My mum thought it was a cult. She texted, worried and confused:
you’re going to spend 10 days in silent meditation, without your phone or any way of contacting anyone?
I thought it was a cult too, but I love cults and I know how to handle myself. Also, it was in my Lonely Planet guide so it couldn’t be that creepy. I told my mum this, and she seemed placated. Sort of…
I’d been in India for around 6 weeks and I’d hit a wall. I couldn’t go back to Chandigarh because then the charity would find me and shout at me. I couldn’t go back to London because then my dad would be right and that would be giving up. I couldn’t carry on travelling because I’d run out of money.
I’d never heard of Vipassana before. It’s a vaguely Buddhist themed meditation/mindfulness movement created relatively recently but with claimed links to mysterious eastern mysticism. There are locations all around the world where you can go their 10-day silent retreat. This one happened to be in Mcleod Ganj (which was where I was) and, more importantly, it was free. Entirely, 100% free (it runs on an optional donation system).
For free bread and board, I could be quiet for 10 days. Right?
They advised getting a taxi to the location but, being me, I walked. It was a pleasant walk up one winding road, and took maybe 40 minutes. I knew it was the last time I was going to see the outside world for some time so I wanted to take it all in.
There was a cafe just outside the entrance and since I was about an hour early, I settled down for a final farewell meal. I had peanut butter on toast and it was delicious. As I read my book and ate my toast, all the other people started arriving. These were faces I would come to know very well, but right now they were strangers. Many of them were being dropped off my their families with large suitcases, and I felt very strange and out of place: all by myself with one small backpack.
After a while, I put my shoes back on and walked into the complex. There was a long drive and then signs: women one way, men the other. I still hadn’t seen anyone but as I walked into the room there was a bustle of activity. Having signed up online already, you simply sign in, show them your passport (I think) and pay a deposit for your bedclothes (you get this back at the end). You then take your prohibited stuff to the office where they lock it in a big metal chest. This meant saying goodbye to my wallet, passport, phone, books, pens, notebook…
At this point we were technically still allowed to talk to each other but nobody seemed to want to. We wandered around, got settled into our rooms and then, at the bell, went to the meditation hall. From this point forward there was no speaking, no communication, no looking people in the eye (except the teachers, but they were scary).
I sat down to write this post today mostly for strangers (sorry followers!). When I was planning to do this course back in 2013 I couldn’t really find any discussion of the course or what to expect. There was one post (which my mum also found) by someone who did NOT have a good time and found the whole experience very prescriptive and unhelpful. His comments are valid and entirely true, but it’s not the whole story.
I suppose that because I’ve always been interested in cults and religion, I approached the whole thing like a field trip. I was never truly invested in the experience because I thought of myself as an observer. I also thought I would just stay for a little while and then leave if I got bored.
I underestimated how stubborn I am. As soon as they said, in the induction, that most people would leave in the first 3 days, that the 6th day was the hardest, and that very few people would finish the course, I knew I had to be one of the people to make it to the end. It’s just the kind of person I am.
Despite the official timetable, my timetable went more like this:
4am: lady starts ringing the bell. Ignore her.
4.25am: get out of bed, snuggle in your blanket and stumble up to the meditation hall.
4.30 – 6.30am: you sit. and sit. and sit. You’re supposed to think of nothing but I wasn’t in this for mental purification, I was in it for free food. This meditation starts and ends with a man singing at you, which is nice. After that, I got into the habit of counting my breaths. Time lasts for longer when you don’t know how much time has passed, and it’s not ok to keep turning around to look at the clock. If you know how much you breath in one hour then you know how much time has passed and how close to breakfast you are. I breath around 400 times in an hour. By the end of the course I knew when a session was nearly over down to the very minute.
6.30am: rice porridge, sprouted beans and these dried fruit which made me feel sick. Also fruit: one piece each (except the lady who always took two, damn her and her selfish fruit taking life choices). You take as long as possible over breakfast because it’s one of the more interesting parts of the day.
7am – 8am: nap time.
8 – 9am: sitting, breathing and counting.
9 – 11am: nap time. Or, time to mark up your Tibetan propaganda. See, this wasn’t intentional but I forgot that in the front pocket of my backpack I had stored two pamphlets about the Chinese occupation of Tibet. I found these within the first few days and read them pretty quickly. What to do next? Well, they’d be translated pretty poorly and generally the rhetoric wasn’t very good, so I stole a pen and made some corrections. This entertained me for days. I also forgot about my playing cards, so I got pretty good at solitaire (but I never mastered the flicking-cards-onto-a-target thing…)
11am: lunch. Rice, dahl, flatbread. The whole thing is vegetarian (obviously). I lost a lot of weight.
11.30 – 2.30pm: walking in slow circles around the site. This was allowed so nobody went mad. On one of the very last days some girls starting having an argument with one of the organisers. Everyone would walk really slowly past the argument and then practically jog around the rest of the path so they didn’t miss any of the fun.
2.30 – 3.30pm: sitting, breathing, counting.
3.30 – 5pm: proof-reading Tibetan propaganda, playing solitaire, having a nap.
5pm: dinner. More of the same as lunch. It says tea because if you’ve done the course more than one then you are an ‘advanced’ player (or something like that) and you aren’t allowed to eat after midday.
6 – 7pm: sitting, breathing, counting.
7 – 8.15pm: highlight of my day! It’s video time. If you click here it is the exact videos they showed us. It’s great, you get to lean against something (all the meditation is done sat bolt upright) and hear a voice who tells you stories. It’s really great. Listening to these videos again now I can see that room so clearly, smell that musty mountain, feel what it was like. I tried to find the one about the elephant for you guys but hey ho.
8.15 – 9pm: the shortest meditation of the day. You barely feel it. It’s like you only sit down and it’s over. It’s lovely.
The bell. There was a main bell for announcing the major events of the day, but a lady would come around with a smaller bell just in case you missed it. I never missed it. At one point I shouted at/had strong words with the lady, but it didn’t help.
The isolation. My dog was very ill and I thought he was going to die. I’d given my parents the contact details so they could let me know but I wondered if the organisers would consider that important enough to interrupt my meditation. He actually died in the autumn of that year.
The showers. If you weren’t the first in at 4am (which I obviously never was) then the showers were cold. You had to wait until later in the day, but the organisers got a bit grumpy about this (it wasn’t on the timetable!) Also, the monkeys were more lively in the afternoon and nobody wants to be fighting a monkey in a towel.
The monkeys. They were everywhere and they were scary.
The videos. I mean, everyone loves TV.
My bed. So much comfier than it looks. Also, so damp at all time (it was crazy misty/damp) but I don’t care. It was lovely.
The culture shock when I left. I feel like this post is getting too long already so I’ll save my reflections for another time. For now, I’ll just say that it was really breath-taking to come back into the world and I treasure that change almost more than the events that caused it.
The tea. There was always chai in the big urn. I guess it’s the little things…
Would I go again? Definitely not, because they are less lenient if you’ve been before. Also, they probably wouldn’t let me because I haven’t been doing the follow-up two hours of meditation a day.
Am I glad I went? Obviously.