It began, I believe, when I discovered in the bestseller Homo Sapiens, that Yuval Noah Harari had dedicated his first dazzling book to the master who had taught him Buddhist meditation, S.N Goenka. This practice, to which Harari has for nearly twenty years devoted two hours a day, has become for him an art of living, of writing, and transmitting.

A few months later, I found myself unsettled and angered by my own frustrating relations with a bank and especially with a telecommunications company. At this point, I had the good luck to meet Sacha M.,a brilliant young man who had decided to interrupt his studies of philosophy to devote himself to meditation, and to others. When I met him, he was a volunteer at a meditation Center located a few kilometers from St-Imier, not far Geneva, where he lives. We had long conversations, I told him about my anger, the necessity to control my emotions. He proposed on the spot to teach me the basics of the observation of the breath and to enroll me in a meditation course. And he wanted immediately to introduce me to his mother, Corinne, and his brother, Lucas—an offer that touched me more than I can say.

It was the extreme kindness of this very slender, extraordinarily discreet, smiling, generous and patient young man that swept away my hesitation. I learned, of course not from him, that he had, along with his dog Lupa, journeyed on foot from Geneva to Paris, 660 kilometers, in 21 days—an average of 32 kilometers per day. This feat (which echoed the accomplishment of Jean-Jacques Rousseau) enabled him to collect enough funds to build and maintain the dorm at the Ziniaré secondary school in Burkina Faso, where he lived for 5 weeks until his project was completed.

This unusual young man registered me for the session between November 7 and 18, at his Center of Mont-Soleil located 1200 meters above sea level in the Swiss Jura mountains.

During the weeks prior to my departure, I never stopped asking myself, would I be able to tolerate the virtually monastic rules of a Vipassana Center (the term means "see the truth as it is,” rather than as we would like it to be)? To wake up at 4am, eleven hours of motionless meditation per day in absolute silence. Even the absence of dinner worried me (at 5pm there were apples and bananas and nothing other than herbal teas until the next day). But behind this continuing concern, a small voice made itself heard: accept this challenge, free yourself from your fits of anger.

On November 7, at the appointed time, I boarded car number 12 of the TGV and met Corinne at the Geneva train station. In her tiny car, we headed for Mount Sun, a three hour-drive, which gave us ample time to converse and reassure each other. If it's too hard, we’ll just leave, we repeated to ourselves. But on account of her son, she and I knew that we wouldn’t budge.

Towards 7PM in utter darkness, we entered a large stone house whose windows on both floors were illuminated. We were all there, as expected, thirty men, thirty women, and fifteen volunteers. A noisy and fidgety crowd. Even before completing a long questionnaire, an organizer asked us to give him our bag and our phones which he speedily secured in numbered lockers. At the end of the dinner, a delicious minestrone, it was announced that from this precise moment, men and women would be strictly separated until the end of the tenth day. And that the time for speaking was over. Immediately, a blanket of silence spread like the thick cloak of mist that had covered the Valley. Some large, white wooden panels were pulled, and the ample dining room was cut in half.

Valerie, the vigilant assistant of our "master," Marianne Guignard, struck her first gong. Shoeless, some barefoot, most in socks, we entered the Meditation Hall. A very long, vast room, poorly-lit even during the day; a piece of gray fabric veiled the light that entered via five small, high transom windows through which nothing was visible, not even the sky. Nothing should divert the attention of those who needed to see within themselves.

Valerie, her list in hand, indicated to each of us our designated place for the rest of our stay. We had available a good, white cotton blanket and as many cushions as we wanted. A few of us sat with our back against the wall, while the others held themselves upright, as still as a Buddha. When we had finished getting settled, the men, entered like shadows by a different door and occupied the other half of the room. Marianne settled herself on a wooden pedestal, opposite us, whereas her husband faced the men.

This first course began by stating the main rules, principles and practices of Vipassana meditation as established by S.N Goenka first in India, since 1969, then in Europe and the United States. Throughout our stay they had us hear the tape of his course in English; I will long keep in my ear his songlike voice, his English where his “r’s” vibrated; next, the translation in French followed.

I will summarize the unfolding of these ten days, whose schedule was rigorously the same: meditation and teaching 4:30 to 6:30AM, 8AM to 11AM, 1PM to 5PM, and finally 6PM to 9pm. During the first three days, we learned only breathing, to inhale and exhale through the nose, feel the air, the life-giving breath enter and ascend the wall of each nostril; and, above all, to be fully and continuously aware of this coming and going. Breath enters, the breath exits. The same texts of Goenka came and went like refrains in English and French (spoken by a translator) until they became familiar to us like a poem.

Then we learned to feel the exhaled air touch the edge of the upper lip; to follow this continuous coming and going, and focus our attention on this single, tiny part of the face. To my surprise, that became possible for me after a few hours. This learning process is known as anapana.

On the fourth day, we crossed the threshold to a new stage: we moved from breathing to meditation: observe each part of your body from the top of your head to the tip of your toes. This sentence sounded so good in English that I used to hum it in my head, and repeat it to myself before sleeping. We had to set off in search of the sensations that would call our attention to each part of our body, head to toe, and do so with perfect equanimity. This last term, which returned constantly and that I had probably read in a distant past but had never uttered, became a leitmotiv—"with equanimity,” proclaimed Goenka, each part of your body deserves the same attention, observe each of the sensations that you awaken; pleasant or unpleasant, strong, subtle or neutral, they are identical in character: the impermanence—they appear, and they disappear. Feel these sensations in every filament of your body, from your crown to the point of your toes; scan your body from bottom to top, and top to bottom.

Our sufferings have only two origins: lust, and aversion. Since the mind and body are inseparably related to each other, whenever we feel a sensation, be it pleasant or unpleasant, the body reacts with a feeling of pleasure, joy, or on the contrary, anger, anxiety, fear .... We have very clear awareness of our rages and our intense desires: our heart beats wildly, our cheeks inflame, our eyes gleam, the flow of our words accelerates. Our body records very strong or less intense sensations, as would a seismograph. And this sensation remains buried in the depths of our Unconscious. The Buddha called this feeling a sankara, and every day we register hundreds of sankara, echoes of our multiple lusts and our multiple aversions; we are not conscious of them, but these sankara torment us and prevent us from living in peace. Meditation teaches us to observe with equanimity all our physical sensations, whatever they may be. And this continuous search for our sensations, born of the attention that we bring to every inch of the surface of our body, with equanimity, allows us to free ourselves from these sources of suffering; because we do not judge them, we let them reveal themselves freely, pleasant or unpleasant, or subtle, or neutral, whatever, without sympathy, without aversion, but with equanimity. I only know now only the meaning and the reach of this word.

To date, two weeks after the first experience of Vipassana meditation, have I derived any benefits from it? Which ones?

First, my astonishment at having so quickly adapted to this radical change in habits; only waking up in the middle of the night during the initial days took effort; to my great surprise I appreciated everything—the silence and the place first, the spectacularly starry sky, and especially, and above all the fact of being radically cut off from the outside world, of not having the slightest echo of it; and of not having the slightest worry. It was as if I were an astronaut in a space capsule astronomically distanced from planet earth.

The fact of being released from all small daily chores, nothing to do, not to have to worry about anything or anyone; to be separated from the computer means putting an end to the sarabande of emails; not a single phone call or reminder, no threats from the telecommunications company. I could live in peace, a peace more and more perceptible as time distanced me from Paris and from everyone and everything that used to constitute my way of living.

I didn’t even miss reading, I had no time to think about it, and yet it was the only time of my life that I went ten days in a row without seeing any printed words. After some discussion, due to my fallible memory I had gotten permission to write thirty words per day in order to take notes on the various points of each teaching, the feelings and memories and reflections that flowed during these long hours of silence and immobility. Nothing, not the slightest concern disturbed the tranquil beauty of this place surrounded by gigantic firs—a beauty that transmitted itself directly to me when during our free moments I would place both of my hands on the trunk of one of the trees, inhaling the delicious smell of its resin, an echo of its life giving essence.

One day, near the end, I felt like a fetus—living in half-light and silence, I was fed, sustained, followed, protected, plunged into a reassuring place. Sheltered from everything. And these very long hours of immobility, eyes closed to listen to teachings of S.N. Goenka, and listening to myself, revealed to me several aspects of myself: my need to assert myself either by being excessively critical or by overly praising a man, a woman, a book, anything. And also my absence of equanimity: when I exploded in anger, I used to defend my position with passion and vehemence. And I forgot to let my opponent whose closed mouth made him an ideal culprit get a word in edgewise.

Finally, I am adding a detail that has its own importance: these ten days in Switzerland, a country where everything is expensive, can be free! Let’s be clear: no sum is asked of you—not a penny. Those who are unable or don’t feel like paying do not have to pay; but all donations whatever they may be, in cash or in the form of services rendered are of course welcome. The donations allow these centers where no one is an employee to survive, and they allow the organizers to receive thousands of people per year.

What particularly moved me is the exhausting work of six or seven women volunteers, some with gray hair, who had full charge of the kitchen, preparing and serving meals, doing the dishes and maintaining order and a rigorous cleanliness. We used to cross paths in the dining room as they arrived, bearing huge steel bowls filled to the brim with rice or steamed vegetables. They knew that exotic Indian spices had the power to transform our very mundane carrots, and our pale leeks into a dish that would make even the most hard-to-please palate sing.

One of these volunteers, in particular, moved me. She was tiny, extraordinarily slender, muscular and strong. Dressed in a sleeveless tee shirt, she ran everywhere, indoors as well as outdoors. A native of Israel, she had married a Swiss man and lived for twenty-five years a few kilometers from this Center. All the volunteers took, as we did, the meditation course. During our stay, I noticed that the twenty-nine women who were in our group became familiar. I did not follow the rule that dictated that we keep our eyes lowered, never meeting the gaze of anyone; I observed their manner at the table, their way of walking, of being, of meditating, of carrying themselves outside during what I called our recess that we looked forward to between 11AM and 1PM just after lunch to get some fresh air, to repeat ten or twenty times a walking tour of the meadow, and especially to stretch ourselves out on the grass, in full sun. During nine days out of ten, it was springtime.

The last day, a Saturday at lunchtime, the silence was broken, the dining rooms were merged, the men, and the hubbub reappeared almost at the same time. Questions and confidences and comments and chit-chat streamed forth from everyone. Where are you from? What do you do? How did you manage this challenge? Will you come back?

The next morning, Sunday, departure day, just after the last 4:30AM meditation and breakfast, we proceeded, as agreed and organized the night before, to clean fully, top to bottom, the two floors, from the kitchens to the basement and the meditation hall.

And then a little after 10AM, sixty participants took flight like a congregation of sparrows. A glacial wind had suddenly covered the fir trees and cars and the ground with frost.


Perhaps it's too early to be sure, but I seem a bit more capable of curbing my anger. In the face of an unpleasant situation, I try to act instead of react as I had done previously. As a confident advocate for my own position, I can now approach my adversary with equanimity. But to give him equal time to make his case is still difficult!

This very morning, thanks to advice that Sacha sent me by email just before reentering the ten-day bubble of silence, I registered for a meditation course that takes place in Paris, every Tuesday, from 7-9PM. And Olivier Picard, who directs it accepted me.

Since my return, from the moment I awake until very late in the shadow of the quiet night, I inhale, I exhale, I observe with a still-relative equanimity the sensations that begin in a certain area of my neck, or at a vulnerable joint in my left knee. My concentration, under the assault of wandering thoughts, dissolves quickly. I do not notice it right away but I do not berate myself. I just begin again and I observe. And I refocus myself. And I persevere.

I breathe and observe. I observe and breathe.

Translated from the French by Diane Joy Charney