A Walk in the Woods (Part 1)

Dec 7, 2005 1:00 am

On the afternoon of the first day we met for the first time. In a few hours we would take our vows of silence, but for now we could talk.

It was an interesting collection of strangers. A bush poet, the owner of an adventure tourism outfit, an Environmental Protection Agency officer, a Sri Lankan chef, a high-powered executive, a life coach for women, a former European Air Guitar Champion, a drug junkie who saw visions of Aboriginal Dreamtime all around him, a lawyer, an engineering student, several backpackers, and an ex-RAAF electrician who lived in Atlantis in a past life and could, he told me, hear someone fall asleep from 200 metres away. Among others.

Dewa and Tony, both from the Gold Coast, were studies in contrast. Dewa, the casino chef, had booked his place three months in advance and had been counting down the nights in anticipation. An enthusiastic handyman, he’d bought some wood from Bunnings and made his own meditation stool to bring along. He’d also taken his teenage daughter’s door off its hinges because she’d disobeyed him and brought a boy home.

Tony, the haggard middle-aged executive, had been made to come by his psychiatrist. He made it clear that he didn’t expect to be around for the 10 days, and thought he was wasting his time. He had the air of a man who would shoot himself, if only he could manage to fit it into his schedule. His colleagues had bet that he would last 4 days, and they were right. The first night he didn’t sleep because he was rooming with Dewa, who snored loudly. Dewa had, of course, cheerfully warned Tony in advance, but Tony hadn’t paid any attention to Dewa. Tony moved to another room for the next two nights, then left to catch the next flight home, no doubt even more depressed than before.

On arrival at the centre, on a 60 acre rural property, we each took our shoes off and sat down in the dining room, filling in the form and completing a short biography. We then handed over all reading and writing material, food, cigarettes, religious artefacts, cameras, mobiles, and car keys — basically everything other than clothing and toiletries. Once we had signed our life away, we milled awkwardly on the verandah, waiting for the course introduction.

Most of us hadn’t done this before, so we turned to Daniel, who had done “9 or 10, once a year”. A globetrotter who proudly declared that “I play football and I burn incense”, he didn’t exactly inspire us. “It’s boring, mostly,” he said. “The first three days you just think about sex”. (In retrospect, after 10 days of excruciating meditation, we should have genuflected there and then before a living bodhisattva. As someone said at the end of the course, “Only three?” How little we knew.). “So why do you do it then?” I asked, staring at him. Without hesitation he said: “355 days of freedom.”

“It” was a 10-day Vipassana — or insight — meditation course. I knew very little about it, other than the recommendation of a friend and an introductory sheet of paper I’d found online. But after the longest three years of my life, I was certain this was what I needed. So I finished up at university and took two weeks off work, disappearing into the Sunshine Coast hinterland. I spent a couple of days relaxing with friends of mine, then got dropped off at the centre with my baggage.


Vipassana, I discovered, is simple. Vipassana is a Pali word meaning seeing things as they really are. It is a meditation technique involving the equanimous, or non-reacting, awareness of sensations on the body. It is based on the idea that all our misery is self-inflicted, because of the cravings and aversions we develop towards the sensations we experience. Cut off the cravings and aversions, goes the theory, and you eliminate misery.

Awareness of Sensation + Equanimity = Liberation from Suffering

The part I still don’t quite get is how such a simple technique generates the most intense experiences I’ve ever had. But more on them later. Of course, there is a little more to it than that. To create the right environment for meditation, students must agree to follow the Code of Discipline. This involves five precepts: (1) abstain from killing any living creature (i.e. no chicken tikka masala for dinner); (2) abstain from stealing; (3) abstain from all sexual activity; (4) abstain from telling lies; (5) abstain from all intoxicants. In short, you abstain.

(I broke one of these within hours of the course starting. I absently spanked myself — a mosquito — and then realised what I’d done. After one shocking moment of ridiculous desperation, I realised I’d missed, and breathed a sigh of relief. The ungrateful little thing continued whining.)

There are also various other rules:
* No other techniques, rites or forms of worship can be practised during the course, “to give the technique a fair trial”.
* Noble Silence: complete silence for the 10 days, including no gestures or eye contact, except when interviewed by the teacher, or if you have to talk to management about something like food or accommodation.
* Complete segregation of the sexes, and no physical contact between anyone of either sex.
* No revealing or tight clothing; no partial nudity.
* No physical exercise other than walking.
* No contact with the outside world.
* Payment is by voluntary donation only, at the end of the course.

The stated aim of all of this is to create a sense of complete isolation, free from distractions.

The timetable is strict. The morning wake-up bell is at 4am, and lights out is at 9.30pm. In between, you meditate for 10.5 hours a day in the meditation hall, with regular breaks. Your biorhythms adapt quickly. After a few days, the sitting, eating, sitting, ablutions, sitting, sleeping and sitting blur into one long deja vu, the sound of breathing and faintly ringing gongs.


After the rules and timetable had been explained, the male and female course managers asked if there were any questions. There were none. We filed up to the meditation hall for the first sitting, and Noble Silence descended over our mouths and faces. For the next 10 days, everything was in our heads. It wasn’t just Tony who was having second thoughts…


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