Vipassana – 3 Day Course

Photo of Dhamma Sukhakari entrance
The front of Dhamma Sukhakari, Saxmundham, UK

Last month my partner and I took the 3 Day Vipassana residential meditation course for Old Students at Dhamma Sukhakari, in Saxmundham, Suffolk, UK. The course is a refresher or sorts for students that have already taken the 10 Day residential course.

Dhamma Sukhakari means ”Giving the happiness of Dhamma”, and the atmosphere of the center and it’s helpers definitely reflected that spirit. Everyone was really friendly, helpful and respectful during induction and course end. Of course, as with all Vipassana courses, we practiced in complete silence for the entirety of the course once the bell was sounded.

The course felt very different to the 10 day course. For starters, everyone there had experience with Vipassana, knew the rules and already had some modicum of discipline in meditating in stillness. Talking to fellow meditators before the course begun, it was very interesting to hear how Vipassana had changed their lives or helped them in ways they couldn’t have imagined. People of all ages and walks of life, each with their own stories and backgrounds, many from other countries, all gathered to practice this simple but powerful meditation technique. It was a wonderful experience to meet them and be inspired by their stories.

For me, my intention was to top up my basic practice and confirm its direction, to make sure I was staying on track. Being forced to spend 3 days doing nothing but meditating to revisit the experiences I had while on the 10 day course were part of my goal in signing up. I actually wanted to do another 10 day course, but with precious little time to spare, another 10 day course in less than a year seemed overzealous at best. So we opted for the 3 day.

If you aren’t familiar with Vipassana and the 10 Day course, I wrote three posts detailing everything about the experience. Here are links to check them out:

Vipassana Meditation – Part One: How the course benefited me.

Vipassana Meditation – Part Two: Rules for Faith & Practice.

Vipassana Meditation – Part Three: The course at SCVC & my experience there.

The structure of the 3 day course, including the schedule, the rules and the food were all maintained from the 10 day course. It seems the organizers of this group that practice around the teachings of S. N. Goenka are very coordinated and go to great pains to make sure the experience is consistent from center to center. Even the kneeling mats were the same.

Men's Bunks at Dhamma Sukhakari
Bunks in the men’s quarters.

The major differences for me at this center were in the size of the premises. In Twentynine Palms USA, there was space for long nature walks and our own bedrooms with private bathrooms. This made working in silence much more easy to do. There was much more sense of isolation, with minimal chance of contact during group meditation and dining hours. In Saxmundham, UK however, the quarters were tight, with 4 bunks per room, only 2 toilets, and 2 showers for 18 girls on the female side.

Bathroom at Dhamma Sukhakari
Ladies bathroom

Trying to remain isolated without eye contact, physical touch or speech really was quite hard, especially with the British inclination to apologize to everyone, each time you so much as cross someone’s path. I heard numerous accidental “Sorry”s muttered under the breath during these crowded times.

Even separating males and females was impossible to do in this center, as is the practice at Vipassana centers. Our quarters were separated by a single door inside, which was sufficient, but by a thin hedge on one side of the garden, and an awkwardly positioned trailer on the other. On the first day, a male wandered on to the wrong side of the garden and saw me in my bedroom, thankfully clothed. Needless to say, this was distracting, though not intentional. It took a day or so for everyone to get used to where the undefined boundaries really were, to avoid each other.

Male helpers would walk through the girls’ quarters frequently through necessity. The layout of this center doesn’t allow for multiple separate entrances to the kitchen. I didn’t find this distracting however. It was noticeable, especially with the male meditators on the 10 day course, that by day 10 many of them were gawking at the girls. But on this very short course of experienced meditators, the atmosphere was much more focused.

Backyard at Dhamma Sukhakari
Back yard walking area.

Walking in the garden was especially awkward, as it wasn’t really big enough for more than a couple of people to move around in without getting in each other’s way. It was cold in January, so this wasn’t much of a problem, with most girls staying indoors wrapped up in blankets.

I feel like as an Old Student (as one is automatically called once completing the 10 day course), the challenges of the center were chances to use the skills I had learned. I do feel like this center would have been too challenging for me as a New Student, and this is perhaps why this center is more focused on 3 Day courses. I felt a sense of claustrophobia and no sense of privacy. I spent much of my down time from meditation observing these feelings as sankaras.

The constant distraction made it feel difficult for me to get back to the level of focus I had attained on the 10 day course, and by day 2, this was bothering me. I was also having a hard time with the heat. The heaters in the center were all cranked up full blast, and sleeping in the top bunk, with up facing heat fans blowing on you, isn’t a pleasant experience, even when it is cold outside. I’m usually someone who runs cold, and had expected to be chilly on this course, bringing only warm clothes to sleep and meditate in, given the weather and British tendency to only use the least amount of energy possible to take the edge off. By the middle of the first night, I was burning up, sweating and having trouble sleeping.

I tend to get insomnia anyway and am a very light sleeper. My bunk mates were heavy sleepers who snored, but would wake up numerous times throughout the night to pee, then fall right back asleep. This led to me being woken up constantly through the night, taking a long time to fall asleep again, only to be woken at 4am with the morning bell. I was very grumpy.

By Saturday lunch time I was sleep deprived and overheated. Every time I closed my eyes, I would fall asleep. Every time I tried to sleep, I would be woken up. Every time I opened the window to get some relief from the hot air trapped in my top bunk, a girl from the bottom bunk would close it. I was frustrated and exhausted. Unable to express in any form of communication how hot it was on the top bunk, made it impossible to make her understand that my situation was unlivable. I had however noticed that the girl on the other top bunk was similarly hot, as she too would open the window every time it was closed. Knowing that I wasn’t the only one suffering did help, but didn’t fix the situation.

During morning meditation on Saturday, I had to leave the meditation hall to remove clothes, as I felt like I was going to pass out. By this time, I was very disappointed and frustrated that my experience wasn’t going as planned. Vipassana rules include not being allowed to wear revealing clothes, including sleeveless tops, vests, shorts, leggings etc. I felt trapped in the heat, and this created its own additional heat in the form of anger and frustration. By lunch time, I seriously considered packing up and leaving. I sat alone outside in the freezing cold for over an hour contemplating my situation and cooling off my body temperature.

While sitting there, I realized that this experience was part of a sankhara I needed to address. I had started to become angry and had started deflecting that anger on to the girl on the bottom bunk, blaming her for my situation. It wasn’t her fault. She didn’t know what it was like on the top bunk, and we couldn’t talk to each other. It also wasn’t anyone else’s fault that I have a problem sleeping and wake up at the smallest whisper or movement. So I sat there in my anger trying to understand it and let it pass. S. N. Goenka often talks about anicca – pronounced “Aniture”, the concept of everything changing constantly. Each moment, each feeling, each experience passes and is replaced by another. We crave the good sensations and try to avoid the bad ones. When things don’t go our way, we get sad, angry, remorseful, fearful. I focused on this philosophy and sat there feeling my body cool down in the freezing air.

It was then that I realized that I was experiencing the same exact sankhara I had visited during my 10 day course. I had been uncomfortable and frustrated, and deflected that anger on to the girl sitting in front of me. On that occasion, it took me 4 days to realize everything I was experiencing was of my own design. It was a real revelation for me, and practicing Vipassana has allowed me to understand and break this habit without internalizing my anger in an unhealthy way. However, it is a lifelong habit and a hard sankara to dissolve. So once again, here I was, surfacing the sankhara again. To my credit, I didn’t get anywhere near as mad as I did on the 10 Day course, and I recognized my frustrations and anger for what they were within hours. That’s a massive improvement by my math!

S. N. Goenka
S. N. Goenka

Of course, as we sat down on Saturday night for S. N. Goenka’s evening discourse, things became very clear. He talked about expectations during Vispassana. He explained that chasing the feelings you achieve during deep meditation take away from the goal and impact of the meditation, and that to do that means that you aren’t practicing Vipassana. To have expectations is to misunderstand Vipassana and leads to incorrect practice and frustration.

The technique of Vipassana is to observe one’s sensation with equanimity. To acknowledge the sensation, understand that it isn’t permanent, and observe it going away. Not to crave the sensation. Not to avoid it. Just observe it.

By observing and understanding every sensation and treating each with equanimity, you can break the cycle of blindly reacting to the sensation. A situation that causes both yourself and others to suffer by your actions.

Goenka explained that if you spent the entire course observing your inability to focus, found nothing but blockages and couldn’t manage to even observe any anapana* meditation, yet alone a sequence of Vipassana meditation, as long as you observed these facts with equanimity, you had successfully practiced Vipassana. If you observed these failures and reacted negativity to them, but then noticed this and observed the sensations, you had practiced Vipassana and perhaps even uncovered a sankhara. However, if you considered your experience a failure because you hadn’t achieved the clarity of mind you once had in a previous course, you had missed the entire point of Vipassana.

(* S. N. Goenka guiding a mini anapana meditation)

The point of Vipassana is to notice sensations, understand that they are not permanent, observe them, understand anicca and thus remain equanimous towards the sensations. In doing this, you can break the cycle of misery caused from craving or averting sensations, and become happier and more present.

Some days you will have amazing clarity, alertness and feel a sense of progress with your meditation. Other days you will feel sluggish, blocked and will be unable to focus. Other days you will roller-coaster between clarity and fogginess. None of it matters. Each time you observe the sensations you are feeling, you are practicing Vipassana, and you have been successful.

We are the sum of our parts and to ignore or avoid part of yourself, whilst focusing and craving on other parts of yourself is to create imbalance and unhealthy dependence on something; akin to a junkie trying to get a fix. Vipassana in my mind teaches me to recognize this pattern of craving and aversion and catch myself reacting to it in order to retrain my bad habits. When I say bad habits, I’m talking about negative thoughts, knee jerk reactions, anger, fears and sadness, but also attachments to love, happiness, exhilaration and other enjoyable sensations. Coveting the good sensations only leads to disappointment and upset. Equanimity enables you to walk day to day experiencing the present moment for what it is, whether it is happy, sad, good or bad.

Being present is the purpose of many types of meditation. However with Vipassana, I have found that presence is more attainable and more of a practical goal, less of a philosophy or mystical state of being.

For me Vipassana makes perfect sense. It allows me to develop as a human being and takes the mystery out of being present, having successful meditation sessions and what that really means. I highly recommend giving Vipassana a shot if you’ve never tried it. It is a big commitment to take 10 days of your life to dedicate to this. But I assure you that for everyone I’ve met who practices it, the benefits far outweigh that of any vacation, spa membership, yoga retreat, therapy or drug. If you can manage it, it will change your life for the better.

As for the Dhamma Sukharkari center in Saxmundham, I would take this course again, this time with no expectations. The center has everything you need. It is clean, well stocked and despite being in the center of a residential neighborhood, is surprisingly quiet. The center is a challenge for sure, but overcoming those challenges makes for a great experience in learning about oneself. I definitely got what I needed out of the course, and I expect if I do it again, new and different experiences await me.

Aside:

If you have an experience with Vipassana, I’d love to read your comments here. If you want to learn more, I’d be happy to try and answer your basic questions or refer you to the proper resources to guide you further. (Since I am not trained to school the practice and am still in the early stages of my own journey, I can’t answer questions that don’t relate to my personal experience, and wouldn’t want to misguide anyone by attempting to teach this practice.) 

For more information, check out the Vipassana website where there is constantly updated information on courses, educational materials and ways to contribute to the centers. Vipassana centers are 100% funded on donations. Even the staff donate their time. Vipassana courses are free, including board and food. You are encouraged to donate time in service to help others, but it isn’t mandatory. You can also give by signing up for amazonSmile, where amazon donates to a charity of your choice based on purchases you make. You can also donate services if you are in a profession needed to maintain, promote or manage the centers. Donations are not accepted from anyone who has not taken the course.

 

Book Review – “Dying To Be Me” by Anita Moorjani

Anita Moorjani's "Dying To Be Me". Hayhouse.
Anita Moorjani’s “Dying To Be Me”. Hayhouse.

“Dying To Be Me” is Anita Moorjani’s true account of her battle with cancer, her near-death experience (NDE) and the events surrounding that event. The most compelling parts of the book being about her NDE, where she claims to have died, experienced another realm, and chosen to come back, knowing that she would fully heal within days, even though her 4 yr battle with cancer had left her physical body with Stage 4 Lymphoma that had shut down her organs, produced massive skin legions, and developed into multiple lemon sized tumors throughout her body, leaving her in a coma. Her doctors were just waiting around for her to die, her family surrounding her in her dying moments, expecting the worst.

This book is for anyone who is open to unconventional, nonreligious ideas about what lies beyond this world after we die. If you identify strongly with one religion, Anita’s words may offend or horrify you. However, I don’t discourage you from reading it if this pertains to you – even Moorjani herself doesn’t discourage the means by which you achieve happiness and experience oneness, stating that meditation or prayer can aid in reaching both. But she does step outside the boundaries of all conventional religion with both her opinions and her NDE account. She also talks about the confines of religion preventing its practitioners from finding happiness and oneness.  I for one resonated with her opinions and found her NDE recount intriguing, provoking and inspiring.

Moorjani recounts experiencing a oneness with the universe while in her NDE. She claims that it was like waking from a dream, leaving her physical body and becoming one with everyone and everything, transcending time and space. She claims that she knew about everything that pertained to her, including where around the world her family members were and what they were doing….what the doctor in another room was saying about her to her husband….all facts that were later known to be accurate.

She also talks about feeling the essence of her loved ones that had passed on around her. She could feel them and became them, understanding everything they felt all at once. She could see other lives she had lived, in another life time, though she says linear time didn’t exist as we know it in our physical bodies, so it was as if she was living other lives all at once.

The biggest take away her book reveals, is the importance and strength of love. She says that in her NDE she felt an overwhelming sense of love. A universal love that transcends everything. She says that love accepted her unconditionally. That this love is God. That God is all of us, because we are all one. The oneness and love she felt IS God. She basically claims that we are all part of the universal love. Our essence or spirit, or soul, whichever one you chose to identify with, goes back to this realm of pure unconditional love when our physical bodies are no more. I found this a consoling condition to look forward to, as someone who previously questioned the many seemingly nonsensical versions of life after death that most religions have to offer.

It’s hard to find just one quote to do her words about her NDE justice, but in her words, this is part of the experience:

“The further outward I expanded, the less unusual it felt to be in this miraculous state – in fact, I had no awareness of it being out of the ordinary. It all seemed perfectly natural to me at the time. I continued to be fully aware of every detail of every procedure that was being administered to me, while to the outside world I appeared to be in a coma.

 I continued to sense myself expanding further and further outward, drawing away from my physical surroundings. It as as though I were no longer restricted by the confines of space and time, and continued to spread myself out to occupy a greater expanse of consciousness. I felt a sense of freedom and liberation that I’d never experienced in my physical life before. I can only describe this as the combination of a sense of joy mixed with a generous sprinkling of jubilation and happiness. It stemmed from being released from my sick and dying body, a feeling of jubilant emancipation from all the pain that my illness had caused me.

 As I continued to plunge deeper into the other realm, expanding outward, becoming everyone and everything, I felt all my emotional attachments to my loved ones and my surrounding slowly fall away. What I can only describe as superb and glorious unconditional love surrounded me, wrapping me tight as I continued to let go. The term unconditional love really doesn’t do justice to the feeling, as these words have been overused to the point of having lost their intensity. But the physical battle I’d fought for so very long had finally released its strong hold on me, and I had a beautiful experience of freedom.”

(P. 65 –  2012, 1st Etd.)

Moorjani was raised Hindu, in an Indian family living in Hong Kong, surrounded by Chinese and British ex-pats. Her upbringing was a cultural and religious mash up that led to her confusion and fear of the world and everything in it. She attributes a diagnosis of Stage 2 Lymphoma on her fear of cancer among other things, having watched her best friend and a family member suffer through aggressive cancer treatment. She speaks candidly about her religious conflict in the first few chapters of the book, even telling the story of her unsuccessful brush with arranged marriage.

She blames fear for manifesting disease in all of us. She talks about how to “live your life fearlessly”, not depending on approval from anyone, including yourself. That you have nothing to actually prove to yourself at all. That the universe created you perfectly already. You are here for a purpose that will manifest itself to you without you having to pull teeth to find it. In fact, she recommends following your heart, doing only things that make you happy, forgetting worries about money and success and peer approval, and allowing your heart to tell you what you need out of this life. Beyond this life, nothing you do will make you less loved or change where you end up – no heaven and hell, no karma, or whatever you want to call it. She talks about Heaven being a state, not a place.

The book wraps up with a Q&A from some of her many live talks, trying to further express the experience and the lessons she learned in her NDE. From her perspective, she talks about her experience being like that of a blind man who has never seen, getting to finally see, then losing his sight again. Now that he has seen, he remembers what it felt like, though he can’t access that sense anymore. Throughout the book she does her best to use analogies like this to express what she deems an experience near impossible to recount in words.

What is clear though, is that the experience opened up a new found wisdom and clarity for Anita that has allowed her to enjoy her life to the fullest, appreciate it and spread the word of love and acceptance, and her message of oneness to thousands across the world – Not to mention it having been the moment she made a miraculous recovery from certain death.

I found the book an infectious and easy read. I literally didn’t put it down from cover to cover, taking a day to finish it. However, its the type of book you’ll want to pick up again, maybe highlight, maybe make notes in. I had planned to pass the book along to a friend on completion, but have since changed my mind. I will be keeping my copy close at hand, and will be buying additional copies to distribute to anyone who I think will give Anita’s words the time and energy they deserve.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an open mind… and if this woman and her incredible story interest you further, here’s a video of her talking at TED:

Nothingness….amongst other things

Monday was my first time teaching a Kick Boxing class in years. Of course, there was no need to have been stressed about it after all…..like we didn’t already know this, right? It felt good to be teaching again, but I kicked my own butt, as well as every one else’s, since I’m so out of shape. So today, Wednesday, I have 2 day delayed onset of muscle soreness in my butt and calves. I have to teach it again tonight, so hopefully I’ll get through it.

More importantly, during meditation yesterday I had an interesting experience. I felt encouraged that it was a good thing. Usually when I meditate, I try and clear all my thoughts and focus on my breathe…..but the reality is that I spend the whole time trying to ignore all the thoughts that try to manifest, while sometimes paying attention to my breathes. I can count a full 108 breathes up and back down to 1 this way…..with thoughts swimming in to consciousness and my mind trying to ignore them constantly. I’ve also tended to meditate more successfully when there’s lots of outer stimuli. Like on a bumpy airplane decent for landing, opposed to in my tranquil garden where it’s quiet and calming….I talked to Sifu about this and she said it’s because I’m used to multi-tasking my mind and asking it to do just one thing is really hard for it…..so when there are multiple stimuli trying to get in, my mind finds it easier to work on blocking them out. When it’s quiet and peaceful, my mind relaxes more, and then all the thoughts come pouring in.

Yesterday was like a light bulb for me I think. I actually figured out how to ‘notice’ my breathe instead of just count my breathe…. and what happened next was really cool. When I actually noticed my breathe, I was able to finally clear my mind for a moment and think about nothing. However, I must stress that this happened for maybe 3 seconds….but it happened none the less and I can now work on building it.