Dhamma Patākā was our destination as I set off with Dammien and Themba, two fellow aspiring meditators that had asked for lifts from Cape Town on the community noticeboard. This retreat was one of two gifts/challenges I offered myself in my 40th year of existence – the other was tackling the Rubik’s Cube that had tormented my youth.
There’s something about that milestone that makes men take a closer look at their lives. Roughly the halfway point of our time in this realm, there seem to be two distinct camps. On the one side is team “mid-life crisis” trading in cars and partners for newer, sportier models and on the other, those who feel the need to take on daunting challenges like swimming to Robben Island from Big Bay. Or spending ten days of an 11-day retreat meditating in silence, as I set off to do.
The centre is anchored at the foot of a mountain peak with views stretching across fertile farming valleys, flooded with afternoon sun. As far as getting the setting right, Buddha would not be disappointed by the choice of locale for his African flagship store.
This 40th gift/challenge wasn’t so much driven by the need to prove my manliness, but rather a gradual escalation of a meditation journey that had started a few years prior and that played a supporting role in repairing my relationship with the universe. A Zen meditation retreat had served as a primer for the granddaddy of retreats to learn Vipassana, an ancient meditation technique that was thought to be lost but for millennia was kept alive by a chain of teachers stretching back to its originator, the Buddha. Vipassana literature claims this religion and dogma-free practice is how the Buddha performed the art of living — figuring out a path to enlightenment through this self-reflective technique.
After the administrative duties of signing and handing over our valuables for safekeeping were done, we were notified of proceedings for the evening culminating in an induction session where the 60-plus aspiring meditators could ask questions of our guides before we packed away our words for the next ten days. A multitude of accents and languages made up the group as I later find out some Northern Hemisphere centres are booked up a year in advance and some travellers choose to end off the leg of their South African journey with a trip on Vipassana airways.
Themba, my co-pilot from Cape Town, was an “old student”, having sat just a few weeks prior and feeling like another lap around the retreat course was needed. He volunteered to become the most hated man within a 100km radius — the ringer of the 4:30am wake-up gong that would start our mornings. Our guides repeated the information from our welcome packs that we follow the five precepts during our stay: which is to abstain from false speech, killing any living thing, sexual misconduct, stealing and consuming intoxicants. What easier way to help avoid false speech than turn off the potential for lies at the source? For introverts who struggle with small talk niceties in a hall full of strangers, the silent part of the retreat begins in the nick of time.
Men and women are segregated into two camps and our meditation sleeping cells are designed for bare necessity individual use. Vegetarian meals are served — all in support of the precepts necessary for aiding our journey to enlightenment. Helpers, old students who come from all over the world to sit and serve, make sure food is prepared according to Vipassana recipes. We were lucky to have a French chef take charge of kitchen duties, adding a personal je ne sais quoi to our meals, as we all sat and ate in silence, either staring into the cracks of the plastered walls of the dining hall or the cracks of the mountain looming behind the centre.
With each Themba-induced shattering of our nocturnal slumber, we learnt to navigate the darkened path to the meditation hall where we would climb aboard our personalised arrangement of pillows and foam pieces. Audio instructions, recorded in the 80s by the most charismatic Burmese man that you wish you could show off at social gatherings, ring out over the hall speakers as we are given a combination of meditation practice instruction, philosophy and the history of Vipassana. S. N. Goenka’s personal journey is a beautiful tale of its own where rags to riches to spiritual loneliness culminates in the job description of torchbearer-in-chief for the modern-day spread of Vipassana. Each sitting, typically 90 mins, is conducted in the meditation hall and bookended by Goenka’s chants that evolve from first encounter sounding like the slaughtering of a goat to a soothing source of calm and serenity.
Goenka’s recording warns us that Day Two will be the most physically challenging and Day Six the most mentally challenging of days. The pain is supposed to be a friend aiding focus in the meditation practice, and after ten hours of sitting in the lotus position, me and my 188cm frame have made a multitude of BFFs. With no writing or reading allowed, my non-eating breaks were used up resting my back and doing an imaginary Rubik’s Cube to the level I’d learnt before retreating into silence.
Once you start meditating, you’re quickly amazed at how much the mind wants to wander – like a monkey swinging endlessly from one branch to the next. I began mentally taking bets with myself, on who would tap out of the retreat, giving shorter odds to those who were last to the hall or that guy who began randomly shouting in the showers one day. I gave myself better odds after getting through day two and surprisingly, the only person I noticed leaving was a young Dutch tourist who couldn’t seem to bear what was arising within him. A day and a half into the retreat his cushions were reallocated to the lobby like a torch being extinguished in a round of meditation Survivor. Even the two, rather large gentlemen whose ensemble of bodily function/clearing noises would regularly pierce through the collective silence, made it to the end despite having the shortest odds in my fictional bookmaking business.
At the end of each day’s sitting, we gathered like school kids to watch videos of Goenka explaining each day’s practice and what to expect in the next Themba-shattered morning. His personality and stand-up comedy ambitions shone through as he explained Buddha’s philosophies on life and how Vipassana helps us deal with the suffering that is life. The Buddha and Goenka just want us to “be happy” (a mantra repeated many times) and Vipassana can be the vehicle. The technique can only be taught over ten days in a conducive environment, free from distractions and temptations of the world. Vipassana means “insight” in Pāli language, and revolves around literally focusing on oneself to deal with our man-made sufferings from craving and aversion. It aims to purify the mind and eliminate that which makes us miserable. Attachment to the past, or a fantasy future state, generates craving and aversion from the pain that is the source of all suffering. Our bodies, like everything in the universe, are in a state of constant change, down to the microlevel, and by focusing on these sensations we can achieve freedom from our trapped traumas, saṅkhāras.
Goenka was right about Day Six but luckily the serenity of the environment and the daily practice had set in once that threshold had been cleared. By now I was dreaming in high definition, the polluting cloud of modern life blown away. My neck and back pain had subsided (we’d become friends) and I was Vipassana fit. The last few days went by, not exactly quickly but quicker, and our final day was spent introducing ourselves and feeling weirdly connected to people who had shared time and space but no words over ten days. Switching on a phone after just 10 days of disconnect from the world is an odd feeling as the torrent of messages and notifications explode onto the screen like larvae. Talking feels funny because those cheek muscles feel like they have been atrophied; the centre takes on a whole new vibe as the excited chatter of meditators creeps in.
Our final hours are spent browsing the Vipassana literature and notice boards connecting people interested in weekly sitting sessions around the country. Student courses at the centre are run on a voluntary contribution basis, encouraging a “pay it forward” model recommending covering the feeding costs for the next person to attend.
The trip back to Cape Town included another Brazilian traveller from the UK, comparing notes and experiences from the last 11 days and whether we would stick to the recommended daily practice and abstinence from intoxication. There was also a debate on whether plant medicine like ayahuasca would classify as intoxication or medicine in Vipassana circles but we deferred to asking old student community boards on that one. By itself, and for me, Vipassana won’t solve all suffering like it has for so many others who maintain a regular practice. But having done the Comrades equivalent of meditation, my capacity for self-improvement increased substantially and I’ve acquired a mental and spiritual health tool I can take anywhere in the world and drop in on any Vipassana centre or sitting group to be welcomed as an “old student”.
Meditation is a powerful tool that can change lives hijacked by trauma, as reported in incredible case studies of the technique being taught in prisons around the world. If one thing is clear about 2021, suffering and mental health issues will explode and the more tools we have at our disposal, the more chance we have to be happy. DM/ ML
Applications and information to sit can be found at Dhamma Pataka
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