The purpose of my visit sunk in as the impermanence of a bead of sweat trickling down my forehead occurred to me on day six in the meditation hall. Every fibre of my being screamed at me to get rid of this itch, but I didn’t react. Five minutes later, it was gone.
Each moment we are confronted with one itch or another, be it a physical or a mental one. Most of us react without ever really observing it, which in the case of a bead of sweat isn’t the end of the world.
But imagine a time in your life where you have reacted with anger – an itch which if scratched has far more negative repercussions. If we could just stop and observe the physical sensation that accompanies anger, we’d see that it will not last and has no hold on us. It will pass just like a bead of sweat. To understand and practice this is the purpose of meditation.
Intellectually that is very easy to grasp, but unless you are a monk, it is far more difficult in practice. Try a dinner date with Donald Trump if you think otherwise. This is why I decided to enrol onto a Vipassana meditation course – a course where you wake at 4.30am every day, with nothing but ten hours of meditation to look forward to, broken up only by two meals and some rest periods.
What is Vipassana meditation?
Vipassana meditation is said to be the technique developed and taught by the Buddha over 2500 years ago. It is a Pali word and is most often translated as “insight’ or “to see things clearly.” Although descended from Buddhism, the technique is secular and applicable to all.
During the well-known incident of the Buddha meditating under a tree for 49 days, he is said to have observed the reality in his own body and learnt that human suffering is the product of craving and aversion, that is to say, the pursuit of sensations we enjoy and the avoidance of ones we don’t. His insights allowed him to experience the impermanence of these feelings and ultimately transcend them, granting him the title Buddha, translated as “enlightened one.” He spent the rest of his life helping others to have the same experience.
Naturally, life often deprives us of the things we like and confronts us with the things we don’t, regardless of how hard we cling to what we like. The harder we do this, the more we bring about the very misery we are trying to avoid.
For every craving and every aversion, there is a sensation somewhere in the body that accompanies it. This technique was developed as a way to observe the body’s sensations objectively without reaction as they arise and pass, scanning your body from head to toe. After practice, you begin to detach yourself from the burden of craving and aversion and start to live a lighter life.
The technique was lost to most of the world after it became overshadowed centuries after the Buddha’s death in India, but it was preserved by a small group of teachers in Burma, where S.N. Goenka, (the man responsible for spreading the technique) was born. Since its creation, ten days has always been the minimum time asked of people taking part in a retreat, and total silence along with no forms of entertainment have always been required. Life is full of distractions, and the mental noise that accompanies it won’t allow us to go as deep as we need to begin addressing the roots of our unconscious mind.
This process may be needed by some more than others, although everyone will benefit. As someone who has suffered with depression and all the negative feelings that come with it for most of my life, I felt like this was absolutely vital for me. So what did I learn?
Silence is the easy bit
As the veil of silence descended two hours after my arrival at the centre, I felt a sense of dread as I imagined that this restrained solitude was now my life for the next ten days. I yearned for a conversation, or even my phone for a bit of aimless Facebook scrolling, now dwelling in a distant locker I had no access to.
I read the course manual over and over, with it being the only source of entertainment available to me. I walked around the small woodland at the back of the centre, my appreciation for its beauty obscured by the thought of aimlessly wandering around in there during every break for the next ten days.
The following morning however, my anxiety had been replaced with determination and suddenly the silence seemed less oppressive. As the course continued, the silence became normality and became overshadowed by the gruelling process of relentless meditation itself.
Meditation isn’t bliss
I didn’t think pain and meditation belonged in the same sentence until I did this. Unsurprisingly, sitting with your legs crossed for long periods of time can cause a great deal of discomfort, which is fine until day four as you’re able to adjust your position.
From day four onwards however, there are three one-hour sessions a day where you are asked to remain completely still and keep your eyes closed for the duration, even during the last 15 minutes where what were your legs now feel like a searing mass of agony and each minute feels like an hour.
The idea here is that you are experiencing the idea of impermanence rather than just intellectually applauding it. At this point, pain is there, you can ether accept it and wait for it to pass, or you can react to it, the latter of which will multiply the misery it initially causes.
Any pain can be observed objectively until it passes, although no one completing their first course here quite got to this point, apparent in the increasingly elaborate cushion thrones people built themselves in the hall. Oddly, no amount of cushions seemed to be enough.
So meditation isn’t bliss, but rather the process of observing whatever arises – blissful or hellish – and not reacting to it. If you meditate seeking bliss, that is simply more craving.
We all have the power to observe rather than react
As the course progressed, I began to address my depression. How do I fall into destructive thought patterns? These can be triggered by the most insignificant event. Without meditation, I may have spent my whole life reacting to these patterns and believing the stories I tell myself – perpetuating my own suffering and transferring it to everyone I come into contact with.
Although I am not totally free of this, this technique gave me the opportunity to distance myself from these thoughts and their resulting emotions, even if only briefly. In these moments, I am able to just watch a negative emotion as it asks for my attention and just let it be there. Somehow, this makes it seem less important and then it passes.
The inability of many individuals to do this is what I feel to be the root of many of the world’s problems. Negativity unobserved can wreak complete havoc both in personal relationships and on a wider scale, as is crystal clear upon first glance of any newspaper’s front page.
We’re not as rational as we like to think we are
Surrounded by people I was unable to talk to for ten days, I was left with nothing but my imagination to judge them, although I’d like to be able to say I wasn’t judging anyone. For each person, I had invented a nationality, a life story and a personality. I decided I liked some, others not so much.
On day ten when we were able to talk, I discovered that all my assumptions had been completely false and that everyone else had been doing the same thing.
To judge someone based on nothing other than external appearance and your imagined story for them is of course completely irrational, but something many people do unconsciously all the time. In this setting, this common habit was exposed as not only irrational, but a barrier to truly connecting with the people beyond those who match your criteria.
We’re all addicts
Addict is a label commonly used for someone who has become addicted to a particular substance or activity to the detriment of their own well-being and others around them. Ultimately however, these people are just going to more extreme lengths to fulfil their craving for pleasant sensations – a craving we all share.
Their methods for fulfilling this craving are among the more socially unacceptable and obviously damaging, and as such are the easiest to frown upon. However during this retreat I began to recognise the same addiction in myself and in others.
Some fulfil this craving through shopping, some through food, some through sex and others through attention from others. Some even fulfil it through imagining themselves to be someone who is above all of this. There are countless ways to satisfy this craving, as those who work in advertising and marketing know – fuelling our collective addiction to pleasant sensations for a quick buck.
This idea was lost on me initially when it seemed to be saying that we should just stop enjoying things and spend the rest of our lives sitting on the floor in a passive state. But that is not the idea. The idea is to be able to stay present enough to identify thoughts and feelings for what they are – impermanent. Like this they have no hold on you and you are able to enjoy each moment more fully.
The retreat is ten days for a reason
A man called Olly was sat next to me in the hall (I knew his name as I had seen the name tag on his cushion). We were of a similar tall build. During the first few days, although we never talked, it was clear he was having the same struggle as me. He would rotate between the same two positions I did at similar intervals – legs crossed and legs up whenever the pain became too much.
When the hour-long sessions of no movement were introduced, it became clear he was struggling. The sound of his shuffling became more frequent, even though we’d been encouraged not to move unless it had become torture. On day six, the place next to me was empty and I never saw Olly again.
How much of a shame that was became clear during the later days as I realised how happy I was that I’d stuck the pain out and started to understand what this whole process was about. Many people had told me not to leave before I went in, and now I understand why.
A surprisingly small number of people left the retreat, given what initially seem like unbearably strict requirements. The reason for them all became obvious as the stay progressed, and the things I initially felt deprived of lost their importance.
The last day makes it all worth it
When the silence was lifted on day ten, I wondered how I would break my silence. I was so used to not speaking I wasn’t sure I had anything to say. When I first said hello to one of my roommates, the sound of my voice came as a shock. It was almost as if I was listening to myself in third person.
After the initial shock however, the chatter I had been familiar with before the retreat resumed. Everyone was excitable and had a lot to say. It was interesting to hear about how each person’s experience was both remarkably similar yet totally unique to everyone else’s.
This is a personal experience, and even attempting to write about it seems to do it a disservice. So to anyone reading this, don’t buy into anything I’ve said here – try one out for yourself. There is a difference between believing what someone else tells you and experiencing it for yourself.
I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t benefit from this retreat
I know productive, fulfilled and happy people. I also know apathetic, careless and unhappy people. But I know more people that are somewhere in the middle of this. Most people have both these sides to them, although the scales are often tipped in favour of one more than the other based on life circumstances.
A retreat like this is bound to give any individual a fresh perspective on their life and bring balance into their lives as they rid themselves of the unnecessary baggage that is holding them back. The days following the retreat were some of the most light, clear and focused days of my life.
Yes, at times you’ll have sore knees, you’ll be bored, you’ll want to do anything other than meditate and you’ll want to jump over the fence, run to the top of a hill and scream obscenities at the top of your lungs. But in between those moments, you may find that you’ll experience a peace in yourself that you never knew was possible. With practice, that could become your reality.