So you are thinking about learning to meditate? Let me tell you straight away that this was the best decision I have ever made, and although I know I’ve got a fair few decades to live, I am pretty sure it will hold that title for the remainder. Meditation is without a doubt the most important cornerstone of my life, and as such it is the most difficult thing to even attempt to write about… meditation is the hardest thing to put into words, it simply has to be experienced. Saying that, like many, I want nothing more than to be able to communicate the ongoing revelation that is meditation to others (you’re missing out guys!) and as such I am in the process of writing my first novel/memoir ‘The Silent Meditation Retreat’ where I will really go into detail about the practice of meditation and what it means to me by recounting the experience of my first Vipassana Meditation retreat: 10 days of silence, 10 hours of meditation a day; it was a truly life-changing experience, verging on unbelievable at points, I hope you will read it. But for now, here is a tiny taster, a droplet, and if these few introductory words go some way enrich your thirst, to bring you closer to sitting down on that cushion, closing your eyes, focusing on your breath and the sensations in your body, and just simply BEING, then great!
In the first section ‘What is Meditation?’ I set the context and go someway towards defining what the practice of meditation means for me, and in the second section ‘Vipassana Meditation‘ I talk specifically about this intensive method, which has changed my life beyond recognition. I hope you will read to the end, as with meditation, the further along the journey we go the bigger the insights get!
You don’t need to be a Buddhist to meditate, you don’t need to be spiritual to meditate; in fact you don’t need anything to meditate… All you need is yourself, a bit of time, and somewhere to sit, and the desire to stop letting your wayward and fear addled mind run (and ruin) your life. That’s it. (I can’t promise that you will remain non-spiritual if you keep it up for a while though!) I find that by meditating in the morning it sets me up to have a good day. Others find that it is best for them to meditate in the evening to help them to wind down before going to bed. If you can do both then you’re well on your way to enlightenment already! If you can make it a quiet place, preferably close to nature, then that’s absolutely ideal, then you’re living the meditation dream! But if not, it really doesn’t matter. As one of my first meditation teachers said as we sat learning to meditate in a Buddhist Centre situated on one of the busiest streets of the city where buses roared by every 30 seconds and crowds of drunken revellers paraded down the streets: ‘don’t disturb the noise.’
What is meditation?
Well, as I understand it at this point in time, given my own experience so far, it is a process of simply paying attention to the breath or sensation in the body to calm the mind, with the intention to reach a point of stillness where we learn to dissociate from the ‘chitter chatter’ thoughts of the ‘to-do-list’ brain and the fear-based projections and ruminations of dwelling on the past/worrying about the future/about what others think of us/about what we think of ourselves. If you’ll allow me to use a theatrical metaphor: these ego projections become but scripts that you are able to observe being read aloud in your head as opposed to unwittingly embodying the role of the actor and fully identifying with them. You become instead a witness, a member of the audience and not embroiled in the action of the play. This gives you license to re-write the script, to decide where it is going to go from here. Over time the script gets less melodramatic and becomes more profound and universal, and when you see it beginning to verge into the territory of the soap opera you can spot it and quickly nip it in the bud before you end up embarking on a storyline you will undoubtedly go on to regret.
The practice of meditation IS really as simple as keeping your awareness on the breath, or on sensation in the body. That really is all there is to it on a practical level. But that is where the simplicity ends. Meditation can feel like THE MOST CHALLENGING THING IN THE WORLD given our human nature and the world we live in. In my opinion it is not an activity that can be undertaken lightly. It is truly transformational.
It is a technique that encourages you to stop looking outwards for answers (where you will never find them) and instead to turn inwards and LISTEN, and if you are able to get quiet enough you WILL be given the answer to every single question you ask. The voice of the ego communicates by shouting, the voice of the soul communicates in a whisper, and so the only way to hear it is to get as quiet and still as humanly possible. Meditation is the way to get there.
It is a method where, given practice, you are able to see that the constant yelps and to-ings and fro-ings of the anxious and overactive monkey-mind as it jumps from tree to tree are so deafeningly loud and relentless that they completely prevent you from connecting to your true Self, the world around you, and everyone you encounter in your life. Add to this the noise of the overstimulating, inhumane, alienating and non-stop nature of the capitalist world around us and it is surprising we ever manage to connect with ourselves or each other at all. Fortunately we still do, mostly albeit in momentary glimpses, and these are exquisitely beautiful. Meditation will help you to learn how to grow and nurture these moments until they become more plentiful and last longer, maybe one day it will even be possible to live from this place… much more of the time anyway. Meditation will allow you to dwell in bliss states; timeless, spaceless voids of utter peace, pleasure and serenity, the like of which you will have never have even thought possible. They will increase in intensity and duration as you develop your practice. But it is undeniable, being a human being is hard, life is hard, there’s no escaping that. It’s far from permanent bliss states. Someone said to me recently ‘first the ecstasy, then the dishes.’ But knowing that the ecstasy is possible, and you will know this for certain once you experience it, makes the thought of doing the dishes MUCH more palatable (obviously this extends to INFINITELY more profound things other than the dishes!)
In our minds we are constantly stuck either in the past, future, or dwelling in ‘me’ stories, or ‘you’ stories. It is mostly all projection, and far removed from reality. These projections enforce separation between us and keep us from living in the now, and stop us from recognising the real. Meditation encourages you to be fully present, in the moment, and to see yourself in every other person on this planet; there is no separation, it is all in our poor disillusioned heads.
Meditation will teach you that far from there only being once voice in your head, there are many, and no, this doesn’t make you a schizophrenic —far from it— the real sanity lies in learning to identify and distinguish between these voices and know which ones you can trust and which ones you really shouldn’t. We can’t however make them magically disappear. We are human, we are products of our evolution and as such we have voices that find their origin in our mammalian past and our reptilian past which at times trigger us to cower in fear, or attack, thinking we are at risk of being destroyed by predators. Unfortunately we are hard-wired in this fear-based mode and can, when under stress in our modern world, see our colleagues, our partners, or our siblings or parents (always our siblings or parents!) as predators… as well as work deadlines, or any undesired event or situation where we are under stress… and we are human, it’s LIFE, there’s gonna be MANY of these! And it’s not just our inner wild animal we need to worry about as we also carry within us the voice of the damaged inner child (who is deeply hurt and fearful due to not being unconditionally loved by its parents and so is afraid to put its trust in others, or the world… it is ironic that to unconsciously withhold this love the ‘unloving’ parents will have within themselves, a severely damaged inner child of their own, in fact even MORE so, and so a destructive cycle continues until someone down the line is brave enough to break free of it). It’s not all bad though of course as we all also have the counterpart of the damaged inner child – the divine inner child (who is so full of joy and innocence and love, and who just wants to laugh, giggle, run around and PLAY all the time!) This is a voice that we DO want to learn to listen to! The big showdown on this front is of course that we need to learn to stop listening to the voice of the Ego and start listening to the voice of the Soul, or Higher Self. Meditation is key for this as it helps you get quiet enough to differentiate between the two, it is no easy feat. The ego is bombastic, mouthy and wordy- it has a well thought out argument for EVERYTHING, our ‘intellect’ is predominately ego, if it needs to create an elaborate rationale to justify anything- it’s ego. It is the constant stream-of-consciousness worrier, judge, critic and self-important separatist that says things like ‘you need to live in the real world’, ‘no wonder he doesn’t want to be with you’, ‘if it looks too good to be true it probably is’, ‘I need this new <insert whatever it is here> because <lists a million reasons to justify it>, (ironically it is also the voice that says: ‘we can’t afford it. Money doesn’t grow on trees you know’). What else… things like ‘SHE hurt me!’, ‘It’s MINE!’. It also feels the intuitive twang in your stomach that says ‘this is not for me’ and CONVINCES you to ignore it and carry on regardless; or it feels the flutter of your heart and says ‘don’t… we’ll only get hurt’ (although the damaged inner child is in there too of course)… It is the voice that says ‘When/if I do this, go here, fix this thing about myself, about my relationships THEN I’ll be happy.’ And it NEVER is, and It NEVER stops. Each of these statements in essence is saying the same thing: FEAR, FEAR, FEAR, FEAR, FEAR. The soul, or higher self on the other hand speaks in the quietest little voice and just IS. It is happy right now, it wants and needs for nothing as it is fully aware it already has everything. It never raises its voice to be heard above the ego. It doesn’t need to- it only ever speaks truth and so it never needs to defend itself. It is your biggest cheerleader, the unconditionally loving mother and/or father (that you didn’t get in real life), your fairy godmother that encourages you to dream and tells you they CAN come true, and everything it says is not just for the good of one, but for the good of all. It is your inspiration. It is the voice that says ‘have you thought about this?’ and it’s utter genius! (when you hear this whatever you do, don’t let the ego talk you out of it!) The voice of the soul just waits patiently until your ego exhausts itself and shuts up for a second so you can hear yourSelf (all it needs is the tiniest gap) and it will chime in sweetly and lovingly with a truth so complete, so kind, so universal and so perfect you will feel like you’ve finally ‘got it’, all is right with the world! and rather than say ‘About time! I’ve been trying to get your attention on this for YEARS!’ all it will say ‘well done darling, I knew you’d get it. Now what do you really want to do?’ It reassures you that no matter what happens all is well and all will always be well. It has infinite time, patience and love for you, it holds all the answers to your happiness. Everything the soul says is LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE. But in order to hear it, and then live from it, you have to get rid of the ego. Let me tell you- the ego will not give up without a fight. It will throw absolutely everything it has at you, it’s gonna get ugly- expect plenty of underhand tactics and nasty vitriolic bile. The ego will do ALL it can to keep you living in a fear-based mode of existence, and stop you from surrendering to love. It takes courage, patience, determination and persistence and a WHOLE lot of love and compassion to first placate, and then dissolve the ego. Meditation is the battlefield on which this takes place, it’s one hell of a battle, but it is worth it: you WILL win. Something I’ve come to realise is that a common misconception of meditation is that the goal is to quiet the mind until there is nothing there at all, when in fact, the real goal is to quiet the mind until you can clearly hear, and act upon, the voice of the soul. (The voice of the soul is the voice of Spirit by the way. That’s the term I have come to use for myself, but I moved through a few different ‘names’ before I arrived here: subtle energy; soul; higher self, Self…. ultimately- Spirit.) A label is a label, a word is a word, a name is a name, it’s not about that, it’s about the experience.
Through the process of meditation our eyes are opened as we learn to recognise ALL of the conditioning we have been saddled with over the years, decades, generations, eras, eons, and Man, it’s A LOT! We look at it, and it breaks our heart to see it in all its painful reality, and we want to shut down in fear because it’s just too frightening, we want it to just go away, we might even think we want to be ignorant again, and revert to our consumerist, capitalist, asleep existence where all we had to think about was that project at work, or what so-and-so said about so-and-so, and where you want to go on holiday or what you want to see at the cinema… ‘ignorance is bliss’, right? But you can’t just UN-SEE something… and in truth we don’t really WANT to un-see it, we just wish it weren’t the reality. What we WANT is to be as conscious as humanly possible, what we WANT is to create a life for ourselves in this world in which we can be truly happy, and to extend and share this with those around us as much as we can, and make a valuable contribution to making the world a better place. So, if you’ll permit me to now use a textile metaphor, we take a big long unflinching look at the monstrosity before us as if it was an old, ugly, badly designed, unwanted damaged rag of a garment, and once we’ve taken it all in, an honest appraisal, we begin to work, to laboriously, painfully, stich-by-stitch, unpick it until we have dismantled it completely back into its raw material state and from there we can begin the slow process of consciously re-making it, again stich-by-stich, into something of our own design, and something we will truly love to wear. We’ll stand proudly in our handmade garments and encourage those around us to go through their own un-picking and re-stitching process until they are happy in their new second skin too. EACH PERSON HAS TO UNDERTAKE THE PROCESS BY THEMSELVES. There are no shortcuts and there is no way that we can do it for them. And we will learn to love our painstakingly reassembled selves, with all the battle scars, tatters and tears that are still evident, as we can’t make them disappear, we can only learn to accept them, and re-fashion them in a new light. And we will also learn to love all the other rags that are walking around, no matter what state of array or disarray they happen to be in at the time. Every single rag can be transformed into something else if it wants to do the necessary work, but it absolutely has to be of its own volition, and there are no sewing machines, this has to be a handmade labour of love, and you will prick yourself, more than once.
In essence meditation is a massive process of examining and UNLEARNING every single thing we ever thought we knew until there is nothing left, and then and only then can the RE-LEARNING can begin.
Although we live in our bodies as men and women, within both sexes there are the dynamics of BOTH the masculine and the feminine, and it is our task to enact a balance between the two. These are split further into the positive and the negative. We have the negative masculine side of ourselves (the aggressive and retaliatory resentfully responsible being who works itself into the ground thinking that the world would cease to turn if it didn’t get everything done), and the negative feminine side of ourselves (the overly emotional, afraid, insecure being with an overwhelming sense of worthlessness, unlovableness and inadequacy who is at risk of collapsing into a pool on the floor at any minute). But we also have the positive feminine (who is also like a pool, but one of still deep water: calm, safe, insightful, inviting and connected to nature and wise beyond words) and then finally the positive masculine (creative, inspirational, pioneering, active in the world and full of energy with which to pursue its dreams). By meditating we learn to live from the positive as opposed to the negative, but we don’t deny the dark, we learn to be WHOLE, we learn to integrate the dark and the light, balance the masculine and the feminine, and accept it ALL as part of our being.
By practicing meditation you learn to get out of your own way. You learn that you can’t control everything, but you CAN choose how to stop mindlessly reacting, and instead to RESPOND to anything that comes your way. You learn to do your best to empty yourself of all the unnecessary ego fuelled thoughts of inadequacy/craving/misery/arrogance/woe/unfairness/separation and allow yourself instead to be filled with energy that will enable you to see, hear and think clearly, and encourage you to love, respect and unite with yourself, those around you, and the world you inhabit. With meditation you choose to approach the world from LOVE instead of FEAR, and you realise that it REALLY IS A CHOICE.
And it is an ongoing process which never ends, with each day, week, month, year, (lifetime?) you learn a little bit more… you become more aware of your deeply ingrained psychological conditioning and patterns, and you begin to learn how to first of all accept them, and then over-ride them. It is a long, never-ending trial and error process. You see something in a new light, a person/an event from your past/an irrational worry you had about your future…. And when you have that ‘A-ha!’ moment it is as if another veil has been lifted, there are MANY veils, maybe an infinite number. And this IS the journey, this is the path towards enlightenment: an ever increasing development of consciousness, a growth, an unfolding— and meditation is the daily practice that allows for you to begin this journey and is your constant companion throughout. Although you have your eyes closed, meditation is the practice of waking up and seeing things clearly in the light of day as they really are. It is staring unflinchingly directly into the sun, and it is simultaneously entering into the darkest caverns of existence and waiting in the darkness, no matter how terrifying, until the light begins to stream in, which it always will. And you don’t just wake up once, you continue to wake up incrementally, every single day, sometimes in the tiniest ways, sometimes on a seismic level, sometimes by realising things that make you do a complete 360 degree turn and change your life beyond recognition. You realise just how asleep you were, you see your past pain and suffering with increasing clarity, and you see the suffering of others, and this is incredibly painful to witness. But you wouldn’t want to un-see it for the world, as it LIBERATES you. And with the pain paradoxically comes real peace, real happiness, real understanding and real acceptance. And you continue to be liberated in different ways with each new day. So you keep meditating, every day, and the veils continue to be lifted, and the world becomes a COMPLETELY different place. It becomes astonishingly beautiful, even in inescapably deeply troubled and flawed state.
Much more than sitting with your eyes closed and focusing on your breath, eh?! Much more than just seeking a way to chill out and be less stressed..? Of course it can be this- you choose to take it as lightly, or as deeply as you wish. And there are many MANY roads into meditation- some of them only scratch the surface and will affect your life in the sense that you’ll find you have slightly more patience when stuck in traffic, or doing the dishes, or dealing with that annoying guy at work. Other forms literally turn your world upside down, your conception of reality inside out and force you to examine every facet of your own existence, and that of humanity. Soooooooooo…. Choose your weapon.
How do you get started with meditation? Well, to very briefly give you my story, I got started with meditation roughly seven years ago by finally relenting and taking my father’s advice after months of prodding and marched myself down to the local Buddhist Centre to a drop-in meditation and did my first ever guided meditation. I was an alcohol and drug addicted, cynical, promiscuous, nihilistic, overly-analytical, desperately unhappy girl in my early twenties and I needed help to get out of my own way. I had never even attempted to still my mind before. I vividly remember the tingling sensation present in my hands throughout the 20 minute meditation, which felt like HOURS, where we were simply instructed to count the breaths as they came in, up to 10, and then start over. I had never noticed that my body was constantly generating sensations like this, and I realised that, WOW, my mind doesn’t stay still for even so much as a second! It started to fascinate me.
For the next five years or so I pursued this path, sometimes with admirable dedication, sometimes half-heartedly, sometimes I’d fall off the wagon for weeks, months, over a year (!) at a time. I went to classes at the Buddhist Centre where I learned to meditate in a non-sectarian manner at first, then I felt the urge to explore Buddhism on a deeper level, so I started to attend classes which incorporated the teachings of Buddhism- ‘the Dharma’ as well as meditation. I attended retreats where I meditated alongside complementary activities like Yoga, Tai Chi, Shiatsu… I read lots of books on meditation, I even hand-painted a picture of a Buddha (I have the art skills of a five-year-old) that I had up on my bedroom wall, and I used this little corner as my own personal ‘shrine’ that I would meditate in front of. It was laughably bad, but it made me really happy. It certainly did help me to create a more peaceful existence for myself. It definitely went below the surface, but there were still a good few layers that remained untouched, and I was still unsatisfied with my existence. I could never really integrate the intellectual ‘academic’ side of my personality- who I felt was ‘paid to think’ and the ‘spiritual’ side of my personality- who I felt was tasked with learning to STOP thinking and start BEING. I also found it very challenging to let go of my party-hard hedonist ways. Although I often experienced extended periods of bliss and deep resonating peace and tranquility in my meditations I always came crashing down to earth afterwards and there was nothing that shifted the foundations of the world for me as I understood it. To me the world was still a chaotic, inhospitable place with no essential meaning; and I just couldn’t find my place in it. I couldn’t say that I KNEW anything for certain. It was an ongoing tussle for years, at points underlying, at points painfully acute, marked by intensive struggles and suffering of different sorts. My Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which triggered my entire life (as it was) to unravel, finally forced me to jump in to the deep end and swim right down to my very depths. I realised that I was living falsely as an academic, and in many other senses, and that my true calling was to direct my intellect towards fully embracing the spiritual; and to go on to share that with others, as I am doing with you right now.
The real awakening happened when I found Vipassana meditation. And since I found Vipassana I can say for certain that I KNOW. I had heard about it roughly six years previous, as soon as I had started meditating, I had even signed up for a couple of 10 day retreats over the years, but I had pulled out at the last minute each time. Vipassana meditation is known as the extreme sport of the meditation world. It is INTENSE. There are centres all over the world and you go there for 10 days. They are completely non-sectarian (although based on the teachings of the Buddha there is absolutely no religious dogma) and the teaching is open to Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Atheists alike. You don’t need to have meditated even once before you go, you will be taught everything you need to know. You don’t pay a penny, this is not a profit-driven business. Don’t think that it’s austere though, far from it, you will have a comfortable bed and will be fed really good quality food. But they will not accept any money from you unless you have already completed a ten-day retreat, and even then you are under no obligation to donate, if and how much you donate is completely up to you. It is based completely on a ‘Dhana’ based economy. And it is THRIVING. Once you have learned this technique you want everyone in the world to learn it, because it really does put an end to suffering. On the retreat you agree to remain completely silent and over the course of the 10 days you are taught the technique which is believed to be the undiluted teachings of the Buddha, preserved in Burma (which remained much more of a closed country than India), before it was eventually exported, firstly back to India and then beyond. As Buddhism spread across Asia and finally to Europe many branches were created: Zen Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism, Shambala Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism to name but a few. Vipassana meditation would argue that these forms of Buddhism, and thus meditation were (mostly innocently) tampered and tinkered with in the transition and so the teachings are no longer completely pure, and thus the Dharma can be akin to a game of Chinese Whispers. Vipassana is unique in that it goes right to the source, to the original teachings of the Buddha, and all you learn to do is to bring your attention to sensations all over your body. Sounds easy right? IT IS ANYTHING BUT THAT. Vipassana means ‘insight’ and yes, this technique will enable you to have huge, mind-blowing insights, that will just keep on coming and coming over the days, weeks, months and years you practice. If it wasn’t for the insights brought on by Vipassana I wouldn’t be writing this to you right now, I don’t think I’d be writing anything at all.
But as I said earlier, when we look at the way things really are it can be HELLA PAINFUL! And these first 10 days of Vipassana is like lifting the lid on Pandora’s box if you will. In fact, in my experience learning this technique can trigger the onset of the ‘dark night of the soul’- which is an inescapable rite of passage everyone MUST go through on the road to enlightenment. It did for me, and over the months following I had to delve into the darkest parts of myself and face everything, bring every skeleton out of the closet. SHIT GOT DARK. It was a rough ride, I’m not going to lie, there were points where I was ready to throw in the towel it was so hard (the towel of life, I mean) but I committed to seeing it through, and I’m so glad I did, the more you are willing to go into the dark, the brighter the light is when it is finally revealed. This is what I mean when I say that meditation is truly transformational, especially this technique. The technique teaches that our minds are hard-wired to react either positively or negatively to physical sensation, and this extends to mental experience where it turns into either craving or aversion, and this produces attachment, which ultimately can only lead to suffering. We want the ‘good’ things to last and we want the ‘bad’ things to go away. But the truth is we have no control over either, so we suffer. Vipassana teaches us NOT to react, and instead to accept the infinitely changing nature of all things and the fact that there is no intrinsic selfhood in anything— this is known as ‘Anicca’. EVERYTHING IS IMPERMANENT. EVERYTHING IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE. ‘GOOD’ and ‘BAD’ (but let’s try and refrain from making that distinction). We learn instead to react with ‘equanimity’ to anything as it arises in meditation (and eventually out-with meditation also) and to observe and accept reality AS IT IS whether it be a physically or emotionally painful experience, or an utterly astonishing fully immersive bliss state, and as such WE ARE LIBERATED FROM OUR SUFFERING. When we STOP reacting, we are then triggered to process the suffering we have endured in the past as a result of all our years, decades, (lifetimes?) of craving and aversion. I relived so many painful memories from my past I was shocked to my very core by all the things that came up. But they came up, and I rode them out, accepted them, and they lifted off, and they LEFT. (I should say that I also, for the first time, experienced extended bliss states beyond the realms of anything I had considered possible up until that point.) The Vipassana technique encourages our deepest ‘Sankharas’ to rise up to the surface so that we can lift them off, slough them off like dead skin, and LET GO OF THEM FOREVER, it is an intense process of purification, of acceptance, of forgiveness. Our ‘Sankharas’ are all the things we have said/done/regretted/the things that happened to us/the conditioning passed onto us by our parents or down through the family line/the further conditionings imposed on us by the society we grew up in. Vipassana sees each of these as a knot, and that it is these knots that are preventing us from attaining real peace and happiness. They are preventing us from seeing REALITY. The technique works to loosen and then finally release these knots, one by one, and they move up through the body as both a physical sensation and as a mental experience. This happens over days, months and years of practice. Each of us will go through this process at our own pace. On my 10 day retreat I felt like black matter was literally rising out of my body, I could almost see it the feeling was so palpable. The teacher, S.N. Goenka, describes it as an operation to remove the source of your misery at its very root: you are the surgeon, and the patient. It works to eradicate the suffering of human beings at the DEEPEST level. It is like the most intensive period of self-induced therapy you can possibly imagine. It has to be taught in a concentrated environment such as the retreat centres as this is where you are given the time, space and the correct teachings to learn the technique properly and in safety, surrounded by people that know exactly what it entails. It also has to be taught in a uniform manner for the technique to remain fully intact. So, although it sounds strange, the teachings are delivered by audio and video by Goenka (the Burmese man who exported Vipassana firstly back into India and then worldwide), and this allows for the technique to remain in its original state, and for it to be easily spread across the world successfully, in its undiluted form. And it works. There are teachers there in person, but they are more guardians of the technique than they are the actual teacher- they hold the space and answer your questions (sometimes you are allowed to talk!)
After the 10 days are up, and it does go without saying that these will be among the 10 HARDEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE, you are then left with the technique to practice in your own time, and you will likely want to top up with more courses, one a year, perhaps. Immediately after your first course, but especially as you progress with your own practice, with all the insights it will bring, you will begin to see these 10 initial heart-wrenching days morph into the 10 GREATEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE. With continued practice, over the following months, or maybe years (we all do things at different paces) you will experience a major ongoing transformation where gradually you will process ALL of your ‘Sankharas’ and as you do you will EMPTY YOURSELF IN ORDER TO BE FILLED. And when you are filled, the suffering will STOP (although from the beginning you will experience moments where the suffering will stop, but only temporarily). Please note, I say that your ‘suffering’ will stop, not your ‘pain’: we are still human. (Having said that, further down the line you will be able to eradicate your pain as well as your suffering, this really is powerful stuff!)
And then you will KNOW.
When the ‘Sankharas’ leave they are replaced with light. It starts as a few flashes within the darkest cave, but as you progress it will develop, first into a shaft of light that cuts through the darkness, then multiple beams, and will finally expand into an all-encompassing beam of light which will envelop your entire being, and then you can call upon it at will. And that is what your meditation practice will become. Your meditation practice will become the act of connecting to Source every day, where you will bask in its energy, and allow it to soothe, refresh, enliven and nourish your body, and entire being. This is a PHYSICAL experience. Once all the ‘Sankharas’ are processed and lifted off, we can be filled completely with light/love/universal energy/spirit/consciousness/big mind/Buddha nature/Chi or Qi/Tao/God… choose your own term, it honestly doesn’t matter. Whether the route to this awareness is through Buddhism, Christianity or Quantum Physics… it really doesn’t matter. We’re all going to the same place in the end, it doesn’t matter how we get there, or what words we choose to define it. All I’m saying is that Vipassana is a tried and tested fast-track. It works, and if you want to dive in at the deep end, and KNOW sooner, then give it a go! And then the fun REALLY begins as you begin to learn how to assimilate everything you have learned (and will continue to learn) into your human existence, with all its limitations.
So my dear friend, you are thinking of taking up meditation? If you’ll permit me to use one more metaphor, this time, to do with the act of cooking with fire: the difference between other forms of meditation and Vipassana meditation is like the saying ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire.’ When you learn to meditate by other avenues you will be like a tasty morsel in a frying pan- you WILL get juicier, more fragrant, and over time, slowly slowly slowly, you will cook in the frying pan, and to eat this will satiate you to some extent, but with Vipassana you will LEAP from the frying pan into the fire. The fire is both beautiful and dangerous, and you will be cooked in record timing. Do you dare to put your fingers in the flames? Are you brave enough to handle the hot coals? Let me tell you, you’re going to get burned. But once that flame ignites and sets your soul on fire it CANNOT and WILL NOT go out. Your soul WILL burn with an insatiable passion and you WILL feel more alive than you ever thought possible, you WILL die to yourself as you knew it, and be born anew in the purifying flames and you WILL see yourself, everything and everyone in the world through entirely new eyes. You WILL see the world as it really is and it WILL be imbued with meaning. You WILL want everyone you care about, everyone you’ve ever met and everyone you have never met and will never meet to join you in the fire. This is the challenge. You will have to be patient my dear friend, as you cannot drag anyone into the fire with you, they have to make the leap themselves. All you can do is stand beside them so that they feel the warmth that radiates from you, and shine your light in their direction so that they gravitate towards you like moths to a flame, which they will as they will recognise that this light in you is also their birthright. You can but stare into their eyes so that they can see the flames dancing behind your eyes, and if you can get close enough, you can whisper in their ear just how great it is in the fire and encourage them to jump in with you so you can dance together in the flames. Be patient. Have faith. It WILL spread like wildfire.
OK. BREATHE. (I’m saying that for myself as much as you, I get so overexcited, this is BIG stuff)… let’s come back down to Earth to finish up….
So THIS is my understanding of what meditation is, almost a year after completing my first Vipassana retreat, and I am very much still learning, and will continue to do so every day, it is not a journey that has an end. It does however have to begin with just one step in the right direction.
So how to you take that first step? Well it’s entirely up to you how you go about it. You could start small— download a guided meditation and do it in your bedroom (maybe even paint a Buddha for the wall!) Or you could go in search of a local ‘Sangha’ a community of like-minded people that meditate and practice Buddhism together, as I did for the first part of my journey with meditation. Go along and see if the way they teach it feels like your ‘cup of tea’ and that these folks are your ‘peeps’. In the most part you will meet really lovely, welcoming interesting people, but know that you might also encounter situations where the folks you meet are perhaps not your peeps… For example, I once went to this weird place with lava lamps and lurid plastic flowers with people dressed in futuristic white tabards where everyone called one another ‘brother and sister’ and meditated by staring with open eyes at a fluorescent light situated at the third-eye point of the ugliest mural I have ever seen… each to their own and all that, but… not my peeps. Listen to your gut and don’t settle. Feel free to take your time, follow your nose, take it step-by-step. But if you are feeling brave, if you are fed up with suffering, if you are impatient to see the true nature of reality, if you want to leap into consciousness, dive in at the deep end, if you want to make a good go of the ‘let’s get enlightened’ stuff, then take 10 days out of your life and do a Vipassana. As I said, it costs you nothing. It’s FUCKING HARD (excuse my French, however I am still human). But it WILL change your life, and it WILL open you up to completely new levels of consciousness, both at the time, and in the months and years following. And it WILL enable you to live a fuller, happier existence, both for yourself and those around you. IT SIMPLY WORKS.
So go sit down on that cushion, close your eyes, and simply BE. If you can do that everything else will follow. (One thing- Make sure you find a good posture, this is essential, trying to meditate while wobbling about all over the place is a total pain in the arse, often quite literally!)
But most importantly, please don’t take my word for it, it really is impossible to put into words anyway, you absolutely have to experience it for yourself, and your experience will be different from mine, your insights will be different from mine, and hopefully you will want to share them in the way that feels right to you. We will all want to hear them. Do let me know how you get on as I’d be very interested to hear! And maybe, like me, you’ll even want to write a book about it… as I say, I hope you’ll give mine a read when I get it published… and written, I’ve still got a long way to go with it, better get cracking!
P.S. If this resonates with you please do SHARE far and wide, let’s get more bums on meditation cushions!
5 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Anyone Who is Considering Taking Up Meditation from a Vipassana Meditator”
Thanks for the inspirational and most excellent article Emma!
cant wait to do my Vipassana in October.
Good luck with the book, I do plan my own one day 🙂