On Sunday morning I emerged from vipassana, a ten day silent meditation course, feeling a deep sense of peace, renewal, and optimism as I embark on the next chapter in my life. Here I’ll explain the basics of the organization and philosophy, and then my personal experience and take-aways from the course.
Vipassana, Boot Camp for the Mind
Vipassana is a meditation technique that was taught by Siddhartha Gautama, whom we know as “Buddha” today. It is a method by which he found enlightenment, the understanding of dhamma (truth, or the law of nature). This method has brought peace and better living to countless individuals since he first began sharing around 500 BC. The tradition has been carried on posthumously by many gurus, at my retreat through Goenke (Gwen-kuh) and the organization at dhamma.org. I’m impressed by a few things: 1) it’s free, 2) it’s non-sectarian, 3) it lives on through technology despite Goenke’s passing in 2013.
For 11 nights and days, you are provided with food, shelter, a meditation space, valuable life teachings and guidance… for free. The organization lives on donations which are only accepted by students who have completed a full ten-day course. This ensures purity of the organization and is a testament to its value. The average cost for a ten day course in Menomonie, WI where I attended is over $10,000. That it’s spread to 310 locations in 94 countries based on volunteer work and donations blows me away. At the end of my course, students were lined up to contribute so that future students may have a chance at the same experience.
Buddhism may exist, but Buddha did not teach a religion. Many consider him a scientist for he discovered internally what many Western scientists are now also finding – existence of the subatomic particle, which he called “kalapa” and that there is no solidity in the known universe – we are made of wavelengths that are continually arising and passing away.
Vipassana practice hinges on three primary teachings, none of which are religious in nature and can be practiced by all, universally.
1. Sila (shee-la), or 5 moral precepts. If one violates the precepts, they are immediately punished by the law of nature with the storage of samskara in the mind-matter complex, which results in (physical and emotional) suffering. These precepts are simple morality and are found throughout all religions, cultures, and philosophies. The 5 precepts are: do not kill, do not steal, no sexual misconduct, do not lie, abstain from intoxicants. The reason for silence during the retreat is to prevent lying. For the ten days there, you are well-shielded from your own misdeeds – provided you are able to follow their rules.
2. Samadhi (suh-mah-dee), or mastery of the mind. Our minds are out of control. This becomes evident during the first couple of days when you are asked to spend the meditation hours observing your own breath. That the mind runs wild with stray thoughts and requires constant vigilance to bring it back to the breath is evidence that very few of us have control over it. If thoughts become actions, mastery of the mind is essential for good living.
3. Paññā (pan-yah), wisdom that is gained through the technique which purifies the mind. These are essentially the concepts of impermanence, that there is no “I” (the illusion of the ego), and the lack of craving or aversion – the development of equanimity throughout one’s life.
As you can see, there is no deity to be worshipped or prayers to be recited. There is simple morality, focus of the mind, and the wisdom one gains based on personal observation of their internal state. There is no power given to an outside source, everything exists deep within. After a lifetime of seeking meaning outside of myself without good results, this very much resonates with me.
It lives on.
Despite Goenke’s passing in 2013, the organization continues to be run through volunteers, assistant teachers, and videos of Goenke sharing his philosophy. The hour long dharma talks were the highlight of each day for me.
I live a quiet life, so the silence was not a problem for me. The first five days, I was brimming with joy, feeling a deep sense of inner peace and marveling at the nature around me – the bright autumn leaves falling like rain, the birds and the insects… I was fully present as I closely evaluated the spiders, a fallen red autumn leaf with its golden veins, or the morning sun shining through rain droplets left on a single blade of glass, casting rainbows like little gems.
Our day began with a morning gong at 4am and ended around 9:30pm. The program consisted of ten hours meditation, breakfast and lunch (no dinner), fruit and tea at 5pm, and an evening discourse covering the philosophy of vipassana. After each meal there was time for rest which I used to walk rounds on the 200 ft walking path.
For the first three days, we focused solely on our breath, concentrating on the space from the nostrils to the top of the lip. Day four, we began systematically scanning our bodies. The initial sensations uncovered were most obvious, such as hot and cold, tingling, itching, etc. I quickly got “the vibe” as I’ve already tuned into energetics through years of yoga and meditation.
For three of the hour-long meditations each day, we were asked not to move at all. This was perhaps the biggest challenge for me. As the world’s most fidgety person, that I met this goal on my first four consecutive sits was a real accomplishment. I was tracking each hour by the degree to which my lower limbs had gone numb. There goes the toe, 15 minutes… there goes the lower calf, 30 minutes… can’t feel my bottom any longer, must be around 45… The pain was intense at first but lessened by day 6, no longer feeling a compulsive need to stretch.
Each time my awareness went to a specific area, I felt a distinct pull, like my brain was a magnet physically tugging on the part being considered. Later during the day 8 discourse, Goenke gave an explanation of the technique that gave me an “aha moment” when I recalled this observation.
A prominent American metallurgist had gone to India for vipassana. He left baffled at how his lightness of being had resulted from the process. Years later he came again but this time, he sent his teacher an analogy that outlined his understanding. In order for a metal to be used in spacecraft, it must be purified to the point where not even one molecule in a million can be a foreign molecule. To accomplish this, the metal is melted and then passed through a metal ring, which is 100% pure. Because the ring is pure, it develops a magnetism which draws out all impurity from the rod. The remaining molecules become ordered in such a way that there is enough strength to be used in the spacecraft.
This analogy made so much sense to me. We move a ring of pure consciousness from head to feet, feet to head through our awareness. If the ring is not pure, it does not work. Because we are moving our awareness with complete equanimity – that is, no craving and no aversion – the consciousness surveying the body is pure and draws out impurities from the mind-matter complex, manifesting on the surface as physical sensation. And this, is what I believe I was feeling with the magnetic tug as I scanned my body. It also explains why my pains would dissolve into a uniform energy, only to be replaced with new pain dissolving again in a cycle.
The first five days, filling my water bottle was the only thing to do inside the dorm so that’s what I did. I filled my bottle and I drank, and I repeated, and repeated, and repeated…. I had never been so well hydrated in my life. At one point, I decided to count backwards from 500 for my own amusement. On the fifth night, I naively thought it would get easier from there, knowing that I was more than halfway through. Ha! Days 6-8 proved to be the most challenging.
On the morning of Day 6, I awoke with a beautiful poem in my head and I couldn’t take it anymore – I had to write it down. I needed to write. And so I took the sharpie off the bathroom cleaning sign-up and grabbed some toilet paper, quickly scribbling my poetry down to get it out of my head. This began The Toilet Paper Chronicles. Constantly struck with inspiration for articles and poetry, I began stealing away to the stall to get my thoughts out. I’ve known for quite some time that I’ve wanted to write, which is why I began this blog, but now it is so very clear that this is my dharma, or at least part of it. Writing and sharing are fundamental to my being.
Day six was particularly challenging – not because of some big emotional upheaval but simple boredom. My mind couldn’t take my body anymore. My roomies must have felt the same way since one pulled out a book and the other began to crochet. I was envious that they had something else to do, even though it wasn’t in the spirit of vipassana.
During the evening meditation, I experienced something that I’ve glimpsed while high, but here I was fully sober, and had been for months, with the purest body I’ve ever had!
Transcendence of Form
My body seemed to liquefy and with a few exceptions, my edges were indiscernible. I could feel the pressure of my bottom making contact with the meditation cushion and my vertebrae were still firm, yet disconnected from each other, pieces of matter floating in an energetic soup – sort of like chunks of carrot in a stew. Tripped out by the vibrations, I could hear Queen’s famous anthem, “nothing really matters, anyone can see… nothing really matters to meeeee….” with an overlay of Goenke’s voice repeating… uh-nee-chuh, uh-nee-chuh, uh-nee-chuh. Anicca is the Pali word for impermanence.
On day seven, I went from soup to television static. There were tingling sensations arising and falling away with such rapidity that it seemed as though I wasn’t really there. Like a hologram, one might be able run their hand right through me with no resistance at all. I felt my consciousness splitting from my physical state.
By day nine I was over it and ready to jump out of my skin, writhing around like a snake in my meditation spot, unable to stay still at all. I was tired of Goenke, tired of the meditation hall, and tired of being there altogether. I kept thinking, Why is he telling me to come out of my misery??? I’m not miserable! I am pretty happy and in fact I just came here so I could learn to be less reactive and to lose my ego. Why does he keep telling me to remain equanimous no matter how pleasant the sensations? I want to enjoy pleasure. I’m not ready to give that up yet, even if the end result is love. I have love!
As I’ve thought about it more, “misery” is really the wrong word, at least for me. I have no doubt that many people who come to vipassana are miserable, but I’m not. Rather than misery, I think he means to gain stability of the mind.
My mother’s death was like a punch to the gut, knocking me off-center. I was in the middle of leaving a career in business to live more simply as a yoga teacher but with no energy for a transition, I accepted yet another job in tech that had easily floated my way. Freaked out that I might die sad and lonely the way she did, I also jumped into a bad relationship that I was too weak-willed to leave. The job laid me off, but the boyfriend didn’t.
Our relationship got worse after we went into business together. Instead of leaving the business and the relationship like I should have, I got high to cope with it all. Meanwhile, a split began to occur and while my personal life was crumbling, I was understanding yoga in a new way. My teaching evolved and I started to thrive again, shifting back into a high vibration while still dragging the dead weight of my poor decisions. I realized the split needed to continue and I finally left both him and the business behind. That’s when I went to India, where a lot of reflection and healing occurred. Vipassana was icing on the cake, bringing clarity to all that has recently unfolded in my life.
- I’m a really happy person! I was able to see my present self and my past with grace and love, understanding that I’ve been doing the best I can. I’m now armed with a wealth of knowledge about how to take better care of myself as I move into a new stage of life.
- I have equanimity. When I do go through tough times, I don’t see them as devastation, I see them as contrast and I have an awareness that they will pass. I appreciate these times also, seeing them as the dark shades in a painting that make light pop off the canvas. Likewise, when times are good, I have a special appreciation for them realizing that they too will pass away.
- I want to live in accordance with my nature. I commit to taking better care of myself, staying sober, eating whole and natural foods, surrounding myself with positive and healthy people, and doing work that brings meaning to my life such as yoga and writing.
- I have boundless energy and I want to use it to be of service in the world.
- I can trust myself. When I look at my past decisions, my intuition has been on point at every step of the way. I spent my time looking outward for validation and guidance, denying the inner voice which knew what was best for me all along. No more thinking that I could be wrong or that someone or some circumstance may change for the better. No more letting others convince me what my best course of action is – I am my own guru moving forward.
I’ve looked into vipassana a couple of times before, but it never worked out. I’m so thankful that it came at this time in my life, at this time of the year, and in this location. The beauty surrounding me was like salve on an open wound. Mother Nature’s endless bounty of creation and artistry is an incredible source of comfort to me. Watching the Oak and Elm trees shed their colorful leaves was the perfect metaphor for me as I shed the emotions, relationships, and situations that no longer hold value in my life.
For more information, check out dhamma.org
MAY ALL BEINGS BE HAPPY!