Lydia Polzer spent last Christmas on an intense 10-day retreat – Once you have heard her experiences, there’s still time to book yourself in for this year.
Ever since I lost my childlike excitement about everything sparkling, Christmas lost its, well, sparkle. So my relief was great when I found a low-impact, alternative to Christmas crackers and stockings last year on a hill near Sheringham in rural East Anglia. A 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat does add a new dimension to “Silent Night”. The Christmas period in noble silence sounded like music to my carol-worn ears. I added up the hours of meditation on the daily schedule of the retreat and felt a little intimidated when I got to eleven.
That’s a lot of silence.
The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S.N. Goenka – buy it from Amazon UK for less than £5.
There would be no food after lunch apart from a piece of fruit in the afternoon. The idea of not talking for ten days didn’t bother me too much, but there would be no books, no pens to write with, in fact, nothing at all that might offer distraction to the meditative mind.
The prospect of getting up at 4am every morning was, I have to admit, truly frightening. But altogether it was, to my mind, the perfect way of spending Christmas and New Year: reflecting what had been and what was to come, really taking stock and a deep breath, stop and think (or not even think in this case). I was in good spirits when I arrived at the retreat centre on the evening of December 22 looking forward to this very special Christmas time. Not doing anything for ten days – what a blissful thought!
There were about 50 of us, all women as the men were in a separate compound (still less distraction!).
Youth hostel style rooms were allocated with up to six beds in each. We had a simple dinner, were briefed on the straight-forward code of discipline (no alcohol, drugs, sex or rock’n’roll basically) and noble silence ensued at 9pm.
When the gong sounded at 4am the next day for the first two hour round of meditation I didn’t feel particularly able to do anything, not even something as simple as meditating. I sat up and just maintaining a sitting position was hard enough in itself. So the first two hours of meditation went by with me alternating between five minutes of lying down and twenty minutes of sitting up. I’m not sure I was meditating at any point of that.
As the day wore on I felt increasingly peaceful, but also began to realise the enormity of the momentous task before me and developed a migraine. The three formal meditation sittings of an hour each at 8am, 2.30pm and 6pm that were held in the meditation hall and had to be attended by all participants proved to be strenuous, as it was harder to fidget and giving in and lying down wasn’t an option.
The only bit of “light relief” was the teacher’s discourse at 7pm delivered on video tape by S.N. Goenka, a teacher of Vipassana meditation in the tradition of the late Sayagyi U Ba Khin since 1969. The first night’s discourse opened with Goenka explaining that by now students usually complained of tiredness, discomforts of various descriptions and headaches. How could someone on a video tape possibly know about my migraine?
I remembered that the Vipassana website had warned that their retreats weren’t a holiday or a rest. It might be hard to believe, but meditation is actually hard work. In the same discourse Goenka described the human mind as a monkey, swinging from tree to tree forever looking for a new branch (a new thought) to grab hold of. Running after a wayward monkey mind is a tiresome pursuit.
But even as Day Two dawned there were first rewards. I began enjoying being awake to see the sunrise and seemed to be making progress in chasing after the monkey. More and more lucid moments occurred, brief as they were. When my mind escaped again, I caught it more quickly and returned it to the focus of the meditation, the breath.
Days went by in the steady rhythm of sleep, meditation, eating, rest, meditation, eating, rest, meditation. With no outside input, no talking, no reading, no new thought at all, my mind reached a stillness I didn’t think possible. The monkey still escaped to hunt after thoughts with increasing desperation, but there just were less of them, because the supply had been cut. This awe-inspiring state fascinated me and scared me in equal measure. It was beyond pleasant or unpleasant, it just was.
On Day Four we entered a new stage in the retreat. The instructions for the actual Vipassana meditation were given. From our now much calmer vantage point we entered deeper into self-observation. This brought new challenges. Just as I thought I had got somewhere the goalposts were moved. In the three formal meditations we now had to make a conscious effort not to move at all for the entire hour of the sitting. I have sat through three-hour movies captivated and motionless. But with nothing to distract the mind an hour can seem like the longest ever time-span.
Day Seven and Eight were quite possibly the hardest. Stripped entirely of the usual chattering mess of thought, emotions had started arising quite randomly and unprovoked. With a lot of room now being unoccupied in the mind, all kinds of matter rushes to fill the space. It is hard to stay calm and detached with a monkey mind now positively going bananas. If you are standing in the surf up to your neck and the waves are pushing and pulling you it is hard not to be swept away.
Ridding the mind of deep-seated patterns of thought and behaviour is not an easy task. Of course, it means struggle. But it is worth it in the end. On Day Ten noble silence ends with a loving-kindness meditation to finish on a warm note and put balm on a by now quite raw mind. It was January 1 and a new year had begun. Once “noble chatter” commenced, there was an air of relief. Never have I seen a group of people so happy to listen to each other, so non-judgemental, so free of expectations and selfishness.
It had been a hard ten days. Christmas is usually a time of acquisition (of weight, material possessions…) but instead I came out the other end a little bit lighter.
To take part in a Vipassana meditation retreat visit www.dipa.dhamma.org and fill out an application form. Payment is by donation. Courses tend to fill up well in advance, so make sure you book early. There is only limited availability for courses taking place over Christmas now, but they happen frequently in centres all over the country.