October 7-18, 2015
Impermanence. Have be you ever really stopped to consider just how temporary every incarnation of life is? From the moment of our conception, we are an ever-evolving, never-resting cluster of cells… perpetually changing, growing, multiplying, degenerating and regenerating… not one cell ever staying the same. Day to day, the change is imperceptible, but from weeks to months to years we begin to see the the impermanence of what was when we look in the mirror. And eventually, this entire organism of cells we call the self passes away altogether. Life and its inevitable death, all things impermanent as part of the process.
Vipassana is the teaching of Dhamma, the Universal Laws of Nature, as described from the oldest Buddhist teachings, and the presiding law is that of impermanence. It is through the ancient Buddhist technique of Vipassana meditation, that we will study the impermanence of our own nature and how our relationship to it deeply impacts who we are and how we find (or more often, cannot find) deep happiness in this life.
S.N. Goenka is the prevailing teacher and the man responsible for bringing this meditation out of the ancient esoteric and into the (more or less) mainstream. He is an intelligent, articulate speaker and although these courses are all done via audio-visual recordings (there is a prevailing teacher onsite, overseeing things) you come to feel you know this humorous and delightfully kind man. In alignment with the Buddhist philosophy of selflessness and giving, the courses, food and lodging are entirely free of charge and the centers run on a donation-only basis.
The setting at this center is glorious. Located on the outskirts of Nasik, I feel like I have stepped fully into nature, which is of course appropriate, when coming to study the laws of nature.
As expected, the accommodations here are sparse. As I settle in and make my bed, I wonder how on earth I’m going to sleep… this thin cushion gives new meaning to the words ‘hard mattress’ as it rests atop a concrete block. Then I remember back to a few short days ago, to all those impoverished people I saw actually sleeping on concrete streets, and I remind myself that I did not come here to be taken care of on the external level…. there will be time for that later. No, I came here to take care of myself on my deepest internal level and to tend to things left unattended thus far in my life.
And so we begin.
4:30am – As I leave my room in the dark of this early morning hour and head for the meditation hall, I am greeted by the new moon. It hangs outside my door, low on the horizon, a glowing orange sliver suspended by Venus from above and supported by Jupiter from below. It is a beautiful celestial welcoming from the universe and I take it in as long as I can until the warning gong beckons me onward.
In the optimistic part of my brain, I erroneously believe that having already experienced one 10-day course and having cultivated a strong daily meditation practice at home will make this time around easier. But I am about to discover that just as running 2 miles a day cannot really prepare you for a 26 mile marathon, even if you’ve done one in the past, a one hour daily sitting at home cannot prepare you for 10 hours of meditation per day for 10 days in a row. Frankly, I’m not sure anything can.
The two key elements of Vipassana are Awareness and Equanimity, and like the wings of a bird, both must be of equal size and strength, otherwise the bird cannot fly.
Awareness. This 10-day silent retreat is a well designed process. A methodical progression of quieting the mind and learning how to focus with clarity, first on the continuity of the breath, then on the more complex inner workings of the physical, energetic body. Once this clarity and focus occur, things start happening. Pleasurable things. Painful things. Familiar things. Unusual things. Things you recognize and things you absolutely do not understand. You start feeling sensations you were never aware of, despite the fact that they are there all along… our minds simply too dull and preoccupied to perceive them.
Creating awareness… calming and clearing the mind enough to become conscious of all this sensation is our first job here. For those of us who have been here before, it is a relearning, a revisiting with a beginners mind and we start from square one just like the first-timers, with a new sense of discovery.
I am enamored with the grounds here… it is like a nature preserve filled with creatures and calls completely unfamiliar to me. Lizards, frogs and birds galore. Later I find out that the very distinct and peculiar cry I kept hearing was a peacock. There are plenty of bugs too, but they no longer bother me, as their place and importance in the order of things is implied. Near the pagoda sits a small pond filled with lotus plants in different stages of decay. Amidst the dying plants, one tall, strong stem rises tall above the rest, pushing a large, tight bud out into the world. There is so much natural beauty at every turn.
10:00am – Ok. I forgot how incredibly hard this is and I am really disliking it. No really. Why did I think this was a good idea anyway? I am in so much pain and discomfort. Ten hours of meditation in one day is ridiculous and entirely unnecessary. I’m not sleeping, every joint in my body is screaming at me and my mind is like a caged, wild animal… pacing, pacing, looking for a way out. But there is nowhere to go and nothing to do but sit here, and yet every cell in my body unanimously agrees that sitting here is a terrible idea. This cannot be good for me, I’m sure of it. I am unhappy and stuck. I take deep breaths and try to focus and yet the harder I try, the more agitated I get. I want to leave.
This inner dialogue ensues for some time before I recognize the voice. Yes, you are a familiar foe and your name is Resistance. I see you now, parading in all this contagious negativity, trying to pull me into your misery. But I know that to let myself continue in this state is to just make myself more miserable, and I see that surrender is my only choice now.
12:00pm – Electric blue butterflies dance on air, lightly engaging one another, oblivious to the rapidly rising heat. There is a stillness that starts to lay itself down at this time of day, and even the ever-present background of insects and birds fades into quiet. The mid-day heat here is almost unbearable, but nonetheless, the lotus flower is happily basking in the intense sun, who urges its petals open wider. I wish I could say the same for myself, but I am only wilted.
11:00pm – The day was exhausting physically and mentally. I should be sleeping, but cannot. I lay awake and contemplate all the contraband in my backpack… food, a book, my iPad and writing journal. You are not really allowed to bring all these things to Vipassana but since I am traveling for two months, they are with me. The only real temptation is my journal, as there is so much going on in my brain and writing is my way of processing it all. Admittedly the protein bars have a strong allure as well, considering my last meal was 12 hours ago and my next will not be for another 7. And yet food seems somehow unimportant right now, and I resist both temptations, willing myself to rest.
6:30am – With two hours of meditation already under our belt, it is time for breakfast, and no matter what is served (much of which I could not discern, most of which tasted good, albeit completely unfamiliar) I am grateful just to be filling my stomach.
I carved out my little niche at the window, where over a cup of hot, milky-sweet chai (my new comfort drink) I watched the sun put on its daily display of rising, excited that it coincides with the exact time of breakfast every day. About half a mile in the distance, just to the left of the sunrise is a large hill, atop which sits the most spectacular temple. The three spires are dramatically lit up slightly different each morning, based on the sun and clouds particular choosing that day. It is a fairy tale scene and without question, my most favorite part of each day.
Equanimity. The second and most important job we have here has become clear. It is the task of learning how to keep a balanced, non-reactionary mind. In sitting with all the sensation in your body, you quickly realize your preferences and prejudices, and your inclinations toward feeding or revolting against them accordingly.
We spend a vast portion of our lives desiring things or situations we do not or cannot possess, or avoiding and hating that which we do possess but do not want. In short, we have an extremely difficult time simply accepting things exactly as they are and perpetually yearn for things as we would like them to be… and this takes an extrodinary amount of futile and ultimately wasted energy. These cravings and aversions manifest themselves in immeasurable ways in our life, often preventing us from finding true happiness and contentment.
I cannot possibly give a full explanation here, of the science and philosophies behind Vipassana, but suffice to say, the mind-body connection is vastly more complex than we realize, most of the integration between the two happening on a deep sub-conscious level. Understanding that every mental action has a physical reaction that is stored in the body is of paramount importance. In the most basic terms possible, Vipassana puts us in touch with the deepest going-ons in the body in order to understand and eradicate the garbage that has overrun the mind. And there is a lot of it.
And so our job now is to feel these perpetual cravings and aversions within the framework of body sensation, and to practice shutting off that reactionary valve that is constantly overflowing and flooding us. We must learn to keep the mind balanced and equanimous and we learn to do so by watching all our physical sensations and our knee-jerk reactions to them. And if that sounds like, an ominous task, well it is.
4:00pm – The afternoon heat inside the meditation hall is stifling, the air without a trace of movement, and this is forcing me to practice the true art of accepting things as they are, without any aversion (oh my god I hate this and I think I’m actually dying) or craving (I’d give my left arm for a pool of ice right now.) And non-reactivity, well that is the neutralizing force to these errant tendencies. It is the magic ingredient that creates transformation on the deepest level, and understanding this in theory is of little help. You must experience it first hand, and these circumstances make the situation ripe for such understanding.
Despite the unmanageable heat (or perhaps because of my surrender to it) I find myself falling into in the familiar state of deep sensation, but my heightened awareness also detects the subtle hint of coolness that has started to infiltrate the air. There has been a quiet rumbling of thunder in the far off distance for some time now, but suddenly, within minutes, the deafening cracks of lightning and thunderous jolts are directly on top of us, and the skies open up, releasing a downpour harder than I have ever heard.
Eyes closed, feeling so much going on internally, the fury overhead demands equal attention, and neither force can be ignored. I have never had an out-of-body experience, and I’m not exactly sure I can say I experienced one here, but the reality of that moment was a clear, palpable entanglement of two strong energies…. the energy inside of me and the energy outside of me… and in what space the two collide, I cannot say. It is both external and internal, with no differentiation between the two.
Anyone who knows me will attest to my unwavering faith in the interconnectivity of all things, and although I was not seeking confirmation of that belief, it found me in the midst of this intense storm. In that moment, Mother Nature demanded I pay attention to her magnificence, but the message was clear:
It is not her magnificence alone… she is but a part of me.
9:00am – The days have gotten slightly easier. The hour-long sittings no longer feel as if they have quadrupled in length and are now somewhat manageable, and all the different, intense joint and muscle pains have become tolerable, have been forgotten or have dissipated altogether. Or at least there are moments.
There are moments too, many of them, of intense connectivity with my energetic body. I can only describe this feeling as a warm honey, infused with a gentle electric current slowly spreading throughout the body, occasionally flaring in an intense swell here or there. It is quite fantastic. It is also, as we are warned by our teacher, a dangerous station on the path.
At this point it has become relatively easy to identify the tendency toward aversion… the aches, the pains, the mental battles make that tendency clear, and learning to learn to sit with these aversions without reacting becomes a workable task. But to sit in this sensual state, to feel overcome with such subtle pleasure, well it is all too easy for the gentle fingertips of desire to stealthily work their way in and grab ahold. It is very, very easy to crave more of this. And so we cultivate the proper weapons to combat this attachment to wanting more. The tools are heightened awareness and continued equanimity.
6:00pm – Resistance and surrender continue their dance. Thus far the time in the cell* has been an equal manifestation of both. The cell has provided both moments of utter bliss and complete frustration… and still, the lesson remains the same in either case: neither is permanent, both are fleeting. Change is the one unalterable, universal fact and this is what we are here to fully understand. Take it as it comes, let it be what it is. As I leave the pagoda and the confines of the cell, I take in the beauty of the lotus as it is today. It sits proudly in its fullness, arms open wide.
9:00pm – After the evening discourse and final half hour meditation, the day is finally done. I take my time walking back to my room, lingering to enjoy my nightly flirtation with the bats. As I walk the path home, I invariably startle them, which in turn startles me. They flap through the trees overhead, swooping down to take hold of the branch of their choosing, grasping on with their feet and flopping into their recognizable upside-down stance. I am fascinated with these large, flying creatures and watch as they hang, occasionally opening and closing their wings slowly for me, giving me a glimpse into their private nighttime world. It is an enchanting way to end the day.
4:00am – Waking up today is the most difficult it’s been since I arrived, having slept harder and deeper than I have thus far after an 8th day that exhausted my mind, body and soul. Yesterday was full of dispassion and disinterest and I yearned to be done here and to progress on with my trip. Motivation to stay present was nowhere to be found.
During this mornings meditation, however, I realize something very deep has shifted overnight. I sit for the 2 full hours with no struggle whatsoever. Into the space of pure awareness I melt, and there I effortlessly float. It is not an ecstatic kind of bliss, but more of a beautiful, sensuous tranquillity that has filled every cell of my body.
More importantly, outside of the sensations, some understanding has manifested and it has nothing to do with my logical mind. I understand, for what feels like the very first time, what it means to really observe myself objectively. My body has simply become the container, holding what can only be described as this ethereal energy, like the gentle undulation of jellyfish… transparent, electrical, moving, pulsating, manifesting and remanifesting in a perpetual motion. And I, the observer, stand apart, watching this happen… engaged but unattached… so fully present, so content with this moment as it is, knowing it will pass soon enough. And so it does.
Despite the ache of prolonged sitting setting in, it is hard for me to come out of this space, but the sitting is over and hunger has made its voice heard. As I take my beloved spot at my favorite window seat, something poignant happens. The sun begins its steady ascent from the horizon, but it’s size and glow burn extra bright today. The sky seems free of clouds yet the atmosphere is such that I am able to stare directly into this huge red-orange globe for several minutes as the horizon distorts its size into monumental proportions. It is stunning.
Perhaps it is only my perception that has changed, but there is a quality, an exquisite beauty present this morning that I have never seen in a sunrise before, and the serendipitousness of the moment is obvious. More articulate than any words could ever communicate, the message from the universe is clear:
When you connect with me, I too, connect with you.
Today is the final full day and it is akin to the last week of school… technically you have to be there and continue participating, but not much work is getting done.
We wake at 4:00am as usual and sit for the 2 hour pre-breakfast session, but from there the schedule lightens considerably and we have only three one-hour sessions that are required of us for the rest of the day. More notably, our vow of silence is now over and we get to meet and engage with the 25 other women who have just been through the same soul-searching as you (this particular course was female-only.) This segue-day back into reality is a necessary reintegration.
After my first 10-day course, this day was spent dissecting and comparing the internal processes we all went through, but this day was different here, mostly because I was in a foreign land surrounded by foreign people… or more accurately, I was the foreigner. The women I met were all incredibly kind and we talked about the details of each others lives, curious about all the ways in which they differed from our own. And, as is always the case, the curiosity over my tattoos was a prevailing interest, everyone wanting to touch and see and understand. Many photos were taken, and it was wonderful just to see smiles and personalities on all the faces that we could not previously engage with.
The following day is the day of departure and I take a final walk around the grounds, saying my goodbye. The lotus… well it’s petals have all fallen and lay shriveling on the ground, a departing reminder of an impermanence manifested in the most beautiful of ways.
Final thoughts: Meditation, like yoga, is 10% theory and 90% practice. I think I fell in love with Vipassana because it is the perfect marriage of science and spirituality, thus appealing to both my strong logic as well as my sensitive intuition. The secondary appeal, as with yoga, is that the body is the vehicle for this work and ensuing transformation, albeit on a much subtler level… which serves me well at this point in my life.
By my own definition, Vipassana is not just meditation… it is somatic healing on the deepest possible level and it is the dissolution of all disillusion. I cannot possibly explain to you all the subtleties, the intricacies or the magical transformations, because my experience in this practice is exactly that. Mine. Each person must find their own magic their own way through their own experience… and I highly encourage everyone to do so. For me, however, Vipassana is the alchemy and ensuing metamorphasis that comes from experiential learning… a wisdom deeper than any sort of intellectual understanding could ever provide.
And so, in repeating the closing wishes of Goenkaji,
May you all find real peace, real harmony, real happiness.
Note: The few photos posted here were taken the evening of arrival, before the start of day 1 and on day 10, when we were given our phones back. The use of any sort of device was prohibited during the course itself.
* The ‘cells’ are exactly what the words conjures. Small, closet-sized rooms in the pagoda for you to sit and meditate privately, with no distractions whatsoever.