I tried not to write this blog over 1,000 times in my mind during my Vipassana retreat. Maybe even 10,000. Such is the urge of the mind to describe and analyse, rather than experience the present moment.
It is said that all of man’s problems come down to not being able to sit still alone. After 10 days of doing just that, I agree.
Vipassana retreats are 10 days (or more) of complete silence, no eye contact, no reading, no devices, no eating after noon and 12 hour days of meditation. It doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, yet hundreds of thousands of people are doing it right now. Why? Put simply, it brings you back to your natural state: joy, peace and love.
It sounds kooky. It’s a bit like heartbreak. You can appreciate the theory in what I’m about to say, but you won’t feel it until you directly experience it.
So what did sitting in meditation for 12 hours and severe hunger pains teach me? First, I came to see why I struggled at Law School. Academically I was ‘gifted’, but depression crept over me soon after I started, though I didn’t realise it at the time. To cope drank too much alcohol and partied hard. Yet I never found joy there. Now I see a world of pure logic and science was positioned against my need for deeper meaning. I didn’t feel ‘at peace’ until I put aside seven years of legal toil to start my first business. It was then that I started to hear my inner voice and meditation became a natural part of my life.
Despite 4 years of meditation I never made time for a Vipassana retreat. Until I felt ‘called’ to Chiang Mai. Upon arriving I found a beautiful monastery and started the course two days after. I even passed the course forward to someone surreptitiously. I felt an order unfold. Share warmth and love, feel warmth and love.
Entering Wat Ram Peong, a 500 year old monastery on the outskirts of the city, you could easily be forgiven for thinking you had landed on Shutter Island. The people walk painfully slow, (in walking meditation) eyes closed dressed entirely in white. Women wear a scarf mimicking, to me, a gold embroidered straight jacket. We see what we want to see…
The night before the retreat I couldn’t sleep. My fear, my ego was stirring me ‘You’re going to lose it inside there, you’ll be taken back to Europe in a straight jacket…’ Thankfully, the urge to rock myself back and forth in a corner never came. I had something much more ordinary.
The meditation practice was simple. 15 minutes sitting. 15 minutes walking which increased in increments each day. After I stopped wanting to fidget I felt a warm energy, a sense of divinity and kindness and peace. When I was really deep all that confused me faded into just being.
The strangest and most unexpected experience was that all my stories. My I . My identify, dissolved like the waves wash away names written in the sand. I was no longer an entrepreneur, a public speaker, a daughter, too young, too risky, a bad this, that, or the other. I was a human spirit; lighter than a feather.
If I make it sound easy, its because, actually it is. The word spiritual comes from the latin ‘to breathe’. Whatever your beliefs, we are all born with a sense of divinity. It is my view that so many of us lose it in our quest to bring the ego into external reality.
I’ll admit that it was easier for me because I already meditated. Over 60% of our course left before the 10 days. I won’t sugar the pill, you have to be willing to look into the darkest places of your mind. All the things you don’t like about yourself. Its hard to hangout with someone thats mean to you all the time.
My experience is that even in really horrific circumstance, once you sit and focus on your breathing your whirlwind of thoughts dies down. It took me 5 days to really quieten my mind; even though I am a seasoned meditator. When you have no device, no books, no nothing, except your own mind, it gets a lot easier.
The monk that inducted us told us ‘woman in Bangkok. Marry. Have baby. Now man drink whiskey. She must accept’. I asked if he was saying to leave or to stay and he said he meant neither, just that she must accept. There was no other guidance: learning by doing and we must leave ego. Ego thinking is defined as anything we think that makes us want to feel desirable or thinking of ourselves as separate. The ego is strong but it’s messages are never the truth. My ego told me to become a Barrister. My heart said something different entirely, but I couldn’t hear it for 7 years.
My teacher kept telling me to ‘open my heart’. I thought seriously he had seen something dark and bad inside me until I realised that it was exactly this thought, that kept my heart closed. That was to be my first real lesson: acknowledging.
My first intense emotion was being starved of human interaction. On day 3 I found a creature that was half scorpion, half cockroach in my bathroom. I named him Harold and looked forward to’ coming home to Harold’, he disappeared by day 5. This was to be my second spiritual lesson: Impermanence.
Pure silence and meditation bring every emotion into blinding white light. There is nowhere to hide. Even from the most insane emotions like missing a cockroach. Mindfulness helps you not get drawn into the story, instead to be the silent witness to your thoughts.
Half way through I could feel something cognitively had changed, I was not so pulled in by desire or moved by anger or judging external events. When thoughts did arise I could become aware and let it go like a balloon in the wind. This was especially true in hunger.
Soon I went against the rules and spoke to a few people who bemoaned the temple, it’s food and it’s structures, to them they were doing it for someone else and just trying to survive. That spurned my ego on, at least I have the right intention I thought… the cry of the unenlightened. For later I came to see in my meditation that to judge others is really saying more about me than them. It is a constant effort to bring compassion and forgiveness. but one that really rewards, as you think of others, you think of yourself.
Day 6 I hit my wall. I read 3 books a day and have a very mentally demanding work schedule. I love to use my brain. The strongest desire in me therefore was for mental stimulation. I started doing math formulas in my head – ones I’d make up… I was reciting legislation I learnt 10 years ago., I’d return to my room and look forward to scrubbing the floor. I had to wrestle my mind back into meditation practice. Rising falling. Rising falling. I also broke the rule of not working out. I did 100 press ups in my room like a prisoner about to jail break. I confessed all to my teacher who simply said ‘desire is the source of all suffering’. He gave me a knowing look as I asked ‘Isn’t it a desire to be Buddhist?’…
Our instant reaction is to reject fear, distract ourselves from it, but this tricks us into believing ourselves to be invulnerable when in fact we are structural unsound; meditation is the place you face your fear, your ego and realise – its just a thought. You get over yourself. That’s not to say you punish or criticise. I just laughed at my own vulnerabilities.
On day 7 I had illuminate clarity in meditation, a big emotional wave carried me to an experience I cannot express in language or thought, except to say I felt connected, whole and at peace. I’m confident I would not have achieved this ‘nirvana’ state without wrestling with my need for mental stimulation. Searing headaches and rationalising to leave somehow turned into letting go.
I came to see that the full spiritual life is not about how many monasteries you have visited or how much meditation you have done, but to what degree you have been willing to let go of fear and give the truth of yourself. The truth is never easy. My soul is crying for me to salsa dance… I believe I have two left feet. When I have danced in a nightclub, people ask me where to buy drugs. Such is the independence of my limbs, so Salsa dancing feels me with fear, but my soul is telling me to do it (I’ll keep you updated on that one).
I am grateful to Wat Ram Poeng for allowing me the space and time to look my neurosis in the face. My mind united with my heart, which allowed it to creak open a little more. I feel happiness without reason. This is not to say it will always be like this, but I now feel this is our natural state. A work in progress which Vipassana sped up.
I had a massage straight after leaving the temple. I felt so attentive to every touch, in a way that made my barrister brain stop questioning and really connect to my body, and my heart and the purpose of this life: happiness. The route to that feeling as the Buddha said: Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.
Please feel free to tweet me if you are thinking to do Vipassana @amibloomer
With love always,