7 May 2014

Vipassana meditation retreat: how to live

I disappeared over Easter to a 10 day meditation retreat. I lived like a Buddhist nun for 10 days, including rising with the 4 am gong (I truly love that sound), not eating after midday (apart from herbal tea and fruit at 5 pm) and meditating for 10 hours a day. Oh, and not speaking, but that was the least of my burdens.

The Vipassana Meditation Centre about an hour north-west of
Auckland - a stunning location. Click on the photo to go to their website.
(This is their photo, not mine.)
Why, oh why? I've dabbled in meditation for a while, and there is a suggestion that it can prevent or treat migraines. But what I discovered was quite different. I learnt how to live! (I'm still getting migraines though.)

But firstly the challenges, which people seem to be most interested in, although they are incidental really. The early mornings I dealt with by grabbing an extra hour of sleep after breakfast, and at tea time I ate about 6 pieces of fruit. Still, each day when I woke I noticed a bit more bone emerging from my body. Not good.

However, for me the most challenging thing was meditating that much. When we were instructed - for about the 35th hour in four days - to focus all our attention on the small area between our nostrils and the top of our upper lip, I wanted to find a brick wall and bash my head against it. The brain training was so intense, so hard and my wandering mind so frustrating!

So why was it so great? Well, frequently I felt the soothing, peaceful bliss that meditation and lack of talking brings. But also because I learnt about equanimity, which is an even, balanced mind that doesn't plunge into anger, despair or worry, or become overly excited and passionate. This, say the Buddhists, is the key to happiness.

Without equanimity we have aversions (he was so rude to me.... I am terrified of this illness...I wanted that to happen and it didn't.... etc) and cravings (I want a bigger, better house.... I need to lose weight.... I want to have a baby...). Both bring unhappiness, the reason being obvious when it comes to aversions, but cravings do too because there is a gap between what we want and what we have.

So how on earth do we get rid of these cravings and aversions, which we're all riddled with? Firstly, we remember that nothing is permanent: "This too shall pass." It's a beautiful saying.

Secondly, we need to train our mind into equanimity, because it most definitely does not arrive without considerable effort and self-discipline. Vipassana meditation does this by training the mind to feel sensations throughout the body, and considering all of them, pleasant and unpleasant, with equanimity. This training takes 9 gruelling days of the course. The 10th day, in contrast, is enormous fun because you finally get to talk to everyone! (Also because we got dinner - oh joy - a lentil soup - I nearly cried with relief.)

A peeve of mine was that there was a heap of Buddhist stuff wrapped around all this, in spite of the technique repeatedly being described as rational and scientific. There was talk of kharma and reincarnation, plenty of Buddhist chanting and more. Nevertheless, whether a rainbow is described in mystical and religious terms or as the refraction of light, it is still real and beautiful. I quietly translated all the mystical stuff into plausible explanations.

The most magical thing was the sensations. I could feel all the nerve endings in my body tingling! When my concentration travelled through the back of my nose I felt the hint of water up my nose - ah, must be my sinuses. I felt the chambers of my heart, and the thickness of my skull. The volume of my brain's focus was turned way up. That, along with a quiet mind, had a whole lot of creative thoughts presenting themselves to me as if from a third party (especially when I was NOT meant to be thinking!).

Since I got home a week ago I have not kept up my meditation as I should. Instead of two hours a day, as recommended, it's been about 40 minutes. Maybe tomorrow, eh? Still, the equanimity in me feels strong, and I've found it to be a wonderful parenting technique.

I should sign off or you'll get bored. But I just want to say that the whole thing was magnificently organised, and breakfast and lunch were delicious, healthy and all-you-can-eat. I think that going there would help most people enormously - but I'll fall short of recommending it, or you'll hate me after a few days there. (Go anyway, go anyway, be brave and and strong!).

These courses are run all around the world - just google 'Vipassana meditation' for your country - and there is no compulsory charge, although they do like to receive donations.

1 comment :

  1. master Kirpal Singh20 August 2014 at 04:40

    Really nice and informative article.I have some words to share. Vipassana is a method for self-transformation through self-observation. It concentrates on the profound interconnection in the middle of mind and body, which might be accomplished straightforwardly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that structure the life of the body, and that ceaselessly interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory adventure to the normal base of mind and body that disintegrates mental impurity, bringing about an adjusted mind loaded with affection and sympathy.Best wishes.
    -----------------------------
    master Kirpal Singh

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