Vipassana: A Real Look Inside
"If there is no peace in the minds of individuals, how can there be peace in the world?
Make peace in your own mind first."
- S.N. Goenka
Vipassana. Where to begin? In the week since my return I've been musing, feeling, and absorbing what I experienced. 12 days away, 10 days in complete silence, disconnected from the world, meditating 8-10 hours a day.... a free-dive into the depths of my mind that was very revealing. Armed with a blanket an my meditation cushion, I simultaneously felt as prepared & unprepared as I assume most people undertaking this journey for the first time feel. Here is my attempt to share my experience.
'Vipassana' means "to see things as they really are" and this meditation technique, rediscovered by Buddha some 2500 years ago, teaches us to observe ourselves with the outmost objectivity. The course is designed very thoughtfully and spans 10 whole days without counting the check-in and check out days. This has been determined to be the minimum amount of time necessary to learn the essential parts to practice this style of meditation. To ensure each participant maximizes their experience, participants are sworn into Noble Silence the night of checking in. Distractions are eliminated completely as we all reluctantly handed over our phones, car keys, journals, and books - disconnecting completely from each of our little worlds. Dhamma Pakasa, the Illinois Vipassana Meditation Center, is in Pecatonica, surrounded by vast farmland. This center accommodates about 25 women and 25 men - who remain separate for the duration of the course. Upon checking in we are assigned simple but clean dorm rooms: bed, night-table, plastic chair, some hooks on the wall. Our time was spent in 3 buildings: the dorm, the meditation hall, and the dining hall... the space outside spanning between buildings offered fresh February freedom, inspiring sunrises and sunsets, and stars twinkling brightly into the dark, crisp nights. Hundreds of Canadian geese occupied the pond outside the meditation hall. They honked their encouragement to us daily, and entertained us with their squabbles and dramas. Geese have never been so enthralling - with nothing else to focus on, we all watched and observed their every move from the break room window of the meditation hall with the intensity one would devote to the finale of their favorite TV series. Hopefully that begins to set the scene.
On Feb 1st, after a comedy of errors involving Ruby Tuesday my trusty SUP truck not starting, lots of pushing, a jump start & kiss goodbye - I drove myself, quite emotionally, 75 mins south-west to the center. I checked in, found my room, parked, and had a light dinner of soup and bread while chatting with a few other women there. At the urging of the registration attendant, after reading a few pages of rules on a clipboard handed to me, I solemnly signed my life away, agreeing to remain there until the morning of February 12th. We had our "induction" in the meditation hall, where we were assigned our 2'x2' blue meditation pad for the course - such a small physical space for launching such an infinite inner voyage. A lot happened in those 4 square feet over 10 days: observation (observation, observation), boredom, physical & mental discomfort, curious exploration, some cursing (though not as much as I'd anticipated!), self questioning, feelings of deep connection, self-judgement, anger, annoyance, and many silent battles waged against distractions, impulses, and a fatigue that weighed so heavily on me that at times I nearly fell off my meditation cushion. To be fair, they keep the lighting in the meditation hall to a minimum, and the temperature in all buildings is quite high, I would guess 25C or 75-77F. In my world, cushions, blankets, warm, quiet, and dark are all cues that it's time to go to sleep and my body is well trained to comply! The fatigue was so bad in the first couple days that while they explained that it's normal for your thoughts to stray to the past or to the future, my experience to that point was that my mind was caught in the surreal world between awake and asleep for entire sittings at a time. I asked the teacher on the second night what to do, because I feared I was going to doze through the entire course. I often wondered if anyone witnessed my silent struggles & near falls? The times I peeked out from behind my eyelids everyone appeared to be sitting as still as Buddha himself. Sigh, I detract from the story, and this is just how meditation goes sometimes - lots of tangents of varying degrees of relevance, and my inner Voice-Of-Reason gently redirecting me to the goal at hand - over and over and over again. Back to that first night! The course has 3 parts, the first being a code of morality: no killing, no stealing, no speaking falsely (I thought this was pretty cute considering we weren't to speak at all), no sexual activity, no intoxicants. We agree to this code in a "repeat-after-me" format, which become our last words spoken out loud before the vow of Noble Silence descended upon us. We retired to bed at 9.15pm. The gong chimed 3 times at 4am to let us know it was time to drag ourselves out of bed. At 4:30 we were all perched on our 2x2 squares in the meditation hall, ready to begin the 2nd part of course which is learning to focus our minds. To do this we are instructed to observe our breath, as it is. We did this for 3 whole days, sharpening our focus, listening to cues about "observing the air passing through the right nostrrriiiil, the left nostrrriiil, or maybe, possibly, through both nostriiillls simultaneously. Just observe." On the 4th day we had focused our minds enough to be handed the 3rd part of the course - the Vipassana technique, which is essentially a body scan. It is all about experiencing the focus of our minds within the framework of our bodies while accepting the reality that nothing is permanent - "this too will change". So we are training our minds to release attachment to what is pleasurable, while also not creating aversion what is painful or uncomfortable. Essentially re-training our deep subconscious patterns of reacting to every single sensation/thought/situation/feeling that comes up in our lives - instead of react, observe. All sensations are arising only to pass away... sooner or later. This is powerful stuff, and the discourses we watch every night are really great at explaining what we are learning and experiencing. They are also funny, and it feels great to have a giggle and smile when each day is so serious. On the night of Day 4, I also notice both my knees have some spongy swelling below the kneecaps, from all the prolonged sitting and kneeling. On the 5th day we begin to enforce 'hours of Strong Determination'. Three of the hours in the day are designated for complete stillness while meditating. Each person is to "set up" and then not move legs, arms, or open eyes, for the whole hour. This is to really allow our mind to test it's determination to observe, without reacting, to any pains, itches, or discomforts - those sensations are impermanent after all, so they can't last forever. WAY easier said than done. At this point, I am the starring character in The Princess and The Pea. I have about 10 different cushions, blankets, beanbags, and a small bench agglomerated on my 2x2 square. I have tiny anxiety pangs every time I walk into the hall trying to decide on the fly which position I will now try, and then proceed to play a hasty game of Tetris - configuring my tiny kingdom into a new shape I hope will be more comfortable than the last. It was Day 9 when I finally figured out what my optimal set up was - better late than never, I suppose. I did make it through about one of these meditation "Power Hours" a day, and even all 3 on Day 10 - victory is mine, ha. For the record, prior to the course, my personal meditation practice was 4-5 mornings a week for 20-40 minutes which pales in comparison to 8-10 hours a day. Sitting around on your butt for 10hrs a day is no easy task and my body felt so wrecked while I was there.
Here is a look at what our schedule was for the duration of the course:
4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher's instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room--Lights out
So 4am wake up is pretty rough at first! I went to the hall for the first couple mornings, then opted to stay in my room. It's winter here in the midwest, and there were a few men in the course who were showing symptoms of one of the worst strains of Man-Cold ever recorded. Loud sneezing, coughing, sniffling, and that gross noise of pulling mucus from the sinuses into the back of the throat followed by swallowing it, *cringe*. Besides being incredibly distracting, I was sure we would all be afflicted, and thus I spent the 4:30-6:30 & 1pm-2:30pm time slots in my room every day (taking garlic, echinacea, and a multivitamin to ward off contamination lol). I would set up my cushions the night before, and sit for two 50-min session with a 10-min break between in the morning. Sure, some mornings were easier or harder to maintain focus, but this seemed par for the course whether I was in the hall or not. I did revisit the hall on morning 7, and was promptly reminded of the quiet, phlegm-free nature of the dorm. A story to share: my 2x2 square was in the 3rd row, on the center aisle that divided the men & women. Three and a half feet to my left was a guy. This guy was an insistent, persistent cougher. And while some people in the hall sounded genuinely sick, this guy's cough was soft, dry, and seemed to be only for the sake of making noise. The coughs came every 90-120seconds, and were followed by a loud inhale & extra loud mouth-exhale. Bit by bit, it was driving me completely bonkers. Making me angry even. My annoyance snowballed until I spent the better part of a day rolling my eyes behind my closed lids every time this guy so much as made a peep. I was also berating myself for being a terrible human for feeling so annoyed with a sick person who was probably having a terrible time focusing himself, and maybe even felt really bad about disturbing everyone. My meditation was going nowhere and I was feeling far from equanimous, which is THE theme & goal of the last 3-4 days. I was determined to change my mindset. What was the lesson, and how do I let it go? The lesson was Tolerance, and the solution to regaining my equanimity ended up being: every time my neighbor cough & sighed, I would (in my mind) say "may he be healthy". Acknowledging the sensation, and wishing him better health. This positive spin, allowed me instantly re-focus on my meditation. Duly noted!
Breakfast was the same daily: oatmeal, cereal, toast, fruit, tea, coffee. On Day 1, the tag on my tea quoted to me that "No man is an island, entire of itself." (John Donne) - the irony isn't lost on me, Universe, I thought as I silently laughed to myself. Daily, we all spent 8am to 11am in the meditation hall. Lunch was delicious, and the highlight of my day. We had Italian, Indian, Chinese, Mexican, and on 2 glorious days we had cookies. I promptly developed a Cookie-Sankara (sankaras are the conditioned responses our minds create responding to desire/"i-want" or aversion/"i-don't-want"; our sankaras always lead to our misery), which caused me plenty of daily disappointment on no-cookie-days. Point taken.
After lunch I would walk for 30-40 min on the bit of path that key-holed next to a pasture at one end, and around some giant pines at the other. I loved everything about being outside. I was walking to remind my body I wasn't in a coma. I was walking for my sanity. This time was as insightful and as full of lessons as any other. I would do 9 lengths, and if it wasn't wet out, I would lay in the grass near "my rock" for 5-10 mins, swapping energy with the earth, before heading back in. Funny how we humans are - we love a routine. Something we can rely on. I loved counting the laps, and making it to my meaningless pre-set goal. Passing or touching the same spot every time, making a game of it. And dubbing all the objects on my regular path as "mine" - my rock, my nest, my tree. When these things really don't belong to me or to anyone. Just my brain, keeping itself entertained. A part of me seemed to curiously watch it all unfold. I imagine this is part of what the course intends to do: create a distraction free space where the literal and figurative noise is cut so far back that for once you can see yourself clearly. It's a bit scary, and a true reality check. It was during this time I also realized how much my self-talk is explaining, justifying, accounting for my actions/thoughts/feelings. It was such an endless dialogue. Who was I justifying it all to???
Dinner was called Tea, and only apples, bananas, and oranges are served. I would make a hot chocolate, take 1/2 an orange on a plate, and slice a banana in a bowl, cover it in honey, cinnamon & milk and pretend I was eating cereal... or see it as it really was: fruit posing as cereal, posing as dinner. At least I still had my sense of humor.
Mid-morning on Day 10, Noble Silence is lifted and 10 days of shared silent experiences finally come to audible light with an outpouring of laughter, chatter, and stories. Everyone looking so happy, and feeling so light. The energy high for me was incredible. It was amazing to finally connect with these strong, funny, interesting, women I had been silently living alongside for so long! We laughed and laughed over our experiences and struggles, until nearly midnight, and the dorm felt like college.
To summarize, it was a truly valuable experience for me. I learned a lot about myself. I learned that the silence allows for ideas and creativity to surface. I realized how much my "to-do" list dominates my brain. A long (quiet) look at the intentions that drive that to-do list, and I realized some of them aren't even my real intentions. I also had some wonderfully connected moments between my body, mind, and surroundings. I learned and experienced a new way to meditate, that made a lot of sense to me. It is so rare or non-existent in this modern world to have any real amount of time to spend - undistracted - truly learning about yourself, how your mind works, how you respond to situations. The technique S.N. Goenka teaches is step-by-step, real, and very accessible to everyone. Learning to observe, to see clearly, to react less - are all skills that would benefit every human on the planet. Learning to make your life more happy, less angry, and a lot more mindfully present - if you are willing to put in the work.
Vipassana is free, and is offered at centers around the world. Once completed, participants may make a donation. Only "old student" may make donations. This means that each person undertaking this journey does so on the kindness of strangers who came before them. What pure karma. What a beautiful, valuable gift.
Do you think you would like to try a Vipassana course? Let me know in the comments section!