If you haven’t already, please check out part 1 first!
Part 2 continues….
The meditation is starting to ‘click’. I’m getting the technique and managing to use it increasingly successfully. However, I really struggle with sitting still. Three times a day we are meant to be employing adhiṭṭhāna – a pali word meaning ‘strong determination’. This means not moving, AT ALL, for a whole hour. Even if your nose is itchy, a fly has landed on your face, or your left leg has gone totally dead, you’re not meant to move your body or open your eyes. As part of the body-scan practice you’re already doing, you can acknowledge these sensations, but refrain from labelling them as good or bad. You’re reminded that sensations are always changing: what might be unpleasant now will not be around forever. Also, by stilling the body, it helps to still your mind. I am on board with these ideas. However, in practice, I struggle to do more than 20 to 30 minutes without beginning to shuffle around. Once I’ve started shuffling, I cannot stop – I am like a can of Pringles. I am in awe of my totally still, Buddha-like neighbour.
After each meditation, we stream out of the meditation hall and on to the patio area outside. In the first part of the week, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was some kind of silent stretching Olympics. There were downward dogs, arms windmilling around in aggressive shoulder circling and impressive contortionist-style lunging. As each person saw a different stretch being done, they would add this to their routine. However, as time went on, it seemed the appetite for stretching out aching bodies waned. Instead, everyone shuffled out of the hall, and flopped immediately down onto the floor of the shoe removal area, not even making it as far as the patio. As I exited one day, it seemed as though I was negotiating an assault course of an adult game of sardines. Except the giggling, writhing bodies of children were replaced with a group of motionless adults staring silently from behind glassy eyes, contemplating how on earth meditating could be so exhausting.
Later that evening, whilst I’m lying in bed, I hear lions roar nearby. I smile to myself. Maybe this is a pretty cool experience after all.
On day 8, I’m desperate for human contact. Whilst I was trying to serve myself some salad, a lady held the bowl still for me to stop it from wobbling everywhere. I have so much gratitude towards that lady. I could hug her. But I’m not allowed. Later, as lunch is finishing, I look up and smile at someone. They smile back! What rule breakers we are. I try it on a few more people and receive more smiles in return. I contemplate how everyone must be craving human contact. I compare it to the famous psychological study by Harlow. It demonstrates that baby monkeys will choose a furry warm fake monkey mother, that doesn’t feed them, rather than a hard wire fake monkey mother, that does feed them. Later, I happen to glance at my own reflection. I have a bit of banana on my chin. There goes my psychological reasoning. People were just smiling at my mucky face.
I struggle to concentrate all day. I feel like a child before Christmas. Tomorrow we get to speak again!
We have the morning meditation sessions and then – the silence is declared over. I am giddy. Everyone is as excitable as a box of puppies. My voice is husky and sounds very strange. I laugh hysterically at almost everything everyone says. It’s great to have this time to share experiences with everyone, and to readjust before going home, but it does make the afternoon and evening feel like the last day of term at school – everyone really struggles to settle, and focus on the meditation. It does emphasise the need for silence throughout the course.
Today a new type of meditation is introduced – metta, or loving kindness meditation. It is encouraged to add this type of meditation to the end of the Vipassana. The idea is to generate loving kindness to yourself, and out to the world to people who need it. The premise is simple, and I think the world could use more people meditating on the idea of loving kindness.
We finish on this day, after a morning meditation and breakfast, and then a group effort on cleaning the centre. I can’t stop thinking of my impending coffee. We made it! I am exceptionally relieved, but I also feel accomplished.
Despite my stories and jokes, I genuinely did not find the silence as hard as I would have expected. Whilst I am a true introvert, I still very much appreciate the presence of others. It was quite challenging to see my husband across the mediation hall, or occasionally across the grounds, but to be unable to even wave or make eye contact (men and women are in different areas throughout). However, apart from one hard day on day 5, the course became much easier as I focused all my efforts into the meditation. There are actually times you can speak: if you have a practical problem, such as with your room, there’s a manager you can speak to. If you have a question about the meditation, there are two times a day where you can sign up to speak with the meditation teacher.
I must include that my husband had a completely different experience to me. Except one nap (that he felt extremely guilty for), he focused exclusively on meditation for the duration (no making citrus water or building zen stone stacks for him). He found the technique straightforward, and was able to sit very still and focus, despite not having meditated that much previously. He experienced quite intense physical sensations, including being able to hear his blood pumping very loudly in his ears. Overall, he absolutely loved it, and is considering a longer course in future. Different people will experience the same course in extremely different ways!
Craving Mental Stimulation
It is extremely interesting to observe what people do to stimulate their minds during the silence. I diligently created an intricate Dhamma wheel out of sticks and stones during one break time, and I observed many zen stone stacks popping up all over the centre. I have never cleaned so much in my life. I arranged my cosmetics in height order, and read the ingredients on the back. I made up a song about Vipassana meditation to the tune of ‘Under the Sea’ (from the Little Mermaid). My favourite observation was several women standing around in a circle, with their backs to each other. One was pondering into the sky, chin thoughtfully in hand. One was examining a stick in great detail. Another was crouched down, intently watching a line of ants. It looked like an Amateur-Dramatic play – a freeze on the topic of ‘contemplation’ or ‘disconnection’. I imagined that an outside witness might think we’d all lost our marbles.
After the silence was over, a student hilariously regaled to me the story of him observing the friend he had come with ‘sweep some rocks’. He worried his friend had snapped. His friend indignantly replied: ‘I had built a Buddha made of stones! I was sweeping the rock garden around it!’
Recommendations – Emotional Health
I did come to appreciate how the silence was necessary to really immerse yourself in the meditation. As humans, we’re prone to comparison: if someone was having a fantastic time or a terrible time, or experiencing a certain type of sensation in the body or particular thought or feeling, it would be bound to influence us in some way (i.e. Why aren’t I feeling that? Is their experience better? Why am I such a terrible meditator?). However, both because of the intensity of the silence for that length of time, and because of the language used in some of the meditation (i.e. feeling your body ‘dissolve’) I would not recommend this particular meditation course for people who suffer from some chronic and severe mental health conditions. You will probably know yourself if this kind of experience is something that might make you feel worse, but if in doubt, discuss it with your doctor and mental health professional. Some people do enter these kinds of courses as an attempt to ‘fix’ their mental health difficulty, or process challenging life experiences. Students in this category can find it beneficial, but I would be wary. It may be very useful to you to have the time to reflect on difficulties in your life but I would make sure it is not a current issue, or too raw. Give yourself time and space first. Bear in mind if you’re also totally new to meditation it’s like trying to run a marathon when you haven’t first tried running round the block.
Recommendations – Physical Health
I would recommend spending time sitting cross legged so your body can get used to it (especially your knees). In hindsight I’d have strengthened my back more before going, but it’s certainly not a pre-requisite – you can request back rests, mini stools, and if needed, sit on a chair. I ended up sitting on a real mountain of cushions, blankets, and eventually, the mini-stool – it actually got a little bit ridiculous. I had to arrive a few minutes early each meditation time to assemble it, and countless people came up to me afterwards to tell me how fascinated they were by my creation! However, it was worth it, as I experience back issues, I expected to experience a flare-up. However, I came out of it with minimal body aches. I did also practice yoga (asana) in my room daily (illegally!). You’re allowed to walk around, but barred from running, yoga or any other exercise or meditation practices. I understand the importance of dedicating your time to understanding the practice, and not confusing it with other practices – but for me personally, I felt not doing yoga would have been at the detriment to both my physical and emotional health. I needed to move to stretch my back, and I needed some time to get out of my mind and into my body each day.
The food was delicious. It was all vegetarian, but there was plenty for me as a vegan. There was also plenty available at both breakfast and lunch, and after the first day, I genuinely didn’t mind just having tea and fruit for dinner. Sitting still all day doesn’t take up many calories.
Throughout the course I felt a general sense of calmness and peace, and since the course I feel like I have been reacting less strongly to events that tend to make me feel irritated or anxious. The concept of ‘anicca’ (an-ee-cha) has stuck with me. This is the idea that everything is constantly changing, so there is no use is clinging to things being the same or different. By doing this, we create our own suffering. You learn this idea by experiencing it happening in your own body, second by second, in order to be able to understand first hand how this is also the case in the wider world (“You can’t step into the same river twice”). I feel it’s very likely I will get more out of the meditation practice in future courses, and in time with my own personal practice at home.
As a psychologist interested in Mindfulness, a yoga student and teacher, and someone who has a personal meditation practice (albeit until now only 20 minutes a day on the Headspace app) the techniques in the Vipassana course were not anything particularly new. However, it was taken to a much deeper level to anything I’ve experienced before. I did not personally experience a grand ‘aha’ moment, which I attribute to this prior understanding of meditation and connecting to my body. The course is not intended to produce a significant change in perspective or personality overnight, and emphasis is placed on regular, sustained practice.
Nevertheless, I spoke with several people who did have a significant or profound experience. All the students that I spoke to, bar one, had extremely positive reports. Some students reported to me that connecting to their bodies, becoming aware of the countless physical sensations we’re having at any given time, and noticing how all these feelings are always in flux, was ‘life changing’. In our busy western world we’re so busy and in our own heads that our bodies are often hugely neglected. How often do you turn up somewhere, with no memory of the journey? We take 17,000-30,000 breaths a day – how many are you aware of? Tuning into the subtleties of what’s going on in our bodies means that we can be much more aware of how certain situations, thoughts and emotions impact us. If you can tune into this sooner rather than later, it reduces the need of your body to ‘shout’ about what’s happening – thereby decreasing the instances of being overwhelmed by your emotions. This also gives your mind more space to consider how to act, rather than jumping into a decision that has been governed by strong feelings.
“Until you make it’s unconscious, conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate” – Carl Jung.
Overall, I would definitely recommend to most people that they give Vipassana a go, providing you feel in a relatively stable place mentally and emotionally. Having ten days out to step back from our day to day life stresses as well as unplugging from modern technology is a great way to gain perspective and clear your head. Vipassana is so much more than a ‘break’ or a ‘retreat’ however – it’s teaching you a skill you can use for life. People often comment that taking 10 days out seems selfish, or indulgent. But I perceive it as making an investment in your mental health, in the same way we eat healthily and exercise to look after our bodies. With one in four people in the UK diagnosed with a mental health problem at some point in their lives, neglecting our mental health can lead to debilitating illness. This can, in some instances, lead to time off work or time in hospital. Prevention is better than cure! It’s also important to remember that it’s not only ourselves that benefit. When we interact with our loved ones, friends, family and the wider world, the emotional state we’re in impacts on them too. Think of how you can feel the tension in a room when someone is angry, or the ripple effect of a smile.
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I wanted to change myself’ – Rumi.
Have you done a Vipassana course before, or maybe several? How did you find it? If you have any questions or comments (or you want to hear my ‘Under the Sea’ song!) don’t hesitate to ask!
The Yog Travelogue