I first heard about Vipassana from a man called Simon on an island in Cambodia called Koh Rong Sanloem. Like many of my life changing moments his timely gift of The Art of Living by S. N. Goekna was unbeknown to me, exactly what I needed.
Up to that point I had been firmly stuck in a rut. Negative behaviour patterns ruled my world and after a run of terrible luck, poor judgement and heartache I had made a decision to change my life.
I began to meditate with no technique but the words in this book made me understand that there was a type of mental training that could help to break my seemingly, never-ending cycle of regret and shame.
After meeting Simon and his book I came across a few others that had taken part in the course. In particular Mel, she had lasted five days and came home with a feeling of unease on her that did unnerve me. I knew I wasn’t quite ready for the solitude then, only a few months after learning about it. Around a year later I met Chris and he enthusiastically filled me in about his time at the centre, giving me useful warnings and tips.
I knew my wait was over, I was ready to go.
After a couple of failed attempts I managed to secure myself a place in Dhamma Sukhakāri in Suffolk. The ethos really appealed to me, this wasn’t a money making scheme, this tradition didn’t seek to be a business. Run solely on donations and by volunteers, this worldwide collection of meditators seemed to be pure and the circulation of knowledge is a pursuit that resonates with me.
The weeks leading up to it were a little unsettling, I was nervous about failing at it. I had never meditated with a group before, plus I wouldn’t be able to smoke and my passion for eating would be strictly regulated. I was strong but I was afraid I was about to see how much the little comforts being taken away was going to shake my resolve.
There was a bus running from Scotland but with Mel’s experience ringing in my memory I elected to drive the 200 miles or so to the centre near Stowmarket, just in case I couldn’t hack it. Armed with comfortable clothes, basic toiletries and leaving my beloved laptop behind I set off on this unusual trip.
My drive down was wholly uneventful and I was gaining excitement. Travelling on my own always gives me such a massive boost and after being very comfortable in my childhood home for two months I was ready for some adventure.
Pulling up to a beautiful Manor House straight out of Miss Marple I breathed, got out of the car, stretched and listened to the quiet of rural England. We were to read a few pamphlets and sign a couple of things. There were digestive biscuits and hot drinks to my delight. I noticed that there were a number of Scottish voices in the female side of the canteen and got chatting with a couple of women who were in the same boat as me, newcomers to the practice.
My initial reflex to shake hands was stymied and a sign was pointed out to me:
Please refrain from all physical contact whilst at the centre.
And so, the rules begin. We were to hand over our belongings and were briefed where we had the chance to ask questions. As the men shuffled into our side of the canteen I realised how loud the women were, add a couple of Scottish women in that mix and the decimal baseline jumps up a few levels.
Nobel Silence was one of those things I was nervous about. I enjoy solitude but could I manage no human interaction for this length of time? One of the women had a question that stuck with me, when she was given the response no to contact, she exclaimed, “What not even a please and thank you?!” It sunk in that this basic –and very British– need to be grateful and apologetic was about to be stripped away from us. I grabbed another cup of tea and biscuit and went to make up my bed.
The dorms were great, newly made bunk beds in fresh pine scented the space, the toilets were close by and I had shelf space to put my stuff. Nobel Silence had begun as we left the briefing and so the first meeting of my roommates was reminiscent of my first days in a hostel in Thailand. Nods and a suggestion of a smile with no eye contact overcame a language barrier then and now gave me the feeling that even if someone didn’t see my gesture, at least I acknowledged that there was a person near me. I placed my clock with the timetable on the back of the pamphlet at the foot of my bed.
We were off to the Dhamma hall that evening. Entering, with shoes left behind at the door, the space had a muffled quality, dim lighting and around 100 large cushions on the floor with an isle so the genders were separate.
We each were given the coordinate of our place for the duration of the course and as I sat down I realised the neighbour to my right had a blanket. Without a second thought I broke the Nobel Silence by asking where she got it. She pointed to a pile of blocks and blankets at the back of the room. I guessed this is how people meditate – warm and cosy. My experience until now had been in my bed, on a beach or in the jungle mostly in Asia and Australia. I realised that apart from at the end of my bed I had never sat to meditate in Scotland for any length of time. This was going to be a struggle. I stifled a sorry for talking to her and grabbed a blanket of my own.
From that moment the memories come in stints and starts. That is the trouble with familiar spaces for a long time and not having a way to take notes. I placed the blanket in front of me to cushion my legs and we meditated for I’m not sure how long. I was surprised there wasn’t more instruction from the teachers and the unexpected recording of S. N. Goenka leading us through was hypnotic. I was dreading the 4:00 am alarm call but after the long day I slept like a log.
That first morning, although grumpy and cold, I managed to get up and into the hall. This was the first long sit – 2 hours from 4:30am in the hall or your room. I was hungry, uncomfortable and distracted. I was dreaming of hot, buttered toast as I observed my breath. I needed to pee but was unsure of the etiquette. The noise in the hall was of sighs and yawns and shuffles, occasionally I heard the door softly shut but assumed that must be someone official.
Breakfast was a full spread of porridge, cereals, stewed fruit and disappointingly, rather cold toast. I gulped down coffee and fruit and forced myself to eat a small bowl of heavily sugared porridge something I have despised since I was a bairn. After eating there was time for a nap and then a walk around a lovely meadow behind the Dhamma hall. Though the pathways have been cultivated I was calmed among the bees, flowers and birds.
The weather was fine and I felt motivated.
The hour long group meditation from 8:00 am was next. This was my most productive time overall. I had a full belly and the recording resonated. On the first day my body was aching and I wanted to stretch out and do a headstand on my meditation cushion but as it was forbidden I refrained. In the beginning we were practising Anapana meditation. Anapana means observation of natural, normal respiration, as it comes in and as it goes out. This was essentially all the mediation technique I had up unto this point so I felt highly proficient in the first few days.
From 9 – 11 am we could meditate in our room and I had the need to change my surroundings so I went off to my bunk bed. Honestly, I lasted only 30 minutes before I nodded off. My dream was of a cloudy heavenly place and I woke to the sound of the gong signalling lunchtime.
Lunch was delicious, vegetarian and plentiful. The silent queue of hungry women was uncomfortable to be in. It is my vision of an Orwellian nightmare: silently, shuffling holding your plate to your chest, holding in your frustration of the pace of others, irrationally nervous you won’t get fed or some of the dressing for your salad with the added terror of accidentally touching someone and breaking the rules.
I devoured my plate with a cup of tea and filled my flask with another for later.
I headed to the meadow and paced around the track. There were large sections of trees laid out as benches, not too comfortable to sit on but nice for a perch in the sun. I noticed that people were mulling around the Dhamma hall and after nipping in noticed a sign up sheet for questions with the teacher. I went back to the sun.
The next sitting was from 1 – 2:30pm and was the toughest. I wanted to be outside cross legged on the grass, basking. I elected to go to the hall and gave up halfway through with the sounds of others too distracting, I couldn’t get passed the tin roof and all its clatter.
The rest of this sitting I spent in my room.
Then back for a mandatory group meditation for an hour which was beginning to be more comfortable even if my mind wasn’t totally still. Following this, a sitting where old or new, male or female groups were asked to stay in the hall and the teacher would call up a few at a time to ask if we were understanding the recording.
I tried to stay in the hall at these times as I liked to overhear the replies. I was seeking entertainment. After everyone had answered the teacher we stayed at the front with her to meditate together, this felt more like the meditation I was used to.
Shorter, concise and refreshing, my body also felt less lazy in these sittings.
5pm was tea break and as we moved further into the week I began to relish these cups of hot liquid like some kind of balm for the soul.
We then had another one hour group meditation where the focus of the day was clarified and the discourse followed.
The discourse was, I imagine, the best part of being at the the course with S. N. Goenka himself. Sat comfortably but upright in the hall watching and listening to the man who had popularised it, and such a charismatic and enigmatic man too. He made quips and jokes on modern and ancient life, I giggled aloud and that was magic – to express myself just a little. In these videos we could watch his body language and his friendly face and humanity was restored to our day. He discussed what we had done the previous day, gave insight into the history of Vipassana and the techniques origins along with stories of Buddha. He then outlined the technique for the next day. Afterward we had a 45 minute group meditation and then you could stay behind and ask questions of the teachers.
Lights out at 9:30pm. Repeat for nine days.
The first few days of Anapana were familiar to me. Though in the Dhamma hall with many other bodies around me making subtle but collective noise my mind was working through mainly sexual imagery and thoughts. I discussed this with an acquaintance about his practise when I had met Mel in Thailand and he told me he’d had a similar experience when he had taken his course a decade previously. Was this me just projecting? Am I a cretin who cannot think of anything other than the base pleasure of DNA replication? Will I ever be able to rid my mind of such distractions?
Well yes, and after we broke Nobel Silence many of the other women and I discussed similar experiences, one women even stating that it took five days for her sexual thoughts to subside to make way for something else.
When we were given more technique on day four however I was beginning to strain myself. I was, in short, very hungry. I had noticed a few other the others, including two pregnant women, getting extra food in the evening. I wrestled with the idea of asking for more every day but decided against it. I wasn’t unwell, I had plenty of water and tea. It was hunger pains keeping me awake at night and my mind trying to control me as it begged for more sustenance.
So by day four I was convinced that the whole thing was a set up. I was starving, this was mind control, the way Goenka spoke was hypnotising me and as we moved into more difficult meditation territory I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was just distraction tactics but I didn’t know from what… I considered leaving a lot and every day I was plotting some kind of Mission Impossible to get my keys back from bag number 14 in the large suitcase, its location hitherto unknown.
Because you have almost 11 hours a day of meditation I talked myself out of this scheme and managed to sustain myself by drinking more water. This meant I had to pee way more often and so in the longer sittings I could take a break with a clear conscious. This really helped and gave me something to do, mindfully…
One evening, around day five, I dreamt that a serial killer was in the area praying on meditators, probably something to do with my Miss Marple connotations on arrival. I –rationally– concluded that I would be fine as I would hear them coming over the gravel in the drive outside the window behind me and could get away.
The brain is so powerful and in these clear moments with no distractions it is so astonishing what it does. I got to see that it truly works independently of environment when it chooses to. I experienced it being ungrateful of little food and it gave me nightmares as a result.
In days five to eight, I spent a lot of time reliving mistakes, negative emotion and traumatic experiences with a sense of detachment. This was probably one of the most cathartic moments of my life. I was able to make peace with my past in a way I had only scratched the surface of before. I resolved to forgive others and myself and with very little fuss at all.
At this point, if I am honest, I had gone a bit rogue. In the group meditations I was focused on the task and cleared my head as much as possible. I found I could sit unmoving for the whole hour in Strong Determination but I found my brain was able to work through so much tension in the other hours. I let it do its thing, all the time observing.
There was a moment when I was not following the rules and we had begun the body scan and noticing Gross* Sensations in the body. I had an overwhelming, electric line across my forehead. Each pass of my body was overshadowed by this broad line that felt though it was underneath my skin, pulsing and sparking from temple to temple.
I caved and let my attention fall solely on it.
As I did the crack moved up the centre of my forehead towards my crown and it grew wider. I saw a warm purple light and energy burst out of my forehead. I grinned so hard I was convinced my neighbours would have heard it. My mood lifted considerably. My creative button had been pushed and the first time since I had arrived I longed for my sketchbook. Clear pictures from bits of concepts came to mind. Fragments of ideas began cohering.
I hope this was my third-eye awakening.
I was more focused in the last few days. Taking my practice more seriously, feeling I had achieved something I hadn’t set out to achieve. I spoke with a delightful women after we broke our silence and her experience of going rogue bonded us. She echoed my existential experience and I was so glad she was around to give me comfort.
Breaking silence was bittersweet. I thought I was ready for it all to be over but once we did begin talking I felt wholly overwhelmed. The mood in the centre totally changed, people were loud, it took some time to tune in to hearing others. Every time I spoke I welled up and my voice cracked. I had a huge rush of emotion with strangers, we had a bond that spanned 10 days.
It was a weird relationship, you build a certain picture of who someone is from afar and although we were in very close proximity to each other we had removed the aspect that makes us human –language.
With no means to communicate it was a shock to hear people’s voices, opinions and experiences. The vulnerability we went through totally alone was shared and sometimes witnessed. I was eager to hear more from participants but on that 9th day I couldn’t guide my energy, I felt it brimming over and I couldn’t contain my excitement when there was to be dinner.
I can’t remember if we meditated or not on that last morning, I know we ate breakfast and chatted. I passed around a sheet and gathered email addresses. We put our names up on the boards to clean, to share taxis, to offer lifts. I cleaned the showers with a girl from my dorm, it was efficient and almost effortless. We paid our donations to other volunteers who had came in for the day, I spoke with the men and we discussed group sittings in Scotland. As I’d brought the car I did a couple of runs to the train station. It was almost real life again.
I made my way to a hotel to decompress. I was in need of a good meal and to slowly adjust myself. Process all that I had felt, experienced and achieved.
Fifteen of the people who completed the course got back to me in the days following our return home and I had to enquire about their experience. Eleven women and four men, ranging between 23 and 58 years old. Only two of them had completed a previous Vipassana course and three of them said they did very little meditating beforehand another three did none at all. When I asked if anyone had an intention before coming to the course there were some that answered, like me, that they were curious, others had a goal they wanted to see if they could achieve.
“I was hoping to gain more clarity of mind and to become less reactive to daily life. I react mostly with anger or negativity to discomforts and I would like to remain balanced and positive in all situations.”
“I hoped to make some discoveries about myself, be more grounded and make my mind more focused and clear.”
But even the ones who said they didn’t have a particular goal all felt they had achieved something by completion.
“I feel blessed to have experienced it & it deepened my meditation practice. I was already very happy & content & going with the flow of life beforehand but I’m even calmer & accepting of what ‘is’ now.”
“Yes, I learned the technique. It is too soon to tell if I have brought balance on a lasting basis but I do feel more connected and present as a result of the meditation.”
“It was way beyond. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into and didn’t completely get what I thought but I got something much much more profound and valuable.”
Something that I asked myself afterwards that I couldn’t quite satisfactorily answer was: What did I enjoy most about the experience? The food?
I still can’t, for me it wasn’t enjoyable per se, at all. It was a test of my stamina and resolve and there are some days I pine to live like a monk but I enjoy that fact I did it, I don’t crave to do it all the time.
One answered like me: breakfast and lunch but many answered that the structure and the Nobel Silence were the most enjoyable elements and quite tellingly I think, a few answered that breaking the silence and talking with your fellow meditators was their best bit.
I was sure that I would struggle to sit for long periods of time. When asked, the majority said the most challenging thing was just that, coming in at second was meditating itself, cabin fever, controlling emotions and missing family all got mentioned, these were my favourite answers:
“The first 3 days was full of doubts and as I had elected to sit on the mat I was in a lot of pain and worried if I was being brainwashed or some other agenda!”
“Waking up in the night with a growling belly…. all the while sleeping under the noisiest bedmate: a constant snorer, tosser and turner, and speaker in his sleep.”
So as I try to give you some sort of conclusion as to whether I think this course is as miraculous as I did on the tenth day, when I wandered around in a haze trying to assimilate back into real life, I will quote some advice from the wondrous 15 who made me feel much less alone once I had returned to Scotland and my ‘real’ life.
“I’d tell them to research proper meditation/sitting posture to help them sit for long periods without causing damage or unnecessary discomfort.”
“Go in with an open mind with an intention to heal.”
“Don’t come with any preconceived ideas, be open and don’t use your intellect as a defence. Have trust.”
“Don’t expect enlightenment. Be realistic. It won’t solve your problems, but if you’re genuinely interested/intrigued, it is a fascinating experience.”
I asked them if they are planning on taking another course, three said maybe and nobody said no. And, like the twelve that said yes, I have got a place on my second course in April. This time for 3 days and in Scotland so no big road trip, a shorter time to focus and less time to starve.
They told me that they found out about Vipassana through a conversation like I did or on the internet maybe like you now, as you read this? I would encourage everyone who has an interest to try this technique, if only for the sense of achievement you will always have with you after completion.
This isn’t a religion or a cult, I am not religious nor were any of my fifteen interviewees. Now, six months on I feel much more balanced, calmer in everyday life and the experience has made me stronger. I have a stronger belief in my identity, I have more empathy for others.
“I feel like a have a new tool in my toolkit that puts a mirror to myself in a way that I didn’t have before. I feel as if I need to maintain this tool, and I haven’t found a way to do that consistently just yet. Nonetheless I feel like I’m much more self aware and I at least now know something practical that will help me grow.”
“I feel more aware in my daily life while doing mundane tasks or just getting from one place to another; and also aware of my own body and sensations I experience. I feel more present and am able to attend to the people I speak to better, while previously I would be constantly distracted. I feel more focused and am more able to control what I attend to. I also feel more kind and understanding (tolerant) to people surrounding me.”
“Vipassana was a great and insightful experience. It really helped me realise how important it is to deal with traumas/difficult experiences we’ve had in the past and not just ignore them, and it also helped me understand myself better. I like it for being non-sectarian, so anyone can practise it; but I like how it includes Buddhist teachings about craving and aversion.”
Anicca, anicca, anicca.
This too shall change.
*meaning big but I had to use Goenka’s word here because if you have done it, well you will know…