For the past few days I’ve been in something of a funk. I’m not sure why. A thought stream of one sort crossed a thought stream of the wrong kind and it set off something rather unpleasant. I can see it in my general heightened annoyance of the world and my less than graceful responses.
But the thing is, I understand (buried beneath an outer crust of grump, but it’s there) that this kind of thing passes. And it inspired me to recount one of the most powerful experiences of my life, as much to pull myself out of my slump as anything else.
Today’s blog isn’t about writing. But it’s about a lifechanging experience that made me a better, happier, more self-aware, confident person able to write my thoughts with poise.
So I’m gonna write about it anyway.
In August, 2017, I was blessed to attend a ten-day Vipassana meditation course. Yes, this was undertaken in noble silence. That means no talking for ten days. I won’t get into the specifics of the meditation itself, but it’s a beautiful and effective technique that will always hold a special place for me.
And let me tell you, the sagacious minds who developed the structure of the ten-day course know their stuff. It’s a little scary how every aspect of the retreat comes together toward its purpose. From the meditation itself to the gender segregation (I thought it was old-fashioned at first, but within a couple days I was like ‘ohhh I understand’), the whole experience is designed to put you in the most internalized, least distracted mindset possible. And it does that with scalpel precision.
If you’re interested in learning more about Vipassana itself, please check it out here (www.dhamma.org/en/about/vipassana), and here (www.lionsroar.com/how-to-practice-vipassana-insight-meditation/)
Another good talk about Vipassana (and so much more…) is here (www.youtube.com/watch?v=5n6413nx6b0).It’s a talk by a spellbinding spoken word poet Buddy Wakefield, where he discusses his own experiences with the technique. Even if you aren’t interested in the Vipassana aspect of his talk, give him twenty minutes of your life. It’s worth it.
A Usual Day (every day, actually…) began with the gong at 4 am. I’m not gonna lie, 4 am isn’t morning. It’s night. I’m a morning person, and this did get easier as the week progressed, but honestly not that much easier. I definitely stole a nap some days during personal mediation. It was that or fall asleep in the meditation hall later (which many people did…).
But, this time of the day really was beautiful. You could still hear the night animals around you, and there were plenty. The air was quiet, humming with this intense sense of serenity. I loved morning. And I hated it. But I loved it more.
After the morning gong, your day is broken into chunks of personal time (spent in silence – no cell phones, no books, no outside stimuli at all), and mediation. Ten hours of mediation, to be precise, split between group meditations in the main hall and personal mediation time in your room or in the hall.
Every evening, we’d watch a discourse delivered by S.N. Goenka, the founder of the modern application of the technique. The lessons are secular, not tied to the Buddhist faith or any other. But they teach the ideas spoken by Buddha, along with a wealth of life wisdom from Goenka’s lips.
Simple as the schedule might be, these ten days DO something to you. They change you in a fundamental and powerful way. It’s difficult to define, but I’ve had time now to reflect on my experience.
You might hear the words ‘silent mediation retreat’ and cringe. But… give it a chance. I loved the silence. It was powerful and beautiful and the most serene thing I’ve experienced. Not speaking for ten days was surprisingly effortless. All that stress we don’t even realize we have, wondering how to respond, what kind of small talk to make, stressing because we aren’t making small talk and feel that we should… it’s nonexistent. There’s no expectation on you from anyone, and it’s liberating.
I’ve talked before about ‘input’ and ‘output’ mode, and this is where I came to that observation. I realized that I had lived in output mode for most of my life. But within a day or two I slipped solidly into input mode, and it changed everything. If you ever have the chance to experience a silent retreat – meditation or not- try it.
One word that kept coming to me after I left the retreat was resocialization. It was so smoothly done that I didn’t see it happen until after I left. But somehow… after a couple days… your world shrinks. You don’t have your phone or any contact to the world outside. You have the people at your side, who are silent support, but are also walking their own path far away from yours. Concerns of the world start to mean less.
Rather than worrying about the tasks I needed to do at work (which I spent a good two days doing), I started worrying about other things. Weird things. Things what would be meaningless outside my tiny, silent world. ‘I didn’t get a slip of paper today giving me a private meditation cell, but my neighbor did. Does that mean I’m not doing it right? Does my neighbor think I’m not doing it right? They must think that.’
It doesn’t make sense, and it’s completely irrational, but it’s where my thoughts went. I think our minds are so accustomed to worrying that we invent things to fill that need, even as our relevant scope shrinks. It surprised me. But it was tremendously eye opening.
The meditation is very physical. It’s literally moving your attention across your body to observe your sensations with equanimity. That’s it. That’s Vipassana. But though that’s all you’re forcing your mind to do, a lot happens behind the scenes while you’re doing it.
There were multiple times when strange insights or connections jumped into my mind. Spending so much time in self reflection eventually reveals the things you hide from yourself. It’s not enjoyable, and it isn’t easy. But it’s lifechanging and lightening beyond anything I’ve experienced.
Once, during group meditation, questions that had been bothering me for a long time snapped suddenly into focus. The realization was so powerful that I started crying right there in the hall, tears streaming down my cheeks. I wasn’t the only one this happened to.
No one reaches over to hug you or console you. No one acknowledges what’s happening, but they’re with you and you know it. Their presence strengthens you to fight the tide on your own and pull yourself from the undertow. It’s indescribable.
Oh. My. God. The. Pain.
I was unprepared for this. I thought myself some kind of meditation master when I got my approval to go. I’m going to a ten-day meditation retreat, I told myself, I’m the kind of person who does this. I’ll rock it!
Holy blinding mother-loving hell. I had no idea sitting cross-legged on the floor could make you hurt so much. During the first day, you’re surrounded by yoga masters sitting in perfect lotus. By day two (let’s be honest – halfway through day one) everyone’s stacked a couple more cushions around themselves. By day three, everyone is gripping their knees getting through the damn day. By day six or seven it starts to get better, but only a little. Creative cushion thrones are erected in multiple spots across the floor.
The pain would move. First it was my back. It was excruciating. Then I found a sort of wedged cushion that lifted my butt and the back pain vanished. I thought I was brilliant. Then my butt hurt so badly that it felt bruised for days. Then the headaches started. Oh dear god the headaches.
THIS BEING SAID, I will go again in a heartbeat. Everything else makes up for the pain.
But I’ll be a little more prepared for it next time around.
I found it very hard to sleep. My mind was so strangely active in ways it wasn’t used to that it just wouldn’t shut down. And when I DID sleep, it was plagued by weird, weird, disturbing dreams.
I talked to a number of other participants as well once the silence was lifted, and they experienced the same thing. I don’t even know where the dreams came from. I dreamed about bugs and demons a lot, for some reason. Someone else said he had a dream about killing his dog, and it left him disturbed for days.
I couldn’t tell you why, but for some reason all the aspects of the experience seem to come together in your dreams. They stuck with me for a long time. Weirdly disturbing and scary and inspiring at the same time. I dunno…
This one is hard to describe. On about day three, a weird feeling came over me that threw me off really badly. Something just felt WRONG in this intense, primal sense. I wanted to run. To go to the administrators and call it, ending a failed experiment.
It left me feeling very off balance, with a strange sick tug in my gut. That night at discourse, Goenka nailed it, discussing exactly what I’d been feeling. Congratulations for making it this far, he said, because many do not. Your mind and your subconscious rebels when you spend too much time looking at it, at all the little things you’re hiding from yourself. So it does everything it can to end the discomfort.
Oh my god. His words resonated with exactly what I’d been feeling. That disconnected sense of wrong. All of a sudden, things snapped back into focus and I could shake it. It came up a few times again, but I could deal with it easier.
All in all, I walked from that place changed. More aware of myself. Calmer. More able to find happiness and understand the flow of impermanence. Sad and hard times pass, so don’t let them define you. Happy times also pass, so accept that and live them to the full of their potential. Shed your cravings and your aversions, because all things pass and come again as they are meant to. The understanding of impermanence gets in your bones. But it requires the pain and immersion and self awareness to get there.
I will go again, with my life in a different place than it was during my first round. If you’re fighting to come to terms with yourself, or trying to find peace, or even moving forward within a place of contentment, the experience of a Vipassana course can offer so many tools to ease your path. If you let it.
Anicca, my friends.