Everything in life is change. It’s a universal law I’ve been aware of since I was a small child. Neither family nor home, friendship nor success. Nothing is permanent; nothing is fixed. In a way, it’s a liberating fact, one that’s always helped me feel strong when those inevitable fluctuations in life smack me upside the head!
And as I would see during ten days of silent meditation training, endurance in times of monotony, methodical analysis, disciplined adherence to time, these skills could use some work . . .
Some friends from my yoga teacher training suggested I do a “before” and “after” video of my experience . . . so here is the before:
Keeping in mind this was my first Vipassana course (and definitely not my last), most of my ‘discoveries’ below may seem quite shallow. Well, they do to me, in any case.
I didn’t discover the Truth – where do we come from, why are we here, and where do we go (luck, love, everywhere, respectively, is my current guess!). Not that I expected to, in a little ten day course, but you know what I mean.
The lessons learned in this ten-day-microcosm of existence are so obviously valuable (in a consciously integrated life), I’ve made a commitment to keep the practice up. Here’s what I came up with . . .
1. Vipassana is the meditation technique Buddha used to reach enlightenment. Wow! I didn’t realize that until this week. Apparently, he imparted this technique to his colleagues who joined him for the first sermon in Sarnarth. In the midst of cultural and political changes here in India, the technique was preserved in Burma and is now handed down by lay-people-cum-teachers, rather than by a particular caste or family of monks. Mediation for the people by the people – yeah!
Another unique quality of this mediation method: requiring practitioners to observe closely all the physical phenomena going on in the body – a fine-tuned internal observation, as opposed to an external focus (on mantra, a god, etc.) of concentration.
According to the Manual of Vipassana Meditation, “The Pali word Vipassana is made up of two parts: vi meaning variously, in various ways, and passana, which means to watch, observe or investigate. So Vipassana means to see clearly, to observe thoroughly, to investigate penetratingly in various ways the true nature of things, precisely, as they really are . . .”
In this process, we fine tune our awareness and ensure observation is done in pure equanimity. These skills are priceless in our daily lives. If you have the ability to take a step back and observe a situation with neutrality, rather than react in an emotional – and often detrimental – way, we’re sure to be better problem solvers, better friends, better human beings.
If for no other reason, these two life skills are enough motivation to keep up with Vipassana.
2. “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
Ha! Ten days of hearing myself babble on internally about anything that would help me procrastinate was oddly good for my ego. Sometimes I’d surprise myself with (albeit brief) instances of genius. Between rounds of intense technique work, I broke through my ego layer. Of course, all this mind chatter meant . . .
3. Discipline is not my forte. When given the freedom to avoid work – 6 of the 9 (yes, N-I-N-E) meditation hours were ‘independent study’ – I’d naturally work about half the time. It took a lot of coaxing to get myself to sit on my butt and meditate, instead of getting on my mat to do asanas. Strange to tell yourself to get on your butt instead of off it … !
To give you an idea of just how rigorous our meditation schedule was, here’s the full rundown of daily events:
4:00 a.m. ———————— Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 a.m. —————- Meditate in Dharma Hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 a.m. —————- Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 a.m. —————- Group meditation in Dharma Hall
9:00-11:00 a.m. ————— Meditate in Dharma Hall or room according to teacher’s instruction
11:00 -12 noon —————- Lunch break
12 noon – 1:00 p.m. ——— Rest, private Q&A session with teacher
1:00-2:30 p.m. —————– Meditate in Dharma Hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 p.m. —————– Group meditation in Dharma Hall
3:30-5:00 p.m. —————– Meditate in Dharma Hall or room according to teacher’s instruction
5:00-6:00 p.m. —————– Tea break
6:00-7:00 p.m. —————– Group meditation in Dharma Hall
7:00-8:15 p.m. ——————Teacher’s Discourse in Dharma Hall
8:15-9:00 p.m. ——————Group meditation in Dharma Hall
9:00-9:30 p.m. —————– Open Q&A session in Dharma Hall
10:00 p.m. ————————Lights out
(he kinda reminds me of my grandfather sometimes …)
4. Hehe. Discovery number 4. Waaaaaait for it . . . the lights are dim. Four stoic teachers sit on raised tables draped in white at the front of the arc-shaped room. After preparing my seat, propping my knees, adjusting my scarf and checking in with the sometimes stubborn joints, I’m ready for an hour of stillness. I gently close my eyes and take a deep breath. Then, in the far corner of the room . . . an old lady farts like she’s been eating nothing but cabbage and beer for a week. Another sari-wrapped vision of beauty lets out the kind of belch that’d make Barney blush.
Pretty soon they’re all lettin’ it rip. Apparently, Vipassana courses are also training grounds for India’s esteemed Gaseous Olympic Team. And they’re goin’ for the gold.
5. You don’t need talk to feel close to someone. As soon as we broke our noble silence, a group of five of us English-speakers had quite a LOT to say to one another. And it wasn’t limited to meditation talk. We rattled on about India journeys, life issues, men, yoga, and situations back home. The kind of stuff you talk about with close friends. It might sound strange, but I really felt as though I’d known these girls for ages.
Was it the shared interest in Vipassana? The ten days of being in the same vicinity as one another?
Who knows, maybe it was some kinda cosmic alignment of time and space and we were destined to break noble silence in laughter and uncanny familiarity. Whatever the reason, it was a surprise that really warmed my heart.
6. Silence is highly underrated. I had a feeling I’d experience relief during a week of silence! No need for socially-prescribed small talk or the pointless surface chatter at the beginning of a course. These things serve their purpose, as social lubricant, as a means to relate during some kinds of initial encounters, but my favorite dialogue dish is the heavy stuff, the curries and steaks of dreams and insight. Escaping the fluff sounded like heaven to me.
So we were all alone with our thoughts, not even a smile or friendly gesture to see us through the countless walks between the meditation room and the dining hall. (I had to keep my eyes down most of the time to avoid my automatic-Hawaii-smile when I make eye contact with someone!)
It was surprisingly easy – and I’d be interested in exploring silent retreats, even without the mediation. Simple silence probably has a host of its own benefits to the psyche and heart.
The silence gave my mind room to breathe – room that was untainted by anyone’s ego or motives but my own. It was a spacious room, full of shelves and cupboards, a desk and several full-length windows, looking out into the deep expanse of past experiences. Between meditations, I could open up those cupboards, pull out the thoughts, most written on scattered bits of torn notebook paper, post-it notes with gummy backs, or folded up airline ticket stubs stuffed away in the hurried process of finding my seat. It was an opportunity to somewhat organize them, throwing out old unnecessary bits, keeping the best ones for later. Just me, in my mind’s room, for ten full days. And as any feminist knows, a woman keen on developing as a writer requires a room of one’s own.
This got me to thinking what a useful practice mediation is for writers. To hone your skills as an observer, to become “the witness” – it’s an incredible practice for developing narrative perspective. Again, gratitude.
7. “Me” is totally subjective. Toward the end of the ten day training, I’ll have successfully gotten myself in a state of physical dissolution – where one simply exists, with no awareness of body at all. It’s one thing to read about the idea, “I am not my body,” but to experience this concept as a tangible (or rather, intangible) reality, is something quite extraordinary, even if only for a short period of time.
When I’d catch myself in this state, I wondered if my awareness of it would somehow spoil the experience – like when you realize you’re dreaming and suddenly you’re jolted awake. Thankfully that wasn’t the case.
In several other sessions, I had the opposite feeling, as though I was more in my body than ever before. I felt my entire physical self grow warmer and warmer, vibrating with an electric pulse across every centimeter of skin. I hesitate to call it ‘orgasmic’ because there was no sexuality to the feeling whatsoever. Blissful, yes. Attraction for an external object, no. For what felt like about five minutes, my body buzzed – intensely.
Pondering the sensations didn’t seem to affect its frequency or intensity at all. The feeling came back in later sessions. Careful not to “crave” the experience, as our teacher had instructed, I was still curious if I’d ever feel it again. And when it did return, would I be able to observe the experience with equanimity, realizing the universal law of impermanence, anicca.
So, that was ‘me’ both totally without and totally with my body. And that’s been ‘me’ both totally lost in thought, and mostly without it. Where did these experiences come from? I hadn’t read about them, or had them suggested as possible side-effects. They simply happened.
As no coincidence, I’m sure, the discourse that very evening addressed the vibratory phenomenon in some detail. Jesus, they have the results of this technique down to a science! I suppose 2500 years of practice will do that … ;o)
8. The two biggest distractions in meditation (for me): food and the future. Crazy right?
Whilst actually practicing the technique, my focus was pretty good. I have no clue what my discipline was compared to other meditators, but I’d guess mine was at least average. Only every once in a while did I sloppily stop in the middle of a body scan to think of something else. And once in a groove, I could handle the hour of constant mediation fairly well.
But in between scans, that was a whole ‘nother story! Oh, did my mind make up some incredible visions of the future! Improv comedienne takes over Saturday Night Live with genius skits mocking the yoga and traveling worlds! James Kelly wins the lottery, buys a vineyard and sets up a music festival in Thailand!
Something about the future, its infinite possibilities, makes it the most attractive subject to ponder, whenever my mind gets a chance.
Food is a close second. I didn’t expect this one – at all! But talking to a fellow meditator after the course, a lovely South Korean farmer who’d been through six courses already, I found out these thoughts of food are really common, especially amongst the women. Another meditator I spoke to afterward, also a six-course super star, mentioned she consistently put together ideal menus in between her deep sessions.
My mind envisioned a green tea vanilla cupcake I’m definitely going to experiment with when I finally land after this year of travel. Fig and almond oat cookies with agave nectar are second on the list!
But the number one Food of Fine Distraction? Chocolate. By a long shot.
Dark chocolate Godiva bonbons, Ghirardelli dark chocolate squares with caramel in the middle, white chocolate with macadamia nuts, chocolate covered almonds my Grandma always seems to have at the house, Ritter Sport hazelnut bars, Cadbury’s fruit and nut, plain Galaxy, Pistachio Lindt bars, mint chip Butlers, I could go on and on!
Man, I need to get me a boyfriend …
9. Even if you can do it anywhere, the Igatpuri Vipassana Center is a brilliant place to meditate. At the risk of sounding repetitive, I am so grateful for having done a Vipassana course – and to have done my first course at the first center (and biggest, incidentally), is even more awesome.
The aesthetic of the grounds is like a big juicy Bing cherry atop an already scrumptious sundae. Every bit of flora and fauna were familiar to me because they also grow in Hawaii – only the Indian versions are three times the size as the trees back home. This made me feel like a miniature character in a fairytale! Hibiscus, palm and fig trees line the walkways. Buddhist architecture shone a golden hue in the afternoon sun. And just beyond the grounds, magnificent mountains where the sun peeks up in the morning. Wow.
My teacher was approachable, gentle and knowledgeable. The room was comfortable and clean. The bookstore was full of interesting options for expanding my Vipassana horizons. I really couldn’t have imagined a better experience.
10. From meditation floweth (silly) scientific creativity like no other. Take, for example, my 5pm snack ritual.
Here I realized there are at least 35 permutations on the way to eat this mini-meal/snack we were served every day after the toughest section of the schedule:
- Banana Bonbons – slices of banana covered in cereal (rice krispies with peanuts and unidentifiable Indian herbs)
- Banana Bonbons with peanuts only
- Banana or Peanut Bonbons with/without turmeric
- Banana Pudding
- With cereal
- With peanuts only
- With cereal/peanuts and chai flavoring
- With cereal/peanuts and turmeric
- The works
- Warm porridge (allow the cereal to soak for several minutes)
- W/o peanuts
- With/without peanuts and turmeric
- Traditional western-style cereal (allow milk to cool, add cereal and voila!)
- Traditional western-style cereal with bananas
- Traditional western-style cereal with/without bananas and turmeric
- Traditional western-style cereal with/without bananas with/without turmeric in chai (ooooh, decadent!)!
- Any of the above, minus the peanuts
- Banana Dippers – peel the banana halfway and dip into cereal and liquid options
- Any of the above made with a plethora of milk/chai variants
- Old Skool – spoon the dry mix into your mouth, straight up
A ten day meditation course provides incredible insight – a microcosm of everyday life. If you find the discipline of following the rules a challenge here, it’s likely something to work on outside the course. At least, I know it is for me!
But as a longtime Vipassana student here at the Yoga Institute said to me today, the practice is a lot like learning to play the piano. First, you learn the scales – it’s repetitive, technical, and perhaps a touch frustrating for more conceptual thinkers like myself. As your dedication and determination allows, you eventually master the basics and can play songs. The next step is composition, experimentation, then eventually a free-flowing creativity that is totally unique to you.
. . . and here is the “after”
On the 22nd of this month, the guru of the practice, S.N. Goenka, will be giving a metta (love) meditation and a one day course at the new Golden Pagoda here in Mumbai. I’ve totally rescheduled my travel plans so I can be here for the day. I’m number 7839 out of 8000 registrants.
Pictures and impressions to follow . . .
May all beings be happy