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.
DAY 8 AND 9
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.
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.
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 www.dhamma.org 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!