Two words: LIFE CHANGING!
I have just completed 10 days of absolute silence doing a Vipassana retreat in the Blue Mountains. I wanted to wait a while to reflect on my experience to share with you all. I really did try to keep this post as short as I could and just share some snap shots with you – after all I don’t want to give too much away and ruin your experience. It wasn’t possible though…. it’s a long one I’m afraid!
Watch your thoughts, they become your destiny.
Note this is my experience and everyone’s experience will be different, that I’m sure of, however I do know one thing and that is every person will come away from Vipassana feeling pure inner peace.[/box]
As I write some of this blog post I’m travelling back on the train to Sydney so eager and excited to see my fiancé Dave and our new puppy we had just brought home that very day I had to depart. This is the longest time we have been apart in the almost 11 years we have been together where we’ve had no communication whatsoever and boy was that extremely difficult or what!
So what is Vipassana all about?
Please note rather than reinvent the wheel, the below is a short extract from S.N. Goenka’s fabulous book, “The Art of Living” in which he describes Vipassana more eloquently than I ever could.
Suppose you had the opportunity to free yourself of all worldly responsibilities for ten days, with a quiet, secluded place in which to live, protected from disturbances. In this place the basic physical requirements of room and board would be provided for you, and helpers would be on hand to see that you were reasonably comfortable. In return you would be expected only to avoid contact with others and, apart from essential activities, to spend all your waking hours with eyes closed, keeping your mind on a chosen object of attention. Would you accept the offer?
Suppose you had simply heard that such an opportunity existed, and that people like yourself were not only willing but eager to spend their free time in this way. How would you describe their activity? Navel-gazing, you might say, or contemplation; escapism or spiritual retreat; self-intoxication or self-searching; introversion or introspection. Whether the connotation is negative or positive, the common impression of meditation is that it is a withdrawal from the world. Of course there are techniques that function in this way. But meditation need not be an escape. It can also be a means to encounter the world in order to understand it and ourselves.
Every human being is conditioned to assume that the real world is outside, that the way to live is by contact with an external reality, by seeking input, physical and mental, from without. Most of us have never considered severing outward contacts in order to see what happens inside. The idea of doing so probably sounds like choosing to spend hours starting at the test pattern on a TV screen. We would rather explore the far side of the moon or the bottom of the ocean than the hidden depths within ourselves.
One method of exploring this inner world is Vipassana meditation as taught by S. N. Goenka. This is a practical way to examine the reality of one’s own body and mind, to uncover and solve whatever problems lie hidden there, to develop unused potential, and to channel it for one’s own good and the good of others.
So why did I do a Vipassana retreat?
Yes a lot of people did ask me this very question when I announced I was heading off. Many questions were of why, why would you want to do such a thing it sounds like living hell to me, I don’t think it’s safe to have all that free time with your thoughts, etc etc etc!
Well if you know me by now I love a good challenge; yes I love challenging myself in every way and throwing myself in the deep end. I am a lover of discipline, for some of you I know that sounds crazy – nope, not for me. I actually crave discipline. For me, discipline does not equal restriction, for me discipline equals control and ultimately freedom.
It was my lovely Kinesiologist Kim O’Brien that planted the very seed of Vipassana to me over a year ago and after that you could say I kept getting signs from the universe. After receiving the third one I knew it was a sign for me to do this. So in June I signed myself up for the Sept/Oct course giving myself plenty of time to mentally prepare. Although soon realizing, once inside, that nothing could have really prepared me for it!
I took the course because I needed it; I was finding it very difficult to be present. I was feeling more and more agitated and I wasn’t becoming a nice person to live with never mind a wife to be. My life had become so busy I was becoming forgetful and losing a lot of “stuff”, my engagement ring being a biggy (don’t worry I’ve since found it!). These were all very clear signs to me that I needed some much needed time out to just BE in silence and self reflection.
Arrival at Vipassana!
I arrived at Vipassana late on day 1 as I bumped into some fellow Vipassana peeps and we took the wrong track and ended up walking around for an hour and a half in the dark (great start!). A lovely woman from the centre somehow got wind of us lost sheep and thankfully sought us out and picked us up. It probably wasn’t the nicest way for me to arrive; I was feeling a little anxious about the whole thing and now being late on top of it just added to that. I hate being late for anything! So I finally arrived and we were urged to register quickly, we had just missed dinner and I was starving. We were then brought to the dining room for a briefing and then to the meditation hall and that’s where and when it all began and we took the 5 precepts:
- to abstain from killing any being,
- to abstain from stealing,
- to abstain from sexual misconduct (meaning, at the meditation center, to abstain from all sexual activity whatsoever),
- to abstain from wrong speech,
- to abstain from all intoxicants
We were provided with a cushion and extras were available if needed. I looked at the cushion and my FIRST thought was HOW THE HECK AM I SERIOUSLY GOING to meditate on this for 9 hours a day with no wall for support! These were by far my most difficult days. There were lots of tears, sadness, anger and a lot of agitation!! On top of that there was rain and very stormy weather which seemed to make me even more miserable, sad and depressed (later to find out, I wasn’t alone!). I was literally counting the days down at this stage. I found it so challenging to sit still, I couldn’t seem to get comfortable and my back was in so much pain. I was literally crying with the pain which I seemed to be experiencing everywhere in my body. The clock seemed to go so slow for those days and I was literally counting down the hours and days!
For 2 days, we were given a meditation technique where we just focused on our respiration. For these days, we practiced the simple meditation technique of observing our respiration. Yup that was it! We were to just focus on the action of breathing through the nose and nothing else. Just be conscious, like a silent spectator, of the natural passage of the breath. Sounds simple enough right? Well, my dear friend, I challenge you right now to stop reading, close your eyes, just focus on your breathing through the nose, and see how long it is before your mind wanders? Not long at all right!
After practicing you soon come to realize just how wild, rough, stubborn and rebellious your mind is. On day 3, after many long hours of practicing this technique, I finally seemed to master it a little and just at that point a new technique was given and there was something new to learn yet again! On day 3 the teacher introduced the second phase of the technique, anapana, where we had to now focus on sensation. We had to observe the area just below the nose and above the lip for any sensations that we felt. Sensations being an itch, a tingle, pain, feeling, numbness, heat, coolness, pressure, vibrations, perspiration etc. The purpose of this technique was to further control and discipline the mind.
And yet again as soon as I seemed to master that part of the technique we were thrown a new one to master, Vipassana. This was the BIG one, which I had fearing – BIG TIME!
Vipassana technique was all about surveying the sensations of the entire body, from head to toe. We had to mentally make our mind focus on every single inch of your body from head to toes and feel for sensations. This took me hours upon hours to master. Then yet again (yes you guessed it!) a new technique was added in for us; whereby for 3 of our daily sittings (1 hour each) we were literally not permitted to move an inch. All other sittings we could move if we felt uncomfortable, we could give in to an itch/pain etc. but for these three daily sittings, no movement. The point was to sit in the same position for a full hour, no matter how uncomfortable you felt, no matter what unpleasant feelings came up for you. You were to remain equanimous to the whole experience and to not react to anything.
Let me tell you this was not easy, this was indeed extremely challenging! The itches/aches/pains/numbness could not be reacted upon.
Human beings by nature are a very much ego-centered, pleasure-seeking species. Our lives are largely centered around craving and aversion: I need and want this; I don’t need and want that. We become very agitated and unhappy when things in life don’t go our own way, which is very often. All kinds of addictions come from craving, and disappointments from aversion. We’re repeatedly trying to satisfy something, constantly searching for some type of eradication. We get so attached to wanting or not wanting something, that when we don’t get it, our world falls apart. Then misery sets in!
You could say in the same kind of way that I was pretty miserable during these one hour meditation sittings. All you want to do is move, you’re so uncomfortable but you can’t and you become so miserable in that very moment. So instead of giving into craving such as a pain/numbness/itch etc. you simply observe what you feel without showing any bit of aversion. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad and pain though, there were also blissful times while meditating, when you feel a subtle, really pleasant vibrating sensation throughout the body.
But again in these cases, you don’t react. You do not react to good or bad. Why? Well you’re actually training your mind to just remain calm. You start to realize that every single sensation is impermanent, the good and the bad. Nothing lasts forever. If things are bad, know they will change. If things are good, know they will change also. So you’re ending craving in every way.
What my daily timetable looked like!
4am – Awoke to a gong alarm.
4.30am – 6.30am – First meditation.
6.30am – 8.00am – Breakfast and free time.
8.00am-9.00am – Meditation.
9.0am-11.00am – Meditation.
11.00am-1.00pm – Lunch and free time.
2.30pm- 3.30pm – Meditation.
3.30pm-5.00pm – Meditation.
5.00pm-6.00pm – Tea and free time.
6.00pm-7.00pm – Meditation.
7.00pm-8.20pm – Discuss Video with Goenka.
8.20pm-9.00pm – Final meditation of the day.
9.15pm – bed.
What did I learn from Vipassana?
That I make up a lot of stories in my head about myself and actually believe they are so true!
A big thing for me heading into Vipassana was anxiety; I was so scared that it was going to cause anxiety of some sort to uproot in me from my past. Even though I very much have my anxiety under control these days, I knew I would be working though stuff. I spent many of the first few days focusing and wondering when this was going to happen. Day 9 came and nothing so I thought to myself, I will never be anxious again (hooray!). Then, the strangest thing happened; we were having our final meditation of the night and I started to get really warm and began to feel quite spacey. I thought to myself this feels like the beginning stages of an anxiety attack. Our meditation finished and I left the hall and continued to feel very spacey, lightheaded and dizzy.
I took myself to the bathroom and I used what I had learned during the course and for the first time ever in that situation I was able to control it very quickly. I learned that I was now the master of my mind and whatever came up in those last 9 days to cause this was in my control. However, one VERY important lesson I took from this, was that I could never assume anything, like I had assumed I’d never see anxiety again. I finally got what I had been learning for these past few days, impermanence nothing lasts for ever.
Like anxiety, if and when ‘something’ arises, know that it will change, like everything always changes and be at peace with that. This is the lesson.
When I asked my teacher the next day for her understanding on what happened, she explained that this was a sankhara (blind reaction of the mind) but probably more than likely an old one and that these may come up again. What I need to learn is to not react which won’t cause any more new sankhara’s, otherwise, one multiples them by reacting which causes more and more compounded misery.
The most important and basic takeaway for me was simply the power of meditation, I already had a regular practice of meditation (using mantra) for the past year or so (20 mins twice daily) but this Vipassanna meditation technique did something for me which I cannot explain; it truly got to the depths of my mind and my miseries (much of which I never knew where there!). For the first time in my life I had to face them and there was no escape. When you’re in your daily life you can escape via so many sensory objects; phone, TV, books etc. All too easy.
Since Vipassana I have given up my mantra meditation and I am now 100% committed to practicing this technique. A guide to follow is a one hour sitting in the morning as well as the evening. It’s not always easy to fit this in with everything else but I can honestly say that when I do, I see the shift and change within. I’m a calmer and more peaceful Corona and I do not react so much. Isn’t that what we all ultimately want? To act with a balanced mind.
As S.N.Geonka put it, “if you can change your life pattern from reaction to action, then you have attained something very valuable”. I feel more balanced and happier on every level when I schedule time for meditation, so that’s what I’m working on currently even it means getting up at 4am some mornings (yes crazy you may think I am).
Honestly I came out feeling like a brand new sparkling me, full of energy, happier, positive, safe, happy in my own skin and self-confident. The Vipassana meditation taught me how to love and accept myself and to just stop worrying. Yes I am a worrier! I know that it won’t last forever and that’s why I’m very much dedicating time for practice daily. I can honestly say that I am happier, I feel like I live life more naturally and confidently, and am indescribably grateful for the experience I had. I’ve even signed myself up for a one day silent sitting in November. There’s also a group weekly sitting in Bondi I plan to attend very soon. It’s so nice to know that there’s a Vipassana community out there and that I have the opportunity to attend such sittings with like minded meditators whenever I can.
Would I do it all again?
Absolutely! Yes, no question about it! I plan to make it a yearly event and am actually hoping to get back for a few days over the Xmas break to serve. This whole course is run off donation and people offer up their free time to serve in the kitchen/garden etc. At the same time you’re able to attend three of the daily meditation sittings.
Have you been wondering about doing a Vipassana? Well I’m more then happy to answer any questions that you may have. I know I had many before my first experience.
Feel free to ask and comment below.
Love, Light and Happiness,
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