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…