Ten days of silence - was it worth it?

In the last few years I have met fascinating and inspiring people who have done a Vipassana (a 10 day silent meditation retreat) and I had the loose idea that I would attempt it myself one day. But it was definitely something on the safety of the horizon, something that would happen in the far off future. I loved the idea of embedding myself in a meditation but I was terrified by the prospect of being alone with my thoughts for 10 days, without speaking or even making eye contact with anyone (phone, books and pens are banned).

To add to my own fears, I had heard horror stories from friends. One friend told me how she had broken down and left after 4 days and had never felt the same again. Another had ran away on day 3 and driven around Blackpool at 3am singing to the radio at the top of his voice and waiting for his ‘captors’ to give him his phone back.

But an opportunity came up in the beginning of 2018 and I ran out of excuses not to do it. I had been living in Mozambique and had planned to stay there for three months but my plans changed unexpectedly. I found a Vipassana programme  in South Africa and before I knew it I was heading south.

From what I read online, the retreat programme was strict, it required that we dressed conservatively and ate simple meals, with only fruit and tea for dinner. Women and men would be separated, with their own dining halls and accommodation areas. Each meditator would live in total isolation, no communication, not even eye contact, allowed.

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I met up with a group of people joining the retreat at Cape Town airport and and shared the 2-hour taxi ride to the retreat centre; they were a completely mixed bunch: a young Dutch guy on sabbatical, a South African woman who worked as a consultant in Cape Town, an American couple that ran a safari in Zimbabwe. I must have looked helpless because a friendly South African woman took me under her wing and gave me survival tips to get me through the next 10 days.

So, with a sense of feeling a bit lost, I started the Vipassana. To my surprise I found I was enjoying myself. I liked waking up early and meditating for two hours before breakfast. And even though I couldn’t communicate with anyone, I felt a strong sense of care and support. For example, the food was cooked by volunteers who worked for free because they believed in the benefits of the meditation. These strange, kind people were peeling carrots because they cared about our peace of mind.

Our meditation retreat was right next to a wildlife reserve. One morning at breakfast I spotted rhinos grazing on the mountainside, the next day it was zebras and wildebeest – sometimes in the meditation hall you could hear lions roaring in the distance.

We had spent the first three days of the course (that’s about 30 hours of meditation) training our attention on our breath, we learnt how to feel the most subtle sensations, like the touch of breath on the skin inside our nostrils.

Men and women had separate areas

Then on day 4, we trained that acute awareness to the rest of the body. This technique, coupled with the act of sitting still for one hour without moving, was the heart of the practice. When you felt physical discomfort (as you inevitably would), you had to stop yourself reacting to the pain and learn to observe the sensations instead. The theory follows that we will be able to apply the method to the outside world and remain equanimous (or stable) in the vicissitudes of life.

In Sanskrit Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’, we were training ourselves to live without craving or avoiding experiences, simply to experience things as they really happen.

I found myself enjoying the challenge, even sitting on the floor for hours became palatable.

But then on day 5 I found a biro in the bottom of my wash bag and my resolve crumbled.

I was sorting through the few items I had when I found a pink Bic pen (NB - any form of writing material was strictly forbidden). At first I was exhilarated at the chance to write, I tore open a paracetamol packet and started making notes, when the gong sounded for afternoon meditation I was flush with excitement, I hid the pen back in the washbag and scurried to the meditation hall.

Once I was seated my brain went into overload, I couldn’t let go of this problem, that problem, that one thing I need to arrange, that email that had surely arrived while I was in isolation. My mind would not let go of these plans for the future and my meditation was obliterated.

At one mealtime, I caught myself staring longingly at an electrical socket, wishing that I had something to charge, wishing I could re-engage with the world. When no-one was looking I held my mug to my ear like a pretend phone.

The rest of the day’s meditation sessions were futile, there was no way I was going to redirect myself back to the fizzing feeling in my toes, my mind was on the run. I even spent an hour worrying about why my sister hadn’t used a gift voucher I had given her 2 years ago.

But I couldn’t just hold my breath for 5 days when I could finally do all of the things I was so preoccupied with (like give my sister a talking-to for wasting my gift voucher). I was forced to fight the desire to live in the future (I will be happy when X or Y happens). I had to surrender and learn to live in the present moment.

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And I did eventually manage to wrestle my mind back to that hard cement floor and continue my practice, but there still remained a bit of an obsession with a better time than now – that’s something I’ll always be working on.

I’m sure other people in that meditation hall had more profound experiences than me. It turned out that the lady who took me under her wing was on her 17th Vipassana course – that’s nearly 6 months in solitary!

But all journeys are different, one of the purposes of our noble silence was to prevent us from comparing our experiences. If the only great realization I had in 10 days is that I have a tendency to live in the future, then that’s still the greatest realization in my Vipassana history and something to be proud of!

 



Surfing Through An Uprising in Nicaragua

For the last 40 years Nicaragua has been famous for rum, rodeos and good surf, just a low-key spot for those who want to avoid the crowds of Mexico and the expensive bills of Costa Rica.

But in the last few months the country has descended into a state of turmoil, with great swathes of the nation participating in protests to oust their President Daniel Ortega and his wife (the Vice President) Rosario Murillo.

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The upheaval began with a small protest against social welfare reforms in April, but when the protests were violently repressed, the campaigners dug their heels in and now they won’t stop until Ortega is out.

The death toll is now well over 100, with many blaming violent government forces for the deaths, and protesters have blocked almost all roads through the country (you will find blockades everywhere from main highways to remote farm tracks).

When I planned a surf and yoga retreat in the country for May this year, I had no idea I would be heading into the heart of total chaos.

It was 5am and I was in transfer in Mexico City when I received an email from my accommodation in Nicaragua saying they couldn’t collect me because of the protests against President Ortega.

There were blockades on the roads, I was told, and the hotel couldn’t guarantee we would make the journey.

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As I read the email, I was 4 hours from my connecting flight to Nicaragua with no idea of what to do next. I had my own plans to think of, as well as the people coming to join my surf and yoga retreat.

I started contacting everyone I knew in Nicaragua, trying to find out what was really going on. I had known about the protests for weeks but everyone had assured me that our trip would not be affected.

With bleary eyes, I messaged and called my contacts in Nicaragua. The message was that the coastal towns were peaceful but protesters had set up roadblocks on the Pan-American highway through the centre of the country.

A friend found me a place to stay in El Transito, a surf spot an hour away from the city, a distance that I could definitely make despite the protests. So with a new plan only just pieced together, I boarded the connecting plane.

There was only a handful of passengers on the short flight to Managua, some business people and a few hardened surfers (leathery skin and bloodshot eyes), the kind of people who wouldn’t let a political coup get in the way of good swell.

It wasn’t exactly reassuring that there were so few people flying to Nicaragua that the airline had changed our seats to balance the weight.

Thankfully, everything was calm at Managua airport and there was a driver waiting to collect me. His name was Steve, he had an iPhone and wifi in his car, and for some reason those were the most comforting things I could ask for after a morning of acidic apprehension.

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As Steve drove towards El Transito, I noticed the city was getting more and more dense. I had assumed that our journey would take us away from the city, away from the protests and the conflict, but as we came to a roundabout lined with stalls selling Nicaraguan flags, Steve pointed out a University building covered in graffiti.

“That’s where all of the student protests are happening. Can you see that road is now closed because of the manifestations?”

One of the graffiti scrawls read ‘Ortega asesino’ (Ortega the murderer).

Suddenly the iPhone was not reassurance enough.

Luckily for me and Steve, the manifestations (protests) began in the evenings and we made it safely to El Transito, a sleepy village on the West coast.

I arrived at a surf camp called Solid Surf Adventures, run by an American woman and her Venezuelan husband. A place so chilled that you could never guess what was happening in the city.

The only other guests were two travellers from the UK, Ned and Chris, who were on a surf trip from Costa Rica to Nicaragua in a Suzuki Swift (both unfazed by the fact that they could barely surf and Chris had only passed his driving test 3 weeks before).

That evening, I drank wine with Allison, the owner, and talked about life in the city while we watched the sun set. I was very grateful to have found a home in all of the madness.

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The next day we climbed in our taxi and started the four hour journey to Popoyo, our original destination. The countryside was so green you expected tendrils to start pushing through the car doors; the roads were barely holding their footing in a burgeoning jungle.

And if the landscape is vibrant, the people are bursting with life.

Two hours into the journey, we came across a roadblock. We could see young men, barely in their 20s, wearing scarves across their faces and holding homemade rocket launchers. We shrunk away as we drove past, sliding down into the car seats.

But looking around us everyone else was unfazed, one moped drove through the roadblock and casually handed a protester a bottle of Fanta. The protests had become so commonplace that locals had started selling nuts to drivers stuck in the queues.

It was even more confusing when at a second roadblock, we heard the pop and whistle of these homemade mortars, some of the masked kids scattered in the confusion, and still the old women sat back in their chairs at the side of the road, laughing at the furore. Our taxi driver (it was that total babe Steve again) sped through the roadblock in the middle of the chaos, and still the Nicaraguans smiled.

We finally made it to Popoyo which seemed like a world away from the chaos, the surf town is nestled in quiet farmlands where kids ride to school on mules and the only roads are dirt tracks. Finally our crew of travellers could begin the relaxing retreat.

The journey back to the airport turned out to be more hazardous than the initial trip, with barricades made from dug-up paving stones blocking almost every road. In the last few days the situation has worsened, the areas around Popoyo have run out of fuel and the number of people killed nationwide has grown to 130.

Nicaragua remains a beautiful nation of kind and smiling people, but as our beloved Steve explains it: “we need this change but we hope it will be over soon.”

All smiles at sea

All smiles at sea

What is Tantra?

Tantra is often mistaken for a solely sexual practice, which hugely underplays this powerful and ancient guide for living.

Tantra is an ancient Indie tradition with influences extending into Hinduism and Buddhism. There are numerous texts that form the Tantric tradition and much dispute over its origin, some people find Tantric theories in The Vedas, the oldest Hindu texts dating back to the second millenium BCE, others say the tradition was only fully formed around 500 CE.

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Only a small portion of the Tantric tradition encompasses sexual practices but because of the emergence of a popular understanding in recent decades that confuses Tantric bliss with orgasmic pleasure, it is probably best known today for sex.

“The most common distortion is to present Tantra Yoga as a mere discipline of ritualized or sacred sex. In the popular mind, Tantra has become equivalent to sex. Nothing could be farther from the truth!” writes Yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein in Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy.

Though the celebrity of Tantric sexual practices offers a warped view of the ideology – it does help us understand one of the core values of Tantra: that everything in the material world can offer us a connection to higher awareness.

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Hence sexual practices (with the right intention) can be a gateway to enlightenment. But since everything is divine, it is also possible to attain liberation, or enlightenment in the worst social and moral conditions – you have to find beauty in the dirt as well as the flower. This is why a controversial group of Tantrics devotees called the Aghori live in cemeteries and use human skulls in their practices.

This theory, called non-duality, means that there is no separation between the material world and the spiritual realm. Our true essence exists in every particle of the universe.

Whereas the opposite (duality) is key in other philosophies that influence the schools of yoga widely practiced today – where we need to ascend beyond the material world to experience bliss.

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In Hatha Yoga, which comes from the Tantric lineage, we use various tools (breathing practices, postures, mantra, meditation, mudra, bandha) to clear and align energy systems in the body. The ultimate goal of this practice is to prepare the body for a spiritual awakening, called Kundalini, which is described as waking the coiled serpent at the base of the spine.

Not all Hatha Yoga practitioners are aiming for a Kundalini awakening, many just work to balance out the energy systems and experience a connection with the body and mind.

What appeals to many people (including me) in the Tantric outlook is the idea that the intrinsic nature of reality is pure bliss and that with a refined practice we can experience it for ourselves.