After three weeks of enjoying the Ozzy lifestyle around Byron Bay I just felt like moving on and experience something different again. So I decided to go to Myanmar.
Bordering to the north of Thailand this poor country has been suffering from a cruel military government for many decades. Until 2010 the political opposition asked tourists to avoid visiting Myanmar in order to not support this human rights violating government. This has just changed with the election about three years ago, which is commonly regarded as a first step towards democracy. Since then larger numbers of tourists have come to visit the country. Nevertheless, the poverty and suppression of the people is obvious and there is a very long way to go because the military government still seems to pull the strings.
Myanmar has many different ethnics and languages but about 85 % are Buddhists and the country is packed with ancient golden temples. The majority of people have to make a living from a couple of dollars a day. For example a group of young students told me they can earn up to fifty dollars a month if they work full time. There are universities but their standards can not compare to anything us western students would take for granted. Although these people have suffered way too much, they still have not lost their positivity. They are extraordinarily friendly and honest.
After traveling the beautiful countryside for a couple of days I went to a ten day meditation course. Apparently this meditation technique, called Vipassana, was discovered by the historic Buddha 2500 years ago. The aim of the meditation is to liberate yourself from suffering and to enjoy true happiness and compassion with all beings. I would like to give a rough sketch of the underlying model:
Any experience we make triggers a „sensation“ in our body. For example when you fall in love you might feel butterflies in your stomach or you get cold feet before an audition. Our mind observes any sensation (consciously or unconsciously) and automatically labels it as an either pleasant or unpleasant feeling. Without necessarily being aware we want more of these „pleasant sensations“ and try to avoid the „unpleasant sensations“. Consequently our actions are determined by our cravings (desire for something) and aversions (wanting to avoid something).
But our cravings and aversions are bound to lead to suffering for two reasons: First, it is not possible to avoid every unpleasant experience and second because all experiences, no matter how intense they are, are impermanent.
To liberate oneself from this suffering Vipassana offers a technique to build up a genuine tolerance or even equanimity towards both pleasant and unpleasant sensations by the awareness of the impermanence of everything. Like this we can step by step eradicate our cravings and aversions. Nevertheless you do not need to live a life in apathy and absence of emotions. Vipassana can teach you to observe your feelings (a pleasant tingling on your neck as well as a tense and aching back) objectively without creating an attachment or aversion to it. You just observe but do not react.
The ten days felt like a rollercoaster to me. Sometimes I got really excited and ambitious and truly enjoyed the meditation. But as soon as expectations arise you have got something to loose and sooner or later you are going to crash. I have to admit I was going through some very hard times during these ten days and often felt like freaking out or giving up.
Feelings arise and pass away. Everything is impermanent. Even my own personality is of such nature. This has become very clear to me. Individual attitudes and points of views arise and pass away. When I was feeling frustrated and depressed I just felt like giving up. I felt fear. The fear of not accomplishing my own expectations. And at that time I could not imagine a different point of view. Everything felt so heavy. But maybe just a couple of hours later my mind would feel as light as a feather again and I was laughing at my previous frustration which then appeared ridiculous as if it was made out of nothing. This was my experience of impermanence.
Moreover, I have learned that most answers can be found within yourself. You just need to become the master of your mind to gain the awareness.
Especially as a beginner Vipassana requires a lot of discipline and determination and hence there are very strict rules and a schedule which has to be obeyed by everyone: Wake up bell at 4am, sitting meditation almost the whole day until 9pm. No food after 11am. Noble silence, meaning no communication or entertainment at all (no talking, no reading, no writing, no music, etc). All these rules are not meant to punish but actually help to generate a suitable environment for your individual meditation.
I was taking part in a ten day Vipassana meditation course as taught by S.N. Goenka all over the world (http://www.dhamma.org/). Although it felt like the hardest ten days (-> “rollercoaster”) of my life I am very grateful for this unforgettable experience, which has given me many valuable insights. Therefore I want to encourage everyone who is interested to experience Vipassana on his own!