From 14 to 25 March, I was at a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat at Dhamma Dipa in Herefordshire. Vipassana is a meditation technique where for 10 hours a day everything is conducted in Noble Silence. What one learns there through videos and audio recordings of Goenka (who died in 2013), is the technique by which Buddha became enlightened. As you can imagine, Vipassana is not easy: constant sitting, for around 100 hours, no communication (no words, books, gestures, eye contact), the technique itself … For me, it was like having a full course of psychoanalysis or like performing open heart surgery on myself. Yet, it was also wonderful, illuminating—literally—and so alive. It is for everyone, and there was everyone on that retreat: old and young, able bodied and disabled, black and white, experienced and inexperienced. It’s tough—nothing can prepare you for it—but incredibly worthwhile.
I learned, experientially, not intellectually or theoretically, four important things:
1. Nature (trees, birds, the sky, the weather) is a great comfort and a great teacher. On day 4, I was struggling to understand impermanence, to really feel it. I came out of my room and the ground was covered by 3 inches of snow. Everything was changed from the day before. The day after, it was sunny again. All melted, all green. The plants that were covered by the snow had survived and were colourful again. Impermanence, indeed.
2. Observing, focusing and not reacting should be really taught as a key skill at school (like reading). Most of our ailments would go away if we had this skill. For three days, we focused on the space below the nostrils and above the top lip. Only that, for 30+ hours. In our culture of distraction this was most illuminating. I could feel the depth of sensation, understand impermanence (the itching did go away), throw some things to the background of awareness (my knee pain) and not react to what was going on.
3. When someone says to you ‘take rest’, really do rest. Learn what rest is and how to do it. This is another skill we don’t have to the level that we should, to the level that would make us better, more efficient humans.
4. You really don’t need much to live well: breath, food (not a lot, out last meal was at 11am, with only 2 pieces of fruit or some hot lemon water after that), warmth and dryness, water, and access to washing facilities Life is stripped down at Dhamma Dipa, yet, I felt satiated, healthy, and happy despite the hard work (physical and mental) we were doing.
I also want to share with you four insights about myself, for you to understand what the experience might have been like:
1. Only the right side of my body cried and hurt. I only managed two tears of the left eye. This does not mean the right side is weak though, the left was just not there, not accessible, and this became much more of a problem. Yet, I am so grateful to know as many things in my practice now make sense!
2. When I was focusing on my nostrils, I felt a tickle. I observed as it developed into a full-blown, delicious sneeze. I was so deep in observation and non-reaction that I witnessed the whole sneeze in slow motion, from arising to passing away, and it was one of the coolest things ever.
3. That area below the nostrils and above the upper lip was like the body becoming Christmas lights. There was so, so much sensation, pleasant and unpleasant, gross and subtle: vibrating, pulsing, twitching, itching, crawling, pinching, trembling, shivering … It was intense to experience. So much where there was nothing before noticing!
4. On day 1, I got sad because I saw some birch trees and I remembered I love them but I could not remember the word ‘birch’ in Spanish, my mother tongue. I cried and cried. At some point that day, the word came to me: alcornoque! I found great comfort. I was happy again, it had all been a lapse. I even created mnemonics for it not to go away again, ever. Just on the way back from the retreat, I realised I got the name wrong. It is abedul. There you go: what mad thoughts we have.