11 days ago I left for Merritt BC to spend the next week and a half living the life of a Buddhist monk; one that practices vipassana meditation. Vipassana means insight into the nature of reality. It’s the practice of becoming acutely aware of what is real, happening right now, not in the past or the future as is often the case in our imaginations. The technique of vipassana uses mindfulness to note every detail of our mental and physical experience from moment-to-moment, with an unbiased attitude. Meaning that if you can first learn to be so calm and quiet in the mind that you can begin to feel every single sensation in your body, then learn to not react with anything but equanimity, suffering ends. By learning to understand that nothing is permanent, not pain, not joy, absolutely nothing, and by actually experiencing this over and over again, one comes to an enlightened way of living where one no longer craves or has aversions.
Vipassana stresses that suffering is a human condition, one that pertains to every single one of us, and not one tied to any religious belief, and so religion does not play a role at all. Simple Buddhist morals were instilled during the course however, such as taking a vow not to kill anything, eating a strict vegetarian diet, avoiding intoxicants of any kind etc..Basically things that I try to follow anyway…
Oh yeah, and one more thing…No communication of any kind for the entire duration of the course. No talking, no signals, no eye contact, no reading, no writing. Nothing but you and your thoughts FOR TEN DAYS.
I wanted to take this so that I could help my future yoga students to help relax and to also be able to teach basic meditation skills. I also wanted to finally end the suffering of my poor teacher Paige, who after every yoga class has to say “And Basha, NO MOVING during shavasana!” every single time. I wanted to be able to sit still for five whole minutes, a great feat I thought. I can’t wait to show her that I can sit for a whole HOUR without moving one muscle now!
The 14-hour drive from Fort St John to Merritt was a beautiful glimpse of this incredible province in all its fall splendour. The windy roads of the Pine Pass, Powder King mountain serving as a majestic backdrop, the dusty brown bowls and cliffs of the Nicola Valley, the cutest log house filled towns oddly named 100 Mile House BC, 105 Mile House BC, the history and the evidence of a native way of living long gone, all of it blindingly stunning. But I had bigger fish to fry and didn’t linger long…by 8 pm I rolled into the Vipassana Meditation Center 30 kms south of Merritt BC.
As I pulled up the pine tree lined dirt road a man waved me over and signaled for me to hand over the keys and let him take my car…”Valet parking, how nice” I thought to myself. But no. It was so I could be quickly ushered in to the waiting group of 50 students so that the introductory ceremonies could begin. I was late. Very late. They’d all been waiting.
We were all assigned our spots in the meditation room that became my sanctuary for 10 hours of each of the next 10 days. Second last row, tucked in the middle I squatted down cross-legged onto my meditation cushion and looked around. The women and the men were kept apart, and were close to equal in number; 25 men and 30 women. Although women and men are very strictly separated, the meditation hall was the one place where we were all together. All kinds of people were fiddling to get comfortable, meditation shawls around their shoulders, clutching blankets like a big bunch of Linuses, (from Charlie Brown) socked feet, curious glances around, onto their 3 ft x 3 ft cushions. Old women with wise eyes, youthful, energetic young men, other girls my age who like me looked confused and inquisitive, Asians, Indians, lanky old men, and one odd duck, a strict looking guy who looked like he’d just been pulled from the Canadian Army base in Kandahar. Facing us on a white alter was seated a calm, androgynous, shaved headed monk with half closed eyes. She began to speak and the shuffling stopped. We were instructed on the 5 principles that I mentioned above, and then the Noble Silence began. I didn’t hear another word until I left over a week later.
We were shown to our rooms. “Time for bed already??”. I thought, “It’s only 9 pm”, and then remembered that we began meditation at 4 a.m. the next morning and for the next 10 mornings after. Uggg.
Living in a 50 square foot room with two other girls, who’s names you don’t know, and can’t find out, has its challenges. One girl who I guess was so suppressed by the non-talking during the day, lived out her wildest conversational fantasies by talking and laughing in her sleep at night. I became accustomed to waking up at 2 am to “May, oh May you won’t believe what he said” or “Then you add 2 tsps of sugar, stir and put into the molds”…All very amusing. You learn very quickly how to be respectful of others and to try to make yourself as unnoticeable as possible so as to not disturb anyone.
Now you may be thinking, this sounds terrible! Why on earth would anyone subject themselves to this kind of torture? Well for one thing the location was beautiful. Tall brown grasses, the scent of a million trees and wild flowers curling inward for the winter, stone lined paths littered with years of pine needles…it was gorgeous. Also the FOOD! I have never eaten so well in my entire life! Every day had a theme, Mexican, Thai, Moroccan, Indian, Chinese…really, the best vegetarian, high quality, ORGANIC food you could imagine. Any kind of herbal tea you would want, rice and almond milk, fresh local breads. I was in heaven! *(Note: I could also be biased because we were only fed twice a day, and no meal was served after 12 pm. So maybe the food tasted that much better because after 18.5 hours of not eating, anything is yummy.
Our days went quickly with meditation classes from 4:30-6:30, breakfast till 8, more meditation from 8-11, then lunch (linner) from 11-1, again meditation from 1-5 then a tea break till 6, more meditation till 8 then an hour long video of a friendly, jowly man named S.N Goenka, who taught us the practice. He was a Yoda-like character who sounded like a goat bleating when he would chant, (which although I found painful at the time, now miss) He had a witty sense of humor and made the complex study palpable and appealing. He would tell cute anecdotes about past students, and was able to predict with impressive accuracy the emotions of struggle that we faced daily.
Vipassana is hard work, I won’t lie. First of all you have to learn to not react to the incessant pain that digs into your bum, your back, your legs, your neck….Sitting still for hours and hours on the floor becomes increasingly hard as the days go on. You also can’t react when you finally do shift a leg and the sensory pleasure of blood rushing back into your numb limb makes you want to start singing like a southern Baptist gospel choir. You practice over and over to remain absolutely equanimous. One way of doing this is by focusing on your breath. For three days we sat, silent, aching, trying to think of nothing but the warmth of the breath as it comes out of the nose and lightly touches the upper lip. Try it for one hour. I dare you. After mastering this (which one can inevitably accomplish after three days!) you move on to the whole body, part by part, piece by piece, Taking note of the grossest pains and the subtlest sensations, again all with equanimity. Oddly enough other changes begin to emerge, very subtle ones. You start to be able to pay attention to the patterns your mind has developed. Where your thoughts tend to lead to distract you, to take you away from this moment of pain. Like a newly tapped oil well, all kinds of murky black, embarrassing thoughts come up. People deal with this emergence differently. I began laughing at about day 4. Everything was hysterical. Even those horridly embarrassing images that sprang up, like that time the bouncer had to politely ask me to stop gyrating in imitation copulation at a Quebec city dance club…(that was me attempting to dance by the way) Ugggg….Or the time I said the wrong thing, or clumsily proved once again I’m the most inelegant girl alive.
It was humbling and tough. Some people left at this point, ushered out in the middle of the night like some sort of witness protection program initiate. (This was done so as to not disturb the routine of anyone else’s world.) Some people started crying, some got angry, some fidgeted and fiddled so as to keep their minds busy from actually dealing with what was coming up. This was significant actually; the most noted change I remarked was during our meditation practice. On day 2 I can remember the cacophony of sound as 50 people all cleared their throats, adjusted their shawls, sneezed, sighed, snored, shifted, farted, gurgled, and burped, all trying to get comfortable with their thoughts. It reminded me of an old Roger Waters album called Sounds of the Body in which he creates music only using sounds of you guessed it-bodies. Add on to that the adjustment to a vegetarian diet which lead most people to become much more, lets say, musical. It was so LOUD! But by day 8 you could hear a pin drop for hours and hours in that meditation hall. Our minds had become calm and quiet. I now have such a great respect for Buddhist monks who spend every single day of their lives in such a way.
The hardest part wasn’t not being able to excuse someone when they sneezed, or to thank someone when then held a door open for you, or to communicate that you were SO SORE, the hardest part was letting all those stories come up, and not react to them. But when you finally did it was incredible to realize that THIS WILL ALSO CHANGE. Every thing will change eventually. The pain started to ease by day 6, that or I just didn’t notice it anymore. The hunger pangs didn’t cry out anymore. I wasn’t warm anymore. I wasn’t tired anymore, I was tired again, I was happy, I was lonely…All of it changes. So if you’re able to just notice it with an objective, observing mind, let it come, not effect you and pass on, you can become a more sensitive, happy, healthy person.
I loved the experience, and it resonated through me as I slowly drove from Merritt to Jasper Park, where I cried to the Northern Rockies with tears of appreciation for their beauty. Where I quietly hiked up to a meadow in the mountains to watch the sunset, camped, and then a few hours later hiked again to watch the sun rise. I didn’t race to the phone to call, to talk, to spill, to blab, I couldn’t. It was all of a sudden all so loud.
Continuing on to Fort St John late last night, pulling in to my honeys home and finally letting speech seep out felt good. My words were clear and thought-out, no fumbling, regretting, umm-ing. It felt like I was breaking a spell. I hope that you guys enjoyed this little tale and that you try it out sometime for yourselves….
Basha Nemeskeri lives in Nanaimo BC where she spends her time soaking in the fantastic nature that is everywhere there. Whether it’s paddle boarding at the beach, or teaching her kids to fish and forage at the oyster farm her and her husband have together – she is first and foremost drawn to the great outdoors. That is what propels her as she is currently designing and building her first studio with the hopes to open in early 2016! Read more about Basha…