I had a very bad night, some pain but a terrible anxious restlessness and something of the old ranting and fighting with ghosts. Got up and struggled through 45 minutes of meditation. Breathing deeply and then raggedly. Handing over and snatching back.
No reports of violence or intimidation which makes me very happy and I am going out to vote in a cold gritty wind. Voting here is a tremendous privilege — for more than 60 years the majority of the population were not allowed to vote. These elections have something in them of unhappy compromise but that may be part of the process we need to work through.
Change is always a constant. For weeks now I have found my morning meditations to be filled with micro-movements and agitation and a need to go deeper, to shift consciousness and become more aware, more compassionate, to reach out more. But also to be less afraid to look inward, unflinching at what is there.
In September last year I decided on a whim to do a vipassana retreat. It ws not a particularly significant decision. I had worked with a Theravada therapist and had spent time at forest monasteries in Vietnam and Thailand. And I had done retreats for almost 25 years, on and off, mostly in Catholic monasteries and retreat centres, working through the Ignatian exercises or Carmelite meditations on St John of the Cross. The year I turned 30 and was first arrested as a political activist fighting apartheid, I spent a month at an ol Catholic retreat centre, planting a tree and feeling as if I was munching my way through a sand dune, reading Jean Vanier.
The vipassana retreat was only 10 days but it was the toughest and most distressing experience I had ever known. There were retreatants from Nicaragua and Botswana and Rwanda. The lodgings were less than minimal — we slept on mats on a concrete floor with snow on the mountains, showered in icy waters. The teachers were distant and very unsympathetic. They only wanted to know if we were paying attention, if we were sitting upright and not falling asleep. We sat in a draughty hall in meditation for 10 hours each day, beginning at 5am. We had gruel to eat, sometimes vegan dishes and only hot water after noon. We went to bed at 11 pm.
And I felt a complete failure at the meditation. I suffered back ache and cramps and terrible headaches. I had tears in my eyes from trying to keep still. But the worst aspect was that inwardly I was in a rage and utter despair. I could not let go of old grievances or hurts, I raged constantly about my old miseries and bitterness. I could not stay focused for more than a few moments at a time. I hated the teachers, wanted to go home. No reading, no writing, no supportive encouragement or feel-good experiences.
When the retreat and Grand Silence ended, I felt a failure and confused. Some things had happened in those long painful hours of sitting that had startled me, insights into my own breathing and the fact the pain dissolved after a while and that my physical boundaries were permeable and a flux. I had never known this before but it did not feel with my world-view at all.
Then on the last day we were allowed to talk, in that rainy cold valley under snow-capped mountains. When I began to speak, I was aware the timbre of my voice had changed. And there was a clarity and depth of feeling I had not known before. The hardest and most distressing retrat had been experienced by a hidden part of myself as blessing. And those who had suffered and sat there in silence beside me, many with cancer or Aids, were experiencing the same change.
I still don’t know what to make of that. Retreats were always feel-good experiences for me, insghtful and only now and again endurance tests. Retreat directors were gentke and considerate guides. This was something that stripped me to the core. And there was no core there.