This time last year I had just finished a 10 day silent Vipassana meditation retreat in Chennai south India, I felt the experience had quite a powerful effect on me which can still be felt today a year later. During my travels I had heard a lot about Vipassana from different people, the effective combination of strict rules such as no books, music, talking or even eye contact with other mediators and a intensive schedule of a meditation technique practiced by the Buddha himself made it popular with anyone seeking a proper mental detox or a path to true enlightenment. I’d heard many good things from people who had finished the retreat and how it had a positive effect on them, also stories of how very tough and mentally challenging it could be. I decided after I had left my 4 weeks at the Sivananda Yoga ashram in Kerela and spent a couple of weeks relaxing and enjoying Varkala beach, that now was the time to give this retreat a go whilst I was still feeling the benefits of the ashram.
My friend Tom who I had originally met in Mc Leod Ganj in the north and met up with again in Goa and Kerela decided to join me for the retreat so we set off from Trivandrum train station and arrived in Chennai after a long train journey, the next few hours I found particularly stressful as I had to ring home to sorted out a issue with my bank account and the only working phone I could find was a coin operate one (my rupees in coins vanished in seconds on an international call!) whilst we were continually hassled by hawkers and rickshaw drivers. After giving up on the call and deciding the bank would have to wait another 10 days, we navigated our way to the retreat on the local metro train as the rickshaw drivers in Chennai were particularly overpriced. On the way I could feel one of my notorious tension headaches setting in which I had been plagued by for the last few years, I’ve found stress to give me a variety of physical ailments from neck spasms to heart palpitations but the most recent manifestation was a headache in between my eyes and around my forehead which could start as a sort of sore fuzziness and at its worst felt like a vice crushing my skull. We arrived at the retreat in a beautiful remote location of palm trees, green lawns and perfectly tended gardens, once we had filled in our registration forms we each had a quick interview with the teacher and his helpers. There was definitely something different about them, a calm stillness as they spoke to you and clarity in their eyes, Id noticed this before talking with the monks in Dharamsala and other long term mediators. After having the strict rules explained to us and being told Tom and I would have to be extra careful not to be tempted to talk as we knew each other, we were asked to hand in any personal belongings such as books, music, writing material etc to be locked away from us in the office, I was reluctant to hand in everything and pondered on the idea of keep at least one book, but then I decided if I was going to get the most from the experience then sticking to all the rules was the way to go. There was around 20 mediators in the male part of the retreat, the centre was segregated into male and female sections, it was mostly Indians with a few westerners and some Japanese. We all shared a room with one other person, they were very basic but included a bathroom for each room which was a luxury after the dorms at the ashram. The rules and daily schedule were posted up on the wall to the accommodation entrance, the first look at the schedule sent a wave of apprehension through me, 10 hours of meditation starting at 4.30am with a 2 hr session before breakfast, the only free time was for a hour after lunch, the rest was divided into 1 or 2 hour sessions throughout the day with short breaks in between, a light snack and tea in the evening and discourse before lights out at 10pm. The thought of 10 hours of meditation a day when at times I could find even 30 mins a struggle worried me, but then I considered the fact that there is nothing else to do here so nothing to distract me like my phone, laptop or talking. After being shown our designated places in the meditation hall and having our evening chai and snack which consisted of rice pudding and fruit we all retired for the night ready to begin out first full day of meditation and silence.
Vipassana centre, Chennai
The first day went by quite easily, the meditation technique we started with was Anapana which was very similar to the mindfulness of breathing techniques I had practiced before, it involved focusing our awareness on the sensations of the breath passing out of our nose and brushing past the area just above our top lip, it was taught via the voice of the original founder of the retreats S. N. Goenka, played back on tape by the teacher in the main hall. As I had been practicing this type of meditation for a few years already I felt comfortable with it and found I was going into deep meditations relatively quickly, also waking at 5.30am at the ashram had prepared me for early rising so getting up a hour earlier at 4.30 wasn’t too much of a problem. The vegetarian food was excellent quality, there was plenty of it and we could have as much as we wanted but advised not to over fill our stomachs as this can lead to sleepiness during meditation, also plenty of chai at breakfast and in the evening which I was very glad to have. The discourse at the end of each day involved a video played on a projector in the main hall, here Goenka introduced himself and explained more about the retreats, what the Vipassana technique was about and how Buddhist philosophy and Dharma played a very important part in the practice. By the second day I found my meditation deepening further as we continued the mindfulness of breathing but moved onto focusing our awareness onto a smaller part of our upper lip, the idea being to focus our awareness on observing more subtle sensations of the breath. I started to get some visual effects in my minds eye during the meditation, something I had experienced before but this time they were more vivid and less hypnagogic or dream like. They started with a pinpoint spot of deep blackness in the centre of the usual charcoal grey darkness I see with my eyes closed, as my thoughts slowed down due to the mindfulness of breathing I became more and more aware and interested in this deep back spot, I started to give it more focus which intensified it further and drew my awareness towards it, gradually it started to change into a circular tunnel with shifting psychedelic patterns on the walls and soon I was rushing through it with increasing speed. The intensity of it quickly snapped me out it as I opened my eyes, I was unsure whether I should be giving too much attention to this visual effect so returned my full awareness to the breathing again with the black spot still lingering in my minds eye. As I returned to my room after lunch I found my room mate was packing his clothes into his bag, he looked at me and told me he was leaving saying ‘I have a personal situation to deal with.’ I smiled and nodded not wanting to break the no talking rule and he left. At the time I thought this could be a good thing as it removes any temptation to start talking to a roommate which will help me gain more from this experience, looking back now I think this really did contributed to my experiences as I became more and more absorbed into my own world in a continual meditative state. During the evening discourse Gokena mentioned that many people find the 3rd day the hardest and this is often the day that people decide to leave, with this in mind I prepared myself for a challenging day.
The 2 hour morning session of the day 3 was exactly that, I found my thoughts racing and my legs were really starting to ache after sitting in meditation pose for so long, at this stage we were allowed to change position and leave the hall for quick breaks, most of us would usually do this after 30 or 40 mins which helped relive the leg pain. During the afternoon session however we were not allowed to leave the hall for a full hour and asked to try not to move position to encourage deeper meditation, I found the black dot had returned to my awareness and decided to give it my full attention to help take focus away from my distracting thoughts. Again I felt myself being pulled towards it as it morphed into the psychedelic tunnel, with increasing speed I plunged deeper into my minds eye enjoying the shifting patterns and colours, until suddenly and unexpectedly a wave of fear came over me and forced me to quickly opened my eyes, I then expected the tunnel to dissolve away but it remained overlayed on my view of the meditation hall. This unsettled me further and soon I was desperate to leave the hall, I switched my attention to my breath trying to continue with meditation but I felt too uneasy so left the hall and went to my room. Here I laid down and rode out waves of fear, I knew it would pass eventually so let my breath gradually pull me out from this tunnel and back to familiar reality, I was confused as to why this visual effect in my mind had triggered this reaction as up until that point it had been enjoyable to watch. One of the helpers Daniel must of noticed me leave as he came to room to ask why I left, the no taking rule doesn’t apply with helpers or the teacher as they are there to provide guidance and help, I told him what I had experienced and he said I should persist and try not to leave the meditation when this occurs, he quoted something Goenka had said in a discourse about having courage to cross the bridge to the other side, ‘Perhaps this tunnel hallucination is your bridge’ he said. After the second afternoon session we also had a chance to talk to the teacher for him to check how we are finding it, I mention the hallucination and he reassured me visual effects are not uncommon and to keep my focus on the sensation of the breath as the breath is always reality, anything else is just our perception of reality processed by our mind and interpreted by our thoughts. The breath is always true reality, a physical function that gives us life, to focus on it allows us to connect with that reality. I’ve had some pretty fun visual hallucinations on psychedelics, such as getting lost in the shifting patterns and swirling colours of my tiled kitchen floor, or experiencing every single blade of grass in a park in Amsterdam morph into tiny cannabis leaves, but this tunnel in my mind was fascinating and terrifying at the same time.
The morning of day 4 I still felt a little rattled by my experience yesterday, and by the afternoon Gokenas voice on the tape told us today we would start practicing the Vipassana technique, where the proper work begins. Paranoid thoughts started entering my mind, ‘what if this is some kind of cult and they are using mind control on us, perhaps that hallucination was part of it? Maybe they will never let us leave and we will be stuck here for ever!’, by the time we were given instructions for the Vipassana I felt a strong resistance to doing it fearing this would be the end of me and I will lose my mind. ‘Perhaps I should get out now before its too late’ I thought seriously considering leaving at that moment, but then I remembered talking to people who had already done the retreat before I came, they seemed mentally stable and didn’t appear to be mind controlled, in fact they were some of the most friendly and out going people i’d met. Feeling reassured by this I continued on and began learning the ancient meditation technique of Vipassana.
The Vipassana technique is a form of insight meditation practiced by the Buddha for many years eventually leading him to enlightenment. It is done by scanning your awareness over your body, noticing any sensations and observing them with a equanimous mind, the idea is to re program you aversions and cravings to sensations, for example if you experience an unpleasant sensation such as your legs aching from sitting in a meditation posture without moving for half an hour then you should learn to not become averse to this sensation. The same goes for pleasant sensations, I find meditation can often create pleasurable feeling such as tingling in certain parts of my body, here you should learn to not become attached to this pleasurable sensation as if you become attached to it then you will reinforce your cravings which can lead to more suffering. Another aspect of the technique is understanding impermanence or ‘Anicca‘, through your own direct personal experience by practicing the technique you begin to learn that all your sensations fade and disappear as you watch them as a passive observer, even the post painful or distracting ones will eventually pass. According to Buddhist philosophy this law of impermanence is applied to everything from our daily lives as human beings to the nature of reality and the universe, understanding impermanence can help us understand and eliminate suffering from our lives.
As I progressed with the Vipassana meditation the next few days were like an emotional rollercoaster, in the mornings I felt agitated and restless, the headache which had started on the day we arrived felt like it was worse in the morning, perhaps intensified by disturbed sleep from very vivid dreams. By the afternoon I found the meditation was digging deep and bringing up memories from the past, I plunged into deep introspection and relived times of dark depression making connections with long forgotten childhood experiences and my fears and aversions, the tunnel hallucination kept returning and each time it brought with it waves of anxiety. Instead of trying to fight against it and block it out I decided the only thing I could do was surrender to it and let the process take its course, the more I did this the shorter these waves turmoil lasted and the better I felt afterwards, at one point whilst I was in my room this surrendering allowed me to fully shed tears, the 1st time in many years and it felt good! By the evenings I felt amazing, the darkness would dissolve and be replaced by euphoria and clarity, during our short 10 minute breaks between sessions I would look at the sunset and beautiful nature surrounding the retreat with a new appreciation and wonder. As I learnt more about what this meditation was all about from the discourses I started to realize that I was going through a purifying process and that deep rooted issues from my unconscious or Sankharas as the Buddha called them were bubbling to the surface and being released, also I gained a new understanding on what was causing my tension headaches to be so bad, as it was in fact my own aversion to the headaches that was making them worse. As I developed a more equanimous observation of my sensations I could guide my awareness over the headache and start to let go off the pain, the actual aching sensation would then start to dissolve into a more subtle sore kind of tingling sensation, as I focused my attention on the tingling I could begin to pinpoint the source of it and let it go with equanimity also, this had the effect to seemingly dissolve my headache by changing the way I perceived and reacted to the aching sensation. I also started to view my cravings in a similar way, as I scanned my body and noticed nagging tingling sensations I felt as thought they represented my cravings for things, one of which was tobbaco which I had resisted since quitting at the ashram but still had cravings for when I was near other smokers or feeling stress, it was as though my body had gotten over the nicotine addiction but the psychological cravings where still there and were manifesting in these nagging sensations felt in different parts of my body. Through the meditation however I was learning through direct experience that like everything in the universe these sensations were were impermanent and would pass without needing to be acted on, looking back I can see this as a kind of reprogramming of my automatic reactions to certain situations. Before the Vipassana I would not think about tobacco until I was in a situation which triggered a memory of when I used to smoke, this activated a subtle physical craving sensation leading to the habitual reaction of desiring a cigarette until I acted on that desire and smoked one, since the Vipassana I’m able to understand and observe the process with more equality so that its easier to let go of the craving before it leads to the habitual reaction, which seems to result in the reaction itself changing from desire to indifference.
By the 8th day I was feeling quite exhausted and tripped out, my body was aching and sore from so much sitting cross legged in one position and I felt like I had been through every emotional state possible from fear to love, paranoia to trust, depression to euphoria. The lack of social contact and no talking gave me some some crazy moments like when I felt like I had a psychic connection to a lizard that had made his home on the inside of my room window, he sat there for 3 days leaving on the morning of the 8th and I got it into my head that he was Buddha reincarnated as he would just sit there with his little chest going up and down as he breathed, I would lie on my bed after lunch and before bed still in meditation watching his chest as I focused on the sensation of my breath. By the evening my headache had returned with a vengeance and I was unable to let it go, I kept drifting into a sort of half asleep trance during the discourse whereas the previous nights I had always felt energized and euphoric by this point, this time I was totally spaced out like an empty shell of a human. After the discourse I went to my bed and laid down, my head felt like a solid lump of iron as it touch my pillow and as I automatically started scanning my awareness over the sensations on my aching and tired body I sort felt my ego totally give in and surrender. What happened next I will never forget as I remembering feeling every unpleasant sensation in my body from my aching legs, sore back and crushing headache dissolve all at once to be replaced with a warm pleasant tingling, like I could feel my atoms vibrating. This lasted a few minutes until I felt my awareness detach from body and plunge deep inside my chest to a place that felt calm, loving and content and I heard the words ‘you don’t need your sensations to be happy’. I suddenly snapped back in my body and felt pretty shook up with a mixture of euphoria and confusion about what had happened, it reminded me a lot of an intense acid or mushroom trip except i was the most sober I had been in my life! I got out of bed and felt so light on my feet like I was floating, the walls of my room had that kind of breathing motion going on similar to effects witnessed on psychadelics, I went out into the gardens of the meditation centre and sat by a tree totally amazing and absorbed by the detail and texture of its bark. A lizard suddenly hopped onto my side of the tree from the other side and sat watching me, perhaps it was the same one from my room I thought, a big wave of emotion came over me and I felt like crying and laughing at the same time, I later saw my teacher and told him what had happened he assured me that it was a sign that the meditation was working and part of the purification process. The next day I started to wonder if anyone else had had any similar experiences to me, I couldn’t be sure what they were going through internally but I did notice some people having sudden reoccurring attacks of external noises like sneezing, farting or making other strange noises during meditation, I wondered if this could be externalized effects of the inner purification.
By the 10th and final day I felt like I had finally reached this equanimous mind state we supposed to get to, through the tough times I couldn’t wait to reach the last day but once I was there I felt like I could happily stay for longer! After morning meditation we were allowed to talk again and it was great to catch up with Tom who I had to ignore the whole time not even being allowed to have eye contact, I discovered his room mate was an Australian called Roby and the guy in the room next to me who had also lost his roommate was a Russian, as we sat on the grass chatting he brought out some tabla drums and I grabbed my flute leading to a joyous jam session. It was great to be able to talk again and share our experiences, the other Indians there were very friendly and most had done Vipassana retreats many times before some numbering 30 or 40 times, this shocked me to hear but talking to them I realized that the 1st time is really just to learn the technique and start the purification process, to be totally free of all your mental impurities could take a life time or many life times of inner work. Even though we hadn’t talked to each other on the course the whole time there was still a sense of togetherness like we had all been through it together, I told one of them about my experience with the tunnel hallucination and he suggested this could be something to do with my third eye Chakra and would be worth me looking into third eye meditation. That night I slept soundly and the next day I awoke feeling refreshed and headache free, as we left I remember putting on my backpack and thinking how light it felt compared to when we arrived.
A year later and I feel like the retreat had long lasting effects on me, I no longer feel the need to smoke tobacco and have less of a desire to eat meat and sugary foods which I used to crave a lot. For the first few months of being back in the UK I kept up practicing Vipassana 2 hours a day as recommended by Gokena, but as the months have passed and I’ve moved back to London that’s been reduced to half hour sessions 3 – 4 times a week with the most effective sessions done during group classes at my local Buddhist centre. I guess distractions such as my computer, phone, internet and general noisy activity that comes from living in a 6 person house share have made it harder to sit for more, and waking up a hour earlier in the mornings everyday to meditate during a English winter is not so easy! Recently I’ve noticed my old ailments return such as the tension headaches, but whereas before I would feed the suffering with aversion which increased the pain and made them into a huge drama in my mind, now I’m more able to let the sensations and thoughts associated with them pass away without them affecting my actions. I plan to try and get back into a more regular daily routine with Vipassana and have been looking at doing a 3 day retreat here to kick start me back into it, It seems the first 10 day course is really just the tip of the iceberg on what can be achieved and to get the most from it requires dedication and persistence whilst integrating the Dharmic ways of compassion, karma and mindfulness into your life.