Monday, July 18, 2011

Meditation Marathon - Part IV (the final installment)

I woke up this morning determined to improve the situation. I can do this; I just need to find a way to get slightly more comfortable.

I purchased a special meditation cushion to bring with me, but since it hasn’t really done the trick so far, I decided to supplement it with some of the extra cushions the centre keeps in the foyer of the meditation hall. I put some flat cushions under my own cushion, and I used two more to prop up my knees. This felt a bit better, and I was actually able to sit the full hour. I am greatly determined after all!

I have noticed today that I am not the only one making cushion adjustments – all around me, the piles of cushions and blankets seem to be growing, so that when we get up to leave, the meditation hall (at least the women’s side of it) looks as though it is full of rows and rows of gigantic nests.  

I have also noticed that as we learn to observe things inside ourselves, we are observing more and more things outside, as well. Details that I suspect I may never have taken notice of are everywhere. This afternoon I found myself watching a small insect perform what looked like a self-grooming procedure on my arm. It didn’t occur to me to brush it off. I am not the only one engrossed in the tiny details in nature – I’ve seen a student staring up into the branches of a tree with a gigantic grin on her face, and another get down on her hands and knees to properly smell the flowers. Most of us seem to be wandering around in a state of awe and I suspect that after a short observation an outsider would conclude that we are all high.

During our free periods, in addition to staring wonder-eyed at bits of nature, we have the option of sitting around, walking around, or napping. Up until now, I’ve been doing an awful lot of that last one, but I’m bored of napping, so I opted for the sitting around today instead, and watched others walk by. This is actually far more entertaining than it sounds. The grounds are beautiful and well-maintained, but they are not terribly large, and you can’t walk more than about 100 feet without running into one of these signs:

Some walkers, embracing the fact that they have nowhere to go and nowhere to be, progress at a comically slow pace: two or three steps, pause, a few more steps, maybe nudge a rock or two out of the way, five more steps, stoop down to investigate one of the millions of ant hills on the property...this can go on indefinitely. Others power-walk down the trails, arms swinging – they don’t need a destination so much as an outlet, I suppose.

The past few days have been so much better. I have augmented my ‘nest’ further, and it now comprises 14 cushions of various sizes (including my own), three blankets and a shawl. My concentration and practice are improving; last night I enjoyed a prolonged pain-free period. Even when it hurts, it doesn’t bother me as much. I have come to see that the pain is actually a necessary part of the process, and I can learn from it.

Today, noble silence gave way to ‘noble chatter’, as Goenka called it during last night’s discourse. It is a relief to be able to look people in the eye and smile, and speak about our experience, though it isn’t quite over yet.

Walking into the meditation hall this evening we looked less like a parade of zombies and more like a group of exceptionally happy individuals off to do participate in an activity they enjoy. Several of the other meditators commented that they have found it easier today to meditate now that the silence has lifted and while I also feel lighter in a way, I have found the opposite – my mind is already at my parents’ house, visiting enjoying the summer holiday.
Women's Residence B

 Today is unlike all the previous days, not just because we are all chatting freely with one another, but because we are also practicing a new type of meditation, called Metta – Loving Kindness. My grasp on this, the third type of meditation we have learned here, is shaky. I think because I am too excited about going home to concentrate properly, though I am trying not to get carried away.

Also, I got to spend large parts of today chatting with the other women at the course; there are university students, a mother and daughter from Colombia, a Polish teacher, a Russian doctor (who asked if I was Russian also, because apparently I look very Russian – who knew?) and many others, spanning the ages of 19 to around 70 or older. It’s interesting to hear the stories of the other meditators, and what brought them here, and what they have gotten out of the course now that it’s almost over.

We had our last meditation session and discourse at 5:00 o’clock this morning. Goenka has instructed us on how to continue meditating at home and walking the path. This hasn’t just been a course in meditation, but the beginning steps of a process that is intended to be a lifelong thing (or perhaps many lives, if you believe in that sort of thing). It seems reasonable that monks and nuns who dedicate themselves to the path full time should advance at a quicker pace than the average householder, as Goenka calls working people, but even the two hours a day we are encouraged to sit  seems like a lot to me. I can see how I might squeeze in an hour in the morning before work, but between the gym, feeding myself, errands, and a social life, where am I supposed to find an hour in the evening?
I cleaned my room this morning, said my goodbyes, and must wait for my ride to come collect me. Despite my excitement about going home and seeing my family, I am reluctant to leave the centre, perhaps because I know that my mind cannot possibly remain this calm and peaceful once it is required to face the unpredictability of the big bad world on the outside. I can’t recall the last time I felt so much at ease, so at peace with everything around me, and I want to hang on to this feeling.
Despite low points along the way, I’m so glad I came, and stuck it out. I feel that I have grown here, and learned things about myself. I can’t, at present anyway, buy into every aspect of the ideology that is attached to this brand of meditation. The multiple-lives thing, for example, is beyond me. Goenka says, however, that it is not necessary to accept everything we have been told for the meditation to be beneficial. Thank goodness for that.    
So I’m going to make an effort to keep doing it. I’ll let you know how it goes...

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Meditation Marathon - Part III


The gong that was rung to call students to meditation, or to a meal

Today has been the hardest day for me, for a number of reasons. I am tired and I want a rest from the intensity of this experience, but mostly it was a shit day because of the octopus. 

Day four is Vipassana day. That's right - up until now, we've just been preparing our minds for Vipassana. I knew from reading other blogs/reviews that this was how the course was run, but still I feel as though I've been tricked a bit. They didn't bother mentioning before today that we haven't been doing the 'real thing'. One lady dropped out last night - I wonder if she knew she hadn't really even begun?

If we are ready for Vipassana, then we are apparently also ready to do sittings of "Great Determination" - when you are "greatly determined" you don't move. At all. For an hour. I don’t feel greatly determined today. I feel “Greatly Pathetic” and also “Greatly Wondering What The Hell I’m Doing Here”.

At the 6 o'clock sitting, my back started to hurt. Understand, this was not a little ache. This was a twitching, writhing, spastic two-headed octopus of pain. Its heads (I don't know why it had two, that's just how it appeared in my mind, even though we’re not supposed to visualize anything) weighed down on my spine between the shoulder blades, and its tentacles extended in all directions, squeezing muscles and my desire to meditate with an equally strong destructive force. It was overwhelming and I couldn't concentrate on my meditation so instead I just sat on my cushion crying, feeling sorry for myself, and mentally cursing this whole bloody exercise, because how can this much pain do anybody any good at all?

The silence in the room implied that everybody else was concentrating and sitting still, and because the coughing, sniffling, shuffling, farting and swallowing noises have generally ceased, the sound of my tears hitting the cushion seemed vastly amplified and I broke my 'strong determination' to catch them before they could fall, which only made me feel like a bigger failure.

Fuck it. I opened my eyes. I saw that another woman sitting a row ahead of me was wiping her eyes with her blanket. Maybe she was sad, or she had an octopus too?  It is perhaps shameful to take comfort in someone else’s tears, but seeing that I wasn’t the only one who was struggling made me feel a bit better. (Only at the end of the course when noble silence had ended did I learn that almost every woman I spoke with had bawled her eyes out at some point.)

After an hour of this torture, the discourse video was played. In addition to using unusual expressions and speaking with a rather charming accent, Goenka tells great stories. A few more tears may have escaped at the beginning of his lecture, but by the end my resolve to make the most of this experience – pain or no pain – had returned.

Tomorrow is going to be better.


Below are two videos (Part 1 and Part 2 of the same talk) of Goenka explaining a little bit about the ten-day course, and the technique itself, in case you are curious :-)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Meditation Marathon - Part II

Noble silence started last night, day ‘zero’. I feel like an asshole wandering around not making eye contact or greeting or even smiling at anyone.

Our task today: concentrate on breathing. Just observe the breath. Turns out my brain is simultaneously bored and challenged by this job. I really doing this?...I really want to see that movie, what was it called again? With that actor...Crap. Focus! In...out....I forgot to write a thank you note to that mom who gave me that scarf as a present....I wonder what my sister is arm is itchy. Oops. Right. Breathing. In...out....Has it been ten minutes yet? fifteen? Is there even a clock in here? I feel like I want to open my eyes. But what if someone sees me? The salad dressing at lunch was really good today...In...I feel a bit cold... aaarghhh!

Our task today: not only must we observe the breath, we must observe the feeling of the breath going in and out of our nostrils. The teacher (Goenka, who is not actually present but who gives instructions and lectures through audio and visual recordings) pronounces it nose-strils and says that if we can't feel the breath, we should do a few 'harder breathings', and I think I might giggle out loud. There are 80 adults in the room; surely I'm not the only one who finds this amusing?

Concentrating on breathing, or the breath passing in and out of one's nose-strils is nearly impossible however, when one's mind has converted itself into The Eye of Sauron - focusing with intense hostility on every shuffle, sniffle, cough and other disturbance outside of its borders and therefore completely incapable of concentrating on what is going on inside, like say, the feeling of the breath on the nostrils for even 3 seconds straight.

Nose-strils...hahaha....that fan is way too loud...someone to my left is sniffling an awful lot...Why would you come to a course like this when you have such a bad cold? Is that...snorting? Someone is SNORTING? What a pig, that's disgusting - why didn't he blow his nose before he came in here?? HOW IS ANYONE SUPPOSED TO CONCENTRATE WITH ALL THIS NOISE???

Our task today: concentrate on a small area around the nostrils and above the upper lip, and see if we feel any sensations.

Nose-strils....nose-strils...I don't feel anything. Am I doing it wrong? Can other people feel sensations? Does an itch count as a sensation? Maybe I'll do some hard breathings. Breathings...hahaha. *sigh* My back hurts. I'm not sure this is for me.

Lunch was fairly tofu-heavy today, and this afternoon's meditation was a chorus of stomach gurgles. The men and women have been segregated since our arrival and only come together during group meditations, sitting on opposite sides of the special meditation hall. I think the women get up and move around more, but in terms of bodily noises the men's side of the room wins hands down. I am certain that amongst the members of our group, today will be remembered as The Day That Guy Farted.

And he didn't just do it once. The first time, being mature adults, and supposedly deep in meditation and therefore not noticing such insignificant disturbances as this, we all ignored it. Again it happened, and again maturity and concentration won out. The third time however, someone giggled and that's all it took for a room full of adults who had committed themselves to ten days of serious mental work and reflection to laugh uproariously at something my second graders are generally able to ignore. Half of the students in the hall got up and left. I tried to focus my mind again, but the giggling took a long time to subside and eventually I had to leave the hall, worried that if I didn't my mind would play this little movie over and over all day, my progress ultimately ruined by some guy's inability to digest tofu.

I think we’re doing something different tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to it. I hope we broaden the area of focus – I don’t think I can observe my own nostrils any more carefully than I already am...

(to be continued)

Meditation Marathon - Part I

Before I begin, if you are interested in doing a ten-day Vipassana course, I suggest you not read what I have written. I recommend the course – it is hard but rewarding work with noticeable results. Neither my account of a very individual and personal experience nor my silly observations will serve you in any way. Find out for yourself!!

If, on the other hand, you are simply curious, or are wondering what the hell I did for ten days because you could never imagine doing so yourself, by all means, carry on J

Sometime shortly after Christmas I was reading In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore for second time, and it mentioned meditation as a good activity to reduce stress and help people slow down. I could do that, I thought. Reduce stress, have peace of mind, maybe get a handle on my fear-of-relapse anxiety - this sounded fantastic!

Normally I would congratulate myself for having such a great idea and file it away in the "I Must Remember to Get to That Someday" compartment in my mind. Unfortunately, like a pocket with a whole at the bottom, things seem to disappear from this place of safekeeping never to be seen again. How many life-altering ideas have I lost over the years? I'll never know. I keep meaning to get a voice recording device so that I stop forgetting...that idea is in there too, at the bottom somewhere I suspect, and only resurfaces when I realize I have forgotten something else.

Anyway, not wanting the meditation idea to go the way of all my previous flashes of genius, I did something about it immediately. I knew of two previous acquaintances who had participated in ten-day meditation workshop. I hadn't spoken to either of them about their experience, but certainly ten days was long enough to feel as though I'd really learned how to do it properly.  I googled it and clicked on the first link that came up: Vipassana Meditation Website. This was a worldwide organization with courses in many different languages in many different countries. Having decided that I would prefer to take the course in English, and therefore in Canada rather than Colombia (though it was also available there) I signed up to attend a course at a centre close to Barrie, Ontario. Then, I just sort of forgot about it for four months.

Closer to the day, I began to do some research about the technique. I looked at the daily schedule. Morning bell at 4:00am? Meditation for...calculating...ten hours every day?? This wasn't just meditation, it was like boot camp for your mind. But the website promised some pretty cool results (I won't detail them here, you can follow the link if you're curious) so I figured it would be worth it. Also, the course was carried out in silence - students aren't allowed to speak to one another, and that actually appealed to me. Ten days of quiet - at the end of the school year I couldn't imagine a more pleasant rest.

They say its ten days, but really it's twelve. You arrive on day zero and leave on day eleven. After registering I handed over my illegal goodies for safekeeping: laptop, kindle, magazines, phone, camera, and writing materials - basically anything that could potentially distract/entertain me. My room in the women's residence was clean and equipped with the essentials (I was lucky to have a room and bathroom to myself - some of the others shared). A list of chores was tacked to the inside of the door, implying that before leaving I would be cleaning the room myself for the next student. Interesting.

Keeping a journal was not permitted, and though I've read blogs of other people who have attended the course and secretly made notes, I wanted to follow the instructions thoroughly to have the complete experience as it is intended, so I am writing from memory, which as we have already established is, in my case, a bit sketchy. Here are the important bits, as I remember them:

(To be continued...)

Friday, June 17, 2011


I am drinking a Tim Horton's cappuccino, so I must be in Canada. Unlike last summer's whirlwind cross-country adventure, this summer's holidays will be a much calmer affair.  A few days in North Bay, a 10-day Vipassana meditation workshop just outside of Toronto, then to stay with my parents until the holiday winds down.

I'm sure many teachers would agree with me that the last few days (weeks?) of school tend to drag on a bit...At least we went out in style. No classroom-movie-watching end-of-year parties for us, no way. We went to a 'finca' belonging to one of the families for a day, and apart from the bus getting quite stuck on rough road leading to the property, (and then again on the way out) the day was a huge success!

The view *sigh*

The kids released a huge whale-shaped balloon...

Which eventually just floated away, never to be seen again...not by us, anyway :-)
More to come after the meditation. 10 days of no talking, no looking at others, 2 meals a day... my bum hurts just thinking about it, but I think it's going to be an amazing experience!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

That Shirt is a Funny Colour...

We are learning about personal pronouns in Grade 2. I write a sentence on the board, underline the subject, and my students must tell me which personal pronoun I could use to replace it. We've been practicing all week, and they are quite good at it now. They are not as good at identifying swear words, it turns out, something I learned when I turned around in class today and noticed that I had written on the board:

Juan Sebastian is wearing a yellow shit.

Not one of my students picked up on the naughty word, however they were quick to point out that Juan Sebastian's shirt was not yellow, it was in fact blue with white stripes.  I don't know where my mind was at the moment of writing, but immediately afterwards it was focused on not laughing, as this would have demanded an explanation which obviously I could not give. A little giggle may have escaped. That's it though. Teehee.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


After Christmas, I returned to Colombia like a child on her way back to class after a gratuitous bathroom-break...My body, obedient and obligated, returned directly.  My mind, however, took the longest route, reluctant, dallying at the water fountain, walking zig-zags down the corridor. I've been here, but not here.

Something clicked at last though, and I have landed once again. And just in time, because this past weekend could not have been fully appreciated in a semi-absent mental state. I was fortunate enough to be invited to visit the city of Buga, in the Valle del Cauca.

Buga is famous for its basilica, The Basilica del Senor de los Milagros. The story of El Senor sounds a bit like a fairy tale involving a washing-woman and an expanding statue of christ, ultimately leading to the 'deal' currently offered at the home of the Senor: promises for miracles. As in, you promise something, and in return the Senor will do his best to provide you with the miracle of your request.

Basilica del Senor de los Milagros

Hmmm...what miracle should I ask for?

The Office of Masses and Promises - there is good business in miracles, it would seem...

Like every city in this part of the world, Buga has a central square or plaza. This is not only a good place to eat snow-cones and people-watch, but turned out to be a good site for watching animals as well.


Clearly not concerned about people

The plaza was interesting, as was the tour of the city generously and lovingly provided by one of our hostesses, however Buga would have been a completely amazing experience even if we'd lever left the house. The entrance, seen below, is unimposing but the home hiding behind that big white wall felt like a combination hotel/museum/garden...

Getting directions before venturing out into the city

Upon entering the house, you meet the front courtyard

Another view of the front courtyard

there were antiques throughout the house

the rear courtyard

another view of the rear courtyard

A sitting area, and behind, the "living room"

one of the 14 bedrooms

the dining room, in the oldest part of the house

The rear block of the house, bedrooms and bathrooms.
The best part of the stay though, was meeting our hostesses. The three sisters living here, cousins of a friend's grandmother, are some of the most interesting and inspirational people I have ever met. If I have half of their energy and passion for life when I am their age (in their 70s and maybe 80's?), I will consider myself quite fortunate. (Though frankly it's not looking all that hopeful when you consider the fact that I was the youngest person there, yet drank the least and wanted to go to bed the earliest...Perhaps my vitality will manifest in other ways?)

It was one of those times when you feel as though you should stop periodically and just contemplate how lucky you are, and maybe send some out some thank you vibes, not only to your hostesses, but also to the universe.