BY LUISSA BURTON
Could you survive one day without your mobile phone? How about 24 hours without speaking? At all. What if I also told you that you cannot read, write or look anyone in the eye as well as complete 10 hours of meditation? Many people would probably think, if for a day only, they could endure most things. But what if you had to do all of these things not for one day but for ten consecutive days? This means no communication with the outside world or the people around you and 100 hours of meditation. All you can do for those 10 days is just breathe. Have you changed your mind now? Probably yes, maybe not… When sharing with people what I was about to do, they replied “I could never do that.”
Your mind is stronger than you think. Aside from the response, the next interaction between us was usually them asking me the reasons behind it: “why?”; “Why would you do that, what is the point?” To which I replied “I don’t know just yet but let me go and find out. When I come back I’ll tell you why”. On my own, I flew to Myanmar and went to sit behind a monk and “observe my respiration” in a Vipassana 10 day silent retreat.
Many of my adventures have involved physical challenges. Mountain climbing, sky-diving, water fasting. However, I decided I wanted to see what it would be like to turn my mind inward and be in complete solitude with myself. Like many of us in our modern society I am always alert, multi-tasking, on my phone having 10 conversations at once whilst getting on a train full of people and eating a muffin. In the first three days I was extremely frustrated. I sat in a room with 100 people who all seemed to be naturally good at sitting like stones and breathing while I could barely sit still or stop my mind from thinking. I would ask the teacher (the only person you could speak to with one question a day), “am I doing this right?” and all I got back was “observe your respiration” and “continuity is key”. I would go back to my pillow on the floor confused, not any wiser and now with my mind also screaming at me, “why AM I here?
” Day 4, still confused, still breathing but not really understanding, “am I doing this right?” Teacher now says “observe the sensations”, “continuity, continuity, continuity”. By now I am angry at myself. I would continually observe these sensations for about 5 minutes before my mind wandered off again. Meditate. Daydream. Meditate. Daydream. Angry thoughts. Sad thoughts that made me cry. Thoughts about my pets when I was a child. Thoughts about my family, flashbacks of my childhood. Questions. So many questions, “what could I have done differently?” “What is the meaning of life?”. More thoughts. “Woah I’m sitting behind a monk this is cool”. “AH I FORGOT. FOCUS THE MIND AND OBSERVE THE RESPIRATION, FINE!” It was a constant wrestling match with my mind to come back to the meditation, not get distracted by other people and to fight my own ego trying to get me to do ANYTHING other than to meditate.
Day 5: I am being chased around my room by a neon peacock in my dream. It seemed so real that when I woke up I thought it actually happened. Is this it? Did I lose my mind? I also said “Hi” out loud to the pigeons which sat outside my room just to be a rebel but quietly enough so that no one else heard.
Day 6: I cried thinking about how much I love dogs. By now we also have to sit and not move at all during the meditation. If you feel pain, tough luck, sit through it, observe the sensation. If the pain gets worse sit through it, do not move, trust the process… I was finding it so hard to not move. When my hand was itchy I wanted to scratch it, when my foot went numb I wanted to relieve the pressure. However, it was at this moment that I looked over towards an 85 year old woman. Extremely fragile and the tiniest lady I had ever seen. Sunken cheeks, not an ounce of fat, the height of a 7 year old child. Her skin and bones weathered by old age. But her strength. Her strength was of another world. I had not seen her move once in all of these 6 days. In awe I resolved to persevere, to observe my respiration, to observe the sensations and to continue, continue in silence for another 4 days…
On Day 8 after fighting through pain, twitches, noise distractions, numbness, itching. Observing the sensations. Not judging the sensations. Continuing. Continuing. I dissolved. “WHAT WAS THAT?”
I can only describe this feeling in full new age hippie language: I became one with the universal flow of energy.
The world around us consists of matter in different forms, some more dense than others. However every single thing regardless of it being solid, liquid or gas is made up of atoms that vibrate at different speeds. When I experienced this, the floor and my body no longer felt like a solid mass. My body, everything my body came into contact with in that room and the air around me dissolved into one subtle vibrating mass of atoms. I was left with just my conscious mind suspended in time and space. Woah. Cool.
So what was the point?
I learnt an enormous amount about my own mind and gained a lot of wisdom from this very simple yet powerful technique.
1) We worry about other people judging us but often the harshest critic is ourselves. I later found out that most of the people at the retreat had done this 7 or 8 times. When I was getting upset with myself, thinking I wasn’t very good, that I had no discipline or focus, I didn’t know that in relation to everyone else I was a beginner and they had years of practice. Wisdom gained, be gentle with myself always.
2) “Mind over matter”. I always thought “matter” in this phrase meant the situation at hand. However, when I had the experience of dissolving after not reacting to any of the sometimes agonising pains or sensations, this saying gained a whole new meaning. Matter was now my physical body, the room around me and the physical world in which I live. By focusing my mind enough, my mind could overcome WHATEVER the physical sensation was and literally conquer any matter, my body, the room, the universe… Mind blowing. If that didn’t make sense, I’m sorry. However, I completely recommend anyone to go and experience this for themselves and to realise their own crazy mind blowing realisations. Wisdom gained: I now finally understand spiritual teacher Eckharte Tolle when he says “this too shall pass”. Since leaving the retreat I have successfully handled any craving that has come my way. I can confidently and happily observe a craving. Instead of reacting to it, I can observe it, remain non-judgemental of it, understand that it WILL pass and then make a decision from logical, rational thought instead of from need or want. Instead of just believing the idea that everything will pass, good or bad, I now had first hand experience myself and can apply the technology successfully to all areas of my life. Ok, so I had to sit in silence for 10 days to come to this realisation but it was beyond worth it. Many people come out finding they randomly quit a smoking habit or changed their diets.
3) “Pain is certain, suffering is optional”. To quote Buddha. By fighting with my mind to stay focused. By battling with my ego questioning why I was there and trying to convince me it wasn’t working, I was just continuing my suffering. By practising continuity, accepting the pain and not judging the moment as bad, I could find peace. As above, the suffering passed, the time passed. Wisdom gained: I learnt how to catch myself in moments of misery and to come out of it quickly. The present moment is as it is and that can be challenging or smooth. However, we cannot control the changing nature of life but we can control how we handle it.
Rejection is only a redirection After the silent retreat, I was originally supposed to speak in front of a large audience about online branding. But due to the changing nature of life the event got cancelled and I got “redirected” to an even more fulfilling, interesting adventure. In my own belief there are no accidents in life. This was the universe simply rearranging itself to bring forth a journey that allowed for more authentic connectivity with the people of Myanmar. I ended up speaking to a smaller group of management and hotel staff at Amara Ocean Beach Hotel. The result of this being real action and impact taken by the hotel to commit to becoming leaders in the sustainable tourism industry through green practices.
Secondly, I had the incredible opportunity of staying at Kalaw Hill Lodge. I planted trees, learnt about organic farming, connected with locals and learnt about their way of life. The most memorable moment being with Dom Ohm Kyi, an 80 year old grandmother who taught me how to plant seeds. I was also astounded by how the lodge get all the staff together every Saturday to do a mass trash clean up around the local area. I thoroughly enjoyed joining in with the positive energy to help the planet.
When staying at The Strand in Yangon, I had a butler named Se Thu who was a pageant enthusiast. He had seen my participation in Miss Earth 2016 on the television and I was one of his favourite contestants. Miss Earth is a pageant focused on environmental preservation in The Philippines. Who would have thought my work would have reached Myanmar? Just because they are invisible to you, doesn’t mean you are invisible to them. This solidifies the importance of being consistent with your message because you never know whose lives you are impacting on a global scale. Lastly, the night before I returned home, the organisers of the original event that got cancelled met me with a wonderful gift. An “Official Green Queen” crown. Although the plans had to change, they went out to get me a crown so now I can OFFICIALLY be “The Official Green Queen”. I was honoured and humbled by the gesture. However, with or without a crown there is more work that needs to be done to save our planet. I work for a cause, not applause because at the end of the day, if not me then who? We know that one person can truly make a difference. Sixteen year old environmental activist Greta Thunberg is an example. She found the courage to speak her passion because it is her generation that will bear the disastrous consequences of our generation’s destructive actions.. If change doesn’t happen now, then when?