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; 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