What did it take to survive in a meditation camp? My first-hand experience

17 march 2019, 13:45 ∙ 14 min read

Foto author

Dmytro Marakhovskyi

Co-founder of GrowApp and Grand Master Yoga. Can be seen working hard, building businesses as well as meditating, doing a handstand, eating croissants and simply enjoying life.

10 days. 10 marvelous, frightful days I spent in a Vipassana retreat camp. You might have heard of similar places, where busy and successful people spend a weekend and learn to live in silence being separated from their phones and power. They wake up, contemplate the outer and inner world, sip veggie cocktails near the pool, eat healthy vegan food, and pray to finally escape back to their cozy lives.

Well, that’s only a half-truth. Vipassana retreat is completely free and open to anyone who’s seeking answers.

As for my experience, it was one-of-a-kind and dramatically different from all rumors I’ve ever heard. Nearly 40 men and 60 women from all over the world consciously and voluntarily paused their lives, ventured to a secret place in the North of Israel, to find themselves helpless, confused, lost, metaphorically tied with arms and legs, separated from the rest of the world and doing nothing but meditating 10 hours a day.

If someone had told me that I could do something like this, I wouldn’t have believed my ears.

Here’s the most vivid explanation of what Vipassana is I’ve ever heard: "How many vipassana meditators does it take to change a light bulb? Doesn't matter; they simply note, "darkness, darkness, darkness..."

Meditation

Long story short, Vipassana is a straightforward way to self-transformation through self-observation: you stay in a max distance from distractors and discover the real YOU beneath all your masks.

To be honest, there are people in this world much braver than I am. Yuval Noah Harari, a star historian and the author of mindblowing futuristic books, undergoes a 60-day silent Vipassana retreat each year. That’s literally two months! In a recent interview, he revealed that it’s a meditation that got him to where he is now (to the top of best-selling writers). This practice taught him to focus on essential matters and to separate the truth from the stories made up by humanity.

 

I’m a human, nice to meet you!

If you’ve already assumed that I’m a meditation guru capable of sitting still on a foam mat for weeks, then I want to confess. I’m a guy working in IT (check out my GrowApp startup, by the way), who got trapped in a daily rush, in an eternal desire to do, create, build businesses from the ground up, get things done, day by day, over and over. But the further I got, the more obligations I took, the more doubts besieged me. Is this the right way? Is this MY way? Yep, I stuck in a rut.

I do sports 3 to 4 times a week. I’m inclined to hanging out with friends in restaurants and bars, reading books from cover to cover, and being constantly tempted with chocolate croissants. Nice to meet you, I’m a human! A good son of the tribe. The same as you are.

But two mighty tireless forces kept following me along my way. Their names were Procrastination (in almost everything I did) and Pain (in my spine somewhere in between two vertebrae). Procrastination was a tough cookie.

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Absurd as it may sound, I used to spend bloody days in front of my laptop drawing butterflies, sitting on the fence, and not only metaphorically. While indecisiveness was literally paralyzing me, my office background and sedentary lifestyle united to lay me off at least 10 years earlier.

Now you see why I craved to shift the focus. By the time this crazy idea about signing up for a 10-day meditation retreat in a camp popped up in my mind, I had been practicing various techniques for a year, and that was it.

Was I expecting something from my trip? As a matter of fact, I was.

I longed for enlightening. Complete and non-negotiable. I had so many life questions, and I was thriving for answers. Frankly, I’ve always wanted to conquer the world, and rise to the top. It's just...I didn’t know where the heck this top is, and what I will do when I finally get there. What’s more, I was passionately seeking insights, knowledge, different perspectives. I hoped to calm my mind. I wanted to get my life back on track.

 

How to jump off the cliff. An ultimate guide

When I got to the camp with my friend, I still didn’t believe that I was going to do it. I bit off more than I could chew.

Camp workers took my contacts for emergencies. I got worried a bit but didn’t want to blurt it out. Then I was forced to sign a consent to be fully responsible for my life and to give up even a thought to make any claims in any case. Though I’m a mature guy and I got used to keeping myself safe and sound, that sounded creepy. And my medical insurance was double checked. That was even creepier, I thought, but Israel medicine is widely well-known, so there was a chance.

Just before I said ‘goodbye’ to my phone, I had got a message from my close friend: ‘Please be careful’ – she was nearly begging – ‘people sometimes go nuts in such places’. Was there any chance to fulfill her wish? No way, you’re either jumping off the cliff and diving into deep waters or staying at the shore. I was the first type.

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Not people, silhouettes around

All retreat participants were not allowed to speak, to read (even the shampoo contents), to write (though my ‘smart’ thoughts were jackassing around and intended to jump out on paper), to give any signs, to look into your co-campers’ eyes. Not to mention leaving the camp or at least walking in the garden. In other words, I was forced to switch off all my senses. To become almost blind, nearly deaf, and 90% dumb. Now imagine it for a second. Appealing, huh?

It was as if someone had stopped a car with a roaring engine, driven by a reckless driver, who was speeding on a freeway, by placing a concrete STOP sign across the road. A crash happened. Tiny pieces of my habits, pastime patterns, routine, schedule, plans, thoughts, and typical behavior were scattered around with the force of an explosion.

Stop

That’s what was happening inside, while outside I seemed to be peaceful and submissive in my attempt to succeed with Vipassana retreat.

That’s what some people are – a hurricane in the soul and a smooth water surface outside. You’ll never guess.

The other rules included prohibition to make sex, steal things, kill (I hoped, they were talking about insects), to tell lies (I wondered how it was possible to tell lies if you weren’t able to let a single sound slip), drink alcohol, take drugs (if only you doctor hadn’t given you the prescription).

That was it. All participants were split into “teams” by gender. Women went away. From that second and during the next 10 days I was able to see only my spiritual teacher and the silhouettes of my pals (remember the “eye contact” rule). If there were any droids, I wouldn’t be able to notice.

 

For whom the bell tolls

On the first day, I woke up at 4 a.m., being thrown a thousand miles from home, being forced to get up by the bell that kept tolling so insanely as if it was made to make me suffer. No pain, no gain. During that day I was meditating for 10 hours, ate healthy high-fiber foods, and tackled a panic attack that came back to me at night, for the first time in the last two years.

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That was a bolt out of the blue and definitely not the benefit I expected.

I was obliged to share a room with three strangers whose names I could hardly remember. I found myself between a rock and a hard place.

If anyone asked me that day whether I would prefer being jailed or enlightened, I’d prefer a prison. No doubt, I’d prefer a prison. Criminals can speak and do exercises. I envied them.

On the second day, I got out of the meditation space in a fever. I felt like I had caught flu, I nearly froze though people from the outside wore t-shirts. “Oh, here comes the Enlightenment” – I thought. – “I tamed it faster than Neo from Matrix learned to catch bullets with bare hands”. I was satisfied and proud of myself.

Silly, silly me.

 

How I got my life as a present

The fourth day was the last time I put a smile on my face. Realizing how ridiculous the situation was (40 mature men silently hanging around in some kind of monkery), I started to laugh madly. When I stopped, there was only emptiness inside.

During these days silence was covering everything around me as a weightless and at the same time too-heavy-to-bear blanket. It was waiting for me around the corner, it attacked me in the moments of desperation. I hated it, but I spotted out that my thoughts and senses slowed down, my mind became clearer, the entire I was able to exist not running anywhere, not asking questions, not inquiring answers, just living in a moment. Truly LIVING.

Life was flowing through me. Not my memories from the past, duties or external expectations of other people. It seemed like I got my life back, as a present with a bright ribbon. My own life. Wow.

 

How does it feel – to be a sloth?

Did I mention that everything was as slow as in a sloth realm? We moved like sloths, ate like sloths, I guess even the cells inside of my body pretended to be the cells of a sloth. My teeth had never been so clean, my nails had never been so polished. Frankly, slowing down dramatically allowed me to live in a moment and, finally, to STOP worrying for my tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and ten years ahead. My existence was something wonderful and beyond.

Sloth

On the eighth day, I squashed a snail. I got upset. I broke the rule. I took life. A bit later, I got back to accompany it to the other world. Every living being deserves to be treated with honor.

When I was walking through a garden, I noticed three large colorful parrots perching on a tree. Two of them (boys, no wonder) were singing for a girl in an attempt to draw her ultimate attention. That was a serendipity moment. “Wow” – I exclaimed – and stepped out of line for the second time in one day.

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On the tenth day, we were blessed with permission to talk. Have you ever seen a river flooding its banks? Or a volcano erupting? Each one of us was a cheerful, talkative volcano thrilled to set sounds, words, senses, and emotions free. Pure positive sensations. I had nothing to hide from my co-campers because I had no preconceptions, no prejudices. My mind was clear. A guy that seemed to me arrogant when I just landed here, in effect, was a sociable, friendly mate.

That’s when I realized that I’d been living in a world of phantoms, rather following my vision of people than perceiving them for real.

 

Superpowers, finally

One way or another, the silent war was over. We were the winners. Soon after, 38 of us were allowed to pack our bags and get back home (fear not, the others dropped out earlier).

I could tell you I came back contented and fulfilled, suspecting where my place in this world is.

I could tell you that my inner sight gained two super-modes. On the one hand, I reached the discernment, the ability to see tiny hidden details in people’s intentions and actions, as well as the lurking reasons for them.

At the same time, I seized with both hands unbelievable power to step back and look at things on the whole. A map with thousands of crossroads and chances was unfolding in my mind every time I had to make a decision on something.

I could tell you I reached the desirable work-life balance due to the soothing equilibrium state of mind and soul. Elon Musk would be envy).

I could tell you I learnt to focus on what matters, avoiding the white noise of bustling business life. Checkmate, messengers and emails, you won’t catch me.

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I could swear I lost 11 pounds and got slimmer. Bye-Bye, croissants! (Vipassana is not a diet, please don’t be tricked).

I could prove I became more patient and indulgent when it comes to my surroundings.

I could declare all this, and I will because that’s exactly what happened to me. Vipassana made me wiser and more stress resilient. The deep 10-day abdication helped me get in touch with myself. To study mySELF. A rare opportunity one can get only in such places.

But everything I’ve gone through, and every single ‘superpower’ I gained, will remain true only in this story, my story.

As there are no identical personalities, there ain’t no identical experiences. Or Vipassana camps. Or ways to happiness. Or advice on how to get there. Good news: you can still find your own. I wish you did

 


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