It sounded so easy, go away for a 10 day silent Vipasana retreat, away from the busyness of daily life, to have all your meals cooked, nothing to do but it was intense, hard going internal work on a scale I’d never tried before. This was 10 days devoted to working on awareness of the body and mind and I was surprised by what I found.
It was a beautiful place surrounded by nature high up in the bush nestled in a valley north of Auckland. My room had everything I needed which was nothing at all really – a bed, a bench and some hooks. No electronic devices were allowed, nor were reading, writing materials, intoxicants or communication of any kind. The idea was that all distractions were removed to allow your entire focus to be on the job in hand.
The rules were strict but the silence was deafening, although it didn’t seem to apply to the Cicadas, Tui’s, Possums and Morepork! There was complete silence throughout the day which started at 4am when the wake up gong sounded, there was 2 hours of meditation before breakfast and after lunch no further meals, just some fruit and tea in the evening. I found when all distractions and noise were removed you are given the opportunity to notice so much more; the nature around us, the thoughts in our heads, the way we feel; which isn’t always positive which is why I guess we devote so much of our time to distracting ourselves from it.
We know our mind is important, everything we do and feel starts in the mind, it dictates how we feel and how we act yet we pay it so little attention and in fact go to extreme lengths to avoid doing so. We seek to fill our lives with distractions, facebook and youtube are great examples of this along with TV, magazines, going to the pub, anything to avoid being left alone with our own thoughts.
After 10 days spent alone with my own thoughts what surprised me most was how much time my mind spend either going through past events (which I can not change as they are in the past) or day dreaming about future plans. It was never in the present moment, jumping from thought to thought many of which were of little importance. That’s why it’s called the monkey mind, maybe it’s always doing this we just never notice as we’re never watching it or perhaps it gets busier when we try to control it. Yet once you focus on what it’s doing and the thoughts begin to subside you get a glimpse of what a peaceful mind looks like, between the train of thoughts appears these moments of emptiness, space, stillness and it feels like bliss.
The people in attendance (about 80 in total) were from all backgrounds and all walks of life and whilst different reasons had brought us here we all had one goal; to find peace of mind and inner contentment. The centre is one of many world wide and all available due to the kindness of others, run on donations and by volunteers so accessible to everyone.
We had been warned that undertaking the course was like peeling back layers of onion and as we went deeper into our mind it had the same effect with some people brought to tears due to the nature of what they were working through, at times it was often more like a therapy room! Many of the participants had past traumas or addictions that had contributed to their reason for being here. Some craving their cigarettes or coffee, for me it was my notepad and pen. I realised we are all fighting our own internal battles, we just use different weapons.
We spent hours everyday watching the sensations that came up from within us and learning to accept what we found. I was having other worldly sensations in my knees after 10 hours a day of sitting cross legged. Over the 10 days we learned to maintain awareness and equanimity, giving all our attention to this present moment and accepting what it brings. There were difficult things that came up for every individual but as in life rather than trying to avoid these difficulties we learned to accept them and know that they will pass. In the same way when the pleasant thoughts arose, as in life our task was not to chase after them on a desire fulfilled pursuit but to accept they have arisen but know they will not last.
This is the main learning for me; everything is impermanent and the good news is that means tough times won’t last forever but the bad news is that means that good times won’t last forever either. Knowing this we can avoid the disappointment and rather focus on acceptance, making us stronger people.
Whilst I don’t necessarily advocate the particular technique used in Vipasana as there are so many good meditation techniques out there, what I do endorse is finding space, silence and peace of mind through whatever method of meditation suits you. It’s taking the time to be with yourself, focus on the breath and become aware and in between the thoughts find that stillness and peace of mind that is the antidote to so much of our modern way of life and can work wonders for your mind, body and soul.
For more information about meditation, the benefits and how to get started, click here to visit the meditation page