Along with many other things, I had planned on doing a meditation course as part of this year long trip. I’ve always been curious about this because of the potential benefits. Meditation helps in many ways, from concretely measurable effects like reduced blood pressure and lower cortisol levels (a hormone that indicates stress levels), to more abstract ones such as improved mental health. I’ve dabbled here and there over the years trying to learn how to meditate. I first tried by reading and following resources online, but I didn’t really have an idea what I was doing so I usually didn’t keep it up for long. I looked into the odd course every now and then, but each of them that I found always came along with a religious backing which was something that held no interest for me. Then I heard about Vipassana courses from a couple of fellow travellers while in India.
The methods that they teach are a part of the Theravada branch of Buddhism. This is the original branch which is a philosophy of life rather than a religion. It focuses entirely on living your life in a sound and healthy way, without requiring a belief in god or other mystical leanings. The other branch, Mahayana, is the one that involves a theistic belief, organised religion, and miracles. I’m not putting that down – many of the Mahayana myths are very colourful and beautiful, involving dragons and all sorts of fantastical tales – it’s just not for me. There’s a great podcast about the split between the two branches and about atheist Buddhism in general by Ted Meissner. It explains this all far better than I ever could so if you’re interested you can listen to it on his blog: the Secular Buddhist (it’s the first two podcasts here).
Basically, here’s the short version of what the course is about. It’s a secular course, so come as a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, or whatever, and leave with your beliefs – or lack thereof – intact. The courses are also completely non-commerical, which goes a long way to show that the motives behind the courses aren’t tainted. They accommodate you, feed you and teach you for ten days on a donation-only basis. Even the staff working at the centres are volunteers who have previously done one of the courses and want to give something back. The course itself focuses on improving your life and general mental health through meditation. Lots of meditation. In fact it’s eleven hours per day of meditation, for ten days, in absolute silence, with no reading, listening to or playing music, making physical (or even eye) contact with anyone, writing or exercising allowed. On top of this, there’s a rigorous timetable. The day starts at 4am (two hours before sunrise) and ends with lights out at 9.30pm. So to say it’s a bit strict is a bit of an understatement, kind of like saying that the North Korean government sometimes acts a bit strangely, or that Keith Richards might have taken a few drugs here and there over the years.
I had heard of other similarly strict courses before and always put them off as being too much of a commitment, to put it mildly. I’m a very active person and sitting around doing nothing (not even reading!) for ten days sounded like a nightmare to me. However, we met so many people who had tried it and experienced such positive outcomes from the course that I was beginning to reconsider the decision. Finally, we met a Belgian woman in her sixties who put it like this: it’s only ten days to commit to trying something, and if there’s a possibility that it will improve your life over the long term shouldn’t you at least give it a chance? I was still apprehensive, but I decided that now was the time if I was ever going to do it. Luckily, Lida and Neil (a good friend of ours visiting from Ireland) were also up for it so I was going to have some company. Not that it matters much when you consider the rules regarding any kind of contact between people, but it was still nice to have some moral support.
We decided to do the course here in Sri Lanka because the dates fit in with our travel plans. The centre we chose was in a beautiful setting with 12 acres of garden to walk around in. Almost every evening there were cacophonous thunderstorms accompanied by torrential downpours. Once lighting even struck the communications tower just 100 metres away, splitting the sky with a deafening crack. In the mornings the trees were filled with a kaleidoscopic collection of coloured birds, big and small, and there was all sorts of other animal life running around too. As I went to look out my third floor window one evening, I was greeted by a huge male langur monkey. He glanced at me and then with a grunt and a grin, he jumped, sailing out the 4 metres out and 4 metres down onto the trees across from me. Talk about making it look easy! Apart from all these natural delights, the course itself was very well organised. The food was simple, but filling and tasty, and the dorms were comfortable. There were a few things about the course that I didn’t enjoy, but they are so minor that there’s no point in mentioning them here.
Here’s the general gist of my experience. A lot of this is hard to describe in words, partly because it’s all in my own head and mostly non-verbal, but partly also because I couldn’t write anything down during the course and have the memory of a goldfish.
Day 1: My thoughts throughout the day were like a cloud of flies, buzzing from one topic to the next without any sense of logic or proportion. Thoughts about the past and the future would appear in my head without me even having properly finished thinking the last thought through. The first technique you are taught is to focus on your own respiration as a means of meditating. That’s easier said than done: I found it next to impossible to focus on my breathing for more than a few moments at a time. You can have this experience for yourself if you like: just sit down somewhere quiet and try to meditate, focusing only on your breathing for half an hour. You’ll see what I mean!
Day 2: Halfway through the second day I realised that there was already an improvement in my concentration. It’s easy to see why this happens. Without any outside influences at all, your brain only has a relatively limited number of things to think about, bubbling away on the surface of your mind. I ended up finishing trains of thought fully, and resolving them so that they no longer came to me when I was trying to focus on something.
Day 3: I found this day one of the hardest. I was having doubts about staying the course for another week (!) of silence and I seriously considered quitting. I was dealing with a lot things from my past that I have always just glossed over without ever really thinking about. Everyone has different sorts of negative experiences hidden away in their past, but we generally just ignore them or bury them completely. We get on with our lives and allow life itself to distract us. I finally understood that most of my desire to quit stemmed from an unconscious attempt to avoid what was going on in my own head. After realising this I decided there and then to tough the full course out, to confront these thoughts head on, investigate them and put them out of my mind for good. I’m glad that I did. Speaking to people after the course finished, I found that everyone had similar experiences (although all on different days, for different lengths of time).
Day 4: They teach you the main technique on this day, which involves focusing your attention on sensations throughout your body. These can be positive or negative, anything from a tingling, to an itch, to a pain from sitting for hours on end. The trick is not to react to them mentally or physically. This eventually leads to a sort of detachment that allows you to evaluate how you respond to events in your life. It’s tough though. It takes time and concentration to be able to clearly identify a specific sensation on each part of your body, even if you are working at a fairly gross scale of fingers, hand, forearm, elbow, etc.
Day 5: By the end of the day I could clearly identify sensations everywhere and I was quite pleased with myself. The problem was not reacting to them, which is a lot harder than it sounds!
I wont go into the detail of the last days of the course. It mostly comes down to practice, practice, practice. The remaining days deal with focusing on sensation in the body in more depth, and through this method you learn to stop and evaluate what is happening before reacting to it unconsciously. This gives you time to thoughtfully act instead of instinctively reacting to situations that arise in life, be they major or minor, pleasant or unpleasant. You might have heard Buddhists speaking about the ‘impermanence of everything’, or something similar, and that is a major element of the teaching. Everything is constantly changing and will eventually pass, so why react to it in an unpleasant and unhelpful way? That said, no-one becomes a master at doing this in just ten days. It takes years, or more likely a lifetime. Luckily there are noticeable improvements all along the way to keep you motivated. After finishing the course I felt calmer, healthier and happier than I did before I started. Not only that, but as I’m finishing up writing this months after the course ended, I can tell you that these are lasting effects. It’s nothing unbelievably profound, but there are definitely noticeable changes in my behaviour, the way I look at the world, and how I treat people. The Belgian woman was right: ten days out of my life seems like a small price to pay for these benefits.
A footnote that you really don’t have to read if you’ve made it this far through a post about ten days of doing nothing:
Several of my friends and fellow travellers have asked me (only partly kidding) if I considered myself an atheist Buddhist now. The answer is no. I’m still an atheist and as sceptical as ever, but I’m not Buddhist simply because I can’t accept two of five main precepts: do not kill and do not become intoxicated. Before you get too excited, I’m talking about eating a tender steak and washing it down with nice glass of red. That said, I will hopefully continue to incorporate daily meditation into my life as I find it to be a very helpful and healthy practice. The way I look at it, just as you need physical exercise to keep your body in good shape, you should also meditate to keep your mind healthy.
Also, for those people who read ‘atheist Buddhist’ as an oxymoron: there is no fundamental reason why someone couldn’t be an atheist Buddhist. Buddhism in it’s original does not request you to believe in a god or gods. The original teachings tell people not to venerate Buddha as a god (although most subsequent Buddhist cultures have anyway) and have a remarkable link to the philosophy underpinning modern science, which appeals to the sceptic in me. Everything in the method tells you to test and retest, trust only what you experience yourself and can replicate, and never take anything for granted, even what your teacher or the teachings themselves are telling you.