Juanito’s Travels Cincuenta Años viaje – 1995 Vipassana Meditation in Herefordshire near Wales, UK BlogPt6

The first few days of meditation at the Vipassana Centre in Herefordshire didn’t have much impact.

It was like the demons of Bangkok and getting duped of all my money were just trying to rip my skin on their way out of my body while many more demons waited in queue. Rising and passing away.

For those who have never done a Vipassana meditation course, it’s not one of those relaxing visualisation things where you imagine butterflies and hummingbirds in green fields by clear streams. No, Vipassana is about working on your attachment. Attachment to both the things you like and the things you don’t like, recognising the impermanence of everything.

There was no escaping your demons here, you had to acknowledge them, face them, look them squarely in the eyes and let them pass away not through a fight with them, but by observing them, with equanimity (non-attachment). Things came into being for a while, you either like or dislike them and then, sooner or later, they passed away. But they were always changing and we were always forming attachments that made us miserable, at least if we didn’t accept that change.

$1,000,000 comes your way, maybe you’re super happy and spend it on stuff. Perhaps you invest a bunch so the interest it earns means the principal $1 million hangs on for centuries. But then you get attached to your million dollar lifestyle. And maybe you want $2 million, maybe you need to buy a BMW and the colour you want is out of stock and you crack the shits, or the leather interior wasn’t what you were imagining, or it’s going to take 3 months to deliver rather than 3 days.

Maybe you hire a butler and he overcooks the egg yolks for your eggs Florentine – is that the one where you put Hollandaise sauce over the eggs and have a little smoked salmon with it? – and you’re left with disgusting solid yellow lumps rather than delicious runny gooey golden yolks and you have to throw the hard egg yolks at your butler’s face because you’re not happy.

Anyway you can see how any sort of attachment can make you miserable.

The Buddha discovered the best thing was to simply observe with equanimity. Egg yolks are hard, well there’s people dying in the world so I’ll eat them today. Tomorrow I can have my gooey golden delicious runny yolks that runs around the plates so I can soak it up with some lightly toasted sourdough with olive oil.

Though tomorrow I could also bite into an egg and bacon roll at a cafe (since I don’t have a butler, because I fired the one who couldn’t cook the eggs properly, I mean that’s like a basic thing butlers should be able to do) and the yolks explode and go all over the sleeves of my jacket and over my hand and the waiter hasn’t even brought enough serviettes to deal with the situation. Which is exactly what happened just two weeks ago when I was in a cafe in Braddon in Canberra (in the year 2022 if you’re getting confused with this time travelling).

You get it, misery can be everywhere, even when you get exactly what you want.

How do you escape from suffering? The Buddha had some suggestions for this and a very simple technique of meditation which really helps. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to sell you meditation here. I’m just describing the Vipassana meditation technique and a bit of the philosophy and practice behind it.

First you have to be in the moment. In Vipassana this starts with observing one’s own breath. Inhaling in and out. Not controlling the breath but simply observing it. This is called mindfulness meditation and is a really useful technique in itself.

The 3-day meditation course I initially did back in 1995 in Herefordshire was just 3 days of mindfulness meditation. We didn’t progress to the Vipassana meditation part.

I sat for three days, observed my breath from around 4.30 am to 9 pm with breaks for breakfast, lunch and a light beverage and fruit for dinner, as well as some time to get up and stretch our legs. We sat for 3 days and then we finished. I said hi to a few people who had done the course, I got a few contact details in case I might hit them up for a place to stay, then I spent a few days volunteering at the centre helping in the garden and in the kitchen, waiting for the full 10-day Vipassana course to commence.

One of the meditation teachers offered to buy me a lolly in the nearby village in between the courses. In Australia offers of lollies are usually associated with paedophiles, but in the UK it apparently means an icy-pole, a zooper dooper type thing, an ice block. I hesitantly agreed, trusting that I’d meditated at least enough to avoid the karma of another poking up the arse (figuratively or literally) by a dodgy stranger. Whilst in the village I saw fruit trees for sale and I bought the centre a plum tree which I planted in their fruit orchard. I figured I didn’t have much money to donate but a fruit tree would keep giving for years to come. Perhaps someone’s eating one of its fruits right now, or whenever the plums ripen there.

They turned the heating off in some of the areas between courses so I almost froze to death trying to have a shower in the main block, but apart from that it was pretty pleasant. A bit of meditation, then a bit of work, then a bit more meditating. I got to chat with some of the fellow servers at lunch and around the place, and plant a few flowers and do some weeding. There were a few of us in our 20s there. A Polish woman, and one from France, and one from Germany, and a geeky bloke from England. There was a rather stern older lady from Austria or somewhere who made sure all us young folks were focussed on meditating and not other shenanigans – the centres, including the main meditation halls, are always divided between men and women’s sections to help with this as well, though the kitchen was a neutral area and we could chat with the opposite sex there. It was all very nice.

The 10-day course started about 3 days after the 3-day course. I think they’ve since dropped having those 3-day mindfulness courses as the Vipassana technique is the main focus and they suggest that takes at least 10-days to (begin to) master. Possibly people didn’t really come back for the 10-day courses after the 3-day course either and it was getting too confusing.

As part of the course you pledge to uphold a few simple rules, known as the 5 Precepts. The first are fairly straightforward to keep: to not steal, not lie or speak falsehoods (well, mostly the course is done in silence, so apart from the day at the end when we start chatting again, that’s achievable), not to kill, and to abstain from intoxicating substances (no drugs or alcohol). The last one is to abstain from sexual misconduct, which for the duration of the course means a vow of complete abstinence. I have never had sex with another person during a course, or even while helping out at a centre, that would be breaking the rules, but occasionally I get a bit desperate and need to masturbate. I’m not alone, I’m sure. During my first Vipassana course, that I’d done a year before, I was chatting to Evan and his girlfriend who I forget the name of. I think Evan resisted having a wank but his girlfriend was like, well you know at some stage I just put my hand down the front of my pants for a bit of a wank.

It’s something I could work on, but I can’t promise it’ll ever stop completely. I find 10 days a super effort to not ejaculate, if I’m not in a coma or something, and feel it may cause some medical issues if I hold it in too long.

I started the mindfulness meditation again for the first 3 and a half days. That’s 3 1/2 days from 4.30 am to 9 pm, some shorter sessions, some longer, just breaking for breakfast, lunch, a bit of lemon tea in the evening and a short talk from the Vipassana master Goenka, which was delivered via video. It’s probably digital now.

On day four the technique changes – rather dramatically led by Vipassana master Goenka, via video – from observation of the breath to the full-blown Vipassana technique, observing sensations through the whole body from head to toe, toe to head, up and down, down and up with equanimity (non-attachment).

Again, we do this technique from 4.30 to 9 pm, same sort of schedule.

Much easier said than done. A small itch becomes unbearable. Some heat in your ear searing. Your attention wanes, wanders, you go back to your breath to get some focus, then go back to observing the sensations over your body (these are physical sensations of your body by the way, nothing imaginary) and then I start thinking about that plum tree and when will it fruit, I should really have packed some more comfortable meditation clothes, and have I been doing this for an hour or 5 minutes, and when’s lunch? A lot of less mundane and more emotional stuff also comes up as well. For me it can be violent confrontations with my now deceased alcoholic father, or longing for a past lover in Switzerland. We have all this baggage from our years on Earth that we’re constantly replaying in our minds, not letting go of. Often making us miserable.

As I’d previously done a Vipassana course, and considered an ‘old student’ they gave me access to special solitary meditation booths. They were big enough to sit down comfortably but not to stretch your legs out too much. They were quiet, and despite the difficulties in remaining focussed and not letting my mind stray too far away, I was sometimes able to meditate for hours (or at least a full hour) on end.

At other times all the students meditated together in the dhamma hall. Men on one side and women on the other with the meditation teacher and those serving on the course at the front of the room. Those serving on the course meditate to the side up at the front.

Some of the non-spiritual highlights of the 10 days was that I saw a pheasant one day, a hare, some snowflakes, and a lot of birds in hedges as I walked around outside during the breaks. Occasionally a hawk would flutter in the sky looking down on some unsuspecting prey.

I ate my meals outside everyday, on a log overlooking the frosty fields in the morning and the wet and lush fields later in the day. Even though the course was 10 days of silence, I still didn’t want to hang around people eating in the hall during the meal breaks. I was often the only person out there looking at the lush green fields and hedges as I ate my porridge in the morning or my vegetarian curry stew for lunch, with a different pulse in it everyday. The food was pretty good actually.

It was day 10 of the course, we were released from our vows of silence around 10.30 and started to make the chatty readjustment to the real world.

It was over a fortnight now since I’d left London. I was ready to go back there, collect my passport and then head to Ireland to see if I could make a go of things.

The day went quickly, we still meditated a few times a day and there was also another evening talk by the guru Goenka. Most people enjoyed his evening video chats, and as the name Vipassana also means insight, so were Goenka’s discourses, just as insightful.

Goenka passed away in 2013.

Sometimes I think Vipassana meditation sounds super passive. But it’s not passive at all. Even though there’s really only 5 rules to commit to, and I regularly stray on the intoxicating substance one, these 5 rules can help you change the world.

If we all vowed to at least not kill other humans, even if we kill animals for meat and the like, we could avoid the misery and suffering of war and not have to spend billions on weapons to deter others. If we vow to avoid lying we could have open and transparent government and avoid having narcissistic psychos like Trump and Putin in power – though those pricks probably won’t follow the rules and abuse our good intentions, which you’re probably right about to a large extent. If we had vowed not to steal centuries ago we could have done away with colonisation, slavery and taking other people’s lands – and there’s still time to try and give compensation for the misdeeds of the past.

These simple things can allow us to live active and effective lives. I know many will want to argue about when it could be right to kill, or to take intoxicating substances, or even to lie. I know the world’s not perfect, but if you’re focussing on all the times these simple things won’t work, or aren’t practical, you’re not even trying and you might as well sit around like a potato rather than spreading love and joy in the world. Sure, we can have defence forces, but we should make every effort to address the reasons for war and to rid the world of the worst of weapons, especially nuclear weapons! We can also make laws, or individual purchasing choices to stop the privileged of the world exploiting the less privileged by making them work for 10 cents a day to make our clothes, or by hogging all of the COVID vaccines for westerners.

But all that aside. Back then in 1995, after 10-days and more meditating, I was ready to go and take control of my life again. To take action, and make plans, but also to protect myself from the ups and downs of life when things didn’t go my way.

It is like one of the slogans my dad had from alcoholic anonymous:

Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

By the end of the 10 days I’d done enough to not be too fussed about sapphires, or plans going awry or anything. I just accepted, observed, then went back into the moment.

It was time to go to London to pick up my Irish passport and head over to Ireland.

Time to move on.

On the last morning, I thanked the meditation teacher for the lolly and got a lift to the train station, ready for the next adventure.