It’s the Eve of my fourth visit to Dhamma Dipa—Island of Dhamma; a donation run Goenka Method Vipassana Centre in Hereford near Wales, UK.
I am going in for another 10 Days of Silence.
‘Going on Vipassana‘ means to practice the method of meditation lost to India for thousands of years and given back by Burma where it was respectfully preserved in it’s most pure untainted form. Vipassana means ‘to see things as they are’ and was, apparently, rediscovered by the Buddha sitting underneath the Bodhi tree right before he snuffed it.
Having practiced and taught hot yoga in 105+ degrees up to six hours a day for nearly 15 years, experienced the agonies and ecstasy of natural childbirth, then raised said child alone whilst building (then spectacularly losing) one of Europe’s largest yoga studios, fighting chronic fatigue, going bankrupt and making a comeback from both, I have often been referred to as somewhat badass. Or mad.
But while I know there is only one breath between excitement and fear this feels decidedly more like the latter and less covetable sensation right now.
My students seem fairly impressed that I am able to maintain a steady silence for a 10 day period. I am a Bikram Teacher; you know how we are—auctioneer/racing commentator hybrid on speed. But it’s not the ‘Noble Silence’ that’s the big issue here.
Giving the voice box a rest is a sheer delight for those of us Bikramites with more rabbit than Sainsbury’s (sorry my American friends for the anglophilism, YouTube ‘Chas n Dave’ to reference ‘rabbit’ you wont regret it!). Talking vibrates the nervous system and stimulates digestion and everything slows down in Vipassana in a very abrupt but ultimately reassuring fashion.
Two weeks ago I lost my voice for, ironically 10 days, I could not teach. I could not earn. Right now, I am all vibrated out. And I am a little scared.
It’s even not the drawn out, mildly hypnotic, ‘need-to-cough-up-a-goober’ croon of ‘Goenka-ji‘ sounding like Sammy Davis, Jr singing in the bathtub after his diazepam has kicked in; nor is it the interminable, full lotus, mind-numbingly, head-bobbingly, ‘let-me-out’, both-legs-gone-to-sleep-boredom that is the most challenging aspect of this practice.
It is being inside your own head with no external stimulation.
One day on my first course I spent the whole day thinking of words beginning with the letter ‘O.’ Each session began with the words ‘Start at the top of the head, Orangutan, Orange, Orgasm.‘
The next day found me hiding in the loo like an awol schoolgirl, painting my fingernails over and over again obsessively until it was half inch thick; the only thing more entertaining than watching paint dry was peeling it off again in thick curling strips to stop myself falling into the abyss of nothing—a darkened path that I later found led me directly to insight.
The labyrinthine tunnels of repetitive thought in which the mind seeks solace and self tortures is arduous, revealing, but ultimately, healing.
As Goenka says ‘The Sankara is like a splinter pushed down into the body by the habit pattern of the mind.’
But on Vipassana sometimes it feels more like the Bogeyman than the Tweezerman is required to get the darn thing out! And the goal is to remain ‘Equanimous’ and to just observe the sensation each emotion offers up. However, much as we all love anything signed off by the Buddha, (right?)
I am, in a very un-hardcore, extremely un-romantic and highly un-cool way, actually shitting myself right now.
So, armed with the 10 simple reminders I list below, I prepare to stow away all personal prohibited possessions and remind myself that I am a Bikram Yogi and it’s just sensation. Whilst no meat and no killing things, even waking up at 4 a.m. is no problem—no hugs with my son, no eye contact or human interaction of any kind, no iPhone, no laptop, no music, no writing or reading materials, no jewelry, makeup, distractingly scented products, no yoga is slightly more like hard graft—although I might sneak in a highly illicit pada hastasana in the showers for purely medicinal purposes only, (ssshhh).
How those who like it hot can get through a 10 day silent meditation.
1. No, you cannot have a Sushi blowout, three margaritas and half a spliff the night before you practice.
Don’t even try it. Trust me on this. Abstain for at least one month before sitting.
2. Leave the Lycra at home. Loose, layered comfortable clothing with no logos is best. Forget the wax and pedicure. You will forget you even have a nunu.
3. There are rules, just like in the hot room which will serve you and your fellow practitioners to observe. Honor the five precepts: non-harming, noble silence, celibacy, non-stealing, no intoxicants. Seems pretty simple huh?
4. You are not allowed to take water into the room. Instead of a mat, you will have a blue cushion. You don’t have to pay to hire the cushion. You are given a place to sit that remains the same throughout the course. Newbies go to the back, regulars at the front. Your pile of cushions will grow daily. Someone around Day three will build an enviable throne of cushions. Do not sit near the ‘Throne-Builders,’ they are like the ‘Ice-Fairies’ on Bikram Yoga Teacher Training, at first it seems like a good why-didn’t-I-think-of-that kinda idea.
Then you realize that there is no way out but through and the Throne is a red-herring to mastery of the technique which is equanimity to the sensation, however unpleasant. The throne will collapse on Day seven, just as you feel your meditation might be getting somewhere and you don’t want to be finding yourself suddenly underneath a collapsed throne of blue square cushions.
Nor do you want to be any part of that shit.
5. Instead of heat to purify your mind, they use silence. (Actually, they use boredom, which is even worse.) Only one posture for 10 days? Yup! And you will be required to remain in that posture for up to two hours in the practice of Addhitane.
6. Men and women are separated. But yes, you will want to sneak a peek, and when you do it will feel positively wanton—you naughty girl! (And was it worth it, really?)
Concentrate on the voice of Goenka—it’s all on tape from 1990, so no chance on getting hooked on a favorite teacher or being singled out for having a nice posture. No, you wont be asked to demonstrate!
7. You will be getting up at a time when most Bikramites are normally going to bed!
8. The floor is your mirror, eyes down. Even the ants get interesting. If you were to suddenly show up on Vipassana, you may find the zombie-like tardiness of the participants’ movements a little creepy.
Don’t read ‘Where’s Wally’ with your kid after Vipassana. It will spin you out—it’s too fast man!
Also, don’t feel you have to bow to the cassette player when everyone whispers ‘Saddhu, Saddhu, Saddhu‘ slightly menacingly at the end of each session. It’s optional and just means ‘Well Said‘ but is still rather unnerving to the new student and besides, it is sometimes just too much effort to utter after all this exhausting sitting around with a blanket on your head.
9. Day three is like Eagle Pose, after this everything shifts up a notch. Day six is like Camel Pose—you will want to pack your bags and run away—stay with it! Although, Vipassana practice is *physically* the opposite of Bikram Yoga in the fact that you remain very still, it is hard work.
In the way that you might strive 89.5 minutes for half minute of applaudably perfect Standing Bow to the best of your ability with both knees locked, two shoulders in one line and a smiling happy face—so also you may work for 10 long days for 20 seconds of stillness and presence, awareness expanded between a two milimeter square of flesh and a five second flash of insight.
10. There is no reassuring ‘it’s nearly over, folks!’ clapping at the end. Nobody says ‘well done—you rocked!’ You will say you’ll never go back. But you will.
You will have prioritized your life in a new way. You will understand the foibles, hilarities, and strengths of your own being and get more why you are how you are. You will have done it—’shedding layers’ as a friend once said. You feel A-mazing.
And you will, like stepping onto the mat, have opened a door which cannot now be easily closed. Goenka Vipassana is exactly the same wherever you go in the world, it is the Starbucks of Meditation. You will once more be re-organized, restored and renewed. And it may have just changed your life in a very profound way—like Bikram Yoga did, remember?
10 days is a hell of a loooooong 90 minutes but you are ready for it now—if you can do Bikram Yoga you are ready for Vipassana! Be Happy!
‘Anicca, Anicca, Anicca—All is changing, changing…changing…’say Goenka…sometimes it’s quite refreshing not to lock the knee.
And, ya, know—it’s not even hot in there!
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Asst. Ed: J. Andersson/Ed: Bryonie Wise