About a month ago I signed up for a ten day Vipassana meditation retreat, experienced and highly recommended by a few friends. I paid little contemplation time and zero research on the technique to remove myself from expectation. What did the convincing was the radiant glistening glow in a friend’s eyes as I sat with her at a Newtown café only days after she had a retreat, her face – although previously vibrant in itself – was exploding with joy and wisdom.
The retreat was at Blackheath, high in the Blue Mountains, I pulled into the gravel carpark, bordered by snowy gums and wooden log fencing, I saw the corrugated iron roof tops of the accommodation and meditation huts as they peeked out amongst the trees. I dismounted and walked down to what appeared to be a reception area, zen like rockery gardens, peaceful lily ponds and leafless skeletons of cherry blossoms bordered a wide wooden veranda, I could go to the edge and peer down a landscaped grassy ledge giving way to classic Australian bushland, yellow bursts of wattle bought the green wilderness alive. I went inside to a dining hall to commence registration and briefly speak to those I would meditate with over the next 11 days.
I write this as my experience, without going into detail on the specific technique, if you choose, this should be your own journey.
Day 0 – 1st July
This began the segregation, males and females were to have no contact, visual or otherwise, this kind of stimulation creates desire, polluting the mind and spoiling the work to be done. This would be the last we saw of our sisters as the 104 of us sat in the male dining hall, separated like school children listening to introductions, directions and guidelines. We were all smiles and laughter until the reality was dropped on us with a recorded introduction from the late S.N. Gorenka, the teacher of this technique, although not in body still teaching strong through technology. We then parted ways and moved to the meditation hall to commence the retreat. Noble silence would start from here on in, this means no verbal communication, no eye contact and certainly no physical contact – unless required by the course manager or assistant teacher, this part I was looking forward to, as for me, speech can lessen the moment.
High above us the full moon radiated from the night sky, and just below it two incredibly bright stars shone, almost touching, Jupiter and Venus were aligning.
Awoken at 4am with a struck bell, soft at first and becoming louder as the striker made his way along the natural paths separating the accommodation blocks. I snapped awake, completely conscious and ready to go. Meditation started in the main hall from 4.30am and went for two hours until breakfast, everyone was present in the hall with assumedly the same enthusiasm. The time spent in meditation was daunting, by lunchtime we had spent five hours sitting, quietening the mind with the first day’s technique, it was tough but I was feeling confident.
Dragged myself out of a slumber, trying desperately to ignore the bell ringer on his morning duties so I could spend just a few more minutes in the comfortable, warm, horizontal confines of the bed. More of the same technique today, observing the breath. I was in pain, the mind furiously jumping from one thought to the next while I fought hopelessly to maintain focus, the body screaming in agony as I sat or knelt or curled into an upright foetal position in an attempt to secure a little comfort. Lunchtime arrived, eleven am, actually felt like a week had passed awake in tortured exhaustion – in horror I calculated another nine hours before I could rest. Anger welled inside, any excuse the mind could snatch for a reason, someone shuffling, a cough, the teacher’s chanting – past, present and future all conspired to create fury and rage within. The guessing and assuming to as when the current meditation block would be over, broken by words from the teacher, it felt eternal, my desperate mind spoke – ‘it must be close now’, ‘surely’, ‘OH COME ON ALREADY’. Eventually relief, that glorious break in silence was noticeably shared as I could feel an ease in tension and long sighs by those around me. The day’s end came, the scene felt like the grounds of a mental hospital, a shuffled walk by dozens of confused, head lowered patients all silently grappling with madness. Sleep came before I registered head on pillow.
The morning saw more of the same from me, my military training gave benefit as I pushed into the day, my efforts were stronger and I spent every spare moment in the meditation hall, completely surrendering to what was thrown at me with all the determination and strength of an ox. This afternoon, unlike the day prior was easy, blissful even, I coasted through the training and new techniques given. Although the day was long I enjoyed it, I felt like I had won and this would be the experience of the rest of the retreat, oh how the mind likes to fantasise permanence.
Feeling defeated, what am I doing here? What happened to the ecstasy of yesterday? I fought to hold attention, like trying desperately to grip the slippery hand of my personified awareness as it dangled from a tall cliff, so much frustration gave way to so much emotion, I finally cracked on the way to the dining hall, sadness and defeat pouring out of me as I sat on a bench, knees against my chest and head in my arms, sobbing.
Part of me was desiring this kind of release, it usually marks the letting go of an identification, the giving up of the mind to the body it presumes to control, bit by bit the wall of acceptance was being chipped away, pieces fell and the clear blue sky of the other side was beginning to shine through. By this day I was now spending a minimum of twelve hours in meditation, the harder I worked and the more I endured – with inspired wisdom – the greater the hurdle was vaulted.
Half way there, bit by bit I counted as I tried to forget that I was counting, five to go. The days were getting shorter as I sunk into a routine, letting go of the worldly comforts I had once found solace in, my existence was meditation, when I was not meditating I ate or slept, the former two in rare amounts. The pain was still there, oh yes, intense quantities of physical and mental pain, I sat and observed as different body parts exploded in heat and fury while the mind shouted distraction through a million Watt sound and light system.
From the distant morning bells I stirred from an intense dream, one I could control and bought through into the wakeful seconds. For a moment the dream was still in full effect and yet I was completely awake, lying in bed still experiencing my dream wardrobe – I felt amazing, I was seeing results. The work continued, long hours of hard slogging, but it was the sixth day, tomorrow was the seventh and the next the eighth, I fantasised of the day I would drive from the premises, what I would do, where I could go, what the following month would bring, who I would meet – I sensed a trap, these desires were muddying the waters and sending me down into misery again, I fought to accept what is and let go of what is not.
I remember little from this day, it had become a generic continuation of the training and work, sparks of excitement kindled within, only a few more days left.
Breaking through, the pain was there, however it was becoming understood, what is pain anyway but a bodily sensation translated by the mind as an aversion, and what is pleasure but another sensation calculated and labelled and sought after by a craving attitude. The work became clear, what I had to do was teach the unconscious layer of the psyche to remove aversion and craving, the two causes of misery within our being. When we seek to fulfil desires – and we go to great lengths for this – we create an attachment to the object of desire and the natural law of impermanence will eventually remove that object from our experience causing us to lose that which we covet, physical or not. And aversion, well, we attempt to run away in irritation when things don’t go perceptibly our way, these events, people and sensations ARE. What IS must be accepted, I could see the insanity of being averse to the present, it felt like a child in screaming tantrum.
Like the previous I continued to solidify this wisdom, one can know a thing through spoken or written information but will never truly understand this thing until directly experienced. I continued to go through lesson by lesson, example by example until this cultivated understanding became naturally used. A tale came to memory, passed to me by a wonderful healer back in Adelaide. In India, they dye their robes in large vats, after the cloth is immersed and soaked in the vat it is then hung out to dry, the sun dries and fades the colour. Again the cloth is dipped, allowing the dye to further soak into the fibres and again hung out to fade. This happens until the dye takes hold and the fabric no longer fades. This parable can be used in wisdom, we must be patient and allow the lessons to soak in over and over, otherwise we are simply clinging to a desired end result, the mind again wanting instant gratification.
The last day, a new technique and a broken silence. We spent the morning in the hall, all feeling a gentle bliss and sharing our merit to all beings. After which our imposed noble silence would be lifted, I felt trepidation toward speech and had no idea how I would hold a conversation, however, when it happened the natural flow took hold and an excited fury of speech and laughter evacuated through my vocal chords. Meal time was a raucous sharing by 52 of my brothers all discussing wisdom from this experience while a storm rolled across the mountains. Later that evening, the fury of the storm passed overhead giving a powerful punctuation to our meditation, lightning lit and thunder shook the hall. Those I shared a dormitory with enjoyed the late night moral and philosophical dialogue from pure, focused minds, a delight before we all went to bed.
A final meditation and final discourse from the teacher, it was done.
We broke out of the hall early morning and onto the grass in front, snowflakes drifted down from the heavens to kiss our face and slowly transformed the retreat into a winter wonderland. A beautiful marking of our graduation and of the valuable and beautiful lessons instilled.