I have been on a rollercoaster these past weeks, of shocking headaches, exhaustion, giddiness, difficulty focusing my eyes, a racing heartbeat whenever I stood up. Days watching rubbish on my phone or staring into space – until I started to improve: walked a few steps; then a few more, almost a mile. That felt so good I whipped up some boogie-woogie on the piano and slid down the snake, back to square one.
I’m beginning to recognise this boom-and-bust cycle. At times I despair that I will ever recover until I remember my meditation requires that I start at the beginning, over and over again.
I discovered Vipassana meditation when I was in my late 30s. My life was in turmoil, and I was physically and emotionally exhausted from overwork when a friend invited me on a meditation course. I knew nothing about it, but I booked a place anyway, took some holiday and set off in my car.
On the way I picked up a tramp hitchhiking to Birmingham. As we approached Spaghetti Junction, I became confused about which route to take, unaware that whilst reading the signs my car had meandered across two lanes. I only realised when, to my astonishment, the tramp grabbed the steering wheel and steered us back into the correct lane. It was like a metaphor for my life – though I didn’t have time to reflect about that then, before I dropped him off and arrived.
I was shown into a dormitory with wrought iron beds and collapsed on the bed nearest the door to make a quick getaway should I need to. The entire 10-day-course would be conducted in silence and began at 4 AM the next day.
It was cold and dark when the gong went next morning. I staggered into the large meditation hall with blue cushions spaced out at regular intervals on the floor and rolled white shawls to wrap ourselves in. Through the recorded voice of Goenka, the Burmese teacher, we learnt the first stage of Vipassana: watching the breath, as it came in and as it went out. We practised this for two hours during which I fell asleep. When I woke a circus had entered my head with so many thoughts tumbling over one another I kept forgetting my breath. My stomach rumbled. My nose itched. There were pains in my legs. I continually shifted to escape them. The relief when the gong went was like sighting dry land after being adrift for months. Breakfast – stewed fruit, toast and jam – tasted divine.
Then a one-hour sit in the hall, followed by another two-hour session which could be in your room or in the hall. How could I stand 10 days of this? I cursed my friend for inviting me. I peeped around to see what she was doing, but she was blissfully engrossed. I shifted and coughed and sighed, until I could stand it no more, walked out and lay down on my bed waiting for the lunchtime gong.
Dear Reader, imagine my horror, when I discovered lunch was the last meal of the day. No supper to look forward to! How would I survive? I took my time savouring each little morsel of the scrumptious curries.
And survive I did. Minute by minute, watching my breath as it came in, as it went out, for longer and longer periods.
With it I watched my thoughts, about things that I had wished for which had not happened in my life, and things that I had not wanted to happen, which did. Splitting up with a partner. Not having a baby. My father’s death.
In all we meditated for 10 hours, breaking every two hours to walk around the little garden in silence. I observed a small brown butterfly fanning its wings on a leaf; the rising sun which flushed the sky pink, then passed overhead, and sank. The blackbird’s bon nuit.
At 7 PM we listened to Goenka’s talk, in which he explained the technique of mind training we were learning. Humans enjoy some sensations and hate others and we react to these feelings with craving and aversion. Our whole lives are ruled by craving and aversion, running towards what we like and away from what we hate, like drug addicts. Vipassana, or insight meditation, trains the mind to observe our sensations and thoughts without reacting to them, and so develop equanimity, something that I lacked.
The next day was harder than the first. The early start sent me to sleep. The pains in my legs were worse. I felt something crawling over my skin. I constructed a plan to escape – I’d run out of the door, drive home and tell my friend I had fallen ill. Except, I had nothing to go back to. I’d reached an impasse in my life, hating the job I’d strived for and longing for a family, though I had left it too late. Was I really going to throw away this chance to make myself happy? I remained sitting on the floor.
When the gong rang fo’s r each break, I sighed with relief. Walked around the garden noticing each tiny change – each shift of light, a sparrow, the hum of traffic far away. I got to know the people around me for although we were unable to speak or even look at each other, we developed a shared understanding through observing each other’s movements and intuiting each other’s needs. People passed the salt without being asked or placed a cup of water beside my plate. And when I became distressed, another meditator stood beside me and attended, just being present without intruding. And so, the second day passed.
The third day was harder still. We were asked to observe only the sensations on the circle of the nostrils and the upper lip, ‘to sharpen our minds’, Goenka said. To ignore all other sensations and try not to move.
Reader, it was hell and entirely self-imposed. My body became a twitching, itching, aching heap, like a wild creature trying to escape. Along with the physical pain was the agonising recognition that my life was a mess of my own creation and that I’d denied myself the things I wanted most through trying to please someone who was dead. I thought about my father a lot, the confused circumstances around his death. How angry I was with him and how sad and how I’d never grieved. So many things went round my head, so much pain relieved only by the brief interludes between the sessions. Then another talk and bed.
The fourth day was the worst: the day of the operation, for it turned out, like an appalling practical joke, that the others had merely been preparation for the Vipassana technique. From now on we must not move for one hour each day, or we would ruin the whole operation. In this first hour, we ceased focusing on our upper lip and began watching the sensations throughout our entire bodies. My sensations have never been so intense. I found ants crawling on the top of my head and as my mind travelled down, a tingling energy throughout my entire body which no longer felt solid at all. As instructed, I explored each tiny part in turn, observing how the sensations changed from moment to moment: now the feeling of warm honey running all over me, now occasional solid patches of pain. I lingered over these observing them, noticing how they changed. ‘You must accept reality as it is, not as you would like it to be,’ Goenka said, and I repeated it to myself as I travelled down. Because accepting reality as it is, has not been easy for me. Down then up, then down again. Learning the meaning of ‘Aniche’, that everything changes and everything passes and nothing remains the same. By the end, I was weeping from pain and though snot ran down my face with tears, Reader, I sat still.
Afterwards, walking down the stairs, I stopped by an open window and gazed out. The whole garden below me was sparkling, and I experienced a feeling I had never had before, of being part of everything and joy at being alive.
That was how I discovered Vipassana all those years ago, and though I lapsed for many years, I am using it now to help me get through Long Covid. After sitting, I have more energy and feel less giddy, as well as calmer to deal with this difficult situation. There is evidence that some forms of meditation help blood flow to the brain, and although less research has been done on Vipassana than other forms of meditation, it still offers some very clear health benefits including improved heart function, increased plasticity of the brain and reduced anxiety and addictions. For me its chief benefit though is that it gives me control over my life, for even though my body is sick, it is still my sanctuary and home.