How can I express the profound beauty of the experience I’ve just had?  I’ve written numerous introductions to this entry and nothing will suffice.  Perhaps the sensations I’ve been feeling over the past ten days have reached a heightened state that is beyond my own comprehension.  Never have I come across such  immense and concentrated kindness.

I’ve sat as a student twice on the renowned Goenka Vipassana meditation courses.   Of which some controversy arises due to the incredibly strict nature and schedule of the course.  You are required to agree to set precepts, hand over all of your unnecessary possessions and follow noble silence for the duration of the ten days.  You, whilst sharing accommodation with numerous others, sink into complete and utter isolation.  Following instructions from the audio footage of Goenka’s course from 1991, under the watchful eye of assistant teachers, you immerse yourself into the purest form of meditation, as practiced by Buddha.

The sound of the gong leads you from bed, to meditation hall, to dining hall, to meditation hall, to dining hall, to meditation hall, to bed once again….day after day….as you sink deeper and deeper into your own practice, your own experience.  As a student you don’t pay all that much attention to the group of people sitting to either side of the teachers…men on one side, women on the other, who scurry in from time to time and scurry out.  Who step outside the course boundaries and follow mysterious paths out of sight.  Heads are down, and you almost forget they are there.  Seeking them out, only when the toast has run out at breakfast time or you want a hot water bottle to warm the bed.

My third time at a Vipassana centre, I felt that it was time to be on the other side.  To experience a course as a server.  One of those apron wearing bodies slinking quietly in and out of sight.

Things have been going pretty well for me of late.  My more debilitating of vices relinquished through an extended practice of meditation, yoga and ayurveda.  A happier disposition, steadier mind, ability to face difficult situations with a clear head, and perhaps most importantly a sense of honesty with myself.  I feel less like running away, and more like sitting with and accepting my vulnerabilities.  As my capacity to do these things has grown, so has my desire to share with others…to give something back for the incredible opportunities that have presented themselves to me when I was in need.

To serve at a Vipassana retreat is to offer your time, your energy, your metta (loving kindness) to the students sitting the course.  Your purpose is to ensure that they have the most comfortable, safe and productive experience possible, free from distraction.  It is clear, from the moment you enter the centre as a student, that you are there to work, and work hard.  I discovered, very early on as a server, that you are also there to work, and work hard.

I could make my way through the intricacies of each day.  How you wake at 4 am and fall into bed at 10 pm, preparing meals for 300 people and cleaning up after them; negotiate your way through the transition from kitchen chaos to serenity of dining and meditation hall; practice “right speech” and adhere to the same precepts as the students under very different, interactive circumstances…but I think what I really want to write about are some of the incredible things I learnt and witnessed as part of this  team of servers.

Trust in the course itself.  As a student it is part of the process – to challenge, question, and experience resistance and aversion to certain teachings/processes/concepts.  It’s natural to query the motivations, feel suspicious or uncomfortable….you’re being taken out of your comfort zone beginning to stir up and awaken deep wounds.  It’s threatening and induces fear.  As a student I had moments of feeling like the servers were out to get me; that the hall was being pumped with hallucinogenic drugs; that Goenka was just an incredibly smart businessman with the perfect “ripping vulnerable people off” model.  Through my second course these aversions weakened…and as a server, put to rest.   What struck me most about being behind the scenes was how everything…and I mean every minor, major, at times seemingly frivolous detail had a purpose.  And that purpose was wholly to benefit the students and the learning of the Vipassana technique.

Respect for the teachers.  The unwavering patience.  The compassion.  I could see, for the first time, how much love and kindness they were sending out to everyone.  Why can’t you see it when you’re a student?  Why can’t you feel it?  It was so clear to me this time…but then it clicked, that we are not used to receiving unconditional love.  It isn’t present in our daily lives.  We aren’t tuned into it.  We have to learn to receive, just as much as we need to learn to give….

Perhaps the greatest lesson I learnt was how important it is to share with others.  As a student you encounter storms.  They are episodes where the technique is bringing emotions and sensations to the surface that are overwhelming and overpower your ability to work.  The tears fall, the concentration lapses, and it feels like you are being drained of some deep-seated poison.  As a server, you also pass through storms.  They are less dramatic, less intense…but storms all the same, and in taking that storm into the kitchen and trying to function, communicate, collaborate in a stressful environment it soon intensifies and you have two choices.  To close yourself off is one.  To bear that vulnerability and carry on is the other.  I chose the latter, and in doing so I came to the realisation that over these past few years, as I’ve delved deeper and deeper into my consciousness and worked through so much pain and difficulties…I’ve become incredibly lonely.  How many friends I’ve lost on this journey.  I understand that in some respects that is what was needed.   People change, “anicca, anicca” and we must accept the transient nature of our existence…and that we are the source of our own love, and our own happiness…but once that lesson has been learnt, then we must be able to share with others.  We must be able to love and be loved.  To welcome friendships, to be comfortable in letting people witness, and feel our vulnerabilities…our weaknesses.

I discovered so much beauty, and so much love in the people around me during this course that I feel quite overwhelmed by it all.  Every time I leave a Vipassana course, the world seems a little different.  Today, I walked the streets of Oxford in the rain feeling rushes of warmth and joy.

Anicca, anicca….may all beings be happy.

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