Surviving my 3rd vipassana mediation retreat


I awoke on Wednesday morning a week and a half ago full of terror and dread. I could hardly function at all. Having previously suffered such extremes of physical and emotional torture putting myself through it again seamed at odds with my basic survival programming. But onward I went.

90 minutes into my journey to stowmarket Suffolk, the fear finally began to subside. How bad would the pain be this time? How bad would the memories be this time? Would this be the course to finally break me?

As I pulled up into the car park I found I suddenly understood the Zen phrase ‘emptiness’. It was the direct experience of the complete lack of resistance to the flow of life happening. The self imagines itself in a context. It feels vulnerable and afraid and tries to exert control. This creates a sense of resistance and is the root of suffering. When there is no self, there is no fear because there is nothing to be afraid and thus resistance falls away and reality feels empty as life just happens.

Anyway this was Vipassana no time for Zen insights right now. On with the Vipassana.

Unfortunately for this retreat I would be in shared accommodation for the first time. I always follow the rules implicitly it never occurred to me that ‘normal’ people would just ignore them to make life easier. There was no making life easier for me. I was here to work. What’s the point of going through hell if you are not going to give it everything you’ve got?

As it turns out trying to meditate when your fellow meditator is happily snoring away is all part of the teaching. Acceptance and tolerance.

It’s the resistance to what is that causes suffering, that causes reality not to be ‘empty’.

I sat in the dining hall quietly eating my dinner when a Chinese guy sat down opposite me and started slurping and smacking his lips. I smiled inwardly to myself as the first lesson became apparent.

There were two ways of reacting to this. The old way and the new way. The mindful way and the mindless way. The Vipassana way and the non vipassana way.

The first way was simply to note. ‘This is what is happening’ with no judgements.

The second way would be to become annoyed. I dissected the mental and physical processed that would normally lead to annoyance.

The self feels vulnerable which makes it hyper-vigilant. A sound triggers a micro flinch. The micro flinch is like an almost imperceptible internal jump or startle. The flinch triggers a fear response which leads to judgement and the creating of stories. “That sound is horrible”, “Why can’t he be quiet”, “I don’t like this”, “Why cant he be more considerate. This is what the Buddhists would call ‘Craving and aversion’.

This sudden fear spirals off and gathers memories of previous times when the self has felt afraid and vulnerable and brings back memories and emotions of previous imagined slights and wrong doings until eventually the mental and physical process become conscious and a full on fight flight reaction is triggered and placed firmly at the door of the other person, and not where it really needs to rest which is the bodies physical reaction to auditory stimuli.

The way that Vipassana works is to train the internal observer to notice body sensations and not react to them. This builds up a sense of detachment and isolation from threats leading to calmness and freedom from fear.

I carried on eating my lunch smiling to myself that the rage beast within was dormant.

The first 4 days of the retreat were just standard hard work. No torturous pain, not overwhelming memories and emotions. There were a few brief flashes of fear and nausea with the metal image of my fathers face but these passed.

Next I was exposed to torrents of some disturbing sexual imagery and images of bright red animal meat. I’ve toned down both descriptions here. Neither sets of imagery were at all pleasant.

Every time In sat down to meditate I saw visual hallucinations.

These stayed with me in varying degrees for the full 10 days. They would always start with fast flowing bubbles from left to right across the visual field like tiny red blood cells squeezing themselves though veins under a colour illuminated microscope. Each day as the mediation progressed these bubbles would grown in size and transform int the shape of a worm hole spiralling away into the infinite. Eventually I would be looking at pools of silver mercury floating on the surface of ever changing coloured liquid shammy leather. It was very reminiscent of the start of a DMT trip and I did spend pretty much the whole time wondering whether I was going to get sucked into the worm hole and carried away to another dimension. Pretty distracting really.

The visual hallucinations didn’t have a patch on what was going on with my face though.

I kept on getting the sensation that my tongue was pushing itself through my lips. Pushing outwards further and further ever outwards. I thought to myself I bet I look like a complete moron sat her with my tongue sticking out. But then the corners of my mouth would begin to curl up and my cheeks rotate in on themselves distorting my face in on itself until it broke past the laws of physics and biology.

Then my hands started doing it as well. Both my face and hands being warped and sucked in on themselves though a 3D kaleidoscope. My tongue was like an infinite shit being slowly pushed out from my face. It took all my reserve not to break out into fits of giggles.

I was mostly happy and was just about managing to convince myself I’d have a relatively easy ride of it, until day 5 when I was hit by the first day of total and utter abject misery.

The word misery is completely inadequate how bad it really feels. And so is depression.

The urgent need to breath without being able to take a breath, the urgent need to cry without being able to express, the need to scream without being able to make a sound, the greatest impotent void where suicidal fantasy seams like reasonable distraction.

At then end of the first day of misery I said to myself “Why am I so miserable?” and the Vipassana insight voice answered “Have you lost equanimity?” and of course I had. Somewhere along the line I had stopped observing the body sensations and started desiring to succeed. Once I reset to observation mode instead of “wanting to be good at this” the misery faded.

Why did I have to wait a whole day before figuring this out? I was causing my own misery by wanting things to be other then they were. Second Vipassana lesson.

Day 6 was a day of bliss. My reward for solving the misery issue.

The feeling of the rays of summer sun and the cool wind wafting over a rippling meadow shone through the innocence of a child’s heart. But as hell of misery and depression made it almost impossible to meditate so did the feeling of being in heaven. Bliss is pretty darn distracting. You just want to relax and float in its comforting arms.

Day 7 was misery again.

The observer instructor and the listener actioner where trapped together in the black box of the mind. The instructor said “Scan the body”, The actioner said “No, fuck off” The instructor said “Scan the body”, The actioner said “No, fuck off”. “Scan the body”, “No, fuck off” “Scan the body”, “No, fuck off” “Scan the body”, “No, fuck off” “Scan the body”, “No, fuck off” “Scan the body”, “No, fuck off”. This went on for quite some time. There was just the black box, the breathing, the misery and “Fuck off”

At the end of this day the vipassana insight again said “Have you lost equanimity?”.

Well Of course I had. I was trying to do something, and I didn’t want to. Equanimity would have meant simply having to accept that I was unable to meditate any further, which would seam to defeat the point somewhat. But that is what happened. I gave up meditating for a bit and just sat in silence. The misery went.

Day 9’s misery was a different type. It wasn’t as simply as lack of equanimity. Instead it was simply a case of a big clump of repressed memory had been dislodged and it was working its way out.

The breathing would speed up, fear and nausea would be felt, there would be some sweats. It was emotional vomiting. It was just a case of allowing it time to express and eventually it did. The memories surfaced. Insight was triggered and all became calm once more.

I have noticed a pattern emerging in these Vipassana retreats.

For each retreat there is a single powerful lesson and then two and a half weeks later a specific reward.

The first retreat taught me that immense physical pain was created by the mind and that by focusing on it and accepting it, it would dissolve. The reward for that retreat was an insight it to how to solve my emotional trauma and free myself from shame and self hatred.

The lesson of the second retreat was that the same logic of acceptance and surrender can also be applied to emotional pain, and the reward for this retreat was an opening of the heart and slight shift to positive self regard which has had the knock on effect of curbing my binge drinking.

The lesson of this retreat was that I cause my own misery by not accepting life as it is and wanting things to be other than they are.

I am yet to discover if this retreat will gift me a reward.

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