Sunday, 20 May 2012

India: A Love Letter

View of the snowy peaks of the Himalayas
After the austerities of vipassana, I decided to stay in the beautiful mountainous town of upper Bhagsu in Dharamsala, to allow myself to gradually normalise again and to integrate and process the lessons of the silent meditation. Liz had a couple of days left before she had to depart for the UK, so we stayed in a serene and peaceful guest house, coincidentally complete with shrines to Shiva (my God) and Amma (her guru) overlooking the valley. We mostly talked, walked, shopped, kept up a daily practice of yoga and meditation, read and wrote. Breathing in the mountain air and looking out at the snowy capped peaks of the Himalayas, I felt pleased to be alive. 

Me and Liz enjoying epic muesli in chill out cafe, Bhagsu

Once I had simmered down and got over the hysteria of my initial release, I realised that I had, in fact, really, really changed. I didn't want to indulge in excesses any more. My mind – once a wild, untamed beast which would descend into fantasy at the drop of the hat - remained more measured and present. I found that I had more control over my thoughts. I had patience, compassion and tolerance in even the most trying of situations. I was highly attuned to the energies and vibrations of others. I wanted to live simply. I had attained a new-found consciousness. For this, I had vipassana to thank.

Me in my pink Shiva guest house
The appointed day for Liz's departure arrived and she left – it felt strange to wave her goodbye after all the experiences we had lived through together on the subcontinent. It felt even stranger that she was going back to London and yet I was not (for a long time - maybe, indeed, ever) going home. I checked into a new guest house - it was candy pink and had pictures of Shiva painted all over it. It was made for me. I was in the hands of new friends: Indians, Irish, English, Czech - a merry band of us would spend our days doing as we pleased then would all meet up after dinner in Om Star chill cafe, to cuddle around steaming cups of chai or ginger lemon honey drinks, wrapped in blankets as the black stark cold of the Himalayan night descended. There was often music (beautiful Sufi sounds) and sometimes marijuana. A peaceful vibe prevailed. 

Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the breeze
I passed my days with onward travel planning, administration, writing, blogging, reading and awaiting the arrival of a parcel from Delhi. I wandered in the hills, the primary colours of thousands of Tibetan prayer flags - each of them signifying the utterance of a mantra - fluttered overhead. Flashes of scarlet amongst the lush mountain landscape – the peace of Tibetan monks pervaded the air. I visited the residency of the Dalai Lama amidst the flames of a thousand butter lamps and watched the rhythmical ritual of women in traditional tibetan dress, their brown faces creased with age and wisdom, bowing and prostrating rhythmically onto a plank of polished wood. Vipassana had gifted to me a new-found appreciation of Buddhism. I hummed along to the "Om Mani Padem Hum" mantra as it resounded daily through the mountains.

The disenfranchised people of Tibet - still fighting the good fight in Dharamsala

Butter lamps aflame in the residency of the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala
Inside the temple - you had to go through the lion's
mouth to enter the 'cave'
But despite this, my devotion was still ardent to Lord Shiva. I found the most amazing temple on the road to Upper Bhagsu - it was like a crazy haunted house fairground ride - complete with a sculpted lion whose mouth you had to enter to get into the 'cave' of the inner sanctum. Worshippers have to crouch low to wander through the labyrinthine fibreglass wonderworld passing gods, deities, serpents and Shiva linga until you finally come to a teeny tiny cave where, each night, you could squish in with other Indian devotees and take evening puja. This became a nightly ritual for me - firstly to sit in front of the deities and meditate downstairs after paying respects to the giant Shiva linga and then cram into the tiny, airless space - dizzy with the smell of incence.
Inside the cave
The priest was fabulously scruffy and disorganised. He would rock up in stained clothes and trainers, complete the chants as quickly as his voice would carry them, occasionally being interrupted by the beeping of his mobile phone. In amongst this, there was one other Westerner who would attend. Busy in prayer and with my thoughts, I tried not to look at him. But I felt a certain energy between us - an attraction and a question. What was he doing there too? I enjoyed the tension, and other than a few passing comments as we placed our shoes back on after taking tikka and prasad and ringing the bell (to awaken the Gods), we didn't talk.  The mystery between us heightened the experience, plus I enjoyed the nightly ritual, which always culminated with sitting cross legged on the floor, clapping and singing along as schoolboys and girls trickled in, picked up instruments and banged along to the rousing devotional songs - the whiny melody of the village women and the jingling of the bells being carried across the night air.

Golden prayer wheels turning at the Dalai Lama Residency
On one particular day – I was walking down the mountain path into McLeod Gange (the nearest big town) to attend to some business when I literally bumped into none other than the gorgeous friend Sunshine I had met in Auroville. It's a long story that entails a broken nose and more hospital visiations (including to the Tibetan hospital which I was very impressed with) but she ended up staying with me in the pink house. And so it was that I shared a bed with her again, sleeping in her energy, manifesting great things, having positive thoughts, indulging in girly time, going shopping for clothes and fabrics for her burgeoning fashion business. Together we enjoyed the chill out scene of Bhagsu - having epic breakfasts in 'Munchies' healthy chill out cafe and even attending the odd party in the evening. I was definitely integrating myself back into normal life again with a vengeance!

Munchies Healthy Chill out cafe: best breakfasts in Bhagsu
We went to a reggae party and danced the night away. On full moon we went to another party at Rainbows bar - high up in Upper Bhagsu, perched precariously on the edge of the mountain. We were told that on this night the moon was the closest to the earth than it had been in thousands of year - and here we were the closet we had ever been to the moon, ourselves up in the Himalayas. It was a powerful and beautiful experience - bathed in milky white light we sipped 'Rumplechaiskins' (our own homemade concoction of chai spiced with a bit of rum) and danced and sang to Shiva. I was devastatingly happy. And guess who was there? The man from the temple. I saw his face through the flames of a fire dancer (the beautiful Petra  - a mate from the Bhagsu massive). We couldn't wait to speak to one another and found, when we did, that we had a wonderful connection. His name is Govinda and he was born in India, although raised in Itlay. In the temple, we shared the love of nightly puja. In life - we shared the same hopes and dreams. I felt beautiful energy emanating from me - my eyes and my heart - full of life and love and attracting and manifesting wonderful people and things.

The gang in Munchies
I had a reason to be happy. Some of you might remember the Rambunctious Englishman of my Udaipur... blog. Well, all the way back when we had enjoyed each other's company so much that we had made a little commitment to meet each other again. For four months we had corresponded, readers. Four months. A correspondence I had kept secret from you in case I cursed it, but I dared to hope – with baited breath - that this blue eyed boy might be the one I had been searching for. I had felt that Shiva had decreed it so, having met Tom (his real name) immediately after my prayer to the statue in Bangalore (in which I asked to meet my soul mate). I had also been told by an astrologer in January that I was about to meet the man of my dreams in India. In a guided meditation I met Tom himself (in spirit)  and he told me that he loved me.

With Annie, a lovely Irish lass I met in Bhagsu 
But, but, but, he also told me that he “wasn’t a grown up” and in those times since our wonderful weekend together in Januay, I had had ups and downs, experienced intense connections with others, re-evaluated myself, had doubts about him and his place on my new-found ‘sattvic’ path. But, dear readers - I had faith. I knew that I had found myself in India and hoped that I had found love. It was the most perfect story - meeting in Udaipur (the most romantic city in India) and being reuinted in the Himalayas 4 months later. But this, of course, is the classic example of me "writing the story before it has begun" as was foretold to me I would do, many months ago back in Goa . After a late night Facebook chat with Tom back in Amritsar I woke up the next day with a heavy heart. I intuitively knew that he wasn't for me. The clues were there. All my spiritual work had proven to me to have no expectations - but ever the romantic, I continued to believe. Embracing a newly skinny body, I beautified and prepared. I endured a 'third world waxing session'. I bought him gifts and stocked up on films I knew he would like. I invested in a whole new wardrobe and left my beloved India (and Sunshine and the joy of Dharamsala) a month early. I know it - I was foolish.

The train I spent 22hrs on before receiving the news..
Reader - I did not marry him. In fact, I didn't even meet up with him. On disembarkation at Gorakhpur, near the Indo Nepalese border, after a horrendous 22hr sleeper class non AC train journey in which 7 indian people were in my seat, I arrived to a cockroach infested hotel. I checked my messages only to be in receipt of a 'dump email' from Tom, who had decided to go it to Thailand (where we were headed together), alone. The dream was over.

My final few hours in India were pure survival. After a blazing row with the hotelier (it was recommended in Lonely Planet, by the way), I managed to acquire a new room where the cockroaches only adorned the floor and bathroom, not the pillows and sheets as in my previous room. Unable to bear the thought of insects crawling on me as I processed the shocking news, I took a sleeping pill.

Last sunset in India at a stop along the way...
I woke up the next day and realised I had to get out of there. Already reconciled to the fact that I didn't want to journey back into the nearly unbearable Indian summer for the few weeks left on my visa, I decided to continue to Nepal. From there I would make a plan. Unfortunately (and very unusually for me in my otherwise untainted time in India) I was ludicriously ripped off by a cowboy of a travel agent who - telling me that Nepal was 'closed' and that there was no way to get thereby bus for 2 x days - charged me $170 (a ridiculous sum by Western standards - never mind Indian) plus an additional 2,000 rupees to be flown to Kathmandu. It actually transpired that this money did not get me to the airport, in fact it barely got me to the border. On arrival at the frontier I was turfed out of the taxi due to political strikes in Nepal blocking the road. Heartbroken but determined, I crossed the border on foot. Goodbye Mother India - I wish it didn't have to be this way.

My anguish at the journey, the hotel, the dumping
What greeted my arrival in Nepal was the realisation that I had been overcharged by $70 for the air ticket by the travel agent. The money I had paid for a taxi was wasted. All of the roads in Nepal were closed due to a political strike or 'bandh' and I was forced to have carriage to the airport on the back of a cart. It was the blazing heat of day - I had no guide book, no map and mobile phone. The most vulnerable I had ever been - I was headed into unknown country with a peasant who couldn't speak English, going through what I can only describe as third world villages on one pot holed road. And out here the villagers were angry. We passed many soldiers - roadblocks and people following us menacingly with guns and sticks. (At the time I did not know it but the driver of the cart was taking a huge risk in conveying me to the airport during a country-wide ban on transportation). I knew that if I let fear take hold of me I would collapse - so I chanted and prayed and trusted and finally I arrived at the 'airport'. My onward flight was cancelled and I spent the night in a Nepali village - no power, sharing a bed with a young 19 yr old I had met at the airport. Planes, Trains and Automobiles eat your heart out. Finally - after 5 days of journeying. I arrived in Kathmandu.

First sights of Nepal - impoverished villages
But I will not let this last image of heartbreak embellish the profound and life changing experience of the previous months. Ah India, India, India...where do I even begin? There comes a time that the things that no longer serve you fall away. In the past 5 months I have given up cigarettes, alcohol (to all intents and purposes) and casual encounters. And what about the space those things have left behind? Well, I’ve filled them with bhakti (devotion), sanga (community), puja (prayer) and prem (love). My life has improved immeasurably. It is wonderful.

Mother India - you have had an irreversible effect on me. I have made such progress here! You have given me faith - in Lord Shiva, in the universe, in the divine and in myself. In you I have learnt trust. Under your nurturing, beautiful wings, love and compassion have blossomed within me. I now possess equanimity. Though my heart and my body have been shaken and rattled - you shined a beacon of light - a Pharos in every tempest. Thanks to all you have taught me I now know infinite gratitude in every waking moment. I have no reason to complain ever again - all my so called 'first world problems' are just that - meaningless. Thanks to you I discovered the joy in devotion and, in so doing, meaning has been restored to my life. I understand (truly, have experienced) the law of attraction. I am an extension of everyone and we are all children of God. You took my hand and showed me the truth of impermanence. Nothing will ever stay the same and therefore everything is bearable. You showed me my spiritual powers, opened my eyes (all three of them) and welcomed me with your many, open blue arms onto a powerful path direct to the gods. Not only this - you took me 'inside', where I met the real Sophie once more - and found that she was beautiful. The soft side as well as the party animal. The healer. The orator. The storyteller. Now, my alter ego lies dead on the road and I can love myself once more.

You gave me Saraswati who, lovingly from her lotus flower plucked the strings of her veena and the creativity flowed up my spine and flowered in my brain. You showed me a different life - one suffused with faith and music and friendship and books. And you taught me that I should return to my first love...that of the written word.

From drunken media girl...

to blissed out hippy chick

Thank you, India. Thank you, for all that you have gifted to me. How will I ever repay you?

Friday, 18 May 2012

Signs of India: Photo Blog

As all travellers to this wonderful country come to know and love, India is home to so many idiosyncrasies. One of my favourite things is the Indian tendency to be very creative in its use of the English language, particularly when it comes to signage. Although I was unable to capture all of them (one of my favourite road signs being: "Dear, I like you, but not your speed"), I select for you below a few of the best which just speak for themselves:

The best was an Englishman's response to this in Jaisalmer - he simply said "I don't have the money...!"

Apparently there is 'no parkig' in Kanyakumari
I wish that this were actually true...
I love this sign, from a tiny hole in the wall in Udaipur which basically only sold chocolate and cigarettes
The crossed out 's' is just the icing on the cake...
I mean, who was thinking of parking on a box of eggs anyway? 
The motto of the Keralan police! That's bound to put the fear of God into would-be crims! 
If you listen very quietly you can hear them rapping...
Loving the handiwork..
STD in India actually means 'phone credit' - so you see these signs everywhere. We never tired of saying "I'm just off to get some STD"
I'm not sure that fitting multiple wives under one bed cover would be a problem for most Western tourists....

Monday, 14 May 2012

Children of India: Photo Blog

Nearly always the second question I get asked in India (after the requisite "are you married"?) is - "do you have children"? Children are absolutely revered and adored here - in particular, I have noticed, by fathers who take a proactive role in the raising of children and are often seen playing fondly with their kids and holding them in their arms. I was enchanted by many gorgeous little ones on my trip. Here is a selection of the best:
'Little Red Riding Hood' - gorgeous little one in Vattakanal
An inquisitive boy peers over his father's shoulder as he queues for the temple in Madurai
"Pretty in Pink": little girl on temple bus outside Madurai
Tibetan children playing in the residency of the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala
"Three Sisters": in Rishikesh
Schoolgirls in Kerala
This little Princess purses her lips in a small village outside of Hampi
Proud shopkeeper - I like how the pink in his T-shirt matches his hibiscus wares
Gorgeous little girl in the Isha Layam school, Kerala

These two cheeky lads wouldn't stop following us in Kanyakumari

I love the look on this inquisitive little monkey's face, peering from Isha Layam classroom window, Kerala

Giving this bonny babe a snog in Pondicherry

Here she is again - the most beautiful little girl in India at Isha Layam, Kerala

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Surviving Vipassana

The vipassana centre in Dharamkot, Dharamsala
All the way back in February whilst scaling a mountain in Kodaikanal I made a quiet little decision to myself that I would complete a ten day silent meditation or vipassana in Dharamsala, north India - home of the Tibetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama. I had met a series of people early on who had gone through with it and had varying but powerful experiences. Having found myself turning into a kind of 'spiritual junkie' I was keen to add this to the portfolio. And so, after one particularly heavy night in Mumbai when I was feeling the need to "get back on the path", I sent in my application. It was a rather lengthy process with probing questions about the state of my present and past mental health and inquiring into any other spiritual or healing practices I undertake. It wasn't until late March when I was living in Auroville that I finally received an approval of my application. The email weighed heavily on me. This was it. I approached the prospect of vipassana with a mixture of curiosity and terror.

The Himalayan setting of the Vipassana centre
Although I had met a handful of wonderful people who were sound of mind and had survived vipassana, I couldn't help but have trepidations about it. When I asked for advice from friends on Facebook their feedback ranged from "don't do it", to "I know someone who lost it quite badly" and "I also know someone who ended up in an asylum". For someone who has battled with depression, anxiety and the occasional minor breakdown, I was fearful as to how I would fare. I was haunted with visions of going mad. I knew that it would be one of the biggest challenges I would ever face. I decided to put the vipassana on the backburner and decide at a later date if I could go through with it. Time flew by. As the date fast approached, I began to talk myself out of it. I had done so much growing already, what could vipassana possibly bring to me? I was enjoying following a completely spontaneous path - why ruin it with another scheduled activity? I wasn't in great shape sporting a sprained wrist, a tummy parasite and moped injuries - surely I needed to be physically strong in order to face it? Yes it was the right thing to do vipassana, but was it the right time to do it? I had every excuse in the book down. But one day, in Rishikesh, I woke up and knew that I was ready.

The serene Golden Temple in Amritsar
Prior to my trip to India, I was a shambolic, self confessed 'media whore' - the life and soul of the party, drinking and indulging several times a week. In the past 5 months I had undertaken a panchakarma detoxification, given up smoking and (to all intents and purposes) drinking. I had been completely vegetarian. I felt pure and ready (or as ready as I would ever be) to take on the challenge. I began to look at vipassana as a natural conclusion to the spiritual growth of the previous months - a good way to round it all off and complete my adventures with Liz, my travel companion earlier on in India who had also signed up. I met a wonderful lady in a shop in Rishikesh who had recently finished vipassana and reassured me that it was a beautiful thing to do. And so, ignoring the scare-mongering on Facebook, I undertook a 2 day journey via the incredible Golden Temple in Amritsar where I had ample opportunity to be alone and contemplate what lay ahead. A surge of emotion and elation took hold of me as I took in the first sight of the snowy peaks of the Himalayas through the windows of the local bus as - exhausted, alone and still riddled with the shits, I arrived in Dharamsala, 2 days later.

The ten virtues of vipassana
And then - as it seems to do most afternoons in the Himalayas - the heavens opened. Eschewing the rip-off taxi option, I went local-style, squeezed into a share jeep to take me the final few kilometres up to where I would be staying. Among my fellow co-passengers there happened to be some ex Sadahana Forest volunteers (we get around) and a VERY good looking Indian man, who (can you believe this) knew my tabla player from Goa (yes ladies and gents, I succumbed to the charms of an Indian very early on in my trip). Offers of marijuana, alcohol, partying and said attractive man's phone number followed. I felt that I was being tested and although very tempted to take up their offers and bunk in with them at their party guest house I resisted, stayed firm and continued on my path. A ridiculous rickshaw ride ensued, winding up the helter-skelter paths of the Himalayas - traffic jams n all - I dared not look out of the sides as we slipped and slopped around tiny corridors of the flooded mountainous pass. I was dumped out in the rain and spent a good 10 minutes getting soaked in the storm before finally finding the little woodland guest house that Liz had secured for us. A hot shower, ginger lemon honey drinks and dinner followed. Both Liz and I were happy to see each other again but tangibly scared of vipassana. We skirted around the subject - only occasionally coming out with the breathless confession that we were both equally (pardon the proverbial French) "shitting ourselves".

Liz and I - about to face our fears
The morning dawned. I woke up from an ethereal dream, cuddled in blankets in the little stone cottage room I had shared with Liz to birdsong and the fresh Himalayan air. But the strangest thing happened - as I awoke I was overwhelmed with sadness and melancholic grief. I instinctively reached up to touch my throat as the reality of total silence hit me for the first time. I had been so busy worrying about the mental health and the meditation aspect of vipassana that I had hardly considered that I wouldn't be able to speak at all for 10 days. I was stunned by the prospect of being unable to express myself. There was just time to grab breakfast with a huge crowd of Liz's friends who had gathered to wish us well.In amongst this I took a quiet moment to write a list of words to myself, pre vipassana. Although I wouldn't be able to take the journal in with me I knew that I could memorise these words and hold them close to me when times got tough:
  • This is a unique opportunity to be truly with myself 
  • It is a chance for peace and quiet in amongst the Indian madness 
  • I am in a beautiful, spiritual place - what better location to do it in? 
  • I am safe, nourished, provided for and surrounded by other wonderful souls 
  • This is a natural conclusion to my sadhna (spiritual journey) in India 
  • Many others before me have survived this 
  • Remember the words of Gandhi: "We have to live simply, in order for others to simply live" 
  • It takes courage to pause 
  • The universe will provide for and protect me 
  • Life just gets better 
  • And, on a more shallow note...after this I will treat myself to pampering and hopefully I will have weight loss to look forward to!

One of the centre's motivational signs
Another piece of last minute advice was imparted from my friend Jaskirat, who phoned me from Delhi. He said "as we walk in the jungle, we will see many things. Just don't eat the poison plants!" Shored up with this and the good wishes of others, Liz and I ascended the stone steps of the vipassana centre which was to become our home for the next 12 days with heavy, thumping hearts (one thing I have learned: anxiety and uphill walking do not go well together...)
View of the dining hall in vipassana centre

How to even begin to explain vipassana? I guess I should start with the practicalities. At the beginning we were presented with the very exacting 'code of discipline': students must stay for the entire duration of the course, complete segregation of the sexes is observed throughout. No physical contact, no looking at one another or communicating through gestures (which translates mostly to walking around looking at the floor). No contact with the outside world for the duration - we were to remain within the centre boundaries which must have only been about 500m in length if that, not great for a self-professed claustrophobic. 

Banned items
No sensual bodily decoration - only simple, modest and conserative clothing. No intoxicants at all (including medication and supplements) should be used. Observation of noble silence had to be maintained throughout - we were only allowed a one hour slot in which we could make a brief appointment to talk with our teacher if we had any questions concerning the technique and were strictly forbidden from using this time to 'indulge' in any intellectual or philosophical debate. No musical recorders, radios or cameras allowed. Basically - no nothing. Everything I had ever known was stripped away from me. It occured to me that I couldn't remember the last time I had gone 10 days without using the internet. I had probably never gone 10 days without reading or writing anything in my entire life. Appropriately, the lack of stimulus scared me senseless!
Behind bars! 

On arrival into the barred cage of the 'female side' of the vipassana centre we were presented with some simple linen, a laundry bag, a room number, a meditation mat number and the only piece of paper we would be allowed - the Code of Discipline, outlining all of the above rules. I accurately predicted that I would read this piece of paper about a thousand times over the coming days - the thought of breaking my lifetime habit of reading before bed scared the wits out of me.

The stone tin-roofed dorm block
The requisite paperwork was completed where we had to pledge to adhere to all of these rules, most especially the rule of not leaving. Vipassana is strictly a ten day course and we were given repeated warnings that to stay any less time would be harmful to ourself and to others. We then had to hand in all of the 'banned items' on the list to the surly manager: camera, phone, laptop, all books, journals, writing implements, paper, incense, prayer beads, Shiva statues. I looked around my tiny, cold stone cell and thought "this is it, kid - just you and me". I collected 12 x stones from the woods and laid them out on the table next to my iron-hard bed: (ten days total but 2 x days either side in the vipassana centre). Each morning I would place one of the stone's on the bottom shelf, counting down the days in a fashion reminiscent of The Shawshank Redemption.

The daily schedule: 11hrs meditation!!
What followed was essentially twelve days of monastic life: wake up at 04.30 for meditation till 06.30. Simple breakfast of gruel / sprouting seeds then meditation till 11.00am in cold room. Lunch (lentils and rice) then meditation till 5.00pm - cup of tea and some crispbread. Meditate till 7pm - till 1 hr of discourse. More meditation till 9pm then retire to stone cold room. No talking, no looking at anyone, no writing or reading material - no nothing, just meditation, meditation, meditation. 11 hours of meditation per day. And to think that, back in the early ashram days I found it difficult to meditate for an hour at the time! At 17 hours in duration, the days were incredibly long. Stripped of all my usual diversions, I made small activities such as taking a shower, sorting through laundry, repacking my backpack stretch throughout the little free time that we had. The alternative - to lie there with my own thoughts - was often unbearable, given that I was with them already for 11hours per day. The first two days I remained in a dream-like state - finding it impossible not to slip into crazy, lucid half wakefulness or just plain unconsciousness. The physical adjustment to the schedule was hard - after my travel and sickness to boot. Day three I got heavily into the meditation and was ardent in all my endeavours. I thought that I was over the hill. But things would only get harder...

The forest setting 
It is incredibly difficult to summarise vipassana, but I will sketch here some of the emotions that I encountered: terror, ardour, inertia, desire, calm, happiness, anger, boredom, rebellion, lethargy, desperation. The whole thing to be seemed to be an exercise in memory. Just as in the ashram, entire scenes from my life - hitherto forgotten or long since committed to the haze of time - resurfaced and played in front of my eyes. Some of these memories were painful and horrific, rendering me so angry that on one occasion I practically ran out of the meditation hall, fists clenched, gasping for air. Others were rather more difficult to swallow. I wrestled with my physical desires.. Cheese, bacon and pizza seemed to be recurring fantasies..Some meditation sessions I found impossible to concentrate, at times I rebelled and actively indulged my thoughts. In others - I achieved bliss. For 3 x sittings per day we had to use 'adhittana' or 'strong determination' and in these sittings we were unable to move any part of our body for the whole hour. Whilst this could be excruciating, it did help to concentrate the mind.

My little stone cell
There were times when, even though we weren't allowed to communicate - you could tell that the others were finding it hard. Several people left a few days in and did not complete the course. Often there were people crying or there were occasional bursts of hysterical laughter. On day 3, when we learned the vipassana technique proper (the first few days were merely preparation) I came out of the gruelling afternoon 4 hour meditation session, bursting with anger and tears of frustration. I felt that I might explode. Instead, I lay on the ground and looked up at the canopy of pine trees overhead. At that moment, an eagle swooped across the azure sky and I suddenly realised the viapssana maxim for the first time - annicha - impermanence. Nothing last forever and each new moment is a possibility for something wonderful to materialise. That was a realisation that made everything bearable. And then... a butterfly.. fluttered in my periphery... 

Although I am not sure if I'm allowed to divulge the particulars, the vipassana technique is, to my mind, incredibly difficult. It is an ancient method that was rediscovered in India around 2,500 years ago by the Buddha (see for more info) and was brought to India from Burma by S.N. Goenka and then taken to many other countries by him in the East and West. (The chubby little form of Goenka we would come to know and love over the following week, although perhaps not his incessant, tuneless chanting that was piped through the centre.) I had been warned in advance that it is a very 'male' discipline - a lot of inward gazing and scientific theory. 

This bit was difficult...
This  lies in opposition to the feminine, tantric practices that I am used to which are more sensuous and involve the direction of energy inwards and outwards. Reiki, a healing art that I have practiced with great passion for several years, is forbidden in vipassana (apparently it interferes with your ability to observe yourself). As is prayer. I noticed that other people ignored this rule and I have to say, I did utter a few words to Shiva myself. I really can't see how they can legislate against your own mind or thoughts in this way. However, although I found the technique was not really for me, I did enjoy the intellectual 'discourse' (nightly videos featuring commentaries from Goenka) very engaging and they made me question and re-evaulation a lot of the learnings I had picked up in india.  For brevity, I will not detail here the many revelations these discourses helped me to have, but am more than happy to discuss them further in person or on email. 

Monkey warnings
The grounds themselves were very beautiful, although probably only a few hundred metres in length. I would amuse myself by doing rounds and rounds of the small pathway like a madwoman. We lived amongst the monkeys, who were incredibly vicious and cheeky. We were warned to always walk with a 'monkey stick' and not to provoke them or stare in their eyes. Occasionally the monkeys would prowl in packs or swinging from tree to tree, crashing onto the tin roofs of our accommodation with tremendous noise.  With little else to focus on, they provided welcome diversion. Another excitement included the discovery of a scorpion in one of the girls' rooms (cue forbidden shriekings) and very large spiders suddenly swooping down on webs in the bathrooms.
Thank the Lord! 

Vipassana wasn't all doom and gloom. On the whole I realised that I have lived a fulsome, colourful and brilliant life. I treasured the many happy memories that emerged, along with the horrid. I thought often of the many people out there who I love and have enjoyed happy times with. I missed people. I was bored. As time went on, I found it harder and harder. I rebelled a little against the programme, doing an hour of yoga asanas in the afternoon, shortening the 4hr meditation to 3hrs. I questioned some of the technique. The last four days were a marathon - a test of sanity and of faith. But I needn't have worried. Day 10 finally dawned. 

We made it!
Upon 'release', my initial reaction was to talk, laugh, tell jokes at a million miles an hour, drink coffee, whoop into the Himalayan landscape, tell everyone I loved them, run around, drink coffee and eat chocolate. But when the hysteria finally bubbled down there was a new found sense of inner calm and equanimity. There was a quiet knowledge in me that I don’t need as much to live as I previously thought: not noise, not things, not as much food. Although I had found the process painful the thought that I would go mad, break down and be confined to the loony bin were unfounded.  All the spiritual and healing work I have undertaken in the last 5 months have definitely paid dividends. I faced my fears and realised that I am strong. I can make it.  I emerged from vipassana a changed woman.  I have a wonderful inner self, strength and sense of humour that really got me through. 

 Little did I know how much I was going to need it...

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