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Published: December 3rd 2010
The girls were completely separated from us. It was mainly a hedge, a curtain or a plaster wall that kept us physically separate, but the Noble Silence made the separation complete. On this last day when I could use my camera again I did however venture to take this picture through one of the curtains.
Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam
Wow. 10 Days Vipassana meditation course completed with almost flying colors, and all I have to do is describe it. Well, not so easy so I have spent a few days figuring out how to go about it.
What the hell is meditation anyway?
If you are anything like what I was just a couple of weeks ago, you only have a vague idea what meditation is. Something like sitting cross-legged and concentrating really hard and then you would be able to levitate within a few hours or read peoples' minds.
I guess the best way to get an understanding is to simply just try it. If not the full ten days then at least 10 minutes. Even though I'm definitely not qualified to instruct anyone in Anapana or Vipassana meditation then here is a small exercise that you can do and I promise that you will actually get some rather interesting realizations out of it.
Find a quiet place to sit down, close your eyes and focus on your breath. How it enters through your nose and how it exits again when you exhale. Observe it objectively. In other words you should
The Dhamma Hall
This is the main Dhamma hall or meditation hall where I spent some 70-80 hours during the course. The blue cushions are fantastic and I will be buying one of those for myself as a christmas present.
not control your breath at all, just breathe naturally nor should you try to count it or put your observation into words. Just observe it for about 10 minutes and then come back and continue reading. I really recommend trying this before reading the conclusions further down.
Come on. Do the exercise first
Well, you probably noticed as I did on the first day that this is a lot harder than it sounds. Be honest now. How many breaths were you able to observe without being distracted. Five breaths? Ten? Twenty-five?
No, you were not even close to that. I only managed to do two or three breaths on the first day. Then my mind started wandering and it went to some crazy places. It wasn't even a proper trail of thoughts but just more or less random garbage:
"Breath, breath, breath, I wonder why beer is so expensive in Indonesia. There are some really cute girls here. Should I fly home through Denpassar or Jakarta. Denpassar sucks, but Jakarta is pretty rotten as well. I am only going to be in the airport though. Shit, I should
Not surprisingly my seat is the messy one with a couple of extra cushions next to it. It tried to make it a little comfy.
be observing my breath. Breath, Breath. It is ridiculous though. Almost 20 Dkr for a beer. 640 ml, but still".
And so on and so on and so on. During the lecture that night N. S. Goenka, the teacher who appears through loudspeakers during the meditations and on a TV during the lectures, described it as a crazy monkey jumping from tree to tree. Before that I had thought of my own mind as if it was controlled by some deafmute on speed in front of a xylophone. Just banging away in a horrible cacophony. Would you ever leave any important decisions to a crazy monkey? No, of course not, but this first important lesson was that we basically do it all the time. Scary. An un-tamed and un-trained animal. Quite a realization for a ten minute exercise isn't it?
The other lesson is that if you do this for a couple of days then you gradually gain control of that insane monster that "guides" us through our lives. That after a while you begin to be able to actually focus on the sensations on and in your body and then the real experience starts.
With that limited space you get to know every single step very well. I realized on the second day that I had to take a photo of this. 8 days later I did.
a comment about your experience with this small experiment!
The daily life of a meditator
The daily routine was all commanded by the bell. It rang the first time at 4 a.m. and the first two hour meditation session started at 4:30. This could be done in the main meditation hall or in our rooms and not surprisingly I fell asleep quite a few times during this session. At 6:30 it was breakfast time, a "highlight", and at 8 the first group session started in the Dhamma hall. More meditation after that and then lunch at 11. 1 o'clock the meditation started again and the next group session at 2.30. More meditation after that till 5 o'clock when "dinner" was served. I am not going to reveal what that meant, but it was about as filling as half an apple and some weird jello pudding stuff. I completely ignored that meal on most days since I had spent too much energy looking forward to it and too much energy being disappointed by it. 6 o'clock was the third group meditation session and then at 7 the real highlight. The lecture by N. S. Goenka. The only real intellectual
My favorite spot
This was at the far end of the center. Just beneath the assistant teachers apartment. So many cups of lemon tea. I never drink tea. Never. But during the course I had ten cups a day. The view over Bogor was fantastic when the weather was acting up.
stimulation of the day and every day was an eye-opener in some way or the other. He is also a funny guy and this was the only time during the day when we could laugh. I guess we were also an easy crowd, but there was one amazing joke that I will include in the next anecdotes. More about that later. After the lecture was another short group session with an introduction to the new elements of the technique that was going to be used the following day. Sounds boring. Well, yes and no.
The rules made it quite a challenge. The complete silence and lack of facial expressions or any other communication meant that I basically just saw the other meditators as brief ghosts moving past. A pair of feet basically. It is quite extraordinary to share a big experience in that way. Whenever I had a breakthrough along the way I simply could not share it with anybody. All of the amazing experiences had to be contained. Confined. Saved for later. I thought the introvert side of me would love this and it certainly did enjoy it, but the other aspects of my personality was screaming for
My favorite spot
Even on the really hot days there was a breeze coming up or down the valley that made this place a little haven for me. To the right is the tiny hall where we "English Speakers" saw the lectures. At least we got the ones that wasn't dubbed.
an outlet. It was just a matter of time.
The only truly useful thing we needed to do was laundry. I washed those clothes with dedication and enjoyment. If it wasn't completely clean from the day before I would give it another rinse. I actually kept my smelly shoes to day seven or eight because I knew that they would be a fantastic distraction. Laundry eh?
What you just tried briefly before was Anapana meditation. It is basically just observation of the breath and that was the first three days. You gradually add new aspects to the technique, but that is essentially it. On the afternoon of the 3rd day I had my first breakthrough. I started feeling all kinds of sensations around my nose and it was truly magnificent to observe how my mind was shutting up and focusing on the task at hand. That is pretty much the goal of Anapana meditation. To be able to focus on even the most subtle sensations without being interrupted by that constant chit-chat.
On day 4 we started the actual Vipassana meditation (pronounced Vi'pashana). You observe the sensations on your body moving your attention from
the top of the head to the toes. N. S. Goenka is Burmese/Indian so his pronunciation sometimes confused me a bit. When we were introduced to the technique I thought he said "Top of the hip" and in my confusion I decided to focus for several minutes on an area just above my right hip. "Now move your awareness to the rest of the scalp". "Aaahhh. Top of the head."
By doing this you gradually become aware of even the most minuscule sensations. The fact is that every single part of our body sends signals to our brain all the time, but normally these are filtered out. "We" only receive the urgent messages like "PAIN in the right leg", "Your nose is itching" or "Somebody is stroking your back". Through very hard work you find yourself becoming aware of all those signals that are normally ignored. And they are pretty fascinating. You also start observing the more noisy sensations for real.
Day 4 was also the start of the "Sittings of Strong Determination". That should actually just be called "Sitting still and hurting like hell". The three daily group sittings all turned into this awful torture. If you
This is the dining hall on the last evening. Finally we could talk to each other. At the top are small posters from the various centers around the world. There are hundreds. Vipassana is helping a lot of people!
think this sounds easy then find a comfy place to sit with no backrest and then remain in that position for an hour. Auch!! I made my way through the first one with my legs cramping and shaking for the last 15 minutes, but I failed miserably on the second one. No willpower left. Just gave up. But on the evening of the 5th day the amazing stuff started to happen.
I simply cannot sum up 10 hours of lectures in a few sentences. It is impossible, but Vipassana was the technique that Gautama Buddha (the famous Buddha with the religion and all that stuff) used to achieve full enlightenment under the Banyon tree. It is the realization that aversions and cravings leads to misery and that each of these have a physical manifestation. When someone does something nasty to you, you may feel a shiver or your stomach churning. When something nice happens to you, you may feel goosebumps all over or butterflies in your stomach. Everything that gets stored at the bottom of our minds have somehow made its way through one or more of our senses. They become Sankharas or what I would call deep-rooted memories.
Well. I stopped eating the evening meals, but this was the desert for the last one. A full meal all of a sudden.
And the untamed mind will store these more or less forever without being really aware of them. This ignorance coupled with the cravings and aversions are the three causes of misery.
Look at it this way. Your boss has been an asshole and it keeps you awake at night. You just can't let it go and it can keeps nagging you forever. L'esprit de l'escalier all over the place. "If only I had said: blah, blah, blah". That is an aversion that has become a Sankhara.
The theory is simple. Through Vipassana meditation you can experience the physical manifestation of these experiences again and if you treat them properly they will simply go away. Get rid of all of them and you are very close to the finish line. Simple steps along the path. The Dhamma.
And what does it mean to treat them properly. Well, you have to remain equanimous while observing them. Not wanting bad sensations to go away and not wanting pleasant sensations to stay. To observe them with complete objectivity and then they will fade away eventually. Every single sensation on and in your body shares the same nature. It will rise and
I went around the corner of the dining hall and could see the outside world through the gate. We were only held in by a piece of string and a bamboo fence, but it was the most effective prison.
then fade away. This sounds pretty far-fetched doesn't it.
Well on the night of the 5th day my pains in my right leg became very interesting. First of all they stopped hurting. The physical pain was certainly there but the mental pain was gone almost all the time. And then I started observing what pain really feels like. Normally we react instantly when something is painful. Almost in panic we remove the source of the pain if we can. But during the sessions from then on I was able to have a closer look.
A stretching pain is quite fantastic. To me it felt like small v-shaped electrical currents running over my skin. Like a charged formation of migratory geese moving towards my crotch. A whole new meaning to "Going South". I discovered that what I would call a throbbing pain is actually two alternating pulsations very close by. And although I was truly amazed by all of this I kept making sure that I would not become too attached to feeling pain in my legs. That they were just sensations like everything else.
One thing that irritated me a bit during the course was the way
It doesn't get much more basic than this. Of course there isn't a power outlet because you don't have anything that requires power. No reading light. No, you don't have anything to read either. A bed. That was it.
new concepts were sometimes introduced. Like on the afternoon of the 8th day. The assistant teachers would bring us up in small groups (like "the new males will remain in the hall. The old females can continue in their cells"). On this particular occasion I was asked if I had "experienced any freeflows". I was tempted to be an ass. "Yes I freeflowed this morning and right after lunch. But don't worry. I washed my hands afterwards." Or "Yeah, I once had a very bad second stage, and I lost 20 bar in a flash". But freeflows in Vipassana has nothing to do with peeing or faulty Scuba gear. It is the experience of countless uniform sensations throughout the body when you perform a sweep down and up of yourself.
And I had indeed experienced freeflows. On the evening of the 7th day I was freeflowing like a madman. It was before we had been told to only do about two sweeps, before going back to bodypart to bodypart, so I was sweeping for 45 minutes and my head felt like it was about to explode when I moved my awareness back to my head. Like a champagne bottle.
This is another favorite spot of mine. Just behind the Dhamma Hall and my room is straight ahead. The sun was hiding most of the time. The rain was quite simply ridiculous. Bogor must be one of the rainiest places in the world.
Absolutely amazing and very hard not to get attached to. My right leg was making the most pathetic attempts at getting my attention. "Hey, pal. We still have some pretty serious pain going on down here". As if I cared. I found myself sitting with my head pointing at the ceiling and my mouth wide open. Shattering.
After that I had a very hard time focusing. The 9th day took forever and I simply couldn't concentrate. The end was too close and my mind started wandering. On the 10th day we could talk again and an avalanche of conversation started. We had briefly met before the actual course started but this was our chance to really get to know each other. During the evening session I gave it one more shot and had a very nice meditation with both impressive pains and inspiring freeflows.
The Distractions = Ben
The rules were very strictly observed and I am sure that I would have followed all of them if it hadn't been for Ben. Not that I blame him. It was something that happened between us. We noticed it even before the course started. As the absurdity of what
This is Ben. My partner in crime having gotten his cellphone back and trying to convince his girlfriend that he is not completely nuts. He is Indonesian, but has lived in the U.S. for 7 years. Member of the Theosophical Society. Maybe I should create a theophobic society
we were about to embark on was becoming more and more apparent, I could feel myself almost laughing at it all and when I looked up, there was Ben smiling about the exact same thing. I can name the five people that I have ever met and where that kind of connection was present. Some of my best friends. Where something happens and you just know that the other person has noticed how funny it is. And when you are close to one another it is really, really hard not to laugh. "Hva så Valle".
Ben and I were like that and I told him before the course started that we "had to stay the fuck away from each other". The first day was hell. Whenever I caught even the smallest glimpse of him I was about to burst into laughter. But after that it was fine. For several days. Until the "Fast Forward Incident".
It was the lecture on the evening of the 5th day. I had just had an amazing meditation session where my pains where not bothering me at all. And we were sitting there looking and listening to N. S. Goenka. The English speaking
The Dhamma Hall steps
The stairs to the main Dhamma Hall. One of my favorite spots was at the top of the stairs to the left. Countless hours spent there.
girls sitting tantalizingly close behind a curtain. And then the power went out. One of the 300 yearly thunderstorms that strike Bogor was raging on top of us. That sort of situation just calls for a joke. Some comic relief. Anybody, please say something. "Who hit the enlightenment button", "Whoever has got his hand in my crotch, please remove it". Stuff like that. But oh no, we were observing noble silence.
And then the power came back. The course administrator got up and went for the tv-set to start it again. Only the DVD player did not have a display so there was no way of knowing where we were. And the video was probably the worst ever recorded to find a specific spot in. It is just an old Indian guy sitting there and talking. The 2nd minute is identical to the 50th. But he started fast-forwarding with the image on the screen. At 32 times the normal speed Mr. Goenka was moving. Those porterhouse steaks that he has instead of cheeks were moving in all possible directions. And the right hand, which really is the only bodypart that he moves during lectures was doing a one-armed version
Well, this is pretty much from the top of the stairs and here you can see the divide between men and women very clearly. It is the dining hall in the back and the hedge that divided us for ten days. The main Dhamma hall was the only place where we could actually see each other. And this spot at the top of the stairs. There were some beautiful girls there :)
of the robot dance. He looked like an insane ventriloquist who had forgotten his puppet. And all I thought was: "FUCK, Ben is sitting right next to me".
I didn't look at him. I didn't have to. I knew that we were the only two people in the room who would really appreciate this moment. How glorious and perfect it was. And I fought. Struggled to keep those laughs back. And succeeded. Until I heard that tiny little giggle from next to me, and then I knew that I was screwed. We both laughed into our hands, but the genie was out of the bottle. From then on we were going to try to have fun. Somehow.
So I started the flip-flop war. No point in trying to blame that on anyone but myself. I was standing at the doorway to our building, getting into my flip-flops when Ben came out from his room, and for no reason whatsoever I just gave his flip-flops a little kick to the side. And it was on. We didn't have to talk about the rules of the game. They were obvious. Whenever one of us had left our flip-flops unattended the
Behind the Dhamma Hall
This is where I discovered Tea. Just sitting there beneath the stairs and drinking a cup of tea. Fantastic.
other one could and should do something silly with them. Like just turning them upside down. Or decorating them with pink clothespins. I loved it when I simply took one of Ben's and one of mine leaving us both with one odd couple, but it seemed he didn't get that one, so he dropped one of mine through the window in my room. Any little thing to keep us entertained a bit. And that was what lead to my army.
The pinecone army
At first the idea was just to build one and place it on Ben's flip-flops. But upon completion it became obvious that it had to be shared with everyone. So I built eight. Small creatures that would make up my army that would enable me to take over the place and outlaw the burping from the Chinese women that were driving us Westerners crazy. I called them the "Noble Burpers" in my head.
I made them from a pinecone, two toothpicks broken in half, two red flowers for eyes/antennas and then a green seed-pod for tail. And then I started the production with my trusted swiss-army knife.
On the evening of the 7th
My Pinecone Army
One of my beautiful creations. I have to admit that this is not one of the original eight. The got pretty smashed up by thunderstorms and time, so I made another one just for this photo.
day I was ready. Everybody was busy enjoying their evening "meal" and I started the operation. Adrenalin rush like never before. I placed my eight little creatures along the walkway from the Dhamma Hall to the dining hall. I reached through the hedge to place half of them on the womens side. Such a naughty boy. I could only carry two at a time without breaking them, so I had to make four runs back to my room. But the army was deployed and I could sit down and look for reactions from my fellow meditators.
And fortunately they were very well received. No-one told me afterwards that they had been distracted or annoyed by them. Just a little weirdness to bring out some smiles and that worked beautifully. Yes, it was childish as hell, but after so many days without any creative outlet I simply had to do something.
On the 8th day we were told to do continuous meditation. That just means that you try to employ the enhanced awareness of your senses to whatever you do. Not just sitting down in the Dhamma Hall, but all the time.
WOW. I started as I went down to the dining hall. Observing my walk. Feeling how my feet responded as they touched the ground. The breakfast that morning was particularly bland. White pasta with some condiments I would never eat that early. Fried onions and garlic, chopped coriander. So I just went for a big bowl of pasta and a lemon tea. The best meal I have ever had at that point. It is impossible to describe. For the first time in my life I really tasted something. How I got different sensations from different parts of my tongue. How my tongue magically moved in my mouth, just dodging the teeth in the nick of time as they were about to chew. How it actually feels to swallow. Absolute awareness while dining. I have been amazed by how people can recognize wines by grapes and vintages, but now I now that it is a simple question of awareness. Practice.
If you have seen a scene of a lunatic asylum in a movie, then that was what we looked like that day. Ben was sitting in the grass for hours just looking at stuff and insects around him. Someone was searching the place for insects. I spent at least half an hour drinking a cup of lemon tea. Observing how a warm cloud dissolved on my nose if I had breathed into the cup. How the lemon flavors and tea flavors divided my mouth. How a hot sip of tea will make a burning sensation on the upper part of your upper lip but not on the lower part. How the heat of the tea dissipated etc. Every single second was a new experience. I had never eaten a meal before that. I had never had a cup of tea. I had never walked, sat, looked at anything. It was better than being born again. As I said. We looked like lunatics.
So did I embrace it all? No, far from it. One basic part of Dhamma is Sila (pronounced like Sheila) and that is just good old run-of-the-mill rule based imperative bullshit pretending to be a system of morality. I published those rules in the previous post, but they are not only rules to be followed through the course. Oh no, they are in fact rules to be followed in your life. I have become so skilled at shooting such stupidity out of the water that it is about time that I sit down and write something about it. We have mistaken such commandments for morality for far too long. Paradoxically this course has given me the last few pieces to get a truly universal system to work for myself (I hope).
And even though Vipassana is only a meditation technique then it is also the foundation for Buddhism and well, there are certainly many good things to say about a purist Buddhism but certainly also a few things that have become outdated after 2500 years.
But that doesn't change the fact that this was a truly life-altering experience. I went into it to challenge myself and get a good story. I might as well admit that those were my reasons, but I had no idea that I would find a tool that so perfectly matched what I have been trying to do with myself throughout adulthood. I pretty much figured out a lot of things when I was about 20 years old, but I have really not been able to apply much of that in my life and here comes a well-proven technique that just drops into my lap. Goenka kept saying: "You should not accept any of the things I have said. You should experience them yourselves". That is a wonderful statement in this world, where spirituality is most often served on a "Take it or leave it (and burn in hell)" basis. A very dear friend recently wrote to me about Christianity: "Well, it is the show that is in town". No, No, No. There are fantastic shows to be found within yourself. And you are bound to be successful.
So is this a recommendation? Not an unconditional one. You can certainly do it regardless of what background you may have. Religion or no religion does not make a difference. This is a technique to just become better. At everything.
But. Going through a Vipassana course requires quite a bit. I found it at the right time in my life, when I was willing to force myself to be open to something like this. It is a question of timing. But I don't think that I have ever met anyone who would not benefit tremendously from a shot of Vipassana. But it requires a few things.
I found that I was challenged in quite a few ways:
1. Maturity or discipline. It takes a whole lot of determination to go through a ten-day course. As you have just read I even slipped a few times. If you are not willing to play by the rules for the full 10 days, then this is not for you (yet).
2. An open mind. This was not easy for me, but I managed to go into it with a willingness to give it a chance. To leave my reservations until the course was over. It goes without saying that if you keep questioning everything then you will not be able to experience it at all.
3. Determination. You sign up for ten days and that is what you should do. A few people disappeared along the way and we never figured out why. I you are not willing to go through every tough stage of the course then this is not for you (yet).
4. A little bit of self-awareness. Most of us lie to ourselves all the time. You have to have a certain level of honesty towards yourself in order to make it through. If you said yes without a doubt to the first 3 things I listed you may be lacking this one. Hopefully not though.
But what do you get out of it. It has almost been a week since I was "released" and I have realized quite a few things. First of all there are some things that have been bothering me a lot for years and they seem to be gone. They may come back, but even if I try to focus on them now, they just seem irrelevant. And there are some major things in that pool.
Second of all I have noticed a remarkable shift in how I treat other people. I have kept more to myself than previously on the trip but I am more forgiving than normally.
Time will tell if any of this will stick. I am not too optimistic, so that I can be pleasantly surprised. I have done my best to keep meditating twice a day, and I started out really well, but now it seems to be slipping. It really requires a change of daily rhythm. But I have certainly not done my last Vipassana course.
I have managed to do some continuous meditation, but it is of course nothing like at the center. But my appreciation while diving or just looking at a starlit sky has indeed climbed to new heights. And every single meal is fantastic!!
The title of this entry means "May all beings be happy". Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam. It is Pali I think. The language that Gautama Buddhama and his countrymen spoke. In Danish it sounds like "Bøhvøhdy Sarva Mangalam". Goenka would chant a bit for us at the end of each meditation session (from a tape) and this repeated three times marked the end. Then the meditators could answer "Saddhu" three times if the felt like it and it didn't become a ritual. It means "Well said" or "Word up" in Young.
The last meditation technique we learned was Metta where you clear your mind and wish the best for all beings. So with all of you included in my Metta tonight and Kasper in particular I am finishing with:
Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam
Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam
Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam
This was a very brief recap of my experience. If you have in any way been tempted to try it yourself, then I would love to tell you more.
Oh. And there is another batch of Anecdotes ready. Crazy stuff this time. Hopefully they will be ready in a day or two.
Tot: 3.526s; Tpl: 0.102s; cc: 25; qc: 98; dbt: 0.0745s; 3; m:saturn w:www (22.214.171.124); sld: 2;
; mem: 1.7mb