Considering I only lasted only two days at the retreat it didn’t seem fair that I should write a review.. let me introduce Cassandra Mansueto. She and her partner gave me a lift to Hereford from London – (which was a very enjoyable part of the journey). Here is Cassandra’s review of the Dhamma Dipa Vipassana Meditation Centre in Hereford.

The year of 25! Quarter-life crisis! I have strayed from the Garden of Eden; my body has embarked on the primrose path and my soul is at odds with this! I expect my new fixation is the answer: I will float out of this 10-day meditation course, as light as a feather, my tarnished heart very nicely polished. Sometimes, when I walk with my partner in nature, I scream an adaptation of an excerpt from Apocalypto: I AM ALMIGHTY POWERFUL!! THIS IS ­MY LIFE AND I AM NOT AFRAID! After these 10 days, my title in the world will be ‘she who is strong and controls her own mind’.

For the duration of our stay we are to live humble lives as nuns and monks (kind of). All sexy areas (knees and shoulders) to be covered in modest clothing. No communication allowed! Males and females separated! We are served vegetarian meals (well, breakfast and lunch….apologies to my tummy if it thought we were off to an indulgent retreat).

Each day, everyone is greeted by the 4am gong and a two hour meditation (which means only another 8 hours of meditation to go within the day). The technique itself is quite basic in theory, but applying it is something else altogether. During the first few days we are slowly introduced and eased in to the practice of Vipassana, which slowly cultivates our awareness to perform the technique correctly. We all hear the looped message of, ‘Awareness and Equanimity. Anicca, anicca, anicca. . .change, change, change –insert never-ending, possibly Sanskrit tunes from the past-’.

The Vipassana technique, in my opinion is a good one. The method behind the madness is really quite simple and powerful, but on a primal level I want to throw all of my primrose path toys out of the cot and scream, especially during the three daily one hour sessions where all movement is prohibited. Eventually the chanting becomes unbearable to listen to, as is Goenka’s monotone voice, and the incessant talking at the beginning of each meditation.

This must be part of the plan, testing our tempers and ability to be equanimous, after all, Vipassana is ultimately to be applied at all times, throughout our daily lives, forever and ever.

It’s incredible what silence can do to the mind. Many memories resurface of even the most insignificant mistakes, actions and words. I make mental lists of all the people that I need to apologise to, when I do eventually go back home. This is precisely what I shouldn’t be doing. Vipassana teaches the mind to be present and cease all craving and aversion. This is all too sobering for my liking, so I start to entertain myself. During one session, I envision a fire has erupted and in a panic all of us meditators are forced to get up and speed out of the hall, but it’s happened during our ‘Simon says be a statue’ meditation hour and I’ve lost all sensation in my leg, so instead I’m falling all over the place.

There is no shame at this course. On the first day, the ladies’ bathrooms were filled with sounds of plopping jobbies and pee-induced farts. No-one wears make-up. A sense of liberation pervades the air. I take it a step further, being an eco-bunny, washing and hanging my reusable fabric panty liners on the washing line. Have I taken it all too far I wonder? Or will they all gawk in wonder and amazement at how dedicated I am to being a super-being?

By the fifth day, I’ve seen most rules broken, a girl smiling at her boyfriend across the hall and another woman wrapping food in her scarf and hiding it in her room. One evening my roommate makes rustling noises and it sounds like she’s opening a forbidden Wispa-Gold. It then sounds as if she’s disguising the noise of her chewing, by rubbing her hands together as if she is very cold! I refuse to look in her direction for fear of making her feel uncomfortable. I want her to know that she can trust me with her secret, so I myself break a rule in her presence, by writing something down. The next morning I look at her bedside table and realise there was no chocolate, she was actually moulding ear plugs. Paranoia sets in and I start to wonder if I snore.

The highlight of each day is the teacher’s discourse in the evening, recordings of Goenka. He’s got such an amazing warmth and understanding of human nature. A teddy bear of note. . . a Buddah-Bear. What a sense of humour! We all laugh hysterically! Surprisingly, it’s only on day seven that I start suspecting an aura of brainwashing around my head, but after some rumination (again, while I should be meditating), I come to the conclusion that Goenka is telling us to do the same thing over and over again because we simply aren’t following the simple instructions the first 100 times.

 I chastise myself for having a weak mind!

Finally, day 10 arrives. It’s the lowest point that I’ve had, as so much has been brought to the surface. But there’s a surprise for all of us. We come out of meditation that morning and mixed areas have been combined for the males and females. We may talk! I am greeted by my Henry-Bear (boyfriend) and all is right in the world. We are standing under an umbrella in the rain recalling all that we’ve been dying to tell each other. He can’t believe that in one of the chants (quite a catchy one), I don’t hear ‘gay protection’. Believe you me, I hear it in every meditation session for the rest of the day. Upon leaving, we are instructed to meditate each day for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening and naturally, we all promise each other that we will – insert ominous raised eyebrows-. I don’t leave as spiritually light as I would have liked, but I definitely have dropped a jean’s size!

Four months later and I’m onto my next fad, Feminism (read ‘Eat my Heart Out’ and ‘How to Be a Woman’!!) but I’m still feeling the effects of this donation based course and know that I want to keep Vipassana part of my life. I just haven’t been disciplined enough to follow through with the prescribed meditation sessions, which I know would alter my whole reality. Goenka claims less sleep is needed, one is more efficient and you will ultimately live in line with karma. Changes are occurring in my life on a subtle level. Most nights I have a ritual of meditating after a hot shower. There is a lot more awareness in my thoughts and speech and best of all, I’m letting go of every bad memory as it occurs, forgiving myself immediately, so that I never have to be burdened by it again, until I can live in line with karma and have a clean slate. I also intend on going back and I encourage any person who wishes for a better life, to embark on this journey.

Cassandra Mansueto Xx

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My phone beeps.. “I have three letters for you Becky…”..

“You must give me your number before you leave Becky!”. It’s moving day and I’m carrying boxes up and down the stairs passing the open door of my neighbour’s flat as I go. He’s in his usual position lying on his bed, a ciggie hanging out of his mouth, his door wide open watching people’s movements as they go about their day.

“Er ok” I shout back. It’s not that I don’t like him – it’s more.. well. He’s a big scary bloke, thirty years older and his attempted murder story kinda freaked me out…. ‘when people show you who they are believe them the first time’ Maya Angelou… I think to myself.  

I manage to avoid exchanging numbers for a while.. until one day.. I am back cleaning the flat before I hand the keys in.. my phone is in my hand and I bump into him on the stairs.

“Oh you should give me your number!” he exclaims. I look down at the phone in my hand. He looks down at the phone in my hand. And we look at each other. And I give him my number. He taps it into his phone and hits save, then the ‘RING’ button. My phone rings.

I knew he was going to do that I think. He looks at me and I smile.

“Ok see ya Becky” he mutters. It’s Beckiiii I want to say. But I remember that this is a vocal conversation in realtime.

A week later my phone beeps.. “I have three letters for you Becky…”… I’d been wondering where my post had gone. I’d been popping in to the old address everyday to pick it up but there had been nothing there. Grrrr. I think.

I sit staring at my computer screen drumming my fingers on the desk. And try to think of a get out clause. I decide the best answer is to avoid the situation. But I can’t concentrate. I type in the words ‘meditate’ into google. I decide I need some sort of helping hand to peace and stress free living.. I then type in ‘London… meditation” and up pops The Buddhapadipa Temple. I put my coat on and head out the door.

I walk up to the temple and am shocked at its size and beauty. Unaware that London held such a treasure. Oh wow.. I think.. bigger than it looks in its photos. I head in to the temple for the 4pm meditation and sit on the bench unsure of what I am meant to do. One of the men meditating turns and looks at me.. “beginner???” he asks. “Yes!” I whisper back glad he has asked.

“Come with me!” he says..

“Er… ok!” I reply quietly. We head upstairs in to a small but intricately decorated room and sit down each on a cushion.

Another girl of a similar age to me joins us.

“So.. what do you know about meditation?” he asks us both. We begin to discuss meditation and the mind..

“Pyschology is still very underdeveloped” he tells us.. “a lot of it they turn to Buddhism for…what do you want to achieve with meditation…?”

“Well. I guess I want to be able to control my thoughts”. I say… in the hope that one can wake up instantaneously positive everyday “Screw you negative thought!!” BAM replace it with a positive one. You know. That kind of thing.

“Yeah that’s what I want too” the girl sitting next to me exclaims.

“Hmmm. That is impossible..” he says.. “maybe in other meditations but not in this one…”. Damn! I think.

“Take a look at the Buddha” he says. The girl and I both look at the huge gold Buddha towering over us. “How do you think it got so shiny?”

One of the monks passes through the room and the meditation teacher and he bow.

“Erm…polishing…” the girl nexts to me replies. “Exactly! We believe what you achieve with meditation is a polishing of the mind… so all the best thoughts can come to the surface…but it takes practice…”

My mind wanders… wax on wax off.. wax on wax off… Karate Kid.. ?! I think.. making the connection. And then swiftly remember why I went there in the first place. Focus.. focus Becki. Becki with an i not with a y.

For the next hour and a half we practice mindful walking and sitting meditation.

“Mindfulness… the opposite of distraction…!” he exclaims.

We walk up and down the room slowly with our eyes closed…

“The experience… it is about the experience” he whispers… wax on… wax… my mind tries to take over. And as we practice I notice the faint sound of an owl hooting in the distance.

We then join the monk in the main room, and bow. The other girl has left so it is now just me, the teacher and the monk… “would you like to come for a cup of tea in the house?” the teacher turns and asks me after two hours of meditation “Sure!” I smile. Happy to be invited and surprised that that was really two hours long.

We sit around the large table… and as the only English girl in the room I feel a bit out of place. The discussion is in thai and so I sit drinking my tea quietly. The monk says a few things in English to make me feel more comfortable. Everyone is smiling and the mood is warm. The biscuits keep getting pushed my way. I try to explain that I’m trying to practise mindful eating.

And as I leave and walk up the road with a happy feeling… I think… “Wow.. that was unexpected…” and my phone beeps… “Becky the letters r here…”

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Buddha

I put my phone back in my pocket and decide to concentrate on the present feeling. The unexpected warmth I had just encountered… and the happiness that had invoked..

Have a good week,

Becki Bx

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