Adventures in Vipassana Meditation (aka that time I wore sweatpants for 10 consecutive days)

I have recently returned from my first 10 day Vipassana Meditation course in Northern California. If you are not familiar with this type of meditation, allow me to summarize in a short list of bullet points:

  • Vipassana is not a religious practice, it is universal and can be performed by anyone from any background.
  • Vipassana is HARD WORK. For 10 days you are in complete and total silence with no distractions (no phones, books, writing materials (yikes!), nada).
  • In Vipassana, you sit in silent meditation for 10-11 hours per day with short breaks in between for stretching and meals. For 3 of these hours, you are sitting in Strong Determination which means that you are heavily encouraged to establish a posture and maintain it for the full hour without adjustment.
  • Only two meals are served per day. Breakfast is at 6:30 am and lunch is at 11:00 am. New students are permitted to have a piece of fruit and tea at 5:00 pm.
  • The first meditation bell is every morning at 4:30 am.
  • Vipassana is based entirely on bodily sensations (noticing the breath, scanning the body for both pleasant and unpleasant sensations). There are no visualizations, prayers, icons or other.
  • The principles of Vipassana revolve around and embrace complete equanimity, compassion and love for all beings. This is achieved through diligent self examination of craving, aversion and ignorance. The three things that make us miserable.

In short, Vipassana may very well be the hardest thing I have ever done.

I had heard about Vipassana from my boss. The first four times he brought it up I nodded silently while thinking you’ve got to be fucking crazy. For some reason, the fifth time he brought it up, I noticed a shift and was suddenly open to the idea. Within an hour I had found the website and located a time and place that was far enough in the future that it would still feel far away for some time. Those six months dissolved at rapid speed and before I knew it I was schlepping my way to San Francisco.

One of the hardest things about Vipassana is trying to explain it to your parents. I worked to play it up as much as possible ensuring them that it was perfectly safe and I would, in fact, return. Still, for about three months, my mother would periodically call and say, “Now honey, are you absolutely sure this is not a cult?”

It Begins

Just in case 10 days of silent meditation wasn’t enough of a shock to my system, at the last minute I volunteered to sleep in one of the tents. In hindsight, this was a really terrible idea. Now, not only would I be slowly driving myself insane, I would also be completely fucking freezing.

When you arrive, you have about two hours before taking the vow of noble silence. I don’t know who I was expecting to be at the course, but the individuals varied more than I could have ever imagined. There were grandmothers with pearl necklaces, dreadlocked drifters, lawyers, mothers, there was even a couple on their honeymoon! Note: Men and women are completely separate for the entire duration of the course. As I talked to these women, I began to feel more and more at ease. The majority of them were first timers like myself and we were all a little scared. We gave each other our final smiles and words of encouragement and, at 7:00 pm, the camp became completely quiet.

The first morning’s 4:00 am wake up bell was one of the most unwelcome sounds I have ever heard. It was cold and my camp mattress had royally failed me. This was the first time that I seriously considered throwing in the towel.

I pulled my suitcase over, turned on my headlamp and surveyed my clothing options. For someone who derives a great deal of pleasure from dressing up, my options were pretty bleak. I opted for my husband’s black sweatpants, a pair of ugly (but really really warm) socks, a long sleeve grey sweater and a hat. As I was getting dressed in my sleeping bag, I eyed my bra and shook my head deciding that I was enduring enough torture for one day. It took every ounce of my being to extract myself from the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag and eventually I was making my way down the dark hill to the meditation hall.

To my delight, the hall was warm! I decided that I could probably endure a few minutes more.

When you arrive, you are given a small 2X2 plot of real estate in the meditation hall. This will essentially be your home for the next 10 days so you might as well move in and make the place nice. I noticed that some women were stockpiling cushions around their new homes. I opted for a simple round pillow and two smaller ones for me knees. Before I closed my eyes I noticed that the woman to my right had the most elaborate, decked out meditation chair I had ever seen. Seriously, this thing looked like the top half of one of those fancy international flight first class seats. Once she sat down, the chair would regulate her temperature and tension. If she would get too hot, misters would pop out from the sides, if he back became sore, the chair would begin a self massage. Ok, I actually made that entire last part up but let me just say that this chair was AWESOME. Suddenly my round cushion looked and felt like a New York City sidewalk corner.

No mind, no mind. I am just going to sit here and notice my breath coming in and out of my nostrils. Am complete and total zen –holy crap how am I already in pain? Perhaps I’ll just do some light stretching… Didn’t help. I wonder what time it is. Do we really have to sit here in total silence for two hours before they feed us? I’m going to kill Cesar for encouraging me to do this. I wonder what Dave’s up to. I really hope nothing bad is happening. How would anyone contact me? Is there a way for people to get in touch with the management? Who is the management? Come on, Katherine, back to the breath. I wonder if I’m breathing too hard. Should I be trying to breath calmly? I wish I had brushed my teeth. Oo! That’s a serious itch on my nose – must scratch. Better. Why does it feel like there are bugs crawling on my head? Better just check to make sure there are not. Nope. No bugs. I wonder what time it is. 

Things carried on like this for what would be the longest two hours of my life to date. To add salt on the wound, at 6:00, S.N. Goenka, our teacher, begins chanting in Pali. His voice is low and gravely. In addition to being painfully sharp, then flat, then sharp, he ends each line as if he is vocally skidding to a halt. There’s no way I can listen to this for 10 days. This would be the second time I thought seriously about throwing in the towel.

Every Minute is an Hour

Somehow I managed to make it to day 5. I still have no idea how. Whatever had been lurking for me in those first five days paled in comparison to the complete and total misery that would be day 5. For the first 40 hours of silent meditation, you are instructed to solely watch your breath and try to feel more and more of the sensations in the nostrils. Only then do you learn the actual technique of Vipassana. Watching the breath is meant to prepare you for the body scans that you will be doing for the rest of the course. We are instructed to scan the body from head to toe, slowly, bringing awareness to each and every part of our body over and over again. When pain and discomfort arises (in my case, when pain and discomfort continues),  we were to notice it with complete equanimity understanding that it will pass. Everything passes.

In the interest of not depressing you, I will forgo getting into explicit detail about day 5. Instead, I have compiled a breakdown of how I spent the 14,400 minutes of the course:

Minutes Spent……

  • Wondering what time it is: 567
  • Wondering what’s for lunch: 366
  • Staring at the back of my eyelids: 6000
  • Regretting my decision to volunteer to be in a tent: 1000
  • Thinking about the possibility of there being a Vipassana slasher that takes us all out mid-meditation: 120
  • Designing the headline for such an incident: 320
  • Hoping my husband didn’t forget to empty the lint trap on the dryer: 122
  • Writing this post in my head: 860
  • Wondering what the hell it all means: 2500
  • Thinking about how awesome mac n’ cheese day was: 89
  • Wondering if the men had sprouted breasts from ingesting so much soy: 45
  • Wanting to kill my boss: 150
  • Wanting to hug my boss: 200
  • In deep, all-consuming meditation: 3000
  • Making up stories about the other meditators: 780
  • Picturing my life as a monk: 5
  • Trying to picture something worse than being a monk: 700
  • Trying to befriend the squirrel living outside of my tent: 1200
  • Reminding myself to come back to my breath: 10000
  • Having imaginary conversations in my head: 5000
  • Wishing I had gone on a real vacation: 499
  • Wondering what it would be like to live on Mars: 1300
  • Thinking I heard the meditation bell: 6000
  • Thinking about what type of dog I would like to come back as in my next life: 400
  • Wishing I had my dog: 11000
  • In complete and all-consuming physical pain (wait, no, physical sensation – am Zen master, remember?): 13000

In Summary

  • Number of things that would be worse than being a monk: 0
  • Number of times I regretted having a second helping of mac n’ cheese: 0
  • Number of times I teetered on the picket fence of senility: 768
  • Number of times I considered throwing in the towel: 1293785789175981
  • Number of times I threw in the towel: 0
  • Having the ability to walk out of camp on Day 11 more happy and sane than I have ever felt: Priceless.

I’m going to wrap this up because I know that I probably lost most of you around 500 words in. Jokes aside, Vipassana was one of the worst and best things I have ever done. It’s so hard to fully explain the benefit that one walks away with. It is something  felt, a subtle shift for the better. A subtle shift for the lighter. A subtle shift for the freer. Over the 10 days I felt the weight of all of the pain I have carried with me over the course of my lifetime. Some large wounds and others death by a thousand cuts.

By sitting with each and every sensation and painstakingly allowing them to express themselves, I noticed them slowly become weaker and weaker. Suddenly the weight of loss and grief and sadness along with the lightness of joy and peace and happiness grow closer together. The distance between them becomes smaller and smaller until the only thing that you are left with is the simple enduring tide of your breath. The rise and fall of the exquisite present. In this moment you can be anyone and no one. Everything and nothing. The tight fist of I loosens allowing love to breath again.

As we sit our last hour on Day 11, we are left with one final sentiment from our now beloved teacher: ‘May all beings be happy.’

May all beings be happy.

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