Natural silence fills the air when my feet touch the sacred ground of the Dhamma Bhurmi Meditation Center in the beautiful Blue Mountains. Entering the open foyer I feel the positive vibration which thousands of Meditators before me created here in the oldest Vipassana Center of Australia. I don’t have a clue what will await me in the following 10 days. I had heard bits and pieces here and there but the most useful advice a friend had given me is:
“Keep your eyes on the ground from the beginning and strictly focus on your own, personal practice!”
Feeling aimless, I wander around on the trails surrounded by the beautiful nature and wildlife of the Blue Mountains. I reread the Code of Discipline again and again before finally the first gong sounds to the introduction. In small groups we are led to enter the huge Meditation hall. Square, flat cushions lay in perfect order spread out on the floor. Everybody finds their assigned place, sits down on the ground and the course begins.
The light dims down, I close my eyes – absolute silence – suddenly a voice appears through the loudspeakers. “Oooohhhh Aaahhh Hmnnnn” – Sloouw mooutioon chanting fills the darkened room. After a while the singing turns into slowly spoken words which I can’t understand. It is the voice of S. N. Goenka, the teacher of Vipassana, which I find out later. The language is Pali, in which the ancient meditation technique has been passed on by Buddha. “Start with a clear and quiet mind, start with an attentive mind…” Ah, great – I can understand these words” I am stoked to start.
“Observe your natural breath. Feel the subtle sensations of the air streaming into the nostrils and the slightly warmer air lightly touching the skin below the nose. Focus the mind on the touch of your breath to sharpen your senses”, is the first task given.
Trying to follow the instructions my extremely inflexible, bend knees start to hurt. I change my seat. After a while it becomes even worse. I try a second pillow, I chuck the folded blanket under my knees and finally the pain becomes bearable. Now my back hurts. I figure, pushing the elbows onto my folded legs takes some weight of the spine but a few minutes later my legs start to hurt instead. Serious doubts come up in my head: “How am I ever gonna get through the 10 days like this??” Finally we get a break. Everybody storms outside, starts stretching, laying down on the gras and shaking the legs. The same game repeats itself over and over in the following meditations.
The mornings are the best. I can force myself to sit for twenty minutes before I have to move, stretching the legs. But of course another problem arises. My mind starts wandering. It wants to think about everything but the breath and sensations on my skin. Incredible impressions of the Confest festival call to be processed. Naively I went there right before the course. Additionally I met a wonderful girl who I just can’t stop thinking about! “Next time I’ll better spend a few days hiking in nature to calm my mind”, I promise myself. But too late for now! Pleasant thoughts keep on popping up in my head and make it nearly impossible to focus on my meditation practice.
Scared to miss the whole purpose of the course, wasting this valuable time here, I consult the assistant teacher for advice. “Ou, ou, ou, girlfriend, bad craving! Very bad craving! Who’s gonna win that battle? ”, is his first response. Dry and without a blink he prescribes: “When your mind drifts off, always come back to your breath! Increase the intensity and then come back to natural breath.” Now I feel challenged! But still I’m constantly catching my mind somewhere in Lalaland. Extremely interesting ideas, incredible inventions and clear words as if they were written on paper seduce my mind to neglect the meditation. Every thought seems to be amazing and valuable like no otherI. But it’s a trick of the mind. It naturally tends to escape from the present moment. I have to bring it back to reality again and again. It takes fifteen minutes, ten minutes, five before I notice. It’s slowly getting better.
One day the loud gong, which calls to meditation, sounds half an hour early. Everybody rushes to the big hall. Goenkas voice through the speakers states that we have to be able to sit for 2 hours when practicing Vipassana – without moving! A long introduction to the complete technique follows.
“How am I supposed to endure that!” , I question myself desperately, “ I can’t even sit still for 30 minutes!”
“Stay equanimous towards the pain! It’s just a sensation!”, reassure my thoughts. F***! I am trying so hard to observe and not move. Arms and legs are cramping up, sweat runs down the sides of my face. I feel the muscle below my right eye tweaking and finally my whole body starts shaking. After focussing on the aching sensations for a while, some do turn into an endurable vibrating heat. But anyway – I am in severe pain! All I wanna do is escape! Half way through I cant take it anymore – I have to stretch my legs.
From now on, I spend every single day, three 1hour “sittings of strong determination” in agony. I am so occupied with managing the pain that I just can’t focus on the meditation itself. My practice becomes ineffective like a knife cutting in stone. “Start again”, repeats the teachers voice, “start again”.
The vegetarian food, cooked and served by volunteering old students is amazing! It is super tempting to overeat but very difficult to meditate with a bloating stomach. In the beginning I try to satisfy my craving with taste sensations, looking forward to every single meal. Luckily this changes with the time. My appetite decreases, sensitivity inclines. Now I eat small amounts extreme consciously and taste every single rice corn in my mouth. Instead of the meals the discourses every evening become the center of my day. In one hour videos, the teacher S. N. Goenka clarifies the technique, delivers historical background knowledge and illustrates the Buddhist Philosophy through short stories. Being in such a clear state of mind I soak up every word like a sponge.
With every meditation it becomes easier to observe and let go of the pain. A few days later I am proud to sit two hours in the morning but the final goal is still far away. It feels like I am crawling on a never ending path forcing my mind not to look aside at the lush green fields full of incredible visions.
Once a while I get a few good minutes of clear meditation. I feel a free flow of subtle sensations like a bucket of warm water being emptied over my head. A light, warm, vibrating mist encloses my physical body for a few seconds and before I can grasp the sensation it is already gone.
No attachment – no craving for any pleasant sensation, nor aversion towards unpleasant ones.
“One spends the largest part of his life merely reacting – by leaning on past experiences, or predicting – imagining future experiences, instead of acting. When someone insults us we become angry, when someone compliments us we gain in pride, when someone hurts us we become sad. But this does not limit itself to emotional reactions. When one experiences something pleasant, a part of the mind will keep this memory aside and crave for it to happen again. When one experiences something unpleasant a part of the mind will keep this memory aside and abort it happening again. Connecting positively or negatively to every action we encounter, life becomes an automated chain of reactions to sensations, an ongoing effort to perpetuate the pleasant and avoid the pain, there is no longer any freedom of the mind. The only key to overcome this state of imprisonment in thoughts – the scars of the remains of past pleasant or unpleasant experiences – is patient and alert self-observation. ” (Anaïs Pinnell)
Pure Equanimity – that’s the challenge! Not reacting to any sensation – reprogramming the minds behaviour pattern – that’s the mission!
The last day starts, the course finishes and we are allowed to talk again. Everybody is happy! One can sense sharp minds behind the shiny eyes. Clear and valuable words dominate each conversation. So much to talk about, so many experiences to exchange! Strong resolutions are set – using the momentum to keep up the practice – one hour of meditation in the morning and one in the evening is recommended. More and more benefits will arise but it takes continuous, disciplined practice.
Looking back at the past ten days I feel grateful to have been given the opportunity to learn this wonderful skill: Vipassana. I got the tequnique – the start of a long process. This course was definitely one of the most challenging things I have ever done in my life and I ‘m happy to feel impact already!
In this report I talk about my personal experience. Everybody perceives differently, meets varying difficulties and gains diverse benefits from the course. Buddha explained that real, true wisdom can only be found on the experiential level. Stories, studies and rational thinking can help understand one perspective but the insight of universal truth can’t be touched without experiencing the reality inside the framework of one’s own body.
So let the idea of learning Vipassana grow in your mind and attend a course whenever you feel ready 😉