When I arrived at the Vipassana meditation centre and handed in my keys, wallet and phone, I had a feeling of relief. I was switched off from the outside world and had this time to focus on myself. This was immediately followed by a feeling of dread. I would be spending time with just myself.
Over the next 10 days, I would be living the life of a monk, waking up at 4am daily and doing nothing but eat, sleep and meditate 10 hours a day. No talking, reading or writing.
And how did I prepare for this feat?
Did I increase my hours for meditation daily?
Study more about the technique?
I over ate and over stimulated my senses knowing that I would have to switch them off.
I realised quickly how irritable I was in the company of a group men who I couldn’t speak to. The cafeteria line moved frustratingly slow and initially I felt like I was in school, if not prison. On the first day, I met the slurper.
He insisted on slurping his soup and it pissed me off.
‘Don’t you realise that no one else is slurping? Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to eat soup properly?
I was seething with irritation, and in that moment, I lost the attention of anything else which was happening in the room. Every day after, I sat as far away from him as I could and prayed they didn’t serve soup.
I would tell myself, ‘he’s irritating me which is why I can’t be happy’.
It wasn’t until a few days later that I realised that he wasn’t the problem; it was me. I was allowing him, and my irritation of anything not to my liking, to cause me needless misery.
I had set an expectation how the outside world should behave to my liking.
This delusion my friends, is the source of our misery.
Vipassana is a meditation technique which focuses on the insight into the true nature of reality. It was introduced by Gautama Buddha in India more than 2,500 years ago – a prince who left the luxuries of the palace life to reach enlightenment through meditation. Buddha himself was an atheist and offers a non secular, practical technique aimed at alleviating suffering through purification of the mind. The technique claims to go to the root of our suffering instead of making changes on the surface level.
The course runs on a donation basis and I was amazed at the generosity of the food, accommodation and facilities offered. There was also no hard sell of the course or for money at the end – it was simply a case of donate what you can, and make your own assessment if this works for you. This worked for me.
Vipassana meditation involves focusing the mind on the body through a sitting practice with closed eyes. You stay still and present with what is going on in the mind and body. The silence ensures that you are not influenced by the experience of others which would create an expectation.
We were given an instruction for the first three days to just focus on the breath and the sensation it causes.
Imagine that, for three days, just focusing on your breath! The mind doesn’t like it – it’s not enough stimulation. I realised quickly how the monkey mind takes control – and how daily over stimulation means our mind is calling the shots.
If you’re not a meditator, try closing your eyes and focusing on your breath for just one minute.
It’s hard, right?
You’ll notice very quickly how your mind pulls you in different directions, random chains of thoughts and you have to remind yourself to focus back on the breathing. This is how the monkey mind works daily. It constantly wants to be entertained. When I didn’t give it the attention it wanted, it insisted on playing a Lil Wayne playlist.
I’m not surprised that Lil Wayne was standing between me and enlightenment.
Over the days, my mind became more focused and we shifted awareness from the breath to the sensations in the body. I found it fascinating how the mind can ‘see’ every individual part of the body.
If you close your eyes and focus your mind long enough on any part of your body, say your big toe, you will feel the subtlest sensations and sharpen your mind.
When our awareness is not trained to be sharp, it’s difficult to see how a thought leads to a sensation, or a sensation leads to a thought. This causes us to react and creates a snowball effect of emotions which hijack our body. The more we react, the more we invite misery into our life. I now realise there are no good days or bad days – it’s we interpret sensations or thoughts and allow them to spiral which affects our mood.
As an example, one day I saw a pair of Nike Air with an air bubble. Seeing the air bubble reminded of a time in high school when a boy in my class tried to pop my air bubble with a compass. I was seething with anger at the thought.
‘Try doing that today!’
I started fantasising of all the ways I would hurt him for this injustice. I felt anger and pleasure at the thought of revenge.
And then I stopped and realised the ridiculousness of the situation. This happened more than 15 years ago – and I allowed the smallest trigger to cause a reaction which I allowed to snowball – in a matter of minutes. I did that to myself – and we do this all the time. Allowing a trigger from the past or an anxiety of the future incapacitate us in the present. It was only with awareness that I am starting to identify and break habitual thought patterns before they snowball.
Impermanence of Life
A fundamental principle of Buddhism is the concept that everything is changing. On an intellectual level, we can appreciate this. Science has proved that everything is in constant state of vibration, and while objects appear consistent and solidified, they are in a constant flux of change and mostly just empty space.
The mind, or ego, cannot comprehend this universal law of nature. It gets attached to a fixed identity of ‘I’ and ‘my’. This creates an expectation of how the world should be. When my life works according to my plan and I get what I want, I will be happy. When it doesn’t work out and I lose out, I will be sad.
The universe doesn’t create good or bad situations – we interpret events as good or bad. It simply exists in a constant state of change. But to truly understand this fact, we have to experience it.
It was only when I was able to focus my mind enough on the smallest sensations in my body, I was able to see how there are big and small chemical reactions going on every second. Everything is always changing.
Pain and pleasure come and go
Emotions come and go
When we are not distracting ourselves from the uncomfortable feelings, we can observe and appreciate how everything eventually changes. The problem is by constantly stimulating our minds, we never get the chance to grow our awareness of what behaviours are habitually causing us misery.
Attachment is the Source of Suffering
If everything is always changing, it makes no sense to become attached. This goes for anything material, thought or sensation. It is when we get attached, we create an aversion or craving, which plants the seed for more suffering. These are the sources of our suffering and we have to undo these habit patterns. This equally also applies to being attached to positive feelings.
On Day 6, I had a feeling of absolute bliss, like nothing i’ve felt before. I started thinking, ‘Anything is possible if I always feel like this! i’ve reached liberation, peace out losers – i’m done here!’ After 10 minutes, I crashed and came back to reality, feeling sad at the loss of that feeling. I realised that when I felt really good, I became attached to it. I understand now there’s nothing wrong with appreciating a positive sensation – it’s clinging to it which created my misery.
I then had a crash on Day 8. I went to see the teacher and told him ‘it’s Day 8, the course is nearly over, i’ve worked so hard and I don’t feel like i’ve achieved anything!’. He mockingly replied, ‘Well wouldn’t that be a shame if you just wasted your time!’. I didn’t get it. He then explained how I was attached to achieving – and I realised it was the truth. I had an expectation for results if i’ve put in the effort. If I didn’t achieve for my efforts, I would be disappointed.
It was only when I let go of that expectation that I released my frustration and started making progress again. Vipassana has taught me to observe all emotions objectively. Don’t react – simply observe and allow them to pass. Over ten days, I experienced every type of emotion and sensation and realised the fundamental truth that it always changes.
When I realised my mind is wandering, I learnt that I need to be patient and persistent. Initially I got frustrated with myself, which blocked my progress. Eventually I learnt that every time it wanders, I would observe its pattern and gently nudge it back on to breathing in a playful way. ‘Look at you, running away as usual. Let’s get back to work’.
If we want to be compassionate with others, we have to start by being compassionate, light hearted and playful with ourselves first.
Discipline, Discipline, Discipline
Waking up every day at 4am and sticking to a strict schedule gave me an appreciation of how we must make the most out of each day. I was reminded of a Bruce Lee quote:
‘There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.’
Focus & Sharpness
By switching off from a sensory overload for ten days and sticking to a monotonous routine, I can now see the upside.
My focus and all other senses are much sharper. The world is the same, yet so much more vibrant. I have an appreciation for the most subtle things, like shades of colour on a plant, which I couldn’t appreciate before. I’m aware of the number of different subtle layers of sound, all happening at once. I feel bodily sensations more intensely. I’m also able to focus much longer on a single task and not allow distractions to pull me away – like writing this post which would usually take a few sittings.
For now, i can appreciate each experience in the present moment. I realise that by taking regular time out to slow down and connect with myself, I will be able to maintain this state.
If you take anything from this – realise that we can’t change the world around us – but we have total control over how we respond to any situation. Everything eventually changes, and the sooner we can live in acceptance of this universal truth, be more tolerant and patient, the better the chance of experiencing true peace. Happiness comes from within, and nothing external can take away your happiness unless you let it.
I don’t believe Vipassana is the know all and end all. But I do believe any practice involving you taking time out of your regular routine to spend time with yourself will help bring a fresh perspectives on life.