Anna Donald returns from a Buddhist retreat

I am back from purdah, having just returned from 10 days of ‘Noble Silence’ at a Vipassana meditation retreat in Sydney’s Blue Mountains. These charitable Buddhist programmes are run on a pay-by-donation basis in many countries, including Britain (in Herefordshire). 

Vipassana is at the Lutheran end of Buddhist practice. There are no mantras, icons or images. The meditation hall is plain (though, thank heavens, heated). The teacher, who is secular, wears ordinary clothes, as does everyone else. It contrasts with, say, Tibetan meditation practice of Dalai Llama ilk, which bedecks its buildings with brightly coloured silks, icons, and relics. Few people who attend Vipassana programmes would consider themselves Buddhists and there is no requirement to do so.

This is my 5th retreat. I did my first when I was 22 and to my surprise got mildly hooked. As usual, however, I think I’m slightly bonkers signing up for it again. It is not so much the noble silence that’s the big deal (it’s quite nice not having to talk), but the 11 hours a day of sitting with yourself, with nothing to distract or protect you from your own inner workings, warts and all.

The vegan food is good. So is the wildlife: wallabies; tree-hoppers; finches; little brown birds that fly too fast to identify; big white cockatoos; red, green and blue rosellas, and a dumpy charcoal, red-crested parrot I still can’t name, who bobbed up and down on a branch and squawked every afternoon.

But the halls of residence were very cold. The heaters in our rooms weren’t working. My head gets cold easily. A few months ago, whole brain radiation kicked out any remaining scraps of hair on my head which had survived two cycles of chemotherapy (maddeningly, however, my leg hair does not seem to have suffered at all). Throughout the course, I wore a wig and cashmere beanie without a break except to have a shower.

So why do I put myself through this torture on a periodic basis? Good question. Mainly, I suppose, because of the results and insights it delivers, which never fail to fascinate me. And now, facing advanced cancer, I’m interested too in the health benefits I think it may offer.

First, the fascination: Vipassana meditation is the ultimate experience for scientists interested in observing the mind, mind-body interactions, and getting a glimpse at who we are (and interestingly, of what we consist) beneath the flotsam and jetsam of our busy lives and chattering mind. It involves sitting quietly (on a stool, chair or cushion) with eyes closed, simply observing whatever physical sensations you have in your body, in a methodical way. You start at the top of your head (for example, you feel the top of your skull) and work your way down in clumps to feeling the tips of your toes, then back again. And so forth. For 11 hours a day, with short breaks every hour as well as meal breaks.

Sound simple? Conceptually it is. Execution is another thing altogether. Typically, for the first 6-7 days you start ‘observing’ or feeling sensations throughout your body for up to about a minute before your ‘monkey mind’ takes itself into cyberspace and you start thinking, not feeling, about anything except the task at hand. You find yourself analysing every film you’ve seen over the past 10 years; why you’ve always hated your grandmother’s furniture, and remembering your 2nd grade teacher’s perm. Eventually you come to your senses, literally, and move up or down your shoulder a few more inches, before being swept off into another reverie. Other frustrating things happen: you get bored, fidgety, hot, cold and from time to time overcome with emotion which wells up unannounced from somewhere in your anatomy: rage, grief, fear, despair, and so forth.

By about day 8, for me at least, interesting things start to happen. You get less distracted. Your languaging mind starts to shut up, which is interesting, because you realise that despite appearances, you’re not the 24-hour-a-day chatterbox that usually accompanies your waking life and dreams. As the odd thought arises, it feels like a little bird has alighted briefly on your consciousness before it takes off again. Your body starts to ‘dissolve.’ As your attention moves up and down your body, instead of feeling blank or solid blocks of heat and pain, you start to feel as if you’re made of high frequency tiny waves; not like a normal body at all. It’s a nice feeling. In short, you stop associating with your mind and body and begin to associate with the part of you that is capable of observing yourself and your responses to thoughts and feelings.

In my experience, being coldly scientific – that is, with discipline, sticking to observing rather than identifying with thoughts and feelings – has whacky effects. For example, I experienced being a kind of joyful consciousness beyond thoughts and body which, interestingly, did not seem to be body-beholden. When you have advanced cancer, this is a comfort, because it feels very naturally as if you are unlikely to end when the lease on your body runs out.

Further, I don’t know why, but doing Vipassana makes life go better. After a course, things seem to sort themselves out. And daily meditation becomes easier. That isn’t to say I’m a paragon of virtue on the subject. Even with no job and the threat of death hanging over me, I’m still pretty bad at ‘sitting’ for 2 hours a day.

Needless to say, it is hard to put the experience of Vipassana into words. I was very sceptical and reluctant to try meditation the first time I did it, but was astonished by the experience and its results. I’d love to see what Richard Dawkins would make of it, given it’s such a methodical, scientific process that leads you to experience a kind of ‘divine’ or at least other-worldly source of being. If you are interested you can try it for yourself. It’s inexpensive (pay by donation) and to my knowledge an impeccable charity. The UK website is http://www.dipa.dhamma.org/; otherwise just google Vipassana for other centres around the world.

Meanwhile tomorrow’s CT scans (brain, chest, abdomen) will tell me if it has had any material effect. (No control group, lots of methods problems, I know I know.) Breathe in, breathe out.

Anna Donald

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  • Carina

    Anna, you have such courage. It is very brave and generous of you to share your experiences online. We look forward to reading your posts. love Carina

  • Tom

    [quote] the Lutheran end of Buddhist practice [/quote]
    LOL!
    😉

  • Karen

    Anna, thanks for keeping us in touch with where you are. May the CT scans tomorrow bring good news. love Karen

  • Dear Anna, I am glad to know that you find lasting results after your vipassana meditation, inspite of all the inconveniences you had to suffer. But meditation is beyond just watching parts of your body. To know more about meditation, meditation techniques and meditation retreats happening globally, log onto http://www.gurumaa.com and http://www.spiritualguidedmeditation.com.

  • Anna

    Tom sent me this link to your blog. I just wanted to wish you well and congratulate you on sharing this experience… and to tell you what you already know, that you have a great team at Bazian.

    Jacx

  • Urmila

    Dear Anna, You write so well that I could visualise your feelings and experience over the 10 days. Thank you for sharing this lovely experience with us. Keep writing. Love and best wishes, Urmila

  • Mai Luen

    5th retreat, Anna, I would never have guessed!?! Anyways, thanks for sharing, it is nice to also meet old faces in this community you have started!! Take care and if the sun doesn’t come out soon over there…Singapore!!!

  • Andrew Carmichael

    Dear Anna, I write as a person ‘cured’ with heavy chemo and stem cell autograft 14 years ago so the hairsyle is no surprise to me. I enquire if you are aware of the work done in using dehydroascorbate as an anti-cancer substance. It combines with a substance only found in cancer cells (homocysteine thiolactone) to produce apoptosis of the cancer cell only without harm to normal tissue. You may wish to try this by taking a daily supplement of palmitoyl ascorbate, a common food additive and anti-oxidant which causes the cell concentrations of dehydroascorbate to be increased as that is the form in which ascorbate is absorbed into cells. It is experimental inasmuch as the original work was done in 1982 by Poydock but ignored for years. The reference is
    Dehydroascorbic acid as an anti-cancer agent
    John I. Toohey
    Cancer Letters Vol 263, Issue 2, 18 May 2008, pages 164-169
    doi.10.1016/jcanlet.2008.02.002
    Supplies of palmitoyl ascorbate are available from the USA where it is known as ascorbyl palmitate. I can supply small amounts free of charge as it is currently being used in a programme to improve Parkinsons symptoms. Suggested intake of this lipid soluble stuff is 5 X 200mg daily equivalent to 400mg of ascorbic acid BUT not water soluble and therefore better absorbed.

  • Ligia Giovanella

    muito obrigada por sua coragem e sabedoria de viver cada dia como um dádiva. Ligia

  • Rose

    Dear Anna
    From the responses to your blogs you have very many supportive friends. I want you to know that it’s not just your friends who will find your blog useful. I still work in a place where they don’t want to tell the patient (everyone but the patient) the diagnosis of cancer. So what you write is eye opening and as iterated by others, inspiring and humbling. Thank you.

  • Thank you Anna for your efforts to connect with the rest of us. YOu have opened yourself to everyone and your sharing yourself with us is a special gift.

  • Jo (Webb)

    Dear Anna,
    I just came across your blog by accident! I have always been overwhelmed by your enthusiasm, energy & warmth, which I am glad to see from your blogs has not changed. You continue to be an inspiration as a professional and as a human being. Thank you for always remembering me when we meet!
    Jo

  • Sarah Rawlinson

    Dear Anna
    Thank you for sharing with us.

    I am bald, too, but in a slightly different place to you. I am half way through my chemotherapy and heading towards a mastectomy in the summer. And then radiotherapy.

    Obviously what has happened to you is my worst fear. I do feel for you and admire your courage in writing this blog. I hope that you will feel free to whinge and be angry and anything else you need to do. It is hard to be strong all the time.

    I am clinging to the statistics and hoping that I will be lucky and that this few months will get me through it, but I have a glimmer of a sense of what it is like to live under the shadow. We are all going to die, of course, but most of the time we can live as if it will never happen. To be forced to contemplate it, for it to come so into the foreground is hard, and it must be hard for your family and friends. Looking at the comments, you have obviously touched many lives.

    Thank you also for reminding me about Ian Gawler. I bought a couple of his books when I spent a year in Australia in the 90s, and will re-read them now.

    I look forward to reading more and will be hoping for you.

  • Alison Kelly

    Dear Anna
    What an inspiration you are
    Hang in there
    Alison

  • Alan Lovell

    Hi Anna. You write beautifully and with such perception; always a joy to read. I imagine that the superbly superior Prof Dawkins would challenge the use of the word ‘scientific’. Methodological, yes, and systematic, maybe, but scientific…? Can you falsify it, one wonders? (There’s something for you to do, organise an RCT – I wonder what the outcomes to be measured should be?) Of course, we can easily get onto an interminable discussion about what is science. I’m a Popperian, if simply because he threatened Wittgenstein with a poker, which is how philosophical arguments should be solved in my opinion. I look forward greatly to your next post. And I’d be fascinated to know just why you have always hated your grandmother’s furniture. All the best, Alan

  • Kerry Kirk

    Dear Anna,

    I’m thinking of you and sending you some miracle vibrations. I live just down the road from the Vipassana Centre in Blackheath these days and have done a 10-day course there (although six years ago now). I agree with what you’ve said about it’s effects. I reckon meditation is the best place to go anytime, but for life’s hammer-and-anvil periods the relief of feeling one’s real feelings and not hiding from them brings immeasurable strength and peace. Love to you Anna banana!

    P.S. That red-crested, grey bird is the Gang-Gang. He’s around in the warmer months in Blackheath. I call him “squeaky door” because that’s just what his call sounds like.

  • Marianne Hamilton

    Thank you for writing this, its was exactly what I wanted to know, I loved the detail and the spontaneity of the writing.
    I had overian cancer when I was 29. I made a full recovery. I know that at the time I wasnt giving myself what I truly wanted because of fear. I took the risk. I recovered.
    Bless you
    Marianne