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...


  1. Woooow, intense! This just awakes two things within me, one of them surely saying "hey, go for it" i thought about it for a while by now and yes, why not? the other one screaming "on't even think about it - you are not that far to make it" Gratulations my dear, nice to hear that you enjoy what you got out of it


    1. Thank you my lovely, it certainly was intense. As for doing it yourself, I would highly recommend it to anyone. In fact, I think that we should all have the experience at least once in our lives. But there is definitely something to be said for being 'ready' for vipassana - I did a lot of work, healing, detoxification and concentration in the lead up to this. I knew that no matter what, I was going to get through it. Let me know if you do decide to do it as I would love to know how you get on xx

  2. the way you write,and describe-fantastic.

    1. Thank you Raghu, I really appreciate your thoughts. Apologies for my delayed response, I was behind the 'Great Firewall of China' and unable to access my blog in South East Asia. Keep checking for more updates!

  3. thanks sophie for your honest and wonderful description. nice to know you're 'not mad!' i shall be gracing the vipassana gaff in herefordshire in september. your words are really encouraging.
    much love my beautiful goddess...xx

  4. Tania! Thank you so much for reading the blog and I'm glad it was an inspiration for you. I will be thinking of you in September when you undertake your own 'noble silence' in good ole Blighty! I hope that your Whistable yoga has taken off and I'm really looking forward to catching up with you again soon. Sending love and light xxx

  5. Here is something for you all wonderful people out there, to strengthen your Vipassana Practice. It is free and voluntary like every thing else related to the path. Try it out. It is Vipassana Radio. Its a wonderful medium that makes Dhamma your companion even after when you step out of the Centre.
    visit and you ll know yourselves what I mean. Very soon it will be available even on FM & satellite radios internationally.

  6. Hi,
    It was great to read your blog. I just had a small clarification. Somewhere in you blog you spoke about how Vipassana could help you in losing weight coz of bare minimum diet provided. Did you end up losing weight? This could actually act as a deterrent for me coz Ive been asked by the doctor to gain weight. In that case can I go for Vipassana?


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