A silent retreat from everyday stimulation that triggers boredom, physical pain, and loneliness, combined with a rigid schedule beginning with a 4am gong ringing to wake up, might make you ask “Why am I here?”. This was my first question to the teacher after almost 24 hours of silence. Her warm blue eyes looked at me and answered “something brought you here. Something inside called you to sign up, accept the course, do the drive, and now question this.” I sat silent and thought, “well, yes, this is true, but I have a good life, and I know I can be happy. I can go home, be comfortable, meditate on my own time.” The teacher responded as if seeing my spiraling thoughts to add “if your mind wanders, come back to your breath. It’s always with you, even when you don’t realize it. Simply focus on your inhale and exhale through your nose.” Her words reminded me of my faith in something greater, and this was only a miniscule lesson from my Vipassana meditation course that offered stillness in the absence of day-to-day life.
Vipassana is a powerful meditation practice that began in India more than 2,500 years ago as a non-sectarian technique to discover and purify the mind with a result of greater happiness. The practice is experiential and a self-transformative discipline through self-observation. It’s by no means an easy course, and requires serious work. There is a simple code of moral conduct to follow, learning to focus on the flow of the breath, and the practice of Vipassana itself: observing sensations in the body and how to not react to them. Lessons are taught through an evening discourse of recordings from the late Mr. S.N. Goenka . The ten-day course addresses the three causes of unhappiness: cravings, aversions, and ignorance.
I chose this opportunity and the timing as a refuge for a chance to get back to my intuitive nature. Like a course in miracles, I found ways to be more present, patient, and compassionate. I still returned home with my anxiety and some of the same personal struggles, but with a new sense of observing myself. The process was intense, but changed day by day, so I’ve tried to recapture some of the details of my time.
I arrive in the late afternoon of the first day, and I fill out the consent forms agreeing to noble silence and a moral code of non-harming, not stealing, and not lying. I think, “how can I lie? I can’t even talk.”, but as I reluctantly volunteer my phone to be locked away for the entire 10-day course, I know I could have kept it in my car and cheat, but realized that would have been a disservice to myself and a lie of true noble silence. I’m driven to where I will reside for the next 11 nights – a simple yellow house with steps up onto a white porch with a several separate doors that do not lock where I have a room alone and private bathroom. No crazy roommate with crystals, chanting, or wacky woo-woo behavior to report home about. I settle in, unpack my essentials and boredom sets in as I think, “okay, now what…?”. I want to text a friend and share what it’s like so far and alleviate some of my anxiety. After an evening meal, which is the only one we will receive because it is fruit and tea after 5pm for the remainder of time, we are assigned a meditation spot in the dharma hall (meaning Universal Law). We have a group mediation session followed by a brief recorded talk from our teacher, Goenka, and then the official noble silence begins. We are dismissed back to our rooms where I’m ready to get to bed after a long day of driving and starting this new experience, but I wonder “am I safe?”, so I spray down my bedding with lavender spray to ward off any potential critters since I’ve agreed not to kill anything, and I fall asleep.
A 4am gong predictably does not wake me up, but an alarm clock in the room does the trick for 4:15am, and then a ring from the bell outside the dharma hall 10 minutes prior to the meditation session gets me out of bed at 4:20am. We can remain in our rooms for the first early morning meditation or choose go to the group hall, but no thanks – I keep my comfy pajama pants and slippers on as a stretch out my legs on my floor. “What did I sign up for?! Why do I always find such weird, crazy experiences on my own?! I really want a cookie. I’m SO bored!” These are all thoughts I have throughout this first full day. I make an appointment with the teacher, a fairy-godmother-like woman with a calming presence, and she inspires me by thinking about my breath, like God is always there if I simply take the time to pause and focus in stillness.
The 4am gong…nope didn’t hear it. 4:20am bell…okay, I’m up. I sit, focus on breath, the area beneath the nostrils, above the lips, this small triangle of space, notice the inhales, the exhales. Hours and hours of this practice. BOREDOM and OMG, the pain! I’m miserable with a morning headache, pain in my back, hips, hamstrings, ankle. “Why did I do this?!” I roll, stretch, take a walk in the cold, stretch again.
I made it 1/3 of the length of the course. Something new is coming today according to Mr. Goenka’s lecture. “It better be cake!”, I think to myself. It’s the method of Vipassana, which is to notice sensations throughout the body starting with the top of the head, even any slight tickle, itch, twitch or pain. Pass your attention down through each part of your body bit by bit and move on to the next section despite any cravings or aversions. At this point I would equate a craving with a good feeling of relaxed focus or comfort in my body, but there was none of this. I only had pain to avert my attention to the next irritation. My morning group meditation session makes me crave superficial comforts. “I want cake. I want a donut. I want to take a hot jetted bubble bath. I want to eat a donut while taking this bath!” I decide to sign up for my next teacher session where I ask “how do I find equanimity of the mind with all this pain?” She reminds me of impermanence, which I’m finding daily in my walks with white frost that melts as the day expands to end in a pink-sky sunset over the mountains.
I’ll be honest I don’t know what day it is, what the weather will be, or even what local or world news is occurring. I do know I have pain radiating through my back from the long periods of sitting and the single foam mattress I’ve been sleeping on nightly. I do find a new sense of appreciation too. Progressing further into the practice with continued silence and removal of daily distractions or stimulation creates sharper awareness and subtleness. I noticed the dew on plants in the morning before the sun warmed its leaves, and this brought patience for me to not touch and find to my surprise that they had a soft velvety texture later in the afternoon.
The aches throughout my body are a reminder of impermanence and restrained desire to react, but I also finally have a “good” meditation session where I was so relaxed and could ease into a state of comfortable observance. I was seated on a meditation bench with my knees on a cushion, and I don’t feel any back pain or notice my fingers touching or my thumbs connected. I feel a surge of swirling energy as I focus on my toes to my head, and it travels from the bottom of my tailbone up through my hips (sacral chakra), abdomen, and all the way through the crown of my head. I feel happy. I think I’m smiling with my eyes closed. Is this the craving sensation I’ve been hearing about?
I made it 2/3 of the length of the course. Can I go home now? I miss my bed, people I love, and my back hurts. A group session after lunch is followed by a long recording of Mr. Goenka encouraging the focus on sensations throughout the body with emphasis on good sensations to let go of cravings and noticing the bad sensations to develop strong determination. I can only feel pain, and the frustration brings me to a point of such impatience that I feel like I’m screaming inside, while I’m silent in stillness. We are free to go back to our rooms after what feels like hours (and probably was) where I roll, stretch, and lay on my floor flat on my back and tears stream down my face. Release.
I want to go home, but there are only 2 more days. I’m so close to the end of the course, there is more to learn, and I still want cake. I walk, fall back into my routine and ponder everything. My thoughts are more clear, simple, and during the hours of sitting in meditation during the week, I think of every person I’ve loved. I’m much more present and my personal connection with God is all around in nature with ice frozen beneath a small waterfall, trees that have a beautiful red coating with the branches revealed under this protective layer, and I find natural hearts all around the walking paths. Mistletoe grows along the trees, and I later learn that mistletoe pulls disease out of the trees. In a similar manner, the Vipassana course is teaching how we dig deep to pull out the malady in our subconscious to plant new seeds of good intentions.
I again don’t know what day it is or what I will learn as we are told this is another day of strong determination. Earlier in the week, we were assigned “pagodas” in the main hall, which is a beautiful temple building with golden domes up top lined with tiny bells that chime at night under the calm wind and stary sky. I’ll be honest – the pagoda is an individual closet to mediate in your own private small silent space, but what I found interesting was how the building was designed. It’s a series of hallways where we all face the center of the building when we are inside our individual “cells”. The energy I felt while I meditated on my own in this space was incredible. It was an uplifting, yet peaceful and safe spiritual space. I left an afternoon meditation hour from my pagoda and walked down to the dining hall about ½ mile away, but stopped just outside the dharma hall where another girl was stopped and starting. There was a family of four deer only about 50 feet away looking in our direction. The sky was glowing a soft orange and pink with the sunset, and the deer simply kept on walking. Between the silence and this beauty, I looked over at a woman standing near me and we shared a smile.
In the early session on this almost final morning, I feel physically good mediating in my room. After the group morning session, we are told we can talk to each other and officially end the noble silence. The silence is still practiced and respected in and around the dharma hall. I walk back to my room alone with no words as groups of women gather with lots of chatter. I sound so anti-social, but I’m also such an introvert and honestly was still enjoying the silence. After an hour of rolling my back, stretching, etc., I walk down to the dining hall and once I walk inside, I glance over and the first words out of my mouth are “Yah, there’s cake!” The women around me laugh, not knowing that I truly wanted cake days before during a painful meditation session, and here it was!
I finally took the time to capture my thoughts from this experience, and as I finish writing this, I’m leaving a trip from Hawaii where I was here to be a bridesmaid in my best friend's wedding. I think again about the impermanence of things because this trip was different with no time to paddle out or discover any bamboo forest hikes together, and I recognize life is changing for us always. Even a simple moment of watching a guy ride a wave all the way in to the beach, I see rain is coming down so I start looking for a rainbow, and it appears, but then fades. Finding happiness is truly within yourself no matter where you are in the world because there is beauty all around the world, but it starts from within yourself. May all beings be happy.