Part One: 10-day Vipassana Meditation on St John’s Island.

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Here’s the link if you’re interested:

http://www.sg.dhamma.org/

This part will be about what I did and how I felt during the 12 days on St John’s Island. Day 1 was check-in at 3pm, taking a small ferry from Marina South Pier. A short discourse and the start of meditation in the evening, then the 10-day course starts. Day 12 was just a simple discourse (one-hour long lessons on Dhamma and the art of living etc, helping us new students understand why we do some things) and a quick breakfast before leaving the island.

One really useful thing about being forced to listen to audio and video tapes every day is that the message sinks in eventually. Meditation was difficult to pick up as a hobby because I am someone who thinks a lot, and my mind cannot sit still. But to learn Vipassana properly, we were told to give ourselves ten days to just accept all the teachings and try. To not mix it with our religions or beliefs, and to surrender to the art of meditation.

“You can’t just accept with your mind, you have to do it personally, experience it on a personal level, only then can you see all your cravings and your aversions. Feel all the sensations coming to the surface of the body, all the gross sensations, all the pleasant sensations. Remain equanimous throughout. Otherwise, accepting vipassana as mental entertainment is useless. It will not help you.” Hence I tried my best to commune with all the dastardly mosquito bites (I had 14 by the end of the second day!!) and I did my best to not think about the steps, not think about anything and just do. Part 2 will be about my thoughts on my experiences, on the intellectual level.

When I am especially anxious, my brain is like a hamster on a wheel. It runs. I might be exhausted with no sleep but my brain will run.

TheQuint.com

Schedule-wise, it took me two days to get used to the sleeping hours. The first gong rings at 4am, you have to be up by 4.30am and walking to the meditation hall or the server will come to your bed and gently shake your pillow. I hate it when people touch my pillow or bed, hence I’m always up and gone. You have to meditate in the hall from 4.30am to 6.30am (2 hours), and eat breakfast till about 7+. The group meditation session starts at 8am and it is compulsory to be in the hall. For non-compulsory sessions, you can meditate on your bed but it is not encouraged because of the tendency for students to sleep. I was late for a group session because I was having a stomache in the toilet right outside the hall, and the server knocked on my door to ask for my seat number. They are extremely, extremely strict about punctuality and attendance, as well as not leaning against the wall.

One thing good about being young is that they arrange us according to age, so the university/JC kids got the last row, where we built a fortress for our immature bodies lol. Oh and the servers are very kind- they lent us everything they could think of, and took care of us. It’s just the timing that needs some getting used to. Toilet breaks in between hours (the bell gongs every hour or so) lasts from 5 minutes to 15 minutes for the longer sessions. Basically there’s no rest in between, apart from light stretching of legs and wondering about running away.

After the session ends at  11am, it is lunch, and another session of meditation starts from 1pm and lasts till 5pm. Yup, by 5pm you’ll have done 9 hours of meditation. And then tea break, 6 to 7pm is another session, then we gather in the discourse hall till 8.15pm to watch video tapes. One last session from 8.15pm-9pm. It’s about 10 hours of meditation over 10 days each, not counting the check-in and last day on the island. Which is about 100 hours. The evening and night sessions were the best for me because it wasn’t so hot. One thing about the facilities on St John’s Island is that there are limited fans, plus the weather itself is really hot and humid. If possible, try a less tropical country lol. There are centres everywhere in the world!

For my personal experience- it was basically intense hell for two days because it is not just your body which is uncomfortable, it is the mind. My mind is used to doing seven things at the same time. The girls who sat near me were all from university/fresh grad and there was one who would get up to walk outside the hall every now and then because she literally could not sit still. She said, when noble silence was broken, that her mind wandered off after every two breaths. The teacher told her to take a walk, to get some sun, which helps to calm the mind. But meditation camps are not for the faint-hearted, because you had nothing to do other than listen to the tape, and the audio tape only lasts for maybe 5-15 minutes. Then it is complete silence, interspersed with birds and crickets and bees and flies buzzing around you. And the occasional aunty in the front row burping loudly, people scratching, coughing, sneezing etc. The crickets were continuous, and the birds always called out in the pairs. Intense indeed. There were 2-3 girls who left during the course because they couldn’t take it.

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My mind did calm down after 2 days though. Although I spent at least half an hour calculating all the ways I could wander off physically. The answer is no. The centre is on an island but it is segregated between males and females, there isn’t enough space for you to hide. And the servers are really strict about finding a person. And then I calculate how much money I had in my wallet, to see if I could afford to pay for a ferry home. I couldn’t. I always uber which meant that I brought my phone to the camp thinking I could just uber home and hence I had no cash on me. Then I thought about how I am unhappy because my mind is so, so, so, damn uncomfortable. I thought about what a loser I would be if I ran off after two days. I thought about how I wanted to use meditation to settle my anxiety issue, to re-examine my life and my way of living, I wanted it to clear my mind. It finally dawned on me on the third day that I had very high expectations of what the course can do for me and I was unhappy because I was not meeting my own expectations.

That’s when I realised that I can just calm down, and relax, and go with whatever I am supposed to do. By the way, the founder of the course, the late S. N. Goenka, he shared that for his first Vipassana course, he actually packed his bags after two days. It was only because another meditator told him to stay for one more day, that’s how he stayed. If he hadn’t persevered we wouldn’t have all these centres now. So I started letting go of how “things should be” and just tried my best. When my mind wandered, I acknowledged that it wandered. These are all instructions that the teachers will give. They will guide you on every step of the way.

By the end of the third day, I think my body got used to the environment and the Justin Bieber lyrics in my head (Cold Water and Love Yourself) disappeared. It was like my mind had calmed down and there was just one layer of thoughts, me talking to myself. Previously it was more of 3-4 people in my head talking to each other and over each other, and there will be a lame pop song in the background. For the first time in a long while, my mind was actually clear. And that made me very happy, so I started smiling to myself. I know right, what a weirdo. (Update: THE THOUGHTS ARE COMING BACK.)

Day 3 and 4 were okay in terms of length of meditation. It was still long, but it felt shorter and shorter. Like time passed faster, my thoughts wandered less. I remember thinking to myself in the first session that I would daydream for a whole 5-10 minutes. After a while I realised that I was very aware of my mind wandering off, I could bring it back faster. I had a mantra by the end of the sixth day- continuously practice high standards in the present, and do not worry about the past, for you cannot change it, and do not worry about the future, for you cannot control it.It doesn’t matter that my mind wanders, I know that if I practice, it will wander less. And I practiced, and left everything up to the gods of Meditation and Mosquitos.

But the 6th day was hell. It was really hell. We were told to change from observing respiration to observing sensation by then. People told me that they felt numbness and tingling sensations, as well as warmth. Basically heat, when you calm down and observe the feeling of energy in your palms. You know what I felt? PAIN. PRESSURE. INSECT BITES. It was really terrible!! Everyone had this equanimous mood of observing their sensations and I was just trying my best not to move. The teaching is that your cravings and aversions- all the things you want but can’t have, all the things you don’t want but can’t get rid of, all the plays and controlling portions of your mind actually manifests in the form of sensations.

Equanimity: a calm mental state, especially after a shock or disappointment or in a difficult situation:

And I had trouble breathing because there was a very, very heavy pressure on my chest. It isn’t the anxiety sort of pressure, it was more like a very heavy and soft cushion sitting on me. We were told repeatedly that whatever sensation it is, just accept it. Practice equanimity. If it is a good sensation, do not yearn for it. If it is a bad sensation, do not hate it. Just observe, observe, observe. Observe the impermanence of everything. Fuck lol. I know that my history of poor mental health probably caused the chest pressure to be so bad. Thankfully it only happened on day 6-7, I was really wondering if I should call my dad to ask for the ferry fees ): If you go back earlier you have to pay more.

But then the ‘insect bites started’, and it was like ant bites, except that whenever I look down or brushed ‘them’ away, there were no ants. It is a normal sensation- there are a myriad of possible sensations to experience, like throbbing, pressure, warmth, tingling, I mean, why did I only get the painful ones. I got some warmth but only on my limbs. There was even a time when I was really concentrating, and my left elbow startedthrobbing. It was like 3-4 throbs and my elbow moved because of that sensation. I wanted to just ask for a refund of my body, because I wanted the sensations that other people had but I couldn’t experience.

I guess that’s also the whole point of practicing meditation, it is an individual practice which will manifest differently on everyone. If you manage to sit still while facing hell and this intense suffocation of the brain because “I can’t move, I can’t move, I have to OBSERVE SENSATION, is there anyone else moving??”, you will pull through and be a much calmer person. I can testify to this because by day 4 I was sleeping within 5 minutes of covering myself with the blanket. I haven’t had good sleep in so long. It’s not like I attained nirvana within ten days, I am just grateful for the good sleep. I really can’t remember the last time I had peaceful and undisturbed sleep. However that is not to say that other branches of meditation cannot help- I think they can. But on the experiential level, it was really very intense for me.

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There isn’t anywhere to wander around actually. You basically have 6 places to live in for the whole 12 days. Your dormitory, which is a 28-bed long hall, with metal wires for windows and the olden-day style wooden shutters. A fan every 2-3 beds, which meant that there was a lot of shifting around because some people could not feel the wind at all. The dining hall, the toilet, the bathing area, discourse hall, and the dhamma hall. Nowhere else to go except walking to and fro those areas. There was also a lot of grumbling about the heat, the humidity, the mosquitos etc. Tip: Bring a lot of mosquito repellent. There was a French girl who brought three canisters. Needless to say she did not suffer like I did. I could have asked the course coordinator for extra cans, but I didn’t want to risk my eczema-y skin getting worse.

Food-wise, the servers really did their best. I was expecting vegetables and rice everyday but breakfast had at least two dishes. Usually porridge/noodles and wholemeal bread with condiments, and drinks like milo and coffee. Lunch is usually 1 soup, maybe 1 fruit, and 3 dishes of vegetables and a mix of brown and white rice. The soup is always fantastic, they don’t just do water and vegetables. One soup that I really liked had chick peas, celery, dill, carrots, I think onions, cabbage, basically it was flavourful and generous portions, because it was buffet style. The vegetable dishes, at least one was a curry dish. Because Vipassana does have its roots in India/Burma. I indicated a peanut allergy on my form and they always brought dishes to me that didn’t have peanuts mixed in. There was a salad with lettuce, raw turnip, two sorts of leafy condiments that tasted great, vegetarian mayo, and I think gou ji zi (the red Chinese ones). Mixed it all together and it was great! Although the portions were huge because I didn’t serve myself, it was on my dining spot (we’re all allocated fixed seats). I was trying not to waste food so I was chewing and chewing my way through the turnips.

Apart from the chattering in my head, my skin also healed when I was there. I didn’t have any new breakouts of eczema/food allergies. I can take peanut butter now! I don’t know if it is linked to meditation, I would say probably not, because my digestion remained difficult. I think it’s probably linked to the environment- there was very little dust there. (Now that I’m back my left arm is starting to itch again.) Just the constant sound of the sea in the evenings. Like when the audio tapes stopped playing, I could breathe slowly and imagine the waves cresting next to me. I love the sea. And the night sky! There are no harsh lights, a lot of people brought flashlights. At 7 pm you can open your eyes secretly and see the orange sunset, and appreciate the aural accompaniment of nature.

Environment wise, I only disliked the bathing facilities and the insects. Everything else was great. Why bathing? Because it was not only cold water, it was A VERY SMALL SHOWER FACILITY. The size of the 5 shower cubicles combined is the same size as my bathroom. Or smaller. When I went in I had to be very careful to stand sideways, because if I just enter normally, my elbows would hit the sides of the cubicles, which had a lot of ants and random black flies on it. And if you bathe in the afternoons, you have to dress quickly or random things will bite you. I don’t know how the larger people coped, it was really, really small. It’s not as if 5 people ever bathed together, I think usually you’ll feel quite awkward with 2 or3 bathing at the same time, because the shower cubicles are open-area, the wall only covers up till your chest. If you are taller than 170cm chances are you will flash your boobs/perve on someone else next to you. I basically took the showers at either end, and bent down so no one could see me naked lol. Why not just build 3 medium-sized ones, instead of 5 tiny ones. There was a larger grandmother, she had loads of white hair and a huge tummy. I really don’t know how she got into the shower ):photo6109282999796344757

Oh we aren’t allowed to go to the beach but we are kind of rebellious so we went anyway. When the tides go out, you can see all the rocks. It’s quite a flat beach, and it’s a huge space. They should learn to use a padlock lol, they basically draped one over the gate but didn’t lock anything. It was just draped there HAHAHA. So cute.

Some tips-

  1. Manage your expectations when you are there. If you expect to be a super-meditator and not-budge, you might hurt your own mind. After all there is already a forced meditation session, why scold yourself again for not being great at the start? Just go with the flow. Whatever happens, happens. Lol. I can say this because I completed the course HAHAHA.
  2. Bring whatever you want, but there is a reason why they ask students to not bring food and writing materials. For the SG branch at least they will not check your luggage. There were a few old students who brought their diaries and biscuits, because there are only two meals- breakfast at 6.30am and lunch at 11am. We are supposed to meditate on a 75% full stomach. I think mine was like 130% full because I hate going hungry so I ate twice my normal portions for each meal, but was still hungry by 5pm every day. Tea break is usually just an apple and milo, if you want it. I really mean twice the size- I had 4 slices of wholemeal bread and a bowl of porridge one morning. Also, I really wanted to write for the first few days because I had so many thoughts on my head. But I decided to just follow the rules, and that my mind would hold on to what was important afterwards. It worked, my mind was ‘cleaner’ and once I got home I wrote down everything I wanted to. Hence this long post.
  3. If all meditation fails and you are just daydreaming, then at least keep the five rules. Do not lie, do not steal, practise noble silence, do not have sexual misconduct, and do not kill. Killing is inevitable because there are too many insects and ants crawling around. But lying, stealing, silence, and sex are really not encouraged. It is not in line with the practice of Dhamma (Part 2, which I will write tomorrow!) Buddhism isn’t about rules- not all Buddhists are vegetarians. But the teacher said that if you understood the motivations behind the rules and diligently practised them, you will see a change in your energy- the kind of vibrations that a person has.
  4. If really everything fails- everything sucks, nothing is working out etc. Just think of it as a 12-day detox. Detox from snacks- I had two kinderjoys, a chicken thigh sitting in the pot, one bar of kitkat and one very large cup of condensed milk with coffee the MOMENT I STEPPED INTO THE HOUSE. I didn’t even unpack, I just opened the fridge and felt relieved. I think there was more milk than coffee HAHAHA. Detox from civilization, detox from the phone. Detox from meat, it is vegetarian food. Detox from bad sleeping habits- 4am every day, without fail. And a detox of speech- when noble silence was broken, and people started chattering, it was almost painful. I wanted very badly to be alone, to be quiet. Because then people talk, they gather in groups, and then I can’t hear the insects and the waves anymore.

Talk to others if you want. My bed mate on the left was from Poland, the one on the right was Singaporean. At the table- France, Romania, Bangalore, and another Singaporean. Everyone comes from very interesting backgrounds, but the common thing is that they are either already practicing a form of meditation, a sport, or yoga, or they have troubles in their lives. They were marathoners and scuba divers and yoga practitioners, or kickboxers. I admired their bodies lol.  There was a woman I was really envious of throughout the 10 days, she has a GREAT body. I literally mean great. Huge chest, small frame, lovely butt etc. And she was stunningly pretty. I thought she was about 25, but it turns out that she is 39 and already had three kids, lived in many different countries as an expat etc.

I was really jealous for a while because I have not experienced any of that. I am not an accomplished yogi or mother, or expat. I have nothing compared to her. And then I thought to myself- impermanence, craving, aversions. The whole point of me going for Vipassana meditation was to see that my thoughts and wants are making me miserable, and that human situations are all impermanent. This too shall change, it will soon pass. I have time, I am only 23. I have hope. I am realistic, I can work hard. But honestly her body is the best body I’ve seen this year.

Okay this is the end of part 1. It is basically what I experienced. Part 2 will be the intellectual level, the conversations I had with people and how I am going to follow up on my learning.