During my last trip to India I lost count how many people I met that had either been on a vipassana 10 day course, or were about to go on one, suggesting I do the same. Well, quite frankly I had better things to do. They told me you don’t speak for 10 days and its hard work. This sounded a bit ridiculous to me, and I didn’t see the value, or how I’d cope, as I talk non-stop in the company of others. I do however spend a lot of time alone where I am super quiet. I’ve been back in England for almost 3 months and seem to be re-connecting with my body and soul more than ever; the journey began in India. When I am travelling I am overflowing with energy and full steam ahead, although I did manage to slow down in Rishikesh for a month. But since my return I have slowed down a lot, partly because my health had not been tip-top. Various encounters with people and conversations with friends led me to booking myself onto a vipassana retreat.
I googled ‘vipasanna UK’ and a couple of centres came up, with all places full for the summer. I got lucky as with less than two weeks notice I managed to get on a course as someone had dropped out; it was meant to be. I did not have any major expectations, but knew its meditation and I will hopefully come home feeling slightly different than the Harpreet that would go in. I’m not very good at sitting still so figured this could be an interesting challenge for me. This seemed different too as everyone talks about a 10-day course, and mine was 9 days at the centre, with 7 full days of silence. I told myself it might be easier.
It turned out to be an excellent life-changing thing for me. I’m glad I chose to do this on home soil and was able to. All I could see for miles was lush green-carpeted fields in the Welsh countryside, and the only sound distracting me during meditation or on my walks was the bleating of sheep. I didn’t miss Facebook or Whatsapp the entire time I was there. In fact it was a relief to get away. I surprised myself as I did not find the strict schedule as difficult as I had imagined. The bell to wake up rang daily at 3.30am for the first sitting of silence at 4am. This continued every other hour throughout the day until 9.30pm with bedtime at 10pm. There are various types of Vipasanna and I learned the Mahasi technique. All the techniques hail from Buddhism. Many of the things I learned were similar to what I have observed and appreciated in Sikhism, the religion I was brought up with.
This technique teaches you to note your thoughts, feeling and actions constantly. For example, when kneeling for an hour during meditation it is likely that pain will arise in ones’ legs. So this pain, this suffering must be noted. As time passes and you focus on the pain and the sensation, the mind eventually wonders to another thought, taking the pain, i.e the sensation away, so one does not need to change position or move an inch. In life to run away from emotions and negative feelings does not get rid of them. If we focus on them, accept them and allow them to be felt, eventually they flow out of us in a healthy way, they really do!
Of course I was going to enjoy the week, being reminding of the joy of simplicity, eating slowly and simply, walking and moving with ease, and being mindful with every action. The main intention is understanding at a deeper level the feelings and thoughts surrounding pleasure and pain, or suffering. The more pleasures we experience, the more variety of pleasure we seek. When the pleasures cease, we feel empty and think we are suffering. Its all about finding a healthy balance and not giving in to either end of the spectrum too wildly, and the meditation helps one to appreciate this and live a happier and healthier life.
For example, I love to travel. The more countries I see, the more I want to see. The less I travel the more uncomfortable and unhappy I feel. Someone living in a tribal village somewhere may never get on a plane in their entire lives, may never experience this pleasure, and as a result neither experience the suffering, and be perfectly happy. They may not even know such pleasures exist. In the developed world, the global north, we have variety in everything, because variety is the spice of life right? We have world cuisines, world fashion, different careers, people choose numerous different sexual partners etc. There are also a growing number of mental health issues that are closely linked with all of these things. No one on this planet is going to escape some form of suffering, whether its loss of a loved one, no food to eat, low self-esteem, disease, the end of a relationship, anxiety, being unemployed, having no money, destitution, etc. We all suffer.
When we get attached to people, things and experiences we inevitably end up experiencing negative feelings. Meditation allows the mind to be free and think beyond the crazy daily struggles and challenges some of us face. It helps one to go beyond the ego, the haves and have nots, the hims and hers, the jealousy and envy. Because in the end how much does it really matter how many Facebook likes you get, is this going to put food on the table and help you sleep better at night? Is it? None of us can predict the future, we could lose everything we have now, or win the lottery tomorrow. You are growing and evolving constantly and each challenge and blow to the ego or bank account could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you.
In 2008 I spent my first Christmas alone in China, and felt so alone. This is where my journey as a leader and a more free spirit began. My dad died at the end of 2006, and my long-term relationship of 10 years came to an end soon after. After this I didn’t have a decent full nights sleep for 8 years. My experiences since have made me acknowledge more clearly how the only thing that is determined in this life is that change will come. Nothing else is predictable or known to us apart from change. Money, friends, family, lovers and health will all come and go. The less attached we are to things the more satisfied and enriched we will feel, at least that’s what I think.
I can’t imagine not having time to myself. I’m so used to spending hours alone in my own thoughts and company I would be lost without it. Some of the happiest experiences in my life have truly occurred during the time I am alone, especially when I am travelling, reading, walking or writing…just being alone to appreciate the air and ground beneath my feet. I’m always going to love the company of others, but learning to love and understand your own space and mind only makes us better beings, and helps to create better relations with others. It makes us more productive and effective humans, friends, siblings, children, parents, (I’m assuming) and lovers.
If it was up to me we would all start learning to meditate at school, from childhood. Learn to slow down and enjoy all the special moments of your day. Sometimes we have to rush and multitask to get things done, but slow down when you can.
To really taste that cup of tea. To really listen to your child talking about their day at school. To really smell and feel the fresh clean sheets on your bed.
To feel your heart beat, when you deeply inhale and exhale.
Go on. Close your eyes and do it now.