In 2013, I signed up for a silent 10 day meditation called a Vipassana. A friend of mine had done it in the past and said it was life changing. I was curious about meditation, but also was a little lost in my life. I was seeking a connection to something “bigger” and thought this would be a journey that could show me the way. The funny part is, this experience showed me that there is nothing bigger that I needed to find. Being happy has nothing to do with what happens in your life and how much you have, but rather how you deal with what life gives you. I was looking for something that was there the whole time, it just took ten crazy days of silence to finally see what was really happening. I’m so glad I did this, but I am also really glad I did not know more about it before I signed up. It was a leap of faith that has transformed how I think and behave daily. Below is a note I wrote 2 days after I returned on January 31st of 2014.
I know many of you were curious about my experience with Vipasana, and I would love to share more with you about it. Vipassana is a style of meditation that was developed by Buddha that takes you to the deepest layer of your mind to remove the “roots” of misery. As my teacher, Goenkaji said, “It is like you are performing a deep surgical operation on your mind.” In order to perform this “surgery” it requires commitment, patience, practice, and persistence.
11 days total, 9 days of silence, 1 day of transition. They describe it as a 10 day course, but Id considered in 12. You arrive on day 0, take the vow of silence, then leave on day 11 in the morning. Before getting started, there are Sila, rules to follow. The Sila are the foundation for Vipasanna and include; not stealing, not lying, no intoxicants, no sexual conduct, and no killing, which is pretty easy to do while you are on the course since you are in a structured setting. Also, there is the vow of Noble silence means that you do not talk or have physical contact with the other meditators. You can talk to the managers about any problems you have during the course with your room, food, etc. You can ask the assistant teachers questions about the meditation technique. You cannot just chat it up with the managers or teachers. You cannot make eye contact or gesture at the other meditators.
Noble silence was the easiest part for me. At times, I made eye contact with a few meditators, but not on purpose. Everyone in my group was honored the silence, and the residential quarters were quiet. At first it was very refreshing not having to say,”excuse me, or sorry, or can I have this, can you pass the salt?” Day 6 the silence started to wear on me. I missed interacting with humans both vocally and physically, I would have sold my soul for a hug. But the noble silence is there for a reason. It allowed me to quiet my mind and body. Everyday there is so much distraction from noise, the silence made it easier to observe my breath, body, and the technique.
There is also a schedule all students most follow. The timetable consisted of almost 11 hours of mediation starting at 430am. It did not get easier day by day. 2 hours in the morning then breakfast. 3 hours of meditation then lunch. After lunch 4 hours of meditation then dinner, which is just fruit and tea the first time you do the course, now as old student, if I did it again, no food after 12pm. Then we would sit again from 6-7. Finally there was the discourse, then meditation until 9pm. 13 hours of the day that you are awake, 11 are meditation. I saw the schedule when I signed up, but did not comprehend this, which is probably a good thing becauseI may not have done the course. I thought the meditation would be guided. Some of it was, but it was practicing the technique.
When I imagined doing this course, I thought a teacher would be in front of me at all times saying, “breathe,” or a trickling waterfall would be next to me and I would melt into a happy little puddle where I would find inner peace. This style of meditation is more intense because it sharpens your mind. It makes your mind sharper and sharper so you go subtler and subtler into the deepest layer of your mind. Not to condemn other types of meditation, but Goenkaji said the reason this technique is so intense is because it goes deeper than the surface level of your mind. When one uses mantras, gods/goddesses, and visualization, it only hits the surface layer. Vispassana goes deeper to the roots of the problems.
The technique starts with 3 days of Annapana meditation to build a bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind. Day 1 I learned to observe your natural respiration. As a yoga teacher who constantly breathes with awareness, I thought this would be easy. I was wrong, natural respiration was hard for me to observe. I could not find my breath. My mind was so distracted that I could not even hear myself breathe. Day 1 was the most frustrating day of my life. After trying to observe my unconscious breath for 9 hours with no success, I was ready to leave. My mind would wander away after 2 second, it was like teaching a cat to sit. I cried 3 times, and did not think I would make it through the course. In addition to not being able to hear myself breathe, my butt hurt, my legs hurt, I was exhausted from not sleeping the night before, and I wanted to go home. I was ready to pack my bags and bolt out of there.
After the longest day of my life, the discourse started at 7pm. Goenkaji spoke to the frustration that everyone feels on the first day. He said the pain and irritation is what comes when you first start surgery, like the puss from a wound. It made sense, and it motivated me to try meditating again for the last hour. When I sat down for the final meditation, I was able to observe my breathe, but something else happened.
During this meditation, I felt something deep inside. It was a sensation that I cannot describe, but if felt warm, my heart was beating very strong, and my body started to shake. I told myself to let it arise, and like a volcano, this sensation erupted. It came through my chest, into my throat then into my face. I gasped for air then felt a surge of energy enter my eyeballs. Tears started rolling down my face, like hot thick lava. I covered my face with my blanket and tried to breathe without causing a scene. After a few minutes, I managed to calm myself down, but after the meditation was over, I took a walk. I still have no idea what came through me, but all I could say to myself after was, “What was that?” I said it with more obscenity at the time. I knew I had to stay for the entire course.
Day 2 was much easier, it breezed by, which is peculiar since most of my peers told me this was the hardest day for them. Day 3 was very tough, but nothing compared to day 1. The technique added a new layer where we had to observe sensation on a triangular area of our faces. This did not come easy for me, and again, I was frustrated. Surprise surprise, I did not get something quickly and I got frustrated- something I quickly learned about myself. After what seemed like forever, I was able to feel something. Then the technique required the area to get smaller and smaller. Smaller the area, sharper the mind. It felt like I could not keep up, and I was again anxious. I told myself to keep going and the next morning, it was a little easier.
Day 4 is a big day because the actual technique of Vipassana is taught. The Annapana meditation sharpens the mind. As the mind becomes sharper, one moves deeper and deeper into the technique. Practicing Vipassana requires practice, patience, and equanimity. I learned to move my awareness part by part, combing the body head to feet feeling sensation everywhere I could on the body. There is always a wide range in my body- sometimes I felt subtle vibrations, other times my muscles were twitching, or I felt itching and pain.
The technique is designed to teach one to feel these sensations in the body but not to react to them. The mind works in two ways- it responds to every sensation with either craving or aversion (a strong dislike). When a good sensation, like a subtle vibration, is felt in the body the mind usually wants more. When a painful sensation is felt, the mind wants to dislike. Easy to understand on the intellectual level, more difficult to experience. Vipassana changes the habit pattern on the mind, so when any sensation is felt, good or bad, the mind stays equanimous (steady and neutral). The law of Dharma, of nature, is that everything is always changing. Sensations rise and fall, snow melts and it becomes summer, people enter life and leave. The more one can honor that everything is changing, the more one is liberated from misery. So with the technique, I learned that every sensation will pass, everything will change, why attach to every feeling in the body and mind.
Day 5-9 I was required to sit practicing Vipassana for an hour without changing posture. This is called sitting with determination, and as a group, we did this 3 times a day. During these hours, my legs, shoulders, head, and just about every muscle that I did not know existed in the body would hurt. Piercing pain would start in my arm, then I would have to remain equanimous. Pinching in my low back, remain equanimous. Ears are pulsating and ringing, remain equanimous. Easier said then done, and the hardest part about it is that there is no gauge to tell if you are reacting. No one can measure it but you. So the more I sat, the more I tried to remain calm.
Why do this? When your body reacts to a sensation with craving or aversion in the body it creates a Sankara. Sankaras are karmic pasts that arise with sensation. If you respond to the Sankara by craving or aversion, it generates not only a new Sankara but multiples all of your past Sankaras as well. The best way to describe it is to think of a bonfire. If you keep feeding it wood, then it will keep burning. If you stop, the fire will die. Fire is our misery, when we keep feeding it with Sankaras, we are burdened by attachment. When we learn to remain equanimous, we stop generating Sankaras, and get rid of the old stock. Once the fire is out, there is liberation.
I never felt my Sankaras release, but I know I shed some of them. They are intangible in my body and mind. Sometimes memories from past would arise, things I have not thought of in years, and I was told by my teachers that this is often a Sankara arising to the surface and going away. Everyone has a different experience with this. Some people can feel them, some people may even be able to see them. Combing through the body with the technique of Vipassana allows sensation to be felt on the body, and Sankaras to be destroyed. I practiced this technique for the rest of the days. Combing and combing, destroying Sankaras, shedding layers of misery. Not to say since I have been back, I have not made more and multiplied, but this is the practice.
Day after day I combed the body. As I combed the body, things kept changing. I started to feel subtler vibrations at time and was able to sweep up and down through my body, riding the vibrations like waves from the top of my head to my toes. At times I experienced a little taste of Bongo which is where the body completely dissolves. As one practices Vipassana, one can feel the body subtler and subtler until the tiniest measure of matter is found, Kalapas. Kalapas rise and fall, they create sensation. The more practices Vipassana, the more one gets deeper and starts to remove the roots of misery. The actual technique removes the roots by changing the habit pattern of the mind to not react to sensation, but to remain equanimous.
Example; something bad happens in life, I broke my phone and do not have enough money for a new one. Sensation arises in the mind, negative and dark. If I respond to it, then I am creating misery. Oh poor me, my phone is broken, life is awful, I will never be able to talk to anyone again. If I understand that everything is changing, sensation is arising, it will soon pass and remain equanimous, I am practicing Vipassana and finding peace. Not to say Vipassana makes you a vegetable and never respond to any negative or positive sensations, but in this example, I would find a way to make money and buy a new phone instead of letting misery overcome me. I would not remain depressed forever because I would honor that nothing is never permanent, my phone would have broken over time and I would eventually have to get a new one.
Example; something good happens in life, I got a huge promotion at work. I’m making so much money now, I’m living the high life with champagne and limousines. I crave more and more wealth and do anything to make money, even throw others under the bus. I loose my morals to get more and more. So attached that I don’t even realize that I’m creating misery in my mind and passing it on to others. I get so attached that when the company shuts down because they are paying me too much, I’m out of a job and there is a whole new source of misery.
I asked my teachers what if you crave pizza? Is it bad to crave something? Fun, friends, dancing? They told me as long as you don’t let your craving get into your way. If you don’t get pizza and it creates misery, well then you are responding to craving. If you don’t get to have fun with your friends or dance because you have to work and you get upset, create misery and let it ruin your day, then that is where the line is drawn. Vipasanna helps you to respond not blindly to craving, but to observe them. If you want something, it is usually ok to have it, as long as it is moral and you realize that this fun will end, this pizza will be eaten, this dance party is not going to last forever.
On day 10 at about 9am, a new technique was brought into the course, Metta. Metta is all about filling the vibrations of the body with love and sending the love out to others. Vipassana stresses love and compassion for others, may all beings be happy. Metta was the balm for the deep surgery on the final day.
As Goenkaji said, after one 10 day course, it is unlikely for one to be fully liberated an enlightened. This is a long path. The path of Dharma takes practice and sometimes lifetimes to walk down. The final goal is enlightenment where one is freed from all misery. Did I reach that? Not yet. Will I reach it? Maybe one day.
Was this experience life changing? I have only been back to life for 5 days, but so far things have been a little different in my schedule and mind. Every morning I wake up to meditate sometimes as early as 5 am, it makes my morning wonderful and I feel great after. I’m not blindly reacting to frustration and anger. I recognize it, then observe it. I still get upset, but instead of stewing for my usual 8-10 hours, it has decreased to 5-7. I also have been more mindful of food, not using it as a comfort tool as much as I used to. This technique has given me the tools to change my life, but now it is up to me to implement this technique daily. I have been practicing about 2 hours a day since my return and hope to keep this technique in my life. Would I do it again? Yes, but not a 10 day course for at least a few years. To progress on the path it is suggested that every year one should do 10 days. Woof. Right now, I can’t imagine, but now that I am an old student, I do a 3 day, a 5 day, or a 2 day.
Other things you should know if you are considering this; vegetarian diet. Breakfast, lunch, no dinner, just fruit and tea. If you eat too much breakfast or lunch, you will fall asleep during mediation, so it will teach you to eat mindfully. The food was amazing!
Take an extra day for transition. I jumped right back into life, not a bad thing, but it was a bit overwhelming.
The center I went to was in Menomonie Wisconsin, but they have these centers all around the world.
If you are considering doing this, please do! It is hard work. Not a retreat, but a course where you will surrender yourself to this 10 day technique. Buddha will kick your ass. But just doing the course is an achievement. Know that it takes discipline. Know that everyone has a different experience, and if it was like mine, the course itself is intense, but after, you feel rewarded and proud of yourself for making it through.
My mind was so weak when I started. I tamed it, strengthened it, and now hope to make it more equanimous with this technique. As Goenkaji said when the course ended, “You made fertile soil. You have now planted a seed and a sprout has come out. To let it grow it will take water, sunlight, and nourishment.” Practice is the only way for it to grow, and I hope over time, that this sprout will become a strong tree that bears fruits of Dharma, fruits of peace. I felt real peace the very last meditation on day 11. It was wonderful. Not that all of my Sankaras were gone or that I was liberated, but in that moment, everything was still. My mind did not move, but my body was vibrating with love. Compassion for those who I did not like, compassion for those in my life, and gratitude for every being.
There is so much more to tell of this experience, I could write for days about the visuals I saw in my mind and in the outside world, the day to day experience, and the thoughts that came in and out of my mind when I was silent. But what is most important, is that I took the first steps on the path of peace. I hope to walk further with each conversation I have and with each sensation I feel.