Searching for peace beyond
Tony Jones. Pictures from Vipassana
We were seated
comfortably, my friend Geoff and I, in the dining room of
the Coldwater Hotel, Merritt, British Columbia. On order,
hamburger with all the trimmings, double fries, and for
appearance sake, a small green salad.
offered to drive me the three hours from my home in
Vancouver, passing the city of Hope, and then on up the
Highway that winds its way like a ribbon of black asphalt
through a spectacular, snow-capped mountain range to my
destination about 20 minutes drive west of Merritt.
I was on my way to an
entirely new sort of adventure…a search for the real truth.
The inside truth about me, referred to by many as
“home” for the next ten days would be the Vipassana
Meditation Centre of BC., one of many in this fast-growing
world-wide organization. (See footnote).
Forewarned to comply
with strict conditions including a 4:00am wake up, no
speaking, no eye-contact, sparse accommodation,
unfamiliar vegetarian diet, and LONG hours of physically and
emotionally draining meditation, I was therefore in no hurry
to be deposited at the centre’s front door. Hence, the
reason Geoff was now watching patiently as I slowly fuelled
up on my “Last Supper.”
This part of my
life-journey had begun just four weeks earlier, in India.
Way up in the remotest north eastern city of Gangtok in the
State of Sikkim. Its northern border, the Himalayan
Mountains, shared cautiously with China.
I was at the time
enjoying the traditional sweets and a cup of tea with my new
friend, His Eminence the 12th Zurmang Gharwang
Rinpoche (Pictured) in private quarters atop his monastery.
Rising like a multi-tiered
wedding cake laid back against the mountain, a dense
rain-filled mist had by early evening shrouded the top tiers
of the commune as if to isolate it from the rest of the
world until the warming rays of another dawn.
Several floors below,
many of the monastery’s 350 monks could be heard chanting
their evening prayers to the accompaniment of gong and drum.
Our exchange was
friendly and wide ranging. In reply to my question how does
one such as I find internal peace after an unsuccessful
search spanning near six decades, His Eminence replied
simply that I should “meditate, and keep searching.”
more sips of tea, receipt of a parting gift of beautiful
prayer shawl, and that was that. How I came to be invited
into such rarified company must remain a story for another
On my return to Vancouver the experience was
related to another good friend, Waverlea. It was she who
encouraged me to look up the Vipassana website and
eventually submit the on-line application to attend the next
course. Thank you dear Waverlea for all that was about to
follow. Yes, even for the pain that awaited my unsuspecting
and lunch bill paid, Geoff now drove us in silence along the
to the 256
turnoff. Doubling back beneath the overpass, across a
rattling wooden bridge spanning the wide, fast-flowing
up a steep unsealed incline, sharp left turn, and we had
Surabhi, meaning ‘Fragrance of Dhamma’.
My heart rate now
elevated, we eased the car through the
gate in the fence surrounding the centre’s 55
thickly wooded acres. I felt a similarly uncomfortable
apprehension as when first arriving at the Australian Army’s
boot camp in Wagga Wagga so many years ago.
Vipassana, meaning “seeing
things as they really are,” is one of India’s most ancient
meditation techniques; reintroduced
more than 2,500 years ago by
anicca, meaning the universal law of impermanence.
seeks self-purification by self-observation technique; it is
astutely non-sectarian, and appropriate for anyone
regardless of race, gender, or religious beliefs.
Based on irrefutable
laws of nature and common-sense tenants such as treating
others as you would wish to be treated, Vipassana appears
simple to understand, but in practice demands exceptionally
intense commitment if students wish to obtain maximum
benefit. And why not, for we were arriving in search of
sign-posts toward mental purification that will allow us to
better face the inevitable stresses of life in a calmer,
more balanced, and satisfying way.
Allocated one of the few
single rooms, it is devoid of most decoration, but
squeaky clean and fresh smelling. Half the floor space
is occupied by a low timber bed and firm mattress. A night
table is positioned beside the bed, (no table light as
distractions such as reading and writing not permitted), as
is a coarse, colorfully patterned floor mat. Four
wall hooks await clothing and towel.
Following registration, the approximately 25 male students
and similar number of females ranging in age between late
teens and mid sixties are separated by gender. Feelings of
pending isolation deepen when at 8:00pm, “Noble Silence”
begins. Mouths are now for breathing and eating only. All
eye contact between students ends. My A.D.D. generated brain is
gradually being strangled of all distractions.
Over the next ten days,
my fat-saturated body will be sent violently into shock as
eggs, hamburgers, fries, and sugar-filled deserts …all the
good things that for me convert mere food into fine dining,
are replaced with a strict though adequate vegetarian
diet. Even my stress-busting daily jog is for the next 10
days an official no-no.
I am already awake to
receive the 4:00am gong; time for a
quick shower, tidy up the bedroll…I’ll shave later…and
remembering to keep eyes lowered, short
walk to the meditation hall by 4:20.
Vipassana is mercifully free of “symbols” thought necessary
by many leaders and seekers of self-awareness. No pictures
of saints or icons of worship line the walls. Dennis, the
bespectacled Assistant Teacher who will moderate the course,
does not wear a colorful flowing robe accessorized with
beads, but casual pants and nondescript long sleeved shirt.
Soft mats have been
arranged in a neat pattern on the floor of the hall. Men on
the left. Women on the right. Several less anxious students
have arrived before me, some now sitting cross legged on the
floor, eyes closed, and waiting. The remaining students
file in carrying wooden stools and cushions selected from
storage cupboards in the hallway. I have requested a chair,
as have several others anticipating back
discomfort. Returning students seem to require fewer aids
for comfort, their bodies perhaps better accustomed to the
recommended straight-backed semi-lotus posture.
A believer in the “Be
prepared” theory, my choice for day one is to cover the
wobbly steel-backed chair with not one but two wonderfully
thick, fluffy cushions.
At 4:30 sharp,
Dennis enters the meditation
hall, now blanketed in silence, and sits facing us on a
slightly raised dais.
Over the audio system, Teacher
S.N. Goenka introduces us to anapana - awareness of
respiration. Concentration, we are instructed, will be centered on
the triangle of nose and upper lip, the idea being to “feel” the
many sensations as breath flows naturally into nostrils, and
is then expelled at slightly higher temperature onto the upper
lip. Nothing too difficult about that, but for the first
three and a half days?
Imagine sitting, legs
crossed or uncrossed, on chair or pillows, or directly on
carpeted floor, eyes closed…and motionless as a kangaroo
frozen by a hunter's nighttime headlights! Hour after hour,
day after day, with minimal breaks.
Imagine the agony as one
tries to mentally estimate each passing minute, wondering
why the hour’s ending seems so reluctant to arrive.
Meanwhile, I have a slow
sinking feeling. Rate of descent encouraged by constant
wriggling around all points of the compass, my bottom
edging ominously closer to the seat’s
uncompromising hard steel frame.
After another thirty
minutes my now compressed posterior becomes so
sensitive…what can best be described as braillized, for the
first time giving me the unique ability to “read” the tartan
pattern of my underpants. A feat not to be recommended.
Days two and three
dragged on, each estimated minute seeming like ten. Each
nerve ending on my skin screaming out for attention, for the
first time causing me to become aware of the myriad of
sensations usually unnoticed by the conscious mind.
Unpredictable itching, tingling, twitching, pressure from
clothing, slight changes in temperature, drafts, and of
course the continuing awareness of bottom on once fluffy
cushion as tender sciatic nerve screams its discontent.
Meanwhile, what about
the so-called Vipassana technique? What is it doing to try
to assist me through this excruciating discomfort? Quite
frankly very little…except reminding me to intensify my
focus on breathing in, exhaling, and “feeling”.
A thousand thoughts line
up to distract me . Family, work, vacations, the weather,
the war in Iraq, or the next hamburger. It becomes clear
that my mind if left unsupervised will naturally roam
uncontrollably. Vipassana again and again quickly triggers
a return to my breathing, and reminder to consciously feel
sensations around the triangle of nose and upper lip.
As the days progress,
awareness of sensations increases amazingly. The area of
concentration is slowly increased until I’m now able to
quickly “scan” from head to toe and back again, inside body
and out, with each natural flow of breath. Also improving
is my ability to maintain longer periods of uninterrupted
concentration and stillness.
I’m still unable to
completely stop wayward thoughts, especially those of
unpleasant experiences long
repressed, but now able to acknowledge their presence in
detached awareness, put them aside, (but not bury them), and
remain “equanimous.” That being perhaps the most often
repeated state of mind encouraged in each evening’s one hour
video discourse by Mr Goenka.
My one daily escape
comes immediately following the 11:00am lunch break.
Changing from soft indoor shoes into sturdy hikers, I head
up the hill behind the centre toward a narrow pine needle
covered track through the forest.
Discovered on day one,
it takes me three and a half minutes to walk quickly through
the circuit. Two minutes up the steep incline, and if
no-one is looking, refreshing jog across the top and down
again to begin another lap. Accompanying me is a family of
small birds, I think warblers, chirping enthusiastically in
the bushes; the squawking cry of a circling crow or raven
makes its presence known beyond the pine canopy.
Twelve such laps, quick
shower and change of sweaty clothes and I’m again ready to
exchange the visual joys, scents, and sounds of the
wilderness for the quiet, colorless, tormented thoughts
Almost miraculously in
the afternoon of the ninth day, I realize the sciatic nerve
caused high voltage shots of pain tormenting my left leg are
now barely perceptible. I’m still “aware” of the weakness,
but now able to view it objectively. Detached, much as would
an examining doctor. Mercifully, no more tears of pain to be
left untouched to drain slowly down my cheek. There truly is
a Heaven beyond Hope!
Almost too soon, and
certainly with considerable regret, the last full day has
arrived. Another early morning session of meditation
followed by a few minutes of chanting recorded by Mr Goenka,
then at 10:00am we return to the dining area. Noble
Silence is for the most part ended.
The curtain that has for
ten days separated men from women is
removed. The room is immediately filled with the sounds of
nervous chatter; introductions to persons vaguely observed
through sideways glances are now possible.
The appearance of an
older gentleman with shifty eyes, and rotund physique and
shuffle similar to the late Peter Ustinov, had distracted me
for days. His below shoulder length gray hair and
disheveled beard had convinced me
he must surely be a seasoned trash collector in the alleys of
Vancouver’s East End. To much surprise, I
learn he is in fact a delightful, high profile lawyer with successful
practices in London(U.K.) and New York. A dramatic reminder
that appearances can be deceptive.
The final period of now
peaceful, relatively painless meditation completed, email
addresses exchanged, handshakes, pats on the back, and
goodbyes over, I sense that the group of strangers who just
ten days ago committed themselves to this tough search for
self-enlightenment have somehow been bonded as one. No
doubt, some life-long friendships have just been born.
swings opened…and the world beyond in some ways feels a
My near total
dependence on the Vipassana centre’s compassionate staff
behind me, I drive slowly back down the unsealed road, over
the Coldwater River, and back onto the
Within moments, I am again caught up in the endless chain of
trucks, cars, camper vans and busses racing at breakneck
speed back to “the city” and all its stresses.
With insight into our minds
and outlook on life forever changed, members of our small
group now return to the real world
accompanied by some of those sign posts that may, with
continuing meditation and a few simple behavioral
modifications, enable us to become happier, more productive
members of society. Thank you Vipassana.
10 days Vipassana course is available to anyone aged around 18 years
Special courses can be arranged for children, teenagers, and
run solely on a donation basis.
expenses are met by donations from those who, having
completed a course and experienced the benefits of Vipassana,
wish to give others the same opportunity.
In many video rental stores, the award-winning
documentary: "Doing Time, Doing Vipassana"