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Spiritual Centres

Dhamma Mahi Centre de Vipassana
(also known as Dhamma Mali Centre)

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Dawn over Burgundy France

The gentle countryside of the Puisaye in Burgundy provides just the right environment for serious meditation. A Vipassana centre was set up here in 1988, providing ten day courses throughout the year to help men and women to be at peace with themselves. Most of the teaching is in French but some of the courses are held in English and Khmer.

Here we bring you a first-hand experience of what ten days of silence is really like. Libby Southwell ran away from Australia after her fiancé died in a mountaineering accident and a close friend died tragically afterwards. She thought travelling might heal the wounds but developed dengue fever in Sri Lanka and experienced the tsunami. Life couldn’t deliver many more knocks of gargantuan proportions.

In her book Monsoon Rains and Icicle Drops, Libby bares all. ‘I felt like I had survived deep brain surgery’ she says.

These profound thoughts were going through my mind as I waited on a station platform at Gare de Lyon, Paris, for my train heading to Laroche Migennes, the nearest village to the Dhamma Mali Centre de Vipassana. I know it’s hard to believe that I would willingly choose to stay silent for 10 days—I grew apprehensive myself whenever I thought about it too much—but this was a challenge that appealed to me. Friends, family and complete strangers had tried to warn me off the experience; the common attitude was that this would be one of the most daunting things I would tackle in my life. Ha! After what I’d been through in the last two years, not to mention the last couple of months, could a meditative retreat in the beautiful Burgundy region of France really be that scary? I would find out soon enough, but there was no doubt that this was another important part of my journey. I didn’t want to travel the world only to find that I had unfinished business. This meditative retreat would sort out any residual emotional baggage for me. Also, most importantly, I would learn to meditate! I knew myself well enough to realise that I would always pack my life with gung-ho experiences. I believed the act of meditation would be a useful tool to keep myself calm in the midst of all of it.

I arrived at the meditation centre after a three-hour journey feeling very much like I was attending my first day at school. Fired up, I followed the rest of the students who, like me, were enrolled to participate in the 10 days of silence. As I queued and checked in with the rest of the students I was handed a pouch and told to hand over my valuables, including any reading or writing materials. I was then assigned a number and bed, F3, and sent to meet my compatriots bunking with me in the dorm. We whispered our introductions, none of us sure if the ‘noble code of silence’ was yet in force. Swiftly, after brief chats, I had a snapshot of my fellow meditators.

F1 was an older German woman, taking her first break in 15 years from the stress of caring for her 19- year-old daughter who suffered Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. F2 was a gorgeous looking 29–year-old, addicted to LSD for a decade and still struggling, after a year, to stay clean. F4 was a rebirthing therapist from the south of France, Marie-Hélène, searching to expand her mind with exposure to other therapies. F5, Sandrine, was a 35-year-old Rastafarian who made a living from nude modelling for artists in Provence. Finally, F6 was Miriam, a 54-year-old reformed alcoholic now practising Saufology, an alternative therapy that she explained worked with both the conscious and unconscious mind.

With barely enough time to digest these titillating accounts, we were summoned for formalities and some 50 people of both sexes listened avidly as the rules were spelled out. Firstly, we were to not talk for the entire 10 days—no surprises there—and we were, furthermore, to refrain from any physical interaction (including eye contact) with any of our fellow students, male or female. We were not allowed to read, write or run, only to walk within a roped area that, in effect, forced us to tread repetitively in a circle some 50 metres in circumference. No exercise was allowed, nor yoga, and we were asked to keep our eyes closed and to maintain one posture during the many hours of daily meditation. The rules and regulations seemed to go on for hours. I blanched inwardly and cursed.

We started the regime with a one-hour meditation the opening night, making ourselves comfortable in our allocated cells that were decorated with all manner of rugs and cushions. Thankfully, we would be allowed to meditate on a rug if we wished—and I wished. Some people were using their cushions like building blocks. One woman sat on her cushion like she was riding a horse (I later discovered she was a professional horse whisperer); another participant looked as if he sitting on a riverbank fishing and drinking beer.

Each day began with a 4.30 am rise to immediately begin a two-hour meditation session. I would typically find myself slouched forward within half an hour, my head hanging with a puddle of drool in my lap, occasionally even waking myself with a start to discover I had been snoring.

Breakfast followed from 6.30 am to 8 am when I would throw muesli and prunes down my throat and make a beeline back to my cell in the nearby dormitory block where I would sleep before the next meditation session. Sure enough, 8 am would come round all too quickly and for three hours, I would be fighting pins and needles, unsuccessfully trying to ignore aches all over my body. Lunch between 11 am and 1 pm was definitely the highlight of each day. All forms of delicious rolls, baguettes and pastries were combined with plenty of lettuce, legumes and tasty, fresh vegetables, making the midday repast a welcome diversion. Then I would do a couple of dozen laps of the 50-metre circuit and spend the rest of the lunch break daydreaming, peoplewatching or simply gazing at the falling leaves.

Equally often, my mind would race so quickly and loudly that I almost expected others to comment on my litany of thoughts. During our silent rest periods, I would spend hours conjuring up life stories for the other students. I longed for pen and paper so I could write them down. I pictured myself handing these stories to my fellow meditators and discussing with them how close (or not) to real life my hypotheses about their lives were. I didn’t only spend hours making up life stories; I also wrote letters in my head, designed outfits, and concocted recipes … you name it, my mind was going there. The three consecutive meditation sessions after lunch, for me, were excruciating. After five days, I found I could still my mind sufficiently to meditate for hours and emerge from a session refreshed. But it would not be inaccurate to say that I just as often simply wanted to slump over and sleep, or get up and stretch. My body seemed to be riddled with aches and pains; I was constantly distracted by the noises emanating from my fellow meditators. In the silence, every cough sounded like a road accident. As 50 acolytes digested their lunch of lentils, beans and various other legumes … well you can imagine the rumbles and mumbles coming from four dozen stomachs, bowels and bottoms.

Then there were the snorts, sniffles and tears of those affected by the minutes, hours and days of silence as feelings began to well up. In my case, my feeling tank seemed to be almost empty—the thought crossed my mind, with some relief, that I had possibly emptied my personal store of tears. Instead, I would peek around in the muffled darkness at my fellow meditators. Every time I did this, I seemed to be the only recalcitrant because everyone else appeared engrossed in reflection. And to my horror, most were sitting perfectly upright. For a wriggler like myself, this was an achievement I could barely comprehend.

After a brief afternoon tea break (no dinner, alas) there were two more meditation sessions, broken up by a teacher discourse on Vipassana practice, and finally lights out at 9.30 pm. With such a routine, I swiftly realised there was nowhere to hide and seriously wondered if I would be able to last the distance. Being silent wasn’t the problem, I discovered, but endless hours of meditation were. Then, just when I thought I couldn’t take another second of it—my determination would kick in and I’d be counting off another day. Occasionally, I would find that the hours of meditative practice were working. My sessions were a rollercoaster: sometimes painfully aware, at other times I experienced a serene mindlessness from which I would emerge unable to believe that hours had passed without my conscious awareness. When the 10 days drew to an end and the code of silence was lifted, I barely knew how to react. I felt lobotomised; after so much time to think, my brain felt numb and talking was painful and slow. I floundered as I began conversations, words stumbling out of me like a prisoner walking free after months of captivity. Then tears started to roll down my cheeks as I expunged the last remaining vestiges of feeling—what a deflated balloon I was. I felt like I had survived deep brain surgery. So much inward reflection had taken place that not talking was easier. There was almost no need to talk— we had all gone through such a personal exploration that to begin to explain the realisations seemed pointless. In the final analysis, the experience made me feel alone, but also self-sufficient and stronger than ever. Before Vipassana, I was familiar with my personal vagaries; after 10 days of this physical and mental endurance however, I felt certain I had faced everything about myself that I might have avoided up until then. Of course, one never knows ‘what one doesn’t know’, but I couldn’t help feeling that there was little left to fear.


Monsoon Rains and Icicle Drops by Libby Southwell (with Josephine Brouard) is published by Murdoch Books priced £7.99.

The centre is funded by donations and courses are free of charge.

Centre Vipassana Dahamma Mahi, Le Bois Planté, 89350 Louesme
Tel : 00 33 (0) 386 45 75 14