Meditation. It’s not as easy as it looks.
Four months ago, I was messy. The kind of messy that makes people you know stop answering your calls encase you cry, again. But luckily not everybody is as harsh as my mother, and a good friend suggested to me that maybe there was something more productive I could do with my time than sit around complaining and feeling sorry for myself. She wasn’t wrong. My brain works at about 100mph and could probably do with some down time. Ten days of silence, alone with your own thoughts, learning to meditate. That sounds like BLISS! Not everybody’s initial response I’m sure, but at that stage in my life, perfect!
Vipassana is a Buddhist meditation technique, focussing your mind on you, teaching people to accept the reality of the present moment “As it is”, the basic idea being, to lead people towards a simple and happy life. One important thing to understand is that this is NOT a religious preaching seminar. You do not need to be a Buddhist, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Atheist, Agnostic, Jedi or even if you still have gils, this is a course and a technique which is available to absolutely anybody at no cost, as long as you’re lucky enough to have a 10 day gap in your working / living schedule which corresponds with a course.
In my prior ignorance, ten days of silence sounded extremely difficult. I talk incessantly to anybody who’ll listen, so most of my friends and family snorted at the idea I could even entertain an hour of zipped lip. But I love a challenge.
For the next ten days of your life:
- Do not speak – Easy
- Do not look other participants in the eye – Okay, doable, I guess.
- Do not bring your phone – Um, Heaven! Yes please!
- No music, no books, no writing materials, no camera – Uugh, this is going to be tough.
- No tobacco, alcohol, drugs or any other intoxicant – I’m sure my world won’t end without rum and coke.
But the hardest thing, for all the concern I had about these rules, the absolute hardest thing in the world for me is to keep an untamed, untrained and uncooperative mind focussed for 12 hours a day.
Let’s try a little test run. Think about your elbow. Just your elbow. Nothing else, for the next 5 minutes, just stop thinking about anything else in the world. Just your elbow.
No, not your shoulder, not your knee, not your car insurance, not lasagne, or a new dress or that thing you said to your colleague last week that you thought was hilarious but she just glanced at you bemused and the guy at the next desk definitely overheard and clearly thinks you’re an ass now. Yeah. As a meditation virgin, this is not going to be easy.
So, today I finished my course. Having had four months to tone down the crazy a little, I was thankfully able to enter into this experience whole-heartedly and with a slightly fresher mind, which was definitely a useful cooling off period before embarking on such a confronting emotional journey. And how do I feel about this experience? Well, let’s review a little.
Teacher: Focus all your attention on the top of your head…
My Internal Monologue (MIM): Righto
Teacher: … and move slowly down, part by part, over your entire body
MIM: Yup, onto it
Teacher: Take your attention through each individual part of your body, right down to your toes, slowly, observing the sensations you feel in each part, whether it’s pain, perspiration, cold, an itch, a vibration, anything which you feel as a physical sensation
MIM: Top of my head, I can feel my pulse, rest of my scalp, itchy, forehead, itching there too, eyes are a bit sore, nose is cold, cheeks are warm, jaw hurts a little, wait, that’s a toothache, which tooth is that? Is that the one I had filled? I can’t afford a dentist in this country, I definitely need to update my travel insurance, maybe next month when I’m working again. I need to figure out a job when I get there and where I’ll sleep for the first few days. Ooh, I have to call Aimee and…
*15 MINUTES PASSES*
MIM: “Sweet dreams, or a beautiful nightmare, either way I, don’t wanna…” Oh, hey Beyonce, what are you doing in here? FOCUS DAMMIT!”
So this is a little snippet from day two or three, and honestly, the constant internal playlist of Beyonce and friends, among other little storm clouds of memories I’d brushed under the carpet and a few imaginative moments of future planning plagued me throughout every single session for the entire ten days. But I managed to keep myself a brief daily overview of my experience, so we’ll see how I progressed, if at all.
Day 0: Meet and Greet
Best Part: Made a friend immediately, maybe a bad idea. Don’t really want the distractions, this will be hard enough as it is.
Worst Part: I have never adopted a lotus position for a straight two hours before. Oh mother of all things HOLY my back hurts! What have I let myself in for?!
Funniest Part: Traditionally, there is chanting involved in some meditation rituals, on initially hearing the voice of the truly amazing S. N. Goenka, Man, this guy’s voice is going to put me in an early grave, the chanting is hilarious and in an ancient Indian language that sounds like an out of tune Vic Reeves cover of Shakiras ‘Hips Don’t Lie’. Too funny. Must not laugh. Must not appear childish on my first day.
Day 1: Kookaburra Poop
Song of greatest interruption: The repetitive chorus of some awful R&B hit from about seven years ago, thankfully nameless in my mind now.
Best Part: So many great ideas! I’ve planned a tattoo, a new pole dance routine, I know what I’ll do for work if I ever make it home and I have some incredible business ideas for Australia if I ever get PR here!
Worst Part: Breakfast… Eugh. I should have checked what was in that pot before I slapped it on the rest of my bowl of gruel.
Funniest: Have you ever seen a Kookaburra poop? It was bigger than my head! Two feet to the left and that would have KO’d the girl meditating under that tree!
Day 2: This is a Breeze!
Song of greatest interruption: Laura Izibor – Shine
Best: Today I discovered Sage tea. When you have to fast from midday every day, and they allow you a little leeway at 5pm for a piece of fruit and a hot drink, sage tea is like fooling your taste buds and stomach into thinking you’re eating a hearty bowl of soup. Incredible.
Worst: I cried. Yup. Didn’t think I’d be one of those girls, but I cried during meditation and had to leave quickly at the end encase anybody saw my eyes and judged me as the weakest of the herd. In hindsight, irrational on so many levels, for one, they’re not allowed to look me in the eye anyway.
Funniest: Some great joke I told myself about an adult colouring book and a helmet, but you had to be there…
Day 3: The Angry Day
Song of greatest interruption: Beyonce – Sweet Dreams
Best: Finding the notebook I accidentally left in my bag. Best part, but a little dangerous, will writing down a little daily evaluation really affect my progress that much? Let’s find out!
Worst: I am a horrible human being, I am inexplicably angry with everybody. People here, people not here, people in my past, people I’ve never even met. I have a crazed urge to throw my roommate off a balcony if the opportunity arises and if one more cretin puts a cup in that tray that clearly says PLATES…
Funniest: At some stage during the day I allowed my mind to wander away to my plans for a fitness regime, which led my brain to the “Physically fit, physically fit, physically, physically, physically fit” line from Jungle Boogie, in the version sung in the film Madagascar. Not sure the teacher understands why I’m crying in one session and grinning like a Cheshire cat in the next.
Day 4: So I came here to quietly observe my own pain?? What is life.
Song of greatest interruption: Mary Mary – Shackles (Praise You)
Best: The End.
Worst: All of it.
Funniest: Funny. Funny? No. Nothing is funny. What is humour. We are all just little pawns in the game of life, looking for ways to entertain ourselves on our slow and painful trudge to our inevitable graves. Why laugh? Or maybe evening discourse, there are always a few funny anecdotes during evening discourse.
Day 5: Hump Day!
Song of greatest interruption: Morcheeba – Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
Best: Lunch! Oh saintly kitchen staff, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for these perfectly seasoned roasties!
Worst: Damn it with these unexpected outbursts, I’m supposed to be focussing on my left nostril and some horrific scene from a break up is haunting me to tears. I’m over it.
Funniest: Evening discourse. That Goenka is a funny guy.
Day 6: The Giggle Loop
Song of greatest interruption: Tal Bachman – She’s so High
Best: The weather. It’s sunny, it’s warm and the wind is blowing like a crazy storm is coming. Love it.
Worst: This felt like an extremely long day.
Funniest: When you’re surrounded by people, in silence, in a situation where laughter would be the most inappropriate thing you can possibly imagine doing, how hard is it to just not think of laughing? The Giggle Loop is a ‘Jeffism’. A term I picked up from a British TV series, written by Stephen Moffatt, called Coupling, with a hilarious, awkward Welsh character called Jeff Murdock, played by Richard Coyle. I have no idea what started my giggle loop, but please, observe the science behind it here… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Md9nX9Hgttc The first two minutes is enough, unfortunately the BBC has restricted access to the content of the original video, so this is a poor quality version of an epic scene. You can find some of the other great Jeffisms here: http://coupling.wikia.com/wiki/Jeff_Murdock
Day 7: Stop Looking at Me!
Song of greatest interruption: Nina Gordon – Tonight and the Rest of my Life
Best: I think I get it, maybe. I can definitely concentrate. I can definitely focus my mind and I can definitely feel tiny vibrations moving through my body. Now I’ve spent an entire hour focussed, with only a slight amount of mind wandering activity, I know I can do it, so I can probably do it every time, right?
Worst: I’m having a hard time thinking of a worst thing. Does that mean I had a good day? I guess the worst thing about the whole day was going to bed hungry again. But it doesn’t feel so bad.
Funniest: My new pal. I knew it was a mistake to make a friend before the silence. I have successfully managed to avoid her all week. Most of the time I can keep my head down and my mouth shut perfectly. But when you’re the last two in the dining hall, and standing at the sink together, and you can feel the tension of not being allowed to speak, or look up, isn’t it just way too tempting to do The Moose right in that persons face?
Day 8: Heyo Mamama
Song of greatest interruption: Dream Academy – Life in a Northern Town and also a little bit of Kasey Chambers – Nothing at All
Best: Saw the tinniest grey bunny in the world. With a teeny little white bum.
Worst: Today I walked into a table at lunch time. Ten minutes later I slipped on a gravel path. I’m pretty sure there were witnesses to both events, but I couldn’t share the moment and shake off the embarrassment with joint laughter, so that’s just plain embarrassing.
Funniest: Observing a guy outside the dining hall, playing with ants. Like a beautiful little monkey boy.
Day 9: So Close!
Song of greatest interruption: Adam Brand – Just Drive
Best: I got this sh*t, I’ve definitely got it!
Worst: I don’t got it
Funniest: Ah, some internal joke I told myself, I wish I could remember it, I’m hilarious.
Day 10: Made It!
Song of greatest interruption: Parov Stellar – The Lonely Trumpet
Best: We can speak again!
Worst: … We can speak again.
Funniest: Absolutely everything, we’ve all been storing up a bit of humour over the last few days, but I think my favourite little gem was probably an account of a spider attack on one girl during one of the sittings of strong determination (which is one of the one hour long meditation sessions where you have to commit to one position for the entire hour and not move a muscle or open your eyes), as witnessed by the three girls behind her.
In summary, I think it’s safe to say, it was a journey. I am certainly not the most disciplined soul around, but I absolutely did take a huge number of interesting little mini philosophies from this experience. For every 3 hours I struggled, there was at least one hour I progressed, and for something so potentially life changing, in such a short space of time, I think a ¼ improvement in my general emotional wellbeing is certainly worth smiling about. You can’t embark on something like this assuming that somebody else will show you the way and then take the journey on your behalf, you have to put the work in and you have to be determined that you want to change the way you think and react to the situations that life throws at you. You can’t enter into this with an expectation that in ten days’ time you will be some Zen Guru. These courses are a perfect forum for you to give yourself the opportunity to change your life for the better. You don’t need to follow every rule to the letter for the rest of your life necessarily, you do not need to accept a new religion or rewrite your personality, but you do need to be willing to accept that you are currently not perfect, and that there are times in life that, if you could just learn to handle your emotions within a situation a little better, then you would be truly happier. During the course, while you are on site, you will need to commit to a certain lifestyle for the full ten days, but once you leave, you can use your own intelligence to tailor the knowledge, wisdom and insight you’ve gained, to improve the way you feel about yourself, your life, each day and each moment, and do it in a way that feels truly authentic to you.
I did not have some kind of life changing epiphany, I did not see a white light, the hand of God did not come down and touch me, but I do feel like this course, if I can put it into practice a little in my daily life, and take time out of each, or at least some days to practice meditation (now that my body is a little more accustomed to the positions), then I could really be onto a winner here.
So, in the style of S. N. Goenka’s daily sign off, I leave you with this: May you all experience real peace, real harmony, real happiness. (followed by Vic Reeves having a little singalong).