When I first arrived to New Zealand I met a girl from Finland whom I hit it off with immediately. After hanging out for a few hours, she apologized for acting a little weird. “What do you mean”, I asked. “Well I just finished this 10-day silent Vipassana meditation course yesterday and it feels strange to be back in the real world. “10 days of silence, that sounds horrible, I can’t even imagine, tell me more,” I urged. “It’s hard to explain and I can’t even begin to describe it although I will say it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but the most rewarding experience of my life, everyone should experience it at least once in their lifetime.” She left it at that so I made a mental note to look it up upon my return home.
Fast-forward to 5 months later- I was in a tiny village in Laos and I met an Italian guy and had dinner with him. He had just arrived from India. Since I had visited India as well I asked him what his favorite experience was and he told me about a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation course he had completed in almost the exact same words, “it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it totally changed my life.” “Wow I have heard about this”, I exclaimed! How could this be, that in my 33 years I had never known about this type of meditation but it was presented to me twice within 5 months. Maybe this was a sign and I was determined to learn more about it.
Three months after returning from my world-wide trip and looking for jobs to no avail I randomly remembered the two strangers (and now friends) that I met along my journey who had told me about Vipassana meditation and I decided to look it up. It turns out that there are centers all over the world and one of them was two hours outside of Chicago. I went to the website but the explanation of the course all seemed a little bit vague. I decided to apply for the course anyways. The course is completely free after all (perfect for an unemployed person such as myself). The centers are based on donations only from those who have completed a course and only if they feel they have benefited from it –there is absolutely no pressure to donate. While it all seemed a bit daunting, I kept asking myself, “when would I ever do a course like this”? The answer I got over and over again was, NEVER, unless I was unemployed and had the time to do it. Within 3 days I received an email saying that I was accepted into the program at the end of October.
Vipassana is a form of meditation and it literally means to see things for what they really are, basically to see reality for what it is and to not sugar coat the truth (the second part is my personal spin on it). It is NOT religious based and no it is not a cult as many people who make quick assumptions without any further information tend to do. Some people work-out to relieve stress and be healthy and other people meditate, it’s as simple as that.
As soon as I was accepted I contacted my friend in Finland, I had a ton of questions and she advised me not to do too much research, as it would be better to go in without any expectations. However, a week before the retreat my curiosity got the best of me and I started to find a few blogs online where people described their experience. The stories were both terrifying and hilarious and I was excited to try it out for myself.
After surviving this experience I too, now find myself saying that it was THE longest and hardest 10 days I’ve ever lived through but probably one of the best experiences of my life but I can only confidently say that now because it’s finally over.
Before I begin to describe my experience there are a few important things to throw out there. Days begin at 4AM, there is no talking for the entire 10 days, the last meal of the day is served at 11AM and all the food is organic vegetarian. When I tell people this they usually stop listening, the whole no dinner thing is too much for them to bear and they almost immediately say, “what no dinner? Why in the world would you ever, EVER, EVER want to do something like this, no wonder it’s free because no one would ever want to go to it”. Ha!
I arrived to the retreat center on October 29th, the day before the session began. Although it’s a 10-day retreat you have to arrive the day before and leave the day after so it’s really about 12 days in total. There were 50 students in my course from all walks of life. There were four Chinese nuns with shaved heads, an actress, a few therapists from New York City, a scientist, a substance abuse counselor, engineers, doctors, organic farmers from Canada and some other unemployed people such as myself. Christians, Jews, Muslim, Hindus and Buddhists were all represented. This retreat is for everyone and not for any specific religion.
After turning in our cellphones and all electronic devices we had a welcome meeting where they gave us a run down of the next 10 days and the rules we had to adhere to. We had to take a vow of “Noble Silence” for the duration of the retreat, which not only means you can’t talk (EVER) but there is no gesturing or even eye contact! It’s supposed to feel as if you were there all alone and living the life of a monk. Men and women are separated at all times; sleeping quarters, walking paths, eating, etc. The only time we came together was in the main meditation hall but even then, we were separated on different sides of the room and entered through different doorways. The rigorous daily structure was exactly the same for each day of the retreat and looked like this:
4:00AM- wakeup bell
4:30-6:30AM- meditation in your room or in the main meditation hall
6:30-8:00- breakfast and break
8:00-9:00- group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00- meditation in your room or in the main meditation hall
11:00-1:00- lunch (last meal of the day) and break
1:00-2:30- meditation in your room or in the main meditation hall
2:30-3:30- group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00- meditation in your room or in the main meditation hall
5:00-6:00- tea break and rest
6:00-7:00- group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15- discourse on the techniques we learned that day
8:15-9:00- group meditation in the hall
9:00- pass out
Yes you are reading this correctly; we meditated for about 10 and a half hours a day! Before arriving I had probably meditated cumulatively for about 22 minutes in my entire lifetime. Go hard or go home right? This has always been my mantra and I was actually putting it in to practice- no pun intended! After the orientation meeting we were told to go back to our rooms to get situated and then to meet in the meditation hall an hour later. One guy never returned after that. He just went directly to his car and drove off. Apparently he hadn’t really thought it through or done much research or maybe he was the only one smart enough to get the “heck out of dodge” before it was too late.
My first realization about how difficult this retreat would be was on Day 1 at 11:30 AM when I had finished my lunch and started counting down the minutes until I could eat a full meal again which was at 6:00AM the following day. I would later come to realize that this was probably the easiest thing I would go through during those 10 very long, never ending, snails-pace days. Each day at 5:00pm there was a tea break where you were allowed to have fruit (bananas, apples and oranges), but only if you were a first-time student; yes there are people that actually return to do this!
The whole basis of the retreat is to purify of the mind, or in modern language, to detox the mind or in even more familiar language a TOTAL AND UTTER MIND F*%$! Now I will say, that I have completed all sorts of detoxes in my life, from 1200 calorie/day diets, to no solid foods, to green juice cleanses, to boot-camp fitness regiments but none of them hold a candle to a mind detox. I ran the NYC marathon in 2007 and always said that it was unbelievably hard, but running 5 more of those would still be easier than a mind detox. What I did learn though is that mind detoxes are imperative, it’s not enough to just have a healthy body, the mind must also be healthy and it’s hard work. Just as working out is a challenge for the body so is working out the mind! It’s comparable to an operation, it hurts (a lot) but needs to be done in order to be healthy and to cure yourself. So the operation began………
Day 1 was hard but since everything was new I just went with the flow. Day 2 was unbearable! I was seriously contemplating if I should leave, “how would I be able to get through 8 more days of this- it’s just not possible?” Someone had advised me that I should take it one minute at a time during the retreat but on Day 2 even that was too much and I found myself taking it one breath at a time. “Breathe in through the nose, breathe out through the nose, breathe in through the nose, breathe out through the nose”……and how fitting that technique was, since the first two and a half days we ONLY focused on our breathing and nothing else; second after second, minute after minute, hour after hour for 25 hours in total the first few days. During this time thoughts bombard your mind and they are all over the place, monkey-mind is the term used to describe it. If I was saying these thoughts out loud I would sound like a crazy person; I need to contact this person for a job, ohhhhh how I loved Indonesia, I can’t believe so and so never texted me back, oh my gosh am I going to be single forever, remember when I gave that presentation two years ago and messed up on my speech, oh I wish I could go back to Indonesia, I wonder what my parents are doing right now, I’m so glad I left NYC, I miss NYC, maybe I should move back to NYC, I HATE NYC, I want to go on vacation, I wonder what Homeland is about this week, je n’ai marre, I wish I could play with my brother’s basset hound, when I get out I’m getting a latte with whole milk, I need to workout, should I return to corporate America, I wonder where I would be right now if I would’ve stayed with my ex, je deteste ici, il faut partir, I wonder if my friends are thinking about me, maybe I’ll lose weight by not eating dinner for 10 days, I wish I was on my tropical island in Indonesia!
The thoughts were never-ending, I had no control! I would focus on my breath for a few seconds and all of the sudden I was thinking about something else. For 2 days I was constantly re-directing myself and re-focusing my breathing. Hopefully no one with ADD was attending this course- that could be brutal! On Day 2 my roommate left, it was too much for her. I started crying when I came back to our room and her bags were gone, I didn’t even know her name. How was I so attached to a complete stranger? I wished it was me who had left. She was so lucky, she was probably already home, out dressed up in a costume celebrating Halloween and drinking a beer. I seriously contemplated following in her footsteps but my ego got the best of me and I decided to stick it out if only for one more day.
Day 3 the struggle continued, I was still in denial and thinking that maybe it was best that I should leave, “why did I think this was a good idea again?” I would spend my breaks walking along the nature paths still bombarded by my thoughts. But this time I took advantage; since I wasn’t meditating I didn’t have to feel guilty about not focusing on my breath. My body was craving these thoughts so I soaked up every minute thinking about them, both good and bad. It’s almost as if I was addicted to thinking about them, and it turns out I was. In fact we’re all addicted to certain thoughts, physically addicted, and that’s why they start to consume us or become our demons (one of the many takeaways from this course).
On the afternoon of Day 3 we finally learned the Vipassana method. Yes it actually takes 2.5 days to calm the mind to even start to practice the method. The method was interesting but I still wasn’t quite sure that I understood what they were talking about, so I just went with the flow trying the best I could. Each night, our instructor , SN Goenke, would tell us that in order to master the technique it takes a lot of hard work and to not waste one minute while we were there. He encouraged us to work “diligently, patiently and persistently” every day and that we would eventually be successful. If it wasn’t for these daily pep-talks I don’t know if I would’ve taken full advantage of my time. So on Day 3, I decided that for the duration of the retreat all my meditation would take place in the meditation hall. It was just too tempting to fall sleep in my room with my bed so close, albeit rock-hard. So for the next 7 days I got dressed at 4:15 AM and made the 6-minute walk to the meditation hall. There were only 5 regulars out of 50 for the 4:30-6:30AM session but I didn’t care, I had limited time to figure out this technique and gosh darn it I was going to put my all in to it!
“We create misery for ourselves suffering now, and in the future because of one moment of blind reaction. But if we are aware at the point where the process of reaction begins, that is if we are aware of the sensation, we can choose not to allow any reaction to occur or intensify. In those moments the mind is free”- SN Goenke
I did anything to find amusement during my days and in the process I learned to become one of those slow eaters that I was always envious of. I am known to scarf down huge dinners in 5 minutes flat- what can I say, I love food and I have never been able to break this habit. But since food was basically my only enjoyment during these days (the food was BOMB), I savored every bite and was always one of the last to leave the cafeteria. What I found during this time is that women can get really creative when preparing fruit! During our 5pm fruit break on Day 1 all of us sat around with gloomy looks on our faces chomping away on our apples, bananas and oranges with presumably the same thoughts, “I can’t believe that this is going to be my dinner for the next 10 days”. Then on Day 2, one girl discovered cinnamon in the condiment section and sprinkled it over her apple….. ¾ of the group followed suit. On Day 3, women were adding apple chunks to their tea, sprinkling cocoa over their bananas and low and behold, honey was found to dress up our fruit! On Day 4 I needed a change so I took 3 pieces of fruit, chopped them up, mixed them together and sprinkled them with honey and cinnamon and made a fruit salad… three other girls followed suit before I even got back to my table. You will never appreciate how good a banana tastes, drizzled in honey until it is your last meal of the day at 5pm.
Despite my amusements, each day seemed longer than the previous so I started counting down to the halfway mark- end of Day 5. To think about the entire time remaining was out of the question so the countdown began. When I lay my head down on my pillow the evening of Day 5, I was ecstatic that I was halfway done. On Day 6 I woke up and that feeling of relief was replaced with dread and defeat. FIVE MORE DAYS, I CAN”T DO THIS- GET ME OUT OF HERE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What I had failed to realize is that I was not climbing a hill and would be on my way down when I was halfway done but I was in fact, climbing a mountain and the last 5 days were the steepest part.
Day 6, “I hit the wall” as they say in marathon talk. I was convinced I was going to die in this retreat center; there was no possible way to make it through alive. Take me out of my misery!!! As a coping mechanism, I started to pack up my stuff. I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget anything when I was set free on Day 10 so why not prepare now? So anything that wasn’t a necessity was put back in my suitcase. I laid out my outfits; shirts, pants, socks and underwear, for the remaining days and each morning I’d grab an outfit and look at how many more left I had to go. I know it’s crazy but you do go crazy when you are a prisoner of your own mind and have nothing to distract you from your thoughts. I have been to 33 countries in my lifetime and I can hands-down say that my mind is the scariest place I’ve ever visited- none of them come close!
Prison is the best way to describe this experience, both physically and mentally. Not only were we imprisoned in our mind’s thoughts but since we couldn’t actually leave the facility it felt like we were physically in prison. I would pass other women along the walking paths and want to ask them, “What are you in for….what’s your pain?” but unfortunately I wasn’t permitted to ask, just like in prison! Thoughts continued to arise, stuff I hadn’t thought about in 5, 8 and 10 years. They were just pouring out of me, I was sweating them out, it was a true detox. I was going mad! But I was forced to think about them and to deal with them since reading, writing, listening to music and working out was not allowed, there was nothing to distract me from them. I really was a prisoner in my own head.
At the end of Day 7 I had my first breakthrough. “Wow this technique might actually work.” I was feeling less stressed and consumed by my thoughts and woah, I started to let some things go that I didn’t even know I was carrying around with me until now.
Day 8 even more of a breakthrough, it didn’t feel like I was carrying around a 20lb bag of rocks in my chest, I had never realized that that wasn’t normal.Day 9- HOLY WOW- this stuff works!!!!!!!Does that mean that I started to enjoy myself Day 7-9? Absolutely not! I was still counting down the seconds! “Sure this is a great technique, yes I know sooo many people who could benefit from this, but get me out of here, this is MISERABLE!”
In the afternoon of Day 10 we were finally allowed to speak. We introduced ourselves to one another and learned each other’s names, where we were from and what we did for a living (those that had jobs). We had been eating and meditating shoulder to shoulder with each other for the past 10 days, complete strangers in theory but fully connected on a spiritual level. Within an hour everyone’s cheeks were flushed red and we were burning up and physically sweating! Since we weren’t used to speaking the vibrations and noise that our voice made on our bodies were actually warming us up! It was nothing like I’ve ever experienced to say the least.
I now understand why my friends were never able to put this retreat in to words when I asked them to explain it to me. It’s simply overwhelming to begin to describe the transformation that took place within the mind during those 10 days. At times I felt like I was taking a high-level university course I was learning so much I thought my brain would explode especially since I couldn’t write it down. I was scared that I would forget everything so each day during my breaks, I constructed a speech in my head, complete with an opening, talking points and a closing so that I could remember how to explain this technique to friends when I got home (none of it is mentioned here for the record- but if you’re ever interested in hearing about specifics let me know). I have never taken so much pleasure and interest when constructing a speech!
Here are a few things that I learned:
- Nothing in life lasts forever (one day the buildings we see will no longer be here, one day we will all die, our thoughts and feelings come and go but they don’t last forever).
- Everyone carries around “misery”. Misery is caused by cravings and aversions and when you think about these things you get lost in your thoughts and they take you out of the present moment.
- Cravings are wanting something that you can’t have or thinking about a moment in the past that you can never get back.
- Aversions are something that you don’t want to happen to you.
- Misery is universal- all people, all cultures and all religions have pain and suffering. There isn’t a cure just for Christians or just for Muslims or Buddhists or Jews or Hindus. Since misery is universal the technique to alleviate it is also universal.
- “Reality is reality” the minute you start to wish reality was different from what it is, pain and suffering start to occur.
- Be objective to things, circumstances and relationships. As soon as we start reacting (with cravings or aversions) our mind becomes unbalanced. Just know that whatever happens good or bad, it doesn’t last forever. The earlier you learn this, the easier life will be.
- Compassion and love for others (even if they don’t deserve it) will set you free- this includes love for yourself.
- Your worst enemy can not harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts.
- All beings deserve happiness.
I am clearly an amateur when it comes to Vipassana, so all of these points were my personal takeaways from the retreat. Maybe I misunderstood some things but this is what I got from it. These insights may be hard to understand without having taken a course but if any of you reading this have completed a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, it probably makes more sense than not. I know many of you will say, “10 DAYS, THERE IS NO WAY I COULD BE GONE FOR 10 DAYS, I have a job and a family that I can’t leave.” I get it, I really do. If I hadn’t done this course I would be saying the exact same thing. But since I have done it I will say, that these 10 days will change your life forever.
Last year I left New York City because I was unhappy despite a well-paid job and beautiful material possessions. I traveled to 9 countries this past year searching high and low for the key to happiness. Did I need to live like a pauper, work for a non-profit company, move to a deserted island to be happy? I didn’t find any answers to my questions I just became more aware of how people with nothing were some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. What was their secret? I came back from my travels and all my worries and negative thoughts came rushing back, they had disappeared during my travels because I was distracted from them but they were still with me, just buried deep in my sub-consciousness. They say that if Vipassana is meant to be in your life it will find it’s way to you; and it did- loud and clear- with 2 different people telling me about it within 5 months. Call me Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz but I realized in the cornfields of Illinois, in middle America that happiness was inside of me all along, I didn’t need to go and search it out. Happiness comes from within and while I always understood the saying I didn’t know HOW to achieve it. This retreat taught me that.
Am I glad I went? Absolutely! Did I enjoy it? Uh…..not really. It was the best and worst experience of my life. Would I do it again? Let’s just say, I’m not ruling it out!
“May All Beings Be Happy”