“Why on earth did we decide to do this in winter?!” was my first thought as we drove up the narrow road to Dhamma Pataka, nestled in the crevice of the now snow capped mountains of Worcester. I had decided an age ago that this was something I simply had to do. Partly because I had initially told myself, as I’m sure many of you have done right now, which was that I could NEVER do this. That rogue thought really pissed me off because I will not be told by anyone that I cannot do something and the fact that it came from inside of me made me even more irate. The opportunity had presented itself a year or two before, but due to a somewhat suffocating ex boyfriend who would not have me “worshiping Buddha in the mountains” I missed the opportunity. When it came around again, without a second thought (or a close-minded ex) I signed up.
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an Art Of Living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.
What Vipassana is not:
- It is not a rite or ritual based on blind faith.
- It is neither an intellectual nor a philosophical entertainment.
- It is not a rest cure, a holiday, or an opportunity for socializing.
- It is not an escape from the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
What Vipassana is:
- It is a technique that will eradicate suffering.
- It is a method of mental purification which allows one to face life’s tensions and problems in a calm, balanced way.
- It is an art of living that one can use to make positive contributions to society.
Jacques was skeptical at first but I assured him I would be back in just 10 days and he would have some peace and quiet. A few weeks later he causally announced that he would be joining me for this experience as he felt quite curious and would also like to be part of what would be a life changing experience for both of us. I was shocked to say the least but so happy that I would have him there, well almost as we would be separated for the duration of the course.
After arrival and registration, I strapped myself like a pack mule with all my luggage and started the trek to my accommodation. Mostly attendees are given single rooms but I was placed in a separate house with a few other women. This was fine by me as half way in to the course I knocked my alarm clock off the bedside table and had no concept of time or day and the only thing, apart from the 4 am morning gong, that got me out of bed was the shuffling around of other life forms in the dark.
Welcome dinner of veggie curry, some small talk and a quick orientation later we were all standing outside the Dhamma Hall ready to take our vow of silence. At this point the men and women had been separated and I had kissed Jacques enough to last him a lifetime. There was an energy of not knowing and sheer terror tinged with excitement as we chatted amongst ourselves one last time.
Each person was called into the hall from a list of names and upon entering the side room; we were shown a shelf full of pillows and blankets from which we could take what we needed. I felt like a greedy snow squirrel as I took way more padding than was necessary, as I just knew I was in for 10 days of back pain. In the massive hall with high ceilings and a dim light, I found my allocated mat and proceeded to nest like a small forest creature. Everyone sat in silence, facing forward, men on the one side and women on the other. I was placed somewhere in the middle of the group which made me slightly nervous as I can be quite distracted by the smallest of things. I was trying to look around and take it all in but my attempt at doing this subtly had me looking like a chameleon following an insect. As expected I moved to the back a few days later as the girl behind me sounded as if she has a sniffing tic which caused me to dig my nails into my knees.
During the time you are at Dhamma Pataka and doing the Vipassana course, it is imperative that you follow a strict Code of Discipline.
Which is the following:
- to abstain from killing any being; (This is why you’re vegan diet for the 10 days)
- to abstain from stealing;
- to abstain from all sexual activity; (This is why men and women are separated.)
- to abstain from telling lies; ( this is why we are silent for the entire time.)
- to abstain from all intoxicants.
A Teacher facilitates each course and they are usually seated on a stage, facing the students. Our Teacher resembled a skinny James McAvoy with tiny spectacles. His voice was so serene and you could hear his Danish accent every so often. Every group meditation session, he would walk in, robes billowing behind him and seat himself down and closes his eyes. After a few moments the stereo is switched on and Goenka’s pre recorded deep chant rattles across the cold concrete floors, signifying the start of each hour and each session. Satya Narayan Goenka was the foremost lay teacher of Vipassana meditation of our time and he has a slow deep voice like his batteries were just about flat.
This was the next 10 days for everyone, myself included.
4:00 am – Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am – Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am – Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am -Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am – Meditate in the hall or in your room
11:00-12:00 noon – Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm – Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm – Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm – Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm – Meditate in the hall or in your own room
5:00-6:00 pm – Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm -Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm – Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm – Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm – Question time in the hall
9:30 pm – Retire to your own room–Lights out
Certain days signify different stages for different people. Some had breakdowns on day 1 and left, while others sat like statues for the entire time. I found myself giving in to the process. First eventually breaking into a million pieces, sobbing uncontrollably and quietly on the toilet with toilet paper shoved up both nostrils to gluing the pieces all back together and feeling elation, even smiling at the pine trees as if they knew what I knew. Then moving into frustration and extreme boredom (my ego not having any of it) all in the space of 10 days. What a rollercoaster!
The days were long and warm and I spent a lot of time lying under that pine tree listening to the birds. Your mind, because it has nothing else to do, likes to start rummaging through its filing cabinets pulling out files on your first kiss to the first time your heart broke to random thoughts about how you could use this experience as a plot for a really good horror movie where they steal your voice boxes at a silent retreat in the mountains. The only thing that came as a huge respite were the hour long discourse videos in the evening which are led by Goenka himself. He looks like a really happy old sloth and has the sharpest sense of humour there is. I found myself gobsmacked by his wisdom and entertained by his endless wealth of knowledge and jovial demeanour.
Toward the end of my time at Dhamma Pataka I had packed out my clothes on to my bed for the last 3 days in my excitement to GTFO and I had taken to collecting rose-quarts during breaks to avoid losing my marbles. Every now and then I would glance across the field and see Jacques walking in a big circle for half and hour to keep his blood pumping and avoid boredom. I would smile to myself as I sat there with my mug of chai tea, looking forward to just being in his presence again.
The day arrived and that was that. We did our last meditation and on exiting the building we were free to talk but everyone just rushed off in different directions to the dining hall because we didn’t really know how to even start. It was like the first day of school again. It last for about 10 minutes till we were all in circles laughing and sharing. I found out that I happened to be sharing a room with another photographer and we stayed up all night chatting till the morning when we packed up and we hit the road home, back to civilisation.
The drive was quiet and we were calm. One thing this experience certainly has taught me is that silence is beautiful and does not always need to be filled. You can be in someone’s presence without having to make small talk. The wind was blowing and the tiny waterfalls trickling down the pass were disappearing in mid air. It was all very ethereal. Needless to say the first stop was Jerry’s Burger Bar and I order a Bloody Mary and a cheeseburger in celebration of “breaking free”.
People couldn’t wait to hear how my life had been changed after this experience and the truth is, nothing really “changes” your life unless it’s a change that was completely out of your control. You take you everywhere you go and no matter how much you sit or meditate or even medicate, you will wake up in the same body, in the same story. The only thing that can change your life is knowledge of other beings and your perception so spend time working on that and you will find happiness. This experience for me, while I did not let on much about how it affected me because I feel its quite internal and private, most certainly added a rose quarts to my shelf in terms of experience and knowledge of what makes me tick and what happiness consists of. I would highly recommend it. In fact, I’m off once again in August this year! Hopefully see you there!
- Non-ticking RELIABLE alarm clock – mine caused me drama.
- Wrist watch – time is everything there and while they ring the gong you don’t want to miss the group sessions etc.
- Sleeping bag
- Extra blanket
- Blanket to sit on outside
- Water bottle
- Hot water bottle
- Warm socks
- Candles & lighter
- Modest clothing
- Take a flask as you get chai tea sometimes at dinner/tea which is mind blowing! I used to add 2 slices of oranges to the tea and let it stand over night and have ice tea the next day.
- When you arrive and sign up, take a booklet with the times and info. You’ll want to read this several times while you’re there.
- I would suggest taking a kettle as you might have your own room and need to fill your hot water bottle.
- Try be first to breakfast if you like toast. There is only one toaster!
- Ultimate pillow nirvana for Dhamma Hall: 1 big block of foam, then 1 meditation cushion, 2 small blocks of foam for under your knees and 2 blankets as it gets cold!
Do it. You never know what you may learn…