A Journey Within (A 10-Day Vipassana Meditation Retreat Experience)
People who know me personally call me animated, exuberant even.
Okay, I admit I can get pretty talkative when it comes to talking about things I care about or to people that I connect easily with. Yup, I’m one of those people who just can’t shut up once triggered. My voice raises a few decibels higher (this is embarrassing normally, especially in a public place), my facial expressions move in sync to match the speed and the passion of my speech, while my hands gesture wildly to complement the whole conversation in action.
So imagine, when I first toyed with the idea of enrolling myself in a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat, friends arched an eyebrow quizzically.
“Really Ying? Why torture yourself?” I pretended they had only my best interests in mind.
So I did it and survived. That was almost a decade ago. Till this day, I still could recall vividly the lessons that I’d learned while struggling through the entire duration. It was one of the ten hardest days in my life. I was almost reduced to tears. But while I didn’t find answers to any life’s mysteries, I caught several moments of clarity. These moments of clarity also helped me stay present and mindful while travelling.
I was fortunate enough to have attended the Vipassana Meditation Retreat in Taiping Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary, led by the much revered and respected Ajahn Jeff Oliver. He is also a good friend and was in fact, one of the first catalysts to my wanderlust. I’d liked the fact that my meditation teacher also had travelled the world and surfed during his free time.
A shorter version of this post was published on the Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary Newsletter in 2007.
Oh Why On Earth Did I Sign Up For A Vipassana Retreat?
As Ajahn Jeff’s gentle voice led all meditators in white robes with closed eyes into a guided Vipassana meditation, I rebelliously opened one eye and quickly surveyed the scene. All around, everyone had a serene look plastered on their face. Except me. It was only a matter of time before my mind imploded. meditation, I was desperately trying to watch my breath but the supermarket music in my head wouldn’t stop. Like a broken jukebox, one question played over and over again: Why oh why did I sign up for a Vipassana retreat?
It all began when I became personally acquainted with Ajahn Jeff. As an ex-monk in the Burmese tradition and an experienced meditation teacher, Jeff radiated such an infectiously calm aura that I couldn’t help but to feel intrigued.
What’s your secret, sir? I want to be like you too!
Master your mind and you will master your universe, was his answer.
Through Vipassana meditation, of course. Come and experience it yourself.
Now, Jeff didn’t tell me to read Buddhist scriptures or to visit more temples. Neither did he force me to memorise ancient Buddhist terminology or the grand history behind Buddhism. All he did was to extend an invitation to experience Vipassana first hand so that I could find some answers to some pressing questions in life. Or at least tame the monkey mind of mine.
Waking up at 4.30am for the next nine days at a luxurious looking forest chalet? No problem. I thought surely sacrificing some sleep in order to learn something from a teacher like Jeff was well worth the price. It wasn’t until I realised that the schedule involved observing noble silence at ALL TIMES!
Drat, how did I miss that?
Also, other than eating and taking a shower, there was nothing else to do but meditate – be it lying, sitting, walking or standing! Reality dawned somewhat a little too late but I was already one day into the retreat. Time sure crawled when you didn’t have much to do…..
Welcome to Vipassana Training
Who would have thought that doing Vipassana could be so challenging? And no, I’m not talking about the sitting cross-legged and being silent part. Two days into the retreat and one would come to find them the easier bits.
For the first few days, I was awaiting meditation instructions, like a keen-eyed Kung Fu scholar, eager to learn the most powerful ancient Kung Fu moves. Boy, was I disappointed when I was only given instructions to merely observe. Observe your breathing, observe your walking, and observe your mind, observe your thoughts, observe your mouth chewing your food, observe that itch, observe that searing pain creeping up on your right thigh— and then what? Just observe? What happened to concentrating on a metal spoon till it bends? Or using all your mental energy to destroy thoughts so that you could possess a mind free from eternal thinking?
But of course, if all needed is mere observation, then sure I could do that. Or so I thought.
The Nature Of The Mind
Objective observation and mindfulness sound easy in theory; but not so when one truly puts it to practice.
It turns out that observing any predominant mental or physical process that arises – be it sitting or in any other postures – was extremely trying. Almost a futile attempt more often than not. My valiant efforts were constantly thwarted by my persistent imagination. The more I tried to quieten it, the more overworked it became.
Just when I wanted to congratulate myself for the two triumphant minutes of real mindfulness, my mind would then burst open another dam of mental states. Even within my own thoughts, I had nice little stories mapped out with me playing the starring role. My initial victories now turned into ten minutes of mindlessness.
However, the nature of the Vipassana technique is not to control but rather apply simple awareness of thought, should it arise.
The nature of our senses, as everything else in the world, is impermanent. In other words, none of our immediate sensory perceptions last forever. If we observe closely, the pain that we felt a minute ago consists of nothing but throbbing vibrations that arise, evolve and then pass away.
Then, from a presumably mundane task, which is to sit and watch one’s breath while actively keeping the mind and body in check, meditation transforms from a passive practice to an active one.
Don’t Try To Tame The Mind. Just Let Go
I used to think that I was tough but I think I give myself too much credit.
I cannot remember how many times I came close to throwing in the towel. I was losing faith in the practice and in myself. Doubt kept taunting me to give up the struggle.
Could anything be harder than training the mind?
In the practice, you are your own worst enemy because you get to decide whether to persist in watching your breath or give up and indulge in your mid-day fantasies. I think those who eventually triumph are those who develop patience as a virtue. They persevere despite how bad the situation may appear and soldier on.
Struggle is part and parcel of the practice, I learned.
Gradually, the debris of my mind began to settle. When I ceased to struggle and resist, my mind slowly and almost instinctively unraveled itself and cleared. This clarity was so profound that no words could capture it.
It was just phenomenal. The irony was, I didn’t even have to do anything. I only had to stop resisting.
Let go. Instead of trying to tell all the thoughts to go away, I only paid attention to them. I welcomed the thoughts like my guest and offered them tea.
Surrounded By Lush Silence
I couldn’t have picked a better place to do the retreat. Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary lies on a secluded hilltop, not too far away from the historical town of Taiping, Malaysia. The sanctuary is nestled deep in the forest, surrounded by luxuriant nature and tranquility.
In the mornings, I got to walk to the Meditation Hall and watch the fog from the night slowly clear away. Birds chirped, butterflies flitted around and the sound of the distant waterfall was constant. The sanctuary’s estate is sprawling with durian groves, eco-friendly buildings, an open air wooden deck and little tucked away corners to do my meditation in.
After a few days of meditation, colours began to pop up vividly. It was as if I was seeing nature in its truest sense for the first time. Can the colour green be so deep and so varied?
One of my favourite sessions was a meditation session against fears.
What are you scared of? What happens when you become scared?
Ajahn Jeff dared us to explore the depths of our fears by asking us to pick a dark spot in the forest after 10pm and meditate there. If fearful thoughts were to arise, instead of taking flight, we should investigate them. Be curious about them instead of avoiding them or shaming ourselves for being so scared.
Needless to say, after that session, I became slightly bolder. Later, during my travels, harnessing anxiety became a handy skill set. I’d learned not to panic at the first sign of trouble.
We are the source of our own liberation. We all carry the answers, but to get them, we must dig deep into our hearts. When we begin to look deeply and observe our own minds, can we then experience the truth for ourselves.
Would I do another Vipassana Meditation Retreat again?