Category Archives: All posts

Meditation’s what you need

The first time I heard of Vipassana meditation was in India in December last year. Justin, a seasoned traveller heading for Auroville on a Royal Enfield motorbike, told me about the increasingly popular 10-day courses in hushed tones, as if he was relating a ghost story.

“It’s really serious, man… ten days without a word – can you imagine that?” There was a short pause as it sank in. Ten days sounded a very long time indeed. I’d never even meditated. But there was something intriguing in the idea of being silent for ten days.

A month later in the Yoga Ashram some of the myths about Vipassana’s effects were dispelled by three girls who had completed it. “Oh yeah, it’s tough” said one. “You go a bit crazy after 5 or 6 days, but then it’s pretty cool…” Going crazy? This was starting to get interesting.

And when I read some of India’s top CEOs find the time to do 10 days of Vipassana every year without fail, I felt like I had no excuses. If they had the time, I definitely had the time. I found a centre in Malaysia that was running a course that fitted with my plans and signed up, with (I have to admit) a secret smile at the irony of doing a Buddhist meditation course in a Muslim state.

A journey from the inside out into a mad, mad world

4.30am on Day One. The meditation hall was so dimly lit that it felt like the light was battling the darkness. I crossed my legs for the first time with some trepidation, recalling my mental wrestling and physical wriggling during mere 20 minute sessions at the Yoga Ashram. My practice since then hadn’t exactly been what you would call ‘diligent”. Now I was embarking on 100 hours of a famously challenging technique, over 10 days. Ten days of navel-gazing… had I gone mad already?

“Vipassana” is a meditation technique discovered by Buddha 2500 years ago. It is a particularly pure form of meditation, and far from introspective. It is still concerned with stopping the mind completely, but in Vipassana, the purpose isn’t communication with a God – it’s to turn outwards, understand how impermanent everything is in reality, and therefore to engage with the external world in a positive and compassionate way. In the process, you rid of some of the bad stuff that we all carry around, and get to meet your Self.

The latest in a line of teachers, purportedly stretching back to Buddha himself, is S N Goenka. Goenka has been so effective in spreading the technique’s popularity through 10-day courses (there are centres all over Asia and the world) that he can no longer teach them all himself. Instead, instructions and chanting on every course (at the start and end of each 1-2 hour sitting) come in the form of his disembodied flowing Indian voice wafting through the meditation hall.

In the evenings, this voice was given a face for 90 minutes, as we sat listening to a “discourse” from Goenka, who had an uncanny knack for knowing exactly what had been going through our heads during the preceding day. Warm and mellifluous, his voice begged mimicry, but that had to wait – for nine days, you must observe “Noble Silence”, complete absence of verbal, physical or visual (no eye contact) communication with other students so that the mind gets a decent shot of achieving silence.

The first few days were an extraordinary exercise in becoming aware of just how many irrelevant (and random, so random) thoughts go through your head each day as we became aware of what it means to meditate properly. Thoughts of the near and past future jostled for space with memories that I‘d forgotten even existed..

It all felt suspiciously easy. During those first two days we were given considerable leeway on movement during each 1-2 hour session. and Goenka’s slow sonorous delivery at the start of every session helped to sear his instructions deep into my cortices and develop a habit. “Be very aware, very attentive, very vigilant. Work patently and persistently, patiently and persistently. Work diligently… diligently…” Even the body adapted well, shifting to two meals a day ( 6.30am and 11am, with only fruit at 5pm to keep the wolf from the door in the evening). Time slowed, as the extraordinarily regular rhythm of life that mediation brings was established.

Crank down the volume

But on day three, Goenka shifted things to the next level. Unbeknown to us, the first three days had been mere warm-up – we hadn’t actually started learning Vipassana yet, he informed us. While this was ever so slightly disheartening, when the real essence of the technique was explained, it at least had the benefit of keeping things interesting by setting a new challenge. And for Vipassana from Day Four, things would be stricter. In a display of “Aditthana”(strong determination), we would now have to remain motionless for three of the ten hours each day. Ouch.

It is impossible to explain Vipassana and what happens to your mind. The next five days were a deeply personal journey that it would be impossible to describe without sounding a bit ridiculous; which is, of course, precisely why Goenka insists that experience over 10 days is the only way to learn.

Suffice to say that I did feel more than slightly crazy on Day Six (those thoughts just don‘t want to stop), I leaked gallons of water both from the eyes and the nether regions in one of the strangest “clearouts” of my life on Day Seven, and I had some incredible insights into many aspects of my life on Days Eight and Nine.

As Noble silence was broken on Day Ten and at last we could discuss and compare notes, it quickly became clear that experiences of the technique differ. But there was not one person who felt they had failed to gain from the ten days.

Vipassana is a truly extraordinary and rewarding experience which is bringing greater peace of mind to increasing numbers of people. In fact, I’d probably vote for a party that suggested it as a new form of National Service in the UK. Non-sectarian, easy to comprehend and with tangible benefits, it is now even being used to great effect in many prisons in India and even in America.

I left the centre with a happy heart and a clear mind. I felt ready for the final step in my overland journey from India – one last long-distance railway journey, down through Malaysia to Singapore.

[to be continued…]


Leave a comment

Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, South East Asia '09

The life aquatic

It’s not easy being a turtle egg.
Mum’s journey up the beach to lay you has its own dangers, but that’s only the start of it. You and 100 or so potential brothers and sisters then lie buried a metre down in the sand, hoping to survive without being discovered by inquisitive predators. Presuming you manage to get out of your shell and up to the surface, you still have to cover 100 yards back to the sea, avoiding the spider crabs and their holes in a Lara Croft-style obstacle course. Then you’re in the sea and at the mercy of the waves and various seaborne hazards.

By the time you reach the age of majority, it’s easy to understand why you might pat yourself on the shell – you’ve survived against odds of roughly 1000 to 1 to get this far.

The conservationists got involved in Turtle-world when it became clear that human intervention – often to steal the valuable shells and the reputedly aphrodisiac eggs – was starting to challenge even these odds. Then, back in the 50s and 60s, something rather unfortunate happened. The conservationists didn’t know that the temperature of the sand in which the egg is buried has a bearing on the sex of the hatched animal. The devastating impact, particularly on the Leatherback turtle population, was only felt 40 years later (a couple of decades ago) when thousands of female turtles were left stranded without mates.
It’s *really* not easy being a turtle egg.
Nevertheless, turtles are a focus area for conservationists like WWF now, particularly in Malaysia. I had happened across the Ma’Daerah Green Turtle protection programme on the internet, and arranged to spend two weeks helping them out on the beach they patrol in Northern Malaysia.
I was welcomed a couple of weeks ago by Sharifah the biologist, two rangers and a hatchery worker. The basic nocturnal work took a little getting used to. Two night patrols – one at 9pm, one at 2am. with one of the rangers, I would walk the 2km of remote paradise beach by moonlight, lie down on the sand for a couple of hours, stare at the stars with the ranger’s radio gently wafting over the sand, often drifting off to sleep before waking and stumbling to the sanctuary. By the final day, I loved the patrols, particularly those with the middle-aged ranger Pak Mat. Not only did he seem to enjoy babbling to me in Malay (seemingly oblivious to my complete incomprehension), but he also had a caring wife – I must have tasted every kind of weird tropical fruit carefully bagged for beach consumption.

For me, there was high excitement in finding turtle-tracks on the beach, following them up to a nest, and hearing the sound of strong flippers scraping sand over eggs. The job of collecting hatched turtles from the hatchery and releasing them in their 100s into the sea was even more rewarding. Pak Mat just laughed gently at my child-like enthusiasm – for him, it was just another day of his ten years here, supporting his seven children.

With the end of the season approaching (now-ish), we had another job to complete. WWF had acquired four expensive satellite transmitters to fix onto the backs of mothers after they had laid their eggs. This was no easy task – weighing in at 100kg and about a metre long, these turtles were (understandably) not that keen on being boxed for 3 hours in the early hours of the morning while a hot epoxy resin was applied to their shell. But this is a necessary part of the conservation effort – even now, very little is known about the lifetime movements of turtles out at sea.

In my last few days at the sanctuary, Sharifah the biologist started a final small project. Around a headland north of the beach, the lights of a huge Petronas oil refinery cast an eerie red light into the sky. Hatchlings are attracted by light, and Sharifah and her boss had a hunch that the “Petronas effect” was pulling hatchlings North like a magnet once they reached the sea. To test the theory, small lightsticks on polystyrene floats were attached with sellotape and fishing line to the back of 4 hatchlings, which were followed for a couple of hours with kayaks. Results – as yet – inconclusive; though I know where I’d lay my bets.

I left the sanctuary 4 days ago and moved on out to the beautiful Perhentian Islands, renowned for their fantastic diving. Given the increasingly aquatic theme of this section of my travels, it seemed churlish not to learn to scuba-dive, so I’m now a PADI Open Water scuba-diver. Another day, another aquatic qualification.

I’m heading into silent Vipassana Meditation now for 10 days, before heading to Singapore and then Bali, where I plan to surf and do some more free-diving.


1 Comment

Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, South East Asia '09

Swim like a mammal, waddle like a reptile

{29.08.2009 – Picture now added]

It was the fifth day of my free-diving course, and my final dive. I knew I was about 20 metres down, unthinkable only a few days earlier. I tried manfully not to panic. As I tried to push a metre or two deeper, the upside-down goggled face of my effortlessly cool instructor Eusebio eased into view…

He looked at me with penetratingly confidence-boosting eyes and a broad grin, and made the thumbs-up (or down, depending on your point of view) sign. “Further… I know you can go further…” he wordlessly communicated to me. But I’d had enough – I glided as slowly as I could up the rope to the surface sand emerged gasping for breath.

“How-did-I-do?” I blurted out breathlessly.

“22 metres, my freeend. Excellent dive…” Eusebio told me in his wonderful Spanish accent.

“I could have gone further… I could have gone further…”

Tales of Oxygen and the Brain

It’s a well known fact that free-divers nearly always think they could have gone further after they’ve set a new Personal Best. It is one of many slightly weird things about this emerging sport.

Some brief explanation for the uninitiated – free-diving has a number of different variations, but in essence they all come down to one thing – diving as deep under water as you can on a single breath of air. There’s something very attractive about the simplicity of it all. But like other extreme sports, the sport comes into its own when you comprehend that limits are as much mental (and in some ways imaginary) as physical. For that reason, instructors have to tread a fine line between inspiring courage in their students and scaring them witless. You can indeed go further than you think you can. In fact, much further.

There is certainly danger – in the 1950s when Jacques Mayol (made famous by the film “The Big Blue”) started diving, the theory was that the body would collapse below 30 metres. Mayol smashed that theory, and nowadays the top divers frequently get down below 100 metres. Medical research has uncovered that something called the Mammalian Dive Reflex exists in humans, and free-divers themselves are discovering new ways of breathing and relaxing to help them go longer and deeper underwater.

But on Day One of the training at the small Apnea Total school, all this was yet to be discovered. So when John, our Basque instructor, told us that we had to think of blackouts as our friends, I was a little freaked out to say the least.

John explained the principle further. “Ees a natural reaction by your body – the system shut down for a while when things get a leetle bit difficult, heh?” He sensed a little edginess in the five of us sitting in the beach-side classroom. “Ees OK, I never know someone blackout on beginners course…” Well, it’s one way of looking at it, I told myself in a wobbly internal voice.

Two hours later I found myself clasping a buoy off the back of a boat, with a weighted rope hanging 20 metres down into the Gulf of Thailand. I’ve never really felt comfortable in the sea, and as my instructor Rodrigo looked at me with his deep eyes, it occurred to me that this was therefore perhaps one of the stupider things I’ve decided to do.

The waves lapped over me; Rodrigo purred in my ear. “You are beerry relaxed Andy, beerry relaxed. You look beeeerry relaxed. Ees beerry beautiful, excellent breathing, Andy…” I felt anything but relaxed – but there’s a game of positive thinking to be played here, and the instructors were experts at playing it. At times it was almost hypnotic.

A final deep breath, and I was under, pulling myself down on the weighted rope into the beautifully clear water. On the first couple of days, I don’t mind admitting that unexpurgated panic set in at an early stage; I struggled to get down below 5 metres, while my compadres on the course reached depths approaching the bottom of the rope. It was all deeply depressing.

So by the second afternoon I was frustrated beyond belief. Rodrigo fixed me with his penetrating stare. “What’s een your mind, Andy? This game is all in your mind…”

And something clicked. It really was in my mind. Suddenly I was at 14 metres and feeling, well, at least OK. And more than that, I was conquering my mental demons – and developing my breathing. It all felt so connected – to the yoga, the tai chi, the kung fu – and so far away from my days struggling to breathe at my desk in London.

I knew that I had to move on to the three-day Advanced course.

Advanced Apnea for dummies

Apnea, meaning suspension of external breathing, is at the heart of free-diving – the diving is really just the culmination of what’s called the “breathe-up” which can easily take five to ten times as long at the dive itself. So the advanced teaching focuses far more on breathing.

Without getting too technical, you have to learn to live with diaphragmatic contractions in order to stay at depth. Initially frightening, the best free-divers see these as “internal breathing” – and to be welcomed.

Despite the rather frightening sight of one of the course attendees blacking out during a training breathe-up (low blood pressure), things progressed remarkably quickly. By the end of the first day I was holding my breath face down in the water (called “static Apnea”) for what felt like an age – 2 minutes 50 seconds. (By the way, usual warning – don’t try this at home, kids – needs supervision…)

Over the next two days we practised new forms of “breathe-ups”, learnt to kick the Mammalian dive Reflex quickly into action, studied all kinds of exercises to increase lung capacity, and tried new ways to equalise at depth.

But above all, we kept on diving. We did NPSA dives, Exhale dives, free immersion dives, you name it. As with any sport, it’s the only way to progress. And that final dive, to 22 metres, made it all worthwhile – mostly thanks to stunning instruction from Rodrigo, John and Eusebio.

From here, the only way is up. Or down. Depending on how you look at it. Highly, highly recommended.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

A thirty hour train journey through the troubled wilds of Southern Thailand, and I reached my current location – the little-known Ma’Daerah Turtle Sanctuary on the East coast of peninsular Malaysia.

I’m the only volunteer here, which is a treat. I released my first hatchling on the beach last night. It’s a great experience to watch this tiny reptile – no longer than the size of my pinkie – make its way down to the sea for the first time. In 30 years, it will grow to be a metre or more long. And if it’s a male (you can’t tell until they’re older), it won’t ever come back to land. Tonight I hope to watch a female actually lay its eggs.

I’ll be a nocturnal beast for the next fortnight – the work is all in the hours of darkness. Which is rather apt, given that it is Ramadan, and finding food during the day is a little tricky.


[Unfortunately pictures aren’t working on blogger today. They will follow].

Leave a comment

Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, South East Asia '09