Tag Archives: Meditation

Note to self: remember to breathe…

It sometimes feels like this journey’s been all about learning to breathe again – from yoga in India to Tai Chi in China via the mind-focusing thin air of Everest Base Camp, and on to free- and scuba-diving and of course Vipassana meditation.

After a flight from Singapore to Bali, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take the free-diving a little further. A short hop to the Gili Islands, and I was in the only other place in Asia that holds a free-diving school.

When I first tried free-diving in Thailand, my wonderful instructor Rodrigo had told me mysteriously that my free-diving would improve immeasurably after Vipassana (he had done the 10-day course a number of times), and I was eager to find out what he meant.

Bizarrely, free-diving is much closer to yoga and meditation than it is to diving of the Scuba variety, in that the heart of the sport is breath- and mind-control under water. In that sense, the benefits of ten days of meditation quickly became clear. I was able to focus quicker, deal with problems in a balanced way, and recognise the power of the harnessed and focused mind. Over 4 days, my instructor (an eminently practical Brit with a superb manner) gave me the opportunity to push myself to deeper depths and (more importantly) get comfortable diving regularly to 20 metres. I reached 24 metres with ease on the last day.

As Australian author Tim Winton wrote in his uber-cool 2008 surfing novel Breath: “It’s funny, but you never think much about breathing. Until it’s all you ever think about.”

With Australia and the Great Barrier Reef looming, I also completed my aquatic preparation by getting the advanced Scuba qualification and squeezing in a few days acquainting myself with that most quintessential of Aussie activities, surfing, with a wonderful Balinese instructor, Wayan.

In a final reminder of the openness that characterises Bali, Wayan took me home to his family before driving me to the airport for my flight to Australia. I was about to thank him, but he got in there first. “Andy, thank you for helping me and my family…”, he said. I hadn’t exactly looked at it that way. It was a fittingly humbling moment to end 11 months in Asia.

Going deep down under

My arrival in the land Down Under heralded a new phase in my journey. With a request to be Best man at a wedding in January, I have a wonderful reason to return to the UK in time for the end of the year.

Australia therefore defines not only a return to western values, but also (somewhat aptly) a transition from the free roaming nature of my travels thus far, to a more planned, but no less enjoyable, itinerary through Australia and New Zealand, before a final flurry driving across the USA from LA to New York.

With a limited amount of time for Australia, and the lure of a series of friends down the East coast, it became clear that proper exploration of this particular continent would have to wait. Australia might have a reputation for straightforwardness and simple honesty, but 2 weeks into 3 million square miles just doesn’t go.

The one thing I did want to do though was dive the Great Barrier Reef. 24 hours after arriving in the country, I stood, wet suited and booted, on the edge of the MV Taka, a diving boat which would be my home for the next three days. As I stepped off into the Deep Blue, I had to remind myself to breathe… one of the minor challenges of swapping between free-diving (breathing categorically not advised) and scuba-diving (don’t stop breathing under any circumstances).

I’d had some wonderful diving in Asia, but nothing compared to the Great Barrier Reef. Within 30 seconds of entering the ocean, a shadow passed over my left shoulder, as three huge manta rays slowly flapped their way past. During ten dives in the next three days, I saw a diversity of marine life that provided an alternative way of quieting the mind. Bumphead parrotfish, cuttlefish, octopuses, sharks, incrredible corals and 30 metre visibility – the whole shebang. I loved it.

I’m now shuffling down the East coast through Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne for the next flight to Christchurch and New Zealand.

Toodle pip!

P.S. A video of some of my diving experiences will follow.


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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…]

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A Yogi’s Tale (an Ashram story in 3 parts). Part 2 – “Mind”

[Click here for Part 1]

“Errr… you do know that there are philosophy lessons don’t you?”

Every former Yoga Teacher Trainee I had spoken to had mentioned the philosophy lessons with a look in their eyes that made me slightly nervous. And when student after student rose at the “Initiation” ceremony to talk of “learning more about the spiritual side of Yoga”, it became clear that that some had come with more in mind than just the stretchy stuff.

Still, forewarned is forearmed, and I was definitely better prepared than some. I’m not sure anyone, however, was prepared for the length, depth and sweeping magisterial breadth of what was to follow.

Our lecturer for the month was Swami Mahadevananda (also the director of the course) a powerful Italian, and one of the leading lights in the Sivananda movement alive today, his imposing physical presence backed up by a booming voice and a strangely piercing glare.

Philosophy lessons were scheduled for 2pm daily, and from the word go he established his trademark no-nonsense style. The lesson was blunt and to the point, clearly based on the principle that Eastern Philosophy is so alien to the western mind that it can only be communicated with a bang not a whimper.

The message was suitably mystical. (For the sake of brevity, I paraphrase 100 minutes into 30 seconds). “Om. Forget everything you know. Time doesn’t exist. Space doesn’t exist. In fact nothing that you think of as real exists. God is the only thing that’s real, but your stupid little minds and your gigantic egos mean you’ll probably never really understand that either. Om.”

A few tentative questions were brushed away nonchalantly, and the class dispersed to ponder what would come next.

2pm on Day Two. As the chatter of 175 newly-met students echoed round the hall, the Swami sat imperiously on his cane chair.

He drew attention to his presence. “I’M HEYEEERE” he bellowed loudly, in an opening gambit was to become all too familiar over the coming weeks. It reminded me of Jack Nicholson’s “Heeeeeeyere’s JOHNNY!” in the film The Shining.

If Day One’s message had been hard to digest, Day Two was equally uncompromising. (I paraphrase again). “You think you’re free? You think the West’s free? You must be crazy. The 20th century was a disaster for the world; you’re trapped and frankly there’s not much hope of a way out. None of you know what real freedom, spiritual freedom, is anyway.”

Gulp. Looking round the tired faces in my dorm that night, it felt like any type of freedom would do. It wasn’t just the challenge of the philosophy classes – more that the combination of lack of sleep, tough Asana practice, a down-shift to two meals a day, and twice daily chanting left little time to digest food let alone spiritual manna. Drastic measures were required. In Vishnu dorm we prepared a wall chart was hastily prepared with a 26-day countdown to liberation, whatever form that might take.

But there was no let-up – over the next couple of days, the barrage continued as the Swami outlined the basic tenets of Vedantic Philosophy and Hindu belief. There was something majestic about the way he stuck to his guns. He was here to give a message, and that was what he would do. He served big, booming metaphysical statements straight down the middle of the court with the power of Nadal; questions were swatted away with the consummate ease of Sampras at the net; and lessons were drawn out more painfully than the longest Henman Wimbledon thriller.

We were informed that science, frankly, was bunkum, and that no Western research had ever started to understand the mind. (As Swiss doctor commented to me later “There goes Freud…”). Although lessons rarely finished on time, some of us couldn’t help but ask floundering questions, eating into a valuable scheduled 30 minutes of free time in our packed schedule.

An underground movement sprung up among some frustrated students. Books and articles on neuroscience were surreptitiously put into circulation; names of philosophers were swapped around, particularly by frustrated Buddhist practitioners.

But still the Swami continued with vigour. His energy (he’s 70) and his belief were unquestionable. He raced through an exploration of the Vedas, explained how to tell your Brahma from your Brahman, took us up and down the Chakras, moved from Physical to Astral and Causal bodies with ease, and warned of the power of Kundalini – all the while interspersing his languid speech with intriguing personal stories. Slowly the jigsaw pieces of the belief system behind Hindu Culture were assembled.

For a Westerner like me, with little to no knowledge of Hindu Culture prior to the course, it was an eye-opener. The amount of information communicated in a short period of time was substantial. The core message – that you can only reach God by getting beyond your mind and controlling your ego – is a powerful one, and brought meditation to life. And understanding Karma (properly) as well as the concept of reincarnation is no bad thing when it underpins the beliefs of rather a lot of people in the world.

Most importantly, I got a first-hand experience of the concept of unquestioning devotion that is at the heart of the Guru (Gu-ru = “Remover of – Darkness”) system. For Westerners used to seeing critical analysis as the only real way to progress in life, this comes as a bit of a shock. But when you realize that in some ways unquestioning devotion is an organising principle in India, it starts to explain some of the fundamental differences in the approach to society here – both advantages and disadvantages.

Over time, I also came to realize that his didactic and sometimes aggressive style was, in some ways, the only option he had. (Taking a quick 40 winks in one of his classes (or, worse, not turning up in uniform) was to risk being singled out with a booming “HELLOOOO”). Time was limited, and he had an awful lot to say.

I walked away with a much greater understanding of one of the great faiths. There were many things which bothered me, but that’s no bad thing. (I will mention only one – there seemed to be a deliberate attempt to conflate religious/spiritual belief and science, giving the former the ascendant position and assigning it with ownership of the concept of “truth”, while denigrating the value of the latter. This seems pointless to me. If there’s one thing we know, it is that if a belief is proved as objective truth, humans will move on and find the next thing to believe in. Valuing belief for what it is – above and beyond objective truth – seems more, um, logical).

But maybe the real lesson is this: Don’t think too much.

So. Mani was arming me with an understanding of how to control my body. The Swami was driving home the message of the importance of getting beyond my mind to reach the self/soul.

Meditation, we were told, was the key to connecting the two… but could I keep my legs crossed for long enough?

[Click here for Part 3 – “Soul”]

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