Vipassana meditation retreat

February 2012: I will be shortly attending a 10 day Vipassana residential retreat and I thought it might be interesting to track my thoughts and intent during the time leading up to the event and to explore my experience and reflections afterwards.

Firstly, what is Vipassana meditation?

 This is what the official website says; ‘The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self- purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness, one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. This truth-realization by direct experience is the process of purification. The entire path (Dhamma) is a universal remedy for universal problems and has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism. For this reason, it can be freely practised by everyone, at any time, in any place, without conflict due to race, community or religion, and will prove equally beneficial to one and all.’

Basically, it is a 10 day Vipassana meditation residential retreat where the attendee agrees to conscientiously undertake the following precepts for the whole 10 days:

  • To abstain from killing any being
  • To abstain from stealing
  • To abstain from all sexual activity
  • To abstain from telling lies
  • To abstain from all intoxicants

 Well, I think I can do that easily enough.  Now for the big stuff………

 Vipassana Noble Silence

 All students must observe Noble Silence from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow students, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is prohibited. No telephone, no PC, no books, no talking, no leaving the compound, no pens and paper, no interacting with anybody (not even looking at them!) The challenge is getting bigger……

OK, so it is going to be interesting! Just for fun, let’s throw in a few more rules;

  • Get up at 04:00 every day
  • Meditate for 10 hours per day
  • Only vegetarian food

What am I hoping to get from this meditation experience?

 I don’t like the word goals these days, so I’d rather you use the word ‘intent’ – my intent is to add more structure to my existing meditation routines, to take some time out to focus on me, and to explore more intense methods of quietening the chatter in my mind.  The list looks a little like this;

  •  To try a new form of meditation
  • To explore my mind when removed from the influences of daily life
  • To selfishly dedicate 10 days of self-awareness on myself
  • To explore my own spirituality
  • To explore what happens internally if you can stop being hooked by the events and people of the external world
  • To reconnect with my body
  • Obviously, I know what I know, but what don’t I know? I’d just like to explore new things

 The biggest attraction for me is the ‘silence’ to not speak for 10 days. What stories will my mind come up with? Will they stop after a few days? Is there another emotional level underneath all the chatter?

During my life, I have been an avid people watcher and studied deeply on human nature, behaviour and the structure of communication. On the surface I am reasonably good at reading people and breaking down personality types etc. which works well in my job as a therapist, however, I am more and more coming to the conclusion that I am missing something by ‘watching them’ as opposed to ‘experiencing me.’

Surely, I am the only thing that I have and can experience?

Internal mental discipline & focus

Another aspect of my personality I am looking to explore are facets, such as self-discipline, focus, attention, concentration, mindfulness and the like. In more recent times I have been working on being more mindful, meaning, to place my attention fully in anything that I am doing – so, if I am painting the wall, I focus 100% on painting the wall, what does the paint smell like? I explore the richness of the colours, how the paint flows, and, of course, to observe my emotional and mental reactions to mistakes and splashes etc.

To me, the real benefit of this focus is to stop my mind from pulling me this way and that, pondering, ruminating, worrying, planning about things from the past or things yet to happen in the future – to be really present in the moment and to afford it my full attention, as all the books keep telling me “right now, this moment, is all you really have, the past has gone and the future never comes – there is only ever NOW.”

Over the past few years, I have also focused on things I want to stop doing and I have become very aware that it takes a lot of discipline and focus (or perhaps a better word is ‘to have a clear intent’) to keep paying attention to the things that you don’t need anymore. Facets of my life that fall into this category include; maintaining a healthy weight, working smarter not just harder, being less focused on what my mind wants and more focused on what my body wants and letting go of the need to be right or to have to control anybody (or where possible anything.)

I feel that spending time on the Vipassana retreat will allow me to further refine this capacity within myself.

Selfish or Selfless?

10 days away from my family, 10 days away from the business, 10 days without any contact, interaction or emotional contact with anything external from myself…..

Seven years ago I would have thought that was selfish, self-centred and would have believed that I would have to work hard to justify this extravagance to the people in my life and I would have entered such an event with a little guilt and the voices in my mind would have been having a field day beating me up about what or should or shouldn’t be doing.

It has taken a lot of work, a change in my profession, and rethink of my values and beliefs and a complete reset of how I communicate externally and internally for me to now say “I am really looking forward to this and I have no problems with this time for ME.

A few years back I began to use a new phrase as part of my internal dialogue and that is – it’s OK for me to be “Selfishly Selfless.” To feel comfortable putting myself first, doing things for me, of me, about me, to spend time on my own spirituality, emotional stability and ensuring my core needs are being met. Because this then allows me to be there for others (if they wish) and in general to be a calm and positive energy on this planet.

How to meditate?

I have struggled with meditation for many years and have never had any formal training or instruction, I remember reading the book ‘Meditation for Dummies’ on holiday once and at the end of the book I was more confused than when I started!

So I have formed my own methods of meditating and I don’t really call it mediation these days as I try to remain in a meditative state as much as I can throughout the day.

Every day I do a light form of meditation for 20 minutes before I sleep at night and 20 minutes as I awake each morning – this helps me to let go of the events of the day, close off any unfinished business in my mind, then focus on quietening my mind.

Years ago I thought to relax meant to relax your body, these days I am very aware that relaxing means to quieten your mind, and when the mind is quiet the body drops down to profound levels of relaxation. “The body responds to what you hold in mind” – this one phrase has been proven true to me time and time again – it’s obvious really, however, so few people seem to get it, took me a long time.

At other times throughout the day I might meditate for short periods, sometimes by focusing on a problem in my mind and just observing it rather than trying to solve it, I observe the issue from differing viewpoints and avoid getting pulled in to discussions with my own mind. At other times I focus on a single point in my mind – like staring down a black hole in my mind and within this fixation of attention I find quiet.

Mostly I find that making time for meditation keeps me relaxed and calm, it also stops me being pulled into the issues of life, perhaps, gives me more emotional flexibility and certainly feels like it recharges me and keeps my immune system on par.

Once or twice during long meditation sessions, I have had some quite profound experiences, one, in particular, moved me deeply. I was on a retreat where we were meditating for 1 hour sessions 2 or 3 times a day for a week in the context of exploring our beliefs and the way we structure our view of the world and the way we emotionally respond to it – during one meditation I became quite emotionally overwhelmed, not in a bad way, in a beautifully serene, loving and ‘connected’ way.

I was crying, but not in a sobbing manner – my eyes were just ‘leaking’ and my whole body felt like it had been plugged into the mains electricity, there is no other way to describe it – it felt like my whole unconscious nervous system had had its voltage turned up, it felt wonderful and my mind was completely silent, it was wonderful.

This feeling stayed with me long after the meditation ended and it was indescribably wonderful, I could have sat with that feeling all day, no problem at all.

So far, events like that have been few and far between and I know that one of the reasons I am attending the focused Vipassana retreat is to explore meditation at a deeper and more structured level.

Preparation for Vipassana

So what am I going to do to prepare for the retreat? Not a lot really, I am just going to let it unfold. I am finding the idea of 2-hour meditation sessions quite appealing; firstly, because of the fascination of the challenge, can I do it? How will my mind respond? How will my body respond?

The second thing that appeals to me is the whole concept of not focussing on anybody else, no communication, no observing others – I tried this last week, I drove to my local shopping centre and walked around without looking at anybody or anything in particular – IT WAS REALLY HARD… My mind kept on proposing what I was missing out on, and as I tried to look around just using my peripheral vision, I became aware of how powerful it is at picking out objects that are aligned with interests/fears.

I also sat in a cafe and read my book without paying any attention to other patrons of the coffee shop, not looking at them, not listening to them, not responding to noises and distractions, holding off any judgements in my mind etc. Once again, hugely difficult, however, once I was in the rhythm my focus on the book was intense and deeply rewarding.

As I finished reading and ended my little experiment it was as if the whole coffee shop became a loud cacophony of noise and activity, which quite surprised me.

I’m not going to do anything else in preparation. One challenge I will have will be with my body as I have some congenital defects in my spine and hips from birth which means I can’t sit on the floor in a conventional meditation pose, so I will need to be seated in a straight-backed chair, however, I don’t think this will be too much of an issue because I have pretty much learned to detach from the pain and I know from experience that the body normally does what it is told – if I say sit still and don’t move, it does, it is my mind that complains, not my body!

So I say bring it on – I am so looking forward to this…… :-)

My Vipassana Meditation Experience

March 2012: Well, that was interesting!

Not what I was expecting at all. It was good, it was bad, it was stimulating, it was boring, it was educational, it was frustrating and it was liberating. Not sure I would do it again, however, my life is far richer for going through the experience and I learned so much about myself by isolating myself in this environment for a period of time away from the pressures of normal life.

The best way I could describe my experience was to say it was a cross between, being a monk, a prisoner and an isolated identity (rather than a father, son, husband, friend etc.) it was as if I was just a body wandering around, eating and meditating. The experience enabled me to become really connected to my body and my emotions, as well as, absolutely living in the now, actually having no distractions from the immediate moment and nothing to do except ‘just be’.

I guess there were roughly 60 men and 50 women present at the retreat and they were segregated, the men had access to one side of the site and the women the other – with separate dining halls and a separate field and woods where each group could meander around and be in nature.

This itself was interesting, I guess in some cultures this is quite normal (for men and women to be segregated) however, for me this was quite a new experience and interesting to observe, as well as, experience. In addition, nobody was allowed to talk, gesture or communicate in any manner with any other attendee (including not looking at them or engaging in any eye contact.)

I quite liked this and found it relatively easy, whilst at the same time, this environment was conducive to detaching from my ego – because no one was watching me or wanting anything from me it didn’t matter who you were. As the days passed the need to shave, shower, dress a certain way etc. all lessened because nothing really mattered, no social or business games were needed to be played out. It didn’t matter who you were, what you were or who they were because nobody needed anything from anybody else. Quite fascinating.

The days began at 04:00 to the ring of a gong and I found this surprisingly easy to respond to – in normal life I am not a morning person, so it was good to explore that belief, and by 4:30 a.m. we had begun the first meditation session (of many) each day.

The meditation hall was modern with good facilities and could comfortably house around 140 people. There were plenty of cushions, blankets and meditation stools that you could use. Men sat to one side and the women the other with a no-mans land between them that was consciously policed by the helpers. I sat against the side wall on a chair as I am unable to sit on the floor due to my spine problems, along with five or six others.

I sometimes laugh at myself (at my naivety) I had never meditated in a big group before and in my mind, I was expecting a serene calmness, a profound silence and connection that would be more than the sum of the parts – wrong!!!  The guy behind me breathed louder than Darth Vader and one of the women I am sure had a Whooping cough! In that first session (I know I should have been meditating) I was never able to count up to 10 in my mind without a person coughing, shuffling, rustling, burping, farting, sighing, sneezing or sniffing! I have sat in more tranquil railway stations!

With hindsight, I am able to see (how at that time) my mind was so focused ‘out there’ rather than ‘inside myself’ always watching, listening and scanning externally, rather than being deeply connected at an internal level. Of course, as the days passed, the acceptance of these external influences are part of your own growth, however, as forgiving and accepting as I tried to be Darth Vader was too annoying (I don’t mind being equanimous, however, I don’t want to be silly) so I moved my chair to the back of the hall. The lady with a Whooping cough either died, got better or left, and the hall found a quieter resonance.

As an observation, there were probably only about 10 people in the whole hall who kept making all of the noise – the rest were silent and committed. Out of interest I watched these more noisy characters and I would classify them as people with low emotional intelligence, they stood too close to people, if they needed to burp they just did (as loud as they could) they turned up late for the sessions etc. So I wondered if those with low emotional intelligence, who obviously don’t pick up on other people’s feelings, also, don’t pick up on their own emotions? Another thing they did that interested me was, they would sigh really loudly – I always associate loud unconscious sighs with depression and frustration, anyway, just an observation.

By the time day six came around I was able to let it all go and just lose myself within my own meditation, so it was obvious that a large shift in my own attention had come about.

Vipassana meditation schedule

The daily schedule was as follows:

4:00                           Morning wake up bell

4:30 – 6:30              Meditation

6:30 – 8:00              Breakfast and rest

8:00 – 9:00              Meditation

9:00 – 11:00            Meditation

11:00 – 12:00          Lunch

12:00 – 13:00 Rest/interviews with the teacher

13:00 – 14:30          Meditation

14:30 – 15:30          Meditation

15:30 – 17:00         Mediation

17:00 – 18:00         Tea break (only fruit)

18:00 – 19:00         Meditation

19:00 – 20:15         Video discourse by S.N. Goenka

20:15 – 21:00         Meditation

21:00 – 21:30         Question time

21:30                          Bed

The same procedure every day, like clockwork, no deviations.

The food was very good indeed and I had no problem with it all being vegetarian and even though the evening meal was only fruit (strangely) I was never hungry and lost 6 lbs. in weight over the 10 days.

I am going to be a bit judgemental now……. I know I am only a small guy; however, the volume of food that some men consumed at each sitting absolutely amazed me! In addition, when access to the ‘normal’ things in life like; communication, reading, phones, television, news etc. feeding time became an important time of the day. It is actually now a week after I returned that I am writing this and the weight has stayed off and I am eating more fruit so that’s good.

SN Goenka

It was interesting to discover that wherever in the world you attend a 10 day Vipassana meditation course it is always the same. All of the meditation sessions are started and finished by listening to recordings of the teacher Mr. SN Goenka (pronounced G-wenka) I really liked him, he was clearly well educated, dedicated and a wonderful storyteller with a wealth of experience to share if you were prepared to listen (and I was).

Each evening there was a 75-minute video of Goenka talking about what you had learned that day and how to apply it. To me, these video discourses were easily the highlight of my day and I found his style of non-religious, non-sectarian and Buddhist points of view to be very aligned with my own views.

Story after story, example after example, of how we are either craving for this and that or trying to avoid that or this, in the hope that we would be happy – but that all this craving/avoiding is just the source of so much misery. And that by recognising that nothing in life is permanent (life, people, jobs, property) things come and they go and that by being attached to them you have labelled them as ‘mine’ and therefore you need to cling onto them.

I understand his point of view and it was good to hear it in more detail, hard to live that way, however, over the years I am slowly finding it easier (and certainly less stressful). He suggests that equanimity is the answer – to neither crave nor avoid, to just let things be what they are, I found the following reference to what being equanimous was that I like;

‘Equanimity’ can be used to refer to any of the following terms such as beingness, Undisturbed, Unattached. It should be recognized that ‘Equanimity’ does not refer to a state of mind; rather it describes our real nature. The sense of attachment or doership is always individual and operates at the level of Individual Identity or Ego. By renouncing our limited identity, we can reveal our true nature, when we are aware of our true nature, the individual ego does not operate anymore, and hence the outcome is equanimity.

When one is fully aware, one does not attach to the world, rather sees the world. The world is apparent and unfolds in front of our awareness, but due to lack of clarity, we identify with the body and the mind and become finite and limited. The only unchanging reality is pure awareness. It refers to being a witness and not having a sense of individual doer which creates attachment and makes one behave otherwise.

Understanding equanimity

Equanimity does not mean sitting around inactive while things are happening, or escaping from the world, or suppressing one’s feelings. Equanimity is operating from the state of supreme watchfulness/witness without an iota of attachment or aversion. .. A mind of equanimity is an original pure mind free from all suppression, fear, dullness and ignorance.

I really like this concept and am trying hard to make this the bed-rock of my attitudes and ways of thinking.

Back to the meditation……… There is a lot of it! Just when you can’t take anymore the leaders say “take a five-minute break and we’ll start again” – 10 hours per day! To compound the initial frustration for the first three days you do the same simple exercise over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, 10 hours a day for 3 days!!!

By the afternoon of day two I had had enough, I really had and was asking myself what I was doing there just focusing my attention on one tiny aspect of my breathing for such an inordinately long time.

Somehow I stayed, somehow I carried on doing as I was told “start again, do it again” and by the end of day three I was handsomely rewarded on two levels.

Firstly, my face became alive with sensations (both pleasant and painful) that I could interact with, I could move them around my face, turn them on and turn them off it was quite amazing.

Secondly, I was mentally aware that it actually needed 3 days of practice (and isolation) for my mind to narrow down its focus from external to internal and then laser focused down again to the level of the sensations on my face through my breath – Wow!  I could see that you just couldn’t get this from a book, you needed the sensory deprivation and strict discipline to make it happen.

From this point forward the meditation sessions took on a whole new perspective that had more meaning and I was eager to engage in each one. Goenka brings in another useful awareness at this point, that as the meditation sessions become more engaging and as you begin to experience some of the wonderful sensations “don’t crave them” because the body is always changing, it is never the same, therefore, sometimes the feelings will be good and sometimes you may not be able to get in the zone. If you are craving the sensations then you are missing the point, the goal is to be equanimous, if it happens that’s fine and if it doesn’t happen that’s fine too. Equanimous, equanimous, equanimous.

At the end of each meditation session Goenka does a little chanting (not sure what language he uses) initially I found this a little annoying, however as the days progressed I began to enjoy it and it rounded off each meditation session quite nicely. He cleverly begins to translate the chanting’s throughout the week in the video discourses so they end up having a lot of meaning and relevance to the work you are undertaking.

Getting better at meditation

By day 7 my meditation sessions had taken on a quite a different feeling, quite quickly I could get myself relaxed, my mind was almost silent and I would find myself able to concentrate on any part of my body and generate very pleasant sensations in that part. Occasionally I would find a part that either would have no sensations or would have excessive sensations; here are some of the initial ones I found:

 My left hand would throb and the muscles would stiffen and spasm almost painfully.

The bicep muscle in my right arm had no reaction.

There was a tight sensation across the bridge of my nose, as if, someone was pinching my nose and this tight sensation stretched across my face under my eyes.

I could not get any sensations in my stomach area.

When I focused on my chest I got a strange vibration/throbbing sensation (I can feel it now as I write it has a frequency of about 6 Hz) the only way I can explain it is like the throbbing sound (compressed airwaves) you get when you hear a helicopter above you, it feels like something is vibrating out from my chest – most weird.

As the video discourses continue Goenka introduces the notion of Sankara (I don’t know how to spell it) which, as I understood it, are sensations from the body (that you are not normally aware of) that, in fact, kick off your cravings and your aversions.

You think you are craving something (sex, food, new shoes, security etc.) or avoiding something (conflict, pain, loss, insecurity etc.) – Goenka says that the body fires off these Sankara’s (sensations) which are basically the ways of acting you have learned over the years – and you respond by craving or avoiding. Most people try to stop craving or stop avoiding at the activity level i.e. “I won’t have a drink tonight” – but he says, the real way to stop these cravings is to go down below the activity level to the body sensation level as these are what are driving the cravings.

This makes sense to me from my daily work as a therapist – people focus on their symptom as if it was the problem, for example; “I need to stop drinking” rather than “I need to address the reasons why I drink.”

Anyway, our old habits and responses are stored within our sensations under our conscious radar and can be lightly or deeply ingrained in our responses to life. So, Vipassana meditation is all about finding these Sankara’s (old emotional responses) and dissolving them at the sensation level, therefore stopping them before the activity level. Seems very logical to me.

So, as you meditate and find these areas on your body that are blank or overactive – these indicate the location of a Sankara and by just being with that pain/blankness (whilst being in an equanimous state of mind) they slowly vent and let go.

In my own experience focusing on these areas – indeed the pressure would slowly subside (or in the case of blank areas, feelings would appear after a minute or two of sitting with them in an equanimous state of mind.)

I found that these Sankara’s were multi-layered like the skin of an onion, so in one session I could dissolve the pain across the bridge of my nose, only for it to come back even more intensely in a subsequent meditation session, then I would once more dissolve it (hopefully at a deeper level.)

In my work with clients who have anxiety or OCD I have often witnessed this – as they recover, from time to time, the anxiety comes back for one or two days, then goes again, as if something has let go and vented from within them. I see this so often that I even warn my clients to expect it, so it is good to see something (Sankara) that explains this phenomenon.

So, for a few days I worked on finding these Sankara’s and letting them go, and whilst going through this process my body became more and more responsive (I guess due to the intense internal focus) and it felt like every atom in my body was gently vibrating, it felt really really good (try not to crave it John, be equanimous :-) ). Excluding my chest and stomach, I could get the rest of my body to gently vibrate and even send waves of these vibrations up and down my body, very relaxing, pleasurable and fascinating.

From time to time the areas in my hand, arm and nose would flare up and I would sit with them until they dissolved and I trusted that another layer of the Sankara onion skin had been peeled away.

Now that I am away from the retreat I am still meditating with the goal to release whatever is stopping me from being able to get this atomic vibration in my stomach and chest (what Sankara’s are still to be released?) It’s important though; that I do this patiently and with equanimity otherwise I am back to craving and avoiding!

In conclusion

I am very glad to have done this. Some of the people I met had been 2 or 3 or 10 times and I felt that many of the attendees were in a dark place, hence attending such a retreat “to find themselves or gain some knowledge that would free them from their angst” (only an assumption) I don’t know. I feel that because I am already in a good place and I have done so much personal growth work that it all made a lot of sense to me, I wasn’t looking for any miracle answers so I could pick up on the small nuances that when strung together make huge changes possible. One of the most profound things that Goenka said was “don’t take my word for it, go and experience it for yourself” wise words indeed, it’s no use reading the book unless you actually apply it to your life, try it out, see if it fits….

I learned a lot about my body and my mind was exceptionally quiet during the process and in the week since even though my business is very busy right now. I also had two 30 second experiences of absolute total quietness of my mind, all background noise faded away and there was just a magical stillness that I have never experienced before if that is just a glimpse of what is possible, that alone made it worthwhile.

I am already a pretty calm person and I feel that this work has allowed me to drop one (or two) more levels down, it was also good to be reminded (because my mind wanders) to stop looking externally for answers and to coach myself to be more fully with myself – and to be continuously equanimous – things change, things come and go, everything is impermanent, don’t cling, just be…..

The Vipassana meditation retreat was quite an experience :-)

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