Friends I came back from a 10 day Vipassana meditation course in Hereford last Sunday. I would like to give you an update on what was an amazing experience, which started off with pessimism, had its ups and downs throughout and ended with a peaceful awaking.
It’s a long one from me and I’m sharing this not as a coach or mentor, but as a completely fallible human being. I’m going to include all the good and bad judgements I made to give you a detailed picture of what it was like for me and the lessons I learnt.
Reasons for attending the course
There were two main reasons for me attending the course.
The main reason for me for attending this course was spiritual. Being a Hindu I take great inspiration in the text, the Bhagavad Gita. In this story, Lord Krishna talks about having non-attachment to things, having totally mastery of our senses, and understanding that life is constantly moving. It is never still. However, I felt there was no method or technique, which actually showed how to do such things, taking humans out of their pain and allowing them to experience real happiness and joy.
I’ve been practicing Vipassana mediation at the local Buddhist temple and at home for about 2 years, and was interested in taking my meditation to the next level and notice if this made any changes.
I had applied for the course in December 2010 and was really looking forward to it. However, just a few days before I was to set out, I began to have serious doubts. You see, the whole course had to be taken in silence for 9 days – no talking, no gesturing, no eye contact.
Also the days started at 4:00 am and ended at 9:30 pm! I really was going to send a message to the centre to say that I wasn’t going to be able to attend. I began to think about whether the Buddhist meditation course would conflict with my Hindu beliefs. Although, I knew deep down this wasn’t true. I’d been practicing the same technique for over 2 years and there was no contradiction.
However, I also felt if I didn’t go, I would be just running away because of fear and I refuse to do this in my life anymore.
Lesson 1: Don’t create fantasy movies in my head, which are not real.
Arriving at the course
I left straight from work on 16th February and drove to Hereford, which took around 2 hours and 45 minutes in rush hour. As I followed the directions on my sat nav, I ended up in these tiny lanes, which could just fit one car, going one way! As I turned into the centre, and went to park my car, I noticed one or 2 people standing outside the centre alone, looking sombre and quiet. I rang home to say “goodbye” to my family. This would be the last time I would speak with them for 10 days. I swallowed hard and stepped out of my car. I walked into the centre and immediately saw two signs – ‘Males thisway’, and ‘Females this way’. The guys and girls had to be separate for the whole course you see, with no contact whatsoever. I registered and was told where my room would be. I went to the car to collect my suitcase and bags and proceeded to my room to settle in. The room was nice, simple and clean, but without a sink to wash my face or shave.
I went to check out the toilets and realised there were two toilets and two showers for the whole block to share. This I realised would a big change for me. Normally, I’m used to having a shower and toilet to myself, but I quickly told myself to not expect so much. This wasn’t a hotel.
Lesson 2: Don’t expect so much. It just leads to disappointment.
We were given dinner that evening, and I spoke to a few people. I was quite impressed with two guys. This 10 day retreat was going to be their first experience of meditating! After dinner, the centre manager gave us one last warning about whether anybody wanted to leave, and then the course began.
The gong went off at 4:00 am, but I was already up around 15 minutes earlier. I thought by doing this I would miss the big rush for the showers, but by the time I got in there, there was a queue of guys. The meditation hall was packed at 4:30 am, everyone eager and enthusiastic. We were taught to practice respiration meditation first to get the mind highly concentrated. This consisted of just watching the breath go in and out, and every time the mind wandered to bring the mind back to the breath. The mind needs to be highly concentrated before it can penetrate the unconscious mind, which is what Vipassana is all about.
The meditation during this day was fine. However, I was missing my family like crazy. I was missing my friends and my colleagues. “This isn’t a good start” I told myself. It’s only the first day! The other thing which was frustrating me like mad was not being able to talk to anyone. My instinct is to look up at people in the eye, smile and say “hi” or “good morning”, but none of the guys were looking back! Everyone was just dead serious and looking down avoiding any eye contact.
As we walked back and forth from the meditation hall to our rooms and the dining hall, the man in me couldn’t help look over at the girls. I saw one or two glance over to the fella’s, but other than that nothing.
I wanted to pack up my bags and leaves. I was feeling lonely, and didn’t like having to share showers and toilets with so many people. I was fed up with not being able to talk. During one sitting in the meditation hall, with the chanting by S.N Goenka (he’s the guy who is the leader, that started this type of meditation course, and is the main Teacher), and by the ‘old’ students (those who had been on a course before and were serving on this one in different capacities, such as managers, kitchen staff, cleaners), I thought this was a cult. However, I quickly realised this wasn’t a cult. The students were not being asked to chant or pray or anything. It was totally non-sectarian.
Lesson 3: Don’t judge these people without giving them a chance. They are not judging me. I have no right judging them.
Somehow I got through the Day 2. Incidentally, the food so far on the course was delicious and was throughout the course. Lovely vegetarian food, cooked and prepared so creatively. There were 2 meals in a day by the way – breakfast at 6:30 am and then lunch at 11:00 am. This again was a change for me, as I’m used to eating 3 times a day.
At the end of the day (and at the end of everyday) Goenkaji gave a discourse on what we learnt from the day and told stories of the Buddha. We learnt about how humans create two major forms of pain or suffering for themselves – craving for what they don’t and aversion to what they don’t want. We learnt about the law of impermanence, which involves understanding the mind and body is just matter, made of biochemical processes and molecules rushing around. Everything inside us is constantly changing.
We were still doing the respiration meditation, but now focusing on feeling sensations just under our nostrils and above the top lip. After a a while I began to feel sensations like tickling and prickling. I understood now why we had been practicing respiration breathing for so long. The mind had to be really concentrated in order to feel sensations, which are unconscious. Usually in the conscious state we don’t feel such things.
I began to notice that my legs were beginning to hurt significantly this day, because of sitting cross-legged for so many hours. I had to keep moving my legs, the pain was that great. Other students were the same.
This day was just more excruciating pain. I was getting tired of this meditation. I felt like crying. I wanted to leave. However, I kept telling myself just to keep persevering. We were taught the Vipassana meditation technique (I knew this already), which was to observe sensations from head to toe on the body, part by part and piece by piece.
On the Day 4 discourse Goenkaji, explained more about what the sensations we were feeling meant. The pleasurable sensations were experiences associated with craving coming to the surface from this life and our previous ones (e.g lust and passion). The pain was examples of experiences where we created aversion either in this life or our previous ones, such as fear and anger.
I was feeling subtle sensations all through my body during the meditation sessions. They were free flowing. During the evening session I was in complete bliss. I’ve never experienced such a state in my life. It felt like my whole body was hollow and a slow but deep energy was flowing through it. I didn’t want it to stop.
I was still feeling pain in my left leg, I mean excruciating pain. However, I was now applying what Goenkaji said in his discourse the night before – do not attach to the pain. When the pain would start I would keep telling myself “Not me”, “Not I”, “Not mine”. I just observed the pain objectively. I would tell myself “It will pass”, “It’s just a sensation. All sensations arise and pass”. After some time of doing this, the pain like magic disappeared.
I was beginning to get it.
I was developing egolessness.
I wanted to make sense of this pain. I suspected it was a mixture of years of fear and anger and the same from previous lives. I tried to ask the Assistant Teacher about it, but he said it isn’t our job to make sense of what this and that means. We just have to observe and treat every sensation equally – not good and not bad. I liked the Assistant Teacher. He was very wise.
I was beginning to feel really peaceful. All my judgements had gone. I felt I had made a big breakthrough with understanding how not to attach to my pain. I enjoyed spending silent time with my fellow meditation brothers. It was so strange. Throughout the course we had some type of connection and complete respect for one another, even though we weren’t talking with each other!
I was having some fruit during the 5 pm break with some lemon water. I was sitting in the dining hall looking outside the window. Suddenly, I had a thought and an image of me stammering when I got back home. However, as a soon as I’d done this, I automatically became detached from it. I told myself, “But that’s not me.” I had to keep the tears in. I ran to my room and burst into tears there. I had just experienced complete egolessness for a moment or the real Self (or non-self in Buddhism). I realised how much pain I had created for myself in my life, by creating such a false sense of self, which was fragile and not real – the ego.
Day 8 and Day 9
Nothing particularly special happened during these days. I was just following instruction and meditating mostly in my room. I could now sit for a complete hour without moving and no pain in my legs. I was now ensuring that I was practicing non-attachment to both pleasurable and painful sensations.
I enjoyed listening to Goenkaji’s discourses in the evening. This guy is really funny and is a great motivator.
This day we learnt how to practice metta meditation, which means developing and giving loving kindness to ourselves and to others. It involves giving ourselves love, compassion and goodwill and also to all other beings including friends and enemies.
It was also the day when we were allowed to break our silence. Suddenly quiet turned into noise. I finally got to talk to my silent brothers! We were all so excited and shared our experiences. We talked about passing each other in the accommodation blocks, holding doors open for each other, but without saying “thank you” and with our eyes down. It was really strange but many wanted to leave on Day 2, and this is exactly what Goenkaji said usually happens during the Day 1 discourse. Some had blissful experiences. Others not so. But out of all those I spoke to, we had all experienced some change.
We agreed the big test was now when we went back into the real world.
Mindfulness and Stammering
I’ve come back from the course and am still meditating twice a day for 2 hours as advised by Goenkaji. My anxiety in all aspects of life (not just stammering) has reduced significantly. This technique is powerful, make no mistake. I’m going to be bold and say that this technique if practiced with patience and persistence has the potential to wipe out all fear and anxiety associated with stammering.
I’ll let you know how it goes. I really hope some of you will find out for yourselves.
I’m just much more relaxed and don’t seem be getting as agitated as I used to. I’m also finding it much more easier to live the present moment. Whenever I do any unnecessary thinking, I just bring my attention to the sensations in my body and my breathing. I’m beginning to realise there is no sense in holding onto things, which are constantly changing.
Something deeply spiritual happened to me during this course. I achieved my mission of understanding the Bhagavad Gita better. I agree with Goenkaji. Vipassana is an example of applied Gita.
And life now?
I don’t think I’ll ever look at life in the same way again.