“The Truth is Closer than an Eyelash”, my yoga teacher in Kerala had said to me, on more than one occasion.
Searching to find out who to attribute this wisdom to (other than to him), I was met with another kind of truth. The truth that apparently false eyelash extensions are far more popular these days than spiritual truth. At least, that’s if google search results are anything to go by.
But bear with me here on the false eyelashes.
First I’ll rewind a few months to August of 2015. On my way to a 10 day Vipassana silent meditation course in rural Herefordshire, UK. I’d wanted to go on sooner courses, but had found, to my slight dismay, that the courses (which run on an donation basis and are staffed almost entirely by volunteers) kept being fully booked within hours of the application window being opened.
It’s been nearly a year, so now it is time for my vipassana review. I’d signed up for 10 days of silent meditation, with a daily timetable that involved waking up before 4.30am each day.
No yoga, no spa treatments, just silent meditation.
No books to read or music to listen to, let alone a mobile phone or internet connection.
And so I found myself, like a school student, plunged into a new world of living hour to hour by the ring of a bell. Walking in what felt like a trance like state from my room to the meditation hall in the dark. It was as if i’d joined monastic life. Sitting in the meditation hall on the first day, I made the schoolgirl error of not grabbing enough cushions and blankets when they were still available at the back of the room.
Eight days later, my knees and ankles were unforgiving of this error.
For the first three days of the course, we were to work with a technique called Anapana – the preparation for vipasana itself. A breathing meditation, for three days we focused on our breath around the entrance to our nostrils. My brain—usually pretty active and self governing when it comes to random thoughts—put its foot down on the accelerator. For three days my “monkey mind” had free reign while I struggled desperately to sit still for an hour, trying not to guess whether 5 or 10 minutes had passed since the last time I had snuck a look at my watch.
By day four, not only had silent living become natural, but i’d come to cherish the meals eaten in silence and the warm comforting food, but the real work had not begun. On day four we began Vipassana meditation. The Vipassana technique is a simple one, and arguably the purest meditation form there is. It involves scanning your body from head to toe and back again and observing the sensations that one feels in the body, without creating any reaction (emotional or physical) to the sensation, regardless of what the sensation is.
Above: Herefordshire Countryside surrounding the retreat centre. Image: Hereford cat/Flickr.
Key to the teaching is understanding that sensations and experiences, like the rest of life are all impermanent. They too, shall pass.
My journey went from feeling nothing in my body at all, to feeling constant burning sensations or pins and needles, and struggling not to create aversion for the perceived “negative” sensations and craving for the “pleasant” ones. Every evening, after 12 hours of meditation, we’d watch a video lesson from much loved Goenkaji (S.N. Goenka) who was not only an inspirational teacher, but had an uncanny knack for being able to sum up precisely how you’d been feeling for the last 24 hours in a simple sentence.
I didn’t see any lightning bolts, or lasting moments of enlightenment. But at around day seven of the course, I realised that I had a choice. A choice to continue counting down the minutes hours and days until my freedom again, or the choice to be grateful for my place here, the opportunity to learn, and to try and get whatever I could from the experience.
On the last day, when our noble silence was broken, I felt an overwhelming desire to not speak. Instead of rushing out into the sunshine, I crumpled into a ball with tears streaming down my face. When I did speak, it felt so foreign and unnecessary to begin with.
One year on from this experience, my perception has changed.
My Indian yoga teacher asked about my Vipassana experience. When I confessed I had not practised since, his response was “It’s ok. You know the truth now. You will go back to it when you are ready.”
As the memory of the struggle of waking up at 4am has faded and life has changed and made its twists and turns, I reflect on the truth of the vipassana teachings. And I realise the truth of what Goenka and his teachers taught us. It all starts with us.
Our experiences in life are all on us. It starts with sensations in our body that respond to life’s events, and we are constantly judging them as good or bad, craving more good experiences and becoming attached to them, dreading the less pleasant experiences and creating aversion.
The truth is closer than an eyelash. We know it’s there, but often we just can’t see it. Sometimes, it is so much easier in this world to go out and get the false eyelashes to look beautiful with those instead (this is not a criticism of false eyelashes to be clear…). To see the truth requires so much work.
For me now the truth about Vipassana is that Vipassana is the truth. It is the simplest form of mediation there is: it’s just us and our selves. There’s no false eyelashes to hide behind anymore.
So I may just be going back for another 10 days of 4am alarm calls.
Have you been on a Vipassana course or are you considering going? I’d love to hear your views below in the comments below: