Guy my sub-atomic particle buddy, whats up today!? Man what bird makes that crazy noise? Maybe I should go for 2 cups of tea for lunch and start drinking more water. Where did Alison ever go, no one has her as a friend on Facebook, I do need to find out where she is…”
is the random stream of consciousness you become highly aware of when meditating for most of the day, while in complete silence for 10 days straight… I had to get that in there but lets start from the top.
On the way to the Vipassana centre there seemed to be a variety of different people who all sat quietly in the bus on our way to the middle of nowhere to visit a physical and mental place where we had never been before. We ground for an hour and a half through the English like countryside of lush green grass. Endless farms divided up by barbed wire, suggesting that the open land we had heard of that we could easily camp on apparently didn’t exist. We reached the site near Kaukupakupa, another New Zealand place name we couldn’t pronounce for a long time, in the middle of nowhere enclosed by 2 hills covered in trees.
We were quickly registered and had to give up any books, music devices, writing implements. We signed off a form that made us vow not to talk for 10 days, practice any other religious technique, avoid contact with anyone else on the premises. The only people we could talk to were the 2 teachers and your male manager. Laura and I said our goodbyes as we were to be separated for 10 days, not eating together, sleeping in completely separate areas and meditating on opposite sides of the meditation hall. We also agreed to observe the 5 moral codes, called sīla, inherent to the practice before any further progress can be made:
1. No killing any living thing
2. No telling untruths
3. No stealing
4. No sexual misconduct
5. Avoiding any intoxicants
I was lucky as it seemed that there were less male participants, which meant that I had my own room, while Laura had to share.
After a first meal of a hearty soup we sat down and were introduced to the staff and process, routine of the day and all the dos and donts, after which silence struck. This was a key moment and a moment that had everyone feeling nervous, anxious and the rest. We sat our first hour straight away, despite thinking that we would be getting used to the center etc first, instead we were straight at work. Given a blanket and a yoga mat to sit on we heard our first chanting from Goenka, the head of Vipassana being broadcast from speakers. A throaty groaning of a chant that were the first words uttered by Buddha after being enlightened under the tree. The hour went slowly and you suddenly realised how long the 10 days might feel. After that at just 9pm we all retired to bed as the 4am gong would be sound for our first meditation session the next day. The rooms were basic, with nothing but a bed and a vague box shelf. In total around 2.5 meters by 1.5 meters in size with a radiator and slide window. Simple but effective, in the spirit of the reductionist philosophy that Vipassana teaches- the need for nothing really. Craving for things whether material or mental produces misery, even if you want to stop smoking or want something positive creates unhappiness.
We began the next day on Ānāpāna meditation, which is the first stage of Vipassana. After the first stage is complete, which is the observation of the codes of morality you need to begin to focus your mind. The mind needs to begin to be able to feel small sensations throughout the body. This is called Samatha meditation, which means calming meditation. As Goenka would say “start with a calm and quiet mind. Patient and persistent mind…” The task for the first 3 days was to focus on the breath entering and leaving the nose area and feeling all the sensations around the top of the upper lip. That is it. The first 4am gong woke me up and I got up duly to start work. The first session is 2 hours, but it is incredibly difficult to wake up at 4am and meditate without falling asleep. Further more it is harder staying awake the rest of the day. After the first day I decided to not partake in the first session of the day but to ensure that I had slept enough to work hard and focus during the rest of the days meditation. This is not encouraged behaviour I have to admit and did feel guilty, but falling asleep would not prove anymore beneficial I believed.
Either way the first few days came and went slowly. The 1.5 hour sessions felt like an eternity and concentrating on one thing, that was breath coming and going for a total of 8.5 hours to 13 hours per day depending on how slack you were was tough going. The realisation as was pointed out to us was how disturbed and how much rubbish your mind talks. If you are still and quiet your brain never stops. Jabbering on about everything and anything. As was also pointed out if you said out loud what came out of your mouth then you would be sectioned. This was to the laughter of everyone in the room who identified with this sentiment. We are all crazy.
In between compulsory group meditation sessions you have other sessions where different groups would be invited up to sit with the teacher and have a brief discussion to see whether they were able to follow the instructions of the grand master, which came from Goenka via the speakers in the room and via daily 1- 1.5 hour long videos played in the evening. Otherwise you could meditate in the hall or your room. You soon started to see other people’s routine. Even though you were supposed to focus only on yourself, not noticing what other people were up to was impossible. I started to talk to people in my head and then tell myself off for doing so in my head. You started to notice the people who needed to walk up and down a short path non stop after lunch, who ate the most, who drank tea and who didn’t. You could see some people were in pain and finding it hard, while others you would think they had been practicing meditation for years.
Speaking of lunch we were warned that a “simple vegetarian menu” was served. In reality the food was fantastic and had everything you needed from salad to a hot main meal, seeds and fruit, tea with milk and coffee. I started to remember what was on offer each day and keep a mental note just for some menial mental kick, but also because lunch became the core of the day, after a long morning of meditation and knowing that we were not going to have another meal for another 19 hours. Meals came around twice a day, once at 7am and then lunch at 11am. After 12pm only a portion of fruit was served at 5pm and tea, but that is it. So making sure you eat enough was important, even though later that evening we were advised via video that the temptation to eat a lot at lunch is no good as it doesn’t help your meditation practice. Curse! I have been preempted again!
After the 3rd day we were congratulated as apparently people either drop out on the 2nd day or the 6th day. We had finished our Ānāpāna and now ready for Vipassana, which ultimated means experiencing the ultimate truth. We spend so much time observing the world that we never experience our own brains and try to tame the beast of our thoughts. We now had to shift our focus and concentrate on different parts of the body, observing as many subtle sensations as possible and ignoring sensations that were happening on any other part of the body at that time. That itch was now not to be touched, but ignored, that pain in your leg from sitting in the same position for so long has to be left to go numb, but that small warmth on the top of your foot, where you were concentrating for that moment needed to be observed, observed for what it was. The key teaching of Vipassana is that everything changes, and is in a constant flux, so what is the purpose of desiring, craving and suppressing. What will be will be and ultimately change. This is the state of mind that erodes misery and leads to our ultimate wisdom termed jñāna in the practices native Hindi. The wisdom of observing ourself, inside our own mind, which is the only thing we can experience as reality. The rest is perceived first and so not complete reality.
As time wore on the pain literally started. At first I was meditating in stillness, half lotus posture with no extra comfort. Others started to add blankets and mats to their allocated space. Some of the girls side had small chairs and others were wrapped in blankets. I tried to go minimal to work on the “I do not need anything” philosophy, but as time wore on this became harder, and subsequently so did the concentration. When you develop shooting pain up your legs from sitting there for so long it becomes so uncomfortable you must move. Many times I had to pick up my legs and move position manually as my legs were completely dead and numb. Other people were clearly also finding it hard and people became restless more and built on their thrones as I called them as time went on. Some were like squat sofa chairs by the end. It was also interesting how different people meditated. Some looked like they were riding a horse and had their legs either side of a bunch of cushions, while others sat with their knees up. Despite the increasing pain the sessions begin to feel shorter and my ability to meditate without thinking “blimey surely that is an hour already” was getting better. Although I would never complete all the meditation sessions in the day I have to confess, I did often find a distraction of some kind, which was “one of the evils of meditations”. As we had not washed our clothes for so long, they had washing powder and boiling water, so I boil hand washed all my clothes. I also found my needle and thread in my bag, which wasn’t outlawed per se. It did mean that for 5 lunch breaks that I sewed non-stop, everything that was torn or broken in the slightest. I unpicked a machine stitch to learn a new one. I removed two pockets and used them as patches for other clothes, even sewing designs into them, a stitched together my rucksack where the zip was bust, my sponge bag and 2 tops. Mass avoidance of doing nothing. I have always known how good I am at being able to find something to do out of nothing, but this highlighted it.
On day 5- 6 things were getting interesting for me. My ability to feel subtle sensations and block out the rest was getting easier, I could feel tiny amounts of tingling and pretty much make that moev around my body where ever I was focusing. At one point I stopped being able to feel anything and my whole body produced a warm tingling sensation. I wanted to move on, but observed this instead. I could observe my body as a whole, with awareness of the outside, but feeling kind of like I was in a trance. Something I have never felt before. When I asked the teachers about this they said this is what happens when the body breaks down individual sensations and that is the next stage feeling the micro sensations on any point of the body at any given time. They did warn that this was an addictive sensation and that you must avoid aiming for it, to avoid craving and thus going back a stage as well. So ironically I felt like I had ‘progressed’ but was also told not to be satisfied or to continue wanting to progress in any way to avoid going backwards. This was the only time I felt this sensation as well.
During days 6- 8 we were now on the “over half way point” and despite everyone not knowing anyone, you realise how much you can learn about people without speaking to them, in fact you get a completely different perspective. I knew everyones breakfast habit and considered myself to have a good, fast breakfast routing. But one guy could eat a bowl of porridge, 2 pieces of toast and 2 cups of tea in 15 minutes. Impressive. I multi tasked and optimised my routine, but still he was out of the hall before me. Yes this is the kind of stuff that occupies your mind when nothing else fills it.
One afternoon I noticed a scene out of a mental home. One guy shuffling around lying on the grass in the sun, another guy marching up and down the short drive way, another staring at a bush for 10 minutes and another looking at the floor scuffing his feet walking in random direction.
Then a noise was heard from the tree, when everyone instantly looked towards its location as if they collectively said “stimulation, what was that noise, how amazing, something actually happened!” It is fascinating what the mind does when it has little stimulation it really is.
On day 8 we were told that we were going to be able to talk after the morning of day 9, something unexpected and you could feel the excitement in the room. Suddenly we had pretty much made it and the end was in sight. After the last few days where small words of “cheers” had been uttered, or small gestures of help offered we were now going to be able to speak to our familiar strangers that we had lived with for over a week now. That day seemed easier, although my back was getting more and more painful as the days went on. My backside after day 7 stayed in pain even after a full nights sleep, which was not a good sign and so I was quietly wishing time away, while half of me was making the most use out of the time and the experience as possible.
Then after a morning meditation session and breakfast silence was broken. But now talking was hectic and noisy. Laura and I met and started slowly to reveal our thoughts and feeling of this incredible, unique experience. It was hard to though. We needed some quiet and to go outside. It was fun to suddenly talk to these people you have been watching for so long and to ask them what they were thinking when you saw them on day 4 for example. I challenged the guy on his eating habits for breakfast and we all realised that I had started to warm the butter on the knife before spreading it and that other people copied this before some people then started warming it on the plates itself. The psychology of group behaviour in silence is an unusual one we concluded and probably not explored often! I started speaking to people about where they were off to next and the second person I spoke to said he was hiring a camper van and meeting his girlfriend near to where we needed to go and so we could easily grab a lift from him all the way where we needed to go- sweet!
Everyone was having some much fun in this vastly altered environment that we had forgotton that we still had 4 meditation sessions left. My back and backside were in vast pain now and so after the mood had lifted in the final sessions, almost as if a tension of not knowing anyone had vanished. Some one farted and everyone let out a big giggle. I decided that on my last session that instead of sticking to the 1 mat and 1 blanket that I would go the opposite to see what everyone had been working on. I stacked 8 mats together, but it proved very funny for a few people and they had to leave the meditation hall. That is why Goenka said that day 9 was not a serious day of meditation. Instead we also learnt another form of meditation, which was to push out the happiness and understanding generated by your positive meditation to the rest of the world.
Our last sleep was a strange one and I slept well, yet again. We awoke on day 10 and started to clean our rooms before breakfast and then had to help clean the center.
The center is run as a donation only project, there are many all over the world, which are run by a board who vote on anything that needs deciding. Everyone who works there are volunteers who have done the course before, which makes Vipassana a truly unique organisation. After we were due to do it in India, we were disappointed when we could not, but it was really useful to do in New Zealand from the practical point that it saved our budget being hit with activities etc. The weather for the whole time was beautiful and the scenery was conducive of meditation. It was certainly very hard at times, trying of your patience and very painful. It is the hardest sitting down you will ever do. We were both very happy to have done it though and would like to give back our time to serve on a course to give our time to enable others to take the course.
After we started watching a film on the introduction of Vipassana into jails, ‘Doing time with Vipassana’, and its immensely positive effect the bus arrived, we said our goodbyes to new found long lived with companions and headed back to Auckland.