…we’re back and feeling incredible. Below are my stream-of-consciousness thoughts about the whole experience. I’ve written a lot, because it’s impossible to sum something like this up in a few paragraphs, so if you’re interested, read on!
a little about vipassana.
Vipassana, one of the world’s most ancient techniques of meditation, means seeing things as they really are. As insight meditation, it is the process of self-purification by self-observation. Although vipassana was developed as a technique by the Buddha, its practice is not limited to Buddhists, and people from all over the world and all sorts of religions and communities practice vipassana in their daily lives.
The course that Jesse and I did was under S.N. Goenka of India. It was a ten-day course in both English and Sinhala, and it was ten days of no talking, eye contact, outside communication, use of technology, writing, etc. Jesse and I, being curious and always eager for new experiences, decided in September to do this October course. We were both very interested in meditation and wanted to learn more about it in a very practical way. To be honest, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into – we knew it would be hard, but we were pretty sure it would be worth it. And it definitely was.
sometimes it’s lovely when things fall apart.
It’s so strange being so aware of myself. It’s been so long since I’ve been this in-tune – for better or worse. It’s emotional. It’s purifying. It’s really, really hard.
Day Two. I don’t miss not talking. I realize this may be the quietest ten days I ever have. It feels good not worrying about being in touch with my loved ones, because I’m here to be in touch with myself. I don’t think I’ve fully recognized how necessary this is, what we miss when we don’t look within. As a student of writing, I’ve learned the importance of being alone with my thoughts and listening to what goes on inside – but have I ever truly practiced this? Who am I without the external world, without thoughts of the past and future that weigh me down, without being constantly connected to everything else? This is my chance to find out.
I learn quickly that it’s not the silence, or even the stillness, that’s the hard part – it’s the solitude. Sitting in one position for hours on end, observing but not reacting to the sensations occurring all over my body (an itch there, sweat there, limbs falling asleep). Alone with my thoughts with nothing external to distract, comfort, or satisfy me. The solitude is especially hard during meal time. We eat two meals a day – breakfast at 6:30 and lunch at 11:00, with a break for tea and a few crackers in the evening – and we do so “together” in the dining hall, but so not together. We line up with our plates and are served basic rice, curry, and a vegetable, then sit in our assigned seats. Eating alone is one thing, but when you’re surrounded by 35 other people and you’re all quietly eating and staring ahead at the wall and windows, it just feels unnatural. Meditation teaches mindfulness in all actions, so I understand the reason behind meal-time solitude – but it’s interesting to me that meal time is what I find the hardest so far.
The breezy meditation hall is beautiful, with its slightly cool tiles, big glass doors, and tall dome ceiling. By Day Four, I’m beginning to really pick up on the vibrations in here, the pulse of mental energy being cultivated by women I am sharing this hall with. All of us sitting Indian-style on our royal blue meditation cushions, hands in our laps, eyes closed for what feels like hours (what is hours). The peace is settling in.
The purity is, too. So many things came to the surface these first few days in my mediation and in the solitude of my room (which, in the beginning, did feel a little like a jail cell). Emotions that had been hovering at my surface, waiting for a chance to escape: guilt, anxieties, “home”sickness, a burst of love here and there. After just 12 hours alone, my mind felt the need to purge. This hurt, and was unexpected, and was what made the beginning so hard for me. But once those thoughts and feelings left, once they entered my mind, milled around for a bit, and then respectfully took leave when I asked them to, I felt so much lighter. And now I sit with a freshness that I haven’t known in a quite a while, and from this comes the strength of mind I need for the rest of my days here. And this, I realize later, is the beginning of my letting go.
an outsider… but not really.
Somewhere around Day Six. An incredible storm is growing outside, and I’m sitting in the meditation hall with my fellow female meditators, the rain outside pounding in our ears. I am one of the youngest participants – and I am the only female foreigner. (I’m fairly certain Jesse is the only male foreigner, but women and men are separated the whole time here so I can’t be sure.) 2/3 of the Sinhalese women are over the age of 60. Teacher says many of them come here because they are afraid of death and know they shouldn’t be. Many of them are Buddhists and believe a long meditation course is something they have to “accomplish” before they pass away. Teacher shakes her head when she tells me this, though, and says, “You are so lucky to be doing this when you are young.”
I enjoy watching all these women, young and old. My powers of observation are certainly growing sharper here – I may be asked to “turn off” my external senses while meditating, but when I’m not, I am listening and looking and learning. My favorite older woman is small and somewhat frail-looking, with big round glasses and a long, salt-and-pepper streaked braid that hangs down her back. She sits near me during meal times. The slow way she dips her cookies in her tea before she eats them…she’s gentle on the inside and out. You can feel it.
I overheard one of the few younger Sinhalese girls telling Teacher why she was here. “I just entered university. Before I started, I had a calm, clear mind. I don’t anymore.” Simple, wise. Another young woman cried softly to Teacher, saying she wanted to go home. Teacher said, “Stay. You came here for a good purpose. Wait and see how pure you become. Wait and see, just how pure.”
Again, the purity. Meditation is manifesting itself physically in me, too. I take time to look in the mirror in the morning, and I see a calm, clear face, free of makeup, worry, and any displeasure. My body feels healthy and fresh, thanks to our simple diet and two meals a day. Everything is being refreshed. Layers are being revealed. I like what I see; I like what I am discovering.
So, what did you THINK about the whole time? is a question I anticipate being asked by family and friends when this is over. So many things. First, though, I will explain that vipassana revolves around thinking very specifically about one’s breathing and the sensations on the body. We are encouraged to give up past baggage and thoughts of the future, to develop the peace born of letting go. When my thoughts wander, it is often because I am restless, and restlessness in meditation is almost always a sign of not finding joy in what’s here. Sometimes, the restlessness is overwhelming. But as the days go on, it becomes a bit easier to train my perception, to understand the beauty of contentment and be totally present. In my sittings, I feel my muscles of insight becoming stronger.
Perhaps in spite of this or because of it, my imagination is so fired up here. And though I try to focus on my breath and sensations during meditation, my mind definitely wanders, and sometimes, I let it, and it takes me everywhere. I think about how quickly my time here in Sri Lanka is winding down. I think about the tree frog that landed on my foot while meditating yesterday, and the three cockroaches I have found in my room that I have not killed, and how birds have some seriously animated conversations. I think about my dogs. I think about how my leg just woke up and how cool that felt. I think about how I’m pretty sure I was the one who broke the incredibly distressing news about Santa Claus to Katrina. I think about the writing room I’ll have in a log cabin on a lake someday. I think about my leg falling asleep, and the sweat beads gathering at my forehead as I try hard to forget the pain of my leg falling asleep (I have learned that mentally reacting to pain makes it worse, whereas simply observing it in an unattached manner can make it go away faster than you’d think.) I think about the warm milk tea and crackers I’ll have for dinner. I think about Fulbright and Peace Corps and spring triathlons. I think about the first poem I ever memorized (5th grade, from Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul.) I think about the house I lived in Virginia for six years, and I walk through every single room of that house. I practice my German, my multiplication tables, and my Periclean Scholar elevator speech. And, yes, I think much more than I should about cheese.
So, I won’t say I didn’t indulge in my wandering mind throughout the course. I enjoy and need my imagination, and sometimes, I feel I want to strengthen that more than anything else! Teacher would advise otherwise. But I think there’s a balance in there somewhere, even if I’m not sure what it is yet.
let go. let be.
Day Eight is a happy day. I feel the mentally, physically, and emotionally best I’ve felt in Sri Lanka. I finally took to heart something I was told earlier in the week: Don’t look for something during these ten days, don’t expect to feel anything in particular. I am here to feel and observe and accept, and today, I let go of my expectations.
I’m also learning to let go of attachments. Vipassana is all about not attaching yourself to what you feel happening to your body while you meditate – and this practice translates to the things in our everyday life. It’s amazing how much we allow things to bother us, to get under our skin, to ruin our moods and days and even relationships. But we can choose not to. Our conscious mind gives permission to all those negativities, attaches to them, is weighed down by them. When I feel an itch and don’t scratch it, when I feel my leg fall asleep but don’t shake it awake, I am going against some instincts, yes. But you know what? The itches and bad sensations go away on their own. And I simply observed them, let them come, and go, without my mental state being affected at all. This has been my taste of non-attachment and of an objective mind, and let me tell you – powerful stuff.
Pascal said, “All the troubles of man come from his not knowing how to sit still.” For me, these days have been about cultivating peacefulness and having enough willpower to sit in one damn place for more than ten minutes! It’s been pretty neat seeing how I can transform my physical energy into mental energy. (If only my Montessori school teachers – who watched as I failed to learn how to ever sit still – could see me now!) My mind is not completely still, but I am understanding this technique and seeing how applicable the things it teaches can be to everyday life.
Day Ten. The first thing Jesse says to me when we see each other: “I want to hug your brains out.” :) My mind is so calm and my vocal chords so still that after an hour talking with him, I was totally wiped out, and had to go nap! After saying our goodbyes to our teachers and the monks and our fellow participants, we packed up and got on a bus back to Homagama. We arrived back at our Sri Lanka “home” ready to do some cooking, processing, and exercising! We talked about our post-meditation goals over fresh green beans, chick peas, and rotti, and we enjoyed walking around town in the rain.
In these ten days, I re-learned how to be alone. I left the retreat feeling like I had spent a long time with a long-lost friend – myself. When Jesse and I talked about what we were hoping to gain from this experience before we came, he had said, “I’ve been waiting a long time for a challenge like this.” I didn’t realize how hungry I was for stillness – and for this kind of mental challenge – until I was filled up. And it’s the best kind of being full I’ve ever experienced.
(Check out http://www.dhamma.org for more info and to see courses in this tradition offered in over 100 centers around the world. I was excited to see that there are a number of vipassana centers offering courses and group sittings on the East Coast and in the D.C. area, where I’ll be this winter! Anyone even slightly interested in the above should really take a course. I’d love to talk to you more about it!)