dhamma reflections: ten days learning vipassana in blackheath, australia

May 10, 2013

First impressions:

On the first evening we were made to fill in a comprehensive questionnaire including details of any drug ingested (I left it at alcohol and nicotine) and a ‘biography’ with prompts including ‘family situation’ (‘stable’), mental situation (‘stable’) and any major life crises (‘nil’).  They would have left more space if they really wanted a run down of my crises, surely.  The questions made me concerned though.  Why did they need to know about personal crises?  What was going to happen to my brain?

After settling in the genders were segregated and our vow of ‘Noble Silence’ began.  From that time on we could only speak to our teacher regarding meditation-related questions at designated times, and to our manager regarding any other issues (forgotten tooth brush, another blanket, or in my case an infected spider bite).  Other than in the meditation hall we didn’t see the men again.

Off we were herded into the meditation hall where we were allocated our own little square of real estate.  It was surreal – the hall had the pine smell of a sauna, the lights were dimmed and each student (around 110 in total) sat on their square cushion, swaddled in a blanket (blue for the men, cream for the women).  Facing us at the front of the hall were our teachers – two men, two women – dressed all in white, wrapped in white shawls over white garments, meditating serenely on daises as we fussed over our cushions.  The lights were dimmed and it was warm.  I felt good.  Once everyone was settled a voice boomed, godlike, from the speakers above us, chanting in this droning, nasal way.  The tone began to feel somewhat sinister.  The teachers, though serene, had the mechanical, almost reptilian look of an alien creature in a horror movie that would unblinkingly eat your face off.  I wondered if they were replicants.

I didn’t sleep that night and so woke easily enough with the gongs at 4am.  I walked silently with the other students through mist and darkness to the meditation hall for a two hour sitting.  6:30-8am was breakfast, followed by meditation 8-11am.  Lunch was 11am-1pm and four hours of meditation followed until 5pm.  5-6pm was ‘tea’.  Reading the program, I thought ‘tea’ meant dinner.  Tea meant a cup of tea and a piece of fruit.  There was no dinner.  Horror of horrors.  Walking up the stairs to the dining room on the first evening and being confronted by a lonely old fruit bowl at the top almost had me in tears.  After dinner we meditated and had discourse detailing the vipassana theory and practice until 9pm.  Lights out at 9:30pm.  And repeat.

Settling in:

For the first six or so days I was almost enjoying myself.  I was in the one place.  I had no external demands on me, I didn’t have to worry about anyone but myself, I didn’t have to TALK to anyone – magical.  I was getting enough sleep, my booze bloat was deflating, I felt healthy and, for the first time in months NOT bone-achingly, numbingly tired.

The setting was also stunning.  Our dining room overlooked mountains and valleys and bushland almost untouched.  Every evening the sunset was perfectly timed with our tea break.  The sunsets buoyed me – they were luminous, entrancing.  The sunset on Day 3 almost made me cry for the beauty of it (yes, I was still somewhat overwrought).  It made me realise that every single day there is some amazing thing happening in the sky.  Every day. For the first few days I was planning a tree change and a life in which you can see the sky and watch all the little birds (albeit with wine in hand and the option of a chat).

The experience would have been a lot more difficult had the natural element not been there.  The morning of Day 3 I was walking through the cold and mist at 5:30am, struggling to maintain enthusiasm, when I spotted two wallabies hanging out ten metres away from me.  Seeing them propped me up.  Another time, walking the bush track three black cockatoos with yellow crests and faces swooped low over me, warbling and wooping.  It was nice to have the space in my brain to appreciate these things in a way that I’ve always wanted to but have never really felt.

 In practice:

The vipassana practice itself was more difficult than I had expected.  During the first four days our attention was to be completely focused on the triangle from the top of our nose between our eyebrows down to the skin above our upper lip.  There is no visualisation or guided meditation, it’s a very pared back practice.  There is no distraction from yourself.  It’s about being present in yourself fully, and experiencing the sensations that are occurring constantly but that our minds are dulled to.  On Day 4 there’s a big reveal and the full vipassana technique is taught which incorporates the whole body.  But still – no stimulus, no external thing to focus on.  It’s just you, your body and your fucking thoughts.

My thoughts – it was a confronting, educative experience to be forced to sit with my own thoughts for ten days and realise what actually happens in my brain.  Utter rubbish.  Rehashing old hurts, having imaginary arguments with people, rehashing old hurts again, imagining new ways in which people could hurt me, playing that out, and then arguing with that person for the hurt I speculate they may incur on me.  Or the flip side – going over and over pleasant memories and experiences ad nauseum.

In theory:

And that’s the whole point of vipassana – the teachings are founded on this dichotomy of aversion/craving that we all play out in our head constantly, and that influences our actions.  The theory is that reacting to these aversions and cravings create these marks on our soul that continue to multiply and harm us.  The technique of vipassana is about learning how to let these aversions and cravings slide and to not become invested in them, not to react.  The idea is that misery is inevitable, craving and aversion is inevitable and we must learn how to observe these things calmly and not to become invested in them.  Nothing is fixed, change is constant and nothing good can come from identifying ourselves and investing ourselves in something that is bound to change sooner or later.

This is taught by giving us a direct, visceral experience of pleasure and suffering, and its transience.  And this is achieved by exposing us to almost unbearable pain for ten days.

Twelve hours a day of meditation from 4:30am until 9pm HURT.  I had no idea how physically challenging the experience would be, and I´m glad I didn´t because I may have reconsidered.  After Day 4 there were also three one hour meditation slots daily during which you weren’t allowed to move.  In a perverse way, these group sits of ‘Strong Determination’ were the best parts of my meditating day – the pain of not being able to shift my burning shoulder or bring my foot, dead with pins and needles, back to life was all-encompassing.  The challenge of this required my full attention, and it was only really during these moments that I could get the mess in my head to subside a little.

The challenge was to approach all of these sensations with ‘perfect equanimity’.  Not to respond with craving for the pleasant sensations (sometimes your body would be alive with a tingling sensation like an electric pulse spreading through your body), and to not respond with aversion to the unpleasant sensations.  And it was true that when I began to feel the gentle pulsing in my body I felt relief and a sense of achievement and that I was on track.  They would disappear as soon as these thoughts began to form.  Likewise, when I sat in agony and fantasised about the massage I would book when I got home, or the epic Epsom Salt bath I was going to take, the pain would become so much worse.  I had stopped trying for acceptance of these experiences and become invested in them.  And during this tussle finally the impossible happens – the hour that has dragged into eternity is up – numb legs are revived and backs stretched out and the pain that was almost breaking me minutes ago suddenly feels irrelevant.

And, the vipassana teachings say, such is life.  Misery is inevitable, pleasure is fleeting.  The game is to not get invested in this, to not allow these ultimately physical experiences to influence the way we live in the world.

Vipassana is a Buddhist technique, supposedly taught by Buddha himself.  There’s a lot about living with compassion, egolessness and loving kindness.   It’s about recognising the ego in our relations with other people – how love is about the beholder enjoying the bodily sensations that their beloved invokes in them (sex, but also the experience of love, which is ultimately something physical too).  And conversely, aversion to people is about us and our reactions, and less about those people themselves.  It’s about making choices around how to react to things, and not blindly reacting along the craving/aversion dichotomy.

In my own brain:

At least for the first six days all these teachings felt so timely.  I realised that particularly this past year, I had been trying so hard to grapple with the mess and noise in my head, but not in a sustainable way.  I’d been unable to confront it so I used a constant stream of stimulus – the radio, podcasts, talking on the telephone, alcohol etc. – to shelter from my own mind.  Vipassana is about learning that this stream is inevitable, accepting it, but not becoming invested in it.  Likewise I began to feel more accepting of my personal hurts, less angry.

But it wasn’t as neat and streamlined as all of that.  It was a constant struggle and it was only really on the last day that I realised how it was all coming together.  Day to day I battled with my mind, trying to force it to quiet down, not realising that the point was that it never would.  Each night I had a vivid nightmare that set the theme for the pre-occupations of the day.  And I’d be off – constant rehashing of whatever deep-seated fear or hurt that the nightmare had brought to the forefront.

The themes of the nightmare and the thoughts that popped up weren’t particularly surprising to me.  Many people report having memories that they didn’t know they had, or old issues arising that they thought they had moved on from.  I wonder if I had done vipassana at a more stable time in my life if the issues would have gone a little deeper and further back.  Or perhaps I just carry my hurts close to the surface (I know that I do).


All this played out in me relatively calmly and easily for Days 1-6.  It was a challenge, but one I was up for.  Days 7-9 were not so smooth.  I began loosing patience with the process.  The nightly discourses were less about the practicalities of the vipassana technique and more about the Buddhist aspect, which I am less interested in.  Even the sunsets became less spectacular.  It was fitting – on Day 7 I realised that I had begun to experience craving for the sunsets.  Day 7 was a pretty non-descript sunset, as were Days 8 and 9.  I looked for solace in nature, but the only thing of interest I spotted was a spider slowly killing and mummifying a struggling bug.  I never considered going, but my concentration flagged and I felt impatient for the course to be over.  In hindsight that was a necessary part of the experience also – having a nice ten day break from reality wasn’t the point.

All over:

Day 10 was described as ‘a balm for the deep operation performed on your mind’.  We learnt the final stage of the meditation technique – basking in loving kindness and sharing this with the world.  I didn’t feel it.  I wanted out.  We were also allowed to speak to the other students on the last day.  People had teeth!  And accents!  And facial expressions!  The woman I thought was 18 was actually a painful 36 year old with the sort of horrible dye job only excusable in an 18 year old.  The woman who had been irritating me because she had begun fasting (as if the whole process isn’t difficult enough, woman) and then meditating next to me with her rumbling stomach turned out to be quite great.

Day 10 soured the purity of the experience for me a little though.  It wasn’t speaking to people, that was fine.  It was the people who ran it.  There’s speculation that vipassana is a cult.  It’s not.  The teachings were DVD recordings of the discourses of a man from Burma called Goenka.  He is responsible for the revival of vipassana after many hundreds of years of dormancy.  He is an incredible teacher – funny, illustrative, charismatic.  He’s spoken at the UN World Peace Summit, Davos, the World Economic Forum.  There’s a hilarious picture of him doing the vipassana course with the world’s top 125 business executives – all these suited men in the lotus position.  Goenka genuinely believes in the practice and has a beautiful way of getting his point across.  He subscribes to the whole body of belief – the practice and the Buddhist foundations of it.  But the idea is that vipassana is non-sectarian and can sit with whatever other spiritual beliefs you have.  The emphasis is to adopt the practice, and believe what you want; if it’s Buddhism then so much the better.  The volunteers who run the Blackheath centre (and I suspect any of the centres worldwide) kind of make it cult-y though.  Once they’re speaking the in/out group they’ve formed around the practice becomes clear and it’s a bit gross.  Obviously all these people desperately needed something in their lives and they have found what they’re looking for in vipassana, but it was all a bit tedious.

So that’s that.  I’m not sure if I’d do another one.  The idea is to learn the technique and then to put it into daily practice.  The ‘old students’ tend to be ones who have committed in that way.  I feel like it would be a sort of meditation tourism, a misuse of the technique, for me to do another one down the track.  There’s no way that I’m going to practice vipassana regularly.  I don’t have it in me.  And I’m not sure that the course should be use as a mental health detox, which is how I did use it, and what it would be for me in the future.

There are also parts of the technique that I don’t think sit naturally with me.  It’s a very disconnected way of living in the world.  It’s not me.  It’s also very visceral in its approach.  I think I need a cerebral aspect teamed with a visceral one if it’s to be my salvation.

Another approach:

Watch this fantastic documentary about the introduction of vipassana into a high security prison in the States:



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