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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Serving Vipassana

A long pause later and I’m back in Athenry. I’m sitting by the fire, settling down again after a trip to Holland and Belgium. I spent Christmas in Holland with my sisters and on the 26th I headed off to Belgium to serve at a 10-day Vipassana meditation course in Dhamma Pajota. This is the same meditation course I sat in both Ireland and India; the one where the students are silent for 10 days, meditating for 10 hours a day, disconnected from the outside world, not permitted to read, write, make eye contact or use body language. Anybody who has ever completed a 10-day course as a student can apply to serve at any centre on any given course. Being a server means to voluntarily help out with the running of the course and experience what goes on behind the scenes. So… after having completed 2 courses as a ‘sitter’, I wanted to attend one as a server. I chose the centre in Belgium, because it worked out easily, given that I was Holland for Christmas (I’d only have to travel 3 hours from my sister’s place). 

On the 26th the course was due to start. I left Holland, took the train to Dhamma Pajota and instantly it was as if I entered a different world. Even though I wasn’t a student on the course and wouldn’t have to take a vow of silence or be sitting on a cushion for 10 hours a day, I still disconnected from the world, from days, dates and time, from Christmas festivities, from New Year’s celebrations, from writing, from reading, from mobile phones and from the internet. 

It was such a freeing experience to consciously focus ONLY on what I was doing at the centre. And all pulls towards the outside world stopped. YES!!!! The intensity of what was happening on the campus really brought us servers to be totally present in that situation and give everything we could for the purpose of keeping the course running smoothly and the students – who were going through probably some of the toughest times in their lives – as comfortable as possible, so they could complete the course with little distractions.

I was put on the kitchen team and GOD how happy I was! Working and preparing food from fresh every day, for 100 students, was therapy in itself. Because I've sat a couple of courses, I know how valuable food becomes, when meditating so intensely, sitting in silence and going through emotional, physical and mental pain in a secluded manner, often drowning in sorrow, despair, depression. Food becomes something so precious - especially because there are only 2 meals a day. So, being placed in the kitchen, where I was able to play a tiny part in bringing the students their food, was a hugely satisfying experience for me. And from day 1, my own appetite shot sky high… Not too sure why... Maybe it was the fresh produce, the goodness, the exciting recipies and the efforts we put into the preparation of every meal. Maybe it was the community spirit and homely feel I had on the team or maybe it was just because we were working 10 and 12 hour days and slowly becoming physically exhausted. Whatever the reason, I was delighted to witness how my position permitted me to feed so many, as well as myself, in great abundance (quality giving the food more richness than the quantity). That was probably the biggest lesson of all.

I say it was physically draining to be serving and working so hard, but that didn’t take away my feeling of satisfaction. I had a few daunting moments, when I actually wondered if I’d be able to keep up the pace. But we were told by the teacher to be selfish, even if we were serving others. We were told to constantly enquire within: 'what am I gaining from this?' A strange concept it seems: to be selfish in the act of giving selflessly! But I slowly understood what he meant. I realized that if we were draining ourselves, in the act of serving others, then we actually wouldn’t be serving others from a good, healthy, positive space. Then there’s no point in serving! If we couldn’t feel that we were gaining, then it was best for the servers to step back from their position and join the meditation sittings instead of doing the work. It’s true what they say: a person can only give wholeheartedly to others, if they’re giving to themselves first. 

For me, even if my body was drained, I felt deeply satisfied. I was able to keep my own daily meditations (around 4 hours a day) deep and the lessons continued to reveal themselves constantly. That was my ‘selfish’ act. It meant I was able to become selfless and gain so much from being there. It wasn’t only the meditations and lessons that I gained, but also working with food, connecting with like-minded people and knowing I was making a contribution to the overall experience of the hard-working students, brought out different sparks from within myself that I'd forgotten ever existed. And the inspiration I gained, gave me energy to give and give and give. 

I guess, if a server manages to absorb themselves FULLY in what they’re doing, they too go into a process of cleansing and purifying the mind (which is what the students are doing, in their endless hours of meditation). Being selfless, means we’re dissolving the tendencies of the ego; we don’t feel better or worse than anybody. We’re all the same. And if we’re all the same, we understand that everyone should receive goodness, not only we, ourselves, on a personal level. Give to others whatever you'd wish to receive. Then it's bound to return. It’s GIVING without trying to be GETTING… 

As the week progressed and the campus continued to be the ONLY thing that received my attention, it became so uplifting to realize the world doesn’t revolve around MY needs, MY problems, MY worries, MY dramas! God, how free I felt! I’ve heard how beneficial it can be, to serve selflessly without expecting to be getting ANYTHING materialistically or verbally in return. And this was the first time for me to truly experience how much a person can grow by doing so.

Due to the intensity of the course, it felt to have lasted forever. But it was a very happy 'forever'! Our team was like a little family. We connected instantly, we knew how to deal with each other’s moods, we worked synchronized and had some hilarious moments in the busiest of hours. We didn’t really acknowledge the New Year, besides the exchange of some best wishes during the preparation of breakfast on the morning of the 1st. And I was delighted… no major build-up, so no come down and the simple life is so balanced and fulfilling!

When it came to leaving, I didn’t feel things were over. Not at all. It felt things were, and still are, only beginning. I was happy to move back to Ireland and, right now, I'm intrigued by what can happen over the next months. These past few days, I feel a part of me is searching for something and the world feels open again. Perceptions have altered just a little bit more and I know my time here in the cottage might be winding down – well come May I’ll definitely be on my way. But where to, who can say?! I can’t. All I can say is that I’m open to opportunities and unsure of the exact direction but certain of what the bigger picture is all in aid of; living and loving life.

Wishing you all an amazing 2013... let the change and transformations manifest in all of our lives... What a wonderful time to be alive. Love love love always xxx


  1. Niamh!!! Keep writing. It buzzes through your words! Love your story.

  2. Wow Niamh beautiful how you've expressed it. Thank you for being there.
    I've enjoyed every minute of it.
    xx Jose

  3. thanks for this post found it very helpful. tomorrow is my first serving after 5 sits lol (speaking of selfishness ;)) But im lookingforward to it!

    Take care

  4. This was brilliant, thanks for sharing.

    Metta to you