VIPASSANA, PENANG HILL EAST – ENG

We are back again, to this chaotic and noisy world. Just came out of a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat.
This post is going to be longer than usual, but will be a nice experience to read, we promise.
Informative note: the following is a short introduction of Vipassana; you can skip it and directly go to Alice and Ludovica’s personal experience.  However, we still recommend reading it. It won’t take too long.

What’s Vipassana?

It’s a specific technique that teaches you how to meditate as Gotama, the Buddha himself, taught it.
Vipassana is nothing religious, political, racial, and is genderless. Anyone may join this course with the aim to purify his/her mind.

Vipassana is made of a few universal principles that every society and every rational person support: morality, good sense, sacrifice, love, and compassion.
We really recommend taking a few minutes to learn more about it here.

This meditation retreat was totally free with full accommodations for the sole purpose of purity. Their only requirement is for you to accept and follow the 5 precepts; to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, telling lies, and intoxications. At this retreat, we were in total seclusion from the outside world. That meant detaching ourselves from our phones, books, and computers to respect Nobel Silence by not speaking for 10 days. Exceptions are made when needing to talk with the teacher or management in cases of problems.

So, why did we decide to do it?


We live in such a fast pace, polluted, and corrupt world and we just needed to take a break, turning off all the switches and process what has happened in our lives thus far. As you know by now, curiosity is also a trait of ours.

Being on our individual paths towards our personal liberation of the mind, we decided to write our personal independent experiences’ during those ten days of meditation.

Alice’s experience:

The 3rd of May, as agreed, we went to the Vipassana meeting place in Penang Hill East. We arrived 30 minutes early so few cars were available for driving us to the site. Luckily the organizer let us drop the backpacks in the spare car’s trunk, then we walk uphill to get to the meditation center. 40 minutes of trekking.
Myself, Ludovica, and five others thought it was a test to prove our dedication to joining this meditation retreat. Then we got to the site all sweaty and tired. To our surprise, other students were already there fresh and rested then we realized we actually weren’t early… what a beginning.

While registering we discovered that two of the managers, members of the volunteering staff, were Italian. We had to leave our belongings: passports, wallets, and phones. So, even if we wanted we couldn’t escape!

That evening the 10-day course began, starting with an introductory hour of meditation, at 8:00 PM we went back to our dormitory in complete silence.
We all had our own “room”: basic bed, pillow, and quilt. A conceptual private space sectioned off between curtains, one per side, shared with the neighbors and also the door was a piece of cloth.
The toilets/showers followed a similar idea, but the separations between them were walls, the doors were plastic curtains though. Outside the bathrooms were two big rectangular sinks with three faucets in each. When I saw it for the first time I thought I’d have constipation for the rest of my stay.
Thanks to the retreat’s diet, that didn’t happen.

Our days were regulated by the rings of the bell, starting with a 4:00 AM wake up call. Breakfast was served at 6:30 AM, 11:00 AM lunch, and 5:00 PM tea breaks with fruits, no dinner.
The main courses were vegan and the few things provided for breakfast were vegetarian like the powdered milk, powdered chocolate, condensed milk, and the butter.
I have never eaten as many vegetables and fruits in my life until then and that’s why after the 3rd day my constipation ended 🙂
I was so happy!!! I wanted to tell Ludovica of my accomplishment, but of course the “Silence” …

Noble silence with little awkward moments was manageable with others, but we looked like a bunch of grumps. However, with Ludovica, it was very difficult. Especially after having traveled for 80 days, 24/7, always being together.
We were close but distant.
We have been very diligent for the first three days, not even having any eye contact with each other. Then…
The 4th day I placed some vitamins on her bed, which I remembered we had in our medicines case because I noticed she looked cold, probably due to the freezing shower, but one of the five rules of the house is: “no intoxicants”, and that includes medicine. Casually I entered the dorm the moment she found the vitamins. I felt her eyes on me so I turned and she gave me a big smile that made my day.
The evening of the 5th day Ludovica saw me in bad shape, I was seriously feeling down. After the evenings teaching session, she came to me with a concerned look. With hand gestures and facial expressions, I told her my knees were bothering me. She was relieved it was just that, but still, I was in hell.
I couldn’t go on sitting crossed legged so the next day I talked to the manager about my problem (both my knees had surgery, too much sport…) from there on I sat against the wall, that way all the pressure was off the legs.
The 7th day was Ludovica’s turn of bad time, a kind of a headache.
So, yes, we had few moments of communication, but never regardless the course.

Meditation was about 10 hours a day, hence the pain.
However, we also had free time and at the beginning, I managed pretty well; taking the time to nap, hand wash clothes, walk in the 85 steps long back path, stretching, observing insects (many types of ants around there), but after a while, the free time was too much.
The 4th day the mess in my mind was over; therefore I had just myself to talk to. I spent my time on the dorm balcony appreciating the panoramic view of the city, mountains, clouds, the sea, and all of the natural environment sipping milk tea.
I kept on checking the city till I finally spotted: a couple of mosques, two churches, a Hindu temple and uncountable Buddhist temples. Their chants, bells, fireworks, songs, gongs, along with the animals of the forest and human noises were the only sounds that broke the silence.
The fact I was in a humble and respectful of all religion type of place, looking down at the religious opulence, kind of fighting for supremacy made me smile and think.
About how in history belief exploitation and ignorance are the cause of force emigration, divisions within nations, and uncountable wars… If the educational system would start to teach religion as part of history in a chronologic and objective way, perhaps the next generations would be more open-minded.
Take me, for example, I come from a so called secular country, but deeply Catholic, during my childhood, I went through the whole ritualistic process to become a devout Catholic, not by choice, catechism and attended Mass, by taking the first three precepts: baptism, holy communion, confirmation. However, none of the teachers, priests, nuns, and even my parents told me that:

  • The Bible, Koran, and Torah are basically the same book that spread where civilization was first born, Mesopotamia, then all over the world
  • The name of God, from the Jewish translation, is Jehovah, a Latinization of the Hebrewיְהֹוָה‎, Yahweh. It has been banned from the Catholic Church after several translations of the Bible and probably for the interpretation of the commandments: “Not taking the LORD’s name in vain”
  • In 1874 the Holy See enjoined upon Italian Catholics the policy of abstention from the polls in parliamentary elections. Formally revoked in 1919. Basically, the Pope and other leaders of the Catholic faith forbid Catholics to get involved with politics and to go as far as to taking away their rights to vote. (Non-Expedit)

All the above facts are true from which is logical to deduce that religions changes accordingly to societal modernization.
Being at the retreat, isolated from everything and everyone gave me lots of time to think, obviously…
As also the evening of teachings, a statement from teacher S.N. Goenka said really resonated with me:
“God didn’t create humans as his own image, humans create God/Gods as they need and like.”
He gave us an example with Buddhism, that it wasn’t a religion in the beginning but became so when it spread to many countries in Asia. Every civilization associated created their own image and beliefs around Buddhism and Buddha.
Buddhism is a philosophy of living, following certain moralities with no supernatural creature involved, but man created them to worship and idolize.
During the 10 days retreat, there were no religious rites, no ceremonies, no image of any gods. The meditation hall, the place where we spent most our time was just a white room with windows, on the floor thin blue square pillows where we sat, outside the bells as constant reminders to the schedule.

The last day, the mute and inexpressive people around me regained voices and smile, finally.
That afternoon we were all sweating because of the excitement of talking to each other with the crowd of conversations and the unbelievable humidity of Penang Hill.

Those days were intense both physically and mentally; even so, it was such an incredible experience.


Ludovica’s experience:

My experience, so….I’ll start by mentioning that I won’t talk about the technique or the contents itself because I think it’s something that people should experience and figure out on their own. There is all you need to know about it in the link above. Also, I will not talk about the results I got because it’s very personal and related to the deepest part of me. What I will share is my experience as I lived it, the day to day in a very direct way, including all the ups and downs. So here it is:

Day 0
I arrived in Penang Hill East Vipassana Center full of expectations. I knew I could definitely accept renouncing my phone and any outside contact respecting the Noble Silence, sleep in a dorm with other people, and eat less of only vegetarian meals, etc. That was the easiest part of it.
After a long hike of about 40 minutes up the hill (I’m still asking myself if it was to demonstrate once again the willingness and determination to attend the course) we had to give up all our phones, books, computers, and personal belongings for custody.  This was to keep from temptation. Then we were given an introduction and a few practicum explanations and soon after the first session of meditation started. I was so exited!

Day 1
Wake up bell at 4 AM, half an hour to realize who you are and we started the day with two hours of meditation before breakfast. My first thought was, “this is bearable”, too early to assume, silly me!
However, the food was good, so it was a nice way to start the day.
After Breakfast was 3 hours of meditation with a short break in between right before lunch. After lunch is an hour and a half of meditation followed by a 5 minutes break and after the break is another hour, but as a group session and then an additional hour and a half before our tea break. Tea time starts at 5 PM and after hour back into an hour of meditation followed by an hour and a half of lecture from Goenka.  You would think after the lecture we would be done for the day, but guess what….. meditation again! For last half an hour of the day – a total of ten hours of meditation per day.
For me it was all about sitting, meditating, focusing on my breath, avoiding any kind of thoughts, and a lot of physical pain. Still only the first day, I was totally confident. That night I slept very peacefully with hardly any thoughts.

Day 2
Wake up bell at 4 AM. It was starting to be a little annoying, sleepiness, drowsiness, and a heavy head; I felt I needed to sleep a few more minutes and really wished there was a snooze button on that bell because those few minutes became an hour or probably more and soon the bell that indicates the finishing of a session rang. I felt so depressed to have missed half of the early morning’s meditation time. “Never feel depressed or demotivated“, the words of encouragement from Goenka so I was still holding on to my confidence.  However, the afternoon sessions was a disaster: drowsiness……reality hit and I was sure those 10 days were going to be hell!!! Never mind, during the break I was looking forward to doing the most entertaining thing of the day: laundry! When did laundry ever become so exciting? It was funny to see how everybody started to become crazy over washing clothes so very carefully, slowly, calmly, and probably focusing more on that than on meditation.
After the excitement of the day, back to the calmness of meditation for the evening session and the lecture. After the discourse, I felt a bit relieved and full of strength for the coming morning. Eventually, I realized that it’s all about putting more efforts and the key is being generous to yourself, accepting your limitations.

Day 3
Wake up bell at 4 AM. I hated it, I hated it so much! From that day on hearing the bell in the mornings started to make me anxious and I couldn’t sleep properly. I was always thinking about the morning bell and even dreamed about it. I even woke up in the middle of the night and discovered everybody was still sleeping so peacefully.
Due to my bell anxiety and restless sleep, none of the morning meditations were going well. I was so tired and drowsy. I tried so hard to wake myself up, but the bed was calling for me. I gave in, but the looming sense of guilt was becoming stronger and stronger. The more I felt guilty, the more I couldn’t sleep at night causing a hindrance to my morning meditations.
Start again, start again. Start with a calm and quite mind, alert and attentive mind“, Goenka’s supportive and calm voice at every start of the meditations was becoming annoying just like the bell.
At the same time, the pain was catching up with the drowsiness. The afternoon meditation sessions, my whole neck and back was so tight and my legs were numb. I was living in a nightmare, but my laundry was my good dream waiting for me just a couple hours more and I could entertain myself for few minutes.

Day 4,5&6
We entered the core part of the meditation technique. Wow! Something finally started to work. The pain was almost gone and I could feel something. Although, I completely gave up on the morning sessions: not sleeping at night, pretending to wake up to the sound of the bell, going to the meditation hall, waiting for a few lazy people like me to leave the hall, feeling the right to go back to bed, and sleep during the time I wasn’t supposed to. But in the meanwhile, I was becoming happy. Everything was going like Goenka was saying. Only a bad cold was disturbing me and we can’t forget that morning bell of course, but I always had my good old laundry to balance things!

Day 7
A nice vibrating sensation I gained meditating midway into the course was starting to wane and a relentless pain was creeping up spreading throughout my face and started to annoy me. It felt like someone was pressing and moving my nose smashing in my face… so painful! I envisioned my nose pulsating becoming bigger and smaller than moving from the left to the right. I had the sensation that my nose was changing its shape. It would seem like I was tripping off something hallucinating because I was so uncomfortable. It was such an unpleasant feeling.

Day 8&9
Almost to the finish line and some of the meditations were going ok. Some others still had the proboscis nose sensation that I wanted to tear off my face.

Day 10
The Noble Silence finally ended. Everyone was so happy to be talking again.  I finally got to know the people we shared our experience with.  I created an image in my head of them during the 10 days and I was excited to get to know the real them. A Spanish girl (the person who would sit next to me in the dining hall) I realized was not grumpy at all. My meditation buddy (the person who sat beside me in the meditation hall) was as cute as I supposed. Everybody was so friendly and nice. We didn’t realize the course wasn’t over yet and we still had the group meditation sessions to attend.
Surprisingly, what brought us the most joy during the days was forgotten… No laundry was done.

The moral of the story: I’m glad I had experienced such an intensive educative course about meditation, but mostly myself; I will treasure and apply it in my everyday life. However, It’s good to be back in society ;P

 

 

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