In the summer around three years ago, I decided to embark on a journey that included going on a range of spiritual retreats. More recently when discussing different aspects of spirituality, meditation or mental wellbeing, my thoughts often go back to the time of the retreats, particularly the insights I found and the teachings that were given. This is the first part of a series of four blogs entitled – ‘Spiritual Summer’.
I first heard about the ‘Vipassana retreat’ from my cousins in Australia whilst I was visiting the country in late 2012. Both of my former attendee cousins proclaimed, “You sound like you’re ready!” – judging by the topics I was talking about and my overall changing outlook on life. After a three month wait to get onto one of the courses, I found myself in the middle of the Herefordshire countryside with 120 other people, waiting to begin ten days of silence and meditation in July 2013. It was a free course and it’s funded by donations of previous attendees, so in essence your stay is through the kindness of a stranger. The course was something that I felt needed to be done. A stab in the dark it seemed…was it a fast track course to true spirituality? Or ten days of mental torture? A chance to experience enhanced wellbeing? The search for the answers of bigger questions had always been inside me from an early age, but the journey had begun more profusely for me a few years earlier.
The meaning of the word ‘vipassana’ is ‘to see things as they really are’. The retreat aimed to show you just that. To have a deeper understanding of natural laws and how our mind works. In Buddhism, everything depends on the mind; we become what we think. To travel to the depths of our mind and to learn a technique that would apparently decrease suffering was intriguing. A few years prior to the retreat, it was the words of the Buddha which inspired an internal shift in consciousness and state of mind for myself – from more negative and maladaptive patterns of thought to one of positivity and an opening of horizons. To experience this shift further and develop the method to help eradicate suffering – the retreat would be needed to go deeper on the evolution of my consciousness.
I arrived on the coach on late summer’s afternoon and swiftly moved into the shared dorms. The range of people who were attending (people from all ages young/old and from different backgrounds) was surprising. It was quite pleasing to see such a cross-section of society, the people I briefly met before the course started were very interesting, all on their own different paths and their had their respective stories to tell about what brought them to the retreat.
We then entered the dining area to be told the code of discipline and five precepts everyone had to accept. These were read out to us clearly: it reminded me the scene from Battle Royale before the competition starts, instead we weren’t given a deadly weapon to kill each other with – we received a square cushion and a meditation spot. The code of discipline and five precepts were read out:
The foundation of the practice and five precepts (taken from the Vipassana website):
The foundation of the practice is sila- moral conduct. Sila provides a basis for the development of samadhi – concentration of mind; and purification of the mind is achieved through panna – the wisdom of insight.
All who attend a Vipassana course must conscientiously undertake the following Five Precepts for the duration of the course:
- to abstain from killing any being,
- to abstain from stealing,
- to abstain from all sexual activity,
- to abstain from telling lies,
- to abstain from all intoxicants.
I had already transformed into a herbivore in 2009, so the strict vegetarian aspect was fine. Also, it had been a year since I had begun to abstain from all intoxicants (Not an easy task at first! But the benefits are plentiful). Ultimately, the precepts weren’t too difficult as you were silent anyway to prevent any lies being told; there wasn’t an off license around in the middle of the Herefordshire countryside to acquire any intoxicants and we were separated between males and females, also there wasn’t much to steal – apart from other attendee’s clothes that were hanging on the washing lines.
After the rules has been told, the noble silence began and we entered the main hall to find our meditation spot. There were roughly sixty men who sat one side of the hall and sixty women sat on the other. As a novice meditator, to attempt 7-10 hours of meditation every day was a very arduous task. To achieve ‘control of the mind’, Stephen Ruppenthal asserts that it is perhaps the most challenging and rewarding of human tasks. Mahatma Gandhi once described meditation training requires the patience of someone trying to empty the sea with a teacup. I found that over the years since the retreat I have been able to control the mind more: rather than let it control me. It is difficult at first and takes much practice.
The teachings that were given by S.N Goenka (the pioneer of modern Vipassana) were the guiding light. I fervently looked forward to the 7pm discourse video shown on the projector of Goenka who gave the teachings of Vipassana and the Buddha. It was like when a television on wheels got rolled into classrooms in the 90s. The discourse and philosophical stories were extremely thought-provoking and made a lot of sense.
The first three days were solely focused on ‘anapana’ meditation, or in other words, ‘focusing on the breath’ meditation and centering our focus around the nasal area. In many methods of meditation, focusing on the breath is the beginning of the meditation journey. It is used as an anchor to tame the ‘monkey mind’, which jumps from thought to thought like branches, never ceasing. It was used to focus and sharpen our minds ready for the main aspect of the actual Vipassana meditation method on the 4th day. The Vipassana technique involves the scanning of the body, being aware of sensations such as itches or pains – to observe them objectively and with equanimity, rather than blindly reacting. We were told to always be aware of our breath or any sensation and to not crave a certain sensation or show aversion. Goenka and Buddhism generally believe that this is one of the most fundamental reasons we suffer as humans. We’re always in a state of aversion or craving, if we looked at things with equanimity – we would develop a more balanced and blissful mind.
Other central teachings which were given were that life is full of ‘anicca’ (impermanence). The word ‘anicca’ is repeated on many occasions during the retreat. With the Vipassana technique one has to observe the sensations of the body and realise that they are impermanent, much like the laws of the universe that the Buddha described…that everything is impermanent and subject to change. Nothing lasts forever, all is transitory.
The Vipassana retreat aims to change the conditioning of the mind, predominantly at the root level. At the base level, for hours you are learning to observe objectively and try not react, to witness thoughts and sensations with equanimity. To observe the sensations and breath with equanimity, the ideas was that this would then develop into observing our thoughts with equanimity in daily life. One of the volunteers of the retreat had described that it was his 10th retreat and as a secondary school teacher, Vipassana had helped him to control his anger towards particularly problematic children. Instead of ‘snapping’ at the pupil, he found that he would instinctively observe the sensation of anger (the body sensation will arise first so it can be observed) – then react with the conscious mind accordingly in a more disciplined manner.
There are rest breaks in between meditation sessions and I would frequently lie down on the grass on the field on-site. Luckily, it was a great summer so I would spend this time ‘earthing’ with my bare feet connected to the the Earth and soaking up the rays to gain Vitamin D. In the spare time given I would find myself viewing aspects of nature and the English countryside closely. Instead of just glancing at, for example, droplets of rain on a blade of grass, I looked more closely– marveling at the beauty of it all. I would observe the clouds over time, which on one occasion I could see were slowly expanding as a storm approached. These small insights were quite profound and made me realise even more that our connection with nature is an instrumental part of the spiritual path.
The effect of the retreat was that my body and mind were more in tune. I was beginning to observe the irrational mind. To pause before reacting blindly, which resulted in more of a positive reaction rather than an egoic reaction.
The retreat is definitely not for everyone. Some people leave, not being able to cope with it any longer and many have thoughts about departing. Whilst in group meditation, I remembered one woman on the other side of the hall burst out into tears around the 7th day. It is advised that those with mental health conditions to perhaps not begin such an intense retreat, but I would recommend for those who do want to go attend, to practice meditation regularly in the run up to its start. To make it through the whole retreat was fulfilling. It was difficult to tame the mind – which frequently brings up random things and moments of the past. However, I was glad I persevered.
Just before the noble silence was completed we did metta bhavana meditation which involved sending out loving-kindness vibrations and thoughts out to the world collectively for about an hour. When we went out of the meditation hall after doing the metta bhavana meditation and broke the noble silence, the elation was much greater than imagined. My dorm friend described to being akin as taking MDMA. It was a natural high, partly because we could speak again, however another part of me thinks that, collectively our vibrations of sending loving-kindness vibrations out to the universe created a sort of field of positive vibrations in the meditation hall which led to the feeling of being ‘high’ after.
The coach back to the train station was full of conversation understandably. Still wearing my sandals, I was greeted with a hustling and bustling Birmingham New Street station. After being marooned on the Vipassana retreat grounds, miles away from civilisation and then being plunged back into city life was quite an experience. Back into the ‘real’ world. As my senses and awareness were more amplified, the sense of the consumerist, narcissistic and nihilistic aspect of society hit me harder.
If you do ever go on a Vipassana retreat (and there are hundreds of centres across the world) I would recommend doing it in the summer. Watching the sunrise and sunset in relative warmth would be a lot better than being in the relative darkness and cold of the winter. One of the major moments I’ll take with me was when there was a luminescent sunset. As we awaited to enter the main hall for meditation, there was around 15-20 of us who were stood like statues, gazing in awe of the sunset in unison. I did think to myself, if someone from the ‘real world’ were to see us now, they would think what the hell we were doing!
Overall, I have taken the teachings of Vipassana away with me and although not wholly practised in my daily life, it has changed the person I am in a subtle way. Part of my progression has been an increase in my awareness, I’m more observant, more at peace. Vipassana has helped me move onto practising and teaching aspects of mindfulness. I sincerely believe that teaching people how to embrace stillness can let a person look within to inspire real change and inner peace, it is truly one of the greatest things we can individually achieve.