The vipassana festival (Part 3 of 3)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

20120621-114257.jpgMeditation is hard. I would say mastering own’s mind is the most difficult thing in the world. It is so hard that most people do not see any point in even starting sitting quietly observing own breathe. It took me 26 years to realise the caliber of the problem with human’s mind and how meditation can help. Progress in meditation is slow and mostly unnoticeable, which can be very frustrating. A retreat like this can really speed things up. A daily meditation practice is like walking from Moscow to Beijing. A 10 days retreat would be akin to taking a train on the way. Granted finishing the retreat is not an easy feat and I cannot say that it gets easier with time, but the benefit from such a course is enormous, no matter what your meditation background is (if any).

Having said that concentration meditation is relatively easy. You observe your breathe or any other object, get lost in those seductive thoughts, and return to observing the object. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat again. Do it about 173478233 times and eventually it will become easier. On the other hand vipassana or insight meditation is much more subtle. Concentration is no longer the point, but a tool. Instead you develop equanimity and awareness. Equanimity goes by many different names: accepting what it is, being in the moment, not giving a fuck and so on. It is basically accepting the reality as it is this very moment instead of escaping to the world of past and future. A very tricky business, especially when you have a huge emotional storm or waves of pure bliss coming onto you. How not react to that, indeed? The second tool of vipassana is awareness. Awareness is the knowledge of what is going on inside your body, mind and outside world from moment to moment. More specifically it is the momentary knowledge of five aggregates, but a discussion of those goes way beyond the scope of this short blog post. Can you feel the touch of your body and the surface you are sitting on? Did you moments ago? This is what awareness is all about, but on a much deeper level.

These are the intellectual facts, but understanding them on a deeper level is a whole different matter. Knowledge and experience are two different beasts and vipassana is all about your personal experience. Seeing and experiencing things for yourself deep inside. Simple as that.

The vipassana festival (Part 2 of 3)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

On the fourth day a jhana manifested itself for the first time. Jhanas are pleasurable (sometimes very) mental states reached through intense concentration. Completely natural and not banned by the government too. The same day was marked with the start of sittings of strong determination, where you are not supposed to change a posture or open eyes for one hour. Pain from sitting was not really a problem, as I knew the suffering would go away anyway. I felt very sorry for a chap, who had asked an assistant teacher about the sitting pain the day before and had got the answer “Just change a posture”. Subtle form of humour maybe? Towards the end of the retreat I got so cocky that sat in a posture that hurt straight from the beginning not bothering to fix it. Familiar feelings lost their familiarity and became just sensations. From the fifth day on things started getting into an uncharted territory marked with strong and solid meditation sessions with no movement or breaks. A urge to slouch the back is just another sensation after all and thus can be safely observed without a reaction. Blissful meditation sessions were followed by periods of intense fear and infinite sadness just like that. Mind changes so quick. Nothing is permanent, even if the mind tries to make it so. Not even that incredible pain in the left leg.

At some point I developed enough energy to practice lying meditation and not to fall asleep. Oh the pleasure of staying two extra hours meditating in the warm bed in the mornings followed by a walk in the forest and a breakfast. The need for sleep diminished to the point I had problems getting asleep towards the end of the course. Why sleep after all, when you can meditate? The meditative jhana state became the baseline. The line between sitting sessions and breaks blurred. On the ninth day the mind was quietened to the point of no mind. “I” (who is this I anyway?) knew what to do at each moment, no mental processes needed. The function of the mind was reduced to the silent observer. Fascinating and scary at the same time.

On the last day the silence ended and fun and excitement began. So many things to share with other people, so many stories to tell. It is fascinating to see people of all ages and all backgrounds. Wandering travellers, a doctor from Oslo, a school teacher from Luxembourg, a musician from Togo, a company executive leading a stressful life, an accountant from Holland and so on. There is no vipassana type people. It is like one of those travel destinations (read Hat Yuan), where you can expect meet anyone. Social status or background does not matter here.

The vipassana festival (Part 1 of 3)

A vipassana retreat is a ten days non-stop festival with music, sex, interesting stories, long-forgotten memories, ecstasy and bliss, fear and loathing, make your pick – all going inside your head. This was my third retreat and second Goenka (first, second). Cannot say that this thing gets easier with experience. Intense as always, but with a different flavour. As far as practicalities are concerned, it was exactly the same as the last time. The only change I’ve noticed was breakfast coffee in the spite of the “no intoxicant” precept. I actually asked the assistant teacher about this inconsistency and the reply was that coffee is no intoxicant, as it does not change one’s state of mind. “What about tobacco then?” “It is not an intoxicant as well”. Different retreats do indeed have their own peculiarities.

I pondered my misery on the first day over the breakfast: “What am I doing here? Same thing all over again and no novelty to look forward into.” Ten days of Goenka’s bad singing, rituals and overall cult tendencies were a bit too much for me. Then again the teaching is sound and the time spent meditating is never wasted. What is time if not an illusion? I realised that in no time it would be the tenth day, I would have my mysli with fresh fruits and yoghurt and a cup of rooibos. Knowing that in two hours Noble Silence would be over and there would be the whole day ahead full of fun, excitement, noble and not-so-noble chattering. And so it happened.

The first three days were rather uneventful. Grumpy mornings filled with hunger and horny thoughts and struggling with Goenka’s annoying manner of speaking. “Goenka sounds like an airplane about to take off”, I wrote in my diary on the third day. In a true rebel without a cause fashion I kept my diary throughout the course against the rules. The intentions were right, though, and this is what matters the most. Right away I got an important insight – about the weather in Sweden at this time of the year. It rained a lot and wind blew almost constantly. Not a good weather for cycling, but on the other hand it was a good stimulus to meditate. There was no point in staying outside and I could not stand the dorm, so the only option was to sit in the meditation hall. Generally speaking there is no use to try to escape meditation in such an environment, as there is nothing else to do there anyway. The only entertainment options are meals and evening discourses and those are at predefined times. Either you avoid meditation and feel very sorry for yourself or sit and feel less miserable. After all it is your choice to be there and the meditation is the main reason why you are there. Mind is a cunning beast, though, creating most subtle traps, so convincing yourself to sit and observe your breathe again and again is not always the easiest task.

Part 2 | Part 3

Joyful participation in the sorrows of life

I initially planned to do a vipassana retreat last month in Penang, Malaysia. But as it goes with plans it did not feel right, some things came forward and plans changed dramatically. Instead I ended up going to Singapore to see Sven Väth in Zouk. Vipassana and loud minimal techno, well almost the same thing anyway. However, three weeks later I found myself in a 10-days vipassana retreat taught by Steve and Rosemary Weissmann in Wat Kow Tahm on Koh Phangan. This time I was tempted to go to Koh Tao to see LTJ Bukem, but thankfully opted for meditation.

This is my second 10-days retreat merely half a year later after Goenka’s retreat in Ödeshög, Sweden and this retreat was not as intense as the previous one. First of all, I knew what to expect. Massiveness of this project did not scare me off and I had a strong determination to use my time in the most efficient way. No slacking and no excuses, I came here to meditate and learn, take no prisoners attitude, period. Second, the retreat is really 8 full days, plus one orientation and one wrapping up day. Furthermore, it is really easy on your body, as it is a combination of sitting, walking, standing and working meditation. Tasks include sweeping, cleaning, doing dishes, preparing food, ringing a gong (mine was cleaning up and doing dishes after the evening dinner). And third, the structure of the daily schedule is designed to avoid building up too strong concentration, but rather the main emphasis is on building up mindfulness and compassion in daily life.

The meditation technique taught is mental noting and basic meditation period is 45 minutes and the longest you are allowed to spend in one meditation form is one hour. I attempted once to extend a half an hour of sitting to one hour instead of switching to the standing meditation, but was quickly handed a no-no written note. One one hand, these factors make it easy for your body, but on the other hand it makes difficult to achieve deep concentration states. In contrast Goenka’s retreats are 10+2 days, offer only sitting meditation and you may spend as much time in one sitting as you want. The retreat last August was an extremely intense full blown spiritual high experience glowing with rather profound psychedelic concentration states. People were crying, going through a mental drama, having emotional breakdowns all over the place. Good stuff. No blissful raptures or dark nights of soul in Wat Kow Tahm apart from short periods of jhana states, but it was very beneficial in many other ways. I learnt way more here than in my first retreat, mainly thanks to versatility of the practice and excellent lectures packed with useful and practical information combined with top-notch performance and subtle humor. One of the main themes was to how to apply mindfulness and compassion in everyday life, not only in the context of the retreat. The content of the lectures is practice oriented with very little ideology related talk. Among discussed topics were compassion, five hindrances, dealing with physical pain, different meditation postures and other practical considerations. A personal highlight was the lecture on Kalama Sutta, which can be summarized as “do not believe anything blindly no matter where information comes from, but find out truth through your experience”. In contrast Goenka went into lengths dissing other spiritual practices, yoga and meditation techniques and stressing numerous times that his teaching was not sectarian or dogmatic, but rather the fact of life. This produced a rather unpleasant aftertaste of cult-like mentality and put me into the state of a cognitive dissonance for many days after the retreat. Me being part of a cult, which I can actually enjoy? Inconceivable! None of this type of talk was found in Wat Kow Tahm and finishing with Kalama sutta was a very nice touch.

I had no after-retreat plans and was torn between several choices, but by chance found out that LTJ Bukem was playing in Had Rin the same day. This set plans in stone and I went partying the same day the retreat ended. This is what I call intense. Had Rin beach around 11PM was a bit too hectic for me, but thankfully the gig took place in an actual club far away from fear and loathing of the Had Rin beach. Quality drum & bass and nice atmosphere set things straight and was a nice and unexpected way to finish off the retreat. All in all, it was an excellent and beneficial experience and very different to what I expected before the retreat, which shows once again that plans and expectations are basically useless. The actual experience no matter what is most certainly going to be something completely else.

Fear and Loathing in Ödeshög

The first time I heard about vipassana retreats was last year, one year later the right time finally came and I went to one. Vipassana is a form of buddhist insight meditation. The technique is taught by S.R. Goenka under the hood of Vipassana Research Institute. VRI is a large organization, responsible for organizing hundreds of courses in different countries each year. Courses are free (including lodging and food), but you are allowed to make donation only after you complete the course. The basic course lasts ten days, plus two extra days reserved for arrival and departure. Over this period you are completely isolated from outside world, as well as other participants. No talking, no eye or physical contact, no mobile phones, no internet, no music, no books or writings, basically no entertainment of any kind. You are essentially left alone with your thoughts and there is nothing to distract you from them, like it or not. Sounds like fun, sign me in!

The retreat is located near Ödeshög in Western Sweden, 250km from Stockholm. The course-grounds are rather countryside: potato fields as far as eye can see, a lonely road and a few wind turbines on the horizon. Lovely. The organization of the course was top-notch and it really showed that they have got a lot of experience in organizing this tip of thing. There were no major hiccups I could notice and they always managed to stick to the daily schedule. The food was a pleasant surprise, as I was expecting no-thrills Rainbow Gathering type food, but we got porridge, müsli, cooked dry fruits for breakfast and versatile veggy meal completed with a dessert for a lunch. The supper offered just tea, milk and two fruits for new students and hot lemon water for old students. So the last real meal was around 11AM, but the only time I felt hungry was for the two hours after waking up before the breakfast. On a positive side a breakfast bell was something I really really looked forward into. Oh the joy of getting food after a 19 hours mini-fast. It puts a new meaning into the word “break-fast”. The schedule is pretty much the same every day: wake-up at 4AM, two hours of meditation, breakfast at 6.30AM, rest, three hours of meditation, lunch at 11AM, rest, three hours of meditation, evening tea at 5PM, rest, two hours of meditation, discourse at 7PM, half an hour of meditation and lights out at 10PM. Evening discourse addresses the issues of the day and provides some background information on Buddhism postulates. The discourses are filled with numerous jokes, anecdotes and Goenka’s charm (protip: avoid your native language discourses and go straight for the original English one) – a pleasant break from the otherwise monotonous day program. We actually laughed at some of Goenka’s jokes, I must admin the man has got the charisma and style. Despite the same program every day, each day was unique for me with its own up and down-sides. Same same, but different. The rigorous schedule makes sure that you have no time to get bored, as long as you are serious about your meditation practice. In fact, at times I felt I had not enough time to do all the free time activities, such a short walk in the forest (the length of the path is 155m), a nap, stretching, laundry and that’s about it as far as free time activities go. The observance of rules was not really enforced, so it is really up to you whether you follow the rules or not. Then again, you are there by your choice, so why break the rules that are there for your own benefit?

It was the most intense and useful things I have ever done. A mental marathon of ever-increasing intensity lasting for ten days and a huge reward waiting for you once you reach your goal. Thinking of all the progress I made during in just ten days makes me want to participate in another course right away. First few days were rather uneventful, lots of physical pain caused by constant sitting, but nothing dramatic. My mind was the sole form of conventional entertainment, including telling stories and jokes, showing porn and playing music to me. All intensified in a high-definition and long-play format. I had very little mental pain caused by the bored mind, as I am more or less accustomed to sitting. But the physical pain was a different beast. My prior experience was no help and my whole body ached for the first few days. It took me days only to find a right combination of sitting cushions and a sustainable sitting position. Once one-hour no-position-change sittings started, the pain came back with vengeance and became almost unbearable. However, in a few days the pain magically dissolved and turned into a rather pleasant feeling. Things started getting really weird for me on the fifth day and each new day brought more and more weirdness. Energy sensations flowing through the body; all kinds of weird a-ha moments; discovering that the body has its own wisdom; being unsure whether I should be scared or happy and so on. On the last three days things turned rather psychedelic with everything glowing around me, a super-energetic feeling, continuous meditation mode, all kinds of unfamiliar, sometimes scary sensations and crystal clear mind. I had read about such experiences, but it is easy to dismiss these reports as crackpot science. Actually having this kind of experience happing to you is a whole different matter.

All in all, it was a smooth ride for me with tons of useful observations and insights. A++, WOULD DO AGAIN. Now why would you go through to such a dramatic thing? First, you will get an experience unlike anything else. Achieving meditation states like this with nothing, but sitting and observing your mind is truly marvelous. Secondly, such an experience is useful to anyone and will change you for the better, no matter what your background is. Plus judging by what other experiences other people went through (e.g. grown-up men and women crying), such a course would do more good than years of psychotherapy.

Some practical tips:

  • If you decide to go, DO NOT QUIT NO MATTER WHAT. Your mind will make up all kinds of conspiracy theories and catastrophe scenarios, you will most likely become sick, you will find numerous reasons why you should quit, but do not do it. I promise when the course ends you will be very grateful that you did not quit.
  • Do not try to beat the system. If it is meditation time, then meditate. There is nothing to do there anyway and you’ll get distracted by cheating attempts.
  • Take care of your body. Take a nap when you feel to e.g. during breakfast and lunch rest times, stretch and take care of personal hygiene.
  • A pair of earplugs is a good idea.
  • Your body will most likely ache from constant sitting. You have to ride it out. If you have own sitting cushion, bring it with you. It will minimize the discomfort.
  • Put yourself into the humble mode, it will tremendously ease up your stay there.
  • Avoid lying meditation in the first few days, as you will fall asleep anyway. 🙂
  • It is a good idea to reserve a few days after the retreat is over to reflect over the experience.
  • Anicca anicca anicca