Between July 7th and July 17th, I attended a meditation course in Hereford, UK. The technique being taught there is called Vipassana. Although I had heard of it before, my interest in going there had little to do with Buddhism or Vipassana as such. I just wanted to go some place silent. And this, the camp offered in abundance.
For a period of ten days, one had to take a vow of silence of body and speech i.e. no talking by words, eye contact, gestures etc, no reading, writing, Internet, TV, phone etc. I was so drawn to the idea of getting away to some place quiet that I honestly didn’t question what I would be doing if I weren’t talking..
The first day
I was a bit late in getting there and when I arrived the practice of noble silence had already begun. I was shown to my room quietly, when my roommate walked in. I opened my mouth but she made a quietening gesture.. so I shup up. I hadn’t realized that I would be sharing a room with a girl.I didn’t know her name or anything else about her. It DID feel strange, but in an amusing way.
Five minutes in to the course, I was already sitting the meditation hall in my assigned spot. I tried to copy the others with their folded legs and serious straight backs and tried hard not to make eye contact with the 130 others in the hall. Half or them women, the other men. The men and women areas were completely segregated except for the meditation hall ( where they sat on one side and the women on the other). I was quite nervous the first day and happy not to talk. We were given instructions on exactly where to focus our attentions while meditating and I did my best to concentrate on that..and waited for five pm. Five pm was dinner time, where new students could get a fruit. Even though that fruit would be the last meal of the day, I wasn’t waiting for the gong to ring because I was hungry, it was just that my back couldn’t take all that sitting on the the ground like that. I did have a cushion but still…
Over the course of the next five days, I settled into the routine. I was waking up at 0400, getting in to the meditation hall by 0430 ( which honestly, I only managed to do once) and then on it was just more meditation through out the day. There was a simple vegetarian breakfast at 0630 and a lunch at 1100, cooked by old student volunteers. The only voice we heard were from the teacher ‘Mr Goenka’ from Burma on tape, giving instructions during the day and explaining the philosophy behind Vipassana for an hour each evening. I was really getting in the discourses, it wasn’t so hard to ignore the others and my back was getting stronger. Hours and days were melting in to one.
I had read that the first few days are the hardest, so I was surprised to see that I was doing okay. There was a small forest area ( segregated of-course) with neat signs saying things like ‘ female course boundary ends here’. It made me smile and reminded me of my school in Abu Dhabi, which was the last place where boys and girls were segregated as such.
I don’t know if I can explain the mediation technique philosophy properly – but suffice to say, it did me good. It didn’t include any visualizations or mantras. It wasn’t Buddhist, but taught the meditation as per his teachings. It was a very simple method on how to observe the body and ignore the mind for 11 hours each day. (I do intend to write more on this later, when I find the words for it.)
There were things that I did find hard of-course. And I found them much harder as days went by. My mind which I was supposed to ignore, did not want to be ignored.There were thoughts there that were insane, stupid, silly, non sequential.. I wasn’t hungry, but I would think of a Deli Luca calzone in detail, and suddenly switch to mobile widgets, to the state of world refugees, to the itch on my foot, to where my next job would be and of-course I just couldn’t stop thinking about sex. 🙂
A few days in, the images in mind, which also I was supposed to ignore, were so sharp they were real. I made paintings in my head. I wrote songs. I also, am embarrassed to say, surfed in my head. I literally typed out URL’s and went on imaginary websites. I learnt my mind is really quite wasted. I spoke with others after the course was over and they had similar thoughts and sensations at different times. Those into music had constant tunes and songs playing in their heads at the strangest times.
However, the deeper I went into the meditation, the worse things got. Day seven onwards was hell.I am glad I did it. I wouldn’t want to be without the simple truths I learnt of myself during the meditation. But it was no longer easy to reign in my mind. It just felt as though it was attacking me from within. I also had severe chest pains. They would go away eventually when I would stop meditating or thinking about them. But they were there lurking below. I was also finding it hard to entertain myself in the five minute breaks. It rained constantly, so it wasn’t possible to walk in the forest the same way. I felt things should be getting easier.. yet here I was. The course was almost over, and instead of me finding lightness and joy, all I felt was pain and desperation and loneliness. Its only now, when the course is over, that I can appreciate what I learnt hiding underneath all of those surface feelings.
I learnt that I could withstand the bad stuff on my own with a calmness of mind and spirit quite unknown to myself.
Some other stuff
The banana story
So as I said above, we would all be able to get a fruit at five. There were apples, pears, oranges or bananas. Choosing which fruit I would have for dinner was one of most exciting moments of my day! I bet it was the same for others. So anyway, a few days in, I really wanted a banana. No more apples, oranges or pears. Just one decent looking banana. Like really!
Unfortunately there were fewer bananas and they would be the first to disappear. Every day I would wait in line for my turn. By the time I reached the fruit basket, they were gone. 😦
Then one day, my turn came and there WAS one last banana in front of me! I COULD take it. As I had been observing my body in meditation all day, I cold sense how much it wanted it. But then I looked at the long line of girls behind me, and I couldn’t help but think that if I wanted it so badly, someone else probably did as well. If I take this banana, someone else won’t get it.
It seems absurd now, but it was such a momentous decision. My mind was furious with myself, but I didn’t take it. I couldn’t. I didn’t see who did take it either. It was just one of those moments that was so trivial but I don’t think I will be forgetting it anytime soon:)
I had a lovely roommate. As I had come late, and the silence had already begun, we didn’t get the chance to introduce ourselves. She was young, pretty, white, smiled even though she wasn’t supposed to smile at me, was the only well dressed person at the camp and had a jar of face cream with Russian letters at the night stand. That’s all I knew for the ten days. It was hard not to speak when we were alone, but really, we didn’t break the rules at all.
Of course I wondered who she was. I pictured her as a shy, meek, eastern European girl. I mean she had a cream with Russian looking letters. And she was smiling shyly all the time. Plus she was quite feminine, and that’s how I separate western Europe from eastern in my mind.
The thing that really warmed me to her, was on day seven I had eaten lunch quite quickly and gone back to my room to sleep. My chest hurt like a mad persons, I couldn’t talk about it and the only thing that helped was to keep it pressed hard. My roommate came by to get something from the room, saw me asleep, and figured there was no way I had eaten yet. So she brought some lunch in to the room, and quietly left.
I could hear she had come in and gone, and I could smell food. I saw that a food plate had been placed on my side of the nightstand and she was nowhere. I ‘assumed’ she brought it for me, but how could I know? I was very amused:). I went in to the forest to look for her. She saw me walk towards her and could see I was about to open my mouth. Then suddenly both of grinned so widely, it was all understood!
I returned the uneaten plate to the canteen and we went on being quiet until the last day.
She turned out to be a not so shy, full of life girl from Sydney who made music for a living! She had assumed I was Brazilian 🙂
We talked non stop, all the way to London.