Meditation Retreat

Well I completed the 10-Day Vipassana meditation retreat at Dhamma Bhumi retreat centre on Sunday morning. It’s a beautiful setting at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, about 2 hours west of Sydney. If you want to do Vipassana, I can’t think of a more beautiful place to do it. For me, the experience was largely one of intense discomfort, suffering, and unrelenting pain which just didn’t get any better as I went along; in fact, it got worse! I’m just glad it’s over.

The retreat started on a Wednesday evening with about 60 of us. First thing they did was to separate the men from the women. Well, there’s 90% of the potential for enjoyment gone just there. We enrolled and had a brief orientation session, including the onset of “noble silence”, meaning no talking to anyone for the next 9 days.

And then the meditation began. We arose at 4am each morning, to be ready for meditation in the hall at 4:340. After about 10 minutes, my legs were aching already. I’m not used to sitting cross-legged, and all the tendons in my legs began to hurt. Thank your-chosen-deity we had breaks every hour; I couldn’t wait for them. The initial instruction was to focus on the breath through the nostrils. Not to control it or to influence it, but just to focus. I found the focusing easy, but every time I did my breathing would stop, switching onto manual control. So I had to start breathing manually. I have done quite a bit of conscious-breathing meditation in the past, and learned to breathe diaphrammatically with my vocal coach as my normal modus operandi. I have a feeling some of this may have made it more difficult for me to just observe, rather than also control my breath. I was bored after a few minutes of this, and my mind started to wander; often onto the increasing pain in my legs. Welcome to the next 10 days, as it turned out!

Day 2 I was already struggling. I was experiencing an “aversion” to my suffering, and the solution was to simply observe it objectively and not react to it. Apparently my mind has been conditioned to respond to pleasant and unpleasant experiences with craving and aversion respectively, and the path to enlightenment and freedom from suffering is to become detached from both. Well yeah, I agree that our suffering is compounded when we focus on what we have but don’t want, or on what we don’t have but do want; but I was beginning to wonder whether sitting for long hours in an uncomfortable position was really part of the answer. Plus the food was vegetarian, and although it was down the tasty end of the vego spectrum, I was hanging for a cheeseburger.

For about half the meditation sessions, we had to be together in the hall. For others, we could meditate in our rooms if we wished. I had a room to myself, and took to meditating lying down whenever I was allowed. I felt quite exhausted from the sheer mental and static physical demands of the long meditation sessions. I figured if I fell asleep while meditating lying down in my room, I needed the sleep more than I needed the meditation. I was relieved to have 10 straight days without any aerobic physical activity, and I think this reduced my flu-like symptoms quite a bit.

Day 3’s teaching sounded remarkably similar to Day 2: focus on the breath in and around the nostrils. But they told us it all again anyway. I was in pain, and generally hating it. I kept thinking “I just want to be home playing my guitar”. I moved my posture quite a bit to try to find a new comfortable position. Invariably I would find myself comfortable for only a short while. I spoke to the teacher about this. He was the only person we were allowed to talk to, and then only at set times. He said my discomfort was the result of unconscious impurities of the mind arising, and that I would be purged of these so long as I didn’t create a new aversion to it. I was more of the opinion that my discomfort was the result of sitting in uncomfortable positions for such a long time. He suggested I try a backrest, and I felt relieved: “You mean you have backrests I can use? Oh cool!”. I thought I was finally saved.

Day 4 things got a bit more interesting, as we started scanning our bodies from head to toe observing sensations. Still, that got boring pretty quickly. My usual anxiety-producing thought of “Which path am I going to take in life from here?” ran through my mind a lot, giving me occasional waves of anxiety, and adrenaline. I have a very busy mind that likes to be engaged in doing stuff. Apparently that’s just evidence that I need to meditate more. Forms of entertainment like books and movies are just distractions from dealing with the unconscious impurities in our minds, said the teacher. I could go fill my life with such distractions if I wanted, but they would never really satisfy me. The true path to enlightenment is to face my discomfort, not to distract myself from it.

Day 5’s teaching sounded remarkably similar to Day 4, but they told us again anyway. By this stage I was really bored. And in pain. And finding it harder to focus. The pain in my legs wasn’t getting any better, as I had hoped it would as they got more used to sitting in the poses my normal life never involves. I felt like getting up and yelling “This is bullshit!!” and storming out of the meditation hall, making the biggest scene possible. Probably not that respectful to the other meditators though. I started feeling really angry, and the people I feel most anger towards naturally popped into my head: my parents.

Day 6 introduced a new form of self-imposed torture: The Sitting of Strong Determination. The aim of this was to complete each 1-hour sitting without changing posture. Oh my god. When the recorded teacher’s voice introduced this, I reacted mentally with “There’s always some bloody catch, isn’t there? Now my path to enlightenment is blocked by the fact that I cannot goddam sit still when I’m bored.” Never have been able to. Just ask my mother. I really wanted to be home playing guitar. Or writing. Or doing stand-up comedy. I got through a whole hour-long sitting without changing posture, by reciting a comedy routine I’ve been thinking of doing, in my head. It was contrary to the spirit of the whole meditation thing; in fact, parts of the routine consisted of totally bagging out the whole experience. But it was the only time I sat completely still for the whole hour. Afterwards, my legs ached in “appreciation”.

I wondered whether to practice my assertiveness skills by telling everyone what I really thought of the whole thing and storming out, or my commitment skills by sticking at it. Both could use a boost, but in this case I chose to exercise the commitment skills. I can hear the voices of a couple of ex-girlfriends in my head replying “Bit bloody late for that, don’t you think Graham?”. I complained again to the teacher how uncomfortable I was despite the backrest, and he said they’d get me a chair. “Oh cool!”, I thought, “I’m saved!”

By Day 7 everything was a blur. Not a blur in the fast-moving sense, just a blur in the sense that I’d really rather not remember what was happening. It was quite traumatic. The chair they got me turned out to be one of those white plastic garden setting chairs with the legs cut off, so when I sat on it with my feet on the floor, my knees stuck up in the air. It was only marginally less comfortable than sitting cross-legged. In some respects, it was worse.

The teacher summoned me during the lunch break, and we had a long and partly philosophical discussion where I protested my boredom, the ongoing pain, and the fact that frankly, the idea that impurities of the mind were being purged by all this self-imposed discomfort sounded like crap to me. No wonder Buddhists are so big on suffering, when they impose so much on themselves. And I didn’t even get into what I thought about the idea of past and future lives, or the notion that the suffering therefore just goes on and on until you eventually wise up and begin meditating full-time so that one of your future lives eventually reaches enlightenment. What a load of cobblers.

Day 8 was like Day 7, only with more aches in the legs, less concentration, and greater relief at bed time. I was hoping I’d be getting into it more, rather than less, by this stage, but I was working against a short attention span that needs to see some positive results if it’s to stick at anything. If I didn’t have the motivation of breaking the adrenaline cycle to recover from my chronic fatigue symptoms, I wouldn’t have come. The teacher was of the opinion that my illness is psychosomatic, and I agree. “But this technique will not cure your illness. That’s not why you’re here.”, he said, “The technique is to purify your mind. That is what is most important.”

“Yeah, sure” I replied, “But the reality is that if it weren’t for my illness, I wouldn’t be here.”

“So are you going to stay and finish the course? We can’t lock you in you know, it’s really up to you” he said.

“Yes, I’ve stayed this long. I want to get whatever I can out of it. I’m staying”.

Day 9 we were allowed to scan our bodies for sensations in any manner or direction that we liked. Only made it marginally more interesting for about 30 seconds though. By this stage, I was really over the whole thing. Still hopeful for some sort of breakthrough or magic to happen though, and committed to seeing it through. But I was definitely counting down the meditation sessions by now.

In the final meditation for the day, I decided to give one last red-hot-go at sitting completely still and focusing on the body sensations I was experiencing. Perhaps I could still have a breakthrough at this late stage? I lasted a whole hour with only two changes in posture. My legs were in so much pain afterward that I couldn’t sleep, and felt extremely restless. Even more than normal!

On Day 10, everything changed. We still had to meditate, but we could talk to each other. Even the women, provided it was in the designated area. I’m getting over my historical tendency to try and get people to like me by avoiding offending them. When other people asked how I’d been going, I’d generally reply with “That was bullshit!. I’ve been in agony the whole time!”, which was only a very slight exaggeration. After all, there were times when I was asleep that I wasn’t uncomfortable, and meal breaks were OK. Most people found my experience amusing. Let’s face it, there’s something about another person’s pain that triggers our humor mechanism. It’s a stress relief, and I needed some stress relief. A few confided that they’d had a similar experience as me, after initially saying it was “OK” to avoid offending anyone.

The next day, by 6am it was all over. We’d been given a taste of the technique, and taken the first step on what was supposed to be a life-long path. Two hours of Vipassana a day, and at least one follow-up retreat a year, and we could become enlightened after a lifetime of working on it. My god, I don’t think so!

All the was left to do was to clean the place up, and get the train home. I debriefed with some other fellow sufferers meditators, most of whom could relate to some degree. One girl I met while sweeping out the meditation hall asked “Why didn’t you leave, if it was so bad?” Well, I wanted to see if it would get better! Turned out her experience was very similar to mine. “My legs were aching!”, she said, “But of course they were aching… I was sitting cross-legged for hours on end! And the tingling sensations people were talking about? Well of course you get tingling sensations when you cut off the blood supply by sitting still in the same position for so long!”. She was a thinker. A kindred spirit. I was glad I’d seen it through right to the end, so that I could meet people like her and debrief properly. If I’d left part-way through, I would have returned home feeling a failure thinking the problem was just me. The problem wasn’t just me… others were struggling to.

I probably wouldn’t have gone to the meditation retreat if other friends hadn’t suggested it, and Ashok hadn’t recommended it in the recovery programme. At least I can say I tried it. But I also have an interest in meditation since I know it’s useful for reducing anxiety, which I’ve had bucket loads of during my life. So I was quite happy to give a retreat a try. For me it was mostly just torture though. My biggest breakthrough was simply to get to the end and have the pain finally go away. I caught the train and a bus back home, feeling relaxed and relieved that it was all over. I came home and played my guitars until my fingers hurt so much I couldn’t play any more. I didn’t bother going to acting practise that night; I took the rest of the day off to treat myself well and do things I enjoyed. I went up to the local pub to grab a steak for dinner, and hired a DVD to watch back home. I didn’t particularly want to speak to anyone, or talk about my experience. Frankly, it was quite traumatic. It did make me appreciate my life more, and how little physical suffering I routinely endure. Most of the joy that I’ve experienced since has been based on “I’m glad that’s over!”. No matter what happens to me this week, I know it won’t feel anywhere near as bad as 10 days of torture.

Now I don’t want to put you off or anything but… Oh what the heck, look, for me, it was just plain horrible. The best part is that it was over. I did meet some cool people who I’d like to keep in touch with, and I do feel more relaxed now that it’s done. I only had minimal chronic fatigue symptoms while I was on the retreat too; very little coughing, and only a few nights of bad insomnia. I seem more relaxed since returning home too.

Philisophically, I have less respect for Buddhism now after completing this retreat, even though it’s still my preferred religion after atheism. I just don’t buy the idea that the best way to deal with suffering is to become completely detached from both pleasant and unpleasant sensations. I think a rewarding life incorporates activities that are inherently pleasurable, like socializing with people we like, having meaningful relationships, and doing things we find rewarding like playing music, reading books, learning new skills, entertainment, and dare I say it even sex! All these things have an evolutionary basis; I don’t think they are mere distractions: they’re part of the path of a meaningful life. The “art of living” espoused by the Buddhists discounts all these as craving-creating activities that just lead to suffering when they aren’t available. Yes, relationships end, people die, I won’t be able to read one day when I lose my eyesight, and arthritis will eventually render my guitar silent. Not to mention the times of sexual frustration! But in the meantime, I’m living a rich life; not just temporarily fulfilling endless suffering-creating cravings. I’ll keep doing regular guided visualization meditations, because I seem to get a benefit from them. I’ll try more Vipassana occasionally too, like when I feel really anxious; but I know the adherents will say I need daily practice to develop the skill, or it won’t work. Frankly, I’d rather get in-the-zone by playing my guitar or keyboard. That’s more meditative for me because it’s inherently engaging for me. And it’s something I can share with other people.

My advice for anyone contemplating a meditation retreat is to spend a month sitting cross-legged for as long as you possibly can at home before going. Do it while watching TV, reading, or whatever. I really think this would have helped me. The sheer discomfort I experienced prevented me from gaining any real benefit other than the relief when it was all over. I would have been more comfortable if I was more prepared physically beforehand.

On the Monday after the retreat, I got my head shaved, as part of my commitment to The World’s Greatest Shave. I had a really interesting conversation with my hairdresser, who I met right around the time I quite full-time work about 6 years ago. He has utmost respect for my desire to experience new things, and not just stick at a job I didn’t enjoy any more. He thinks I’m living the dream; and to some extent I am. I said I’d like more direction in my life, but he reminded me how lucky I was to have the opportunity to do all the things I’m doing. Which is true. On the way to acting class I bumped into one of the guys from my old workplace: the one who appeared most cynical and depressed about being there when I left. When he told me about their upcoming meetings, I felt glad I’d made the break. I had a great career there which garnered me lots of respect and satisfaction for many years… but I have no desire to go back, even when I feel 100% healthy again. Nowadays I’m more interested in relating to people than machines. I want to write a best-seller or be a rock star, or teach something worthwhile. That afternoon I felt pretty good about things. My CFS symptoms aren’t too bad, and the pain I experienced at the retreat is over. I have an overdue book report to write and a stack of email to get through, but this week is looking pretty good. I hope yours is too!