Vipassana meditation

by Cunt Incognita — Fitta in Sweden — she=he

Today’s Song .. from mainstream radio in räkälä-bars — Tämä on totta – Laura Närhi

At Lyckebygården outside Ödeshög, in Sweden, you can get to know Vipassana meditation. When I was there, the area marked with red was for men, and the area marked with yellow, for women.

I tried out a 10-day Vipassana meditation course in Sweden about a year ago. Apart from practicing consciousness and resilience, I recommend it to anyone wanting time-out from whatever is going on around them, and for anyone in need of shaping up physically, cleansing the body.

This is made possible by a team of volunteers doing cooking and cleaning and clanging the gong to let you know when to wake up, when to meditate, when to have a break, when to eat, when it’s time to sleep. It’s probable you will start having a slight dislike of the soft sound of the gong as the days go by. This is not for persons wanting a nice retreat, resting and enjoying some quiet time by oneself. This is for persons really willing to do the work. After promising not to speak and not to have eye-contact with the other participants during 9 days, there’s not much to do, and if your mind is not set on meditation then you would quickly get bored. After all – doing the work will pay off in the long run.

The meditation is fairly simple. Sit with your back as straight as possible and focus your attention on your breathing. Observe the air as it comes in and out through your nose. Then gradually expand your consciousness – your sensitivity – by noticing the different sensations – tingling, cold, warmth, wetness, dryness – focus on the area of your upper lip. Hours and hours. Becoming aware of the loss of focus in favor of the thoughts going on in your head. Resisting the urge to fall asleep. Being painfully aware of that you’re not used to sitting in a cross-legged, straight-backed position. Legs going numb – back aching. The days go by, and you have eventually built up resilience to sit like this for a long time. I remember having the thought that it’s a brilliant method to learn how to cope with pain – Just observe, wait, this too will pass, it will change, there is not only pain, but many other sensations at the same time, move your consciousness to other places, notice it all without clinging on to it. Just observe what is – Constant Change.

We practiced meditation together in the meditation hall, as well as in our rooms. In the hall we got instructions through Goenka speaking on a cd. The task of the assistant-teacher was to sit on a small podium and to press ‘play’ and ‘stop’ on the cd-player at the beginning and end of the sessions. In the evenings people could ask questions related to the mediation after the group-sitting. In the day-time it was possible to speak for some minutes with the assistant-teacher if you put your name on a list. I talked with the assistant-teacher twice. Once about the back-pain, if there was something I could do to ease it. And once about the unfair split of the space. Strings had been hung arbitrarily across the yard to separate the women’s and men’s space. The men’s area surrounded the women’s area, as well as being bigger than the women’s space. I asked if it could be changed. The response to the back-pain was “It’s a part of the meditation” and about the partition made by the volunteers “Don’t let it disturb your meditation”. I also had some criticism to how the introduction of how to move in and out of the meditation hall had been done the first evening we got to the place. A man was telling that “first the men go in and sit down” and that after the session “the men let the women go out first”. A clear power relation expressed in the language. There were other women there recognizing the same thing and agreeing. The man using this expression said that what I noticed was not important and did not matter. Which made the annoyance, when becoming aware of how the space had been split off, even greater. The unconscious effect of making a group ‘the other’, and that it was ‘natural’ to keep us apart because of the ‘natural’ ‘sexual’ ‘tension’ between these two ‘opposites’, and then having the ‘active’ ‘free roaming’ group surround the area of the ‘passive’ ‘submissive’ ‘domesticated’ group.

It was a sad sight to see women standing next to the string hanging between two houses, trying to catch a glimpse of the autumn sun from the inner yard. One woman had lifted a curtain covering a window in the hallway of our building and had been told by one of the volunteers that she shouldn’t do that because this window faced the stairs the men took to enter the meditation hall from outside the building. From our rooms there was no dangling curtain though, and I remember a funny moment, watching the men walking in the woods outside our building. We had been instructed to move slowly – not to run or jump or do ‘strange’ movements – during the course, in order not to disturb or attract the attention of the other participants. So out in the woods there were men moving around slowly, walking seemingly aimlessly, with an inward gaze, in different directions between the trees during a break, and at the sound of the gong all of them suddenly faced the house and started moving towards it. It was like watching a zombie film 🙂

An important part of the meditation for me was to experience being in a group without going through an intensive group process. And still it was there. Small interactions. Small rebellions. We had been told about clothing, that it should cover certain parts of our bodies and many of us were going through a strange acculturation process, reflecting on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. I experienced great joy the evening one woman came out from the shower in a towel. She said later that she had also thought about whether to cover up or not, but that in the short time we had in the evening for shower, she didn’t want to waste it on dressing when someone was standing in line, waiting, outside. For a person experiencing the meditation for the first time, a large part is put on understanding what is a part of the meditation and what is a part of excess culture. It leaves you feeling slightly paranoid “Can I wear this sweater – does it show too much shoulder? Would this or that disturb the meditation?” Small rebellions brighten up the atmosphere – Small things like: recognizing another person’s presence by holding up the door to them, even though you don’t have eye-contact.

I kept myself human by planning my own small rebellion. I didn’t want to be kicked out and miss out on learning from the course, so I waited until the last days, and then I started crossing the ridiculous lines in the yard. It was really scary. “Will someone notice? Will they go and tell someone? What would happen?” It was scary, and also very symbolic — and a great relief. Crossing these arbitrary lines that we hang with no explanation other than “This is just how it is. Shape your life around it. Don’t discuss it. Ignore it. Focus your mind on something more important”. The fear of punishment for doing something that in reality is Insignificant.

It felt magnificent. Taking a small step for humanity, in the darkness out in the yard – the trees glowing and gleaming with yellow leaves 🙂 Would anybody follow?

On the last day I walked across the men’s section of the shared meditation hall. When walking in, taking a step over the string, and walking on the same path as the men, walking up the curved metal stair case. I saw a big smile on the face of one of them. Still no eye-contact, but no more in Zombie land 🙂 Sitting down and doing the meditation felt really good after having done this small thing. On my way out, once again crossing the men’s space, one male volunteer stopped me and said “This is the men’s area”. I raised my index finger, putting it in front of my mouth “Shh”. Which rule would be more important to keep intact: No talking? Or keeping the men and women separate? I continued out through the men’s entry and down the metal stairs, crossing the string on the edge of the building and feeling the wet autumn grass and then the grovel of the inner yard against the bare soles of my feet. Once again: Great meditation. Crossing the line didn’t lead to punishment, but a great sense of freedom. Peace of mind.

On the 9th day we were allowed to speak again. My own voice first feeling strange and echoing inside my head and soon everyone getting over-social and over-loud. It was tiring. I noticed the effect of the meditation as well in a new sensitivity, experiencing feelings very strongly manifested as physical sensations in my body.

I didn’t stick with the meditation. I just recently – a year later on – joined group meditation in Helsinki once a week. I was drinking badly before the meditation course Sweden. I was in a physically and mentally bad condition. The first days was all about becoming very aware of this fact. My bowels out of order. Diarrhea. I felt tired after the course was over. But I managed to clean up for some time. I stayed sober from November until my birthday in July after which I’ve been drinking random amounts on random occasions. It’s far from what I want: Self-induced insanity that comes through the consumption of alcohol. I’m still in a process of making small positive changes. No radical revolutionary paradigm shifts from one day to the other in my life. One small step after another. Vipassana was a nice step to take – An intensive course in meditation. Try it out. You will get the usual contradictions of how ‘entirely scientific’ this method is while being served a row of colorful ‘Buddha-stories‘, sort of like listening to ‘Jesus walked on water‘-stories, and as well feeling paranoid and freaked out about what you ‘can’ and ‘can not’ do in the name of ‘meditation’. But you will also – provided that you do the work – experience yourself with an awareness that is absolutely healthy for you. I remember at one evening meal being very aware of the acid bitterness of an orange around my lips, as well as the tight pressing sensation across my chest when I was getting into an argument with someone the first day we got to talk again. These are worthwhile revelations 🙂


5 Responses

  1. You’ve got a nice blog here, keep it up!

  2. Hello,

    interesting to hear your remarks. I just wanted to point out that the boundaries are not “arbitrary”. The area to the left is on the male side simply because they need to go around the female house to get to the spiral staircase. Regrettably, it is hard to turn an existing building like Lyckebygården into an ideal meditation center.

    I can assure you that much thought goes into making the course as accomodating and the organization as free of friction as possible – for everyone, regardless of gender. The rules are there for a purpose and are by no means written in stone. You have a lot of constructive criticism, why don’t you share it with the course organizers:

    As you point out, all the work, the “service”, on the course is provided by volunteers. I have served on quite a few courses, and it’s a great opportunity to get insight into your own conditioning. If you feel up to it, try it out!

    All the best!

  3. You’re right, it’s not good that women have less space to walk than men but it is, as Daniel points out above, due to where the meditation hall lies – on the top floor of the house where the women stay. I can mention that work is currently under way to move the meditation hall to the extension of the main house and it should be ready in the autumn. This will mean that the men do not need to go around the female house to get to the meditation hall, and that the women get use of both walking areas in the forest to the south and west of their accommodation. Walking areas for men and women will then be roughly equal with no area ‘surrounding’ the other.

    I understand where you’re coming from regarding one of the volunteer’s use of language that expressed a power relation, and agree with you. I would just like to say however that it is more likely a reflection of our society and the world we live in as a whole than some kind of prevailing male chauvinistic ideology within the vipassana movement. The volunteers are not perfect human beings, even if through meditation and serving others they aim to become better people. They are individuals with their own backgrounds, upbringings, worldviews, outlooks on people, as well as their own complexes, prejudices and preconceived ideas. I don’t think any of the volunteers have anything against gender equality really, but sometimes our language can reveal things about how we think which we may never have even reflected upon. And so in this case I believe. It’s good you questioned the volunteer about it so he can reflect on it and perhaps make appropriate changes in his language.

    Men and women are segregated on courses to minimise attraction which, although not wrong in itself, can be a major distraction in a meditation environment, working on deep levels of the mind. Segregation isn’t sexism. It’s a practical solution in restraining the sexual drift, a drift shared by both men and women.

    I hope this helps to give you another picture of what vipassana stands for regarding men and women, and that you continue to meditate and take courses in vipassana.

  4. Sounds like you just got unlucky with your assistant teacher and space set up. My experience of Vipassana in Australia was very different to yours. I had a wonderful assistant teacher (very feisty woman) and if anything felt that women got a slightly better deal with our walking area – more sunshine, space and beautiful granite slopes to walk on. The men on the other hand seemed to have a reasonably narrow strip with less sunshine. I imagine that most centres struggle to divide the space perfectly evenly, and either the male or female groups end up getting a slightly better deal.

    As for gender segregation in general, I was totally against it in theory. It seemed silly and outdated, but I actually really enjoyed it and found it useful. I loved having a very safe, supportive feeling female environment and think that meditating with the men could have been distracting (this was just where I was at at the time – don’t know if this would still be the case).

    I would maybe just try out some other centers until you find one you really like.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: