To start off apologies for the HUGE delay in getting this post up, it took me a while to adjust back to the rhythm of day to day life. There are some other really interesting things happening in my life right now which I will be writing about shortly, but 1st things 1st!
The retreat was really powerful and very tough. The experience surpassed my expectations and has definitely left a permanent imprint on me. I’m not going to go through every day of the retreat but I will do Days 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 10 J
Day 0 – Arrival & Registration
I arrived around 4pm on Day 0. After checking in and filling out some paperwork I had time to wander around the Centre. The center itself was great; it reminded me of a very clean, very simple hostel. There was nothing fancy about it but it was very well thought out and very organized. The rooms were very small.
There were 22 men and around 30 women at this retreat (we started with 24 men but 2 left early on). Men and women were separated right at the start, the women registered in a different area. The Centre was designed in such a way that the men and women never crossed paths at all. After arriving and filling out some paperwork there was a big dinner and everyone was chatting nervously about what it was going to be like. There were some students who had done the retreat before so they were being peppered with questions. At 7pm there was 30 minutes orientation, mostly outlining the schedule and the ‘house rules’. Basically rule #1 one was no talking from 8pm that evening until the morning of day 10.
At 7:30 there was a group meditation in the meditation hall. We were each assigned a meditation spot that would be ours until the course was over. Once we were all settled in our spots there was a guided meditation that explained the importance of the ‘Noble Silence’ and talked a little more about what we could expect during the next 10 days.
Once the mediation was over around 9pm pretty much everyone hightailed it to bed right away as the Noble Silence felt so awkward.
The wake up bell is at 4am every day. The schedule said to meditate in your room or in the mediation hall from 4:30-6:30 every morning. These were tough meditations because it was so tempting to just sleep in a bit… On Day 1 I realized that the several weeks of only sitting cross legged at home to “train” for 11 hours of mediating everyday were a huge waste. Within the 1st couple of hours I could tell this was going to be a problem. By the end of day 1 my neck, back, knees, hips and ankles were all killing me (more on that later).
Breakfast was @ 6:30 every day and it was easily my favorite meal. There were always lots of options to choose from. We had 6:30-8:00 off to eat and do whatever. I spent as much time outside as I possibly could. It was the easiest way to avoid the other students. It was so beautiful at the Centre and the weather was almost perfect. There were some walking trails that I think I must have walked 10,000 times over the 10 days.
We meditated from 8am – 11am and then we had 11am -1pm off for lunch and time on our own. The lunches were amazing as well. The food was all really fresh and there was a lot to choose from. One key thing was this was the last time I ate until the next morning @ 6:30am so I did tend to have a pretty big lunch. In a way this was mediation fat camp, I actually lost 9lbs during the 10 days!
In terms of how we mediated we spent the first 3 ½ days focused only on our respiration and the sensations we felt around the area of our upper lip and nose. The goal was to become aware of the most subtle breaths, to the point where you could sense the temperature change of your most subtle breath entering and then leaving your body. We practiced being aware of the most subtle sensation and just being with the sensation. If we felt an itch we would just be aware of it and not do anything. How many of you just got an itch on your nose?
Surprisingly the silence wasn’t that hard to get used to. Everyone took it quite seriously and tried to avoid any eye contact, make any gestures or acknowledge anyone at all. After a few days I actually started to like the silence quite a bit. What I did notice though is my internal voice got a lot louder and was far more distracting than anything else. There were moments where my internal dialogue was so intrusive I was sure other people could hear it. I found as the days passed my mind did slow down and I was able to focus much more but it took time.
Day 1 was all about acclimating to the schedule and the silence. It went pretty well.
Day 2 – The Horror… The Horror
Day 2 was one of the hardest days for me and I actually did think about quitting the course. I woke up with a terrible headache, like one of those headaches where it hurts to be in bright light. I had no appetite and I felt nauseous. My body still hurt from sitting so it was very challenging to sit for mediation. I was so distracted by the physical pain that it was almost impossible to concentrate.
My imagination went into overtime as well. Every time I heard a sound while I was in the meditation hall my mind would conjure up some horrible or weird or bizarre image to match the sound. I kept feeling like someone was standing over me or the ceiling was really low. It was like having fever hallucinations.
It got so bad that I did have to ask the Male Manager (similar to a Dorm Supervisor) for an Advil. He said he would speak with the teacher and let me know. Two hours later @ 7pm he let me know that the Teacher had said no to the Advil because he felt something might be coming up emotionally for me and to just sleep on it. I was feeling so sorry for myself I thought about quitting because there was no way I could endure the pain of the headache plus the physical pain I was feeling. Plus let’s not forget the impending insanity I was sure was taking over. I told myself that if I still felt like this on Day 3 I was going to leave.
Day 3 – Ya better work Bitch!
When I woke up on Day 3 I felt way better! I still had a headache but it was manageable for sure. However I was still feeling pretty sorry for myself. I had not really figured out to sit in a way that was somewhat comfortable for meditating and the pain was distracting. I was still considering quitting the course and actually one of the other guys did leave the morning of Day 3. However, I had a unique experience during group meditation that refocused me on seeing the course through.
We were in the middle of group mediation and I was trying to decide if I should stay or quit. I knew that a lot of people had sacrificed so I could attend the course. Becky was at home looking after the house and the dogs; Laura was covering me at work. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone but I also didn’t want to disappoint myself. Out of the blue I heard a voice give me the exact advice I needed to hear. I heard Britney Spears say as clear as day ‘Ya better work bitch!’ For those who don’t know that’s a line from one of her songs.
I almost laughed out loud! Who would have thought the angel on my shoulder would be Britney Spears 😉
Day 4 – Vipassana for real
Day 4 was the day we learned the actual Vipassana meditation technique. To this point we were learning to sharpen our minds and be ready to perceive the sensations of the more subtle realities. The simplest way to describe Vipassana is to say that it is moving your awareness from the top of your head to the tips of your toes and back again. You do this is in a very specific way and when you notice a sensation you simply be aware of it and notice how it changes and eventually passes.
This is the primary learning of Vipassana. Dhamma, or the ‘Law of Nature’ says that impermanence is the only constant. This is true for the smallest most subtle realities to the universe itself. Through meditation you can actually begin to notice the subtle realities within our own bodies. By noticing these sensations without any judgment of craving or aversion you can begin to appreciate the present moment and how this moment is unique and will pass to the next which is also unique.
By day 4 I was finally able to sit without much pain. There was also the day that sitting in ‘Strong Determination’ was introduced. This meant that for 5 one hour mediation sittings we would not move at all. These sittings became the most powerful meditations I would have at the retreat.
I also noticed by day 4 my mind was really starting to slow down and focus deeply on the concepts we were practicing. Every evening we would watch a video discourse of the Founder of this program S.N Goenka discussing Dhamma and Vipassanna. These were often the highlights of the day and he is a genuine speaker and quite funny. I would still spend all of my free time outside but I would walk very slowly and contemplate various elements of my life that had come up during mediation.
I was beginning to have a deeper emotional response to the meditations. I also found I was really connecting with nature and would spend so much time observing the tiniest details of an ant colony or watching the drama unfold between birds (so much drama in the bird world… honestly watch a group of birds for even 5 minutes).
Day 7 – Okay this is getting real
By Day 7 I was really in the groove of the retreat. I could sit for an hour with no physical pain but the meditations were becoming very intense. In particular I had one experience that was so intense it almost made me leave the course. During one of the morning meditations I had a vision/hallucination/fantasy that my dog Floyd had passed away. I sincerely believed that he had passed away and I had somehow been made aware of it by a psychic connection. I was overwhelmed with sadness and I could feel tears rolling down my cheeks as I tried not to openly sob. I could picture exactly what had happened and I could see Becky having to handle this on her own. I felt absolutely gutted. I made an appointment to speak with the teacher during the lunch break to discuss this.
I explained to him what I saw and how I felt and he assured me that I had not experienced something that was real. He said that while Floyd could have passed away there was no way for me to know so my emotional reaction could not have been to a real event. He said it’s not possible to have a genuine emotional response to an event that hasn’t happened. What I experienced was an emotional response to the fear I have of Floyd passing away. In Buddhist tradition this is called a Sankara or the attachment we create to either a craving or an aversion. I was afraid of Floyd passing away and by holding that attachment to the fear I’m experiencing suffering over and over again. Through mediation I had shaken that particular Sankara loose and released it, along with the emotion attached to it.
This was a hugely profound moment for me. All at once everything clicked into place and I realized how powerful this mediation practice could be. Over the remaining days I had many more of these intense emotional experiences involving family, work and my own past.
Oh and Floyd is fine 😉
Day 10 – Noble silence becomes Noble Chatter
By the time we got to day 10 I was really ready to get home and begin life with this new found enthusiasm! I was also nervous about talking again. I had spent so much time with these 22 guys and I had no idea who any of them were. We were going to have to go back to small talk and politeness and silence would be awkward again.
When the Noble Silence was ended @ 10:30 on Day 10 it took the men about 20 minutes before anyone said anything. We could hear that the women had started talking almost immediately but I guess we were shy. I actually stayed in the meditation hall until I could hear the guys talking. Once I did I went and joined in the large circle of guys recounting their experiences. It was pretty surprising how similar the course had been for everyone. Everyone hated Day 2 due to physical pain and most of the guys had their emotional epiphanies around day 6 or 7. I couldn’t wait to get home.
Day 11 and beyond – Man the world is loud!
Once I got back to normal life I have to admit I felt pretty overwhelmed. Becky and I went to the Mall and I barely made it 30 minutes before I had to get out of there. It was just so loud and busy I couldn’t take it all in. I felt like I really needed to focus on one thing at a time and with so many things to do some things got delayed (like writing this post). I’m feeling pretty much back to normal now with lots of the good stuff I learned still a part of my daily life. I would definitely do the Retreat again and I would recommend to anyone who wants what is essentially a cleanse of mind, body and spirit to consider it as well. It wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t relaxing but it was so worthwhile.
I have a bunch of blog ideas that came out of this experience so I will be writing more about it over the coming weeks.
If anyone wants to learn more about Vipassana or maybe even take a course here’s a link to the main site.
This is a pretty long video but is a good introduction to Vipassana by S.N Goenka