My First Vipassana.

Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot.

My first steps out of the gate were slow, inquisitive, almost like a kitten allowed into the garden for the first time. The words “right foot, left foot” resonated in my head over and over again, like a mantra.

After a few hundred meters and reacquainting myself with Asian traffic, the natural spring started to return into my stride. My photographic eye was drawn towards objects that needed to be digitally framed and I forgot about the “right foot, left foot”.

I took a deep breath and headed towards the nearest café with free wifi to reconnect to the world.

11 days earlier, I checked into a Buddhist meditation centre in the middle of Yangon wanting to experience this “Vipassana thing”.

On the one hand, I wanted to deepen my meditation practice, for both personal and teaching purposes. On the other hand, a Vipassana retreat sounded like an economical and useful way to spend time in an otherwise pricey Myanmar – a Vipassana costs nothing unless you choose to leave behind a donation (dana).

Instead of going to a Vipassana course, providence led me to Panditarama, a Buddhist centre with resident monks and nuns where (aspiring) meditators can stay for as long as they want. Whilst specialised Vipassana centres only run courses with a fixed starting and ending date, yogis arriving at Panditarama simply join the ongoing flow of coming and going meditators.

Of the roughly 60 female meditators during my retreat, only three were foreign, including myself. The entire structure is set up to for locals, the only luxury for foreigners being private rooms instead of dormitories.

The day I arrived, I was asked to change into the required clothes and not wear anything else during my stay: brown longyis (traditional Burmese sarong), a white shirt with long sleeves and a shoulder scarf, called a lawbet.

The initial introduction was succinct but the instructions were clear: I was to meditate 14 hours and sleep no more than 6 hours a day, with wake up call at 3 am. I was to move slowly and mindfully during all other waking hours of the day, was not allowed to speak or communicate otherwise with anyone unless absolutely necessary. Basically, I was not do anything else but meditate.

Every other day, I was to report to Sayadaw – the meditation teacher – about my progress with the sitting and walking meditation.

Some additional rules were given in a booklet, the only thing I was allowed to read during my retreat. The rest of the socially and culturally appropriate behaviours however, I had to discover during the course of my stay through observation. Although I was supposed to exclude the rest of the world as much as possible from my mind, I couldn’t help but watch everything that was happening around me.

It was an immersion into meditation as much as it was a discovery of Buddhist and Burmese culture.

Being a total Vipassana beginner, the whole meditation experience was rather intense. Sitting still in a cross-legged position for a whole hour and that several times a day was a physical challenge, to stay the least.  Every single part of my body ached at some point or another and my spine would crack from cervical to sacral with the slightest movement. The first few days, I was exhausted beyond belief. Just from sitting and walking ultra slowly. Thankfully, my body eventually got used to the new routine, the pain ebbed away and the sitting became bearable.

But then there was the mind stuff.

The first stage of the sitting meditation was to focus on the abdomen rising and falling with the breath. If any other thought, sound, feeling or other sensation would distract my mind, I was told to give it a label in my head: thinking, planning, hearing, pain, itch…  After labelling that distraction, I was to go back to the rising and falling of the belly.

So there I sat. Breathing in, rising belly, breathing out, falling belly. Rising and falling, rising, falling, rising, falling, expanding, contracting, expanding, contrac… Is it contracting or should I say relaxing? Expanding, relaxing, expanding, relaxing… No, that doesn’t sound right. How would I say it in a yoga class? Perhaps I shouldn’t use the words expanding and contracting at all. Maybe just rising and falling. Yes, rising and falling. Or just inhale and exhale? Yes, that sounds easier. Oh, damn! I’m not focussing on my belly. Back to the breath. Rising, falling, rising, fall… Oh no, I forgot to label the thoughts that I had before. What was I thinking again? Ah yes, I was thinking about teaching meditation during a yoga class. So the label is teaching. Or is it thinking? Or is it imagining?  Aaaargh!!! I’m thinking again! Focus! Deep breath. Focus… Okay… Here we go. Rising, falling, rising, falling… Ouch, my knee is starting to hurt and I think we’re only five minutes into the session. Shall I open my eyes to check the clock? No, I shouldn’t. I should get a little pillow for under my knee though, that could help with the pain. I hope they have any spare ones. Where did I see them? Ah yes, in the blue bag in the back of the hall… Oh crap, I’m thinking again. Eeeehmmm, label, what label… pain. Yes, it started with pain. But then I was thinking and planning as well. Never mind, focus, focus! Rising, falling, rising, falling…

And that went on for 60 minutes that sometimes seemed to last for 60 hours. I will spare you the millions of useless, crazy, anxious, stressed, hilarious, ambitious and obsessed thoughts that crossed my mind in all those hours. I had a very busy monkey in my brain.

Dhamma Hall, Female Meditation Hall at Panditarama, Yangon, Myanmar
Waiting for samadi. Or for Dr Spock to beam us up.

The walking meditation seemed easier: take very slow steps and keep your mind focussed on your feet. If any distractions arise, label them, let them go and go back to the feet.

So there I went. First breathing and stretching the utterly unbearable stiffness out of my body after the seated meditation and then turning my attention to my feet.

Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Now slow down the pace and focus on the lifting and the placing of each foot. Lift, place, lift, place, lift, place… Slow down even more and focus on the lifting, moving and placing of the foot. Right foot lift, move, place. Left foot life, move, place. Right foot lift, move, place. Left foot lift, move, place.

Easy enough, right?

But at a pace of about three steps per minute, my mind was racing as if I was on speed. Thoughts about everything and even thoughts about nothing were distracting me from what should be the object of my focus: the movement of my feet.

I thought I was never going to get to that moment of total focus.

A few days into the retreat however, when the physical pain subsided and the novelty of the new environment had worn off, I finally did manage a few minutes of pure focus. Distractions were swiftly labelled and set aside, followed by more minutes of blissful breathing…

Just me and my breath. Or me and my feet, moving slowly through space and time.

After those sessions, I would feel deeply grateful and peaceful within.

The simplicity yet the depth of the Vipassana practice was a true eye-opener.

When I left the centre, left foot, right foot, 11 days later, I already knew that one day I will be stepping back into this wonderful place to find more inner truth.

But first, internet and catching up with the world.