THE ART OF MEDITATION

THE TIMES: OCT 1996

THE ART OF LIVING HAPPILY IN 10 DAYS. CATHERINE LUCAS DESCRIBES HER SEARCH FOR INNER PEACE AT A SILENT BUDDHIST RETREAT.

By the fifth day of the retreat I was going crazy. I was in pain, I was bored, angry and tormented by doubt. I had signed up for a ten-day silent Vipassana meditation course, expecting to enjoy uninterrupted bliss, yet this was the furthest away from bliss that I had been in a long time.

While I writhed in agony, all around me people sat motionless, radiating peace. "If they can do it, you can," I told myself, but I couldn't. Doubts overwhelmed me - "This is all a horrible mistake.... A waste of time...." - and I decided I had to escape.

As I explained to the teacher why I wanted to leave, I burst into tears. He was very compassionate: "The fact that you are having such a powerful reaction shows the technique is working. Don't give up now." Reluctantly I realised that the more I fought, the more it proved I needed to stay.

I heard about Vipassana from a friend: "Its not just meditation," she said. "It will change your life." Her words struck a chord and I was so keen to take part, that I barely registered her warning: "I broke on the sixth day."

On registration, men and women were segregated and we agreed to certain conditions, including to refrain from killing any creature or indulging in sexual misconduct. We had to hand over any books, writing materials and radios and agree to abstain from any other form of meditation, religious or spiritual practice or any exercise other than walking. The final condition was Noble Silence - a silence of body, speech and mind. In practice this meant no talking, no eye contact, no physical contact.

I happily agreed to everything, signed the forms and was shown to my spartan dormitory. I laid my sleeping bag on the old, hospital bed and wandered outside. I gazed across the fields, admiring the way they folded around the curves of the valley, but they were roped off, with signs asking you not to pass. Suddenly my heart sank and for the first time I wondered what I had let myself in for.

The day started at 4am and consisted of periods of meditation, punctuated by breaks for food and rest. In the evenings there was a video lecture by the pioneer of Vipassana, S.N. Goenka, followed by lights out at 9.30.

The technique, developed by the Buddha 2,500 years ago, is based on Anicca - the Universal Law of Impermanence. Buddha realised that suffering is caused not by the experiences we have, but by our reaction to them. When something happens that we don't like, we become angry or unhappy. When something we want fails to materialise, we crave it. Vipassana teaches you to accept each experience with equanimity, knowing that it will pass, thus breaking the pattern of reaction.

Getting up on the first day was easier than I had expected. I went eagerly to the meditation hall, but instead of slipping into bliss, I was tortured by aches and pains. Sitting cross-legged for more than five minutes was impossible and every other position soon became just as uncomfortable. Concentration was out of the question.

Finally the gong rang for breakfast and I hobbled out with relief. At first the impulse to speak was very strong. Unable to say "excuse me" or "you first", people were awkward around each other, but after a few days a new sensitivity developed and mealtimes took on a silent choreography.

It is also strange to sit with others and eat in silence. Years of conditioning urge you to make small talk, to ward off the silence, or worse, to show off: this is who I am, this is what I have done, please like me....

Gradually I came to treasure the silence. Meditation is about stilling the mind. Conversation, I realised, is like taking a stick and stirring up the mud from the bottom of a pond. Speech is such a powerful catalyst, the course would be impossible without silence. I know the first words out of my mouth would have been: "Isn't this awful...." It would only have taken one whiner for negativity to spread like wildfire and people would have left in droves.

So the silence was the easy part, it was the rest of the course that was tough. I found ten hours of meditation a day gruelling - physically and mentally. My mind plagued me with excruciating moments dragged up from the past and when I wasn't distracted, I was bored. For escape I re-analysed every Shakespeare play I'd ever read and spent hours mentally wandering the aisles of my local supermarket.

On the sixth day, I awoke more angry than ever. By the afternoon I was unable to contain my tears and the teacher suggested I go outside and cry as much as I needed.... I sat by the fence, in a plastic garden chair, looking over the fields and sobbed. A woman came out from the kitchen and hung up tea-towels to dry on the washing line. The birds sang in the trees, cicadas buzzed lazily in the afternoon warmth. Suddenly, to my amazement, my anger and doubts evaporated and in one of those rare moments of clarity, the events of my life assumed a new perspective; the way a jumble of trees on the horizon forms a perfect avenue as you draw parallel.

Over the remaining days, I swung between clarity and doubt, but increasingly I was able to observe my feelings objectively, and the doubts diminished. This is the heart of Vipassana. I was learning to maintain equanimity and it really does work.

On the last day Noble Silence was lifted and there was a great rush of excitement as people shared their experiences. I knew exactly who I wanted to speak to first: Mariella, the woman who had sat motionless in front of me: "You were an inspiration," I told her. "Did you feel any pain at all?" She looked astonished. "I was in agony," she said. "Every night I felt as if my body had been broken." Sylvie, a Frenchwoman who had seemed to exude such serenity, gave me a big hug and said: "Well done for staying. I know it was hard, I wanted to run away too."

People had joined the course for all sorts of reasons: to cope with stress, to find new direction, to discover a spiritual path. Almost without exception, everyone felt they had benefited enormously. People even looked different, there was a joy in their faces which had been absent before, and it wasn't just relief at finishing.
Anne, a lovely Irishwoman, spoke for us all. "Considering what we have just been through, I think we're incredibly brave. But it is so wonderful..." She is right. The wisdom of Vipassana has permeated my life and I feel as if I have been given a jewel, something truly precious and lasting.