There was a stabbing pain in my leg, like someone had taken a knife to scrape deep inside the bone. My right hip burned and my lower back and shoulders ached.
‘d been sitting cross-legged for nearly an hour in a Vipassana meditation centre two hours outside Mexico City. My day would involve another nine hours of sitting meditation. And it was just as hard as it sounds.
Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’. It’s a Buddhist meditation practice that teaches you to become aware of body sensations, to smile through the pain and not to react. The aim is to prepare you for the ups and downs of life, to help you respond calmly and with love when things get really hard.
I felt that stabbing pain five years ago. But sitting here on lockdown, the effort has never felt so relevant.
Travel, and growing trends of health and wellness, don’t usually bring such gruelling images to mind. But Vipassana courses have surprisingly become a rite of passage for many spirituality-seeking travellers. I first came across it years earlier while travelling in Southeast Asia – where completing the 10-day course was a backpacker’s badge of honour. I’d heard fellow travellers from all walks of life talk about life-changing epiphanies. I booked on to a course in Myanmar, but cancelled when someone asked me why I wanted to go into “solitary confinement” for 10 days.
Clearly, I wasn’t ready.
At that time, my travels were dominated by hedonism and outdoor adventure. More recently, however, I’ve used travel as a form of self-development and have dived into all sorts of wellness and spiritual courses – from a 10-day fast in Thailand to studying yoga in a traditional ashram in the Indian Himalayas.
When I came across another Vipassana course while backpacking in Mexico, I signed up again. I didn’t know what to expect, only that it would be hard.
The centre, in the highlands of Central Mexico, was simple with no frills – four brick structures built around a garden. There was a large meditation hall, a dining hall and kitchen where three basic vegetarian meals were served each day. Two accommodation blocks were segregated for men and women.
Despite being a Buddhist practice, modern-day Vipassana courses are secular in nature. You’ll find them in many countries, including Ireland. The 10-day residential courses are run free of charge or on a donation basis. There are no rituals, no icons, or prayers. There is just the technique of self-observation. Literally, the opportunity to spend 100 hours inside your own head.
The silence started on the first day. Talking and communication of any sort, including eye contact and gestures, were forbidden. Phones, cameras, laptops, reading and writing materials were handed over at check-in. I gave my roommate an illicit smile, and even though we shared such a small and intimate space together, our eyes wouldn’t meet for another 10 days. Talk about social distancing – I even swerved out of people’s way while passing them on the footpath. Lights out was at 9.30pm.
The first meditation session began at 4.30am the following morning. I hadn’t slept well and was still awake when the bell sounded. Sixty-odd participants were sitting cross-legged on cushions; men to one side and women to the other. This was to avoid distraction: its usefulness was something I had yet to learn. No one was allowed to leave the meditation hall for any reason during the sessions.
Simple instructions were given on the observation of breathing (‘annapana’) – we were told to fix our minds on the flow of breath as it entered and left the tips of the nostrils. It seems straightforward but proved near impossible to me. My mind did anything but what it was asked; I daydreamed about the margarita I would have when I went back to Mexico City. I wrote an imaginary letter to an ex-boyfriend, psychologically profiled anyone within eye-shot, and planned a day-by-day itinerary for the rest of my travels. My mind felt like a wild horse and I couldn’t tame it. We were reassured that this would happen, and instructed to respond with calm and equanimity. We were told of impermanence and how everything in life, including these strong emotions, would eventually pass.
Why had I put myself into this psychological prison? I was already feeling tired, lonely and anxious. What made it all the more difficult was that I couldn’t take a break from myself. During the gaps of free time, I wandered around the garden or tried to catch up on much-needed sleep. It felt like I had a magnifying glass on my mind and all my insecurities were amplified. I realised that I had a voice in my head narrating everything that I did, and this voice usually spoke in negative and critical tones.
I strengthened my resolve. For the first three days, we focused almost exclusively on annapana, and I did my best to focus on the breath entering and leaving the tips of my nostrils. Even when I felt like I was getting somewhere, I still counted the days to escaping this strangled silence. It was like I was in a mental gym. But gradually, as the days passed, that wild horse became a bit calmer.
On day four, the ante was upped with a move from annapana to Vipassana; and the focus of attention from the nostrils to scanning our whole body, part by part, for sensations. We started with ‘adhitthana’ – the ‘hour of strong determination’ – where we sat for an hour scanning the body, without moving so much as an eyelid or a finger. This was excruciatingly painful – the moment I felt that burning pain in my legs, hip and back. What I wouldn’t have done to adjust my seat or stretch my leg! But I remained utterly still… while internally screaming.
What the point of this?
To eventually be able to witness the pain and not to react. “If I can do this for an hour,” I thought, “I can deal with anything back in my regular life.” But still, the pain spread. To my ankles, my knees and shoulders.
On day eight, the instructions tacked towards finding the ‘free flow’ of sensations through the body. Some people experienced this and others didn’t. Only on the last day did the magic happen for me. For a moment, my focus was so sharp that I felt the subtlest of sensations. My body felt expansive, light and without boundaries. My brain chatter went totally silent – like someone had pressed ‘mute’ on the remote control. Without that incessant narration, I felt spaciousness, a feeling of peace and bliss. It probably only lasted a few minutes and I have never experienced it since. But I gave a mental air punch in celebration.
Noble silence was broken after the final morning session. Clear eyes and warm smiles greeted me and it was astonishing how peaceful and happy the other participants looked. I checked myself in the mirror and I had that same glow.
My room-mate’s name was Maria, I discovered. Between her broken English and my pidgin Spanish, she told me that she was an artist and lived in Mexico City. She offered me a lift back and we sat mostly in silence while driving through the lush highlands of Valle de Bravo, detouring to see Nevado de Toluca, an extinct volcano. After 50km of a winding drive up a dirt road, and a short hike, we arrived at the crater rim to a spectacular view of snowy mountains and two crater lakes. I breathed in the crisp, fresh mountain air with a quiet mind and a sense of pride.
The Vipassana course was one of the hardest things I have ever done. But I stuck with it and I came out the other side. It taught me about impermanence and how to face life with more calm and equilibrium. I saw stabbing pain and pleasure come and go, but most importantly I learned that everything does pass
How to do it…
A Goenka-style, 10-day Vipassana course is run on a donation basis. You can find a worldwide directory of the centres at courses at dhamma.org/en/index
Take three: Wellness retreats
The Cliffs of Moher Retreat in Co Clare is a stunning, purpose-built luxury facility that runs yoga and other wellness retreats. Eat delicious organic vegetarian food and enjoy the outdoor hot tub and sauna. All of which is set against the backdrop of the wild Atlantic and the majestic Cliffs of Moher. cliffsofmoherretreat.com
Take yourself and all the family on a future trip to Plum Village, the Buddhist monastery near Bordeaux, France. Founded by renowned Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, the monastics run mindfulness retreats throughout the year. In summers they open their doors to families and run programmes for kids over the age of six. plumvillage.org
The Sanctuary health resort is located on a secluded beach on the island of Koh Phangan, Thailand. It offers a range of wellness retreats, including a three to 10-day fasting programme with daily coffee enemas. Not for the faint-hearted! When you can eat again its restaurant serves a range of healthy food and vegan menu. thesanctuarythailand.com
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