Riding Into Battle Unarmed, Naked & Already Wounded: Vipassana in Nepal

Riding Into Battle Unarmed, Naked & Already Wounded: Vipassana in Nepal

12 hours of meditation a day for 11 days
17 hour days
6 hours sleep each night on wooden slat beds
Cold water showers in a Nepali winter
No touch, no eye contact, no talking, full segregation of sexes
  • Crushing soul death
  • Excruciatingly, diabolically painful and agonising
  • Heart and body breaking
  • Torturous monastic asceticism
  • Monkish discipline bordering on the insane
  • Deep surgical spiritual operation
  • The chanting the very worst sound your ears could ever suffer to hear

These are all the words that come to mind when I look back over the experience…

So why did I do it?


Vipassana is an ancient technique discovered by none other than Guatama Buddha. It’s aim is to enable one to see how all negativity and suffering comes from within. The idea is that we either crave things or we have aversions to them, which are defined as attachments (sankaras). Either way, both cause suffering and misery. And the deeper the attachment, the greater the misery.

So I have been carrying a lot of negativity around with me. I have had fears and self-doubt and ideas around what my life needs to look like and all the things I don’t yet know how to do.. I knew I had a lot of emotional cleansing to do too, and after everything, there was work to be done.

And boy did I get the chance to do it.


Here goes…

We arrive at the centre and are assigned beds in 5 sleeper dorm rooms. The beds are wooden slats with a thin layer of foam on top designed so that we have no comfort. One of the precepts is to let go of comfortable bedding. The other precepts are noble silence, no killing, no lying and no food after lunch. We are assigned a number and this is the number for our seat in the dining hall. In this seat we will face the wall and eat alone. There is no eye contact and no talking. I’m ok with this. This number is also our seat in the Dhamma Hall which is where the meditation will be done.

At this point we are still allowed to talk, we are given a delicious dinner and then we go to the hall to meditate and begin our silence. We learn the schedule at this point and I’m surprised to see it, although not too concerned yet. That happens later once the reality of the timetable becomes a kind of living nightmare..

4am wake up gong

4.30am meditate for two hours

6.30am breakfast for an hour and a half

8am meditate for three hours

11am lunch for two hours

1pm-5pm meditate for four hours

5pm tea break no dinner

6-9pm meditation and discourse

Day 1

The gong goes at 4am and we jump up and head to the hall, bleary but excited. I’m a little concerned as we did an hour of meditation the night before and I was surprised to find my body wracked with extreme amounts of pain. At this point I am largely ignorant as to the technique and I’m under the impression we are just supposed to sit with the pain and breathe through it. I attempted this and this morning I’m still very sore from this effort.

We go immediately into two straight hours of meditation where we are instructed to focus only on the tip of our noses and the breath entering and exiting. The mind wanders like a wild animal and my body begins to scream and scream and scream. I am still under the impression that if I meet this pain and breathe it will pass. It does not.

I cry and cry and cry, having to get up throughout the day to leave the hall to sob with the agony ripping through my joints.

This goes on until bedtime.

Day 2

When the gong goes I wake with a stiff and aching body. I don’t cry at all today, but I’m angry and frustrated, still only able to focus on our noses with no way to release this pain. I’m caught stretching my hip flexors in my room and firmly told to stop. We are not allowed to stretch or take panadol. We have to continue.

All through the meditations we receive instruction, but it is only to focus on our noses and maintain equanimity to all sensation. Observing and not attaching. I struggle silently with the extreme amount of pain, nobody else seems to be in pain like this and I frequently have to leave the hall to regain my composure. The hours drill through me and there are stints of three to four hours at a stretch where we meditate non stop…

Day 3

Today I find myself crying almost every session. I focus on the tip of my nose and I breathe in and out and the pain never goes away. I approach the head teacher at lunch and enquire about the pain and what is supposed to be done about it. He tells me I am to just continue to shift my posture until the end of the fourth day where we will learn techniques to dissolve pain. The point of focusing only on the tip of the nose is to sharpen the mind down to finite precision.

In the evening of day four we are to begin what he calls a deep surgical operation on the mind. We are on the verge of opening our deep consciousness up and pulling out a lifetime of negativity. At this stage it is important to just hone the mind to sharpness. We are not supposed to touch but after one particularly hard session I’m in tears as I leave the hall and one of the women begins to rub my back. Our server tries to stop this but she ignores her and rubs my back saying ‘its ok, this is hugely emotional, but you’re going to be ok’.

I’m absurdly grateful.

We go back inside and my place is directly behind her. As I look at her back I’m reminded of my best friend in the whole world and suddenly the memories crowd in. All of my family and friends faces crowd into my mind along with the images of the many homes I get to call my own, places in Australia and inside the hearts of my friends and I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I have to go outside and this time the sobbing is a veil being lifted from my heart. Fear and doubt and worry melt away as I realise how privileged I am to have the places and people I do. I let the faces of my people dance inside my mind, silently thankful for the sheer amount of goodness in my life. It softens and renews me.

Day 4

It is now four days of excruciating agony. My body never stops screaming. I try to breathe through this pain. I sit with it. I watch it. I try to discover its medicine but I still have no resources for this. We are situated high on a mountain above Begnas lake. We were told on day one by the server that above the mountain rim that we can see directly in front of us is the Annapurna range of the Himalayas. We have not seen this yet. Every day we peep out of our lodgings, hopeful, but every day it is shrouded in deep, thick, cold mist and we see nothing. We wait. We breathe. We ache.

Day 5

Today the Vipassana technique finally becomes evident. We are to begin to scan our bodies head to toe, part by part, looking for subtle sensations and intense solidified sensations. The pain I’m experiencing is classified as solidified sensation and I am supposed to meet it, observe it, dissect it and not react. Three of the hours of the day now are to be spent not moving at all.

This is an epic battle for me, meeting the pain is not dissolving it for me, rather; it builds and builds until my body is nearly jumping with it. My hips and thighs screech and radiate shooting pain as well as deep throbbing, sharp stabbing and hot tingling. I am able to identify, and I am also able to sit still and not react. This takes every ounce of willpower I ever knew I had and some that I didn’t, and after each session of not moving I go outside and sob.

In sobbing something is cleared and released. Each time cry I’m cleansed and I’m able to somehow continue.

Day 6

Our nightly six hours rest does very little for the ache that soars deep inside the bones and joints of our legs and backs. Though we observe noble silence, we ache together in the way we stumble like zombies up the path for the morning sit. We groan together in sympathy. We walk together in silent solidarity.

Our teacher said this day would be one of the hardest. The sessions where we are not able to move continue to provide deep insight and healing, while the pain layers on top of pain. We are told that at a certain point we will sit and find the pain gone – and this will result in an energetic free flow. We are advised not to become attached to this either, as once we reach this point, the surgery deepens and this is when the true filth will be like pus gushing forth in a stinking, putrid torrent.

For me the pain continues to burn my body. It is an alchemical hell fire, and as my hips begin to stretch in this position it moves to my knees, fire-like sparks shoot behind my legs right through every sit, moving then to my ankles, my lower back, my upper back, my tailbone, and eventually my upper arms, despite the fact they are not engaged. The pain roams around, homeless and carrying a burning brand everywhere it goes.

Day 7

On the seventh hour of the seventh morning we are rewarded. We come out of the breakfast hall with our heads down, shuffling along in our hazy confusion with aching bones. I raise my eyes and see the morning light begin to touch the first peak of the Annapurna range. As it creeps along it unveils the range inch by inch, moment by moment, illuminating the icy slopes in a dusky luminescence. We watch as it lights up in a glow of oranges and pinks, inching along, becoming a whole horizon of magnificent Himalayan presence. We stand like statues as the pink turns to gold, and then to the icy white that peaks always were from the dark of night to this revelation of a morning.

Tears run down our faces and it feels like a gift. We are cleansed by these tears. A new kind of crying, brought to our knees by the mountains. There is something about mountains that humans respond to deep in our souls. Something about the huge ancient presence of being that they carry. When we move again towards the hall we are renewed for the next leg of the battle.

I am surprised to find that in my afternoon of meditation I finally reach the state of free flow. The pain leaves and I’m only aware of diffuse subtle sensations coursing through my body. I’m focused but I remember not to attach to this success, or to develop a craving (sankara) attachment to it. We have been told that when we reach this state we can then prepare ourselves to go deeper: this is when the deepest cuts of the spiritual surgery are made.

Day 8

Part of my brain forgot not to attach to the success of yesterday, so when I come to the hall today to begin the battle I’m blown away by the intense level of pain I drop into. It seems the deepest part of the surgery is upon me. I rage and fight and twist and scream silently all day, alternately meeting pain and exhaustion head on.

There are three enemies of Vipassana: pain, mental distraction and wandering, and sleep exhaustion. At one point I fight all three and I find myself in a rage, imagining myself strangling my mind to make it shuttup, however in this vision my mind is me and it’s myself I’m strangling. I open my eyes with a start. Suddenly I see deep rooted issues bubbling to the surface. I stay still, battling on with non reaction as images sprint through my mind like wounded gazelles running from ten thousand tigers. Building blocks come down and the structures of my inner misery begin to collapse.

When the gong goes and we step outside for a five minute break before the next three hour onslaught, I’m unable to return to the hall for the next round. I’m stuck outside on the concrete embankment. I’m a zombie, at first staring into space, then my heart begins to shudder and crack, finally spilling open like burst artery. The liquid slides down my face and it builds inside me until I am crying like the last lost soul in the universe, rent in two, split and fragmented into every wild broken aspect of self. I stay like this until I can bring my self to return to the hall. The afternoon passes and the rest of my sessions flow with a new wisdom.

I am new, I am still lost in the wilderness, but I am lighter.

Day 9

Perhaps the hardest day of all. I question this technique all day. I feel as though I’ve missed something. Like it hasn’t worked or I’m maybe not doing it right. The pain intensifies and after every session I am more and more tired. The doubt is crushing. The schedule is relentless. The gong keeps us marching to a steady and silent beat that allows no time to assimilate or rest. Another 12 hours of sitting passes and I fall in my slat bed at night a broken woman.

Day 10

After breakfast today we are given slots of time to rest. We are given more food and treats in the form of Indian sweets. At lunch we are able to break our silence and the sexes can mingle. We begin to smile at each other and debrief, celebrating with each other that we managed to make it through. We tell the same story of agony and silent screaming. We are still not allowed to touch, but we connect and connect and smile and there is so much laughter. We still have to finish out the day of meditation but this time we are a team.

We are however, ready to leave, and we are horrified to learn that we will be woken again in the morning at 4am for another three hour stint of sitting before we can leave. Then the acceptance settles over us and we grumble into bed for our 6 hours of release.

Day 11

The morning passes in a dream and suddenly we are free. We hitch our 20kg packs to our backs and walk half an hour through the jungle to find a road and a taxi. By the time we hit town we are elated. Everything seems possible and it becomes fully evident that we no longer have fear in our hearts. The doubt has gone and there is an incredible lightness of being.

Four days on and the way my mind has changed continues to pull me back to the moment, to a detached observation of the structures of desire, craving, aversion and suffering. This liberates me to move forward in my life with tenacity and determination. I walk into a cafe here and pick up a job teaching meditation and it feels like life fully unfolds when you follow the path despite hardship and discomfort. I would say I’m proud of myself but I’m trying not to be attached to an image of an ego self that achieves things, rather, I am confident that I can do what it takes to stay on the path of enlightenment.


ART by @xavieralopez

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