When I first found myself sitting in a room full of women, in a summer-camp-style building tucked away in the woods in a remote area half way up a mountain in Canada, I trembled with a sense of adventure. As we were served delicious soup with sweet, home-made cornbread, we all sheepishly eyed each other from beyond our bowls. All a little nervous, some already in silence, while others made small talk about their day jobs and families. I found the room was filled with a remarkable sense of colour – not from the walls or decorations, but from the people themselves, wearing brightly coloured clothes and headscarves and jewellery. Inside my head I chided myself for being so surprised. Naturally a 10-day meditation retreat would attract a bunch of hippies. I laughed a little inside, and then began to relax.
Shortly after supper a gong rang and we were ushered into the meditation hall. We were welcomed to the Vipassana meditation course and given instructions that we would now enter noble silence. There was to be no talking with anyone except for the course manager and teachers, and even then it was strictly only when necessary. There should be no physical contact, no eye contact, no gesturing of any kind. And, in order to purify our mind, body and soul for the next 10 days we would abstain from killing (even the tiniest insect), sexual misconduct, stealing, lying and taking any kind of intoxicant.
“Good!”, I thought to myself, “This is definitely going to be a purifying experience. It’ll help me get back on the straight and narrow.” Not that I felt that I had deviated very far, but I had been through a lot recently, and it felt right to be working on grounding myself. We were given some fairly gentle meditation instructions and taught how to focus on our breath and I appreciated the calmness of the room, for the first fifteen minutes. Then my mind began to wander, and apparently so did everyone else’s as shortly the room was amass with the rustle and bustle of fifty fidgeting females. Thankfully, the session was over in an hour, and we were sent to our dormitories, which had curtains pulled between the bunk beds to maintain a sense of solitude for each student. Yes, we were referred to as students and we were here to learn a very deep experiential lesson about the ever-changing nature of everything.
For the following nine days, we were woken by the gong at 4:30 am, and spent 10 hours a day in meditation training our ‘monkey minds’ to stop fluttering from thought to thought, maintaining our attention on the task at hand and becoming acutely aware of every sensation in our bodies. We were fed delicious vegetarian meals for breakfast and lunch, but served fruit for dinner, so as not to overfill our bellies leaving us sluggish and to overcome the human sin of greed. During breaks we were permitted to walk around outside in the snow covered woodland, and as I had taken this trip in January, it was like escaping into Narnia (before the white witch is defeated!).
The first few days were the hardest, as my mind resisted, I felt bored and restless and I longed to be back home with my lovely husband. I though a great deal about how much I love him, how much I adore him and enjoy his presence and touch. In solitude, though, I had nothing to distract me from all the life experiences that have been difficult to bear and which I had buried deep inside. I panicked, and felt sick, even wondered if I had got myself mixed up with some kind of cult and convinced myself the water had been drugged! The colours of the first day vanished, and the world that surrounded me seemed monotonous and grey, and I when my attention waned from the outside world, I became concerned by what was going on within me. The rawness of my emotional feelings that came to the surface of my being and manifested themselves in both good and bad physical sensations in my body was overwhelming at times and my mind raced as it plotted an escape from my imprisonment. Even the magic of Narnia had faded as I saw through the trees and dwelled on the signs marked ‘Course Boundary’ at its edges that prevented us from straying too far.
As the days went on, we were presented with the teacher’s discourses in the evenings which reassured us that although we could not communicate with our peers, they were all experiencing something similar. It did get easier and I began to accept that whatever I was feeling would pass, would change, that all my unpleasant thoughts and sensations were aversions to something or cravings for something else, and that true happiness could be obtained through accepting each sensation and understanding that it would not last. Indeed, as one moment I would be teary and then next I would find some joy, however uncomfortable the process was, I was beginning to experience the changes and notice them very profoundly.
On day 10, we were permitted to speak to one another, and to my relief and surprise, the zombies returned to their hippy state as we swapped stories of the bits that we loved and the bits that we hated. The nattering reminded me of lunch time in a school dining hall, where the teachers would have to quieten noisy children from time to time. Conversations buzzed around people’s experiences, and I was asked what I gained from it. “Well,” I said, cautiously, not wanted to ruin everyone else’s experience by saying that I thought it was all a bit bonkers, “the vegetarian diet has done my body a world of good, I feel physically better than I have done for years, and while I’m not sure if I’ve released all my pent up life stuff, I was missing my husband enormously at the beginning of the course, but I came to realise that that was I craving. I was craving him, and while missing him and loving him and wanting him is all very healthy, craving him to the point of not being able to sit still is probably not.”
The noise was actually more than I could bear straight after the Noble Silence, and I excused myself and returned to the quiet of the meditation hall, where two or three others had also sought the peace that I had been resisting in vain for so long. I pushed my thoughts aside, and meditated. I quietened my mind, I found the truth inside, and I existed.
It took until a few weeks after the ordeal for me to realise the benefits. I no longer nagged about the laundry or the dishes, I didn’t get flustered if I was running late for something, I did everything a little slower and more carefully and enjoyed it. My life does feel richer, and when things happen that don’t go as I’d expected, I am more accepting. My husband noticed and appreciated the subtle change in me and while my craving for him had been the thing that personified craving for me, I have been able to use that experience to identify other, perhaps less intense, cravings and aversions that trouble my mind from time to time. I have learnt to keep them at bay (most of the time!), I have learnt to accept whatever happens, and I understand that both negative feelings and intense joy does pass, and sometimes it comes back, and goes again, comes back and goes again. I experienced how everything changes… Oh, and I’m still vegetarian and loving it!