10-Day Vipassana Meditation Retreat in Nepal, the Birthplace of the Buddha. The Journey to Enlightenment
Typically, when you hear the word retreat, thoughts of swaying palm trees, sandy beaches and peaceful environments come to mind. A place to stretch and tone the body with yoga, sip tropical fruity juices, eat healthy meals and share energy with a group of likeminded individuals while escaping the daily pressures of work and life. I’ve been to many and host such retreats and workshops on the tropical island of Koh Phangan, Thailand and around the world. This 10-Day Vipassana Meditation Retreat in Nepal, the birthplace of Buddha was just as rewarding, but a vast contrast to the aforementioned holiday experience.
Although called a retreat, the journey is more of a razor sharp, master jeti training of purifying and focusing the mind. There is socializing or lounging about in pristine nature. It is not a form of spiritual or philosophical entertainment, nor is it an escape of the trials and tribulations of everyday life. What it is and what it delivers, is a system that leads one to recognize, face and reduce their tensions, problems and suffering. The technique revolves around the simple idea that each and everyone of us share the same problems and suffering. The same suffering that happens to one can also happen to another. Although the situations may be different, the root of suffering is the same. The Buddha realized that all roots of such suffering come from three causes of unhappiness: Cravings, Aversions and Ignorance. Vipassana works on eradicating these issues so that you may live in the state of bliss and happiness that is your birthright.
The “path”, known as Dhamma, takes you on an exploration of the self, though the breath, starting from the surface and digging deep down into the corridors of the subconscious mind. There, in the depths of the mind, the the causes of suffering are pulled up like weeds, straight from their roots. The very nature of Vipassana is to “see things as they really are.” The method is seemingly simple, yet involves very deep, single-minded concentration. The reward, purification, liberation, joy and happiness. This ancient technology was long lost to humanity and rediscovered by Goutama Buddha over 2500 years ago. However it is by no means limited to Buddhists. It is open to all faiths, religions and backgrounds.
Since I left my home in the USA to embark on a personal Soul Journey, Vipassana has been a technique that I wished to explore. Yoga and meditation has been such a support to me throughout my own suffering. The suffering caused by watching my father slowly lose his life after 13 years of living with the debilitating disease ALS, the suffering caused by the pressures of work and life and the suffering caused by the projections of my own mind.
My first trip to Nepal was in 2009 shortly after my father died. This was also the time of the US market crash where I and thousands of others were laid off from our jobs. In this dark period of my life, it was in this peaceful country where I became “awakened”. There are Vipassana centers all over the world but 8 years later and long on the path of spiritual healing, I found myself back in Nepal. And I knew this was my divine timing and the perfect place to take my first steps on the Path of Dhamma.
I chose to do my Vipasana in the city of Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. I arrived to Lumbini from the quaint little lakeside town of Pokhara. My pilgrimage to the land of enlightenment was not easy. 8 hours of bumps, turns and twists on a hair raising bus ride from hell. The girl sitting on the seat next to me threw up all over the floor and on me. Oh my Buddha! When we finally arrived in Lumbini, it was so hot you could fry an egg on the street. I settled into my hotel as Vipassana would not be starting for two days yet. I tried to take a cool shower but the water was too hot! It comes out from the water tank on the roof and the sun had heated it to extreme levels. So… I slept, it was all you could do in the heat. The next day I explored the Mayadevi Gardens where Queen Mayadevi gave birth to Prince Siddhartha, who became the 1st Lord Buddha. There are over 25 monasteries in the gardens from countries all over the world. Tired but full of spirit, I sat with the sadhus and a group of Chinese healers for over two hours. Together, we meditated under the sacred tree where the Lord Buddha was born. The tree gave us shelter from the sun and the energy of the gardens could only be described as pure bliss.
The following day I arrived to the Dhamma Janani Vipassana Center with eager anticipation. I sat at a table in the hot Lumbini sun with the other attendees and began the paperwork. The first step in the course is to sign an oath of discipline to abide by. In this oath are 5 precepts. At least for the duration of the course one must:
- Abstain from killing any living creature
- Abstain from stealing
- Abstain from all sexual activity
- Abstain from telling lies
- Abstain from all intoxicants
We then handed over all means of communication. Our cell phones, books and writing materials. And from this point on, no talking of any kind was allowed. This included eye contact and body language. So I took the hard pillow they gave me and walked to my tiny room in the women’s quarters. My roommate was already there sleeping on the concrete made bed. I rolled out the thin mattress, pulled down the mosquito net and placed my bags on the affixed, concrete shelves. The room was very basic as I expected. Two beds on either side with a narrow walking path between each. The paint on the walls was faded and peeling. We had 2 concrete shelves that were built into the walls, one small window and a basic, squat style bathroom with shower and sink. The philosophy is that one should be humble and live in a simple life. The doors locked with a latch from the inside and outside, which caused some problems.
A discourse and meditation was to begin at 7PM that evening, so I took a nap. I was still tired from the traveling and from my day exploring the grounds and monasteries. It was about 6PM when I woke. My roommate was gone and as I proceeded to open the door, I was surprised to find it locked… from the outside. I searched for a way out but there was none, unless I wanted to break the screen and jump out the window. I began to knock on the door, hoping one of the girls in the next room would hear. Nothing. What a way to start. All I could do was to sit and wait for her to return. Fortunately she came before the start of our evening. I pointed to the door and without talking tried to explain to her what she did. We gave each other a sympathetic look and laugh and understood. A forced reason for eye contact and a little sign language. Although we were not supposed to communicate via facial expressions, throughout the 10 days we broke this noble silence… just a little by sympathetically looking at each other while stretching our aching bodies with a few yoga poses in our room. In a way, it made us closer and developed a bond between us.
Our days began at 4 AM with the morning bell. By 4:30 we were all gathered in the meditation hall. The women on one side of the room and the men on the other. Our instruction was to observe the flow of breath coming in and out of the nose. And for the first 3 days, that is all one does, sits with legs crossed, spine straight and observes the sensations as the breath comes in and out of the tip of the nose. As the thoughts come up, you are to merely let them pass by, like clouds in the sky, placing no judgement, no attachment and no thought to the thoughts. Just let them float away.
After 2 hours of sitting and breathing, we were excused for breakfast. Milk tea, chapati and dhal bhat. In the beginning, our silent breakfast made me feel melancholy. Almost like a prison. But after some days I rather enjoyed it. No distractions. Just pure being.
Our meditation resumed at 8 AM. For 3 hours, we’d sit in lotus pose and breath, while experiencing the breath come in and out of the nose. Let me just tell you, this is no easy task! Many of the meditators were slumped over finding it difficult to sit erect in the meditation posture. An Indian vegetarian lunch was served at 11 AM with a two hour break. This gave us just enough time to eat, shower, stretch, maybe a short nap and begin meditation again at 1 PM. This by far was the hardest part of the day for me! 4 hours of meditation in the hall with only a couple of 5 minute bathroom breaks. My body ached and my mind raced. At 5 PM we walked our tight bodies to the dining hall for a 1 hour break of tea and a light snack of salty fried rice crisps. Meditation in the hall followed from 6 PM – 7:30 then a 1.5 hour Dhamma talk done on a video by S.N. Goenka. I found these videos very insightful. Our night ended at 9 PM where we would retire to our rooms for bed and await the morning 4 AM wake up bell.
My first three days were rather challenging to say the least. The no talking was easy. As a former city girl social butterfly I appreciated the silence. I didn’t feel the need to talk. I was extremely cathartic and cleansing to witness the silence. But what I did find challenging was the posture. I have been practicing and teaching yoga and various types of meditation for over a decade. But sitting perfectly still for so long was a new experience for me. I felt every ache in my body. My hips, shoulders and low back were screaming. But as we were told over and over in each video and audio discourse, Anicca – which translates to impermanence, nothing stays the same. So still and erect I sat.
After day 3 the actual Vipasana began. I wasn’t aware it hadn’t started. Apparently we were preparing. Now the real meditation was to begin. Our new instruction was to observe the body while breathing our natural breath. And as I scanned my painful body up and down, I noticed how erratic the mind can be and how fast my thoughts would change. From one thought on to the next. Like a racing car shifting lanes down a highway. A few seconds on one thought, another few seconds it changed gears to another and then back again to the same. As our teacher, S.N. Goenka would tell us on the video, “you see how crazy the mind can be if you don’t train it?” In the silence I could recognize the patterns. I always think I have no fear. And in many ways I don’t. I love adrenaline sports, I have parachuted out of airplanes, driven in NASCAR racing track, climbed the Himalayan Mountain ranges, rock climbed high in the sky with ropes and faith, packed up my life and moved to faraway countries with only a backpack, but fear… yep, she was still there, I was just too busy to notice. In my silence, the echoes that I kept hearing in the corridors of my mind were that of survival and insecurity, fears of money, will I have enough, am I good enough, blah, bhah, blah. Over and over again in some form or another these thoughts ran through my mind. It was so interesting to observe these thoughts.
Interestingly, the aches in my body also kept moving. My achy shoulder that felt like it was burning in pain, my stiff neck, the tight hips, all of it moving. Sometimes there, sometimes not. By the 4th day, I wasn’t even feeling the aches any longer. Ahhhhh, Anicca, impermanence.
It seemed like the thoughts were moving through my body too. Like a leave flowing in a river. Getting stuck along the way, then dislodging and moving on. By the end of the 10 days I felt calm, yet almost stunned. How could I return to the world. The girls in our group were anxious to talk. Two of the girls, both from India pulled took me by the hand and lead me to their room with delight. “What is your story”, they asked me. “Who are you, where are you from, are you a yoga teacher?”, they asked. “You sat soooo straight. How did you do it, do you have a boyfriend? Isn’t the guy who worked the desk soooo cute.” I tried to answer the questions, but I wasn’t ready for all of this yet. I was still processing. I felt like I was in two worlds, the socialite city girl crossing the bridge into a new land. I spoke as much as I could, but as I heard my voice, it was like it was someone else speaking. I didn’t even recognize the sound of my own voice. After some time, I politely excused myself and went off to bed. The next morning they all gathered in the cafeteria with glee. Everyone talking. I managed to find sit with one girl and spoke with her about human design, a subject I find fascinating. But that was all I could manage. The group arranged to take a bus together back into Pokhara, which was the lakeside town I had come to and was planning to return. But 8 hours in a bus of gabby girls was too much for me at the time. I chose to stay behind with my thoughts.
I eventually made my way back to Pokhara. I spend most of the time there alone. Not because I had no one to be with. There were many travelers looking for someone to spend time with. I was merely in my own personal space. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a hermit. I enjoyed long walks in nature, quiet time writing. I did some trekking and after some weeks, I did make my way out of my introspection and mingled with the locals and backpackers and a good friend who happened to be on travel in Nepal as well. My days of meaningless talk, city life and late night parties have long since left me. They had their time and place and today, I’m happy in this space.
In conclusion, I think vipassana was one of the hardest meditations I have done. But in the end, one of the most rewarding. It’s been over 2 months now since I first started writing this blog. I am just coming back to finishing it now. Writing is sometimes like that. You start writing and then the story goes to sleep, only to return at the perfect time. And as I finish writing this blog, I am in a jungle cafe in Sri Lanka. I went on to do another Buddhist Retreat in Dharamsala, India which was also silent but came with teachings of Buddhism and I will go on to do another vipassana here in Sri Lanka. The journey continues.
Have you been to a vipassana? What were your experiences? We’d love to hear. Let us know in the comments in the blog. And feel free to share this story with someone who you feel might enjoy the read.
Are We Connected?
Retreat With Me
If you would like to travel with me on a magical, tropical island in Thailand, I’ll be hosting my next Sacred Healing and Meditation Retreat on January 29, 2018. This retreat will not be silent. Here you will learn how to heal your body and mind with Kundalini Yoga and Meditation techniques, Tibetan Singing Bowl Therapy, Reiki, Chakra Balancing and more. All the details can be found at http://jewelsbertrand.com/retreat/
Or email me at Jewelsbertrand [at] gmail.com
Sign-up for the newsletter to learn more about meditation and spiritual travel across the globe. In the upcoming weeks, I’ll share stories about my travels through India, Nepal, Greece and Sri Lanka. And of course, more meditation techniques and free videos.