Where the soul meets body

I’ve been back for over a week now so this is the last of my posts about my meditation retreat experience. Be warned though, that if you plan to join a Vipassana course, I would advise you read no further. Unless you are positive that you need to know everything in advance. I thought I did – I’m glad I didn’t.

Also, I forgot one of the most appropriate songs that got stuck in my head in my “Symphony of Silence” post, but I think it’ll work even better as a soundtrack to this post:

We all know how much of a role the mind plays in sport and fitness, but I don’t believe many people exploit it to its full potential. You’ll hear the odd personal trainer shouting things along the lines of “mind over matter!”, and a well-known sports brand is named after the motto “a sound mind in a sound body” (which is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation). Unfortunately, there is a big difference between saying it, believing it, and experiencing or practicing it.

Like the body, the mind needs to be trained. Our bodies, brains, and minds have been wired to make us effortlessly efficient – naturally cheating at physical exercises to recruit bigger and less fatigued muscle groups (wait, you mean you’re more interested in breaking down muscle fibres in your biceps than you are in getting that bar to a higher place?!), naturally craving high calorie foods, naturally letting the mind wander to greener pastures. So the first few days of meditation were spent re-training our brains, trying to break its habit of wandering away at the first opportunity. It was alarming how often I lost focus and found myself thinking of the most random things. But it was incredible how quickly I learnt to recognise when I lost concentration, and to bring my mind back to the task at hand.

As in training, when you fatigue physically or mentally, it becomes harder to maintain proper form or focus. But as in training, the more you do it, the easier it gets to feel when something is amiss. The practical implications are obvious – learn to focus your mind, learn to stay focussed during long or hard training sessions.

Now, the vipassana technique itself is even more closely linked to physical training. Unlike many meditation techniques where you recite a mantra or visualise an image as a means to focus your mind to a point where you can switch off more mundane thoughts, vipassana forces you to remain totally conscious of everything going on within your body. Every sensation, big or small, pleasant or unpleasant, is to be observed, noted, recorded – and left untouched, unchanged, accepting that everything is in a constant state of flux and that therefore attempting to change the course of nature is entirely futile.

This has fascinating implications for training!

On one level, obviously, you learn to deal with painOh, did I learn to deal with pain! After two days of trying to build myself a cushion-and-blanket fort atop my meditation cushion, I resorted to getting up and sitting against the wall instead. On day three, I was furious with the world – did they not realise I was in pain? Why was nobody else in as much pain as me? Clearly, I had some anatomical condition that made sitting still and unsupported totally unbearable. How could I possibly concentrate on meditating when I felt like white-hot pokers were being prodded into my shoulder blades?! I was also furious at myself – how could I have let my back get so weak? Why had I not thought that sitting this way would put this much pressure on my knees and hips? How could I get through some of the conditioning sessions I’d been through, and not be able to sit still for a few hours?!

Then we were shown a discourse in which the teacher, S.N. Goenka, jokes about students complaining about the pain. That was all I needed to hear – once I knew the pain was an integral part of it all, I was able to grit my teeth and sit through it. It was a real lightbulb moment; this was the biggest test of my equanimity! The whole point was to accept it, accept that this situation would change, that the atoms of which I am made up (at this present moment, at least) would move around and adapt and result in a lessening of the pain. From that moment on, I settled on a position and decided to deal with whatever was thrown my way. Though the pain remained, it became bearable. I stopped trying to move away from the pain into new positions that ended up hurting me even more. I was able to feel other sensations through the pain. I watched how the pain changed, how it moved, how it evolved. I was able to concentrate. If we can all learn to do that in training, who knows what potential we could unleash! Also, we lessen the risk of trying to get away from the lactic acid burn by making some unpredictable movement which results in injury. For anyone undergoing any sort of physical therapy, this could also be hugely beneficial.

Delving a little deeper, we unwrap another layer of sports psychology which is particularly relevant to me; acceptance of underachievement, failure, or plateauing. There are three types of sensation you typically experience throughout the body whilst practicing vipassana: no sensation at all; intense, unpleasant sensations; or subtle, pleasant sensations such as tingling or vibrating. Once you have experienced this subtle sense of tingling throughout the body, which feels oddly calming and harmonious, it can be frustrating to sit down for your next session to find that you are back to feeling nothing but the touch of your clothing or, worse, pain. Unfortunately, the more frustrated and upset you get, the worse your focus will become, and you get trapped in the downward spiral of “craving” and therefore “misery”.

Anyone who has trained consistently for a little while will recognise the pattern; you set out to repeat or break a PB, only to see very early in the session that there is no way you are going to hit it. So you get frustrated, upset, maybe panic a little. Your muscles tighten up, you might get short of breath, your concentration goes out the window. You give up, or you muddle through only to feel inadequate and discouraged. Of course, none of this helps your training! By practicing vipassana, you directly experience how much things change on a moment-to-moment basis. There is no point getting attached to a sensation – it will come and it will go, the important thing is to remain poised, focussed, and determined. The important thing is to remember the final goal.

I found this technique particularly adapted to me because it relies on a certain level of introspection. It requires stubbornness, a willingness to break down barriers, to work hard and to persevere – not just to distract and soothe. It is not a technique for anyone looking for a quick fix, but one of those that must become a lifestyle choice, one that must resonate with your beliefs and your desire to improve; much like any good lifelong training regime should be.

As the course came to an end, everyone raving about their experience and how they would definitely keep up daily meditation, I felt that it was a good experience but that I probably wouldn’t have time for it on a daily basis. As I thought about it though, as I explained to friends and family how hard the course had been but how something had just “clicked” and enabled me to push through, it became apparent just how important meditation would be to my daily life. There is no sense to me in training my body and not my mind anymore. The day somebody can point out where my mind ends and my body begins, maybe I will reprioritise. Until then, they are being treated as equals and given equal consideration. After all, the people who love me love me for my mind, not my body (I presume…). I owe it to them to keep it in the best condition I possibly can.

2 thoughts on “Where the soul meets body

  1. Alex says:

    Hi Claire,

    Hope you are well? This is an interesting post – have been wanting to do something like this for a while. I always think I know what I need to do, but the reality is that without a set structure given to me by someone else I rarely implement it on my own. The hardest bit is getting started, forming a habit is often painful, so a course like this appeals to me.

    Would you def recommend this particular course? The approach of vipassana particularly makes sense to me – I strongly believe that one of the most important things – if not THE most important thing is to live life as consciously as possible and to see things as they really are, as best possible.

    I haven’t read the other posts in this series, so am going to go back and have a look. Finding 10 days is going to be the difficult bit next year but then that’s probably just another excuse! Need to make time for it!


    • greatveganexpectations says:

      Hey Alex, thanks for dropping in, glad you liked the post!

      I would definitely recommend this course, but having never meditated before let alone attended any sort of intensive course, I can’t say it is better than any others. One of my clients – at the same time as I was on my course, strangely enough – went on a transcendental meditation course over a weekend, and they prescribe only 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening, which is a lot easier to fit in than an hour twice a day for vipassana.

      For me, I think the intensity of it was necessary. It wasn’t until the 8th day that I really decided to work hard at it, realised it wasn’t going to happen on its own, so I can’t imagine I’d have ever reached that conclusion had I been doing an hour a day and able to chat and distract myself in between. Also, I haven’t been able to give up on meditation since I got back as I am determined not to have “wasted” ten days of my life.

      Again, I can’t speak for other courses, but this one (at the Dhamma Dipa centre in Hereford) was impeccably run. Great facilities, great food, wonderful staff and fellow students – I just can’t get over it.

      Ten days is a long time, a very long time… But in my experience, the times when you can least imagine taking time off are the times you most need to! If you do sign up, I can’t wait to hear about your experience!

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