The art of living

The art of living

Do you ever feel like your mind is at capacity and new information is stored at the detriment of something potentially really important? Like there’s a layer of fog that seems to thicken as each year progresses?  That’s where I was at – and I didn’t like it at all.  So I decided to take action: time for a mind detox!

For a few years I’d been hearing people talk about a 10-day Vipassana course in the Blue Mountains where you learn how to meditate in pure silence. I loved the idea of this challenge so I registered for the 10-day beginners’ course starting January 13 at Bhumi Dhamma in Blackheath. I was excited – my cleanse was imminent!

I arrived in the afternoon for registration, where I was allocated a dorm (sharing with 10 others) and had to hand in my phone and all reading and writing material. That evening we were taken through the house rules and schedule, then escorted to the main hall for our first hour-long meditation session: men on one side, women on the other. Once we left the main meditation hall ‘Noble Silence’ was instated and my 10 days had officially begun.

The daily schedule

From 4am to 9.30pm the focus was to clear the mind and master the technique.

  • 4.00am: Morning gong sounds (have a quick shower to wake me up)
  • 4.30 – 6.30am: Group meditation in hall
  • 6.30 – 8.00am: Breakfast (try to fit in a few laps of the bush walking track for sanity)
  • 8.00 – 11.00am: Meditation
  • 11.00 – 12.00pm: Lunch (another lap or two through the bush track)
  • 12.00 – 1.00pm: Interviews with the teacher (an opportunity to ask a question about your practice)
  • 1.00 – 5.00pm: Meditation
  • 5.00 – 6.00pm: Fruit and tea
  • 6.00 – 7.00pm: Group meditation
  • 7.00 – 8.30pm: Teachings (video recordings of S. N. Goenka’s teachings. Really lucky to have these recordings as he passed away last year)
  • 8.30 – 9.00pm: Group meditation
  • 9.30pm: Lights out

Basically, it was ten and a half hours of meditation, with some eating and reflection time in-between.

The teachings

Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’. It is a practical, universal technique of mental training and ethical conduct taught by the Buddha over 25,000 years ago.

When our teacher S. N. Goenka addressed a crowd of world spiritual leaders at the United Nations Millennium World Peace Summit in 2000, he gave these insights, which I find really useful:

“When there is darkness, light is needed. Today, with so much agony caused by violent conflict, war and bloodshed, the world badly needs peace and harmony.

“Peace in the world cannot be achieved unless there is peace within individuals. One way to achieve inner peace is Vipassana mediation: a non-sectarian, scientific, results-orientated technique of self-observation and truth realisation.”

The Vipassana technique gives you the tools to practise independently and gain a true understanding of your self, mission, strengths and identity. The technique is aimed to help liberate you from ‘sankaras’ (previous learned habits, behaviours or as Goenka called them “miseries”.)

Through equanimity of the mind and by learning to avoid cravings you can obtain peace and harmony, enabling you to lead a more positive and happy life.

‘Noble Silence’ and the removing of all distractions, such as reading materials and contact with other people, is there to help you maximise your progression through the technique during the 10 days. It enables you to focus solely on your practice and nothing else.

The courses are funded by donations and all the staff/teachers are volunteers who have completed the course, experienced Vipassana’s benefits and now want to give others the same opportunity. Their generosity and compassion is really special and helped give me some strength as the days passed and I continued to struggle…

My journey

90+ hours of self-observation teaches you a few things. I am not going to lie: it was difficult, and on days four and eight especially I was ready to pack it in.

Much to my surprise it was not the silence, lack of human contact or technology I found challenging, it was the hours in my own head and sitting in the one position. Boredom. I don’t think I have ever been that bored before. And there was the pure frustration I felt being unable to clear my mind from the constant flood of thoughts, questions and what ifs. All I wanted was silence… and the pins and needles to leave my legs.

On day five I decided I would go and talk to the head teacher. I had noticed everyone else seemed to be riding an emotional rollercoaster and I was not feeling any strong emotions. When she asked me what I had been feeling I told her quite frankly… boredom. She smiled and said ‘Well that is the emotion that you need to work through. You need to be comfortable with being in the present and not try and force yourself to go through what the others are going through’. So I went back into my mind and my boredom and my ongoing internal distractions.

On day seven I went back to her again. Besides the monologue I had going on in my head, I had a list of things I needed to do prior to an overseas trip I was planning. It was on repeat, over and over, and over again. It was driving me nuts and I really felt like it was hindering my progress. I asked her hesitantly for a pencil to quickly write my list down so I could move on. She quietly, and politely said no, much to my embarrassment. Apparently this showed that I was living too much in the future and not the present. I was told to trust that I would remember my list.  And if I didn’t, I had to trust that I would have the creative capacity to resolve the problem. Well that was that. Back to the meditation hall and my mind.

On day eight in the last meditation session of the day, I had a breakthrough: I managed to sit through a whole hour without fidgeting and mustered up some emotions (I think I may have even shed a tear or two) . I was human and heading in the right direction. Only two more days to go… the end was in sight.

When day 10 arrived and it was time to break ‘Noble Silence’, we all seemed to be frozen in our non-speaking meditative states. Our bubble was being burst and we were all a little anxious about going back into the real world. We had all gone through so many different emotions and thoughts that once we got started you could not stop us all from talking. The sound of our outpourings echoed through the valley. I am so grateful that we had the opportunity to discuss our journeys together otherwise home in Darlinghurst might have been a bit of a shock to the system.

Luckily I’m very stubborn and I hung in there – it was definitely worth it.

So what did I learn?

Besides it being a real personal achievement to not speak for 10 days, only eat twice a day and sit in the same spot for over ten hours a day, here are some of the other main takeaways that I find myself constantly referring to as I over complicate my life and inundate myself with unnecessary information:

·       You can create space for new thoughts. After such an intense 10 days it was amazing how much clarity it brings you. I felt I had swept out the dark orifices of my mind and compartmentalised all my current thoughts leaving room for new, much more creative ones. It was exciting to know that I now had the tools to create space where once I was feeling saturated.

·       I need to stop reviewing and rehearsing. I reflect on things that have happened in the past and review them endlessly. I also rehearse different scenarios for what could possibly happen in the future. All to the detriment of the present. No need to over complicate things. I think they call this the ‘nothing’ box (men seem to have a good grasp of the ‘nothing’ box)

·       Appreciate the small things. When you are forced to cut out all distractions you will be surprised just how many wonderful sensations you are used to blocking out – both in nature and your own body. Through the 10 days your senses are heightened and you can hear things like birds feeding their young and butterflies flapping their wings. I found this astonishing and beautiful.

·       The power of compassion. Goenka spoke of many difficult scenarios in which people were faced with adversity and reacted with compassion for their challengers and enemies. The knock-on effect of compassion is so powerful and I hope to be much more compassionate where possible.

·       There is always a solution. Life should not be dictated by lists and having everything prepared. There is something beautiful in the spontaneity of the now and not being prepared. Something I will need to practise a lot.

·       Effortlessness is effortless. Vipassana teaches you to be more mindful. You become much more aware of how you react to different situations and absorb different people’s energies, both positive and negative. Effortlessly assessing and responding takes away all the stress in difficult scenarios and allows you to be much more rational and effortless with all you do.

Would I do it again?

Definitely yes. I think of it like a favourite movie: each time you watch it you pick up something different and new. Even now a month later I am still meditating for between 20 minutes and an hour twice a day, clearing, processing and learning. Though I’m aware this may be a different story in a year, it has given me space in my thoughts and I think a top up once in a while would do anyone a world of good.

I feel like I am only at the very beginning of my meditation journey.  However the course definitely helped me detox my mind and create space in my thoughts.  I have only just placed one tentative toe on the long path of Vipassana meditation, but I know I am going to enjoy the journey, one meditation at a time.

Why not give it a go? You won’t look back.

May all beings be happy.

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