Travel broadens the mind they say and visiting exotic places can be as much an internal journey as an external exploration. Tamara Pitelen – and her mind – wandered off on a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in the United Arab Emirates.
So, you’ve got 10 days leave owing and a longing to sit doing nothing in some exotic, peaceful locale. Maybe you’ve been fantasising about escaping somewhere far away from the madding crowds where there’s not a computer or mobile phone in sight. What if I told you where you could get all this and on top of that promised you’d lose a few kilos in the process plus have all your vegetarian meals cooked for you? Oh, and one more thing… it’s all free. That’s right, no charge, not even for food and accommodation.
“Impossible!” you snort, “I’ve trotted the globe and no such holiday resort nirvana exists.”
My friend, you’d be wrong. Sort of. Such escapes from the rat race do exist. About 120 of them in fact, they are the Vipassana centres where 10-day residential meditation retreats are held. These centres are dotted all over the globe from India to Oceania, Asia, Europe, Africa, America and the Middle East.
I know this because I’ve just got back from one of them. The retreat I went to was held on a date farm in Ajman. Where is Ajman? Next door to Dubai and – along with that glitzy diva of a city – Ajman is one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates in the Arabian Gulf.
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation and it’s goal is to bring harmony and happiness to people’s lives. It was taught in India more than 2500 years ago, by people who include the Buddha, as a universal remedy for universal ills caused by negative emotions such as anger, greed, animosity and depression.
Yep, fine so far so what’s the catch? Well, you have to get up at 4am every morning to sit cross-legged on a cushion for about 12 hours a day, you’re not allowed to speak, read, write, mix with the opposite sex, or even do any exercise beyond short periods of walking on specially marked, segregated walking paths.
No, I’m not going to sugar-coat it. The ultimate goal may be purity of the mind, happiness, love and compassion and an end to suffering and for all beings but the 10-day retreats involve battling through some lengthy stretches of tough emotions including spitting rage, irritation, sadness, abject misery as well as moments of gouge-your-own-eyes-out boredom. Why put yourself through it? You do it for spiritual development and in the hope you will be happier after weeding out some of the decades-old (even past lifetimes old) negative thought patterns and miseries rooted in the deepest soil of your subconscious mind.
So I sat and I sat and I sat. I sat cross-legged on a cushion till my back throbbed with aches and pains and my legs got pins and needles – which didn’t take very long, I had to ask for a chair in the end.
Every morning for the 10 days, me and 23 other students – 13 men and 11 women – were woken at 4am by the banging of a gong. By 4.30am we had to be in the Dhamma hall for two hours of meditation and by the end of each day we’d spent about 10 hours meditating. Or trying to meditate.
It is also an awful lot of time to think because, try as you might to stay focused on your breath or physical sensations, your mind journeys in some bizarre directions. I found I couldn’t stop thinking about the British TV soap Coronation Street for the first three days and when that obsession died down it was replaced by an igniting of my libido. Sat for hours in a room of silent people, I was suddenly consumed with thoughts of sex and couldn’t press the stop button on the erotic fantasies and pornographic scenes playing out in my head.
I wonder though if this is the kind of mental trash that your brain vomits up as a smokescreen; an avoidance tactic to dodge inspection of the really deep painful stuff lodged in the depths of your subconscious? Or am I a pervert. You could argue either way. I also had imaginary arguments with people I knew, rehashed relationship failures ad nauseum and hauled long forgotten fragments of life from my memory vaults.
By the end of the 10 days though, something had shifted. I can’t put my finger on it but you feel better, lighter. And it wasn’t just me. When we all started talking again on the final day, everyone said the same. Yes, it had been tough at times and there had been tears shed, especially in the first three days but some baggage had been dropped along the way and it felt good to let it go.
A FEW FAQS
Q. What is the Vipassana meditation technique?
A. Vipassana is just one way to approach meditation and this technique involves simply observing your own breath as well as scanning the body for physical sensations and, when found, detachedly observing them in the knowledge that they are impermanent, they will rise and pass, rise and pass.
Impermanence is at the heart of Vipassana. The Pali word for this is ‘annicha’ – a word we heard over again via the recorded teachings of S. N. Goenka, the world’s principal leader of Vipassana meditation. Born in Burma, Goenka relocated to India in 1969 to teach Vipassana. Forty years later, he’s largely responsible for its worldwide revival.
Q. Where can you study Vipassana?
A. If seeking spiritual enlightenment is what you’d like to do on your next vacation, check out www.dhamma.org for a list of all centres and a worldwide courses schedule.
Q. Is it really free?
A. There are no charges for the courses – not even for food and accommodation. All expenses are met by donations from previous students who wanted others to do the course. So, you can make a donation if you want to and have the means but there is no pressure.
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