Last fall, riding a wave of keen intellectual curiosity, I applied for a ten day silent Vipassana retreat. I had been reading a lot about all the benefits of mindfulness meditation, and wanted to explore it more thoroughly. After promising to renounce all other spiritual practices (including yoga meditation), I was accepted to an intensive course in February. Although I had read all the information on the website, as well as a few blog posts by past participants, I was completely unprepared for the havoc I was about to wreak on my psyche. This is a true account of my experience on this meditation course. If I can’t be a good example, then I’d at least like to serve as a horrible warning. Some of it is a blur, as hours stretched into days and I became increasingly unhinged. I’ll do my best to recall the retreat accurately and without bias. It does have a happy ending. After all, I’m not writing this from inside a padded cell.
|The lovely woods|
Day 0: I roll up to the lovely rustic retreat center in Northern California for registration on the eve of the retreat. I may or may not be slightly hungover from the previous day’s champagne tasting in Napa. The air is cool, damp and redolent with pine. It’s heaven. It’s my first time on an intense immersion like this, and I’m giddy like a fourth grader on the first day of school. My husband drops me off, warning me that I’ll probably be running naked in the woods and howling at the moon by the time he returns to collect me. I scoff, and we bid adieu. I get busy with unpacking and settling into my cozy corner at the back of a six person cabin. It is clean and comfortable, and the window opens, offering a view of the dark forest rising up behind the camp. Later, when all the students have arrived, we chat, enjoy a simple vegetarian dinner, and exchange predictions on what cravings will cause us the most suffering. I think the hardest part will be going without dinner. Looking back, I chuckle at the naivety. We have no idea what we’ve gotten ourselves into.
During the orientation meeting, the rules are explained:
Abstain from killing (Easy. Already got over my fear of spiders after a year in Indonesia.)
Abstain from stealing (Ditto. Not an issue I struggle with.)
Abstain from all sexual activity (No biggie. I’m not a sex addict.)
Abstain from all telling lies (Even to myself? I’ll try.)
Abstain from all intoxicants (Thankfully, caffeine does not qualify.)
From that moment onward, we observe what’s referred to as Noble Silence, which is silence of body, speech and mind. No eye contact or gestures with other students. No communication with the outside world. No journaling or post-it jotting. No reading. No cell phones or iPads.
Also, no exercise - not, allegedly, because it would excite the mind, but rather because it would distract fellow meditators. So no yoga and no running. I can handle that for 10 days. I’ve been sloth-like for that amount of time before, for both noble and ignoble reasons.
We go over the schedule. Only two meals a day, only fruit for “dinner”. For informational purposes, I’m providing the theoretical activity as designated by the retreat organizers, as well as a preview of my own actual activity during that time:
On that first evening, we’re given instructions for a simple meditation of breath awareness at the nostrils. I’ve done this before, and am undaunted. We try it out for maybe half an hour, then head to bed. That night, I don’t sleep much. I toss and turn, and continually dream that I’m in the wrong place and I have to pack and leave and go somewhere else. Over and over again. The mental torment has already begun and I haven’t even really gotten my hands dirty yet. Hoo boy.
Day 1: The morning wake up gong rings. It’s 4am and pitch black outside. I brush my teeth, splash cold water on my face, get bundled up in comfy layers and trudge up to the meditation hall. I take my seat as everyone files in. I soon realize that the teachers aren’t there, and they’re not coming. There is no instruction or guidance. We just sit. Around me, newbie meditators are fidgeting wildly, trying to find a comfortable position that doesn’t cause their back to ache or their legs to fall asleep. I tire of the unguided technique after about an hour and go back to my cabin, to nap discreetly behind my closed curtain.
During breaks, I greatly appreciate the well-maintained trails in the woods, and walk them three times a day to stave off my restless legs syndrome. Also, I hate feeling like a slug. In these quiet moments, my memory is a wellspring of 19th & 20th century poetry. The woods are lovely, dark and deep. My mind is unloading. Some of it is quite beautiful, and a lot of it is just sinister.
Later that day, I learn that it is, in fact, possible to hurt yourself while meditating. Trying to relieve the numbness in my left leg, I switch positions. Hours later, when the bell rings, I stand up and make for the exit, without realizing that my leg has now fallen completely asleep. My foot hits the floor with a sickening crack. I hear it, but I can’t feel it. Yet. I wonder if I have broken my big toe. There’s no swelling, but it continues to hurt enough for the remainder of my stay to remind me of the injury, every time I sit cross legged.
I also learn that the teachers here are not actually going to teach. We get our information from voice and video recordings of the technique’s main ambassador, the late S.N. Goenka. Apparently, the way he taught it is to be carved in stone. The personalities of any teachers after him, even if extensively trained by him personally, are not to color the clear waters of the teachings. I try to imagine applying this philosophy to Zuna Yoga teacher trainings, and the outcome is totally ridiculous. Ok, students, you just spent a lot of money and time on this training, now here’s a CD and DVD set of my voice and instruction videos for you to play to your students. You can operate the remote control, but you can’t actually teach. Huh? I try not to be too judgmental.
Day 2: More people discover the walking paths in the woods. We’re required to be modestly dressed, and it’s chilly. This results in a dozen or so ladies wandering dazedly around, swathed in blankets and shawls and hats and gloves. Lumpy and frumpy. More poetry flits up: Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert. Hailing is not permitted. There are "Course Boundary" signs all along the perimeter of the paths, presumably to keep people from disappearing into the woods, never to return. It's tempting. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep.
|The Meditation Hall|
Meditating with the group in the hall is extremely irritating to me. All the coughing, sneezing, sniffling, fidgeting is maddening. You can’t tell if everyone has a bad cold, or they’re crying. Probably both. Why can’t everyone sit still and be quiet? I realize my capacity for compassion may be somewhat lacking. At the lunch break, I ask the teacher about this. She tells me we are here to learn not just meditation, but also tolerance. She suggests I focus on my work at the end of my nose. This is actually helpful advice. If I get distracted by the sounds of my neighbors, I imagine it's my best friend sniffling, not a stranger. I wouldn't get mad at her. I would recognize she's having a hard time, and mentally wish her well. So why get annoyed with a stranger, just because they're not my friend yet, or haven't passed some kind of acceptability test? Why do I assume the people I know and care about are more worthy of compassion than people I don't yet know or care about? Hm. I believe that was an a-ha moment.
Hours and hours spent trying to tame the wild mind. The stillness is a vacuum, the mind wants to fill it with all kinds of garbage. I start making parallels to zombie movies. I feel like an undead version of myself, with oily gunk oozing out of my mouth. If you cut me open, my blood would run black. I am smaller, meaner than I thought. I did not know I held so much ugliness.
Oh sweet Jesus, help me. It’s only Day 2.
Day 3: We are still concentrating on the breath at the nostrils. All. Day. Long. For 12 hours. If I had a car here, or even roller-skates or a bicycle, I would take off in a heartbeat. I think about how I could escape in the middle of the night without someone hearing me. I know they deliberately spread gravel all over the campground so they can detect runaways. I longingly eye the front gate, which remains closed except for food deliveries. I think i could clear it with my 5th grade high jump technique. It’s too high to hurdle straight on.
The process of cleansing the mind is like vomiting, observing myself vomit, and then sitting in a pool of my own vomit. I hate this.
A bright and sunny day. But during the lunch break, the woods are empty. Where are my fellow walkers? Has a neutron bomb gone off? Has this all been just a bad dream? I stop to soak in a pool of sunlight. Sunbathing is not permitted. I decide that if it’s just my upturned face, it doesn’t count. Not breaking the rules, no sir, not me. I am a rock. I meander around the paths, and later find the missing ladies sprawled across the camp in plastic lawn chairs, basking in the sun. It’s a heartwarming sight, and I smile. Everyone is taking their comfort where they can get it.
Day 4: Finally, we learn Vipassana. I thought we were doing Vipassana all along, but I was mistaken. We move awareness through the body: top of the head to the tip of the toes, and back up again. With equanimity and detachment, we observe any sensations we notice in those parts of the body. The theory goes something like this: attachment, craving and aversion are the cause of all suffering. A pleasant sensation or experience - be it material, emotional or spiritual - becomes something we want to repeat. We’re no longer happy without it. In contrast, an unpleasant sensation becomes something we want to avoid. This develops into fear, anger, and disappointment. By charging our past experiences with strong emotions, we are writing a mental program of automatic responses to whatever comes next. The classic "if this, then that" algorithm. And our reaction often is far stronger than the current situation warrants. I get it.
Consistently, the "sensation" I feel most is sheer boredom. I've found a posture and props with which I can sit at length, without difficulty. But after so many hours of sitting and trying to reign in the unruly mind, any technique would become tiresome. So now I have to deal equanimously with boredom. Interestingly, the tedium during sittings is followed by painful revelations during breaks. So many slights, hurts, people and places I haven’t thought of in decades come bubbling up
Out of doors, the women start to leave each other life-affirming messages in the woods, written in stones and sticks and leaves. This is breaking the noble silence, but it’s hard to remain in total isolation when you’re falling apart. Someone starts doing step aerobics on a meditation platform. Bad! That is clearly a down dog I see on platform 2. Forbidden!
The yoga girls can’t help themselves. We furtively stretch after the hour long meditation sessions, seeing how much we can get away with before someone scolds us. This is a calf or quad stretch I learned as a runner, so it doesn’t count. As the days wear on, our stretches turn into straight-up yoga poses, in full view of everyone else.
That night, I dream that a Malaysian customs agent finds weed in my bags. She’s a small, severe woman, with dark nerdy glasses and her black hair pulled back into a tight bun. She’s angry. She is shouting, calling me by my former married name that I haven’t used in 15 years. I know it’s over. She presses the gun to my left temple. I brace myself, and accept that death is imminent. She pulls the trigger. Click. Nothing happens. Another click. I see my opportunity and wrestle the gun out of her hand. She decides to let me go. I feel relief.
|The camp and cabins|
Day 5: I understand that this meditation technique is really doing something, releasing stored emotions and memories that have been buried for decades. The teacher keeps mentioning the science of the method. The wave-particle duality theory is thrown around. In a lunch break, I ask the assistant teacher what is meant by science, in this case. She doesn’t have an answer. I am offended. Nobody should take the name of Science in vain.
Day 6: Misery. Unmitigated suffering.
I ask the teacher how to process all the pain and torment that is boiling up from the depths of my being. She says to observe it, but not get lost in the story of it. Don’t roll around in it. This makes sense, as I do tend to grind and grind on problems and worries, which serves nothing and no one. I try it out, and manage to become marginally more detached from the visions of doom and gloom.
At the lunch break (nap time!), in a flash of brilliance, I remember I have earplugs in my suitcase that will muffle the distracting sounds in the meditation hall. I am saved. I will get through this.
Maybe it’s today that I hear sobbing from across the aisle, in the men’s section. Someone is bawling like a baby. At some point, he leaves. I glance over and notice a handful of empty spots in the gentlemen’s area.
The teacher’s words ring in my ears: you are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.
Day 7: I dream i’m holding my newborn baby girl. She’s hungry, but i’m so so tired, I can’t stay awake. I clutch her to my breast and pass out. In reality, I have no children. Motherhood is something I feel somewhat conflicted about, and probably I will die childless, never having resolved that conflict. Oh my God, I am going to die. We’re all going to die. I am trying not to roll around in it but this is all so sad.
The silence wasn’t a problem for me. It appealed to my sliver of a misanthropic side, and turned out to be a blessing, as I would have bitched and moaned nonstop for the first 9 days. The inability to write down all the crazy, horrible and brilliant things that were springing from my subconscious was a bummer.
Day 8: By now, in the woods we have full-on, unabashed displays of yoga. I observe an interesting display of interpretive dance. The electric boogaloo is enjoying a revival is this shady grove.
More meditation. Brief flashes of elation interspersed through dark, melancholy days. I will get through this. Clearly I need this radical spring cleaning. Once more unto the breach, dear friends.
Day 9: I awake in the middle of the night, sobbing. In my dream, my husband and I have gotten ourselves into a serious pickle. We are hanging on for life on the edge of a tall building. His left hand is crushed. We agree the best course of action is to die. Right there, together. We let go. He hits the ground and dies. I bounce off the pavement and survive. I am bereft. This is not how we planned it.
Meanwhile, back in reality, we’ve been informed that tomorrow we break silence. I wonder what the kitchen crew will whip up for our last celebratory day. I visualize chocolate cake - how wonderful it would taste. There’s no freakin’ way they’ll make chocolate cake, that would be too awesome. I reminisce wistfully about chocolate cakes of yore.
Day 10: At breakfast, I scope out the lunch menu. Much to my amusement, chocolate cake is on the menu. Clearly I have developed the ability to manifest chocolate cake. This is a most auspicious sign.
After the morning meditation, we are permitted to speak again. This is more of a soothing balm to me than the loving kindness meditation we’ve added to our practice. We immediately seek connection to each other, these silent companions through the difficult days. We compare horror stories, and they are all quite laughably similar. Everyone hated it, everyone wanted to run away, everyone was relieved to no longer be battling their demons all day. By mid-afternoon, I’m hoarse from talking non-stop. Whew. The worst is over.
So what lessons do I take away from these intense and grueling ten days?
1. Don’t fear the darkness. I consider myself to be someone without too much emotional baggage or deep-seated issues. I also have some experience meditating. But man, was this retreat tough. I was astounded by all the junk in my trunk. And I was so impressed by the strength and fortitude of the thirty-odd women who stuck it out. None of the women gave up. Interestingly, five men dropped out that week. Maybe because women are more practiced in navigating the dark waters. We tend to talk about stuff, cry about stuff, share our fears and our pain. That’s where the real work lies. If you back off when things get ugly, you’ll never get through it or over it. "Until we have seen someone’s darkness we don’t really know who they are. Until we have forgiven someone’s darkness, we don’t really know what love is." - Marianne Williamson. That applies to the self as well as others.
2. Regular meditation is key. The mind/body construct is constantly being sullied by the insults, disappointments and even the joys of life. The more you let the emotional attachments build up, the less clearly you can think. Certain meditative techniques, like Vipassana, do an excellent job of washing away the dirt and garbage. Like housecleaning, you don’t want to do it just once a year. You need to be scrubbing toilets, doing dishes, and taking out the trash frequently. A little cleaning every day is best.
3. Silence is golden. I understand now why they insist on total silence and take our phones away. I would have called my husband and asked for a divorce on Day 2, suggested baby names on day 3, and asked for a divorce again on day 4. If I had been employed, I would have called my boss and quit. If I had been able to speak with my fellow meditators, I would have complained incessantly about how difficult and boring and tormenting this was. Observing silence not only focused my energy inward, where the work needed to be done, it also shielded those around me from a whole lot of nonsense.
4. I am, fundamentally, not a Buddhist. While there are parts of this philosophy and technique that are very valid and useful to me, the system feels incomplete to me. I don’t believe that all passion is harmful and should be discouraged. I don’t believe that the absence of suffering is equivalent to joy. I don’t believe that our journey ends with ending our suffering. I believe that this is the starting point for the real work we need to be doing: living a life of purpose, empowered and free. This is Tantra, and I’m happy to have found a type of yoga that embodies these values.
5. Pick a spot for your well, and keep digging. In his closing discourse, Goenka tells students to choose whichever spiritual path resonates with them, and to really go for it. If you dig a little here and little there, and never really dig deep, you’ll never find the water. You’ll never get to the source. As a life-long dilettante who enjoys trying some of this and some of that, I understand that there are some things we really need to master. Self-mastery is one of them.
They were the best of days, they were the worst of days. It was a knock-down, drag-out fight with myself. Would I recommend it to others? Yes, assuming they don’t have any serious mental health issues. It was very cleansing, and I left feeling a hundred pounds lighter. Will I keep practicing Vipassana for two hours a day, as recommended? No, as there are pieces missing for me that I get through yoga meditation and asana practice. Would I do it again? Absolutely not. Anyway, I wouldn’t be allowed to, unless I renounce teaching other types of meditation. And that, I believe, would not be authentic, running counter to my purpose and my passions.
Information on Vipassana retreats can be found at www.dhamma.org