anyway. However, she wore a stern look and didn’t allow me to do it for her. Oh, the noble silence! Sigh. And when occasionally I looked up and found my eyes interlocking with someone else’s, naturally I wanted to smile. But we had to pretend that our eyes hadn’t met. Oh, so this habitual response has to be eradicated too?!
For some reason unknown to me, I felt so happy today. Even the meditation practice went well. And then during breakfast, I felt so light hearted. Aha, things are looking good!
But alas… the unexpected always happens when you’re off your guard. Such is the nature of life, impermanence!
The afternoon sittings were always very tough for me. Because the weather was simply too hot. I would be wet and sticky from perspiration, and this made me very uncomfortable. Today, again, I pulled through the 1pm session with much discomfort. Because on the second day, as soon as the male teacher entered the hall at 2:30pm, all the fans were switched on, so today, I was looking forward to his coming in to release us from our suffering.
At 2:30pm, the teacher came in. But things didn’t go as I had wished. Not only did my savior not switch on the rest of the fans, he turned down the others that were on! I couldn’t believe my eyes and stared in amazement. My savior had become my enemy! It wasn’t just me who was suffering from the heat, everybody was soaked in sweat, some were wiping their foreheads with handkerchiefs, some were fanning themselves with their shirts. Excuse me sir, what did you just do? Well, I know that Vipassana requires us not to have fans blowing on us, I know it would interfere with our observing our breath, and I know learning to accept uncomfortable sensations is what we’re here for, but… oh, there’re so many buts! We’re new students, we haven’t fathomed what equanimity is, as it is I’m so vexed I can’t keep my mind focused on my meditation, how can I do it if it’s so hot? Are you testing my limits?
And so I closed my eyes bringing with me all the full blown frustration. But slowly, I could see that frustration had turned into anger. You mustn’t generate anger towards the teacher, you’re here to learn to eradicate your habitual responses, whatever will be will be, just accept it, and you’ll be free… Don’t cling on to pleasant sensations, don’t push away unpleasant ones…
No matter what I told myself, I was still in agony, I was still angry! This wasn’t a time we could leave the hall, but I was going to flout the rule. Rather than staying here and brewing up all the negative thoughts and generating more negative karma, I’d better go back to my room and cool down. And so slightly after 3pm, I stood up and left.
Back in my room, I tossed about in bed. For the first time, I regretted coming to the retreat. BZ said that everybody had to come at least once in their life for the Vipassana retreat. And everybody who had come said it was wonderful. Winnie even emphasized that once was not enough, and she wanted to stay on forever in the retreat! Oh, and Adeline said that the 10 days in the retreat were the most meaningful days in her life! Goodness, how could anyone enjoy such a life?!
Arghhhhhhhhhhh! I shall be the first to give negative feedback. This shall be the first and last time I would come. I’d never come back again, NEVER! I won’t be able to be a good example to others, I would be the one and only failure. I have not the good karma to learn this marvelous technique, I simply have too much negative karma blocking the way! And I won’t share with anybody my experience, because I have only negative things to say. People who listen to my stories would be so scared of this retreat, and they wouldn’t come for it. Obstructing others to practise, what horrible karma that would be! Oh, I think I’d better try to find my mobile and call BZ. But what can I tell him? What’s there to say? Should I complain? Even if I complained, so what? Still I’ll have to stay till the end of the retreat.
In the midst of all this, I wondered if someone would come and get me. I thought I heard a knock, but I couldn’t care less.
I could hear the thunder roaring. It was going to rain, I couldn’t believe it. And then, this time, the knock on my door was loud and clear. I opened the window slightly, sure enough, it was the course manager outside. She gestured me to go back.
No, it’s too hot, I’m not going back! This thought came and went. You’re not a child anymore, why are you still giving others trouble?
So I went back with her.
As soon as I sat down, tears started rolling. What a wilful child! Don’t ask me why I cried. I don’t’ know, I just have too much tears.
But gradually, my mood changed for the better. Why create unnecessary trouble for others? You’re already an adult, why can’t you behave? You gotta apologize to the course manager, you gotta repent!
By 5pm, I was happily eating my fruit. Before entering the hall at 6pm, I found the course manager and said sorry. She shook her head with a kind gentle smile. What a wonderful lady, I thought.
I noticed that by 9pm, I would always be fatigued. And I was sore all over. We were sitting down the whole day, almost without any labour work, despite so, I seemed to be more tired than after a day of housework!
I thought of lazing this morning too. Nevertheless, I dragged myself out of bed, and started doing my homework in the room. But soon, I heard a bell ringing softly outside. Then footsteps came right up to my door, and the bell rung again. I saw the silhouette of a woman on the window pane. In the absolute quietness and total darkness of early morning, having the shadow of a woman on your window can be quite a scare. I was at a loss as to how to response, and clumsily said, “yes?” After which the shadow left. Phew, luckily I wasn’t lazing in bed!
During the 8am session, I managed to sit for one full hour! Wow, I was just too happy. At least now I have accomplished something. Just 10 minutes I would usually be numb, but now, I could do 1 hour! Isn’t that quite something? I would still be numb and I still felt a lot of pain, but now I could bear it all! And that made me quite happy.
In the afternoon, we were taught the Vipassana technique. From now onwards, we wouldn’t be just watching our breath, we would have to observe the sensation of every part of our body. And now we had a new rule. That is, for the three 1-hr sessions that we couldn’t leave the hall, we mustn’t move our legs and hands, nor open our eyes. This was called the “sittings of strong determination”. Aha, I could do it, no problem for me now! I was a bit beside myself with elation I suppose.
But my emotions were still going up and down, and I was still feeling the same frustration and depression.
I took frequent strolls during the retreat. After meals when I simply didn’t know what to do, and during meditation sessions when I sneaked out early. Even under the hot blazing afternoon sun, I would take my stroll, with an umbrella.
What was there to do in the small room? Besides my bed, there was practically nothing. I would open my bag and see that there were only some clothes inside, then zip it up again. And then repeat the same process over and over again. We should continue with our mediation practice of course, but well, you could ask me to do anything, except meditation. Rather than staying in the room, I thought going out to get some fresh air was a wiser choice.
Sigh. I was never meant for meditation. While I was strolling, I would look up at the clouds and marvel at how beautiful nature is. I thought to myself, I’m meant to find my true self in Nature, not by looking within myself. Only by basking myself in nature would I be spared the destiny of withering. I don’t remember which day it was, but once, while walking, I felt so sorry for myself, and so overcome with sadness, I thought I had to go back to my room to cry out loud. But I couldn’t, because my neighbour would hear it. So I simply let my tears roll down as I walked on. Everybody would pretend not to see me anyway, just like how I would pretend not to see them.
I’ve never had any aptitude for meditation. LY has always been able to sit for an hour without feeling any numbness, while Winnie could close her eyes and shut out all stray thoughts immediately. But I, oh, I’m the exact opposite! When I first learnt meditation a few years ago, I would doze off the minute I closed my eyes. And that left me pretty much averse to meditation. See, I simply don’t have the good karma to practise meditation. Even a 10 day special course can’t do anything to me, I was half decided that when I got back to Singapore, I would stop attending BZ’s course too. I was beyond hope.
Has anybody said that the spiritual path is a smooth sailing one? It’s only a little setback, and I’m already beaten. With such an attitude there’s no way I can continue my Dharma practice. Every one of the dharma friends around me is ever so full of fervor with all kinds of pujas, talks, animal liberations, volunteer work and what have you. But I’m always complaining that we have way too many activities. I’m just not meant to become a practitioner. But am I meant to be something else then? The corporate ladder is too stacked up with politics, while a mother’s job is too huge a responsibility. City life is too much hustle, while life up in the mountains is too tough. I’m just too pampered to accomplish anything! I’ve never experienced any hardship, yeah, that must be why, life has been too comfortable since young, and now I’ve ended up with flabby will. One has to learn to endure some hardship at a young age. It’s too late for me to turn back now.
I started to reminisce about my childhood days. While I sat on the meditation cushion, my whole mind was full of my childhood memories, and I felt so pleased and smiled to myself. The house we lived in, the adults around us, the good old times I had with my siblings, they all came back to me. What a beautiful childhood I’ve had! As the meditation session ended, my depressive mood was lifted off, and I became happy again. Oh, I’m hopeless aren’t I?
Well, occasionally I did see rays of hope. Sometimes I did manage to turn my thoughts around. I should be thankful that it didn’t go all so smoothly for me at the beginning. Just as how my poor constitution has led me to learn how to change my diet for better health, so will the early setbacks in meditation turn into precious assets for me in future to help others.
Because we were going to have 3 periods of absolute still sitting, the lady teacher specially gave us verbal instructions in preparation for this. She asked the lady beside me if she could remain in the same posture for one full hour. But to me, the question was, “Can you remain with your eyes shut for one hour?” Oh, looks like I really have ended up black listed yeah? “Yes!” I answered readily. Dear teacher, I’ve been quite a good girl really, I’ve refrained from opening my eyes many times…
I noticed that even though I was still often filled with frustration during day time, by the evening discourse, I could already sense a feeling of gratitude. And by the end of the discourse, I could pray and bow with respect too. And I was often tickled by Mr. Goenka’s humour. Tonight, he told us that the one hour sitting of determination was indeed tough, and described vividly how much agony we endured throughout the hour. And when his chanting came on at the end of a session, we would probably feel, as he said, ‘Oh, what enchanting chanting!’ Gosh, this seemed to be directed at me! Despite my aversion to the chanting at other times, I always greeted the closing chanting with a warm welcome. It truly was enchanting, what a Buddha-send!
Today, I started counting down as I sat on my bed. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten! As I reached ten, very naturally I broke into a happy grin. After counting in Mandarin, I replayed everything again in every language I knew. Absolutely silly and a waste of time huh. But that was how bad things were for me.
If I was merely being silly, I guess it wasn’t that bad. When I was feeling really down, there were quite a few moments when I felt I was really on the verge of breaking down and going berserk. I was just a very thin line away from losing my mind. Once, during a sitting, I was, as usual, not being focused, and feeling very irritated. And then I saw an image of myself, a deranged woman. I looked hideous. People in the hall gathered around to hold me down, and LY came over from the male section…… What an overactive imagination…
Another time, my mind wandered to the Japanese lady in front of me. Fancy meeting a Japanese in a retreat in Malaysia, and she’s even sitting right in front of me, what interesting destiny! She was an exemplary student, she hardly moved. I was the perfect lousy student, fidgeting every now and then on my cushion, worst of all, getting in late and sneaking out early! Oops… I’m so sorry for disturbing her, I got to apologize to her. We weren’t supposed to talk, but very easily I found myself talking to her, in my mind… The images were pretty vivid, we were seated in the canteen, and the conversation started flowing very naturally… Wow, I wonder if anybody’s a better fantasy maker than me?
One retreatant was there for the 6th time, I was totally awed. Later, I told her about my difficulty in quieting down my mind, and she suggested keeping my life simple. To which I thought, probably very few people live such a simple life as I do. I enjoy neither socializing nor partying, I’m not a shopper nor a movie go-er.My life revolves around my family, housework, classes, pujas and animal liberation. Sometimes I feel exhausted with all these activities, but basically, that’s almost all there is to my life. It probably is quite apparent that in my case, the problem isn’t outside of me, but inside.
I label myself as quiet by nature, but I’m far from being a quiet person. Within me, the voice is louder than you can imagine.Perhaps the reason I don’t usually need a talking partner is that I already have a perfect one right within myself. The Noble Silence restriction removed the outer enemies that never really were a big problem for me, but my greatest internal enemy just wouldn’t be subdued.
Today, I created a storm again. I got angry with the teacher. Not again! This time, it was towards the female teacher. And for the same old reason!
She requested the course manager to turn down the fan. I closed my eyes as I should in meditation posture, but I wasn’t meditating at all. I was burning with anger. I repeatedly told myself willfully, that I wasn’t going to do any observation of the sensations of my body. I wouldn’t, and that’s it. Goodness, just who was I trying to get even with? But I’d promised the teacher that my eyes would remain shut for the full one hour, so I remained still. But then again, I thought, oh, I promised not to open my eyes, I hadn’t promised that I wouldn’t move. So how about finding my way back with my eyes shut? This thought seemed quite funny and entertaining, hahaha. Seems even funnier now, wasn’t I angry? Yet I could still come up with such ridiculous ideas.
Once this hour was over, I went straight back to my room. I tossed and turned about in bed, and soon started dozing off. But within a few minutes, I woke up with a start, and jumped up from bed.
The first thought that came in was, what happened?
I was totally in shock. I couldn’t believe myself. Did I get angry? Over such a small matter? Did it really happen? The teachers are manifestations of Guanyin, every sentient being is Guanyin, why have I forgotten this totally? In a split second I was overwhelmed with deep remorse. I was so ashamed of myself, and hastily started chanting the Vajrasattva 100 syllable mantra.
But what really left me dumbfounded was the absolute contrast in my emotions when I was fuming with anger and when I was filled with regret. I felt like I was standing on opposite banks of a river, and the views were so absolutely, totally different. The moment I realized that I had been angry, I was akin to someone who had just woken up from a drunken stupor. Well, in reality I’ve never been drunk before so I don’t really know, but that’s what they always show in dramas. Really, people who are angry are mad people. This was something I’d always thought I knew, but today, I could feel it so acutely. I had just been a mad woman! How terrifying.
As I woke up from my insanity, it started raining again outside. Apart from the 10th day when the Noble Silence rule was removed, all the 9 days were hot sultry days. But it had to be the 2 days when I lost my mind that it rained heavily. Right after I regained my senses. Hmm, I wonder if some higher spirits were making fun of me?
Because I couldn’t take the heat, because I couldn’t accept it that I was wet and sticky with perspiration, so I got upset. I wonder if this is one of the obstacles females typically face? At least for me, it is one huge barrier.
For the following days, I kept thinking of finding the perfect chance to apologize to the teachers. Although I hadn’t flared up, still I had been disrespectful. I’d better be repentant! I kept pondering about when was a good time to look for them, and in my mind, I started making my own movie, and saw myself kowtowing to them! But well, reality is seldom so dramatic, eventually I didn’t look them up. But somehow I was sure that the teachers knew what was going on within my mind. They were just sparing me the embarrassment, and feigned ignorance. I had been a teacher myself, what students do is almost always apparent to the teacher. I recall that I used to hide kungfu novels under my desk to read during class. Now that is funny, did I think that the teacher didn’t know?
There didn’t seem to be anything special on this day. Perhaps my memory has failed me. But in any case, I was still persistently thinking, it was already the 6th day, everyone of our dharma mates had already settled comfortably into the meditation mode by this day, why was I the only one still yearning to be home? I really didn’t want to give up half way. To be here was my good karma, and I must treasure it. Yet I couldn’t quell the desire to be home instantly. How I wished the following day was the 10th day!
I had the impulse to go look for the teachers for some serious negotiation. Why can’t I leave? What’s the big deal about all this? All the talk about the surgery having begun on the 1st day, nothing of the sort, I don’t see anything happening to me. I am feeling fidgety and irritable because I haven’t been working hard, because I haven’t done well, it’s got nothing to do with any surgery, I’m not having any purification of any sort… But well, again, all this was only what I entertained myself with in my mind.
Today was exceptionally good. By some miracle, I seemed to do pretty well, and I felt good, very satisfied with myself. The teachers were always reminding us that whatever sensations we felt, we were not to become attached to the pleasant ones and to wish for them to continue, neither were we to become averse to the unpleasant ones and to wish for them to vanish quickly. Today, I thought I could understand why the teachers kept telling us not to cling on to the nice sensations and to crave for them. Because if you do well, apparently the feeling would really be quite good, and it would indeed be difficult not to want more of it.
As I walked out from the meditation hall after the wonderful session, very naturally I walked very slowly. Unlike how I usually would be, looking up and around for some consolation from all around me, that moment, I watched quietly at my two feet as they left the ground and stepped on it again. I walked so very slowly. And I seemed to be content at just that. I wore a smile on my face, and I felt extremely calm and peaceful. After a distance, I gently raised my head, and looked at the clouds far away, as I often did. And I smiled again in contentment. I thought to myself, have I every felt such peace before?
I think it probably was this same day when I began to be able to control my compulsive eating. For the past few days, I had been scrambling for almost anything I could find in the canteen. But today, I gave the fried noodles, a dish that I hardly eat usually, a miss. Looks like there’s marked improvement, there’s hope for me after all!
The heavenly peace I had felt yesterday was short-lived. Today, I fell into the abyss again. Seems like this really is training for me to understand impermanence! I was utterly depressed. Again, I fell into the mode of assuring myself that this would be the first and last retreat for me. If I were to come back, I would have to sit in the front rows as old students should, oh, I shan’t do that! When I get back to Singapore, I should probably discontinue my lessons with BZ as well…
But as soon as I recalled that I was going back in 2 days’ time, I found some energy to move on.
Tomorrow would be the last day, hooray! I was getting happier and happier.
During the 8am session, very soon after having seated myself in the meditation hall, I started singing to myself in my mind. Every single day during this retreat, there had been different songs playing within me. I was even hearing my primary school song, the Speak Mandarin Campaign song, and songs that I’d never liked. They played on and on and on. But they had remained in the background, and hadn’t posed too much of a danger. Today, however, I took the centre stage. Aha, I shall sing my heart out today! I wasn’t alone. I sang with Ling, oh, it’s been ages since we sang together. We used to be the perfect singing partners, those were the happy days! And so, for one hour, I sang on and on and on, to the extent that I thought I could feel my blood circulating. When Mr. Goenka’s chanting came on, I was pretty surprised that time had passed so quickly. And the pleasant surprise was that, I could stand up almost immediately after the session! Usually, it would take me a couple of minutes because of the numbness and pain
Wow, what a great time I had! Hahaha, seems like it is beyond doubt that I am beyond hope!?
In between one of the night sessions, I finally plucked up enough courage to pose two questions to the teacher. Haven’t I always been the student with the most questions? Why have I become mum?
To speak the truth, it’s because I’d not been good at all. I’d not worked hard enough, what was there to ask about? I did have some questions in mind, but I’d been so lazy, I hadn’t tried hard enough, was I in any position to ask anything?
And in fact, occasionally, I would become the willful child again, and thought, humph, I’m not going to ask you, I’ll leave my queries to my teacher in Singapore!
What insolence! Perhaps the teachers were like prison officers, while I was the prisoner. No, I should say, the teachers were school teachers, while I was the extremely hard-to-tame wayward child, who knew very well she had to study hard, but who was so unwilling to give herself in.
After clearing my doubts with the teacher, I was greatly encouraged, and I think I did quite well for the night. I won’t dwell on the sensations during meditation, in any case, the teachers have always stressed that sensations are only tools for us to practise equanimity. It doesn’t matter if sensations are agreeable or not, what matters is not clinging on to the pleasant ones and not disliking the unpleasant ones. This is the main point of the practice. But dear teachers, if it weren’t for the pleasant sensations, how would a lazy student like me find the motivation to practise? I would be bored observing the sensations day and night! But well, something interesting occurred tonight. In a somewhat dazed moment, I saw an image. It wasn’t human, nor did it look like a ghost. It looked somewhat like a clown, a very scary one. And it was glaring at me with an eerie smile. In an instant, it was gone. I don’t know if I was dreaming.
As I left the hall and headed for my room, I was in very good spirits. I was going home soon! If I were still a young girl, if there wasn’t anybody around me, I would be hopping and dancing my way back to the room. What a sad thing it is to grow up. I felt so happy like a little child, yet I could not express myself as my heart desired.
That night, I was in a total deep slumber, and I felt a sense of heaviness on me that was overpowering. I felt so extreeeeeeeeeeemely fatigued. There was also a sense of fear and uneasiness. And I had a nightmare. The dream itself wasn’t scary, there wasn’t any ghost or anything like that, but I was in total fear. As I weaved in and out of the dream, I repeatedly told myself not to have the habitual response of becoming fearful. But the fear lingered on even after I woke up in the morning. It is said that bad dreams at such times are a form of purification. I wonder if mine was a form of purification?
After 9 plus in the morning, there was no longer any Noble Silence. As Mr. Goenka put it, we would be replacing it with Noble Chatter.
I wailed in LY’s arms, “I’m never coming again, never, never!”
Oops, that was only the movie I made in my mind during the past 9 days when I was a little out of sorts. Reality is rarely so dramatic! Today, I discovered that LY wasn’t faring much better than me, he had been wanting to go home too! If I had known that, wouldn’t it be great if we eloped, LOL! But we were lucky that we didn’t know how each other fared, for if we really ran off, we would definitely regret it. Even though I felt terrible, even though I yearned to go home, I didn’t want to leave just like that.
After speaking to some people, I realized that I wasn’t so bad after all! I spoke with the Caucasian girl too, and found out that she had felt terrible too during the first retreat, and she also couldn’t stand Mr. Goenka’s voice! And on her second retreat, she even ran away! At least I hadn’t come to the point of packing up my belongings, so I wasn’t as bad as I imagined, hahaha. And she said something very encouraging. Of the struggles we spoke of, some she had experienced before, and some she hadn’t. But amazingly, she had overcome them all.
But still, she had one less obstacle than me, that is, attachment to luxuries in life. I told her that I couldn’t go to other centres, because they don’t provide attached toilets. She seemed perplexed, and asked me, why? All of a sudden I didn’t know how to answer. Why? Hmm, what a question. After some thinking, I told her that I was too pampered. She probably is more of a dog person who likes adventures, some dirt isn’t going to make her unhappy. I, on the other hand, am more like a cat. I find solace in familiar environments, and fear a life that is filled with irregularities and unfamiliar things. To make things worse, I’m a little fastidious about cleanliness. What a HUGE obstacle I have!
Everybody dutifully adhered to the new rule of Noble Chatter. The chattering went non-stop. As I had expected, I couldn’t sleep well tonight. The conversations we had in the day kept coming back.
Despite the seemingly endless complaints, I actually find the course very perfectly structured. Our meditation schedule and scanty dinner might seem quite daunting at first glance, but these really are very wise rules. Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. Little or no dinner is also the way to true health. These are habits which I have been wanting to establish, but haven’t been successful because I haven’t the strong will and perseverance. So I readily welcome this form of restraint. Furthermore, it’s really not that tough because your system adapts to the new routine pretty quickly, one that is what nature intended for us. In fact, I noticed that after a few days, even though occasionally I felt drowsy during meditation, it persisted only for a very short while, very soon the sleepiness would be gone. It wasn’t like how I used to be – sleepy from beginning till end, so sleepy that meditation sessions often made me sulky.
As for the rule of Noble Silence, this, again, is a regulation implemented with great foresight. If we could talk and communicate with others, then this wouldn’t be a meditation retreat, it would be a holiday retreat. Given how our mind is like a wild monkey, allowing communication would never help calm us down. There’s another greater reason for this though. If we chatter, conversations would inevitably turn to how each of us was doing, and our minds would start comparing. Those who seem to be doing badly might despair and give up on themselves, while those who do well might feel smug and become complacent. Both would be dangerous pitfalls for the practitioner.
After getting back to Singapore and talking to some people about the retreat, I realized that to some, the perceived difficulty of the retreat seems to be due to having to sit still all day long.
“Was it painful?”
Oh, of course it was painful! However, the physical pain was nothing comparable to the mental affliction I endured. The imprint of suffering that I gave myself during the retreat wasn’t much due to the discomfort from sitting for hours on end. Physical discomfort was beyond doubt, but what truly caused me distress and torment was the frustration within my mind.
When I told some old students that I didn’t know if I would have the courage to come again, they all said with firm belief that I would. Likewise, when I told BZ how wretched I had been as soon as I got back to Singapore, he also said, once everything has settled down in your mind, you’ll be able to see things clearer and you’ll feel differently.
How true…… The veterans know best after all!
I told BZ that apparently I hadn’t gone through any cleansing, because I hadn’t worked hard at all, for almost the whole retreat, I had been enduring my self afflicted frustrations. I never ceased to pour junk into my mind, how in the world could I have done any spiritual fasting? But BZ assured me that I did, though I didn’t manage to stop my habit of creating mental garbage, I stopped all other physical habits. All of a sudden I thought everything made sense. Exactly! I’ve always had bags and heaps of endless frustration. But in my daily life, they’ve never been so obvious, because every moment I’m busy with something, my daily chores have helped conceal the agitation in my mind. But in the 10 days, the activities that I’ve always relied upon to forget all the irritation I feel deep within were banned. And so naturally they come up to the surface, and I was forced to look at them in the face.
I figure that the reason why I was in such agony was probably because I’ve always had the habit of suppressing whatever emotions I have, be it joy, excitement, sorrow, pain, anger, admiration, irritation, jealousy, anticipation, anxiety… And perhaps the reason why I tend to feel uneasy when I’m with Westerners, sometimes even nervous, is that they tend to be exactly the opposite, always allowing their inner thoughts to flow out freely.
What is more, I am to some degree a perfectionist. And at the same time, one who is prone to abandoning herself. When I can’t see that I can do something, I simply don’t feel like giving it a try. Either I do it well, or I don’t do it at all. Because it had been tough right from the beginning, because I felt that I had done a horribly lousy job, therefore I kind of shut meditation out. Am I making sense?
To make things worse, I tend to be overly serious. A lazy student being too serious? Yeah, I’m always taking things too seriously, always allowing myself to be fully immersed in emotion. Aren’t you incapable of living in the present moment? Sounds pretty contradictory. To be more precise, I guess I’m too weak-willed. More often than not, my emotions take charge of me. When I’m listening to music, despite knowing fully well that that particular music would throw me into deep sorrow, I plunge in. When I’m watching a movie, despite being completely aware that I would end up heart-broken like the characters in the movie, I dive right into it too. Seems like I quite enjoy self-torture, don’t I?
Haha, I can see that I manifest the same old habit during meditation. Many times, even though my awareness tells me that my mind has wandered off and is no longer watching my breathing, I kind of plead with it and start negotiating.
“Wait a moment, let me finish off this conversation…”
“Oh, this story hasn’t ended yet…”
“Hey, I’m enjoying myself too much to stop this song…”
Once, I was in a taxi, and the driver happened to be a Buddhist, a Pureland practitioner. I hadn’t started learning the Dharma yet. Although I was very keen, I didn’t know where to start. He shared with me the Dharma, and one thing he said in particular left me with a deep impression. He told me to always remember that nothing was real. Initially this might sound ridiculous, but upon deep reflection, you’ll realize how true this is! Nothing is real! The misery I felt during the 10 days is like a fleeting cloud, by now it has already vanished into thin air, why did I bother to be so anguished? This is a reasoning that I am very familiar with, but when the time comes for me to take the test, despite how I keep telling myself that everything will pass, every phenomenon rises and goes away and that there is no need for any emotional reaction… I still find myself so tightly caught in the situation.
I have no practical training, that’s why.
Therefore, I will be going for retreats again! Without such an environment, there will be no breakthrough for me. If I wasn’t in the retreat, would I have had the chance to feel so keenly the deeply embedded disgruntlement and vexation within me? And my big ego seemed to have become even more evident in the 10 days. I’ve also made a discovery. Because I have so much frustration inside me, I habitually turn to food to vent the negative emotions. I am very greedy by nature though… hahaha…
As fate would have it, the male teacher happened to be Singaporean, and on the way back to Singapore, we took the same bus. He commented that those who do well during the first time might not have it easy going the second time, while those who do badly might not be as bad the next. Yeah, impermanence! This was tremendous encouragement to me.
Back in Singapore, right before parting, I finally apologized to him. He appeared to have been ignorant of everything, and still in his kindly manner told me that it didn’t matter to him at all. Still, I can’t help suspecting that he must have seen through me all along.
So, how was the 10-day Vipassana retreat?
Tough! But every moment was worth it.
If you want to understand yourself, if you want to release yourself from misery, if you want to learn the technique of being happy… Go!