A gong sounds at 4am. Repetitively. It’s the only alarm clock present; the early birds haven’t even woken up yet. You stir slightly in bed waiting for the ringing seconds to end. Eventually, the gong wins and you open your eyes. It’s the first day of Vipassana meditation.
Nothing wakes up your sleepy mind and body faster than drinking warm water – in a metal tumbler.
You’re stuck here for the next 10 days. To you, this is a vacation from your problems. You see for the past few months, you’ve been battling another blogging rut; you just can’t blog anymore. You constantly talk down to yourself, and your new job isn’t as satisfying as you hoped it would be. You simply have no direction. Plus, non-stop city life is becoming less exciting every day.
You need an escape.
This past year you’ve religiously read books by Eckhart Tolle, the famous spiritual teacher. He’s opened your eyes to the universal disease of humanity – ego – and how it affects your daily life and happiness. But even with all this spiritual understanding, you still don’t have experience of this enlightening truth. Maybe this Vipassana meditation course could be the answer you’ve been looking for.
There’s only one problem. It has come at the wrong time. As an events junkie, you can’t imagine missing all those NuNairobi concerts that will happen while you’re away. There must be another way. Maybe you could stay at the meditation centre until the ninth day so that you don’t miss that epic December 2nd weekend. Yes… that’s it!
After a lot of back and forth, you remind yourself that you attended the previous Folk Fusion with Ayrosh. You even danced your feet off when Hyenah was at the Alchemist. Si there will always be events in Nairobi.
So on that Wednesday morning, you pack your carrier bag with 5 outfits for ten days – who will ask? Before you go offline, you make sure to send a generic goodbye message to your Whatsapp friends. You don’t tell them you’re anxious though.
The friend who recommended the course warned you it will be tough. That you’ll be meditating every day like it’s your job. What will happen to you in those 10 days? You wonder.
Thanks to Google Maps, you arrive at Kolping Centre in Karen right on time. Check out your new room and say your final words to your mum. That evening you willingly give up your phone (also known as any reading or writing material) and your freedom of speech. The only people you are allowed to talk to for the next 10 days are the servers and the assistant teacher – the course manager says in your first brief. In that dining hall are other male and female students who look just as anxious as you.
Other than noble silence, there are five rules you are expected to follow during your stay here. Precepts rather: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct and no intoxicants. Now all those are fine except for the first one. What about the naggy mosquito that won’t let you sleep in peace?
That night before bed, you make a heavy promise to yourself. Even though you’ll miss a gazillion events which will be way more fun than this, you will stick through the whole meditation retreat. After all, your woke friends and mother are depending on you to make the most out of this new Vipassana experience. Plus, how would it look if you were back after 5 days, yet you had told everyone you’d be gone for over a week?
From the beginning it is made clear: you are here to work hard. To perform surgery on yourself. Purify your mind from negativities. How? Through an ancient Indian technique called Vipassana meditation.
This is different from all the kinds of meditation you’ve tried before. There’s no visualization on top of a cool mountain or repeating positive mantras to yourself. It’s not about understanding or analyzing concepts in books either.
On the first day, you get a brief history lesson. Vipassana was first taught 2,500 years ago by Gautama, whom everyone calls Buddha. In his enlightened wisdom, he realized the cause of human suffering was craving and ignorance. We are unhappy because the things we want don’t happen, and things we don’t want happen. And we don’t even know it!
So how do you come out of this endless cycle of suffering? Observing your reality as it is. Knowing yourself through experience.
And that is what you have come to learn here through Vipassana.
Apparently, it is taught as a free course worldwide to maintain its purity – you know how crazy people get when money is involved. That means everything is taken care of, from food to accommodation to even warm water in the morning. Neither the servers nor teachers are paid for their selfless efforts. Rather, the whole meditation retreat is supported by donations from old students.
The catch? You pay through your effort. Make sure you master the ancient technique that promises less suffering and more happiness. So that at the end of the 10-day meditation course, like Ciano Maimba you can sing “All this peace I earned it.”
You don’t learn Vipassana on the first day. Or the second. Every day, something new is added to the practice.
For the next 10 days, you agree to let your Indian teacher SN Goenka teach you the art of living. You don’t see him of course. He talks to you via audio tapes played by the present assistant teacher.
His signature is a deep croaky voice, chanting in ancient Pali language at the beginning and end of every session. Every single day he reminds you to work diligently. Work persistently. You are bound to be successful.
The first work days are undeniably tough. How are you supposed to sit straight on a cushion (with no back support) doing nothing but observing your breath? With your eyes closed, you consciously count the minutes in your head. Is an hour over yet?
After what feels like hours, his unmistakable chanting finally breaks the silence. Yes! That means the session is ending. At last, release from this torture.
You prefer his morning singing to chant though. His songs sound like a mix of Gikuyu and French, two languages you’re eager to learn. But how can somebody sing so much and it’s not even 7am? In the last song, a woman joins him – probably his wife – the only proof he did not make the lyrics up.
You look forward to the daily evening discourses. Firstly, it’s the only time you will watch anything on a TV screen or any screen for the matter. It’s also the only time you’re allowed to lean on the wall next to you.
You also get to meet him for the first time. As he talks on the tiny screen, it feels like he’s in that same meditation room addressing you. Yet it was recorded in 1991!
Goenkaji is a funny dude. One evening he makes you laugh so hard tears spring out of your eyes. It’s the only time you cry. He also harbours a well of interesting examples and relatable stories. Discusses things you’ve always questioned about religion. If you could, you would snap your fingers in the quiet hall.
So every day you work diligently among old students who’ve done the course once, or four times before like your dining hallmate (you later learn). Oh, and they were serious about gender segregation. Thick ropes are set up to make sure you never cross paths with guys of the opposite sex. You only see your probably-future lover from afar on the other side of the meditation hall.
It’s a bit awkward. You walk in and out of buildings like you’re the only person at the centre. Ignore everyone else like they are ghosts. You don’t even smile or lock eyes. If you look at them longer than a second, you might just erupt and start chattering about how fine the weather is today.
Sometimes you wish you could just tell your roommate goodnight. Or confess that you used her bar soap a couple of times. But you don’t think she’ll mind such a trivial thing.
You wonder if she thinks you’re crazy for using baking soda as toothpaste.
Since you can’t talk to your colleagues, you learn from observing them. How does she walk all day every day in those heel sandals? You wonder how comfortable it is to sit cross-legged in a dress for a whole day. And that girl with the well-done hair and puffy sandals – must be a slay queen.
The days melt into each other until you can’t tell if you saw the white lady in that top earlier this morning, or yesterday.
Of course, you judge wrongly sometimes. For instance, the course master is actually a friendly old lady, just strict sometimes. She even asks you to send her the link to this post once it’s online.
You were right about the slay queen though.
It’s never a quiet moment at the meditation centre. Little birds sing from the first light to dark. At least 5 planes fly overhead every day and night – so this is how people who live near Langata Road must feel. Oh, and you can always recognize those rowdy Rongai buses that sound more like drones than vehicles.
In those 10 days, you hear so many ambulances passing outside until you wonder if there’s a hospital nearby. And why do they usually sound like a couple of 5-year-olds having too much fun?
If you can’t talk to others, you talk to yourself and nature. Thank God you have a silly mind that knows how to crack itself up. You swear you could never get bored if you were the only person on the planet.
You spend your lunch breaks walking alone (remember you’re the only one) on the carbro road flanked by manicured hedges and potted plants. You befriend multicultural trees and bond with industrious ants. They teach you things about life. Since Goenka asked you to observe, you study different leaves and how they graciously dance in the wind. How you wish you could also be as carefree; go with the flow.
In a moment of quiet wisdom, it crosses your mind – here you learn little about others, but more about yourself.
Just like your friend who introduced you to Vipassana, you look most forward to one thing – mealtimes. Food is the only thing that spices up your plain routine life marked by bells and gongs.
During breakfast and dinner, fresh fruits welcome you to the serving table. A garden salad seasoned with black pepper serves as starters for lunch. Every meal has tea options, with or without milk. No one has ever fed you this healthy since you were an infant.
You take what you have been given graciously. Tame the hot and tasty Indian curries with the plain homemade yoghurt. Even though you’ve never liked oatmeal, your tongue discovers it tastes great with pawpaw. Or a chunk of jaggery (you gave up refined sugar some months ago. You can’t let go of cakes and biscuits though).
A silent poster reads you can take as much as you can, but don’t throw away anything. Perfect! It’s like somebody loves you, somebody needs you.
You wonder why you took so long to try vegetarian food.
With time, you learn to survive on the light dinner of fruit and tea. Even millions of children sleep hungry too.
You make a mental note to donate to Vipassana in Kenya so that someone else can enjoy this fine Indian cuisine (and meditation technique).
You count in days. You’re never sure if it’s a Monday or the 25th. There’s no phone calendar to refer to, only the same old timetable that is posted everywhere.
Every day is different. Some days you feel upbeat as your awareness level goes up – you must be in the right place. Other days you wonder if you’re actually doing the practice right – if it’s really making a difference in your life. Are you really working diligently?
Then you remember nothing ever lasts. Like the terrible pain in your back or the hot weather outside, this too shall pass.
Impermanence. This is your first lesson.
Day 1 –
Since you have more than a week ahead, you’re lazy in practice. In the meditation hall, your mind naturally wanders to other worlds. And you let it. You have imaginary conversations with your crush and entertain bubbling ideas. You think about all the crazy Instagram posts you’ll write after this meditation retreat. You even start writing this blog post in your head.
Day 2 –
More observation of breath. Gosh no! When will the fun start? The one-hour nap in the afternoon helps the cause though. You telepathically thank your roommate for the silent idea.
Later that day, you spot a famous Kenyan author leave the meditation centre. You’re a tad disappointed. You had hoped to interview him after the 10-day course. Find out why he chose to purify himself too. But maybe he had an urgent book deal to sign, who knows.
Day 3 –
Finally. Something new is added to the bare breath practice. Now observe your sensations. Much better.
The Swahili guy starts to get on your nerves. You know, that voice that translates everything Goenka says into Swahili. And I mean everything. You wonder if he’ll start chanting too.
At least you’re getting a free language lesson. Like who knew meditation is taamuli? Or sensations are called mihehemuko?
You realize nature wants to help you. Mosquitoes buzz in your ear whenever your mind wanders too far. Outside, insects land on your skin to test your non-reaction to sensations. You let them crawl on your arm like a runway, hoping they won’t bite or pinch.
Day 4 –
You are finally taught the Vipassana meditation technique. Even though this is what you had been waiting for, you were not mentally prepared to sit in one place for that long (and listen to so much Swahili). After those two long hours, you quickly get up and wish you could get a stiff drink.
It finally dawns on you why you needed those 3 days first. It’s just like how surgeons need to scrub before they begin to operate; you are your own surgeon.
You wish the celebrated author hadn’t left the course so early in his colourful kanga. If only he stayed one day longer, he would have learned the beautiful technique of Vipassana. And got the real deal.
Day 5 –
You will never forget this day.
Lunch is served as usual. Your ordinary ugali with cabbage and spinach. It comes with a butternut squash soup which you’ve never tasted before. But you’re here to experiment.
The thick hot brown soup coats the spiced vegetables. A full spoon finds your watery mouth. You close your eyes and savor all the delicate flavours. This is too good to be true, you whisper to yourself after every bite. It’s the best meal you have ever had.
After the immensely satisfying meal, you slump on a seat outside in the reception. You can’t help but smile. It’s like you just walked out of the house after some sweet sweet lovin.
In the hall, you can finally sit still for an hour. This meditation thing isn’t so hard after all. Your mind no longer wanders like a wild horse. You easily scan your whole body from head to toe, your awareness fully tethered to your mihehemuko.
Till today, you can’t fathom how observing body sensations affects your unconscious mind. But somehow it works. That evening, you start to see things differently. You swear your third eye is slowly opening.
Your mind goes blank for a few minutes that evening. The most beautiful sound you will ever hear is that of peace. It’s a taste of heaven on earth.
After the evening discourse, you finally discover why you’re here. You want to liberate yourself.
In a moment of self-reflection, you begin to question reality. Is life just about turning your passion into a flourishing career, and falling in love? Are we simply here to be successful? Will we look for satisfaction outside ourselves for the rest of our lives?
There’s gotta be more to life. Happiness. Real happiness.
Day 6 –
You suddenly long to go home. You suspect it to be homesickness. It itches your brain like a fresh mosquito bite.
Self-importance. You crave to feel important by being surrounded by love from your friends. Or at least their Instagram likes. Here, there’s no one to approve you.
In your temporary loneliness, you develop a teeny weeny unspoken crush on the girl next door. Now she’s not particularly pretty or gorgeous, but she has this ethereal beauty about her that reminds you of Peter Elung’at’s paintings. You watch as she floats past with her long silky, tar-black hair and silent grace. And hope one day you’ll have the chance to ask her where she got those long flowy Indian dresses that remind you of Diani beach.
This new mysterious beauty sits next to you in the meditation hall for the next few days. You smile to yourself. Coincidence? Nah. Call it the law of attraction.
Day 7 –
You’re not sure if it’s 3 or 4 days left. All you want is the 10th day to get here fast. The savoury food keeps you going though.
You imagine all the things you’ll do once you get your freedom. First, write down all these fantastic blog post ideas before they disappear along with your impurities. Then find out whether that special person missed you. Your mother that is.
Day 8 –
Your laziness is finally broken. You start attending morning meditation sessions in the hall – the latest poster on the notice board said it will help the continuity of your practice. So once your roommate is up and about, you will yourself out of bed at 4.30am. After all, you want to reap the peaceful benefits in this lifetime.
During the day’s practice, you wonder why nothing emotional has come up for you yet, as Goenka predicted. How do you tell that impurity has left your body? Is it through physical pain or unexpected tears?
Once the night session ends at 9pm, you approach the assistant teacher with your concerns. You sit on a cushion on the floor and look up at him expectantly, his hair whiter than his skin. He greets you with a smile; you’re pleased he remembers your name. He answers your burning questions with compassion. And you nod your head in understanding.
Now you can go to sleep peacefully.
Day 9 –
Only one more day to freedom! Okay, two but it feels like one. Tomorrow you’ll finally hear the voices of the walking ghosts around. How will they react? What will they say? You can’t wait.
Equanimous is your new favourite word. You’ve heard Goenka say it so much, it’s become a song in your head. Remain equanimous.
All your life you’ve labelled every experience as either good or bad. Now it’s time to try a different approach. A composed approach. Rather than react to your physical pain, you simply observe it. See how long it lasts. From the persistent pain in your neck to your back, which always subsides with the stretches you squeeze in the 5-minute breaks. You can’t do yoga here
Strangely, the left side of your bum always hurts after an hour of sitting. Does that mean one butt cheek is thinner than the other?
Day 10 –
It’s almost D-day. You know you won’t talk much once the noble silence is broken. And you’re right.
In the morning you’re first taught a new technique: Metta. This is a practice to increase your loving-kindness towards others, and soothe your open surgical wounds. This introduction only lasts 10 minutes, thankfully.
When you finally walk out of the hall, you grin. The air is not just filled with sweet bird sounds, but actual human voices. You can almost feel the metta in the air.
Guys and girls finally exchange words. You feel slightly dazed and not sure what to say. So you simply smile and say hi to familiar-looking faces, now looking brighter than they did on the first day. However, you spend most of the time eavesdropping; I mean listening to their intellectual conversations. Listening is greater than talking.
You are also allowed to touch your smartphone. It looks strange in your hands. Longer. You even doubt whether it is yours; it has your photos and contacts though. You call your mum and a few friends to let them know you’re okay. And that you didn’t get enlightened yet.
That afternoon, you spot a few students leaving the meditation centre. Maybe you still have a chance to catch those Nairobi concerts tonight. But you don’t go.
Normally this would bother you all evening. But this time around, you observe how you feel and remind yourself of your commitment. You’re here for a reason.
Before bedtime, you break the ice with your roommate. She doesn’t bring up the toothpaste issue, even though you are more than ready to explain your hippie ways. Instead, you learn she’s an avid traveller and painter from Holland (or the Netherlands if you like). You can’t wait to see her wild paintings in the outside world.
Day 11 –
This is the day! Before your long-awaited release, there’s one more thing. Everyone shows up to the hall at 4.30 am for the last meditation session followed by a final discourse.
S.N. Goenka in his familiar rough voice tells you this is the first step on the long path of Dhamma, or truth. You have only completed kindergarten. He assures that you don’t have to blindly accept everything he says like it’s religion. Take whatever you need to carve your own path to lasting happiness.
The 10-day Vipassana experience opens your eyes to your old habit patterns – it’s always been about you and your own happiness. You are actually not as selfless as you think. This realization makes you want to care more about other people. After all, everyone is suffering in their own way.
Goenka then leads the last metta of the Vipassana course. As he chants, your whole attention is on his words. “May all beings be happy.” You feel your heart burning. Strange new energy takes over you. As you agree, your whole body vibrates. This is the first time this has happened.
After a necessary group photo outside, your roommate convinces you and an Ethiopian lady to have breakfast at a Dutch bakery shop nearby. She’s been craving coffee the whole week- not Arabica. So you drag your stuffed suitcases to the roadside shop. More international students later join you for your final meal together.
That Sunday you slip back quietly into your normal life. No loud Whatsapp broadcast announcing your grand escape from prison. You speak less to people because you have become more comfortable in silence.
Life outside is actually harder than inside, you soon realize. With so many attractions and distractions, you have to deal with new egos and cravings. On the first day, you can feel anxiety and lack of awareness creeping in. You almost wish you could go back and live there quietly and equanimously.
Contrary to your expectations, things are still the way you left them. You still don’t have psyche to blog or post on your social media, despite all the bubbling ideas you have. The only difference is you notice your bodily sensations more often, even with your eyes open.
At least you now have a new daily meditation practice to rely on. The thought of sitting down to do nothing but scan your body for an hour strangely excites you. Sometimes you go so deep into meditation that you can’t feel your hands resting on your laps at the end of the session.
After the first week, you finally start to see the effects of your continuous practice. You don’t react to difficult situations or emotions as quickly as you used to before. If someone annoyed you before, you would react immediately with a frown and fierce resistance. Now, you observe your sensations for the first few seconds. There’s a deep feeling in your stomach, okay. You don’t have to do anything about it but observe.
You have more control over your happiness now.
So what if you’re not the consistent blogger you used you be? So what if you have no clear direction in life as the entire human population expects of you? At least you could wake up today and dress like a hippie.
And you already know from experience, everything eventually passes.
You give yourself a year to do the 10-day meditation course again. Maybe even become a selfless Dhamma server. Not in Nairobi though, you’ve heard enough Rongai drones and flying aircraft for a lifetime. Maybe in Ethiopia or in one of the Vipassana centers around the world. Hopefully one with plenty of trees too so you can make new leafy friends.
Everyone needs Vipassana – you slowly start to sound like S.N. Goenka. Yes, from the meditation centre’s watch-woman who was always glued to her phone to the busy man in his palatial too-big-for-three-kids mansion on the other side of the wall. Suffering does not discriminate.
Gongs can wake you up before the earliest birds. Books can change your mindset and behaviour. Vipassana might change your life.