Weeding The Garden: 10 Amazing Days At A Vipassana Meditation Retreat

Just last Sunday, I returned from a ten-day Vipassana meditation course hidden away in a small wood in Sweden. Before the course began I worried about whether I could handle ten whole days of total silence, but I was more than ready to surrender and try to break my old habits of insomnia and anxiety. Keeping low expectations about the course, and my main goal being to complete it without running away – I told myself that if I could reset and solve my bad habits, it would be a bonus. I just had to make it through, but sadly my sleeping pills came too.

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An Insomniac Sleepwalks In The Woods

When you take a Vipassana course, you commit to staying for the full duration. You also agree to abide by five rules – no stealing, no lying, no killing, no sexual misconduct, and no intoxicants (sleeping pills). It also means that you leave your phone, books, pens and notebooks in a safe box. Consequently, no writing, no talking, no eye contact, no communicating at the centre, or with your loved-ones at home. You are effectively alone in the overgrown garden your mind, with no outlet or interference from the outside world – but you are handed a gleaming set of gardening tools.

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Photography. Heather Gartside 2017

Along with my illegal sleeping pills I inadvertently broke a second rule; when as an artist I walked in tortured silence in the woods I began to create small sculptures and collections of wood chips, pine cones and moss as a response to my desolate feelings. Other lonesome ladies responded with their own heart, face, house and star formations of bark, branches and dried grasses. By the end of the course we had silently brightened each others’ solitary confinement, but it was a breach of the strict protocol that the organisation prefers and I’m aware now that this discipline is to be adhered to – it’s been tried and tested for over 2500 years after all.

Studies have shown that people who are blind or deaf have heightened ability in other bodily senses. When the brain is deprived of one input source, it is capable of reorganising itself to support and heighten other senses, a phenomenon known as “cross-modal neuroplasticity.” Despite my artistic expression, I believe that I felt a small version of this at the course. I could not speak or write, but my mind was thundering away at an epic rate. Witnessing a full programme of the worst moments of my past fifty-three years, plus the best and a whole catalogue of brand new thoughts. Culminating in the elusive sleep snatchers being horse-whipped out-of-town, closely followed by the whole squealing cast of my irrational fears. Vipassana provided me with a terrific toolkit with which to use in controlling my worst nightmares.

Why A Vipassana Meditation Course?

I signed up for a Vipassana course after being heartily recommended it by an Indian parent at my children’s’ school in Denmark, where we live. I was approaching two and a half years of insomnia after my husband suffered a huge heart attack. Finding myself struggling with the changes enforced on our once golden family life, and reluctant to accept the new terrain. Every morning I found myself exhausted by the panic of not sleeping and unable to find any meaningful rest. I would lie down to sleep only to dread the replays of horror, or brand new fearsome scenarios waiting for me in the darkness, followed by ensuing panic attacks and a whole cast of demons to leer and cajole me throughout the night. Aside from this recent upset, my nighttime cast of in-house succubus, demons and phantoms had followed the trajectory of my life from the age of nine years old, when I’d found myself not wanting to go to school on a Monday morning. This innocent seed was the start of a weed which engulfed half my life.

Meditation is very trendy at the moment as classes, courses and apps emerge to empty your PayPal account, but Vipassana has a very different approach – it’s free and full of loving compassion – with the simple idea to volunteer to help run a course for other people in the future and to make a donation of your choice to the organisation. I signed up without reading the small print, I was at an impasse in my life and my only thoughts were in trusting the advice of the friend who had recommended it when he said that it had changed his.  Also, I wanted to write my second novel but couldn’t concentrate on work. Mornings bled into each other, and by midday my mind would be completely distracted, filled with anxiety about another long night of little sleep. My darling family received only a shadow of their once smiling mother, as I slipped below the waves of self-doubt, grinding fatigue and short-tempered irritability.

The Art Of Living With Vipassana Meditation

Vipassana practice isn’t about religion. While the history of Vipassana includes that it was used by Buddha, it was and remains a non-sectarian technique. The father of these courses is the wonderful late S.N. Goenka, who was raised in Burma and learned Vipassana from there. Despite originating in India, the technique was lost over the years, and monks in Burma preserved it, teaching it quietly to fellow monks. Throughout the discourses, Goenka’s nightly video lectures about the technique and the troubles of the modern mind, he reiterated that Vipassana is non-sectarian. It provides students with a tool to purify their thinking of recurrent obsessive cycles. Instead of quick solutions, Goenka spoke of the hard work required to retrain habit patterns that devoured us.

Vipassana dictates non-reaction. You do not react to the pain as you sit, nor the fact that your hands and legs fall asleep and your brain cries for release. You are instructed to refocus your attention on the objective sensations in your body, arising and falling, as you do a scan of your limbs in a specific order. By doing so, over the course of the long ten days, you train yourself to stop reacting to the trials of life. The technique is different to mindfulness meditation, which focuses on awareness, or to transcendental meditation, which uses a mantra.

Digging The Garden

Last Sunday I emerged from the course a calmer, less anxious version of myself, one that surprised and joyfully flabbergasted the people closest to me. I sleep naturally once more and discarded my treasured pills on day 5 of the course. The relief of a good rest is phenomenal and sometimes I wake up in the morning confused and then blissful in the sheer normality of natural grogginess! I’m very aware that I’m at the beginning of a very long journey as a student of Vipassana, but the ten-day course provided me with a map, a deep sense of calm and reassurance, new love and compassion for my family and a terrific toolkit which acts as a counterbalance to the peaks and troughs of life as a sensitive person – without sacrificing my integrity. I in turn will dedicate two hourly sessions of meditation, every day for the rest of my life.

If I could imagine my soul as a garden, then I believe that Vipassana meditation has helped to dig down very deeply to eradicate some nasty weeds, allowing the garden of my own choice to begin to flourish and in turn share with those that I love.

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