I said I would write about the retreat in Thailand. It was only a couple of weeks ago, and yet already seems a distant memory!

So, here are the basics. I went on a 10-day retreat in Prachinburi, a couple of hours’ drive from Bangkok. The retreat was at one of S. N. Goenka‘s network of schools. This was the third time I’d been to this centre; the first was in February 2004, the second in June 2005.

The daily routine goes like this:

  • 4:00 a.m.Morning wake-up bell
  • 4:30-6:30 a.m Meditate in the hall or in your room
  • 6:30-8:00 a.m. Breakfast break
  • 8:00-9:00 a.m. Group meditation in the hall
  • 9:00-11:00 a.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
  • 11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
  • 12 noon-1:00 p.m. Rest, and interviews with the teacher
  • 1:00-2:30 p.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
  • 2:30-3:30 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
  • 3:30-5:00 p.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
  • 5:00-6:00 p.m. Tea break
  • 6:00-7:00 p.m Group meditation in the hall
  • 7:00-8:15 p.m. Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
  • 8:15-9:00 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
  • 9:00-9:30 p.m. Question time in the hall
  • 9:30 p.m. Retire to your room; lights out

As you can see, this means around 10.5 hours of meditation every day. The students sit cross-legged on cushions for this – there’s no walking meditation in this school, unlike some other vipassana schools. For the entire 10-day period, students observe Noble Silence – complete silence, and an avoidance of any other communication with other attendees, such as eye contact. We give up all reading and writing materials, phones, computers, mp3 players etc to the centre staff before the course begins, so there are no distractions.

Some of the sessions are group sittings, where everyone comes together in the main dharma hall. In the other sessions, students are free to stay in the hall, or meditate in their bedroom (where I don’t doubt that some grab a crafty extra bit of sleep!). As I mentioned previously, students who have already attended a course are allocated their own personal meditation cell adjoining the dharma hall. I had one, and this is where I practised zhan zhuang, but I’ll come to that later.

The course has a teacher, who is available to answer questions, but most of the instruction is given by Goenkaji, via recordings that are played in the group sittings. Many sessions also begin and end with recordings of Goenkaji chanting sutras in Pali. The evening discourses are video recordings of Goenkaji explaining what the students have done so far, highlighting challenges that students are likely to have faced on each day (based on his experience of having personally run thousands of courses; there are very clear patterns in student experiences), encouraging the students, and telling stories of the Buddha. The main thing is that these discourses are funny; pretty much everyone regards them as the highlight of the course!

The first few days of the course are spent performing anapana meditation. This is an observation of the breath, which allows the students to calm their minds. It’s also the part of the course which trains the students in the long hours of sitting. It’s always a bit of a struggle, but on this course I had great difficulty. From the very first hour of sitting, I was troubled by very disturbing mental images, and found it impossible to calm my mind, or to relax into the sitting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, by the way; a major part of the philosophy of the technique is that once the mind is no longer distracted by daily routine, it’s free to start purging ‘mental toxins’ (my phrase, not the course’s) that have accumulated. Not everyone would have this bad experience, and indeed I didn’t have anything like it on my previous retreats. In retrospect, it’s clear that this was down to the fact that the five years since my last retreat have often been stressful and unhappy, so there was a lot of accumulated crap to be cleared out!

At the time, however, I suffered! By the fourth day, I was ready to quit. They’re very strict about this; everyone has to agree before the course begins that once they’ve started they will last the duration, since quitting halfway through without completing the process can cause problems. I was getting ready to fight my way out if necessary, and was making plans on how to use the rest of the vacation; I stayed, because that evening’s discourse was spot on in addressing the experience I was having, and encouraged me to persevere.

By this time, I was getting really drowsy; as I mentioned in a previous post, I had a major sleep debt from the previous few months, which I hadn’t managed to clear before beginning the course. In the morning and noon breaks, I would be sleeping; in the afternoon break I did mindful walking in the gardens, sneaking in a bit of tang ni bu now and then, and contributing to the centres’s chores (which only repeat students are allowed to do) by sweeping the paths clear of leaves (and bursting into a bit of improvised bagua gunfa in the process when I thought no-one was looking).

The next, and main phase of the program, is the vipassana itself. Here the students observe the body’s sensations, including the physical pain of the sitting, in a calm and detached manner, not allowing themselves to become attached to any of them, and remaining mindful that everything passes. There are several periods in which the students are not supposed to move at all, no matter how uncomfortable they are – but in my woozy and still-stressed state, i couldn’t do it (but again, in past retreats, I have. Every time is different; it depends what you take in to it). This is the period in which most people have their breakthroughs, as the accumulated sankharas, the stored-up emotions and memories that are the seeds of future karma, rise to the surface of the mind and – since the mind no longer attaches to them – lose their power. On my first retreat, I had a very powerful breakthrough in this phase; this time round it also happened, but in a much more subdued manner. By this time, I was finding it very difficult to sit, so during the individual sessions, I was standing in zhan zhuang in my cell. This really helped, and I made progress both in the meditation, and in the effectiveness of my standing. Bonus! By the last few days, i was able to do the sitting meditation comfortably as well.

One of the techniques in the vipassana phase is the passing of the mind through the body, in order to observe sensations. At times, i could really feel my qi moving strongly, following my mind. On one occasion, my mind was able to get into my internal organs, especially the lungs, liver (which suddenly felt like a large bag of warm goop), and my kidneys (which tickled). That seemed to kick off a detox, as my urine was very yellow for the next couple of days. It didn’t happen again. It reinforced my understanding of the connections between mind and body, meditation and qigong, and the relationship of those to certain martial arts, and I’m going to have to order my thoughts in order to write about that next.

On the last day, the course finishes by introducing metta meditation, the projection of compassion to all living beings. This is what the course teacher and helpers are doing for most of the course duration.

Once Noble Silence ends, the students are free to talk, to share experiences and get to know one another before the trip back to Bangkok. There’s always a good mix of people; on this occasion there were Americans, Canadians, Chinese, Israelis, Russians, and Hungarians, as well as the Thais, of course. This particular group seem to have bonded more strongly than the other courses I’ve been on, and we’re keeping in touch.

Since I’ve been back in Beijing, my feet barely seem to have touched the ground, I’ve been so busy, but I manage to do fairly frequent standing sessions. I’ve also meeting up once a week for a sitting session with S, who attended the same retreat. On one of these occasions, I really felt a strong connection fire up between an acupuncture point on the front of my abdomen and the ming men point at the base of the back, followed by strong movement of qi around the small heavenly circle.

Although I really found this retreat very difficult, it did clear out massive amounts of accumulated stress and unhappiness; I’ve been feeling much happier since I came back, and people have told me I look years younger.Once work settles down a bit, I do want to start sitting more frequently.

Of course, bear in mind that on each of the three times I’ve attended a retreat, I’ve had a very different experience, and every students’ experience is different depending on what mental baggage they take in with them. This is just what I experienced on this occasion.

I will go on more retreats in the future, though; the teaching and practice of vipassana meditation as a tool for clearing out the seeds of future karma, leading ultimately getting off the wheel of rebirth, is a path I don’t intend to leave, even if my practice is spotty.

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