Captain Tony's
Adventure Guide
THE Outdoors "Adventure Guide" for world  travellers

              

Searching for peace beyond Hope.
Story by Tony Jones.  Pictures from Vipassana website.

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.

Geoff had offered to drive me the three hours from my home in Vancouver, passing the city of Hope, and then on up the Coquihalla 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 self-enlightenment.

Approaching the center. My “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.” 

A few 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 day. 

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 body.

Fuel consumed and lunch bill paid, Geoff now drove us in silence along the Coquihalla to the 256 turnoff. Doubling back beneath the overpass, across a rattling wooden bridge spanning the wide, fast-flowing Coldwater River, up a steep unsealed incline, sharp left turn, and we had arrived at Dhamma 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. 

S.N. Goenka        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 Gotama the Buddha, its central doctrine, anicca, meaning the universal law of impermanence.

The process 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 within.

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. 

The gate swings opened…and the world beyond in some ways feels a gentler, nicer place. 

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 Coquihalla. 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.

                                          

Footnote: The 10 days Vipassana course is available to anyone aged around 18 years or older.  Special courses can be arranged for children, teenagers, and businesspeople.  Courses are run solely on a donation basis. All 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.

For further information:
Canada www.surabhi.dhamma.org/
    Worldwide www.dhamma.org/
In many video rental stores, the award-winning documentary: "Doing Time, Doing Vipassana"

                                         

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