My Vipassana Experience
A Vipassana is a period of retreat carried out in silence over a ten day period. Normally monks or other realised beings will be there to guide you through the week with stories, advice and talks about Buddhist Psychology. The word Vipassana means to ‘see things as they are’. From the offset and thanks to my own practice I understood how our world view can be tainted or curtailed by our past history or family and by the worst chains of all, culture and tradition. The dense raucous jungle at the Dipabhavan meditation centre definitely became more vivid day by day during my silent stay, in Koh Samui, Thailand, and I saw insects and happenings I had been blind to before, maybe these society installed filters were losing their strength and I was starting to see things as they are, aside from insects what other things could I see now thatnks to my silence…
(The hard regimentation of the grammatically correct word imprisoned on the printed page or screen is a poor substitute for the magic of Nun Ben and her discourse on Buddhist scripture, likewise for what I felt and saw that week at the centre but it’s all we got so here I go…
Placed high up on top of the island, and, like the island, enveloped by dense forest, the centre teems with coconut, banana and palm trees, sea views, and a noisey array of insects, birds and reptiles all competing to be heard. After a pretty aggressive drive up pretty vertical roads we arrived. As around 90 unsure participants shuffled their way into the dining area for registration, Nun Ben informed us that Dipabhavan translates to ‘a place of light’. With so much darkness and sickness in the modern world, with suicide rates climbing annually, with nearly 7 in 10 Americans taking Prescription Drugs, (Mayo Clinic, Olmsted Medical Center), we most definitely need places of light in this world and to learn how to follow the Dharmic path as to avoid sickness. Nun Ben and all Buddhists believe that mental or physical dis-ease only occur when people stray from the Dharmic way of living. A close English approximation of dharma is "The right thing to do based on your self-discovery of the self and everything else." In Buddhism specifically, dharma means "cosmic law and order" The facilities and our host were most definitely reflections of the Dharmic way, instilling instantly a profound feeling of calm and well being, if it leaves me beaming with happiness and serenity like her then where do I sign, I thought, whilst literally signing away my Iphone to a safe box for the next week…
We were given a tour of the very basic dormitories which were basically a big room with lots of different stalls for beds, very open plan, no privacy, a straw matt and wooden pillow made up the bed (surely better to just have no pillow than a wooden one?), covered mercifully by a mosquito net we had to hang up ourselves the first night, no fans. While lying awake on the uncomfortable bed I thought about those who had lay there before me and those who were yet to come, how had or would this experience change their lives, and in turn whose lives would they then go on to touch. The love bug spreads. The toilet and cold shower were equally elementary and jail-like, it would seem comfort and pleasure were not a priority for the stay, in fact they were to be strictly avoided.
The schedule was like that of an army upon first glance, 5 or 6 hours of sitting or walking mediation daily, the enemy to be defeated surely being the mind and ego, like war but with more smiles and sarongs. We were to be woken by a gong daily at 4.30 am, the gong was the only marker we had or needed for organisation. Interestingly fashioned from a bomb which did not detonate during Vietnam (strange how objects can have such contrasting functions, one for cultivating love and compassion while the other for destruction and suffering). The rest of the time was filled by an hour a day of Yoga, and the very interesting talks given by Nun Ben. Breakfast and lunch lunch were beacons to be looked forward to (for me at least), typically some kind of rice and two different vegetable dishes. I also had to sweep up every morning after breakfast which took me around 20 minutes.
The emphasis here is on complete simplicity, no distractions, no escaping from yourself, no more sensory gratification, no more living in the future waiting for the next meal, the next pleasure, the place is set up to help us find happiness where we are right now. From where we sleep, to what we wear, to what we eat, all designed to cultivate the skill or practice of no longer be slaves to our senses. To force us to look inwards, all effort going towards observing the interior, the body and mind, and depending what state your body and mind are in, this can be heaven or hell. Unfortunately for most people living in today's reductionist, technological and matter obsessed, consumer society where what you DO is everything, doing nothing is frowned upon. Being alone with ones own thoughts is a foreign and potentially terrifying concept. The norm in the West is to only train the body, no yoga or mental exercise is practiced. Due to this, one could be driven mad by their thoughts in a retreat setting, and it is common for people to drop out of Vipassana’s, I think three or so attendees left when I was there from a group of 50. So I really focussed on clearing my monkey mind and stop those pointless, repetitive, often negative thoughts, it's hard to do but it gets easier, plus, the alternative is a busy clutterred mind, unable to centre itself, which could eventually lead to health problems.
Focusing on the meditation was the most challenging aspect for me, not the lack of phone, nor the wooden pillow not even the lack of variety in food. Many hours sitting on a pillow on a wooden floor in a stifling hot room was really tough, you start changing positions every 30 minutes then by the end your changing every couple of minutes, before eventually your out of pieces of ass to put pressure on. Observing the pain instead of being a victim of it helped, watching how sensations manifest themselves instead of reacting to them is a great way to reduce their intensity. Often I’d stand up after 60minutes of sitting meditation and walk out the hall as if I’d been beaten up. It was also hard to avoid falling asleep, especially having spent the previous night with some guys who take snoring as seriously as they do their meditation, I often felt terribly rude, even sacrilegious with my head bopping down and bopping back up again as I danced between dream and reality, a few times I admit I snuck off to nap.
My mind wandered a lot but if you managed to clear it it stayed clear for a while in my experience, however if you give a banana (thought) to that monkey mind it can spiral out of control, and quickly. It is like having sediment in a glass of water, if you shake it up (think), then it takes a time of stillness for the sediment to fall and rest at the bottom aka being able to see and think clearly again. The mind is a venerable foe, it stopped me from going too deep into meditation by telling me that if I let go that far then there is no coming back, that I risk insanity and will never be the same if I got too deep. It's a desperate last ditch attempt to stay relevant and front and centre, damn egotistical mind. Or it just stops you from even trying all together, my mind did a good job one day of convincing me that Buddhism doesn’t really have any answers, as the mystery in life is so great, so don't even bother trying (forgetting that I've felt HUGE benefits from meditation practice already). At some point different voices in my head started arguing with each other, meditation was and always is the answer, as difficult as it may be. We don’t want to end up shouting at imaginary people in the street.
As the hours and days of meditation passed the jungle and its inhabitants rewarded me for my consistent efforts. From the beginning the flowers, tree leaves and insects are all exaggerated in size and form compared to the West but the more deeply I meditated the more the beauty of the jungle revealed itself to me, often during my sweeping chore. Have you seen the film Avatar? The more and deeper I meditated the more my surroundings reminded me of that film, oversized and exaggerated, both the visual and auditory, from the flowers to the leaves to the clothes piercing mosquitos, and wafts of smells. Stunningly beautiful and captivating. They can’t of but the amount of insects seemingly doubled as this place of light enlightend me. Some days the sounds and sights of the nature were so intense and otherworldly it was comparable to a psilocybin mushroom induced experience (so I've been told, (psilocybin is an illegal and damaging banned substance which our loving government have deemed unfit for our feeble bodies and minds, thank God!)), the trees seemingly dancing in the distance, strange colourful insects I’d never seen before moving in strange ways, huge leaves stretching and reaching towards the sun, pure magic. If only we could take the increased perception of what really is back to our daily lives, familiarity it would seem does breed contempt.
If you were on the fence about doing a Vipassana in Thailand I can tell you that large, lanky, hairy spiders were to be found all around, while exploring the centre I turned and suddenly had a big spider inches from my face, unfortunately forcing me to break my silence with a four letter expletive . I decided then and there to name the spiders who I saw in the same spots daily as to increase familiarity and therefore reduce fear. So, I was observing Franky the spider (behind the shower block) one day and my mind drew a parallel to our meditation practice and a Dharmic way of living. He quietly sits there, all day if need be, totally still and silent, if the net or his awareness is stimulated he calmly responds to that stimulation. He doesn’t waste his energy worrying whether maybe he should have spun his web round the corner in the showers like Aron the Arachnid, or whter he will be able to catch the next fly, or whether maybe a fly won’t come at all! Maybe even his net will be destroyed completely at some point! No, he is Zen, he is in the Dharma, a river doesn’t have to think about how to ge to the sea. I also saw a leaf fall down off the tree near Franky and thought about the leaf dying, going to the ground and then becoming food for new growth. Strangely the same day I made these comparisons Nun Ben drew the same the exact same parallels during her talks. Yet more evidence to bolster my belief in synchronicity. One day Franky wasn’t there anymore.
Fortunately I brought ear plugs along with me as a few of the guys seems to be competing for loudest animal in the jungle whilst they slept. Having a total stranger in full supine position making deafening noises with his face is a great opportunity to practice loving kindness and compassion towards your fellow man. Also when selfish or oblivious people make a deafening scraping noise with their chair EVERY time they get up or sit down. Its surprising how much you can hate people without even the need to talk to them. You can also find yourself quite attracted to people, as an aside yoga pants shouldn’t be allowed at a meditation retreat for women. There was one guy who was chewing so loud at lunch some insects ran for cover, and then to add insult to injury, he sucked his fingertips hedonistically after having eaten the last piece of pineapple I had my eye on. My eyes rolled so loud, I thought he had heard them. This is of course says more about the hater than the hatee. I was mortified at the end of the retreat to finally break my silence to be presented by a delightful, beautiful being of light who I had previously envisioned in great detail elbowing in the face, merely due to his eating habits. In general though I think I felt love for around 80% of the attendees. Even though you can’t talk before the last day, you still feel a connection with the other students. We shared many moments where communication wasn’t needed, many students would often observe the same birds, bugs and lizards. It filled me with enough love and joy to make me cry knowing that other people are willing to suffer and fight for a better world.
The mind is a great tool but a terrible master. It will continue to make thoughts in the same way that the salivary gland will continue to make spit. Still, I was able to meditate for hours each day and felt pretty calm for it. I remember being so calm and chilled that, when it came, I was quite delightfully entertained by the veracity of an itch. The early morning and late night sessions facilitated me in connecting most deeply in my meditation. Buddhists place a lot of emphasis on meditating very early in the morning, it is in fact customary to start as early as 3am. The reason for this being that Buddha himself reached enlightenment at this time and it is known for flowers to bloom at this hour. During the day I often hit a wall and sleepiness kicked in hard, normally meditation leaves me rejuvenated but I think such a deep, consistent and continued practice took its toll on my mental grit. Often I just napped, convincing myself I would meditate extra hard at later sessions.
In a way, your 10-day meditation retreat is just as hard as you make it, maybe like life. I gave myself a permission to slack off a bit (maybe also like in life). If I had tried to focus completely on all meditation sessions, my Vipassana experience would have been much tougher. In my humble opinion Buddhism and an ascetic life of quiet contemplation is a way but not the only way. I see Buddhism more as a briliiant psychology for happiness than a conventional religion, especially the meditation aspect, if you stick to a regimen of daily meditation you will feel way better about being on this rock spinning through infinite space. I meditate for happiness and wisdom and I really feel it gives me this plus so much more, it's almost as if you get messages from outside about how to live (we can draw a parallel to prayer here), or like a reset for us, back to our true nature of love, nurturing and forgiveness. I have reached similar mental states and received similar messages through using other substances, ayahuasca, dmt, psilocybin, their effect comes on way quicker and you don’t have to separate yourself from society for the rest of your life. In some of the mantras we had to sing you could see where Buddhism did seem like more of a conventional religion, where man got his dirty mitts on the brilliance that is Buddhism, its a beautiful thing but when dogma such as no dancing, no singing, no sex and no drugs are spouted then you can count me out.