My Ten Day Vipassana Retreat
My 10 Day Silent Retreat
This was a seed that had been planted over 12 years ago when my dear friend Belinda embarked on upon a 10-day silent Vipassana Retreat in Herefordshire. The effects of the 10 days were life changing for Belinda and this intrigued me and became something I would love to do one day.
As the years have gone on, and the more my Spiritual work took me to different places for days at a time, it meant that I had to take a lot of unpaid leave from my construction job. Of course, my annual leave was always spent with my husband Shaun to enjoy a break together so I couldn’t justify 10 days away just for myself, it wouldn’t have been fair. However the lockdown period prevented us going away but it did ensure that I had much loved and appreciated time with Shaun that we would never have had.
Shaun knew about this 10-day retreat and as I turned 40 in January he secretly got in touch with Belinda for the details. All of the information was to be presented to me in a card with Shaun’s enquiries and what I needed to do to book on the course. It seemed the perfect time to do this and on the Vipassana website there is an opening date and time to apply for the next available course. It felt like I was trying to get concert tickets as Shaun and I sat with 2 laptops and 2 phones on a mission of refreshing the page to apply for the course, because due to covid restrictions places were limited. Shaun got through and I completed the application which was for a course in May, I couldn’t believe my luck! Unfortunately, due to the restrictions not lifting, that particular course was cancelled. To my disappointment I wasn’t transferred to the next course, I had to re-apply!
Shaun and I were ready again with the laptops and phones, again that anxiety and apprehension looming and within seconds the message came up that the course was full! I was gutted, and really exhausted of the situation and tired at the thought of having to wait another 2 – 3 weeks to apply for the next course with the possibility of the same outcome. Maybe I just wasn’t meant to go?
I sat in disappointment and sadness of the unfairness of not being transferred and the cancellation until 40 minutes later, I had a feeling to just try again. As I did this my application was accepted onto a waiting list! This gave me hope and enthusiasm that this could be meant to be after all! The Vipassana administration team state that it is unlikely you would hear anything before 30 days of the course starting. I had to book the time off work just in case and as time was ticking further, I still couldn’t plan or prepare for it.
For those people that know me, you will know that I have had some strange encounters with Black Crows over the past 2 years. I had 3 occasions over the past 2 years whereby I had to make 2 big decisions. Each time I had made the decision I could hear tapping on the bedroom window upstairs and only to find a big black crow sitting and squawking on the windowsill. I connected this with my sister in the Spirit World as a reassurance. The third time was actually on the anniversary of my sisters passing. Whilst I was upstairs I heard tapping in the spare bedroom, and it was the big black crow again squawking and leading to a memory with my sister many years ago. We were both sat in the living room at home, I was about 15 years old, we were watching TV and it was snowing outside. All of a sudden there was this almighty bang! 2 Big black crows had flown into the patio window, instantly killing them. It was quite a shock, and I remember my sister stating they were Romeo and Juliet. This was a memory I hadn’t thought about for many years and it gave me a confirmation really that this felt like a sign from my sister.
Fast forward to the week before the Vipassana course started that I was on the waiting list for. I was in a limbo, feeling like I was going but not having any confirmation. I had to commit to the time off work too as my job had paused whilst I was off, and I wouldn’t have just been able to just cancel my annual leave. Seven days before the course started at 5am in the morning Shaun and I were awoken by the familiar squawking and pecking at our bedroom window, it was the black crow. This was the first time Shaun had witnessed this and again the following morning at a similar time the crow appeared at our bedroom window again; I started to feel that this could be a sign of reassurance that I was going on the course. The following morning the crow squawked and pecked on the window again at both 5.30am and then again at 7.30am. Our neighbour from across the road was washing her car at the second time it had come. She stated when we saw her later that day, that she couldn’t believe what she was seeing with the crow, she said she thought it was going to get in through the window. I got up that morning and asked Shaun whether he thought it was a sign that I would be going on the retreat, because if it isn’t I would be disappointed.
Later that day I decided to email the Vipassana administration team to state that if somebody didn’t turn up on the day, that I would drive straight down there, it didn’t matter about the notice. I got an acknowledgement and that all of the men had reconfirmed and that there were no cancellations, however they would put a note on that I would travel down in the evening if a space appeared on the day. The following morning, three days before the course started, I received an email “…and just like that, someone has cancelled, and we have booked you a place”. I have to admit that when I got the email I couldn’t hold back the tears streaming down my face. I knew this was such an important part of my development journey that I needed to undertake and now that journey was confirmed and was a reality. It was now a big rush to prepare.
So, the day finally came! I got as much talking in as possible and to let my friends know I would be cut off for the next 11 days and uncontactable. It was a lovely drive down and as I arrived in the county where Dhamma Dipa centre was, as I entered the lane there was one big black crow there on the road edge as if waiting for me. I just smiled knowingly that this was meant to be and was going to be an experience of a lifetime.
It was time for registration, and I think everyone that arrived felt the same, we were all curious about whether we could talk now, or whether we could bring their phones in or not. All phones and personal/valuable belongings had to go into a locker until the end of the course from 7pm that evening. I managed to speak to a few of the students, some had been there before and most were new like me. But from 7pm a “noble silence” was introduced. We were not allowed to speak to our peers, we could only speak to assistant teachers at allocated times throughout the course but if we had any pressing issues we could speak to managers etc.
All who attend Vipassana course must conscientiously undertake the following five precepts for the duration of the course:
1. To abstain from killing any being
2. To abstain from stealing
3. To abstain from all sexual activity
4. To abstain from telling lies
5. To abstain from all intoxicants
We all entered the meditation hall and were allocated a matt to sit on, all two metres apart. We had to sit in the posture of how we would meditate and a projector was played with a gentleman on screen called Mr Goenka, who welcomed the students and prepared us for the start of the course.
We then had to follow audio instructions from Mr Goenka to start to learn a technique of meditation. The structure of the day was:
4am – Wake up Gong
4.30am – Meditation in Hall or in your room
6.30am – Breakfast
8am – 9am Meditation in Hall – Group under instruction
9am – 11am Meditation in Hall or in your room following instructions
11am – 12pm – Lunchtime
12pm – 1pm – Private interviews (if you needed to speak to your assistant teacher)
1pm – 2.30pm – Meditation in Hall or in your room
2.30pm – 3.30pm - Meditation in Hall – Group under instruction
3.30pm – 5pm - Meditation in Hall or in your room following instructions
5pm – 6pm – Tea-time
6pm – 7pm - Meditation in Hall – Group under instruction
7pm – 8.15pm – Discourse – Mr Goenka explaining the purpose of each day and its deeper meaning of life.
8.15pm – 9pm – Group meditation in Hall
9pm – 9.30pm – Questions and answers to the teacher with anything that you needed clarifying with something about the day or the discourse.
10pm – Lights out
That was the typical day. I had heard the first 3 days where the toughest especially the third day, many people cannot handle the silence and the chatter of their conscious mind or being away from their loved ones. I really felt this, my mind was catastrophizing things like, what if something has happened to Shaun or my parents. It was a horrible feeling. In my mind I was also going through the things I hadn’t managed to do before I got there, and I was writing lengthy emails in my mind as well as their responses and replies. I thought “this is madness,” and the obscure thoughts that were going through my mind were puzzling and nonsense. We were not allowed any writing materials but I managed to find a pen and write a sentence on a bit of paper from the information the centre gave us in a welcome pack. Throughout the days of silence I would get songs buzzing in my head and of course there was nothing to influence them, so I noted them down with a possible meaning for me.
We were taught to observe our breathing and the sensations through our nostrils for the first 3 days. The 9.5hrs of meditation a day was to constantly work, work, work, practice, practice, practice, to get this technique right. It was hard work, my legs and my stomach muscles were killing me trying to find a comfortable posture. I would look around with one eye open and think that everyone else looks so peaceful and really getting this, and yet I was finding it hard to focus, with the monkey mind and chatter of distraction of my own conscious mind. It felt like the reverse of all that I had trained for within my mediumship over the years. I had to scan my body and observe the sensations objectively whereas within mediumship awareness we react to sensations and feel into sensations on a Spiritual level. Now that I was past the day three mark where people would normally leave, I was now on day four thinking about leaving because I couldn’t get to grips with the technique. However, in the 6pm – 7pm meditation session and listening to Mr Goenkas discourse, “I got it” and throughout the next few days we worked on this until day 6/7. I found that I was going through my whole life during mediations as I was scanning the sensations throughout my body. I revisited every relationship that I had, every workplace that I had worked, my family and upbringing. And I observed. It was explained by Mr Goenka throughout each discourse that any sensation, pleasurable or painful must be observed with equanimity, “Maintaining calm and mental equilibrium in the face of provocative stimuli”. Everything that we think is unconscious is actually conscious, we are just not aware of it. For example, when we eat, we are aware of holding/pinching the fork, we are aware of the sensations in the mouth and the tongue with the movement in the jaw to swallowing in the throat. We are conscious of that. But whilst that is happening, the blood still runs through our veins, our heart is beating, parts of our body maybe hot or cold but we are only aware of what we are doing. This technique enables you to be aware of your whole body, “The nature of you” As you scan through your body there may be parts that may feel heavy or “gloss sensations” as Mr Goenka called them. It was suggested that the more difficult parts we should spend a minute or two with them and then move on, not allowing it to destroy your equanimity. What I realised is that the more difficult places would be a representation of something unconsciously I maybe had suppressed or had found difficulty with life, and a story would unfold in my memories.
This happened even more profoundly after day 7 which was another day I thought I wanted to leave. The technique had changed from observing parts of the body objectively to becoming a flow throughout the body. Again, this was challenging for me. Being a healer and having done lots of disciplines involving allowing the power to run through my body from a source all around us, I was now having to use a flow of objective observation within with but not surrendering to a power, but rather a guidance of my own mental and physical nature. I was homesick by this time, my body and knees where so sore from all of the sitting and I started to think my time was done. Again, I decided that this technique is not for me, and I was wasting my time, although all the experience so far had been so valuable.
On the 6 – 7pm meditation the free flow of observation kicked in. It was as if something mentally just adjusted and it fell into place. Mr Goenka said that we could practise this free flow 5 minutes before we sleep too with the and if we ever find we cannot sleep, just to do this technique whilst lying down. He explained that to sleep is to rest the body, and the technique would enable us to be fresh and alert as though we had the best night’s sleep. It was all interesting to listen to and that evening I had an amazing experience where I tried the free flow, scanning my whole body up and down with my mind noticing the difference in areas. My whole body felt like it was bubbling/tingling, and I could focus on any part and feel the difference in sensation but it was like a complete flow. I was in complete awareness of the nature of my body and I had wonderful sleep.
With the technique of the free flow, I found myself in meditation in the days after with painful experiences that I realised that I had suppressed. Tears would stream down my face on the recollection of events around my sisters passing. I also found myself waking in the middle of the night with a memory of a time I was drinking and blacked out on a night out and not knowing what had happened. The shock to my stomach was as if it had just happened and it was from 18/19 years ago. I couldn’t sleep for an hour after that. What started to happen was the uprooting of miseries that I had held and not dealt with. I have done so much personal development over the years and understanding myself and actions of the past, but this technique was really proving to me the science behind it that Mr Goenka talked about; I was becoming aware of the unconscious surpassed thoughts. It was explained that the unconscious thoughts that we have affect our thoughts, actions and habits. We could have unresolved miseries that actually make us react in certain ways like being quick to temper, emotional outbursts, or reclusion etc. We become a product of our habits and to break the habits we have to not give any attention to the pleasure of the painful experiences. Vipassana technique brings a pure observational aspect to your way of thinking. So as the technique observes the nature of the physical body, it actually brings you more in line with the law of nature, and with that more compassion and understanding for everything within nature. Being equanimous with your own body is training yourself to be more equanimous in life itself. That is the amazing change.
So as the days continued day 10 was the day we could finally speak from 9.45am. It was so strange to speak to people that you had shared time with, but not spoken too. You were aware of them throughout the routine of the day but you were in your own isolation. So to speak to the person you were familiar with but knew nothing about was a strange feeling. It was so nice to listen to everyone’s experiences. We all compared the days we felt we were going to leave, we all shared in the pain of sitting and difficulties, but we all shared in the realisations and inward shift that it had brought to us too.
We were able to walk around the grounds, which was woodland and a field. In the middle of the field was a little fir tree. I felt inspired to write about it, if only I had writing equipment, so I decided to take a picture of it before I set off home to hopefully feel inspired at a later date.
Vipassana meditation centres are all around the world; it is a purely voluntary organisation. No one there is paid, not even the centre managers or teachers. There is a voluntary donation that can be made after completion of the 10-day course, but it is accepted only on the basis that you are donating from a place of having had a beneficial experience to enable a future new student to experience it too; it’s like pay it forward. You could also put your name on the rota for cleaning (which I did) which was another ‘pay it forward’, making it nice for the next course. The whole feeling of the place was just of pure service to each other. I hadn’t experienced anything quite like it and now that I am classed an “old student” I can now work/serve to help on a course, whether it be helping with food preparations, cleaning, or gardening etc. I think to serve on one of these courses would be such a lovely thing to experience. Knowing that the students are going through the processes that I did and encouraging them with compassion of service along the way, as well as being involved in the meditations throughout the day.
So I thank my husband Shaun for instigating this for my birthday and my dear friend Belinda for planting the seed. I feel this has been one of the most enlightening parts of my journey so far, and opened a new door of understanding.