I've been away! Very far away from all things internet. From September 8th through September 19th, I took part in a ten-day Vipassana meditation course held on a private retreat up near Mt Dromedary, northwest of Hobart. It would turn out to be one of the hardest things I've ever done.
I've so much to cover here that I'm not going to attempt a structured approach... or editing... or brevity. Forgive me; I did not have time to make it short. ;)
Vipassana (pronounced "Vi-PASH-na") was first recommended to me by the lovely niaid
. After having such a stressful time of my freelance contract earlier this year, I'd been wanting to take a break of a week or so and go holiday somewhere to rest and reset my mind. After I did some reading it became apparent that the Vipassana courses were far more than that - hardly a rest retreat - but I was intrigued; I had to know what this technique was, and what it could achieve. So I signed up and went in with an open, yet cautious, mind.
In English, Vipassana is often referred to as 'insight meditation' (though they never called it that at this camp), and I've seen similar techniques used in mainstream psychology - used, in fact, by the very respected and professional psychologist I saw back in 2007 - under the term 'mindfulness'. The basic idea is that happiness is not achieved by getting what you want; it's achieved by accepting what you have. That's a gross oversimplification; I'll expand on the concept later on.http://www.pabha.dhamma.org/about.htm
Dhamma Pabha ("Radiance") is the Tasmanian Vipassana retreat; there are similar ones in most mainland Australian states. You'll also find them throughout Europe, the USA, India, South America... there are hundreds of retreats in hundreds of countries worldwide. With springtime springing just about everywhere you look in Tasmania right now, the land around Dhamma Pabha looked gorgeous. As the taxi wound the country roads around needle-topped Mt Dromedary, I drank in the sight of wattles in bloom everywhere, explosions of gold among the greenery. Within the campsite, the setting was no less gorgeous. What I liked best were the arrow-straight eucalypts with trunks of shimmering silver, sleek and bare of branches to the height of two or three telephone poles. When the wind blew hard (which it did often, that week) a billion leaves roared with the sound of a tidal wave washing over the camp. Red-gravelled walking tracks wove through the charred remnants of trunks that stood as monuments to a bushfire that almost crippled the retreat a few years ago. Everywhere I looked, fat little wrens darted among the bushes, including that most photographically elusive of Tasmanian birds, the Superb Fairy Wren. I call it the 'Nemesis Bird'. It delights in waiting until you've just got your DSLR focused and then, sometime between your finger hitting the shutter and the shutter actually releasing, literally vanishing. That's right, Tasmania is home to the world's only vanishing bird.
Fortunately, we were not permitted to take cameras (or notepads, pens, phones, medication, etc etc) onto the site, so I was not faced with the dilemma of the Nemesis Bird. I simply admired.
And everywhere I looked toward the ground, wombat poops. They're easy to spot: they're shaped like cubes (I'm not making this up) and wombats like to place them deliberately in view on top of stones or raised areas, anywhere to get attention. I also found a couple of inactive burrows, but never saw an actual wombat. Tricky buggers.
The accommodation was better than I expected: the camp was divided into a female and a male side, and each side had two sleeping buildings, each with six small, private rooms inside. The facility houses up to twelve males and twelve females at a time, plus volunteer servers, who sleep in separate caravans. So hooray for privacy! My room was very simple: door, light, single bed, bedside table, folding chair, and hooks for clothing. That was it. Oh, the heating there was fantastic - I think it was the in-floor type people are always going on about down here, as I never found a vent and it was SUPER-effective. Good thing, too, because the weather over the course was particularly foul. More on that in part two (yes, I'll talk about the weather - but only because something exceptionally cool happened!).
The setting also included the teacher's accommodation, the meditation hall (shared between men and women, with a sort of imaginary line down the middle where the heaters were kept. Males on one side of the heater-line, females on the other) and a kitchen/office building where we weren't permitted to go. There was also a toilet block and a laundry/shower block. The showers were the worst; the water was hot but the pressure was nonexistant. I'd somehow forgotten to bring shampoo, and the pressure was too low for the water to get through my thick hair, but I Macguyvered through my meagre possessions and discovered a plastic freezer bag. Each time I had to wash my hair I'd fill this with hand soap and use that as shampoo (it's seriously the same stuff; I'd wash my hair with laundry detergent if I found myself in need) and then repeatedly fill the bag with water under the shower head and tip it over myself to rinse my hair. It worked nicely and made showers bearable.
Finally, there were two greenhouse sort of structures which contained tables, a heater each, and stools made from large sections of tree-trunk with hand-sewn cushions on top. The greenhouses were temporary dining halls; next to them, a proper dining hall was under construction. As all Vipassana facilities run strictly on donations and are not for profit, building tends to be slow and steady.
So. I arrived on a Wednesday afternoon. From the moment we entered the camp we were separated, males and females, to keep any form of distraction or sexual misconduct as unlikely as possible. I wonder, have they considered the fact that at least some of the attendants will be LGBT?
The women cackled away like hens. We had only an hour or two to do so: after signing a couple of forms and listening to an orientation speech, we were to make our way to the meditation hall for our first session, at which time the rule of Noble Silence would take effect... for the next ten days. We were not to communicate with one another in any way: no speech, facial expressions, hand gestures or writing.
This in itself was interesting. So determined were we all to avoid breaking Noble Silence that I, and others, found ourselves avoiding looking at faces altogether by the end of the course, and it took a day or two to get back into the habit of making eye contact.
Speaking of habits, I ought to outline the rules we were facing. As well as agreeing to Noble Silence, we all signed a document to say that we'd stick out the full ten days without running away. The depth of mental tinkering this technique goes into could, they say, be harmful if not seen through until the end. They say Vipassana is like brain surgery you perform on yourself. To get up and walk off the operating table halfway through the procedure could be dangerous. Nevertheless, we lost four women - a good third of the total - and one man before the end of the course. One was a smoker who couldn't handle going cold turkey; one was a heavily pregnant woman; one was a German backpacker who got more than she bargained for, and one was a woman for whom the technique didn't seem to work. But even putting all those things aside, I completely understand why they left. I wanted to leave by the fifth day. By the seventh, I was climbing the walls. It was TOUGH.
The rules, or precepts, are actually a part of the Vipassana technique. A preparation, like not eating for however many hours before said operation. They are:
- to abstain from killing any being;
- to abstain from stealing;
- to abstain from all sexual activity;
- to abstain from telling lies;
- to abstain from all intoxicants.
In the interests of honesty, I'll admit I broke one before the course was through. I'll leave you to work out which.
The course was broken into sections. Each day was basically similar, the timetable something like this:
4:00am: Wake-up bell
4:30am: Start meditating in own room or in hall
6:30am: Breakfast and rest
8:30am: First group sitting of the day, an hour in the hall
9:30am: Continue meditating in own room or in hall
11:00am: Lunch and rest
1:00pm: Second group sitting of the day, an hour in the hall
2:00pm: Continue meditating in own room or in hall
5:00pm: Dinner and rest
6:00pm: Third group sitting of the day, an hour in the hall
7:00pm: Teacher's Evening Discourse
8:00pm: Continue to meditate in hall, followed by time for questions if desired
We each bought our own small alarm clock (after Noble Silence was lifted on the final day, there was much mirth over the lady who'd brought a clock which crowed like a rooster) but in case that didn't wake you up, one of the servers wandered the camp at appropriate times banging on a beautiful Tibetan-style bell/gong. It was the least annoying bell I've ever heard, which was sort of comforting at 4am.
Technique instructions were given to us via recordings (voice for the group sittings, video for the evening discourses) of S N Goenka, the course teacher. On hand to answer questions and offer guidance we had Andrea, the Assistant Teacher who trained under him.
The following picture is Goenka, addressing the U.N. - yeah, believe it or not, Vipassana and the ideas behind it are being taken pretty seriously.
He was an incredible speaker. Each of the discourses was about 90 minutes long, just him talking into the camera, and each was riveting. He had the charisma and laugh-out-loud-humor that you only see rarely, in very happy and well-adjusted people. Honesty, passion, logic - and the man could tell a story like no other.
This was the technique. We learned in four stages.
1. Anapana - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anapana
This was meditation based on awareness of one's breathing. For the first two days, every hour of meditation every day (and we spent about 12 hours per day meditating) was focused on watching one's own breath. Not controlling or changing it, that wasn't the point. The point was simply to observe what was there, in finer and finer detail. Nominally this technique is very calming, but that's a mere side effect. The aim was to sharpen the observational power of the mind. At first many of us had trouble perceiving our natural breath at all. By the end we were noticing the minutiae of it. This is what I experienced: the cool of inhalation; the warmth of exhalation; the movement of the tiny hairs of the nostril and upper lip; and, finally, the pulsing of the blood vessels beneath my skin. And beneath that, a tinier detail still; the faintest tingling.
Our minds were like monkeys, eager to skim away on some other mission the moment we stopped concentrating. Remembering the past, contemplating the future, and in my case, writing, writing, writing. Oh god, these techniques unlocked my creativity like nothing I've ever experienced. NOTHING. By the end of the ten days I'd outlined two novels. And, of course, we weren't allowed pen or paper. This rule was in place for people like me. Sadly, it did not entirely stop me thinking about the story; it's amazing what my usually-sieve-like brain can store when someone forces it into a corner.
On the night of Day Two (actually my third night, as we stayed the night after Orientation) something incredible happened.
It was the last session of the night, post-discourse, in the meditation hall. My back and legs had been hurting from the lotus position, so I set myself up against the wall. I relaxed, and put all stories and memories and plans out of my mind, and concentrated on my breathing, each breath sharpening the mind, in, out, like sharpening a razor against a piece of leather. Back and forth, honing the blade of my awareness with every stroke.
I sank, deep. Awareness of what was around me - the breathing of others, their soft movements - dwindled away, and I drifted down into the darkness. It was like swimming down into dark blue water, but never feeling any pressure, only softness all around. I was not asleep, quite the opposite. I was keenly aware of everything that was happening, but my awareness was focused inwards, not out. Time lost meaning. I remember noticing that my hands, resting on my knees, had seemed to vanish; I could no longer sense them. There was only my breathing.
I sank, and felt as though I found the bottom of the pool and... well, I'll leave that 'til last.
The session ended. I rose back to outside awareness, feeling a sense of calm the size of the world. I walked outside, and managed to get my shoes on, and headed back toward the dorms, crunching along the darkened gravel path. Completely at peace, overwhelmed by peace. I started to cry, silently, and when I reached my room I sobbed into my pillow - still silently; thin walls - for an hour before I found sleep.
And when I woke up, I remembered it all. The feeling was still strong, then. I cried, again, intermittently, for the rest of that morning. That happened to be the morning we had our individual meetings with the Assistant Teacher, Andrea. I told her what had happened, briefly, and that I couldn't stop crying. I cried a little as I told her. She smiled and said this was normal. Vipassana and Anapana are designed to get to deep-rooted issues in the mind, to clear them out of the unconscious. I was crying because I'd dug up some old and tangled roots, some hurt so deeply buried I had no memory or name attached to it. This was a good thing. This was progress.
I'll explain more about the function of Vipassana itself tomorrow (Anapana is merely training for Vipassana, though it's quite effective on its own). This entry is getting too long and I'm tired. The memory of that enormous calm was not always enough to sustain me through the eight days that followed - that second night represented the most overwhelmingly positive experience I had on the camp. I would do ten days for that feeling again, but only if I knew I would get it, and there's never any guarantee. You can't rely on getting a particular feeling from this sort of meditation; the whole point of Vipassana is that you accept what comes your way, good or bad, with awareness and equanimity. You're not supposed to have any aversion to the bad feelings, or craving for the good.
But still... but yet...
When I was down there at the bottom of the pool I reached out and touched something. I don't believe in any god, but I feel like I touched the place where gods are born. I won't say I would give anything to feel it again - that would be craving, and craving leads to longing, to misery. But I will say that, though the memory is slipping away day by day, I am so very grateful I felt it. The boundaries of my world pushed outward that night. I'll never forget.