Vipassana Meditation Retreat : The Aftermath

Ok, so I was going to do this big detailed review of the Dhamma Dipa meditation retreat, what happened when, how, etc. But then I thought maybe it’s best not to give away too much of the experience, and rob people of the chance to find out for themselves. Plus, I’m not sure how I feel about it right now, so anything I write would be a little unbalanced to say the least. If you’re interested in doing it you should just go do it. It’s free, you can leave whenever you want, and you’re big enough to make your own decisions about the whole thing.

That being said, here’s some points from the few notes I jotted down when I got back. They should go some way to defining my experience there, and maybe give you an idea what to expect. And for those that need it I’ll just say it right now – **SPOILER ALERT**

my 'cell'

For one thing it was tough! Ten days of getting up at 4am, meditating for ten hours a day, no food after noon (though some fruit at 5pm); no talking, no touching, no eye contact; isolation, hard work, and a lot to comprehend. That about sums it up. It’s an emotional experience, but not a social one. They take it very very very seriously, and there’s very little let up. You’re there to work, and work you must.

I almost left a few times, sometimes because I wasn’t getting anything out of it, sometimes out of frustration, and sometimes because I was just sick of all the rules. But I stuck it out, and I at least gained a good grounding in Vipassana meditation (though I also got that from reading Mindfulness in Plain English: 20th Anniversary Edition).

the old farmhouse courtyard

I practiced when I was meant to practice, but I didn’t always do it very well. If I tell you that I came away from there with a new recipe for vegan calzone, an almost complete film script, and the business plan for a new retreat centre in the Lake District, you will see that my mind wasn’t always on the job.

Though I could see the value in the no contact rules (to experience the technique for yourself without other opinions getting in the way) they were frustrating. At times I wanted to scream, just to make a loud noise (NB: when we were finally able to speak on the 10th day my voice was so croaky from lack of use); not knowing anyone’s names I ended up making nicknames for them just to have a point of reference – Zippy, the Wizard of Space and Time, Mr Swishy Pants – (not all of them were entirely complimentary); and I didn’t get to meet any girls which, to be honest, is part of the reason I go to these damn things. But anyway…

leaving dhamma dipa

So it was hard. At one point I almost went to look at my car just to check it was still there (and maybe to gain some psychological support from it’s presence) but I caught myself and decided not to be so stupid. Turns out I wasn’t the only one. One guy even got in his van, and would have left if the gates had been locked, but they weren’t so he stayed (it made sense somehow). And someone even heard a car leaving it 3:30am, though who it was and why he didn’t know. Heck, my own roommate left on the second day!

But there were also spooky moments that kept you interested. Like the discourse on day 7, when the teacher, Goenka, via the medium of badly shot video, told the ‘This Too Shall Pass’ story. The weird thing for me is I had been thinking of that story that very day. My head was full of film and TV clips most of the time, and the story appears in My Best Friends Wedding, with Paul Giamatta telling it to a defeated Julia Roberts in a hotel corridor. It’s not a story I think of often, and maybe it was just a coincidence, but it certainly caught me by surprise, and helped keep me interested on days 8 and 9 when all I wanted to do was go home (or at the very least have a lie in).

undoing all the good work

So I survived, just! Come the end of it I was glad to go home. And what did I do when I got back? Had some curry sauce and chips, watched back to back episodes of The Big Bang Theory, and ordered a bunch of stuff off Amazon. I haven’t done any meditating since (though I did pretty much go into a load of night shifts, so I’m kinda knackered at the moment) and I don’t know when I’ll be sitting again. My leg still hurts like hell (that made for a fun 10 days let me tell you!) and so I’m less than enthusiastic to get down on the floor again.

And if I’m honest I’m a little dubious of the whole experience too. All the discourses and instruction were off tape, with just an assistant teacher to offer clarification if you were to ask. The tapes were shot in 1991. Are you telling me that no one in 20+ years has learnt or benefitted enough from the technique to be able to teach it on the organisations behalf? That puts doubts in my mind. And the final discourse, where they insist that they are the correct way to do Vipassana like Buddha used to do, and other meditation techniques have lost his teachings along the way, left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

All in all I’d have expected my mind to be alive with what I’ve learnt, but in fact it’s not. I’m glad I went, but I was equally as glad to get home, and I’m keen now to just crack on with the rest of my life, planning what I’m going to do next and how I’m going to get there (the subject of my next blog post).

Like I said, give it a go and make your own mind up. These are just my thoughts/memories on the matter. And here’s one final one to be going on with. I’ve heard it said that you should seek enlightenment like a drowning man seeks air. Now that’s all well and good, but if you live your entire life like you’re drowning, well what kind of life would that be?

Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, And Tomorrow…

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

It’s so easy to think about tomorrow, and forget about today. To look to the future for satisfaction, and ignore the here and now. So many things we strive for are based on delayed gratification, and the promise of what is to come, but if what we desire is always in the future, how will we ever truly be happy?

They say ‘Tomorrow never comes’. True, from a linguistic/philosophical point of view, though always a saying that annoys me somehow with it’s clever smugness. I used to have a saying, ‘Never put of ’til tomorrow what you can get away with never doing’, but that was just me trying to be funny. Besides, if it doesn’t need doing, why is it on your To Do List in the first place?


Tomorrow I head out to the Dhamma Dipa Centre near Hereford for my 10 day introduction to Vipassana meditation course. I’ll be honest, I’m a little apprehensive, as 10 days is a long time, especially with all the rules they impose on your staying there.

But also I’m looking forward to a chance to practice properly for the first time. No distractions, just you and the cushion. What I’m less enthusiastic about is dealing with my leg while I’m there. Thanks to a litany of injuries my right leg hurts in oh so many different positions, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to sit for hours at a time without a great deal of pain. I just did a Tai Chi weekend and by the end of it I was really in a lot of pain.

But hopefully it’ll calm down over the next 10 days. I have exercises to do and I won’t be doing any work so nothing should aggravate it. And there are a number of positions you can meditate in, so I’m sure I’ll find something I can do that’ll work for me.

the big buddha

For my last bit of visual entertainment for a while I just finished watching a great documentary about the Apollo missions called In The Shadow Of The Moon. Not only is it fascinating to watch, but it is inspiring to hear the revelations each astronaut went through in seeing the Earth from so far away. Some found their spirituality (very specifically saying not religion, but spirituality), some came to realise how unimportant the many things we find to complain about day to day really are, some came to understand the interconnectedness of each and every thing in the Universe, but not one of them came away thinking that this fractious, warring, polluting system we’ve set in motion is the way to be.

And it made me think too. Neil Armstrong was 38 when he went on his mission into space. I’m 38, and tomorrow I embark on my mission to become a space cadet. How alike we truly are, lol. ๐Ÿ™‚ Ok, I’m just messing. but it is interesting to see what others before you have done by the same age you are.

However, that being said, you can’t get caught up in measuring yourself by the standards of others of course. Each of us has their own path to follow, and we must find our own ways of measuring our success (otherwise we’ll always be unsuccessful, and ultimately always unhappy). But more importantly we have to enjoy the victories of today, for if we always look to the future for validation we will never truly feel we have achieved anything.

day 21 - peace

Ok, that’s enough philosiphising for now. See you in 2 weeks when I’ll report on my 10 days of meditative seclusion, and hopefully I’ll finally be able to make some decisions about my upcoming sabbatical, and progress forward in my quest for a Brand New Life.

“…between zero and one.”

I’ve been in a weird place recently. Working more often than not (10 days out of the last 12) to try and make a bit of money to go do stuff, I’ve made no progress on anything else I got going on.

And all the work and early starts, the lack of progress and lack of energy, has dulled the mind and allowed doubts and fears to creep in. I push them aside but that only allows them to sneak up behind me.

I need help, I need inspiration, I need an idea.

Then this comes along.

Thank you internet. You are the distraction, but sometimes you are the light as well. It’s time to begin, so let’s start shall we… ๐Ÿ™‚

If You Write It, They Will Come

It’s not easy being a would be author. First off you have all the time and effort you have to put into creating your work, which you do for free in your spare time since the publishing industry is only interested in finished novels (if you’re writing fiction that is). And then when you want to try and get it published you come up against the great machine that is the publishing industry itself which, like pretty much every other industry in the world, has been designed to protect the people investing the money, producing the highest yield for the least amount of risk.

money & politics

Now I’m not saying it’s unfair. It is what it is, and so mote it be. But! it does result in the same old overly pessimistic advice being given to authors who are starting out, and after a while this can be a little wearing.

I recently read this blog post, How To Turn Your Blog Into A Book, which lead me to this one, How To Get Your Book Published, an excellent post which pretty much encapsulates the viewpoint of the industry in general.

Now I’m no industry insider. I haven’t got an agent, had a book published, or anything like that. But this is a subject I have studied since I was eight and first dreamed of becoming an author, so I flatter myself I know a little something on the subject. And yes, whilst in general the advice is sound, and well meaning, it is also very general indeed, and studiously ignores the exceptions that prove the rule.

Yes the – write and re-write, get help, find an agent, approach them in the right way, don’t be precious, keep trying – approach is a good one, but it’s all too easy to become discouraged when faced with such an arduous, and limited, journey.

The advice is understandably cautious, and maybe hopes to stop people wasting their time pursuing a career that might never happen, but it is also a bit of a downer. Like the news it focuses on the negative side of things, and offers very little encouragement. It reminds me of things like the Dragon’s Den, which people might watch and think “My idea would never make a good business”, just because it doesn’t fit into the very narrow criteria of what this small group of people will invest in.

beginning buddhism

You can equate it to the music industry, for example, where all eyes are concentrated on pop music and all advice is given on how to make it big in that one genre. Yes, the advice given is ‘the truth’, but also there are many other types of music out there, and many other ways to become successful, and those stories are equally as true as the ‘tried and tested’.

For example:

* The book The Horse Whisperer attracted a lot of interest and even got a six figure deal when the author took just the first 100 pages to the Frankfurt Book Fair and showed them to Robert Redford (who subsequently agreed to do the movie).

* L. Frank Baum had to invest his own money in publishing The Wizard Of Oz just to get it off the ground.

* Recently Fifty Shades Of Grey, a piece of New Moon saga fan fiction, became a number one bestseller and the subject of a Hollywood bidding war despite being a self published e-book.

* And finally, JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was turned down by 12 publishers before finally finding a home at Bloomsbury (and even they advised her to get a day job as she’d “…never make any money in children’s fiction.”

recipe book cover

Now I’m not suggesting you pin your hopes on something like this happening to you, or that you rush out and start self-publishing right away, just remember how general ‘general’ advice really is, and how there’s still room in this world for something new and dramatic to happen.

Don’t get weighed down by other people’s pessimism. Deal with their well meaning and knowledgeable advice the same way you deal with both compliments and criticism; with a warm smile and a polite “Thank you very much.”

making headspace

As ever, these are just my thoughts on the subject, garnered through many years of trying and failing. Like so many others before me I’ve sat for hours in the coffee shop trying to come up with ideas. I’ve spent my nights writing, and my weekends editing. I’ve written to publishers and cold called agents, read the trade magazines and spoken to people ‘in the know’ at events, all just to find a way to get me started in the industry. And y’know what, after all that effort the best advice I ever got was in a standard rejection letter sent to me by an agent years ago.

Would that I could remember it word for word, but it went something like this:

“It is a myth that there are hundreds of great, unpublished works out there. 99% of them are rubbish. So if you have something that’s really good, keep at it. Eventually you will get published.”

This was proven to me when, about a week later, another agent accidentally returned to me two other would be authors’ submissions along with my own. I couldn’t resist, I had to read them. They were terrible. The ideas were bad, the description poor, the grammar awful. I hate to admit it, but it gave me hope.

Of course you have to make sure that you’re not one of that 99%, but as long as you work at it, take advice, be self critical, but above all don’t lose hope, there’s no reason why one day you can’t become a published author too.

And if it never happens then for God’s sake make sure you enjoy yourself along the way, because there’s no point chasing after your dreams if you’re going to be miserable about it. That really would be a waste of time.