This article relays my unconventional experience on my first ever meditation retreat.
|I am a believer that the best things in life are free. However, a believer of many things, I would also say that the best things in life come with a fight. This 10-day Vipassana retreat meets these best-things-in-life requirements: it is free (plus a donation, but still free!), and it necessitates a fight.
The meditation retreat itself was not as difficult as I had anticipated. A fellow meditator was led to believe that it would be like “having a party with yourself.” Forewarning, it is easier to go through the discomfort of sitting still and concentrating for hours on end without this misconception. Luckily I had gone in expecting the temptation to just take a little nap (that turns into the whole sitting), the sensation of acid pouring into my brain (just from the unbearable boredom), searing pain in my legs and back (you get used to it), and limping away at the end of a sitting with a drooping expression and dabbing away tears from my sleep-deprived eyes.
I had felt for a long time that somehow my life would be benefitted by this experience. Just invest in some pain, and you can get a little gain. Therefore meditation seemed a likely pursuit for gain. The gain of a focused mind, the motivation to achieve my dreams, and maybe people would line up outside my door, begging for advice.
After a couple days, or to put it into perspective, 20 hours of meditating later, the pain wasn’t so great. I got used to sitting on the floor. Even eating smaller and less meals a day became a nice change. I’d realised I could be sustained on a lot less food. And I even got used to meditating, despite my secret belief that it was impossible.
Our virtual teacher S.N. Goenka (who only spoke – or sang - to us through recorded audio or video tapes from 1991) described learning to meditate like this: the mind will focus for a couple breaths (yes, that’s right mind, focus on the breath), but after five minutes you realise, Wait! I shouldn’t be thinking about getting a hair-cut, world peace, and everything in between. No, I’m supposed to be thinking about my breath!, and the mind will notice a couple more breaths going in and out, only to wander away again. And again. And again. Over and over this goes, and you become quite disheartened. But luckily Goenka swoops in with a timely speech encouraging the meditators to not be depressed, that it is normal to have an unruly mind. And as your mind drifts away less and less often, it becomes sharper and sharper until you can feel your own nose hairs and the touch of your own warm breath on your lips.
But who cares if you can feel your own nose hairs? By day six (sixty some hours later of meditating) I could focus on any part of my body and feel sensation there, but for some reason, I was more irritable than ever. If someone got too close to me, if they ate a little too loudly, or they brushed me with their pant leg, I felt like whipping out my lightsaber and confronting them with a snarl, code of silence or no. But then I caught myself, and remembered that I had been meditating six days already, and should have thrown out my lightsaber by now. So meditation had failed me after all then. Or rather, I had failed to benefit from meditation. Indeed, my hopeless soul is too far entangled in the flames of hell.
Day six finally came to an end. It had to end eventually. And with the dawning of day seven I learned that hard work eventually pays off. It just sucks to sweat and bleed, clawing your way towards the finish line all the while with a bag over your head, wondering if there is really a finish line at all.
Up until then I’d been comforted by Goenka reminding us students that a person cannot expect to learn anything without hard work (which to some of us translates as suffering). You will only get so far as your own feet walk. We were working to change the pattern of our mind to work in a different way; to go from having a lazy mind to a sharp mind that can act consciously and with purpose. Certainly it wasn’t easy to do this, but it also was daunting when you weren’t certain what you were working towards. Though teachers describe change and point the way to it, as Goenka told us, still the student does not know change until they have experience it themselves. Hence, like the Christians say, you must have some faith.
Despite my lack of faith, on day seven I finally realised for myself what the meditation technique was trying to teach me: that I was not my feelings. I walked out of the meditation hall one sitting and looked around me to find that I was filled with acceptance. I was not expecting or hating anything, I just let it all go, and relaxed into what was. The entire course Goenka had been telling us: feelings are impermanent, they are always changing, and there is no point craving or being repulsed by a feeling that is just going to change. I suppose finally that meditation sitting I had felt the change in my body, and met it with equanimity, and was able to step out into the world with this same position.
Indeed one still understands if a sensation in the body is this or that. But one also begins to understand as they experience the subtle sensations that all sensations are impermanent. Sometimes you will feel buzzing, sometimes tickling, sometimes throbbing, sometimes sharp pain - all in the same spot! And all the while the feeling is not stagnant. The feeling of anger comes as tightness in your chest, heat on the face, racing of the heart. But anger is just a sensation, and it passes. There is no use getting roused by an impermanent feeling in any way. It would be like looking up at the sky, seeing a beautiful arrangement of clouds, and then getting depressed when five seconds later it’s changed.
Here is another explanation of what Vipassana taught me about feelings: A person perceives an event in the world and feels a bodily sensation. A retreat meditator becomes so used to experiencing these sensations in great detail that at the end of the ten day course they realise that they have become more impartial to all sensations, and therefore events that they perceive. Even when you are not paying attention you realise: hey, I used to hate it when cars honked at me for being too slow, but now I respond with a calm smile, knowing that I need not be bothered. Vipassana changes the mind’s response to stimulus by teaching it to meet sensory experiences in the world without becoming repulsed by them or craving for more.
The retreat also afforded the meditators something else. Because it is in silence and meditators are cut off from usual outside temptations, distractions, responsibilities, and stresses, they cannot escape what they are experiencing at the course like they would normally. No nachos to snack on. No friends to vent to. You cannot sweat out the tension with exercise or escape into the tales of a book. Whatever feelings you have been avoiding will come up for you during a course like this, and you will have no choice but to experience them. Sometimes our fears don’t come up as memories or as we expected. Sometimes they come up as pains in our body that we must meet with equanimity before they can be unknotted in their own good time. Some of us need to cry it out. Some of us choose to leave, perhaps to try again another time.
It is interesting coming out of the vow of silence on the second last day, and then going back into the real world after the course. I couldn’t stop sharing and feeling the love. But the strength of that feeling fades. You’re no longer meditating ten hours a day in the stable nest of a retreat centre.
Within minutes a car is honking its horn at me, but as a recent graduate you must practice your trade, and apply what you learned to daily life. Not just because you don’t want to hurt anymore or because you don’t want to hurt others anymore, but you realise as you scrape away the crust encasing your heart that there is something within. One does not lose all of their misery just to be left with nothing. One loses their misery and reveals peace. It is possible to hate. But it is also possible to love. We can choose, but we must choose with wisdom.
It is a constant struggle to maintain something of what you have gained. Like letting loose a tantrum-throwing toddler with a fragile egg. But I have seen what some effort can do. Rewards are accessible to even the most savage of toddlers who put in some work (who me?). If I sit down to look for it, if I am willing to choose it, I will find the peace and love within. We all will.