Original Draft: May 22, 2015
I just got back from the most intense 10 days of my life, that is, Vipassana, a 10-day silent meditation course.
So, what was it like? At times it felt like an oasis of quiet, a monastery, a prison, a cult (disclaimer: it’s not), a gracious retreat center, an insane asylum for over-thinkers, a self-induced torture chamber, a boxing ring: me against my mind, and a much-appreciated escape for modern society. Simply put—it (that being, my mind) was all over the place at times. But in the end, the experience was ever-more powerful, freeing, and transformative, than just about anything else I have experienced.
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana quite simply means "to see things as they simply are." It's a process of self-awareness and self-observation through mental training. It originated thousands of years ago in India and was taught heavily by Buddha. Mr. S.N. Goenka rediscovered the original technique and began teaching it in India in 1969, and it quickly spread around the world. Today, hundreds of centers globally teach the 10-day courses, which is all run off donations by older students (meaning, former students.)
When I told people I was going on a 10-day meditation retreat, the most common response I got was “wow, I wish I was going! I need some of that.” Being that I was terrified of going (I signed up and dropped off the list for years), I was very surprised by the answer. I’d be thinking, well I don’t know what their meditations are like, but me sitting with myself, and only myself, no distractions, for 10 days, is NOT going to be easy.
Perhaps many people, perhaps maybe even you, have a notion that meditating for 8-10+ hours a day would be the most relaxing activity. You imagine we’d be smiling during our meditations, feel like our heads are in the clouds, reach some kind of nirvana and feel completely at peace with oneself and the world all around.
Quite laughable really... as this is not the case (not until you reach a very enlightened stage!). I did reach some pretty tripy states a few times (mostly towards the end), but most of the Vipassana experience is painful, uncomfortable, aggravating, annoying, and at times, nearly unbearable. There is no zen music, words to meditate on (i.e. Om….) nor the ability to visualize. It’s straight up watch your breath, and over time we are introduced to further awareness of body sensations. The purpose here is not to clear or calm the mind, but instead, to purify the mind. And for it to purify, you have to go through you s**t for it come out the other side, and from there you allow new self patterns to be form.
As we purify the mind, we dive get deeper into the Vipassana practice. The purpose of this practice (my interpretation) is to stop relationship to misery- which happens because 1.) we obsessively cling/crave/act needy and are always wanting more more more more (ie. need better possessions, more love, better body, to relive our best memories, etc.) 2.), we become so adverse to things happening that we don’t want. The truth is, life is full of ebbs and flows, so much we can’t control (i.e. breakup, aging, loss, illness.) To me, it’s the epitome of the saying “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” I overheard the male teacher (men and women are strictly separated, but we meditate in the same meditation hall, on different sides) telling a male student that there are several Vipassana teachers and students that have terminal cancers. They practice, not so that the pain will go away, because quite often it will get worse, but instead to become less and less reactive to the pain.
Thus, instead of perpetuating the cycle of misery, of wanting more and feeling aversion to what is happening that we don’t want, we learn to watch the body and in essence become un-reactive and accepting of what is. Towards the end of Vipassana we open up to love and compassion for all beings.
When I got a call Sunday morning to take a last-minute spot for the retreat starting Wednesday, I knew this was time to say “yes” to Vipassana. Luckily, everyone was pretty understanding and everything fell into place in allowing me to attend. After a very long drive, I arrived at Jesup, Georgia on a Wednesday afternoon, I was ready to enter the serene world of “silence.”
To be honest, I was terrified of many aspects of Vipassana, but very excited by the prospect that I would not have to talk to anyone, make any friends, smile out of politeness, or contribute to group conversations because of the long held sigma that I am “too quiet.” (I was even excited that if I bumped into anyone, I would not have to say “excuse me”.) To my surprise, upon arriving we had time to settle in, eat a light dinner and attend an orientation – a few hours of talking until the official silence began in the evening. One of the gals at my dinner table, clearly an extrovert, said she didn’t know how to be quiet for 10 days, and that she is always rambling on and figuring out her problems that way. Another lady (an older student) said one of the most difficult parts for her is the food, that is vegan/vegetarian. She said last time she was gorging on beef tacos in the parking lot (funny as she tells this sitting next to an Indian woman!) I was most looking forward to the silence and the food, but was actually most nervous about (aside from facing myself and physical pain) - not wearing makeup for 10 days and that by taking the vow of not killing, I was not allowed to kill any pesky mosquitos.
The Day’s Schedule
My mother questioned me, “4:30AM every day on your vacation?” In which I had to laugh, oh no, trust me, Vipassana is not a vacation. Despite what you may think, it pretty quickly became routine and I’d even wake up right before the second gong at 4:20AM. We had a series of 7 meditations each day, lasting between 30minutes or 2 hours (although most are 1 hour,) plus one evening discourse that lasted just over an hour. Some of the meditations were mandatory at the meditation hall, while others could be practiced in our dormitories (and sneaking in a nap once a day became a ritual!) We were granted a couple breaks per day, we usually consisted of laying in the sun or walking on the walking path (though no exercise is allowed otherwise.) We did get one chance a day to set up a private interview with the teacher to get help/answer questions (one of the few exceptions where we were allowed to talk!), or ask a quick question at the close of the last meditation.
Were served a hearty breakfast, lunch, and and afternoon tea/fruit break for dinner. I must say, the food was delicious (some of the best vegetarian food I have ever had!) and very well-prepared.
One of the most difficult parts, other than the mind (which we will get to next) is the physical pain each person experiences. When you are sitting still on a meditation pillow for hours, doing this purifying and liberating work, we not only become physically uncomfortable, but begin to on the energetic level, let go of our pains through areas of the body (particularly where we had past injuries, weak areas, etc.) For me, my lower back was causing me ridiculous pain, I could not sit still and had such a hard time focusing. On day 5 I gave in, and talked to our teacher. It made me look at what I have been turning a blind eye to for years- I have a bit of scoliosis in my back. I learned about it a couple years ago from my massage therapist, though I had suspected it before. Truth is, I’ve never really sat properly in a chair and have not wanted to admit to the scope of caring for it.
The teacher agreed to give me a meditation jack, if she could find any, which basically looks the top part of the chair and sits directly on top of the meditation cushion. When I returned that afternoon to find it sitting on my meditation cushion, along with my proper pillows, I felt like I had won the lottery. I could finally sit still during meditation, and not be so disrupted by my pain. I felt like dancing off my meditation cushion that afternoon “these next 5 days are going to be a breeze!” Except for that, they were not. I may have supported my back better, but as I was going deeper and deeper into the Vipassana practice, others aches and pains surfaced. Physical pain is just part of the practice, and over time you learn become less reactive to it.
One day I was reflecting on how nice it is to be in silence and how I should do a silent retreat every year. My mind was going on and on, “I would actually need more silence than this retreat, because geez, it’s so LOUD in here!” I realized just then it was only mind making the noise, meaning it was only my own my driving me crazy. I mean really mind, do you ever shut up!?!?!
Otherwise, I must say the silence was very natural to me. I have taken near silence days many, many times (like every week!), between years of living alone and many travel experiences where I can't speak the foreign tongue. For me, it was not so much the silence, but the inability not to be able to read, write, or distract myself online.
Now that I've reported on the all of the physical details of of Vipassana, the main work of the Vipassana practice takes place in the mind. It's quite a process to start observing the mind for all hours of the day. While it's so easy to label other people as "crazy" when you start to observe your own mind you realize, wow I am quite crazy too.
On the last day when we broke silence and began talking, many of us had a laugh about the ridiculous things our minds thought about. One of my roommates made up elaborate scenes about zombies taking over our dorms and what weapons she would use to kill them, another noticed a couple people had left (they willingly dropped out) but thought about this could all be some crazy conspiracy and that we could all start disappearing. I can't say my mind had thoughts quite in those realms, although I did think a couple times about those cult massacres in the 90s and how we were being so disciplined in what they told us to do, that I understand their mentality.
What I thought about
At times closing my eyes was like entering my own private sanctuary “ah, it’s so quiet and private in here,” while other times I would close my eyes and become locked in a scoliosis torture chamber, screaming “get the key, and get me out of here!”
It wasn't long before I was about to separate my "self" from my "mind." At times I literally had to let my mind scream!, whine, complain, and do it's 3-year old tantrum thing. Other times (many times) it just would not shut up. I asked a question to the teacher on the 3rd evening. I whispered to her in this confessory state "my mind just never stops." She reaffirmed that perhaps this is my practice for my first Vipassana, to just say "oh there goes the mind again" and bring it back as often as I can remember. Goeka talks about how the mind is like a wild bull - it takes serious persistence, patience, and discipline to keep it in line. Don't expect for it to be controlled in 10 days. I may even rebel more, but keep practicing the work with due dilligence, you will make progress and in time become free from the mind.
For the first couple days I thought a lot small, ordinary and petty things too. Who I forgot to text, when my package would be delivered, what to spend my next paychecks on, and my annoyance that I was eating way more grains than I typically do (am I going to look bloated when I leave?).
I would go off into larger schemes too. What am I going to wear on the road trip back, should I buy lipstick or that outfit? I also thought for hours about all of the body work I'd be scheduling as soon as I got home, fantasizing about my soothing all of the aches and pains of my body away. For sure I spent hours of analyzing all sorts of plans.
I was surprised what I thought about for much of the retreat. I thought I’d be working through pivotal things at the moment such as where I am living next or what next steps to take in my career. Even unhealed wounds from childhood or of the massive changes in my friendships I was willing to look at. But much to my surprise I thought of virtually none of that.
Instead, (this is so embarrassing to admit) my mind took sharp hold on my from into Day 3 and obsessively into Day 4, 5, and 6 – regarding my past romantic relationships. All kinds of old memories came to surface, things I hadn't thought about in years, like when I used to make eggplant pasta or some off-comment that was said to me that I just sat there and took it. It wasn't about shaming and blaming somehow else, it was taking ownership for all the times I was inauthentic and most of all, all of the times I gave my power away. “Mind, do we really need to think about this?” But my mind would not let me off the hook. I realized what this was about – again, again, again and again, for hours on end, my mind was purging all of these old memories. It was excruciating at times, to say the least. I realized even though I thought I didn't need to work on this area of my life, it's actually very much connected to everything else - the ability to give and receive love in all areas of my life.
Regarding one tumultuous relationship, when he came to surface all I could do was (in my mind) aim a pistol at him “don’t you dare take another step. You are not allowed here [in my mind].” I was stunned that I was firmly pointing a gun, when I’m here at Vipassana to learn compassion. After all, one of my favorite quotes is, "Holding anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die."
My mind worked up a heavy schemes of getting back into my last relationship, including elaborate and sensational details for days that overtook me. But then somehow, in time those thoughts began to evaporate. Like they had no substance to begin with, all of those thoughts at some point (thank god) I transcended them and let them go for permanently.
On day 9 I missed my parent's dog so much, that on our break I was literally clutching my heart because it hurt so much. It seemed unbearable to be away from him. It was interesting to watch myself literally feel pain for something that should be "good." I totally understood how Goeka talks about how clinging and craving leads to so much suffering.
Of course I was fortunate that for some meditations days 7-9 my brain would quiet down for times and I could be in such flow with my meditation. Those were the best moments, and yet with the practice, we can't cling to those moments and long for them again (because again we would suffer.) I talked to the teacher about it, she said it's good to want to feel good, but not to obsess over our highs, that we may only experience in that specific form that very time.
Day 10 + Reminiscing with the Other Participants.
Partway through Day 10, we are allowed to break our silence and begin talking again. It feels very strange to be talking again, at first everyone was hesitant before you know it, everyone is blabbering away, laughing, and smiling in full joy. We went through an awful lot the last 9 days, but by this point we feel so elated and free.
One of the most fascinating part to me was talking to the other participants when we broke silence on the 10th day. I noticed how easily my mind judged and made up stories about other people, without us even talking.
On the first night while unpacking, a woman came bursting through the door, didn’t introduce herself and immediately proclaimed by her bed “I need privacy!” and hung a bed sheet around her bunk bed. Immediately I blamed, shamed, and judged this woman over the course of 10 days. I didn’t like the way she walked, talked, how you could see her knees from the sides of her dress (no knees allowed), and how she glared at me because her name was Jennifer too and she glared at me when I accidentally went up front when “Jennifer” was called (she later “stole” my first in line interview spot with the teacher, but anyway!) What’s interesting is how I really knew nothing about this woman but repulsed her for 10 days straight. On Day 10, I overheard her consoling one of the other women and saying how she had been in many abusive relationships, and how she still has no sensation feelings in parts of her body. I guess really that’s where compassion comes in. I really don’t know this woman at all and maybe she acts the way she does because of a past history, and all I can really do is have compassion.
Another woman meticulously brushed and flossed her teeth with such precision, that I made up stories that she must be a dentist, or be in dental school, or maybe her dad was a dentist. Wasn’t she the one who drove up with her husband in the shiny white Mercedes? She seemed to pout the whole time, and the assistant teacher kept coming back to our dorm to bring her medicine and vasoline. But I didn’t see her shower, not ever once, does she have some kind of OCD? When silence broke, I lightly asked her “how are you” upon leaving our room, and she told me she found the meditations extremely difficult. She came because she is recently married and she found out her husband had been cheating on her with 15-20 other women, and each time she meditated, all she could do was thinking about him with those other women. She was so unsure of what to do next, as she comes from a culture where divorce is so frowned upon that she would never marry again. She stopped working and wondered what she would do next to support herself. Again, compassion.
Another woman finished law school, worked for a few years, became so disillusioned by it that she quit her job, got rid of nearly everything she owned, and set out with a backpack and a guitar across America. Her and her girlfriend had hitchhiked over 150 times, slept in their tent in various parks, ate food out of trash cans (or at of the genorisity of others), and would play guitar gigs from time to time to earn a little cash. She owned one pair of pants, bought at Goodwill for $2.50, worked at farms across America, and had a heck of a lot of experiences along the way.
Another woman I bunked near, got busted in her small southern town for selling marijuana at 19. She said she only sold a few ounces at a time (“it was such easy money compared to waitressing”)and never imagined a cute young girl like herself would ever get busted. Someone set her up though, because she did a deal with a rigged police man, the whole thing got recorded, and a few days later 5 armed police men showed up at her front porch. She spent 2 months in jail, but has no resentments. In jail, she found a book about yoga, and became immersed in its teachings, and became a massage therapist while on probation. (Note: she said she honestly didn’t know which was harder, time in prision or vipassana.)
These are just a few stories…but the participants were quite fascinating, everyone had a story and a reason why they came to Vipassana.
Following my Vipassana course, I visited Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina (two southern beauties) on my way home. Taking some time to travel, reflect, and just be after such a powerful experience helped me slowly easy back into society.
As part of my optional donation, I volunteered at a Vipassana course just a few weeks later in Virginia. While I was only able to commit to 2 days, I must confess those were two of the hardest working days of my life! As a volunteer, I worked 15+ hour days, which included preparing the meals, setting up the dining room, constant clean, and keep everything running smoothly. (Also, these Vipassana grounds were not nearly as nice as those in Jesup, Georgia, we slept in camp cabins that were infested with bugs!) As volunteers, we also sat for 3 mandatory meditations a day, which was utterly exhausting as I was so busy working it was hard to re-focus and sit still. A few meditators didn't seem very grateful and would complain everyday about lack of food options or other things beyond our control, which made it ever more difficult to stay positive at times. In any case, the volunteer experience made me very grateful to all of volunteers who were responsible for running my first Vipassana course, as well as all of the people out there slaving away in kitchens and cleaning public spaces, that is HARD work!
I am so very grateful for my Vipassana experience, and would encourage any and all people to give it a try!
May all beings be happy.