• Chasing the squirrel

Chasing the squirrel

There were times I thought I had to go to the bottom of the Earth to turn my life upside down. But I found that the most remarkable place in the world is accessible to everyone, at any time, and at zero budget: The own mind.

No really, I'm serious. I was surprised to find that I knew virtually nothing about the little walnut that is my brain, paying zero attention to it, basically, always. Like most of us, apparently.

But there is a technique to pay attention, and if only for a few seconds at a time, it opens a door to places in the head I never knew were there. In October 2019, I sat quiet for ten days and learned the meditation technique Vipassana (Pali for insight), an experience that almost (almost!) literally blew my mind (in a good way).

With Antarctica I fulfilled myself a yearlong dream, and it would be an understatement to say I spent one of the best years of my life in the icy desert. But the accomplishment of a dream is sometimes followed by a realization that there is no lasting happiness in reaching a goal, and that it can leave behind a void that can be extraordinarily hard to fill.

Those of you who have read the last entries of my Antarctica journal might have gotten the idea that I have experienced exactly that. And indeed, after I came home from the Antarctic Plateau I fell down a crevasse, something I until then considered impossible to happen. It is so strange how one can feel so meaningless and poor and lonely while having a good job, a nice apartment and friends and family around. I was having a full-on after-Ice-blues.

In the middle of all this, in Spring of 2019, a good friend introduced me to insight meditation. Thinking it was worth a shot I applied for a course, and got accepted for a 10-day silence retreat at the Dhamma Pajjota Vipassana Meditation Center in Dilsen-Stokkum, Belgium.

The center lies in the middle of nowhere outside a small town, a few kilometers behind the Dutch border. From the outside, only the administration building – an old train station – is visible, with an inconspicious sign at the outside wall that says "Vipassana Meditatie Centrum Dhamma Pajjota".

I enter the property through a huge wooden gate, that reveals a garden and an old hotel building that is used for the housing of the students. A sign points me to the "female registration" room. Everything here is strictly separated between men and women (a fact that might seem backwards at first but which I learned to value throughout my course).
Some people are already waiting and completing their registration forms. A friendly Japanese women assigns me to my room and collects my valuables and some other items not allowed for use, including my phone, my headphones, my Spanish book and writing material, for safe storage until the end of the course.

It's important to free yourself from all distractions, they say. Throughout the entire duration of the course, we are supposed to let go of all personal possessions beyond basic necessities like clothes and toiletries, and are asked to strictly follow a set of rules which include: Refrain from killing any being, don't steal, don't tell lies, no sexual activities, no intoxicants. No workouts, only walking. Also, except for the introduction and completion day of the course, all students are under the rule of noble silence, which means to abstain from any sort of communication with the other attendees, including written and with gestures, even eye contact.

But for now, talking is still allowed, and, already being stripped of my phone, I use the time until the introductory session to chat with the other students in the women's wing of the building. I am surprised to find a wide range of ages present, the youngest girl I talk to being 22, the oldest I'm guessing around 75. My roommates are two Dutch women around my age.

The rooms are simple and sparsely furnished. Each student has a bed, a chair, and a box for clothes. The youngest attendees share a six-bed room, all other new students (new meaning taking the course for the first time) seem to be assigned to three-bed rooms. Older students and students with more seniority are housed in the upper floors, in two- or even single bed rooms, but with the same standard of luxury. Some even volunteered to stay in tents, a brave move for October!

The timetable is simple, but strict. The waking bell is at 4:00 in the morning, for the first meditation session of the day. Simple vegetarian meals are served for breakfast and lunch, and a cup of tea and a slice of fruit for dinner. Ten hours of guided and solitary meditation, with (quite generous) break times in between to take walks in the large gardens (where they have separate dedicated walking areas for men and women). A discourse by the teacher at 8 pm, to bed at 9:30. Sleep, repeat.

Basically it's all about sitting and observing. Observing your breath, observing your movements, your sensations, your emotions; your breath again. In a particular order with more specific instructions to different times throughout the course. There are several levels of concentration and non-distractedness, and each comes with it's own set of fun facts (or insights in Vipassana terminology) about one's mind.

The technique is a little bit like playing chess. The rules are simple, but mastery can take a lifetime of effort to achieve. Nonetheless, even I – being a newb who has never seriously meditated before – began to see the benefits on the very first day.

It's hard to talk about the "goal" of the practice, because there are many, and also none. In a Buddhist interpretation, as far as I understand, the path is the goal and the goal is the path; an expression that only really starts to make sense if one understands the basics of Buddhist philosophy (which I am far away from). The ultimate goal is, of course, enlightenment, but one doesn't have to reach that high for the practice to be useful. The more accessible advantages lie in various positive mental conditions like calmness, tranquility, inner peace, and "loving kindness" (I put the last one in quotes because I had never heard that expression before and don't want to seem pretentious; however the meaning of it is quite literal and the experience is pretty awesome).

However, I am not saying it's fun. Nor is it relaxing, or anything comparable to a vacation or simple get-away from technology. It's hard work.
For most people, the second and eights day are the most difficult; for me it was day six and seven, which I basically spent wishing to be curled up on some couch eating a humanly impossible amount of pizza.

Why is learning to really meditate so difficult? Because a calm mind needs a calm body. And I learned that my body has a mind of its own when it comes to sitting still for ten hours a day, ten days in a row. It feels like it is fighting meditation with every fiber, throwing everything it has at me to make me stop, numbness of the limbs being the least of it. Sleepiness is one huge problem, but more so is the muscle ache that arises from the unfamiliar way of sitting, in areas of the body that I didn't know can hurt, to an almost unbearable degree.
But the pain makes sense. (Of course not to any degree of injury; special accommodations like chairs or nicer cushions are made for people who need them.) It took me a few days, but at one point I realized that slight movements of my body are no permanent relief, and instead of being a distraction, the pain can be used as an "object of mindfulness". Observing it, instead of identifying with it. This realization – not only intellectually, but experiencing its significance – is a pretty profound change of perspective. And if you get nothing out of the course (which is unlikely) you will at least have bumped up your pain tolerance by a million.

The other difficulty is that minds want to be distracted. The first three days of the course you spend ten hours a day on your cushion, literally just focusing on your breath, at first to find that the mind is a tedious piece of sh!#t, and then to slowly learn how to focus over all the random voices and memories. The Buddhists call that the "monkey mind". I came up with my own metaphor (I had a lot of time to think during the breaks) of my mind being a squirrel on (a varying amount of) cocaine running around without a plan, continuously burying and digging up trinkets in the dirt.

So, why again go through all of this?

Do you know those short but sweet instances of happiness, where you are at peace with yourself and the world, when you are truly living in the moment? The feeling that life is beautiful, and that we can take on the world no matter what? I remember a few of them, sometimes being triggered by emotional situations, other times at seemingly random occurrances.
The most profound realization (I think it's safe to say, I ever made) is that those moments are in fact not something I have to obtain somehow, they are not extra gimmicks like a handful of cherries in a ginormous cake that sometimes I'm lucky enough to find. Turns out, they are glimpses of the very essence of the mind, what the mind is like when it's stripped of all the layers of anger and fear and distraction. The mind can be actively trained to be in that state more often, hypothetically even to the point of all-the-time-always, which is what the Buddhists call "fully liberated".

Since I mentioned Buddhism: I should stress that the courses are not in any way tied to any form of religion. The philosophy behind it might be closest to that of Buddhism, but no religious believes, practices or (excuse the language) superstitious horse crap is required from or being asked of the students. In fact, for the ten days, they are to free the mind from any sort of spirituality to be able to fully embrace the technique of Vipassana.

I'm not actually gonna explain the technique here; on the one hand because I don't feel proficient enough to express anything other than my enthusiasm, on the other hand because it wouldn't be of much use to anybody. Again, I'm not an expert, but I don't think someone can learn this without attending a course themselves.

Oh, and by the way, it's free.

I find it hard to hold back my enthusiasm about my own tiny glimpses of liberation that I had on this course; these short instances of real freedom that are incredibly hard to describe. Seriously, I am so excited about it and wish I had known about it earlier.

Anyway, it's now three months after the course that I'm writing this, and I have to admit that, even though I tried to keep up the practice as much as possible, that my overall peace of mind and happiness slowly transitioned back into the normal amount of impatience, agitation, and sometimes sadness, but also peppered with instant relief whenever I remember to be mindful throughout my day.

I'm not surprised about it, I expected it to abate, and that's okay. They say the more experienced you are in the technique, the easier it will be to keep up in the everyday life, and I'm very much inclined to believe that. The experiences I made are just too exciting and profound and transformative to let that be a one-time-thing. I already applied for my next course.

Guess what, they do these courses all over the world! This is the website where I found mine: