19 – 30th September 2018; I finally got the courage to do it. 10 days in noble silence and an intense meditation course called Dhamma Pataka – Vipasanna Meditation in Worcester, Western Cape. At first, this trip sounded like a holiday; a calm retreat, up a mountain in the Western Cape but after I saw the schedule (again), I realized this was a workcation for the soul. Something my soul needed and has been yearning for this whole year.
*SPOILER ALERT – This post is longer than usual and the photos are raw. Taken in a rush; before and after the course
The day before the big day, I was in a panic because I have not mastered the art of packing. It’s either I over pack, or I under pack. I mostly over pack, so this time I made a conscious decision to under pack. I packed 3 outfits and a few items to compliment the outfits (kimono, leggings… that vibe), because this is a meditation course. Right? The minute I started unpacking when I was assigned a room, I realized I had done this all wrong. In fact I hardly had warm clothes so I spent the first 2-3 days or so angry at myself for this decision. And so my first battle this started.
The People and Noble Silence
It’s beautiful how people from different parts of the world flew in for this course. We traveled from the airport to the venue with people from Australia and Germany. When we got there I met others from Israel and India. It was great getting to know people from all walks of life but I quickly saw why we needed the noble silence in order to get through this. For some reason; we are so competitive, even with strangers we just met. Who has the better story, better past, better travel diaries. I stood back, watched this take place and couldn’t wait to get into silence.
During one of the discourses it was explained that the main reason for the noble silence was to avoid hearing someone else’s experience and then disqualifying your own. The noble silence also encouraged the aspect of being alone on this journey with no interruption from the “outside world”. After day 6, I finally got used to not talking to anyone, including myself. That voice that always speaks to you, also quiets down when you surrender to this mission.
Meditation and the Schedule
We had a very strict and tight schedule during this course. Literally, every minute was accounted for. We meditated for 12 hours a day; split into different sessions. Other sessions were 2 hours, some were an hour and a half and some one hour. The first 3 days were hell, not only because of the clothes situation but I heard every single thought loud and clearly! It was horrifying how my mind was so loud and the more I fought for silence, the more my mind fought to stay loud. More than that, the wild sex thoughts surfaced, often. Which caused tingling sensations that you could do nothing about.
One of 4 precepts you to took at the beginning was to refrain from any sexual activities; with yourself and others. We learnt a technique called Vipassana, where we scan our body parts for sensations. We had to scan the whole body and observe the sensations (gross also known as painful / aversion sensations and cravings also know as pleasurable sensations) and not touch or obsess about when the sensation would leave.
I went through the meditation sessions with ease after day 5. But not without childhood traumas and daily stresses coming up. I spent about a day in tears over the things that came up, the people I needed to apologize to when I got home and who I needed to forgive. The most difficult part was taking accountability for certain occurrences I saw during meditation, the ones where I consider myself as a victim. This was the part I was most afraid of and I don’t know how, but I got through it.
The meditation session dragged me was the morning two hour session from 4:30 till 6:30. Bare in mind no exercising (no jogging, no yoga) was allowed so you couldn’t wake the body up with exercise. I wasn’t alone in this because I could hear most people snoring in the mediation hall during this time.
On day 6 we were not allowed to move during the sessions, no matter how painful it was you were not allowed to move. This is where Vipassana came into play. To observe without reacting. This was meant to teach you the impermanence of everything in life.
I also learned how I use substances to distract myself. Not “drugs” per say; but my phone, food, social media, books, journals. We use all of these things to avoid listening to ourselves. All of these are temporary solutions that actually make temporary visitors (problems and emotions), permanent residences in our lives. Not having a journal or book to distract me taught me to be still and see every emotion, feeling and thought as impermanent. Not easy to practice in real life but it’s definitely possible.
One of the reasons I had the strong yearning for this course was because I needed time and space to be alone. I wanted to cry when I wanted to, scream and yell when I want to but clearly the Universe had other plans, I was assigned a roommate #LifesHack.
My roommate and I warmed up to the idea of being together in this journey, but imagine needing the bathroom; knocking on the door and the other person can’t answer because we’re in silence. Or dealing with each other’s habits and cultural dynamics. We take those for granted; I’m a brownie from SA and she’s a white girl from Germany, our cultural difference came to the surface but we had no choice but to make this work.
I guess this was part of our meditation journey, had to do with looking at something you don’t like and silently dealing with it until it no longer bothers you. Can I tell you though; after we looked past things that annoyed us, we got along like a house on fire. I know this because at some point we actually understood each other’s vibes and once we knew each other’s schedules, we were comfortable with sharing a room and not talking.
On day 11, when the retreat ended we had a moment where we cried and hugged each other in awe of how we completed this, together. We spoke about all the things that annoyed us about each other, all the things we loved. I woke up to her singing happy birthday on my birthday and she went out of her way to make this day special. We are still in contact with each other, she’s moved on to her next adventure in Australia.
We stayed in comfortable charlots, with a toilet and shower in each charlot. The rooms were small but not uncomfortably small. Apparently the men’s side was not as comfortable and pretty as the female area. We were surrounded by mountains and trees on every side. The down side of being so close to mountains was how extremely cold and extremely hot it got. We literally experienced four seasons in one day starting with very cold in the morning, warm around 12 noon, extremely hot around 2pm and chilly around 6pm. All four weather changes were extremes that required around 3 outfit changes a day. How many outfits did I pack??
The glimpse of sunrise in the morning and moon was breath taking. The added bonus was that there was no phones to capture it so you literally had to take it all in. I also noticed how, during sunrise and sunset, we were meditating and there was something special about those times that made the meditation slightly more intense.
As I mentioned, no exercising was allowed during these 10 days. I think the theory behind that is also to filter out the hormones we produce during exercise which can musk emotions and cause you to overlook what truly is. Hormones like adrenaline and endorphins (also known as happy hormones) are great for us, to a certain extent. If you get to a stage where you use these to survive, they do more damage than good. We had a small garden where we could take walks, going around circles for as long as you saw fit. That was the only form of exercise that was allowed.
During these walks, I discovered something new to admire every day. A different view of the mountain, a new kind of bird, a flower I didn’t see the previous day. My system was clear of all toxins (the food and the air), so I literally felt myself being “high” from the cleanliness I was experiencing. I also lost track of time and dates. At some point I tried so hard to recall which day it was and I failed dismally. It wasn’t until the end that I found out I was a day ahead.
The food was a vegetarian menu. I was delighted because I knew that it would be well prepared and not put together just to accommodate me. We only had two meals a day; breakfast, lunch and tea with fruits for supper.
The breakfast was wholesome and fulfilling. The breakfast menu consisted of oats or porridge (sometimes both) with stewed fruits, fresh fruit, bread with the option of spreads like peanut butter, jam and butter. The menu stayed the same throughout. On the first day I overindulged and felt heavy the whole morning until lunch. The days after that I knew to stick to eating small portions.
Lunch was the wild card, we never knew what to expect. The typical lunch consisted of starch (mostly brown rice), green salad (the avo and the dressing was amazing), steamed or curry vege’s, salads and ginger water. The seasoning was kept at the bare minimum, if at all. The best thing about eating here was the views and the non-interruptions. You were not talking to anyone and there were no gadgets or magazines to disrupt you. For the first time in a very long time, I could taste all the flavors and feel every texture of my food. Moreover, the food was made with so much love by the volunteers (who also meditated with us). You could taste it. There was a day where we were served the meanest, most delicious chickpea stew with beans and brown rice.
Around day 4, almost as though they knew we had sugar withdrawals, we were served carrot cake. Plot twist: it was sugar-free carrot cake, it was a great treat nonetheless.
After 10 Days
The last day at the center was my birthday and it was the best birthday present ever. Although my body was aching, I was exhausted, lost about 3kg’s; my skin was clearer and I was happy and lighter. The bullsh!t that crowded my mind when I came in was at rest. My intention after the retreat was to keep up with the habits I had cultivated; habits like sleeping and waking up at the same time every morning, eating with no distraction, eating clean and meditating everyday. I managed to keep up with two; I meditate every morning for an hour and also send meta to others. And eating cleaner.
If you are planning on going to this course, in my opinion, there is nothing you can do to prepare for it. Just do it. I read an article that warned that the first 3 days would be hell and before I freaked out, I stopped reading about other peoples experiences. Five females left before the end of the course. I lost count of which days they left but it wasn’t easy to suddenly see empty spaces around you at the meditation hall. Sometimes I think leaving was actually brave because this course required a lot of physical, mental and spiritual joint-exercise.
Also; don’t see this course as a cure for all your hardships, but a stepping stone to help you better deal with them. One thing that still resonates a month later was Goenka saying you can escape misery if you just observe it; don’t react, don’t push it away. Just observe. A hard concept to gasp but practice can get you there. And would I do it again? Yes! I’m already thinking of doing it every year or so. Otherwise, there are group sittings where old students meet and practice together are an option.