A couple of days ago, I returned from my third Vipassana retreat, the first being as a Vipassana server. Below I will describe what it has meant for me to serve at Vipassana to other meditators during the 10-day course.
That is what happens when you are working and meditating at the same time. Waking up around 5:30 am and finishing around 10 pm. In between those times, at least 3:45h of meditation is divided into four spaces, morning, noon, afternoon and night. It is undoubtedly a lot more “real” than the 10.5 hours a day as a meditator that you spend when you are a “student”. This allows you to be working from the conscious and the subconscious and vice-versa. From the inside out, and vice-versa. You apply what has been practised, and in a certain way, you are putting yourself into practice during situations that occur daily.
The more I know about the method and delve into it, the more brilliantly designed it seems to me.
Being a Vipassana server means working without rest
Between those hours of meditation, when you are a Vipassana server, what you do is work… In the kitchen, washing bathrooms, vacuuming, doing laundry, setting up the food stations, cleaning the facilities, helping in the garden, maintenance and everything you can imagine that involves labour work.
Noble silence is what meditators practice throughout the course. Instead, we servants follow different and quite exciting instructions, the noble speech, something much more difficult than silence. It’s a code of conduct based on speaking with integrity, fairness, honesty, adhering only to the truth, speaking softly, no criticism, no negative feelings, no gossip, no singing or whistling.
You also can’t touch your companions. And obviously not the meditators, with whom you maintain absolute silence.
Serving at Vipassana day by day
In this section, I talk about the highlights of the 11 days being a Vipassana server:
On this day, the essential thing was to understand the process, the rules, the code of conduct and particularities.
Adapting to the schedules is also something you do on this day.
You meet your colleagues and exchange some thoughts with them.
Here the teams were formed, this time we were 16 people serving, so we were divided into teams A and B. I was in the second, both groups are assigned different tasks, as well as schedules.
My main tasks were assembling and disassembling the men’s food station, and helping with the gardening and maintenance.
Here I realized that we were going to rest very little, so I used stoicism as an operating system, even as a Vipassana server.
Discovery of a new exponentially growing micro-habit: 2-minute micro-meditations before and after team meetings. Just with this, I got so much out of the 11 days.
I adopt the habit of making only one meal a day, the meal, at 11:45. The reason is that in the kitchen you have food around, you and I kept feeling tempted, just to keep my mind busy. So I decided to take action against it.
There was an interesting crisis in the team. Sure, everyone does what they have to do, but remember nobody is paying you, you are there because you want to be. They gave one of us the role of a kitchen manager, but the chosen person did not handle the situation with empathy and real leadership, the result of which was an emotional explosion. It was provocative to watch without judgment and without remorse or guilt.
I identified that only a few of us followed the Noble Word. In my case, I saw myself talking more than usual and probably a bit foolishly, so I cut that out.
Day 4 (known as Vipassana Day)
There was tension between the servers, mainly because coordinating such a project required other skills. I limited myself to following orders and do not take action, not taking a step forward or anything I am used to doing. I was a follower, a server, I wanted to be one and observe and learn from that position.
On, this day I learned to punish myself less mentally, and I came to the conclusion that a lot of power should be taken from our minds. That’s what I’ve been doing since then, and it works. Think every time you tell yourself something negative that subtracts from you, that it doesn’t even have the slightest amount of importance than it actually does.
As I do two days of fasting a week, for health reasons and high performance, I continued during the retreat, this being day one of this week.
I realized that on several, occasions I thought of myself before anyone else, that made me reflect and change my way of acting because if I was serving, I had to serve as a Vipassana server.
That day there was a snowstorm, which seemed like a great opportunity to expose me to the cold in short sleeves.
Here’s a big turning point, finding a new posture to meditate in, in which I felt zero discomforts in the full hour of the meditation session.
The first day leading the work shift in the kitchen, I made some mistakes, but I did it.
Given the number of tasks as a Vipassana server, and more unexpected workload, I decided to take the position of “yes to everything”, because trying to “escape” was only going to harm me. So to everything they needed help with I said “yes”. The first ones were: Wash the bathrooms, cut fruit and vegetables, clean the floor.
The professor of the retreat, Thomas, shared with me one of the most important teachings that I took from the experience: “Isra, train your mind to see pain and pleasure objectively.”
Also, on this very intense day as a Vipassana server, I realized that meditating is transitory, you cannot evoke sensations while meditating. This helps you let go of anything, which applied to life is very powerful.
Lesson: It is not possible to meditate after a big breakfast, you block yourself.
Another day cleaning bathrooms and floors, no ego, just a Vipassana server.
In the afternoon, building a fence with branches, I had an unlucky accident and ended up with a scratched face due to a branch that came loose and hit me hard in the eyebrow, at least it wasn’t in the eyes.
That same afternoon, with Juriaan, a server who was in charge of the garden, I had a conversation about the “now”. I learned, thanks to him, that there is a lot of love for yourself in deciding what you are going to do and choose for yourself.
I have to say that, I was noticing a sensitive, emotional state, this conversation, while moving wood logs, made me realize that it is this “now” that we have. Then something went through my head that I did not let escape, my intention to go and live and work in Miami, something that had always been on my mind.
Heavy work helped me reconnect with the part of me that I had forgotten, that authenticity that comes from oneself when you are as you always have been.
As the temperatures drop, what I did was continue to expose myself more to the cold. Consequently, I felt its effects less, while the rest felt more. And I was the only hot-blooded Spaniard.
I chose to change my behaviour and choose to do everything that I was not born to do, that way, and I would not be in conflict with myself or the team.
At the end of the day, while I was meditating, I noticed how some tears escaped, just as it happened to me in my second Vipassana. As the teacher said, it is a way to release accumulated misery.
On this day, I was in a state to accept everything that happened, everything they ordered me to do. Why would I oppose? That would be ridiculous.
Sharing with colleagues, I reminded myself that words are just symbols and what someone tells you, is interpreted and felt depending on the value you give to those words.
Some of the day’s tasks were hanging clothes, setting the table, cleaning sinks and throwing out the garbage.
On this day, I became very intimate with Lars, a long-lasting Vipassana server, we were excited to share our lives. And at one point in the conversation, when I got excited talking about what I felt at Burning Man Quest 2018 and in adventures and experiments, he said: “Thank you because your life story has made me remember why I am here, with your example, you have made me see which path I have to follow. ” That shocked me a lot and made me think.
And that’s when I had an intimate conversation with myself, then I saw it clearly, that’s my DNA, living between extremes, being extreme, dancing between limits, that was, will and is me.
When I shared with Lars about the Holistic High-Performance, he told me that what I was experiencing is something that is in the most advanced of the Buddha’s teachings. Then he told me about the Satipatthana Sutta retreat, an advanced Vipassana retreat only for those who have done three 10-day retreats, in addition to at least being a Vipassana server once. This “course” delves into the Buddha Sutras from the intellectual, the physical, the emotional and the spiritual… Does this sound familiar to you? I will prepare to do it in 2021, before that I need to do another retreat this year and to keep practising for two hours a day.
It wasn’t until the afternoon that I realized it was New Year’s Eve, which we weren’t going to celebrate at all, nor did I feel any need to. I did not miss anything or anyone.
On this day, I decided to give a motivational touch to the robotic work I was doing and go beyond the normal… What did I do? I created a poster with a motivating message that I stuck in the dining room while the students ate, everyone smiled, no one could speak. The message said “it’s day 6, keep pushing” and a smiley face.
It was a day of absolute clarity, where I said “no” to unnecessary food, and “yes” to “see” my life and reality more clearly, as well as letting my spark ignite more strongly.
The last meditation of the day transported me to my childhood and helped me to remember the very beautiful moments that I hadn’t remembered.
Again today, it felt less cold than yesterday.
Something curious happened on this day, New Year. It was in the middle of the night, I suddenly woke up, and it was 11:59 pm., so I went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror and said to myself: “2020, I’m coming for you.”
Today was of very intensive labour, moving logs to be able to cut them later. We also cleaned the leaves from the roads, and we piled branches, trunks, etc. We did so much work that we built a big fence with everything we collected.
The teacher taught me that you should not meditate to meditate but to have no objective or end. That encouraged me to propose an interview for the podcast.
In the meditations of today, Wednesday, January 1st, I began to feel immense heat running through my entire body, which later began to become an energy that flowed within me. At the same time that everything seemed like nothing.
There was also a motivating announcement to the students “It’s day 7, Vipassana mode ON, with Metta”.
The day ended with another emotional moment with Lars, it was in the forest, crying he said something I will not forget: “You have touched it, I have seen it in your eyes”, “you have ‘that’ inside you, very few have arrived there and you have arrived ”. I don’t know if it was this or what, but thanks to this person, something has awakened in me that I have never felt before. This stirred me and ignited a different spark in me.
I believe that everything I lived helped me to bring out “Israel” from me, the one who came before who I am, the culprit of everything. Now I feel more humility, as well as being focused on the task at hand, it’s like an invisible stoicism.
During my time as a Vipassana server, I have cried with emotion on four occasions, always listening, verbalizing, sharing and contrasting. I know this kind of emotion, it’s joy, it’s fullness, it’s wholeness, it’s strength, robustness, solidity, something that burns from within, from the diaphragm to the throat and shakes the whole body like a prolonged spasm.
Being a Vipassana server has its advantages, you can focus on tasks such as meditation, and start to breathe and feel the sensations, it is more complex than meditating, but if you succeed, you enter into perfect communion with what you are doing. I was able to do this by sweeping fallen leaves from the trees—an unprecedented feeling for me to date.
This was the day where I learned to cut logs with an axe, a job as rewarding as it was demanding.
From day four, as I do in every Vipassana, at the end of the day I stretch my body for about 20-30 minutes, for the first few days you are quite stiff, but as you go, you feel better, and it helps a lot for long periods of meditating.
Within my “yes to everything” as a Vipassana server, I decided to clean the rooms, bathrooms and showers of the male servers (there is sex segregation as a code of conduct, even though I would have liked it, I don’t think I could not have done it with women).
On this day, I decided to leave behind a false belief and started wearing used clothes by others.
I continued to have one meal a day and had the same energy as when I had two or three, but less mess in my head.
Again, in the meditations, my body temperature rose, even more than in the previous days, it was increasing every day. When discussing it with the teacher, he said that it was a normal process when you are working correctly with the technique.
Here I remember a powerful conversation with Matías, a fellow Argentina who was serving like me. – What started as a matter of observation vs. reaction, ended in a whole manifesto of how to live epically.
In the afternoon, I had a moment where I sat down to write. So I started to draw what my attack plan would be for this 2020. In addition to generating 10 ideas for posts, and allowing myself the pleasure of letting go of a lot of ideas that were crowding in my mind and were nothing more than a mere defence of the amygdala.
I received a “no” from the teacher for the proposed interview. Okay, another one. However, it opened the door for me to interview the oldest teacher, who is still alive…
The servers meet every night at 9 pm, after the last meditation of the students, to practice Metta Bhavana, a prayer about gratitude, kindness, love, generosity and forgiveness, it was not until this day that I really began to appreciate the great power of this technique.
Day 9 – “meditation”
My most outstanding work: putting 6 washing machines on and hanging clothes, that’s a good life for a Vipassana server.
I took advantage of the fatigue that was already dragging inside of me from all those days to have 17-minute mini naps, about four in the whole day. That helped me maintain my energy levels.
I identified that in all this time, I had not complained once, nor had I experienced being worn out either. Caring for your body is rewarded.
Thanks to Nic, another Vipassana server, and with whom I shared a room, I learned more about vulnerability, and more about non-violent communication.
The key, according to him, is to identify your need first.
My craving for food and desserts grew, more as I ate less. After all, you have nothing else to do after work. Fighting it has helped me strengthen my self-discipline.
I was inspired, so I went outside to work. Especially since it was raining, it was cold, and I didn’t feel like doing it. So I dressed in boots, a raincoat and off I went. How right, because doing so was the beginning of the most transformative part of the entire experience. First, because at one point, when I was in the rain moving logs, I remembered all the moments I spent with my grandfather in the field when I was little, planting, picking, watering, playing, enjoying.
It was like a kind of tribute to his figure, being there, in the forest, working, with determination, with joy and with dedication. I felt that feeling that we felt when we spent hours and hours together on weekends. It was like being connected, so I understood that this connection was never lost or will never be lost, he lives in me, through his values, his memories and his love. At that time, I felt that we were both parts of nature, we merged with it.
When it was dark, and I couldn’t work, I sat on this log, the rain wasn’t heavy. There was a soothing melody as the drops hit the leaves on the ground. So I closed my eyes and meditated, I don’t know for how long. At a given moment, without wanting to speak, I started whispering something to myself. It was like a prayer to myself, praise from myself to myself. I have never experienced anything like this. As the words came out, their meaning was like a spark of electricity running through my entire body. I have called it the “every day” prayer, and I hope to share it with you very soon.
These two events activated something in me because the Vipassana meditation session that came later was the most special meditating hour of my life. Special because since I closed my eyes, I started to feel that I was losing sense, touch, smell, sight, taste, even presence. At first, I didn’t feel my hands, then my feet, my chest, my back, my mind, my face, until at one point I asked myself “what am I?”, “Am I still here?”
The only thing I could feel was that I could not feel, I could not think, I was dissolved in the air, I was part of the whole, “I” did not exist, just a “whole”, which at the same time was “nothing”. And at the same time, I noticed how somewhere a big smile was drawing on my face (which I did not feel) but very little by little. It took me minutes, at least that seemed to me. I didn’t feel anything, I just knew it was there, somewhere, somehow, whatever it was, but it was, I mean, “it was”. I have classified it as meditation in which everything was everything, and nothing was nothing.
The hour of meditation ended, in absolute silence, and I remained there, motionless. I felt like I had been like this for hours, but at the same time, I was aware, I knew that we had to leave the room because the discourses started. I came back as I could, it was hard for me, I opened my eyes, and I did not know where I was, my gaze lost, disoriented, misplaced. I know that place, and I have been there on other occasions, but this time it was only through meditation. And I could barely stand up, they had to help me up.
So I decided to go to a meditation cell, where I stayed breathing for 95 minutes, it took me a while to get there. I remember it with total clarity because the surprising thing is that I was conscious, within me, and I was in control of my conscious and subconscious at the same time. I lay down and remained silent, in total stillness, doing nothing but breathing, I couldn’t distract myself, or think of anything, even if I made the effort. I have never been in such a meditative, deep state like this. I have nothing else to say.
The first thing I did when I woke up was making sure that I did not feel attached to what I lived the previous evening-night because that would only make me suffer, create anxiety and aversion, and therefore pain. The interesting thing is that I felt as if nothing happened, with the great inner peace of mind and joy.
This day, at 10 am the noble silence is broken and you can already speak, also is the segregation of the sexes, but you can not touch either men or women or between them.
I optimized work processes in my notebook, full of actions, projects, ideas, improvements, plans and objectives, I scheduled and decided that when I returned I would stay away from a little from social networks. And I also thought about posting in colour, I feel like it and want to experiment.
I had a session with the course teacher, Thomas, who had previously said no to the podcast. A 30 minute Q&A with no recording. Out of everything he shared with me, I highlight the following: “Vipassana takes you out of the Matrix.”
We just served at Vipassana with more meditation and Metta, to finally say goodbye, during the meeting that every night we had with the entire team of servers with the teachers (who are usually male and female).
Early morning start, final meditation, Metta prayer and breakfast altogether.
From 8 am to 9 am, new and old students cooperate to clean their facilities, the kitchen centre, etc. They asked for volunteers. As a Vipassana server, I was assigned to the residence of the male servers, and nobody signed up as a volunteer, so instead of attracting followers, I got down to work without hesitation.
In the end, with all the work done and ready to leave for Maastricht, I decided to shot two videos. One recounting the experience from another angle and doing some interviews in Spanish, and the other in English.
Being a Vipassana server: What it is, what happens and how you live (video)
This is the 45-minute video (in colour) that I have recorded telling you what it has been like to be a Vipassana server.
Here I have written about the differences between being a Vipassana server and being a meditator, as well as the vital learnings that I got during and after the experience.