The whole idea behind it was to understand the workings of my mind to be able to use those learnings in my work and in my life. I wanted to dissect my grey matter to the inner most corridors of its functioning and see what I would find.
But most importantly I wanted to be fully present again. I had been having the feeling for the past few weeks of being “absent” - as if some of me was there but some of me wasn’t. And I wanted the whole of my being to be back in one place.
So I thought: let’s do another Vipassana meditation course!
I had done it 2 years ago and it had been such a transformative experience that I believed it would bring me the peace, clarity and presence that I was looking for.
I clearly had (*conveniently*) forgotten that it did entail a lot of hard work, intense pain and a serious amount of dedication and commitment.
You feel like you are under their total control. What will they do next?
And after HOURS of eye-gazing, you realise that you are not two different people, but one. It’s like in a dream when you can jump from one place to another, one character to another. And you realise that you are not only the prisoner, you are also the guardian. You are them and they are you. So you suddenly realise with perfect clarity that you can let yourself out.
And when you get out and look back, you realise that the cell never even existed in the first place.
It’s a total mind game.
And yet the most liberating experience of my life.
Why was I put myself through it a second time
Is the questions I kept on asking myself over and over again during the first three days. That’s when resistance really kicks in and both your mind and your body resist what you are putting them through.
The course is roughly structured like this: waking up at 4 am every day (or in my particular case, 3.50 am because I had volunteered to wake everyone else up)(again, something about which I asked myself a couple of times: why??) and sitting through 10 hours of meditation, with the day ending at 9.30pm. And doing it all over again for 10 days.
The difficulty increases by day 4 when you are introduced to the Vipassana technique in itself, combined with 3 sittings of one hour each day of “strong determination” in which you do not change your posture and endure the physical pain that comes with not moving a muscle for an hour.
The difficulty comes with the fact that, in my case at least, I start to get an intense bout of needles and pins in my legs 15min in, and by minute 20 they go completely numb and feel like wood.
But that is still bearable. 30 minutes in, that’s when the real work starts. The pain for me was in my hip joints, and to some extend my middle back. But the hips!! It felt like in my cross-legged position my bone was pressing directly against a nerve (either left side or ride side, depending how I was sitting) and that the nerve was swelling and swelling, bringing with it increasingly intense waves of pain.
The first time we had to sit through the hour and having experienced the challenge of that in my previous course, I told myself: “Even if I implode, I will NOT move.” Knowing that the first hour defines all the other ones, I knew that if I could sit that one I could sit all the other ones.
Needless to say that times seems to stop and that every minute that goes by feels like an eternity. I cried after that first sitting. Cried of relief when it was finally over.
But it completely redefined my understanding and experience of pain. It does go up and down and you think you cannot take it for one more second, you find a way to take one more breath through it. And one more. And one more. Until the whole hour actually goes by.
And the minute you can move and uncross your legs, all the pain vanishes within 30 seconds and it feels like you have a new pair of legs.
"MIND - I see you."
I also had a thousand imaginary conversations with the different people in my life. A girl sitting next to me told me after the course that she spent most of her meditations being interviewed by Oprah. And running a “Vipassana Fashion Watch” in her head. Another girl built an entire new business in her mind and had thought through the tiniest business plan details.
An older lady wrote the outline of a book she wanted to write. And when I pondered the question: “okay, how can I take Explore Your Elements to the next level - what should be the angle” - it came to be: conscious leadership. YES! That’s what I was going to focus on from now onwards…
And slowly, you start realising, and UNDERSTANDING, at the experiential level - that EVERYTHING in life arises and passes. And that pain, resistance and misery comes to being attached and reactive to all those thoughts and sensations - whether pleasant or unpleasant. It’s our attachment that makes us joyous or miserable. So letting go of that attachment is was ultimately sets us free.
It’s one thing to say it and understand it at the rational level - but it’s an entirely different thing to truly experience it.
Fascinating - truly.
I also REALLY enjoyed spending 10 days in my own world, my own bubble. You can’t talk and communicate in any way or form with your fellow meditators so I truly enjoyed being in my own company for this entire time. I loved my lunch inner dialogues, the jokes I would tell myself when going for a walk around the meditation grounds (in Worcester, along a small forest and with an incredible view on the mountains) and my inner philosophical discourses as I would brush my teeth in the morning and evening.
And the INTENSE presence that I could find again was almost overwhelming. I was fully and entirely in the present moment. I could feel the breeze on my skin, see every variation of light in the air around me, feel my heart beating and the blood rushing through my body. Moment after moment after moment. I was blown away, it felt like standing still in time, with everything moving and changing around and within you - and yet something in you remaining profoundly still.
Reintegrating back into the world
This is the part I always underestimate.
On the last day, we break silence and can talk to each other again. It’s fascinating to hear what other people’s experience was like and it included a LOT of laughter.
But even just leaving the meditation hall that day was hard.
I just couldn’t leave.
Earlier that morning I actually had a small panic attack at the thought of having to talk to people again. Which for an extrovert like me is quite interesting to notice.
10 minutes went by.
I still couldn’t go out. I would look at the door and hear people talking but I could sense a “not yet”… Also because the last thing we had done on the last meditation was “metta” which basically consists in consciously sending out love to the world and sharing some of the harmony that your meditation brings you. And because we do it all at the same time and over the course of the 10 days you become super sensitive to everything around you, the fact that I along with 60 other people were generating love - I felt this WAVE of bliss and pure unconditional love pouring all over me and it was so strong and the sensation so unexpected that I started crying. Crying at the sheer beauty of it. Wow. It was an incredible sensation…
So there I was, still trying to get myself to get out. When I heard 2 other sniffing girls behind me. And when the three of us eventually got out - we realised that we had been the most outspoken and talking to everyone upon arrival and yet were the last ones in the meditation hall when the time for reintegration had arrived. Interesting!
I eventually made it back to Cape Town but it was too much. I could feel too much, hear too much, smell too much. It’s like your barriers are down and you feel everything a little bit too intensely. I could see people’s fears and insecurities a bit too clearly by just looking at them, at their body language and reading their eyes and it was a bit too much.
I mean, somehow something happens during the course where you become HUMAN 2.0.
While I’m already quite intuitive with people normally, I got to the point where I could pretty much read people’s thoughts. Which was scary. There are some things you just don’t want to know. There are some things I didn’t want to know.
So I went away on my own and stayed in Hermanus, a cute little town 2 hours away from Cape Town where I could be alone just a liiiittle bit longer, while I healed from cracking my skull open and putting it under observation for 10 days.
Have I reached liberation & enlightenment?
I was sitting (obviously), scanning my body from head to toe and from toe to head when suddenly I kind of got into a rhythm of up and down, down and up and out of the blue, it was as if I could feel every cell of my being vibrating. And I realised that something was keeping those billion cells concentrated into a general “Bettina mass” and that there was no actually boundary between “me” and everything else. For a split second I felt like I could disperse all of it in all direction and gather it back at will. And with it the realisation that I wasn’t the gathering of those cells and molecules, but the unnamed thing between them. And so for the tiniest amount of time (if there is such a thing), I felt eternal.
And that tiniest of moment was worth sitting through 100 hours of humming and puffing, crying and giggling, sighting and wondering when it would all end.
Would I recommend it?
I’ve rarely felt as fully human as when I sit with all that it is. So if you, who decided to read this until the very end, managed to get it to this last line, you can yourself to sit through up to the last breath of a Vipassana.
And when it gets tough just think to yourseelf: “aaanitshaaaaaaaaa” (meaning: impermanence).
Since the dawn of humanity, our first modus of transportus has been putting one foot in front of the other.
I know that for me, the rediscovery of this basic yet transformative activity took place last summer in Slovenia. Not that I tend to fly the rest of the time, but I rather I made the decision to dedicate a full 10 days to the activity of walking. In the mountains. Alone.
I had just gone through one of the most intense times of my life (the universe help us on our 27th year of life) and while I was excited to go back to Europe to spend time with my family and friends I felt this call to first spend time alone to make sense of this last crazy year. And the first question was: where should I go?
I considered the French alps and the Italian Dolomites but then, out of the depths of my mind I remembered seeing this poster of the Slovenian mountains when I was in Ljubljana and told myself: that’s where I’ll go!
Without putting much more thought into it I booked my flight to Slovenia.
The next step was to figure out exactly where I should go and what trail I was going to walk. Since it had helped me in the past, I put the question on Couchsurfing and almost immediately got a lot of helpful advice. One guy said that he was a mountain guide, could help me plan my hike and even lend me some equipment if I needed it (like via feratta ropes or walking sticks). Il Capitano as I eventually got to name him was an exceptional human being and became a very good friend, along with some of his friends I met while I was there.
They sent me off on a beautiful sunny day and up I went.
And up, up, up.
1000 meters higher up than I had started, after having asking myself 1000 times WHY I was doing this to myself, I reached the first refuge.
The first question I got asked by the couple looking after the brave souls ending up there was: “How many of you are there?” and I said: “There is only one of us, I lost my dignity on the way here.” Which was kind of true - as I hobbled along trying to get used to the weight on my back and the burn in my legs, sweating every drop of water I had in me.
I woke up the next day before sunrise and walked up to the highest point nearby, which was only a short 5min away in the misty freezing mountain dawn.
That special morning marked the beginning of my 28th birthday and somehow the first thought that came to me was: I’m so grateful to still be alive. I had made it through a stormy year of changes, break-ups and new beginnings and as the sun was rising I had this incredible 360 degrees view of breathtakingly beautiful nature.
The nine days that followed were full of insights and lessons that I got by simply looking around, looking ahead, looking within, and of course … putting one foot in front of the other.
I was so revived after this first solo hike that I decided to make it a yearly commitment.
And this year didn’t fail - as I went on my own to explore the Swedish wilderness of Jämtland for a week.