Monday, 26 March 2012

March 4-26, 2012 (Holi, Budhanilkantha, Vipassana retreat and shaving my head)

Hello from Thamel!

I finished up in Pokhara and left on March 6th. The night before I made sure to eat all my favourite foods, including, pretty much, Mariah's entire bag of mini chocolate bars (I regret nothing). The bus ride from Pokhara to Kathmandu is not something I wish to relive, even in written format, so let's just skip right ahead to Holi on March 7th! This is the Hindu festival of colours, where everyone throws water and coloured powder at you :) I'd been looking forward to this festival for so long, and then it came and I realized it is no joke. Walking down the street is dangerous, seriously. The kids from 7 stories up throw water balloons at you like hand grenades, and every once in awhile someone runs up behind you and dumps an entire bucket of water on your head. I spent Holi with a massive group of volunteers, wandering through the streets of Kathmandu. It was so much fun, I fully plan on bringing this holiday to Canada (I'm thinking, go to the park, have a barbeque and have powder fights. I envision it being epic). The only blotch on the experience was walking back to the hostel when I got totally groped by a Nepali man. Um, thanks, but I don't think my left boob really needed any more colour. Oh well, I guess he had a good Holi. AND! This was the first day I had a hot hot shower in Nepal (which is fortunate, because it took me almost 40 minutes to get all the powder off). I had fruit salad and curd for dinner and finished my Jodi Picoult book. And so ended my Holi experience! If I'm honest, it was amazing, but no more amazing than having tea with a friend or watching Vampire Diaries on Tashi's laptop and eating too many chocolate bars (isn't that great?).

The next morning I was to leave for my second placement in Budhanilkantha at Support the Children Nepal. I checked my email that morning and was greeted by a message from flydubai saying that they had cancelled one of my flights (they did that with the last one too, if you're counting, lol). There wasn't any time to do anything about it though, so I loaded into a taxi with Rajesh and Bijen and we left for Budhanilkantha. Budhanilkantha is about 30 minutes outside of Kathmandu, up the Kathmandu Valley and by Shivapuri National Park. I met the kids that night and the two other volunteers Jenny (from Australia) and Elsa (from Switzerland). I spent the next week there, playing in the rice paddies with the kids and generally enjoying the quietness. Jenny and Elsa were great and we had a really good time together too. One of the boys, Bikash, gave me his volunteer journal to write in. There were notes from all the volunteers all the way back to 2007. Reading all of their notes was so special, it was clear that Bikash is a very bright and special kid. One of the things I was most struck by at this orphanage was how different the kids look from HCCH! Of course, the kids from HCCH are Tibetan, so that's the difference (because these kids were Nepali). Anyway, it was funny how shocking I found this. Most of the kids are boys, so the games generally involved trying to hurt one another, and I'm just not very good at those games. I mostly tried to convince them that they REALLY wanted to make flower necklaces (because that's totally more fun, right?). I also lived like a true Nepali for this week, only eating once in the morning and once in the evening! I'm not going to lie, it was hard. I stuffed my face way more than I should have... Other highlights of the week include the three Danish volunteers that came later and finishing a book called "The Happiness Project."All in all, the week in Budhanilkantha was amazing, such great scenery and such great kids (though this orphanage was a little more Lord of the Flies than Pokhara, lol). I headed back to Thamel for 2 days before my meditation retreat. In these two days I read "Eragon" and "The Secret Life of Bees" and spent a good few hours freaking out that I was going to go mad on the retreat. So let's get to that!

I first found out about the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in the back of the Lonely Planet guide. I left on March 14th, and from the 15th to the 24th you don't speak or communicate in any way with any of the participants. There is no reading, no writing, no phones, no music, no singing, nothing to distract you. You get up in the morning at 4:00am, meditate from 4:30-6:30am, 8:00-11:00am, 1:00-5:00pm, 6:00-7:00pm and 8:15-9:00pm. There's also a video discourse in the evening between 7-8. If anyone is interested in learning Vipassana, it's really essential that you take one of the 10-day courses, so don't seriously try and practice based only on my description :) Vipassana means "insight" and was a type of meditation taught by Buddha to release human beings from all suffering. The great thing about this practice is that it is totally secular and is experiential, that is you work on experiencing truth directly, it's not theoretical (works well for my scientific mind, lol). The first three days you practice Anapana meditation, which means observing respiration. By the third day you are spending all of your hours concentrating on a small patch of skin under you nostrils and above the upper lip. Observing any sensation that occurs there, tingling, itching, hot, cold, pressure, etc. During these three days you become painfully aware at how wild your thoughts are. You barely get through a breath and you're thinking "I wish that person would stop burping" or "I think I have to pee, should I pee now or later? What time is it?" or even "are Kermit the frog's pupils round... or do they have a line through them?" In any case, Anapana is used to concentrate the mind. As you focus on sensation at a smaller and smaller area, you increase the sensitivity of your mind and develop single-pointedness of concentration. On the fourth day you learn Vipassana, which means observing sensations on every surface of the body. You start at the top of your head and work down to your feet, and then rinse and repeat. The two most important parts of Vipassana are awareness/observation and equanimity/objectivity. You are to observe all sensations while remaining objective. If you are experiencing pain, you simply observe the pain and recognize that it is not permanent. In the same way, you don't dwell on pleasant sensations. Everything is awareness and equanimity. Do nothing, just observe. So what is the purpose of this? The theory is that our body generates sensations in response to sights, smells, tastes, sounds, touches and thoughts (which is true). And, the habit pattern of our mind is to evaluate these stimuli and then react. Someone hits you, the sensation you experience is unpleasant, you react with anger. Even anger is sensation, you feel heat in your head, maybe you are dizzy, etc. etc. So, by practising Vipassana, observing sensation without reacting to the sensation, you recondition your mind not to react to sensations blindly. When we react to sensation, we develop craving and aversion, which the Buddha taught (in addition to ignorance) was the cause of all suffering. You eat chocolate, you experience good sensations, you want more chocolate. When you can't have it, you are sad, you suffer (okay, that's a pretty superficial explanation, but it illustrates the point). Another example, I'm walking down the street today and someone bumps into me. It hurts, I evaluate this as an unpleasant sensation and start experiencing anger. Now, instead of continuing to feel angry, I simply observe these sensations with equanimity and eventually they pass away. I don't get drawn into a negative cycle of thinking about how rude this person was, how much I wanted to turn around and give him a dirty look, etc. etc.

In the discourse the instructor talks a lot about how we are the master of our own moments and everything is our responsibility. I am not angry or happy because of anyone's actions, it is all within your own control. In addition, it's beneficial to realize that getting angry at someone hurts yourself first and foremost. If someone has done something to you out of anger, there is no use responding with anger, because you too are now suffering. Anyone who is experiencing anger, fear, hatred, ego, etc. is suffering, so what is the point of bringing yourself into suffering with them? You end every Vipassana meditation with a few minutes of Metta, which means a meditation of loving kindness, where you wish only happiness and peace to all beings. The state you are trying to achieve is one where you are unconditionally happy and loving, and you share this without expecting anything in return. If I bake you a cake and you hate it, I don't get mad or upset (and if I do, it's only because of my ego... and if wanting to feel appreciated and elevated was the reason I baked the cake in the first place, then I didn't really bake it for YOU, did I? lol). I'm sure I have not done justice to the entirety of the technique, but this is how I understand it!

Those 10 days were very very difficult, especially the three hours a day where we practiced Addhittana (strong determination), where you try not to move at all for the whole hour. About halfway through I was feeling very upset with myself for not achieving what I wanted, but Vipassana would say "do nothing, just observe. You are making mistakes, that's okay, just accept it and try again in the next moment. Be happy." How wonderful :) Coming out of the course I feel very fortunate to have taken it and am trying very hard to incorporate the two hours of Vipassana meditation everyday that they recommend. I also signed up to volunteer on one of the courses, so stay tuned for that!

The past two days I have simply been trying to catch up, trying to remain more aware and objective, and eating lots of coconut tofu curry at OR2K with some other Vipassana meditators. Most of you are probably also aware that on the 8th day of the course I realized I had lice! It was difficult to observe the itching sensation without reacting with aversion, lol. Anyway, within 3 hours of returning to Kathmandu I went to a barber and had him cut all my hair off! Today I found yet another bug, they are crafty little devils, but even they cannot survive a totally shaved head :) At first I worried that people might not like it, but then, what does that matter? There is no point trying to build up your image in the minds of others, but there is a point in trying to be happy and live your own truth. And so, a bald (bold?) new Vicki goes confidently into the last two months of her trip. Stay tuned for my Kathmandu adventures and trying to figure out exactly how I am going to get to Jordan...

May all beings have true peace, true harmony, true happiness!


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