Some of Team Vipassana. All grins on Day 10...
Well, that was like climbing a multi-day big wall. I went to a secluded forest with twenty-four strangers and sat down on the floor for one hundred and ten hours. Vipassana is a form of meditation, the eventual goal of which, after years of practice, if at all, is the realisation of the ultimate reality (yes, that is why those tiny pitons were called RURPs), or ultimate truth. There is no communication for the ten days you are on the course - no speaking, no eye contact, no messages - there are no pens or paper allowed, no books, no phones, tablets or iPads - no distractions whatsoever. You are imprisoned in the grounds and men and women are segregated. You spend ten days, effectively inside your own head.
Vipassana is powerful stuff: one woman blew her eardrum out, one guy had a freak-out and left the course in tears, another had some sort of epileptic fit and begun shaking violently. I had a headache for the first three days and a seizure on day seven (my first one in six years). I kept this to myself as I did not want to get thrown of the course because I knew it was one of the most profound events in my life - I extended three fingers of my right hand for the first time in seventeen years! I also started hearing peels of wedding bells on day three, as my headache subsided, and they lasted until day nine. As all the significant events of the day - 4am wake-up, 4.30 call to begin sitting, 6.30 breakfast etc - was all done by bells, I often thought these were in my head and missed meal times. However, Gol, one of the volunteer servers, always came looking for me. You are watched carefully for any kind of breakdown, especially if you are a new student, because this form of meditation can be dangerous.
The process of Vipassana is complicated but kind of works like this: you are asked to direct your entire attention at a single point on the body - the shoulder for instance and passively observe it until you notice a feeling, any feeling - an itch, a pain, a tingling. Before long, wherever I pointed my attention to, on my entire body, there was a mass of sensation. We were told by S.N. Goenka (via video-link from beyond the grave) that this was due to the nature of all matter from rocks and metals to flesh and blood - that all stuff is made of vibrating particles, dying and being reborn. Moreover, by getting in tune with our bodies we notice this mass of electro-magnetic activity. This was easy to accept as it has been known since the early twentieth century that sub-atomic particles orbit a nucleus in an atom and cause vibrations. (Is this Brownian Motion?) This is a ‘truth‘ of ones body, and once one gets into the ninetieth hour of sitting there, cross legged, with eyes closed, you begin to realise, on an experiential level, that all matter is made of the same stuff.
During one particularly intense Adhitthana (sitting of strong determination), were you are to sit statue still for an hour, I was enduring great pain from my back and my hip. Thirty minutes was no problem, by forty-five I was in agony and the last fifteen minutes I did my best work. My body dissolved into billions of blue and yellow sub-atomic particles. It then exploded and all these tiny particles went flying around. I began to suspect that someone with an ulterior motive had got us here and then dropped acid in the tank that was the only drinking water. There was a story from Llanberis, the North Walean village where I used to live, about Cliff Philips, a legendary 70s climber, putting acid in the reservoir above and all the townsfolk turning into drop-leaf tables and fish.
Anyway, I found that I wasn’t enduring pain any longer, the pain had disintegrated along with my body. This was the profound moment when I noticed I could observe my pain with equanimity. A good feeling or a bad feeling were both impermanent manifestations of these sub-atomic vibrations. By being non-reactive I could observe my pain as if it were happening to someone else. However, the clever thing is that physical pain and emotional pain both have the same root in the brain (all pain is mental) which means that if I don’t react to any negativity, like a relationship break-up or a bereavement, I can see it clearly and objectively as impermanent. Everything from the mountains we climb, to the people we love, to situations, negative or positive, arise and pass away, are born and then die, absolutely everything. That’s the theory anyway, not to endure but to accept. However, it is easier said than done and takes a lifetime of dedicated practice to realise this.
During the long hours of sitting the mind inevitably wanders. Besides the usual sexual fantasies, I had a stirling idea for an Homunculus doll for children (like stretch armstrong). There were lots of amputation hallucinations including taking off my useless right arm and having it taxidermied (stuffed) and mounted in a crimp position so that I could take it to the crag and hang it on a finger edge. Then, there was the elaborate self operated guillotine for my little finger that I was going to chop off and film for a youtube clip (I hoped it would go viral).
By the ninth day we were studying the sensations within our bodies and ‘sweeping en masse’. Each person feels something different. I was experiencing a tingling, like pins and needles, throughout my body, inside as well as outside. The tingling began on the crown of my head and ended at the tip of my toes, like a bucket of hot water being poured over me, and then back up as if I was being submerged in a hot pool. What was interesting from my perspective was that these sensations were much, much more pronounced on my healthy left side. Having hemiplegia means reduced blood flow, cold extremities and reduced feeling all down one side of my body, the right side. So, I had to work at noticing the tingling down my one half.
Furthermore, the feeling I was now experiencing throughout my entire body bore more than a passing similarity to the seizures I endured fifteen years ago, when I had up to ten a day. I took a cocktail of anti convulsants back then but now I suspected that the seizures were the body’s way of attempting to repair itself and the seizure medication was hindering my recovery. I knew this to be a risky hypothesis and so decided to treat it with equanimity: “it is what it is” a great sage from Llanberis used to say, neither good nor bad.
Now, whatever tiny area I directed my attention at, was like being prodded with a hot poker, yet it was intensely pleasant. However, I knew one should never place a value judgment on any feeling, pleasant or unpleasant, as this risks all ones hard work coming to nothing. One must remain equanimous in Vipassana meditation.
On day ten we were allowed to speak. It would be too much of a culture shock, and potentially dangerous, for one to be released back into the bustle of the city without a buffer of a day. Everyone had big grins pasted to their faces and someone asked me “how I went?” When I opened my mouth all that came out was a tiny squeak. I had lost my voice and would not regain it fully for days. I felt humbled, for you are forced into accepting the charity of others. All the cooks, helpers and teachers, are volunteers and at the end of ten days, if you found that you got no benefit from it, you are asked not to pay!
Yes, in terms of mental anguish, it was like climbing El Capitan, and yes that was one of the one of the harder ten days of my life. However, more than that, it was also one of the most rewarding and humbling ten days in which I learnt many lessons, not least how to accept and how to be equanimous with pain.