Thailand’s children are currently celebrating their October break, and while most of my friends and fellow teachers have taken the chance for some city sightseeing or to collapse in a deckchair on some golden sands for a couple of weeks, I, for some reason, was hellbent on doing a 10-day meditation course. Particular provinces are renowned for having countless amounts of meditation centres, which are mostly for Thais. After a lot of searching with a Thai local (who I think was more keen for me to do the course than I was) we found a small centre in the middle of the rice fields of Nakhon Pathom that could cater for a farang. I was keen, but as it came closer to the day I would head for the fields, a growing amount of people seemed to share concern, with subtle stressing such as “you know, if you find it too difficult, it’s okay to leave early” or just more point-blankedly, “I’d crack up, if I were you.” These words of encouragement (!) didn’t phase me too much, but I might have packed a bikini and sun lotion just in case I did decide to escape and migrate to Koh Chang instead…
Fortunately enough, it didn’t come to that. Upon arrival I was given a guide to a successful retreat and a list of ‘house rules.’ No talking. No looking at people. No reading. No writing. No mobile phones. No music. No dancing. No singing. No food between noon and dawn. No exercise. No sleeping outside of the timetable. And just in case you were thinking of changing your mind about this whole thing – No leaving the property. These were headed by a bold text saying “THINKING IS USELESS IN VIPASSANA.” Sorry, vipawhat?
Vipassana meditation, or mindfulness meditation, has one key principle: to observe any mental or physical objects that are predominant in the mind at the present moment. The aim is to acknowledge the strongest ‘object’ that naturally arises by noting it without an analysis. The mind naturally flits from sense to sense, or into a string of thoughts we might find ourselves dwelling on; by mentally labelling these phenomena, we can direct the mind to the object and confirm what the object is, without opinion or a judgement. We can then change the labelling when the object disappears from the mind, or becomes dull. Par exemple, if you’re practising mindfulness of sitting, the primary object we’re taught to observe is the rising and falling of the abdomen, as it’s the most noticeable action of the body caused by what we naturally do – breathing. The breath is always there, and so is the rising and falling. We simply note these objects, or physical phenomena, as rising and falling. Naturally, thoughts can wander, we become itchy, numb, or in pain. When this happens, we begin to train the mind to label the object as soon as we notice it to arise. If you start thinking, you simply note, thinking, thinking, thinking… until the thought disappears – which, once it’s made a habit of, is surprisingly quickly.
The course stemmed into Vipassana meditation and Metta Bhavana – the Pali name of loving kindness. Metta is, essentially, the practice towards unconditional benevolence to every living being. It is a manner of wishing others well, but it starts with yourself. Practised with Vipassana, it teaches that suffering exists. It teaches that suffering does cease. It teaches that our perception of impermanence creates our suffering. We look at a picture, and perhaps we think, I was so happy then, and now, I’m not. Why do things have to change? Maybe we think back to something someone did to us, and we feel angry. Why do we carry this feeling of anger with a memory? The memory is just that – a memory. It isn’t permanent. So, why is the anger? Metta intends to remove mental and physical suffering from your own and other people’s lives. It displaces dark with light.
The day starts at 4am with a soothing melody over the grounds (and the sounds of the constant verbal sparring from the resident roosters). At 4.30 we meet in a very white, fluorescently lit room for a Metta-chanting session. The pali chant translates to:
“May I be free from enmity. May I be free from mental suffering. May I be free from physical suffering. May I take care of myself happily.
“May all living beings be free from enmity. May all living beings be free from mental suffering. May all living beings be free from physical suffering. May all living beings take care of themselves happily.”
The daily schedule allows 12 hours of meditation each day. This is shared into hour slots, changing between sessions of sitting and sessions of walking. Before the retreat, the longest I could sit for before feeling restless was 20 minutes; to go from this to entire afternoons of meditating in solitude was for the first couple of days, almost unbearable.
More and more, we feel a need to almost burn ourselves out by managing five things at a time and keeping ourselves plugged into social medias. This creates a hindrance of restlessness, something I’m guilty of falling victim to. I hate being stuck in one place at one time. Often, I feel like the moments I’m not spending moving is time I am wasting. In ten days, I learnt to slow right down. This is key to truly being mindful of what is happening at the present moment. It highlights how really, the mind is only capable of doing one thing properly at one time, and the days we spend juggling a handful of errands might hinder the quality with which we do them.
Equally, the time we find ourselves with nothing to physically do might lead to boredom. We crave distraction. We crave feeling useful. 10 days of sitting and walking in the same room does give rise to boredom, but in boredom, we can find mindfulness too. We become mindful of every movement the body makes, every process – not least, the physical process that lies in our stomach when we breathe. When we become mindful, boredom dissolves.
Breakfast was laid out at 6.30 every morning, lunch at 11 (and an evening juice at 5pm), and I welcomed the opportunity to (slowly and mindfully) get up with numb legs and have something to do. Numbness is a common phenomenon when sitting, and our instant reaction is to move. As is the same with itchiness and pain. We want to move away as soon as we can from these unpleasant experiences. With each day, we learn to be mindful of the unpleasant phenomena, noting pain, itchiness, numbness… until, these things that sometimes feel physically crippling they are so strong, they also dissolve.
As a huge food lover, I was at first excited by the totally vegan buffet spread that was made for meals, and, convinced I’d need the extra energy to make it through the food-free afternoons and to sleep without hunger pains, I made mini mountains of food on my tray. All I needed was the flag to stick at the top. In the first couple of days, I was baffled by the women around me who didn’t seem to share my thinking. I knew looking at others wasn’t allowed, but I found it very difficult to mind my own business in such a controlled environment.
As the days rolled on, I began to really understand what it means to be mindful of every moment, rather than accepting this as just words. Even the very basics of eating are mindful, steps we no longer consider after learning to eat without the help of our guardians. Mindful of wanting food, of lifting your arm, stretching it, grabbing your spoon, lifting it, scooping food… and this is before the food is even in your mouth. I found as the time went by, I became disenchanted with food. I realised how little was necessary to fuel the mind and body and how much we eat out of habit, boredom, or desire to taste something. My portions got smaller throughout the retreat and my mind stopped calculating the time until I could next eat again. This is, in fact, part of my experience I still feel strong about in my everyday life. I am still mindful when eating, noting the predominant taste and processes as I do so. I feel the craving of snacking dwindle and find myself appreciating every spoonful.
Lunchtime was followed by an hour where meditators could rest. I wouldn’t have thought the time would be necessary, but the retreat is an entire mental exercise and I found myself drained. I have a gift of being able to sleep anywhere. It’s my party trick. However, throughout the time I spent at the retreat, although I found myself getting more and more exhausted, I became more alert, and found the urge to sleep fade little by little everyday.
On the third day, I was due to have an interview with the venerable monk who guided the retreat and its teachings. He asked me how I was. I cried, and I couldn’t stop myself. I had felt darkness and the slightly sinister side of my mind rear its ugly head as I tried to practise. Thoughts and memories I had repressed crept their way into view, and I was nowhere near skilled enough to realise what was going on and catch and note the thought at the time it was budding. As I progressed with mentally labelling objects as they arose, my dreams became stranger and stranger, feeling so realistic that when the music chimed in at 4am to wake up the yogis, I felt like I hadn’t slept at all. It was a difficult realisation to make how little control we have over our “own” minds.
Perseverance, patience in the practice and the subtle guidance from the monk made me feel things come out to the other side for me. On the fifth or sixth day, progress is made. The atmosphere changes in the room. Things become concentrated. I realise from my talks with the monk throughout the course that I am gradually adjusting the amount of effort I put into the practice – too little makes the meditator lazy and lack progress; too much makes the meditator tired and weak. After some sessions, I feel moments of complete clarity, and sometimes, find my own personal revelations.
I wouldn’t consider myself a follower of any religion, but I am able to have faith in things. This is all Vipassana requires. Buddhism is not about worship to a higher being. It is a lifestyle. Vipassana meditation is, simply, seeing things as they really are.
Everybody is going through their own struggles, and this can make the idea of being silent with only ourselves for 10 days a daunting one. It was in many ways, one of the most challenging thing I’ve done, and I left feeling tired and pushed, but strong and brand new. With perseverance, practice, and patience in meditation, it is possible to dissolve anxieties, fears, anger and hatred. And nothing can displace these things that tie us down better than liberation.