(Or, What I Did Over My Summer Vacation)
Something has changed within me. Something is not the same. OK, I am totally quoting the lyrics of “Defying Gravity” from the musical Wicked. Whatever, my daughter has been in the show for the last several months and I so it’s on my mind a lot.
But seriously, something has changed. I am a little more chill, a lot more compassionate and quite possibly happier as well. How did this change come about you ask? Well, thanks for asking. I will tell you.
I signed up for a ten day Meditation retreat. A silent meditation retreat. I know, crazy right? Well it was. And it wasn’t.
Let me take you back to the decision to sign up for this unusual summer vacation option. You might recall that I recently became a yoga teacher. Well, during the course we studied a particular form of meditation called Vipassana. This is the meditation taught by the Buddha over 2500 years ago. Now Buddha was no slouch. He tried lots of different techniques in his search for the root cause of all suffering and this is the one he found to be the most successful for total purification of the mind. And, it ultimately helped him to attain enlightenment. Hey it worked for him, so I wanted to give it a shot.
But ten days. Whoa, that’s a lot of time you say. Yes it is, and seems even more so on day one with ten days stretched ahead of me. So let me take you through the full ten days just to give you an appreciation of the experience.
We began Noble Silence the night before at 8PM and then lights out at 9 in preparation for an early gong alarm at 4AM. Seriously, someone woke us every morning to a gong. It was kind of charming for a few days. At 4 on day one we woke and prepared for our early morning meditation from 4:30 to 6:30. The night before we had been assigned cushions in the meditation hall and they were to be ours for the ten days. As time progressed, many students added additional padding and seats with backs and even chairs as the reality of the long hours of meditating we were putting in became apparent.
There were 15 of us at the start. All women, we stayed in dorm-like rooms. They were clean but very basic. Mine had three beds. Apparently ours was a small and unusually intimate group. Many of the 170 Vipassana centers around the world can accommodate lots more people and hold coed retreats, although men and women are kept separate for the bulk of the ten days.
Breakfast was at 6:30 and we looked forward to it every morning. We always had oatmeal with a variety of fruit, cereal and yogurt for toppings. There was also toast. I became fond of the cinnamon raison Ezekiel bread and enjoyed it with my oatmeal most mornings.
More meditating after breakfast from 8 until 9AM then a quick potty break and back on the mats again until 11 when we were served the main meal of the day, lunch.
After lunch we had time to walk around the grounds of the center, a nine acre parcel that at one time was an orphanage run by the Catholic Church. We had rest time from 12 until 1 and then back to the grind (meditating) from 1 to 2:30. We were given the option of staying in our rooms to meditate or join the others in the hall. We were all a little over-zealous on that first day and most of us stayed in the hall during these periods. That would change for me.
The gong would be rung and at 2:30 each day we were called for a group meditation.
By this time on day one it was really starting to sink in that ten days is a long time to not only to keep silent but also to keep up this demanding meditating schedule. I started to doubt myself.
At the beginning of the course they have us sign an agreement that, among other things, we wouldn’t steal, lie or kill anyone, we would also stay the entire ten days. This, we were told was for our own good as we were in a sense having surgery on the mind and we would need the entire ten days to bring closure and healing to the wounds we would be opening. Sounds fun, so far huh?
Suffice it to say, day one was tough and by early evening I think the initial incision must have been made because I found a giant lump in my throat that lasted until finally the tears fell and that lasted well into day two.
On day two about mid-day it occurred to me that I hadn’t had any coffee for over two days and I was actually quite encouraged that I didn’t have a headache. We had a great assortment of herbal teas to choose from at breakfast and lunch and I found some new favorites. I almost forgot, breakfast and lunch were the only real meals but at 5 every day were given fruit and tea to tide us over until the next morning’s breakfast. The reasoning behind this is that meditation should never be done on a full stomach, as it can be distracting. So can a growling stomach I found soon enough.
The retreats are designed to eliminate any distractions at all. Volunteers who had previously taken the course and wanted to help others find the peace they had experienced served us healthy delicious meals every day. Somehow this made us all more grateful for the food and maybe it even tasted better because of the love that was put into it. Other distractions we were to avoid included all technology, any reading or writing materials and masturbation. Yep, that too.
I was emotional again on day two. I started to become acutely aware of the repetitive thoughts that cluttered my mind. By that afternoon as I practiced the breathing techniques on my mat in the meditation hall tears streamed down my face and I felt this purging of I don’t even know what. I started to apply the principle of impermanence and to realize that things rise up in us only to pass away. This helped a little.
Every evening we sat in the meditation hall to hear a video discourse by the founder of the course S. N. Goenka. These lasted about an hour and a half and we started to really look forward to them each day. He was interesting and funny and really knew this practice and its many benefits. After hearing his lecture I was always inspired to get back on the mat, even after a long day.
We were learning that as we began to practice this Vipassana, this mind purifying technique, we were clearing out sankharas, or knots left in the body by past stress or trauma. Sankhara is a Pali word. In yoga we learned of samskaras, the Sanskrit equivalent. Through the practice of Vipassana we purify ourselves of these by allowing them to rise up through sensation in the body or through a mental picture, meeting them with equanimity or just observing them until they pass away. Well, that explained my emotional first couple of days, unless it was the lack of coffee. Or wine.
On day three we were still working on the focus of the breath. We were to focus the breath on the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip. This was to help us tune in and be hypersensitive to sensation. At first, I couldn’t feel my breath at all but by day three, I could tell if one of my nostrils was slightly clogged and could feel fuzzies and nose hairs. Too much information? Sorry.
We had a teacher, well an assistant teacher (Goenka was the official teacher although he passed away a couple of years ago), for the course. Her name was Deb. Her job was to guide us through the course by sitting there being a meditating badass. That woman could sit for hours without moving a muscle. We were supposed to keep our eyes closed but every so often I peeked at her just to see if she had moved at all. She hadn’t.
Every couple of days we would meet with Deb so she could check our progress with the course. On this day she asked me if I could successfully feel sensation of breath on my upper lip. Proudly I told her “you bet!” and she smiled and said I could either meditate in my room or in the hall for the rest of the session. I made a beeline for my room as the bed was much more comfy than the mat by mid-day.
We were not allowed to exercise (another distraction) but we could walk. Every chance we got, most of us would head outside to walk the small area around the parking lot of the complex. Every so often someone would discreetly crank out a few push-ups or squats. One woman practiced Qi Gong. I don’t think she got in trouble for it. I had packed my yoga mat thinking surely yoga would be acceptable but nope. Too distracting I guess. I did lie under a tree on my yoga mat when the weather was nice. I did a few yin poses when no one was looking. Hey, how could they find fault? I was under a tree like Buddha after all.
We all looked forward to day four as this was the day we finally got to start learning and practicing the meat of the technique. The technique entailed moving our attention systematically from head to feet and back again from feet to head. We were to observe any sensations we felt along the way. While observing any sensations we were to just observe equanimously whether they were pleasant, unpleasant or neutral sensations. We were to keep the awareness moving around the body, never remaining too long on any one sensation. If we came to a gross sensation (not gross like yucky, gross like painful) we were to remain there for a longer period with the awareness of impermanence.
This was quite a mental exercise and pretty soon, the thoughts that had previously occupied my mind on days one and two, were nowhere to be found. As I explored the body (we were cautioned by Goenka G. – his nickname – not to define things with possessives like my and mine) I found myself able to discern subtler and even subtler sensations, until most of the more painful or gross sensations had passed completely. I did have a left shoulder issue that would pop up from time to time during the ten days, mostly in the afternoon. One day I looked over at the woman meditating next to me and she had a rolled towel on her left shoulder. I guess hers must have been bothering her as well.
Day five was a Monday and the week loomed ahead with the end of the course on Sunday morning. Seemed a bit like forever this day. I was impatient with myself for being bored. I thought of my Great Aunt Sally who used to gently chide us for saying we were bored when we were kids. There was so much do, she used to tell us and she always encouraged us to use our imagination or read a book. Oh to have had a book…
The food was really good, although less than I would normally eat. I realized how I could really exist on less food. My stomach was starting to adjust at this point and only every so often did it growl and gurgle during meditations.
The bed was comfy but I didn’t sleep much while I was there. I’m not sure if it was my roommates’ snoring or the red exit light that lit up the room like a whorehouse, but I only caught a few hours every night. By nine o’clock I was ready to hit the hay.
Did I mention that the course is free? The course is free, the food is free, and the lodging –all free. Everything is paid for by former students who donate to the cause because of the positive changes that they have experienced through learning the meditation technique. On the final day of the course you are able to donate, but no one will push you al all. Observe that will ya!
On or around day six one of the women disappeared. She was there one minute and then mysteriously she must have slipped away. We never really were told why she left. That was privileged information, I guess. I kind of envied her. I could easily have left any day if it weren’t for the few people back home I had told I was attending this retreat. I knew they were rooting for me and I didn’t want to have to tell them that I had bolted early. I did spend some time fantasizing how I could make it seem like I had to leave. Maybe there could have been an emergency back home or maybe if I was sick – a sore throat perhaps?
For lunch this day we had vegetarian tacos. They tasted so freaking awesome; I had to thank the cook. Not being able to talk to her, I had to go through the house manager, a Miss Hannigan type who followed us around and kept us straight and on task. She was the primary gong ringer. I motioned to Miss H and told her to please pass along to the cook how awesome lunch was that day and she said that she would. It was amazing how much I missed simple human communication. I soon became aware, however that we talk a lot and say really very little. I resigned to make the words that I spoke have more meaning, more positive effect and to speak only when something really needed to be communicated. We talk so much just because we are uncomfortable with silence. Silence is actually pretty awesome. Just not quite so much of it all at once!
By this day I was beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. According to Goenka, days two and six can be the toughest days. I was out of the danger zone and starting to feel like I could make it through the whole course. I did get reprimanded for stretching my leg on the wheelchair ramp bars. Miss H said it was distracting. I guess maybe it could have been but jeepers creepers. I was just stretching.
Stretching was important, especially the lower back. All that sitting was hard for all of us except for our teacher Deb. If there was an Olympic event for meditation she would be a contender. She would sit on her perch, regal and graceful, still. So. Darn. Still.
It was funny observing this noble silence as it was called. As we were eating together or walking the grounds we were to not have any contact, eye or otherwise with the other students. It was hard. I wanted to at least smile at people. It felt a little rude. The idea was that we were all on our own individual journeys and we needed to focus on ourselves and not others. Kind of defeated the purpose of being there.
It was also kind of fun to imagine what everyone else was like. After all we had just met one another briefly on the first day we arrived and then we had to zip our pieholes. I got to thinking about all the time I spend thinking about others and what a distraction that can be. I am talking here about the judging of others, the fascination with the lives of others not the thinking of others in a compassionate way, that’s the good one. I decided to swear off reality programming. We waste a lot of time thinking about distracting unenlightening things. If we took that time and spent it thinking about our own consciousness, or better yet, not thinking, meditating, we’d bring much better energy to our everyday lives and to the planet.
Days Eight and Nine
Days eight and nine were all about cleaning out the deeper sunkharas, those that had been buried for years and years or even lifetimes. Goenka G. warned us of this during his discourse but assured us that we were ready. I have to say; I did feel a weight being removed on these days.
We were all visibly thinner by day nine. I wondered how much weight I had actually lost. We also lost another girl. I saw her crying and then she was gone. Again, we never found out. Miss H. was not gonna tell us. Anyways that was just a distraction. I was beginning to abhor – well ok observe that drama crops up in life also as a distraction from the important stuff. Stuff like exploring our own spiritual nature and our consciousness.
We had learned that sensations in the body arose out of either craving or aversion. Both were to be avoided. When a sensation arises, we are to meet it with equanimity. It is the responses we have to the ever-changing flow of our lives that can cause detrimental sensations in the body and ultimately stress, depression and/or disease. We need to cut them off at the proverbial pass. We can do this with awareness and equanimity that we develop by practicing this Vipassana meditation.
We are all looking forward to day ten when noble silence is broken. Miss H. makes it sound like that day is just a giant party although there is still meditation. On day ten we learn metta. Metta is taking all the good juju that we have garnered in ourselves and sending it out to the world. It’s a loving-kindness meditation and it is the final cherry on the top of this Vipassana practice.
Towards the end of the day on day eight I had the experience for which I came (or so I thought). I had been meditating and had observed that the gross sensations had subsided and even the subtler sensations in the body like twitches and itches had morphed into a slight vibrating experience all over the body. Stop, I know what you’re thinking There was to be none of that!
I had moved to my room for this session and as I worked through the body passing awareness throughout I noticed that the vibration had become a full-out experience of the body floating – no oscillating – no it was as though the body became this mass of particles moving faster and faster. Really hard to put into words but incredible to experience.
When I got up from that session I had a previously scheduled meeting with Deb, the teacher, and I told Miss H. I need to cancel, as I couldn’t formulate a question. She laughed and said, “Why don’t you just go in first.” (I was down far on the list of interviews for that day). “OK, but I don’t know what I’m gonna talk to her about!” I told her. She just smiled and told me I was doing great. “How can you tell?” I asked. “I can just tell,” she smiled.
Finally the day we had all been waiting for had arrived but we had to wait until after the nine o’clock meditation to break noble silence. It was weird once we were able to talk. We exchanged experiences with each other and got to know one another as best we could, although it seemed as if we knew each other pretty well by now. I had grown fond of my two roommates without even really conversing with them. The three of us were all very courteous of each other. We kept the neatest room, each of us making our beds before we left for that first session. There was an issue with people slamming doors as they left the room but not my roomies! If one or two of us were meditating, the other would gently close the door so as not to disturb us. You can tell a lot about someone by the way they leave a room.
Metta meditation was amazing. First gathering up our own good energy and then sending it out to the world is such an inspiring idea. What if we all spent our time doing that instead of thinking negative thoughts about one another? One of the staff commented on the beautiful blue sky that day saying that every metta day there seems to be this perfect weather. I liked that idea. I like a side of mysticism with my Buddhism.
I smelled popcorn around five o’clock that day and being able to talk to the awesome kitchen staff I teased them about being able to eat popcorn when we were only able to have fruit and tea. Ten minutes later when that evening’s snack was served there was a giant bowl of popcorn for us. Joy! Rapture! Wait, no craving. Just observing. Appreciating.
Our final discourse with Goenka G. was all about how to re-enter the world and maintain
this practice that we had created for ourselves. He suggested an hour in the morning and another hour of meditating at night every day as well as one ten-day course a year. Wow.
We will see. I am still processing everything I learned at this course. I have only been back three days. I did learn a lot. In the beginning of the course Goenka talked about the three ways that we can learn. One is by reading books, another from other people and finally (the best way) through personal experience. This course is set up to give students a personal experience of their own energy and the powerful collaboration that is the mind and body when maintained with careful vigilance. At the end of every meditation Goeka G. would chant “Bhavatu sabba mangalam which means, “May all beings be happy!”
Now that is a sentiment I can get behind.
For more information about Vipassana meditation: www.dhamma.org
(Now go meditate)