Why? You ask.
The simplest answer is WHY NOT? My philosophy for most decisions whilst travelling. I’ve pushed my body to extremes, snowboarding, bungee jumping, sky diving, scuba diving, cliff jumping to name a few. All in search of an adrenain pumping experience that will take me to a new level of adventure. I strongly stand by my belief ‘I can do anything I set my mind to’. The above required a certain level of self talk, determination and possibly a degree of madness to take that leap head first 134 metres above a canyon. Well it is that same ‘madness’ alongside a huge amount of curiousity that sparked my interest in vipisanna meditation.
I want to push my brain into an unknown world, explore my inner self. I’ve reached a stage in my life where I’m bored of predictably with same same and I want change (hence my decision to travel). I question what do I really want in life? Without all the external distractions, the media, social pressures, technology, expectations, who am I? I want to be able to calm my brain, allow one channel of thought, enable focus and learn the technique of meditation.
A lot of people have expressed the benefits of different types of meditation to me. I tried yoga in Malaysia on the beach every sun set and I loved it. I felt so calm and positive. I lack the discipline and skill set to do it without a teacher though. Speaking of discipline vipisanna meditation requires the following
To abstain from killing any being (mosquitos included)
To abstain from stealing- lock up those IPADS
To abstain from all sexual activity – no jiggy jiggy
To abstain from telling lies- ooooop Pinocchio
To abstain from all intoxicants – so no raving with the monks
To abstain from eating after midday – helloooo HANGRY Sarah
To abstain from sensual entertainment and bodily decorations
And to do all of the above whilst maintaining a noble SILENCE no speaking, no eye contact, no gestures, no technology, not even a pen and paper. There’s ten hours of meditation per DAY and we are to remain on site at all times. We can walk around during our free time but no other exercise. I read the expectations of the course and my immediate concerns are …………….
How will I be silent for ten days? I LOVE talking, I talk to myself for crying out loud. Then my mind goes into over load of thoughts and questions. How will I sit still for so long? What if I laugh out loud? What about my mental health will I go mad? How will my back cope with the pain, all the sitting and hard beds? With my monkey brain and whizzing thoughts will I be able to switch off and meditate? No meat, no food after lunch, I may actually kill someone! I spend so much time reflecting, how will I cope no pen and paper? What if I think too deep and about sad things? I’m determined but what if I can’t do it? Can I handle failure? Surely I’ll feel trapped and angry, how will I cope? What if it changes me forever……..
The idea of change really got me thinking I could remain curious about what a meditation retreat would be like, but staying in my comfort zone bores me and I figure forever expanding it can’t be a negative thing. Broadening my horizons and all that. I figure the more times I push myself out my comfort zone the bigger it will become and hopefully ill be better at dealing with failure or things that I perceive to be scary. Going to university, working away from my home town, travelling on my own were all at one point out my comfort zone and I was unsure about the outcome but following my “why not” attitude they have turned out to be the best decisions and experiences of my life so far.
So despite all my doubts, the butterflies and anxious knot in my stomach I arrive at the Dhamma Joti Vipassana Centre based in the heart of Yangon, Myanmar. I register and sign the agreement to remain for the entire ten day course. Reality hits hard when they take my passport for safe keeping and lead me to my locker to deposit my ways of communicating and valuables. I am shown to the office given my pe mat, sheet, pillow, mosquito net and designated room. I feel I’m slowly been stripped of the liberties I usually take for granted. Already the doubts kicked in “what am I doing? This is like a prison for do gooders”
The noble silence doesn’t begin until later that evening, so when my room mate enters I make the most of getting to know her. Thanda she’s lovely and we clicked immediately. A Burmese lady who’s been brought up with the rituals surrounding meditation and has done this exact course before! She’s a wanderer and has lived in Sydney for over 3 years and her English is perfect. Poor Thanda I ask her a million and one questions, she says she can’t remember much about the past course just that she left very positive and empowered. It can’t have been that bad if she’s come back right?
DING a bell sounds in the distance, I guess its time to start this journey. Here goes nothing. We enter a hall and the noble silence begins. I want to laugh and make eye contact but everyone looks so serious. I need to practice my solemn, depressed expression. There are around 200 people in the hall, females and males separated. People from all over the world, such a diverse group of people all about to embark on this journey together. We watch a discourse by S.N.Goenka, this will be the standard for every evening. I later grow to really look forward to these discourses and I feel like he his answering most of the questions I’ve asked myself throughout the day. He speaks about acknowledgment that nothing is permanent including us as humans, ultimately everyone will die. So an acceptance that things will arise and pass. This can be linked to every part of life, a head ache won’t last forever, the panic attack will finish, and the broken heart will mend. I find this very useful and use it regularly throughout the course.
Dong ……. Dong……. the 4am wake up call never got any easier. I didn’t help myself by jumping in the ice cold shower to wake myself up. I drag myself to the dhamma hall and sit on my cushion. I shut my eyes and try meditation for the first time in my life. Breathe in and out………the first few days are focusing on the breath where it enters and exists the nostril. One should think of nothing else. Well monkey brain over here thought about everything but…… so many distractions, my stomach rumbling, people coughing, sneezing and the locals grabbing up flem, not to mention the birds sqwarking away.I was burning up with anger, how can people make so much noise when I’m trying to meditate. How come I can’t keep my eyes shut for more than 30seconds? Am I scared? Curious? Nosey? Whatever the reason I’m becoming more agitated and the fact everyone around me is looks so peaceful doesn’t help. I realise I am filled with hatred and feeling so trapped and angry. Meditating certainly didn’t occur and I was thankful when the bell rang for breakfast.
Meal times were particularly interesting, I love food and sitting with people chatting over a decent bit of grub. This couldn’t have been more different, total silent except the sound of knives and forks against the tin trays with separate sections like being back at primary school. It all felt extremely regimented there was even a seating plan. I never knew were to look because if I caught someone’s eye I’d burst out laughing and quickly turn it into a cough. The first few days I filled my plate to the rim worried I would be ”starving” later. Realistically all that happened was I was so full for the rest of the day I would fall asleep during the afternoon meditation session.
Emphasis is giving to the “present” moment, hence concentrating on the breath. By observing the breath and focusing solely on that we will be able to explore the reality of our body and mind. We have to live in the present but our mind has a habit of wandering and wanting to escape the present moment usually to past memories which are beyond our recall or to the future which is beyond our reach. The art of living we are taught is to live in the present and this technique will enable this. We just have to trust the technique. I am optimistic and open minded and really want to be able to live in the present and learn how to meditate and stop these racing thoughts.
I went through phases of wanting to quit, I think there’s at least one time each day I contemplate walking out that gate back to freedom. However I am stubborn and won’t break easily. I had sessions where I concentrated for a couple of minutes solid on the triangular space in between my nose and upper lip. It almost acts as a magnet for my breath. We are told when our attention drifts to smile or laugh at the distraction and continue back to the breath. After a lot of perserverance my brain starts to focus allowing me to meditate. I feel so proud a great achievement, I want to jump up and down and tell the whole hall. I figure it won’t go down well and keep the noble silence. Other times I feel my head drop to the floor, I have fallen asleep this also occurs a lot in the first view days.
On the 4th day we begin vipasanna, which involves scanning the body for sensations, a sensation can be anything, a pain, tingling, numbness, anything. But the important part is to acknowledge this sensation with equanimity, having no positive or negative feeling towards it. We start from the head focusing on individual body parts to our feet. I thought things were tough at the beginning of the week that was just a warm up. This technique must be done without moving or changing position for one hour! I believe my record was 42 minutes of meditation, totally still and silent, what an achievement! I went deep within my inner self, I was looking at myself but from within. It almost felt a bit trippy.
There are times all be it minimal that I feel so sad, empty, I have no energy or motivation to even sit and do nothing. The last thing I want to do is think but that’s all there is. What pulls me through is “ride the wave” this phase will pass just as the technique says but at that moment I do not care about the technique. Experiencing so much negativity on the surface and the deeper roots of the unconscious mind was depressing me. We are taught that negativity multiplies, if one is angry about something small, thinking over and analysing these feelings negatively it will multiply the negative emotion and one will become bitter and absorbed in a negative thought pattern and it becomes almost impossible to snap out of the mood.
Contrary to the depressive states there were times I was euphoric. During one rest break I lay on a bench looking through the trees into the clouds, watching the crows fly and squawk at each other. I reflect on my journey through life so far, all my achievements and I feel so high, invincible. I think of my friends and family and how truely blessed I am and I start to laugh uncontrollably and then tears, floods of them stream down my face into my ears. I feel so light, I am floating. The bench is below me. I guess this is a happy sensation.
By day 8 I reach breaking pointt, I wasn’t prepared to meditate 24-7. Yes day 8 the final challenge is to be observing sensations or the breath during all activity. I felt like a dementor had sucked the life out of me. Where have I gone? Instead of meditating I purposefully switch from the past to the future escaping the time spent in the present as it’s so miserable. I am craving my old self back. Deep down I know meditation is the key but my doubts, insecurities and tough experiences throughout the course out weigh the soul cleansing I needed right then. I lost my inner smile and the negative multiplication began in full swing, this will pass I say. Forcing a fake smile.
Day ten the happiness and craving for the course to be finished yet the motivation to make the most of the last day makes me feel emotionally unstable. I can barely contain my excitement, like a kid on Christmas Eve trying to get to sleep. It is all a blur. We learn the technique of Metta, which focuses on spreading positivity, finally something I can do. I’d spent the past few hours distracting myself writing mental lists of all the positive things and memories I could write to people back home. We exit the hall and there was no announcement saying noble silence over but people began speaking. WOW I couldn’t keep it in any longer I let out a loud WAHOOOOOOOOOOOO and hugged the two girls I’d spent ten days meditating next too. I spoke to anyone and everyone at hundred miles an hour. The people who looked so solemn and miserable were now so joyful and happy. It really was a special moment 200 people from all over the world glowing inside and out.
Throughout the course I went through an absolute world wind of emotions, I laughed, cried, hated and loved with such intensity. Looking back I am so glad I did the course I have learnt more about myself and life than I could possibly imagine. I was constantly reminded that it is inevitable we are all going to die. Which initially I thought was a pretty miserable outlook on life, now I think it’s true and I’m not going to just exist and die. I’m going to make the most of every opportunity. I’m going to appreciate the small things. I am going to love those around me unconditionally, spreading love and positivity. There’s enough negativity in this world without me adding to it. I will appreciate the freedom of life and the beauty of reflection and planning for the future but not forget to enjoy and live in the present. I am extremely proud of myself and my message to anyone hesitant about doing the course is DO IT!! The benefits of giving up ten days of your life will impact you for years to come. You can do anything you put your mind to, if I can manage to sit still and be quiet for so long, so can you.