I arrive in Hereford late on Wednesday afternoon, knowing very little indeed about the Vipassana meditation retreat on which I have apparently embarked. I know it involves ten days of getting up early, eating very little and not speaking at all. I also know there will be pain. Sitting still and doing nothing for ten or so hours a day is, I have read, no picnic. (No picnics allowed.) What I don’t yet know is that coming to terms with pain is in fact one of the central doctrines of Vipassana meditation. Indeed, if one were to replace the words ‘meditation retreat’ with the words ‘festival of pain’, one would not be too far from the truth. But for the moment, I am blissfully naïve.
Once registered, allocated lodgings and divested of technology, there follows a couple of hours in which to mill about, eat soup and, if one feels the need, to chat with some of one’s fellow meditators before the Noble Silence begins at 8pm.
Women and men – around 60 of each – are segregated. A good thing too, obviously, else I’d already be aimlessly fantasising about which woman was ‘the one’, an adolescent affliction that’s evolved over the years into a concrete adult flaw, as difficult to shake now as my knee-jerk moral indignation in the face of anything I consider a lack of basic civility on the part of others. For example, an unnecessarily loud voice.
Colin has an unnecessarily loud voice. As we mill outside, awaiting the first session in the meditation hall, I remark to a Romanian chap with whom I have fallen into conversation that I consider Colin’s loud voice singularly inappropriate at a silent meditation centre, even though the silence has not yet officially begun.
Colin, I have unwillingly ascertained, is here for his second ten-day retreat. Having survived his first earlier in the year, he has much in the way of advice and experience, which he cheerfully, thunderously imparts to a gaggle of wide-eyed first-timers. He is a young man – early twenties perhaps – whose tightly curled mullet and armless, ghostly gait irritates me almost as much as his booming voice. I try not to glower at him.
The Romanian is a wry and perspicacious type. We have not traded names at this point but have fallen easily into jocular and readily mocking conversation, built on a common desire to hide everything behind a curtain of jocosity. When I mention my niggles concerning the loud voice, he suggests that I am jealous. ‘He is an alpha male,’ he says of Colin. I glance along the path at this odd-looking creature with his flowing ringlets, holding court. ‘You want to be him,’ says the Romanian.
To our left, a surfer guy in his 40s – also on his second ten-day course – is in conversation with two of the large handful of bearded men in attendance. He confesses that he cried during his first retreat, suggesting with his tone that he is not a man prone to easy tears. Then they talk about surfing in different parts of the world, all kinds of exotic locations, including Israel, where one of the beards had also surfed. Excitedly they reminisce about waves. Instinctively, the Romanian and I eavesdrop.
‘You are jealous of them,’ says the Romanian.
‘I’m envious,’ I say. ‘It’s different.’
Then we’re all called into the dining room to hear the rules one last time.
The first session on the first night is an introduction to the bulk of the work of the next three days, which is – put simply – breathing. Just breathing. Breathing, and observing the breath, as it moves naturally, in through the left nostril, or in through the right nostril, or in through both nostrils simultaneously. And then out again.
And then in again.
And so on.
On the first night we observe our breath for an hour, then at 9pm, we go to bed.
Towards the end of the first morning, people are really beginning to get on my nerves. For starters, the guy to my immediate left in the meditation hall is breathing way too loudly. I know that might sound a little petty, but I swear, it’s outrageous. It’s deliberate breathing, forced breathing, which according to the instructions we’ve already been given, is not even allowed.
Then there are those who blow their noses with inappropriate gusto, a gang of them it seems, like trapped elephants, eager to mate. Others, in the communal toilets, leave scraps of paper towel all over the floor, as if providing litter for their own inevitable dung. Out of a sense of propriety, I won’t even mention the pool of warm urine my bare right foot located in the accommodation block loo at 4.30 this morning. (No shoes allowed.)
And I’m supposed to meditate with all this going on?
Believe it or not, I’m a lot more tolerant than I used to be, but there are limits. And these buggers know the score. They agreed – we all agreed – to display at all times an exemplary amount of respect to others. We all agreed, even signed our names, to the Code of Discipline.
The Code of Discipline contains five fundamental precepts. Whilst at the retreat, there must be:
– no killing
– no stealing
– no sexual activity
– no lying
– no intoxicants
Piece of cake.
Furthermore, the Noble Silence is all-encompassing. It demands a cessation of all forms of mental distraction. This means no talking, no texting, no reading, no writing, no telly, no music, no net. No picnics. Oh, and lest ye forget amidst the frustration this void gives rise to, no killing.
Even furthermore, we have agreed not to distract one another in any way. We have even agreed not to make eye contact. The journey we are on is a solo journey, deep into the heart of our own psyches, and although we will be spending a lot of time in close proximity with one another, we need to feel, to all intents and purposes, alone. And perfectly undistracted. We do not, I think it’s fair to extrapolate, belch, fart and hawk up phlegm like we’re on a rugby club bender in Magaluf.
I am so enraged by the incivility of one man’s ablutions after our 11am lunch that at one point I find myself peering under the gap of a toilet cubicle, clocking the vulgarian’s feet so that I might later identify him and more fully focus my scorn. When his feet tell me that he is one of the older Indian men, I shake my head in unutterable dismay. I am flabbergasted. Here is a grown man from a country immersed in spiritual practice and yet apparently unable to make the simple connection between his own cacophonous lung clearance and my peace of mind. I have an urge – just for a split-second – to pelt him with faeces. Alone in my cubicle, I sigh. What is wrong with these ignorant swine that they can’t follow a few simple rules? Why can’t people think of anyone but themselves?
And another thing. The website and emails I received from Dhamma Dipa had all clearly stated that men and women would be segregated, and while it’s true that our living quarters are separate, we do, unfortunately, share a meditation hall. Women on the right, men on the left. Foolishly, I have chosen a place on the right hand side of the men’s section. I chose this place so as not to feel penned in primarily, and to be able to stretch a sly leg once in a while if required, but it also means that I am only a metre or so away from rows and rows and rows of women, all of whom seem hellbent on distracting me. At first sight, at least 50% of them are unreasonably desirable. When I take off my glasses to meditate, however, that percentage doubles. I wonder how far the vow to refrain from all sexual activity actually goes. Does it encompass impure thoughts? I will not ask. I cannot. I am in Noble Silence. I presume it includes masturbation, but really, does masturbation have to be sexual? What is sex anyway?
I must stick to the rules.
I must stop thinking about the rules.
I must observe my breath.
Rage at the shortcomings of my fellow man aside, Day One is difficult. My concentration levels, it turns out, are really very poor. The worst of it is that the writing voice will not stop. Even if it has to write about not writing, it will not stop writing. Then there is the battle with the pain, which has already begun in earnest.
We are obliged to sit as still as we can, with our backs and our necks straight. Perched cross-legged on a small tower of cushions seems to afford the least discomfort, supporting the feet and knees according to taste, but as the minutes get longer, and longer and longer, it hurts. Everywhere hurts, but mostly spine, knees and neck, which burn and throb and spasm and ache.
Like a war.
At 7pm, we watch the first of 11 video discourses by the charismatic Vipassana teacher SN Goenka. These discourses were recorded in front of a class in London in the early 90s, but shot and screened in such a way that it feels very like Goenka is directly addressing you, despite the fact that he died in 2013. As the course progresses, they will come to represent highly desirable oases of human dialogue, albeit in monologue form. They also signify the end of the day, and for that reason too, they become highly treasured. You have made it through another day. More importantly, however, there is an aspect of dialogue, as Goenka manages in these videos to address most of the grumbles and gripes you will have been feeling that day, and to convince you that the technique in which you are immersed requires that you feel exactly that.
In the first video, he reassures us that the physical and mental discomfort we are feeling is perfectly natural. He also addresses the mind – the monkey mind, flickering and chattering like a mad person – and the art of living.
Listen to this bit if you’ve a mind to…
Today begins well. At the 4.30 till 6.30am unguided session, I am concentrating on the touch of the breath coming in through the left nostril, or in through the right nostril, or in through both nostrils simultaneously, and then out again, maybe alighting on the upper lip, when I am distracted by tiny lights playing on the inner screens of my eyelids. The meditation hall is softly, barely backlit. The small green lights are a sensation from within. I say green. Could they in fact be blue? I remember the blue light Liz Gilbert describes in Eat, Pray, Love:
Mystics across time and cultures have all described a stilling of the brain during meditation, and say that the ultimate union with God is a blue light which they can feel radiating from the centre of their skulls.
After three months meditating in India, Gilbert manages, without grasping, to grasp ‘the blue pearl’. Could I, a rank amateur, a dabbler at best, have stumbled into this near-Nirvana state so soon into my practice, a mere 24 hours after treading in another man’s water?
Not really. I know there are no lights in Vipassana. At least not the conscious, forced light that I’m currently chasing. No. No lights, no bells, no gods, no spells. Just breath. Just this breath. Just the present moment.
The urge to write is overpowering. If I could just make a few notes even, just to empty my brain a little, and allow it to find peace. I sneak another in an endlessly long line of peaks at the other meditators. Although a gassy bunch, most of them seem to my uncorrected eye the very definition of inner calm. Indeed, my fear of failure has transformed my fellow meditators into Zen masters, serene and statuesque, whereas I remain a round-shouldered wretch, fidgeting and scratching, simply, inevitably, unable to do it. But continuing to try. And, begrudgingly, returning to the breath.
By this evening’s discourse, I am ready to physically fight everyone in the meditation centre, individually or en masse, and – in victory or defeat – burn the whole bastard place to the ground. There is pain all over my body. But more importantly, inside, there are reasons to be angry. So many of them. I keep thinking of a moment at registration, when my proffered handshake was denied by one of the managers here, who instead put his hands together and said, ‘Here we do this.’ At the time it hadn’t bothered me, aside from a flicker of embarrassment when my rucksack fell off my shoulder and ruined my attempt at reciprocation. But throughout the second day, it really begins to churn me up.
Who in their right mind would turn down a handshake? Are we being managed by Vulcans? They talk about respect, and compassion, and yet apparently they have no qualms about leaving a fellow human hanging like that, like a haemorrhoid at a christening. And for what reason? Because they don’t want to dilute their energy, is it? Is that what it is? What, my energy’s not good enough for them?
‘The mind is so ignorant.’
Button it, Goenka. He’s in my bad books too, after something he said tonight about cats. He was talking about ‘samma samadhi’, or ‘right concentration’. Every act requires some level of concentration or application of talent (samadhi), but only some are ‘samma’, which is to say, wholesome, or motivated by good-heartedness. He cited a pickpocket as someone with skills and talent but no decency. Fair enough. He also said: ‘A cat standing near the mouse-hole, fully concentrated. The mouse comes out, and he jumps and devours it. Fully concentrated. Not samma samadhi.’ What? WHAT? Suggesting that cats are somehow unwholesome is for me a nonsense too far. A cat fulfils its nature, Goenka. A cat is dhamma.
So there’s that. Plus, my back feels like it might be breaking. I am desperate to ask for a low stool under which to tuck my legs, thus seeking some respite from the pressure, but at the same time I am determined not to. Every time I return to the meditation hall for another session, however, it seems like another comrade in pain has folded, deserted and taken a stool. I desperately want one. But I am determined. I will absolutely not ask for a stool.
I ask for a stool, and am refused.
Today feels like I am lost in a tsunami of rage. Last night I barely slept. Instead I tossed and turned for four or five hours. Only this morning, when I remember the dreams I had when I finally dropped off, do I associate my insomnia with anger.
The dreams I remember are peculiarly real and unusually unpleasant. One in which I come close to punching a child I know and love, in the face. One in which I have two pairs of hands, all four grappling for supremacy out of sight in oil-black water. One in which my fingernails, fashioned from razor blades, are cutting slowly and persistently into my own flesh.
Anger, self-loathing, the constant battle with one’s own ego. It’s textbook stuff.
‘When you generate anger,’ Goenka said last night, ‘you are being punished then and there. You are the first victim of your own anger.’
My anger has not abated by the time I get out of bed, too late for breakfast (which is at 6am) but just in time for the first group session at 8am.
Today, still concentrating on our breath, we are meant to focus still further on any sensation that we can feel on our top lip, or in our nostrils. At the same time, any other sensations we feel elsewhere in our body, we are meant to ignore. We are told that they will pass. Anicca. Everything changes. Moment by moment. All sensations pass. Just observe. Anicca anicca. We are told that what we are doing is changing the habit patterns of our brain and learning how not to react to surface sensations.
It’s slow going, and in truth, I’m not enjoying it. The pain is just too much. So some time around mid-morning, I ask one of the managers for a stool. He says I should wait till the lunchtime break and ask the teacher. The teacher is an ageing Indian man, Gandhiesque in stature. I approach him at lunchtime, sit before him and explain that my back, with which I have had problems before – proper medical problems – is causing me a great deal of pain. I ask if I can have a stool. He replies, not massively coherently, something about ‘equanimity’, which he says we will come to in the coming days, then he says, ‘Just one or two days more.’
I smiled. ‘So you’re saying no.’
‘Just one or two days more,’ he repeats.
For some reason I thank him, creak to my feet and limp away.
I think it may be this afternoon that I first imagine a large rotating blade hanging from a pole in the centre of the meditation hall. The blade, shaped like a long loose S, swings moderately speedily round the whole meditation hall, clearing the heads of everyone meditating by about two feet. The two teachers, however, on raised platforms at either side of the front of the hall, are decapitated. And each time they are decapitated, their heads flip up into the air, rotate twice and land perfectly, almost bloodlessly, back in place, only to be flipped again seconds later by the other end of the blade. And on this goes, in perpetuity. Like an executive toy that Patrick Bateman might have. Bateman’s Cradle.
It is thoughts like this this – surprisingly, you might think – that help me come to terms with my anger. As I’m not really a psychopath, or even a particularly proactively angry person, any thoughts that involve me acting out my anger – whether it’s pelting faeces at someone, or decapitating them – lead to me laughing at how ridiculous that reality would be. The humour melts the anger. Much of the time, it has to be dark humour, because – by its very nature – anger comes from a dark place.
By the time evening comes around, I am feeling much better about things. My severe back pain has noticeably diminished and this has made me feel a lot better disposed towards the teacher. Maybe he actually knows what he’s talking about, I realise. Maybe they all do. This technique is two and a half thousand years old after all. They must surely have some idea what they’re doing.
I have started to feel sensation too, in my upper lip, and even creeping into my nose. It feels like a mild tickle, akin to the menthol tingle of toothpaste or Carmex lip balm. It also reminds me of the feel of flesh when a sticking plaster is removed, like the air is falling on it for the first time in a while. It’s interesting.
The discourse that evening, however, is utterly illuminating.
Before this latest foray into what is essentially Buddhist practice – although it by no means has to be – I had spent around 18 months practising Nichiren Buddhism. This is the one where you chant chapters of the Lotus Sutra twice a day. During that time, I met a lot of lovely people, read a few books and learned a fair bit about Buddhism. The practice also enabled me to exert much more control over my more negative emotions, principally anger and the self-loathing that was a large part of it. I became more attuned to my moods and the demands of my ego, and was able consequently to avoid a lot of unpleasantness. I became much happier as a result. And, I think, nicer to be around.
In the discourse tonight, Goenka speaks of our human understanding of impermanence and attachment. It’s easy, he says, to understand at an intellectual level that change is always happening, but Vipassana allows us to experience it directly, within our own bodies. He tells stories outlining basic Buddhist principles. He speaks at length of a man who dips himself in a river. Not only is the river a completely different river each time he goes under, but the man himself is wholly different, from moment to moment. ‘There is no solidity anywhere, just wavelets. The entire universe, mind and matter, nothing but wavelets, vibration, vibration.’
It is a very funny discourse tonight. There is a lot of laughter in the meditation hall. Maybe this is partly why it effects me so deeply. Mostly, however, I think it is because Goenka manages to distil everything I have learned thus far about life and about Buddhism into one hour of talk and storytelling. I feel like all of human life has been laid out before me, in words. And I do like words.
When he finishes speaking, signalling another ten-minute break before the final meditation of the day, I remain in position on my tower of cushions, thinking about what I have heard. I laugh at the beautiful simplicity and concomitant shocking complexity of the universe and I realise that my laughter has turned to tears. I leave the hall, foolishly embarrassed by my emotion.
Outside I laugh again and once again find myself crying. I am not sad. I am not upset. I am overwhelmed. Life is wonderful.
This morning the tingling becomes more intense and I feel good.
I’m meditating! I never thought I could – or at least I never thought I would. But sure enough, here I am. Meditating.
I spend a lot of my meditation thinking about the fact that I am meditating, and therefore, obviously, not meditating at all. But my lip is tingling, and no one can take that away from me.
This afternoon, at the 2.30 group session, we move from Anapana meditation (which is the observation of breath and nothing more) to Vipassana.
The first thing we are asked to do in Vipassana meditation is to take the skills we have learned in the past three days, the ability to focus on our top lip and feel sensation there, to the top of our head. Just focus on a small disc of surface area on the top of our head, at the crown, and observe any sensations we find there. We are told we may feel a sensation like ants crawling, a kind of pins and needles or more simple tingling. We are told me may feel cold or warmth, or numbness or even pain. We are told it doesn’t matter. As long as there is some sensation. And if there isn’t, we merely continue to concentrate until there is. We are, apparently, bound to be successful.
I am not successful.
I feel nothing.
Not a sausage. Not even a vegan sausage.
I try to convince myself that maybe this is actually numbness I am experiencing, the physical sensation of numbness, a definite and very real sensation. Chalk it up. But no. There is nothing. No numbness. Just me, totally failing to connect with my head.
I try my top lip again, which thankfully is still there, tingling away.
Then the disembodied voice of Goenka guides us from the crown of our heads to the heels of our feet, one small section at a time, asking us to still our minds at each point and feel whatever sensation is occurring there. As soon as we have felt any sensation – any sensation – we move on to the next part of the body.
And still nothing. For the longest time.
I feel like I have locked-in syndrome, but with pain. And it’s amazing how quickly I slip into the old habit patterns of the brain, which for me means feelings of utter failure and bitter self-loathing.
Why can’t I do this? What’s wrong with me? I claim – to myself at the very least, or to others if certain class A’s are involved – to possess some kind of intelligence, some kind of awareness, some kind of depth somewhere within me, but in truth, I’m really quite, quite useless.
I spend the rest of the afternoon battling this internal rage, the desire to damn myself and to destroy this universe of dhamma that is currently proving slightly too difficult to comprehend.
But along with the rage and the hatred and the violence, there is laughter. This is another change in myself for which I am grateful to my experience with Nichiren Buddhism. I don’t take my rage so seriously anymore. I laugh in its face and poke it in the ribs, playfully. Sometimes I let it play itself out, cinematically, comedically – like with the blades yesterday – but I’m watching it, and I’m not allowing it to take itself too seriously. So the rage is diluted, and eventually – relatively quickly – it passes.
At the 6pm session, we continue, working down the body, from the top of the head to the tips of the toes. Already my ability to perceive my body is beginning to improve, like a creeping rash of awareness. I’m getting somewhere, slowly. Painfully slowly.
This evening I also begin more clearly to understand the beautiful torture that is central to Vipassana meditation. Understanding our bodies, understanding life, means understanding sensation, means understanding pain. To understand, we must observe, we must tolerate. We must come to terms with pain, and with anxiety, and with fear and anger. That’s what we must do. That’s what Vipassana is. That’s why it helps us in life. It helps us to develop a defence against our own negativity.
I laugh at the ingenuity and effulgent brilliance of it all, and tiny doves made of hot salty water fly silently out of my eyes.
Before the day is over, I have begun to feel much more in terms of bodily sensation. Not just pain, but also torment, tension, itching, burning, cramp and general unpleasantness pretty much all over the body.
Dhamma be praised.
I miss the 4.30 session again today after another appalling night of sleep followed by some beautifully vivid and rather disturbing dreams, packed full of anger and lust.
After breakfast I am disturbed by the pain I feel. And surprise surprise, it makes me angry. I try hard to remain equanimous to it all: the pain, the anger, the growing frustration.
Mid-morning and we are called to the teacher in small groups and asked how we are getting on. Are we feeling sensation? I whisper that I’m definitely getting somewhere – it’s getting better, to which the teacher replies, ‘It is neither better nor worse. Just observe. Sensation, no sensation.’ I smile as the blade whumps by overhead and the teacher’s head rolls bloodlessly through the air.
Today I find myself particularly distracted by people.
It’s an odd thing to be living in very close proximity with over a hundred strangers, and yet not to speak with them. You start to imagine who they might be. You give them names. CrystalTipps. Ladybeard. The Surly Turk. You wonder at their lives outside of silence. One looks like an accountant. One looks like a circus acrobat. One looks like Harry Belafonte. One looks like Kim Jong-Un. One looks like a tapir. At least four or five look like ‘half-lifes’, the War Boys in Mad Max: Fury Road. Which is to say, they’re bald, or mostly bald. Buddhists maybe.
I also start to feel properly bothered by lust. There is a woman – one of the female managers – who is very much my type. I have a type. I don’t know why I have a type but I do, and she is it. She is physical flawlessness, and mostly she sits at the front of the hall, where I can squint at her and endlessly imagine her destroying me as I attempt to woo her with words. ‘I have no carnal cravings,’ she says, ‘but if I did, if I hadn’t already completely renounced physical pleasure, you don’t really imagine I could possibly be interested in you, do you? Not when I’d have my pick of these thrusting half-lifes, half your age.’
I wonder briefly if I should smear toothpaste on my nipples, to help spur sensation.
Despite the massive distractions of today, I actually make quite a lot of progress in the afternoon. By the time the evening discourse comes around, I am buzzing with excitement and very keen to talk and dance and celebrate. Very keen.
During and after tonight’s discourse, however, I come to a conclusion about this technique that does not please me. It occurs to me that if we extrapolate all we are learning about this mediation and carry it forward to its natural conclusion, then the ultimate point of it all is to eliminate all pleasure and pain from life and to reduce the experience of existence to a bland, passive series of emotions and sensations to which we do not react. This upsets me.
I love the emotion of life. I love the excitement of it. I love art and desire and creativity and self-expression and sex and drugs and dancing and running after a ball and doing all of the things that feel like celebrating being human. And I don’t want not to feel all of that. I want to feel more of that if possible.
I go to bed angry again. Raging, because I can’t find a system for living well that isn’t so apparently joyless and dull.
This morning I am still full of disdain and doubt and questions. If it is wrong to crave things, why meditate at all? Surely meditation is a craving for enlightenment and therefore something to be spurned? And with much of the focus now on not reacting to sensation, I have to wonder, isn’t no reaction at all also a reaction, and an equally valid one? And why does there have to be such a perfect vision of desirability sitting at the front of the meditation hall?
My craving for physical pleasure is becoming intolerable. And once again, I have reached the point where I just think: I’m not getting it. OK, so I’ve learned to move my mind around my body, feeling tingles and aches hither and thither, but so what? Seriously, who cares?
It is only Day Six of course. There is still plenty time for the scales to fall from my eyes. (Which I crave.) But then again, I have started to feel violently bored. In the gaps in our timetable, we return to our rooms or wander around the fairly extensive grounds, looking at the nature, which, naturally, is wonderful. Nature never gets tired. But I do. I get tired and I get bored. And I am bored. I’m thinking, this is just too much. Ten days, 17-hour days, one- or two-hour sits at a time – it’s simply too much. Anything practised that solidly would do my head in – anything. I’m thinking, do I really want to be here?
This afternoon the sun comes out and heats the roof of the meditation hall so that it creaks and expands noisily. The creaking mingles with the constant cracking and ticking of bones within the meditation hall. In the break before the discourse, a hang-glider appears overhead. I look around me. All necks are craned, all heads watching this lone figure, free as any bird, up there in the clear blue sky, and surely every one of us must be thinking: ‘I wish that was me.’ I’m certainly thinking that. That’s where I want to be – up there, or elsewhere out there, not sitting under a tree like the Buddha. I want to fly!
The discourse this evening seems deliberately and squarely aimed at everything I’ve been thinking. Again. Goenka talks about craving and about the excuses our brains will probably be making about now. ‘One feels like running away under some pretext or the other.’
Apparently, Day Seven is one of the most popular days for people giving up.
‘You are craving,’ he continues. ‘You are craving for object outside and that object has become so predominant for you it keeps on overpowering you, you forget that you are craving, and you also forget that by craving, you lost the balance of your mind, and you become very miserable, and you also don’t understand that you are becoming addicted to this craving.’
‘Once your craving is fulfilled, the object is attained, it becomes stale and you want something else.’
OK, Goenka. Nobody likes a smartarse.
In the final session, we are asked to sweep through the body. We have been escalating our Vipassana meditation, moving from the top to the bottom symmetrically, in opposing halves. Now we are asked to sweep through, from the top to the bottom. It isn’t really working for me though. My mind is too busy. I want to celebrate the achievement of another day. My craving to be doing something else is very strong. My life, I realise more and more acutely, is totally ruled by craving. I must make an effort to curb it.
I really must.
I am pleased that Goenka mentioned last night that it is natural to have doubt about everything we are learning because today I am besieged by doubt. This morning we have another brief session at the teacher’s feet. He asks us how we’re getting on with our equanimity. Are we managing to remain equanimous to both negative and positive sensations? One guy speaks before I do, explaining that he had a really good session the previous night. To which the teacher responds, cutting this guy dead completely, ‘Past is past.’
I am dumfounded and appalled. I want to yell in his smug irritating face, ‘When the hell are you asking about then? If not the past?’ I also have an urge to pour hot wax over his bald head toss chilli flakes in his eyes, so that I can observe his pigging equanimity. And I am more adamant than ever, I absolutely DO NOT want to live in a world without pleasure and pain. Pain exists for a reason. Pleasure too. I have no doubt that meditation is good for the human soul and for human society but today I am smelling an awful lot of bullshit.
Some other guy asks why he can’t sleep. He says he’s hardly sleeping at all and instead just lies there, getting angry. The teacher tells him this is because his meditation has been successful and all the sankaras are coming out of his body. A sankara is a negative emotion created by craving or aversion. The only way to stop them multiplying within us is to meditate and thus learn to stop creating more.
I am in no mood for this nonsense.
I want it to be over.
I realise whilst watching tonight’s discourse that any benefits I might have taken from this course have been severely limited by my impure mind. And my mind is terribly impure. An iniquitous cocktail of desire and anger, as well as the doubts, sneering and note-taking, which thus far, I have not mentioned.
Now I must confess. I have broken rules.
After all of my apparent superiority during the first couple of days, after all of my rage at everyone else’s inability to follow a few simple rules, I have broken many. Potentially more than most.
On the first evening, although I stored my phone and books in the lockers provided, I managed to leave a pen in the pocket of my jacket. On the second day, my desire to write was so overpowering that I stole some paper towels from the bathroom and began to make notes. Nothing too extensive, just a few words about what was happening, just an attempt to empty my head a little and make room for concentration.
Also, while I’m confessing, on the second night, when I was having such incredible difficulty sleeping, I’m afraid I broke one of the five precepts. I couldn’t help it though, I swear. It was just getting so late and I didn’t know what else to do. Usually it helps me go to sleep. Believe me, it afforded me no pleasure. Frankly, it rarely does. Actually, you might say that I broke two of the precepts that night, if you count the millions of sperm that died in the process. Then there’s the theft of the paper towels, making three, and the very fact of lying – pretending that my behaviour is moral when it is clearly not – bringing the total to four out of five precepts smashed. If I only I could find a toxic toad in the forest and suck the venom from its horns, I’d have a full house.
In my defence: nothing.
I am human. But also, as Goenka repeatedly says: you must find your own salvation.
I am saddened by my inability to do anything right. At the same time I am flirting with the conclusion that perhaps I do not want a pure mind. Or perhaps it’s merely that, dumbly, I still crave the craving. Either way, equanimity is still a lifetime away.
Tonight I decide to dispense with the note-taking for the duration of the rest of the course. At least then I can claw back some sense of … I don’t know what. But at least I can feel like less of a failure.
But then something happens that makes me change my mind.
After another full day of concentrating on sensation all over the body, and to varying degrees of success, I have a shower and go to bed just after 9pm when, quite suddenly, my whole body goes into sensation overdrive.
It starts in my face and arms, a tingle so fierce that if I hadn’t been meditating for a week, I would have sworn I was having a stroke.
One of the things we’ve been attempting to do in the meditation hall is to follow the feelings from the top of our heads to the tips of our toes in great surges, to feel the energy flowing through our bodies like a rapid rolling river of sensation. I have been singularly unable to do it.
Now, however, as I lie down to sleep, it has started happening spontaneously. I feel powerful sensation everywhere, in places that have thus far been dead to me such as my chest and back. It’s like my body has just been switched on. I feel like I’m phosphorescing, like I’m wrapped in invisible Tesla coils. I also feel like I have two hearts, and both of them are beating loudly in my ears, in my chest, all over me.
I lie there for half an hour or so, smiling wildly as the disconnect between my mind and my body dissolves. This is what my body feels like all the time, I realise. This is what it feels like to be alive and with heightened awareness. I feel utterly intoxicated. I seem to have broken the fifth precept without even trying.
Once I have drifted off to sleep, happily, I am suddenly awoken by a giant frothing of energy in my left shoulderblade. I laugh out loud and go back to sleep.
I don’t know why it happened, whatever it was, but I’m so pleased that it did. It makes me feel that maybe, despite all my misdemeanours, I am learning something very valuable, and utterly fascinating.
This morning, I dip out of the 4.30 session around 5am and go for a walk in the woodland. I’ve spent a lot of time in rural environments over the past four years and I repeat these words to myself as I watch the morning light slowly intensify: nature never gets tired. I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his notion that everything in nature ‘selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells / Crying What I do is me: for that I came.’ I feel like I’m on acid.
Today progresses normally until the 2pm group session. At some point over the past few days, we have been encouraged to attempt what are called adhitthana sittings – Sittings of Great Determination (Sittings of Mass Destruction as the writer and meditator Mary-Lou Stephens puts it) – where the meditator must make every effort not to move, not at all, for one whole hour. It sounds easy, I know, not moving, but in actual fact, it is a vicious and inhuman form of extreme torture. In the ten days that I am here, I manage to do it two times. One of those times is this afternoon.
This coincides with being instructed to ‘sweep en masse’. This was first mentioned last night and when I asked what it meant at the end of the final session, the teacher, in his typically obfuscatory style, basically said I needed to figure it out for myself. So this afternoon, when asked to sweep en masse, I try my hardest to push the sensations around my body all at once, to feel if possible my whole body tingling at the same time.
Because I am concentrating hard on feeling sensation in as much of my body as I can, and because I am not moving, despite the pains that are fermenting in various places, odd things start to happen. I begin to throb with warm pain. My two hearts are back, one in my chest where you would expect it to be, one everywhere else, beating out of sync.
Then a pain in my left shoulder brings itself to my attention. I observe it, with all the equanimity I can muster. It intensifies slowly, spreading across my scapula and up into my neck. As it intensifies, the heat at its core also intensifies. Suddenly it is ridiculously hot. Then it passes. I have never known such a frankly insane pain that I begin to laugh quietly to myself. Once again, the laughter turns immediately to tears. I control myself and the session comes to an end.
I think it’s just the total novelty of these sensations that makes me want to laugh, but every time I try to laugh, I find myself crying. Outside the meditation hall, people are milling about, stretching, yawning, caught up in their own reactions to whatever the hell is going on in their own brains, and I realise I cannot stop crying.
I walk off a little way into the woods and stand beneath a tree. It is raining softly. I look up at a canopy of wet leaves, shining. I am laughing and crying with such an overwhelming joy at being alive that it feels just like drugs – except it feels better because, frankly, drugs are too easy. My senses are sharp. My mind is alive. I am almost hysterical – certainly delirious – with joy. What’s more, I feel my body like I have never felt my body before. In his book Teach Us to Sit Still, Tim Parks speaks of the joy that comes from sitting through the pain:
The hunched back straightens, the lungs fill, and the body is one, as if all the doors in a house had been taken away allowing free movement throughout. You are feeling everything, simultaneously, or rather, you are everything, from toes to fingertips to the hair on your head. You dance through the rooms, you who never learned to dance.
I creep up to one of the managers before we re-enter the hall and whisper, although I know I really shouldn’t, ‘This meditation lark is mental.’
He sees the tears in my eyes and asks me if I’m alright.
‘Yeah, yeah,’ I assure him. ‘Fantastic!’
He smiles and nods. ‘It’s powerful stuff,’ he says.
So, naturally, for the rest of the afternoon, I desperately try to re-experience that same hysterical joy, or the Tesla-coil suit of phosphorescent skin. Either will do, but I am desperate for a buzz. I am a buzz-hunter.
In that night’s discourse, Goenka goes to great pains to point out that if you have found that you have had some pleasant sensations, the one thing you absolutely must not do is start chasing them. ‘Do not play the sensation game,’ he says. It is very dangerous to focus on these pleasant sensations. Not only may you halt your progress, you may also begin to regress. You must remain as equanimous to the pleasure as you do to the pain.
Tonight I manage to get to sleep OK but wake up at 2am with lots of ideas for articles. I spend two hours making notes – finding my own salvation – then I sleep through the 4.30 session and get up in time for breakfast.
The food, by the way, is exceptional. Vegetarian, naturally, but a wide variety of stuff – never the same main meal twice, which is definitely not what I was expecting. Plus of course, because you’re doing nothing but meditating and sharpening your senses, it tastes increasingly delicious as the course continues.
Today, however, is difficult for me. Because it is the last full day of meditation and silence – tomorrow morning we will be allowed to speak again – it is one of the most difficult. I personally just want it to be over. I feel like I’ve probably got as much out of the course as I can now. I have learned the basics of the technique and now I just want to be set free and given the chance to develop my practice. Of course, I am an idiot.
Today is very hot. Most of the past week has been hot and sunny but it intensifies today and in the lunchtime break, I lie on a bench in the glade, if it is a glade, and again I want it all to be over. I feel my intense craving to be out of here and getting on with my life, indulging myself in various pursuits that I know are really not good for me, and I know I have a long long way to go.
After this morning’s session, at around 10 I think, the Noble Silence comes to an end. We are not allowed to talk in the meditation hall, and we are not allowed to talk to members of the opposite sex, but we are allowed to talk to the rest of our breath-brethren.
Finally getting to know, at least superficially, people with whom you’ve been drifting around in close proximity for ten days is a peculiar thing and a thoroughly charming lesson in not judging books by their covers. People are full of surprises.
It’s great to hear other people’s accounts of their experiences too. Everyone seemed to have extraordinary dreams, lucid dreams in some cases. People speak of past experiences coming back to haunt or torment them, things they had not thought about for years. One chap who’d been brought up a Catholic is left feeling very angry at having been lied to for years and is keen to confront his mother and attempt to bring her out of her slavery.
Not that Vipassana meditation teaches that any other religious practices are wrong. Rather, if you are still labouring under any misapprehensions foisted upon you by theistic religions prior to the retreat, ten days of common sense and logic regarding how the mind and human society actually function will almost definitely lead to a certain amount of re-evaluation.
The meditation routine continues for the rest of the day but I find it almost impossible to shut off my mind from all the conversations and the excitement of almost being set free. I also now fully appreciate the necessity of the Noble Silence. Without it, we would have got nowhere.
This morning there are a couple of hours of cleaning, tidying and making the centre ready for the next batch of meditators before leaving at around 9am. But before all that, there is one final video discourse. This is basically an hour of Goenka pre-empting all of the excuses you’re about to make when you go back out into the real world.
And believe me, having since re-entered the real world, and despite Goenka’s wisdom and charisma, I have made them.
Around six weeks have passed since my Vipassana seminar came to an end. I meditated for the first few days, then I went to France for a week where I found excuses. Then I went to Nottingham for a week where I found more excuses. Now I am in London for a few weeks where, surprise surprise, I am finding even more excuses.
However, I am not giving up. Also, despite the fact that I feel that – because of my moral lapses – my experience at the retreat was weakened and in a way, I did not give a perfectly fair trial to the technique, I still feel that I benefited enormously from it. I also feel, without doubt, that I have learned a daily meditation practice that, should I pursue it, will allow me to live my life much more fully, with much greater rewards for me and anyone else with whom I come into contact.
I also managed to work through the problems I had with it – the idea of rigorous practice leading to a bland passive life with no fun in it. I came to the conclusion – and it’s a fairly obvious one really – that that is not the case. All this meditation does – much like the chanting I used to do – is train your brain to stop, and think: is this harming me? Is it harming anyone else? Do I really need to spit venom at that person who just stepped in front of me on the escalator? Or do I need to extend compassion and empathy and yadda yadda yadda.
I say yadda yadda yadda because I don’t want to start sounding like I’m preaching. It’s not for me to say how you should be living your life. Hopefully you already know how you should be living your life. If you don’t, it’s unlikely that anything I can say here will change your mind. If you do know, but you know you’re not really doing the best you can, then I wholeheartedly recommend that you enrol yourself in a Vipassana meditation course. It will be one of the most difficult, most painful experiences of your life. And it will – should you take up the challenge and continue to practise – transform you.
Now it’s up to me.
For other accounts of the glorious torture of Vipassana, Tim Parks’ Teach Us to Sit Still is very good indeed. Online accounts are all over the place and naturally, quality varies. I found these interesting: Fearful Adventurer and Suited Yogi. But of course, as you know, you must find your own salvation.