What Katy Louise Did...

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Katy Louise writes about health, wealth, happiness and relationships, and the spiritual insights she gains along her path. She is currently editor of Top Sante magazine (www.topsante.co.uk). Prior to that she was editor of Bodyfit magazine (now Your Fitness www.yourfitnesstoday.com) and the launch editor of Soul&Spirit magazine (www.soulandspiritmagazine.com). Katy is also a certified Fitsteps and STOTT Pilates instructor. She is the go-to girl for all matters relating to health, wellbeing and spirituality.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Day 1 in the Vipassana house

early to bed...
4am – that’s what time they rang the morning bell/gong for meditation – 4 flipping am! I knew this would be the case, having read the timetable and wondered what on earth I was letting myself in for. My room mates were already stirring, taking it in turns to use the en-suite shower room. I clambered down from my top bunk, shoved on a pair of slippers and a baggy cardigan, and went out of the room, crossing through the outside area into the main building to get myself a cup of hot water. The air was cool and crisp and roused me from my slumbering state.
Back in the meditation hall though, I only lasted about 20 minutes max before I was nodding off again in my cross-legged position atop the two blue cushions and mat. During Goenka’s chanting it was OK, as there was something upon which to focus, but once he stopped I had no chance. And yet we had two hours of this until breakfast, with a short five-minute gap in between the two sits. Our only task was to ‘focus our attention entirely on the breath coming into the nostrils and out of the nostrils’ as Goenka instructed from the CD playing at the front of the hall. Two hours of concentrating on your nose is pretty full on, and nigh impossible. My head, of course, stayed full of other thoughts about everyday things, events and people from the past, possible future outcomes I’d like to happen, and not happen, and what I would do when I ‘got out’, making it sound like a prison, albeit one we all willingly chose to inhabit.

Eating in noble silence
Breakfast was rather nice porridge with stewed prunes and raisin in their own juice, which was warm and comforting on that rather cold morning. There was a variety of fruit to eat too, plus toast, jam, rice cakes and muesli. I went for the porridge and chopped a banana onto it for a bit of added energy – this became my morning ritual. Sitting in silence in a dining room full of 50 or so women, attempting not to make eye contact with any of them, was strange but soon became quite normal.
After we all washed up our bowls and cuttlery, there was a little ‘free time’ – not that there was anything to do or anywhere to go other than sit in the conservatory overlooking the outdoor seating area, or actually go out and sit on one of the benches or swing chairs facing south east toward the direction of the sunrise, which by the end of breakfast at 7.30am, was just beginning.
The rest of the day’s meditation sessions, of which there were six or seven – yes really, and all an hour each! – were about focusing again on the nostrils and the breath. They were broken up by lunch at 11am – the earliest time I think I’ve ever eaten a full meal – and another afternoon hour of free time, during which I would end up having my daily shower each day as I could take my time.

Goenka the guru
The evening discourse, which was an hour-long video of SN Goenka sat on a raised platform, obviously in a large meditation hall – although we never saw the audience, only heard them sneeze, cough or at times giggle at one of his many jokes – was the highlight of the day as it gave us time off from meditating, and a chance to listen to stories from Gotama the Buddha’s times, 2,500 years ago, but stories that are still as relevant today in their teachings about compassion, patience and mindfulness. And it was nice to put a face to the voice we’d so far only heard on CD. Goenka was a jolly looking Indian fellow (still is, he’s currently 92 I believe), and looked very Buddha-like in his cross-legged position with a green meditation blanket wrapped around him.
“The first day is over, you have nine more left to work, to work very hard… diligently, ardently, patiently but persistently, continuously…” these words, repeated over and over in the coming days, became like friends, gently reminding me to continue the practise and not get disheartened by my scattered mind.
“As it is” became another favourite phrase of his, which is arguably the main teaching of the Buddha, who showed his disciples how to be at peace with whatever was happening on the outside. This, in fact, is the main aim of vipassana, not purely to calm our manic minds but to purify them “at the deepest level, the root level” so we remain balanced, said Goenka.
Creating craving towards events, people or things, or aversion towards unwanted things, will only lead to misery, he told us. And the way to come out of this is to understand the truth about life, which is that ultimately, everything changes, so not to get attached to any of it.
With so much to contemplate, I headed straight to bed at 9pm, feeling that perhaps this retreat really would help me dissolve those negative mental thought patterns, often generated when I feel let down or upset by the actions, or inactions in some cases, of men, or useless thoughts about how I 'should' have done this that and the other in the past as, of course, my life would be SO much better now if I had done so (it thinks). This vipassana lark had to be worth a go at least! And I’d signed on the dotted line so there was no going back now, however hard it got. 

For more information about Vipassana ten-day meditation courses, visit http://www.dipa.dhamma.org

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Day 0 in the Vipassana house

Wow so many days have passed since my retreat! I meant to write about it as soon as I returned but I was enjoying just ‘being’ for a few days, without going into all the emails and facebook and digital communications. I enjoyed Friday in town, which was novel as I have never spent a day off from work just chilling out around home – it’s always been to go somewhere. I did do a yoga class though, then decided to have my hair cut – the fringe is back! – which I think triggered the cash splurge in Karen Millen as I then fancied a whole new outfit to go with the new hair. A pair of knee-high boots and two dresses later and I was £400 lighter – this after coming back from a meditation retreat about avoiding craving! Ha ha. But then I felt like a new person on the inside, so why not show that on the outside too! I felt like a bit of a wardrobe boost to feel more professional at work as my attired had 
grown somewhat slobby in the past few months as I cared less what others thought.

Entering the Big Brother, er, I mean Vipassana house
So, how was it? I think I’ll spread out the experience over a few blogs, as that is how my life was measured out for the duration, making it feel like I was in the reverse of the Big Brother house, where rather than everyone else 
watching you, you turn your attention within and watch yourself…

Day 0 in the Vipassana house
I arrived in Sherringham ridiculously early, having booked a 9am train just to save myself a fiver (see, I can save money at times). I wandered around the north Norfolk town – a pretty seaside place with pubs, candy shops, lots of tea rooms and trinket shops among the grocers, newsagents and even a small arcade – and had a massive lunch of fish, chips and peas as I didn’t know how much food we’d be getting once the retreat started. When I made my way back to the station, there was a guy also waiting there with a large rucksack, whom I reckoned must be going to the retreat too. Just then, a car turned up and the driver asked whether we were there for the Vipassana retreat. It was only a five-minute drive to the centre – Hill Tops, which is a kids activity centre throughout the year – and as we arrived he said ‘I’ll drop you off first in the men’s lodgings’ addressing the other passenger, ‘then take you to the women’s accommodation’ turning to me. I knew men and women were segregated in sleeping quarters but I didn’t’ realise we were totally separated in different buildings (it’s only at this location, apparently, as the set up facilitates this arrangement).
Being the first one there – I was still an hour earlier than the set arrival time – I sat and drank tea, looking out at the surrounding trees and a rather prominent wooden pirate ship construction, with two levels of lookout platforms and complete with a skull and cross bones flag at the top, while the course manager, a short, sweet Indian lady, bustled about and conversed with the assistant teacher, who had the longest grey hair I’d ever seen, way down her back.

Back to school in bunk beds!
I filled in all the forms and got given the code of conduct and asked to read it again, even though I knew what I was in for having read the very same thing on the website about agreeing to abstain from lying (this would be easy as we had to stay in silence), killing (hence all food being vegetarian), stealing (easy), sexual misconduct (no men here, and even if there were, part of the reason I’d gone in the first place was because I was fed up of repeating what had become boring relationship patterns, so there was no chance of any misconduct), and taking intoxicants (this would be easy as my most lethal ‘intoxicant’ is sugar and I doubted there would be many chances to indulge in that with our healthy veggie diet).
When I was shown to my room I got a shock: bunk beds! And I’d been allocated a top one, on the grounds of being ‘young’. It was a compliment I guess. But bunk beds? I’d not been in those since I was about ten on a family holiday. And there were four of them, meaning eight beds in total, though as it turned out only five were filled. We were lucky too, as our room was one of only a few with an en-suite shower room.
As women began arriving one by one and in small groups – a surprising number of whom were much younger than me, I guessed, in their late teens and early to mid 20s – we got chatting about why we were doing the retreat, whether we’d done it before, and I found people to be very open and honest. I didn’t expect there to be so many of us and began to wonder why they had all chosen to leave their families over Christmas, but then I’d done the same thing – we were all seeking salvation from something or other. Seeking silence, calmness, a way to eradicate suffering, most of which is generated in our minds. 

No phoning home 
The hardest part was handing over my phone and purse – the only valuables I’d taken with me – and I even questioned where they would be kept and whether or not it was totally safe (we were in the depths of north Norfolk at a holiday camp tucked out of the way off the beaten path, so it was highly unlikely anyone would be passing and, on the off chance, try to come in and steal any of our stuff, and we’d all vowed not to steal anyway!)
I'd already told my parents I'd not be texting to wish them a happy Christmas, which made me feel slightly guilty, though a friend had said she would psychically transmit a Christmas song to me on Xmas day itself and I was to tune in and tell he which one it was when I returned. 
After a short introductory talk, in which we were again reminded of the rules and given our final chance to back out – no one did – it was into silence, after wishing each other luck! And not just any silence, but noble silence. They use this term as it means silence of body, speech and mind. This I found impossible, at least at first. The not talking to others was completely do-able, but as for silence in my mind? No chance! It was having a field day singing songs, chattering away, reacting to everything with thoughts, flitting from past events to big decisions I had to make when I 'got out' (makes it sound like a prison - one in which I'd chosen to inhabit anyway).

So what is vipassana meditation?
Then it was time for our first sit in the meditation hall – the dhamma hall as it was called. The word dhamma means teachings of the Buddha. I hadn’t realised it, but the lady with the long grey hair wasn’t to lead our course; instead, she sat at the front, stone still, alongside a more junior teacher, who turned out to be training to be a main teacher, and all the discourse was to come from either a CD or DVD of SN Goenka, who is the founder of the Vipassana order here in the UK. So what is Vipassana? Here’s what it says on their website www.dhamma.org:
“Vipassana is one of India's most ancient meditation techniques. Long lost to humanity, it was rediscovered by Gotama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. 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.”

What Vipassana is not:
It is not a rite or ritual based on blind faith.
It is neither an intellectual nor a philosophical entertainment.
It is not a rest cure, a holiday, or an opportunity for socializing.
It is not an escape from the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
What Vipassana is:
It is a technique that will eradicate suffering.
It is a method of mental purification which allows one to face life's tensions and problems in a calm, balanced way.
It is an art of living that one can use to make positive contributions to society.

It was this part about ‘eradicating suffering’  that most appealed to me. Not that I’ve had a hard life in terms of physical suffering – I’ve always lived a comfortable existence with no major problems. But I’ve become highly skilled at creating internal suffering of the mental variety, namely over analysing, thinking things were better in the past, thinking they will be better in the future, wishing I had taken a different course of action at various points in life, lamenting ‘wrong’ decisions I’ve made, and generally believing I could have done, been and had so much more in life had I just done things differently. This, I know, is all totally unhelpful and not conducive to living a calm and happy life. So, if Vipassana could help me eradicate these distorted ways of thinking, then good! Ten 
days of silence meditation was probably just what I needed.

Mirth in the meditation hall
I hadn’t been expecting what came next. The teacher pressed play on the CD machine and the strangest chanting I’ve ever hear poured forth into the hall, sounding like a cross between a frog croaking and Bagpuss yawning! (for anyone under the age of 30 and not from the UK, Bagpuss was a children’s TV animation in the 70s about a pink and white striped saggy old cloth cat). Anyway, it sounded like a load of unintelligible words and disjointed syllables sung, in the loosest sense of the word, by Goenka, which elicited a fair few laughs around the dimly lit hall as we sat on our blue cushions, wondering what on earth we’d signed up for. I stifled my laugh but a massive grin spread across my lips as it sounded so strange! the teachers and old students, of course, all sat stock still with a look of concentration on their faces. (ten days later we were all sad to leave the funny, oddly comforting tones of Goenka’s voice, even if they were in the early hours of the morning). After an hour or so of being directed to observe our breath going in and out of our noses, we retired to bed. The journey had begun…