“A Vipassana retreat is a mental gym and the meditation sessions are like lifting weights”
Meditation. Yes. Believe it or not, I was in need of some. Here’s how it happened…
I took the bus to Dolores, a pueblito 5km from Capilla de Monte. Curiously, nearby Cerro Uritorco is famous for an extremely high number of UFO sightings and a rumoured subterranean community dwell under the mountain. Loco 🙂
I was on my way to my first Vipassana course. After two years of curiosity and much whisper on the grapevine, an opportune moment had finally opened it’s petals like a lotus flower.
What is Vipassana?
It’s a type of secular Meditation taught at centres across the globe. Vi-passana means ‘seeing things as they really are’ in Pali, a language spoken at the time of the Buddha in India 2,500 years ago.
This technique of mind purification was taught by a wonderful evangelical Myanmese man named S.N. Goenka during his lifetime.
And what does it do?
Through practice, Vipassana cultivates mindfulness: the ability to observe each moment with awakened, sharpened senses. The technique also teaches Equanimity, the art of observing rather than following addictive feelings of craving and aversion that can drive us all potty. Another fundamental to Vipassana is the Law of Impermanence and ‘Anitcha’ meaning ‘always changing’ which teaches the futility of clinging (on to things, thoughts, ideas) a self-destructive habit that inevitably leads to misery.
So far so good, si?!
Somehow, I was stuck in a rushing rut. Apparently, there’s a name for this ingrained habit, it’s called ‘hurry sickness’ when you feel a constant urge to rush even when there’s no reason to.
It was time to confront this imaginary treadmill! The quality of my day to day experience had been suffering for too long – yes, despite those amazing Patagonian peaks!! My sense of intuition had become murky and I was thirsting for some kind of mental deep clean.
Lessons in the Art of Living
This was what I signed up to. As students we were asked to ‘surrender’ to a (no.1) disciplined routine of 11 hours of meditation daily rising starting at 4.30am and finishing each day at 9.30pm.
To (no.2) Noble Silence. In order for the ‘chattering mind’ to settle, no communication is allowed for the duration – yes – this means no speaking, eye contact, physical contact, no conversation, no interaction. So-called ‘noble’ because everyone commits to this for communal benefit.
On arrival at the centre I was reminded of another condition of Vipassana: (no.3) the segregation of men and women. And never the twain shall meet as a result of a rope dividing the site into two separate gender zones.
After registration we (no.4) relinquished our mobile phones, car keys, valuables and any writing or reading material.
With all distractions are removed, preparing to scrub down to begin the “mental surgery” (Goenka’s words!) we changed into (no.5) modest loose clothing covering our legs and shoulders and prepared for an early night!
We’re all in this together!
I was content. No speaking for 10 days was a welcome change in gear to constant social interaction. Paz! Peace.
The tightly woven routine meant that there was little room to ruminate, to fret over decision making. Like a lassoed wild pony my mind gradually began to relax into submission.
I was within a small isolated world where 100 of us, students and serving staff, were committed to the same squeaky-clean standard. There was a nest-like comfort in that. Camaraderie and kinship were high. Valio la pena! This is worth it!
Each day we were roused out of our slumber by a gong (grrrr!).
By 4.25am I was outside wrapped in my meditation blanket gazing up at the starry sky and taking in some deep breaths of fresh autumnal air.
The gong sounded again at 4.30am and it was time to assume crossed-legged position in ‘la sala’, a hall with a snug grid formation of other students, eyes closed, sat upright, breathing slowly….sometimes to the point of snoring. One memorable morning, one of the chaps was shaken gently awake after…. the fine veil between meditation and sleep had merged.
By 6.30am stomachs were growling and the gong (yay!) sounded for breakfast. There was time until 8am to have ‘un descanso’ = back to bed for some extra sleep.
(…is the name of a Vipassana blog post by Amelie, ‘un estudiante antiguo’ and one of many lovely people I met on the course. Her title was too good not to recycle.)
From 8am the marathon of meditation really began with hourly sessions for the rest of the day and the 9 days to follow.
Our sanity was saved with 10-minute comfort breaks in between. A walk around the garden to gaze at the origami petals of Dahlias or flop back and find entertainment in passing clouds high above became engrossing as my noisy brain quietened.
Has Anyone seen my Marbles?
I’d signed up to my first Vipassana with very little meditation experience so arrived with some trepidation…..what if I lost my marbles, threw a wobbly and embarrassed myself?!
To my relief, this didn’t happen 🙂 All gratitude to La Professor Alicia, a very smiley patient person leading the camp and my favourite time of day: recorded lectures from Mr. Goenka himself every evening. These offered the same comfort as bedtime stories. Through his wise delivery laden with witty anecdotes we were coaxed into the technique:
1. Of observing my natural breath & rising happy thoughts (craving) and unhappy thoughts (aversion). We did this for 3 days.
2…progressing to observing the small sensation of air passing through my nostrils.
Over a further 3 days I learnt the deep concentration to channel focus, like a magnifying glass, on this sensation and greet those rising thoughts of craving and aversion with equanimity. It felt like tightrope walking with a blindfold in fog – tricky!
3…and finally progressing to observing sensations across the body through a mental scan “from the crown of the head to the tips of the toes”.
Super-high concentration required! but eventually I could feel my pulse quietly beating away in the skin of my cheeks…tension in the little muscles at my temples and in my throat…those miniature movements within my very own body, wow.
4.By day 5 we were also practising a stage of the training called ‘Strong Determination’. This was defined by sitting in the same position motionless for 1 hour 3x times a day. As inevitable pain arose we focused our new-found mind mastery skills (loud cough) in observing and (theoretically) lessening the unpleasant sensation. Hmmmmm…
Just when I was wanted to kick-out at this asylum lifestyle with internal bursts of tantrum, Goenka’s witty telepathic explanations set me back on ‘el camino’/ the path. Morale was restored! The technique felt manageable, enjoyable through the personal discovery, challenging – oh yes! – but I felt progress —-s-l-o-w-l-y—- unfurling just like the unfolding petals of those Dahlias.
I enjoyed moments of clarity as the ability to observe became easier. I began to find an albeit slippery grip on the elusive sense of Equanimity as my desire to escape into daydream or ruminate and replay former ‘negativities’ rose up again and again and again.
The quote at the start of this story is pretty accurate expression of my Vipassana experience. This mental re-training was and continues to be HARD WORK!
Imagine herding cats….
Valio la Pena!
To conclude: after 10 days of incubation, my senses were significantly more sensitive and that was a novelty. I’d learnt some basics in ‘ Art of Living’. Thank you Mr. Goenka!
I could settle in moments and pay (and enjoy!) attention where that attention had once been swamped with mental junk. Hurrah!
Once the rule of Noble Silence was lifted it was strange to notice that only short conversations were possible before a headache and sore throat began from heightened sensitivity.
And…..I’d experienced a glimpse of something subtle but brilliant. To get there had been hard work undoubtedly but now, with the understanding that through self-mastery another experience of life is lying there parallel, I sincerely look forward to my next Vipassana undertaking, some time later in 2016 to top up!
Visit Dhamma.org for more info