Inner space: The power of solitude
Monday, 15 June 2009
The moment the question is asked, the smiles and jokes we’ve been passing between us in our corner of the room quickly fall away. Around us, the hubbub of 40 men eating and talking only amplifies our silence.
Opposite me, the man called Ian, who I’ve known for around a quarter of an hour now, glances down at the bowl of soup in front of him. "I’ve worked all over the world," he says. He begins to load his spoon with another mouthful, but that’s as far as he gets. "Right now, though, I’m between jobs." He raises his head and pushes back his glasses. I catch his eye as he tries to look between myself and the man sitting next to me. "You know, just taking some time out for a while."
It’s early March 2009. All over the world recession has taken hold. The British economy is undergoing what analysts and politicians call "readjustments". House prices are falling, unemployment is rising; the only green shoots to be seen are out here in the countryside – but they’re really just evidence of the impending spring. Where we are, near the English-Welsh border, just a few miles from Hereford, there is at least the sense that the winter may at last be drawing to a close.
The conversation moves on. Ian tells us about his Japanese wife, and how if it hadn’t been for her he might have changed his mind about coming. The jokes return as we debate which aspect of the next 10 days might be the hardest, whether it will be the enforced silence, the absence of cigarettes and alcohol, or the entirely meat-free diet. Through the door that divides the building we can hear the higher, faster chatter of our female counterparts; there are more of them, perhaps as many as 60, but it occurs to me that they’re probably having exactly the same conversation. Along from us a small man with a perfectly shaved scalp has overheard our conversation. He shakes his head. Those are the easy bits, he tells us. The hardest is the meditation itself; that and missing your family. Realising he’s been before, we listen carefully.
A final briefing comes while we finish our soup. Each of us must agree to stay for the full 10 days; leaving early, midway through the training, can be dangerous. If any of us aren’t sure about being here, we can leave now. I and a few others look quickly about. No one moves. "OK then," says the site manager. In a short while the course will begin, and with it the Noble Silence that will last until the penultimate day. Turning back to the table, I and my new friends find ourselves saying our goodbyes. Next to me, Alexander – a very tall, very thin man with a kind face and grey-flecked eyes – smiles. I guess he’s about my father’s age, but it’s hard to tell. A self-confessed City burn-out, he was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome three years ago. When he speaks, the words come out in a halting, juddering way, as if they’re reluctant to face the outside world and the ears that will hear them. "See you after" he says quietly.
By the time we’re allocated our seats in the modern meditation hall, dusk has fallen. On the other side of the hall the female students take their seats too. This is as close as we’ll get to them until the course ends; there’s even a separate entrance for them opposite our own. Dimmed wall lights lend the huge room an oddly cosy feel. Up front there are two teachers, one male, one female; above them hang two suspended television screens. It isn’t clear yet what they’re for. Together we sit in silence. There’s to be no further communication between us for 10 days, verbal or otherwise; as far as possible, we are to think of ourselves as being here alone. Mobile phones, books – even pens and paper – all these are now locked away, out of reach.
I feel the doubts multiplying in my mind as I glance around. The question a friend of mine asked less than two days ago returns to me, each word louder and clearer than it was at the time: "Oh no, you’re not going to join a sect, are you?" I try to reassure myself, firstly that mankind has been practicing meditation since roughly 3,000BC, and secondly that as an Englishman I’m supposed to feel like this. Anything which involves a frank and open examination of how we feel is just so terribly un-British. It’s no coincidence that in the West even something such as psychoanalysis, which shelters under the official umbrella of being a science, has historically always been more strongly linked to continental Europe and America than the UK. But this isn’t psychoanalysis; this is Vipassana. Meaning "to see things as they really are", it’s the technique the Buddha himself practised – so before Buddhism itself even existed. Passed on from generation to generation by a chain of devoted teachers, it’s thanks to one of these teachers – a Burmese industrialist called S. N. Goenka – that it’s now taught in centres all over the world. I glance about again and take a breath, and set aside my misgivings as best I can.
Set amongst 22 acres of rolling countryside, the centre (called Dhamma Dipa – "island of dhamma", dhamma being "the way to liberation") is based around an old farmyard. More recently used as a riding school for children, it was bought and converted in 1991. Although Vipassana courses are also held in East Anglia, London and Sussex, Dhamma Dipa is the only dedicated centre in Britain. In the early days it ran courses for 50 students who sat in a drafty barn rather than in the modern hall they do today; and now it can take 130 of them. More than 30 courses are run each year at the centre, most of which last for the standard 10 days – although there are shorter and longer courses for children and students who have been before. In 2008 around 1,300 people completed courses here; in the 18 years since Dhamma Dipa opened, approximately 15,000 people, from all walks of life, have passed through its doors. Perhaps most remarkably, all the courses are completely free. Although donations are essential to the organisation’s survival, those who attend the courses are only allowed to give money once the 10 days are up – and only then if they want to. Neither the 89 year-old Mr Goenka, nor his assistants, profits financially at any stage; aside from those employed to manage the centres, the whole organisation is run by volunteers.
It’s nine o’clock, and according to our schedule, time to call it a day. We file out of the hall, collecting our shoes and coats on the way. There are new, purpose-built sleeping quarters, but many, including myself, must share rooms in the old farmhouse or converted stables. I’m in what looks like a pigpen with two others: a man about my age from Essex called Anik who deals in foreign property, and a younger guy from Manchester. "It just feels like the right time," Anik had told me earlier, when I’d asked him why he was there. "I don’t see how it can’t be a holiday" said the younger guy. "We don’t even have to cook for ourselves."
A gong wakes us at 4am. Outside it’s still dark. There are two hours of meditation before breakfast; during that time the assistant teachers have to wake a couple of students, a hand gently on their shoulders until their heads rise back into consciousness. In the half-light the scene is dreamlike, mysterious even: more than 100 people arranged in neat rows, sitting cross-legged on the ground in silence, their eyes shut. An unseen man chants in a language I don’t recognise, and it’s only later that I realise it’s Goenka himself. The whole course will be taught by him in this way; the original recordings were made 15 years ago during a course he taught in Massachusetts. Aside from the chanting and the various terminologies, which are in the ancient language of Pali, he will teach in English; to ensure consistency these tapes are used the world over, year after year. The same goes for courses taught in Indian and other languages. Goenka may in reality be approaching his 90th birthday, but as far as we’re concerned, in the removed world that w e’ll inhabit for the next 10 days, he’s fixed in his mid-seventies, his authority as teacher enhanced by his own agelessness.
Day One is spent focusing the mind by concentrating on our breath; this is called Anapana. We must master this before we can practice Vipassana. We’re instructed to merely observe our breath as it comes and goes, and not to try to control it. This is the beginning of our training; to become aware of the reality of each moment to the exclusion of all else. To do this, we focus on the sensations on and around our nostrils and upper lip. It’s easier said than done: time and again I realise my concentration has wandered, and I have to begin again.
The first day passes slowly. After more than 10 hours of Anapana we find out what the televisions are for. Each evening Goenka holds a discourse – again these are recordings from the USA – during which he expands on the teaching and the technique. After so many hours of repetitive instruction, I’m surprised to discover what good company he is: under a neat bonnet of white hair his eyes twinkle with intelligence and humour. Story follows story, each one a kind of parable to illustrate a point. Another surprise is his opposition to religion. Vipassana is a technique designed to deal with the reality of every moment as it happens, he argues, the polar opposite of simply having blind faith in this god or that god, or of practicing empty rituals. For these 10 days we must put aside any religious beliefs or artefacts. He tells us how hard we must work. "Patiently and persistently," he says again and again, his voice bordering on the hypnotic, "diligently – continuously and scrupulously." Then comes a warning. The second day will be tough; the mind will rebel at such sudden curtailment. The sixth day too will be difficult.
He’s right. It becomes uncomfortable, both physically from so many hours sitting in one position, and mentally from the lack of distractions. We’re not used to this; at least I’m not. Others clearly aren’t either, and during one of the afternoon sessions I notice a space in the hall where Ian should be. He’s returned to his Japanese wife. Day Three is much the same, and then on Day Four we begin to practice Vipassana, systematically moving our attention around our bodies to detect sensations. "Remain equanimous," Goenka tells us, "instead of reacting to a particular sensation merely observe it, in the knowledge that – gross or small, pleasant or unpleasant – it will pass." This law of impermanence is central to Vipassana. If we can begin to understand that nothing lasts, not just at the intellectual level but at the experiential level too, we will be less inclined to react to the present moment with either craving or revulsion. Our minds will become more balanced, and so better able to deal with reality. Goenka has the useful ability to put things simply. "The first victim of your negativity is you." If we can eradicate that negativity by ceasing to react to and so reinforce its sources, we will eradicate our unhappiness as well.
The experiential level is the difficult part. Even knowing your back is aching because you’ve been in the same position for so long, and that it will ease when that hour’s meditation is up, it’s very hard to remove yourself from the pain and simply observe it. Even with my eyes shut, I can hear that some of the others too are shifting on their cushions around me. At one point Alexander moves to a chair at the back of the room; it’s his spine, I think to myself, it’s too long. On Day Five someone else disappears, an intense-looking man who I hadn’t spoken to at the start. Besides his empty cushion there’s no trace left of him, only the memory of what he looked like. I’m disappointed to find myself envying him his freedom.
Each day during the lunch break the teachers are available for one-to-one interviews. As the Noble Silence only applies between the students, here you can talk freely, be it to raise a problem or ask questions about the technique. The male teacher is fresh-faced and lightly tanned, with an accent I can’t place. I ask him how it feels to be responsible for those students who are clearly quite lost or damaged souls, people who are searching for answers. There, too, are the perpetually unemployed, those individuals who I suspect are only too happy to mistake equanimity for a crippling disengagement with life. "We have all kinds of people attend these courses," he tells me, "and yes, some of them have experienced difficulties in their lives. But we’re here to help clarify the technique, nothing more. We never get involved in anyone’s personal details."
A few days later, shortly before I leave, we’ll continue this conversation at length. Born in Bromley, South London, his name is Chris Weeden; based in Japan where he has a language school, he teaches at centres all over the world. The only money he receives from the organisation is to cover his expenses. He tells me about Vipassana’s success in Iran and Lebanon, and about the guiding constitution that Mr Goenka has put together for when he’s gone. But how did a boy from Bromley become involved in all this in the first place, I ask? He laughs. "Good question. Well, I went travelling when I was a young man and when I was India I heard about Goenka by chance and went along. He wasn’t like the other gurus who were around at that time, many of whom gathered devotees about themselves. It was just a very practical technique, and at the end, that was it, you left. You alone were responsible." We discuss the suspicion that many people in Britain still have of meditation, and the fact that my roommate Anik lied to every single one of his friends about being here, telling them he was going to Portugal instead. Perhaps, I suggest, given the uncertainty in the world due to the economic crisis, and the increase in anxiety that’s bound to follow, that view will change – anything that can help will be welcome. Chris nods. "I hope it does, if only so that more people can benefit from learning this technique and attain real happiness."
Prolonged and uninterrupted self-observation has an interesting effect. As intended, knots of unhappiness or disquiet are soon revealed; if you’re lucky, and if you don’t shy away from them, over the hours and days they can slowly start to loosen, and perhaps even begin to unravel completely. It’s far from easy though. As we move around each other, taking our places in the meditation hall or dining room, or brushing our teeth every morning and evening in the bathroom, occasionally I risk eye contact and look into my fellow students’ faces. Not quite knowing what I expect to see, all I find is introspection; almost to a man, their gazes are turned inwards. And although our instructions are to deny imagination in favour of the reality of each moment, the writer in me can’t resist the intrigue of all these internal stories unfolding around me. Already I have nicknames for those students I didn’t speak to when we arrived: among them there’s Pyjama Man, E.T., Crumbs, Mr Mackerel and Anger Management. But in the end their faces tell me nothing, and I can only wonder at the private battles that are being fought.
In the absence of newspapers or radio or television, you begin to stamp your own mark on your few hours of free time. Some are obvious, others less so. Beneath an apple tree that stands in the centre of the old farmyard, each morning a squat, middle-aged man with glasses leaves out crumbs for the house sparrows amongst the purple and yellow crocuses. In the grass alongside the meditation hall itself, there next to a flowering rosemary bush, a mole pushes up molehill after molehill. Each day a man with tightly curled hair and who wears loose-knit woollen jumpers takes it upon himself to flatten them out, treading methodically with his feet. Like several others, I spend my free time walking round and round the designated male exercise area. No more than a small field next to a plantation of young trees, it’s here that I feel most relaxed. Perhaps it’s because there are things to see and hear, like the daffodils and trees and the calls of buzzards and ravens overhead; perhaps it’s because this was where life was continuing as usual, outside of the strange, carefully managed world we’d all signed up to. It only occurs to me later that there’s more to it than this. With the buds on the trees and the lambs in the field opposite, nowhere was the impermanence of things more obvious. Given my own upbringing on a farm, and the acute sense of the seasons it instilled in me from an early age, perhaps it also explains why I found this particular principle of Vipassana so easy to accept.
It’s the evening of Day Eight when the guy meditating in front of me collapses. He drops sideways like a felled tree; I know this because my attention has wandered and my eyes are open. He looks exhausted, and although it turns out he’s fine, it’s not until the 10th day that I’m able to ask him about it. "I just went too far into the pain," he explains cheerfully. I discover that he’s soon to qualify as a psychoanalyst; this is his first Vipassana course but he’s been meditating for years. So what did he make of it? How does it compare? He considers the questions carefully before answering. "It’s the toughest I’ve ever done, but it was worth it. It’s a very pure technique." He smiles. "Yes, definitely worth it, but I wish my back didn’t hurt so much."
He’s not the only one smiling: there’s a general sense of achievement flowing through most of us, the type that comes from completing something difficult that you suspect will benefit you for some time to come. Some of the students I talk to describe the feeling as having undergone a deep cleansing, a re-evaluation of their priorities, even a rebooting of the system. It’s odd suddenly to be able to speak to my roommates after so many days of silent cohabitation. The young guy from Manchester smiles ruefully when I see him. "Yeah, mate, that was no holiday." Anik and I sit on a bench outside the old farmhouse, the paint flaking off onto the ground beneath us. So was it all he hoped it would be? "No question," he says without a moment’s hesitation. "I’ve been looking for something to help me achieve certain goals, and I think this is it. I don’t know about the others, but for me this was always about improving myself, about becoming more successful." A non-practicing Sikh, he tells me about the comfortable life his father’s sewing machine business afforded him as a child, and about the various martial arts he’s learnt over the years. It’s only later that night that I discover, almost incidentally, that both his parents died recently.
For some the feeling of elation lasts longer than others. That afternoon I bump into Alexander in the exercise area; we fall into step and walk together for a while as we chat. I was right about his back, and although he feels Vipassana will help him gain some balance he’s just received a message on his mobile that’s made him anxious. He doesn’t offer any details and I don’t ask for any, but it seems the real world, to which we return tomorrow, is already leaching in. A little later I talk to the shaven-headed man who’s been to Dhamma Dipa before; he too is worried. His girlfriend phoned earlier to tell him that the venue for their wedding has been double-booked. The big day is only a fortnight away.
The weeks pass. March turns to April, and the buds on the trees begin to unfurl. "You know what the first thing I did was when I left?" says Alexander when we speak on the phone. "Bought the Financial Times. I couldn’t help it. I had to know what was going on. I saw a group of six other people from the course at the same service station, and they were all sitting there drinking coffee. News and caffeine – the cravings return so quickly if you’re not careful." I tell him I did much the same thing. "It’s an enormous challenge to break so many years of conditioning," he says. I ask if he’s still meditating; he is. "I need to keep practicing it and not sit on my laurels, but it isn’t easy. The more anxious I am the harder it is to do, but then I tell myself I managed 10 days, so..."
He tells me he read something in the FT about the number of people interested in voluntary work increasing by 100 per cent in the last year. "Maybe people’s values are beginning to change. So many of us measured our fulfilment by how much money we had, or what a nice house we owned. Maybe now, collectively I mean, we’re beginning to realise that it’s not about the quantity of growth but the quality." I ask him if he’s talking about financial growth or personal growth. He doesn’t answer for a time, as if he thinks it’s a stupid question, and I realise it probably is. "Both," he says at last. "Opting for quality over quantity is going to be a very prevalent factor over the next 10 years. People want to be fulfilled, they want to be happy. There’s going to be an expanding market for things like meditation." He laughs at his choice of metaphor.
The following morning I’m woken by rain at the window. I turn on the radio, and when I hear the Archbishop of Canterbury talking on the Today programme about the need to "examine ourselves with clarity" as we face the changes and challenges presented by the recession, I think what a perfect description that is of meditation. Above all, I think Alexander might be right.
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