Serena Star-Leonard & John Leonard on Their Vipassana Experience

Meet the irrepressible Serena and John Leonard – a happily married pair of nomads travelling the world for the last 3 years because they wanted to do some good for humanity as well as broaden their world perspective.  They wanted to get out and about, make documentaries and blog the world about their discoveries from an office on the beach, in a flat in Thailand, in a relative’s house in Dublin or a cafe in Vietnam or any “where”.  Any place their feet and hearts and money could take them

serena and john

As Blog Ambassadors for World Vision, their destinations take them to little-known remote pockets of heart-warming, heart-breaking poverty, distress and sheer resilience amongst dire circumstances.  Their docos highlight the magnificence of the human spirit amidst the hell that is “man’s inhumanity to man”.

So it comes as no surprise that eventually, these 2 wonderful ambassadors for the “30 something” generation would need to take some time out and refuel their spirits and let their minds settle down into the peace and quiet of meditation – Vipassana meditation to be precise.  They found a centre in Malaysia and this is their story….

serena john vip centre malaysia

Where did you first hear about Vipassana?

John: I first heard about Vipassana when I was backpacking in India 10 years ago. I stumbled upon a centre just north of Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai lama. I was out for a walk and happened to see the signs indicating some kind of retreat and meditation going on. Upon inquiry I was told there was a ten day wait to do one: ten days was a lifetime to me back then and I moved on before I got the chance to do it. But my interest was piqued.

Serena: I have wanted to do Vipassana for quite a few years. I have several friends and acquaintances who have done the course and thought it was amazing.

What sealed the deal was catching up with a friend Stig.  We spoke for a while before I had to ask “What have you been doing? You are glowing!” He had just come out of Vipassana – he gave me the low down on the course and I was sold.

I have had a life-long interest in personal development although a lot of my training was about doing more and being more in the present moment. It appealed to me that meditation and being still physically and mentally would be really beneficial to my bubbling mind.

We actually booked to do it first in Mexico in 2012 but we ended up getting a film job that clashed. It wasn’t until we reached Asia and looked for possible courses that we found places available in Malaysia where we were headed.

What attracted you?

John: No part in particular. I am interested in the mind and in how it works. I don’t see modern psychology or psychoanalysis as having all the answers.

In fact, I am positive that as a race of beings we are tumbling headlong into a contrived abyss.

To learn more about a method which potentially can give you access to a deeper part of the brain really intrigued me.

Did you realise it was a very demanding method?

John: No. I had no expectations. I avoided reading or learning about it prior to actually going and experiencing it for myself. I didn’t want to temper reality with preconceived expectations. I have heard great reports down through the years from friends and acquaintances and was quite shocked at how utterly difficult and demanding it was.

What part of you needed to explore Vipassana?

John:  The philosopher in me has always been curious. I have always asked why. I did a degree in Philosophy many moons ago and learnt titbits about the Philosophies of the East. Buddhism, Daoism and Hinduism were all so obscure to me then, that I thought it would be difficult to ever gain a deeper understanding of them. That philosopher was delighted to be able to learn more.

When you arrived what other sort of people were there?  Were they what you thought as in stereotypes or age or just impressions?

John:  There were people of all shapes and colours. As we did it in Malaysia, there was a large proportion of local Malaysians doing the course. There were also a few of the longer haired hippy types there too.

What age group predominated?

John:  It is hard to say. I would posit that the average age would have been late 30/s, but that is liable to be completely inaccurate.

How did you cope with handing over your mobile phones and all internet access for 10 days?

Serena:  I was delighted. Freedom from technology is a joy for someone who works online like I do.  We were just finishing up a client’s website ready for launch, so it was a bit stressful before the course started. Once we got there however I didn’t have any qualms or issues with being offline. When I am offline I really treasure the quiet – it just doesn’t happen very often!

It was a bit of a shock for a day or two when I turned my laptop back on (after the course), it was super bright and shiny and overwhelming!!

Describe the setting and the food and the accommodation please.

John:  The course was located in a remote part of Malaysia, around 4 hours North East of Kuala Lumpur. The centre was divided between women and men: one half each. The grounds were simple and lusciously green. There were a lot of animals; ants, lizards, geckos, spiders, birds, squirrels and the like.

The food was delicious. It was all vegetarian and plentiful. Being a veggie I was extremely happy with what was offered…lots of fruit and noodles and Indian style dishes.

The accommodation was basic but perfectly acceptable. Each person had their own little cabin. You had a single bed, a fan, your own toilet and a small cupboard to put things on. The rooms were built with plenty of protection from mosquitos.

What was the hall like for the group sittings?

John:  It was large with high ceilings. The room accommodated at least 250 people with a good spacing between them. It was a serene place with a very calm atmosphere. I found it to be too hot for my liking though. The fans never quite circulated enough air. The air was never quite cool enough.

Did you listen to Goenkhaji’s discourses in the evenings?  How did you find them?

Serena: I think they were compulsory, so yes I did listen/watch! I found them to be inspiring and motivating. Regardless of how awful any particular day was, I felt refreshed and renewed after watching the discourse each evening. Sometimes he would specifically answer the questions I had ready for the teacher.

There is always a short meditation after the discourse and these were usually enjoyable too! It is a very smart design of the course to have the discourse at the end to flush the suffering of the day and give you some peace before bed.

John: Goenka was an incredible story teller. His ability to blend science, philosophy, spiritualism and folklore were remarkable. Truly he is one of the greatest minds I have had the privilege to listen to. His deep voice contained an element of wisdom in its very sound. I found him to be the only thing which kept me motivated to keep going on the tougher days.

He is someone that everybody should listen too at some stage in their lives. What a man!

 

How many days did it take you to find your best position?

John: I am still searching! I don’t think I was able to find a position which truly worked. I tried everything and failed. In the end I was sitting on 4/5 cushions under my rear end, with extra ones supporting my knees.

This is something I would suggest other people get to grips with first – find out how to sit still on the ground for an hour without moving.

It is the only thing I wished I had known properly and taken action on beforehand.

Serena: On the 5th day I saw a wooden meditation stool in the back of the hall, I enquired and was able to use it. It was exactly what I needed, until then I was miserable in every possible position!

My cross legged position has improved a lot and so I would alternate between kneeling on the stool and sitting cross legged with a cushion under each knee. But the stool is more reliably comfortable.

Even so, I don’t think I ever made it to 1 hour without moving. 45-50 minutes a few times, but never an hour.

How many other sitting students just disappeared around you? 

(as in every course a lot of students leave because they find they are not ready for Vipassana at that time)

John: I didn’t notice any until the 9th day when I heard commotion outside my room during a break. I went to take a look and my neighbour was muttering and arguing with one of the assistants and stormed off with his bags packed. When I asked later they said some memories kept coming up for this guy and he couldn’t get beyond them.

Was the course delivered in English or another language?  Was there a language lab for foreigners?

John: It was in English with a Tamil (Indian Language) translation for each session. There was also a language room for people who didn’t speak either of these, although I think this was only accessible during the discourse part of the day.

How did you respond to being segregated?

Serena: I did the course with my husband John, and we made an agreement beforehand not to try and communicate or catch each other’s eye etc. I was so wrapped up in the course for the first 5 days that I barely noticed that he was there.

I would occasionally see his legs walking towards the dining hall but that was about it.

I started to struggle a lot on day 8 and for the last couple of days, I would occasionally look over to the boys part of the hall to see if he was there, sometimes he was, sometimes he wasn’t but we didn’t communicate.

When we spoke for the first time on the 10th day it was so sweet, we were both shy and excited! It was like being a teenager.

We didn’t have much time to talk until we were on the bus on day 11 for the 3 hour ride back to Kuala Lumpur, we just blathered the whole way about our experiences.

John: I enjoyed the solitude. Being segregated doesn’t mean anything really. You are trying to get closer to yourself, so as such, segregation is just a tiny part of it. The real battle for me was to disconnect from all the external parts of the world. The sex of those around me made little difference.

What were your sleeping arrangements?  If with other students, were they considerate?

John:  We all had our own room and so there were never any problems. The overhead fans drowned out any big noises. I never really noticed anything special.

What were your two teachers like – the ones physically present in the room?

John:  I only met the male teacher. He was great…a surprisingly happy and funny fellow. He liked to crack simple jokes when explaining some of the answers to my questions. He had a calm presence and I felt at ease asking him questions. And I did ask him questions…by lunch time on day 3 I had my first private session to try and understand what was going. After that I spoke with him privately most days, either during the day or in the evening. He had a good way of explaining things and helped me a lot.

Did you have any major issues during the 10 days?  That you had to discuss with your manager and/or your teacher?

John:  Yes…I had issues with everything to do with the course! I found it incredibly difficult up until the last hour day 3 and thought I might have to leave. After day 3 I had some illumination which vanished again until day 7. Throughout this time I had to speak to the teacher constantly to affirm I was on the right or wrong path. The course is immensely difficult and unless you are in the right head space it can crush you as so much junk comes up from your life. These were issues, but I managed to overcome them.

There were physical problems aside from the pain of sitting for an hour!

Serena:   It was lovely, but it was HOT!

I actually looked on the website to determine if the hall would be hot (their website said “we have a lovely cool hall”) but it was hot! I think we happened to be there in an unusually warm period but when you are struggling to sit still and deal with your body and mind fighting for attention, sweltering heat is miserable! Well it was for me anyway, and it didn’t help that we had to wear modest clothes.

On the 3rd day, I realised that if I ran my t-shirt under the tap and squeezed it out I could wear it damp for each session. This was bliss! In between each session I would nip back to my room and rewet my t-shirt as it would dry within an hour!

I felt like a bloody genius and everyone was very jealous when on the last day we could talk again and I shared my trick.

I wrote a packing list for people doing the course in Malaysia because I couldn’t find one online. http://fivepointfive.org/vipassana-malaysia-packing-list/             

How did you feel on the day when you were allowed to speak finally?  How had you felt about not speaking for the whole time and no eye contact?

Serena:  When I first started talking my voice sounded so loud! It took a while to get used to the level of sound that comes out. I really enjoyed the peace of no talking for the first 5-6 days – also of not having to make decisions.

It is like a total brain detox.

After the 5th day though I started to talk to myself more and to the animals around me!

I loved the no contact and eye-contact part of the course. It really gives you permission to be entirely there for yourself.

I am someone who is always connecting with people and thinking about other people so it was refreshing to just think about myself and not worry what anyone else thought.

John:  I was kind of sad it was over to be honest. The final few days went the quickest having struggled through the first 7. After days 1-6 I just wanted it to be over. But this path has a funny way of changing and twisting. So when the last few hours ticked on I thought that I would miss staying silent.

But it was great to connect again! And speak and see people in the eye. Before long it was like the silence was just a dream…which in a way, it was.

serena vip centre grounds

What was your response to being out of the retreat on the final day and the day after?

John:  Nothing particularly amazing or enlightening.  People wanted to know about what it was like so I told them. Having done it with my wife we had a great couple fo days catching up and comparing our experiences. It was nice to have someone whom I love to share that with.

And the benefits for you if any in your present life?

John:  I think it is too soon to know. I have tried meditating daily but struggle to be regular. I do feel a little and less stressed in general.

Serena:  It has only been a few weeks since we did the course, but I have seen A LOT of great things brought into our lives and into our relationship. We have a shared way of dealing with stressful/upsetting situations that is very empowering – so we can get over stuff almost instantaneously.

Lots of really cool things have happened to us since we did the course, we have this running joke that “Vipassana Gives” when something cool happens, but in all seriousness a whole lot of great things have co-incidentally happened in the few weeks since the course. Probably we are open to more things and they are just happening.

One of the best things that has happened is I have a new level of focus. I battle with focus and since the course I have been able to sit down and focus for an hour at a time without being distracted. This is a revelation as I believe I have adult onset ADHD. My distraction levels were so high that I would feel quite overwhelmed with my To Do list –because a 1 hour task could take a day – or a week!

Since the course I have been writing more, producing more and feel content that I can achieve the goals I have set for myself.

Will you do another course?  Is this a path for you?

John:  Absolutely. This is a great idea for a beginner and someone who is already on the path. It is a process and it is something which I definitely see myself trying to master as the years progress.

Serena:  This is a path that I would like to continue on in life, the philosophy makes perfect sense to my pragmatic mind and I feel that I am just beginning something wonderful that will only get better with practice. We have looked at times for doing a second course in Europe towards the end of the year.

I would like to do 1-2 courses a year and aim to keep up the practice of meditation each day. With the amount of responsibilities and websites and projects I have it would be crazy not to.

serena and john 1

Serena Star Leonard is a business coach, blogger, writer and the founder of www.in12months.com and www.fivepointfive.org and www.grassrootsinternetstrategy.com.au . She is the best-selling author of two books How to Retire in 12 Months and “How to Succeed in 12 Months: Creating a Life You Love. Serena is a proud Jack (Jane?) of all Trades and Master of Some, and spends her time travelling the world working with her clients via Skype to help them build new businesses, websites and exciting new lifestyles.  (I should know – she’s improved this website whilst overseas! – Nancy)

John Leonard is an Irish writer, blogger, film-maker, poker player and web developer. He is a former GAA player who played for Dublin at the highest level. He has a degree in English and Philosophy. He enjoys painting, art, economics, history and politics. He is a vegetarian and has been sober for over 6 years. He has been growing his hair long for some time and loves crunchies. He is a former champion Irish dancer. He still considers his best years to be ahead of him. Catch more of John’ s Irish charm at http://soberpaddy.com

His book Dub Sub Confidential is out now (great if you love footy, Ireland, honesty, sobriety and saying “he’s got a gift of the Blarney”).

Dub Sub Confidential is a GAA memoir like no other yet published – a book about how Gaelic games collide with real life. It is also a brilliant read from a remarkable personality.

‘Reads like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas … a great read’ Ray D’Arcy, RTE Radio 1

So there we have it – Vipassana is like a total detox – and for those of you in need of that here is the universal link for all centres around the world!

https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/locations/directory – World Locations

http://www.dhamma.org.au/index.htm – Australian locations

fivepointfive photos used with permission

I’d like to thank Serena and John for taking the time to respond to my million questions – I was soooo excited when they said they were going to “sit” and then even more excited when they said they would answer my questions – they are a great couple and a fine pair of folk to take the planet into its next turnings,

Buen Camino,

Nancy

About Nancy Liddle

In 2014 I walked from Seville to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, some 800 ks I walked, aged 56. I learnt that no matter what age we are, our bodies are strong work-horses. Ageing doesn't have to be the nightmare that our culture feeds us. We can be strong and vital and energetic! And meditation exercises our minds. Clearly these discoveries have impacted my life deeply.

13 thoughts on “Serena Star-Leonard & John Leonard on Their Vipassana Experience

  1. Thanks for the interview Nancy!

    We have since got quite slack with the meditation which is a real shame because I have lost focus too! We are already planning our next course and really want to make it a regular (daily) fixture in our lives.

    • So glad you like it! I know it’s long but it’s all invaluable reading for someone who is considering doing their first retreat. I totally understand the slackness thing – I’d say it’s endemic amongst most of the folk who attend the courses – certainly is for me. When is your next course? How exciting. I should also ask “what country?”

  2. Wow! I have a friend who has done this too and came back with a great report, she too wants to do it again and even volunteer there. I find the idea for myself would be difficult, not speaking for 10 days sounds like a great challenge 🙂 But what John ad Serena said about a comfortable position to sit I had never thought about, great advice to practice before going. This maybe something I will do in the future. I found your questions great Nancy, they sounded like questions from someone who has done this yourself. Great read.

  3. This sounds like a truly wonderful experience, and I’ll bet thousands of people could benefit from taking a break from life in the office to give it a go! Your passion really comes across, perhaps I shall take a leaf out of your book and try some meditation in the near future.

    • You must let us all know how you go! Word back from Serena and John is that they are planning their second retreat soon but have not made it a daily practice. That goes for me as well and I’ve done 3 retreats! We really are our own worst enemies. I know there are very dedicated and disciplined meditators out there but I personally function best in a group of like-minded souls rather than on my ownsome. How about you?

  4. Twas a great 10 days and something I highly recommend for anyone – one of the hardest yet most rewarding experiences I have had in life…

  5. A very interesting read. Thank you. I would highly recommend the meditation stool that Serena mentioned. It’s only small and enables you to kneel with support for your bottom, which takes presure off your knees and keeps your spine straight. I can sit for hours in this position. Now it’s just finding the time.

    • yes, finding the right position is basically everything in the first course. I tried everything but standing on my head back then. Like John, I also resorted to sitting on a bank of cushions like the petite woman in front of me. At one point I was sitting like Taras Bulba would have sat (the Yul Brynner movie). Eventually, in the second course I found my position. I haven’t tried the wooden stool. Who would have thought sitting could be so hard to do. And don’t get me started on pins and needles! 😀

  6. I have heard of Vipassana but only general information so it was great to learn more about the day to day joys and difficulties of the course. I feel I have something to help me decide if it s fir me.
    Thanks John and Serena for sharing your experiences.

    • On behalf of Serena and John, you are very welcome, Mary. Let us know if you go on the Vipassana journey! And see if you can find your sitting position before you go (save yourself a lot of pain!) – it’s the position you can hold for one hour……. having said that, meditators are allowed to move occasionally in the first few days. Good luck 😀