This months’ blog post is inspired by a term that we have all heard – ‘the bucket list’, and more importantly, ticking off that bucket list!
But what does that mean exactly?
The term, ‘bucket list’, put quite simply is a list of the things that you must do before you die – originally stemming from the term “kicked the bucket”.
More recently popularised by the 2007 movie starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, this concept got me thinking – exactly what is on my bucket list? What have I already done and what do I still want to do or achieve?
I think it’s so important to have goals and to have things to look forward to in life – for those days that we feel like we’re stagnating (which let’s face it, we all have them), it’s important to know that there is still more to look forward to, more to strive for.
A number of years ago, I ticked off an item that I had on my bucket list, which was to complete at least one stay within a meditation retreat. From this experience, there were a number of things that I learned about myself and my time on this planet which have stayed with me. It was an experience that I would definitely recommend it to anyone who was interested.
Which leads me to another item on my bucket list, not yet completed, and that is to one day write a book. So in keeping with this, I have decided to get started on working on my creative skills, and I’ve written a creative piece which is loosely based on my stay at the Vipassana meditation retreat in Hereford in England. It is called Noble Silence and I hope that you enjoy it.
by Bianca Skilbeck
Olivia boarded the train for Hereford, England, what would be a roughly three hour train journey from London. A twist of fate had brought her here, nearly 17,000km from home in Melbourne. Six months ago, life had been secure, stable, predictable. She lived with her boyfriend of two years, Jacob. The attraction had been instant. Within three months of meeting, they were living together and two years on, they were happily carving out their future. She worked in a bookshop, a job that she loved, alongside people she would cultivate lifelong friendships with. It’s not exactly a career, she told herself. Nonetheless, it was a dream job in many ways and it felt right. It was the right stepping stone, she was sure of it.
For Olivia, finding her place in life had at times been elusive. Life was a place where she lived in between; a place where she fit in everywhere, yet nowhere at the same time. Though her head was in the clouds, her feet were firmly planted on the ground; a dizzying reality which often left her fighting for equilibrium. She frequently caught herself, miles away, yet more immersed than ever. Aware….yet aware that she knew nothing. “You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone”, the saying goes. For Olivia though, she knew what she had. It was only a few months beforehand that she caught herself in the car, emotively singing the words to ‘Goodbye My Lover’ by James Blunt. Was I getting a head start on the grieving process?, she wondered. Who knows, maybe she was.
It came as a shock when Jacob left. How does one prepare for such a loss? It was like losing a limb. Waking each morning, felt like being hit by a bus. Maybe it is possible to just stop breathing, she thought. To pass quietly in her sleep, fade away. Sometimes she would even practice for that fateful moment, holding her breath until her lungs were on fire and she could hear her pulse in her ears. Instinct took over every time though, and she would shamefully gasp for air, defeated. Today wasn’t her day.
When the bookshop called a meeting and spoke the two words that any business dreads, VOLUNTARY LIQUIDATION, it was a sign.
A one way flight was booked. Despite the bleakness which painted her days, this produced a spark of excitement. Excitement, streaked with fear. Fear and sadness of course, the sadness never left. It was as if the universe was aligning, telling her to get out. Hell, even the beloved little Hyundai which brought her from her teenage years to adulthood broke down. Even it gave up the ghost. Get out of here, it said.
Arriving in Hereford, the entrance to the Vipassana meditation retreat was nondescript, just another building you could easily pass by, none the wiser. Olivia looked up at the flight of stairs which lead to the front door in the exact centre of the building. 2am-google-wanderings had brought Olivia to Vipassana, a form of meditation which taught non-judgemental, non-reactive observation of the physical sensations in the body. It claimed that over time, this practice would extend to daily life; training the mind to resist reacting to outside influences which cause misery and suffering. Yes, this is an idea I can get on board with.
With trepidation, she propelled herself up those stairs, in to a large communal room. Here she found an array of other meditators, in groups, talking, completing registration. She was assigned to a room with just one other roommate. What luxury! The last few weeks had been spent traipsing in and out of hostels, so this was a welcome surprise. A quick inspection of the facilities told her that everything was either new, or very well maintained and very clean. She was surprised. The property was beautiful, the ideal setting for a meditation retreat.
Night one was a welcome dinner. Participants were informed of what to expect and what was expected over the coming ten days, and the rules were extensive.
NO communication with other participants. NO talking. NO touching. NO eye contact. NO phones. NO internet. NO music. NO reading. NO writing. NO alcohol. NO drugs.
The purpose of this time was introspection through meditation, which could only be achieved when distractions were kept at a minimum. The number one commandment; noble silence.
She was given her daily timetable for the following nine days.
4:30am Meditate in bedroom or hall
8:00am Group meditation
9:00am Meditate in bedroom or hall
1:00pm Meditate in bedroom or hall
2:30pm Group meditation
3:30pm Meditate in bedroom or hall
6:00pm Group meditation
7:00pm Teachers discourse
8:15pm Group meditation
9:30pm Bed time, lights out
Olivia counted……10 hours and 45 minutes every day of meditation! An intimidating tally, nonetheless, she was ready.
At 4am, she awakened to the sound of the meditation gong. Full of enthusiasm, she made her way to the hall. Head down, careful to avoid eye contact, she took her place, relaxed and determined. I will be the greatest meditator that this retreat had ever seen; never will they have seen a participant transcend physical, mental and emotional states so quickly and with such ease. She was sure of it.
“Observe your respiration”, a voice boomed, from the loud speaker. “Observe the sensation around your nose, as you breathe in and out”.
Okay, I can do that, she thought.
“You are indifferent to the sensations which arise, pleasant or unpleasant. You do not react. A feeling will never last forever.”
There she sat, breathing in and out, focused, concentrated, until….
….I wonder what we’re having for breakfast….I’m tired…..my nose is itchy…
No, Olivia. Focus. Breathe in, breathe out, observe the sensation….
….my legs are going numb….look at everyone else, they look so comfortable… stop it, concentrate…
The day stretched out, hour after hour of meditation, interrupted only by meal breaks. She went to bed that night, exhausted, defeated. Though she had done nothing but sit with her eyes closed all day, she was completely drained. This is a strange place. The mood had changed. She had thought it might be difficult to avoid communication; to not even give a small glance or nod of recognition here and there. Since beginning noble silence however, something had changed. The life and vitality of every human around her had been drawn inwards. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was walking amongst ghosts. People floated by, heads down, absorbed in their private worlds. They lounged on the grass, arms wide open, sunning themselves like lizards, cold. There was something eerie about living alongside these other beings, yet not living with them at all. The voices in her mind were getting louder. Never mind, she reassured herself, there is always tomorrow. I will be the best meditator then.
After a fitful nights’ sleep, Olivia awoke to the sound of the gong. Sigh. She was already counting down. Eight days to go. She entered the meditation hall, ready to get serious. Yesterday, she was new. Of course it was difficult, it was my first day. Today would be different though. She imagined her mind, full of tiny cheerleaders, cheering her on. Quickly though, she was wrestling with her thoughts, and never far away, Jacob. How could he have left me like this, can’t he feel my pain? She was becoming more and more distressed as the seconds passed. Why can’t I just focus? Look at everyone else, so calm and peaceful.
Yet, here she was, fighting a raging war in her mind. Her body was on fire. She had underestimated just how much it would hurt to sit cross legged for prolonged periods. First, there was the pins and needles which ran through her legs and feet and spread in to her hips and lower back. Everything went numb, her body burned and throbbed. Electrical impulses shot through her legs and back, begging her to uncross her legs, begging her to move. She tried to focus on her breathing, calm herself down. The loudspeaker bellowed at her,
“No sensation lasts forever, everything is impermanent”
She tried to swallow the rising panic which was bubbling up inside her, but with every breath, it screamed, it berated her. GET OUT OF HERE!!
Olivia held back a cry as she jumped up and fled the room, out in to the open air. Panicking, heart racing, she gasped for air, I am an utter failure. She begged the ground to open up and swallow her whole.
As she sat on the step, a flood of tears, she felt a gentle presence beside her. One of the teachers. Her senses were heightened and she could feel all of the words which remained unspoken.
“This is hard for everyone”, those words told her. “You are not alone”.
The days went on like this. She would count, seven days left, six days, five days. A turning point came when she realised she had been there for more days than what were left. Still, she had not succeeded though a whole meditation hour without fidgeting; a scratch here, a shuffle there. So day five, she set out to achieve this. Determined, it was now or never. She was in a world of pain. Her back was aching; her legs had gone numb, her joints were screaming at her to uncross her legs. Pain ran through her entire body, and one second became an eternity. She sweated and observed her breathing. Pain is only in the mind.
The gong sounded and she was done. I’ve done it! Her first full hour of meditation, without moving! This was an achievement, one of the most difficult physical and mental challenges that she had undertaken, but she had done it.
She began to realise the ways in which her mind had become lazy. Her whole life, she had given in to temptations and whims, in an attempt to avoid suffering. None of it had worked though. Here she was on the other side of the world, emotionally bereft and suffering more than ever.
As the days wore on, it became easier to focus her mind. It was never any less painful, but somehow, her resolve became stronger. Her mind became stronger, in order to overcome it. At first, staying still, she was almost overwhelmed with panic. This subsided with practice though. She understood that giving in to panic, meant transforming physical pain in to emotional pain. She began to use physical pain as a tool, a way to strengthen her mind.
She began to adapt to the routine, even skipping dinner which was protocol. At first, she worried that the hunger might be intolerable, however it was quickly incidental. She thought that she might miss eating meat and drinking coffee, but these things too, faded. Even the waking time of 4am became normal. Despite sleeping fewer hours than ever, she had energy to burn. She would use this energy on her breaks, walking the perimeter of the property, absorbing the sights and sounds of this quiet retreat.
Day ten arrived and the noble silence was broken. It was like awaking from a coma. Participants locked eyes. They erupted in to joyous fits of laughter, and not a single person could wipe the smile off their face. The pleasure of reconnection to the outside world was palpable, the atmosphere electric. Olivia spent the day with fellow meditators, chatting as if they were old friends from way back. The hours flashed by in a rush, she was coming back to life, to reconnect. It was true, a feeling never lasts forever. That day, Olivia connected with the present. For a single moment in time, she was not living in the anger, sadness or grief of the past, nor the anxiety or desires of the future. For that moment in time, she let go of preconceived notions and just let herself be.
Her ten days at the retreat had been long. They had been tedious, frustrating and boring. They had been challenging and enriching. They were part of her now.