I’ve recently re-entered the speaking world after having spent ten days sitting in silent meditation with around one hundred other people at the Dhamma Mahi vipassana meditation centre near Paris. Literally, all I did each day was sit on the floor and meditate from 4:30am until 9pm, with only a few short breaks for eating, bathing and watching an evening talk every day, which explained the details of the meditation technique that we were learning.
The technique is very simple and eminently practical. In a nutshell, it requires you to repeatedly mentally scan your body and observe the sensations that you subsequently feel in your body with a very attentive mind, and to remain non-judgemental and equanimous regardless of what sensations you experience, in the knowledge that all sensations are temporary, rising and falling away in their own time in line with the universal law of nature. In doing so, we begin to let go of very deep negative reactive thought patterns that we all have, which are triggered at the sub-conscious level and are therefore very difficult to eradicate by using the mind alone; instead we have to enter the realm of the sub-conscious, which is all to do with feeling not thinking (hence focusing on the sensations). This is probably a hugely inadequate explanation – the best thing to do is join a course and find out directly yourself!
Anyway, we weren’t allowed to communicate with our fellow meditators at all, whether through word, glance or gesture – nothing. Also, we were not allowed to communicate with anyone from the ‘outside world’ – all phones, computers and other such technology were confiscated, in order to make sure we were left purely with ‘me, myself and I’ for the ten days. Males and females were segregated within the compound (they actually erect a wall between the two sides) to reduce distraction further.
Interestingly, the enforced silence is what most people found hardest to get their heads around before I left: ‘What? You’re not going to speak for ten days? How is that even possible?!’ Yet this was the aspect that I was least worried about and, as suspected, it was the easiest part of the experience and something I came to relish, as I know did many of the other attendees. It is refreshing to happily coexist with others, without any expectation of formal communication, and an interesting experience to go truly inward for such a prolonged, uninterrupted period – a rare gift in this busy, noisy world. Waking up at 4am also turned out to be surprisingly easy and I came to enjoy those pre-dawn meditations the most, faintly aware of and comforted by the world waking up outside, ready for a new day.
Being a bit of a greedy-guts at heart (still working on this one!), the aspect I was most concerned about was only having two proper meals a day – breakfast and lunch, the latter of which was served at 11am. After that, all we had was a small snack of fruit and herbal teas at 5pm. But, again, this turned out to be pretty easy to get used to. I became accustomed to going to bed with a growling tummy and, strangely, the hunger had always gone by morning – it was but one of many, many lessons that the retreat taught me about the impermanence of all experiences and sensations and how to maintain an equanimous mind through the endlessly shifting transience of our life experiences.
What I hadn’t been prepared for, however, was how immensely difficult I would find the meditation itself. I went in with a smug feeling that I’d be fine, that my many years as a yogi, with a relatively disciplined meditation practice, would help me sail through it all and I would exist for much of the week in a blissful state of near-Samadhi and maybe even experience the elusive ‘kundalini awakening’ that is often spoken about in yogi texts. Ha – I couldn’t have been further from the truth!
What actually happened was that I spent nine days in intense discomfort, fighting against the urge to leave the centre and knock the whole thing on the head. All week I experienced acute pain in my upper back that had seemingly appeared from nowhere, and I battled a whole range of negative emotions, dominated by anger and resentment, which I aimed at the meditation technique I was learning and, in particular, at the rather nasally delivered recorded instructions from the teacher, Goenka, which came to irritate me immensely!
Every time we entered the meditation hall it felt like a prison sentence and I felt a keen desire to run away, in fact just to do anything except sit there in stillness and silence. I doubted the technique, I doubted my ability to do the technique properly, I wondered whether it was all a big cult and I was being brainwashed, I fumed at Goenke’s chanting and instructions, I resented my back for hurting me so much, I felt bored by the repetition of the technique, I inwardly bitched about the seriousness and strictness of it all, I squirmed and wriggled on my cushion, finding no relief, and I resented almost every minute! Often, I even practised stealth rebellion, by refusing to do the specific meditation technique we had learnt and instead doing my own style of meditation, or sometimes I even sneaked into my room and did some gentle yoga on my bed, which wasn’t permitted. Wow – so much for the zen yoga teacher!
On our breaks away from the hall, we were able to walk through a beautiful piece of woodland and meadow. At these times, I found some relief and clarity amongst nature, and I reflected on all the anger I was experiencing and could see how it was my ego, massively under threat as I delved deeply inwards, and pulling out all of the stops to distract me from doing the technique properly. One of the key teachings of Goenke is that we all tend to blame our suffering on external people and events, whereas actually we create all of our own suffering and only we can heal it ourselves. So I saw how I was using so many different external scapegoats for my anger and resentment, but in reality I was creator of it all. Yet, often this then just plunged me into an all too familiar melancholic sadness and feeling of hopelessness. I felt I wasn’t strong enough for the technique, that I was a failure. Then, it was back into the meditation hall, where once more the anger would rise again. Phew, it was an endless, exhausting emotional rollercoaster, with very few moments of peace in between!
Yet, although each day was a battle and in fact I came very close to asking to leave on Day 4 following a tear-laden meltdown in the hall, every evening when we sat down to listen to Goenka’s discourse, something would change in me. Although his voice annoyed me so much in the meditation hall as it floated out of the speakers, here, when he was in front of me on the TV screen, he seemed like one of the kindest, wisest, funniest, most humble and endearing old men I’d ever had the pleasure to listen to. I loved hearing the philosophy and science behind the technique, and I loved how he delivered universal truths with such warmth, wisdom and admirable simplicity, thanks to his many humorous allegories and endless entertaining stories. It always gave me hope, and inspired me to stay ‘just one more day’; to give the technique another chance.
And so this is how I limped through the first nine days – nearly reaching the end of my tether each day, then being brought back to myself and remembering my strength by Goenka’s wise words each evening and resolving to try again, with full commitment, the next day. And, more than that, every evening he seemed to see into my mind and answer some of the questions I had been agonising over that day. He helped me to realise that the deep ego fears were rising from my sub-conscious, and if I could only accept them and watch them all play out without judgement at the level of sensation, just knowing they would pass, then indeed the fears would bubble away into the ether. Indeed, what I was going through was strong evidence that the technique was working well for me, despite my ego’s best attempts to thwart it! I also had deep insight into the fact that the sadness that I’ve battled with my whole life, naturally sliding towards it as my emotional ‘comfort zone’ whenever things don’t go as well as I hoped they would, was actually an addiction that I feed every time I go to that place of sadness within me. And I had a feeling this technique could help me finally eradicate that deep, deep psychological pattern, once and for all.
Then, Day 10 came (I wonder if I was the only person there talking to myself in my head in the Geordie accent of the Big Brother voiceover man: ‘Day 10 in the vippassana house and Becky is having another meltdown…’?!). This day was different – we were allowed to speak to each other and there were longer breaks between meditation sessions. It was there as a kind of a buffer, to help us to ease our way back into the ‘normal’, speaking world. Although at first I felt a bit overwhelmed at the thought of having to speak again, soon we all slipped naturally back into communication and, actually, it was wonderful. I felt like I’d got to know these women I’d been cohabiting with for so many days, even without words. I felt like we had somehow been supporting each other, even as we delved so deeply inwards, so it was lovely to finally hear each other’s voices and swap tales about how the experience had been for us.
It struck me that most people had had a very intense experience but that, in general, they loved the technique. In fact many of them were old students who return to the centre year after year and practise on their own in between. There were many stories of the wonderful changes that had come into people’s lives since practising the technique, and many people had experienced great revelations during the course – one girl hadn’t spoken to her dad for over ten years and said the first thing she would do when she returned home would be to book a train ticket to go and visit him. All these stories were joyful and inspiring and I felt really rather sheepish about the playground behaviour and ego mind-games I’d exhibited, rebelling against the technique and resenting the instructions. So, I resolved that, for the rest of the final day I would truly commit to the practice. Feeling inspired by these other women, waxing lyrical about the technique, I would kick the ego into touch once and for all and just go with the instructions, following them diligently and with humility and gratitude.
And, do you know what? It was such a different experience. It was as though something inside me melted. I finally stopped fighting against the technique and instead welcomed it, as a gift that had been given to me. Immediately the pain in my back, which had plagued me for nine days solid, disappeared completely, I kid you not! Finally I felt the ‘free-flow of sensations’ through the body, which Goenka had been repeatedly telling us about, and finally I had a blissful meditation experience, which lasted the rest of the day. I felt so strong, so clear and so calm.
And that feeling of strength and calm clarity remains with me now, almost a week after leaving the retreat. I have had lots of time to reflect this week, and I see how the technique was working its magic on me all week – it forced me to go into the deepest, darkest, ugliest parts of me; the parts that we usually hide from ourselves and others so well, or even that we don’t realise are there, and so no wonder it was such an unpleasant week! And so, during the week, I think I let go of some very deep wounds. I have noticed that I am much more able to watch my emotions in a detached way now. If I see the sadness looming , I acknowledge it and know it will pass and, just like that, it bubbles away. I hear myself sounding more straightforward, clear, calm, joyful, happy and content. There is a marked difference. It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly it is, but definitely I am different – in a very good way.
So, I would strongly encourage everyone to try a ten day vipassana retreat at some point in your life. You will learn so much about yourself and the world, you will challenge yourself immensely yet heal yourself in equal measure, and you will gain so many precious gifts of insight, clarity and strength. There are vipassana centres all over the world and all operate solely by donation, so financial concerns needn’t hold you back. The teaching comes direct from Gotauma Buddha, and was kept safe and pure in its original form over the years after his death in Bhurma, and is now spreading globally at a remarkable rate.
Buddha predicted this global spread of the technique would happen around 2500 years after his death, at a time when the world really needed some deep healing. Funnily enough, that time is now! This is definitely a time of great change and unrest, and I really think it’s the perfect time for us all to become part of the next revolution of our species – the ‘inner revolution’, whereby we each take responsibility to delve inwards and heal our own suffering and pain and put our egos firmly in their place, so that we can move forward as a species towards universality, love, peace and harmony. Vipassana is definitely a very practical tool to assist this process – so please do consider giving it a whirl – I dare you… 😉 For myself, I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, given how tough I found the week, but I can’t wait to go back!