Arriving into Kathmandu late at night made searching for the guesthouse I had booked that bit more difficult. Thamel, the area where it was located, was a hive of activity during the day I was to learn, but pretty dark and eerie later in the evening. Hotels and guesthouses were abundant and the temptation to settle in ‘a’ another represented itself in each passing doorway.
Stubbornly resisting to the end, residing myself to continue until it appeared, it eventually did. Home for three nights, the days spent unwinding, reading, eating, drinking and watching the world cup were indulgent – the last foray before entering ten days of silent meditation.
On reflection, after such a long period of toxic purity enhanced with morning Yoga averaging five days a week, and long days in the saddle, probably wasn’t the best preparation to quieten the mind. Still, it was a mini celebration for making it thus far but although it seemed like the right thing to do at the time, it didn’t actually make me feel that great! More poisoned than great.
The prospect of spending ten days in silence to practice Vipassana meditation was something I had been very excited about since booking my place in the middle of May. I have meditated for an hour every day for the last three years using Holosync audio Cd’s (transferred to MP3) from Centerpointe, with great effect. I also thoroughly enjoyed learning how to meditate without audio tracks during Yoga Teacher Training.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is an incredibly simple process available to anyone, anywhere, at any time by paying attention to one’s breath. To make it easier though, I recommended you find a quiet space away from distractions where you will not be disturbed – and turn your phone off! Find a comfortable sitting position, close your eyes, and then just become aware of your breath; the rise and fall of your chest, notice if it is deep or shallow. Let all other thoughts disappear from your mind and place all of your awareness on your breath. There is no need to alter your breath consciously, just mentally watch it as it happens all by itself. Relax….
The next thing that will inevitably happen is that your mind will start thinking about what you need to do when you finish meditating; what’s for lunch, dinner, what you need to buy when you go shopping, what’s on the telly tonight, etc… Or you will start thinking about what you did earlier, yesterday, last week, etc.. Our minds keep our attention on what happened in the past or what might happen in the future. Whenever you notice your mind has wandered just become aware, and return your attention to your breath.
When your attention is on your breath your full attention and awareness is routed in the present moment, the now. The only moment that actually exists and the only moment that actually matters. The purpose of watching your breath is to bring your attention out of the stream of past and future thoughts running through your mind, and into the present moment. Meditating is the process of being aware of the present moment, which typically involves noticing when your mind wanders and bringing your attention back to the now.
What is Vipassana Meditation?
Vipassana means to see things as they are. It is a method of meditation taught exclusively in ten-day courses throughout the world at meditation centres run entirely by volunteers. After completing a ten-day course, there are longer courses up to forty-five days in length available to old students. The Buddha rediscovered Vipassana 2500 years ago, and it has been diligently passed on from teacher to student in its original form ever since. There is an unbroken chain of teachers spanning all twenty-five centuries right back to Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha (Buddha means enlightened one). The courses are conducted in silence, food and shelter are provided, and they are free to attend. Courses are funded entirely by the donations of previous students who wish to pass on the opportunity to learn Vipassana Meditation to others.
Vipassana was also introduced into Indian prisons in the 1990’s to great effect, and has subsequently been introduced into prisons in Thailand and the United States. The transformations experienced by many inmates have been remarkable. Today, there are also ten-day courses with additional discourses for helping business executives bring the benefits of Vipassana meditation into the boardroom.
The purpose of Vipassana Meditation is to purify the mind, become liberated from all suffering and experience true peace, happiness and harmony in life. Ultimately, it is a method by which anyone willing to diligently apply themselves to the practice, and follow the moral code, can reach nirvana; the unconditioned, the ultimate reality beyond mind and matter – full enlightenment.
The Route Of All Suffering
We all experience suffering from the moment of birth, birth itself being a traumatic experience of suffering. As we go through life we experience suffering when we do not get what we want. And when we do get what we want we then crave more of it, and like a drug addict, gradually, greater and greater doses are required to satisfy the craving. We become addicted to the craving itself and as a result we suffer. This is evident in our cultural tendencies to accumulate more and more stuff, stuff we typically don’t need. Once we buy something new we crave something else, ever embroiled in our addiction to craving.
‘At a very deep level, suffering is the inordinate attachment that each one of us has developed toward this body and toward this mind, with its cognition’s, perceptions, sensations and reactions. People cling strongly to their identity – their mental and physical being – when actually there are only evolving processes. This clinging to and unreal idea of oneself, to something that in fact is constantly changing, is suffering.’ – The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S. N. Goenka by William Hart
The Buddha discovered through deep inner investigation that as we process stimulus from the environment through our five senses and mind, we experience sensations, which create automatic conditioned responses of either craving or aversion. We naturally crave pleasant stimulus and avert unpleasant stimulus, and these automatic reactions are the cause of all suffering. By conditioning our minds to become aware of these reactions, and to treat all stimulus equanimously and without attachment, we purify the mind.
Through Vipassana Meditation it is possible to increase awareness of the subtle sensations running throughout the body, notice the automatic reactions of craving and aversion as they happen, and decide consciously to remain equanimous to them instead; to be neutral, without reaction. Because there are only evolving processes, pleasant and unpleasant sensations will rise and pass away on their own. When viewed with awareness and equanimity we avoid craving and aversion, and in doing so, become liberated from all suffering. By working on the most subtle sensations on the surface of the body, the mind becomes razor-sharp and the increase in awareness filters out into all aspects of daily life. The normal ups and downs of life can be viewed with awareness as they are, without reaction or attachment, in the knowledge that whether pleasant or unpleasant they will rise and pass away. From that perspective everyday problems can be faced with a balanced mind, leading to better decisions and actions.
A Ten Day Vipassana Meditation Experience
On reaching the Nepal Vipassana Centre; Dharmashring (meaning summit of Dharma; the law of nature; the teaching of an enlightened person: the way to liberation), and allowing my lungs to recede back into my chest after the long, steep ascent, I was blown away by the location, facilities and organisation. There were at least 30 – 40 volunteers all working in harmony amidst well pruned gardens interwoven between intricately layered walk-ways that cascaded the hillside leading to numerous buildings of varying size and purpose. All electronic equipment, valuables, books, pens, paper, passport and money were deposited before entering. Once the course began no-one was allowed to leave.
The accommodation was a mixture of basic dorms with a shared block of showers and toilets, and smaller rooms with two single beds complete with shower and toilet inclusive. I shared a room with a Russian chap, however, he left on the second morning – I don’t think it was anything to do with me!!! Although it was made clear on many occasions that once the course began no one was allowed to leave, it was not possible for the organisers to hold people against their will. It was a deterrent against people joining the course half-hearted, and against people giving up too easily when the going got tough.
The daily schedule was physically and mentally tiring; at one or more times during the ten days most of the students I spoke to afterwards had become overwhelmed, and wondered what on earth they had gotten themselves into.
Each day commenced with a gong at 4:00am, the first meditation took place in the main meditation hall between 4:30am and 6:30am. A basic breakfast of various flavoured grains, Dal, and tea was then served. There were three hour-long group meditations each day which everyone attended in the main hall to practice, although I was only once instructed to meditate in the residential quarters. The significance of these hour-long meditations did not become clear until the practice of ‘strong determination’ was introduced on day five. The first of these hour-long meditations was between 8:00am and 9:00am – then a short five-minute break followed by two hours of meditation. A lunch of chapati, rice and an assortment of curries with Dal and tea was served at just after 11:00am. Between 12:00pm and 1:00pm there was an opportunity to discuss any questions you had with the teachers, or rest in your room. Meditation began again at 1:00pm till 2:30pm, with a five-minute break before the second one hour group meditation between 2:30pm and 3:30pm. Five minutes break then back in for another hour and a half of meditation up until 5:00pm. A light snack of puffed rice, a couple of pieces of fruit and tea was served as the evening meal for new students, old student were only allowed lemon or ginger tea. The last one hour group meditation was between 6:00pm and 7:00pm, which was followed by just over an hour of discourse. The evening discourses involved watching a video of S N Goenka talk about the philosophy of Vipassana and the art of living. The videos were recorded during a ten-day retreat and each day covered a specific topic from the three main trainings; Sila – morality, Samadhi – concentration, mastery of the mind, and Panna – wisdom, insight that purifies the mind. Following the discourse we returned for another shorter meditation up until 9:00pm before retiring to the residential quarters for lights out at 9:30pm.
There was a strict code of discipline which must be adhered to at all times, you can read more about it here.
After spending the first three days in silence, eating a simple vegetarian diet, adjusting to the daily schedule of watching the breath (Anapana) for ten and a half hours each day, the mind became quieter, more alert and aware. Each day progressively narrowed the point of focus from the flow of breath in and out of the nostrils, to the sensations on the surface of the nose, and finally to the small area below the nostrils above the upper lip. As the point of focus narrowed, greater levels of concentration, awareness and alertness naturally began to develop.
Only then was the mind sharp enough to sense the most subtle of sensations all over the body during Vipassana meditation. Vipassana is the process of feeling the sensations on the surface of the body. Starting from the top of the head systematically working down through the head, neck, arms, hands, chest, back, lower regions, upper legs, lower legs and feet, then back up again in reverse order. The idea was to simply move your attention to each part of the body and become aware of whatever sensation you felt; itching, tingling, aching, pulsing, hurting, numbing, vibrating, sweating, hot, cold, gross or subtle, whatever it was just become aware of it then move on. All sensations were to be observed with awareness and equanimity regardless of whether they were pleasant or unpleasant.
Sitting on a square cushion a couple of feet in length, with three smaller rectangular cushions measuring one foot by half a foot stacked on top of each other, I assumed the butterfly pose; soles of feet touching each other in front of me, knees apart – gravity pulling them towards the ground. I held the bottom of my shins to help support my legs and straighten my back.
Within ten minutes my legs began to shake, perspiration beading from every pore under the strain of holding the posture, which I had freely selected to maintain for an hour without moving. I scanned my body from head to feet and back again, trying to notice the subtle sensations beneath the overwhelming pulses of intense pain searing through the tendons in my groin.
Taking deep deliberate breaths in and out through my nose, thoughts of the many physical struggles experienced over the last eleven months surfaced and fell away in sympathy, and in support of, my commitment to demonstrate ‘strong determination.’
Trying to resist the natural response of reacting to the pain with aversion was like passing the pain through a magnifying glass. The pain and the urge to move intensified until they reached an unbearable level where the mental conditioning responsible for processing the discomfort simply had to yield or restructure. That happened in the form of a surge of acceptance, resistance was replaced with surrender, and the pain began to subside. Pain works on two levels; the physical and the mental, the mind magnifies the physical pain when it reacts with aversion. By remaining mentally neutral to the pain only the physical pain remained, which was much more manageable.
That harrowing experience took place on the fifth day when the practice of ‘strong determination’ was introduced, meaning the sitting posture had to be maintained without movement for the full hour. On reflection, my choice of positions could not have been any more difficult to up hold, although sitting in any position on the floor for an hour with only the support of a few cushions proved to be very uncomfortable regardless of the chosen posture.
Experiencing Pure Consciousness, Pure Bliss
On a couple of occasions the systematic movement of attention between body parts disappeared into waves of liquid impulses flowing throughout my entire body. All previously gross sensations of pain melted into subtle, powerful waves of vibration, which appeared to breach the boundaries of mind and body leaving only a state of pure consciousness, pure bliss. Those rare occasions were undeniable indications of the heights of consciousness to which the practice of Vipassana Meditation could ascend. The natural reaction was to seek repeat occurrences during each future meditation. Sadly, however, that craving to experience bliss was precisely what Vipassana was designed to stop. Everything is impermanent, and becoming attached to pleasant sensations eventually leads to suffering because, ultimately, they too will pass away.
By the morning of day seven I was feeling pleased with my progress, focused and determined to deepen my practice through the remaining three days, when the wheels fell off. For reasons unknown, just after starting the 1pm meditation, myself and around ten others were asked to go for ‘cell’ meditation, which, as the name suggests, means sitting on your own in an individual cell of eight feet by three feet in total darkness. Perhaps it was because I had become attached to the daily routine, or perhaps it was because the depths to which the previous six days had penetrated my mind had left me over sensitive, but this simple unexplained change in circumstances totally shook me off-balance. I couldn’t concentrate, and felt annoyed and frustrated that my practice had been so abruptly and frivolously compromised. Why had they done that?
For the rest of the day I struggled to meditate properly. My mind wandered beyond my will to bring it back, into thoughts of what lay beyond the gates of Dharmashing. I started to doubt the process, the centre, the teachers, myself. I started to doubt if I could make it to the end. I reasoned that I had learned the process and understood how it worked, and that enough was enough. I never actually considered leaving with any conviction, but I had reached the point of overwhelm. Every slight inconvenience was multiplied through the murk of self-doubt and pity. The evening discourses had even warned that those feelings would arise as the mind clung on to identity and ego. Acting with aversion simply added to the stock pile of old mental conditioning that, through the process of Vipassana – insight and non reaction, was slowly being undone. At the time, of course, that knowledge simply made the quagmire of angst even deeper and stickier. I knew my actions were ultimately making matters worse yet couldn’t seem to shake myself out of it.
The mental torment manifested itself physically the next day, as it often does, this time in the form of a cold. Struggling to get my head back in the right place was exasperated further by the continuous flow of snot oozing from my nose. So close to the end; there was nothing else to do but dig in and continue working diligently hour after hour. It was tough, and at times pretty miserable. I became acutely aware, almost to the minute, of how long was left until the end, and what percentage of the course was complete. The most difficult time of the day was the four-hour stretch of meditation between 1pm and 5pm, with an hour of ‘strong determination’ thrown in between 2:30pm and 3:30pm for good measure.
During the evening discourses S N Goenka described the ten days as a deep surgical operation into the mind, which was the main reason students were told they couldn’t leave after the course had begun – one wouldn’t walk out of the operating theatre after the surgeon had made the first incision. After such a deep surgical procedure the mind required a soothing balm to help it heal before being exposed to the relative chaos of normal life. So day nine was the last full day of silent meditation, and after the morning meditation and breakfast on day ten, the silence was finally broken. We were also taught a final meditation called metta bhavana, to be used at the end of each future meditation, where you flood the mind with thoughts and feelings of good will for all beings.
It was a very weird feeling starting to talk again for the first time. There was an overwhelming sensation of joy and happiness, symbolic perhaps of the mental release from ten days of strict discipline. The satisfaction of getting to the end was beaming from the faces of every other student, and learning of the shared common difficulties provided a retrospective group hug for each of us.
Nothing that is worth doing is ever easy, and on leaving the centre and returning to Kathmandu I found myself feeling somewhat lost, really rather distant from everything that had seemed important to me before entering. For the couple of weeks that followed I struggled to concentrate, meditate and write, instead spending a lot time reflecting on what I was doing and why. I looked for easy escapes through reading, going out for long lunches and dinners, and drinking on occasions. Gradually, through a return to daily yoga and meditation, the mental fog cleared to make way for a renewed focus and vigour for the original mission of cycling round the world. Which is a good job really for there is an awfully long way still to go.
Vipassana Meditation was a painful, blissful, revealing, fascinating, challenging, enlightening journey through the depths of the body, mind and consciousness. If only one word could be used to sum it up it would be ‘powerful’. Now, three weeks on, I am experiencing greater levels of concentration than ever before and my meditations have been deeper, easier to initiate and complete. I feel more relaxed and centred, and making the right choices is easier and brings greater fulfilment. I haven’t been practicing Vipassana for the full three weeks, I have meditated most days using either Vipassana, Holosync, Yogic meditation or a combination of all three (at different times). It is my intention to return to practising Vipassana each day – the morning routine just keeps getting longer!!!
I would recommend anyone undecided about Vipassana to go and experience it for themselves. It is a powerful process which is life transforming for many who attend. If this has sparked your interest you can find out more about it, and where your nearest centre is by clicking this link; Vipassana Meditation.
It’s been just over a year since leaving Leicester on August 3rd 2013. The next post will be about the journey so far, my first ever pod-cast interview, and some adventures from Kathmandu.