With no objective, minimal expectations and no definite plan, I left a comfortable stable job in branding and communications a couple of months ago to gift myself a journey of six months, which I called "Adventure Surrender." I stepped into India and have so far attended a mountain yoga retreat, stayed in a Hindu ashram for a month, visited some spots here and there and even treated myself and my backpack to a fancy stay in a five star hotel and spa. My latest episode of this adventure has been such a deep one that even writing about it has been an extension of that intense experience.
I recently attended a Vipassana course in Kerala, India; a 10 day silent meditation course that I decided to take after listening to advice from my teacher Lou when I asked her what I should do about my stagnantly basic meditation practice and it was what she recommended out of experience. When I applied, I was already scared of the idea, especially after Lou described to me what to expect in detail. However, I shortly decided to laugh it off instead and avoid encouraging a manifestation of what my mind is energetically engaged with. Needless to say, judging from their reactions, mentioning my plans to friends and family made most of their jaws drop behind WhatsApp windows.
The day of registration, the car dropping me arrived amidst a generous pour of rain that almost blinded the windshield. Thankfully, as soon as I got out of the car, registered myself and handed in my "valuables" and items I am not supposed to use during the course to be locked in storage till breaking silence, I shed a few quick tears in a corner by the trees and my fear subsided, replaced by a sense of freshness and excitement, I felt lighter and present already.
Let's Live Like Monks
The course duration is ten days, out of which nine and a half are spent in "noble silence", with no talking or form of communication of any sort. Reading, writing and any entertainment is not allowed. We are asked to observe five precepts; to abstain from killing any being, stealing, sexual misconduct, wrong speech and all intoxicants. The two genders are split into separate residential facilities and are only present together in the meditation hall during classes, which they even enter through separate doors. We are asked to dress modestly and not wear any accessories or put on strong scents to avoid distracting others. We are also not allowed to wear any spiritual items or practice any form of spiritual rituals or physical exercise including yoga, in order to give the technique a pure fair trial. Only walking is allowed in designated areas.
The course is absolutely free and is funded solely by donations from old students. At the women's house, I shared a room with two ladies; a Japanese and an Indian and we actually did not properly meet till the tenth day. Every student is given a bed with a thin mattress, a mosquito net, a pillow, a pillow cover and two bed sheets. That's it. You bring everything else that you need with you, including toilet paper. No hot water is available; I showered with cold murky brownish water from a bucket, which I was told, and choose to believe, was probably so due to rain water leaking into the tank. The same water is used to wash dishes, brush teeth and wash clothes by hand in what seems to be India's number one household item; the bucket. Toilets were less than standard and a fellow student generously took up the chore of cleaning them every morning, bless her.
The program starts at 4AM with a number of steady rings from a bell and we go through the same program daily; nine meditation sessions, an evening discourse by S. N. Goenka, the main teacher who spread the technique around the world, and a few meal breaks and rest periods. Lights go off at 9PM. Three basic meals are served; breakfast at 6:30AM, lunch at 11AM and, my absolutely favourite meal of the day, mainly because it was sweet and unspiced like the preceding two; "snack" at India's national tea hour; 5PM. There is no dinner, but all the carbs and starch do fill you up.
The centre is located in a lush green patch at the edge of a small lake, which means we are subject to encounter all sorts of beings of numerous sizes, shapes and sounds, out of which I found the most vicious was the black mosquito, it clang lightly to the skin and stang like what felt was an electrocuting rodent bite. Thankfully the pain usually subsided ten minutes later if I didn't scratch.
These are definitely harsh living conditions, especially for someone who comes from a comfortable clean-kept air-conditioned house with doors and windows usually shut against the humid desert-ish Bahraini climate, but they are secondary, minor, almost disappear and do not matter in comparison to the intense experience with the main reason why I was there; learning how to meditate effectively.
Meditating on Dates and Peanut Butter
On the first three days, when we're taught to practice Anapana by merely focusing our attention on a small area on the nose to observe sensations that accompany the entrance and exit of the breath through the nostrils, my mind drifted a million times in a million directions.
I thought of every single person I know, everything that happened with them, could have happened with them and still could happen with them. I pictured a Cannes-worthy closure scene with my ex. I planned the rest of my life in absolute detail. I planned things I would Google once I'm out, created a grocery list, made up a completely new warm, crunchy, gooey vegan-sugarfree-date-banana-peanut-butter-oatmeal-crumble recipe, designed new furniture for my room and planned Facebook and Instagram posts. I laid out the apartment I would furnish from Ikea once I mustered the courage to tell my parents that I really really really want to live an adult life on my own and move out. I worked out my next career with calculations and a business plan and who I would talk to for advice when I'm back home. I fantasized about the rest of my trip and planned what to do in each destination.
It wasn't all fantasizing about the outside world though. I also fantasized about what the day's 5PM meal would be and hoped it's Aval (a sweet Keralite dish of beaten rice with shredded coconut that I fell in love with). I planned when I'd shower next, brush my teeth next, pee next, when to wash my clothes and when to strategically remove them off the drying rope before the afternoon rain pour of the day and of course I planned what I'd wear the next day.
And it wasn't all rosy either. There were times where I worried so much about the slight chance that a disaster might happen and times I stressed about being judged and misunderstood. I had several bursts of silent crying.
Being with myself without physical distractions allowed me to be very creative. I had all the time and mental space to weave an imaginary reality to the best of my liking. And although I do not get attached to plans and tend to usually change and shift as I go, fantasies provide me with such deep mental stimulation that I felt on a physical level. My heart would race with excitement, or I'd sob, and if the fantasy is so vivid my eyes would flicker so rapidly behind shut lids that it becomes painful to keep them closed. Fantasy is my mental entertainment and the very reason how I could go on for hours without the desire to talk.
Evidently, literally drooling in my closed mouth over the thought of whether to buy a Nutella or an unclean peanut butter jar once I am out, or both, most of the time I wasn't present. Sometimes I would be pulled back into the now for short intervals and gave Anapana another shot before getting re-intoxicated by my fantasies and drifting away into them.
There's Hope. That's Why They Called me Amal
After we were explained the Vipassana technique on the fourth day, I started to experience some tangible results from the practice. It was like my mind had gone out partying with the voices in its head (which apparently have a Jordanian-Bahrani accent and cuss like old Palestinian and Manami ladies), got drunk, excessively vomited its contents and was ready to go back to the office for some serious work now.
To practice Vipassana, we had to stay still in a stable pose, keep our eyes closed and not leave the room till the one hour session ends. With a mind that thinks it's at a funfair and with deep pulsing pain in my right knee, hip and the right half of my mid back, it wasn't an easy start. I wept like a little child during the first session. Yet I reminded myself that I did not spend a whole month last summer in farewell parties being showered with love and good wishes from people who'd miss me so much, quit my job and came on a sabbatical to just simply give up. It was the best time to give this a try.
As the course days unfolded, I kept reminding myself to work hard and was able to notice my mind when it drifted away and bring it back to the present faster than before. It was still challenging, at times my mind was racing with thoughts so condense that I thought I was on the brink of insanity. I could see why people, especially extremely creative artists with active minds, resort to drugs or have suicidal tendencies, it is so agonisingly stressful.
For a few days I was extremely judgmental and angry at myself and even at my colleagues for the lamest of excuses. My skin was severely irritated as a result and I was constipated for a long time with no chance to perform any of my usual holistic remedies. My Vata was imbalanced and out of whack. I missed my personal private introvert space and felt so dry. I could do nothing on a physical level but breathe deeply, cry and stare into greenery when I could.
And then I thought, I was there, that was the current situation and I had to live with it, you'd think, maybe Vipassana would help?
Nothing but the Now. Vipassana
To my basic understanding, this is how it goes; we experience misery (pain, anger, fear, illness, any negativity) as a result of reacting to things that we sense in the external world. We tend to generate attachments, either pleasantly to things that we crave and are not there, or unpleasantly to things we avert from and are there. The object of our misery is either in the past, which doesn't exist, or in the future, which doesn't exist either. Both what we crave and avert from are nonexistent, still we sense them, react to them and are bound to suffer. The suffering is stored in us not just as thoughts and emotions, but as well as gross dense spots in the physical body.
The whole Vipassana technique aims to clear out those spots by explaining how to get in touch with sensations we generate towards objects of craving and aversion, and very importantly, how to be equanimous with those sensations, how to not react to them and how to accept them objectively. It also reminds us that every sensation is impermanent; it only arises to sooner or later pass away. In the end of the process of observing sensations and being equanimous with them, you are meant to attain liberation and live in happiness, peace and harmony with yourself and all beings.
Beautiful, though not easy, it is hard work, hence the intensive course. The theory part, explained more and more daily by the well spoken Goenka Ji, gave tremendous motivation to keep practicing the next session despite the tendencies of the monkey mind.
Monkey Back in the Jungle
Now that I have this experience added to the knowledge I have so far, what do I make of It? Here are my three key findings:
- Clarity: To begin with, getting to know the matter is the first step. Though I had an idea and avoided admitting it, I never fully realised how not present I could be for such long times. My gooey peanut butter crumble definitely unveiled a blatant reality. Will I continue practicing Vipassana or experiment with something else to calm me down? Time can only tell.
- Silence: Speaking less and listening more is definitely one of the wisest ancient advices in history. We can surely spare ourselves so much trouble by just keeping quiet sometimes and we simply don't need to verbalise every single thought that crosses our mind. Silence gives us the chance to practice the art of listening and to also tap into a beautiful and subtle form of communication that is beyond human words.
- Play: It is important to closely examine things and analyse their details in order to gain better understanding of them, yet in doing so it's also easy to get so focused on them and not see the big picture. I thus remind myself to lift up my head, look at the big picture in a compassionate perspective towards myself and others and the to lighten up, something I remembered every time a fellow student, an old lady with stomach issues, let out a series of loud burps during meditation every now and then. You just can't but silently laugh at the irony of the incident. And then be equanimous with that too.
Bowing to Light
So that's my story with Vipassana. I finish writing this from my balcony in a beautiful guesthouse of a nurturing Indian family in a soft and gentle green spot in the mountains. I feel washed and brushed despite the murky water. I feel sweetly serene despite the tense storm.
I am thankful for tough experiences that slap me on the face every time I think I know it all. I am thankful for tough experiences that are humbling, show light, pour love. I am thankful for life and whatever it chooses to toss along the way.
"May all beings be happy, peaceful , liberated."
Some snaps of the centre: