Vipassana Meditation Course

IF
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,
If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling (of course!)

Well, I’m back! No orange robes, still got hair, still got a job and all my assets and I’m not guzzling down a one-way ticket to ride on Hailey’s comet any time soon- success. I am feeling a lot happier and do have a few more funny ideas, but that was the whole point.

So, what was it like? What’s it all about? Well, I don’t know if good old Rudyard Kipling ever came across Vipassana during his time in India but ‘If’ crossed my mind towards the end of the course and struck a chord, especially the part about meeting with both Triumph and Disaster and treating the two impostors just the same. Coming back and reading it every line rings true. It’s a tall order and nothing is said of how to achieve it- Vipassana is a way to learn, and it’s hard!

(Film and music references kept popping into my empty mind; they’ll be in brackets to illustrate my point.)

It all starts on a non-too-spiritual Scout camp in a tucked away corner of Singapore on the early evening of ‘Day 0’. I made up my bed in the dorm with the other recruits (Fight Club, Project Mayhem) and went out to listen to the intro. So far everyone had seemed pretty normal- almost all Chinese of different ages, about 20 girls and 20 guys. All the helpers seemed nice and weren’t wearing stupefied grins or dodgy clothes and there was an authentic gong, a good start. That evening we were called together for the introduction and sat in a hall to listen to a recorded address. My first thought as the slightly hypnotic voice urged us to either submit fully to the course for 10 days or leave now was- ‘Oh shit. I’m in a cult.’ To be fair my next one was, ‘Hey, cool. I’m in a cult’! It turned out neither was true, but my guard was well and truly up (news reports of mass-suicides in the mid-West).

Here started the ‘Noble Silence’ that was to remain for the duration. No eye contact, no gesturing and certainly no talking. I realised that I was good at this having practised exactly this for years with cute girls in clubs. Also there was to be no reading or writing, no music, no drinking, no meat, no religious practise (big deal for some I’m sure) and no vigorous exercise. So what the hell did we do for 10 days? In short we ate, slept, dozed, dazed, learnt and meditated.

4am GONG- Doze. 4.30am- GONG Meditate in hall. 6.30am GONG- Breakfast and dozing. 8am GONG- Meditate. 11am GONG- Lunch and daze. 1pm GONG- Meditate. 5pm GONG- Dinner (fruit). 6pm GONG- Meditate. 7pm GONG- DVD of teaching (with a pleasingly Yoda-like teacher. Unfortunately (for him) his wife also looked like Yoda! Damn- that’s some bad karma right there) 8pm GONG- Meditate. 9pm GONG- Daze and sleep. Rinse and repeat.

4am GONG- Doze. 4.30am- GONG Meditate in hall. 6.30am GONG- Breakfast and dozing. 8am GONG- Meditate. 11am GONG- Lunch and daze. 1pm GONG- Meditate. 5pm GONG- Dinner (fruit). 6pm GONG- Meditate. 7pm GONG- DVD of teaching. 8pm GONG- Meditate. 9pm GONG- Daze and sleep. Rinse and repeat.

4am GONG- Doze. 4.30am- GONG Meditate in hall. 6.30am GONG- Breakfast and dozing. 8am GONG- Meditate. 11am GONG- Lunch and daze. 1pm GONG- Meditate. 5pm GONG- Dinner (fruit). 6pm GONG- Meditate. 7pm GONG- DVD of teaching. 8pm GONG- Meditate. 9pm GONG- Daze and sleep. Rinse and repeat.

4am GONG- Doze. 4.30am- GONG Meditate in hall. 6.30am GONG- Breakfast and dozing. 8am GONG- Meditate. 11am GONG- Lunch and daze. 1pm GONG- Meditate. 5pm GONG- Dinner (fruit). 6pm GONG- Meditate. 7pm GONG- DVD of teaching. 8pm GONG- Meditate. 9pm GONG- Daze and sleep. Rinse and repeat.

4am GONG- Doze. 4.30am- GONG Meditate in hall. 6.30am GONG- Breakfast and dozing. 8am GONG- Meditate. 11am GONG- Lunch and daze. 1pm GONG- Meditate. 5pm GONG- Dinner (fruit). 6pm GONG- Meditate. 7pm GONG- DVD of teaching. 8pm GONG- Meditate. 9pm GONG- Daze and sleep. Rinse and repeat.

4am GONG- Doze. 4.30am- GONG Meditate in hall. 6.30am GONG- Breakfast and dozing. 8am GONG- Meditate. 11am GONG- Lunch and daze. 1pm GONG- Meditate. 5pm GONG- Dinner (fruit). 6pm GONG- Meditate. 7pm GONG- DVD of teaching. 8pm GONG- Meditate. 9pm GONG- Daze and sleep. Rinse and repeat.

4am GONG- Doze. 4.30am- GONG Meditate in hall. 6.30am GONG- Breakfast and dozing. 8am GONG- Meditate. 11am GONG- Lunch and daze. 1pm GONG- Meditate. 5pm GONG- Dinner (fruit). 6pm GONG- Meditate. 7pm GONG- DVD of teaching. 8pm GONG- Meditate. 9pm GONG- Daze and sleep. Rinse and repeat.

4am GONG- Doze. 4.30am- GONG Meditate in hall. 6.30am GONG- Breakfast and dozing. 8am GONG- Meditate. 11am GONG- Lunch and daze. 1pm GONG- Meditate. 5pm GONG- Dinner (fruit). 6pm GONG- Meditate. 7pm GONG- DVD of teaching. 8pm GONG- Meditate. 9pm GONG- Daze and sleep. Rinse and repeat.

4am GONG- Doze. 4.30am- GONG Meditate in hall. 6.30am GONG- Breakfast and dozing. 8am GONG- Meditate. 11am GONG- Lunch and daze. 1pm GONG- Meditate. 5pm GONG- Dinner (fruit). 6pm GONG- Meditate. 7pm GONG- DVD of teaching. 8pm GONG- Meditate. 9pm GONG- Daze and sleep. Rinse and repeat.

4am GONG- Doze. 4.30am- GONG Meditate in hall. 6.30am GONG- Breakfast and dozing. 8am GONG- Meditate. 11am GONG- Lunch and daze. 1pm GONG- Meditate. 5pm GONG- Dinner (fruit). 6pm GONG- Meditate. 7pm GONG- DVD of teaching. 8pm GONG- Meditate. 9pm GONG- Daze and sleep.

I don’t want to say too much about the process since the only way to learn is to do it, and I agree that the only way to get results is a 10 day intensive course with all the silence and the rest, otherwise you would never get it. They’ve been running the same course for 2500 years, so it’s safe to say it’s tried and tested! You don’t just sit there day-dreaming, it’s a real skill like learning to juggle or drive. You’ve got to concentrate and practise and let it come naturally so you don’t try too hard. And then? And well then you get the Earth and everything that’s in it- or more precisely you get a good mood that if you’re good enough at it nothing should shake.

The idea is that misery and suffering are bought about by craving, aversion and attachment. This is a fairly standard idea but Vipassana’s answer is that while you can’t free your self entirely from natural craving and aversion you can train yourself not to respond to them, just to let them be. This is called being ‘equanimous’. A deep realisation that everything changes helps with this- it’s much harder to get excited about things once you realise that whether they’re painful or pleasurable they ain’t going to last anyway- so why crave or fear them? And it’s daft trying to hold attachments since change is inevitable.

The real beauty (or pain) is that while it may only take 10 minutes to ‘learn’ this it takes10 days just to start really ‘learning’ this at a deep level. The idea is that there are three different levels of knowledge. You can be told something and accept it (like a friend telling you that peanut butter and jam sandwiches are nice), or you can reason something out and know it intellectually (that soft bread, sweet jam and salty peanut butter is a winning combo) but you don’t really ‘know’ jack until you bite into it and experience it for yourself. Yes, I ate a lot of peanut butter and jam sarnies there and had a lot of time to think! Having studied philosophy this made sense to me. So much is argued about and ‘known’ at an intellectual level, and it’s perfectly natural for students to ‘know’ directly conflicting things, but precious little is known at an the ‘real’ experiential level because this is much, much harder.

So how the hell do you experience the nature of change and the virtue of equanimity by sitting on your arse in a Scout hall for 10 hours a day? This is the neat bit. You train your brain to become incredibly sensitive to physical sensations all over the body and find that it’s only with a perfectly level mind that you can feel sensations everywhere- if you get excited about it you lose it. Through this you can also see that change occurs even when you think it can’t by ‘watching’ sensations or lack of them on your skin come and go and change (‘Changes’- Bowie). And when you become sensitive and balanced enough you can feel your whole body subtly at the same time and it felt to me like I just totally disappeared. The first time this happened to me it totally blew me away. (Train Spotting. ‘Higher than the Sun’- Primal Scream) And you find that you don’t have to react to things like discomfort and boredom and pain. By the end of the course you don’t have to fidget, change posture or respond to the aches in your back and legs but learning this took strength I didn’t know I had (‘Hurt’ Johnny Cash, Fight Club again- the acid bit and the car-crash bit- ‘Just. Let. Go.’) Significantly various memories involved with craving and aversion get thrown up from your past and if you just observe them without reacting they get dismissed and so you ‘purify’ your mind- very therapeutic. As well as this I’ve learnt a lot about time! Contrary to popular belief it doesn’t just fly by because you’re meditating. It takes forever for an hour or two to pass until it has passed and then it’s as if it were a click of the fingers. Much like the whole of life, thinking about it. (‘Time’- Pink Floyd. ‘It’s about Time’- The Lemonheads)

My state of mind? With all the isolation and lack of diversions I would have thought I’d get bored but rarely was I. Ok, I did resort to playing with ants and trying to outstare lizards but it was fun in a primitive, mental-hospital kind of way. In terms of sharpness it progressed from a vodka-hangover like daze on the first day to a rarely enjoyed crystal clarity by the last. I’ll never forget (whoops! Everything changes, right?) sitting for hours watching a silent electrical storm over the sea amongst feral dogs, frogs and inquisitive mice on the last night with the mind of a cool mountain pool- pure magic. Some other striking memories of the trip will be of the dreams- I’ve never experienced anything like some of them. Normally the doze after breakfast for an hour, loaded down with bread after about 20hrs of near-fasting and days of non-stimulation, was tripping time and threw up the most vivid, striking dreams of my life including a couple where I ‘woke up’ into them. Incredible- more real than life.

Overall it wasn’t easy. In fact I’d say it’s about the hardest thing I’ve ever done- physically, psychologically and emotionally. Sorry Tom (the guy who put me on to this) but I cursed you every day, normally just before the 4 hour afternoon session! I’ll buy you a lemonade for every time I did, though where I’m going to get £1,000 for this from I’m not so sure. Despite all this I’d say it’s also one of the best things I’ve ever done. Believe it or not I think it will have as much impact on my life as the discovery of all the good things- sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, cars, travel, the lot. The real test for me is whether I would have rather spent the extra 10 days in Bali, where I spent a great long weekend partying and surfing just before, or on the retreat and I can honestly say the retreat.

To do this properly though requires a real commitment, not just 10 days of trying. No intoxicants- there goes the beer but honestly, I don’t mind. While drinking has been a riot at times I think it’s run its course and now costs more than it’s worth in terms of money, time, health and pleasure. No killing- not a problem except if this means being veggie. I’m not sure but I suspect it does and if I’m honest with myself I think it should do. I haven’t eaten meat since the start and wouldn’t mind continuing. Perhaps the biggest one is the two hours a day of continued meditation, one hour morning, one hour evening. Speaking to people after the course who already do this (yes, people do come back!) they say it’s ok. You come to relish the ‘time off’, you can knock an hour off your sleep in the morning and you’re that much more productive in the day that you can afford another hour somewhere else- we’ll see.

If you fancy giving all this a go, and if it strikes a chord with you or raises your curiosity at all I urge you to take your courage in your hands and take the plunge, then there’s a permanent centre near Wales. The course is totally free and is solely supported by ex-students through donations, this way you truly get to live like a monk- on the charity of others. It is hard and you will want to leave (although knowing you lot you’ll stick it, not to be beaten if nothing else), but you will have one hell of an experience at the least and a much happier life at the most.

In other news I’m back in the UK in June and am free on Sat 9th, fly to Sweden for 6 days to visit Annika and her family on Sunday, have the 18th/19th free, then go to Glastonbury until the 25th then come back here on the 29th. Phew! If I get a chance to see you then that’ll be great- I’m missing UK people and feel well and truly out of a good loop (if there’s still one there at all these days?)

Right- tell me if I sound like a nut otherwise big hippie Peace and Love to all (I mean it),

Mark

Summary:
o Survived and even enjoyed a 10 day meditation retreat
o Coming home for most of June but have a manic schedule of fun which I’m trying hard not to crave!

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