I have never meditated before, but for some reason – I don’t even remember how or why – I thought doing a meditation retreat was what I should do when in India. I had planned to visit a beautiful area called Ladakh in the north west in the Indian Himalayas and thought there’s probably not a better place to start than here. Unbeknownst to me, until a short time before I was due to arrive, I discovered the retreat is vipassana. It means insight meditation designed to help you deepen your understanding. But it’s probably most famous for the fact that it is a silent experience: no talking, reading, writing. Usually for 10 days, somehow I’d luckily fallen into the pathway of a three day retreat. Not sure I would’ve completed 10 days.
I had timed my arrival so that I would go straight to the retreat. I reached the Mahabodhi Centre in town, and was ushered onto a yellow school bus with 23 others. We were a mix of predominantly westerners, from spiritual seekers to trekkers in the area.
The campus is a 20 minute drive out of Leh, and is situated between rolling sand dunes and steep mountain. Atop a sand dune that runs alongside the uphill entrance are a set of tall prayer flags that flap repetitively and rhythmically as they catch the persistent wind – one of the many sounds that form a backdrop to my meditative experience.
The sessions are run by Bhante Rahula who has been a Buddhist monk for 40 years. He is charismatic, funny, which for some reason catches me off guard. He is from the Theravada school of Buddhism, and in spite of his light nature is solemn when delivering the lessons of the Dhamma (laws of nature, according to the Buddha’s teachings).
I find it easy not to talk. Perhaps it is because I am more introverted. 3 days with myself as company doesn’t frighten me in the slightest. There are couples on the retreat who steal glances, touches and whispers, and I can’t help but think that they aren’t getting the full effect. But each to his own, there are a number of reasons why anyone would come on one of these retreats so I can’t judge.
The meditation itself I found quite challenging. Quite foolishly with my immediate arrival, I was feeling the nausea and shortness of breath common to visitors of Ladakh in the first few days due to its altitude of around 3500m. So a day of thinking about my breath wasn’t a real help. But by midday of day two I had managed to mentally set myself the space to meditate.
The schedule was intensive and any spare moment I had was devoted to napping. Concentrating for that long is surprisingly tiring.
5.30-6am: yoga outside
6-7am: guided meditation
7-7.30am: walking meditation
7.30-9am: breakfast and personal time
9.30-12pm: standing, sitting and walking meditation
12-2pm: lunch and rest
2-3pm: Dhamma talk
3-4.45pm: standing, sitting and walking meditation
5.30-6.30pm: yoga outside
6.30-8pm: dinner over the sunset
8-8.15pm: optional puja (chanting)
8.15-8.30pm: Q&A (questions written and submitted at meals)
8.30-9.30pm: Metta meditation
On some of the days we made some particularly gratifying excursions to meditate in a cave, or in a shrine, or ringing a great Dhamma bell to make a wish and hear it reverberate around the valleys. The setting for the retreat couldn’t have been better.
Traditionally in vipassana meditation you are meant to focus on deep breaths as they come in and out of the body through the sensations you feel on the tip of your nose. You would ideally sit on your sitting bones with them 3 inches higher than your crossed knees (ie on a cushion) – and if possible your feet in the lotus position (both feet up on top of the other thigh). You sit, focussing on your breath, noticing sensations in the body, and thoughts that may enter your head, but not engaging in them. This is particularly hard at first, but itches will go away without scratching them, and self-controls tops your meditation session turning into a daydreaming session.
Bhante Rahula laid out a number of different methods to help focus the mind and body together if the tip of the nose isn’t for you:
– Feeling the beginning, middle, and end of each breath from the nose to the lungs and back.
– Counting breaths. Try from one to 10, and back down again. Repeat.
– After relaxing the body with breath focus, do a body scan, sending your awareness to the different parts of your body from your toes to the crown of your head.
– If there is a thought that continually interrupts your meditation, confront it in a controlled and conscious way in order to understand why it keeps coming up, and therefore why it needs to be let go.
Personally, I didn’t agree with some of the Buddhist philosophy that we were to engage in and gain insight over. I can see why one might, but it isn’t for me.
However, there were aspects of it that I think more broadly have a universally positive impact. One of them is the concept of Metta. Each evening we would do a Metta meditation, which is where you send love and happiness, first to your close ones, and then to all beings as part of the Buddhist practice of benevolence to all living creatures.
The other part I found particularly good was during the guided meditation. Bhante would begin a meditation by asking you to confront someone who you need to forgive (perhaps even yourself) and offer them immediate forgiveness. He said “there is no time lapse on letting go”.
It is worth adding that the Mahabodhi centre also do a number of wonderful charitable things – multiple schools for girls, boys, people with visual impairment and disabilities, care for the elderly, a free hospital…the list is really endless, and the good work that goes into the community can be in no way faulted.
Meditation is different for each person, and I know that the insights vipassana is aimed at developing aren’t for me. But there are some spectacular elements of tranquility and love for which I am grateful. And there is no way better to learn about something than first hand. That’s one of the reasons I travel. Not because I’m going to love everything, but because I will learn.