There is a persistent voice in our heads, you know the one. It’s constantly chattering yet we are completely unaware of it most of the time. “I want this”, “I don’t like this person”, “Where am I actually going” or “I’m bored out of my mind”. You see, we’ve carved out this version of ourselves and personified it. We use “I” and get oh so very precious about it. “I” is constantly talking away up there in our heads, day and night forming views and opinions about everything including ourselves. It’s constantly vying for our attention, lying to us and blowing situations out of proportion and leaving us feeling exhausted.
If someone says something “I” doesn’t like, “I” gets offended and feelings of stress and anxiety rise up from within. So this “I”, seems to make us very vulnerable and something we should really get in control of. To put a better name to it, I’ll call it ego from here on in as many others have before me. Now, don’t think of ego in the way it’s used everyday. We’re not talking about how great we are but rather, the ego in the sense of the version of our selves we have created. The real you is the person who is listening to your ego chattering away trying to win your attention every moment of every day.

The entrance to the Vipassana boundary
I’ve a very busy mind. The jobs I’ve had, my social circle and indeed other aspects of my life have left me constantly on the move and any downtime left me completely occupied with my thoughts. I want to make something very clear from the early on here… thoughts are not bad but un-constructive ones can be very harmful. When we want to exercise our bodies, we put it to work running, lifting weights, cycling, aerobics and a trendy fad that’s taken hold. The mind however, is a completely different tool altogether. It’s constantly running around all the time anyway, even if we don’t want it to. In fact, the work out of the mind is the constant wrestle to get it to shut the f*ck up. I would spend entire hours in bed at night my mind thinking about imaginary confrontations with people who had messed me over, leaving me feeling angry, full of rage and adrenalin pumping trying to sleep when I should be the complete opposite. We often think we are in control but the old habits of our mind created from life’s experiences and years of letting it wander have left the ego in control far more than we are.
Having left many ventures and jobs in Ireland almost a year ago in search of freeing my mind from the stresses of my work heavy life in Dublin, Ireland and to further research how to free ourselves from the distractions of technology, Vipassana has always been on my radar from day one.

What is it?

Vipassana is a form of meditation that came from India and later moved to Burma, modern day Myanmar. Courses run in centres around the world carry out ten day meditation courses that allow you to fully get immersed. You are provided with two basic vegetarian meals a day. One at 6:30am and another at 11am. The rest of the time, you’re meditating. It’s a Marathon and not something you can just walk into. Well actually, that’s exactly what I did. Eleven hours of meditation every day, no reading, no writing, no phones, no laptops, no eye contact and a complete “No Talking” policy is in place or “Noble Silence”. Essentially, regardless of the 180 other people there (mainly local Burmese) you get a sense of working completely in isolation. You are there for 10 whole days. You arrive the day before it starts and leave the day after it finishes. You have locked up your belongings and you can’t leave the centres boundary clearly marked by signs and ropes until the 11th day.

Entrance to the meditation hall (Dhamma Hall)

A typical day went as follows:

4:00am

Morning gong is sounded throughout the centre. It’s loud. I learnt to hate this bell a lot.


My bed

4:30am

Morning sitting for two hours long. If you fall back to sleep, someone will come to get you and make sure you are there. It’s dark outside, the air is cool unlike the usual blistering Burmese sun. After 90 minutes, chants come across the intercom and singing lasts for 30 minutes while you try to meditate. No idea what is being said!

6:30am

In completely silence, everyone scrambles to the piles of flip flops, sandals and skulks to the mosquito infested dining hall. We line up, fill the bowl with food and take a seat. You have the same seat every day in the dining hall and in the Dhamma hall for meditation. I was number 52. I reckon about now, you are starting to think this sounds very like a prison and you would be completely right.


Male and female are separate at all times. Everyone is completely banned from human contact

8:00am

This one hour meditation session is a sitting of determination. You see, with this form of mediation, its the shear amount of it that gets you. Sitting cross legged for that amount of time causes your knees to ache, your back to strain, your ankles to pain and sores to appear. Over the course of ten days, I had sores all over my rear and countless dead legs. For this whole hour, you would not be allowed to open your eyes, open your legs or move your hands. In essence, you were the vision of a buddha statue and you held that position for as long as possible. After 20 minutes, everything would seem ok, then the aches and pains would kick in. Every minute felt like an hour, my body would tremble, sweat would roll down my back, my lips were pursed and my abs were pulsating….. This is meditation? How can anyone feel bliss in this torture? I would soon learn why and I will of course explain later.

9:00am

After a 5 minute walk to shake out the legs that felt more like 5 seconds, we sit again for another two hours. This is usually the point each day where I envisioned me walking to my cell, grabbing my bag, bursting through the gates to get my belongings from my locker and running down the road to freedom. I was bored, I was sick of concentration and all I could do was think of how long I had to suffer this intense self torture. Trying to keep my mind focused when all it wanted to do was run wild was far more difficult than I imagined.


Taking a water break was probably the most exciting thing during meditation….I know…

11:00am

Lunch time. I’ve been waiting for you! The food is surprisingly good but to be honest, I could have been fed bowls of cardboard and probably thought it was the most delicious thing I’ve eaten. Hunger really is the best sauce. Not a scrap is left in my bowl. A small cup of green tea and a local sweet made of rolled palm sugar was the cherry on top.

1:00pm

An hour and a half of meditation

2:30pm

One hour of meditation. A Sitting of determination. No opening of the eyes, hands or legs.

3:30pm

An hour and a half of meditation

5:00pm

A drink in the dining hall

6:00pm

One hour of meditation. A Sitting of determination. No opening of the eyes, hands or legs.

7:00pm

In the dining hall on an old box TV, Goenka who was the main man of Vipassana gives the daily discourse. A spiritual talk about the technique, what we are doing and how it works. Mosquitos are relentless.

8:30pm

Fourty five minutes of meditation

9:30pm

Lights out

For ten whole days, I entered the ring and fought myself over and over. The harder I tried to tame my mind, the harder it tried to distract me. It pulled every weapon out of the armoury in an effort to stop the torture I was putting it through. Thoughts about people who had really hurt me, the passing of my mother, guilt I felt for leaving family behind me and thoughts a lot darker than I thought I was capable of. I would often break, run my hands through my hair, hold my head and ask why the f*ck I was doing this to myself. I felt pain, bored, frustrated, angry and confused all at the same time.

The dining hall

Some of the more unusual thoughts that came into my head:

-Shooting people

-An animated pillow dancing

-Fighting a dog with my bare hands

-Breaking out of jail

-Creating a virus that would kill all mosquitos

-Did I put a link in that mass email (This ate away at me for days)

-A flower that farted

-How hard I would have to bite to break my own teeth

These are some of the PG ones anyway. My point here is that, you can feel like you are going mad in an effort to strangle your mind into submission.

The centre is tactically located in a rural part of the city free from the noise except for the hordes of wild dogs howling in unison at night!
These are some of the PG ones anyway. My point here is that, you can feel like you are going mad in an effort to strangle your mind into submission.
Every day for the first 7 days, I thought about packing up my bag, running to the locker, busting it open to grab my things and run out the door of the centre. Determination won and eventually I felt myself sink into a state of submission. My chattering mind was beaten, I had taken it to within an inch of it’s sanity and I was now in semi-control. I could clear my head, feel sensations running around my body I’d never noticed before. I was focused, alert, laser sharp and executing the technique seamlessly.

Entrance to some of the male cells
Vipassana is actually the name of a technique where you follow the flow of sensations throughout the body. The theory is that when you observe the sensations of the body, you will come across pleasant rushes due to the focus of the mind being developed over the first three days practicing another technique called Anapana where you focus on the natural breath as it goes in and out of the nostrils.
You will encounter pain from long hours of sitting. So as you observe these sensations you are to remain objective and equanimous. Not to show craving for pleasant flows or aversion towards any painful sensations. This controls your reactions at the subconscious level of your mind as your subconscious mind that is controlling everything inside: heartbeat, breathing, cell division. It’s always on and always alert. It is aware of everything but we are entirely unaware.

Tea after breakfast avoiding everyones eye contact and managing to be polite without making any gestures of whos turn it was to pour tea was challenging
When you itch without thinking, it’s because your subconscious mind detected it and reacted to it. You’ve conditioned this response. So when bad or good things happen to us in life, our subconscious mind reacts to the way we have conditioned it. It’s the brains way of being a little more efficient. You see it saves routines so we don’t have to think about executing them each time.
The first time you brushed your teeth, it was tricky and now you barely spare a though to do it but put your mind to thoughts like, “What do I have to do today?”. Our responses to triggers in life, like insults, mental assaults, sexual desire or food hungers are saved and repeated. Neural pathways are created to this effect.
So this technique of meditation is training the subconscious to not react to feelings of pleasure or pain and thus should control how we live our lives day to day. How we react to cravings and aversions as they happen from moment to moment. To be in control of how we feel. To be free from the misery of being lost in our own thoughts. To become objective and neutral, not constantly craving and not constantly suffering from aversion. That’s the theory anyway.
I realised that I spent most of my life miserable. All the misery I’ve every felt was caused by me and no-one else. I’ve spent years blaming people around me. By reacting to the unintentional actions and words of those around me and letting my mind run lose and my ego take control. It’s hard to feel sad without having sad thoughts. Letting a sad thought manifest from a trigger in my daily life would cause untold chain reactions. The tiny flame would grow into a full blown bonfire. Vipassana thought me to stop feeding fuel to the fire and quench the angers.

Returning my sheets and preparing to go home
“When you worry you make it double!” a lyric that surmises the day to day entanglement of the mind. Instead of letting go of negative thoughts, we let them manifest into something huge. “I’m right, I deserve better, I feel horrible, how dare they, why are they performing better”. It changes our behaviour as these thoughts manifest into feelings of jealousy, hate, anger that can lead to harmful actions. We seek revenge, become spiteful and get wrapped up in it all. We vent our negativity onto others and cause a cycle of misery in them too. We’re so wrapped up in it all that we forget where we are…here…..now!
In the same way we get pleasure from craving. We want the newest car and when we get it, we’re already thinking about what our next car will be. We are eating a delicious dinner but already thinking about dessert. We’re no longer craving the item but enjoy the process of craving itself. We’re craving craving. It’s this attachment to craving that also causes misery because we can never have enough. Thus we fall further into despair. I discovered just how discontent with everything in my life and how much I should stop thinking 5 steps ahead about what I want or need and actually objectively live more in the present.
Of course most of this is pretty obvious and there are a million spiritual books out there that you can read through that will tell you exactly what I have here but the difference here was the way it was learnt. I got to experience this first hand and experiential wisdom is the most important kind. You have three kinds of wisdom. There is the wisdom of knowing something. Maybe you read it somewhere or someone told you.

The walkway to freedom and back to the outside world
Then there is the wisdom of understanding something at the intellectual level. You know it works from observations or previous teachings but the wisdom of having experienced something is a whole different ball game.
Imagine for a moment you are in a restaurant. You read the menu and think to yourself, “my oh my, the food looks great today”. You have the wisdom of knowing from the menu that it should be good. You walk in and take a seat! Then you look around at the people eating and the glorious smiles on their faces as they tuck into their meals. Now from observation, you calculate that they are enjoying it and it is indeed good food. You now know it at the intellectual level.
Then your food arrives after some time and you taste it. You have now experienced for yourself that the food is truly delicious and of course you devour it. This is the experiential wisdom you gain with Vipassana. You get to experience how your mind reacts, behaves, craves and struggles to be tames. That is what Vipassana gives you if nothing else.
Centres are available all over the world, just simply go to Dhamma.org to find the closest one to you and pop along. It’s all volunteer and donation based so you only give what you feel it’s worth. You experience has been paid for by those who experienced it before you and donated so that others can experience this aswell. Noone will tell you or recommend how much to contribute.

Rural Yangon, Myanmar. Trying to ask directions for a local bus to a nearby hostel was tricky having not used my voice for so long. Words came out more like a squeek.
In summary, it’s most definitely not for everyone although I think everyone should try it. I met a girl in China who was a very impressive individual. She runs a marathon in every country she goes to as part of a project documentary where she covers women who run marathons as she travels the world. We explored nearby mountains and ran down them as I struggled to keep up. She had been to my very centre and told me that after three days she busted out and couldn’t bare the thought of wasting any more time there. However, it works for some people and it definitely did something to me that I’m still not sure I quite understand yet. I’m one step closer to getting the monkey mind in my skull to shut up.