Last week I emerged from the womb of Goenka’s 10 day Vipassana Retreat, my second in seven years At that time, I had just left Israel where I had been living for three years, having walked away from a love story and a whole community of friends, I was back on the road in a familiar solo adventure. I remember vaguely making a promise to myself that i would return to the program every year… I remembered that it was challenging, I remembered how much I had wanted to leave on the fourth day, I remembered the compassion of the manager who had supported me in having my own room so that I could have the peace of privacy to stay on until the end, I remembered walking round and round on the walking trail, with exasperation and frustration, confronted by overwhelming sense of anger, that had no place to go but sit within me, my mind, my body. And I remembered eventually finding stillness, calmness, peace and a sense of completion within my heart which had given me a huge sense of my own BEINGness, beyond my identity, and the happenings of my life. I remember walking out of the centre, back to my room in Bagshu India, feeling happy. Simply happy. The course had spoken to me strongly.
Now, seven years later, I could barely remember what it was all about. Life had taken over, and my dreams, visions, desires and discomforts were running the show. I had applied to other centres twice within the last 7 years and both times had cancelled in place of another luring irresistible adventure. Third time ‘lucky’, now, I was not only available to participate, I was literally aching for the stillness… for the quiet. For 10 days to not have to think about My Next Moves. I was over ripe with a need to integrate the wild, nonstop twists and turns of my last adventurous 7 years. I wondered if 10 days would be enough.
After missing two buses, I finally arrived at Beit Deganya Vipassana centre, sitting between the Jordan River and the sea of Galilee, overlooking the expansive mountainous region of the Golan Heights. Sitting in the meditation hall again seven years later I felt like I was in the right place. Hearing Goenka’s voice chanting the songs of Gautama Buddha, a sense of peace and nostalgia for my India days came flooding back to me. A lot of time had passed in between and I was definitely not the same person I was seven years ago. It was time to shave it all back to its origins again, and remember why I had returned.
There is nothing quite like the voice of the late Goenka Gi, a Burmese-Indian visionary business man and one of the great teachers of Vipassana Meditation who lead thousands of people over the years of his life. His recordings are used in 170 centres around the world. Vipassana means to ‘see things as they are’ and is a process of observing our automatic responses to all our sensations by perceiving them rather than reacting to them. Continuing the original ancient 2500 year old teachings of Gautama Buddha, Vipassana (which means to see things as they are) is a non-sectarian process discovered to liberate human beings from suffering. Regardless of religion or creed, this practice is a way to self transformation through self-observation. The process consists of three aspects; Sila - morality (a seemingly simple yet highly contentious concept), Samadhi - strength of mind (exploring the hidden powers that we humans have that differentiate us from other animals); and Pania - practise of Vipassana meditation (self observation, annapanna breathing and the experience of the body as a mass of evanescent molecules).
This meditation technique is a process of scanning the physical body continuously from head to toes and toes to head and so forth, tapping into all the sensations starting from those upon the skin, under the skin and throughout the entire body. By this process of becoming aware of ‘sensations’ one can experience the molecular phenomena that everything is always changing and therefore impermanent. That becoming attached to any sensation, good or bad, doesn’t make sense and is short sighted. This is known as the law of impermanence and is the foundation of this path towards ‘enlightenment’. The logic is that misery is derived from becoming attached. Attached both to what you like and what you don’t like. It is the nature of attachment itself that binds us to misery. That craving for what we want and averting from what we don’t want is the recipe for human suffering. The process of Vipassana along side the ten parmis’ (generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, effort, tolerance, truth, strong determination, selfless love, and last but most importantly equanimity) promises to lead people out of misery, into enlightenment, slowly but surely. ‘Enlightenment’ as a final goal, is the attainment of nirvana, the dissolution of desire, and the end of a soul’s incarnation as a human on earth. Sounds dramatic, but according to Gautama Buddha, Goenka Gi and the buddhist philosophy generally, that’s the point of this whole ‘game’ called life. To reach the final destination and not incarnate anymore.
Goenka is a charismatic storyteller and a wordsmith, as well as a business man and a passionate devotee.. and the style of his teachings are tinted with incontrovertible truth. As I sat there throughout the course 7 years ago, I remembered that by the 6th day, his presentations of the process had become insistently ‘non-dogmatic’. Again, on the 6th day, I felt my intellectual mind awaken to the slight over simplification and potential hypocrisy that his discourses reveal. Goenka repeats the significance of Vipassana being a non-sectarian many times and therefore not a doctrine or a belief. This is true. Ironically, however, as he repeats the need to have perfect Sila (morality), Samahdi (mind control) and Pania (practice) in order to ‘succeed’ - it does tend to sound a bit dogmatic after all. Indeed, It makes perfect sense, in a perfect world, to maintain one’s sense of morality by acting only in ways that do not harm others. But nearly everything, from driving petrol guzzling cars, to wearing sweat shop branded clothing, to living in a country that needs to fight to defend itself in order to exist peacefully - is somewhat harmful and layered with . In Goenka’s course, Sila, Morality, is presented two dimensionally without availability of discussion; to act in a way that serves to support, protect and help, and not act in any way that can harm another creature. Sitting in Israel, listening to these discourses, there was something surreal and perhaps unreal about this simplification. Clearly, here on planet earth, one single act can be both harmful and helpful at the same time and its struck me as over simplistic and unrealistic to put our actions into boxes such as that. I tried to understand what it was the separated his argument from reality today, and realised that our micro existence which is that which relates to our personal lives and the macro existence which is that which relates to humanity and planet earth at large, are two very difference things and yet necessarily interrelated. Perhaps the question of how we integrate our micro spheres with the macro sphere in a moral way, is more relevant today than it was in the time of Buddha 2500 years ago, but surely morality has never been a simple concept in a world full of complexity?
Back to the micro sphere of this intense 10 day course, our days are action packed with 12 hours of silent Vipassana meditation. That’s 12 hours of silent stillness for 10 days! Despite the amount of people who say “wow sounds very relaxing and wonderful”, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that sitting still for so long, day after day after day, is extremely hard and very painful. One of the ideas of allowing oneself to experience and explore pain is to be able to sense the sensations of the pain without attaching to the experience. After we come out of stillness back in physical movement, the feelings in the body change also. Pain comes and goes, as does pleasure. The idea is to feel the sensations move through the body, to feel the molecular significance of our physical realities, to pierce through the seemingly solid forms so as to recognise the potential of change and the peace that comes from being beyond natural human attachment. Again, this is an act or ‘retraining’ ourselves, that goes beyond our innate human patterns. Philosophically one could discuss whether our progress comes through accepting our nature or reprogramming it altogether and likely this is as complex a discuss as the integration of daily micro spheres with the situation of our macro world. Generally speaking, parallel to the concept of equanimity, I think we need to find the balance within everything and acceptance of our humanity, full of pleasure AND misery, is an important part of our experience here on earth.
So….Obviously, I had a lot of time to think! To ask myself whether this Enlightenment thing was my goal - or any goal to be taken too seriously at all. (and whether we humans even have enough time to reincarnate as many times as needed for enlightenment before the earth swallows us up?). From a simple perspective, to be free of suffering sounds wonderful, but to give up my passions in life, to give up that delicious craving for chocolate and sushi, to give up ENJOYING anything and everything in the name of being free of suffering..? Im not so sure I’m really ready for such a bargain. However, I love and appreciate the idea of remaining equanimous, middle grounded, realistic. I know people who are naturally like that… and admire their cool and calm. Myself, I have been more on the extreme side of emotions, happy is very happy, sad is very sad… and it can be exhausting for sure. I resonate deeply with the truth that nothing is forever and everything is constantly changing, so why get so excited…? why get so down? The moment is alive and thats all that matters. Hypothetically. But the Aliveness inside sadness and grief, and the Aliveness inside passion and enthusiasm is also very real.. and very beautiful. Can we appreciate the beauty of humanity as an observer and remain equanimous in the face of disaster and celebration? To really delve into the possibility of enlightenment from this perspective is to beg the question: How attached are we to this life on earth? Are we here to continually be reborn into an inherently selfish domain of personal experience or are we here to realise ourselves as part of a wholeness, beyond the personal, beyond the ego, and renounce our attachments for the sake of liberation?
There are many rules in a Vipassana centre and as one might imagine, the road to enlightenment follows a strict regime including the exclusive practice of Vipassana meditation, no yoga, no food after 12pm, no sexual activity, no talking, no writing, no reading, no eye contact with other participants, no distracting others (which included not sitting in trees apparently), no moving during the three one hour group meditations… and many others. And yet, for anyone who has read Siddharta, you will already know that Gautama was an explorer of consciousness and needed to walk his own path, learning from the people and ways around him, and formulating his own discoveries through experience. Yes there is huge value to learning from those who have walked this Earth before us, but ultimately, as Goenka would often say, life is not an intellectual game of learning the theoretics - its a real LIVING experience whereby one must learn from their own practice.
As an explorer, I have spent the greater part of my life venturing into unknown territory wrestling with the meaning of life. I have ventured deep into the Amazon to sit in shamanic medicine circles and travel dimensions, I have sat with many a Sadhu in India to learn the existential ways of BEING without ambition, I have felt the flurry of sacred prayer in the holy city of Jerusalem and I have gone walkabout with Indigenous Australians to grow the ears needed to hear the whisperings of the ancient land down under. I have rolled in hedonism and dabbled in asceticism and I have met the kinds of people that one cannot imagine exists! From all walks of life, all manners of perceiving. And I have observed that there are many ways to live, many ways to understand.
In accordance with his spirit and many other revolutionaries, even when it comes to Vipassana, I too, find my own way. I am the first to admit that I have never been much for following rules for rules sake. The system I was born into continually imposed rules, discouraging any trace or inkling of initiative or creative exploration to develop, and left me vehemently opposed to being told what to do. These days I am able to cooperate with rules because I understand that they exist for the sake of order and harm management. I realise now that most societal rules reflect the need to manage from the bottom up, pertaining to the lowest common denominator.. but most importantly I honour the need for initiative, self regulation and respect the freedom of choice within the spectrum of not harming another. Thought I will never follow rules blindly, I will always enquire into their origins and necessities and I will feel into the truth of my own intuition and body to know what it good for me in any particular moment. Health has been at the forefront of my life for some time now, so looking after myself in this process was important. During the first 6 days of the course I was in chronic pain, with my deep psoas muscles tightening by the minute and my lower back feeling like it wouldn’t carry me further. Pain all day, pain all night. I felt that my body required love and care - so I did some yogaic stretches on my mat in my room, I helped myself to fruit after 12pm with the new students. I did not feel bad, I felt whole.
With so much time to BE, I would sit and watch the beetles, little red beetles with lovely black designs on their back wings. There were thousands of them, climbing on dry grass, crawling over cracked earth. One could see many joined together from their butts, one pulling in one direction and the other pulling in another… one always more dominant (assumedly the male) dragging the other around as it inseminated her. At times little ones matched with big ones, no rhythm or reason for how they paired. I thought “arent they lovely, and what a lovely simple life they have..”. Then I noticed many of them in huddles and wondered what these little meetings were all about… upon leaning further in, I saw the other side to ‘lovely’, nature in action, as they feasted upon a dead one of their own. The ‘Sila’ of a bugs life in question…? As I pondered the expansiveness of nature I saw a couple of these red beetles running and tumbling over each other, and upon closer inspection noticed that they were flighting for little pieces of grain, the kind of grain that was in abundance all around them. These two were scrambling on top of each other to take it from the other, at some point one would take it and run, then the other would grab it. Whether they were playing, or fighting, the reality of a somewhat active and reasonably complex consciousness existed - and these guys would have no problem with eating each other at the end of it all. And though it may seem inconsistent to compare bugs with humans, I have studied many a strange reality within humanity to know that morality can be a double edged sword.
The different kinds of pain that I experienced:
Sitting in the meditation hall, I wasn’t sure what was more agonising: the pain I was feeling in the body or the pain of the cringe that came with listening to the squelching mouth noises of my neighbours. I find it hard to actually find the words to describe these sounds in words, but I know that you all know what I am talking about. If you don’t, simply open and close your mouth without words, and you will decipher the subtle squelch that I am referring to. I am not bothered by the sneezes nor the coughs and not even the gurgles of hungry stomachs - but when mouth sounds reverberate in my ears, I really have to work hard to stay focused. It got so bad that I found myself actually disliking people I don’t even know, just because they kept gurgling spit in my ear! My neighbour, a woman who would take her mouth plate out and put it on the Vipassana pillow every session was my nemesis. I was so grossed out that it actually took the focus off the pain in my body.
Hour after hour, breathing through discomfort, scanning the body, allowing my body to melt into a vibrating molecular lump of atoms, thoughts racing by, deep in meditation only to find my mind wrapping olives in pastrami and pinning them with toothpicks, back in the room, sudden bouts of peace and silence, return to the amplified mouth gurgling sounds that distracted me from the growing numbness in my legs as I clenched by butt so to protect my lower back from snapping. Hour after hour after hour. Day after day. After the first 6 days of physical torture I asked for a chair to sit on, and discovered that the only place I could sustain a relatively comfortable unmoving mediation was literally perched upon the edge of my seat. Sitting on the edge of my seat. Not one bit surprising considering that the place I feel calmest is sitting on the edge of a cliff. I am already friends with Suspense. At times I feel forever suspended in the unknown… And the metaphors that reveal themselves bring the meaning into the forefront and reveal that which is not easily understood. So there I perched, and as the pain subsided into a simple sensation, uncertainty remained the only reliable truth. Success. Momentary, yet momentous.
Nature’s Perfect Ending
The days were hot. We went from one air conditioned space to the steamy outdoors, over and over and over again. On the 8th day the blue sky finally filled with puffy white clouds and offered an opportunity to for creativity. As I lay there on the grass, letting my eyes see visions in the sky, I was filled with appreciation for the constant state of change that we are all a part of here on Earth - seeing the clouds move, warp, distort, form, evaporate and disappear. Everything always in a state of flux, nothing to hold on to, visions coming and going. Anicce, anicce, anicce. A dragon fly came to play, darting back and forth, circling me then sitting still. So fast, so still. Realising that symbolically I was playing with illusion I reflected on how alive I felt in the magic of what is evanescent.
On the 9th day the rains finally came, and along with natures blessings were shrieks of joy, tears, dance.. Washing the earth, washing the mind, for the seeds of stillness that had been planted were thirsty and our souls were hungry to connect. By the evening, walking back to the hall, two low flying fighter jets zoomed above. We stopped and stared into the sky, for what we didnt know of the outside worlds happenings. We had been in a blissfully disconnected bubble, in the middle of a land fraught with troubles. The ‘real world’ out there roared with possibilities, and we were only a day from our great reunion. Our hearts where already in sync and we could taste the anticipation of our release. Forty beautiful women, connected and filled with compassion. Life’s insanity, juxtaposed with truth love and power.
Reflection with the Mountains
Blessed with a room to myself that faced the mountains and had two windows instead of one, I gazed outside. The background full of rolling mountainous hills, the foreground a mass of shrubbery and small trees. My eyes caught upon a small tree, still growing, not yet strong enough to hold itself up. It was supported by two sticks on either side, tied in the middle loosely to each. Technically it was being pulled in two directions so to grow straight and strong, and I couldnt help but see the reflection of myself in its essence, pulled in two directions, Australia and Israel. Perhaps, perhaps, this tension of having roots in two lands is something that makes me stronger, something that helps me to grow straight and strong. I liked the idea. Somewhere between the land of Oz and the Land of Is…. is a path to humility that embraces the unknown and welcomes diversity. There is so much space in between these worlds that the yellow brick road is often hidden by the hills and dips of life - but at that moment, where I sat upon the land known as Israel, I felt supported and love by people I had never even spoken to, people who mirrored my soul, and I couldn’t deny that this felt like home. A familiar sadness washed over me, knowing that I would not live near the family I grew up with… that the yellow brick that started in the land of Oz has lead me back to the Land of Is.
The doors to our voices were opened on the morning of the 11th day. It was exciting, and tentative and somewhat miraculous. Women who had been in deep process for 10 days together suddenly able to look into each others eye and connect. New friendships formed to last a lifetime. Joy. Suddenly a desire emerged, how to hold on to this peace? This Joy? And revelation upon revelation, in the moment of trying to hold on to what is, all is lost. Though enlightenment is the goal, the path is long and so ultimately, this lifetime, we are devoted to process and practice, on a continual journey of being, releasing and surrendering. At times we shall rile in our worry until we remember that all is simply passing by… we are alive and we are dying… the moment is full of breath and being. Everything, coming and going, coming and going.
And so it was that forty women and forty men walked on into the next stages of our lives to practice what we had learnt and find our own way forth, together.
bhavatu sabba mangalam
May all beings be happy and peaceful.
17 years world traveller, internationally recognised award winning body painter with a background in Anthropology, Orly delves deep into the enquiry of what it means to be a human being and ceaselessly expresses her art whilst following her heart. , Specialising in mimitism (camouflage), Orly's current expressions are a moving living creative and expansive entity that represents her passion for re-merging humanity with the earth from which we came, sustainable conscious living, healing the sacred feminine as we learn to respect our mother earth and advocacy for balancing commercial gain with global and local contributions.