A note on my three blogs

A note on my blogs

(1) vio; in love with india - this one is the main blog about my Indian adventures, which started in 2005. I don't write much on this blog these days because I prefer to write privately in the confidential blog. But check out the categories and the index to figure out your way. I have kept some older posts not about India but which I still find interesting or relevant in Old words. Also check out my new, fun category Only in India in which I post photos of funny, unique, Indian situations...

(2) vio; sounds of india - this is my blog of sounds, because India wouldn't be as incredible if it was not so vibrant and just so full of incredible sounds!

(3) vio; confidential - this an extension of my main blog in which I post entries I do not want to reveal to the entire webspace for privacy or sensitivity reasons. You must receive an invitation from me and then accept the invitation to be able to read it. You may email me if you are interested in receiving an invitation.


Saturday, 29 October 2005

Embracing the pain

Life is funny. Two days ago I finished the book Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach to Living with Physical and Emotional Pain by Darlene Cohen. It was a really good book, and I could very well identify with how to deal with emotional pain but less to physical pain since I have a very healthy body... The author has arthritis and writes a lot about how do deal with chronic physical pain indeed... A day after reading the book I wake up with strong pain in my neck/upper back... HAHAHA!!! Thank you Life! You are telling me to learn how to embrace pain, aren't you? Ok then, I shall practice what I have learnt in the book...

So yesterday, all day, I focused on my breath and on the pain. I studied the pain. I learnt/experienced some things which I had read about indeed. Like breathing into the pain to make space and relieve it. Like trying to study the pain and see how different it may feel when I perform different movements. Generally how to learn about my own body, and most importantly, how to love and care for it rather than feeling angry or frustrated at it. For example, on the bus, I didn't lean on the back rests of the seats because holding my back straight was allowing for my strong lower back to absorb the shocks thus relieving my neck. I realised indeed that keeping a straight back is healthier than slouching. I also kept moving my neck, slowly, whilst either inhaling or exhaling to feel the difference and to make sure I did move my neck. Last night I sat for hours on my computer and not moving my head made my neck even stiffer!

This morning I think I feel a little more sore... But holding my hot water bottle against the sore areas of my neck is very relieving indeed; I read this on the net last night, along with finding out that Thai massage can relieve torticolis.

A few years ago one morning I woke up with a completely blocked lower back. It had never happened to me before, and it has never happened to me since. But I was stuck in bed for all that morning and I couldn't go out all day. I had called a friend to help me throughout the day. And I had phoned the doctor, who had only told me "there's nothing to do" apart from resting and taking pain killers. Thank you very much! I hate pain killers. I realise that I have probably never had any pain such that I would love them indeed. But I hate them because all the do is numb the pain... I don't want to numb the pain! At most I might want to relieve it a little, but I need to keep some of the pain otherwise my body can't act according to that pain. Pain is feedback. Pain is important. And we should be grateful of the pain. Pain is unpleasant indeed, but I am grateful right now because it teaches me a lot about my body and it allows me to be aware. Aware, for example, of which movements use neck muscles to be performed. And that is very interesting indeed.

Anyway, this time I don't want to call an ordinary doctor for this. I have booked a Thai massage because I will trust a woman who massages my body for an hour more than the doctor who will just look at me and say there's nothing (or hardly anything) to do. I am increasingly interested in Eastern science anyway, and this is a great opportunity to learn/experience more about it.

When I was at the Dour Festival in Belgium, after the last band on the last day, my lumbar was feeling sore from standing all day for four days, so I bent into uttanasana (forward bend) to stretch it. A guy saw me and we started to talk; a bit later he started to massage my neck and told me how tense it was. I had known I had a tense neck for about 10 years, without knowing what to do, and without knowing what a relaxed back should feel like (when touching it)! He did a Thai massage to me, right there behind the stage tent (!) It was a bit strong but it felt good and healthy so I allowed him to carry on. At the end of the ten minutes he made my neck crack both sides and I was very surprised but it felt amazing, and my neck was suddenly completely relaxed. I was totally amazed

I think I will learn a lot about the massage tonight, and I will certainly bombard the lady with question, huhu. She sounded very friendly and trustworthy on the phone. :)

Extract from the book:

"I think many people have a skewed idea of what "accepting" pain is. If you have the idea that coping well should resemble serenity or equanimity, something like the proverbial "grave under fire", then you think you should resign yourself with a big cosmic grin, no matter what horrors are being visiting upon you. Actually, "accepting" pain sounds to me too passive to accurately describe the process of successfully dealing with chronic pain. It fails to convey the tremendous energy and courage it takes to accept physical pain as part of your life. Truly accepting pain is not at all like passive resignation. Rather, it is active engagement with life in its most intimate sense. It is meeting, dancing with, raging at, turning toward. To accept your pain on this level, you must cultivate particular skills. After you have developed some proficiency, dealing with pain feels much more like an embrace, or the bond that forms between sparring partners, than like resignation."

Monday, 3 October 2005

Vipassana meditation retreat

So yes, everyday for ten days, between 21st September and 3rd October I lived the life of a nun, waking up at 4-4.30 am and meditating for 10 hours, going back to bed at 9pm to fall sound asleep by 9.30pm. Out of 24 hours in a day, my eyes were closed for 17. I observed my breaths, the sensations that rose and passed away throughout my body, I observed my thoughts, my mind, and went through an incredible journey within. For 10 days, I had contact with no males; I respected Noble Silence and did not even speak to the woman whose bed was 20 cm away from mine in our small, modest bedroom. It was just me, cut off from the world, in order not to distract my mind - the object of my study - in any way. I didn't kill any creatures not even that spider that was walking on the wall just above my head one night. When I was not meditating, I was sleeping, eating, doing my business in the bathroom, doing my laundry or walking in the wood or the meadow around the site. Everyday I enjoyed massaging the soles of my feet on the roots of the trees; I enjoyed the wind caressing my face, observed the trunks of the trees. One day I teased a mouse with a dried leaf. The other ladies had just become part of the scenery; I observed them, too, but only when their looks did not cross mine. Sometimes on my way I would make up stories in my mind to entertain myself (distracting my mind on purpose - maybe that was cheating!?) to generate positive emotions. I played with my mind, so to speak. Or I would force a smile on my face to remember what it felt and to enjoy the positivity that it engendered. For any outsiders, we would have looked like a depressed or bitter bunch. But inside our minds so much was happening, from asking ourselves what the hell we were doing there to getting used to our new little life to being peaceful and quiet. Or sometimes a storm of emotions would pass but we would have to accept and deal with it. A lot was happening behind our blank faces, an entire journey. And no-one was going through the same journey, yet we all shared that strong experience. We didn't look at each other and avoided all physical contact, but inside we knew we were all on the same boat...

When I arrived in the centre I was stunned; it was a meditation course taught in Hindi and English. I had not known this, but indeed it was mainly a course for Indian people. So 2/3 of the other women were Indian. Beautiful ladies in sarees. We ate amazing Indian food (yes, I ate chapatis again!), heard Hindi everyday. And generally I recognised those Indian habits I had encountered the previous month. I was so thrilled! I had just finished completing my photo album of India; my mind was still over there. And there I was, at times thinking I could well have still been in India!

The first few days I was wondering what the hell I was doing there - many of us did. It did not feel quite real. The Pali chants of Mr Goenka before each meditation session were disconcerting and my mind wanted to go home, to get on with my life, I had to adapt to this weird lifestyle. But gradually I accepted. I had no choice. And slowly my habits developed into a routine that just became... what it was supposed to be. And those times when I really didn't want to face another meditation session, I was bound to realise that time was slower anyway than when my mind was focused, so I had better get on with it anyway. So my mind eventually became quieter and quieter. I became more and more content. And of course, as time went by I started analyse what I was taught and to understand the functioning and purpose of the meditation. And how much sense it all made, and how amazingly the course was organised - that first time when it rained and I thought I was going to run to my room a bucket full of umbrellas was waiting for us outside of the hall. On Day Three when I overslept and one of the organisers had to wake me up, she was full of acceptance and compassion and told me not to worry and to just go to the hall. Making me worry or feel guilty, of course, would have disturbed my mind. Absolutely *everything* was cared for, in order to keep our mind as quiet as possible in order for the meditation to be most effective. There were of course difficult emotional moments (I had to cry a few times to release my anger) but after a while I understood that they were just mind issues I was getting rid of and eventually I again became grateful for the work I was doing. And usually I wasn't unhappy at all, but peaceful and content. And more mindful. Being in the moment and going back to the breath was really like I had returned home.

My sense of time soon dissipated. It seemed to pass very slowly, yet at the same time the days were over quickly. The most difficult moments of the day for me were early mornings. The first hour of meditation (4.30-5.30) was usually alright, but the second was such a struggle, that each day I had to go back to bed for 30-45 min before the next meditation sitting of 8am. When that was achieved I knew I was going to be ok for the rest of the day. I had no choice but to take every moment as it passed, step by step. And gradually the day unfolded itself. It was like a cycle. Of course, I had no idea what day or date it was. It all just was a big continuing flow... It seemed long, yet by the end it was all like a really quick dream with every moment blending into the next... The words cannot express.

In the beginning during sitting there was a lot of physical pain. I had to change position often, to adjust my meditation sit with various cushions and blankets to make it as comfortable as possible to avoid the pain from sitting long hours as much as I could. But I soon learned that it was a vain task, because whatever position I took, there was going to be pain anyway. In my back, in my thighs, in my knees, in my neck. And the only way it was going to pass away was by accepting that pain. And so I was grateful for the three hourly sessions where we were not allow to move, because I realised that the pain was worse when I tried to avoid it by moving than when I determined myself not to move. Because by not moving and by accepting the pain, it dissolved a lot more quickly blending in the sensations. I also discovered something interesting in my body. I had known from yoga that one of my thighs was more flexible than the other and couldn't remember which one. But after a while, from observing the pain it was obvious that it was the right one. And my straight back always tended to fall towards the right - I had to readjust whenever I was aware of it - provoking pain in the lower-left part of my back, and probably tension on my right hip. It just all seemed to make sense... But by accepting, gradually that too went. And by the end of the retreat I could sit for an hour or even at times one and a half hour in one go. For when the mind is concentrated in deep meditation it is a little like sleep: long hours have gone by but when you wake up it seems to have gone very quickly.

Over all, the meditation retreat was not a big blow for me. I knew (to a certain extent) what to expect, I had already practiced vipassana, and I already had experienced, and agreed with the whole philosophy behind it. But now it is crystal-clear to me how the technique works, and indeed I realise just how amazing it is. In Vipassana, we train our mind to be sharper and sharper in order to study the sensations of our body and eventually to feel, experience, the impermanence law of nature (Dhamma) in our body - how everything rises and passes away. We get to know it not on the intellectual level but on the actual *experiential* level (that is, deeper in our consciousness rather than just in the surface of the mind) so that it is no longer blind belief, but becomes an experience we witness and we can no longer doubt. In the process we learn how to eradicate aversion towards unpleasant sensations and craving for pleasant sensations so that we have no choice but to become equanimous towards everything that happens to us. It is a (life-)long and at time painful, but incredibly rewarding process to eradicate suffering. So Vipassana is in no way mystical or weird or whatever... We don't create those sensations throughout the body. Those are natural, constant sensations; it's just we learn how to be aware of them. And as the mind gets sharper and sharper we learn how to "reach" the unconscious to uncover and deal with deep-rooted issues in the mind: they arise in the form of (unpleasant) sensations, and in turn we have no choice but to stay equanimous towards them during the practice, to let them go... I had known that issues arise in meditation but had felt *very* perplexed about this. I am now fortunate enough to have experienced such a storm on Days Seven and Eight!! It was an issue I knew of, it was clear, I recognised it. My heartbeat was fast, I had to cry, it was scary, but then what was I to do? I had no choice but to continue scanning my body and to accept. Eventually it passed... And however difficult it was at the time, this experience left me with an amazingly strong and rewarding feeling!

All announcements were communicated via notices on the notice boards. On Day Nine, one of them said "Noble Silence will end tomorrow at 10.00". Even though silence really had not been the most difficult part of the journey, I almost cried with joy! For the first nine days I had observed these women, having a feeling by the end that I knew them quite well. But when we started speaking again, I realised just how different people look with expressions on their faces, and how different they actually looked when they smiled. And no, I didn't know them at all after all! I had not laughed for ten days and just to laugh at everything for quite some time! There was no shyness. Everyone said hello to everyone, smiling without no end to one another for having shared such strong moments, however different our adventures had been. They all had amazing life stories, coming from different backgrounds.

It had felt like the perfect moment for me to go on such a retreat, with respect to where I am in Life at the moment. And perfect it was indeed; Life confirmed it to me. I met an Australian woman who (1) lives in Edinburgh and was going to share my train journey back home, (2) who told me of a Vipassana meditation sitting group in Edinburgh, (3) who has been involved with the coming of the Dalai Lama in Edinburgh two years ago as part of her work - not only that, but he is again coming back next month!!! (and she is involved again.) (4) She knows a violinist player who will probably be able to give me lessons (5). She wants to share some 5-rhythm dance classes with me. (6) She is going to Nepal and Tibet in January and she has given me the name of a good organisation to help meto perhaps find teaching work in Tibet. (6) Her partner works for an association for people with learning difficulties. (7) The best friend of her partner is the son of my yoga teacher! I am completely blown away by this encounter. All this in just one person; could there be any better opportunity at this point in my life!?!? Dhamma really rewards you when you surrender to it, when you do things with your heart.

So... such a retreat may sound very scary, but after all, as one of my fellow-meditators said; there is nothing to be scared of. After all it is nothing but you. :)

I had the chance to stay one extra day at the end of the retreat, and so participated in the community life that fills the centre outside meditation retreats. Here live about five long-term people along with volunteers who come and go for periods of a few weeks to a few months. There they offer their services, doing various tasks (cleaning, washing, laundry, cooking, gardening, building work, office work etc.) that is needed to run the centre. For free, obviously, they can live there. There is no hierarchy. An individual can be a Vipassana teacher for ten days and become a builder thereafter. It's like a big family of like-minded, aware, kind, and basically amazing people. I only stayed for one day but it gave me a great inside in such community life. People from all backgrounds come and go here. Once you have been on a 10-day course you know what it is all about and you can go and spend time in any Vipassana centre like that in the world. Some people go from site to site, from country to country, like this - and indeed it is an interesting way to travel! In just a day I had already become part of it, there was no shyness because shyness is out of the point - we are all the same; we are all one. We all have respect, acceptance, and kindness towards each other. I spoke to amazing people and was integrated straight away. People help each other; people there are selfless. Before I left I could help myself of fruits and make a sandwich, it was obvious, there was no need to ask. By staying an extra day I also had the opportunity to watch films about Vipassana for children and Vipassana taught to prisoners to make their lives more bearable (and to see more of India on telly and feel my eyes we joyful tears!)

I conclude with those words from Ken Wilber, which I believe are very true:

"I would say meditation is spiritual, but not religious. Spiritual has to do with actual experience, not mere beliefs; with God as the Ground of Being, not a cosmic Daddy figure; with awakening to one's true self, not praying for one's little self; with the disciplining of awareness, not preachy and churchy moralisms about drinking and smoking and sexing; with Spirit found in everyone's Heart, not anything done in this or that church. (...) Meditation (...) seeks to go beyond the ego altogether; it asks nothing from God, real or imagined, but rather offers itself up as a sacrifice toward a greater awarenesss. Meditation, then, is not so much a part of this or that particular religion, but rather part of the universal spiritual culture of all humankind - an effort to bring awareness to bear on all aspects of life." - Ken Wilber; Grace and Grit, p. 76 (my italics)

For more information:

  • International Vipassana website: www.dhamma.org
  • What Vipassana is + code of conduct
  • Dhamma Dipa; Vipassana meditation centre in Hereford, England
  • Interesting academic article about Vipassana (although the best way to understand Vipassana is to practise it yourself - just as you can't learn to ride a bicycle by just reading a book about it... ;)

  • Daily timetable:

    4:00 a.m.--------------------Morning wake-up bell

    4:30-6:30 a.m.---------------Meditate in the hall or your own room

    6:30-8:00 a.m.---------------Breakfast break

    8:00-9:00 a.m.---------------GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL

    9:00-11:00 a.m.--------------Meditate in the hall or your own room

    11:00-12:00 noon------------Lunch break

    12 noon-1:00 p.m.-----------Rest and interviews with the teacher

    1:00-2:30 p.m.---------------Meditate in the hall or your own room

    2:30-3:30 p.m.---------------GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL

    3:30-5:00 p.m.---------------Meditate in the hall or your own room

    5:00-6:00 p.m.---------------Tea break

    6:00-7:00 p.m.---------------GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL

    7:00-8:15 p.m.---------------Teacher's Discourse in the hall

    8:15-9:00 p.m.---------------GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL

    9:00-9:30 p.m.---------------Question time in the hall

    9:30 p.m.---------------------Retire to your own room - lights out