Next week I am off on another 10 day Vipassana retreat.
Out of curiosity I searched my old blog for the entry I wrote about one of my retreat experiences (I'd sneaked in a small notepad and pen and took down a few notes).
It was April 2005 and I was on my fourth ten day retreat
Here are the notes:
# posted by nobodhi : 10:27 PM
Sunday 1st May 2005
10 day Vipassana Retreat
I had such noble intentions of serving at this Vipassana retreat helping out behind the scenes with things like peeling vegetables, stirring enormous pots of oatmeal, cleaning toilets and filling up water containers, but when we all arrived on the first evening and I checked into the kitchen I was made ‘Female Manager’. This is a primary role, caretaker of all the female meditators. You have to observe them, be available to them 24 hours around the clock to deal with any problems, taking them to the ‘Assistant Teacher’ when necessary, care for their immediate needs and basically keep them in line and on track, ensuring they’re all present and accounted for at the three group sittings each day.
The first 24 hours were pretty hectic as they settled in to their strange new environment and routines. I pretended to know what I was doing so they felt looked after even though I had no idea of protocols.
The Assistant Teacher on this retreat (Mr Goenka is the Teacher) was a lovely woman called Trish. After a short conversation with her on the first morning, she summoned me to a private interview and we determined that I actually shouldn’t be serving as I hadn’t kept up a regular Vipassana practice since the last retreat (hardly ever actually, but I didn’t quite say that).
I hadn’t known that servers are supposed to be fully committed Vipassana meditators, and although I have great respect for this technique and recognise the benefits, I haven’t been able to incorporate the practice into my life despite having done 3 of these retreats over the last few years.
So half way through Day 1 the Assistant Teacher suggested I sit the course instead of serving. I was more than ecstatic to sit and meditate in total silence for 10 days instead of doing 10 days of unpaid work. Oh Bliss.
So from 2pm on Day 1 I once again set out on the long and difficult road to Samadhi.
This is the daily schedule:
4:00 a.m.-------------Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 a.m.-------Meditate in the hall
6:30-8:00 a.m.-------Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 a.m.-------GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL
9:00-11:00 a.m.-----Meditate in the hall
11:00-12:00 noon---Lunch break
12noon-1:00 p.m.----Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 p.m.--------Meditate in the hall or your own room
2:30-3:30 p.m.--------GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL
3:30-5:00 p.m.--------Meditate in the hall or your own room
5:00-6:00 p.m.--------Tea break
6:00-7:00 p.m.--------GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL
7:00-8:15 p.m.--------Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 p.m.--------GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL
9:00-9:30 p.m.--------Question time in the hall
9:30 p.m.--------------Retire to your own room--Lights out
Glimpses of silence.
The first three and a half days of the 10 day retreat are devoted to Anapana meditation which is simply observing the sensations of the breath within a very small area beneath the nostrils. It initiates the journey towards a profound internal silence, a journey which is fascinating. It starts out as a tug of war, the mind wanting to go exploring in all directions as it usually does, chasing fantasies, plans, worries… The slow, deliberate process of strengthening the remembering faculty that reels the wandering mind back in, back to the breath, back to the task at hand, back to silence. Remembering to catch the elusive mind – that’s the trick. It’s easy and fun to get lost in your stories and fantasies, following them along wherever they take you. Then bingo!. You remember that you’re supposed to be focussing on the breath and what is happening right here and now as you’re sitting on the cushion. You drag the mind back to this task – it doesn’t want to come. It wants to play. You drag it back again. It runs off and you elope with it, following blindly along. You’ve forgotten again. After a long while bingo! You remember what you have to do…bring the mind back to the breath and the present. And so it continues on and on. But gradually, slowly, painstakingly, it gets easier. This is mind training. This is a real workout, but the reward for now, in the early stages, is a progressively silent and peaceful mind that is soft and malleable, a mind that is finally under some semblance of control and ready to obey further instructions with precision.
I came to the conclusion that a Vipassana retreat very closely resembles having brain surgery with no anaesthetic.
The late afternoon meditation sessions were a nightmare. Having less than 5 hours sleep for 2 nights in a row meant I was susceptible to the onset of sleep deprivation. I was bordering on insanity (which is normal in the first few days of retreat anyway). My usual straight sitting posture kept spilling backwards and catching myself falling backwards would electrocute me momentarily back into consciousness. Each time I closed my eyes a delirium took over; strange images flashing and filling my mind, coming and going at great speed. There were no coherent thoughts, just a wild uncontrollable continuum of gaudy, disconnected, unfamiliar scenes, like a larger than life reel of film gone out of control.
So I quietly walked out of the meditation hall before the end of the 3.30-5pm session, put myself to bed and fell asleep instantly, missing the tea break. I got woken up by the new female manager because they couldn’t start the compulsory 6pm group meditation session until I was in my spot in the hall. Not a good start.
In the 8.30pm meditation session following Goenka’s evening discourse things hadn’t improved despite my late afternoon nap. I spent the hour trying desperately to keep my eyes open to avoid losing consciousness altogether.
I gave myself permission to be lazy and lay in bed between all meditation sessions. No yoga, no exercise, not even a walk around the retreat centre. I’d settled completely into extreme meditation mode. Apart from the 11 hours a day of sitting in the meditation hall, I was either in the dining room eating breakfast or lunch (one of the precepts is that you take no food after 12 o’clock midday until breakfast the next morning), or I was in bed. Showering only every second day meant I could spend more time in bed.
An interesting observation I made while laying in bed after lunch was how laboured and urgent my breath was after eating a meal. I laid there watching it, my diaphragm following neural instructions to work double time to supply my body with the extra oxygen it needed to digest the food. I’d never noticed that before so it was a small, experiential insight into the physiology of my digestion.
By Day 4 it was getting physically easier to sit for these long hours. The aches and pains were subsiding. This happens naturally as the mind begins to sink into the deeper dimensions of meditation. An agitated mind is reflected in an agitated body so as the mind calms, the body begins to experience a more natural ease.
Mr Goenkas’s discourses are punctuated with lots of simple stories that illustrate important points. This is how Gautama the Buddha taught, explaining difficult concepts by telling simple human stories that are easy to relate to. In one of the discourses he emphasised how you MUST walk the path yourself if you wish to reach the final goal of liberation/enlightenment. You don’t get far just reading about it, intellectualising, forming opinions. Many teachers have come along throughout the ages like Buddha and Jesus and have shown the way, but few people are prepared to actually put in the effort and commitment, place it above all else and actually walk the path. It is one step after the other. That is all it is, and the ones who walk this path will eventually reach the final goal.
Didn’t take any notes. Under normal retreat circumstances, students are not allowed to bring any reading or writing material, and this is for good reason. It really does distract you from the meditation and prevents you from immersing your mind fully in the process.
But I came thinking I’d be in a serving capacity and servers are allowed reading and writing material because they are not partaking in the course. Servers are only required to attend the group sittings (unless they want to sit in their spare time) so they barely get the chance to enter deeper states of consciousness. But since I was now sitting the course, pen and paper were technically illegal. I couldn’t resist recording my experiences on paper, but it did interfere with the process during the first half of the retreat and I knew it.
The 3 hours of sitting after breakfast were always by best. I could feel my mind was sharper, fresher, more willing, and my effort and enthusiasm were at their peak. During the morning meditation I found myself at one point in an ecstatic state of bliss, all the cells of my body buzzing at a high frequency. It was rapturous, seductive. I sat in this state for maybe 10-15 minutes, loving it. One tiny voice was saying “maintain this rapture, let it overwhelm you, let it be absorbed and imprinted into every cell so that they’ll never be the same again, so they’ll always remember”. Another tiny voice was saying “this ecstatic state is very alluring, but there is other work to be done, let it go and move on”.
I stayed with it, knowing it would fade in its own time. My edges had completely dissolved into the space around me and everything was buzzing. My mind was elevated way above and beyond my usual consciousness as if it was being drawn upwards towards light. I reflected on how easy it is to fall prey to the allure of ecstasy, to stray from working with the Vipassana method of observing sensations in order from head to toe. It was only a sweet by-product of meditation and not an end to itself.
It could easily be mistaken for Samadhi by those unfamiliar with the Buddhist jnanas (or jhanas in some texts) These are the states of absorption one passes through as one progresses in meditative practices. This particular state I think Goenka called Bunga Jnana. He describes it as a landmark on the path.
Samadhi in the Buddhist Vipassana tradition has a different connotation to the Samadhi of the yoga tradition. Samadhi in the yoga tradition is union with God where all notion of self disappears and this is the highest bliss one can attain.
Mr Goenka speaks constantly of the three ingredients for liberation: Sila, Samadhi and Panna:
“The path of Dhamma is called the Noble Eightfold Path, noble in the sense that anyone who walks on it is bound to become a noble-hearted, saintly person. The path is divided into three sections: sila, samadhi, and panna. Sila is morality--abstaining from unwholesome deeds of body and speech. Samadhi is the wholesome action of developing mastery over one's mind. Practising both is helpful, but neither sila nor samadhi can eradicate all the defilernents accumulated in the mind. For this purpose the third section of the path must be practised: panna, the development of wisdom, of insight, which totally purifies the mind.”
So the term Samadhi can be a bit confusing to yogis at first.
I think it was about Day 6 when I started to work out how to be on retreat: how much to eat, how much to sleep, when to shower etc. You’d think that I would have worked this out by now, being my 4th retreat.
One example: for the first few days I was having for breakfast a bowl of muesli with milk, plus stewed prunes and apricots, plus two pieces of toast and jam, plus weak tea. On Day 6 I had a cup of weak tea plus one piece of toast with homemade peanut paste, and every mouthful was superb.
Things that are OK to do on retreat:
- lay in bed whenever you’re not meditating
- not have a shower so you can get extra time in bed
- not watch the magnificent sunsets over the ocean so you can get extra time in bed
- sleep in once and miss the 4.30-6.30am session
- miss your dog and your boyfriend
- plan the rest of your life
Things that are not OK to do on retreat
- write notes for your blog
Instead of going to the 4.30am session I slept. But tiredness was not a valid excuse. At breakfast I felt great regret for sleeping in. This was not guilt, but real regret because I really missed those 2 precious hours. There’s something quite sacred about sitting in the stillness of meditation before the sun rises (which would be the same for any kind of spiritual practice I guess).
The Assistant Teacher sent me a message that she wanted to see me for an interview at lunchtime. I had so many convincing excuses prepared for missing the early morning meditation, but she didn’t even mention it. She was just concerned that I might be practicing “other” forms of meditation (a severe no-no here) and was just checking that I was staying with the Vipassana technique.
On Day 8 I finally got bold enough during one of the sessions to try the opposite half Padmasana position, the stiff knee one. I crossed my stiff right knee on top for the first time on this retreat and was able to sit for about 20 minutes before the unpleasant sensations started to arise (much longer than expected). Hip, knee, ankle, toes, the shooting nerves, the heat, the daggers…it all started. But I was able to sit with the intensifying pain without reacting, just watching them arise, dissolve, change and reappear in a different guise. I kept thinking that I must have a big, fat sankhara buried in this knee and if I sit with it, not reacting, just observing, perfectly equanimous, the sankhara might just bubble up to the surface and be released and my knee would be cured – a miracle. Who needs TV when you can get this sort of entertainment for free.
At the end of the session I unfolded by leg and got up and couldn’t walk.
I woke up long before the 4am gong, very wide awake, alert and ready. My body light and clear, my mind peaceful but open and curious, willing to continue exploring the potential of Vipassana meditation for another day. Despite this willingness, my mind was still running astray quite often. Thoughts arising and running along their heavily laid tracks like freight trains. Controlling my planning mind seemed an insurmountable task. It never seems to stop and my analysing mind is always trying to make sense of every experience, placing them all in context so they add up tidily in the equation of life. I was surprised and a bit disappointed that becoming fully present in the Now was proving to be so difficult. It should be simple. It used to come easily. This is the price I pay for trading off a daily meditation practice for a full and busy life.
I vowed then and there to give it equal priority to my Ashtanga practice when I get home.
Part of the brief instructions for Day 8 onwards was not to have any interval between meditation sessions – meaning that every moment one should remain aware, attentive and equanimous. When eating, bathing, walking etc we were instructed to remain vigilantly aware of our breath, our movement and the arising sensations throughout the body. This is not just awareness of action and being fully present in what you are doing, but additionally watching the body’s subtle responses to all stimuli.
Eating breakfast on Day 9 I watched my hand pick up the toast and move it towards my mouth, the action of my teeth biting in and the hand pulling the toast away from my teeth, the muscular action of the tongue like a washing machine agitator, the unctuous saliva coming to the party, the changing texture of the toast from grainy to liquid, the hidden tension in a muscle or involuntary stretch of an ankle, the smooth satisfying flow of feeling throughout my body as it responded to the pleasure.
Picking up my cup of tea…observing how my fingers hooked around the handle of the mug…my hand readying itself for the weight of the full cup. The cup took off from the runway and approached my mouth, tea slid in. It got checked in by the tongue, the body was waiting expectantly. Tea slid down the throat and I felt the warmth in my stomach. The body was satisfied, smiling, relaxed.
I remember looking around at the other women, eating, moving unconsciously and thinking of other things. Did they miss the instruction about mindfulness? Had they forgotten? It is so rewarding, so rich and fulfilling to be immersed in the moment. I wanted to remind them of this so they wouldn’t miss out. Continuous mindfulness is a practice that is always available, but when you’ve been on retreat for 9 days, the mind and body are so thickly enmeshed that the quality of this experience is awesome and penetrating. It’s also beautiful to watch someone moving with complete mindfulness. Being fully in the moment is an act of love. On my first retreat I was mesmerised watching a particular girl walking. Every part of her body was charged with awareness, and it really showed. She walked particularly slowly and each step touched the earth like a cloud.
As I practiced this level of mindfulness I realised how much I’d strayed from my Buddhist training. The qualities I developed from 5 years of serious Buddhist study and practice such as mindfulness, detachment, equanimity etc have been absorbed deep into my psyche to shape my character and my journey, but the potency of their initial application has waned. Those years of Buddhist practice served to initiate the deconstruction of my Ego Self.
Realising intellectually that there is no Self was the prerequisite for my awakening experience and the ACTUAL experience of no Self. To awaken fully can be devastating because all sense of identity is blown apart. You don’t exist as you anymore. You are actually God. Without the preparation of exploring this concept, entertaining the possibility in our limited capacity to do so, the experience of awakening would be mind shattering. When the bolt of enlightening strikes, that limited capacity to understand such a mind blowing possibility becomes limitless.
Sitting from 8am-11am. I was again drawn easily into what Mr Goenka described as the landmark Bunga Jnana. This is the semi ecstatic state of dissolution where the solidity of the body feels no longer solid. What he calls the “kalepas” (atoms?) spin faster and at a higher frequency and start to separate. I experienced myself first as if buzzing, then it quickly refined to a higher, lighter state, and I could feel every atom arising and passing away at light speed. What must this do to one’s physical constitution I mused…I think I look the same, except perhaps for my eyes. They were like explosive embers, glowing with the inner fire of divine immanence.
When one experiences this jnana, the instructions are to sweep a penetrating awareness through the entire body from left to right, then from right to left, then from front to back, then from back to front. When this can be done with no areas of gross sensations, no pain or dull, blind areas, then the final instructions are to move the awareness through the spinal cord from top to bottom, bottom to top. I probably need a few more years of intensive sitting to ever reach this level of inner work.
Not long after this sitting, I dwelled upon the grace of my awakening experience 2 years ago when The Source of all Life/God/The Divine descended upon me and then arose from within me. It was overwhelmingly huge and magnificent, the mind/body hardly able to bear the brightness and massive loving force of this energy. It’s like you’re filled out so full with Love in all directions that you will burst. Your little mind/body container has to expand, like a belly instantaneously ripening and exploding to give birth. You expand to your ultimate to allow as much of this Love to fill you, then your limits dissolve and you merge as one with The Source. Like the wave powered by the surging energy of the ocean that has risen up in a crescendo to find that the entire ocean has risen up to engulf it.
Then the intensity fades away, the connection to the Source of life weakens and the veil of unconsciousness descends, though from now on it is a transparent veil. To be consciously connected and in communication with the Source is my goal and it will take daily reminding and consistent effort to remain in touch with this noblest of intentions.
After 9 days of meditation, this is where I was at, not far really, but it was a powerful reminder that all is not lost – that I have a lot of work to do on myself if I am to reach a state where I can live constantly in awareness of my divine inheritance and to be one of the light sources through which Love can flow.
Awoke again long before the 4am gong, eager to get up and meditate. Being the final retreat day, after 9.30am noble silence is broken, so for the rest of the day meditation is punctuated by disturbing inner chatter as interactions and conversations agitate back and forth and get played over and over in the mind.
My 2 hour sitting session before sunrise was as spectacular s the sunrise itself. Once I sat down in the hall, folded in my legs, placed my hands and elevated my spine, I was off in the starting lane of the express highway to Samadhi. Within about 10 minutes every dimension of my mind/body had moved into one unified body of higher consciousness. I could feel the elevation of my mental state. It felt like the mind had physically risen above the body, slowly drawing up with it all the layers of my being like a vacuum. Everything was perfectly aligned. My mental state was pure and I felt like a saint, a great yogi, an angel, Christ-like. There was great love and tears of joy. I was being drawn upwards into an expanded, limitless, highly refined and evolved state. I got halfway. This was good. This was progress. I reminded myself that I am He, not me so there is no meeting to be had between two separate entities. We are one and the same.
For a while I sat with the pure experience of divine saturation then slowly it faded, I don’t know why. I think it takes time to acclimatise to such experiences. I am resolved now to visit this space more often, carry it with me in daily life, and notice when it’s being overridden by my previous patterns of thinking that are less noble, less loving..
The Assistant Teacher entered the meditation hall at 5.45am and set going the tape of Goenka chanting for the last 30 minutes of this shorter session. It was too loud. My state was immediately altered by this. I went back to the Vipassana technique of feeling sensations systematically through my body, part by part from head to toe, but the chanting was distracting. I tried Anapana (mindfully watching the breath), but it just wasn’t working.
Breakfast was divine. I ate slowly and finished last. I marvelled at the intersected pattern of a halved banana – it is flower like, quite a beautiful work of art really.
At 9.30am, after our morning meditation session noble silence ended. One woman walked out of the hall and burst into uncontrollable tears. I stepped out into the sun for a few minutes but wasn’t ready for chatter. I stepped back into the hall and resumed sitting. I could hear the women chattering and laughing. That’s good, I thought, they need to share their experiences with each other. When they get back to their families and their lives and try to describe their 10 days on retreat, nobody will understand what they’ve been through.
Mr Goenka says that upon leaving a 10 day Vipassana course and going back to the outside world, people will seem quite shocking. He calls Day 10 the “shock absorber”. The meditation schedule is cut back slightly and you start to interact with the other people as you are ready.
I was highly sensitised after the intense period of silence. My sense of hearing was acute and my own voice thundered through my skull even though I was whispering. Speaking with others engaged my entire body and I could feel it draining energy from my eyes.
Aaaah the final day. I know many people were truly relieved that it was over, but for me, real progress was only just starting to kick in. I needed 20 days. I felt great sorrow at having to leave, having to cut short the journey when I’d barely started. I hadn’t finished. It wasn’t complete. There was so much more I wanted and needed to do. As the day progressed and I came to accept the inevitable return home, these thoughts and feelings subsided. The deep peace found in continual silence, the accelerated progress and spiritual leap gained through this work was now over. I know it won’t be possible to get to this level until the next retreat, even with the recommended 2 x 1 hour meditation sessions at home.
Over and over Mr Goenka reinforces that “continuation of practice is the secret to success”. But will I continue to practice the Vipassana technique? Will I forego my strong commitment to yoga practice to accommodate a renewed passion for Buddhist meditation?
I view meditation as an integral part of the yoga path and in fact it’s actually the most important part for real growth and transformation. This period of intense meditation has convinced me of the urgency to practice meditation daily. It provides me with the little space where I can go back to the Source, plug in, reconnect and receive spiritual nourishment. Here I can objectively observe and remove any traces of negativity accumulated unconsciously and emerge recharged with a more purified mind, filled with divine aspiration and love.