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Vipassana meditation

Controling our minds through meditation…

I first heard about Vipassana meditation in 1996 while studying TCM. A fellow student had taken several of the 10 day sitting meditation courses and was telling us how  amazing his experiences were.

I remember thinking at the time, this would be really good for me and I should do it.  But I was also realistic and knew that I was not ready to sit for fourteen hours daily, as that is what Vipassana mediation consists of. Not only was I not ready physically, I was not ready mentally.

Over the years, more and more people told me how incredible and life changing their experience was and I really need to give it a try. I kept thinking, “yes, yes, I know it would probably be really good for me, but knowing myself, I am not yet ready to fully benefit from it. if I go now.”

Boy am I glad I listened to my inner wisdom on this one.

So, after nearly 15 years since first hearing about Vipassana meditation, I had that same little voice inside me say, “Ok Yvette, now is the time”. So, I booked my spot in New Zealand and figured by the time I got there I’d be primed and ready.  Well, as ready as one can be for something like this.

This is called a Vipassana meditation retreat.

First of all, calling this a retreat is misleading.

Throughout the day, a gong is rung to signify meditation times.

14 times. Yep. 14 hours of sitting on the floor meditating.

Trying to anyhow.

You take two breaths, and bam! Your mind is gone.

Somehow, with great difficulty you manage to reel it back in.

You take two more breaths and bam! Your mind is gone yet again!

Even further this time. In fact, it’s in another galaxy by now.

What do I mean by “your mind is gone?” Instead of focusing on your inner world, you start thinking, daydreaming, creating ‘to do’ lists, making up stuff, fantasizing etc.

Sheesh. This is going to be a looooonnnggg ten days.

You know, meditation is not new to me. My dad started having me practice when I was  little. He was of the metaphyisics/philosophy disposition, so, his little daughter got the many benefits of learning about such things at a young age.

This did NOT, however, come without consequences.

Here is just one of many such stories from my childhood:

So the idea was that as long as you meditated, practiced breathing techniques and such things, you would be able to accomplish pretty much anything. Yes, that included levitation, growing a new set of teeth, walking through walls or any number of seemingly amazing things that Indian fakirs and mystics the world over have been known to do.

Every day I meditated. In my own little kid version of it… which… to be honest, I don’t think I’ve progressed all that far from.  This went on for months.

I clearly (man, it’s like it was just yesterday) remember waking up one morning when I was about eight years old, sitting up in bed and thinking to myself; ‘I am ready’.

Just like that.

I had such faith.
I had no doubts.

Today was the day I was going to fly.

Yep… I was ready, I had meditated for what seemed like ages and felt I had turned some sort of significant corner in my practice. Spoken like a true eight year old hey?

So did I fly?
I most certainly did.

How… is another matter.

We lived in an apartment with a split level. The couch was on the top floor.  I pulled the couch to the edge of the stairs, stood on the top armrest and flung myself full force towards a patch of space above ground level. I held nothing back. I threw myself into the air with such abandon, with such might… I gave it my ALL….FULLY expecting to float midair in the area I had chosen prior to takeoff.  I even put my arms out in front of me ‘superman style’. I did not incorporate any safety precautions (such as cushions) of any kind as clearly, I was ready and could levitate.

Did it occur to me to practice a little mini session first just from a standing position? Heck no. That was for people of little faith.  Me, nah… I had (and still have at times) a shocking capacity to forgo all (seeming) logic and go for the goals I`ve set for myself.  Even gravity doesn’t stop me… it’s kind of crazy when I think of some of the things I’ve done.

And like I said… I certainly DID fly…. head first into the hard wooden floor, breaking my nose and spewing blood everywhere. And that was just the first of many future nose breaks. My poor parents.  Sigh.

So folks, let this be a lesson to you; even when you feel ready to fly, give it another few months. At least.

The sound of my ‘crash’ must have been loud and spectacular because my mom ran out of the kitchen and my dad from the bedroom. My mom took one look at me and then looked at my dad knowing that somehow, he was responsible for this behaviour.

Know what my dad said to me?

“My dear Yvette you simply did not meditate enough.
….Um…. excuse me? I simply did not meditate enough?!!!

… huh…?
… did I miss something here…?

My dad then continued with his ‘dad wisdom’ while picking me up off the floor and wiping up the blood.

“Keep practicing.  We will add more pushups to your routine to toughen you up a bit more.”

Without so much as a blink, blame, hesitation or doubt, I said, “ok.”

And so I did. Practice, that is.

I kept up with my meditation practice every single day foryears..

Fast forward 25 years. I now sit 14 hours a day in the middle of the woods trying to keep my mind intact.  Allow me to reiterate my ealier statement: this is going to be a looonnnggg ten days. Sigh.

Six weeks before the start of the course I strained my back and pinched a nerve in two separate spots. For those who know what that’s like… yeah… it’s not good.

Sitting for so long cross legged on the floor is tough on the back, made worse when your back is hurting before you even start the course.

The place where the course takes place is beautiful. It is cut out of a nice spot in the lush forests of the area.

Males and females are separated. We eat and stay in different areas. Only in the meditation hall do we actually share a space, but even there we are on opposite sides not looking at anything since our eyes are closed.

At night time you see the stars, they are bright and twinkling. Every morning and evening I would look up and gaze at the constellations, checking out the Southern Cross and all the others which are unique to the Southern Hemisphere.  I say  ‘in the morning’  because we get up at 4am so it’s still dark enough for the stars to be visible.

During the daytime the sun shone brilliantly, warming us physically while nourishing our bodies and minds, giving us energy and encouragement to keep going in our practice.

The breeze carried the fragrant sweetness of the pine, the flowers from the gardens and the damp lush scent of ‘forest’.  There was a little walking area for the females to use during their downtimes and another for the males but on the opposite side of the grounds.

The food is absolutely delicious. Nourishing and very well combined. In a way you are living in a bubble for those ten days. No reading, no writing, no electronics, no exercise, no yoga, no breathing techniques, no mantras, no singing, no humming, no whistling, no nothing. You aren’t even supposed to be thinking. You can’t look at anyone, there is no eye contact or smiling or communicating of any sort. You are supposed to be focusing, keeping your mind from wandering as much as possible and allowing for change to occur through introspection, by seeing things as they are etc.  So for those who think they will get a lot sorted out in their heads they are mistaken. Although you DO get a lot of things sorted out it doesn’t happen in the way you might imagine.

Days one to three:

I notice on the first day that my room has wasps. I encourage them to leave through the open door. No luck. I use a pillow and other items to gently move them towards the door. No luck. Finally, I sigh, thinking that I gave them a chance, now I must swat them as I don’t relish the thought of sleeping in a room with wasps around me.

I pick up the duster and in mid swat two things happen;

  1.   I have an image of my friend Shireen’s jain heart giving me the stink eye.

2.  I recall that just that morning; I had vowed not to kill anything.

My arm froze in mid air, the killing instrument still aimed at the wasps.

I’m going to have to share this room with you guys, aren’t I?

I reluctantly drop my arm and consider leaving the door open while I have a shower, but then more may come in. Then again, they came in through the tear in the window screen.  Hmmmm….. what to do, what to do…? It’s not like you can tell anyone or write a note… you can’t communicate with other people. We must solve our own dilemnas. So then, what do I do?

Simple. Make peace with the situation.

“Wasps, hear me now. I have decided we may share the room, as long as you don’t sting me.”

And deeper down inside there is yet another voice in my head saying… and so help me if you do! Jain heart or no, you’re going down! And let me forewarn you… I have good aim.

Already I am prepared to break one of the five vows we had agreed to observe that very morning.

Hmmm. This is not good.

I must work on increasing my tolerance and patience, and seek alternate, loving solutions.

Ok, so what is going on inside my head?

The main things coming up surround basic and instinctual needs such as hunger, pain and pleasure. No surprise there. Most obvious and superficial levels are accessed by the mind first. It is like peeling away the skin of an onion. I have no idea what will happen for me during these ten days, I decide not to hope or try for anything, but rather, to simply allow and watch.

I do, however, have the thought that I think one such course will do me for this lifetime. Yeah, one is good. Once I’m done the ten days it’s crossed off my bucket list.

Days four to seven:

Grievances begin to show up in my consciousness. As I sit and meditate, memories of all the things that bothered me begin to surface. Not petty grievances, but things that really hurt my feelings, things that even I did not admit to myself at the time. It begins with the most recent ones and slowly work its’ way backwards in time… all the way to my first few years on this planet.  I start remember things I had long since forgotten or thought I had dealt with. Yeah. So apparently that was not the case because it just pissed me off to think of it again.

Expression versus suppression:

How to not get swept up by grievances that come up but at the same time not suppress them? This is the question. Go back to the breath, go back to the meditation technique.

Hmmm… seriously, I have my doubts as to how effective this is. I can calm myself down easily enough, but if the same situation comes up again later will it not still be there… loaded with all the same frustrations I felt previously? I don’t understand. How does this work exactly?

And there I am thinking too much again.

My brain is beginning to hurt.

Another sigh.

For those mercurial types who are very intellectual in nature, this course is truly a test in mental restraint.

Day eight:

This is the first time I think that maybe I am going to need more than ten days. I realize that my stubbornness and embarrassment over personal emotions may be infringing on my ability to progress.

Am I insane?

I mean, really… who in their right minds would put themselves through this? Again? Or for longer?

Seriously, my back is killing me. I can no longer sit to eat during mealtimes because I have to ‘save my back’ for the sitting meditation, so I stand motionless in the middle of the room while I slowly eat my delicious food, only my arm and mouth moving as I try to relax the rest of my muscles. I close my eyes and fully enjoy the supreme luxury of blocking out the world  while I focus on the texture, scent and taste of my meal…. possibly….ok… who are we kidding… deliberately… in an attempt to lengthen the perception of time in this moment.  Every now and then I allow myself the sobering action of opening my eyes slightly to look at the clock on the wall. Each time the small and large hands getting closer to the next appointed meditation sit.

Sigh…

Tell me again… whose bright idea was this?

Though there is no yoga or exercise allowed I have taken to secretly doing stretches whenever possible to ease the tension in my body.

And yet, I catch myself wondering where that fine line is… how much my body can take vs. how long it will take to clear enough junk out of my mind to feel lighter. I hear there are 20, 30 and 40 day sits.

Really? Where? When can I sign up?

Whoa!

What just happened there?
Am I actually thinking of doing this again… and for even longer?

When did that happen? I don’t recal okaying this change of heart. In fact, I am actually finding myself starting to look forward to the ‘sits’. Seriously, when did this change occur? It must have taken place at some point during the four hours that I slept last night, because I sure as hell don’t consider myself a masochist so it couldn’t have been a conscious thing.

Tiny inner voice quietly says “yes… you need to get through some more stuff… either this or you find some other way… but you have more to sort through if you want to progress.”

Crap. 

“Crap” because I know it’s true… though I’d like to think I’ve worked through most of my issues…  secretly I know that’s not quite true.. 

Another sigh…

Ok… putting that away for future processing.

You get two meals a day. One at 6:30am after your shortest sit (only two hours) and then again at 11:30am. You really look forward to the breakfast because your last meal was 17 hours ago… so there is a long break between meals.  And yet, you don’t really get hungry. Except when you see what is being served. I had to remind myself to not take very much because my eyes were bigger than my stomach and I would have gotten indigestion if I wasn’t careful and moderate.

Days nine and ten:
People are getting antsy. You can see it, you can feel it… the end is near… they can practically smell it.

I’ve seen a lot of crying, a lot of breaking down, a lot of emotions getting played out. I wonder if that will happen to me some day. It still hasn’t hit me, that life changing moment that people used to tell me about when they did this course. I have managed to get through the entire course without really feeling anything. Not because I was aiming for that, but because that is what my experience thus far had been.

Except frustration at all the perceived grievances of my past. Now there’s a feeling that has popped up quite a lot. Frustration and impatience and then more frustration.

There has also been a  ot of clarity, however. That’s good. Different insights came to me about my life which was helpful. Though it did frustrate me that so much of my time was spent going through past stuff, some of which came up over and over again. I mean really, am I not over that one yet? (As with one particularly emotionally loaded relationship that ended eons ago!) Or “wow, I can’t believe that is still in there… where did that come from?!” At times I even found myself indulging in little mental fantasies until I caught myself and brought my mind back to the Vipassana.  It felt like I had wasted a lot of time on stuff that was not necessary or just didn’t serve me. And yet, if it kept coming up, then I suppose it needed ‘sorting out’. I have to say I am rather amazed at some of the memories that resurfaced. Even remembering certain people’s names and a myriad other details I don’t think I could have recalled if you had asked me before the course.  It’s an interesting experience.

So would I recommend this? Yes.

Is it for everyone? NO.

You really have to want to do it. It’s hard work and if you just sit there and let your mind wander off you lose this amazing opportunity to clear some stuff out and gain greater control over emotions and mental states. Prepare yourself for physcial discomfort and back tension. Whether you work or not you will be hurting a little. Just get over it and do your work to the best of your ability if you are going to do this program.

I met a man on my travels who used to work in northern Canada with subzero temperatures yearound. It’s the northernmost station in the world. Fairly harsh weather conditions. He told me that this course was warrior training. I can see why he thought that. He said he definitely would NOT recommend this for anyone new to meditation… or sitting cross legged.  Again, I can see why.

The final night on the tenth day there is a little celebratory dinner.

Noble silence had been broken by noble chatter.

People are sharing and talking about what their experience of the previous ten days was like. You hear about who had packed their bags and tried to leave on days two, or five or six, and how some decided to `do their washing` and just wrung the hell out of their clothes to help them deal with the emotional upheavals in their minds. You hear about who started cleaning their rooms with religious fervour to keep from running away in the middle of the night. You hear about who went and took a long hot shower at 2am so no one would be disturbed by the sounds of their weeping. You hear about who was biting their arms to keep their composure. Many men seem to use this as a means to keep from crying… until they finally just accept it and start weeping.

You hear about who had done this before and how their previous experience compared to this one.  They are all tough. It never gets easier apparently. But it is different each time. You hear from many people how this has been absolutely life changing for them. You hear how excited and happy people are to get out there and tell all the people in their lives how much they love them and how much they value and appreciate all they have done for them.

I listen to all their stories with a kind of childlike awe and secretly wonder why I had been bypassed by these experiences? Why had I missed out? I didn’t feel those things, and the times that I had it was so minimal, so slight it was just a passing, fleeting thing barely visible on the radar for me. Yet here was everyone (it seemed) going on and on about how great they felt. Their joy and exuberance is what I had experienced (or very similar) at the end of my yoga teacher’s training course at the Sivananda ashram.  So I could relate to the experience they were now having, but only from a removed place.

Still, I felt a bit like some greater experience had eluded me here. Did I not try hard enough? Did I waste too much time ‘thinking’ when I should have been meditating? Did I do something not quite right? What did I miss?  I think I really DID need another 5 days or so. Others worked past their grievances and got to the point of lightness, clarity, happiness and joy. I think I am still working out the grievances and have not had enough time to get beyond that.  I don’t think it’s because I have more grievances than anyone else, I think it’s because I can be too stubborn for my own good sometimes and ‘letting go’ is at times truly difficult for me.

I think some people felt like they were just dying to talk all week. It was as if the cork had been removed suddenly after ten days of total silence. Suddenly, there was a cacophany of noise. Yep… noble silence has been shattered by… verbal diarrhea.

It was wonderful to see folks so happy and cheerful and feeling connected and open and sharing. The men were now allowed to mingle with the ladies so we ate together for the first time.  Husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends who had both done the course were now able to eat and talk with each other. One of the ladies found out she was pregnant on the sixth day of the course and this was the first time she was able to talk to her husband and tell him. He was thrilled!  Turns out he had noticed she was out of sorts the whole time and was really worried about her. Ahh….Vipassana baby.

It was really good to hear from the men. You could hear them crying sometimes too. The last day there were a few who really broke down. In sympathy, many of the women got teary eyed too.  It’s not often one hears a grown man cry. In this society there are not many ‘safe’ places for them to work through emotions in a supported and loving environment. This is very sad, actually. That by itself, makes the Vipassana course invaluable I think. I really feel for men in this regard. They are not given enough credit for many, many things. They are often working stuff out in the background, in private and do not have access to as many support networks as women. If we need to let loose it is perfectly acceptable with many options, but for men, it is much more difficult.  I wish they had more support… though it seems as time goes on this is starting to happen so that’s positive.

It’s weird how the most inane, mundane and seemingly trivial items come to mind at times of great inner stillness…. feeling removed from all things around you and not pulled by `distractions.` The most absurd observations come to mind. At least to mine they did.

The last morning:

After our final morning meditation and breakfast, I head to the bathroom one last time before going back to Auckland.

I’m zipping up my pants and the strangest sensation passes through me.  Out of my mouth erupts this halting laughter. I swallow it and kind of shake my head wondering what that was about. Then bam! I totally unravel and crack up. I mean, seriously, seriously crack up.

I’m a bit… manic… moments of being totally depressed out of my mind thinking there is no point to anything, then laughing insanely at nothing like a crazy person, then almost bawling, then feeling like I’m in a dream state and just observing this reality yet feeling nothing.

I was TOTALLY calm and fine and all “shanti shanti” during the entire ten days. And then the morning we are all set to head back to the city and I am hit with this… this… wave of… something… I don’t even know what.

I feel like I am at this possibly good place where I can clear a lot of stuff and move forward with greater clarity and contentment… but unfortunately it is also the same place where it can go either way and fall into a very dark place too. I will probably come out of it soon but I don’t want to press it down and suppress it. I feel precarious right now. Not terrible but definitely not good either.

You know, I realize that I am not so much an emotional ‘weeper’ as an emotional ‘laugher’. I laugh to break tension. I don’t think I really understand the concept of crying. But laughter seems to bypass all my walls and restraints, all the embarrassment I feel towards allowing myself to get emotional… laughing seems to be more ok (and socially acceptable) for me as a tool for breaking down tension. Maybe as I feel less embarrassed about human emotions this will change… I usually have to be pretty shocked to get  my eyes to water. Thank goodness I can laugh. Life would be pretty grim otherwise.

The last morning they showed a movie from Karuna Films about the effect of Vipassana meditation on prisons when introduced to both inmates and workers. Tihar prison in India was the first in the world to successfully attempt this. Now prisons around the world are introducing Vipassana into their systems. It’s an incredible documentary and I highly recommend you see it. Even if you don’t care for meditation, as a truly moving and inspiring film, this should be on your list. Go and see it today! http://www.dhamma.org/en/av/dtdv.shtml

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