Pulling from your toes

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.

The gong used to alert people to the beginning or end of an activity on the schedule. Photo credit Rodrigo Tranquilo, Brasil (fellow participant on my retreat)

The gong used to alert people to the beginning or end of an activity on the schedule. Photo credit Rodrigo Tranquilo, Brasil (fellow participant on my retreat)

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.

Photo credit: Bartosz Dobrowolski, Poland. Also a fellow participant

Photo credit: Bartosz Dobrowolski, Poland. Also a fellow participant

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!

As soon as the retreat was completed, a few of us (mostly the westerners!) headed to Dhokaima Cafe for a well-earned coffee. Photo credit: Bartosz Dobrowolski

As soon as the retreat was completed, a few of us (mostly the westerners!) headed to Dhokaima Cafe in Patan, for a well-earned coffee. Photo credit: Bartosz Dobrowolski

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.

About Kate Coffey

After 30 or so years in the investment management industry, 2013 saw me turn my life up-side-down, making my way first to Nepal, then Bangladesh during that first ‘year away’. The year took me on a journey I did not expect, had me fall in love with Nepal and its people, and become inspired at the work of Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre (SIRC) located in Bhainsepati - 2 hours east of Kathmandu in the Saanga foothills. Since 2014, I have returned to SIRC numerous times, working closely with the folks there in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes. In Bangladesh I marvelled at the strength and resilience of marginalized women who have the courage and audacity to break the rules and make a better life for themselves and their children through microfinance programs with BRAC. 2016-2017 saw me embark on a totally new experience in Sri Lanka, a place I never would have chosen to end up in. It’s the 40C+ heat, big humidity and tropical snakes & animals that scared me! But I ended up love love loving! my time there, working with predominantly Tamil small business owners in remote villages in north and east of the country, trying their best to recover their businesses and the lives of their employees, after decades of a civil war. My time in Sri Lanka made me realize my hard-earned business skills and experience can really be put to good use! The work the BIZ+ team and I did there ended up earning me International Volunteer of the Year Award in December 2017, presented on Capitol Hill, Washington DC no less. I am currently home on Bowen Island, in the west coast of Canada, shoring up my finances before I head off to who knows where, for my next expert volunteer assignment. This blog initially started out as a travelogue of sorts to keep friends and family worldwide updated while I was off on my travels in 2013-2014. Since then it has morphed into a life story of the many places I have lived and worked and of the wonderful people I have met along the way. I hope you enjoy.
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7 Responses to Pulling from your toes

  1. Pat says:

    My experience was definitely quite different. I was able to remain in my bed doing my meditation propped up at 4:30 am with my pillow and blankets to quietly meditate. If you wanted to join the others in the hall you could but it was not required. I also brought my yoga chair to support my back as I cannot sit up straight for all those hours. This chair can rock or just support you. It is awesome. I would not go on another one without it.
    We were the first in the Center in Chilliwack so it was very clean and we were 4 to a room. I brought my own sheets and sleeping bag. The food was awesome. And I had done a couple of smaller silent weekend retreats before so being silent for 10 days was long but not so bad. I loved when we could walk around the compound and just enjoy the outside beauty of BC. Thank God we only had the normal Canadian bugs which were few.
    I hope that even with all that unpleasant bug stuff you enjoyed it enough to try one of the ones in Canada. I would like to go to one in Ontario or Quebec some day.
    Glad you survived the 10 days. I am sure there will be many blessings that will happen over the next while that you will be aware of where they have come from. Blessings

    • Kate Coffey says:

      Oh Pat, meditating in bed sounds bliss! Even if we were not hauled out of bed at 4am, I think many of us would still have gone to the meditation hall given it was the only place with the least number of mosquitoes …maybe there was method in their madness!

      The organizers were adamant no one had support during meditation. I even got clipped across the shoulder a few times by assistants for having my right leg straight out in front of me until the teacher nodded it was ok for me to continue in this pose.

      Seems the assistants in Kirtipur might have been over zealous in their implementation of rules.

      I did enjoy the retreat despite the challenges, we all enjoyed it actually. Maybe I will try another in Canada sometime … hmmm.

  2. Mick Canning says:

    Well done, Kate. Seems you did very well to get through that. The most I have done is a 7 day Zen retreat, which sounds a picnic in comparison.

  3. Pingback: Itsy Bitsy Spider ……… | Bowen to Bangladesh

  4. Terri Dewar says:

    Hey Kate! Wow! What an experience!I So enjoyed reading about your experience! I would be interested in hearing more when the “seed does turn to fruit”, and you begin to recognize how this experience has impacted your life. Missing you!

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