My Om-bitious Retreat.

By Sinead O’Connor

I first heard about Vipassana 8 years ago when a friend of mine was about to embark on a meditation retreat. After he explained to me that this was a ten day silent meditation retreat my reaction was not a hope would you catch me on that. The thought of sitting with only my thoughts for 10 whole days made me feel anxious to say the least. I was scared of my own mind. However it did plant a seed in my head as I thought someday I would be ready for a Vipassana retreat. Eight years on I was ready for the very Om-bitious challenge.

Days before I was about to embark on the retreat I began to refer to it jokingly as Spiritual Gaol. I met a friend who frequently goes on Vipassana retreats and joked with her about going to gaol for new years and her response was, yes it is kind of like that. Needless to say that was not what I wanted to hear! I was nervous as I knew it was going to be more then challenging if she was still saying that after her 5th ten day Vipassana retreat. However the excitement of what I was going to experience took over from the nerves.

On the retreat the day started at 4.30am and ended at 9.30 p.m with 12 hours of meditation practice a day. Some of these hours were supervised meditation and others you did the meditation practice on your own either in the meditation hall or in your room. I suppose it’s up to you how much you meditate in the unsupervised hours. The first two days I took a sneaky nap or two but after listening to the evening discourse taught by Goenka I decided I might as well practice the technique seriously. After all there was no point in admitting myself to spiritual gaol if I didn’t give it 100%. According to Goenka one needs the 10 days of serious practice for the technique to really begin working.

For the first three days the focus is a meditation technique called Anapana. Anapana is practiced to calm the body and mind in preparation for Vipassana. Without this lead in practice it would be impossible to focus on Vipassana. The Vipassana technique began on the fourth day. I can’t explain to you the exact technique as it needs to be taught to you by a trained Vipassana teacher but I can tell you what it’s all about.

Firstly Vipassana is the meditation technique that Gautama Buddha practiced to reach enlightenment in its most authentic form. Like Christianity Buddhism is not what the Buddha himself practiced but a variation of his teachings. The meaning of Buddha is enlightened one. There were many Buddha’s before Gautama and have been many since. Buddha did not create Buddhism as Jesus didn’t create Christianity. As far as I can tell they both wanted us to be them not to worship them. Vipassana is the road to being Buddha.

While on Vipassana you have to take vows including silence and not to practice any other prayers, mantras, rituals even Reiki is not allowed. The reason for this is they want you to experience Vipasana in its most authentic form without any other outside influence. You are allowed to talk to the teacher if you have a question or difficulty related to the technique and you can talk to management if you have an issue with accommodation, illness, food or general logistics.

As I love to practice mantra I was curious as to why I couldn’t while learning Vipassana so I quizzed the teacher about this one day. I expected to hear that they don’t believe in mantra but it’s quite the opposite. The teacher told me that mantras are very powerful and they put a shield or layer over you. What Vipassana is doing is stripping away all layers to get you to your core. There is no point according to her to do both Vipassana and mantra as they counteract the effects of each other. One is stripping down while the other at the same time would be building another layer.

Vipassana is core meditation. It’s not dressed up in any fancy philosophy or spirituality. You don’t have to be spiritual or believe in anything to experience this practice although it would help to have the spiritual understanding that we are all living in the mode of Samskara (Pali* term for pain and suffering) and stuck on the cycle of birth and rebirth which causes more pain and more suffering.

It’s a wonderful technique for the person with the logical mind or even a suspicious mind as the essence of the technique is simply experiential and makes logical sense. Do it and experience it for yourself. The meditation technique is very physical. It has to do with feeling sensations in your body. As you practice this meditation one becomes aware of “Anicca” (the Pali* term for impermanence). Because of Anicca one has to remain equanimous (evenness of mind) to all that is happening in your body as you meditate. You do not judge what is happening as the law of Anicca is the law of impermanence. As nothing is permanent you begin to understand the fickleness of life and all we attach ourselves to. The practice of Vipassana is the road to nonattachment to all worldly mater even our own body mater.

While the essence of the practice is quite simple one has to be careful that they are getting it right. When practicing Vipassana we experience moments of ease and moments of unease. As the technique is delivering us from cravings and aversions one has to be careful that they are not creating more cravings and aversions while doing the technique. This is where one has to be very careful of the mind and watch the mind. While being aware of what’s going on in the body or mind one has to remain equanimous to this  and not judging, not wanting the sensations to last or go away.  It doesn’t matter if the mind is off daydreaming about nonsense as long as one is still practicing the technique and not creating cravings and aversions.

The first day was by far the most difficult for me. I found the situation quite depressing as it did remind me of a concentration camp or gaol. The women are split from the men for the entire 10 days. There was no heating in the building on the first day and being the coldest winter I couldn’t put enough clothes on me to keep me warm. We queued in silence for food that was served in massive saucepans. The dining room was dim and dull. Every moment of that day I considered leaving but I knew that if I left I might not ever give it another go. I had got myself there and was determined to stay. I kept singing in my mind The Doors “Break on Through to The Other Side” to encourage me and I did break through to the other side. The other side was when I stopped considering leaving and found ease within what I was doing. It was constant hard work and never easy but I did find moments of ease and I felt more uplifted at the fact that I was there doing it.

Sitting in meditation for hours a day was both taxing on the body and on the mind. After years of yoga practice and 9 alone of teaching behind me I thought I had build up some credits and would be able to sit in comfort as I meditated. My upper back ached most of the time and my left leg was in a lot of pain most of the time. I think I was lucky in the sense that the pain I experienced was in the same area. I did experience Anicca (impermanence) with the pain as sometimes is subsided and more so toward the end of the ten days.

As you have nothing to distract you from your thoughts, no books, no t.v., no conversation one becomes really aware of what’s going on in the mind. You realize the thinking mind, which I refer to as the ego mind, is full of nonsense. Not only that but it is constantly jumping around. The monkey mind is one moment thinking about breakfast, the next a conversation that happened a year ago, the next where you are going on holidays. It jumps around thinking about one thing and then another while rarely being in the present moment. Sometimes it attaches itself to something you’re not happy with and goes on and on and on until you are so fed up of listening to it.

I found myself one day being really frustrated with my mind and really wanting it to simply shut up. So off I went to the teacher again. She told me to try to think of the constant thoughts as the rain outside the window but it is not who I am. So I went away thinking about that. Later on that evening when my mind was still going and going I had a moment of realization. This realization alone made the entire ten days worthwhile for me. I was, for the first time, able to detach myself from my thoughts. I had connected to my inner awareness, my true self. While I had known this from reading and studying yoga philosophy I had never experienced the awareness of it to that level. I realized the constant thinking is the mind simply doing what it needs to do so I should therefore just let it at it instead of trying to fight it. I realized and fully experienced the awareness behind thought. I experienced that this awareness behind the thought is actually who I am which ultimately is what spiritual authors and leaders are trying to get us to understand. As Ekhart Tolle explains in his book A New Earth that Decartes famous quote “ I think so therefore I am” no longer has any value. If one is aware of thinking then you are not what you think you are the awareness behind what you think.

I suddenly understood all the different layers to my mind and hence the layers of whom I am. I realized three layers alone of my conscious mind. Firstly The thinking ego mind, secondly the mind that is still able to focus on the meditation technique as the ego mind goes on and on and thirdly the awareness that lies underneath all of that. The ego mind had become much weaker to the awareness mind. It also made me wonder that if I am experiencing three layers of my conscious mind how many layers of my subconscious mind exist and what do I hold in these layers.

Often people think that meditating is about stopping the mind from thinking when in actual fact meditating is about experiencing all that is happening at that time. The thinking mind is always going to be there because that is what is does, it thinks. With the practice of meditation one becomes more aware of what one is thinking and how one is thinking. The part of the ego mind that wants to sabotage your life with drama’s, cravings and aversions becomes quiet but only because you learn not to feed it. The less you feed it the less it has to live on. The rain of thought outside the window moves further away while the subtle awareness becomes your inner sound. You get to know your true self.

Vipassana is probably the hardest thing I have ever done yet very doable. I’ve been referring to it as the climbing Mount Everest version of meditation. While reaching the top of the ten days is incredibly rewarding it’s the lessons on the journey that are the most valuable. It is the best thing that anyone can do for themselves. It’s a lesson on mind, matter and meditation. You do the practice and you experience it on a physical, mental and emotional level. You leave the benefits up to Dhamma. Dhamma is the law of nature that leads us to liberation. We begin to trust in that law of nature and move in flow with life instead of fighting against it. We move out of our pain and suffering caused by cravings and aversion. We become present and find true happiness and knowledge of the Truth.

I highly recommend learning this technique and hope that this article has encouraged a few to embark on the journey. Or maybe it has planted a seed in your mind as it did for me eight years ago. It may not be right for you now but you know some day you’ll be ready for the challenge and ready to get to know your true self.

Bhavatu Saba Mangalam

May all beings be happy, may all beings be peaceful, may all beings be free.

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* Pali is a forgotten language that was spoken by Gautama Buddha. It is similar to Sanskrit in sound and when written.