Experience, observed closely

My 10-day Vipassana Meditation retreat

The sun was setting. I had taken an afternoon train to Hereford and was sitting on the private hire bus that took the participants to the site of the Vipassana retreat. The bus wound through narrow countryside roads. It was winter, the sky was grey, and trees and fields moved past in evening light. I was sitting next to a tall Dutch guy, I can’t remember his name. I initiated a conversation and he told me a story about a long walking trek he had done with his girlfriend in Sardinia that summer. They had been out there for a month and he had really pushed himself. He seemed to be a person who was interested in finding experiences outside his comfort zone. He had done the Vipassana retreat once before and said he was returning because he wanted “to go back to prison”. His energy was wonderful; relaxed and dreamy, and he looked dishevelled in a way that always makes me think I have met someone quite similar to myself. To this day he holds a small but special place in my heart.

Suddenly a hand-painted sign appeared next to the road: ‘Dhamma Dipa’. We turned onto a narrower road and something inside me tensed up. The bus stopped and we got off. There it was: the main building of the retreat appearing in the darkness. I grabbed my suitcase and guitar – I had rushed straight to the retreat from a performance at Gunnersbury House – and walked up the stairs to the front door. Inside everyone was gathering in the pale yellow light of the large dining hall, which now served as the registration area. I grabbed the paperwork and sat down. I placed my mobile phone next to me and its presence was charged with meaning; I knew that I soon would have to give it up and that the act of handing it in would mark the beginning of the course and a disappearance into a very different world. The sun had now set outside and each moment felt significant, full of nerve and promise. I filled in the registration form and received a single key to my room.

After putting away my phone, wallet and house keys in a small locker I went back to dining hall and helped myself to the evening snack. A bit nervous I sat down to eat at a table with three others. Doing most of the talking was a good-looking, slightly older man with thick stubble and a warm smile who had done several retreats before. He was very generous in the way he spoke to everyone at the table but couldn’t help repeatedly mentioning his experience and various realisation he had already made through the practise of the Vipassana technique. He spoke of a breathing exercise that we were likely to do and how he, through sustained and intense focus, had felt a strong sensation just above his upper lip, as if something was burning through his skin.

The other two guys at the table were at the course for the first time. They were two out of only three black men in the room. One of them had no experience with meditation at all and was a semi-professional football player. He had no idea what to expect and I remember thinking that he might struggle as he was very young and full of energy and impatience; a combination not perfectly suited to meditating for 11 hours a day. I was right. He almost left the retreat on day four and was the only person out of perhaps 100 who never managed to sit still for the hour-long ‘adhittana’ (strong determination) sessions in the latter part of the retreat. During our group meditations he always sat to the left of me and the sound of him constantly shuffling and moving around in his puffer jacket was something I had to spend the next ten days learning to overcome.

Suddenly the feeling in the room changed and it became quieter. It was time for the introduction speech. A strikingly young man in casual clothes stood up and read through the guidelines in a monotone and calm voice. No talking, no eye contact, no books, no exercise, no spiritual practise of any sort apart from Vipassana and only two pieces of fruit to eat after 11am.

The room had a magical energy then. The energy of a beginning. I sat in the dull light of the dining hall, the challenge ahead making itself more and more felt with each passing moment. There was a stillness all around but inside excitement and anticipation bubbled. The young man spoke for about 45 minutes. The emphasis on rules and discipline was front and center. This was a serious space. This was a space for introspection and focus. I loved it.

And so the young man hit a gong and the ‘Noble Silence’ that was to last for the next 10 days began. No one looked at each other. We got up from our chairs and walked to our rooms like ghosts.

I was lucky enough to have my own room. Only those over forty got that and I must have been the youngest person to be given one. I was so pleased. I started organising my clothes and changed the bed sheets. Not having a phone around – or anything else for that matter – felt wonderfully relaxing. But it didn’t take long before I started feeling the dull ache of impatience. I stretched out in my bed and began reading the pamphlet on the bedside table, introducing the Vipassana technique and the rules of the retreat. Once finished I studied a laminated sheet outlining how to leave your room at the end of the ten days. It was dark outside, the fifteenth of January.

The gong rang outside my window. It was time for the first group meditation. From the dormatories boys and men streamed out into the cold winter evening and made their way up to the meditation hall. When I reached the entrance I looked to my right and saw the women disapperaing into the hall through their separate entrance, one by one.

In the meditation hall, which was cool, dark and spacious each of us got an assigned seat where we would sit for all of our group meditations. To the left of me I had the young footballer with the impatient energy. In front of me was another quite young guy who seemed serious and commited and had the build of a rugby player. We were sitting at the back of the hall together with all the other first-timers. The more experienced Vipassana meditators were at the front, draped in their blue blankets to keep warm. On my right was the empty space that separated the men and the women from each other. The women really did seem to inhabit a different world during the time at the retreat. They were mysterious figures on the other side of a river, moving like shadows in the distance, and having all the women together in one place created an almost magical, feminine energy. Their side of the meditation hall seemed calmer, as if a gentle breeze was blowing through it and instead of the blue blankets we had, the girls, with their better posture and seemingly calmer minds, had been given white.

For the first three days we practised Annapanna, a breathing technique. We began by simply focusing on the sensations appearing in a triangular area extending from the top of the nose to the corners of the mouth. Any sensation arising in this area – cold, warmth, twitches, pulsations – we should try to notice. I had done many quite similar breathing meditations before but only for 30 minutes at a time. Here we were to pay close attention to these sensations for 11 hours a day, whilst sitting more or less perfectly still. The memories of it have faded now but it was monumentally difficult. Time ground to a halt.

I was in my room on the morning of the first day, closed my eyes, breathed through my nose and patiently tried to notice the endless stream of subtle sensations in the triangular area. After a while my mind drifted elsewhere. I calmed my mind, telling myself I was doing really well and returned my attention to the small triangular area in the middle of my face. Another fifty or sixty breaths later I started feeling incredibly impatient. I calmed myself once more. Continued again. One breath after the other. After an endlessly long time I finally gave myself permission to open my eyes and look at the alarm clock on my bedside table. To my total surprise not more than 15 minutes had passed. It was five in the morning, pitch black outside and there was more than one and a half hour left of the first self-guided meditation session.

The sky finally started to brighten just before breakfast at 6:30am. The night had passed and a muted silvery light hung outside the window as the gong rang. I had managed my first session! I put on my shoes, my purple, woolly jumper and wrapped my Arsenal scarf around my neck. There was already a queue outside the dining hall. I felt great. Having somehow navigated my way through two hours of self-guided meditation I felt a closeness to the group as we slowly made our way into the warm dining hall. The breakfast was simple but delicious. A large metal pot full of porridge was followed by another pot full of stewed prunes. Further down the line were fruits, breads and a nice variety of vegan spreads. I grabbed a bowl of porridge with prunes and added bananas and a sprinkle of cinnamon. I was hungry and toasted two slices of brown bread, both with peanut butter and jam. And a cup of black coffee. I ended up having exactly the same breakfast for the next ten days. The focus required to manage the meditation sessions was so great that experimenting with different food options was counter-productive. Changing spreads, trying the muesli, or having a different kind of bread was pointless. In fact, even looking forward to the meals was a distraction. The meal times became a time dedicated to creating the stability and rhythm necessary to take you through the days in a calm and attentive way.

The first two days of meditation were the hardest. I experienced several moments of something close to panic, where waves of discomfort and anxiety rose up with alarming speed and I felt completely trapped in the stillness of just sitting there. More and more sitting. More and more darkness, my eyes were closed for most of the day. Hour after hour of swimming through a kind of endless night, patiently searching for vibrations and minute fluctuations in temperature and pressure inside that imaginary triangle around my nose. Sometimes a pulse rose out of the darkness, I could feel my heartbeat on the skin of my upper lip. At other times I noticed the tingling, sharp sensations of cold air in my nostrils as I breathed; intensely on the in breath and often disappearing on the out breath. Thoughts rose up from the depths, never initiated. Anxiety tied knots in my stomach and electric currents of psychological suffering spread with little warning.

Here my experience helped. I knew that I had to be patient. That I had to be kind to myself and not think of anything that happened as a failure. Instead I tried to follow the present moment wherever it lead, patiently sticking to the task of objectively observing my breath, knowing that the suffering would come and go, come and go, again and again.

‘Aniche’. The booming, pre-recorded voice of our teacher Goenka always came back to this word during our group sittings in the meditation hall. ‘Aniche’. Change. Everything changes. Suffering fades. So does joy. Everything is, and will always be, in a state of flux. Even the most seemingly stable things, stones, stars, being-ness itself. It all changes from moment to moment. Just observe reality with great attention, dispassionately, and the psychological suffering will ease and eventually go away.

And so I sat there, patiently, in my room in the dark countryside of Herefordshire, hour after hour, and watched waves of suffering, waves of joy, arise and pass away.

One of my most important realisations in those first days is that meditation is a practise, not a theory. To really understand suffering and to liberate yourself from its grip, you need to familiarise yourself with it. You need to experience suffering as it runs amok in your body and mind, feel the discomfort deeply – and then stay with it. Stay with it, with no wish for it to go away. Stay with it for as long as it’s there, examining it closely, with curiosity and a calm focus. If you repeat this process for long enough physical and mental discomfort will slowly turn from something unbearable to a cloud of detailed physical sensations manifesting themselves in the body. In some ways pain becomes an abstraction, a strange ungraspable appearance in the invisible, space-less domain of consciousness.

In between various sublime realisations there was a whole lot of drudgery. Endlessly adjusting the pillows in my room to avoid further back pain. Stretching to alleviate the back pain. Adjusting the curtains in my room to allow for just the right amount of light. Walking through the pale, greenish hallway light for yet another toilet break.

Looking at the bright red digits on the alarm clock. 5:45. 10:15. 14:55. 21:00 – each number carrying a very particular emotional resonance. During the first night I could hardly sleep and time marched forward uncompromisingly. Each time I looked at the numbers on the alarm clock I was filled with an awful, twisting anxiety. How would I ever be able to meditate with only a few hours sleep? There was surely nothing worse. Other times the numbers would surprise me. Was it only fifteen minutes to lunch? Only ten to the group meditation? Had I only been meditating for half an hour?

This game also could not continue. I knew it. Abandoning time and, more importantly, any expectations of any kind, was the key to making this experience work. It didn’t matter what time it was. It didn’t matter how much time was left. It didn’t matter if it was almost lunch or what food was being served. Nothing could matter except sitting, patiently and silently, doing the practice again and again. Following the orders of Goenka. He was our teacher and authority. He knew what was best in this situation. I didn’t have a clue. And so I listened closely and did what I was told and slowly I started finding my feet.

When I first heard Goenka’s pre-recorded voice through the speakers in the meditation hall – a low pitched, monotone sing-song in what souded like a south Asian language – I instantly sniggered. It was like a parody of the meditation scene. Around me everyone sat perfectly still and upright, draped in their blue and white blankets, and listened intently. The glacial droning would go on for ages and it felt ludicrous to pay attention to – nevermind revere – words that none of us could understand. But as the retreat went on and our collective silence and practice quietened the critical mind, I started feeling very different about Goenka’s voice. It became a refuge, the only human voice I’d heard for days, and I knew from the daily video lectures that he was a man with good ideas and noble intentions (the echoes of which are in this text). His voice was something to lean into, an anchor in the storm of bodily sensations and pain that swirled through consciousness after hours and hours of sitting meditation.

When I had told friends and family about the retreat many expressed how difficult they would find not speaking for 10 days. My dad sounded worried over the phone:
“Why don’t they let you speak to anyone? It sounds like some kind of torture”.
I laughed. I was confident that this aspect of the retreat would be easy and so it proved. In fact, sitting in the dining hall with the other fifty or so male participants and eating in total silence was blissful. I fill with joy just thinking about it. It was so simple and every moment, every act seemed full of significance and clarity. Plating the rice. Pulling down the black lever on the hot water dispenser and filling up my cup. Cutting the red apple into smaller pieces. Watching someone suddenly rise from their seat, having taken the decision to return to their dormitory room. How was that decision made? Why? I don’t know and they wouldn’t have known either. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a strong enough urgency arises and you find yourself standing up in the middle of that silent room, putting your utensils in the grey bucket filled with soapy water. Suddenly you find yourself wrapping the scarf around your neck, opening the door to the dining hall and walking along the path to your room.

It was winter and the birds sang outside. But we walked past each other like ghosts, never speaking, never acknowledging each other. We acted as if the others didn’t exist but inside of me their presence burned brightly and their memories still do almost two years later.

There were a few days towards the middle of the retreat when the weather was sunny. The sky was a clear blue and after lunch many of us would sit on the benches outside the dormitory buildings looking into the sun. No one did anything interesting, No one said anything interesting. No one listened to music or read interesting books. But the sun shone in our faces and I felt close to these people I had never spoken too. We held hot cups of tea in our hands and the smoke from my breath disappeared in the cold, crisp air. Sometimes I thought negative thoughts. Many times I was deeply self-aware. But at no point did I feel any pressure to communicate or share anything. I was alone and had to learn to deal with my internal reality all on my own. Everyone was following that same rule. This made it easy in a way and it made me feel so close to the others, even though I had never spoken to almost any of them. We had a shared reality.

So who were these appearances, these people, floating past me during the ten days at Dhamma Dipa? There was the kind man with the stubble I had spoken to during that first evening in the dining hall, his presence always comforting and stable. There was the slightly curious, older man – balding – who I often saw strolling around during the day, smiling and whistling to himself. He had a different air than all the others, jolly and outward looking. Once, when everyone else was busy meditating in their rooms, I saw him outside, eccentrically inspecting a van that was parked near our dormitory. I am not sure he was too fussed about the Vipassana technique and doing it properly. Then there was the hippie with the white hair. He wore colourful clothes and was the most demonstrative and performative of all the participants. I remember how once, on a bright afternoon, he stood in the open grass field behind the meditation hall with his eyes closed, hands open, smiling, facing the sun. It seemed as if he was trying to put on a show for the rest of us. Then there were many, many ghosts. Men of all ages in comfortable, characterless clothes, with faces that gave nothing away, drifting past me in the shadows of the trees in the evenings. They came, they passed and they didn’t leave much of an imprint. But inside themselves, they too burned with the experience and challenge of the retreat.

And then of course, there was my Dutch friend… Sometimes, during the walk to or from the bathrooms, in between the last group meditation and the Goenka evening lecture, I would walk past him, wearing his too small, red puffer jacket, staring ahead with blurry eyes. I always felt a special energy when our paths crossed. A closeness, a kind of electricity. I spoke to him briefly on the train station before returning home to London. But I didn’t exchange any details and will probably never see him again.

I wonder how the retreat would have been without having them all there. Certainly very different. Their movements, their focus, their adherence to the same rules, gave me the strength and purpose needed to do what I otherwise would not – could not – have done. They gave me a sense of community.

I have never had much community in my life, certainly not as an adult. Speaking to others often creates a distance and I rarely feel able to express what is happening in my mind or to communicate the way it operates.

The social world, the world of speaking and listening, seems narrow and focused on quite a limited number of things – ideas, relationships and events. The top of the pyramid. Underneath all of that the heart beats, the nervous system operates in its monumental complexity, food is digested and the senses register the world and display these signals onto the silver screen of consciousness.

The meditation retreat was not about what language brings to the table. It was all about experiencing. Noticing the physical manifestations of joy, pain, tiredness, hunger, anticipation, the body operating in real time. Sitting around me in the meditation hall were another hundred people doing the same thing. We all breathed in and out together, helplessly. We all tried to notice exactly what each breath felt like. We all submitted to very strict rules in order to maximise our potential of objectively looking at these sensations without judgement or distraction.

In all this I found a great togetherness. There was no clever word play, no wanting to explain the world, no twisting of logic and no dominant or submissive players. Just silence and attention.

And when the Noble Silence finally ended on day 11 and we stumbled through the doors of the meditation hall, into the bright winter sunshine, it felt wonderful to speak again. Language was liberating, it connected us to one another and made it possible to share many of our experiences.

But it also immediately became clear that speaking was utterly inadequate and limited, unable to even approximate the journey I had been on.

Experience, when observed closely and untethered from concepts and ideas, is fundamentally abstract and lives in a mysterious, shadowy place far away from the constraints of language.

We had all been travellers to that strange, and ever-present place and now we were walking out in the sunshine, together. It was one of the best things I had done in my life.

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