An interesting proposition. I want to write about my experience at the ten day Vispassana Meditation retreat but it is important to me, for a number of reasons, that I do not in fact write about the specifics of my personal experience itself. This is most certainly and no doubt infuriatingly one of those ‘you had to be there’ sort of things. Even more importantly, as most people that have undertaken the ten day retreat will attest to, the journey is deeply individual and entirely unique. The value of having no preconceptions is such that they go to extreme pains to ensure no one shares the details of their experience whilst they are in the midst of it, lest the testimony of others alter or affect their own journey, creating distractions, concerns, cravings and ultimately taking one’s focus off the true goal: accessing the depths of one’s own unconscious and the learned behaviour and sankharas1 therein.
What lengths are these? Noble silence. Nine of the ten days are spent in total silence. No eye contact. No gesturing. No communicating. Silence.
One thing I will say to those that are considering such a retreat that will not colour your experience but may help you consider it in a more informed manner: it was the most challenging and the most rewarding thing I have ever done. It was physically challenging and mentally challenging. But the happiness and transformational fulfilment that I had by the end was nothing short of astonishing. So I would be very clear that this is not ten days of chilling out and taking it easy. There is work. Very hard work. Of course this is the way with the most rewarding things in life. Climbing a mountain, taking a heroic dose of your favourite psychedelic, training for and completing a marathon; all of these things stretch you to your limits and one comes out the end totally transformed and nothing but full of gratitude for the experience and everything it has taught.
So my second piece of advice. Set your mind. If you are in it you are in it. Go committed in a ‘I’ve bought the ticket I’ll take the ride sort of way’. This is a journey and all good journeys have trials and tribulations; rewards and revelations.
For my own experience, I am convinced that the Universe had its hand in leading me there (well as convinced as I am of anything with my generalised agnosticism firmly in place of course). Let me outline the facts and you can make your own conclusions.
First was the magick. I wont go into details but I undertook a sigil magick ceremony and took it very seriously. I was asking for insight into how to do something very specific regarding my desire to avoid causing pain to others through my own ignorance. It was not until my return from the retreat that I showed my dear brother, Micheal, the workings of my sigil and he immediately recognised as I had, that the techniques learned there directly and specifically answered my request.
(Note: Sigil magick certainly appears to work. This is a warning as much as a suggestion to investigate. A good scientist experiments. Tests and retests. I have done so and am very careful about what kind of things I would try to achieve by any magick, including sigil magick. The old dictum “be careful what you wish for” is extremely pertinent here. For my own part I only ever ask for that which can only be for the benefit of All (some times considered white magic) and never now make specific requests for specific individuals (grey magic). I am not condemning grey magick but it is definitely dangerous and without seeing the full ramifications of the desired outcome can unknowingly in fact cause harm (as such unwittingly being black magic). Every individual knows what is right in a given situation. Listen to your intuition and reason well would be my advice. But it works and it can help in very positive ways is my assertion. Tried and tested. The key is that it does not matter whether it is true or not. What matters is the perceptual shifts one can achieve in believing it is true. Even temporarily. If you are skeptical? Good. Quite right. So am I. Question everything and accept nothing until you investigated it thoroughly. Scientific method is central to western magick.)
Then there was the synchronicity. Having never heard of such a thing as Vipassana I received an email from a dear friend, Tom, that had recently attended a retreat and as is commonplace after returning many ‘old students’, as we are called upon completion, immediately spread the word to a few individuals that it occurs to them would appreciate or benefit from the course. I was one of those beneficiaries. As I was relaying the information to my brother he tried to simultaneously inform me of a meditation retreat that he had heard about when travelling. We investigated. It was the same one. We spoke to some friends we were staying with. They had heard of it too and had heard amazing things about it. Suddenly it seemed like the worst kept secret in the world. Everybody seemed to know of it or someone who did. How had we not heard of Vipasanna before? I cannot answer that.
Then there was the good fortune. Micheal and I love challenge and adventure, so having no idea how to get there we collected our very bare essentials (as advised in the course preparation) and decided to leave our travel plans to providence. We left two days ahead of registration to give us enough time and began the 230km trek – with next to no money.
To cut a long story short our journey consisted of trains, sleeping rough our first night in a playground wendy house and hitchhiking. Sounds arduous perhaps but it was not. We left late in the day and had arrived at the end of our 230km journey very early the next morning and neither one of us had spent over 5 dollars. As Micheal lay and slept much of the day away I wandered through the pretty town in search of a place as worthy as the wendy house for that night’s accommodation.
I came across a wonderful little alternative boutique, instantly recognisable by the proliferation of rainbow hues and familiar smell of incense, and wandered in. Within minutes I had not only the offer of the cup of tea and several free books on Buddhism, including Vispassana, but also a bed for the night. I was simply to return in the afternoon. Good fortune continued to smile. So we returned later that day and sat with our new found friends drinking tea and chattering happily when in walked Andy. Andy was a yoga instructor. He was also an ardent Vispassana meditator. He was very excited for us about what lay ahead. He frequented the retreat often and was heavily involved with its administration as it happened. He suddenly looked perplexed.
“You are going there tomorrow?” He asked. We replied in the affirmative.
“That’s funny. Maybe its different, it sometimes varies, but normally they have registration on Wednesdays.”
Today was Wednesday. We immediately investigated our confirmation emails and saw that we had somehow completely mistaken the dates and that registration had long since begun. Had Andy not walked in that precise moment we would have remained ignorant and turned up a day late, missing the whole experience. As it transpired another customer packed us in her car and whisked us away to the retreat and we arrived in time to really begin our journey.
But this is not special or supernatural, this is all just coincidence. Well of course. It is both. It is coincidence for sure and it is also a special kind of coincidence that allowed our path there to flow beautifully, easily and as though all of our own actions and circumstances were in perfect harmony. There was hardship of course. We slept rough and walked for many miles when waiting for lifts. One has to be committed to their goal and maintain a sense of strong determination2. Life is in balance and as Terence McKenna likes to say you have to meet the universe half way. But the universe does have a sense of fair play and if your will is set, doors will open where there were not doors before. Having gone through it I would defy any one to do the same and not have had a sense of things ‘going with the flow’. It is quite right to call this natural. It is natural. It is Dhamma.
Nature works. We need to learn to remain aware and learn how to work with it.
This sense of flow and ease continued. And as it often does in my life was paired with a consistent sense of mild to intense deja vu. Again, one may view this however they like but the simple truth is that when my life is in a state where everything seems to fits together and flow in this beautiful way, almost like a dance between myself and my environment, I always have a huge increase my sense of deja vu. Sometimes lasting for days on end. Such as this time. I have my own theories about it (and may share if pushed) but nevertheless, when it happens things are going well. Needless to say I am fond of the sensation.
Skip forward ten days.
If you are curious then do it. It’s that simple.
Any one can do it. If you set your will. All of the reasons I have heard for people wanting to try it but not doing so: I can’t give up smoking; I can’t sit for that long; I can’t go for ten days without talking and so forth. These all really amount to, I do not want to do it. You can do all of these things. Indeed, the retreat will give you the tools, techniques and setting to achieve these things. All you need to do is decide you will. That’s it. Its that easy (and that hard). Everyone is capable of more than they think. Adults of all ages and various states of physical and mental health manage all of this and much more. Very few drop out. Those that do not will value it for the rest of their lives.
Let me just take one moment to be clear that I am not championing this as the only True Path or some such nonsense. I am aware that there are some concerns that this particular teaching of Vispassana (as taught by S. N. Goenka) is a cult of personality. It has even been accused of being brainwashing by some.
It is and it is not. It is brainwashing in a sense and if they had an agenda or wished to imprint something new and manipulative into your mind I think they could in the situation. But they do not. They do not ask you to convert to Buddhism, or believe in reincarnation, or even continue their code of conduct and morality after you leave. You are continually told you are your own master. And you are. They do not condemn other paths. As a quote I have always been fond of beautifully elucidates there are many valid paths to make the same journey:
“Many paths lead, from the foot of the mountain. But at the peak, we all gaze at the single bright moon” – Ikkyu, Zen-monk poet, 1394-1481
No this is simply a path. You do not even need to take the path. You can just take away one of the most effective methods of meditation I have ever tried by quite some way, and continue on another path. Nothing is impressed upon you other than the effectiveness of the technique and their enthusiasm for the positive results it will produce.
As for a washed brain? We know how to exercise our bodies, how to tend to them, how to clean them and care for them. We can exercise our minds with intellectual puzzles and various concentration techniques of course. But have you ever washed your mind? Spring cleaned it and blasted out the cobwebs? I have. The method applied is the aforementioned heroic dose of psychedelics. The meditation retreat did this better than any chemically induced altered state I have had so far. And I can continue to do so, whenever I please, with no expense, dealers, law-breaking or come downs. Yes your brain will be cleansed. And it feels amazing.
In terms of reprogramming with ome hidden agenda though, this is not the kind of brain wash they provide. I am not now a Buddhist. I have drank alcohol since which they do not allow. I have taken psychedelics and still consider them valuable tools. They do not. It seems some in the land of Soma have forgotten some of their spiritual ancestry. No, I have not been converted or re-programmed.
But. I am still meditating for two hours every day and feeling the benefits. Many, many, many benefits.
I continue to feel that sense of life in flow. At one with nature. Not always. But more than before. I am having healing from a fellow meditator that could see my illness as we meditated. He is doing so out of charitable kindness.3 I am meeting another fellow meditator tomorrow, whom hopefully I can help also.
There are threads that are tying together. There are signposts to keep me on the path I want to live. A path of health, harmony and happiness. When my mind is at peace and centred I can see the signs and follow the that path. I can remain in equilibrium, in dynamic stasis, within the eye of my life-storm, avoiding the fury of its surrounding maelstrom, sitting at peace as I observe the beauty and power of our being, of nature, our true nature.
This is why I sit for two hours a day.
I will return to the retreat soon and serve for ten days. I will cook and clean and create the environment that was created for me, so I could sit for ten days. I will return the kindness that was given to me so that others can experience what I have experienced. I hope it transforms their life as it did mine.
I hope we all find true happiness.
Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam4