You may be asking yourself why I decided to put myself through what can only be described as a prison sentence again – believe me I’m asking myself the same question as I try to digest the events of the last 10 days.
As I sit here over looking the beautiful mountains of Rishikesh, I’m wondering what on earth possessed me to choose to do an already intense and difficult course in the foothills of the Himalayas in the middle of winter! I originally decided to travel again in order to avoid the infamous British winter, yet I seem to have spent the majority of my time in India in a ski jacket. At least there is such a thing as central heating and hot showers in the UK.
When I previously did Vipassana I was unable to wash my hair for 10 days – this time I couldn’t even shower. The water was bitterly, bitterly cold and the room temperature was not much better. It took an incredible amount of effort and psyching myself up to simply pull my trousers down to pee, let alone get my kit off to wash. It took me 5 days to brave changing my socks as the cold ingrained itself in every part of my body.
On the 7th day a communal tap with lukewarm water was installed to use as a shower. I could’t tell you why they waited until the end of the course to do this but by that stage I was too far gone to care and decided to ride it out until I could have a proper shower (well as proper as it gets in India). Besides, it was beyond apparent that our bathroom had not been cleaned this decade and standing naked in it would have only made me feel even more dirty than I already was.
On the day that my prison sentence started I turned to flush the toilet and a huge, hairy, tarantula style mother of all spiders was staring up at me through it’s beady little eyes from half way up the toilet bowl. It’s the first time that I have ever been grateful for a toilet seat too filthy to sit on.
I counted 8 spiders in our cell whilst I was there, not including the average sized ones which don’t really bother me but these menacing creatures looked like spiders on steroids. One was bigger than my hand and I’m not even exaggerating. I watched this particular over sized monster crawl with its great big, hairy legs all over my stuff, dangerously close to my bed and as I plucked up the courage to try and catch it he scurried behind the fitted wardrobe where he mocked me with his evil eyes. I had a sleepless night that night, filled with nightmares (at least I hope they were just nightmares) of him crawling all over my face. A recurring nightmare as it turned out as I didn’t see him again after that but I knew he was still there in the shadows, waiting for his opportunity to strike.
The 4am starts, already painful, were intensified by the hard, crushing stab of cold air that would hit and cripple my limbs as I attempted to removed them from the covers. After meditating for 2 hours before breakfast each morning we were told to take rest but the dulcet tones of the teacher would rattle through a speaker and into the cell of doom making it impossible to catch up on some desperately needed sleep. I felt like I was in some sort of concentration camp being tortured by sleep deprivation whilst they attempted to brainwash me. Thankfully it was in Farsi and my brain just isn’t clever enough to be washed in a different language.
Supposedly the teacher was chanting well wishes to us but surely the nicest thing he could have done for us would have been to let us sleep! It reminded me a little of one night on a sleeper bus from Jaiselmer to Pushka when Jo stuck her head out of the compartment and shrieked at the top of her lungs to the bus driver who was playing music ‘this is meant to be a sleeper bus you’re keeping everyone awake’ in turn waking the rest of the bus up who had actually managed to sleep through the music.
Seemingly forgetting her vow of silence, the little old lady in my cell would sing a long with him, forcing me to smile through my pain. Whenever the 4am bell would ring she would wake up with a jump, sit bolt up right, dazed and confused and shout something along the lines of ‘maaaaaah, mah, jah, mah, mah, jah, mah’ which I can only imagine is roughly translated to ‘oh fuck, not this shit again’!
She would often come back to the cell with only 30 seconds left of a 5 minute break and get herself snugly into bed (an act I could never understand) and when the bell would inevitably ring only moments later to signify the next meditation she would jump out of bed to the same crazed chants. It was all I could do not to burst out laughing.
I was intrigued during my last experience that, despite the silence, my cell mate and I seemed to understand each others’ needs and were able to work together in perfect harmony to create a reasonably comfortable living space. The same, unfortunately, can not be said for this time. Regardless of the fact that I was blatantly trying to sleep, she would come into the room, turn on all the lights and make more racket than a bull in a china shop.
On the 4th night she got up at 2.30am, turned on both the bedroom and bathroom lights and clattered around like a chimpanzee at feeding time until I eventually dragged my tired ass out of bed and into the freezing cold air to slam the bedroom light off with attitude, throwing my torch at her in the process. With the days already being incredibly long and hard, I must admit there was some evil in my heart that night.
When the morning bell rang, only half an hour later, I was able to understand the reason for her inconsiderate behaviour – a reason that I won’t share with you out of respect for her but I realised that perhaps I should have known that there was a problem and instead of behaving like the grouch that I am when woken way too early from my slumber and showing my complete and utter abhorrence for the situation by tossing and turning, kicking the covers and huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf on acid, instead I should have been more tolerant and shown her some compassion. That being said, it really was totally unnecessary to turn both the bedroom and bathroom lights on on that night and subsequent nights and if I ever do Vipassana again I shall be learning the Farsi sign language for ‘turn the fucking light off’!
Despite the fact that I have been traveling in India for several months only eating vegetarian food and also have a mainly vegetarian diet at home these days, the food still proved to be a huge struggle for me. When I first walked into the eating area and smelled that wretched smell of blandness that I never quite grew accustomed to on my last experience, my stomach turned over, instantly recognising the torture that it would be expected to endure once again.
The same food that I couldn’t eat the night before would be re-hatched and served again for breakfast. We were served the sloppiest of slops one morning – I honestly couldn’t even hazard a guess as to what it was but what I do know is that they would not dare serve that in an actual prison for fear of revolt. Whilst scraping the slop off of my spoon with my teeth in a bid to swallow it without any of the flavour seeping into my lips and tongue, I noticed that the girl opposite me was doing the same thing with equally as distressed a look on her face. Despite ourselves, we shot each other a look of sheer horror which filled me with laughter. As we both fought hard to fight back the giggles I genuinely very nearly threw up all over myself as I was concentrating so hard on not laughing that I forgot to concentrate on not gagging.
The last meal of the day was a light refreshment usually consisting of fruit and some sort of puffed rice. It was the only edible meal of the day for me. As an old student I was only entitled to lemon water but as someone who has to keep their blood sugar levels balanced through food, I was entitled to eat this meal. I knew there would one day come a time when I would be grateful for my health issues.
I watched a girl bolt out of afternoon meditation one day and practically skip to the dining hall, clearly even more excited than I was to receive the only edible meal of the day. I then watched her face drop as they served up some sort of yellow mush instead and immediately felt her pain. I had no idea what nationality these girls were but the international language of ‘this food sucks’ speaks volumes!
On a few occasions they would serve porridge for breakfast, full of sugar and milk but I was prepared to deal with the consequences of my food intolerances to have the opportunity to be able to eat something with a little bit of flavour. On these days I would eat like a crazed, ravenous beast, not knowing when he would be able to make his next kill.
On the one day that they served porridge and puffed rice on the same day it was like waking up on Christmas morning to 4 inches of snow. Such a roller coaster of emotions that I experienced when it came to food.
A few days into the course they agreed to make me ginger tea to replace the milky, sugary chai that they served with the meals. As I took my first sip, in that moment I felt like it was the best thing that I had ever tasted. Unfortunately, rather than handing it directly to me, they would leave a small jug on the side which those other thieving little bstards serving their time along side me would help themselves to and so I made it my mission to race to the canteen every day in order to claim what was rightfully mine – my little bit of heaven in a cup!
Occasionally they would forget to bring it at all and I can’t describe the depths of despair I would feel as I realised that I would have to wait another day for that little bit of happiness.
I know I do the incredible volunteers at Vipassana a great disservice as on both occasions, most people have actually quite enjoyed the food. Aside from a couple of recruits this time I know that the issue with food is very much my own. When I was young and refused to eat my food my parents would allow me to leave the table only after telling me that I would be served the same food for the next meal and the meal after that until I had eaten what was on my plate. I would go for days without eating anything until eventually they would have to give in as they could see that I would starve rather than eat something that I didn’t want to eat. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the luxury of my parents backing down out of fear of starving their child here but I did seem to exude the same stubbornness!
As a child I developed an issue whereby I would refuse to eat if someone burped or let out wind in my vicinity. I once went to visit a friend in the north of England whose mum would let out an almighty belch before each meal. I starved for a week! I’m thankful for the fact that I got past this issue before living in Hong Kong and traveling in India.
Vipassana is run on a donation only basis with the idea of dissolving ego in the same way that a monk must beg for food. If you haven’t paid for the food you receive or the accommodation then you must accept it for what it is instead of making demands and having expectations. To then donate at the end of the course without expecting anything in return so that others can also ‘enjoy’ this experience allows you to release selfishness and open your heart to the needs of others.
For those of you that haven’t read about my last experience, Vipassana, rediscovered by Buddha more than 2500 years ago, means insight – the insight into one’s own nature. It teaches you to observe things as they really are and not how you want them to be. It teaches that attachments cause misery and that our misery and happiness, often blamed on external things, can only be changed internally by changing the way that we react to those external things.
The theory behind Vipassana is that misery is caused by cravings and what we crave are not the physical acts themselves but the sensations that our subconscious mind is aware of during those acts. It’s the understanding that nothing is permanent by witnessing that all sensations, whether gross and solidified or free flowing and pleasant, will pass.
By understanding the nature of these sensations throughout the body and developing equanimity by learning not to react to them by avoiding developing an aversion to painful sensations or craving the pleasant sensations, eradication of mental impurities can be achieved, resulting in full liberation of the mind – although I must say it’s particularly difficult not to develop an aversion to the sensation of your bones chattering to their very core 24 hours a day.
Equanimity is the key to Vipassana in the same way that it is the key to the way that we should live our lives. Equanimity is a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain or anything else that may cause imbalance of the mind.
Equanimity has been my greatest lesson out of this experience. I have had to deal with flesh eating tarantulas crawling around my room, sleep deprivation, light torture, the bitter cold and an unscrupulous assault on my taste buds but all in all I feel that I managed it with some grace. I laughed my way through the abysmal food, chattered my way through the cold, accepted that giant tarantulas may crawl on my face, breathed my way through the teachers early morning sing a long, learned to use my scarf as a blindfold and found happiness in a cup of ginger tea.
Had I have already mastered the art of equanimity before I went in I could have avoided several of these challenges – challenges that the universe quite rightly thought I deserved. Upon arriving 3 hours late to the centre, having been given a meeting point address rather than the centre address and then having to wait 3 hours for the bus to take me to the final destination (all of which I did actually remain equanimous to), I was allocated one of the rooms that didn’t have it’s own bathroom and so I told a big fat, bare faced, stinking lie about having bladder problems in order to obtain a room with my own bathroom. A lie that I regretted the second I was shown to my new room. The other rooms were like a 5 star retreat in comparison, set around a courtyard that trapped the sun and kept the rooms warm whilst my large damp room was positioned in permanent shade and surrounded by forestry that made the room several degrees colder than outside and easily accessible to all creatures great and small. A room that also contained a psychotic mentalist disguised as a sweet little old lady with a penchant for noise and light torture.
No one said the path to enlightenment would be easy…
Vipassana also teaches us the importance of how we shouldn’t just accept the teachings of our traditions and religions but instead that we should question them. Only by going deep inside ourselves and discovering our own wisdom can we be truly liberated.
These words are actually a part of my truth. Whilst sometimes seemingly conflicting, we all have our own truths, a little part of the puzzle inside each and every one of us which when put together would create the bigger, universal picture. This understanding could do what religion has failed to do and unite us in our oneness instead of dividing us in our cultural beliefs.
We come to this earth with a wealth of information already inside of us, carried by the soul. My soul has so much knowledge that it wants to share with me. Information and understanding that I have shied away from for a long time as I chose a life of partying and material attachments. I have been blown away by this knowledge on so many occasions since quitting my job and taking the time to reconnect with myself. There are so many people, myself included at one time. who refuse to go deep inside themselves out of fear of what they might find or simply due to everyday distractions such as work and socialising. These distractions are keeping us from discovering who we really are. We need to embrace our inner essence and discover our passion in order to be truly happy.
When I did Vipassana previously the improvement within myself was dramatic. Having had colitis for several years, a psychosomatic illness increased greatly by the stress I was under, I found myself in intense pain every single day.
Having previously had a high pain threshold, I suddenly found that even just a little pain became unbearable for me. Through undertaking Vipassana and observing the sensations equanimously, the attachment to those sensations eradicated and with that the pain has subsided and the colitis no longer troubles me.
I knew the benefits would not be as tangible on this occasion as they were previously. Having quit my job only weeks before due to acute stress and illness, the change within myself was huge. I went in feeling at rock bottom and came out feeling human again. I wanted to see where Vipassana could take me now that I was starting it from a good place but interestingly, this time I went in feeling at peace and have come out feeling at war with myself. I feel like I have taken 5 steps backwards but sometimes you have to take a few backward steps in order to take a giant leap forward. I have to trust though that this is part of my process and that by going deeper inside myself my mind will be purified from any deep routed negativities that I need to let go of.
I was able to witness just how deep this technique goes when 2 memories of a similar event came to my mind that I hadn’t thought about since they happened 20 years ago, let alone realise that they could be having any kind of negative affect on me. With the memories came a sharp, solidified sensation in my shoulder that I witnessed equanimously until it released, bringing with its release an intense past life memory very much related to the memories brought forward from this life. As I watched the events of the memory unfold and release, I became aware of a distinct shift in energy as I became considerably lighter. I have continued to experience several dizzy spells since as the process of eradication continues to work.
Although the results of undertaking this course for a second time weren’t quite as I had expected and it may take a while to see the benefits fully manifest themselves, what I can say is that I have left with a feeling of clarity and greater insight as well as a and new found fear of spiders!