czwartek, 4 września 2014

India Chapter 4

And so I’m back in India. My body is still tired, getting over the jetlag and telling me to take it easy, but my heart… my heart is pounding with love and gratitude. I don’t know why, but that’s what this mad, chaotic country does to me. It’s magic. Just magic.

I had been feeling anxious for the last few weeks. Rushing around, getting things ready, packing, saying goodbyes... and letting my mind go wild. Thinking too much. It’s like I’m two different people living two different lives. Europe is the logical me, the one who wants to unpack, settle down, have a feeling of stability. The one who tries to control things, who needs schedules and plans. India is the me who wants to run free, explore, lose all fears and let go. The wild and untamed one. They’re both there, they’re both strong and it’s hard to keep both of them happy. And pretty much impossible to give both of them what they want. Or I just haven’t found the way. Yet.

‘Stop thinking so much, chill, you’re in India,’ a friend wrote on chat a few hours after I landed. And so I did. I went for a walk, had a super spicy vegetable biryani and just kept breathing it all in. Today I was woken up by loud mooing of a cow and chanting of a young girl. This cleared all the confusion as to where was in seconds. And even though I’m in a completely new place, feeling a bit lost as I don’t know my way yet, even though I am all alone and don’t know anybody here, there’s this feeling of peace and bliss inside I rarely experience anywhere else in the world.

So, yes, I’m back in India. Back to mad road traffic, noise, smell of incents, vivid colours, spices, cows, malas, chai, elephants, tuk-tuks, masala dosas, open hearts, rawness. Back to no makeup or nail polish. Back to simple, unhurried life.

Let India chapter 4 be written. A new beginning, a new journey. A new, overwhelming feeling of gratitude. 

środa, 6 sierpnia 2014

Notes from the Airport

I’m sitting at the airport three hours before my first flight. My eye has swollen so badly that I can barely see and has turned all shades of black and green. I’ve got three stitches on my right temple. People look at me with pity, probably thinking that I’ve got a violent boyfriend or I’d got into a bar fight. My back is sore from the backpack (some serious downsizing will be needed next time – seems like my packing skills are not as good as I thought and I’ve brought way too much stuff with me) and from hours spent on the bus. But I’m still smiling. I needed this. I needed to be on the road again. I needed to taste freedom again - nowhere to rush, no plan, no attachments. Once you get the travel bug, it’s impossible to get rid of it. It will always be inside you, you can put it to sleep, but one day it will awaken. And you won’t be able to resist the temptation to leave everything behind and let the universe take you for a ride. The road will often get winding and rough. Sweat, messy hair, dirty nails and unshaved legs will become your day-to-day reality. The word ‘glamorous’ will be a distant memory. A "good hair day" will be a day when you rub some dry shampoo into your scalp. Clean sheets in a cheap hostel and a cold shower will be a dream come true. But it won’t matter. There will be far more important things. There will be a sunrise over the Himalayas, a moment so magical, that your heart will be overflown with gratitude and pure bliss. There will be a night when you dance salsa barefoot until 4 am. There will be all night long conversations with people met on the way that will leave you inspired and full of new ideas. There’ll be moments when your heart skips a beat, when your breath is taken away, when you don’t need words to communicate. There will be warm smiles of strangers passed on the streets, excited faces of kids, curious looks of young adults. You’ll become completely engrossed in the present moment, losing all preconceptions about yourself and who you’re supposed to or expected to be. You’ll learn things no book can teach you. And as soon as you’re back, you’ll want to do it all over again. Because "Travel is more than seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living."

poniedziałek, 16 czerwca 2014

My Vipassana Experience - Part 4


Centre of Purification

The temperature was still low, which made getting up in the morning even more difficult. Since day four, when I overslept and came late to the first session, one of the servers kept checking I was awake around 4.20, which made me feel like I was back at school and my mum was making sure I was going to get to class on time. I wanted to tell the lady there was no need for that and I wouldn’t be late again, but remembered I wasn’t allowed to talk.

The morning sessions were really good. I felt like I was in control of my mind and reactions. I could concentrate easily and sit still through addithana hours. I started experiencing ‘free flow’ – vibrations and energy flow on the whole body, with no pain and no blind spots. There were only short periods of that, but it was a very nice feeling. They told us not to get attached to it, as this would create a craving, and equanimity should apply to both pleasant and unpleasant sensations.

But in the afternoon, something really weird started happening. Until that moment, I hadn’t really experienced anything new, all the sensations on my body were familiar. But in the first afternoon sitting I felt something in my chest… Something very difficult to describe. A mixture of energy, heat and cold, pulsations, tension and heaviness at the top of the ribcage, forming a big lump, so strong that I couldn’t breathe. I’d never felt anything like that before. I tried to remain calm and observe it, hoping it would go away, but found it impossible to ignore it. I got scared. Maybe I was doing it wrong? Maybe something had happened to one of my family members or close friends and it was anxiety manifesting itself in this weird way?

I tried to observe it and disconnect from it, but promised myself I’d speak to the teacher if it didn’t disappear before the evening. Every day at 9 pm, before going to bed, we were allowed to talk to one of the assistant teachers if we had any questions or doubts. So far I hadn’t really had any. But at that moment I really needed to know whether what I was experiencing was normal. Because it didn’t feel normal at all.

By the end of the day, the feeling was still there. Sometimes it would be very faint, almost as if it was gone, but then it would come back with new force, stronger than before. I thought of every possible explanation – maybe it was indigestion? Maybe I was getting ill? Catching a cold? Maybe it was an allergy? But I’d had all of these before and none of them felt even remotely similar to what I was going through.

After the last session, I stayed in the meditation hall and waited for my turn to speak to one of the teachers. There were two female teachers, but only one spoke English. She was probably in her fifties, with delicate and soft features, radiating peace, love and beauty. When I first saw her, I couldn’t take my eyes of her. She was glowing and each time she smiled I could almost feel the warmth of her smile on my skin. I tried to describe the sensation I’d been experiencing as precisely as I could to her, explaining that it was something completely new to me. She asked where exactly it was located and when I pointed just below the area where the ribs connect with the sternum, she gave me one of her big, beaming smiles.

“That’s your centre of purification,” she explained. “It’s normal, don’t worry. Just observe it. See what happens.” Centre of purification? What the hell was that? What did it mean? But she didn’t say anything else. “Just watch it. It’s fine, nothing to worry about.” I thanked her and walked back to my room. As I was getting ready for bed, I felt a mixture of relief and confusion. I was glad she knew what I was talking about, but I still had no idea what it was. And my analytical mind wanted to understand and label it. It wasn’t easy to let go of this desire. Fortunately, I was too tired to think about it for too long and fell asleep.


Pain is in your mind

It was the last two proper days of meditation (day ten was supposed to be a slow introduction back into the normal world, whatever that meant, as I wasn’t really sure what ‘normal world’ was any more) and we were asked to stay really focused. From that moment on, we should be meditating all the time, even in the breaks, which meant that we should be aware of every movement, every step we take and any sensations accompanying our actions. I'd thought ten hours of meditation per day was quite a lot and now we were supposed to do what? Sixteen? I guessed they would keep us challenged until the very end.

We were also told to be conscious of any sounds we made in the meditation hall in order to minimize any distractions caused to others. The room suddenly became much more quiet. I couldn’t even hear the guy who used to clear his throat all the time. ‘Wow,’ I thought to myself. ‘Couldn’t they say that on day one? This is amazing, it should have been like that from the start!’ Just as I thought that, I heard a long, laud fart on the male side of the room. I smiled. Anitya – nothing is permanent.

On day eight, I really started feeling the difference. My mind didn’t get distracted much, I was focused and aware. I could feel all sorts of sensations, from pleasant vibrations and ‘free flow’ to pain, especially during addithana hours. But it didn’t bother me anymore, it ceased to be an issue. This was probably the most important thing I’d learnt so far. I’d heard the ‘Pain is in your mind’ saying many times before and never really understood it. ‘Whatever, I’m pretty sure I can feel it in my body,’ I’d think. But I didn’t know how important my reaction to it was and how my mind could make it ten times worse than it really was. Pain is an inseparable element of our lives. Some people will experience it more than others. But instead of complaining and wondering why it’s happening to you, you can learn to disconnect from it. You can learn not to react. You can learn to let go of it.

As I was sitting on the floor during one of the addithana sittings, I looked closely at the pain in my neck and upper back. It had been there for years, it would go away for a while, but it would always come back. I realized that it wasn’t attached to any particular muscle or nerve. It kept moving. I noticed how much I was tensing my upper back in my every-day live, always on guard, chest pressed forward, ready to protect myself, subconsciously trying not to let anybody hurt me. When I stopped focusing on the pain, I could feel even the most subtle sensations in my body. It really seemed like the wild bird of my mind had been tamed. It still had a long way to go if it wanted to find the way out and get liberated, but it was calm and quiet. I could touch it. I could stroke it. We were finally friends!

In most sessions, except for maybe the last one in the afternoon, which was still hard, I stopped waiting for the gong to go off. I stopped wondering how much time was left. I wanted to make the most out of every sitting. And I tried to maintain that awareness during the breaks. I walked slowly, took my time with everything I did. I don’t think I’d brushed my teeth so thoroughly ever before! The colours seemed sharper, the sounds – clearer. The leaf was still there. But I didn’t see myself in it anymore. I felt like I was one of the new green buds surrounding it. I wasn’t desperately trying to hold on to my tree, scared of being blown off by the wind.

The lump in my chest, the mysterious ball of energy and tension, didn’t go away. Sometimes I could barely feel it, it would be very subtle, other times it would appear so sharp and strong that I struggled to breathe. But I followed the instructions and observed it, trying to remain equanimous.

Everybody around seemed to have been taking it seriously. More people had disappeared on day six and seven, including the girl who used to pace around the courtyard during breaks looking for eye contact. It was a shame, I was pretty impressed she made it that long. But those who were left all seemed very calm and focused. Even the lady in the pink fleece sat quietly in her chair during evening discourses, without getting up and walking to the back of the room. And I'd thought she wouldn't  make it past day two! Another lesson - stop judging people. 

As I lay in bed on day nine, I realized I didn’t want it all to end. The next day at 11 am we would be allowed to talk. But I didn’t feel ready for it. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to speak! I’d thought I’d be dying to chat to somebody. I’d thought I’d be waiting impatiently for the moment when I can share my experience with others, find out who they are, listen to their stories. But all I wanted was to be on my own. Just with myself. I felt like I needed more time, more awareness, more peace. ‘What’s happened to me?’ I remember thinking. ‘Am I never going to enjoy the company of other people again? Have I become an antisocial recluse that will now sit alone at home all the time?’ I really hoped I hadn’t.

DAY 10


I woke up at 4 am and realized that from the next day on I wouldn’t have to get up at crazy hours any more. I was definitely relieved, as I’d never been a morning person, but I managed to get used to getting up at 6 when I started teaching yoga. Six is ok. Four is just wrong.

I smiled at the thought of a lie in and a nice cup of coffee. I’d be free to do whatever I wanted. I’d be able to speak again! But how was I supposed to start talking to these strangers around me all of a sudden? What would I say to them?

The last session before the end of noble silence went really well. I managed to completely disconnect and just observe sensations in my body. When the gong went off, I didn’t want to open my eyes. I was one of the last people to leave the meditation hall. As I entered the courtyard, I could hear chatting, excitement and laughter. “That’s it. I’ve done it. I got to the end. I can speak now,” I thought. But the words just wouldn’t come out. I tried to say something, but the voice was stuck in my throat. The big lump of energy and tension was pulsating harder than ever before in my chest and I simply couldn’t get a word out of my mouth. “What the hell is going on with me? Have I gone mad? Will I ever be able to speak again?” I kept thinking while I was walking back to my room, trying to hold the tears coming into my eyes. I lay down on the bed, curled into an embryo position and covered my head with a blanket. I stopped trying to control the tears and just let them flow. Soon after I was sobbing uncontrollably, like I’d never done before. I had no idea what was going on. I generally don’t cry much, I didn’t even cry when Leo died in Titanic! I’m living a happy, balanced life, appreciating every moment. I’m strong and independent. Or at least I’d like to think so. And there I was, all weak and vulnerable, feeling completely exposed, stripped down to the very core, to some deeply buried feelings I had no idea existed.

I didn’t know where it was all coming from. There were no images attached to it, no past hurts, worries, fears or disappointments. But as the tears streamed down my face, I could feel the ball in my chest slowly dissolving and disappearing. Something was being released. “This is your centre of purification,” I remembered the teacher’s words when I told her about the tension underneath my ribcage. ‘Well, it must have been pretty dirty and in need of a good clean-up,’ I thought.

About twenty minutes later I calmed down and was ready to face the world. I felt as if somebody had lifted ten kilograms of my chest! I washed my face, put a bit of make-up on to cover my red eyes and cheeks and decided to try talking again. As I introduced myself to an American girl of Indian origins who’d been volunteering at a Nepalese orphanage for the last few months, I didn’t recognize my own voice. It sounded strange and distant, as if it belonged to somebody else. Not long later we were joined by two more girls, one of whom slept on the bed next to me for the past ten days. I found out she was Czech and had been travelling around the world with her boyfriend for over eight months now. This was their last stop and they were flying back home in a few days. I also spoke to the lady in the pink fleece and found out she was from Venezuela, not Russia. 'Another bad judgment', I thought to myself. After about twenty minutes, I felt extremely tired and started getting a headache. I didn’t realize chatting could take so much effort! I needed a break. I needed some peace and quiet. There was too much noise around.

The rest of the day was a slow introduction into the ‘real world’. We still had two more meditation sessions, but we were allowed to speak during the breaks. There was also a book display and a documentary about the use of Vipassana as part of prisoners’ rehabilitation project in India. I was glad to have that transition day – otherwise I didn’t think I could face the reality outside the centre’s gates. I found out that I still had to get up at 4 am the next day for the morning sitting, but it didn’t really bother me too much – I knew I’d be free at 6.30 and I'd be allowed to sleep as much as I wanted.

As I lay in bed that evening, I tried to remember as many details as I could about my experience at Dhamma Shringa. I wanted to write it all down immediately so that I wouldn’t forget. ‘Tomorrow, I’ll start tomorrow,’ I thought and fell asleep.

DAY  11

Return to the real world

After the last morning meditation sitting and breakfast, we were given back our mobile phones and other deposited items and got on minibuses to Kathmandu. As we were getting closer to the city, I realized I couldn’t stay there. The capital of Nepal is a noisy and polluted city and it was too much for my senses. Too many stimuli after these ten days of complete silence, peace and quiet. It was as if somebody had put the TV on full blast and I couldn’t turn it down. I felt completely overwhelmed and decided to go to Nagarkot, a little village in the mountains I’d heard about from one my students, as soon as I could.

After breakfast with the American-Indian girl (coffee had never tasted that good!), I met up with Bishnu who quickly checked buses to Nagarkot and found out there was one leaving in a couple of hours. I booked my tickets straight away and head off to the mountains.

I checked into the quietest hotel I could find. It was called “Hotel at the End of the Universe” and it really lived up to its name. I spent the next three days watching the sun rise above the highest peaks of the Himalayas (a truly magical and unforgettable experience!), rambling around, basking in the spring sun, meditating, sipping tea at rooftop cafes, admiring the views and writing, writing, writing. Getting it all out. Breathing it all in again. Slowly coming back to the real world.

It’s been two and a half months now since I finished the course – it took me a while to edit things I wrote and get a perspective on everything that happened. I managed to keep up the meditation practice – of course it’s not as intense as it used to be and as I would like it to be, but I can definitely feel its benefits and impact on my every-day life. It made me calmer, more balanced, and more motivated and effective as I don’t waste time letting my mind take control and overthink things. It gave me new confidence to work hard and follow my dreams. It didn't make me a recluse (I still love a good party!), but definetely made me want to spend more time on my own, made me feel much more comfortable being by myself and with myself. Of course there’s a lot more, but these are the main things I noticed. I’m trying to find time to do another course this summer, hopefully in August, when I come back from Costa Rica. And I’m looking forward to sharing what I’ve learnt with my students!

If you’re thinking of taking the course, check for a list of centres and course dates. The courses are run all around the world and are free of charge, but you can leave a donation once you’ve completed the full 10 days. Please feel free to comment and message me with your thoughts, opinions and questions!

Be happy

poniedziałek, 26 maja 2014

My Vipassana Experience - Part 3


Practsing Vipassana

When I heard the morning bell, I was curled into a fetus position, with the duvet covering my head. There'd been a big storm the night before and the temperature suddenly dropped. I hated the idea of getting up. But I had another thirty minutes before the first sitting, so I didn’t move and closed my eyes again. Something wasn’t right though. It was unusually quiet around – no sounds of people rushing about and getting ready. But I didn’t make much of it and thought it must have been the cold and everybody was still in bed, just like me. As I was lying there, half-asleep, waiting for the second gong, I felt a nudge at my feet. I lifted the duvet off my face and saw one of the dhamma workers. She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t have to. I knew what had happened. That WAS the second gong! Somehow, I didn’t hear the first one.

I got up quickly and put some clothes over my pajamas, wrapped myself tightly in my blanket and rushed to the meditation hall. I felt like a naughty school kid who’d overslept for the first class. Although if I really had been at school, I’m sure I’d have taken my time. Especially if it was Maths class first.

I sat down quietly on my pillow and shivered. It was cold and damp. I wondered if the leaf had survived the storm. The chances were pretty small, it rained heavily all night, I could hear thunders and strong wind. Was it symbolic? Did it mean that things were going to get more difficult? Or was it a sign that the worst was over?

It was the first day of Vipassana meditation  and we were supposed to observe sensations on our bodies – itching, throbbing, pulsations, vibrations, heaviness, lightness, cold, heat, pain – anything. We were warned not to look for anything in particular, just to sharpen our minds and focus all our attention on watching what’s going on. If we came across any blind spots, areas with no sensations, we were asked to scan them very slowly and carefully and then move on without creating any cravings. It was easy to feel things on my arms and legs, but my head and trunk… not much there. Except for pain and tension in my neck and upper back.

My mind was definitely more focused. It was easier to concentrate on scanning my body than to just watch respiration. It still wandered away quite often, but seemed clearer and sharper. There was still some pain, but it was manageable. It really seemed like things were getting better.

The first session at dusk and the last in the afternoon were still the hardest and had little to do with meditation. I was too tired to concentrate and I would catch myself waiting for the final gong to go off pretty often. But the others weren’t too bad. I felt like I was slowly regaining control over my mind, the bird would sometimes listen and sit calmly on top of the cage, chirping happily.

Was this really how Buddha got enlightened? Sitting under a tree and observing sensations in his body until it completely dissolved and enabled him to see the reality beyond mind and matter? Apparently so. I was definitely nowhere near that. And at that stage, I didn’t really believe I’d ever be. I didn’t think I could give up sensual pleasures of everyday life. I didn’t even think I would like to. I love treating myself to a cocktail and a new dress. I love these simple days when you sip coffee for the whole morning, feeling perfectly content. I don’t think I could completely devote my life to serve other people – and apparently that’s what happens when you get enlightened. You need to share it, spread it, give it to others. Fair enough, but giving up your life? Yourself? Not sure about that. Don’t all spiritual teachers preach self-love as one of the most important elements of a happy life? What about self development and exploration? Don’t you need time for yourself to do that? Or does it mean you’ve explored everything and there’s nothing left? Again, I’m not sure I like the idea. Or maybe my ego doesn’t.

I decided that the best I could do is work on creating some good karma in this life and being a better person. That should be enough, shouldn’t it? And maybe in the next one… Who knows. I could already see the effects of the technique – I was much calmer, more aware, more in control. Some of the anger and frustration I had been feeling for the past three days had disappeared. By observing sensations in our bodies and remaining equanimous to them, we eradicate subconscious reactions of our mind. When we feel pain, our mind straight away creates sadness, irritation, resentment. When we feel pleasant vibrations, it produces joy. By learning not to react to these sensations, we learn to change these hidden patterns of our mind and to be aware of how we react to things that happen to us, which in turn changes the way we perceive them and how we feel about them. If somebody insults us, we react straight away with anger and similar verbal abuse. But if we step back, we will realize that this unnecessary unconscious reaction will only leave us frustrated for the rest of the day and will give the other person satisfaction and make their behavior justified.

Observing your own reactions is something you should do in your daily life. It may be a slow process – first you’ll learn to see them in retrospect. You’ll look back on things and admit you weren’t right. Later on, you’ll be able to recognize them when they happen. You’ll be able to say ‘Hey, I know what’s happening and I’m not going that way!’ Stopping these subconscious reactions can have a tremendous impact on every aspect of your life. You’ll learn to communicate openly, leaving your ego and emotions behind, explaining your ideas and expectations clearly and not settling for less then you deserve. You’ll be able to see things as they are and not as your mind projects them. And meditation can help you achieve that – it will help you unclutter your mind, make it calmer and sharper, capable of seeing things clearly, without the interference of your ego. It will teach you how to stop reacting to outside factors and listen to yourself. Because all answers are inside you, you just need to look very closely to see them.

During the break, I was surprised to find out that the leaf had survived the storm. I couldn’t believe it was still there. When I’d  first seen it a few days earlier, it looked like it was going to fall any second. It looked weak. Maybe because I felt weak myself. Now, after the storm, it looked like nothing could break it. I smiled and sat on the bench. I thought of different religions and how we let them become so impure. Islamic extremists killing in the name of god, devoted hinduists gang-raping women, Christian priests sexually abusing children… And these should be people we look up to. Every religion has the same fundamental values – creating good, peace and love. It’s great to believe in God – it makes life easier and purposeful, gives us hope. But instead of focusing on mechanical rituals, instead of just going to church on Sunday and saying prayers every day, we need to look inside, start with ourselves. Work on being better people and making the world a better place. Whatever the religion, whichever path you choose.

And that’s what I like about Buddhism. Have you ever seen an unhappy Buddhist monk? One that would harm other people in any way? They’ve got the basics right. Buddhism is not a religion and Buddha is not God. Every enlightened person is a Buddha and God is truth. I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist, I don’t really need a label. All I want is personal and spiritual development. Happiness and peace starting deep inside, balance which can’t be shaken or destroyed by outside conditioning.

There were still a lot of thoughts in my head. I thought about my life goals, future plans and ideas, dreams. Where was I going? Where did I want to get? And how would  I do it? Yes, I was living a yogic life, living in the present, enjoying the moment, not planning too far ahead. But somewhere at the back of my head, I had a pretty clear picture of what I wanted to do. And I knew I had to take action and make it happen. Living in the present does not necessarily mean having absolutely no plans. It’s about not getting attached to them. Not letting them restrict you. Not thinking this is the only way to go. Because they might change. They will change. They should change. And if you’re attached to them, if you hang onto them at all cost, you’ll just waste time and miss the moment when you’re supposed to head in a different direction. I’d done it myself for a really long time. I’d had a ten-year plan and thought I knew exactly where everything was going. And ever since I let go of it and started listening to signs around, the most amazing things started happening. Naturally and organically, without any force, stress or tension. And I’d never been happier.

I realized there were still some things I needed to sort out, things I hadn’t dealt with. I thought about people I hadn’t been in touch with for a while and promised myself to write to them. All this came when I let go and stopped craving for big realizations. Another proof that everything happens in its own time. All I had to do was let go, breathe, observe myself and everything slowly started to unfold. It really looked like things could only get easier. At least that was what I thought until the evening discourse and the instructions for the next day.


Addithana means strong determination

In the evening discourse we were told that the next day we would start practicing Addithana, which means strong determination. This meant that for the three one-hour sittings we should try to stay completely still. No adjusting , moving arms or legs, or opening eyes. ‘You’re joking, right?’ I thought to myself. ‘I’ve only just managed to stop crying in pain. There’s no way I’d be able to sit for an hour without any movement!’ Especially not in the afternoon. Afternoon sessions were still tough and although the pain seemed to have gone down (or I got used to it), I really didn’t think I was ready for that.

When the first addithana session started, I took my time to find a comfortable position and make sure that I was warm and tucked up in my scarf and blanket as tightly as possible. I closed my eyes and started watching my breath. For the first few minutes I focused on observing my respiration and calming my mind before I moved to scanning my body for sensations. It felt good, I was focused, there were some pleasant vibrations on my arms and legs, I could feel the energy flowing. A few blank areas, a little bit of pain in my upper back and some tension in the neck… but generally, it wasn’t bad.

The first half an hour went well, I followed the instructions and kept scanning my body. My mind was listening to me. But then the pain in my right hip came back and my left leg went numb. I remained still but got completely distracted. All I could think of was the final gong. Was everybody suffering like this? I could definitely hear some people around moving. ‘It must have been more than an hour. Maybe the teachers have forgotten?’ I wondered. I wanted to look around the room, but remembered I shouldn’t open my eyes. All I could think of was the final bell. I couldn’t feel my left leg and my mind was telling me I should move, but I kept pushing the idea away. I knew there wasn’t much time left and I was determined to make it. When the bell finally rang, I slowly opened my eyes and straightened my legs. I spent a few minutes massaging my feet and trying to bring the circulation back. But I felt a real sense of achievement.

The purpose of these sittings was to learn to accept the reality as it is, without creating cravings for or aversion towards any particular sensations and therefore eliminating subconscious mental conditioning. Going through the pain and unpleasant sensations without reacting to them is the path to liberation, the path to realizing that nothing is permanent. This is the nature of life. Everything comes and goes. We cannot control it. All we can do is let go and accept it. It’s easy to understand it on an intellectual level, but eradicating all the reactions and mental conditioning? How hard is that? How long would it take? And what do you need to go through to get there? It still felt like something completely out of my reach.

Having survived the first addithana sitting, I couldn’t help feeling proud and happy with myself. I felt strong. I felt inspired to do things, full of ideas and hope. When I sat down for the first one-hour sitting in the afternoon, I was sure I could do it. I’d done it before. But after ten minutes, my legs went completely numb. I tried to ignore it, but about half an hour later, I got scared. ‘It can’t be good for me,’ I thought. ‘The blood isn’t flowing down to my feet. This can’t be healthy. What if I lose feeling in my legs completely?’ My mind won, I moved, stretched my legs and massaged my feet for quite a while until they got back to normal. I returned to Siddhasana feeling disappointed.

The last addithana session was even worse. I had to adjust the pose two or three times and my mind was all over the place again. During the break I lay down under my duvet (it suddenly got really cold so I was spending most of my free time in bed, wrapped up in as many layers as possible) and thought about the day. One successful session, two crap ones. I realized I was being too harsh on myself. It was the first day. It was perfectly fine that I couldn’t sit still through the whole hour. Most people needed to adjust their poses. Some would still get up and walk to the back of the room or go out for five minute breaks. It wasn’t a competition and I didn’t need to be the best. There was nobody to impress, nobody to judge me. Except for myself and my ego. If I was supposed to learn equanimity, I knew I had to stop judging myself. ‘If I really have to move, I’ll move,’ I thought to myself. Without a trace of disappointment. Trying to maintain focus. Sensations are not important, it’s our reactions to them that matter.

I could see how much progress I’d made. A few days ago I was crying in pain on the floor. Now I could feel my right hip opening up every day, something I’d been working on in my yoga practice for years! I wasn’t counting the days down anymore. I wanted to make the most of the days I had left, make every minute meaningful.

To my surprise, I wasn’t missing talking to people. I loved having time just for myself. This was something completely new – I realized I’d been unable to be on my own for too long – I’d always go out and seek company of people, I'd never spent too much time at home. I knew this would change after I finish the course. The main thing I missed was writing. There were so many things going on in my head that all I wanted to do was to note it all down. I felt like I was writing books in my head. I was narrating things that were happening in order to understand and process them. I missed physical practice a little bit, but I knew it was good to give my body a break. And I did some gentle stretches every day, mainly for my upper back, hips and quads.

Before I started, I’d thought ten days was too much. I didn’t understand why beginners had to go through that straight away, it seemed like it would make much more sense to make shorter courses. Now I knew why. It was only now, on day six, I was slowly beginning to understand how to do things and what it was all about. I felt like I’d need more than ten days. I was already thinking when to take the next course.

To be continued

piątek, 16 maja 2014

My Vipassana Experience - Part 2


Revenge of angry hips         

I woke up to a weird sound, completely disorientated. My feet were frozen and it was pitch black and very quiet around, except for that annoying sound. A gong. It took me a few seconds to realise what was going on. 4 am. Time to get up. I knew that the first session didn’t start until 4.30, so I decided to stay in bed and just get up five minutes before the sitting, brush my teeth, put some clothes on and comb my hair. Five minutes should be enough. 

I closed my eyes and immediately fell back to sleep and got woken up by the second bell, the one calling students for the first meditation. I put a jumper over my pajama top, wrapped myself in a blanket I bought from Kathmandu market and rushed to the bathroom to brush my teeth. Screw the hair, not enough time. Three minutes later, I was in the meditation hall. We’d all been assigned our seats – little pillows scattered around the room, which we'd keep until the end of the course. From then on, I was known as G4. I wished mine was closer to the wall, maybe I could lean back and nobody would notice. I sat down, put a scarf on my head and wrapped myself tighter in my yak wool blanket. Right, respiration. Observe the breath. Inhale, exhale. I tried hard, but my mind kept coming back to one thought – why was I not in bed? And when could I go back there? ‘Two hours, only two hours. Then I’ll have a break and I'll be able to have a nap,’ I repeated in my head, waiting for the session to end. 

There were all sorts of noises around. Human noises. I could understand coughing and sneezing, but burping and farting? Really?! And this horrible sound Indian men do when they clear their throats… there was a guy in the room who did it every few minutes! I couldn’t stand it. ‘Have these people got no manners? Are they not aware of how distracting that is to others? Clearly somebody should have a chat with them!’ I kept thinking to myself. ‘But hey, I’m supposed to be focusing on me. Breath. Nostrils. In and out,’ I tried to concentrate. We weren’t allowed to use any mantras, words or visualisations to help us focus our minds. But how to do it without them? Breath, just observe the breath. Very simple. Or at least it seems so. Try it now. Close your eyes and watch your breath coming in and out. How long can you go without a thought appearing in your head? Exactly.

I was shocked by how little control I had over my mind. How disconnected I was from myself. I thought all the yoga would make it all easy – after all, the purpose is the same: ‘Yoga chitta vritti nirodha’. Yoga is the end of the fluctuations of the mind. Well, it seemed like I had an awfully long way to go. It looked like thinking was something that was happening to me rather than something I was consciously doing. That’s what it is for most of us, I suppose. It’s easy to get trapped in our own thoughts, to become so engrossed in them and attached to them that we lose the ability to step back and see things as they are, without the interference of our ego. We think we're always right. And it’s always others that should change, not us. ‘If only my partner changed a little bit… Everything would be better!’ It’s easy to see other people’s faults. Easy to blame them for our problems, failures and unhappiness. Much more difficult to leave your ego behind and notice that we are the ones who create them. Our mind creates them. Our own thoughts and reactions to them. 

I was reminded of that a few minutes later, when I heard a gentle, faint snoring sound and realised where it came from. My own mouth. I’ve dozed off! I laughed at myself for getting annoyed with other meditators making noises. I guessed I would have to get used to it and learn to ignore it. It’s not them, it’s me. It’s all about the way I react to it. I guessed that was going to be my first lesson.

When the gong finally went off, all I felt was relief. I could have breakfast and go back to bed for an hour. Sweet. And then eight more hours of that… can’t say I was looking forward to it. 

I was woken up again at 8 am, this time feeling much more awake. The first morning session was one hour, followed by a 5-minute break and then another two hours. My mind reminded me of a wild bird let out of the cage, flying aimlessly around the room, trying to find a way out. From time to time, it would find a shelf to sit on for minute and then take off again, madly fluttering its wings and not really getting anywhere. You’d think it would finally get tired and sit still for a bit. Well, let me tell you, it didn’t look like that was going to happen anytime soon. 

It’s impossible to remember all the thoughts that appeared in my head. Some were so ridiculous that all I could do was just laugh. Others seemed super important and I wanted to write them down straight away before I forgot. Brilliant ideas. Past experiences. Future worries. I was completely overwhelmed by what my mind was doing. ‘I’m a yoga teacher, for god’s sake! I should be peaceful and balanced. I should be in control,’ I kept thinking. But I seemed very far from it. My body was aching and I had to change positions often. I was saved from my own mind by the bell signaling the end of the last morning session. Two hours break! TWO HOURS!

I took a quick, freezing cold shower (only worked out around day six or seven that hot water was usually available in the afternoons) and made my way to the dining hall. Having heard some pretty horrible stories from people doing Vipassana at other centres, I was pleasantly surprised by how good the food was – simple dal baht, but very tasty. I’d happily pay for it if they served it to me in a restaurant. You could eat as much as you wanted, but you were asked not to waste any food. I knew this was my last proper meal of the day – after that we would only get some fruit and tea in the afternoon, so I played with the idea of going for seconds, but then decided I’d had enough. I spent the rest of my break doing some stretches, laying on my blanket in the sun and admiring the view over the mountains and Kathmandu valley. I wished the grounds were a bit bigger or that they would let us go to the park - the female area was so small that ‘going for a walk’ involved pacing around a tiny courtyard.

When I heard the bell ring at 1 pm, I knew things were going to get harder. Four hours in a row – one and a half hours, five minutes break, then one hour, and then another hour and a half. As I sat down for the first session, my mind seemed to have been even more agitated than in the morning. I didn’t really think that was possible. My hips were literally falling apart. I’d had no idea how tight my right hip was! It had always been stiffer than the left one but this… this was just pure agony. During the whole last session, my hip was screaming. Was it all those years playing basketball as a teenager? Or have I stored lots of stuff in there? Whatever it was, I couldn’t stand the pain. I found it impossible to disconnect from it and focus on anything else. I was aware of the fact that whatever I was doing there on the floor had little to do with meditation. But I couldn’t really do anything about it. Now I know that I could have asked the teacher for some extra pillows or try sitting on a chair, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought I just had to grit my teeth and push through it. And so I did. When the gong went off and I tried to bring my legs together, my face was flooded with tears. I couldn’t get up. I pulled the edge of the scarf I had wrapped around my head down to cover my red eyes and cheeks. A few minutes later, when I was finally able to move, I made my way back to my room and lay down.

People told me it was going to be tough. But I didn’t expect so much pain. Especially not in the hips, I thought it would probably be back and neck. As the break went on, the pain slowly subsided. I spent most of the time in bed, trying not to move and relax all the muscles. Before the evening session, I managed to calm myself down. It would all get better. It had to.

The evening sitting was only one hour. After the break, it seemed manageable. The pain was still there, but it was bearable. I was a bit more focused. The wild bird of my mind kept madly fluttering its wings, but seemed too tired to fly away too far. After the session, we were divided into different language groups and went to watch the discourse. The founder of Vipassana in India, Mr. Goenka, a former businessman born to Indian parents in Myanmar, spoke to us from the TV screen. ‘The first day is over. You’ve got nine more to go,’ he started. Shit. Nine more days of this. Breathe. Then he proceeded to explaining things that had been happening that day, assuring us that everything going on in our heads was absolutely normal, and gave us instructions for the next day.

In the last sitting, which was only half an hour long, we were supposed to follow the instructions for the next day – this time we were asked not only to observe the respiration, but also to watch for any sensations appearing in the nostrils and the area blow the nose and above the upper lip. We were asked not look for any particular sensations, but to observe anything that came up –  itching, throbbing, pulsations – anything. When the session finished, we were allowed to go to bed, unless we had any questions for the teachers. We’d been informed that the questions should be kept to a minimum and should be related to current problems with the technique. I didn’t have any questions. Well, I did, but I guessed that 'could I stay in bed for the first sitting and start at 8 am?' wouldn't be met with much enthusiasm.

As I lay down in bed, all I could think of was that I had nine more days of that. Nine days. It seemed like nine years. Would I be able to tame the wild bird of my mind? Would my hips stop screaming? I was exhausted and overwhelmed, but sill curious to see what would happen, where it would all take me. With that in mind, I fell asleep.


I am clearly insane

When I heard the wakeup call, it seemed like I’d only just fallen asleep. ‘Why are they doing this to us? I don’t think anybody sane voluntarily gets up at 4 am! It was Saturday night (I really wouldn’t consider 4 am a Sunday morning!) and most of my friends in Goa are just finishing the party at Silent Noise. And going to an after party. And I'm supposed to get up and start meditating. Why again did I sign up for this?’ I kept thinking.

Again, I spent the next half an hour dozing off, then rushed out of bed when the second gong went off. These first two hours seemed like a complete waste of time. Every now and then my chin would suddenly drop and I’d realize I’d fallen asleep. The rest of the time I would spend either wishing I was in bed, wondering why I was there, or waiting for the bell to signal the end of this torture.

The morning sittings were much easier. As I’d had a nap in the break, I was feeling well-rested and ready to explore the depths of my mind. Cut it open. Examine it. Understand it. Disconnect from it. 

Observe the breath and sensations – all right. Well, kind of. My mind still kept wandering away. I realized how weird it was to be surrounded by so many people, but not to know anything about them. Not even knowing their faces. I knew the girl sitting in front of me, G3, had blond hair. And the one next to her was wrapped up in a red blanket. I had no idea where the girl sleeping next to me was from or what she looked like. It seemed like everybody was angry with each other, looking down whenever their paths crossed. There was only one girl who was constantly looking for eye contact. She appeared to be very agitated, I’d see her pacing up and down the courtyard at the end of each session. I knew it must have been ten times harder for her, she couldn’t sit still and it looked like she was fighting a really tough battle. I felt lucky. Even though I was a bit disappointed with myself for not being able to switch off, I knew that all those years of doing yoga gave me a good starting point. In my head there was not a trace of doubt in the technique, the purpose of meditation in general or the overall result of the experience – whatever it was, I knew it would be good for me.

I was perfectly aware that my mind is not the real ‘me’. That it can create illusions. It’s not always right. How often do you worry about things, spend hours thinking about them, analayzing every little detail from every possible angle just to discover later that there was absolutely no need for that? How many times have you created scenarios in your head that had nothing to do with reality? Yet you believe in everything your mind says and take it for the truth. If you’re in a bad mood, you get tangled up in a train of negative thoughts and allow them to bring you down. You let your mind take control. And all you need to do, is recognize what your mind is doing and say ‘Whoa, I’m not really going that way, thank you very much!’ All our feelings are reflections of our thoughts. Everything starts in the mind. Sadness, anger, depression, joy, happiness. You’re not sad because somebody insulted you, you only become sad when you start thinking about it – ‘Why did they do that? How could they? I certainly didn’t deserve that!’ And the more you dwell in it, the more sadness and anger it creates. The event is already in the past, so it’s not causing you any pain. Your thoughts are. And that’s what meditation is all about – observing your mind and learning to disconnect from it, learning to say ‘no’ when it creates worries and insecurities. It doesn’t mean escaping from problems and ignoring them, it’s about being capable of seeing things clearly and dealing with them more efficiently, without unnecessary stress and worrying.

This is something I'd known and practiced for a while now. Whenever I feel anxious, sad or angry, I straight away ask myself ‘Right, what was I thinking? Why am I feeling like this?’ and then look back at my thoughts and realize where it all came from. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the feeling will disappear straight away. Sometimes it takes a bit of time. And it’s not about trying to stop yourself from feeling that way – all you can do is accept it. But once you know the patterns of your mind, things start changing. You realize that worrying does not solve any problems, it can only blur your vision and prevent you from seeing things as they are. Objective observation of your mind allows you to disconnect from it, step back and see what it’s doing – and that’s what makes the difference between being a master of your mind and being its slave. 

Knowing all this made things easier for me. A lot of people who didn’t know much about meditation and its purpose struggled to follow the strict rules and accept the teachings as they doubted they could benefit from it all and didn’t understand where it would take them. The battle in their minds was much harder. At least I was aware of it all, which meant that I could focus on putting that knowledge into practice, as that’s a whole different thing.

All the thoughts going through my head – and there seemed to have been even more than the day before – made me think I must have been crazy. Mental. I felt like I was going INSANE! I had absolutely no control of whatever was going on in my head! The bird flew wherever it wanted to, with no order or purpose, not really paying any attention to its owner. But I was determined to tame it. 

There was still pain in my hips, but it was definitely better than the day before. The last session in the afternoon was still the hardest, but there were no tears this time, just frustration with myself and waiting for it all to end. I thought of it as progress as I lay in bed that evening. ‘The second day is over. You’ve got eight more days to go,’ said Goenka from the TV screen earlier that day. Eight more days. ‘I’ll have a nice cup of coffee when I go out,’ I thought to myself. ‘And a massive piece of chocolate cake!’


Like a leaf blown by the wind

I’d thought getting up at 4 am would get easier. It didn’t. I was still feeling grumpy when the bell rang and the thought of staying in bed crossed my mind. I didn’t let it linger, got up, brushed my teeth, threw a blanket over my shoulders and made my way to the meditation hall. Day three.  Apparently, it was a tough one. Or so I’d heard. Lots of people leave. Some people had left already. I hadn’t seen the young French girl who I’d met at the registration office for a bit. Later that day, I checked and her bed was empty and all her stuff was gone.

I started developing little routines – folding things in a certain way, always putting my shoes in the same place on the shoe rack, sitting in the same place in the dining hall – in the corner by the wall, isolated from the rest of the people. Each movement, each step I took seemed slower. Brushing my teeth would take around 10 minutes. I was usually the last one to finish my food. I was becoming much more aware of everything around, noticing things I hadn’t seen before. But there were no profound realisations, no past experiences or events that I’d find to be weighing me down. I heard people often got that. Unpleasant childhood memories, resentment or anger towards certain people that you haven’t quite managed to let go of, deaths of people you loved you haven’t dealt with… deeply rooted and hidden things that suddenly come up to the surface. Why weren’t mine coming up? There must be some there, right? So I started searching my mind. In my head, I probably went through every relationship, every unpleasant childhood memory, every sad event I could remember. Fortunately, by the afternoon, I realised what I was doing. I was looking for things and trying to analyze them. I was letting my mind take control again, letting it create illusions. That wasn’t what it was all about. No craving, no expectations. It should all happen naturally, only then can it be my own experience.

I’ve always been weary of letting my mind create illusions. It’s easy. I’ve met a lot of people talking about how open their chakras were and how close they were to getting enlightened. And I knew they had no idea. They believed in things without really feeling them, accepted other people’s experiences as their own. I remember one of the students on my first teacher training course who said to our teacher: ‘ I find it really hard to believe in all those chakras, nadis and prana.’ ‘Don’t believe in it,’ the teacher replied. ‘Never believe. Feel it. Experience it. And then you’ll know. There’s no need to believe.’ His words really resonated with me. I promised myself to always experience things and never accept blind beliefs. You can call me a sceptic. But at least I know that whatever I say and whatever I teach, comes deep from my heart. 

Although I was raised as a Catholic and went to church every Sunday until I was about sixteen, I never felt anything there. Church was a place to hang out with friends. To dress up to. I went there because others did and because my parents expected me to go. I sat through the masses, sang hymns, said prayers. And never felt anything, never experienced anything that would prove that it was all real. 

So I stopped going. But I didn’t become an atheist. I always knew there was more than just mind and matter. I just had no idea where to find it. All I knew was that I wouldn’t accept any blind beliefs, I would have to feel it, touch it. When I first started getting deeper into yoga philosophy and Buddhist ideas, I knew that was exactly what I was looking for. Everything is inside you, everything comes from within. God means truth and if you explore yourself, you’ll find it. Everything should happen at the experiential level, in its own time, exactly when it’s meant to. And it did. Concepts that were first impossible to understand, like non-attachment, letting go of desires and expectations, disconnecting from your mind, slowly started making sense. There was no effort required, no discussions or persuasion. At some point it was just perfectly clear.

And that’s what I liked about the technique we were being taught. Nobody was telling us what we should experience and how we should feel. It was completely pure and universal and could be practiced by a person of any religion. There were no dogmas, no rituals, no requirement to convert or label yourself. All we were being taught were three things – shila, samadhi and panna. Shila meant morality and we were asked to observe pretty basic moral rules – like no stealing or killing. That was the base for everything else. Could you imagine what would happen if every religion focused on that rather than all its rituals? The world would be a better place, that’s for sure. Samadhi meant concentration, mastery of the mind. Who wouldn’t want to become a master of their mind, to see things clearly, without their mind’s interference? And panna meant wisdom, insight that purifies the mind. Removing deeply rooted patterns and habits of the mind. That was it. That was all we were being taught. And the technique to achieve Samadhi and panna was very simple – observing yourself and sensations in your body and realizing that nothing in the world is permanent. Pain comes and goes, pleasant feelings come and go. And all you can do is accept it. 

So, having realized that I’m being influenced by other people’s experiences, I vowed to lose all expectations of what should happen. I would do exactly what I was told – we were asked to narrow the area below the nose and the upper lip and observe the sensations there. My mind still wandered away, but every time I caught myself thinking, I’d let the thoughts drift away and come back to observing my breath. I was definitely getting a tiny bit better at it. But then the pain hit me. It moved from the hips to the neck and upper back. I couldn’t stand it and couldn’t feel any other sensations. 

In the last afternoon session we were given Vipassana. Apparently, so far we had been practicing Anapana meditation. We'd been sharpening our minds to notice sensations on a really small area in order to now be able to see them on the whole body. As we were given instructions on how to scan our bodies for sensations, the pain came back to my right hip and became so sharp that I was flooded with tears again. How am I supposed to observe my body if all I can feel is pain? Throbbing, unbearable, intense, burning pain. I couldn’t disconnect from it. I felt like I was missing  out – we were finally being taught the real technique and I was just sat there, crying and feeling sorry for myself. When the gong went off, I buried my head in my knees and waited for a few minutes until most people had left the room. I went outside and lay down on a concrete bench, basking in the setting sun. It was warm and soothing. Above my head I noticed an old, crinkled, brown leaf surrounded by green buds. It looked like it was going to fall any second. I watched it for a few minutes, waiting for it to fall. The wind blew it in all possible directions, but somehow it just hang on there. I stayed there for about an hour, staring at the leaf, expecting it to drift away with the wind, but it never did. I thought I was a bit like that leaf – desperately trying to hang on. And I wasn’t going to give up. ‘Pain is in your mind,’ I kept saying to myself. ‘It will go down. Or I’ll learn to get disconnect from it. There’s no other way.’

I went to the next session more determined than ever. As soon as I sat down on my pillow, I noticed something wasn’t quite right. I realized it had been moved forward. G2  had disappeared. I noticed a few other people weren’t there either and felt a bit like I was in the ‘Blair Witch Project’ movie. People kept going missing and I had no idea what had happened to them. I supposed the wind must have blown their leaves of the tree.

I breathed slowly and focused on sensations in my body. There was a little pain, but I could feel other things as well this time. They were very faint and gentle, but they were definitely there. ‘I’ll be fine. Nothing is permanent,’ I kept repeating to myself like a mantra. 

In the evening discourse, I did a quick scan to see who was still there. I thought the lady in the pink fleece, the one who said she was there to reach enlightenment, would have left by the end of day one or two, but to my surprise, she was still there. She couldn’t really sit still for more than a few minutes and kept wandering to the back of the room all the time. At some point, I saw her laying down on the stairs. The teacher didn’t notice. I wondered how much longer she’d last. 

Having wrapped myself tightly in a duvet that evening, I felt a little sense of achievement. I was still there. I didn’t give up. I won this battle. But I knew the war wasn’t over yet.

To be continued

środa, 16 kwietnia 2014

My Vipassana Experience - Part 1

My Vipassana Experience - Part One

“Be at least as interested in what goes on inside you as what happens outside. If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.”
Eckhart Tolle

It’s a surgery on your brain. Except that you are the surgeon. And there’s no anesthesia.
So, be prepared for pain. Lots of pain. Every possible kind of pain – physical and mental, subtle and extreme. Be prepared for emotional outbreaks, frustration, anger, sadness, joy and every other imaginable feeling and reaction. Even if you think you’re a perfectly balanced person. And then learn to disconnect from it all and accept it. Because everything is impermanent.

I first heard the word ‘Vipassana’ when I travelled to India for the first time. I read about it in the guidebook. 10-day silent meditation? No talking? No eye-contact? No reading or writing? Sitting still for 10 hours per day? Uhmmmmm… No, thank you. I couldn’t imagine doing  that even for a day!  I Iove being around people. I love chatting, laughing and joking. Ten days without looking at anybody? But I can’t even help grinning at random people in the streets! No, that’s not for me, I thought.
But then after I moved to India to follow my passion of yoga and teach full time, things started changing. My views on life, values, beliefs, relationships with people… and the idea of withdrawing myself from the outside world and turning inwards to grow and find answers seemed more and more appealing. I looked at courses on numerous occasions over the last few years and each time something wasn’t right – the dates didn’t work, something else came up, I couldn’t take time off work, the course was fully booked… I took it as a sign. I wasn’t ready. And then my Indian visa was running out this year and I had to go to Nepal to get a new one. I wanted to use these few weeks off for self-development, I felt like I needed some time for myself. I checked the dates at Dhamma Shringa in Kathmandu. My visa run out on March 13th. The course started on March 14th. And the application process was still open!
I didn’t think twice – I filled in the application form straight away and waited impatiently for the reply. A few days later I found a confirmation letter in my inbox. I was officially enrolled on the course! I took a deep breath. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Was I really ready for it? I’ve been doing yoga for over ten years now. But my meditation practice was all over the place. It was always easy to make excuses and skip it at the end of my asana practice. My hips have always been tight and I couldn’t sit in lotus for more than a few minutes. I quickly pushed all these doubts away. I am doing it. There’s no going back now. Something told me it was the right thing to do and the right moment. And a perfect opportunity to get established in my meditation practice. Clear my head. And just see what happens.
And here I am now, on the day of completing the course, in a tiny little village at the footsteps of the Himalayas boasting spectacular views over the highest peaks of the world, completely overwhelmed by the experience, trying to process everything that happened. I feel like I’ve got at least three books of stuff in my head, so words are just pouring out of me as if somebody has just opened the floodgates and all I want to do is sit in the sun and write. I want to remember every moment, every feeling, every thought. But I know it’s impossible. When you sit still in silence for 10 days, trying to disconnect from your mind, there are millions of thoughts in your head. And you realise how little control you’ve got over whatever is going on in your head. It’s not possible to remember it all. I will, however, try to give a fair account on everything that happened in my mind and body, day by day. With all ups and downs. Some thoughts I remember appearing in my head and emotions and feelings accompanying them. If you’re considering doing it, bear mind that each person goes through a different path and it is important to remember that this is my, very personal, experience. So, as soon as you finish reading this, forget about it and make room for your own, leaving all your expectations behind.


I woke up in the morning feeling a mixture of excitement and anxiety. ‘I’m really doing this,’ I thought to myself. I, who hadn’t really shut up for more than five minutes. Who can’t sit still and has to keep on moving. Who loves going out and being with people. ‘Right, I can do it,’ I had to repeat that to myself a few times before I believed it. I packed all my stuff and went to have my last breakfast with my student and friend, Jimena, and Bishnu, a Nepalese guy who we’d met through a mutual friend and who had been looking after us since we arrived in Kathmandu. I ordered lots of food, knowing that for the next ten days I’ll be living on very simple meals – morning breakfast, 11 am lunch and only some fruit and tea in the afternoon. After that my friends walked me to the registration centre, where I handed in the confirmation letter, and was given a few forms to fill in and asked for my passport. I gave the worker a photocopy and explained that the original was at the Indian embassy as I was waiting for my visa.
          ‘Madam, it’s not possible, we need your passport. This is an official requirement,’ he replied politely, but firmly, and asked me to follow him to the main office room, where he explained the situation to another guy.
          ‘Madam, not possible,’ I heard again and all sorts of thoughts appeared in my head.
        ‘What do you mean it’s not possible? Are you sure there’s nothing I can do? Please, I’ve been planning to do this for a long time. I really want to take the course,’ I pleaded. I couldn’t believe this was happening. ‘I’m going to get on that course even if I have to sit here for hours and beg them. I’ll cry if have to. Or find Goenka’s phone number. Well, he’s dead now, so that wouldn’t really help much, would it. But isn’t the main purpose of Vipassana to help people? Seriously, they can’t turn me away for some stupid, bureaucratic reasons!’ I thought to myself. I knew that if I gave up, I’d probably never do it again.
           ‘Please, I came to Nepal specifically to take the course.’ Well, kind of.
         ‘Wow, you’re really determined,’ I turned round as I heard a male voice speaking with an American accent behind my back.
          ‘Yup. There’s no way they’ll be getting rid of me now,’ I replied.
          I noticed that the registration guy was making a phone call. When he put the phone down, he smiled at me softly and said: ‘Madam, have you got a receipt from the embassy?’
         ‘Uhmmmmm, no, not really. I gave the passport to the travel agent and he’s supposed to sort it out,’ I explained.
‘Can you get the receipt?’
I asked him to wait for a few minutes and went to look for Bishnu, who phoned the travel agent and found out that my passport hadn’t been submitted yet, so I could pick it up. Having returned to the registration worker, I asked if it was enough if I just showed them the original and gave it back to the travel agent. He agreed. Bishnu run to get my passport and I sat down to fill in all the forms. I took a deep breath and realized how much I wanted to do it. For the first time there were no doubts in my head. I completed all the forms, read the code of conduct and chatted to Jimena as we waited for Bishnu to come back. The rest of the registration process went smoothly – my Nepalese friend came back within the next half an hour, I showed my passport to the dhamma worker, and then handed it back to Bishnu. I took another deep breath, thanked my friends for all their help and waved them goodbye.
A few minutes later, we were led to a medium-sized room for the orientation. I sat down quietly at the front and had a quick look around. Most people were locals, only about twenty percent were foreigners. A short, skinny man with glasses appeared and asked us why we were there. Nobody said anything. He asked again and having not received any reply, he got agitated.
‘What, you don’t know why you’re here?’ Nobody seemed to have known what kind of answer he was waiting for. Clearly, we were there to take a Vipassana course, but I’m sure everybody had their own, personal reasons.
‘To reach enlightenment,’ said a chubby lady, probably in her fifties. She was wearing a pink fleece and had dark, permed hair. For some reason, I thought she was Russian.
I smiled. To reach enlightenment. Good luck with that.
The teacher ignored her. ‘You are here to take a 10-day Vipassana course.’ Oh, that’s what he wanted. All right. ‘Not three days. Not six days. Ten days. If you don’t think you can do this, you still have time to change your mind.’ The room remained silent. Nobody moved, so he started explaining the schedule. Wake up call at 4 am. Meditation starts at 4.30. Two hours at dusk, three in the morning, four in the afternoon and another hour in the evening, followed by teacher’s discourse. Lights out at 9.30 pm. I took another deep breath. 4 am! That’s more or less when I go to bed on a Saturday night! Is that really necessary? I mean, wouldn’t 6 am be early enough? Maybe they won’t notice if I stay in bed for the first session!
            The teacher proceeded to explaining the rules. The main one seemed to be what they called “Noble Silence”. Not just silence. NOBLE silence. Apparently, that means silence of body, speech and mind. So, not only keeping your mouth shut, but avoiding any other form of communication – gestures, writing notes, sign language, making eye contact, etc. No yoga or other physical exercise. I sighed quietly. I hadn’t gone that long without yoga for years now. No reading or writing. Apparently, that’s a distraction. And there should be absolutely no distractions.
          After the orientation, minibuses took us to Dhamma Shringa, located around 30 minutes ride from the city centre, at the entrance to the Shivapuri National Park. I was asked to deposit all my valuables, electronic devices, any reading or writing materials, food, and phone. I found it hard to give them my new iPhone. I’d only got it a couple of weeks before, hadn’t even had time to download all the apps! But I knew that ten days without Internet would do me good. I was aware of the fact that I wasted too much time on facebook.
        One of the servers showed me to my accommodation, a dormitory room with around 20 beds, divided into small compartments separated with a thin curtain. Each compartment featured two beds with a rock-hard mattress, little pillow, duvet, and a bedside table. I was pretty happy about the duvet – I’d only brought a thin blanket with me and was a bit worried about being cold at night.
       After a light meal we were taken into the discourse room, where we watched a video of Goenka explaining the meditation technique we were going to use for the next three days. Apparently, all we had to do was to observe our breath. Sounds easy, right? Well, it wasn’t, as I found out about an hour later when we gathered for our evening group sitting. ‘Have I sorted everything out? All my flights and train tickets? Shit, I forgot to throw the cake out of the fridge. Will I get my visa on time? What will be the first thing I eat when I go out?’ I hadn’t even started properly yet and I was already thinking about finishing. That wasn’t a good sign. I couldn’t concentrate for more than thirty seconds. My hips hurt, my neck and back were sore and I had to move every few minutes. An hour seemed like an awfully long time! How would I be able to survive ten the next day? ‘Do not think, do not think, breathe!’ I repeated to myself. One small step at a time. Stay in the present. When the gong signaled the end of the session, my legs were numb. As I lay in bed that evening, I kept saying to myself that everything was going to be just fine.

To be continued

piątek, 24 maja 2013

Cheers to All Mums

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day in Poland and for the past few days I’ve been thinking about the right present. What would she really want? She’d probably be the happiest if I settled down, got married and had kids, but since that’s not going to happen anytime soon, I need to think of an alternative gift.
But Mother’s Day is not only about presents and flowers. It’s also about recognising and appreciating what they’ve given us. Who they are. It’s about being grateful for their unconditional, selfless love.
We’ve been through a lot. And although I’m not a massive fan of telling  tearful stories of how tough my life has been (because it hasn’t, really, and each harsh moment has probably taught me more than all the good ones combined), her illness five years back was possibly the biggest challenge we had to face. She got admitted to hospital with what looked like a flu and turned out to be a bad case of meningitis. Three weeks of waiting for her to regain consciousness, with the doctors telling us to prepare for the worst, seemed like eternity. And then six months of watching her learn to move her legs, sit, and eventually walk again, appeared even longer. I am sure I was more excited, happy and proud when she took her first step than she was when I took mine!
Her illness was a wake-up call. It made me wonder whether I really appreciated what I had. Made me stop wasting my time getting engaged in petty arguments and getting frustrated about little things. I promised myself to take her on a trip if she got through it (she’d never flown before and only been abroad a few times). And I promised myself to try to be a better daughter.
But, let’s face it, I’m not an “easy” daughter to have and I’m aware of that. I’m not around much these days. I listen to her opinions and value them, but I always do my own thing anyway. I struggled for years to make her realise and accept the fact that I will not live my life the way it is expected of me. I explained time after time that she needs to lose her expectations and let me find and follow my own path.
I remember the first time I told her I wanted to go to India. Alone. She went hysterical, coming up with all sorts of excuses and eventually begging me not to go, at least not on my own. When a friend of mine decided to join me, she calmed down a bit. The second time was much easier. Third time she didn’t say anything. Now she doesn’t really ask “if” I’m going back. She asks “when”.
I hope I kept my promise and I am a better daughter (I did keep the one about taking her for a trip), because she has definitely learnt to be a better mum. At some point, she let go of her expectations and understood that my life is about my happiness, and that this happiness is more important than her need to have me close by.
Thanks for always being there for me. Right, time for a drink, I’m getting too bloody emotional! Cheers to all mums!