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