Vipassana

retreat-in-progress

10 days of silence.

That’s kind of all I was focused on. It seemed to grab the attention of other people too—I think both because I’m a pretty chatty lady, and because silence is a concept we can theoretically understand. Other elements of a ‘meditation course’ are a little more mysterious, but silence is somewhat familiar. Some fear it, some revere it, and I just don’t really know it very well.

Believe it or not, I’ve actually been working on talking a bit less over the years. In college, I developed nodules on my vocal chords, like Steven Tyler. (Somehow without becoming the lead singer of Aerosmith, or doing a bunch of drugs, I’d ended up in the same doctor’s office, with the same diagnosis.) After sending a camera down my throat, the doctor looked at me and said, “these are not the vocal chords of a quiet, shy person.” “No they’re not,” I replied. He said that I may want to consider how often and how loudly I expressed myself, or to consider a period of ‘vocal rest.’ Well the latter sounded awful, and impossible, as I was about to move to Colorado to wait tables, sing, and teach skiing– all tough to do without talking. But I did consider his advice, to think a bit more before I spoke… to consider if what I was about to say really needed to be said. People in my life probably don’t know that I’ve been speaking more sparsely, but I feel it. (Go ahead Dad, laugh.)

Six and a half years later, I found myself in a 10-day meditation course. In silence. About 10 minutes into the course, I realized that this would be much more than a week and a half of shutting my trap. This was going to be hard work, necessary work, and very rewarding work.

Now, two days (and many conversations) after the course’s completion, I might be ready to start making sense of what this experience actually looked/felt like, and meant for me. It was so much more than “Muzzle Camp”—a term coined by my loving father.

Vipassana is “the art of living”. Apparently, it means to see things as they are. As they are, not as we’d like them to be.

The technique, as taught by S.N. Goenka, is aimed at liberating its practitioners from suffering and misery. According to Goenka, this misery comes primarily from craving and aversion: craving of pleasant sensation and experience, and aversion from undesirable sensation and experience. Through the habitual thought patterns of our minds, we become miserable when things don’t go our way. Misery may seem like a strong word for those of us living privileged lives, in beautiful places, surrounded by loved ones. But the crazy thing is that even the richest person in the most perfect of circumstances can be miserable, and people in dire circumstances can often find happiness. It’s less about external circumstances (over which we have very little control) and more about internal circumstances. And that’s what 120 or so of us got together to work on last week, at a little cluster of buildings in Western Massachusetts. Through a language and protocol of empowerment and responsibility, we were merely witnesses of Reality. From the start.

The primary purpose of the not talking, Noble Silence as they called it, is to separate ourselves from the everyday contents of our minds. Without putting in new information to process, we could sift through the stuff that was already in there. Eventually, for me, that old stuff cycled around enough and got pretty boring. Then I think my mind got a little bit still-er.

So, we could talk if we needed to, just not to other meditators. We could talk to the course management about issues with food, accommodations, health, and other pressing issues. We were also able to ask questions of the assistant teachers, if we needed clarification about the technique. I was sure I’d find any excuse to talk to anyone about anything, but it was surprisingly easy to stay silent. The strangest part was not saying “excuse me” and “thank you” as we moved around the premises together.

A week without phone and email was pretty cool. Don’t get me wrong, I missed you all, but with family and friends with all different schedules in all different time zones, it sometimes feels like I’m in constant contact with… everyone. Since I was raised to put other people’s needs before my own, this can mean I don’t pay much attention to myself sometimes. It was definitely strange to have so much to catch up on after the course. At least two friends got engaged, my parents fell in love with the city of Nashville, my sister graduated from college, and a student I tutored took his SAT. There was also a terrible shooting in California. Life had gone on without me. But within the silence we’d constructed, we had the container to explore our inner landscape.

The philosophy wasn’t totally new to me. Most of the concepts we learned about were in line with things I’ve learned, practiced and even taught. But the Vipassana technique provided a different way to integrate these ideas. The technique, the work, the practice, basically consisted of breath, awareness, and sitting on the floor. These are pretty familiar concepts and experiences for me. I spend a fair amount of time cultivating awareness around breath, standing, sitting, and moving. I even spend time guiding others through that process. So I could even say I’ve come to have above average skills in all three areas. I didn’t by any means expect the course to be easy, but I didn’t expect to have too much trouble with these aspects.

We sat and breathed for about ten hours every day. No crazy breath—not even controlled breath, or Pranayama, as we call it in Yoga. Just natural breath. We sat on cushions in the meditation hall, and during some periods of time we were able to work in our rooms, or little “cells” (kinda like closets) in the pagoda.

Ten hours is a lot of time to spend in any position. And my hips are typically pretty “tight,” as we say in yoga-speak. They’ve come along way since my first class in 2004 when I couldn’t even do child’s pose, but I still can’t sit in a full lotus position (and suspect I never will). The longest I’d ever sat in meditation before this course was probably about an hour—and I think I’d only done that once or twice. It wasn’t easy. But here we had ten-hour days. I figured I was as ready as I’d ever be.

I spent the first four days cursing this yoga practice, which had supposedly been preparing me for meditation. Every time I sat on my cushion, my hips hurt so badly that I wanted to sue yoga for false advertising. It seemed that my asana (posture) practice had done absolutely nothing to prepare me physically to sit this way. I worked carefully through the technique as instructed, wishing that my hips would stop screaming at me so violently.

The first three days were focused on breath and awareness—sharpening the mind to observe subtle sensations associated with respiration—focused on the area around the nose.

Despite the pain in my hips, glutes and IT bands, I kept working to focus on my nose, wondering if I should be exploring other seating arrangements. There were chairs and back supports available on request. Was I being stubborn by not utilizing these resources? Or somehow too proud to admit that I needed support? I questioned myself repeatedly, but ultimately persisted on my cushion. I had a feeling that was where I needed to be.

So along with this focus on respiration came awareness of impermanence. Each inhale and exhale, along with periodic verbal instruction, reminded us of the concept of anicha, or the ever-changing nature of everything. This is the dhamma, the universal law of nature. Consistent with other philosophies that I’ve encountered, studied and taught.

On the fourth day we learned a new technique that involved scanning the whole body for sensation, rather than just the face. So now I was actually instructed to notice and even focus on the excruciating pain in my hips. Simultaneously, three of the hour-long sitting periods became periods of strong determination, meaning we were really supposed to sit for the whole hour without changing our posture, moving our hands, or opening our eyes. Well I’d been trying to do this the whole time—unsuccessfully. I knew I couldn’t do it. So now what? Was it time to ask for a chair? Am I hopeless? Should I just go home? Should I meet with the teacher to see if I am doing it wrong? WHY IS THIS SO HARD?! &*$%#^!!!

Every night we watched video discourses from Goenka, the teacher. And he always seemed to say exactly what I needed to hear, reassuring me that I was doing it right, and just had to keep working. “Patiently and persistently,” he reminded over and over. Trying and trusting.

Sometimes I wasn’t patient enough. I beat myself up a bit because I couldn’t sit the whole hour without moving. Sometimes I wasn’t persistent enough. I slept through the 4:30 am session on more than one occasion, and took a few naps throughout the day when I was supposed to be working on the technique.

From compassion, to judgement, I oscillated back and forth. All the while my hips killed me. I had to change my posture three or four times in each hour-long sit. Arghhh.

And then, somewhere around the fifth or sixth day, I caught myself spending the better part of an hour recounting in my mind every time someone had wronged me in my life. My mind boiled over with anger about all the times I had perceived that someone hurt me, betrayed me, taken advantage of my kindness, lied to me, or not appreciated something I’d done for them. After spending an hour with old bosses, ex-boyfriends, middle school classmates, and others I had previously blamed for undesirable experiences, I decided that was a pretty awful way to spend my time. Though I had long known that holding on to resentment wasn’t productive, until this point, there were still lots of things I wasn’t able to let go of. At this specific moment, I realized that pain was inevitable. The seemingly unbearable sensation in my hips wasn’t actually something to be avoided at all costs, just like giving up on dating and committing to lifetime self-employment were not the best ways to avoid hurt, betrayal, abandonment, blah, blah, blah. The whole point, what I came to Vipassana to experience, was to develop equanimity, tolerance, presence, and mindfulness even in these unpleasant moments. To realize that they don’t need to make me more guarded, more skeptical, more independent, or more cynical. I actually needed to recommit to following my heart, my intuition. I needed to recommit to being present, and just know that things wouldn’t always work out perfectly, but I’d survived. My hips might hurt, and I might even have to change my posture. But everything was okay. Everything is okay. Everything is always changing. Anicha.

It hurts to sit with Reality sometimes. We may think we’re prepared technically, but we can’t always be prepared. We can’t always be in control. We can always count on the universal law of impermanence. Everything rises and passes away.

Furthermore, as individuals, we are nothing more than a conglomeration of particles that happen to coexist in particular shapes at a particular moment in time. The shape of a “me” or the form of a “you,” the idea of an “us” or a group of “them.” Therefore, there really is no I, no me, no mine. And it doesn’t matter in the slightest if I complete the challenge of sitting for an hour without moving.

So the pain, sensation of all kinds, comes and goes. And if I move, I move. So what? But I kept trying and eventually found the pain to be much less overwhelming. I can’t really say it subsided, and I actually don’t remember if I made it through a whole hour-long session without changing my posture. If I did, it was only once. But I couldn’t even come close until I stopped caring so much about the achievement of sitting. Most times in the last few days I only changed my position once and I felt really different from day to day.

So why sit through this pain? Impermanence: cool. But why sit and steep in all this shit to realize that nothing lasts forever? We see it all around us. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, all that. Well, according to Goenka, and many teachers before him, including this guy Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), this technique of observing sensation allows us to reprogram our mind at the deepest level.

By experiencing impermanence, rather than just discussing it intellectually, we can actually train our minds to be pure, and spend less time and energy reacting to craving and aversion, caused by pleasant and unpleasant feelings and experiences.

So, the goal really is to come out of attachment, like with so many things, including yoga asana. I have known this was a great idea for a while… but this technique offers a way to experience non-attachment on a sensory level—therefore accessing the problems, the misery, at the roots.

Yoga aims at non-attachment too—but it’s hard. We are driven to achieve and do new postures, to see external, measurable results. It’s important to keep things fresh so we remember to be maintain equanimity to the result.

We don’t always (ever) have control.

Also, there’s no reason to keep score or keep track—of anything really.

No I, no me, no mine.

But it really all comes down to love and compassion. Like exercising for fun and not obligation, or donating to charity regardless of recognition. It’s not about I and me and mine.

Who cares? Really.

So with renewed compassion, love and equanimity, I return to Colorado. I look forward to discovering some blind spots that may have been holding me back.

And with renewed confidence that individual and collective peace, prosperity, harmony, and happiness are not only possible but necessary, I return to my work with renewed vigor.

Colorado, here I come.

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