Imagine yourself in a barren room with a small group of people. You are all kneeling, or sitting cross legged on cushions. No one is allowed to communicate, verbally or otherwise. You are all focusing on one thing and one thing only. The rise and fall of your abdomen as you breathe. Every event that enters your perception, be it through one of the five senses, or as a product of the mind, gets labeled as which sense it came from, and then left alone, as a moment in time, and your attention is brought back to the physical sensation of breathing. The sound of a bird becomes “hearing”. The smell of the flowers outside become “smelling”. The feel of the breeze on your face or your bum on the cushion become “touching”. The thought that floats through your mind of what you did last week or what you might do next week become “thinking”. After some point, the theory goes, you will be able to immediately let go of the sensation without even the need to label the sense door from which it came.
After an hour of this, you will find your mind doing everything in its power to lead you astray, to distract you from experiencing the present moment in its fullest form. You begin to notice that the mind seems to want anything other than full awareness of the “now”. After another an hour of this, you go outside and concentrate your awareness into the movement of your feet as you walk. You label all of the components of the step as your feet perform them. Raising the foot. Lifting the foot. Pushing the foot forward. Dropping the foot. Touching the foot, pressing the foot. This becomes the focus, as all other sensations get labeled and put aside again. Now imagine doing this from 6 am to 9 pm with 3 meal breaks in the day, for days on end.
This is Vipassana meditation, and the minimum retreat usually lasts for a full 10 days. It is a Buddhist technique as taught by the Buddha, but requires no faith or adherence to the religion to perform. It is a psychological technique to illuminate the inner workings of the mind, and you will be amazed at how much stuff your mind is capable of coming up with.
The retreat at the Bohdi Tree Forest Monestary (www.buddhanet.net/bodhi-tree/) was a mere 5 days, and it was the longest, most painful 5 days of my life. I had no idea how many little tricks my mind played on me daily to keep me distracted; from creating dramas in my head, to overanalyzing what happened in my childhood, to playing music as though I had a radio station going on in my mind. Not to mention the emotional pain I felt at being separated from my family, knowing I had left them at a hostel full of potheads and other dangerous creatures in NIBMIN! At one point I spoke with Pannyavaro, our venerable monk, about this. He reminded me that my fear and worry was not going to prevent anything bad from happening, and that it was far more likely that everything was going to be fine. It didn’t stop the thoughts of worry, but it did help me realize that I didn’t need to give in to the phantoms of my mind. It is not the product of our mind that directs our destiny, but how we react to it.
In my case, there was also physical pain, brought to an indescribable level of intensity for one such as I who suffers from back problems. I repeatedly came to the point where I felt I couldn’t go through with it, and often got up to practice the walking meditation outdoors. Through perseverance, it became apparent that by focusing on my pain, it became more real for me. By observing it without reacting to it, I was able to treat it as separate from myself, and not let it overcome me. I came out of it understanding at least a few of the tricks my mind plays on me, and knowing how to stop my mind in its tracks.
One of my aims in doing a Vipassana meditation had been to gain some clarity of mind. We had come to realize that we needed to leave Australia, if only because it was expensive, and too similar to North America to satisfy our wanderlust. We hoped that my clear mind would be illuminated enough to gain a vision of where next to go. Although I did gain clarity of mind, I had no immediate vision of our direction, but felt open to guidance and the flow of the Universe. On our last day, we went on a group walk, and talked about our experiences. We were all glowing with the light of transformation, and actually found that we preferred silence, finding communication awkward and difficult.
Most Vipassana centers operate on the principal of Danna, or donation, meaning you offer what you can or feel inclined to, in order to pay it forward to the next group of meditators. I left my offering, exchanged numbers with a few of my fellow meditators, and made my way back to the Nimbin Rox, kindly accepting a ride from one of my the more peculiar fellows who I had been sitting with.
Much to my dismay, I came back to find that Theresa and Violet had caught the flu during my absence, and needed to get the heck out of Nimbin. Theresa had been mostly unable to get out of bed, leaving Cyrus to take care of her and Violet. The other hostellers were also incredibly helpful, to the point of teaching our children how to make a bong and other vital skills for modern youth. I wanted to get a shirt for Theresa that said “My husband went to Vipassana, and all I got was this lousy flu…”
We decided that staying close to the ocean, out of the damp hill country, would help the process of getting well. We decided to head back towards Byron, and find a place that worked for us, a space of our own. The process of sharing all amenities with a group of strangers, no matter how nice, was difficult in the long haul with the children. After poking around, we found a nice little village called Lennox Head, just 15 minutes South of Byron that had beachfront Condos for the same price as what we had been paying at the hostels! Imagine the luxury! The beach was just over a sand dune, with a sheltered reef area. We each had our own rooms. A quaint seaside surfer town 2 blocks away. We were in heaven. I think we got spoiled. But we still needed to find direction.
After a few days of rest in our luxurious condo, Theresa and Violet started to feel better, and we started to concentrate more on the future. We seriously considered going to Bali, but something about it just wasn’t resonating with us. Bali does sound like paradise, with beaches, surfing, temples, culture, a vibrant arts community, but it also sounded crowded and overdone. We loved the Byron Bay area, and felt like we could easily settle there for a time, but the cost of living was starting to get to us. With some purpose, we thought maybe we could justify staying a while longer.
While browsing one of the many new age shops in Byron, Theresa found an amazing course for me to take in Byron Bay, training as a practitioner of Thai Yoga Massage. The only snags were the three week wait before the start of the course, and the three week duration of the course. Not to mention the $2000 price tag on the course itself. This left the total cost (including living expenses) at over $5000 to stay and take the training.
Theresa got busy on the internet, and found the same course available in Thailand for $300. After some more careful research, we found that we could all fly to Thailand for about $2000, and live there for about 4 months for about another $2500. Hmmm…. Thai food everyday, living in a beach hut for months on end, tropical paradise in an all-Buddhist country, or weeks of high cost living in basically just another version of America. What to do?
As you can guess, we opted for Thailand. We could only imagine what sort of adventures lay in store for us in such a foreign land. We had done lots of research on what travelling in exotic lands with children might entail, but we had yet to actually experience such a thing. Oh the places we would go!