Concentration Camp

Trip Start May 04, 2011
1
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Trip End Oct 08, 2012


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Where I stayed
Vipassna
Dhamma Malaya Vipassana Centre
What I did
Meditated

Flag of Malaysia  , Pahang,
Wednesday, August 3, 2011

On the list of things I knew I wanted to accomplish on this journey was to attend a meditation retreat. It was not until I met Regina the Brazilian UN negotiator that I met in Selcuk, Turkey that I had inkling as to which program I would pursue. She nonchalantly introduced me to Dhamma.org which teaches Vipassna meditation. She insisted that I read the Code of Discipline and the Art of Living to learn more about the program and if it is the right one for me.

I evaluated the concept of Nobel Silence (no access to phones, internet, reading, writing or verbal communication, including no gestures, no eye contact) and recognized that this kind of solitude is exactly what I need to quiet my mind, slow down and learn how to meditate.

The center organized a carpool, which included meeting a man name Happy Choo and six other participants at KL Sentral train station. In the van I spoke mostly with a couple of locals: a nice young woman name Kai and this guy Shiro. Shiro brought up the topic of relationships and confessed that he is a bit obsessed with reading a line of "self-help" books such as The Game and others written by Neil Strauss. It wasn't until we got to the center that I learned that the course ended on the 14th, not the 13th since technically arrival day doesn’t count as a day of the course. Good thing I had booked a flight out of Malaysia at 12:00AM on the 17th not the 16th which was what the agent had me on at first.  This gave me a little chance to explore KL on the backend.

Upon arrival to the center, the women and men were segregated, we surrendered all of our valuables including the phone, computer, kindle etc., signed a “code of ethics” that included we would stay for the full 10 day session and maintain “Noble Silence” the entire time. Then we were instructed to help ourselves to a mattress pad, bed sheet, blanket, curtain, and pillow case.

The center consists of a dining hall, the main meditation hall aka Dhamma, a mini course hall, teacher’s quarters and then each the male and female sides have about eight dorm blocks with 10 cells each. The 8’x5’ room at times had the feeling of a prison cell. The first night we took our vow of “Nobel Silence” around 9pm and that was when the course officially began.

Each day the wake-up bell would ring at 4:00AM, first meditation was at 4:30AM and would last until 6:30AM at which point we would have breakfast. It was the first meal since we had all taken our vow of silence so all you could hear was the clanking of the utensils, bowls and cups.

Laundry and bathing are restricted to the hours around meal times which are 6:30-7:15AM, 11:00-11:45AM and 5:00-6:00PM. The afternoon meal is called tea break, no substantial food is served merely some fruit and tea, coffee or hot chocolate.  The remainder of the schedule is rest from 12:00-1:00PM, meditation in Dhamma Hall or in your room occurs from 1:00-2:30PM and again from 3:30-5:00PM with a mandatory group meditation from 2:30-3:30PM. Again at 6:00PM we meet in Dhamma Hall for mandatory meditation until 7:00 followed by Discourse until 8:30PM. The English version was presented in the mini hall and was really the highlight of the day. This is where S.N. Goenka explains what the technique is and why certain features are practiced on the day. He is actually a hilarious man from Burma who was a successful business man in his 20’s, running the rat race. Due to a history of debilitating  migraines and countless failed attempts to find a cure from top doctors all over the world, he was turned on to Vipassna meditation. He talks about the teachings of Buddha and always has an entertaining example for making his case about every lesson he tries to convey.

Speaking of migraines, a terrible one began festering for me on Day 2. It was after my effort to attend the 4:30AM session that I caved in and took the emergency Maxalt. I realized at that point that it was probably the MSG that I was having an allergic reaction to since my hands were so swollen I could barely turn my rings on my finger.

Once I confessed to the course manager and teacher that I had taken prescription medication, we made arrangements for the kitchen to prepare some blanched veggies for the remainder of the course. From that point forward, while others ate delicious curries and local cuisine, I learned to be satisfied with my bowl of brown rice and blanched veggies or fruit. It was certainly worth not suffering anymore headaches. I thought for sure I would have lost weight during this 10 day period and probably would have had I not eaten 4 bananas a day and a hot chocolate with condensed milk every night.  Actually I did feel cleansed and healthy while at the course. With so much time on my hands and absolutely no distractions I did try to integrate an hour of yoga and calisthenics into my daily routine. Although aside from these moments of raising my heart rate and walking to meals, I swear I never walked at such snail pace.

When it came time to meditate everyone gathered in Dhamma Hall. We had each been assigned a square pillow along with a small one on top of that. After the first hour of sitting cross legged I found that I required a few additional small pillows under my knees to relieve the pressure on my hips and feet. Never a meditator prior to this I was happy to make it fifteen minutes before needing to adjust my position. But by day four I managed to sit still for nearly 1.5hrs.

The beginning of each session the teachers, who reminded me more of robots than anything else, would play a recording of Goenka giving us directions, always followed by the Mandarin translation.

The first day we learned Anapana. This technique is the concentration of breath solely on the triangle area from our nose to our upper lip while breathing normally. By focusing on this isolated area we are forced to pay close attention to the sensations. It helped that it was 90 degrees and I was sweating so whenever I exhaled I could feel the breath on my upper lip. Having not waxed my upper lip in three months I had a little more hair to aid in the sensation.

Day one’s discourse didn’t shed much light but talked about the initial difficulties and discomforts, reiterating the objective awareness of respiration. He reinforces that this practice does NOT combine any mantras or religious worship. Goenka teaches the “Art of Living,” taught by Buddha. Another words how to live peacefully and harmoniously within oneself, and to generate peace and harmony for all others. The idea is that “through such an apparent, gross reality like respiration, one can discover the subtlest truth about oneself.” He continues to remind us that “misery is universal as is breath and observing breath is acceptable to all therefore totally free from sectarianism.”

It’s amazing how quickly my mind rolls into thoughts of the past or the future. Goenka points out how we classify these thoughts into pleasant or unpleasant and then react accordingly. If it is pleasant we develop a craving, clinging and if unpleasant we develop an aversion and crave for that thought or thing to end. Ultimately the goal of the technique is to purify the mind to free it from misery by gradually eradicating the negativities within.  

Day two I was already getting restless. I found myself agitated by my neighbor who was even more restless and making awful snorting noises during meditation and random screaming at night. It turns out that she was withdrawing from cigarettes and once I was aware of that I was able to turn the misery I was experiencing into compassion and peace.

I understand now why we dedicate 12 hours/day to meditating because it takes diligence and practice to dissect the brain and free ourselves from misery. Tonight we learned about Sila (morality), Samadhi (mastery of one’s mind) and panna (development of wisdom and insight which purifies the mind). It was hard to comprehend all of this information while sitting in the mini hall with no electricity, which meant no fans and no video to accompany Goenka’s voice vs. whose English was sometimes hard to understand.

Day three I was completely bored out of my mind especially during the midday break. I found that I could only sit still for 20 minutes before losing concentration and craving to adjust my posture. But tonight’s discourse really hit a chord with me. The tremendous roar of the thunder and lightning was more tolerable today as he spoke about “impermanence” and attachment. “For one to fully understand that man and the entire material universe are made up of subatomic particles that rapidly arise and pass away, it isn’t enough to comprehend it intellectually rather one must experience the truth within themselves. And only then can we be liberated from misery.” Like a river everything is flowing and forever changing or take a light bulb for example; the change is so rapid and continuous that one’s senses cannot detect it which makes it harder to emerge from the illusion. “Attachment to what is ephemeral is certain to result in suffering.”

“Many illusions are created by apparent, consolidated, integrated reality—for example, the illusion of physical beauty. Actually I liked his example not getting attached to anything like the husband admiring his wife’s beautiful locks, even sometimes stroking her hair but the moment a strand of that same hair ends up in his meal he finds it dirty.

On the topic of attachment, “if there is nothing within the physical or mental structure that lasts more than a moment then nothing can be identified as 'I’ or ‘mine.’ If something is indeed “mine” than one must be able to possess it, control it, but in fact no one has mastery even over one’s body; it keeps changing decaying regardless of one’s wishes.” A good reminder of how much effort we make to stop the aging process. I remembered this lesson when I spent a whole day in Kuala Lumpur after the course taking care of my gray hair and other beauty needs. Lol.

Then came Day 4 and like clockwork I had a breakthrough during the 2:30 meditation as warned. Today we were introduced to the Vipassna method of meditation which took us from the even more isolated area below our nose to feeling the sensations throughout our entire body in order from head to feet. I’m not quite sure how long I had been sitting before I had the sensation that my lower body was in quicksand while the part below my nose was desperately elongating and stretching like a giraffe to keep my nose above a certain point to maintain my breath. 

Tonight’s discourse Goenka explained why we move the attention through the body in order, so as not to neglect any part and to stay on any particular area where we don’t feel any sensation because ultimately they are all so subtle but if we stay for a minute observing calmly, quietly and equanimously than we are bound to tune into a sensation. The important thing is to not develop a craving for a sensation or aversion toward the blindness. If after a minute we still don’t experience anything than move on with a smile. The feeling can be as simple as our clothing brushing our skin or a gross sensation of pain but again just to observe, stay calm, breath and it will pass. Often I would have a tickle on my arm and then numbness in my leg which would have me jumping from one to the other. The whole idea is to not try to stop these sensations but to stay going through the body in order from head to feet and most often the feeling would be gone by the time I arrived at the place where the tickle first occurred. I was getting the concept; learn to be aware, not react, and feel whatever was happening at the physical level and to remain equanimous. Of course I had to remind myself not to get excited by my achievement which was easy because the next day I could hardly sit still at all.

Day five I was still anxious and fidgeting and wondering about the people around me until I could stay with the breath and get quiet again.  Ironically today we learned about suffering, basically every living being suffers. Life starts with crying; birth is suffering. Again he spoke of attachment and our attachment to the five aggregates is suffering. “First the physical body, we identify it as capital ‘I’ and things as ‘mine.’ Then the mental aggregates of consciousness, perception, sensation and reaction, all of which we cling to as ‘I’ or ‘mine,’ despite their constantly changing nature. But when on develops attachment to the five aggregates, one creates suffering for oneself. Wherever there is attachment, there is bound to be misery, and the greater the attachment, the greater the misery.” Needless to say I couldn’t help but evaluate my attachment to “my stuff” at home and even now with the abundance of things I am traveling around with, and how miserable it makes me feel. I do have moments when I am harmonious and I am prepared to toss everything but it takes diligence to keep the equanimity and I feel the difference when I apply what I’ve learned vs. my old patterns.

By Day 6 the pain in my hip was consistently distracting and although I wanted to use it as a test to endure the pain, I finally requested to sit in a chair. I was able to sit a full 50 minutes but now I found myself too comfortable that I actually nodded off. Goenka talked about Sankhara (strong reactions) and when we don’t give in to the Sankharas that rise to the surface the old ones die off. And once they have all been eradicated then we can reach the stage of total liberation, full enlightenment. On the contrary if we generate new Sankharas then they will multiply and we will stay in our misery.

All in all I could feel a change in me. I was enjoying the calmness. I was certainly getting enough rest, taking naps during the downtime but each time group meditation came around I was half dreading it and half looking forward to eradicating my Sankharas.

Day seven: A perfect example of how temporary every sensation is, I was back to feeling my old self today—craving, concentrated on the sensation of hunger and disregarded today’s lesson to have heightened awareness of everything we did today. Including every step we take, how the food feels on our tongue etc…

It was nice to learn about the five friends which help and support us but if not combined with wisdom become enemies. They are: faith, devotion, confidence; effort; awareness (of the present moment); concentration and wisdom at the experiential level.

Day eight: Happy to have this new found awareness and a set of tools for staying on this path of transformation I realized that I am not ready to leave here. But then I catch myself craving or having aversion and remind myself to be in the moment. Especially after tonight’s discourse where he talked about examining the mind before acting. Basically he broke it down into four types of people in the world: those who are running from darkness towards darkness, those who are running from brightness towards darkness, those who are running from darkness towards brightness, and those running from brightness towards brightness. 

For a person in the first group, all around there is unhappiness but his greatest misfortune is that he also has no wisdom.  Every time he encounters any misery he develops more anger, more hatred, more aversion, and blames others for his suffering. This only brings about more darkness and suffering.

A person in the second group has what is called brightness in the world: money, position, power, but he too has no wisdom. Out of ignorance he develops egotism, hence darkness in the future.

A person in the third group is in the same position as the first, surrounded by darkness; but he has wisdom, and understands the situation. This person recognizes that he is ultimately responsible for his own suffering, he calmly and peacefully does what he can to change the situation, but without anger or hatred towards others. He creates brightness for the future.

Finally a person in the fourth group, like the second, enjoys money, position and power but unlike second group he is full of wisdom. He makes use of what he has in order to maintain himself and those dependent on him but whatever remains he uses for the good of others, with love and compassion. Brightness now and for the future.

Day nine: Another enlightened day after a solid night of uninterrupted sleep. I felt liberated from misery J. Tonight Goenka shared how to apply Vipassna to our daily life. It isn’t enough to divert our attention when negativity arises rather face it. Do nothing, by merely observing whatever impurities arise in the mind the negativity loses its strength and passes away. The way to do this is to take note at a physical level, notice respiration and sensation because once it reaches the conscious level it is too strong to observe without reacting.

He listed the ten good mental qualities (parami) that one must perfect to reach the final goal of total egolessness. They are: renunciation, morality, effort, wisdom, tolerance, truth, strong determination, pure, selfless love, equanimity and charity.

Day 10: We were finally free to speak to others and that we did. The dining hall which went from scary quiet was an echo of chatter and it was interesting to see the clicks form. The 10 or so westerners all gathered around one table to share our thoughts and experiences. I could feel a change in me, a definite calmness and ability to not react in my old ways. On this day when an old Sankhara would peep its head I was instantly in tune and able to just observe. The consensus was that we all enjoyed the journey but recognize that the hard work lies ahead of us. I am not ready to enroll in another 10 day course quiet yet but I can easily see attending another course because the foundation is not strong enough and without applying it on my own I am missing the lesson.

Today was also an opportunity to chat with some of the ladies about China and my future travel plans. I feel like I’ve made a few new friends who now speak the same language and I look forward to checking in with them periodically to reinforce my practice.

I highly recommend this techinique, if anyone has further questions please ask.
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Comments

Monique on

This is a great blog post!

Valentinka on

i'm going to go to malaysia next week. can I ask for the full address and phone number of this meditation center?

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