The longest 10 days of my life, or: my introduction to meditation

Mindfulness is hot. More and more often you hear and read about training courses and workshops, where you learn to live more consciously, based on different meditation techniques. I also wanted to learn to live more consciously and had already started meditating a number of times. Without success. Time and time again those damned issues of the day distracted me. I stopped as many times as I had started.

Be careful what you promise yourself

Yet I continued to be drawn to meditation. “If I quit my job, I will do a meditation course in Asia,” I once promised myself. At that moment that was something very remote, as I was in the middle of a dream job. But also dream jobs have an expiry date and that’s how, one day, I ended up in the plane to Sri Lanka. On my way to the meditation course I had promised myself years ago in a split second.

Creative ways of counting the days

The result? I’ve learned how to meditate! But not only that. I’ve also learned to count the days in all kinds of creative ways. Because sitting still for 10 days with your eyes closed takes a long time. A very long time. I counted the hours, the minutes, 7 to go, 6 to go, or I calculated that on day 1 I still had 10 times longer to go, and 5 times on day 2. From day 3 it started to look a bit better, because from that moment on it was three times and a bit as much. Or: tomorrow around this time we’re almost halfway, the day after tomorrow around this time we’re halfway and the next day we’re over halfway. Slowly, time crept by, while I was constantly wondering why for God’s sake I decided to do this.

It may be clear. It was a tough undertaking. But believe me: it was worth it.

A ban on any kind of contact with your fellow students

Let me start with the easy part: The Silence, or the “Noble Silence”. This is not only a ban on conversation with your fellow students, but a ban on any kind of contact. Eye contact, faint glances, a smile, hand something over to someone, keeping a door open? All forbidden. You’re expected to walk pass each other with a bowed head, so you don’t get tempted. It’s part of the whole process of gaining self-insight, to clear your head and not to influence each other. I really thought it was a relief. To not have to be social, to not tell your life story again for the 185 trillionth time, to not have to be funny, polite or friendly to someone you’ll never see again… but nicely and easily cruising around in your own world, without worrying about what others might think about you.

The peace of being completely shut off from the world

I also found it a relief to be completely shut off from the world. Upon arrival at the center you hand in all your personal belongings. Your phone, books, tablet, writing utensils, everything that could distract your thoughts goes into a large steel box with a lock on it. This, too, has an underlying thought: it would make it easier to get deeper and closer to yourself. It takes a bit of time getting used to, accostumed you are to grab your phone a hundred times a day. WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, E-mail, newspaper, TV, all day long we get a huge flow of information thrown at us and we are always looking for knowledge and contact. It gives so much peace to be sealed off from it. And that’s how you invent other things to do during your (very little) free time. You wash some clothes by hand, sweep the hallway, clean the toilets, practice a handstand, floss your teeth more thoroughly than ever, clean up your toiletry bag again … and after a few days you’re able to not do anything at all and simply “be”.

A plate of rice with lentils and chili peppers for breakfast

Then the part that’s not as terrible as it seems: getting up very early. At 4 o’clock in the morning the alarm goes off, at 4:30am the first of the five (!!) daily meditation sessions starts. Since you go to bed at 9pm, waking up at 4am is fine and I was often awake before the alarm clock (read my blog about getting up early here)

After the first morning session, you have breakfast at 6:30am. No coffee with a fried egg or a bowl of yogurt with fruit, but, BOOM, a plate of rice, lentils, beans, vegetables and chili peppers. Then, at 11am, after number two of the five meditation sessions, you get your lunch. Again rice with accessories. At 5pm a banana with a cup of tea, and that’s the food you get, since self-brought food is strictly forbidden. Sounds heavy, but the human body adjusts quickly. Besides that, you sit on your ass with your eyes closed the whole day, so you do not really burn a lot of calories either.

Spiders as big as my hand and many, many leeches

The basic facilities were a bit of a shock. And let basic here be an understatement. When I stepped into my “kuti“, it was the first of many times that I thought: “what am I doing here?” A concrete cubicle. A frayed curtain serving as a door. A stone raising with a thin, stale mattress to sleep on. Thick, moist air. Bars in front of the windows. It felt like I had entered an episode of Prison Break. Not to mention the shared bathrooms and toilets. Spiders as big as my hand, many, many leeches, lots of mosquitoes and a lost huge cockroach.

Ten-and-a-half hours meditating is a physical hell

Then the heavy – but at the same time most important – part: meditating. From the 17 hours that you were awake, you meditated 10½. Ten-and-a-half hours! That is 10 ½ hours with your eyes closed trying to clear your head. That is 10 ½ hours of sitting until you do not know how to do it anymore. Your ass, your knees, your neck, your back, your legs, everything, really EVERYTHING hurts, is stiff and cracks. Already on day 2 I couldn’t bear it anymore and I asked for a meditation chair. A small wooden chair with a much too low and straight back. Ergo: still far from comfortable, but it improved my life a few percent.

A salient detail is that it’s an important part of this meditation technique, to stay in the same position for as long as possible – without moving one little pinkie. This has to do with the underlying theory of Vipassana, as this technique is called and what means “seeing things as they really are”. On day 4 you had to stay without moving for two hours and from day 5 on you had to do the same… three times a day. Conclusion: physically it was hell.

Frustration and terribly elongated boredom

Besides that, 10 ½ hours of meditation is also really very boring! Can one die of dullness? Because then I certainly left to the other side about 673 times. The morning sessions (one of 2 hours and one of 3 hours) and evening sessions (one of 1 hour and one of half an hour) were doable. An hour of meditating, walking around, meditating a bit more, reflecting a bit on life or remembering nice moments, ending with a little meditation. But the afternoon sessions lasted 4 hours and killed me. Frustration and terribly elongated boredom. Every day I dreaded those sessions and every time I came out of them totally worn out.

Learn how to meditate in a hardcore way

Vipassana is one of the two meditation techniques that the Buddha taught after his enlightenment. The program I followed was worked out by him and is now, thousands of years later, still almost identically taught in the more than 100 Vipassana centers around the world. However, the technique is not linked to Buddhism, or any other religion. No money is ever charged for following a Vipassana course. Not even for food or stay. All expenses (may only) be paid by former students who have followed the 10-day course, have had good results and want to give others the chance to benefit from it. I think it’s a beautiful thought.

Now the key question: did I get what I hoped for? I can only answer YES wholeheartedly. I’ve learned how to meditate in a hardcore way! Nothing of that handy dandy meditation that I had tried before, but serious shit with energy flows – free flow – that you feel through your body and gives you the feeling of weightlessness.

105 hours of practice on meditation

The first time I felt this, on day 5, I just thought: “OK, this is my imagination. The dullness has taken over my brains and I’m slowly starting to become crazy.” But then I managed again. And again. And now I manage to activate that flow in my body the whole time. And no, I’m not out there. I’ve practiced on it very hard for 105 hours.

Of course, the experience itself was also very special. Imagine: sitting there as a white giantess between 25 Sinhalese females of 1 meter 55. And even though you have no contact with each other, you can see and feel that everyone is having a hard time. That creates a band that requires no words.

Giving up was not an option, no matter how heavy it would be

And last but not least. The challenge. I had said to myself that giving up was not an option, no matter how heavy it would be. The thrill that I’ve done is unaffordable. I feel that I can take on the world.

And you? Do you see yourself doing a 10-day meditation course or do you think “never of my life”? I am curious about your ideas and possible experiences!