My Experience with Vipassana (Part 1)

The first time I ever heard of a 10 day silent meditation retreat, I felt a twinge of recognition inside of me that said, yes, this is for me. Maybe it was simply the silence that I knew I wanted, and the meditation I knew I needed, but something spoke to me. Then I was told I could not journal. No writing or reading was permitted. Well, that just would not do. I journal lots of emotions, thoughts, feelings, moments of brilliance. So no, I could not do it. This was 2014.

I continued teaching yoga, finished my 300-hr training, split with my husband, was a nomad in Los Angeles for a year, moved to Costa Rica for a year, then returned home to my state of Mississippi in November 2016. Through all of that time, I had an off and on relationship with meditation. I had been given good tools for my practice and only needed the discipline to keep going. In the beginning, sitting for five minutes was its own challenge. Then it began to feel pointless. Why am I doing this? What is the goal here. Quieting the mind. I knew this. I needed it. I was bored. From time to time I would come across a specific 21 day guided meditation. These I would do. I had a plan; sit down for this amount of time, be guided through some space, and then just be with the breath or the visual until the time was up. I would learn a lot through those meditations, and then they would be over. And I would carry on. I enjoyed the meditations immensely, and I would experience benefits, but I wasn’t going deep for long, and I knew it.

In December of 2016, I had the occasion of a road trip with a like-minded woman in my life. We spoke of the usual: life, love, divorce, work, spirituality and growth. During that drive, she mentioned to me this meditation practice called Vipassana, a 10 day silent retreat. Ah-ha. This again. That twinge of recognition spoke louder. I knew the time was near. She assured me that the food was good and the experience a life changer. Then she told me the center was close to home, and free. Ok. I was in. But what about the writing? It was time. I could let it go. I knew then and there that I would embrace it all.

In the coming months, I would feel more and more my readiness to embark on this journey. My desire to go deep with a practice, my need to quiet and focus my attention to better understand myself, my path, my desires; to clear away all of the extra, the excess, and find the middle. I would even notice in my writing the repetitive nature of the complaint, the hamster wheel I was so desperate to step away from. And I knew that I was also ready to step away from these written words and see what was beneath it all.

The time came. I packed my little suitcase, boarded a bus and headed out. I spent the first several days along the way visiting with family. Then I hooked up with a lady whom I had not met, but who was offering a ride into the center. This place was in the middle of nothing, and I was grateful to be with someone who had been there before. I received my room assignment, unloaded my belongings, had dinner, orientation, and then the first gathering for meditation.

Leaving my shoes outside, I was ushered into the meditation hall to my assigned cushion. The space was dimly lit, with windows only along the back wall. The cushions were square and bilevel so that when seated, the feet were lower than the hips. I was impressed and delighted. Our instruction was to simply watch the breath as it entered and exited the nostrils. We were guided to focus all of our attention on the sensation. This is something I practice, and teach. So this should be easy. Haha! I laugh at myself.

Instead of ease of practice, it was more like, hot plate hot plate! I felt like a Mexican Jumping Bean. Holy hell. I had just gotten there and already my body was revolting. I thought, What is going on?? This is not even Day 1. No no, this is Day 0. I still have 10 more to go. It was like my mind said, “Woohoo! She’s cornered! Let’s give her this barrage of shit to think about.” Then my body was this little wicked little jester saying, “Hehe. You know this hurts,” as he sticks a hot poker in my hip. “Ooh what about this…” poker slashing through my shoulder and neck. Torture. I was baffled. Sukhasana, or crossed-leg sitting, is a regular position for me. I can sit for a while. This was an immediate assault. My fight or flight was on high alert.

I kept returning to my breath as I know to do with the intention of calming my mind. I would have to wait until later when I could sneak in some yoga, or at least some good stretches, to find relief for my body. I had not properly prepared for this trip. I was reminded by my inside voice of the previous weekends activities: two long road trips, fun and revelry accompanied with food and drinks, no exercise or yoga to move through stagnant energy. Here it all was, painfully staring me in the face.

I’ve had this image of myself recently. Picture a lush green grass yard with a long sidewalk, perfectly manicured. It’s fall, and the yellow, orange, and red leaves have fallen to the ground. Let’s say I rake or sweep the leaves off of the sidewalk, and there are a lot of them. Then for good measure, once I’ve gotten the sidewalk all clear and clean, I take the leaves and pour them back on the walkway so that tomorrow I have twice as much work to do. Awesome right? That’s me. Do the work, then reapply the obstacles. Frustrating. That’s one of the reasons I went on the retreat. Can I change the habit pattern of my mind that puts me on the hamster wheel? We will see.

The end of that first hour would mark the official beginning of the course. We were asked to observe nobel silence at all times. This meant that not only were we not speaking to one another, but even indirect communication was curbed. No eye contact, no smiling or gestures, no physical contact. I know it sounds crazy. It was all meant to help us keep our focus. We did our best. Those stolen sideways glances and a smile in the hall were sometimes irresistible.

At 4 am the next morning, the gong sounded. I dragged myself out of bed in order to make my way to the meditation hall. B.K.S. Iyengar said that it is a good practice to clean the mouth and eyes in the morning before meditation. I found that to be a helpful tip here. I was very tired. The first meditation of the day was a two hour practice. How was I going to do it? I was met with the same difficult distractions as before, but I had more acceptance and peace about it this time. I watched my breath, and I watched my mind. My mentor would instruct us during meditation to not “mitch and pitch” around. Be still. I could control the urge to scratch my face or move around, but the thoughts were unrelenting. What would I do about those? I guess in a fortunate way, my physical body was giving me enough to pull my attention in.

My right hip, sometimes lovingly referred to by me as my problem child, was screaming. Oh man, she did not like what was happening. I had trouble finding a safe position for her. Almost worse than that, my feet were falling asleep. And I don’t mean over time they became numb, but rather they were experiencing pins and needles numbing right away that scared me. I hate when my arm falls asleep during the night. Oh no. Freaks me out. So there in that moment my mind said, “Oh you better move because you don’t want to end up with a dead foot.” Then the irrational part of me really freaked out, “Dead Foot! Dead Foot!” Well hell, I couldn’t deny that I didn’t want a dead foot, so I had to adjust. My intellectual mind chimed in, “What is the cause of this dead foot; and is it something we need to be concerned about?” Well, my shin bones are pressing into my ankle bones cutting off circulation, I said. Or, my hip bone is pressing into a nerve causing numbness all the way down. Either way this can’t be good. Unfortunately for me, the practice encourages us to keep still and observe the pain, rather than running away from it. What was a girl to do?

The pain in my shoulder and neck was a different story. My left shoulder had been giving me trouble for some time. I attribute it to my sleeping position and pillow. Regardless, it was on high alert. The whole shoulder area in and around the shoulder girdle were on fire. Worse than that was the deep throbbing that was occurring up my neck and into the base of my skull. I would lift my chest and roll my shoulders back; I would roll my neck around, releasing it down and around, looking up. I would allow my shoulders and chest to drop forward. I tried massaging it. Nothing helped. I was in pain, and the only way around it, was through it.

I began to understand things a little more clearly. The work would be hard, and I was the only one who could do it. No one was coming to save me. I knew the truth behind that statement, preached it myself, lived it. Now, however, I felt a prisoner to it. Only, I gave into the work of it, accepted the difficulty of it, and set myself free. I kept reminding myself to Be Here Now. Not in the future of when I get out, or in the fantasy of whatever lives in my head, and not in the stories that my pain was telling me. Be with this moment, at this time, because it won’t last.

Sometimes, the hours seemed to take forever. But I kept plugging along, doing the work, working the practice. Don’t complain. I have been fortunate enough in my life to have experienced how it feels to get my way when I am being a brat. It doesn’t feel good. It feels ungrateful, and I don’t like that. I prefer to be in a place of peace when I receive that which I have asked for. I have learned that it is rare, at least in my life, to be saved out of misery. It just doesn’t work that way. It is better to pull myself out, and then be saved. That is exactly what I experienced the whole of this retreat. It was never in my darkest moments of Get Me The Hell Out Of Here!, that the bell would ring. It was only after I had picked myself up and begun again that I was rescued. Believe me, it was with a great sigh of relief and gratitude. As the days would pass, that need to be lifted out became less and less, even turning into surprised when the time was up. Those were the good days. Or moments rather. I could go in and have a really good hour, and the next would be hell. It was a clear example of ups and downs in life; and also of the purpose of this practice. We are encouraged to not crave the good times, and have aversion to the bad. The purpose is to find equanimity so that we are not constantly swayed and pulled from one extreme to the other throughout our lives. This is the secret to peace.

Our first three days were all like this for me. Observe respiration, he kept saying. Ok. I know how to do that. As a matter of fact, I do that throughout my day on the regular. However, I observe that whole route of the breath. Here I am being asked to take all of my attention to the area at the opening of my nostrils, for 10 hours per day. I was freaking out. I was restless. I needed more! In my own personal meditation, as I watch the breath, I also combine it with something. I’ve gotten very good at practicing Nadi Shodhana, alternate nostril breathing, with just my awareness, no hands. This feels good to me. It’s more. It’s a greater scope. But this practice was making me feel like I have ADD. Truth is, I’m a Vata Dosha. I’m flighty, head in the clouds. Don’t make me sit in one place too long or I’ll scream. And I was, screaming on the inside, as well as laughing at the ridiculousness.

But this narrowed focus has purpose. By limiting our place of attention, we learn to sharpen our awareness. By sharpening our awareness, we are better able to see clearly our path in life. We are watching for those blind reactions, those habit patterns of the mind that become our Sankharas. In sanskrit, they are Samskaras, ruts that have been dug in over and over again through our actions, attitudes, and beliefs. They cause us all sorts of trauma and drama, and it is through meditation that we can eradicate them. At least that is the teachings of Vipassana.

Over the next couple of days, I continued to adjust and adjust, looking for comfort. I had seen other people using different pillows and things for propping up legs and knees, so I grabbed this and that here and there to assist me. None of it was working. I had seen some of the other students using little wooden stools as a support in a Virasana, sitting on the shins and knees, position. I tried one and decided that it was a really good option for me. The supported position helped relieve a lot of pain and distraction. I did not want to use it all the time, however, because the wood was hard on my bum after a while. I also wanted to keep practicing sitting in Sukhasana because it is more convenient and easy to take anywhere. Also, I knew if there were negative habit patterns of my mind that were storing themselves in my hips, I did not want to avoid it.

I was definitely giving myself a hard time though. I have been taught many ways to meditate. I have systems, I have tools. Why did I have to come all this way and go through all of this when I could have stayed home and sat my butt down for 20 minutes a day. I mean seriously. That would have been so much easier… And there it is. That’s the why. Because I can’t do things easy. I have to throw myself into a fire and work my way out. Otherwise, I quit.

On about Day 3, I was going on and on in my mind, during meditation of course, about how silly it is that we don’t do yoga. If we took out just One of our many hours during the day for yoga, we would feel so much better. I had collectively projected my own needs onto every one else. I mean, I wasn’t the only sneaking stretches during breaks. Besides, the sages of thousands of years ago practiced yoga so that they could sit in meditation for hours. Hello? Strong mind strong body! I had it all planned out how great it would be; and, it would just so happen to take away one of these grueling hours. Win/win. Right? No. That was me trying to fix something, something unbroken. I was being inadvertently taught that yoga was also a craving. Not everyone here needed it, and the presence of it would be a distraction. Our focus was intense for a reason.

This experience was reminding me of that time I participated in the Los Angeles marathon. I only did it because my girlfriend and her family were doing it, and there was no time limit. I knew it was something I always thought would be super cool to do, but I had no skills for that. I don’t run very far at all, or well. Yet there I was, at the starting line. I trained myself before I went, seeing how far I could get in two hours, and how much actual running I was capable of. Not much I can tell you that. But I knew that if I wanted to stay ahead of the mile closures, I might need to put some extra pep in my step and jog a bit. So I trained, and I YouTubed tips. It wasn’t until I put myself in the race that I saw what I was capable of. The first few miles were ok. I walked a lot and jogged some too. About the 8th mile I received my first orange slice. Dear God that was heaven. Manna from above that kept me going. By mile 13, I was in so much pain I didn’t know if I would make it to the end. I reasoned that someone would come get me. All I would have to do is sit on a curb somewhere, and help would find me. But I kept breathing, kept moving. I took in the sights and was grateful for the opportunity to see LA in this way. I kept pushing. Before I knew it, I was at mile 20. I was deeply moved. I knew I would make it. I couldn’t believe how far I had come already. I was in so much pain, but I kept going. When I crossed that finish line seven hours later, I was in shock. I cried of course, and I sat. I had done the impossible. To me. I had done it. I knew then that I could do anything.

I was in a marathon here for sure too, and there were three saving graces. The first, sleep. I just love bedtime anyway. The second, the food. Even when I thought I wasn’t hungry, when I would enter the kitchen, my body and spirit would leap with joy. Nutritious, delicious, vegan/vegetarian/gluten free meals. My heart was happy. The third saving grace was the discourse that we had every night at around 7pm.

The founder of the Vipassana meditation centers was Satya Narayan Goenka. The discourses were teachings of the practice and stories of the Buddha who taught this technique 2500 years ago to anyone who wanted to learn for the sake of liberation from our own internal bondage. Goenka passed away in 2013, but left us with audio and video recordings of a ten day retreat from back in 1991. These videos were used for our discourses. Each evening there would be a talk to give us some history of the practice, a good foundation, and much needed encouragement. I was grateful to have his smiling face and tender presence as our guide. He made me laugh out loud, and it felt good. He always seemed to know just what to say at the right time to ease confusion and frustration.

By the end of the third day, I was feeling so defeated. I felt like I was not getting it and that I never would. The girls behind me seemed to be doing great, so still and quiet. I was a failure! I could not reign in my thoughts, and my attention was too scattered. Then, in the discourse of that night, Mr. Goenka shared that the following day we would be learning the Vipassana. What had we just been learning? Preparation. My spirits were immediately lifted at this announcement. There was more to it! Ok, so maybe I do get lifted out of my own misery as well. I was so excited and went to bed with a new attitude.

Day 4. After breakfast and rest, we went in for our 8 am session. At the close of that hour, the center manager came in and sat down with a different kind of announcement. Hurricane Irma was definitely coming our way. It did not seem like it would be too bad; a lot of rain and 30-35 mph winds. If that were the case, we would be safe to continue. There was a small chance, however, that it could return to the Gulf, gain in strength, and come at us with 60 mph winds. If that happened, we would have to stay inside and shelter. If our course was interrupted for four hours or more, we would have to cancel. It was explained that that much time away breaks the focus and it is like starting over. It was in that moment that I understood clearly why no yoga. It takes away the focus from the practice we are so diligently attuning to. I got it, and I agreed.

We were offered the opportunity to leave if we felt in any way unsafe. There was no way in hell I was leaving. I knew in my bones that it was all going to be fine. Besides, if I had to start all over and repeat those first three days, I didn’t know if I could it. I could hear my Dad saying, that damn thing is headed right for Connie Lynne. I said, “Bring it on.” I’m staying. Things were just getting started.

To Be Continued…

 

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