Extreme meditation in Sri Lanka


GO FEEDBACK: It sounded like the ideal way to unwind after six months travelling through India but it turned out to be the toughest thing YVONNE MORANhad done in years

THE IDEA OF meditating with no contact with the outside world for days on end on the sultry, tropical island of Sri Lanka might sound heavenly – but it proved to be the toughest thing I’d done in years.

No talking, no eye contact with others, no phones, internet, reading or writing: trying to spend all your waking hours during the 10-day course committed to learning Vipassana meditation was difficult enough.

But 10-plus hours spent meditating every day, all the time trying to sit – and remain immobile – in the lotus position, while simultaneously attempting to still the mind, to think of one thing only, and nothing else, was almost torturous.

Several “old students”, or experienced mediators, described their first course as “hell”.

Sweat was pouring off me in the early morning darkness and late into the night. The first few days were spent writhing in extreme discomfort and pain as I attempted to sit crossed-legged and erect on the cushioned floor in the same position for what seemed like interminable periods of time.

Stilling the mind, trying to clear it of everything other than focusing on breathing, for the first four days, then on the body’s sensations for the next six, proved a Herculean task.

Our busy minds run helter-skelter; trying to train the mind to focus on the one task and to have to continually bring it back from its incessant thought wanderings, was a monumental task.

It took many days before I came even close to achieving the recorded instructions. And still the mind wandered, just less often and with quieter thoughts. I had to keep on reminding the mind to focus, focus . . .

A ringing bell at 4am woke the 51 sleeping, mainly Sri Lankan, participants (there were three female and four male foreigners). Those pre-dawn two-hour meditation sessions were the toughest.

The 6.30am breakfast of tea, white rice, spicy vegetables and a banana was served to the segregated sexes in the dining room. Their metal cups and plates washed, meditators returned to the basic dormitories or two-three bedroom cottages to sleep.

Group meditation sessions started at 8am. During these four daily periods, participants were asked to try and remain in one position without moving at all. That meant no leaving the the meditation hall for any reason. It was. apparantly, a way of gaining strength from everyone undergoing the same process simultaneously.

Meditators could sit against the wall or walk outside for short rest periods if they needed a break during the non-group sessions.

A 10-20 minute break was followed by more meditation. Lunch at 11am usually consisted of rice, perhaps lentils, a good selection of spicy and some boiled vegetables, with something sweet to finish. This was the last meal of the day.

It was then time for showers, washing clothes and resting before the bell summoned us to the 1pm meditation. Group meditation continued through the early afternoon, followed by more meditation until teatime, – four crackers and a banana were the usual offerings.

Then there was another hour of meditation at 6pm. A video talk by lay meditator SN Goenka, who brought the technique from Burma to India, and from where it has spread around the world, followed. The last group meditation of 30 minutes finished at 9pm, followed by bed.

It was so hard, I was counting the days to the end. But slowly I came to realise it would be impossible to learn this form of meditation without undergoing such an intensive course.

The 2,500-year-old Vipassana meditation is universally applicable and non-secular. It teaches through your body’s sensations to see things as they really are.

By neutrally observing the changing nature of body and mind; of observing how the body’s sensations continually change, meditators learn the nature of impermanence, suffering and egolessness.

Eventually, you become more able to note the body’s pleasant and unpleasant sensations (pain or tension from sitting in one position, for example) without craving or aversion – without having to change your position to alleviate the discomfort, realising that it is temporary and not permanent.

Those meditating become more balanced and learn not to react immediately to everyday life’s perceived pleasant and unpleasant events. It enables them to face life with more equilibrium, knowing that nothing is permanent and that everything passes.

I was exhausted after six months of travel in India and felt that doing something completely different would instill a new enthusiasm. Meditation was something I’d been interested in learning about, and with time to spare, I thought it would be a good idea to attempt it.

I was also exhausted after the course, and thinner, but I felt lighter, more positive and a bit more patient. Two hours daily is the recommendation. I do it in fits and starts, over less time. In that way, hopefully, it will eventually become a part of my everyday life.

Vipassana Meditation Centre, Dhamma Kuta, Kandy, Sri Lanka, dhamma.org