“The truth is closer than an eyelash,” my yoga teacher in Kerala said to me on more than one occasion.
Searching to find out whom to attribute this wisdom to (other than to him), I was met with another kind of truth. The truth, if going by Google search results, is false eyelash extensions are far more popular than spiritual truth these days.
In August 2015, I went to a 10-day Vipassana silent meditation course in rural Herefordshire, United Kingdom. I wanted to go to an earlier course, but to my slight dismay, the volunteer-run courses were fully booked within hours of the application window opening.
It’s been nearly a year, so now it’s time for my Vipassana review. The 10 days of silent meditation had a daily timetable that involved waking up at 4:30 a.m. each day.
No yoga. No spa treatments. No books to read or music to listen to, let alone a mobile phone or Internet connection—just silent meditation.
Like a school student, I found myself plunged into a new world of living hour to hour by the ring of a bell. Walking in what felt like a trance from my room to the meditation hall in the dark. It was as if I joined the monastic life. Sitting in the meditation hall on the first day, I made the schoolgirl error of not grabbing enough cushions and blankets when they were still available at the back of the room.
Eight days later, my knees and ankles were unforgiving of this error.
For the first three days, we worked with a technique in preparation for Vipassana called Anapana, a breathing centered meditation. For three days we focused on our breath around the entrance to our nostrils. My brain is usually pretty active and self- governing when it comes to random thoughts. For three days my “monkey mind” had free reign while I struggled desperately to sit still for an hour. I tried not to guess whether five or ten minutes had passed since the last time I had snuck a look at my watch.
By day four the silent living became natural and I cherished the warm comforting meals eaten in silence, but the real work had not begun. That day we began Vipassana meditation. The Vipassana technique is a simple one and arguably the purest meditation form there is. It involves scanning your body from head to toe and back again and observing the sensations that one feels in the body, without creating any emotional or physical reaction to the sensation—regardless of what the sensation is.
The key to understanding the teaching is that sensations and experiences, like the rest of life, are all impermanent. They too shall pass.
My journey went from feeling nothing in my body at all to feeling constant burning sensations or pins and needles, and struggling not to create an aversion to the perceived negative sensations and craving for the pleasant ones. Every evening after 12 hours of meditation, we watched a video lesson from the much loved Goenkaji (S.N. Goenka) who was not only an inspirational teacher but had an uncanny knack, to sum up precisely how you’d been feeling for the last 24 hours in a simple sentence.
I didn’t see any lightning bolts or moments of enlightenment. However, around day seven of the course, I realized I had a choice. A choice to continue counting down the minutes hours and days until I had freedom again, or to be grateful for my place here, the opportunity to learn and get whatever I could from the experience.
On the last day when our noble silence was broken, I felt an overwhelming desire to not speak. Instead of rushing out into the sunshine, I crumpled into a ball with tears streaming down my face. When I did speak, it felt so foreign and unnecessary.
One year on from this experience, my perception has changed.
My yoga teacher asked about my Vipassana experience. When I confessed I had not practiced since his response was “It’s okay. You know the truth now. You will go back to it when you are ready.”
The memory of the struggle of waking up at 4 a.m. has faded and life has changed and made its twists and turns. I reflect on the truth of the Vipassana teachings and I realize the truth of what Goenka and his teachers taught us. It all starts with us.
Our experiences in life are all on us. It starts with sensations in our body that respond to life’s events, and we are constantly judging them as good or bad. We crave good experiences and become attached to them while we dread the less pleasant experiences and create aversion.
The truth is closer than an eyelash. We know it’s there, but often we just can’t see it. In this world, it’s easier to get false eyelashes to look beautiful instead of seeking the truth, which requires so much work.
I think the truth about Vipassana is that Vipassana is the truth. It is the simplest form of meditation there is. We have just us and ourselves. There are no false eyelashes to hide behind anymore.
So I may just be going back for another 10 days of 4 a.m. alarm calls.
Author: Ellie Cleary
Image: Ket Quang/ Free Images
Apprentice Editor: Ebbie Drew; Editor: Travis May