10 days in silence, clocking up almost 100 hours of meditation, gives one a lot to ponder!
I returned from Vipassana two weeks ago and I said here that if I made it out with sanity intact I’d do a follow-up to let you know how it went.
Both my partner and mother have testified to my sanity:
‘well I was a bit worried, but yes, you do sound normal” – Mum
“you’re still you, just nicer” – Partner
Ah ha! From the second comment we can already see that the technique does deliver some benefits.
Vipassana is a style of meditation used by the Buddha to come out of suffering and experience enlightenment. A minimum of 10 days is deemed necessary to grasp the technique so it can be used in daily life.
First up let me be clear, this retreat is hard work. The best way to describe it is ‘spiritual bootcamp’. Unless you’re already a meditation master, you’re likely to find the experience frustrating, painful at times, and perhaps like me, suspect you’ve got undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder J
Each and every day we clocked up almost 11 hours of meditation. No, you didn’t misread that, e-l-e-v-e-n hours! The schedule we worked to is below:
4:00 am Wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-11:00 am Meditate
11:00-1:00 pm Lunch & rest
1:00-5.00 pm Meditate
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Meditate
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Meditate
9:00 pm Lights out
The days proceed in complete silence – only a gong marks the transition from one activity to the next. Although weird at the beginning – it felt rude to ignore people initially – the silence became easy and blissful.
With no chit chat to consume my mind, my senses began to heighten and I started to notice birds, trees, the sunrise, the scent of nature, the taste of the food (its amazing by the way) – all in acute detail. Its sounds almost cliché, but the smallest things began to take on a rather exquisite quality.
“Ahhh, so this is what all those sages were on about…..”
But don’t be fooled, its not all bliss and light.
The meditation itself is where the rubber meets the road. For the first 3 days we focussed solely on the point of contact where the incoming and outgoing breath touches our nose. Yes, approximately 33 hours of focussing on my nose!
By day two, the novelty of being on a silent retreat had completely worn off. My back ached, my legs numb. I shifted position constantly to seek out a few minutes of comfort before the pain would start up again.
This is where your mental weaknesses begin to show themselves.
I self-diagnosed ADD as my mind constantly flitted from one thought to the next…… dreams for the future, work I needed to do, potential holiday destinations, will I have enough money to retire? What’s for lunch?
Anything other than the point where my breath touched my nose. Quite frankly, it was frightening to realise just how little control I had over my mind.
“No wonder I don’t accomplish nearly as much as I should and the house is always messy!”
After 3 days of fine-tuning the mind, the Vipassana meditation technique is taught on day 4. It’s a very subtle body scan – you begin at the top of the head and move slowly downward, feeling the sensations that arise in each area.
When you first start, pain and tension are the only things you notice. The whole thing is incredibly frustrating. The mind does its best to get you to quit.
But as the days move on and your awareness heightens, you begin noticing that there are subtle sensations everywhere… tickling, itching, tingling, heat, coolness, the breeze from the window hitting the skin – there is never a moment without some sort of sensation. As the sensations progressed to becoming more and more subtle, I started to experience my body as a buzzing field of energy.
The crucial bit of the technique is that any sensation arising should be treated with equanimity i.e. calm, composure, no clinging and wanting it to happen again, and no aversion to it either.
From this point in the retreat, things started to get interesting:
- I began to notice thoughts generated by my mind were causing sensations in the body. At one point I had an anxious thought and felt fearful. A huge sensation erupted in my tummy, like someone had thrown a rock into a still pond and the waves were rippling out. I realised it was actually me who had thrown the rock by reacting fearfully to my thoughts. Ah-ha! The mind-body connection in action!
- By noticing the sensations of pain but not reacting with aversion, they started to subside. The pain was still there, but didn’t seem to matter as much anymore. I was able to sit in a cross-legged position for an hour without movement.
- My sleeping was interrupted – I began waking every two hours, very alert and wide awake. My body felt different – it was as though I had been plugged into some kind of electrical circuit. Despite the lack of sleep, I wasn’t tired.
- Memories from the past – people, events, feelings – began to resurface. I had dreams of making peace with people where some previous grievance had occurred. Many images surfaced that I didn’t recognise or understand.
It was a bit unnerving at first and had I not been an hour north of Auckland, with no transport and no cell signal, I might have made an attempt to leave.
A couple of nights later, these very experiences were covered in the teachers lecture. All were normal and will pass away. The subconscious mind is a vast storehouse of information, behavioural patterns and memories. Meditation can access places in the subconscious mind and acts as form of purification. The teacher called it ‘mental surgery’.
By the end of the retreat I noticed that my usual pattern of thoughts – worry or concern over some future thing – had weakened. Now whenever I notice an uncomfortable thought or feeling, its acts as an alarm clock to remind me to connect with the sensations in my body, rather than the thoughts in my head. The thought subsides and I go back to feeling in balance.
This is commonly referred to as “being in the present moment’.
I got a lot out of this retreat, but it wasn’t easy. If you’re considering giving it a go, here are my tips:
- Get a regular meditation practice going before you attempt it. I suspect the benefits I got were because I’ve meditated for a while so I know how to push through the whole “this is toooo hard” stage.
- Accept that you will likely experience some physical or mental pain, as well as moments of peace. Unfortunately you’re probably not going to be levitating through the entire experience!
Two weeks on and back into normal life, the bliss has subsided, but a greater sense of calm remains. I’m much quicker to notice when I’ve gotten caught up in dysfunctional mind-talk and reactivity. I’m also more detached, I care less about everything, but in a good way.
And if the cleanliness of my house is anything to go by, I have begun to tame my wild mind.