I got a bit distracted, so haven't written for a few months. Here though is an account of an experience I just had. And more to come. Even some backdating will probably go on, filling you in on all that has past.
Matt goes on a Vipassana retreat
After five months on the road I needed some rest, a pause to reflect. Some quiet time alone to relax and do a bit of thinking outside the bustle of the busy backpacking lifestyle. I jumped on the bandwagon and decided to go on a ten day Vipassana retreat.
It was like prison, only with excellent vegan food.
Somewhere in my mind I knew that we had to be silent for ten days, that we would meditate for 11 hours a day, that we weren't allowed books, diaries, phones or laptops. I knew men and women would be segregated. Somewhere in my mind, if I'd really thought about it, I'd have realised that I was going to be alone with myself for ten days with no escape.
And if I'd thought about that a little longer, I'd have realised it was going to be really really hard, and not like a holiday at all.
The South East Vipassana Centre is nestled on 30 acres of Georgia's extensive pine forests, ten miles from the town to Jesop. Secluded, peaceful, the day is punctuated by the sound of trains passing along a distant track, announcing their presence with a mournful wail. The centre has a meeting room, a meditation hall for about 60 people, dorms for men and women and male and female dining rooms. Signs, labelled 'Course Boundary' take the place of the normal fences of a prison and signify the boundaries between the male and female areas and delineate where the centre ends and the outside world begins.
Over the course of ten days we were taught the technique of Vipassana, mainly through video tutorials given by a chap called S. N Goenka. I affectionately came to call him a Goenkaface in my inner monologue. He is a Burmese Vipassana student turned teacher who has managed to populise the technique, bringing it to India and the west from his native Burma. He is charismatic and insightful and gives off a warm glow, although has a tendency to go on a bit. His teaching is supplemented by two assistant teachers on hand to field questions and offer more detailed explanations at a designated time of day.
Vipassana has its roots in Buddhism but they're keen to stress it's non-denominational; a technique to help give insight into the mind, to come to a clearer understanding of one's emotional world and learn to deal with life's ups and downs with equanimity.
The course basically broke down into two parts. In the first three days we practiced Anapana meditation, focusing on our breath where it leaves the nose. Gradually fixating on a smaller and smaller area around the tips of the nostrils and on the upper lip, you try to pick out the sensations you can notice and bring your mind back to the exercise every time you notice it's wandered. We were working to develop our concentration, practicing letting our minds clear and wind down from the busy outside world, sharpening them to be able to become aware of the tiny details of sensation that our conscious mind doesn't normally attend to.
Then on day four we were ready to start the technique of Vipassana. Minds quieter, the process of institutionalisation had begun, inmates now used to rising at 4am and eating just two meals a day, minds stilled and focussed on the task at hand. In Vipassana, you focus on the sensations all over your body, one part at a time. Top of head, back of head, face, neck, throat, left shoulder, right shoulder and on, pausing at each until you pick up a tremor of feeling, or moving gently on after a minute or so if you don't. As you get more accustomed to it, the areas you focus on get smaller and smaller, until your sensing a square inch here, a square inch here, on and on. The flow of sensation becomes easier, and you can pass your mind over each area and feel the creep of an almost electric glow across your skin. There are blank areas, and different feelings too, sometimes pleasant, sometimes uncomfortable or painful. (In the sittings of strong determination we had to sit crosslegged for an hour without unbending our legs, unclasping our hands or opening our eyes.)
But what you feel isn't as important as how you relate to those feelings. The whole technique exists to help you develop equanimity and awareness in equal measure. These are the skills we most need to free ourselves from the misery created by our aversion to pain or uncomfortable things, and our attachment and craving for pleasurable things (which makes us unhappy when we don't get things how we want, dontyouknow).
So, when the agony of sitting crosslegged without moving is overcoming you, you must not generate an aversion to this pain but simply study it, be aware of it in the course of your body scan, neither magnifying it with your mind or dismissing it. And equally, when the pleasant sensations creep up your body or down your arms, this is nothing to desire or be proud about, but simply sensations to observe, to practice remaining equanimous to, to study closely and explore but not to discourage or encourage. The idea is that when we venture back out into the big wide world we can stay balanced despite the ups and downs of life, in the face of change and impermanence, life and death, pleasure and pain, anger and tears, because we have managed this insight that all things arise and all things pass, that we can have control over our reactions to our feelings, we can remove ourselves from the ego and it's wills. Not a bad idea, huh? Thanks Gautama.
So, that's the technique. That's the goal. That's what all forty of us there were trying to do.
On Day 5, my roommate ran away. Just vanished. The morning before he'd laughed manically for thirty seconds while I crouched on the top bunk, scared to descend in the middle of his episode.
On Day 6, I tried to run away. I was thwarted by the fact I'd handed in all my travel documents as illicit reading matter on Day 1, and was worried I wouldn't make it far before they hunted me down and brought me back.
I just didn't know my mind was so... so... well, so mad. It was in the afternoon of Day 6 when, with a sudden jolt of awareness, I found myself focussing on the sensations in my right calf while picturing myself as a pair of disembodied eyes looking out over a mountain ridge, riding on a dog (very like Weston) higher and higher into the clouds, in unison with the vague electric glowing feelings that were creeping north up my body. And, all the while this visualisation of my feeling was going on, in another part of my mind I was wondering whether Arsenal's strong end to the season might be emphasised by developing a better attacking option down the left. And, to compound this, the jolt had come when a lithe female warrior, grey, purple and green, on dragon back had swept across a whole separate visual plane inhabiting the a space I felt resided somewhere down in my lap. And I don't even consider myself 'into' fantasy!
Suddenly, after all the crazy thoughts and feelings that had emerged over the preceding days, all the replays of past situations where I finally managed to deliver that elusive witty retort, all the hopes for the future, all the fractured memories past and present, all the daydreams coming so fast, pell mell, erupting, overwhelming my mind like a quick cutting inner nightmare, this was too much. I stood up and went to my room, paced up and down, mind racing, hurting, and just wanting to stop.
Thankfully thoughts arise and thoughts pass. An afternoon of turmoil contrasts with an evening of peace and focus. An hour of agony leads onto an hour of calm and insight. And so it went with me. By the seventh day I was getting used to the sitting. I'd found a posture that suited me and an hour had become tolerable, even two hours without unbending. When the meditation was good with silence across all forty of us in the hall, my mind could spend an hour without being distracted. I could scan with real awareness, focussing on staying equanimous to this, not craving or commending it but simply observing. And sometimes this inner silence felt blissful, and joyous, and clear like staring to the bottom of a deep still mountain lake. And then, when I nodded off at some point in the next hour I didn't feel so bad. I knew that was just a stage I would come through too, making earnest efforts to return to the meditation without getting annoyed with myself. I counted down the last few days with less intent that I had the previous ones. And so I got used to the technique, and made some interesting discoveries.
My mind is crammed, crammed full of confusion and ideas. But, with time, I can train it to focus. I've noticed since the retreat my concentration when writing has been much better, and hitchhiking is the perfect hobby for developing equanimity. As I stood by the side of the road the morning we were discharged, I practiced remaining unmoved as each of those arseholes heading my way refused to pick me up.
I learnt about perseverance and the importance of earnest effort. When things are hard, keep going, because your faith in the goal is right and its just the lazy parts of you that want to give in. This was a battle, and I'm stuffed with lazy bits, but I learnt where my limit was and that was really interesting.
I really took a lot away from the video lectures each evening. The simple morality discussed was affirming. I agree that by living a life where we try to be considerate and compassionate, to be aware of our motivations and actions, we do make our world a better place. I was so interested in the Buddhist ideas about how we relate to our emotions, reacting without thought to so many stimulations beyond our control. We get angry, feel hurt, feel happy and smug and all without reflection. We give such importance to 'I' and all the layers of ego we surround it with. Our emotional responses to events are within our control. Whatever we suffer or experience, we can choose how we respond. Overall, the emphasis of the course was wrong for me; I'd want something stripped back even further from Buddhist teachings and updated for my western mind, without any references to karma or reincarnation. But by committing to the course, and to try my hardest for the ten days, I tried not to allow this dissonance to inhibit my meditation practice. I tried to listen and take what I could from it, and to withhold from judgement.
And then almost as soon as it had started it was over. And we could talk!! And how I did talk. And listened, too! I was being very self aware. I'd tried to think of some clever first words but nothing came so I settled for 'sorry for all the farting' to the poor guy I'd been sat next to. And then finally, finally we got to unpick and explore the experience we'd just been through together. I felt so connected to these people around me who I felt I knew despite never having exchanged a word. It was such a pleasure to be able to relate each others experiences, to wonder over them, and to release the pressure of accumulated thoughts through conversation. To find out that they were or weren't like I'd imagined, and to return to a more normal way of relating. When eating and living silently together we had each come to inhabit our own bubble such that these people we were around sometimes felt like simulacra and not fellow humans at all.
So, would I do it again? If you'd asked me on day 6 I'd have said absolutely not. Now I'm not so sure. It's a commitment, a tough experience, but one full of insight and such a test to go through, completing it feels liberating. I'd say it ended Matt 1 – 1 Vipassana. A score draw, great for the remaining pools players amongst you, and perhaps demands a rematch? Maybe, but certainly not for a little while.