“BANG!” is what I hear next to me as I wait in the car for an open bridge. I look to my side and see that the side window has shattered into a thousand pieces. “Okay, that’s unfortunate,” I think. Once I’ve stepped out of the car and walked around, I think, “Yes, that’s really broken.” Several possibilities cross my mind: “Should I move the car onto the bike path?” or “Maybe I should just keep driving and find a quiet spot.” I get back in the car, and when the bridge closes, I spot a brasserie nearby. I park the car there and only then realize how calmly I’m handling the situation. I decide to celebrate that calmness by having a cup of tea at the brasserie. And well, why not look at the lunch menu too?
Two weeks earlier, I set out with a healthy dose of anticipation toward the easternmost part of the Achterhoek. I’m on my way to the Hof van Kairos, where I will be participating in a silent retreat. Two people are accompanying me, and all three of us share that same sense of anticipation. We discuss our expectations for the retreat and our reasons for attending. I share, “As a software developer, my work can be quite hectic. And in my free time, I fill every moment to the brim with various activities. There’s never a moment of rest. I’m a bass guitarist in several bands; I enjoy running; I create wooden sculptures; I love reading; I sail… And my friends and family are important to me too. I try to fill my weeks so that everything fits perfectly. But all of this takes its toll. There’s never peace in my mind. And then, I’m 33 years old. So, it’s also a ‘I-don’t-know-what-I-want-to-do-with-my-life-because-I’m-in-my-thirties’ kind of thing.” Listening to the stories of my fellow travelers, I realize I have nothing to complain about. But well, there’s no turning back now.
Upon arrival, we are warmly welcomed by Guus Went and Jerome Stoel, who will be our guides. The Hof van Kairos is a large farmhouse, beautifully renovated without losing its characteristic charm. It has a beautifully landscaped garden and a large meditation room. I share a room with another person. After all thirteen participants have gathered, we introduce ourselves. It’s a mix of people with various reasons for coming, but there’s a common theme: “finding peace.” Guus and Jerome explain the evening’s and the following days’ program in a relaxed manner, and their calm and confident demeanor instantly eases my tension. We start with the first sitting meditation. Thoughts run through my head: “Where should I sit?” “How does this cushion work?” “Everyone else probably understands this except me.” Feeling self-conscious, I shift around and try to find a comfortable posture. Guus patiently explains how to sit so that your spinal vertebrae stack neatly on top of each other. Feeling awkward, I fidget and adjust until I find a good position. “Now, calmly focus your attention on sitting,” Guus says, “and feel the points where you make contact with the cushion and the mat. Do you feel hardness? Softness? Are you in balance?” I’m still quite self-conscious as I explore this and glance around to see how others are doing. Then we move on to the meditation exercise itself.
Rising and Falling
Guus and Jerome teach a Burmese form of Vipassana following the Mahasi method in the tradition of U Pandita. We receive the instructions, and I hear for the first time the words “rising and falling.” But certainly not for the last time. Guus explains, “During sitting meditation, focus your full attention on the rising and falling of the abdomen. And label it with ‘rising, rising’ and ‘falling, falling’.” “Okay, that sounds simple enough,” I think. But that’s where things start to go wrong. Guus continues, “There will be ‘objects’ that demand your attention. Thoughts will arise. Label them with ‘thinking, thinking.’ Or you might hear sounds. Label them with ‘hearing, hearing.’ Or you might feel some pain. Label it with ‘pain, pain.’ In these cases, direct all your attention to this object and investigate it. Where is it happening? What shape does it have? Is it hard? Soft? Warm? Cold? Is it getting stronger, weaker, staying the same?” “Well, that should be doable. I mean, just say ‘rising, rising,’ ‘falling, falling.’ How hard can it be?” I’m thinking to myself. And then suddenly, it dawns on me: “Oh, no! I haven’t been paying attention to rising and falling at all lately. I’ve had entire discussions going on in my head. In fact, I’m STILL thinking right now! AARGH!” So, back to feeling the rising and falling of the abdomen. After ten seconds, the next thought pops into my head. With mild frustration and a smile, I return to focusing on the rising and falling. And sure enough, there I go again: “Wow, this thinking is quite persistent. How can you drive yourself so crazy? Meditating is quite challenging, actually. But luckily, now I’m back to rising and… OH NO! Not at all! ‘Thinking, thinking’.”
Then, the gong sounds, two small brass discs striking each other. A pleasant sound. Also because I’ve been clenching my teeth for the past hour. Sitting for an hour is more painful than I thought.
Next comes the walking meditation. Here, we focus solely on the act of walking. We note ‘right, right’ and ‘left, left,’ depending on which foot moves forward. There are also more detailed walking meditations where the movements are broken down into smaller parts. With thirteen people in the room, I find a spot to take my steps mindfully. I try to be fully present in my walking. But it’s still very challenging. I sneak a peek at how others are doing. “Oh, he’s walking much slower,” and “That person is walking straight toward me; I need to turn around!” My mind races.
The gong sounds once more, signaling that we’re done for the day. The silence has already begun. We don’t speak to each other or make eye contact. Full of impressions, I return to my room and quickly fall asleep. The ‘alarm’ goes off at five o’clock.
ting… ting… ting… ting… I hear. That’s the gong. Five o’clock. The first official day. With a groggy head, I shower and head downstairs.
The next ten days look like this:
- 05:00 AM – 05:30 AM: Wake up
- 05:30 AM – 06:15 AM: Walking meditation
- 06:15 AM – 07:00 AM: Sitting meditation
- 07:00 AM – 08:30 AM: Breakfast & rest
- 08:30 AM – 09:30 AM: Sitting meditation
- 09:30 AM – 10:30 AM: Walking meditation
- 10:30 AM – 11:30 AM: Sitting meditation
- 11:30 AM – 12:00 PM: Walking meditation
- 12:00 PM – 02:00 PM: Warm meal & rest
- 02:00 PM – 03:00 PM: Sitting meditation
- 03:00 PM – 04:00 PM: Walking meditation
- 04:00 PM – 05:00 PM: Sitting meditation
- 05:00 PM – 05:30 PM: Yoga
- 05:30 PM – 06:00 PM: Broth/tea
- 06:00 PM – 07:00 PM: Dhamma talk and instructions
- 07:00 PM – 08:00 PM: Walking meditation
- 08:00 PM – 09:00 PM: Sitting meditation
The first walking session goes well, but the sitting session that follows is a struggle. I’m recovering from a cold and constantly coughing. And everyone finds it annoying. I think. So, I’m only focused on ‘not coughing, not coughing.’ That, of course, backfires. And when I think the gong will never sound again, I hear it. Finally! Breakfast! And that’s quite strange. Standing in line to get your food. “What should I take?” “Oops, I bumped into someone.” “Hmm, where should I sit?” “That person is eating quickly, probably not being mindful!” My thoughts keep flowing, especially about others and how strange they must find me. Then we continue with sitting, walking, sitting, walking. Coughing, pain, thoughts, a strong desire for the gong. At 12:00 PM, we receive the warm meal, also the last food of the day. The food is truly excellent and prepared by two women who have previously attended retreats and now want to give back. Every day, they cook elaborately, including dessert. I had imagined the food to be much more austere, so this is a pleasant surprise. After lunch, we continue. I notice that I can sustain more effort and concentration on the primary object. During walking, I observe which muscles tense when, which parts of the foot make contact with the ground.
At six o’clock, a Dhamma talk is given, something I’ve been looking forward to. I’m very curious about where this all comes from, why we do it this way. I already noticed yesterday that the retreat has a strong Buddhist foundation. Recently, I’ve been exploring Islam, and I believe there are many beautiful aspects to this religion. With an entirely open mind, I now want to learn about Buddhism and see if I can find any similarities. The Dhamma talk is about the foundation of the Vipassana retreat. It covers showing respect, taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma (instructions), and the Sangha (teachers), as well as the precepts. The precepts are intentions of Buddhists with some additional rules for during the retreat. They involve not taking life, not taking what has not been given, and not lying. Before each Dhamma talk, we recite several texts about respect, refuge, and precepts. These are recited in Pali, and we are invited to join in. In the first few days, I think, “Well, I’m not sure yet.” Chanting these texts together feels a bit cult-like. But later, I start to realize that the texts themselves are pure and honest. Nothing is imposed, and I actually completely agree with them. So, after a few days, I happily join in with the recitations.
Slowly, the days start to blend together. My coughing disappears and is no longer an issue. But the pain remains. In my knees, tailbone, buttocks, back… So, I take the pain as my meditation object. And when I’m completely focused on the pain in my left knee on the second day, it suddenly disappears, and I return to observing the rising and falling of my abdomen. Shortly after, I start smiling, and tears come to my eyes. I suddenly feel intensely happy. That moment may have lasted only a few seconds because, before I know it, I’m thinking about it, and it’s gone. “What was that?!? Wow!” I can’t seem to return to it during the session or for the rest of the day. But I do know that it’s something very special. And at the same time, entirely my own. Not easily conveyed in words.
Frustration and Trust
More of those moments happen, especially when I least expect them. But on the fifth day, things go wrong. I struggle the whole day, feel frustrated, and wrestle with my breath. When during the second-to-last sitting session at 4:00 PM, I think, “WHEN WILL THAT *#@% GONG SOUND ALREADY?,” I’m angry. At everything. At the gong, at the Sangha, at my fellow Yogis, especially at myself. “I don’t want this nonsense anymore,” I think. Suddenly, Guus stares at me intensely. That startles me. I don’t know if he sees my anger, but I quickly look away. During the Dhamma talk and the next walking session, I find peace. A sense of resignation comes over me. “We’ll see how it goes,” I think. Mindfully, I walk back to my sitting meditation spot, and the moment my buttocks touch the cushion, I suddenly feel a sense of coming home. It’s so powerful and completely unexpected that it overwhelms me. I can focus entirely on the rising and falling and quickly, a wave of warmth and happiness washes over me. My trust is suddenly fully restored.
I experience moments of frustration later on, but I have complete trust in the instructions. I have tasted that joy several times now, and I know deep inside that it’s true. That this is what I’m searching for. Clear wisdom emerges at completely unexpected moments. They appear unasked. Wisdom that is very personal. And wisdom that you might find on a Delft blue tile. But it comes from such a deep place that I know it’s true. Something you can only experience for yourself through practice.
On the tenth day, when the silence is gently broken and experiences are shared in a circle, it’s a celebration of recognition. Everyone has struggled with pain, frustration, thoughts, and sounds. And no, no one noticed that I coughed a lot. When saying goodbye, Jerome tells me, “At some moments, you were a source of support for me; your sitting with so much calm and determination.” That surprises me and I take it as a beautiful compliment.
On Friday, we drive back into the city. I feel a slight headache from all the talking and the traffic around me. Jerome and Guus have warned us about this. And when I drop off my fellow traveler in Leiden and drive home, the bridge barriers close. Without any suspicion, I turn off the engine and focus on the rising and falling. The headache disappears, and I find peace.
And then suddenly: “BANG!” But I can’t possibly be bothered by it. Later, during my lunch at the brasserie, I notice how helpful the staff is. I realize that they come by my table more often to ask if everything is alright. And suddenly, a feeling of happiness wells up in me. I am happy with this experience and how I’m dealing with it now. With a smile, I pay and drive home.
Whether Guus and Jerome said everything exactly as I’ve described here, I don’t know. This is how I remember it and how it came across to me. The Dhamma talks have much more depth than I’ve presented here. They have had a profound impact on me and how I view things. I’m definitely going to delve further into this. And I will participate in more retreats.
I hope this has inspired you, and you want to experience it for yourself. Guus and Jerome organize a ten-day Vipassana retreat twice a year.
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I have since gone on a sixty-day retreat to Nepal. You can read more about those experiences here.