Two silent weeks in a Buddhist meditation centre, Sri Lanka.
My husband and I decided it would be fun to learn and experience the techniques of Vipassana meditation (also known as silent or insight meditation). First of all, let me set the scene...
Wake up at 4am, go to bed at 10pm. Meditators are expected to join in 4 x 1 hour group meditation sessions and put in a daily total of 6-8 hours sitting meditation and 4 hours walking meditation. For walking meditation one is to find a 5-10 metre length of courtyard and pace slowly back and forth. As part of a monastery meditators are encouraged to join Buddhist practices and pay homage twice a day through chanting and offerings. There are 2 meals a day, breakfast at 6am and lunch and 11.15. No eating after 12noon, no talking , no reading, no writing, wear white, follow the daily schedule, walk and move slowly at all times.
I walked through the gates of the female yogi section to a welcome party of lush gardens, beautiful flowers and ancient old trees, exotic bird and monkey calls, and a mossy courtyard with a variety of places to sit and contemplate the beauty in life. Buddhist nuns sat and moved peacefully in their orange robes, greeting me with their exquisite faces, shaved heads and clear brown eyes. I took it all in and felt confident about the 2 weeks ahead, “How hard can this be?” I thought.
Vipassana is meditation through observation of the mind and body processes. By taking away distractions and stimulants the mind becomes clear and quiet enough to observe ourselves physically and mentally. By understanding and observing our humanness we learn that its mental and physical processes are simply inherent as part of this human body. The human body is not our true ‘self’. It is not all we are. We therefore do not have to be at the mercy of all its functions – emotionally, mentally and physically. In Buddhism attachment is the main cause of suffering. Loving detachment comes from creating the awareness of all these functions, accepting they are just part of our humanness, leaving us with the power to choose at every moment as to how we respond to, and view the world. This road can be a long one, with many understandings to be realized along the way. Those who persist are rewarded with a natural state of mind being contentment, love and joy.
The technique to Vipasanna is to create awareness by engaging the “noting mind”, for example, walking: One would start very simply with noting the foot - “lifting, pushing dropping, lifting pushing dropping..” then the next action “stopping.....turning”. Eventually everything slows down so much we can start to observe the mental processes behind it, which begins with a desire, followed by an intention, and then a manifestation or action. For example, one would feel thirsty and have a desire to drink so one would note “desire, desire, desire” and then one would notice the mind intending to reach for the cup. The noting mind would follow with “intending, intending, intending”. And next comes the manifestation - “reaching, reaching... drinking, drinking”. By observing the mental process of intention, and noticing all our intentions leading to their manifestation, we begin to realize its power. The power and process of intention is one of the first understandings we gain on the road to detachment. Slowly we see that that our intentions run to levels of consciousness that we are generally unaware of and that it is mostly our subconscious desires that truly carry our tune.
Most people learn to get by in this world and live relatively happy lives as they are. For me, I had realised the feeling of restlessness in the pit of my stomach and have always wanted to understand it so that maybe one day I can replace it with a feeling of contentment. So, on my first day, with hands pressed together I asked Buddha to help me see.
When we try and clear our minds the first thing we notice that is inherent with our human bodies is that little voice inside our head who always seems to have a lot to say. I have refered to it here as The Voice, others may know it as the ego, or the brain, or that angel and devil on your shoulder. If we pay attention to it we learn that it is cheeky, sly, cunning, both critical and proud, constructive and destructive, classy and tasteless. The contradictory Voice will tell you to eat that chocolate cake and it’s the same voice that will tell you that you are fat when you look in the mirror. The Voice is many things and for most of us it is our manager and it likes to stay in charge.
Without the allowance of talking for two weeks, it was just me and the Voice. It was funny to observe at first. Day one in the breakfast room I was mindfully going through my observations... “reaching, drinking, reaching, placing.... uncomfortable.. want to shuffle back.. shuffle, shuffle, shuffle....”. ”WOOOH! EVERYDAY IM SHUFFELLING DVT DVT DV DV DV DV DVVVVVV” and it was up and doing the running man in my head. I didn’t think a room full of silent nuns would appreciate my body rockin’ at 6am so mindfully, I kept it to myself.
After a few days of more disciplined mindfulness the voice was starting to get bored. I would start to hear the roosters calling ‘get me outa heeeeeeere” instead of cockadoodledoo and the crows were moaning “you’re faaaaaaaarked” with their usual morbidity. With 3 hours of meditation left before bed I was tired, the Voice was persistent and disruptive, and I was struggling. We decided to reach a compromise - we still had to continue with mindful activity for the rest of the evening but we got to do it in silly voices, Carl Barron inspired.
The next day I decided that if I started compromising to the voice then I was compromising my Vipassana study. So I started to simply ignore it. It was like being stuck in a room with someone who you are not talking to. A thought would come up – good, bad, interesting, boring... regardless, I would note “thought, thought, thought” and the thought would disappear. The method worked a treat. The Voice would be coming up with all sorts of cunning distractions but I would catch it and not engage.
“oh look! Firefly!” ..... Ignore... “ Lifting, pushing, dropping....”
“How cool would it be to be a squirrel” .... look away.... ”lifting, pushing, dropping....”
“Do monks fart?” .....turn my back... “stopping, turning....”
”I bet they do the big-lean from lotus” ..... walk away.... “lifting, pushing, dropping...”
Soon I was able to maintain longer periods of presence and had this wonderful humming feeling through my body, like I was conscious of the energy in every cell. It was becoming much easier to slip in and out of meditation and achieve deeper states. One night I meditated on hearing. I listened so intently to the crickets and geckos that filled the air that I could feel my eardrums flexing and vibrating in response. I was chuffed. I was feeling good..... the voice, so it seemed, was losing.
So... it brought out the big guns.
The next day out came the trash talking, the criticism, the self doubt, the expectations, the disappointment and the self pity. The Voice chipped away at me like a good old fashion stoning and slowly I went down with it. Horrified by the epitome of Me and disappointed by my little fall from grace, I sat there and wallowed in it like the victim it told me I was.
Welcome to the pit of my stomach.
Around the same time I had the realization that during meditation I was not observing my natural breathing, but was controlling my breathing, always pushing and pulling on my lungs. I had to learn how to breathe naturally, consciously. But when I tried to let go of the control my lungs would tighten and my throat would pinch, sending pangs of anxiety into my chest, causing my heart to pump harder. The absurdity of suddenly not being able to breathe properly bent my brain, and the resistance helped fuel me into a week and anxious mess.
Without the breathing to relax me I had worked myself into quite a state and developed some sort of meditataphobia. The only communication I was allowed to have was with the monk priest. Twice I sat at his feet with a face full of snot and tears and tried to explain my state. He would look at me, confused and smiling and say “Don’t worry about it” or “yes but why are you crying?”
Meditation is known to bring up and release emotions that our body collects and holds onto over the years. This is just one of the ways that it is a healer. It became clear to me that the inability to breath naturally was not the cause of the anxiety but perhaps a trigger, or vehicle for it to be released. The true sources were the undercurrent of negative and self destructive thoughts that had been dominating my subconscious for up to 30 years, and the controlling mechanisms that the sly Voice had used to protect this underground operation from being noticed.
Finally, one morning, with hands pressed together, I asked Buddha to give me strength. This was the day that I got to know what some people call their Higher Self. She came along, threw me a rope, assured me it was not for hanging myself with, and helped pull me out of the hole. She put me in the shower, she shaved my legs and washed my hair, and day by day she stayed with me and nursed me back to sanity. She was wise and kind and her love unconditional, right to the pit of my stomach. I feel stronger for getting to know her and her voice of intuition and awareness.
Buddhism claims to be the only religious following which pushes the responsibility of saviour back onto human kind. It teaches that it is not God who is going to save you, it is in fact Man himself as He has the power to be His own saviour and possesses the wisdom to judge His own progress along the way. It teaches that heaven and hell are a place in our minds and it is we who get to choose which one we go to. This concept sits well with me. See, it wasn’t Buddha who showed me my depths when I asked him to help me see and it wasn’t Buddha who gave me strength. This was the power of my intention.
Getting to meet your demons is one step, Choosing to accept that we all have them and deciding to love yourself anyway (knowing that you have a whole lifetime to vaporise the little suckers) is another. Now, with a fresh bag of good intentions and with Higher Me leading the way the power to do just that is feeling good in my hands.