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How to Reach Nirvana in Only 7 Days [English Version]

Silent Retreat at a Buddhist Centre

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I recently decided to embark on a path of spiritual evolution more challenging than others, in order to better understand the depths of my unconscious and perhaps move even one step closer to nirvana. The experience I took part in consisted of a silent spiritual retreat based on Buddhist Vipassana meditation. The retreat has a duration of 7 to 26 days and takes place in a complex of temples in the city of Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, at Wat Ram Poeng temple. Vipassana originates in India and is one of the most ancient meditation techniques that aim at seeing things clearly through mindfulness. To reach this mental state, a few conditions must be met. Firstly, meditators are required to fully comply with the teachings of this type of meditation and avoid integrating other disciplines during the course. This way, only at the end of the retreat can meditators uncontaminatedly know whether Vipassana suits them or not.

Logistical matters

From a logistical point of view, upon check-in, it is necessary to surrender all electronic devices (including one’s smartphone) and books. Both reading and writing are not allowed. Meals take place only twice a day to follow a 20/4 intermittent fasting pattern. The allowed amount of sleeping hours is no more than six. No form of communication is allowed, except for talking with the guru or the spiritual teacher. The dress code is total white, including underwear. On the first day, after delivering one’s personal belongings and getting dressed in white, the opening meditation, which marks the actual beginning of the practice, takes place. From this moment on, until the closing meditation on the last day of the retreat, days are structured as follows: At 4:00 a.m., bells wake you up. At 4:20 a.m., you meet the others in one of the multiple temples to prostrate to Buddha, chant in Pali (Buddha’s language), and perform the first meditation session of the day. Breakfast is at 6:30 a.m. They serve sparsely cooked Thai food because the only purpose of food is the sustenance of the physical body, not its pleasure. Lunch is served at 10:30 a.m. with the same approach. At 3:00 p.m., you would meet the guru to report about the previous 24 hours, and 10:00 p.m. is the earliest time you are allowed to go to bed. Sleeping earlier than 10:00 p.m. is not allowed because, as I mentioned before, the maximum amount of allowed sleeping hours is six.

The practice

Well, if this routine sounds like an ordeal, I can guarantee that both for me and my meditation companions (we discussed this at the end of the practice), this was not the problem at all. The toughest part was the rest of the day. During the remaining hours of the day, you have to meditate following two alternate and repeated modalities: walking meditation and sitting meditation. For the first one, you start in an erect position, becoming aware of being standing and any movement you are about to make with your lower limbs. Once you are aware, you can start walking tiny steps and cover a distance of around 2 meters in about 10 minutes. Then you turn, come back, and continue until the timer runs out. (By the time the guru increases the duration of the meditations. Forty minutes for each meditation type is the maximum reached after about one week.) To give you a better idea of how slow the movement is, it happened to me more than once that a fly would land on my toes, and my gait was so slow and cautious that the fly did not perceive my movement. Thus, heedless of me walking, the fly would lay there for 10 or 15 minutes. At the end of the walking meditation, you would start the sitting meditation. While sitting in the lotus position, you bring your attention to your breath for another 40 minutes. You can only imagine the physical pain caused by maintaining the same position for such a long time multiple times a day.

You might be wondering what all this is for. Well, according to Vipassana meditation, deprivation of physical needs such as food, sleep, communication, and external stimuli is the only way for the subconscious mind to emerge. In fact, the practice is a continuous succession of contrasting feelings, and the goal is to name these sensations/feelings as soon as they arise so that you can recognize them and stop identifying yourself with them.

The thinking mind [Errata corrige: the deceptive mind]

Allow me to give you an example of something (extremely real) that I experienced on the third or fourth day of the retreat. I will provide a verbatim report of what I wrote down in my personal journal at that time (although we were not allowed to write initially, a few days later the spiritual teacher gave us permission to jot down our thoughts) to better express my emotions at that time. The following text is a literal transcription of my writings:

A few hours ago, I experienced something terrible. Following a meditation session (walking + sitting) that I enjoyed more than others, I suddenly entered a paranoid state of mind. My mind started thinking that I am like Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island. The more I entertained that possibility, the more everything started making sense. Now it is hard for me to make concrete examples since when you try to explain paranoia a posteriori, all the meaning that those thought forms had a few moments earlier suddenly vanishes. I wanted either to demand my smartphone to video call a friend and ask him to assure me I am not crazy while looking at him in the eyes, or to share this experience with the teaching monk (Phra Sukito), with the risk that he would require compulsory health treatment for me in a psychiatric institute in case I was not already there. I mustered the courage and talked to him.

  • Andrea: “After my last meditation session, I started experiencing paranoia.”
  • Phra Sukito: “Paranoia?”
  • Andrea: “Have you ever watched the film Shutter Island?”
  • Phra Sukito: “I have.”
  • Andrea: “Well, I started thinking that this could be a psychiatric institute, and I am the patient.”
  • Phra Sukito: “That is the feeling of fear that came up.”
  • Andrea: “Does it mean that I’m subconsciously afraid of being crazy?”
  • Phra Sukito: “Not necessarily.”
  • Andrea: “I see. I used to have only one fear. I was afraid of mice. So, I once forced myself to stay close to them in order to overcome my only and last fear.”
  • Phra Sukito: “You cannot overcome fear.”
  • Andrea: “Indeed. I buried it, and it came up even stronger.”
  • Phra Sukito: “Exactly.”

Now, all this seems beyond the limits of absurdity to me too. But I swear that up until two hours ago, this was fucking real. All it took was to give that sensation the name of fear for it to suddenly fade away.

After writing these pages, I returned to the place where the paranoia began so that it could resurface, and I could look at it with wiser eyes, without identifying myself with it. It worked. It resurfaced, although a zillion times weaker, and I didn’t even have to consciously disidentify since it was already clear that it was something external to me. Furthermore, this second round helped me understand that it was not just fear but also anxiety. How many times did I say I am a guy without fear and anxiety after overcoming my fear of mice? Well, now it was clear that I had simply buried them. From now on, I can instead say, “I am able to recognize the sensation of fear/anxiety, and I have the tools not to identify myself with it.”

I experienced many anecdotes like this, each one different from the other. However, I decided to share with you the most powerful one to avoid influencing your personal experience in case you decide to embark on this spiritual path one day.

Wat Ram Poeng – yes or no?

As you might have gathered from my story, Wat Ram Poeng is, in my opinion, an incredibly dichotomous experience that alternates periods of frustration and restlessness with moments of absolute beauty and unconditional love for creation. Wat Ram Poeng is an incredible place physically located on the western border of the city of temples, Chiang Mai. However, once you are here, you are transported to a dimension that has little in common with the world as we know it. The closest reference in my knowledge to this surreal place is the film Astral City: A Spiritual Journey (original Portuguese title: “Nosso lar,” which translates to “our home”) based on the novel by Brazilian spiritist medium Chico Xavier. I suggest you watch this film (it is also available on YouTube) because, besides being my favorite film, according to many mediums, it is a faithful representation of life after death.

I made this parallelism with the Vipassana centre not only because it bears a striking resemblance to “Nosso lar” (everyone dressed in white), but also because of the dichotomy I mentioned earlier. Chantal Dejean, a writer and speaker in the spiritual field, believes that when our physical body ceases to exist, we end up in a dimension that vibrates with our state of consciousness and where we are required to do the shadow work we did not do while we were incarnated. Wat Ram Poeng is not far from all this. What appears to be light, love, and brotherhood from the outside conceals all the suffering that this branch of Buddhist meditation entails. What seems like a group of enlightened souls, dressed in white, aspiring to raise their vibrational level and soar to the divine, requires, like yin and yang, the other side of the coin.

Kneeling to Buddha (sitting on one’s heels for men and on the foot sole for women) with your hands in anjali position is just one of the multiple positions that only those who have tried it out can understand how painful even a few minutes in this position can become. However, I can guarantee you that the benefits coming from this experience far outweigh the pain and suffering. So, if this article has motivated you, even just a little bit, to cleanse your karma and save yourself some years in purgatory, here is the link to the centre.

Post scriptum

PS: I would like to share two interesting facts/anecdotes that I was unable to include in the article but wish to share.

Interesting fact 1: On the morning of the first day of the spiritual retreat, before I went to the temple, I checked out of the hotel where I was staying. The receptionist asked me about my next destination, and I told him about the retreat. He exclaimed, “Be careful, it’s full of spirits over there.” I am sharing this anecdote because I think it speaks volumes about the people and is one of the aspects I love most about these places. In the Western world, I find it hard to imagine a receptionist discouraging someone from going to a place because it is haunted.

Interesting fact 2: In Thailand, before the national school system was established, children and teenagers used to spend a lot of time at temples where monks taught them how to read and write, as well as the art of meditation. Even nowadays, many male teenagers try to spend a period of time (usually a few months) at a Buddhist temple before entering adulthood or starting their marital life. This way, they can learn from the Buddhist teachings how to be patient, loyal, and well-behaved in general.

PPS: The purpose of this article is to recount a personal and subjective experience. I apologize for any inaccuracies regarding the teachings of this branch of Buddhism. These are the teachings of Vipassana meditation as I understood them.

The Italian version of this article is available here.

Andrea Ferri Autore presso La Mente Pensante Magazine
Andrea Ferri
Interprete | Traduttore | Nomade Digitale
Bio | Articoli | Video Intervista AIPP Febbraio 2024
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