The Impact of the Vipassana Program in Prison

Video

The Dhamma Brothers discuss the impact of their Vipassana practice in prison six months after the first program at the Donaldson Correctional Facility in 2002.

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How Lyme Disease Was The Cure For My Dis-Ease

d5da51662429fd3128b923d4d7edf3b4These days I’m almost thankful that a tiny little tick bit me and gave me Lyme disease. This disease was the catalyst for some major changes in my life.  It took a formidable illness like Lyme to force me to quit my much loved career, slow down, and start to make the changes I needed to become a more balanced, mindful and inwardly peaceful individual.

After being quite unwell for many years, I was diagnosed with chronic late-stage Lyme disease, Lyme borreliosis plus three other little co-infections. I had no idea then what a difficult road recovery would be and I’m actually grateful for that. Had I have known the huge war Lyme would rage on my body and mind I probably wouldn’t have been so positive about overcoming it nor would I have persevered as I long as I did.

Fast forward a few years later, I’m a newer, much healthier version and so grateful for everything that transpired during my Lyme journey and treatment.  Lyme has changed my life in ways I never saw coming. It helped me learn some serious lessons about myself, about others and how I live my life.

Lessons Lyme Taught Me:

1) The Importance of living life in the moment- My life came to a standstill of sorts during my treatment and this was a blessing in disguise. At my sickest, there was no planning for the weekend, next month, or even next year. Life was about getting through each day. Some days getting out of bed and showering was an achievement in itself.  While at the time I was beyond frustrated with the pace of healing and how limited my life had become, being very sick taught me a valuable lesson; how to live in the now, the only place where peace can exist.

It never previously occurred to me that I could not live a peaceful existence unless I was rooted in the present moment. I now understand that living in the past, reliving past hurts and pain over and over again, simply isn’t helpful or conducive for a balanced, peaceful life.  The past has happened, it’s done, and no amount of rehashing hurts or regrets will change it. Make peace with your pain; acknowledge what has happened, accept it, forgive those who have wronged you, or even forgive yourself, and bring yourself back to the present moment. The only moment that is real.

This same awareness can be applied to worrying excessively about the future; this is just as counterproductive as living in the past.  Only now exists, and now is the only place where peace can be found. Be present in your life, no mater shows up.  Look at the works of Rumi, Buddha, Ram Dass, Osho, Sogyal Rinpoche, Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle; they all seem to share a similar message.

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2) I learned how to surrender– As a former control freak perfectionist, Lyme was the perfect lesson in learning how to let go of the reins and surrender completely. For three years Lyme was in charge and I struggled profusely against it. I refused to surrender to it for the longest time. I fought very hard to keep a regular life and even harder not to give up on so many things I deemed important. Things that were often at odds with healing. Only once I finally let go and stopped fighting the process and the disease did I find peace. This was huge for me. I was having a crash course in mindfulness.

Once I surrendered, things really started to change. I accepted that I was sick and that I possibly would always be sick and I had to make peace with that. I also accepted that I’d probably never teach again and possibly would never work full time again. Acceptance was the only thing left to do. If you can’t leave a situation or change it, then you have to accept it. As Tolle says ‘All else is madness.’

Learning to surrender and show equanimity has had a follow on effect in other areas of life. I understand now that most of the challenging events and people in my life are out of my control and I’m learning to be OK with that. The only thing I can control is how I respond to situations and others. Letting go and learning to be equanimous during both  challenges and successes is an on-going goal for me.

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3) Life cannot be peaceful without balance- If it weren’t for Lyme I’d most certainly still be teaching and still burning the candle at both ends, living a life without a trace of balance. I feel that while I was a capable teacher, I was beyond hopeless at being a balanced employee. I loved working hard, being super organized and having everything in ‘perfect’ order. Now I shudder at the thought. Ego sure loved getting praise and accolades for my hard work too.

Post Lyme, I no longer want a job that requires me to work six days a week, work after hours and even during my holidays. I can see now that while being a workaholic perfectionist made me a pretty good employee, it failed to help make be a healthy, balanced individual. Also waking up so fatigued every day didn’t allow me to show the level of patience, kindness and compassion that my students and coworkers deserved.

I learned that if you find balance, you’ll also find peace. Whether it’s with work, relationships, friendships, family, food, or exercise. Wherever there is imbalance, work to rectify it. The more balanced I am, the more productive, happy and energetic I feel. The happier I am, the kinder and more compassionate I can be with others.

 4) Anger is a very harmful emotion- Anger is a very powerful emotion and can negatively affect not just your mind, but also your body. Because anger produces a chemical response in your body, if left unchecked or prolonged, the flood of these stress chemicals can eventually cause harm to many different systems of the body. I learned that anger and health simply cannot coexist and that carrying anger with you is incredibly self- destructive.

In reality, pain is universal, we ALL experience it, and it’s a part of being human. Unchecked, this pain and suffering can lead to anger. It seems perfectly obvious now, that by not forgiving those that caused me pain and/or suffering, I was actually the perpetrator of ongoing pain to myself. Forgiveness is the key to liberating your mind from anger and is the only way to gain peace.  Even if you’re feeling particularly bitter and don’t yet believe that the person deserves forgiveness, think of YOU. Don’t you deserve to be free of the pain?

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 5) Disease is Dis-ease: During my Lyme treatment I’d cry to my husband “Why can’t I have a different disease, any disease other than Lyme?” I now understand that having a disease, any disease, means that your body and/or mind is in a state of dis-ease. It makes no difference what the type of illness you have; you are ‘without ease’. No disease is a walk in the park. But that’s the nature of illness, it forces you one way or another to make changes and evolve as a person. I’ve learned from Lyme that health is not simply the absence of disease. Rather, health should be viewed as the state in which each parts of the body are working together effortlessly and at ease. I’m not there yet, but I’m closer than I’ve ever been.

 6) The Importance of Finding the Right Doctor For you- Respect your body enough to walk away from medical care that doesn’t seem right or isn’t on par with your values and beliefs.  I had a renowned and very experienced Californian Lyme doctor when I lived in the States. Being so revered and experienced, I did whatever he said. If he instructed me to stay on a particular antibiotic, which was at toxic levels that had me up day and night with vomiting and diarrhea, then I would. No matter how sick I got, I did what he said. The unfortunate lingering result of this has been many food intolerances and a nasty Leaky Gut.

Fast-forward a few years, I’m pretty picky about who I listen to when it comes to medicine. It’s my body, I’m the one ingesting the treatment and if I think there’s a healthier, more holistic way then I’ll seek a second opinion. Luckily, I found a wonderful doctor here in Australia who was my saving grace. Since meeting her my health has improved ten-fold.  Her values are in line with mine; a healthy mind, body and spirit are needed for good health. We used regular and complementary medicine to achieve this, and I say WE because we both came up with options for treatment and she gave me the choice on which option to take. After all, it is my body, so it is my choice.

My advice for Lyme sufferers, or anyone suffering an illness, is not to focus purely on physically healing. Rather, see your illness as an opportunity to heal any areas of your life, be it emotional or spiritual, where you have an imbalance or discord.

Thankfully, it looks like the worst of my Lyme storm has passed and I feel like there’s so much to look forward to. I’ve been off medication for over a year now with no relapses. I am still living with Lyme, however my last blood work showed that I no longer have co-infections.  Yay! I am no longer plagued with chronic fatigue and I am happy to say that my ‘good’ days far out weigh the tiresome ones. Now my focus is on managing my energy levels, continued healing, meditation and mindfulness.

Namaste. May you be well.  May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.

Namaste1

Vipassana Meditation- My First Retreat

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I recently completed my first ten-day vipassana silent retreat. Situated in beautiful Pomona on the Sunshine Coast, Australia I couldn’t really imagine a more appropriate setting. We were off the grid and it was absolutely tranquil. By the end of it, I left feeling more peace and happiness then I’ve ever felt in my entire life and that’s not to say I wasn’t happy prior to going there. I just felt, well, better. Overall I’d describe the experience as sensational! It wasn’t easy by any means, but it was pretty life changing stuff.

Vipassana, a Buddhist insight meditation technique, refers to seeing things as they are. It aims to reduce suffering by helping you see your true nature. I’ve dabbled in all kinds of meditation techniques over the years and this one was very effective in helping achieve equanimity, helping provide insight and a great tool for learning to live in the moment, where peace can only be found.

Vipassana is not for the faint hearted. I won’t lie, physically, at times, it was grueling. My back and neck have only just recovered after leaving the retreat almost two weeks ago. Mentally, at times, it was pretty intense too. Funnily enough, being in ten days of silence wasn’t hard like I had anticipated. In fact, it was really nice, even for a total chatter-box like me. No iPhone, no iPad, no Internet, no reading material of any kind- nothing that can form a distraction. Surprisingly, being away from all forms of technology was soothing and I suffered no withdrawals at all.

You are literally sitting on your butt for about eight hours a day, with hourly breaks in between. This is no ‘retreat’, it’s hard work and it’s taxing on the body. However, it also feels great to do it. Every session you ‘survive’ feels like an achievement. S.N. Goenka compares the technique to having a deep brain operation, it hurts and it’s difficult, but ultimately it’s good for you. For me it was a brain cleanse, a spring clean if you will, working on stuff that was buried deep in my ‘brain wardrobe’, stuff that I’d pretty much forgotten about. Once it simmered to the surface and I was able to let it go and make peace with it.  It was unbelievably therapeutic experience.

All the learning is scaffolded so each evening during the discourse more knowledge and understandings about the technique are given. The technique is non-sectarian and not overly complicated. As with all techniques, practice makes perfect. The retreat gives you a taste of it, the challenging part will be implementing this for the rest of my life, but I can already see the results and it’s worth it. Goenka recommended two meditation sessions a day, one morning, one night. I’ve been able to commit to one hour a day so far, sometimes I squeeze in a second one.

The first couple of days I struggled with earworm issues, you know catchy songs playing over and over at the most inopportune times, such as when sitting in a quiet room and trying very hard to meditate. I’d be meditating and a random thought such as ‘Oh gosh, time is going so slowly’ would pop into my head. Then without even trying, I’d match my thought to a song with similar lyrics. Queue Madonna Hung Up “Time goes by, so slowly, so slowly”. That was really, really, ridiculously annoying. Thank God I was able to replace crappy music with Goenka’s chanting, which I initially despised, yet grew to love. And don’t get me started on the Dad Jokes! I’m not a funny person, I leave the hilarities to my quick-witted husband, but wow, while in ten days of silence, I became the most talented comedian in history (as voted by myself at the time). The one liners were coming thick and fast and I had no-one to share my new-found comedic prowess with. Again, this passed after the second day.

While weird and crazy experiences aren’t the purpose of doing vipassana, they can and do happen. I did have a couple of experiences that fit into that category. I won’t share it on here, not because I’m embarrassed, but I don’t want to influence any one into thinking that will be their experience. I will say it was eye opening  and enjoyable, but it may never happen again. Therefore I am not clinging to this part of the experience, it is what it is. It was a pleasant sensation, but as I learned all sensations, pleasant or unpleasant will pass. All are impermanent in nature. Anicca, Anicca, Anicca.

After ten days of Noble Silence, which includes no talking, no touching, no eye contact, no gestures, all with the aim of you getting your Zen on, I broke the rule. On the second last night my room-mate got the giggles while not so quietly drinking her tea. She set me off and we both ended up laughing so hard it actually hurt and man, it felt so freaking good! After ten days of silence and no laughing it was like I was making up for lost time and I couldn’t actually stop laughing for quite a few minutes. We ended up staying up late chatting, whispering like 13 year olds. Oh how I’d missed connecting with another human being! Honestly though, my meditation post our chat was rather crap as I wasn’t as focused, nor as sharp. So yeah, my bad. I don’t recommend you break the silence rule.

I met some amazing girls while on retreat. You start to come out of Noble Silence on the 11th day and it was nice to learn their actual names, as opposed to the names I’d given them such as Little Miss Giggles, Sniper and Nicole (the chick totally looked like a Nicole to me, turns out it she was named Katie). We were from all walks of life, yet I felt like I connected to most of them.  I guess when you take time to nurture your soul, you look at people with love and stop looking for differences. There was a lot of love being shared. We had all survived 10 grueling days!

The food was excellent and I consider myself a very fussy eater. We ate three times a day and all meals were vegetarian. Dinner was two pieces of fruit. The fruit part was way easier than I anticipated, which is weird because I used to hate fruit. I did lose 2 kilos and now my husband and I continue to eat fruit for dinner for some nights of the week. We’re also eating vegetarian for many of our lunches too. I feel so much healthier this way. The bonus is that all the recipes for the meals I had on the vipassana website so I’ve been using the ones that I particularly loved. Winning! Time will tell how long this actually lasts.

I left this retreat feeling an unbelievable amount of love and peace, as did everyone I spoke to. Almost a fortnight later and it has decreased a little but I still feel wonderful. I have a greater level of patience and love for others and I just feel more at ease, more balanced. I highly recommend it.

No money is paid up front and they don’t ask for a specific fee. You are welcome to donate money after the course and you should donate as the money goes towards the cost involved in the enlightenment of the next group of students.

At times I wish I was back there to be honest. I wish everyone I know, and even those I don’t, would give this technique a go. What a happier, more patient and peaceful society we would be if we all learned this technique. Prior to vipassana, I would describe myself as very quick-tempered and someone who gets annoyed very easily. Post vipassana, it takes more to rile me up and things just don’t seem to annoy me any more like they used to, except for when my husband interrupts as I’m writing my first blog, that annoyed me. Sorry darling! Hey, I’m no monk, I’m on a spiritual journey.

May all beings be happy!

Namaste1

For more info on Pamona Meditation Centre: http://www.rasmi.dhamma.org/

*Update: Whilst I am still committed to meditation, I am no longer practicing the vipassana technique exclusively. I found sitting still and meditating whilst pregnant very challenging so I opted for other techniques. I’m also now more focused on living a mindful life and work daily on having insight into my thoughts and emotions. Vipassana was a wonderful platform in getting me started into mindfulness in general. I have no regrets in doing the course and would like to go back for a refresher at some point. Oh, and I’m no longer eating fruit for dinner!