Personal Development

Dharma Days

I found some (not all) of my original travel blog hidden away in my gdrive so I decided it would be cool to release some select entries. This one is from around December 2017

Welcome to the next part in my journey, it has been a lot of fun and a lot of hard work and I really really hope you read the whole thing and enjoy it – especially the part on my Vipassana experience.

I last left you after departing from Palomino in the North of Colombia, relaxing in Cartagena for a day. I took a very cheap flight to Bogota and spent a nice couple of days with the brother of a Colombian relative I have, followed by a lovely week in the city of Ibagué with their mother. The hitch from Bogota to Ibagué was a fun one – I got to the outskirts of Bogota and took a bus a bit further out to a gas station. The first guy who I asked offered to take me 3 quarters of the way to Ibagué so I jumped in his truck. He dropped me about 2 hours out of where I needed to go at a restaurant on the side of the road. All the truckers the looked at me like I was a piece of dirt or a thief and told me they were all going in the opposite direction from where I was. However, I also met some families from Bogotá coming to try the traditional food that the restaurant served. It was there that I met William, a Colombian who had lived in Melbourne for the last 37 years. We exchanged details and he treated me to a delicious grilled fish lunch. After two hours with no success I eventually hailed a bus for the rest of the way to Ibagué that didn’t try to charge me a crazy amount, and walked the last stretch to the apartment of Graciela, the mother of Angélica, my Colombian family. My time in Ibagué was very regenerative before the big challenge I had coming up – a ten day, ten hour a day meditation course. I managed to meditate twice a day in preparation, as well as practice my Spanish and meet a family of absolutely delightful people. I’m glad I had the opportunity to get to know them before the hard work I was about to put in.

It was getting closer to the time of the big Vipassana course (I’ll explain what that is momentarily) and so I decided to hitchhike to Cali, where the course was being held. What an adventure that turned out to be! Getting out of Ibagué I realised would be a bit of a struggle as walked the couple of kilometres down the road until a highway, where luckily there was a roadblock. After knocking on a couple of truck doors one offered to take me to the town on the outskirts of Ibagué, so off I went. In that town I met a couple of Ecuadorian guys trying to get back to their country and we tried to hitch together for a while with little success. I went further up the road to try somewhere else and who do I bump into but Jhon, the trucker who took me to Cartagena! What a crazy coincidence! We were unfortunately going in opposite directions but immediately after catching up with him I met a father and his two sons who agreed to take me half an hour to the next biggish town. This was the point I learned that even when someone can only take you 30 minutes along, you take what you can get. They dropped me to wherever it was and I walked around asking for lifts until I saw a huge turquoise truck. I asked a lift from it’s driver and he told me to jump in and that I could go all the way to Cali with him – what luck! Carlos Alberto, such a character! He began by playing a mix of classic 80s hits and salsa while showing me his drum playing skills on the dash. He then proceeded to repeat the phrase “kiss my buth” and cacklef with laughter at regular intervals despite the incorrect pronunciation of “butt”. Initially I was a bit concerned for my safety – this guy seemed off his rocker and the whole situation seemed way too lucky… But then I just decided to go with it and relaxed into the journey, accepting his quirks – he gave me a croissant when I first got in so I realised he was probably pretty harmless. He was a chronic hitchhiker picker-upper and picked up two random girls along the way – one was a 15 year old who kept asking for food and for me to give her all my things (piercings, bracelets etc.). She then pulled out a knife and announced she was going to share a mango with us, which made me forget about all her initial requests and enjoy the Lord of fruits. The next girl was a mid twenties student who didn’t have any way to get home after an exam. Carlos tried really hard to get on her good side and talk himself up. I ended up just chilling and not really listening to his attempts at wooing a woman who was obviously not very interested in a language I’ve only recently grasped. He ended up buying us a heap of food along the way as he told us his life story – I’m always learning how generous people are on this ever expanding trip. Carlos was a generous guy with a big heart, but one who was looking to be told how generous he was – no matter, I obliged him in that because of the kindness he showed me, even if he was looking to get something out of it. After dropping off the second girl we stopped to get some chicken foot soup and who jumps from the back of the truck but the Ecuadorians I met earlier that day! Another amazing coincidence! Carlos had picked them up too! He dropped me at the edge of the city at about 9pm and I walked to the terminal and took a bus to San Antonio, walking to Zanahoria, the vegan food hostel where I would meet my Couchsurfing buddy, Santiago, the next day. You might remember Santi from my previous sojourn to Cali. This guy is awesome. He let me stay again and even let me borrow a cushion and blanket while he held onto my backpack while I went off to my course, taking a carpool to the Ashram with Alejandro from Cali, Kayla from the US and Sandra from Quebec. On arrival who do I meet but Gerald! An Australian friend from Tena in Ecuador, but more on him later.

Okay, so now comes what, in my opinion, is the most important part of this blog – Vipassana.

Vipassana is a 10 day meditation course that’s said to be the exact method taught by the Buddha to put people on the path to enlightenment (whatever that is). Buddha never wanted a religion, he didn’t want followers, he just wanted to teach people to reach the kind of liberation he had reached through the practice of this specific method of meditation. Around 500 years after the death of the Buddha this method had been lost to history to all but a small monastery in Burma which existed purely to pass down the method, from teacher to student. 2000 years later the first monk in the history of that monastery began teaching the method to outsiders. A farmer learned and taught the method to a man who would become a government official. This official began teaching the method not only within the government, but to any willing participants in a school of meditation. He eventually taught the technique to the late S.N Goenka, founder of the current Vipassana movement and the vessel through which Vipassana has spread all over the world in the last few years. The history, I’m sure you understand, is much richer than this, however for a blog post I hope it’s enough to at least get you interested.

Now, the practice itself. Vipassana meditation is non sectarian, and can be practiced by any person of any religion. The method is one that’s intention is to teach you wisdom through understanding the relationship that all sensations on your body have with the world, the property of Anicca (Aneecha) – that of arising and passing away. The thought process is that, through a minimum of 10 hours a day for 10 days of meditation, you can better respond to the world, you can learn the skill of equanimity, and you can begin to walk on the path of seeking to understand happiness and misery. The program, unsurprisingly, has spread to nearly every country on Earth due to its effectiveness. The results are honestly powerful, even with my continued skepticism. Not only all this, but it’s free, run purely on donations (and the food was absolutely amazing). Seriously, of you ever get a chance to do it… do it (dhamma.org to read more and sign up to a course near you).

My journey with Vipassana has been a long time coming. Approximately 2 or more years ago a maths tutor at Ormond ran a talk about Vipassana and the way the practice has changed her life. I don’t know what it was about the talk, but since that moment I was convinced that I would find the time to do it, whenever I could. I would think about the course every month or so and remind myself that I needed to try it out. I forgot why exactly, only that I wanted to face the challenge. And boy, it is a huge challenge. Nearly no speaking and 10 hours a day of sitting and meditating really can get to people. It’s for that reason that, when I first applied in Australia, the course leader called me and recommended against trying to complete the course at that time in my life due to some mental health issues. She informed me that there was a potential that I would experience some of the worse mental health I ever had during the course, and that I should wait another six months, that they weren’t going anywhere. Wow, that frightened me, but it also just fanned the flames of desire I had to complete the challenge – to go more deeply within myself and my own mind than I had before. To face some demons. For some reason I just knew that I had to do it, that it was exactly my kind of challenge.

Most people begin to really struggle around day 3 or day 4 but, perhaps because I was prepared to face deep hardship or perhaps because I simply told myself to keep working and not worry until the end of the course, I found it pretty easy at that point. I’ve had a lot of experience with being stuck inside my own head and the negative thoughts that can circulate, so they didn’t bother me for too long. I had a few days of despising the guys who would always get to lunch first and take heaps of food, but that subsided. My big difficulties began on day 8, and yet, I still continued to push through, counting the hours of meditation I had left for each day and looking forward always to the meals. It finally came to an end and I felt a lot of things. Good things, doubts, satisfaction and, most of all, the desire to continue on the path and do another course as soon as possible. It was as though my heart is always been seeking something to convert wisdom into a skill, an ability I could work on, and it found it with Vipassana. Perhaps not every kind of wisdom, but damn – a whole lot… and a way to practice it on a real level.

I’m not sure how vague this all is. I want you, the reader, to experience what I’ve experienced in the course and so I think it’s better if you know less of the content and go in ready to be taught things from the start. I think the best way I could convince you to do the course though, is probably the results. Even from that 10 days I’ve found myself responding differently to life around me, more calmly and openly, more confidently, with more love, and very importantly – being less attached to money and plans. Money has been a big issue for me on this trip – frequent budgeting, being a miser, doing or not doing things for the sake of a few dollars. That is all but gone at this stage. It’s not as though I don’t experience some of the same thoughts as I did before, I do… but they just don’t bother me in the same way. I’m sure there are more, longer effects that I won’t notice until a few more weeks after the course, but hopefully I’ve given you enough at least to pique your interest. If you have ever experienced anxiety or depression in your life and you think there might be a time when it could arise again, please consider signing up to the next possible course. It costs you nothing but time and it could change your life. Please please please contact me if you have any questions about it. Seriously – if you have ever listened to anything I’ve said, listen now. My one biggest piece of advice for it is this: Stay the whole 10 days. Stay the whole time. You can do it. Dhamma.org – check it out. Vipassana has opened up my curiosity about a new kind of ancient knowledge and internal world has started me on a new kind of path on which I hope you can join me.

The last day of the course the students could again talk, and me and Gerald really hit it off! Once we arrived back in Cali we hung out for the next 4 days, talking and learning a heap of stuff from each other. Unfortunately I had already purchased a flight to Panama, otherwise I would have stayed in Colombia and traveled with Gerald around, but we promised to again meet up back in Australia (he’s from Sydney) to do more Vipassana together.

And so, feeling as though I was both apprehensive and floating on air, I continued my journey to Panama.

Arriving in Panama City at about 8pm, I was shocked by the high prices, and walked to the nearest bus stop. On the bus to a place that I had heard existed hostels, I met five women returning from their workday at a beauty salon returning home. We struck up a conversation and on response to saying I didn’t know where I was going to sleep, I’ve of them offered me a room in her house for the night! Heck yes! What luck! So we took another bus and a taxi to her house where that night I was surrounded by children and teens speaking too fast for me to understand. One of them laughed at me “you’re in the ghetto here,” he said – but the area really seemed quite nice to me. After a full night of sleep Doris, the woman in whose house I stayed, served me a delicious breakfast and handed me a container full of food, “para el camino largo, necesitas comer”. (You will need to eat on the long journey). More beauty, more generosity. Everywhere I go people keep telling me that there are bad folks, that I should be very careful, but everywhere I go I just meet the loveliest and most generous hearts. Perhaps I’m lucky, or perhaps there aren’t as many bad folks as people think. I’m sure of this though: where there are people, there is goodness.

Another example of this – that day a man in a car he was delivering picked me up and took me to the next city, David, and after another couple of hours of waiting a truck driver took me the rest of the way to Almirante and let me sleep locked in the back of his truck that night. The next morning I took a ferry to Isla Colon and met Malcolm, the 84 year old British owner of Finca Tranquila, an organic farm overlooking the lagoon (actual a bay in the region of Bocas Del Toro). I found Malcolm on workaway and sent a message a week before. Bruce, his plant man, messaged me back saying that though they didn’t have the space, he wanted me to come anyway because it seemed like I had a really great energy from my message. What luck again! He put me in his yacht to sleep and fed me some delicious food.

So, right now I’m relaxing on the patio of a house sitting on top of the water, sleeping in a yacht, and doing some rather relaxed work on an organic farm. The exotic fruit is free to pick and eat when I please, the dogs are beautiful, and the people are friendly. I might settle down here for a while before moving up towards Mexico for more Vipassana. Thanks for reading, send me a message if you want to chat or have any questions.

Lots of love,

Josh

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