It is not easy to put aside ten days to sit in silence in our noisy world but that is exactly what I did last year by attending a Vipassana meditation retreat. Vipassana translates as insight. Here is an attempt to make sense of the adventure I both loved and hated (note: the basic premise of Vipassana meditation is to drop like, love, hate… or any other reactions of preference).
First, when they say it is a ten-day silent retreat they really mean it. Vipassana provides an incredibly unusual way to throw oneself into a challenge. Some people leave on the first day and some would never even contemplate it. The rules include no speaking, no reading, writing, music, or even looking directly at other participants. This meant some major effort and for a few years I had thought about trying it but certainly hadn’t put myself forward. The idea of a stretch of time with no work, driving, cooking, housework, telephone calls, social media and other routines did appeal. But I also knew I would be confronted by the contents of my mind, and in particular, things I wasn’t sure I wanted to remember or integrate. Don’t most of us find multiple means of distraction to avoid certain thoughts or things in life? Would Vipassana crack these patterns wide open?
This Goenka-style Vipassana involves two general techniques. For the first three days participants sit and follow the breath at the nose. Then, for the next seven days we continue to sit but then scan up and down the body observing any physical sensations. There are three group sittings which are in the morning, afternoon and evening, as well as plenty of further time to stay in the meditation space and do what you come for – meditate. Besides meditating, the only other activities are walking (in confined areas), sleeping and eating, plus video instruction each evening where the Vipassana teacher S. N. Goenka reviews the day’s processes and the next day’s program. By the time he died in 2013 the Burmese-Indian Goenka had led thousands of people in the ten-day program he had designed, so he seemed to have the knack of predicting how participants might feel on different days and provided instructions, warnings and encouragement. Still, nothing could have prepared me for the deep fears that arose and released from my body during the retreat.
As mentioned, this style allows for two meditation techniques only – following the breath at the nose and scanning sensations up and down the body. Perhaps by only having two techniques the discipline of practice develops quite rapidly and participants go very deep into themselves. No other techniques are allowed. I even had to sign a form on enrolment agreeing that as a meditation teacher trained in the Satyananda style, I would not engage in any other practices I knew. There would be no visualising, no mantra or Aum chanting, no movement, no noticing or moving the breath around the body, nothing but keeping the focus on the breath at the nose and/or observing the sensations in the body. The reason given for committing to these two practices exclusively is that other techniques might lead to attachment and delusion. For example, by visualising we can distract, excite, or soothe ourselves. At this retreat the aim is not to aim for anything at all, but instead observe whatever arises with absolute non-reaction or non-attachment. When holding the attention on parts of the body and grounding and feeling into our physical experience only truth can be revealed, goes the theory. The basic and yet profound premise repeated via each night’s instruction video is that we meditate in order to practise ‘equanimity’. In other words, we observe whatever we experience without desiring more or less of whatever is happening, whether those moments are pleasurable or painful. Each evening our teacher Goenka reminded us that since everything is impermanent, we can be equanimous in the face of suffering. ‘Equanimity’ is a profound word and an even bigger task to perform seriously, regularly and without mistaking it for any form of denial. Equanimity is not an established part of my general disposition, but dictionaries have accurately described it as ‘calm and composed’ or if you rely on Wikipedia, ‘a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind.’
Tough things happen often in life and even the strongest people can ‘lose the balance of their mind’ when exposed to enough pain and suffering. It’s tricky, of course, as we need to address our pain but at the same time this can feel like or really be like playing with fire. In my own classes, I often instruct participants to anchor through deeper breaths if anything is triggered while meditating on any part of the body. The thing that astonishes me the most about the power of meditation is its physical capacity to support us when processing difficult, almost unbearable or seemingly unbearable, feelings or memories. By focusing our mind and witnessing the experience from moment to moment our flight-or-flight response is soothed or halted long enough for us to feel safe enough to process stuff. We’ve all got stuff we need to sort out, let go of, admit to, accept, learn from and so on. When we can sit quietly enough to process any of our shadows then we get to short-circuit more habitual reactions. In these more relaxed states we see more clearly, feel more clearly and integrate things that our more day-to-day automated minds and bodies can keep avoiding, particularly if unpleasant. Without awareness, discipline and practice, we can also be caught in the trap of constantly seeking pleasures and this too creates hyperactivity in our nervous system and therefore stress.
In meditation, we can sit with the unpleasant and at Vipassana retreat there is plenty of time for unpleasantness, or at least boredom. Across the ten days we learn that constantly reacting either to pleasant or unpleasant moments is counter-productive since this continuously activates our fight-or-flight response and adrenalin system, often leading to burn out. Our great passport to freedom is stamped the moment we really realise we can’t keep going around controlling things in order to usher in the pleasant and shield ourselves from the awful. Shit happens. We can’t always stop it. And joy happens too, but we can’t bottle that either. What we can find is some calm in the face of it all. I think of this temporary calm as moments of stillness.
Vipassana is an incredible training ground so in case you’re interested in trying it out, or just curious, here are the six main things I learnt from the retreat:
Thoughts can be so totally unreliable and mischievous. I’ve seen the cute warnings of don’t believe everything you think floating around Facebook often enough but at the end of the Vipassana I realised how true it can be. Remember how I said that rule number 92 (well, there were lots of rules) included no eye contact or body language conversations with people? Well, I cheated. I did notice others around me a fair bit. My totally unreliable thoughts had decided that the gorgeous-long-haired-Byron-Bay-looking-yogi-in-the-flowing-robes was finding this retreat an absolute breeze. The night before the silent retreat had commenced she had told me she was a second timer. Repeat attendees only eat two meals per day, not three, and I had watched her floating in and out of the dining space a few times. On the last day when we were allowed to finally break our silence we ate together. She then told me that on day four she thought she was having a breakdown and that she nearly left on day five. How wrong my judgements were! I also judged the person I sat next to in the meditation space quite differently to the way she later appeared when we talked on completion. That’s another rule – we had to sit in the same spot each day – so I could not help read some of the body language of the person next to me. I just read it incorrectly. As well as having to sit in the same spots daily, meditators are divided into segregated male and female only spaces at all times to avoid further possible distractions. In any case, there were plenty of possible distractions from the meditators directly around me as we all sat very close. This woman next to me, who I had judged as very self-assured, actually seemed very concerned about how much she had disturbed my meditations through her coughing. She wanted to talk to me at some length about this, and launched into detailed information about her allergies and how if she had removed the nearby blanket which had irritated her throat she might not have coughed at all. In fact, while I had noticed it almost daily, her coughing did not disturb me at all. When my husband did the Vipassana a few years before me, he had someone telling him on completion that he had looked like a plumber. Odd that someone was even wondering what another’s job, status or roles might be in life, and not just meditating and minding his own business? But don’t we all do that? Anyway, I certainly take my thoughts far less seriously these days!
Discovering deeper levels of feelings can bring us freedom. Some people walk around as if they are brains on a stick and I was one of those people who thought I could figure things out if only I just thought hard about things for long enough. Often enough, quite the opposite is true, of course. If I can shut my thoughts up for long enough, or attend to them without adding further mental fuel, I might discover more about my feelings. Many of us have developed our very active brains as a way to suppress a range of feelings, a way to feel in control, minimise risk and reduce ambiguity. For those of us who have overactive minds for any durations of time, meditation can remind us that the bodies have wisdom and also limits and our nervous systems respond accordingly. In meditation we can find the freedom to observe, rather than respond in old or unhelpful ways. We can become humbled and more open by realising how delusional so many of our thoughts can be. New or deeper access to feelings that were previously suppressed for good enough reasons take time to be integrated into one’s daily life. But as they do, life becomes more and more real. And there is relief in just allowing feelings such as sadness to exist. Of course sadness and grief are far more pervasive than day-to-day conversations or mainstream Instagram posts reveal. Our sadness often traps, contains or releases the pearls of joys, depending on how we manage it.
Reminders that ‘everything is impermanent’ can really help us. I am not talking about being indifferent to change and suffering because if we were calm all the time there would be no great poetry, art, music, social activism or justice. The nightly Vipassana video instruction repeated the great Buddhist mantra about attachment. Attachment can lead to suffering because eventually or instantly everything can and will change and we will all experience suffering. Knowing this doesn’t actually make me feel less attachment towards the people or things I love. But it does make acceptance, letting go and compassion more real in the day to day, and it certainly allows the meditator to experience thoughts, physical pain, feelings and other sensations without going into fight-or-flight mode. Sitting for one hour in meditation without moving numerous times a day can feel like an eternity and then when the hour or hours are up it also feels as though it all flashed by – impermanence.
You are your own best teacher. Vipassana retreats have helped millions of people. The way Goenka has programmed two meditation techniques into an easy to access package is brilliant. But the book title, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him (Kopp, 1972) really did apply for me. On day six I experienced intense fear, terror, during one meditation sitting and I felt that my heart had either frozen or would give out. In that situation it was slowly returning to deeper and deeper breaths that first helped lift me from a place too dark. In those moments I also felt no choice but to break the Vipassana code and visualise hard on something safe and nurturing to soothe myself. This was how I looked after myself. At the end of the retreat one participant told me about the shoulder muscle agony she had persisted with during the three times daily one hour-and-don’t-move-meditation sessions but she had trusted the video instruction about body pains arising from present but also past lives and so committed to not moving an inch when meditating. I suggested that had she just briefly moved her shoulder a bit and then quickly come back into alignment and stillness she might have avoided the extra suffering. We laughed about it but her shoulder was still in a lot of pain so the laughter was one more of compassion than humour.
Our bodies really are our temples but not in a body-beautiful way. Our bodies are crumbly as we age, they ache in places, store memories, break down, need to be held, respected and paid attention to. Most importantly, through our body awareness we can learn more about what we need psychologically. Through attention and rest our bodies can be the first and safest place to go to for healing. Past traumas can also be integrated as slowly and safely as they need be and we can be more at ease in our own skin. In meditation our brain waves literally slow down and we can witness difficult things that require attention without wanting to flee the scene. Our biological processes can help us, if we allow them to, by resting the nervous system and thereby providing ourselves with a sanctuary.
Sitting for meditation is now easier. Hey, I sat for long periods of time. As mentioned above, the body remembers. Now I can grab some cushions and more easily settle and sit for longer periods of time. However, after years of yoga training, I already knew a fair bit about sitting in an aligned manner. It is fine to lie down to meditate too but when we sit awake and alert we are often more aware of whatever arises. A meditation tutor of either gender is in attendance during each meditation sitting and they are also available for ten minute private sessions at lunch times via a (silent) sign-up sheet. Many participants took the opportunity to meet with a teacher and talk about their difficulties or perhaps just to take the opportunity to speak. I used this opportunity once to request a kneeling stool which I used from time to time. I don’t see how providing some initial instruction on aligned sitting positions would detract from the Vipassana methodology but then of course I was not leading this retreat and letting go and submitting to an established program for a mere ten days of my life was all part of the learning.
This type of Vipassana retreat is not suitable for everyone at all stages of their lives. In fact, the application process requires demonstrating some readiness and stability before giving it a go. Staring into the contents of your body and mind for ten days is not a normal process, but if you can go there, it can take you quite somewhere else. Where, I am still not fully sure about myself but the glimpses of calm are enough to keep me going.
© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications
For more information about Vipassana retreats around the world: https://www.dhamma.org