When was the last time you tested your boundaries, to see how far you could push yourself? Or totally switched off from the grid, no screens, no contact, no news, no talking, no looking even. On the 25th June, I completed a 10 day Vipassana Meditation course in Nepal, and it was one of the most game changing experiences of my life.
So what is it?
The word “Vipassana” means seeing things as they really are, not as you would like them to be. It’s a process of self purification by self observation, a technique developed and taught by the Buddha. It’s free and available to absolutely anyone, regardless of your ethnicity or religious tendencies. It’s a universal technique that teaches you a way of life, a code of conduct, an art of living. The goal is to learn how to live peacefully and harmoniously, how to have control over the mind, and how to live with the spirit of the mind full of love, compassion and goodwill (man). To learn, all you have do is surrender yourself to a meditation camp for 10 days, and agree to 5 precepts:
1. To abstain from killing any living creature
2. To abstain from stealing
3. To abstain from all sexual activity
4. To abstain from telling lies
5. To abstain from all intoxicants
Let be honest, we’re all just worried about #5… Ohh, and the 10 days of Noble Silence… Yeah, that… No talking, no gestures, no eye contact, no reading, no writing. Just you, your thoughts, and S. N. Goenka’s dulcet tones.
The schedule is demanding and, like Pavlovs Dogs, our days revolved around bells – some made us salivate, others made us “starrrrt agaiiiiiin”… the 4am wake up bell, the call to meditation bell, the “time for food” bell, from 4am to 9pm every day, 11 hours of meditation and noble silence.
The first few days are all about breathing…. Like, a LOT of breathing, but just your natural breath. I couldn’t get my monkey mind to shut the fuck up – it’s surprising when you try reallllllly hard to not think of anything how much comes into your head.
The conditions were challenging: the humidity was about 80% and the fans worked occasional, which meant I sweated my arse off for most of the day, sweating out all my impurities and toxins. Purging my system inside and out. It was like rehab…
Soon the schedule, the structure and the technique started to take over and I entered into almost a dream-like state. My inner world became so huge when I fell silent and just observed the world around me. In the beginning, I did anything to keep my mind off the deafening silence in between the meditations, but after a while I found pleasure in stopping to smell the flowers, to watch the ants (FIFA), to just listen to the birds. I know, I know how funny that sounds, and trust me I was as amused as you, but as I shut out the distractions, I left a quiet and peaceful mind, a mind that started to feel so vast and powerful, so full of potential.
It’s not necessary to have to do the lotus pose for this meditation, just to find a comfortable sitting position that means you can sit for a period of time. Despite months of sitting on nothing but divans, my western body still cried out in pain in a crossed leg position… My Knees, then my back, a numb bum, pins and needles in my feet on constant rotation.
I made the ultimate mistake of looking around and comparing myself to my other inmates, who of course all looked so serene and comfortable, certainly not fidgeting every 5 minutes like me. Seriously, How the fuck are they all doing this? I tried so many cushion configurations I lost count. By the end of the course, everyone had their preferred set up, and watching them get them ready before the determined 1-hour-absolutely-no-moving-allowed sittings (that were introduced on day 4, 3 times daily) was like watching a golf pro set up for that a drive of the 1st tee. A check-list of about 40 and everything.just.so.
Why did I do it?
What was I expecting? Some kind of transcendental journey that would answer all my questions and give me some kind of out of body experience. I feel a little foolish to think how much I wanted from it, how much I expected it to be like a magic wand, to fix me and take me places, a way of finding all the answers to all the things I worry about. There are certainly some meditations/methods that can do that, this just isn’t that kind of thing.
I hoped it would help me achieve stillness, strength, clarity, balance, help me tune into my emotions and intuition, to see my own potential and to hold space for myself. The good news is, it helped me achieve all these things, and the technique was so simple, so real, and as a result wayyyy more visceral.
How did it make me feel?
Initially, I felt apprehensive, frustrated, uncomfortable (sitting down for 11 hours may seem easy, but I challenge any of you to sit on the floor for even 15 mins without fidgeting); by the end I felt so happy, relaxed, peaceful, grounded, and more in control of my mind. Ultimately, I guess, a whole lot more aware/sober – it’s a 100% natural high.
It felt like I was unlocking parts my brain, taking a journey of insight. The mind is a muscle, it’s like I was exercising and relaxing it at the same time, like teaching it a new trick: Developing my faculty to focus within. Just to be, rather than trying to be. To meet with pleasure and with pain and treat those two imposters just the same: it’s allllll about equanimity baby. It all balances out if you just let it go, and you feel so much more free.
If this made me happy, does that mean I was un-happy before? Yes and No, but for me this gives me a new way of seeing the world and a way to slowly eradicate negative reactions – there’s something in that. It needs a few more goes to practice and to figure out how I realistically integrate it into my everyday life, but there’s definitely something in that.
Am I happier now? Yes. Am I free from having wibbly moments of erratic emotion, tearful pathetic moments of ineptitude or flashes of anger? No, I’m not out of those woods yet, but am I coping with those moments a lot better? Yes.
“Good for you” I hear you say, but why should you care? How could this help you?
It’s been useful to understand that everyone has a different experience, that everyone takes from it in a different way, and that you can only learn through your own experience.
Having said that, if you could see that there’s such a simple way to liberate yourself from tensions, you’d wish that for everyone. I know not everyone can surrender 10 days to experience this for themselves. I know I’m incredibly lucky to have been able to follow my curiosity. It’s not my job to tell you to go, or to teach you the technique, all you need to know is that Vipassana is a universal technique that can help you exercise a healthy mind, happiness is a nice side effect.
It’s NOT some cult or sect or religious rite of passage. I’m still me – I’m just trying to be the happiest me I can be (cheesiest comment I’ll make all day, probably).
The main aim is basically “May all beings be happy”, which is basically a nice thing. It doesn’t turn you into some reaction-less vegetable, it just turns you on to a different way of thinking. It’s a sort of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which gives you choices about your thoughts.
One week on, and I’m reflecting on that pure joy feeling I had as I walked out the meditation hall for the last time, and how to adapt/apply this to my every day life. It’s going to be a challenge, but one I’m happy to undertake.
In the words of 90’s band En Vogue, “Free your miiiiind, and the rest will follow!”