Vipassana – hard core mindfulness!

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. 

Noble Silence

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!

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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.

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Exploring in Crete

What a day I had! It started off as usual with sunrise and sunbathing, breakfast on the roof terrace and yoga in the living room.
At 11 am I set off for Sitia. The plan:
  • A little sight seeing of Sitia.
  • Lunch at one of 2 places I had found on trip advisor. Both looked lovely: “the Balcony” and “Ziafeti”
  • Then take the paved road as far as possible to the secluded Papadiokampas beach, walk the rest along the dirt roads and have a lovely swim
The reality unfolded differently. Firstly the drive to Sitia took a lot longer than I anticipated. I should have googled the distance. I found the public car park (free!) but did not really get fired up about Sitia. Perhaps because I was stressed  and hungry and it was getting on to 1 pm. I found the two restaurants and they looked as wonderful as described. Only problem was that Ziafeti did not serve meals until 4 pm and The Balcony was reserved for a party or function and thus closed. I ended up eating at a place by the harbor called: Zorbas. They were very friendly about Lucy, giving her water, but they got my order wrong and I ended up sitting there for what seemed like forever before I got the bill. On the bright side: though they forgot the lamb that I had ordered, the mushrooms in a pepper cream cheese sauce were heavenly! And the cucumber and tomato salad turned out to be basically a Greek salad without the feta, including olives, onions and green pepper rings.
At 3 pm I started trying to find my way out of Sitia. Not very well signposted, but I found it in the end and headed for the beach. The paved road turned out to be a narrow (one car width) track paved with uneven concrete. Definitely borderline as far as the restriction on my rental car contract about not driving on unpaved roads. I passed a sign about a gorge and then the road started going what looked like the totally wrong direction – back uphill and inland. I consulted my map, and indeed there was a walking trail so I parked by the sign and decided to walk through the gorge to the sea. I think actually the concrete track was just leading over a ridge before going to the beach that I was aiming for – and I intend to try again another time. Anyway… off I went along the gorge trail. I was not really dressed for hiking – sandals and a long dress but my sandals have really good grip and I felt good about offering Lucy a proper walk after all the time lazing around the house.
I admit that worry-thoughts kept intruding on my mind as I walked: about my knee, being alone and how I would get in touch with anyone if anything happened, whether my sandals would hold up etc. I was just telling myself that thinking about what might happen could just cause it to happen when boom! there I lay in the dirt. Luckily I  just stubbed and skinned my big toe. I was otherwise totally unhurt. But I got the message and redirected my thoughts to counting my blessings, enjoying the nature around me, the evening sun on my shoulders, and the prospect of a swim in the ocean. And it was beautiful and rugged. Oaks, sycamores, holly and carob trees lined the gorge. But it went on, and on, and on. Every time I thought around this corner I will see the sea, all I saw was more turns. After an hour and a quarter the end was still nowhere in sight and I realized that if I turned back now, I would get back to the car before sunset. If I continued on there was the chance of darkness coming before I got back. I turned back, promising myself to do it again sometime. Next time though, I will wear proper walking shoes. I will pack a lunch, and a flashlight so that I can explore the cave at the beginning of the gorge,  and I will leave early enough to walk all the way to the sea, have a swim, and walk all the way back.
On the way home I stopped at an organic taverna, where the road goes off to Mochlos,  that I have seen a few times on my explorations. The sun had just set and the view over the bay and the mountains was breathtaking. A German couple arrived at the same time as me. We were the only guests. They invited me to join them at their table and we had great conversation and a lovely meal. I finally had my lamb, which was served with a cucumber and tomato salad, and some stuffed zucchini flowers. Sweet, ripe honeydew melon for desert. When we left it was dark and the full moon shone down on us as we hugged and wished each other good travels.
I came home, tired and filthy. But nothing that a shower couldn’t fix. This was my first actual exploration on this trip. If I have learned two things it is to leave earlier and to do more research. Still it often turns out this way. I go exploring. Things don’t turn out as planned but when I return, I am better prepared and have an even better experience.

Habits

Listening to a podcast interview with Gretchen Rubin, the other day,  got me thinking about habits. She says that to make good habits stick they have to be realistic. If you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, then it is unrealistic to plan to get up early to work out. In my case it is the habits I try to establish in the evening that usually don’t pan out. I’m definitely a morning person. In the evening, I’m tired and unmotivated. If I sit down to meditate in the evening, I fall asleep, and if I put off doing yoga until the evening it just doesn’t happen. So making a habit of daily meditation and yoga turns out to be easiest when I do it in the morning. Almost everything is easiest in the morning. However I quickly run out of morning time.
One reason for this is that I seem to be addicted to mindless entertainment. There are so many healthy habits that I would like to incorporate into my day – exercise, reading, journaling, connecting with friends and family via skype and email that I just don’t have time for – largely because I resist and procrastinate and TV shows help me to do this. Grrrr. For example I “ruin” my morning by watching a 45 minute TV show. Wouldn’t it be better to plan that show into the evening? Of course 11 pm which is when I get home from work  is a little late to watch a show before bed, plus not really conducive to sleep, so I’m thinking what about saving the show for the last hour before I leave for work – in order to get more out of my morning. Whenever I’m resisting something – like making appointments for the doctor, the dentist, the vet or to get the oil changed on my car, or just sitting down to do some writing, I watch a TV show and suddenly I don’t have time anymore.
 I also tend to resist walking the dog which is both necessary exercise, sunshine exposure and fresh air, not to speak of the importance to the well being of my furry best freind. However, if I “allow” myself to listen to an audio book while dog walking my motivation increases enormously. What Gretchen Rubin says is that you have to work with your personality traits to make the habits and life that will make you happy. She also says that if a habit doesn’t make your life happier, it’s not worth having. Just forget about it!

Greek Generosity

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 I am in Crete. Home in Crete, is what it feels like. I wish I could live here always! When I first arrived, I immediately came down with a cold – runny nose, sore throat, cough, the works. So I come to this beautiful country, to blue skies and  25 degrees celsius. I have a car for 4 days, and all I want to do is lie in bed!

IMG20151016141956Not that I actually did that. I went to the beach at Istron and had a swim. The next day, I went on a hike with friends to a defensible settlement from the late minoan period, when roving unemployed soldiers came from the sea, attacking villages, in order to find places to settle. Apparently there are 80 of these on Crete, and Phil knows of 4 of them, but has only figured out how to get to 3.

 I also went on another walk with the foreign residents association, in Milatos. A group of 28, mostly from the UK, walking up through the village of Milatos, then down through olive groves to the waterfront and along the waterfront to a taverna where we all had lunch –
a IMG20151018124833veritable feast of greek mezes for 10€ per person: bread with olives and eggplant paste, fava mash, green beans, breaded and fried zucchini slices, roast pork, lamb balls, kalamari rings, baked cheese, and probably more that I can’t remember, served with beer and bottled water and ending with fresh grapes and raki.

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Since coming here I have met quite a few English people, and reconnected with my greek friends and neighbors as well. As a result I have been inundated with fruit. People keep giving me bags of apples and pears, especially apples. Grapes are pretty much done here, but figs are just getting ripe and so are the pomegranates and I pick them from trees along the road or in the abandoned lot near my house.

On Monday I was pretty much over my cold, so I decided to make apple pies as thankyou’s for the gifts of apples and fruit and other help. I baked 3 pies – and went around to the neighbors with gifts of pie.  It felt good to give something back. Little did I guess that this would release a flood of further food gifts, from my Greek neighbors, Maria and Maria. Maria, the retired nurse, brought me a plate of moussaka for lunch, and half and hour later the other Maria brought me a plate of stuffed vine leaves, zucchini flowers and a stuffed tomato.

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After baking the pies, I counted the apples I had left, and figured that if I ate 3 apples a day, I would get through them all before I have to go back to Norway. However later that afternoon the couple from Neapoli,
who are rebuilding the house across the alley for their daughters brought me a big bag of apples and pears as well as a dozen fresh eggs from their chickens! So now I don’t know what I’ll do.
I’ll probably have to bring a bunch of apples back to Norway with me. IMG20151020145645Though I have pie left over, I don’t dare give them any, because I can’t possibly eat all the food I am likely to recieve if I do!!! Same goes for the nice elderly man whom I always greet when passing his garden where he seems to spend most of his days . He gave me a piece of pumpkin yesterday which will keep me eating pumpkin stew for a week!

 

Though I feel that my Greek can hardly have improved in the past year, I nevertheless find that I am able to communicate more and more with my neighbors. The retired nurse luckily speaks a little english, but we have been catching up on family news, mostly in Greek. The sudden death of the other Maria’s husband last christmas eve, the upcoming wedding of nurse Maria’s daughter, the recent and the expected births of grandchildren etc.

Men are only after one thing

When I was young I had the impression that men are only after one thing – sex. This has changed as I’ve gotten older. It still seems that men are only after one thing – but now it’s money. Why do they have to be so cliche?

My skype profile is constantly swamped with contact requests from men. And I mean swamped. If I don’t clean it up every day or so, by blocking all these unwanted requests, in just a few days I’ll have like 35 contact requests. Thay are almost exclusively men, they mostly claim to be military or proffessional (Dr this or that). The same name which I have blocked before will keep reappearing. I cannot tell you how often I have blocked general Petraeus, or General Carter F Ham.

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Melancholy

I am in the third week of my vacation, and I am feeling down – that same low grade dissatisfaction that has been haunting me for a while. And it can’t be seasonal – because it’s the middle of summer. It can’t be exhaustion, because I’ve been sleeping A LOT. It can’t be loneliness – because for one thing I enjoy my solitude and for another, the very thought of being in a relationship scares me sh*tless (excuse my french).  And yet I’m having trouble connecting to my joy. I’m feeling stuck. I’m feeling that life is passing me by. I’m wanting to hide myself away. I don’t know what direction to take. Some might say “Do what you love” – but I don’t know what I love.

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