In September I went to a Vipassana retreat in Avila, Spain. I wanted to deepen my practice and understanding of mindfulness.
Present Moment Awareness
Vipassana is all about present moment awareness. It is a technique, discovered and taught by Gautama Buddha 26 centuries ago. After it died out in India, it continued to be practiced in the protection of Monasteries in Burma. About 150 years ago a Burmese monk began teaching Vipassana to lay people and from that time it has spread all over the world.
The technique consists of two primary practices. The practice of awareness and the practice of equanimity. Of equal importance is the understanding of the impermanence of all things. It involves observing the sensations in the body at the present moment and not trying to hold on to them (if they are pleasant) or get rid of them (if they are unpleasant).
When I went to the Vipassana course I was quite familiar with the principles of awareness and equanimity. 5 years ago I was given a book: «The Power of Now» by Eckhart Tolle. This book changed my life, in that it taught me to meditate. I learned to «see» the space that all things occupy, to «hear» the silence that is behind all sound, to discover the peace and contentment within when separating myself from past and future and examining the present moment. Eckhart Tolle also speaks a lot about surrender and non-attachment.
The understanding of the impermanence of all things which according to the teacher is supposed to be a comfort turned out to be a huge trigger for me. To begin with I just wanted to ignore it. I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t need this concept, so I thought, to progress in meditation. And then came a day when I was overcome with grief and anxiety about the fact that what is in the past cannot be changed. We don’t have a do-over. This is something that really bothers me. When I dwell on good memories I feel grief because they are gone forever. When I dwell on bad ones I feel regret that I cannot change anything. It just really really bothers me that everything passes away. It makes me wonder whether there is any point to anything. And so I began to realize that far from trying to avoid this truth, I need to work with it, face up to it, assimilate it into my reality. For me, accepting the impermanence of all things is an important spiritual practice going forward.
Mastery of the mind.
The first 3 days of the course were devoted to mastery of the mind. This is achieved through focusing on the natural breath, not just the breath as a whole, but specifically focusing on the breath as it enters and exits the nostrils, and then on the sensations of the area below the nostrils, the upper lip. By narrowing the focus of the mind to this small area of the body, and the awareness to the natural breath, you start to learn to ignore distracting thoughts and sensations.
I’ve learned a lot from observing the distractions that have come up.
For example I find it difficult not to start controlling my breathing, as soon as I put my awareness on it. Story of my life, actually. I’ve been told, and I know its true, that I tend to want to be in control. I want to control other people’s experience, and I sure as hell want to be in control my own life. Sometimes I think that’s a good thing, that it’s okay at least. Sometimes I’m not so sure. If I’m clinging to control, I’m not really open to what wants to unfold.
Another big distraction was drowsiness. At first I fought it. I would get up, walk back and forth. I tried taking coffee with my breakfast. None of that really helped. Then I started to remember how whenever there is something I don’t want to do, or a difficult conversation that I don’t want to have I get so incredibly tired. It feels like I have lead weights on my arms and legs. When I realize what I am resisting and dive in, the fatigue disappears. I also thought about how whenever I am procrastinating or am feeling overwhelmed, I go to bed and sleep for 2-3 hours. Just lying there thinking about the things I have to do, puts me to sleep! Since I realized that I get sleepy when I’m resisting something I decided to embrace the drowsiness instead of resisting it. Not by lying down to take a nap instead of meditating, but by simply accepting that I might fall asleep. Lo and behold, although I did sometimes go into a state somewhere between waking and sleeping, I found I was generally much more alert and attentive.
Of course there were other distractions. As when a fly started walking around on my face. I was able to ignore it for a while but when it started crawling into my nostril I could no longer stand it and brushed it away. This was during a session where we were supposed to meditate for an hour without opening our eyes or moving our hands or feet, or changing position.
A Vipassana retreat is a silent retreat. The meditators are not to communicate at all, either by word, gesture or writing, nor to touch each other nor make eye contact. Now before I went all my friends were laughing at me, as I am fairly talkative in a social setting. How was I going to manage to be silent for 10 days, they wondered. I wasn’t really that worried. After all, I live alone. It’s not like I talk all day.
I have to say though, this whole “no contact” thing was very strange. You are there with 120 other participants. Every time you go through a doorway, 5 or 6 other people are entering or exiting as well. So you have to be aware of them, while at the same time pretending that they don’t exist. We were 6 to a bedroom, 24 to a bathroom. That’s a lot of people to be ignoring while simultaneously living intimately close to.
It was kind of weird on the last day, when we were allowed to speak. I felt in a way I had gotten to know the women I shared a room with, and yet, I still couldn’t speak with them, because we didn’t speak the same language.
Do no Harm
The foundation for the practice of Vipassana is moral conduct. There were 5 rules of moral conduct that we were asked to follow. The first of these was not to harm any being. It involves to abstain from killing, and from any word or action that can harm another being. This also includes any action toward yourself that is harmful. In addition to abstaining from harmful actions one should strive to perform wholesome actions towards oneself as well as others. I can totally subscribe to this. It is what I like to call the practice of unconditional kindness. I found it interesting however that how you treat yourself is just as important as how you treat others, and the use of the words harmful and wholesome.
I can, for example, reward myself with a bag of candy. But am I doing something wholesome for myself? I think not.
It is also possible to think of situations where something I say or do, or that someone says or does to me is hurtful, without being harmful. An interesting distinction.
Surrender to the Process
A Vipassana retreat is not a vacation. It is not relaxing. But it is not stressful either. Every morning the wake-up gong rings at 4 am. There are only 2 square meals, which are vegetarian. In the evenings there is fruit and tea only. There are about 10 hours of meditation per day according to a schedule.
A Vipassana retreat is free. It does not cost any money. You can donate your time or money after you have completed one 10 day course. When Goenka, the man who started Vipassana International said he wanted it to be free nobody thought it would work. “What if homeless people or people who just want free food and a bed come?” Goenka said: “Let them come. Everyone is welcome, as long as they commit to the program.
There are several commitments when starting a Vipassana course:
First you commit to staying for the entire 10 days.
Second you commit to following the schedule.
Third you commit to the 5 rules for moral conduct which includes absolute separation of men and women.
Fourth you give up all your devices, reading and writing materials, and maintain silence.
Fifth you abstain from all other rituals, meditation techniques, strenuous exercise etc for the duration of the course.
I came to the course willing to follow all the rules except the rule about journaling. For a few days I would lock myself in the bathroom to write my thoughts. But since I felt I had committed to the rules of moral conduct, one of which was absolute honesty and not trying to deceive, I felt I had to come clean to my teacher. So I did and she took away my journal. This was on day 5. She said writing a journal was a distraction. I totally disagreed, as I spent the last 5 days memorizing and mentally rehearsing bullet points for when I would get my journal back – which I wouldn’t have had to do had I been able to write down my thoughts daily.
Did I feel superior to and judgemental of others that broke the rules after giving up my journal? You betcha!
Actually by day 7 rule breaking was rampant. People were skipping meditations to do their laundry or shower, the rule forbidding skimpy tops and tights was being blatantly ignored, and I even saw a couple of women deep in conversation on the grounds.
Celibacy, Modesty and Sobriety
I mentioned the 5 rules for moral conduct. These are thought of as general rules for the practitioner to continue with after the course is over. So celibacy in daily life is not required. However during the course of the retreat the idea is to give the lay person an experience of a monastic lifestyle. The rules are as follows:
First, do no harm to any being.
Second, abstain from lying and deceiving others.
Third, do not take anything that is not given to you.
Fourth, abstain from sexual misconduct. As this is open to interpretation, the practice at Vipassana retreats is to abstain from any contact with the opposite sex, as well as any sexual activity whatsoever for the duration of the retreat. One is also expected to dress modestly.
Fifth, maintain absolute sobriety, by abstaining from alcohol and other intoxicating substances.
All needs for physical comfort and to facilitate meditation are met.
Part of the monastic experience is to be released from the necessity of looking after ones physical needs: cooking, cleaning, earning money etc.
At a Vipassana retreat everything that is necessary for physical comfort and to facilitate meditation was provided. The meals were plentiful and delicious. Hot oatmeal and stewed fruit never tasted so good as at 6:30 am after 2 hours of meditation! We had comfortable beds, warm blankets, hot showers and toilets. The lighting and temperature in the meditation hall was perfect and there were plenty of mats and pillows to enable each person to find and maintain a comfortable meditation position. The grounds and surroundings were stunning in their beauty!
For those who wish to make Vipassana a way of life there are follow up courses, and the opportunity to volunteer at courses. There are courses for children and teenagers and weekend refresher courses. A part of me would have dearly loved to be part of this community. However there are things I can’t really relate to. One was chanting in and ancient indian language. Though much of the content of Buddhism appeals to me, buddhist teachings and practices feel foreign. I also object to the rule that forbids any form of physical contact, even during the times when we are allowed to speak. What is wrong with a hug?! But the main reason that I will not continue within the organization is that I would have to give up my current meditation practice and I’m not willing to do that. I am convinced that Vipassana will enrich my current practice of Chakra Cleansing and White Light channeling. Indeed it already has. I may never reach the goal of Vipassana, which is enlightenment. However, enlightenment has never been my primary goal anyway. If I have a spiritual goal, it is to become a beacon for light, joy, and kindness in the world.