Mending Your Mind With Meditation

One's woman's journey to Nepal to sooth her mind in a country believed to be the birthplace of Buddha.
By: Sharon Ungrady

It wasn’t the ban on talking, reading, writing and gadgets of any kind that concerned me. Rather, it was the 4:00 a.m. wake-up bell each day that had me questioning my resolve to complete a meditation course in Nepal.

While traveling In Nepal, I enjoyed a 3-week trek in the Himalayan Mountains, savoring the country’s physical appeal. After the trek, I was ready to embark on a spiritual journey that soothed my mind in a country believed to be the birthplace of Buddha.

In Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, I learned that many meditation centers were geared toward Westerners—which meant they were relatively expensive and kitschy, with all the comforts of the West. Influenced by the simplistic appeal of Nepal, I wanted a more traditional meditation experience, which is how I found myself on a somewhat bumpy bus ride to the Dharmashringa Meditation Centre.

Dharmashringa has been teaching the rigorous, 10-day Vipassana meditation courses for 25 years. The courses, which can accommodate up to 200 people, include meals and housing and are funded from donations. The Vipassana website claims it is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. Literally meaning “to see things as they are,” Vipassana was first taught in India more than 2,500 years ago as a remedy for universal ills. It promotes peace and harmony by training practitioners to remain balanced and detached from stressful situations. This is accomplished by paying close attention to the body, by feeling your breath on your upper lip and continually scanning every part of the body to feel all sensations. They include tingling, cold and heat, and aches and pains. Vipassana helps you become fully aware of those sensations to control your reaction to them and, by extension, to all emotions.

Vipassana has been used with positive results in prison settings as a technique for effective rehabilitation. It is not for the faint of heart. Of the approximately dozen Westerners who started the silent retreat when I did, about a third left before completion. As an introvert, I found the silence easy, but I understand why it wasn’t for everyone. Housed in dorm-like rooms that include about 6 twin beds, it was slightly awkward not to speak to your roommates. About two feet separated each bed and you were likely to literally bump into them at some point during the course.

The pain may have led some packing early. Vipassana involves the pursuit of the state of equanimity even during pain. We were instructed to sit completely still for each 2-hour meditation session and we sat cross-legged on fairly flimsy meditation cushions on the floor. We meditated for a total of 10 hours each day. Ouch. Towards the end, I actually could sit still for each 2-hour session, but it required a lot of equanimity.

One of the best benefits of meditation for me was the quality of sleep. I dreaded the 4 a.m. bell. The first day was OK because it was a new experience and I was excited. I eventually slept so deeply that I awoke just before the bell the last couple of mornings and felt completely rested.

According to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, meditation can help to increase calmness and physical relaxation, to improve psychological balance, to cope with illness, and to enhance overall health and well-being. According to the website of Dhamma Darva, an association promoting Vipassana, practitioners of Vipassana have increased over 25% between 2000 and 2008.

Vipassana is one of many techniques that offer the benefits of meditation. Two common forms of meditation are mindfulness meditation, an essential component of Buddhism, and Transcendental Meditation (TM), with roots in Hinduism.

Consider the following meditation centers and techniques:

Vipassana Meditation – there is no cost for the residential 10-day retreats, which include food and accommodations. They operate on a “pay it forward” basis from donations. Try the Vipassana International Academy in Maharashtra, India, the South African Vipassana Centre in Western Cape, South Africa, and the Dhamma Padhana in Hereford, United Kingdom. Click here for a list of more than a dozen centers in North America.

Shambhala Meditation – is mindfulness meditation taught in the Buddhist tradition at 170 locations throughout the world. They offer weekly meditation groups, weekend intensives and children’s programs. We suggest the Kalapa Valley in Nova Scotia, the Casa Werma in Pátzcuaro, México, and the Windhorse Retreat Center near Milwaukee, WI.

Independent Meditation Center Guide – the database provides information about a wide range of options, from Buddhist meditation to Zen, in countries from Argentina to Wales. Try the Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, NM, the Tao’s Center on the Greek Island of Paros and the Wangapeka Study and Retreat Centre in New Zealand, which offers Buddhadharma, the teaching of compassion and awareness.

World Community for Christian Meditation – it has roots in the desert tradition of early Christianity and was the first Christian meditation center, founded in London in 1975. Now, more than 100 groups meet to share the vision of peace through meditation. Try the Cornerstone Center in Phoenix and Scotsdale, AZ, and the Ammerdown Retreat Centre in Somerset, England.

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