It’s out of order, but I need to write this one.
I think the thing people have asked about the most from my trip to Thailand is my 10 day silent meditation retreat.
It’s been the thing I least want to talk about.
It’s very personal. And a little embarrassing. And strange. And “you had to be there.”
But I’ll try.
A brief summary of Vipassana: it’s a meditation technique, taught by Buddha himself, which involves, yes, focusing on breathing. First you collapse into all the sensations of your nose. Then over the course you expand back out to feel sensations over your whole body, anything that might arise: cold, heat, itching, tingling, tickling, numbness, pain. You don’t react to the sensations, you observe them. They arise so that they can pass, and you avoid having any response to them, good or bad.
It was different from the meditation course I’d done in NYC. I liked it better because it was more goal-oriented. You weren’t just trying to suppress thoughts and do the impossible by clearing your brain – you were observing sensations as they happened – not TRYING to feel them, but noticing them when they were there. And in the process learning a fundamental lesson about non-attachment and impermanence.
I’ve already talked about meditation. I had the same uneasiness about exploiting a religion I don’t fully understand, the same quandaries about the possibility or impossibility of letting go of wanting/dreams.
So let’s move on to the logistics of ten days of silence, rising at 4:30am for ten hours of sitting still on the floor and trying not to think.
I’d like to say profound things about the retreat. I’d like to tell you my head split open and I felt peace unlike anything I have ever experienced.
But life is much more complex and mundane, even in the pursuit of wisdom.
Not speaking didn’t bother me. Being cut off from information did. They took my phone, my camera, my iPod. No music? That’s actually hard. No Facebook? I’m embarrassed to say I don’t think I ever stopped wondering what I was missing at home. I knew of happenings happening without me, and I didn’t know how they had gone. That kind of vacuum gave me anxiety.
And to be perfectly honest: I cheated. I was supposed to give them my pad, pen, and books, but I didn’t. Writing was a release valve that kept me from me losing it.
I also didn’t meditate all the time. Some group sits were optional and you could stay in your room and meditate. Or, uh…sleep.
Am I proud of this? No. Could I have managed this experience any other way? I guess I can never truly know the answer to that question, but I don’t think so.
It was hard. HARD. I cried a lot. It didn’t get easier each day. It was an emotional roller coaster. The first three days sucked, the fourth day I felt okay about my practice, I felt I’d made a little progress, and then the fifth day was bad again and by the seventh day I was so drained I was done. Sometimes the best I could do when my mind was unharnassable was sit completely still for an hour. It was push and pull, forward and backward, not a steady climb of improvement.
When I felt like I was “getting” it, when I was present and feeling sensations: that felt good. BUT as soon as I take pride in it, I’m moving further away from enlightenment because I’m attached to how good it feels.
S.N. Goenka, the master who spearheads these Vipassana courses, is a roly-poly Burmese Indian who exudes serenity and humor. We watched his taped discourses each evening. He’s seen it all, and he’s compassionate: he knows progress is slow, he knows you’ll want to leave, he encourages you not to.
I liked him. I wanted to make him proud. Once again, this negates the point – desires, attachments. Goenka says WANTING to become enlightened moves you further away from enlightenment.
So. You can see it’s a fiercely complicated process.
But it is a process, not a magic bullet, and it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one who struggles. It’s nice to be with people seeking what I seek without having to talk to them. My favorite thing: a feeling of belonging without having to prove/articulate why I belong. It was lovely to sit in a tin roofed building during a thunderstorm and be as fully present in my body as I am capable of at this point.
Of course, as soon as you are aware of being present in the moment you’re stepping outside the moment…but still.
It was strangely like summer camp. We were allowed to speak on the tenth day, and it was as if we had already bonded by proximity. After less than twenty-four hours of interacting, I was planning to travel south with a Dutch girl.
Someone recently asked if the retreat changed me. Yes. And no. I’m ashamed to admit I have not meditated once since I left Prachinburi. Discipline is necessary. I lack it because I don’t TRY to have it.
But Vipassana felt right, righter than my first course. It made more sense. If I had self-control, this practice could work for me. The lessons are self-contained within your very being: sensations arise just to pass away, nothing lasts. Joy or frustration, it’ll go away. Don’t get too upset because whatever’s bothering you will end. Don’t get too happy because you’ll be that much sadder when the happiness passes (this is the hardest part – who wants to curb elation?)
And naughty as it may have been…
I wrote a lot. I think that may be the most selfish (antithetical) thing I got out of it: I wanted to write, I did write, I liked what I was writing, I felt confident in its goodness. It has nothing to do with meditation. It was against the rules. But since I’ve been home I’ve been working harder at this blog, I’ve started a second blog of fiction. It’s a strange and unexpected gift. It’s beside the point. But it is wonderful just the same.
Baby steps were made. Once again, I love that it’s a journey, not a destination. I never have to be disappointed if I don’t arrive. I just have to plod tiptoe skip creep leap clump trudge traipse drag myself down the path. Every tiny stumble is a stumble forward.