Have you ever thought of taking a plane ride around the world? From horizon to horizon, landing just where you started? The first solo, nonstop, round-the-world flight was made by Steve Fosset, beginning on Monday, February 28th, 2005 and ending on Thursday, March 3, 2005. The journey took him 67 hours and 2 minutes. If you’ve had to suffer the inconveniences of a transatlantic flight, or just an hour long commute you can easily imagine walking down the narrow aisle with your hand luggage, trying not to bump into anyone, squeezing into a seat – possibly half your size, buckling up for take-off, and that faint, but primal fear that creeps into your inhale as the wheels leave the ground.
Now take away the seat belts.
Now take away the seats.
Leave the cushions.
The time table for the Vipassana meditation course is no secret. You are encouraged to have a look on the website before submitting your application, in order to personally assess whether you are fit to cope with the 4 am wake up call, the 9 pm lights out, and the 10 and a half hours of active meditation in between.
This is all done in silence.
No physical contact.
No eye contact.
No outside influences.
In ten days one sits long enough to have circumnavigated the globe from horizon to horizon 1.5 times, or fly back and forth from Sydney to Los Angeles 7.5 times, or make approximately 105 flights between Sydney and Melbourne. That’s a lot of silent air time.
Sitting in the dining hall at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Blackheath, Blue Mountains New South Wales on Wednesday, February 23rd at approximately 6 pm, I buckle up for this silent airplane ride to Nirvana.
ANAPANA Days 1-3
I’m not too bothered about the 4 am wake ups, and I’m charmed by the sound of the ringing bells to motivate us from sleep to waking, meal to meditation, meditation to rest. Cracking my eyes open, I sense a slight tightness in my chest, and the word that passes through my head is “apprehension.”
We’d had an hour long sitting the night before, so I had some idea of what to expect. Make no mistake, it’s not like they dropped us in the middle of the mental outback with a cushion, a blanket, a paperclip and a penknife and said “survive!” We have a guide. He is an Indian guru by the name of Goenka. We hear his voice throughout the first day. It’s a rough and tumbling sound. A cross between an elephant’s purr, a tiger’s growl, a didgeridoo and a kazoo. He sings words of encouragement in Hindi, always ending with the phrase “Bhagavad Sabba Mangalem.” In translation it means: “May all beings be happy.”
We spend our first 10.5 hours grounding ourselves in space by finding and listening to our breath using a technique called Anapana meditation, an important prerequisite to beginning Vipassana.
A few months earlier, when I first perused the website in the comfort of my rented bed, I felt reassured by the guarantee that this is not a religious practice. The meditation hall is clean, and white and heated to the perfect temperature. There is no trace of an alter here, no musky incense only the preservative smell of cedar. There is no religion here unless you worship the God Sonique of the religion DVD/Video every night at 7. This is when we have our discourse, and is the only time we hear prolonged talk during the course of the day.
There is no visualization of any form in this technique, no repetition of any word, no coffee.
By evening I’m somewhere over Hawaii on my mental flight, and my neck muscles have seized up, then the area to the left the Atlas vertebra, then the area to the left of my occiput. This paralysis is slowly creeping up my head into my left frontal lobe.
Apprehension has grown to anxiety, to agitation and finally into, blind panic.
At 9 pm I go to the bathroom, vomit, brush my teeth, fall into bed, and pass into sweet, deep unconsciousness.
I wake up to a heathen ringing, resonating in my scull-cap, and take a deep breath, in an attempt to calm the pulse pulse pulse of potential explosion in my brain. “Ok” I think. “I’m here, it’s day 2, I have no pain killers: this is fact, and somehow I’m not running for the exit. It will be ok.” The word “Faith” passes through my head.
Throughout the first two hours of morning meditation from 4:30 – 6:30 am, I do my work. I focus on my breath. I watch the inside of my eyelids. I allow my muscles to do whatever they want, without allowing myself to spin it into something future and sinister, and like a bored toddler they realize they’re not going to get what they want by acting up, and they relax.
Headache gone and faith restored, I continue through the day learning to feel my breath just under my nostrils and on my upper lip.
Yesterday’s headache is nothing compared to today’s non-physical malady. Boredom has come in and set up shop with his friends frustration and fatigue.This place has so many clocks I feel like I’m in Dali’s painting. The bulletin board’s header is Day 3 with a timetable attached. The same timetable as yesterday, and the day before. The clock just above the bulletin board is 5 minutes faster than the clock in the our bathroom, so depending on where one is in the dorm they’ve either traveled back or forward in time. Just breathe.
As the third night’s discourse begins.
“Tomorrow will be a very important day. You will receive Vipassana.”
VIPASSANA Days 4-9
I wake up as per usual, with what I’ve come to look forward to as my thought of the day running through my head. Today it’s my friend Elizabeth’s voice saying: “Be open to all the possibilities.”
The schedule is a bit different today. We are instructed via our push pin dictator, that we are to stay in the meditation hall continuously from 3 pm to 5 pm in order to receive Vipassana. We all gather after our 5 minute break, and are welcomed with the usual growl of “Start agaaaaaiiiin. Start agaaaaaiiiin.” We carelessly arrange ourselves on our pillow thrones as the voice explains the technique.
The rules are simple. This technique demands total surrender. Read: staying in one position for the entire time.
1. No opening your legs, hands or eyes.
2. You are not meant to visualize any form, or chant any word of concentration.
3.You are simply to observe how you physically feel in your body, “part by part. piece by piece. from the top of your head to the tips of your toes.” This practice will develop, both your awareness of the body and your equanimity to all sensations.
This is not hard for the first 15 minutes, until I realize that I’ve tucked my foot under your tail bone and my other foot is off to the left, 2 inches farther than it should be for an hour long sit. My fingers are tingling, and then they start vibrating and it feels like someone has stuck a pitchfork in my shoulder. “Anicca.” Goenka recites. “This too, shall pass.”
My breath is going from measured, to raw, to ragged as fireworks blast off in all parts of my body. I’m sure that when I open my eyes, steam will be rising from my legs, encasing veins full of lava. Possibilities are coming up all over the place. The possibility of pain. The possibility of numbness. The possibilities of both gangrene and amputation. All of these are valid possibilities. All of the sudden the pains are dissolving and become tingling all up and down my body, and I observe my mood shift from angry to joyous. This shift, instructs Goenka, is what you must observe with equanimity, because it, too, will arise and pass away.
“The next 6 days are very important to developing this technique. Your 3 group sittings every day will be Pali: Additthana, sittings of strong determination. You will return in one hour for another hour sitting.”
Finding my land legs again, I don’t really know what to think.
In an hour, we’re back as promised. This time I arrange myself a bit more carefully, but still after about 20 minutes, my muscles are rioting, rising up in revolt. They want to be heard. They stretch against the bones which are vibrating in an attempt to maintain order.
I’ve come here to get to know my body, and it is as angry as an engine that’s gone 10,000 miles without an oil change.
“I have so much to learn” loops through my brain with each ringing of the morning bell. I’m calm and accepting.
The chanting is more rhythmic and roiling this morning. Each session I start at the top of my head and walk through the neighborhood of my body, getting to know the neighbors. I’m in conversation with my hip for several minutes.
“Oh hello. Right hip is it? How’s the weather today? Oh I do agree it’s a bit chilly. Right, well, right knee is expecting me. I’m sorry you’re feeling a bit under the weather.” I move on to the next small house of sensation to check in. It’s been awhile.
There are external influences to ignore. An amorous fly buzzes sweet nothings in my ear, rustles and shuffles from those people who find it impossible to stay still.
The routine is starting to get to me. I meet a frog in the shower today, and I’m happy for the company. In the second session of the day, someone breaks, erupting in laughter; we all follow and are immediately hushed up. Goenka’s bedtime stories are keeping me going. My dreams are starting to become more vivid and strange. I awoke from a short nap, where I had been spending some time with an ex boyfriend. “Let’s go.” He said as we sat on his big bed. “I can’t. I’m at Vipassana.” Frustration and pulsation: this feeling and this sensation go together.
“Today will be a challenge.” The bell ringer is having a bad day today, and we are all suffering. The newness of this Bikram style of meditation is wearing off, and the sensations are becoming clearer and more uncomfortable. By the 6th day we’ve reached the doldrums: there is no going back and going forward is going to involve 60 more hours of still sitting, 18 of them sitting still. I know consciously that there has been no recorded “Death by Sitting,” barring of course those suffering from DVT who would do well to avoid this sort of meditation.
Sitting down to round one, I close my eyes and enter the soundless, formless, inner lids, and slowly I start mapping what I sense. This mental cartography of one’s own consciousness can be wonderfully soft, sharply painful, excruciatingly boring or all of these things at once. I return to my mental plane seat and buckle up for a view of what’s going on today in the shifting world of my body.
I spend immeasurable time flying over the vast Snoozy plains of the largest continent: Boredom. Unexpectedly I arrive at the Great Depressions: large canyons that swallow up any light as you map the insides of their craggy ridges. They cause a great heaviness and anxiety in the chest. The deepest of all, Got Dumped Gorge, is deep and well tread, but I’ve never quite been able to reach the bottom of this pit. I feel it may very well come through to the other side of this inner world. Lifting my consciousness out of these pits I continue on over rolling land until I hit First-Kiss canal very unexpectedly. These flowing tingling sensations, make me forget completely about that deep space farther up, and I ride the wave floating around blissful beaches made up of the grains of lovely moments that blow here and there with the energetic waves and the wind.
I’m basking in the peace of these shifting coasts, juicing each second to make it last, instead of trying to squeeze it out of existence with oscillating thoughts of the past and the future. This is what this meditation is about. The change that makes this inner world heave up and down and create new landmasses, and take them away.
No inspiring thoughts come to me today. I just feel alone. I check the bulletin board twice as often than normal to remind myself that it’s day 7. It is… still. After breakfast I see my room-mate heading for the shower. I don’t know her real name so I call her SITS. It’s short for Sings In The Shower. I love taking showers when she does, because I get a soundtrack.
During lunch recess I retrieve my socks from the line. They are still damp so I proceed to dry them with a hairdryer, but it’s not working. The girl next to me pushes the button by the outlet, and I blast my face with hot air. The silence is rent with shatteringly beautiful laughter. It takes a second to realize it’s me.
By the end of day 7 we have 30 hours more of our mental backscratching to go, and the fatigue is potent. It takes a lot of effort to scour your brain over all your body parts, resulting in a sort of electric constipation, where the energy is just stuck. They offer us laxative tea at 5 o’clock tea time.
During the last sitting of the day, I’m more focused than ever, watching the hazy bits of my body. The middle children of meditation that don’t feel pain, and don’t feel pleasure, just a numbness, an overlooked-ness. Cloth on my skin is sensation, itching is sensation, and then I feel a heart beat.
On the morning of the 8th day, the valley outside the dining hall is full of milky mist like my teacup. I squint my eyes, cup the hills with my hands and purse my lips. Downstairs, someone has left the Day 7 sign up, and you can read the confusion in the wrinkled brows of the nervous, fidgeting women, who aren’t sure whether they’ve actually made it through the first week. The mood is visibly more relaxed, when the mistake is rectified by midday. By the third session of the day, the third mental orbit of my inner earth, the icecaps are melting and the rocky, continents of emotion are sinking into a deep, liquid relief. I crack my eyes at the end in a wash of energy.
I’m crying. I’m crying when I wake up. I’m crying when I sit down in the hall. I’m crying when I get up from the first two hours. This is new. Crying is the first external emotion I’ve shown. It’s not loud sobbing, and it’s not a single tear. It’s a silent, wet, overflowing originating from a tightness around my sinuses.
On the afternoon of the 9th day, tea is running a few minutes behind. As we are queued up outside the dining hall, one woman starts to laugh. Laughter spreads like a bush fire among cracked, dry voice boxes. We’re almost there.
METTA DAY Days 10-11
After our morning group sitting, we take our last silent pause. In the cumulative day, we are learning a new, soothing type of meditation called Metta translated as “loving kindness.” After we receive instruction, we can break our silence. During those last silent minutes we meditate on love. We give and receive forgiveness.
Walking out of the hall and onto the grass I am laughing, crying, tuning up my voice box and introducing myself.
Vipassana is a powerfully visceral meditation technique where the students sits in one unchanging position for long durations while experiencing the sensations of the body to develop both awareness of sensation and equanimity in all sensation.
This definition is the best I can do to define something that cannot be understood intellectually.
I first felt it the first day waiting, patiently… very patiently… for my headache to leave. I welcomed faith with a sensation of relief on day 2, only to have it turn to frustration on day 3, because the painful sensation of the headache had passed, and faith was now boring and stale. Frustration turned to anger, anger to acceptance, acceptance to faith, and so on and so on and so on. Each of these emotions equal in their impermanence, and so each a rational emotion, only as long as I let it pass.
For me Vipassana is peace. For me Vipassana is acceptance. For me it is different from what it will be for you. It is what it is, and it has to be felt to be understood.
Bhagavad sabba Mangalem. May all beings be happy,