19 Mar Vipassana
I didn’t put much research behind attending a 10-day silent meditation retreat before signing up. I first heard about this retreat about two years ago while I was watching one of Mimi Ikonn’s YouTube videos. The idea of this retreat didn’t sound appealing to me at the time but one year later I had this thought lingering in the back of my mind wondering what this course is all about. I continually heard people talk about it and took this as a sign. Before I left my house for the retreat I did a card reading for the theme of each day of the retreat. It was all too accurate. The card I picked out for the day of my departure was all about rebirth; you are being put to a great test, if you persevere you will experience a depth of life experience that will lead you to being transformed. You will go to the depths of your soul and hear your deepest self. Pain will slowly dissolve, making room for true joy.
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s oldest techniques of meditation. It’s a practical method of purifying the mind by the method of self-observation. This technique aims for total eradication of mental impurities that act unbeknownst to you in the subconscious mind causing your unhappiness in life. Liberation is found when the mind is pure and you are free from reacting out of craving and aversion.
Vipassana is like surgery for the mind. Just as in surgery, you are cutting into the body, you are cutting the mind open and removing the impurities. The process causes discomfort but it’s a way of transforming the mind and body through equal parts awareness and equanimity. To be present with all sensations in the body without a preference for one or the other, training the mind to override the automatic craving and aversion responses through direct experience you can see how nature works, how you produce suffering, and how to free yourself. You will step out of delusions and into peace, awareness, and self-control.
Over 2,500 years ago, Buddha rediscovered Vipassana, the method he used to reach enlightenment. Since then, it has been handed down over generations. S.N. Goenka was one of many who have learned this technique and wanted to spread the knowledge in a secular nature of how to get out of misery. After fourteen years of training from his teacher S.N. Goenka began teaching Vipassana across India. He has taught tens of thousands of people in person and indirectly through his appointed assistant teachers at various Vipassana retreat centres across the world. The program is regimented in a specific way so that you fully experience Vipassana in order to understand (as opposed to simply reading about it and intellectually understanding it).
Upon arrival, I put my baggage in my cabin, reluctantly checked in my phone and my keys, and then signed up for a shower time. Then, all 88 participants: 54 women and 34 men, gathered in the dining hall for a briefing followed by dinner and the first meditation. Noble Silence had begun. Ten consecutive days of not speaking, making eye contact, writing, and reading were ahead of me (aside from the occasional question asked during the group meditation times when we were called to the front to ask if we were understanding the technique).
The foundation of the practice is sīla — moral conduct. Sīla provides a basis for the development of samādhi — concentration of mind; and purification of the mind is achieved through paññā — the wisdom of insight. Sīla is a code of conduct by which you refrain from harming oneself or others through speech, action, and livelihood. There are 10 precepts which you are required to abstain from but in this course new students only had to undertake the following:
1. to abstain from killing any being;
2. to abstain from stealing;
3. to abstain from all sexual activity;
4. to abstain from telling lies;
5. to abstain from all intoxicants.
All of the group meditations began and ended with a recording of instructions and chanting by S.N. Goenka. At the end of the day a discourse video of S.N. Goenka was projected onto the wall to expand on the idea of what we were learning.
The gong rang at 4:00 am. I hadn’t slept well because the alarm clock and the nightlight in my room were so bright. I got dressed, walked to the closest residence to brush my teeth and use the washroom, and then continued walking through the darkness of the morning and the cold winter air to the meditation hall. I knew that if I didn’t go to the hall I would continue sleeping until breakfast.
I sat on my assigned meditation cushion, without a blanket or extra cushion. The night before we were informed that you were not allowed to bring blankets from your residences, you may only use the blankets at the hall. I was resistant to use the blankets because I didn’t know if they had been washed.
I sat in a seated position and relatively quickly felt a desire creep up inside me. I wanted to look at the male across from me. Eventually, I got up and walked outside the hall into the coat room, the clock above the hall read 5:30 am. Dread started to set in already. How am I going to sit through 10 more hours of this today?
Breakfast. I walked into the female dining hall and found a buffet style table full of oatmeal, stewed dates, flax, fruit, nut butters, and some spices. I loaded up my oatmeal with stewed dates, ground flax, peanut butter, and banana slices. I made myself a piece of toast and slathered it with a generous serving of peanut butter. I ate this exact breakfast everyday with the exception of the few days where I was feeling adventurous and added a few raisins or a side of fresh pineapple.
I went back to my cabin after the morning group meditation. My back and knees were tired and sore from sitting. I decided to move the chair in my room against my bed to face the window. I closed my eyes, time to meditate. I looked at the clock, only 10 minutes had gone by. I turned my chair to the bed, stretched my legs across the bed, time to meditate. Only 10 more minutes had gone by. I put my feet back on the ground and decided to stretch my arms out across my bed. Oh my blanket is so soft, I thought to myself, I’m just going to put my face against it.
I jumped out of my seat and immediately fell to the ground. My entire leg was asleep from resting against the wooden siding of the bed. I eventually stumbled back to my feet and used the hand mirror in my cabin to look at myself, hair dishevelled and a red blanket mark across my face. Well, everyone at lunch will see what I did this meditation period.
I want to run away. What am I doing here? There must be a better way to reach enlightenment.
As much as I wanted to run away I knew there was something keeping me here. The fact that I couldn’t come up with an answer as to why I needed to be here was the very reason I felt I must stay. I decided that if I were to be able to come up with a conclusive why then I could leave.
The rest of the day went by, slowly but surely. My ego began to crack, I reached for a blanket in need of some comfort.
At the end of the day I placed my chair in front of my door, as I did for almost every single night after. It gave me peace of mind since there was no lock on the door and I was relatively close to the road. Every night that followed was filled with waking up at random hours throughout the night, which is unlike me, and very vivid dreams featuring people from my past.
It was raining as I walked to the meditation hall on this morning. Again, I couldn’t help but look at the male sitting across from me. It was unusual. I felt this pull inside me like I wanted a saviour. I wanted this person to do the course for me, to comfort me.
During our group meditation I felt tears slip through my shut eyes and down my cheeks as memories of my past came to the surface. I smiled, I wasn’t sad, I was releasing. Today, passed similarly to day 1, minus falling asleep on my bed in the morning, some different lunch options, and a new meditation position with a board and another blanket.
In the evening discourse S.N. Goenka announced 2 days done, 8 more days left to go. My meditation neighbour and I exchanged glances with wide eyes and I couldn’t help but laugh. I buried my face into my sleeve. What have I gotten myself into, I wondered.
Still practicing Anapana meditation. For the first three days you don’t even practice Vipassana meditation. Anapana is the observation of the breath, to help calm and concentrate the mind. Each day we moved into the subtler and subtler sensations of the breath, from focusing on the sensation in the nostrils, to the tip of the nose, to the small triangular area between the nose and the top of the lip. I was getting it, I could feel the subtle sensations, I could easily let go of the sensations in my body to focus solely on this small area.
When I noticed myself getting bothered by a thought or wanting to go home, I would say to myself, “release resistance to this experience.” I know we weren’t supposed to repeat mantras but usually if I said it once I would settle into my practice and accept that I was here for the remaining 7 days.
I couldn’t take it anymore, the days were going by in a blur, it seemed as if it was one continuous cycle. I got out the map that was given to me at the beginning of the course and began to write some notes.
In the afternoon, we began practicing Vipassana meditation, the meditation of mental purification by insight. I could feel my heartbeat and the pulsation it sent throughout my body. I could feel a soft tingling, itching, pain, discomfort, lack of sensation, and a slew of sensations I can’t find the words to put to.
*awareness of bodily sensations + equanimity of the mind = vipassana*
I had begun sitting in the meditation hall for most of the meditation periods. During one of the morning meditations my mind was blank. All of a sudden a small version of myself popped into my head. “Would you like to go deeper?” she asked. Another small version of myself popped up and automatically replied, “Yes.” The first version of me motioned to a set of wooden stairs behind her and the second version of me began to walk down the stairs. Here I go, deep into the subconscious. I believe this is when the mental reprogramming and release of complexes really started to happen for me.
I decided it was time to take my first full shower. We are supposed to conserve water so I managed to wash my hair and body in about 7 minutes.
I had a nap after lunch.
1:00 pm onwards
The day of meditation continued. I sat for my daily afternoon peppermint tea and banana. At this point, I was becoming sick of both things I once savoured.
I awoke to a deep fog each morning, followed by an intense pressure in my head as the afternoon progressed. I began to notice some consistencies in my practice, in the morning from 4:30-6:30 am and in the evening 8:15-9:00 pm, had been the easiest meditations. During these times I typically felt a free flow of energy throughout my body.
The desire to reach out for the male across from me changed into a silent competition that only I was aware of. He seemed to meditate every. single. session. in the hall. So I too would begin meditating every session. This lasted one day until I realized all I have to do is show up for myself. I have to save myself, I have to do the work.
By this time I had developed a love-hate relationship with meal times. I was grateful to be fed nutritious meals yet I was sick of having no choice and having similar foods every day. By this day it’s also advised not to move during group meditations in the hall but instead to sit with strong determination. As most days, my left leg fell asleep but instead of moving I watched it, observed it, and felt into it. I continued to scan the body and felt a smile form across my face. I was getting it. I was able to sit through the gross and subtle sensations with equanimity; harmony and balance in the mind no matter the sensations that arose throughout the body.
I was assigned a cell on the seventh evening. I walked on the icy path to the meditation hall, hearing and in some lights, observing the ice crack beneath my feet.
Both mornings I went to my cell, number 58, I stayed for the entire 2 hour morning sitting until the gong rang for breakfast and again for 2 hours after. The cell is complete and utter isolation. It was as if I could hear the air itself. I experienced intense, painful sensations, as well as, the subtlest of sensations. Over time, I began to feel as if I was going crazy, just as the ice cracked under my feet my mind also began to crack, releasing into new depths. It turned out the mind picks the weakest part of the body at that time to release through.
As I sat in the cell the idea of connecting to the chakra systems popped into my head. I quickly tried to brush this thought aside, though I had already asked if I could be shown how they work. Suddenly, I started to hear a faint swishing sound, as if the blade of a wind turbine was turning by one ear and then the next. This noise picked up with great rapidity. My ears began to throb and then my brain. I worried that my ears might begin bleeding. Then, I fell into a state of complete surrender to the sensation and it stopped. I gained further understanding of how the energy moves in and around the body.
Today we learned Mettā, loving kindness. We did some loving kindness meditations after each Vipassana session. This is the balm that seals the wounds that were exposed through the previous 9 days.
“Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allow ourselves to move gently toward what scares us. The trick to doing this is to stay with emotional distress without tightening into aversion, to let fear soften us rather than harden into resistance.”
― Pema Chödrön
In the afternoon, we were allowed to talk again. It was funny to observe, as people began to talk again their mannerisms changed. Some people would get ready in a rush and say sorry when trying to push past you. Later in the afternoon, we took a tour of the grounds. The new dining hall is going to be gorgeous. A sense started to well inside me that I want to come back to serve a course. I tried to shove this thought aside but I chose to soften into allowing and decided if that’s what’s meant to happen, so it will be. We went to the bell tower and each of us had the opportunity to hit the bell and make a wish. I thought long and hard about what my wish was going to be. As I stepped up to the bell I found my wish had suddenly changed, “May all beings be happy, healthy, peaceful, and free from suffering.” This is the message that was taught night after night and it finally sunk in that if this were true, whatever my original wish was would be fulfilled if it’s meant to be.
I slept with my chair in its proper position in my room for the first time during the entire trip.
I awoke suddenly with a rush of adrenaline for the first time in the course. I had a dream that I was in the middle of the ocean with two other people. It was a beautiful sunny day with aquamarine coloured water. All of a sudden this feeling overwhelmed my entire being, “We need to go back right now,” I yelled, “it’s too late.” I began to swim and looked back at my hand as I was doing a front stroke and a shark came up and bit my hand. I held my hand up in the air, examining it from all angles, blood slid down my arm and dripped from my mangled fingers into the water below. I dipped my head face first into the water and looked beneath to see sharks at all different levels of the water. I couldn’t help but think I’m going to die. “You need to go back you two,” I shouted. They protested. “Go back now!” They finally started swimming to shore as I submerged my body into the water, closed my eyes, and accepted death. Then, the thought crossed my mind that I must breathe to be able to connect to my bodily sensations. I swam back to the top of the water, my head bobbed as my body softened into the experience. I surrendered and instinctively felt a shark come to bite the side of my body when I was irked awake.
I walked, once again, through the darkness of the early morning, this time the air was warm and smelled of spring. The thought ran through my mind, it’s essential to walk into and through the darkness to reach the light. Just as I had journeyed day after day through the darkness of the morning towards the light of the meditation hall. One must go into the darkness to see the light, to reach enlightenment.
After the morning meditation and discourse, I left with a friend I had met at the retreat. We skipped breakfast and decided we would rather have our freedom back to choose what we want to eat. I drove her back home to Toronto and we stopped at Fresh to eat. Before this we had an interesting time navigating through parking and finding a vegan restaurant open so early, we had left the retreat at about 7:30 am on a Sunday. I listened to the first song I heard in almost two weeks as we walked down the streets. We walked side by side, sometimes in silence. Observing the world from the inside-out, instead of the outside-in for once. Life felt different, lighter. As the morning progressed more people were awake and starting to come out to the day. The city got busier and I felt energized instead of my usual feeling of stress. As we walked down the sidewalk, I saw a dead bird and I couldn’t help but think, “Congratulations, you’ve been promoted,” as S.N. Goenka had previously mentioned in one of the discourses about death. Before we ate, we went to one restaurant, it turned out we were both allergic to almost everything on the menu. They gave us a gift card for our trouble. This seemed very unusual to me, I had to give credit to the law of nature.
It was no coincidence that I was one of the three women assigned a private cabin. For so long I have craved the feeling of being around people. In the afternoons I would sit on my bed and stare at the ceiling, as I did as a child when everyone in my house was too busy to play. I felt this gruesome feeling of depression. I tried to sit and meditate but I could hear the cars zooming on nearby. The world is moving on without me, I would think to myself. I felt like a prisoner in my own cabin. Since dating my first boyfriend at the age of 17 I have continually gone from relationship to relationship. Desperately wanting someone to be around. If I’m at home alone I will turn on music or the T.V. while I work so it feels like someone is there. Instead of crying or looking to amuse myself in some way I started to learn to sink into the feeling of being alone. I acknowledged the discomfort this situation made me feel but I didn’t get consumed by it. Coming out at the end of the course I felt this sense of independence and deep self reliance emerge from within. I feel more like myself than I ever have. I feel a sense of true abundance, peace, and contentment.
Just as the weather had changed day-to-day from winter and snow, to sun, fog, rain, ice, and finally to spring, whatever you are experiencing; whether you label it as good or bad, it will pass, it’s the law of nature; dharma.