At the beginning of December I signed up to a 10 day meditation course in a place called Kaukapakapa; 30 miles North on Auckland, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. At the time of signing up there was a waiting list. The Centre got back to me and said that if I had a tent then I could actually attend this course rather than waiting for the next course, which I was pretty pleased with as obviously I’m used to being in a tent anyway and I was really interested in finding out about meditation. In Hawaii I travelled with Tatiana who told me all about a 10 day meditation course which she had attended and she told me all about her experience and I was really intrigued. I also thought 10 days of no interaction with anyone must have been really challenging and this piqued my interest.
Vipassana Meditation’s teaching has its roots in Buddhism but the meditation itself is secular and free of dogma.
Day 0: I managed to get a lift to the Centre with another participant through a ride share scheme that the centre ran. I got a lift from Hannah who was from New Zealand and I also met Cecilia from Denmark who was getting a lift too. Hannah had done her research about the Centre and the meditation technique and said that it was all about focussing on the breath. Also the Centre had the capacity for 100 students, there were more women then men who attended the course. I was really surprised by the numbers, I was expecting more like 20 or 30 people.
The centre itself was really nice. It was set in beautiful grounds and the facilities available were really nice. Everybody had their own individual rooms, which surprised us as we were expecting dorms. The course was paid for by donations from previous participants who wanted others to benefit from the meditation experience that had changed their lives.
Whilst everything was being set up on the day of our arrival everyone was talking and interacting with each other.
We had our evening meal and then an introduction with ground rules:
No eye contact
No reading or writing
No use of technology
Do not kill anything (we were given spider catchers, to help us to remove spiders without harming them)
Do not use any intoxicants
No sexual misconduct
There was a notice board which detailed our daily schedule which started at 4.00am and finished at 9.00pm. A gong was hit to let us know when to wake up, meditate and eat.
It was impressed upon us that once we embark upon this 10 days we should see it all the way through, we should not leave.
On the evening of our arrival the meditation and ‘noble silence’ started.
The noble silence from the start was easy and I actually really enjoyed it. Our first meditation session was from 8 to 9pm in the meditation hall. The Hall was higher up than any other building in the facility. From now on the women and men were separated, the men were on one side of the Centre and the women on the other side, so we entered the meditation hall through separate doors. The men sat on the left hand side and women in the right. As we entered the hall, there were cushions on the floor and our seating had been assigned. New students were sat at the back, old students were in front. In front of the old students sat the servers and the male and female managers. The managers and servers were sat perpendicular to the students and the male and female assistant teachers were sat on a plinth facing the students. The teacher is S.N. Goenka, he died about about 4 or 5 years ago. A recording was played of him talking and chanting at the start of the meditation. He gave instructions on how to focus your mind on your breathing and for the next hour everyone sat in the hall with their eyes closed meditating.
At 9pm Mr. Goenka came back on the sound system chanting for a bit and telling us to take rest. The male assistant teacher advised us that we should ‘take rest’ and that we will wake up the next day at 4am to start meditation at 4.30am.
As there were so many people at the Centre. There was a booking system on each shower where you could put your name to book the shower for 20mins. I decided to have my shower at 9pm on the first night so as I left the meditation hall I was on a bit of a mission to get showered, get sorted and get to bed. As I came out of the hall it just seem that a lot of the students started to walk really slowly.
Day 1: The gong went at 4am and I was in the meditation hall by 4.30am. I attempted to focus on my breathing as instructed by Mr. S.N. Goenka. I spent 2 hours constantly bringing my attention back to my breath whilst also trying to stay awake and trying to find a comfortable position. I also noticed that there were quite a few old students who weren’t in the hall.
Breakfast was at 6.30am. It was absolutely delicious. The food was amazing at the centre and I didn’t even need to wash my dishes after I’d finished. I just put them on the trolley for the servers to sort out. The servers were volunteers, they have all previously done the meditation course and have given up their time to cook, clean etc. and it’s a way of giving back to the centre. They do also do a bit of meditation whilst they are there at the centre but they do not participate fully in all of the meditation sessions.
At breakfast I discovered that although we meditated for 11 hours a day not all of our meditation time had to be spent in the meditation hall. There was the option to meditate in our rooms/tents instead of in the hall. This explained why at the 4.30am morning session some of the older students were not present – obviously they had chosen to meditate in their rooms.
We then had another meditation session in the hall from 8 until 9am. As I was up so early I was admittedly struggling to stay awake – about every third breath I was falling asleep. So when the male assistant teacher at 9am said that all new students could either stay and continue to meditate in the hall or go to our rooms to meditate, I went for the latter option and really quite honestly went to sleep as I can’t function without sleep and it defeats the whole purpose of trying to meditate when your head is dropping all over the place because you’re dropping off to sleep.
At 11am the gong went to signal that it was time to eat again – yay! The food was amazing. It was all vegetarian – which was great – I never get enough green vegetables when I’m cycle touring – so this was a great opportunity to make up for the times when I’ve really missed my vegetables.
1pm the gong went again to signal end of lunchtime and time to meditate again. This session can be in the hall or in your own room. After 90mins of meditation the gong goes again to signal the next meditation session, this session starts in the meditation hall with Mr S N Goenke chanting and finishes two and a half hours later with Mr. Goenke chanting over the speaker.
5pm is time for our evening meal. After a spectacular breakfast and lunch I was so looking forward to our evening meal as previously mentioned the quality of the food was superb. Our evening meal was fruit – a banana, an apple, a nectarine and a plum, and that was it. I hate nectarines and the plums were so sour.
6pm was meditation in the hall. At this point it was really surreal watching a lot of the other students walking almost trance like up the slope towards the meditation hall once the gong had been hit. A lot of the students moved very carefully and slowly , trying to not make a noise. They ate very slowly and their movements appeared to be very considered.
7pm was in the meditation hall and it was a 1 hour discourse. It was presented by Mr. Goenke and it was filmed back in 1991. At this stage I couldn’t understand why they had a dead bloke doing the presentation. Why weren’t the assistant teachers doing anything? The assistant teacher’s role during the meditation was to tell the managers when someone was falling asleep or slouching too much so that the managers could go and wake them up. The male assistant teacher was in charge of the air con, lighting and Mr. Goenke’s recordings.
Mr. Goenke was very charismatic as all leaders are. He was able to say things that got people laughing. He did say things that made sense. The meditation is about trying to think about the now rather than the past and the future, but he did also talk about being wholesome and not sinning. The discourse sessions weren’t about how to meditate but they were instructions on the proper way to live. They say that they are non-dogmatic, secular and there is no indoctrination – but his comments in the sessions over the coming days to me started to seem more like a religion.
8pm we meditated again for an hour until 9pm. At the end of each evening there was a question and answer session from 9 until 9.30pm – but I never attended any of them as I didn’t have any questions. Before I started the course I had the thought that everyone is going to have a different experience, and it was an individual experience and so by asking questions I was going to get someone else’s answer rather than my own. Also I was really enjoying not talking.
Day 2: I woke up at 4am. I knew that if I stayed in my tent to meditate at that time in the morning that I’d fall asleep and wouldn’t even attempt to meditate so I went to the meditation hall. An hour later – I’d decided that this was absolutely ridiculous and so went back to my tent and slept for an hour.
Breakfast was at 6.30am and again absolutely superb. Now I knew that our evening meal was fruit I made sure that I scoffed a lot more at breakfast and lunchtime to compensate for this deficit – not that I was really doing much other than sitting around all day. The next meditation session was at 8am in the meditation hall. All of the sessions start and end with a recording of Mr. Goenke chanting. At the end of the session he says Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam which translates to ‘May all beings be happy’, he chants this 3 times and the response to his chant from the students was sadhu, sadhu, sadhu which translates as so be it, so be it, so be it followed by a bow. We were advised that the response was optional, we didn’t have to say it. I found it interesting that as the days went on more and more of the students started to chant it and bow – it was also really interesting as more of the women said it than the men. The assistant teachers never bowed.
I had at this stage disengaged from the meditation and spent as much of my meditation time as I could in my tent sleeping. My paranoid mind started to look around and liken the assistant teachers to being the high priest and priestess, I didn’t know their names so I just referred to them as being Bob and Sally in my head. There was the whole hierarchy where the only way that you could speak to Bob and Sal was through your respective male and female manager and obviously as Mr. Goenke was dead and was a video recording you couldn’t speak to him. I found it odd the fact that you didn’t talk or hear anybody else’s voice except his. The fact that the meditation hall was up high -I started to liken it to a lot of religious buildings where they are the biggest or highest building in the village. The slow considered movements of the students was bizarre, I wondered whether they were doing this because the meditation had actually made them consider their actions or whether they were acting this way because everyone else around them was behaving this way. There were a few other people in the group like myself who stomped around at normal speed and made noise.
Day 3: I decided to be more time efficient and do my 4.30am meditation session in my tent – this actually saved me time as I didn’t have to waste time waking up at 4am. I managed to have a couple of hilarious dreams. They were about escaping from the centre. The centre was a good 6 miles away from the nearest town and I had no form of transport, and as I had my tent, sleeping bag etc. I had a lot of stuff with me. It had also impressed on us the need to stay to the end. One of the dreams that I had involved me using my mum’s car to help me getaway – which initially at the time seemed like an excellent idea until I remembered that my mum’s car is in England and I’m in New Zealand – so of course that’s not going to work. The film Shawshank Redemption came to mind as Andy escaped – but I realised that I didn’t have a Jane Mansfield poster to hide the hole and it took Andy 20 years to tunnel to freedom and I was there 10 days. So the good thing is that my dreams were telling me that I needed to leave, but their comment about staying for 10 days is a very powerful comment and being in the middle of nowhere is another barrier to leaving. Also my other reason for staying was to prove my brother and two nieces wrong – they didn’t think that I could do 10 days without talking.
I’d gotten told today that my shorts were too short as they didn’t cover my knees – my shorts were just above my knees. I started to notice that some of the women were wearing trousers or smocks all made of the same material – I could only assume that they’d been told that their clothes were to tight / inappropriate.
Day 4: Today I started smirking – I started to find things quite funny. I started to think what could I do to get myself ejected from the centre? I was sitting through all of the compulsory meditation sessions thinking rather than meditating. Day 4 was the start of Vipassana meditation , the idea behind this is that you try and feel sensations all over your body and try not to move during the hours meditation. It was Sunday today and I realised today that I could leave and I needed to leave and that spending anymore time here, regardless of how nice the food was, was just wasting 5 days of my life. It was a 6 mile walk – to the next town – but I could do that too. As it was Sunday I decided that there was no point in mentioning to the female manager that I wanted to leave until it was Monday morning when there would be a better bus service.
Day 5: I had breakfast, again really nice. I was not going to mention my intention to leave until after I’d eaten. I then told the manager that I needed to leave, I was told that I had to see the assistant teacher aka ‘the high priestess’ first. When I walked into the room she was sat on a plinth and there was a cushion on the floor for me to sit on. I told her that I needed to leave. She asked me why, and fortunately I did not divulge too much, I just said that it wasn’t for me and that I didn’t want to discuss it. She did suggest that maybe I didn’t try hard enough – and I agreed with her and just said that I felt that if I stayed any longer I’d just be wasting the next 5 days of my life as I wasn’t getting anything out of it. She didn’t appreciate what I said of course; but I was in luck – she said that there was a car leaving the centre at 8am and going to a town and if I could pack up quickly and get to the car after all of the students had gone into the hall to meditate then I wouldn’t have to walk. -Yay!
So I got to the car and I met Maria from Argentina, another student who was leaving. Meeting her was great as afterwards I realised that it was a great debriefing session. Turns out that we were both thinking the same things as about the same time over the past 5 days. It was interesting as Maria had notice me – I hadn’t noticed her, but she had thought that I looked like I was quite committed to the course. She like I had been looking around at the other students thinking who would be likely to drop out of the course. Maria had asked to leave two days previously and they had worked on her to try to get her to stay mentioning that she’d made a commitment to remain for the full 10 days, trying to get her to give it another go etc. etc. So I’m glad that when I was given the opportunity to explain why I wanted to leave I didn’t say much as maybe they would have tried to persuade me to stay more.
The one benefit to the 5 days is that it gave me a chance to think about my tour and where I want to go as sometimes trying to make a decision as to how long I want to spend somewhere has been the hardest part of the decision making; which I know is really a luxury.
I’m now back in Auckland with Sam and Leon.