Derek Cheng: Living on a prayer

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A 10-day vipassana retreat takes Derek Cheng on a journey of self-discovery

Meditation can be both challenging and rewarding. Photo / Thinkstock
Meditation can be both challenging and rewarding. Photo / Thinkstock

A pain burns up my leg to my knee, where it concentrates on the bone as if someone is holding a hot metal poker against it. My other leg is numb and throbbing, while a sharp pain in my back feels like a metal bar has been inserted under my flesh, scraping my insides.

I've been sitting cross-legged, in deep vipassana meditation, for an hour, where the aim is to be aware of your body's sensations - which, in this pose, is usually pain - and smile harmoniously in response.

This embodies the secret of vipassana, in very simple terms. Smiling through the pain readies you for all life has to throw at you and no matter how hard it becomes, you respond with love, compassion, goodwill.

Vipassana meditators are asked to live as monks and nuns for 10 days - in total silence, meditating for 10 hours a day, living off the charity and goodwill of others in rudimentary accommodation, eating basic vegetarian meals twice a day, in a centre where the sexes are segregated.

Based on the teachings of Buddha and meaning "to see things as they really are", vipassana originated in India 25 centuries ago and then spread through south Asia. It was subsequently lost over the centuries in India but S.N. Goenka, the current vipassana master, has recently restored it through his thriving retreat near Mumbai, from where it has spread across the world, from Kathmandu to New York to Auckland - more than 70 countries in all.

I had heard about vipassana from people from different lifestyles and professions. "Life-changing" was a universal sentiment. Some had been forced to confront something traumatic in their lives, others had had epiphanies and were reborn with a fresh perspective. Curious and with an open mind, I signed up to the Nepal Vipassana Centre just outside Kathmandu, on a quiet hillside.

I had no expectations but I knew it would be fascinating to spend 100 hours inside my own head. My only rule would be to surrender, to give myself completely to the philosophy, no matter how silly I might think it to be.

Registration day: We arrive at the centre and settle into the basic facilities. Brick shoe-box buildings. Dorm rooms. Beds of thin mattresses on plywood. Vegetarian meals of potatoes, curry and dahl. Once noble silence begins, my gaze turns downwards. No eye contact or gestures. No reading, writing or communication.

Day 1: The gong tolls at 4am and we roll out of bed and stumble down for the first meditation - focus your mind on your breathing. Permanent, involuntary, existing not in the past or the future, but in every present moment. Snoring starts within minutes. A fart or two. Some shuffling.

It is immediately clear that my mind is not used to being tamed. It roams freely, leaping from association to association.

Example: I feel my breath, and say to myself, "Breathe in, breathe out, I've got this," and suddenly my friend Liam's voice is in my head saying, "You've got this" - a refrain he uses often when encouraging rock climbers. And suddenly I am with Liam in Squamish, Canada, and we are laughing and climbing.

And she is there, of course, with her soft blue eyes and light brown hair.

I met her, Katelyn, in Thailand a few months ago, and we had a short, blissful romance.

So blissful that I decided to see her in Canada after Nepal. She has been in my head since we parted two months ago and now even more so as the day of our reunion approaches.

Keeping my mind on my breathing requires intense concentration. It gives me a study headache. It's like forcing yourself to read a calculus textbook when all your mind wants you to do is sit on a beanbag and watch re-runs of The Simpsons.

The session breaks. I'd thought I would do a lot of walking in between meditation, but feel so tired that I go straight to my room to lie down - as does everyone else.

I eat something at lunchtime that my stomach disagrees with and by early evening I have violent diarrhoea - two words that are bad enough on their own, but together are a much more potent horror. At the evening's video discourse, where the theory of vipassana is explained, I can barely hold up my own weight. I collapse into bed and hope all will right itself by morning.

Day 2: All is not right. Before the first meditation session, I find a volunteer to ask for medicine. I make it through the meditation but skip breakfast in favour of lying pathetically in bed. Medicine arrives in time to feel better by the afternoon, but my focus has been disrupted and my mind wanders everywhere in the session before dinner.

Almost everything in my head is centred around her. We're together in Thailand, in a past memory. We're in Canada, in the future, and she is waiting for me at the airport, or engrossed in conversation as I tell her about my week, or we're climbing on a rock face we have to ourselves.

There is no way I can focus like this. She must be banished. And this leads me to another thought. I am consumed with all this craving to be with her. Craving is one of the causes of suffering, according to vipassana, by attaching ourselves to desires that are then unfulfilled.

Was Buddha ever in love? And if so, how did he deal with his longing for a loved one when they were apart? How can you be in love and free of attachment?

I'm the last to leave the dinner hall, and in the evening session, every time Katelyn makes a mental entrance, I tell her to leave and slam the door behind her. My focus is superb. I feel I have passed an important hurdle.

Day 3: There is another constant in my head and it must also be banished. Music. Concentration is impossible when Justin Hawkins from The Darkness emerges from somewhere in the back of my mind to scream, in his falsetto, "I believe in a thing called loooooooove!"

Music is also at the centre of a philosophical knot that I am tangled in, trying to define what a craving is. Surely listening to music is harmless, though it's clearly a sensory pleasure. Are there different degrees of craving and some are okay while others are not?

What about climbing, which I love? Would I give up climbing, or music, for enlightenment?

I now start each session with a little reminder. No Katelyn. No music.

We are asked to switch our focus from breathing to the sensations we feel under the nostrils. I'm in the second session of the day when I feel a tingle on my left cheek move slowly towards my upper lip, then into my nostril. It's like the world's smallest ant exploring the caverns of my nose. Another tingle pushes in from the right, spreads up to the bridge and then just stays there as if it's the best place to observe the sunset.

Day 4: It is vipassana day. The excitement is too much for someone, who unleashes a loud cloud of flatulence in the middle of one session. Chuckles erupt from all around me and I initially dismiss this as infantile. But they persist - and laughter is contagious.

For a good 15 minutes, the chamber vibrates with the chortling of stifled laughter. One poor girl, on the far side of the chamber, seems to be whimpering as she tries to contain herself.

Day after day, so much time inside your own head. I start analysing my thoughts. While Katelyn has been banned from my head, it still wanders, often to work memories: newspaper articles I've written in the past that I'm proud of, casual conversations with important people like the Prime Minister, world-shaking articles I'm destined to write in the future.

I have always liked the idea of dissolving one's ego in Eastern philosophy, but I realise these thoughts of the past and future are nothing but ego-strokes. Vanity. And all this time, I had considered myself modest and humble.

Up until now we have been practising annapana, or observation of breathing. Now, for vipassana, we move from the area under our noses to scan our whole bodies, part by part, for sensations. And we start adhitthana - meaning strong determination - where we sit for an hour and try to be as still as possible. We do three one-hour sessions of this every day.

This is debilitatingly painful, but I stay the course despite the pain in my knees, my legs, my back.

I push adhitthana to the forefront of the course. If I can sit through this pain and keep it together, then in the real world, when the forces of darkness sweep over me, I can respond only with light.

I feel on top of the technique, that I am making real progress.

Day 5: I start the day feeling invincible, and end it in tatters.

In a normal meditation session, I feel so good that I sit still, without changing posture, for more than an hour. But in the next adhitthana, I sit with my ankles hugging my inner thighs and my knees are crushed as if churned into a fleshy mash in a vice.

It is unbearable and, in staying determined not to move, I squint my eyes tightly, in pain, open my mouth wide as if screaming, breathe heavily, and silently curse my knees. When the hour is up, any reward in lasting the hour vanishes in the fact that I clearly lost all harmony.

When I try to stand, I stagger, see stars and almost faint. When I eventually leave the chamber, I lose my balance and my shoulder smashes into the door frame.

In the session afterwards, my feet and ankles go completely numb under the weight of my legs. When I go to sleep, I am so sore and exhausted that I'm sure I will wake up and my knees will be the size of giant planets.

Day 6: My knee, while not swollen to gargantuan proportions, is notably sore when I awake. I try to take it all in stride. There can be no enlightenment, or purification, without walking through the corridor of pain. It is as inevitable as wanting to pack up and quit at some point during the course.

I last the first adhitthana, but it is getting harder as my legs get tighter.

I read the notice outside about adhitthana. Don't torture yourself, it says. But during group check-in, I tell the teacher I have started wriggling my toes to maintain blood-flow. "Try not to," he says.

I tap my toes and say, again, "No blood."

"It will come back," he says. Just torture yourself, he may as well have added.

Vipassana teaches you that nothing is permanent, and I know my knees will recover. But what is the point in sustaining a serious injury for a technique I don't really believe in anyway, because I can't reconcile it with my love of climbing, music, or the attachment that accompanies love? I'm not going to live in a cave, so there is no way I can avoid sensory pleasures.

What's the point of being here?

Day 7: A blessing disguised as failure.

During adhitthana, the pain in my lower thigh and numbness in my ankles is overwhelming. It is the most physical pain I have ever endured. It is how I imagine torture in prison camps to be. As my equanimity starts to crack, I grab a blanket and shove it under my leg to support my thigh.

As disappointment creeps up on me, I realise I have done exactly what we're told not to. I have become attached to the outcome, and failure has lead me to misery. Maintain awareness, equanimity. Nothing more.

I also realise that it's pointless to remain in perfect harmony during the sitting, only to grimace and curse the pain once it's over as the feeling rushes back into my legs. The real world doesn't take breaks. It is constantly moving and my harmony should be constant.

I feel renewed by this perspective. My pain is the pain in my life - past, present and future - and I will do all I can to remain harmonious and objective.

I also give away my philosophical entanglements by dismissing these as meaningless semantics. A craving is a craving, I decide, when there is a strong enough attachment to feel upset when it is not fulfilled. There's nothing wrong with climbing or listening to music.

Day 8: The instructions talk about a "free flow" of sensation through the body. This is meant to be the mind becoming so sharp and pure that it penetrates the body's structure, breaking it down into the subtle vibrations of sub-atomic particles that are constantly moving, constantly changing.

Jill Bolt Taylor, a brain researcher who woke up one day in 1996 having suffered stroke in her brain, sheds some insight into the energy flow of the universe. The stroke was in the left side of her brain, the part which chatters inside your head, which distinguishes you as a single corporeal identity, distinct from the energy flow of the universe.

With the failure of that part of her brain, Taylor says she "could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was." A peaceful bliss.

Some sensations are extraordinary. A tingle showers my fingers and crawls up my forearms. A streak of heat surges up my leg and is then sucked out, taking every feeling with it, along with any pain. But my mind must be very impure as there are large blank spots: shoulders, lower back, the sides of my torso.

Everywhere on my body, I feel my pulse and the echoes of my heartbeat. It reverberates through my chest, arms and legs, hands and feet. It suddenly comes to me: this pulse represents my love and goodwill. It has infinite capacity and it is everywhere, every moment.

Whenever I find my balance starting to feel compromised, I can just feel for my heartbeat and remind myself of this bottomless flow of love that always dwells within me.

In the middle of the day, my mind wanders to a table where I'm seated opposite my father, with whom I've not had a meaningful relationship for decades. Usually when I catch my mind wandering, I snap it back into focus, but I let this run.

I ask him about his life, realising that I really know nothing about him. And when he's done, I tell him about mine. There is no animosity, no resentment. Just two grown-ups getting to know each other.

Day 9: Just as I realised that equanimity shouldn't just be confined to the meditation hall, it occurs to me that Katelyn shouldn't be in my head at all. Previously I had only banished her from my thoughts during meditation, but today I ban her all day.

My focus is excellent. Tingles in my hands and arms, my feet and cheeks. Painful but harmonious adhitthana.

In the evening's video discourse, Goenka talks about pure love as giving without expecting or wanting anything in return. Expectations breed attachments, desires.

I examine my thoughts of Katelyn during the week. She's waiting for me at the airport with a sign and a smile. She's captivated by my stories because my stories are captivating.

These represent my expectations of our love, and it's all focused on me. Self-centred, ego-based. I'm viewing our love through the prism of how her love should make me feel, rather than what my love can give to her. My love for her is independent of her love for me, and I should give to her regardless of how or even if she gives back. It is a powerful insight, and I shake my head at this discovery.

Day 10: We emerge from noble silence after the morning session. I exit the hall next to a Nepali teacher, and ask him how he is. "Happy," he replies. "You look different. You look happier," he tells me.

I feel like I have all this laughter and joy inside of me, concentrated, and in the hour after silence has ended, I end up crying from laughter several times. Looking around, people's faces are beaming.

We learn a new meditation technique, metta bhavana, in which we channel love through all the subtle sensations we feel throughout our bodies. I feel like my heart is the brightest beacon in the world and every moment it sends strong light pulses of goodness out into the universe.

People have had very different vipassana experiences. Some have had free-flow in their bodies, some have not. Almost everyone had a day or several when they wanted to quit.

My friend Andy asked a teacher about his addiction to the endorphins from physical exercise and adventure sports and the teacher told him - to his horror - that he'd be much happier without them.

In the evening, I approach the senior teacher, who has a soft smile and emits a gentle compassion. We're not meant to ask philosophical questions, but he allows me. Even if we love through purely giving, we still create attachments because we are full of sadness when our loved ones die. How can we love without attachment?

Yes, he says, we are sad when they pass away, but our sadness is not from attachment, because our love is pure. It is from the surfacing of past cravings and aversions that arise when we stop creating new ones. I find this most unsatisfactory.

Day 11: We have one final meditation and finish with a metta bhavana. After breakfast and packing up I jump on one of several buses heading downtown. My senses are assaulted with the noise and colour of Kathmandu.

At my hotel I learn that a friend has died from a rockfall a week earlier. I sit on the bed and meditate. Waves of emotion crash into my temples from both sides, and slide down my body like a sinking anchor.

When I start composing a condolence letter to his parents in my head, tears well up. I come out of meditation, write the letter and send it immediately. I feel peaceful.

Before leaving my room I pause a moment, searching for my heart. I feel it beating, pulsing, surging through my veins. Everywhere. Every moment.

Derek Cheng is a former New Zealand Herald journalist who has spent the past 18 months travelling, rock-climbing and meditating through parts of Australia, Asia and North America.


3 stages of vipassana

Sila. The moral base. No killing, no stealing, no lying, abstinence from sexual misconduct and intoxicants.

Samadhi. Mastery of the mind to sharpen and focus the mind for long periods of uninterrupted awareness. Students begin by observing their breath and graduate to feeling sensations over the body.

Panna. Wisdom. Accepting that the atomic structure of everything changes constantly and nothing is permanent.

The path to enlightenment

Misery stems from reacting to sensations, physical or emotional - anger, hatred, resentment, jealousy, sadness. To avoid misery, we avoid reacting to sensations. Instead, we observe objectively, remain equanimous. To practise vipassana is to let go of cravings and aversions. By maintaining equanimity, you can always emanate love, empathy, compassion, goodwill.


For information on vipassana in Auckland go to courses.dhamma.org

- NZ Herald

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