Category: Vipassana

The Waves

So I wake up this morning, still trying to shake this weight of pending doom, and I just lie there.   The pipes are worn and overworked from trying to heat the flat for so many months now.  They creak and whine.  The window frames are rattling, defenseless against the rain that has seeped so deeply into the wood, that they barely stand straight anymore.  My mum’s got a shift at the hospital to get ready for and I can feel the resentment through the walls.  How disparate are situations are right now.  Me, desperate for work, desperate to get on….she, in need of rest and respite from the long, understaffed hours.

I keep my eyes closed and focus on my breath.  Even though it’s not just me who’s out of balance right now…the whole world is out of whack…you have to start somewhere.

I read an article yesterday – a pleasant one – from Kino MacGregor about taking time out each day to check in with yourself.  She was saying that even if we can’t do a full practice – then 5 minutes is fine.  Anything!  It’s not about how much we do, it’s about recognising and honoring the fact that we deserve a little bit of “me-time” everyday.

It resonated with me, not because she was saying anything new, but because it was an appropriately timed and gentle nudge to do just that.

The first step is to identify the things that make us happy and give us a sense of peace and serenity.

Is it an early morning run along the river; a swim at lunchtime; being creative in the kitchen; knitting a scarf for a friend; playing the guitar; catching up on the phone with a loved one…it doesn’t matter – we all have something/many things that makes us feel good about ourselves, and if done regularly, make us feel better-equipped to cope with even the shittiest things that life throws at us.

As I scoured my body – patch of skin to patch of skin – felt patches of heat and the rise of irritation and frustration, followed by trembling and anxiety, I knew that it was the Pitta and Vata imbalance in me that needed to be addressed.

The uncertainty and lack of routine is agitating my Vata; the food I’m eating and temperament of the flat is flaring up the Pitta; and the cold, wet winter is most certainly playing its Kapha-part in dampening spirits and discouraging action.

So I take a look at all of that, and I think about all the things that make me feel better about myself, that make every day – whatever happens – a good day all-in-all, and I realise how I’ve let all of that go, and I need to start bringing it back in again!

My problem is that I have developed a rather elaborate ideal daily routine.  It consists of meditation, pranayama, yoga (preferably in the shala), a strict Pitta-pacifying-Vata-Kapha diet, any number of weird little eccentricities of tongue scraping, abhyanga, neti throughout the day, and to top it all off a recognition that I need to be following my heart, and doing what feels right in order for things like friendships, family and love to fall into place.  It’s quite a lot to hold together and maintain, especially at this particular stage of my life.  I’m trying to start up my own business and its going to be a while until I’m self-sufficient.

Its all too easy to fall back into old habits – eating crap, watching too much tv, putting off my practice until x,y,z sorts itself out – and blame my circumstances and the hand that feeds me.  It’s the coward’s way out.

And every now and again…I’m a coward.

That’s ok.  I’m not going to beat myself up over it.  We are all cowards, as we are all brave.  We are everything.  It is the awareness of such that enables us to make changes and grow.

So what am I going to do about it?  Bearing in mind that I can’t control the weather, I can’t change the moods or temperament of those around me, and I can’t force people to have massages or hire me for some part-time work.

Well, I meditated this morning which is a start.  I rolled my mat out, and did ten minutes of surynamaskara As and Bs.  I did about 3 minutes of pranayama, and have just finished my pitta-vata-pacifying rice and coconut milk porridge.

It’s hardly the 3 hour morning ritual I’d climbed to at the peak of my health and spiritual well-being….but once again – I’m not going to beat myself up over it.

I won’t compare today to yesterday, or long for what I want tomorrow to be.  It just so happens that in this moment, I’m struggling ever-so-slightly.  My enthusiasm for life has taken a bit of a dip, and my focus and dedication to my practice has waned.

Kino says she walks down to the sea every evening to listen to the ocean and watch the waves crashing against the sand.  Of course, her environment is slightly different from mine.  Eastbourne is not Miami, but we do share the sea.  What’s here may be a little more grey, and pebbly, but it’s beautiful all the same, and perhaps that’s just what I need.  Not just my yoga or my meditation or my pranayama – but a blast of fresh air, and the incredible sounds of the motioning waves.

the waves


Grey Britain?

I woke up bright and early this morning.  Meditation is on the backburner due to it being a full-house (there are no quiet corners) and yoga’s on hold too, due to it being my time of the month.  So, I thought I’d make myself a lime and hot water drink, and settle in for some relaxing morning reads.  Guardian, BBC, Elephant Journal, Yoga Journal…my usual inquisitive haunts.

And what a depressing start to the day it’s been.  Sexual harassment stories and warnings throughout India (where I plan to visit next year); despairing lamentations over the rape culture of the West (how dare the public rape of a young girl get in the way of a couple of football scholarships); snow and rain terror throughout the UK (will this winter never end?); economic despair (still); Job Centre targets revealed (not to GET jobs for people….rather let’s just go out and GET those low-life, scroungers!); Australians and the English whining over who’s the whiniest of them all.

Sighs can be heard from across the room as family members trawl through similar stories.  Disheartened, despairing…isn’t this all hopeless, when will the daffodils bloom?  There’s a lot of pressure on these little miracles of nature.  They are a beacon of light, a symbol of hope, of change, that this bleak drudgery of a failing society “Grey Britain” may still breathe some life.

Even the Santandar ads make me want to cry.  The fabulous Jessica Ennis – one of the greatest role models for British women ever to emerge…and just a year on from her Olympic success, and she’s posing awkwardly, pointing at some soul-destroyingly, boring banking claim, and I want to scream…”WHHHHYYYYYYY????”  All that potential to lead, to encourage, to inspire, and it falls flat on a red branded backdrop.

I want to remain equanimous.  Nothing is permanent.  Anicca.  Annica.  In reacting negatively then all you’re doing is perpetuating more negativity, and what good is that to anyone?  But, I find myself wrestling with increasing intensity over when to continue to observe my breath, and repeat anicca, anicca, waiting for the heat, the fear, the despair to pass; and when to become the heat, the anger, the fear, the EMOTION of what is now.

At what point does observation and non-attachment become repression and detachment?

I can’t deny the power and the noise of our media – how influential it has become, and how disproportionately it favours hate, anger and blame.  How little it encourages joy, love and compassion.  And I don’t know what to do.  My yoga practice helps.  My meditation retreats provide some much needed respite.  Ayurveda and learning how to find my balance within such a volatile environment is invaluable…but still – why does it have to be such a fight?  Why is it so hard to be uplifted, instead of downtrodden by everything that’s fed to us?

The beautiful, the inspiring, the wonderful is happening every day, all around us.  It shouldn’t be so hard for us to see that, to be reminded of that.

In looking inwards we need to open up to our surroundings and to the environment in which we live.  It is our relationships to all of this…to everyone we speak to, to every voice we hear, every action, every grey cloud, blaring siren, every touch, every refrain, every moment…moment to moment…we are interacting and absorbing and exchanging….and sometimes its hard to keep believing, to keep practicing what we, deep down, know to be true.  That all of that is not to blame for how we feel.  That all those feelings of anger and hate and fear are coming from within ourselves, not those terrible ads and ugly stories on the news.  Even this impenetrable grey that seems to have wedged itself permanently between us and the light and warmth of the sun…isn’t to blame.

I guess, as much as I’d like to, I can’t run away from this weather, or the media.  But, I can change my response.  I can observe the sense of anger I feel towards the banks and giant corporations, to the politicians and the seeming lack of compassion.  I can observe the sense of fear I feel over the sexual violence against women.  I can observe the sluggishness and weight of this long, long winter.  But I don’t have to become these things!  I don’t want to be a victim, or an aggressor, or a perpetuator of further anger and despair.

I want to be better than that.  I can be better than that.  So I guess that means I’d better let go of these negative feelings that I started my day with, and be grateful for what we do have.  I can compensate for the media’s preference for misery, by focusing on what’s good.

Like the UK becoming the first country this year to remain loyal to its G8 promise:

Like following and sharing the uplifting and inspirational stories of friends, such as Lucy Fenner, who are overcoming great personal struggles:

Like listening to some fabulous music, or making a pot of Kapha-balancing tea for my family.  Like creating gift-bags for my lovely Oxford ayurveda-massage clients.  Forgiving myself for moments like these…when I get drawn into the frenzy of sensationalism and fear-mongering.   Like setting aside an hour later on in the day, quiet-corner or not, to at least try to meditate.

It is a fight to remain equanimous.  But why not?  I’ve fought for things before…

Grey Britain?  It doesn’t have to be.


Bhavatu sabba mangalam

When you tell people that you’re going to a Vipassana meditation retreat, they often say, “Have fun!”, and “Enjoy!” Words that, funnily enough, don’t spring to mind to anyone who’s ever been on one.

I think it must be the word “retreat”.  It suggests calmness and tranquility.  An escape from the world, and an opportunity to pamper oneself.  And in some respects that’s true.  Vipassana centres are situated in remote locations, away from the sounds of traffic, and when you hand over your keys, mobile phone, Ipads, Ipdos, kindles, writing utensils, and anything else that could be perceived as a distraction, you certainly feel like you’re escaping from the pressures of modern-day life.

But there’s no massage, or marble baths.  No fruit platters and smoothies.  No lying in, and frolicking barefoot through the fields, counting the petals of a freshly picked daisy.  In fact, to pick a daisy, would most certainly be frowned upon, as a disturbance to nature…the killing of a living thing.

There’s no dressing up of the Vipassana retreat.  The often misconceived “cult-like” code of conduct that you agree to prior to starting the course is presented as clearly and as succinctly as possible, and you are provided with numerous opportunities to back out, or change your mind before the reign of noble silence prevails.  However, it still takes you by surprise.

This was my second Vipassana course.  I completed my first in Kanchunaburi, Thailand, almost ten months ago.  So one would expect the whole experience to be slightly easier, less alien.  And perhaps some things were a little easier…such as sitting cross-legged for ten hours a day, and refraining from gorging myself with numerous helpings at meal times to compensate for the deep work that lay ahead. But, what I discovered is that it never gets easier.  Just different.

People have asked me to compare.  What was better, what was worse, what did you feel?  And the whole time I was there, I looked forward to getting back and writing, what I thought would be my final blog, delving into exactly those things.  And yet, as I sit here and type away, it feels like something else wants to be written.  Like it’s not important what my experience was, or how I felt from day-to-day.

Yes, there were breakthroughs, and breakdowns.  Yes, there were hilarious moments, and terrible moments.  Friendships formed, and tolerance and compassion tested.  Weight was lost, and deeply rooted imbalances raised to the surface.  I embraced more of Goenka’s teachings, yet continued to resist.  I wrestled with a longing to leave, and the determination to stay til the end.  I wanted to share with the world, but at the same time keep it all to myself.

I can’t explain it all, because whatever significance I once placed on every moment, every thought, every emotion…is no longer there.

Perhaps a life-time of conditioning is beginning to unravel.  Perhaps the words “Anicca, Anicca” are more than words now, but a reality.

I know that it will take time to fully appreciate the changes that have occurred.  They will reveal themselves in situations I face at any given time.  A response has changed, a pattern broken.  Sensations of a particular kind lessen in prominence; obsessions and insecurities loosen their grip.

Even now, I feel a greater sense of inner-peace.  The rawness of the experience is beginning to subside, and so many things I struggled with and were causing me pain have dissolved.   In their place resides great hope and an enthusiasm for life.

There was a moment when I returned to something that Matthew told me.  That I have the power to change the negativity within myself.  I repeated after him…”this is my new world.  My new universe”.  On day 9, when something of intense weight and pain had been lifted, and I walked out into the fields, awash with the purest of emotions:  love, forgiveness, compassion, I realised that I was, at last, experiencing my new world, my new universe – moment to moment.

Bhavatu sabba mangalam

May all beings be happy!

Yogi signs on…

Today was my first official “sign-on”.

I entered the horrendously ugly 60’s building with a skip in my step.  Nice to have a bit of a routine, someone to check in with and talk to about this whole unemployment thing…

Handed my little book to one of the many assistants looming in the hallway, and took a seat in section one, next to a shy man with jam-jar spectacles.

Above his head was a poster,

“Who knows where the right job for you could lead?”

Motivational, hopeful, I started to brim with ideas, roll around in the endless possibilities, like a cat in the dust.

“shelf filler”


“sales assistant”

another oh.

“sales supervisor, department manager…” every painful step of the ladder sending a splintered shard into my heart, until “store manager” was interrupted by the muffled call of my name: “Miss Hancock”.

Yes.  Yes.  That’s me.  I ejected from my seat and launched myself away from the epitome as fast as I could.

CVs spilling out of my “I love the Green Cow Organic Farm” bag, ink-stained fingers rummaging for the thirty forms I had to fill in over lunch, a tirade of stories and words exploding onto his desk.  I couldn’t help but notice his eyes enlarge, and body lean back.

“I don’t know what to do about my CV!”  I explained, with genuine angst.  Expressed my suspicions over the assumptions and stigma associated with the word “oxfam” and “charity”.

“I am not Mrs Doubtfire!  If they’d just read on they’d see that!”

Hmmm.  Yes.  Yes.  He muttered, as he slowly returned to his original position, and took hold of my CV.

I waited expectantly.

“You could…”

“Yes?” I asked.

“Just take it out.”

“What?  All of it?”

“Well, if it’s a genuine concern then maybe it’s for the best…”

6 years of hard-work, four divisions, all those projects…and stress.

I reclaimed my CV, folded it up and placed it protectively back in my bag.

“Its ok.  Maybe its just a sign that they’re not the right jobs for me…”

And so my first interview came to its end.  As I gathered my things and thanked him for his time and attention, he looked up at me and said.  “You’ll get a job soon.  If somebody sees you…you’ll get the job.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It’s a full-moon today.  Energy peak, static attention-span.  When all the dementia patients on my mum’s ward at the hospital go loopy.  I wondered why I couldn’t get past Suryanamaskara A this morning.

Vata incense burning richly in the fire-place, morning sun warming the front of my body.  The thoughts in my head are in a frenzy.

There are so many things I want to do…

I heard from a friend from the Vipassana course this morning.  Reminded me of a card she’d given me :

The true meaning of life

“We are visitors on this planet.  We are here for ninety or one hundred years at the very most.  During that period, we must try to do something good, something useful with our lives.  If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find your true goal.  The true meaning of life.”  H.H. The 14th Dalai Lama

Perhaps I can pin that over the poster in the job centre on my next visit…



Ayurveda: in dreams

Soooo, I went back for my two-week appointment, having ALMOST followed her guidelines meticulously.  There were a couple of days here and there where I deviated from the food plan and my dedication to crushing three teaspoons of coriander seeds into a glass of water every night waned, but all-in-all I was feeling like a good…I want to say student instead of patient.

I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Whether it would be a simple – check up and go – here’s your diet plan for the rest of your life, or a thorough reevaluation.

Having monitored my toilet breaks, written about my emotional ups and downs here on the blog, I’d felt prepared for both, but still, when our conversation got going and some of the more probing questions were introduced I was caught off-guard.

My understanding of the remedies and what they do, and how they make me feel wasn’t particularly acute.  In fact, it was all a bit of a blur.  I knew that one made me hiccup, some had more bitter tastes than others, but how had they changed me?  What were they doing to me?

I’ve decided that over the next two weeks (until my next appointment) this will be my primary focus.

Night Remedy.  1 tsp of dark brown powder mixed into small cup of hot water – “are you sleeping deeply?” she asked me.  I had to think for a bit.

“Yes.  Mostly I am.”  In fact, I’d been sleeping better than I had for a long-time, but every now and again I’d wake up in the night, or feel really groggy the next day.

“Have you been having dreams?”  She continued…and it was then that I drew a blank.  Dreams?  I usually pay really close attention to my dreams.  They’re often incredibly vivid and action-packed, so the fact that I drew a blank, made me assume, “no.  I’m not having dreams.”

It was then that she told me the night-remedy is about encouraging deep sleep, and its in deep sleep that we heal, that we recover.  I am aware of all of this from the yoga and meditation, but realised that now, with the changes in my diet and additional herbal concoctions, this point was particularly prevalent.

My ayurvedic treatment is, much like my meditation, about purging and letting go.  Letting go!  It’s difficult to believe how much stuff I’ve been holding onto.  The weight!  The unbearable weight of it all…and it just keeps falling.

The last two nights I’ve kept a notepad by the side of my bed.  Pen at the ready.  As soon as I wake I make a quick note of the main things I’ve dreamt of.

Friday night – it was traveling and train journeys, amends with estranged friends, and facing up to a far-too-obvious truth regarding an ex-of sorts.

Last night –

36 Henley Street.  Landlords.  Housemates.  Being back there.  New kitchen.  Eating the pizza – lying, making up excuses, feeling guilty.  Don’t lie in the first place.  Don’t eat the pizza!!

A bit random, perhaps, but it relates back to a similar break-through from when I was in meditation.  A traumatizing experience with the blue bucket.

Day 2 – soooo restless and bored (now that I wasn’t allowed to sleep in my rest breaks and private meditation).  Decided to give myself a make-shift pedicure.  Hmmmm….blue bucket.  Right, fill up the blue bucket with hot water and soap.  Place bucket on floor by bed, soak right foot, sit back and relax.  Ahhhh, this meditation malarkey isn’t so bad.  A few minutes have passed.  Time to empty the bucket…but my foot’s going to drip across the floor.  So, I cleverly decide to hop, and slide my feet towards the shower drain.  A LITTLE bit of pressure on the floor of the bucket, but ah well.  Sure it’ll be fine.   Now its time for the left foot.  Hot water and soap in the bucket, left foot placed into the bucket, lean back and relax….hot water everywhere!  Seeping, from a thin crack in the sky-blue plastic.  Fuck!

Now, any normal person would have mopped up the water, gone to management, told them about the bucket and requested a new one.

I, on the other hand, went through 4 distinct stages.

1) Denial.  Rest of day 2 – day 4.  It must have been there before.  I can’t believe they gave me a broken bucket!

2) Partial Acceptance  – day 4.  Ok.  It was me.  I broke the bucket… what the hell do I do about it?  Panic, fear, will they charge me for it, can I swap it with somebody else?

3) Make-shift Resolution – day 5 – shower-cap on the bottom of bucket = no more spillage!  Hoorah (short-lived).

4) Taking responsibility for my actions.  Day 7 – particularly intense day of meditation, in which I identified this whole bucket scenario as being symptomatic of a much much greater issue.  Recognition – Acceptance – Dissolution.  If I was going to start to combat this destructive pattern, then I’d have to face up to the bucket once and for all.

Day 9 – I marched up to management – bucket in tow, and in my noble-silence sign language admitted my mistake, made my apologies and held my breath waiting for the consequences.  She looked at me, confused as fuck…

That bucket, much like this pizza I ate in my dream, haunted and taunted me, creating so much guilt, and stress, that could have been avoided if I’d just throw my hands up into the air and say straight off the bat, “I’m sorry, I’ve been a dick and done something stupid”

Where has this crippling fear of making mistakes arisen from?  All I can do, and what I’ve learnt, is that it doesn’t really matter what the root cause is as such.  If you can break the habit in the now, then all the past stresses and weight unravels.  It gets stripped out of you, along with the root cause, and you are set free.

Since my return from Thailand I’ve been making a conscious effort to stop lying.  It’s usually about things like agreeing to things that I don’t really want to do, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, or saying I like something when I don’t, covering up a spillage on the carpet, or hiding empty wrappers of chocolate bars…in breaking the habit its manifesting as the panic-striken yell of, “SUE!  I’VE MADE A MISTAKE!”  Bobbles from the window blinds sucked up into the hoover; declining an invitation to a party because I just can’t afford it;  no more elaborate excuses and just admitting to my Ayurveda dr I’d double-booked, any chance of rescheduling?!

It’s surprisingly hard, and I find myself going down the path of creativity and pulling myself back in again.  NO!  TRUTH Laura – TRUTH!  Plain and simple.  Perhaps it will get easier in time, and these dreams will leave me.  Perhaps even just admitting it, and being open about this particular struggle of mine will help me to let go of whatever it is.

Perhaps that’s why I’m struggling so much with this whole job-seeking thing…because as recruitment processes stand its going against this new-found determination.  I came across a job I felt excited about the other day.  The salary’s lower than what I was on before I went away, but it was the first company that invited people to apply – and be creative, be them!  How refreshing it was, and how fearless I felt in getting in touch and saying this is me…if I’m a fit – GREAT let’s chat, if not, it doesn’t matter.

It reminded me that its worth holding out to find the right job…the one that encourages balance in an individual – celebrates it.

Whenever I feel that fear creeping up, like when I’m standing at the till in the Oxfam shop, and have to press the buttons just right, I take a step back…look around me…if I make a mistake so what?  The manager behind me is smiling away, ready to help if I need her, the customer is smiling away too, probably thinking, “Ah, bless.  Volunteer on her first day!”  I think back to that wonderful TED lecture that Tamsin posted on my blog ages ago…Ken Robinson’s “schools kill creativity”.

If you’re not prepared to be wrong you’ll never come up with anything original….[in business] we stigmatize mistakes….[in education] mistakes are the worst things we can make…as a result we are educating people out of their creative capacities

(if the link’s broken – try this:

In Ayurvedic terms my constitution is predominantly Vata.  When in balance this is movement, creativity, generating of ideas and thinking quickly.  Then I am Kapha – which is grounded and caring.   Wanting to look after people.  But when we go through a competitive “Pitta” education system which gears us up for an even more competitive working environment, then where does that leave the Vata/Kapha types?  On a back foot…out of balance.

If I take an even bigger step back, I can see why this stage in my life, this point of transition is so fundamentally important.  Look around us.  The education system Ken Robinson pulls into question in such an inspiring manner, the  distrust we have in business, in the banks, in our politicians.  Our POLITICIANS!  I went to boarding school for two years, and watching them heckle and bully in the house of commons is about as inspiring as getting caught in the cross-fire of the absurd abuse of the Wargrave and Gonville boys in the Common Room when I was 17.  It’s a disgrace.

Where do we go from here?  What are our alternatives?

I guess we have to start from inside.  Each one of us.  My Ayurvedic dr says its important to stay true to yourself, echoing the advice of Matthew, of Goenka, of all these inspiring people who are helping so many others to find balance and happiness.

I can see my path, where I’m headed.  It’s the now, it’s the short-term that I’m struggling with.   And perhaps that’s because right now, I’m still out of balance.  I still have a lot of purging to do, and habits to break.  In being patient and holding out for a job that encourages creativity and individuality then perhaps I will break one of my most crippling lifetime habits of all.  In breaking with the system, I lose that fear.  I find truth and balance.

I want to bring my Vipassana rendition to an end.  Mainly because I’m getting confused with all this toing and froing in time, and with so much that I learnt resonating through my daily life I’m beginning to think that looking back isn’t wholly necessary.

I had a few doubts towards the end, as to whether it was right for me.  If it was in fact, the answer to everything.

However, I’ve just had my application for another retreat in November approved, to which I will be an old student, and must adhere to 8 precepts instead of 5.  This includes not sleeping on a high and comfortable bed, and no food after midday.  I figure, despite some of the resistance I feel, it must really be the answer to something, otherwise why would I put myself through it all again so soon?

I have always been attracted to extremes.  And when Geonka describes the whole retreat process as being like performing an operation on yourself, but without the anaesthetic, I think he’s really onto something.  Once you’ve opened yourself and have started to drain all this puss and gunk out of you, its inevitable that you spot something else that needs your attention before you close yourself up again.  You just can’t cope with it all at once.  You need to take some time out to heal and rebuild your strength.  Learn how to integrate back into society and return to the complexity of human relationships that will have undoubtedly altered.  In some cases it’s for the better.  Festering resentment and grudges absolved, renewed love and affection, a rush of forgiveness and compassion.  In other cases, the relationships seem to fade out.  What drew you together once, is no longer there.  Perhaps what is most difficult of all is  some of the negative responses to the changes in you.  I’ve seen happiness be met with anger, and affection with contempt.  One of the greatest and most terrifying things is with all this opening up and inner work, comes significant vulnerability.  You want to share everything, open up to everyone around you, express love and with this experimentation its inevitable that you’ll hit brick wall after brick wall, and in some cases a lashing out.  Whilst you begin to see your own reflection in judgments of others, others don’t necessarily feel ready to see themselves at all.

It can feel a bit heavy at times, taking on “you’re this” and “you’re that”, “you should” and “you could” on top of the greatest critic of all – “I”.

But that’s all part of it.  Looking inwards is always a good place to start, but eventually you have to look at yourself in relationship to others.   I described it to a friend as the intrinsic link between looking inwards and the universe.

Its like your attention gets so finely tuned into something so small, well molecular, that instead of reaching an understanding of that molecular experience, you end up understanding the stars and the planets, without really knowing how you got there.

This intrinsic link I haven’t quite got my head around, is something about the paths we take.  You can either study the universe and the solar systems and get lost in the billions and trillions of light-years and space, or you can sit cross-legged on a cushion and study the sensations of patch of skin to patch of skin, and whatever path you take, you essentially reach the same conclusion.  We are nothing, we are everything, we are all the same.   It’s a universal truth if ever there was one, so why is it so difficult to accept?

I’ve decided that I want a bit of both.  To continue along this path of self-evaluation.  To occasionally experience the effervescence of my existence, or non-existence, whatever it is, all the while laughing to myself, “I AM quantum physics!” as I furrow my brow and try to understand all the scientific terminology Dr Brian Cox somehow turns into poetry.

Professor Brian Cox, speaking at the Royal Ins...

Professor Brian Cox, speaking at the Royal Institution, London, 26 November 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think I managed to get to about my right elbow, so about ten minutes, before the pain in my hip became so excruciating, so loud, that I just couldn’t focus anymore.  I tried. I tried so unbelievably hard to follow my instructions and focus on that small patch of skin, irrespective of any other sensation in my body.  My blind gaze, tunneling towards my elbow…elbow, elbow, focus on the elbow, but my hip…I don’t know how to describe the sensations I was going through.  It had taken on a life of its own.  Twisting and grinding, and tearing itself apart.  It was burning and raw, and so loud.  I couldn’t tell if it was angry, or just in desperate pain.

I knew that in this hour it would be impossible for me to maintain my focus.   “Anicca, anicca, equanimity” Goenka’s words flew out of my head, as I gripped tightly onto my knees, caved my body inwards, felt my cheeks dampen with tears and drove every ounce of my energy and attention towards my hip.

I got through the marathon…I can do this!

But, the intensity of it all, was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.  Experience every moment…moment to moment…let it appear and disappear, arise and dissolve.  Every hair on my body was standing on end, every muscle constricted, sweat was pouring down my neck, back and stomach….every moment a layer of pain, upon layer of pain, rushing and surging and crashing against each other.

I could have walked.  I could have unfurled my legs and stretched myself out.  Given up on the whole thing, and thought – next time…I’ll deal with this next time, but I’d come this far, I didn’t want to stop.  It felt like I’d been warming up to this all this time, and now I could finally, finally do the work I needed to release that hip.

I saw fire.  It was swirling red and black in my hip, the rest of my body fading away.  I saw a glimpse of a thick black thread, encased in something.  I dived deeper and deeper, body beginning to shake.  A painful scream locked tightly in my throat.  Feel the pain, layer upon layer.  Experience the rise and fall, rise and fall.  The image became clearer.  The thread was encased with a row of tiny fists, with white knuckles.  They were my fists.  Hundreds and hundreds of tiny fists, all grasping so tightly…they were my fists!

I was starting to understand, that this pain I was in…this holding onto all of those things…it was me.  It wasn’t anybody, or anything else…it was me.  A difficult thing to face up to…your own responsibility in what hurts and debilitates you.

I began to breathe.  With every exhale, I fought the pain by relaxing.  Imagined I was in all of those difficult yoga poses at once, and how breathing releases…helps you to surrender.  And so that’s all I did.  Breathe and breathe and breathe…amid the shock waves of pain came rare moments of release and suddenly the fists let go, exposing the black thread sewn so neatly across my hip.  Pulling at the skin, but worn, I continued to breathe and release, my head flung back, and body was crumpled with exhaustion, voices screaming in my head, faces appearing, memories surfacing, images I hated seeing.  But I faced them, one by one, breathing, breathing, until I heard a snap and the black thread unravelled…dissolved, my hip dropped an inch and this white euphoric light began to rush through me.  From my toes, blasting through my hips, my upper body, surging into my chest, lifting me higher and higher, until it climbed into my head.

In my head there was black and white.  The black was the voices and the images…asking, inquiring, probing…what is this?  What is this light, this white, what is it?

The white was the silence  and peace.

I wanted to be swept up in the light, I wanted the voices to stop, but from somewhere inside me I heard the echo…”anicca, anicca”.

And so I let go, what will be will be, and that was when the black was swallowed up, when my entire body lifted up, euphoric vibrations rushing across my skin, through my organs, all around me, white light bursting out of me, trumpets blasting victoriously, echoing off the walls.  Could the other meditators see me elevating above the floor?

The final words that emerged from the black before I was released into that glorious white light was….”is this being?  am I jesus?”

Then there was nothing, but joy and silence.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Am I jesus?  Oh how I chuckled about that later, sitting up in bed enjoying the new-found flexibility in my right hip in Baddha Konasana.  It had literally dropped an inch.  Instead of my knee jutting up towards my ear, it sloped gently upwards and outwards, almost level with my left.  I thought back to Matthew in Koh P, and May.  How much they’d helped me.  I felt great love for them, and fell back into a quiet sleep.  Anicca, anicca…in that moment I had found my peace.

The same day that I noticed significant weight loss, and a flat stomach, was the same day that I stopped caring about stuff like that.  It was the day that my understanding of what the physical body means was completely overturned.

By the morning of the 5th day, I’d already done about 45 hours of meditation, 3 of which had been “hours of determination” and my connection to my body had significantly deepened.  Remember that patch beneath my nose that I couldn’t feel for the life of me…well I didn’t even need to think about my breath anymore.  The sensation I felt there, moment to moment, was this warm, ceaseless effervescence.   It didn’t stop.  And at times, when I was in a comfortable position…such as The Phoenix, I could feel that same distinctive sensation in other parts of my body too.  When it happened a connection was formed between the two patches of skin, and it would have this kind of ripple effect through neighbouring body parts.  Without being able to talk to anyone I wasn’t sure whether this was meant to be happening or not…all I knew was that I was to keep scanning my attention in the same methodical, repetitive way…hmmm isn’t that interesting…the tip of my left index finger is dissolving, knuckle of  left index finger, dissolving too, and left palm…hmmm, isn’t that interesting.  Left wrist…pause a moment…don’t feel anything….pause a little longer…hmm..isn’t that interesting….pause.  If you were stuck in one place for a long time you were meant to observe it as it was, wait a little longer…a minute or two, and if still there wasn’t a sensation you move on.  There were blind-spots dispersed around the body.  Parts of you that you are, in that moment, unable to experience.  If you began to crave for that experience, that effervescence, then you were effectively distancing yourself further from complete self-awareness.

Craving – trying to hold on to, grasping, clinging, longing for or wanting whatever you are not experiencing, or do not have, so much that your mind becomes unbalanced.

It makes sense, that with attachment we experience unhappiness.  How simple.  Those positive sensations we feel like the effervescence in meditation, or the great surge of pleasure when we take that first bite of a rich and creamy chocolate cake is wonderful, in that moment, but like any other moment, it will rise and fall, it will appear and disappear.  If we become attached, we start to crave for it, which takes us out of our present moment and that pleasure becomes pain and misery.

Aversion – negativity, hatred, anger, fear.  Trying to get away from or to push out of your mind whatever reality you are actually facing.

I read these definitions that had been put up on the board alongside our daily schedule, with great focus and concentration.  Whilst I already understood the meanings of these words intellectually, it was a very different thing indeed to start to make sense of them  on an experiential level.  I was beginning to appreciate the significance of Vipassana training, what it was that we were trying to achieve.  In learning to experience and understand sensations and feelings in our bodies, without craving or aversion we were training ourselves on how to live in the present, how to live life moment to moment, and effectively eliminate unnecessary misery…Creating all this space for a simple and pure happiness.

But, that was only one side of it.  In the first minute of  the second hour of Adhitthana (strong determination) on that fifth day I took one final glance around me and felt envious of the three young boys in the back row…how much closer they must be to enlightenment.  In order to reach this state of purity, we must first re-experience the backlog and root causes of all the cravings and aversions we ever felt.  I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and started with the patch of skin on the crown of my head…already the volatile nature of that right hip of mine, packed so tightly with all that anger, all that pain starting to seethe and stir.

I’ve run the London marathon with an IT band injury.  I walked 100k in just over 24 hours over the Sussex Downs, during which all my toe nails fell off and blood seeped from the two gashes under my breasts, where my sport’s bra had worn through my skin.  I’ve wept and vomited on the side of the road in training, I’ve plunged my exhausted naked body into ice baths after 18 mile runs to try to alleviate the bruising in my thighs.  I’ve suffered heat stroke in the middle of the Malian desert.  I’ve got through Dengue Fever, and combed three-year old dread-locks out of my head over three days….and yet nothing compares to the discomfort and excruciating pain I felt sitting in that meditation hall.

How statuesque and elegant everyone looks in the photos.  And what a jolly little time I was having with myself…For the first three days, my most profound observation was how utterly hilarious I was.  I chuckled at the way the front of the room was so orderly and simplistic.  One big cushion, one little cushion, petite meditator perched so peacefully upon them.  And how dramatically that degenerated row by row, until you reached the back of the room, where me and my beginner comrades looked as if we were building blue padded fortresses.

I’d devised a sort of cushion-transformer rota.  First 20 minutes I was relatively still in the standard cross-legged posture, then I’d shift into my lady-like side-saddle position for a further 10-15 minutes, before transitioning into my most prideful position….the Phoenix.  I.e. two brick cushions + 1 squishy cushion, stacked lengthways, which I would mount as if astride a great horse.  Two more squishy cushions alleviating the pressure behind my knees, sarong draped across my lap and floating out behind me to cover my feet.  Whilst it wasn’t the most discreet of maneuvers, it certainly was graceful once I got settled in.  When I tired of that, it was just a big cushion spill, legs flailing about, hoping the Dhamma servers hadn’t noticed my feet pointing towards the front of the room.

But this was day three, and through the general fidgety discomfort I still found the time to observe the Vipassana Romeo and Juliet, further my “friendships”, deepen my “conflicts” with the various, unaware, people around me…I even had enough time to take notice of one particular monk towards the back of the room.  How that intricate tattoo of his disappeared behind the fabric of his robe…STOP IT!

We’d progressed from merely observing the breath and were starting to scan our bodies – patch of skin, by patch of skin…paying attention to each sensation…no attachment, no aversion…Easy enough, once you put your mind to it….even if my back was starting to sag, and legs beginning to ache a bit.

It wasn’t until our timetable changed on the morning of the 4th day and “meditation with determination” was introduced that my troubles of time and sleepiness shifted into that of pure pain.  How, how can it possibly hurt so much???  For three separate hours of each day, we were to sit in absolute stillness.  No movement of body, no opening of hands or legs.  We must not open our eyes.  We must just sit in absolute stillness for one hour.

First twenty minutes..not so bad.  But without shifting into side-saddle, my feet began to throb.  Starved of blood-flow, my hips started to creak and stir with irritation.

All the while we must move our attention from patch of skin to patch of skin, in the same repetitive order, irrespective of what other sensations we may feel elsewhere in our bodies.  We are not to place any significance upon any feeling, we are merely to observe, experience, move on.  By the time thirty minutes had gone by the stirring in my hips had become quite volatile.  Quite enraged.  I was stuck somewhere in my left shoulder.  Trying to observe the genteel and subtle warmth versus the din of the screeching in my hips.

As it got louder and louder and increasingly painful, I could feel the muscles in my jaw clench, hear the crunching of teeth…brow furrowed, eyes slowly beginning to water, as my body started to cave in around my hips.  The pain, the burning, screaming pain.  Let me out of here, GET ME OUT OF HERE!!! My nails dug into my palms, I started to breathe, breathe so heavily.  I couldn’t find any other part of my body, just that tearing agony in my hips.  I lost my willpower and devoted all my attentions to my hip.  Body shrinking smaller and smaller as I observed the shock waves of pain, lapping against each other.  No respite, no dissolution…just movement of pain, onto pain, onto pain.

I called upon every painful experience in my past to get me through it….its just one hour. One hour.  Think in the moment, right now, this moment.  Pain.  Pain.  Pain.  FUCKING so much pain!  And then the chanting started and my hell was coming to its end.

The room cleared, and I sat awhile, massaging my legs, shaking them gently, apolgetically… encouraging them back to life.  When I stood up I stumbled to the side.  Felt a bit hollow and tired.  An hour’s break…and then we’re back.  Oh my…

It always intrigues me looking through my WordPress stats to see what search terms are bringing traffic to my blog.

Top three this week:

1) “Donations to Karen State, Burma” – Burma Issues, the charity I worked with all those years ago are currently raising money for a project to support the education of 20 IDP (Internally Displaced People) children.  So if, whoever you are, revisit –  there’s an option for you.

2) “What time of night do fireflies leave?” – I don’t know what it is about the word firefly, but it just brightens everything up.  I remember seeing one on the meditation retreat, flitting about behind the netting, and I was sitting in this silent, slightly mental-institution-looking line, so excited by it, looking up and wanting so desperately to share it with someone…but then I remembered, and lowered my head once again, smiled to myself and watched him dance.

3) “laura hancock naked” – ??  Sorry to disappoint!

Anyway, I digress.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Back to Vipassana I think.

So what does one do, when they’ve surrendered to the bells and let go of time?

Sleep, apparently.

I am not a heavy sleeper.  I’m not even a light-sleeper.  I’m kind of a non-sleeper.  Awake at all hours, fretting, deliberating, writing, story-telling, planning, regretting, wishing, reliving….trying to forget.  So, on the second day, when I’d given up counting out every minute of meditation, in an attempt to keep some vague track of time, I  stopped fighting.

Day one had given me a benchmark of exactly how long I’d be sitting cross-legged on this cushion, and that cushion, and this cushion wedged underneath my knees, and that one tucked in on top of my ankle…I was getting progressively taller with each hour that passed.

Breathing in, breathing out.  The sensation of the passage of air through each nostril.

Sometimes my left nostril was clear and my right one felt like it had a stopper in it.  Sometimes it was the other way round.  Every now and again, both nostrils would be open and I could feel the air channeling up, cool and invigorating, flowing out, warm and slightly moist.  The patch of skin beneath – sensitive sometimes, and then blank.  There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason, and I wasn’t looking for an answer, I just breathed in, breathed out.  Feeling the air moving.  Deepening, deepening…the blankness in my head, so heavy, so black, that I began to droop…Ah!  Back up again.  Breathe in, breathe out.  Back straight.  Breathe.

Drooping, dropping, deepening…jolt back up again!  I was like that sleepy bus passenger who keeps lolling against the window pane, only there wasn’t anything to lean against.  When we were given the rare option of meditating in our rooms, I initially thought I’d stay in the meditation hall…wasn’t convinced I had the self-discipline just yet.  But, as soon as the option arose, I pounced on it…shooting back to my room, with barely a mind to hold the door open for anyone behind me, in that meditative – I’m holding a door open for an anonymous person who somehow manages to display gratitude without any communication or acknowledgment – way.

It was all I could do to keep my eyes open as I closed the door behind me, let out a sigh of relief, and crawled towards my bed…just a couple of minutes.  Ahhhh….how wonderful it felt to lie down and feel the hard pressure of something against my back and head…just a few more……..ZONK.  Completely out.  No recollection of any dreams.  Didn’t even twitch or change position.  Like a dead man…the perfect Savasana.  All that roused me was the bellowing DOOM DOOM DOOM!  To which I would leap out of bed, with a guilty conscience, and hope that I hadn’t been snoring!  It wasn’t just the once either.  Pretty much every break, every spare moment, every “self-meditation” was a mini coma – and I thought it was brilliant.  I, who never sleeps, must have needed it – just catching up on lost time that’s all…

Justifications that didn’t stand up to Goenka’s video discourse that evening….We were warned of two things –

1) Over-eating.  Its so true!  Once you realise that you don’t get dinner, lunch-time becomes this kind of face-gorging mission.  One helping to satisfy the hunger, second helping to make up for no dinner, and then a third helping to sustain yourself through the “inner-surgery” you’re about to perform….And then there’s the crackers and biscuits you smuggle up your sleeve and devour discreetly behind the tree in the courtyard….No! Over-eating is bad for meditation.  You’re only meant to eat until you’re two-thirds, or three-quarters full.

2)  Sleeping instead of meditating!  How did he know?  I couldn’t help but burst out laughing when  he started talking about”snoring” meditation.  There was something about Goenka’s teachings that was incredibly powerful.  He somehow made it all quite fun and happy, but commanded that kind of respect, that you dare not go against anything he says…even if his teachings are coming from a DVD player.  It kind of felt like he was there…

As the discourse came to an end and we silently headed back to the hall for our last group meditation of the day and instructions for the next, I was reminded of something Matthew said.  Tiredness is avoidance.  Yet another wall to break down.  Its amazing isn’t it, the extent to which your mind will go to NOT deal with stuff…

English: Mogok SayaDawGyi's Photo Color, Arhat...

English: Mogok SayaDawGyi’s Photo Color, Arhat Sayadawgyi, Mokgok Vipassana Meditation Center, Myanmar (Burma) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)