THE VIPASSANA RETREAT

It took me 10 years to finally decide to embark on this retreat. In the second year of the pandemic I packed my bags and off I went to immerse myself in this intensive practice.

Vipassana is a meditation technique which aims to allow one to transform by committing to a focused practice of self-observation.

We are all bound by our thoughts, feelings and actions some conscious some unconscious. Vipassana explains that the scientific laws that operate one’s thoughts, feelings, judgements and sensations become clear. Through direct experience, the nature of how one grows or regresses, how one produces suffering or frees oneself from suffering is understood. Life becomes characterized by increased awareness, non-delusion, self-control and peace.

Arriving at the Dhamma Dipa Centre, UK

The 10-day residential course requires you to commit to a code of conduct – to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, speaking falsely and intoxicants including the commitment to fully complete the 10 days.

The key to the meditation practice is to observe your breath and bodily sensations very closely. In observing these and not reacting to them ideally one develops equanimity, the idea leading you away from misery towards self-liberation. This may sound simple but it is not.

With much enthusiasm 11 hours of sitting meditation practice a day, is seriously hard work. Being a regular meditator for a long time, I have to say I found it challenging. Switching off my ‘thinking’ mind and being in total awareness for such long durations was easy for me but it was the reactions that were occurring that were intense.

Teachers of Vipassana explain that the body and mind start to purify, and I was certainly beginning to ‘release’. My energy dipped, I got cold and shivery and lost my appetite. I found myself having strange dreams, one night I awoke screaming from a nightmare. I felt vulnerable as I observed flashbacks of emotions and experiences appearing in my mind from nowhere, a stream of consciousness I could not control. It’s easy to react harder to maintain equanimity.

It’s not surprising SN Goenka describes it as preparing for surgery of the mind. I gave my mind full permission to do some serious housekeeping. Sitting all day sometimes lying down, sometimes with some gentle walks around the grounds. I knew the process was doing something but I couldn’t rationalise it, some things were shifting/moving in me but I cannot put it into words.

By the end of the ten days, I felt a lightness in my body, a deep sense of peace plus an extreme awareness of my body, mind and breath. I know these 10 days were a drop in the ocean and a constant daily meditation practice is required to see any sustained results. There are monks who over a lifetime put in thousands of hours into their meditation practice, most of us unable to commit such amounts of time. Their minds work differently, we know this, science has recognised this. They find deep compassion and peace inside even when presented with stresses of life.

This kind of peace from suffering is a kind of liberation.

THE ART OF APPRECIATION

Can one ever be unhappy when they are in a place of gratitude? I reflect on the question.

Much pleasure can be had in giving and receiving appreciation and you can certainly change your own and others’ state in an instant.

I think of the times I appreciate others especially those who took the courage to go out of their comfort zone to share their talents or passion to do good in the world. Of the merits of human nature, especially those of kindness and selfless actions from the heart.

Today is my last day here. I have much to be grateful for, the team who cooked all the meals, the teachers, the yoga practice, the meditation teachings, the mountains for their glorious exuberance and not to forget the gift to myself of being here. So much to appreciate.

Joy is glowing, she’s achieved such a lot. She’s cheerful about her weight loss and that she’s stopped drinking but most importantly she’s found a renewed connection to herself. Joseph is taking things in his stride and looks at peace. Seeing and knowing more of ourselves is part of growing up, not just existing as an automaton.

Spiritual teachings tell us to even appreciate the difficult times which is where most growth happens. Cautiously revisiting those places within with love and tenderness does bring a whole new reconnection and peace to unfinished ends. I find myself, albiet hesitantly, grateful for the appearance of some of those challenging times giving me the opportunity to learn and heal.

Fruit from the strawberry tree

As I look out over the mountains against the crisp clear blue sky, the sun beams fully, the brightness is strong but I like it. It draws on the essential oils of the plants and I cannot help but be captivated by the aromas of rosemary, lavender and pine. I reach out and pick the hanging fruit, from the strawberry tree. It tastes so sweet and bumpy.

Retreats have helped give me time and space to reflect on pathways within myself, but the everyday practice of awareness is a continuous process.  It matters more to continue the practice at home. It’s essential work to me.

I think about times when I pushed myself out of my comfort zone.  I find myself doing it more frequently, as though there’s a silent motivation to experience life, to experience more. Much excitement exists in the unknown, as does overcoming fear of the unknown, but it would be dull if every day was the same.

Life after all is to be lived fully.

A place so loved someone created this bench for others to look out over the mountain