You know how it is, there are some things in life where you have to pull from your toes in order to get through. When things are so challenging both mentally and physically, that you are on the brink of throwing in the towel any second, and giving up. But from somewhere within the depths of your soul, you somehow find the inner strength to keep going. Kinda like how I felt on our (successful) 12-hour summit bid of Island Peak (also known as Imja Tse) – one of the smallest Himalayan mountains at 20,300 ft / 6,189 m. I needed to pull from this very same inner strength on the Vipassana meditation retreat I just returned from two days ago.
What you ask? Isn’t meditation supposed to be a zen experience where you are all chilled and relaxed by the end of it? Well, not this one. A Vipassana meditation retreat is hard work let me tell you!
First there is the schedule: wake up gong at 4am, 11 hours of both group and individual meditation each day, 1.5 hours of teacher discourse, and the remaining 5 hours were taken up with question time with the teacher, eating two simple meals (6.30am and 11.30am) as well as fruit & tea at 5pm, showering, laundry and rest if you could squeeze that in before 9.30pm lights out, allowing for just 6.5 hours of sleep if you could fall asleep straight away.
Then there was the meditation itself – sitting unsupported in the lotus positon for 11 hours for 10 straight days takes its toll let me tell ya, particularly if you have arthritis in your right knee! On Day 3 you are required to sit still and not move at all, working through the pain until it eventually alleviates itself. Take it from someone who knows, arthritic pain does not get alleviated with Vipassana meditation.
And in addition to living in an austere environment with minimal comforts, there was also the precept of noble silence. This isn’t any normal kind of silence. In addition to not speaking to anyone, you also are forbidden to communicate non-verbally through your eyes, expressions, gestures etc. The not speaking piece I did not mind, but the total prohibition of non-verbal communication was difficult for me, and I have to admit I did break my noble silence vow on occasion. I think humankind are meant to communicate, it’s really hard not to! I was grateful on Day 10 when we were slowly eased back into communicating with each other – it was delightful to finally connect with the wonderful women (and later men!) I had shared this special time with.
Why did I take this gruelling 10-day Vipassana meditation course? (Actually it is 12 days in total – Day 1 is arrival day and Day 12 is departure day and so do not count as part of the 10-day retreat).
I first started to practice Tibetan Bon meditation in 2012 on the recommendation of my friend Beverly and I have stuck with it since. I find it has helped me greatly in dealing with adversity that comes with both work and family life – sometimes far more adversity than one would hope, but such is life. Tibetan Bon gave me some great tools to manage those challenging times with good success on my part. I had however been interested in Vipassana meditation for some time – a practice that primarily provides insights into the true nature of the reality of life using mindful breathing.
Having a little time on my hands here in Nepal, and at the suggestion of a colleague, I signed up for the Vipassana meditation course at the Kirtipur Dhamma centre. Many Nepali friends spoke of friends of theirs whose lives had changed significantly after the retreat (all for the better) and how it would be life changing for me. I personally did not want a ‘turn my life up side down’ experience but rather add some subtle tools to manage my reaction to life’s challenges a little easier, and enhance what I consider to be an already pretty awesome life. And that is exactly what I got from the retreat.
I am still processing all I have learnt about myself, how I deal with adversity and a few other insights on how I behave in life. A seed has been planted. It will need to be nurtured and slowly over time, it will bear fruit. Who knows when or where, but I expect that is all part of life’s journey.
As always with new experiences, I met a wonderful group of people, each with their own interesting story. I should clarify, there was a separation of sexes with just 9 women and about 30 men. The whole group was mostly made up of mostly 1st time students with a handful of ‘old’ students re-taking the retreat. Mostly Nepali there was a smattering of foreigners from India, Russia, Belarus, Poland, France, Mexico, Brazil, US and myself the sole Canadian. All from different walks of life, some who came especially for the retreat from their home countries, others on epic travel adventures (the Mexican couple biked from Holland to Nepal taking 10 months and after a little break, will continue to bike through China next, ultimately ending up in New Zealand (as you do!)). There was a sharing of passions for eco-design and architecture, as well as perma-culture, design of systems, processes and workflows, and even a common interest in international privacy laws!
The world is a very interesting place indeed with so much commonality between humankind, why is it then there is so much fighting and discontent worldwide? A rhetorical question.
I will end this post with a little postscript. Vipassana meditation retreats are held worldwide in many countries (see here). There are two such centres in Kathmandu, and to be honest I would not recommend the Dhammi centre in Kirtipur. It was filthy. So filthy a few of us ended up scrubbing the place from top to bottom, leaving it cleaner than when we arrived. There was frequently no water for the toilets, you just never knew what was going to fail next.
The female accommodation was a long narrow structure holding 12 beds, no windows, one operational door with a screen door, a tin roof which meant very high day-time temperatures while the sun shone, smelly unclean mattresses & bed linen, no mosquito nets and oh the bugs! Spiders the size of your hand, spiders the size of a loonie that bite, some insects I had no idea what they were (probably best) and mosquitos everywhere – we were eaten alive!!
But there was a beautiful array of butterflies, all sizes, designs, colours – just stunning. And bigger slugs than Bowen Island has ever seen as well as frogs the size of two hands that you had to be careful not to step on when walking the pathway from the meditation hall to our quarters in the dark.
At the end of the retreat, we learned the male’s quarters were in far better shape than the females’ quarters – they had 3 beds in a room and even had mosquito nets. And their quarters were definitely cleaner than ours. Sigh. The icing on the cake was when we learned the men did not have to wash their bed linen before departing as the women were asked to do. Gender discrimination??? I’ll let you decide.