Vipassana Meditation Mexico
I recently completed my first ever Vipassana course. For those of you who are not familiar with Vipassana, it is an ancient meditation technique that I have long been curious to learn more about and practice for myself. So with this in mind I decided to participate in a ten day silent meditation retreat in San Bartlo, Mexico.
I had researched very little about the philosophy behind Vipassana before I went to San Bartlo which in hindsight I am glad . I have done some pretty intense things in my life, from running a marathon to experiencing the effects of plant medicine and I can tell you now that this Vipassana course is right up there with those other experiences.
Arriving at what would be my home for the next ten days I was immediately greeted with a warm welcome and asked to complete documentation stating what I knew about meditation, any past drug use and details of any sickness or disease I may have. Once this was completed I was asked to surrender all my electronics — this was the part of the experience I had been most looking forward to — no communication with the outside world was permitted whatsoever, this included all reading and writing material. The only thing participants had to read was the tiny two sided pamphlet detailing the house rules. I was also asked to put away any religious items I may have, in my case I use a mala for my meditation practices, at the time I found this kind of odd as Vipassana is a Buddhist tradition however I would later learn that the use of mala was not traditionally part of “pure dhamma”.
And so it began… That same night we had an introduction into what the retreat would entail and a snapshot of the monk-like life we would be living for the next ten days. From the beginning men and women were separated and all interactions over the next ten days (meditation sessions and meal times) were separate. Then we were informed of the rule of Noble Silence. A rule that most of us, if not all of us, struggled with. No talking, no eye contact, no hand or body gestures of any kind, not even a smile.
Now here is what did fascinate me, I was surprised that despite this technique being based on Buddhist teachings, there was not a single idol of any kind at the retreat. The entire complex was sparse and nondescript with no obvious affiliation to any religious denomination. You would never know that any sort of spiritually was being taught in this ambiguous cabin in the woods. Furthermore our “teachers” could’ve be anyone off the street, there were no shaved heads, no special wardrobe, nothing whatsoever to distinguish them from the participants. My experiences with temples of spirituality and worship across the world have always been elaborately decorated cathedrals or churches in worship of a prophet or God, so when I observed a lack of affiliation with any formalised religion I knew this was the special place that I been looking for.
I skipped breakfast and the first daily meditation every day of my stay. The first time I entered the meditation hall I was given a seat assignment and told to pick a cushion, nothing could've prepared me physically for sitting everyday for ten days, hour upon hour, on a tiny little cushion. The pain began during my very first session and never really subsided. Every morning we would listen to a short five or ten minute recording that explained the basic meditation techniques which were built upon each day. In the evenings there was an hour or so long “dhamma talk” which again entailed audio recordings from S.N. Goenka, the man responsible for bringing back the Vipassana course back into mainstream meditation practices.
The recordings reiterated that the retreat was no vacation, that this would be a time to work on yourself and warned that this process would not always be an easy task. He warned that there would be times when you will want to give up, that you will desperately want to leave but that this is not an option, you are here for ten days, you agreed to the rules when you signed up and there is no backing out. With patience, persistence and an open mind you will emerge at the other end, perfectly fine. He said that we were about to “perform a surgery on your subconscious and this is not an easy task”.
It was around the second or third day that the doubts started creeping in. By this point the reality had set in and I was mentally faltering, concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make the distance. I struggled with having no source of entertainment and as I was prohibited from strenuous exercise of any kind, I was forced to walk around the courtyard likening myself to an incarcerated criminal who spends his free time pacing in the “yard”. I was very restless and not sleeping well which was not helping the calming process at all.
The silence was deafening. I started looking forward the evening sessions with S.N. Goenka ’s recordings as this was the only time I heard a voice. The recordings went into more and more detail each day and I enjoyed his elaborations on “vipassana” and what it actually was. All this time I had been thinking that this was a course you take on meditation however he explains vipassana is not just a course but a meditation technique or rather, as he put it, a way of life.
By day four I was barely sleeping, I was tossing and turning all night and my mind was running more than ever. I was constantly thinking about home, my loved ones and the most random of things, or people I haven't thought about in ages, one thing I did notice however was that when I did sleep, my dreams were exceptionally vivid. Ordinarily I would never be able to remember what my dreams entailed but over the last few days I was able to remember all the details of my dreams.
It was also day four that we were taught the mediation technique using no music of any kind. The majority of my meditation prior to this had been accompanied by some sort of music or the guidance of a meditation teacher. Now I was meditating with no mantra, no music, no guidance, just pure silence - it blew my mind. In the recordings it was explained that mediation has been diluted through the years and this is not the way Gautama Buddha had intended the practice to be. Goenka’s meditation is about listening to “your real truth”, your body, your sensations, it made so much sense that everything else we do is “artificial” whereas the “reality” is what is happening to us in the “now”.
I am not going to sit here and tell you that I experienced a magical transcendence and my life was irrevocably changed after learning the actual technique. I had however become accustomed to the lack or sleep and pain from perching on a cushion in the meditation hall. In fact what I did find was that I was feeling more anxious than ever.
On the final day the course officially concludes after the 8:00 AM morning mediation. All participants, in their own time can leave the meditation hall and are then allowed to speak and share their experiences. Some people left the room as soon as thee session was over, however others - myself included - chose to stay a little longer. After being so desperate to speak for the last ten days I found I was now hesitant to speak to anyone. Eventually I concluded my final mediation and stepped outside to see all these participants chattering excitedly to each other as if nothing had happened. I kept to myself for a while sitting quietly to the side until a gentleman approached and said hello, we struck up a conversation and from then was a slow reemerging back to reality.
We ended the day doing our meditations as scheduled, everyone packed their bags for the next morning and got ready to take this practice with us through our journey of life.