There’s no ommmm’s and no candles, no visualisations or three-armed all-seeing dieties… there’s just me, 68 others, the occasional muffled fart and the deep Indian-sounding version of Barry Manalow’s voice repeating over and over again in a slow, drawn out tone to ‘concentrate on your desperation’ – no, wait, that can’t be right, ‘on your perspiration’ – no, hang on, I strain my ears to listen … ‘on your respiration, in your nasal passage.’
Thousands of people the world over have done it, millions of people every day partake in it and 279 official and temporary centres in 100 countries teach people the art of it, so why can’t I concentrate on it? It’s only day two of my 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat and I’m ready to throw the towel in.
Vipassana: the process of self-observation in the Pali language of ancient India literally translates ‘to see things as they really are.’ The mental training technique is about witnessing reality and enabling those who practice it to face life’s problems in a clear and balanced way. Taught and practiced over 2500 years ago by Gautam the Buddha and now by S.N.Goenka, the techniques have remained un-waivered and unchanged for centuries in order to preserve its pure form and function.
Balancing on my sit bones, I’m in the Dhamma meditation hall doing anapana (breathing techniques) on the outskirts of the quaint little village of Pomona in the beautiful Queensland Sunshine Coast hinterland in Australia devising my escape plan. I’m quite sure it’s not the intention, but yes, this mental training technique is making me mental. What if I – sneak out at night, feign an injury, pretend to go psycho or fake food poisoning? I sink deeper into my meditation mat realising that one by one each of my excuses are not going to get me out of here. If only I hadn’t handed over my car keys and mobile phone on registration, (or signed a contract to stay) I’d be at least five hours drive toward home by now.
I take a moment to draw my mind back to the task at hand – concentrating on the air moving above my top lip. Pain shoots up my left leg, a nerve pinches in my hip and pins and needles scurry around my feet. The physical agony is so distracting that it takes all my attention to focus on breathing, only for the moment of awareness to be derailed and to have to ‘start again’. It’s like trying to observe the subtle movement of a breeze while a small child is screaming in your ear.
Focus Nicole. I can do this. I try locking in a pose of a statue for an hour. 42 minutes pass before excruciation sets in. While Goenka’s philosophy on pain explains in one breath that we are not here to torture ourselves, he also explains that managing pain through observation and equanimity is part of the mental mastery process. I consider this momentarily before giving in on my contortionist skills and stealthily, without noise or distraction, unwrap my dead legs.
At a glance, the schedule appears to be brutal and more like a boot camp than a retreat. Like zombies we appear through the darkness and silently stumble toward the meditation hall for the mornings first two-hour session before sunrise. The day’s meditations are then interspersed with two meals, an hours rest and short five minute breaks between sessions. This is the time when the outskirts of the hall are littered with bodies unravelling their limbs in an attempt to bring back the blood flow. A fascinating and often funny 75-minute evening discourse breaks the night up and offers the opportunity to listen to stories, Vipassana philosophy and a summary of the day’s experiences before a final hours meditation takes us through to 9.30pm.
Towering Eucalypts and palms hover overhead while Jacaranda trees drop splashes of purple creating a carpet beneath my feet as I walk to and from the hall. Mount Cooroora protectively watches over my experience, taking place in the valley beneath. It’s a stunning setting offering a perfect backdrop to what I can, in these early stages, only describe as a mind torturing. Despite my inner avoidance to 10 hours of meditation I am completely aware that even if I did escape, my mind would still come with me. I am stuck with it wherever I go, trapped in a land of overactivity. Running away wont help, so it’s time to face up to it and learn to let go.
S.N Goenka via the nightly discourse shares that the wild mind is one where random, scattered thoughts exist in an illogical sequence, flipping from the past to the present to the future. I recognise this, I thought. Outside of work that’s my mind all the time. Am I wild? Was this retreat going to get wild? I didn’t think so. Day three and the only wild action I was getting around here (other than my cheetah print pyjama pants I brought with me in case I had to share a room) were encounters with the fauna.
It’s hard not to feel one with nature here given that every part of the day is shared with wild animals. From herbal tea with the kangaroos and free-time garden meditation amongst the roo poo, being greeted during a morning stroll by a two metre long snake, tripping over toads on the moonlit path at 10pm after a shower, ant swarms over my feet in the top field, through to magpie attacks at breakfast fighting for my toast and giant lizards baking in the afternoon sun.
Despite the retreats intentions to minimise distractions, evident by the number of rules, noble truths, disciplines and precepts such as abstaining from; killing any being, stealing, sex, telling lies and intoxicants, I’m grateful for the wildlife and the surrounding location that help ground me in between the daily meditation practice that commences at the sound of a gong before dawn at 4am – with the exception of mosquitos. For three nights I lay awake while the high-pitched whine of the little vampires threatening to eat my ears, continued. Torn between sleep depravation and my promise not to kill any animal, I lay for hours, tormented. Guilt rises up within me on the evening of the forth day as I realise the mossies have gone. I didn’t kill them but does strategically not sweeping out five Daddy Longlegs spiders from the ceiling corners of my bedroom make me an accomplice?
It seems that many expressions can take place as a result of meditation, each as individual as the people who sign up for the retreat. For most, the outward appearance of an inner glow radiates, for others it’s solemness, a strong determination to not move a muscle, bouts of tears, defiance or, in my case – frustration.
Seemingly little things are really bothering me, while other rules are of no concern. I’m quite content with the vegan cuisine dish-ups providing our calorie cut two meals a day and even the two pieces of fruit that replace dinner at 5pm. I also don’t mind the centres’ status as a silent retreat, understanding that in order to achieve mental stillness or ‘noble silence’, the course should be conducted in an atmosphere of quiet.
Other rules, however, take a few days to adjust to. The inability to make eye contact or gestures feels rude, lonely and uncompassionate and after hours staring at the ceiling above my bed or being fascinated by the paint on a wall in front of my face as I eat in the dining hall, it’s not long before I get annoyed with the obvious lack of freedom – no writing, no reading, no music, don’t wash clothes during meditation times, no shoes in hall or rooms, all clothing must cover the shoulders and come down below the knees, no technology, no religious practice, no singing, no dancing, no jogging, don’t leave the hall, no extra food, don’t feed the animals, no religious objects, no musical instruments, no physical contact, no missing group meditation sessions, don’t move allocated meditation locations, no laying down in the hall, no pillows or bedding in the hall, sit upright, limit body movements during meditation, no showering during meditation times, no noise, gender segregation at all times, rise at 4, eat at 6.30 and 11, no incense, no chanting, don’t eat in rooms.
My mind will look for any excuse to be distracted, but maybe it’s all just a test. I can’t possibly be frustrated at so many things, like the lady that slurps her meals – and not just soup, but rice and salad. Have you tried slurping tofu? It’s not an easy feat. Or the woman that wears the noisy plastic tracksuit that scratches its way into the meditation hall five minutes late just as my mind is drifting into the zone. Or the lentil-loving lady whose butt backfires while I’m trapped on my meditation mat surrounded in a gas field of fumes just 30cm behind her! Have you all been sent here to teach me acceptance and non-reactivity?
Every experience, I learn, of liking or disliking, pleasure or pain, craving or aversion, gets stored as a sensation in the cells of our bodies. When we learn through Vipassana to stop producing new cravings or aversions, known as sånkhāras (mental dispositions), they start to come to the surface and then dissolve. This is what I put my frustrations down to; now all I need is for them to start to disappear.
Despite these small annoyances, the day finally arrives where I come to terms with the fact that no amount of eye rolling or internal sighing will provide feedback to the DVD recordings of S.N. Goenka to vary his words, convey the same message in a different way or stop repeating everything three times. I smile, all the while thinking of his voice echoing in my mind for “patience, diligence and persistence.”
Today I graduate from my nostrils to vipassana (total body sensations). It is a fabulous moment providing something new to concentrate on. This time the focus is on external and internal body scanning from head to toe that I apply with the dedication of Kit – from the 80’s hit TV show, Night Rider, buzzing up and down my body. This means more time meditating rather than fighting to bring my mind back to the present. However, it only takes 12 hours of no talking, no music and no new material to ponder, before my mind is left to plunge through my personal past to generate thoughts. Like a volcano, memories flood to the surface from all angles of my life, at anytime, involving any number of people from my history. I observe the information flow in and flow out, considering for a moment that profound life-changing realisations are about to become apparent – to no avail.
As if on queue, on day five as the sun slowly sinks toward the horizon and the trees shadows stretch out their elongated arms, Mount Cooroora glows. It starts as a soft haze with small pockets of orange dotting the western face. As the hours progress, the smoke fumes start to billow and a patchwork of fire chases the tree line leaving a black wake in its path. It isn’t until the sky’s night-lights start to shine that the entire mountain turns into a fireball, as if playing out the ritual ‘burning’ or shedding of old skin it observes taking place below it in the valleys’ Vipassana retreat.
Just as the mountain changes, so too is the insightful theme of this evenings dialogue – if three people go for a swim in the river at different times, it’s a different river each time they go in. This analogy is just one of many shared to help us understand impermanence. That is, everything (pain and pleasure) is changing, arising and passing. Just as the water in the river is constantly flowing and moving, so too is the energy within our bodies. Emotional, physical and mental energy is constantly altering and practicing equanimity with non-reactivity to these sensations rather than craving or aversion means refraining from trying to change or hold onto them.
Eruptions of a different kind continue for me today – day seven. With over 70 hours clocked up on my butt bones I really need to exercise and use a different kind of energy. I sneak in some push ups, dips and lunges under the cover of my room before tackling the well-worn bush path carved out by the soles of hundreds of meditators before me around the retreat at Olympic walking speed.
Hard “work,” Goenka laughs. Most wouldn’t liken meditation to a dreaded four-letter word, but this is exactly what it is on some days. Today I feel the frustration dissipating and surprisingly, humour is setting in. The awareness of the ‘law of nature’ is no longer a concept of my mind, but now felt in my body. I’m finally feeling rather than just knowing. Without judgement I’m observing pain from inside myself instead of from a third point outside my body and while the pain is not going away, the edges are blurring and the feelings attached to it are.
Day 10 is here, the last meditation session is complete and the signal is given that talking is now allowed. We look at each other and don’t know what to say. Like a flock of seagulls, it doesn’t take long before our one common bond replaces forced quiet conversations with excitable chatting, laughing, talking and story sharing. Without the ability to compare and contrast our experiences with others, it has, on the positive side, allowed each of us a judgement free journey devoid of any measurement.
My newfound stomach muscles from sitting upright are not the only benefit of this weeks training. My Vipassana experience has offered an intense journey to the centre of myself, bypassing the conscious mind and attempting to tap into the unconscious. It has sometimes been painful, frequently mind-opening and often exasperating. All the while, as Goenka promised, “like doing surgery on yourself without anaesthetic.”
Deep down I knew that I would stay for the full duration of the course or ever wonder what transcendental experience I could potentially miss the opportunity to uncover. I have encountered the euphoric bliss brought on by meditation practice once before when living in Bondi, Sydney and somewhere within me I realise now that over the past 10 days I expected the same from my Vipassana training. Unfortunately, my stark inner reality did not reveal as much as I’d hoped. Still, do I think the course deserves the title, ‘the art of living’? One hundred percent.
Will my salvation come from mind-body self-mastery? Can I achieve liberation from a churning mind? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I’m going to have to see someone about the shaking in my hands and my numb butt cheek that I’ve been sporting for seven days.
- The Vipassana course is not an escape from the world, it’s a place to face yourself
- Stop thinking and thinking of thinking. Get out of the head and into the body. Don’t prevent yourself from experiencing it because you are thinking it. Vipassana is about living not learning.
- Let go of the need to control or understand – what types of cushions, chairs, mats and benches are available for me to sit on? Why do I need to meet with the teacher to discuss how I sit? Why is the mountain on fire? How close is the fire? What does Vipassana philosophy stand for, represent or mean? I
- Give up attaching judgement to an experience – like/dislike, right/wrong, love/hate results in suffering.
- Consider your internal expectations. Are they realistic and inline with your own values? Only take on board and do what feels right or resonates with you.
- In line with Dhamma teachings, experience things for yourself to truly absorb the essence, rather than reading or hearing about it taking place for someone else. Goenka’s restaurant analogy explains this well – you cannot know the taste of your meal by reading it on the menu or watching it being delivered to another table, until you eat it yourself.
- Everything is made up of energetic frequencies. It’s only the mind that creates a world for it to appear anything different. Body scanning can help to adjust frequencies.
- Stop reacting. Observe anger (or any emotion) but don’t act on it. Is it real or created or exaggerated by the mind? Watch it rise, its effect and then fall.
- Look inward to liberate yourself instead of appealing outside or to gurus. All the answers are within.
- If you want something different you have to go to the other river bank to get it. Don’t just sit on this side of the river and wish for it.
Meditate for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour – old Zen saying.
Vipassana Dhamma Rasmi Centre Queensland – www.rasmi.dhamma.org