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