Stumbing on the path to myself, I found a way to the world...
by Anna Clabburn
Photo by Sylvie Shaw

Mental initiation
“a spiritual idea is not something we think about but something that inhabits and shapes us

In February of this year I embarked on a train journey up into the Blue Mountains. It was a dusky late summer day and my destination was Blackheath, the small town housing one of Australia’s most renowned Buddhist spiritual retreats – Vipassana. As my carriage wended its way up the hill I looked out onto a mottled landscape of partially burnt forest – scars from the recent Christmas bush fires. At the time the patchwork of black and green mirrored my internal state with an eerie clarity. Like the forest my body and mind had been wounded by sudden and harsh experience that left it charred and in need of fresh regrowth. Unable to read, write or plan as usual, I simply succumbed to the process of being transported higher and higher into the cool mountain air.

As I looked around the carriage at my fellow travelers I noticed an elderly man reading avidly from an exercise book filled with brief sentences written in neat but heavy black hand-writing. Nosily, I maneuvered myself until I could see what he was reading. The rambling words made up short ethical statements - modern proverbs similar to those found in popular compendiums of spiritual wisdom. What struck me was not so much the content of these aphorisms – I often find myself hungry for such quick-fix philosophy myself – but the fact that this fellow was reading his little book with the same zeal as a clergyman might read his Bible. I remember smiling at the time and thinking the quest for simple truths goes on a lot longer in life than we might assume.

When I arrived at Blackheath I met a fellow traveler – another girl looking conspicuous with an overnight suitcase and pillow. We smiled at each other knowing we sought the same place. A car pulled up and a friendly woman offered us lift to the Centre some two kms away. My first contact with Vipassana – Justine, the driver – would become the social connection I carried with me down the mountain and back into my daily life.

Vipassana is a form of meditation based on what is believed to be Buddha’s original Dharma – the primary Buddhist teaching or ‘art of living’. The course I attended ran for 10 days and involved agreeing to a moral code of conduct for the duration – the main undertaking being ‘noble’ or complete silence throughout the retreat period. Meditation sessions began at 4.30 am and ended at 9.00pm after a brief lesson from the teacher S.N. Goenka. Various breaks punctuated the sitting periods, revolving around two main meals – one in the morning and one at midday. There was also ample time alone for wandering in the two acres of native forest surrounding the Centre. In the absence of any entertainment (no books, writing materials or music are allowed), I quickly learnt that the sole purpose of being at this place was to learn the Vipassana meditation method – everything else was extraneous and limited to essential needs.

Evidence suggests there is an increasing trend towards alternative, often Eastern based, forms of spiritual education among people living in developed countries such as Australia. Vipassana is just one path among a myriad of courses offering physical and spiritual retreat and/ or methods of practice. However, unlike a daily yoga session or meditation class, an extended retreat such as the introductory Vipassana course is something approached with much larger expectations. Submitting to a long retreat is a mental and physical ‘giving over’ of daily routines, familiar places, and social connections - and, as such, it is usually approached with an intention to change, shift or deepen one’s perception of self and/or the world. This expectation of psychic evolution is both a burden and an important motivator during the retreat experience, as my own journey attested.

Although I told myself that I held no real mission in mind while undertaking Vipassana, I knew I entered the process in a state of disharmony, with difficult life questions that I wanted to resolve. In short, I felt impelled to take the course. At that time it was the only place I felt I could go for solace: my habitual repertoire of solutions to life’s challenges was exhausted to a point where my social - and spiritual – sense of being was fragmented and crying out for a fresh source of clarity.

Perhaps the most significant lesson of the meditation retreat is the cultivation of patience. Although the process of sitting, clearing the mind, allowing sensations to wash over the body etc seems simple, trusting this process as useful in itself is a strong act of faith. It involves submitting to a state of receptive ‘now knowing’, with no guarantee that hard work will be rewarded with insight. In fact, the very anticipation of insight is envisaged as a form of arrogance in itself. On top of this, any flash of transcendent awareness is to be treated with the same equanimity as blank experience – so as not to develop an ‘addiction’ to idea of wisdom itself. This philosophy of self-negation and restraint is initially very difficult to digest for a mind raised in the information economy with its endless promise of personal gratification and unmitigated consumption.

My journey on the mountain was a rocky one: my mind ran and gamut of emotions, from pleasure, nostalgia and inspiration to pain, frustration and anger. With the absence of speech, I became attuned to the body language of those living around me. Sexes were segregated so I moved in a world of women. By midway through the course, I began to feel that I could read the mind of the young cat-like girl who sat behind me in the meditation hall - or guess the thoughts of the Dhamma teacher as he schooled each one of us in the finer points of practice. Drummed into a rhythm of existence vastly different from my habitual staccato, my senses honed in on finer details. I smelt body perfume, felt the discomfort of another’s mental woes as a prickle on my own skin, heard the quiet breath of five other bodies sharing my sleeping dorm and tasted the neutrality of my saliva after days of eating wholesome food.

Coming back to the body
Physicality or bodily response is a vital aspect of the retreat process as it is through the body that the mind lives out its modulations and connectivity with the outside environment. Vipassana is premised on becoming aware of the intimacy of this link and, at a deeper level, on realising that subtle sensations constantly felt on the body can provide metaphoric teachings about one’s experiences in the world. In direct denial of Cartesian dualism, the reality of this connection suggests that the mind and body are intimately conjoined - that the body is in fact ‘in the mind’ , rather than vice versa.

This spiritual/corporeal relationship was brought home to me by several dramatic body responses to the meditation process, in addition to the metamorphosis of my visual ability - which I will explain below. Besides the anticipated digestive issues (as the body became used to changed eating patterns – and virtual ‘fasting’ after midday), the most notable physical ‘event’ occurred around midway through the course when my body triggered an uncharacteristic menstrual bleed, accompanied, somewhat alarmingly, by heavily bloodshot eyes. While I have no rational explanation for this response it felt, at the time, strangely consistent with the mental process of ‘boiling up’ and ‘letting go’.

After five days of concentrating my mind, so hard it hurt (sometimes), my eyes transformed into a finely tuned instruments of perception. Detail jumped out at me, almost overwhelming in its texture, colour and beauty – It was as if I was ‘high’ on seeing. The forest became a seething mass of inspired, fecund, evolving life and I was intimately woven into its fabric by my presence and observation. Just after midway through the course I reached a curious sense of relatedness – something approaching what Kaplan and Talbot’s refer to as a state of “coherence”, a state that “matches some sort of intention of the way things ought to be, of the ways things really are, beneath the surface layers of culture and civilization.” This mental breakthrough was accompanied by a nearly heart-shattering sense of gratitude and connection with everything around me. Outside the meditation hall the forest and its animated birdlife became even more poetic and precious. I moved more carefully – my breathing slowed. I did not want to leave the place or the experience and yet I wanted desperately to share the beauty of what I felt with the world around me. This quasi-mystical state of heightened awareness was a more powerful transcendence than any conscious state, drug-induced or otherwise, I’d ever experienced before.

Returning - Social and Sacred Reflections

“Healing must be sought in the blood of the wound itself…”

Emerging from a retreat is difficult as it signals a return to where we came from – a form of ‘rebirth’ to one’s own life paradigm. Reentry must be gentle so as not to shock the system – as with coming out of a period of fasting, it is wise to avoid strong substances initially, lest the body/ mind revolt at the renewed intensity of daily habits.

My coming down the mountain was a wonderful experience in itself, tempered by the reality of social re-integration. A friend came to collect me and we journeyed, with another two meditators, to the ocean for a swim, followed by a giant gelati (pretty special after 10 days of lentils and rice!) The sensory delight of this day still plays in my mind as a reminder of how simple life’s pleasure and purpose can be. By contrast, the second day at sea level was much harder. I spent most of it alone – submitted myself to the visual/aural overload of Lord of the Rings (an unwise choice!), then stumbled onto a plane home. I recall feeling physically and mentally fragile, merely because my senses were all still over-active and, quite literally, allowed too much information into my body.

Interestingly, research indicates that reintegration following retreat experiences – whether spiritual, wilderness, solitary or in groups – is surprisingly uniform. The end of a transformative personal time often creates a paradox in the human mind, between the ecstasy of new awareness and the frustration of finding life ‘at home’ just as it was prior to leaving. Robert Greenway, writing on wilderness retreats, suggests continuing some form of ritual connection with the experience or easing back into habitual life via a ‘halfway’ space as useful methods for helping maintain the insight and agenda for action that inevitably arise from conscious time away.

Whatever the method for reintegration, it is wise to keep in mind that the benefits of insight - no matter how private and cosmic - are only as useful as one’s ability to share them with the world. As thoughtful Australian writer Peter Timms points out in his book Making Nature (a contemporary version of Rousseau’s classic pondering in the wilderness), “solitude is a preparation for social interaction. Retreat is not an escape from society, but a way of dealing more effectively with it. It is…a way of making ordinary life strange.”

This last idea – the notion of making unfamiliar what is familiar – is essential to the process of evolving social and sacred connections with self, other beings and the world at large. Valuing ourselves and the infinite wonder of the world around us, and acting out this appreciation through conscious living, is entirely dependent on continual renewal of these relationships. Learning to ‘attend’ to the environment using our mind and body is the essential first step to remembering and revaluing our place amidst earth.

Vipassana teaches of the impermanence of all phenomena and, as such, offers a lesson in both humility and liberation. Some three months after leaving the course, my daily practice is less rigorous and restricted to several mornings a week, when I can rise early enough to sit for the required period. I am grateful for this technique and regard it as another important tool for living well, knowing it to be – as with all things – of use to me commensurate with my effort.

Last week I had lunch with Justine and we exchanged stories about our respective lives since the time on the mountain. Unlike some of my other friendships there was no effort to create intimacy and common ground with her. I felt confident we would continue to see each other and share some valuable experiences, perhaps even be useful to the world together! We both sat comfortably in the knowledge that we have already shared a profound moment of insight – meditating side by side - alone yet in parallel. Perhaps this is the best we can achieve as human beings on this planet; a deep awareness of our own being and becoming in the company of others.

If you seek Him
You shall not find Him
If you do not seek Him
He will never reveal
Himself to you

- old Sufi saying

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