I’ve been back from Dhamma Dipa for two days now. Here is a report of how it worked out for me, for those interested.
The first 3 days were hell, and I don’t use the term lightly. Physical pain, mental judgements and overwhelming emotional attachments all quickly came to the surface thanks to prolonged meditation and the Noble Silence. The whole retreat experience is set-up so as to facilitate this kind of coming-to-terms: there’s no-one to speak to, nothing to distract yourself with. You just sit there in your own self-created misery, until you learn how to understand and work with it. All those fears, aversions, cravings, judgements, negativities are out in the open, and you can do little but sit back and watch them push and pull you around.
That took me a while. I was in tears on the end of the first day, and again on the third day. I wasn’t sleeping well and my knees were hurting a lot. I also quickly became aware of the overwhelming negativity that runs through my mind most of the day. I realised that I can be a hateful bastard! Either way, I struggled and persisted with my practice, no matter what came up, and remembered the kind of advice everyone should be aware of before they go on retreat. I should note that I got so much out of the experience in the end because I maintained mindfulness throughout the day, whatever I was doing (with varying levels of failure and success.)
I encountered some interesting experiences when we moved from the anapanna (awareness of respiration) practice, to Vipassana proper. I quickly tuned into lots of subtle sensations, and on day 4 and 5 had two peak experiences involving uniform subtle sensations where my whole body felt like a fizzing bundle of arising and passing vibrations. Very liberating, very short-lived.
On day 6 I got down in the dumps again. The fears, cravings, and negativities I’d been working through hit back with a vengeance. That all changed when I watched the day 6 discourse. First of all, Goenka noted that most people find days 2 and 6 the hardest, which surprised me because that’s exactly what I’d found. The rest of the discourse focused on that golden rule of meditation, equanimity. Somehow I just got it then, after hearing Goenka grumbling “peeeerfect equanimity” in my ears for the past 6 days. At that point, my mind seemed to just drop into equanimity of its own accord, accepting the totality of experience without trying to make it something else (equanimity comes from the words equal, and animus: spirit/mind.) It was an incredible relief.
That night I lead awake for hours before sleeping, just taking everything in, watching it all arise and pass, with little attachment or care. I eventually drifted off into sleep and entered a very powerful dream that marked the turning point in my retreat experience. First of all I was at home and I experienced the purest, “cleanest” terror I’ve ever felt: no subject to be scared of, just pure terror throughout my body. In the dream I ran to tell my mum but she got to my room first and said something like “I know, I know… a mother always feels things that strong in her son.” She also made an observation, somehow relating to the terror I experienced, about “two triangles over-lapping” (what I can only guess is a hexagram.)
The dream then moved to a haunted house. I was on the doorstep and had a very profound and powerful understanding that I could not do this alone. I totally accepted this, and surrendered. I needed a guide to help me past the huge wolf-dog and all the other spirits in the house. A girl appeared and used a simple hand symbol to communicate with the wolf-dog that guarded the entrance. She then took me through other parts of the house, helping me past all kinds of ghosts and nasties, until we got to the top room. In the room there were a few people dressed in robes, looking quite magician-like. I felt safe with them.
We were all stood looking at a screen in the room when I looked to my side and saw a figure in the corner of the room, wearing a cloak and some kind of mask with slitted eyes. Pure terror again. Whatever he/it was, I was so terrified I could only point in overwhelming fear. Fortunately, my magician buddies understood: 5 or 6 of them converged on this figure, slowly approaching with their wands drawn, while a petite girl with dark hair lead me to the other side of the room. She told me she was “demon”, or I knew it without asking. I couldn’t stop staring at the terrible figure in the corner, who was still looking right at me with no care for the magicians surrounding it. The girl who had lead me to the other side of the room was still by my side, and proceeded to draw her own wand. I looked at her as she pointed it at me, observing her unforgettable and deeply comforting smile. An aura formed around me and even though I continued to stare at the evil figure, the deepest peace fell over me, and I was not afraid. I smiled, with a sense that there was nothing to be afraid of, ever.
I woke up with that peace inside me, and my retreat experience from then on was much more positive. This new found equanimity continued without much effort, and things seemed to unfold of their own accord. It was only half way through the day that I thought about the dark-haired pixie girl who had saved me in my dream, and why she was called “demon.” It seemed a strange name for someone who saved me, until I remembered what I’d been reading until 4am on the day I went on retreat: The Amber Spyglass, the third book in Phil Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Throughout the trilogy, the people in Lyra’s world all have individual daemons (pronounced demon), who take the form of shape-shifting animals that never leave their side. The daemon is the soul or spirit of the individual: pull the daemon away from the person and they feel terror and then death. The fact that I only made this obvious connection later in the day shocked me and made me see how important the dream was.
So after my journey and salvation in the land of soul, spirit and huge wolf beasts, things started looking up, and I breached some new meditation territory. Using the body sweeping technique I discovered subtle tensions that I’d never experienced before, mostly around my forehead/eyebrows, in my throat, and around the top of my ribcage. I’d speculated about the existence of tensions in these areas before, based on how I approach and deal with life, but Vipassana let me feel them directly, and explore the emotions, thoughts and judgements associated with them. I’m still working with them now at home. The head tension keeps dissolving and re-appearing somewhere else in my head, but I’m slowly getting to know it more intimately.
On the 6th or 7th day I also had another peak experience, which gave me my best insight yet into “egolessness.” I was watching the arising and passing of all the impermanent and unsatisfactory sensations in my body as usual. But this time I found a new avenue and managed to zoom out and also see that sense of “I” that hides in the back of my head and behind my eyes. It too began to arise and pass. The term “worms” came to my mind afterwards, because I felt as if there were just worms squirming everywhere, and no fixed “I”, no attachment to create suffering, no fear. Just worms. It was extremely peaceful and liberating, and of course, short lived.
The rest of the retreat was quite uneventful, or I was just too un-interested to note anything more. I managed to sit most of the adithanna (strong determination) one-hour motionless sessions after I found a slightly different posture that wasn’t so taxing on my left knee. Also, the focus and sharpness of my mind continued to improve. I think the greatest fruit has been the exploration of equanimity in daily life.
The tenth day, where Noble Silence gets broken, was a great experience. The smiles on everyone’s faces were just lovely, and as a quiet person I managed to gossip for about 5 hours before exhausting myself and stumbling back to my room with crazy fantasies about some of the beautiful girls we’d been chatting to. There were lots of great people there, a few of which I’ll hopefully stay in contact with.
My journey home and re-entry into everyday life has gone well. It’s been an adventure applying all this insight to everyday life, and seeing what, if anything, has changed in how I approach life. All I can say is that I learned more in those 10 days than I learned in years of studying psychological models and writing about inner transformation (duh.) The mindfulness and self-work I did before the retreat was without a doubt very useful, but the conditions and routine of a meditation retreat are just a whole different world which allows a much, much deeper experience of your inner terrain.
And now for the inevitable evangelism of someone who’s experienced the benefits of a retreat: try a retreat. It’s as practical, profound, hardcore, and rewarding as it gets. It’s a life-changer, or at least a life-reframer. Once you get settled in the technique and develop your mindfulness, it’s a tool which you can use every day for the rest of your life to eliminate suffering and liberate yourself. If I were Grand Ruler of the World, I’d make the 10 day retreat a mandatory experience for people between 20 and 30 years old. The kind of revolution that would unfold if everyone went through this experience would be the greatest humanitarian outbreak in history!
If you already do meditation at home, a retreat will really kickstart your progress and help you dissolve lots of important problems in a short period of time. As for the actual retreat I went on, I was overall very impressed. At first I had many doubts (a pretty standard reaction), and even now I wouldn’t ever stick strictly to Goenka’s teachings, but the whole course is very well run, the food and location are great, and it’s free! You can donate after you’ve had the experience. Goenka’s evening discourses are very well put together, and his emphasis and clarity really helped my own insight practice. So whatcha waiting for?
Note: I also think my two or so months experience with insight meditation before the retreat helped a lot. I have a lot of respect for people who just dive head in to a 10-day retreat with no meditation experience, it’s one hell of an undertaking, but anyone can get a great headstart by reading one or two books on meditation and Buddhism before they go, and starting to practice at home. The further you can get at home, the less technicalities and confusion you will face on retreat.