sitting in silence, days 8 and 9: blanker body, better mind

So, Day 8 rang in just like Day 7 did, except more areas of my body felt blank, and sensations all over were dampened. This struck me as a little amusing, and I reminded myself of the fact that vipassana really isn’t about the kind of sensation you were feeling or if you were feeling it — it’s about the equanimity, the no reaction.

Also, while my body felt a little dampened, my mood and my mind felt great. That whole cliché of a giant weight being lifted off of me is just too true to pass up in this case — i felt like my shoulders were less tense, my chest more open. A part of me was sad that I’d felt the way I had for so long, but a bigger part of me was — is — happy to be on the other side of it.

Day 8 marked a huge turning point for me in terms of my ability to meditate. Since day 6, I’d found that sometimes during meditation, I felt pain in my hips and knees and back, but when I got up at the end of meditation, none of those places hurt any more. The pain wasn’t “real” or at least it wasn’t lasting. I started to view it more of a suggestion, i started to view it more with the lens of “anicca” (A-knee-cha)

Ah, anicca. The word means “impermanence” or more literally, “inconstant.” The idea of anicca, when applied throughout your life, is that everything is always in changing, in a constant state of flux. Everything, therefore is impermanent. You get fired and hired from jobs. Children grow up. People are born and die. You have happy points in marriage and difficult ones. You cry and then you laugh.

If you don’t understand that everything changes, that everything is in flux, you suffer — again, another source of misery. If you are sad and you think the sadness will never pass, that you will be sad forever, you suffer. If you are joyous and think that you will always have joy, then when you don’t, you suffer.

From a body perspective, anicca means that all sensation is impermanent. It has arrived, it will stay for a while, and it will pass away. A good example is the sensation of an itch. Itches are the WORST, right? Right. When Goenka first mentioned that sensations come and go, to try not react to them, i assumed he made a special exception for itches. Because not scratching an itch would be sadistic, right? Have you ever tried not to scratch an itch? It’s torture! But, no, itches were included in the whole “non-reaction” thing.

And while I was terrible at not reacting at first, the interesting thing I found once I truly tried to not react was that no matter how intense an itch felt at first, no matter how real it felt, it did pass, and relatively quickly. And not only that, but I found that by viewing the itch as a neutral sensation to be examined, and not as a painful or uncomfortable sensation to fix, it actually made the itch less…well…itchy.

Just like the pain in my hips, by knowing the itch, or the pain, was impermanent, it was like I took away its power to cause me to suffer through it. Instead, I could be curious with it.

So on the eight and ninth day, when my ability to see things with impermanence, my ability to not react grew stronger, my meditation grew deeper, despite the blank spaces. I found myself looking forward to meditating, prolonging my meditations, not wanting them to end. I left meditating times with a clearer head. I was happier and quieter. When we were introduced to our pagoda cells — individual meditation cells in the quietest building you’ve ever been in — I felt like I might never leave. And while I still wanted very much to go back to my life, and while I was excited for returning to the world of books and writing and friends and Joe, I started to understand how monks and nuns could live in seclusion, in silence, could live full lives that were largely full of meditation.

Now, I don’t want to paint a picture here that makes it seem like all was sunshine and rainbows, because that isn’t true. That eight and ninth day, my meditation practice was awesome and deep, yes. But my anxiety was a different story. After almost 7 days of having hardly an anxious thought in my mind (even during my emotional experiences), the full force of my anxiety hit me in the gut the nights of Day 7, 8 and 9.

Night is a pretty classic time for my anxiety to flare up. And those nights, as I laid in bed unable to quiet my mind (which had been so quiet during meditations for Day 8 and 9!), my mind was bursting with worst-case scenarios of things that could have happened to people I loved while I was out of contact. like maybe Joe had been hit by a car while biking. And maybe I’d given everyone the wrong emergency number to call and so they couldn’t get in touch with me. And maybe they did call the center but the center decided not to tell me because i was meditating and they didn’t want to interrupt. Or maybe it wasn’t Joe, maybe it was my mom, and something was wrong with her. Maybe she was in the hospital. Maybe my sister had been trying to call my for days and couldn’t get through. Maybe she was furious at me. Maybe there had been a death. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

It had been quite a while before this level and this number of worst-case scenarios had visited my mind, and even though i tried to talk myself down and tell myself i was just panicking, my concerns were quite unlikely, and even though I tried to use the CBT methods I mentioned previously, it was almost impossible for me to truly believe that nothing had gone horribly wrong on “the outside.” (I’ve since brought it up with my therapist and we’re going to explore it a little more, since I was pretty surprised by the strength of my anxiety those nights.)

It was also on Days 7, 8 and 9 that my mind started waking up in other ways. I found myself thinking of the things I had to do when I got home, about the stories I wanted to write, about moving tasks I had to get done, about whether i wanted to get or not get a job. Basically, it was like my mind knew that there were things it could think about and it totally wanted to start getting up and running again. The thoughts were moving slower than usual, sure, but they were there, and it was interesting to see the kinds of things my mind suggested I concern myself with.

And then, Day 10 came! And the talking could begin…

sitting in silence, days 6 and 7: painful realizations

So, in the last post I talked about these strong determination sittings, in which for an hour, you’re supposed to do your very very best not to move. The purpose is to train your mind to be equanimous toward pleasant and unpleasant sensations — to treat them as sensations only, without feeling craving or aversion toward them.

In the last post I noted:

When we first started these “strong determination” sittings, I was all like, I got this! Sitting for an hour in one place. that’s cake. And then around minute 35, I got a twinge of pain in my hip, and I was like, psh, i can handle pain! and then by minute 45, I was in the throes of what felt like the most immense pain of my life. I was dizzy and sweaty with pain. It burned and shot up and down my legs and bag, creating what felt like electrical hot wires all around my hips. so I moved because SCREW EQUANIMITY. that shit hurt.

One thing I didn’t mention that comes into play here is that on my first day at the meditation retreat, Judith, the teacher, requested an interview with me via a little note taped on my and April’s door. In this interview, Judith reiterated what I’d now been told what felt like 1000 million times (but was really twice): people with anxiety often have a tough time with vipassana. Judith said that a lot of people with anxiety have really intense experiences during meditation, that if i was to have these kind of experiences, not to worry, that if I started to feel anxious, to feel free to come talk to her. I nodded politely, disliking that my anxiety was being brought to the forefront by someone who was basically a stranger. I didn’t like being told I was going to *freak out*, especially when I felt rather calm.

Day 6 – Night

Five days later, though, Judith’s prediction came true. I was over being angry about the whole robot thing, and was probably 20 or 30 minutes into the 6 p.m. group meditation in the meditation hall when the pain in my hips started. This time I was doing a better job managing that pain, not giving it the power it demanded previously, viewing and searching the sensation, finding its edges, its intensities.

Now, for those of you who have done yoga, you may remember that a lot of teachers say emotion is stored in the hips. Goenka and vipassana takes it a little further — they believe that the pain (and pleasure) people feel during meditation are really manifestations of what they call “defilements” — anger, sadness, anxiety, old wounds deep within you. One of the reasons you start on the surface of the skin with your body scan — besides being a way to train your mind to feel sensations — is because the sensations you get on the surface of your skin are often less intense than the ones you get inside. Compare an itch on your nose to a muscle cramp, for example.

So anyway, i thought that was all pretty ridiculous (even though there’s research that’s changing our perception of the interplay between pain and emotion). But on the sixth night, half way into the hour-long meditation, humming along as I searched the intense sensation in my hips (forgetting to stick to the skin), it all changed.

It’s difficult to describe what happened, partly because it was a very intense experience which defies some explanation in words, and partly because its hard to write at all about the realizations that I had during the meditation course: they’re personal, they’re deep, and they, for most of my life, made up the foundation I stood on. But, just like I think it was important to share my experience with anxiety — because anxiety should be something we can talk about as a culture without fear or concern — I think it’s important to share what I think a lot of boys and girls grow up believing, subconsciously or not, about themselves.

Anyway. I’m not sure which came first that night as I scanned deep in my hips — the tears, or the reason for them. But all the sudden, a thought barreled into my mind, smashing across my consciousness: “You’ve never liked yourself.” And once this thought hit me, unbidden, from nowhere, I knew it was the absolute truth. And the tears began, tears that wouldn’t stop, tears that brought with them memories of the past, flash after flash of how my self-hate had manifested. I watched myself in fifth grade, as I started to realize that other people didn’t seem to be paying me much attention. I watched myself at summer camp, trying to make friends with the older kids, looking to them for acceptance. I watched myself as I hit high school, how my hate reached a new low, how I hurt myself for not being good enough. I watched myself in college, trying to be someone I wasn’t. I watched myself internalizing, over and over, all my life: i was no good. It came to me that so much of my social anxiety in the past had hinged on the fact that I knew I wasn’t good enough. I knew when people didn’t like me, it was because I was unlikable. And when people acted like they did like me, I knew it was because they felt bad for me, or they liked me in a tenuous way – one weird remark, one misstep and I’d be out.

I cried that night for the pain self hate had caused me, for the choices it caused me to make, for the fact that for so much of my life, i hadn’t realized that this dislike of myself shadowed every interaction, every choice. I cried for the time I’d lost not believing in myself, not knowing myself. I cried as I realized I’d been wrong all along: I was good enough.

Writing about this now brings tears. It’s…painful. Had you asked me before the vipassana course, do you like yourself? I would have said yes. of course. but during that silence, deep inside myself, I found a different answer, and it was shocking, jarring, devastating.

but, as I cried, it was also good. I could let go of the shadow that had dogged me my entire life. I could recognize it for what it was: a falsehood, an untruth. I could leave it behind. i could be free.

day 7 – Night

Day 7 had gone well. new parts of my body were blank that hadn’t been blank the day before — like the tears had somehow wiped some of my sensations away. But I felt more equanimous. I felt more ME than I ever had. And, strangely, the pain in my hips was less. Still there, but less. Each sitting felt easier, like I could sit for hours.

The night of Day 7, I had another realization during the 6 p.m. meditation session, one that built on the realization that I hadn’t liked myself: my whole life, I had been looking to others to like me instead, to fill that hole inside of me. maybe this was obvious, but it still surprised me, it still brought tears. it answered the question of why i acted like i had in high school and college, why i had and still did crave so much attention — mostly from guys, why it was so hard for me to handle it when people didn’t like me, why so many interactions with friends felt so wrought.

This night, I cried tears for myself, for how much i had grasped toward others for love instead of finding it inside myself. I cried tears for the person who had believed that she wasn’t worth it unless others said she was.

And then, finally, my tears stopped. and again, i felt free.

Now, I don’t know why, but after these two sessions of realizing these deep, difficult things about myself, my hips no longer hurt. the pain that shot up and down them on hot wires, radiating heat and electricity — it was gone. completely and utterly gone.

it hasn’t come back.

days 8-10 later…

Sitting in silence, day 4 to 6: sankharas, pathways and robots

Sankharas: the source of misery

I believe it was on day 4 that we were introduced to the idea of sankharas.

Sankharas: feelings of craving or aversion deep within you; the source of misery.

This is an important concept to understand in the practice of vipassana, so I’m going to delve in a little to what a sankhara was described to be from a vipassana perspective and what I came to think of it as.

So, imagine you find out that instead of spending the weekend relaxing with friends you have to work. This sucks, and you aren’t happy. You’re averse to working all weekend. This aversion, from a vipassana point of view, is kind of stamped inside you in the form of a “sankhara”. Stamp! Next week, you find out you are up for a promotion — one that would come with a hefty pay raise. You want it, you crave it! This craving, from a vipassana point of view, is stored in a sankhara somewhere inside you as well. STAMP!

The next time you have aversion or craving to the same or different things, you generate more sankharas, all of them stamping on top of the ones before it, all adding up, all weighing each other down and you down, all prepping you to react the same way you did in the past.

Mental Pathways

Now, the idea of a sankhara is kind of a nice way to think about how craving and aversion works, but it was a bit too mystical for me to this of sankharas all piled physically on top of each other inside of me.

So the way I came to think of sankharas instead were as mental pathways. You react a certain way, and you create a pathway: something happens —> you feel averse to it.. Then the next time that situation occurs, you find the aversion pathway. Then the next time, you find it again. Soon, it’s automatic. You forget you’re even choosing to feel this way. You are immediately averse. Every time you follow the same pathway, its groove in your mind becomes deeper and deeper, more ingrained.

Throughout my life, when something unpleasant happened, I would feel upset or sad or angry. It didn’t feel like those feelings were choices. Working on the weekends is annoying. Being lied is hurtful. Getting sick is painful. Being broken up with is sad. But the idea behind vipassana (and a lot of other meditation and therapy practices) is that these reactions are actually choices. (Another way some therapists phrase it is: “you can only control how YOU react” or “you are in charge of your own happiness”) They may be deeply ingrained, seemingly automatic choices, but they are choices nonetheless. Being lied to can be unfortunate, and may cause you to reevaluate relationships, but it’s a choice to wallow in hurt versus accept that it happened and determine the new way forward. The choice to wallow, to be averse to these things, it creates misery.

In the moment, I am miserable. When I think about it later, it makes me miserable. When I think about it happening in the future, I feel miserable.

Vipassana is kind of tagged by Goenka and its practitioners as a method to break the cycle of misery. (they’d say it’s THE method, but let’s get to that later…)

But, it’s not just getting rid of our reactions to the bad things that breaks the cycle of misery (that’d be too easy, right?). According to Goenka and vipassana (and, again, other meditation and therapy practices), aversion isn’t the only thing that creates misery. So does craving.

Imagine it. I move away from Colorado to Boston. I really miss Colorado. I want the mountains. I want the sunshine. I want the snow that melts. I want it so bad, I loved it there. But maybe I have to be in Boston for work or family or school or something. And there’s nothing really wrong with Boston except that it’s not Colorado. There might even be stuff Boston has that Colorado doesn’t. But it doesn’t matter. I crave Colorado but I cannot have it. This makes me miserable. Or maybe I have homework that is going to take me the whole weekend to do, but I really wanted to go hiking and now I have to go for a quick run instead. But i really really wanted to hike. I crave hiking. So, I am miserable that I cannot hike.

Or maybe the craving is on a more general scale: I want to purchase a writing notebook so I have something nice to write in. I look at all the options and I pick one. It’s okay and it works, but then I wonder if maybe there is a better one, and there is! I want it! So i get it. And then I wonder if maybe a better pen would make it easier to write, make the ideas flow so much better, and there is! I want it! So i get it. And then i figure there’s probably a better desk out there to write at, one that helps me focus and that I look at and just FEEL the words float out of me. And there is! I want it! So I get it! The cycle is endless. And this seems ok — you’re just getting things that make you happy, right? But really, you’re just always wanting, craving more, better things. And while you don’t have those things you aren’t enjoying what you do have because a part of you seems to know there is something better out there. So, you are miserable.

Craving becomes a mental pathway just like aversion. Your mind gets used to craving, the pathway gets deeper, and so your mind is constantly, automatically, making the choice to crave more, maybe without you even noticing.

In that way, in the perspective of vipassana, craving and aversion are the building blocks of misery.

Vipassana: Measuring by equanimity, not sensation

On Day 4 and 5 and 6, as Goenka starts talking about all this stuff –craving and aversion — all of us meditators start learning Vipassana in earnest.

The practice of vipassana is about sensations. You close your eyes, and you let your breath do whatever it wants to, and you basically scan the body from head to toe, toe to head, first just on the surface of the skin. You do this slowly at first, mostly because it’s hard to feel sensations on your body. You find that some areas have blank spots where you can’t feel anything at all (for me it was my chest and stomach, for some it was their whole left side, or their back).

Also around now, we began to have “strong determination” sittings. This meant that during those three hour-long group meditations in the hall, you were supposed to do your very very best to not move for the entire hour. Now, of course, you can move. But you’re strongly encouraged not to.

The point of not moving has to do with equanimity. “What’s equanimity?” you ask…

Equanimity = not having craving or aversion to any sensation. 

So, if you’re sitting in your meditation seat trying to be equanimous, and you get this tingling sensation all over your body, which maybe is a pleasant sensation, you’d equanimously say, huh, my body is tingling. and if you had an itch or a painful sensation, you’d equanimously say, huh, my body itches or is in pain. The point is that pain isn’t bad and tingling isn’t good. They both just ARE. Now, if your body itched or tingled or was in pain and you moved, you’re reacting to those sensations. If the body is in pain and you move, you probably moved because you were averse to the pain, right? Right. And in doing so you dug the aversion sankhara/mental pathway a little deeper.

When we first started these “strong determination” sittings, I was all like, I got this! Sitting for an hour in one place. that’s cake. And then around minute 35, I got a twinge of pain in my hip, and I was like, psh, i can handle pain! and then by minute 45, I was in the throes of what felt like the most immense pain of my life. I was dizzy and sweaty with pain. It burned and shot up and down my legs and bag, creating what felt like electrical hot wires all around my hips. so I moved because SCREW EQUANIMITY. that shit hurt.

Why is equanimity important? 

But, equanimity is an important part of vipassana. In fact, equanimity really is vipassana — it’s the whole shebang, the final goal, the source of the end of misery. Why? Well…to answer that question, let’s talk about sugar.

I love sugar. Desserts really. cookies, cupcakes, cake, chocolate, marshmallows, graham crackers. NOMNOMNOM. Why do I love sugar? It tastes good, right? But the idea in vipassana is, when I eat sugar, and my body goes NOMNOMNOM and craves more of it, it not only generates a sankhara/strengthens the craving pathway, but it also generates a pleasant sensation in me. You know when you get that warm happy feeling in your stomach when something wonderful happens? I imagine the sensation I get from eating sugar being a little like that, but much less intense. Maybe like the same kind of pleasant sensation would occur if you, say, won a buck on a scratch off ticket. Or got a free coffee at your favorite coffee shop. You’d probably only notice these sensations when they’re big — like you win the lottery, or get a new, awesome raise, or something of the sort. And, you’d get the same but opposite kind of sensation when something unpleasant happened. You’d generate a sankhara/strengthen the pathway, and an unpleasant sensation would bloom (like when you get anxious, or hear someone talking about you when they think you can’t hear them, or realize that you just made a mistake that will cost your company money/time).

So vipassana teaching assumes your body is experiencing sensations all the time, and these sensations are tied to the mental pathways of craving and aversion.

Interrupting misery

Now, if you practice vipassana meditation, and you experience pleasant and unpleasant sensations, and you react to them, you’re building more sankharas/strengthening the pathways of craving and aversion, which, as noted earlier = misery.

BUT, if as you experience these sensations, you react with equanimity (or, a neutral reaction), you interrupt these mental pathways. I began to like to think of it like overriding your brain and the pathways that you’ve spent a lifetime building. And once you start overriding your brain, it slowly stops automatically reacting. And the less you start automatically reacting, the more you start creating a new mental pathway — one of equanimity, one of control.

I’m not a robot

I cry, a lot. It’s something that I’ve done all my life. If I am sad, happy, angry, embarrassed, worried, excited — doesn’t matter. There are tears. I’ve never seen it as a choice. I’ve always seen it as me, the sensitive part of me that responds to the world with compassion and love and wants to help make it a better place.

It sounded a little bit to me like the goal of Vipassana was to strip me of all those things, all my feelings, and leave me a simple robot, nonreactive to everything.

So, for most of day 5, I was furious. Screw Goenka! Screw vipassana! I’m not a robot and I don’t want to be! what a waste of these ten days! By day 6, I’d chilled out a bit, but decided to go air my grievances with the teacher, who after all was there to answer questions after all.

I told the teacher, Judith, that I wasn’t on board with the idea of getting rid of craving and aversion. If someone dies, should I just shrug my shoulders instead of feel pain and sadness, instead of crying? And should I never feel happiness again? Should I just feel nothing at all? If enlightenment, if vipassana’s end goal, meant that was what I was aiming for, I told her, I wasn’t interested. Judith’s response interested me.

ME: So if someone dies, vipassana says I’m just supposed to react with no sadness, no tears, no nothing, just blankness.

JUDITH: But what if it wasn’t? What if it wasn’t blankness? What if what you felt was compassion and love, but not the intense aversion. not the wallowing in sadness.

Hmm…that kind of emotion sounded reasonable to me. not robotic. someone i love dies and i would feel love and compassion. That’s pretty much what I’d feel now, except coupled with an intense feeling of loss. Maybe with the vipassana kind of outlook, you just don’t feel the intensity of the loss-type feeling. maybe that was a kind of emotion i had just never experienced before. and maybe it wasn’t a bad thing? I wasn’t sure. I’m still not. But I felt satisfied that I wasn’t being asked to be a robot, and that was enough at that point.

That night, I had my most intense meditation experience, which deserves its own blog post….which I’ll write tomorrow. It’s kinda a doozy.

Sitting in silence: Day 0-3

So, what was the meditation retreat like?

I got back last Sunday, and if you’d asked me that question each day between Sunday and today, I would have given you different answers each time. But, I feel my thoughts have finally settled down, and I feel more grounded, so I thought I’d take some time to share what the meditation retreat experience was like, what was surprising, and what I learned about myself over ten days.

The schedule

  • 4:00 a.m.: Wake up bell rings
  • 4:30-6:30 a.m.: Meditate in the meditation hall or in your own room (or, eventually, the pagoda)
  • 6:30-7:15 a.m.: Breakfast
  • 7:15 a.m.-8:00 a.m.: Rest
  • 8:00-9:00 a.m.: All students come together to meditate in the hall
  • 9:00-11:00 a.m.: Meditate in the meditation hall or in your own room (or, eventually, the pagoda)
  • 11:00-11:45 a.m.: Lunch
  • 11:45 a.m.-1:00 p.m.: Rest, or, sign up to talk to the teacher to ask them questions.
  • 1:00-2:30 p.m.: Meditate in the meditation hall or in your own room (or, eventually, the pagoda)
  • 2:30-3:30 p.m.: All students come together to meditate in the hall
  • 3:30-5:00 p.m.: Meditate in the meditation hall or in your own room (or, eventually, the pagoda)
  • 5:00-5:30 p.m.: Fruit dinner and tea
  • 5:30-6:00 p.m.: Rest
  • 6:00-7:00 p.m.: All students come together to meditate in the hall
  • 7:00-8:15 p.m.: Watch a videotaped discourse of Vipassana teacher, Goenka
  • 8:15-9:00 p.m.: All students come together to meditate in the hall
  • 9:00 p.m.: Retire to room.
  • 10:00 p.m.: Lights out!

So you don’t have to, I counted it. During the day’s schedule there is generally:

  • 10.75 hours of possible meditation during each day
  • 2 hours of meal time
  • 3 hours of possible “rest” time
  • 1.25 hours of discourse

AKA There’s a lot of meditating!

Arriving

I arrived at the meditation center at 4 p.m., nervous and excited. I signed in, signed several sheets of paper (all of which said I agreed to follow the rules of the center and the five precepts), and — the weirdest part — turned in my iPhone. No clock/camera/internet/news/communication for ten days! I found out that I’d have a roommate during the ten-day course, and the moment I met her, I knew she was my kind of people. A sweet smile, a good laugh, an open and genuine way about her — meeting her put me at ease. Since we could talk until 8 p.m. on arrival day, we spent the evening chatting and walking around the center.

My room was in the older building (no air conditioning–which was only an issue on the brutally hot first day). April and I shared one main entrance and a bathroom, and then we each had our own bedrooms with doors we could enter through. Those bedrooms had a window (through which many a chipmunk could be watched), a bed (comfy),  a shelf for clothes, a little side table, and that’s pretty much it. It felt clean and homey and good.

Since we could talk till 8 p.m. on Day 0, April and I shared our stories with each other and ran into two other women who we chatted with while we explored the boundaries of the center. I’m not sure what the men’s side looked like, but the women’s side included the old women’s dorms, the new women’s dorms, a hallway to the meditation center and the pagoda (another meditation area with single cells for meditators), and a walking area. there was a landscaped lawn with trees and flowers and benches, a very short dirt road you could walk on, and then there was about .2 miles of slightly slightly elevated trail walking through some pretty trees and a zillion kinds of mushrooms.

That day, it felt small. For many days, it felt small. Mostly, it felt small. All over the center there are these signs “Course Boundary.” We all got a kick out of those signs. They were everywhere. At the end of the road and along the trail where we weren’t supposed to go past, on electrical and mechanical and staff closets, on the kitchen. partly the signs instigated that rebellious piece of yourself that’s like, “I GO WHERE I WANT.” But it was also pretty amusing as well.  It was like we were little mice allowed in only certain areas of the cage.

So, at the 8 p.m. meditation, silence descended, after which we weren’t allowed to talk anymore, or gesture, or make eye contact. The purpose of this “noble silence” was to experience the whole meditation shebang as if you weren’t surrounded by 150 other people. It was to experience it all as if you were on your own. The meditation that night, I believe, was pretty short. I don’t think it was the whole hour. I don’t fully remember everything I thought about or did that night, but I recall feeling like the whole thing was pretty surreal, that ten days was a LONG TIME, and that it was going to be a challenge. That night, I went to sleep wondering how it all would go.

The mind running away without me

Have you ever tried setting a timer for 2 or 3 or 5 minutes on your phone and trying to sit there and only focus on the breath you’re breathing through your nose for those 2 or 3 or 5 minutes. Try it now. Notice that you get about three breaths in before your mind is off and away? Thinking about god knows what. Notice how after what feels like a hundred thoughts, you remember, oh yea, my breath! So you return to the breath coming through your nose, and you get one breath, two breath, and then you’re off again, thinking. And then you realize oh, yeah, my breath! And then eventually you think, I’ve thought a million thoughts by now — the time must be almost up. So you peek. And it’s been 55 seconds. Rinse, repeat.

And that was basically how Day 1 passed for me — in a whirlwind of thoughts. Anytime my mind realized I wasn’t thinking of something, it made five suggestions, and then five more and five more and five more. The meditation instructions we listened to from Goenka noted that if our mind wandered of five minutes or less before we realized we were supposed to be focusing on our breath, no worries, we were doing great! If it was more like ten or fifteen minutes, make our breath a little harder for a few breaths to focus our mind, but still, you’re doing great! It did not feel like I was going great. It felt like I super sucked at meditation. I started to calculate (during meditation, of course) that if I only was able to focus on my breathing for ten seconds at a time in a span of five minutes for the next ten days, that I was pretty much only going to get 2 minutes of meditation in every hour. Super!

And then, my mind started to slow down. Imperceptibly at first. On Day 2, I could meditate for longer periods of time without thoughts interrupting. When thoughts did interrupt, I’d realize sooner that I wasn’t meditating. On Day 3, I could meditate noticeably longer. I found my thoughts were slower, less ragged, less frantic. My thoughts felt more like the suggestions they were instead of things i had to think about RIGHT NOW. It’s was also on Day 2 and Day 3 that I realized the silence was invariably helping my mind slow down. There were no real inputs. Sure, I saw and smelled and tasted and moved, but I didn’t have other people’s stories and thoughts and experiences swirling in my head. There was nothing to compare myself to anymore. There was only me, my mind, my thoughts and my experience.

This process, the ability to see my mind slow down, to start to see glimmer of the control that you have over the mind, and the control is usually has over you — for this and this reason alone, I would suggest the course to someone.

Living on, on videotape

During the discourses from Days 1, 2 and 3, the rest of the students and I were introduced to Goenka, a man who, for most of his life, taught Vipassana all over the world. In 1991, as the number of Vipassana courses began to multiply, and Goenka could no longer be present at each one, they filmed and recorded him teaching a ten-day meditation course. Nowadays, if you attend a Vipassana course, you’ll see those tapes during the discourses (and in that way, everyone is taught that same thing no matter the course they are doing).

I was concerned about these discourses — it seemed weird to listen to videotapes instead of a person. But it turned out that Goenka was funny. From all of his experience teaching these courses, he pretty much knew what we’d be thinking about on those first few days. “I’m outta here! I’ll come back later!” he mimicked from the TV as we laughed on Day 1, all of us pretty much sharing the sentiment. “No, no,” he said, “you can do this.” He had the gift of public speaking, that is for sure. Goenka died two years ago, but he lives on in these videos.

At the end of day 3, we found out we’d spent three days just preparing our minds to learn vipassana. We’d spent 3 days doing mostly breathing meditation and meditations where we only focused on the sensation of the breath in and around the nose, the purpose of which was to help our minds learn to focus, to become more sharp.

At the end of the third day, I felt good. I felt like it was possible vipassana was going to do something for me. I had already realized how LOUD my mind was, and how much nicer it was when my mind was quiet.

I felt ready to learn vipassana.

Soon to come: days 4-9

In silence 

Tomorrow, I embark on the last of my planned adventures (self-dubbed “adventure #4,” since WFR was #1, Kili was #2 and Scotland was #3). 

Starting tomorrow around 5pm, I’ll be sequestered with about 50 other people in western Massachusetts, all of whom have come together to spend ten days in silence, meditating.

I first heard about this course from former roomie and super friend Amy walker, who tried out a course in Cambodia (or was it Thailand?) on her travels before medical school. Because of her, I got to try out a lot of my questions on her, the biggest of which was: why the silence? 

What I’ve learned since first asking that question is: first off, meditation is a solo activity, one in which you and your breathing are the only focus, and the inner mind is what is being affected. (This is also the reason that reading, writing and music playing are not allowed during the course, as the focus is to be entirely on the mind and the meditation. No distractions or trying to put what you’re experiencing to words). By eliminating speech and practicing “noble silence,” you can turn your full attention inward. 

Amy’s additional take on the reason for silence makes sense to me.  whether she came up with it herself or they talked about it during the course, I’m not sure. But when you agree to do this ten day meditation course, you agree to follow five precepts

  1. to abstain from killing any being; (aka you keep a vegetarian diet during the course ((though if I’m going to be difficult just a vegetarian diet doesn’t equal no killing, but anyway)))
  2. to abstain from stealing;
  3. to abstain from all sexual activity;
  4. to abstain from telling lies;
  5. to abstain from all intoxicants

Number 4 probably seems easy. But it’s kind of not. we lie all day long, small lies meant to ease social situations or make us or others feel better. Like when strangers ask how we are, and we say “good!” instead of “tired and stressed!” or “Unbearably happy!”  So if you are in noble silence, you can’t lie. 

Amy told me that after a few days, the fact that she didn’t have to talk to anyone, that she wasn’t expected to answer or question anyone, freed her in an interesting way, so that she really could just focus on herself. She could be freed from the need to please others and attend to them, from the expectation of being pleased or being attended to by others. 

When looked at that way, the silence is really more of a gift than a rule, a way of being protected from everything and everyone. A way to build a bubble around you in which you can truly experience the meditation course. 

in addition to abstaining from sexual activity, you’re also segregated from the opposite sex (which I think isn’t quite up to modern times standards given the lgbtq community, if the purpose is to reduce temptation) and you’re not supposed to touch anyone — of the same or opposite sex. I have to imagine these things are done to strengthen the protective bubble around you. You might be surrounded by people but the journey is to be taken alone. 

I’m nervous to do this course, to be in silence, to be completely and utterly with myself, to be in my own little bubble. 

I’ll let you know how it goes…

Scotland: a recap

Money I spent on buses in Scotland: $210 —  TOO MUCH for only 5 bus rides ranging from 2 hours to 5 hours.

 

The number of blog posts I made while traveling: 8

 

Number of countries I visited (though two on layovers): 4 — Scotland, Tanzania, France, Netherlands

 

 cities/towns/villages: 

  • Tanzania: Moshi — a place were modern and not meet in a somewhat odd and uncomfortable way. I might not go back to moshi specifically, but I’m not yet done with africa. Where to next? Not sure about that either.
  • Scotland: Edinburgh, Glencoe, Uig, Inverness, Loch Lomond (with brief stops in Kinlochleven and Portree) — I covered a lot of ground on my trip, but if I visited again, I’d spend time in the Cairngorms, on Skye, and I’d visit all the islands.
  • France: Paris — It was awesome to see the louvre and eiffle in person, but if I went back to france, it wouldn’t be for the city.
  • Netherlands: Amsterdam — great place with lots of history and beauty, and bicycles :). I’d love to go back and explore a little more of both amsterdam and the rest of the netherlands. perhaps on bike!

 

 

Books I read: 18

(You’ll notice the majority of these are YA books. Which is what I’m leaning toward writing these days. YA books have changed a lot since I was a kid, or at least what I read when I was a kid. They’re more real, more intense, darker and somehow lighter too, hilarious and touching. If you read any of the ones below, I’d suggest The Sky is Everywhere, by Jandy Nelson, and anything by Rainbow Rowell, because she’s a genius.)

  1. An Abundance of Katherines, John Green: good. pretty funny. pretty adorable characters. nowhere near as epic as fault in our stars. but worth it.
  2. Where she went, gale foreman: It was good. believable characters and emotions and feelings. a perfect follow-up to if i stay.
  3. Paper Towns, John Green: not my favorite. I loved the guy character but the girl character and the ending were just…lacking.
  4. Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell: As is always the case with Rainbow Rowell’s stuff, this book was bonkers awesome amazing cakes. It was real and heart wrenching and hilarious and pitch perfect. READ IT!
  5. The Sky Is Everywhere, by Jandy Nelson: this book was like reading a magical, enchanted poem. It was like magic and perfection flowed out of every second. the main character was complex and funny and terrified and perfect and the portrayal of first love, of first loss, was spot freaking on. READ IT. (I read this one twice, and I plan to read it again soon, because it was utterly, perfectly perfect.)
  6. The Martian, by Andy Weir: awesome, scientifically sound, logically interesting book with a hilarious, smart main character you want to root for. READ IT.
  7. Perfect Match, by Jodi Piccoult: I haven’t read a book of hers in a while, and this one was good. I thought it was believable enough, and the emotions and the characters felt real and tangible to me. I cried, hard, throughout this one. I loved the chapters from the child’s perspective, and the question the book tried to answer: what happens when you do the wrong thing for the right reasons?
  8. Landline, Rainbow Rowell: again, as always, this was pitch perfect and awesome. I loved the idea behind this book and the way it was presented made it believable, which is saying something. funny, touching, smart — read it!
  9. How They Met, David Levithan: a collection of short stories by the author I met at the edinburgh International Book Festival. My favorite was one of his oldest stories that used physics concepts to tell a love story. awesome.
  10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JKR: Cause no trip is complete without a re-read of harry potter. Always love it and this time was no different. AND, caught a few extra cool details I hadn’t before.
  11. The Book of Strange New Things, michel faber: I wasn’t a huge fan of this one. The premise was interesting: a missionary heads to be a minister on mars, leaving his wife behind him. while he deals with aliens and a strange new world, she deals with an unraveling of life on earth. So much potential, but the entire time i felt a few steps removed from both characters. Like I wasn’t really sure why they were doing what they were doing.
  12. Dark Places, Gillian Flynn: super book. Suspenseful, easy to read, with lovable hard-to-love characters.
  13. Leaving Time, Jodi Piccoult: great book, interesting premise, and better ending.
  14. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Jesse Andrews: Not my favorite book. The characters were too young sounding and seeming and less introspective than other books I’ve read. I was left not being sure why everything was happening the way it was and not having a great understanding of who all the people in the book were. Still ok. Maybe movie will be better?
  15. Looking for Alaska, John Green: Again, not my favorite. I liked the main characters more, but i didn’t like the second half of the book. I understood what he was trying to do, but it just wasn’t my kinda thing.
  16. Side Effects May Vary, Julie Murphy: Enjoyed this one, about a girl with cancer and the boy who’s loved her since childhood. I believed in the characters and rooted for them, but the girl was sometimes hard to understand and I wanted more inner dialogue from her. Still a great, touching story.
  17. We Are Called to Rise, laura mcbride: A heart-breaking story, one that was even a bit too heartbreaking for me, especially since it was based on a true event — the book only used the event itself as truth, and everything around it was fiction. I felt this book fairly and deeply delved into a lot of important issues, but i felt a bit hopeless at the end.
  18. Never Sometimes Always, by Adi Alsaid: dialogue was killer and the characters were funny, and i thought the ending was real, if not satisfying. Not my fav, but an interesting look at how close friendships can alienate you from the world, and what happens when they do.

 

The facts, figures and ideas I learned:

  1. in poland (or at least in warsaw), liquor stores are open 24 hours a day. ALL DAY. They still can’t drink in public places tho, because that’s where they draw the line. (thanks damian, kuba and michal)
  2. the Drake Passage, the strip of ocean separating the tip of south america from antarctica, is super duper rough, and if you ever take a boat across it, you must take seasickness medicine. (thanks, sarah and gabby)
  3. many birds on the islands of hawaii don’t have any predator instincts — because there are none — so if you need to tag them for research you can literally just walk all the way up to them, grab on to them and tag em. (thanks, frans!)
  4. those same birds, some research is finding, choose their mate not based on their coloring or song or anything obvious that you can see, but somehow they choose the mate based on how different their immune systems are from themselves (just like we’re finding humans do).(thanks, frans!)
  5. in the UK, education is pretty free. scottish kids can go for free, whereas english kids have to pay 10,000 pounds a year (though, bridie’s anecdotal evidence suggests that if you don’t pay your loan, it’s no big deal) (and I’m not sure what happens with the Welsh kids). (thanks bridie!)
  6. some german companies try to act more american by calling the heads of their companies CEOs and their employees executives, and by reducing vacation time and increasing the “work ethic” attitude. surprise, surprise, people don’t love it, and it’s definitely the exception to the rule. in fact…
  7. …in germany, employers are required to give at least 5 weeks of vacation to their employees (plus holidays), and most companies give 6. (thanks, vanessa and heiko!)
  8. the tension between the two english areas cornwall and devon have led to some serious disagreements….including ones around the naming and method of eating of scones (thanks, bridie!)

 

my own takeaways

  1. midges are the worst. they are huge swarms of small soft bugs that, whenever it is not super windy, rise up from literally everywhere, and swarm you. Which isn’t like being swarmed by crickets, but is like being swarmed by AIR, in that you breathe, eat and sniff them in as you try, pointlessly, to swat them away before they bite you. they are the worst. And they follow no rules. they are around at all times of the day and night, in rain and shine, in cold and hot. the only thing that stops them is wind. (so it’s good scotland has plenty of that)
  2. traveling alone is tougher than I expected. When I don’t have a particular purpose (an activity, a job, a volunteer option, a destination I’m expected at), days can feel arbitrary, even beautiful sites can feel somewhat purposeless. There is nothing like standing alone in the wilderness and FEELING the wild around you (THAT is awesome) but it’s tougher when you’re alone on a hike full of other people, experiencing the beauty around you on your own. However, being alone DEFINITELY gave me the chance to meet more people than I would have otherwise, and for that, I am so grateful: Sarah, Gabby, Ellen, Nicole, Pierre, Alex, Clotilde, Bridie, Frans, Damian, Kuba, Michal — thank you all for making my trip so much richer and more fun than it would have been otherwise. If you ever find yourself in Providence, RI, you have a place to call home.
  3. scotland is epically beautiful. the forests (yes, there ARE trees), the grass-covered mountains, the sharp cliffs, the green, the sheep, the shapes the land has formed, the rocky coast, the mists and fogs, the bluebird skies — it’s an incredible place of dramatic scenery and history.
  4. If anyone asks me my favorite kind of music, i do believe I’ll have to tell them scottish and irish folk music. Because DAMN that shit is awesome.
  5. Favorite place while traveling: Uig, Skye, Scotland. (thanks Alice for the tip!!)
  6. Worst plane ride: from Paris to Boston (old plane, bad movies, bad software, no USB charger) (on the upside, there were a low number of people and good food)
  7. Best plane ride: from Boston to Amsterdam: awesome movies, great crew, AC power, yummy food, fun flight.
  8. best book: The Sky Is Everywhere. READ IT. NOOOW.

The last of my official adventures is a ten-day silent meditation course that runs from Sep 9-20. I’ll be incommunicado for all of it, and when I come back, I’ll try and write about how it went.

And that’s all for now folks.

 

Uig, Inverness and Loch Lomond

It’s been awhile since I wrote! Or it feels like it. So, what’s happened over the last 6 days?

August 25 – was the amazing hike covered in the last post.

August 26 – Wednesday – bridie wasn’t tired of me yet so she let me join her for a second day of fun. It was going to be a rainy day, so we planned a short hike in the rain to the faerie glen and they figures we’d head to this “cafe” that we’d seen a sign for the day before. We took a quick glance at the directions and headed on our way to the glen and soon became convinced we were lost. So we turned around and headed to the cafe, which we reached by lunchtime and which served DELICIOUS food that we found utterly delightful. By this time we’d found a map and realized we just hadn’t walked far enough to reach the faerie glen so we headed back up and this timed we found ot! It met and exceeded our expectations. (As almost everything outdoors does in scotland).

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anyone fancy a bath in the great outdoors? with scent of sheep?

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delicious cafe! with yummy veggies!

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my first run in with the faerie glen

August 27 -Thursday-bridie headed off this morning and Frans and I hugged her goodbye! I’ll miss her! I had planned to take a few buses all around isle of Skye this day, but as I planned Frans mentioned he was going to a lot of the same places I was planning to so I basically forced my way into his car for a chauffeured ride around the island.

Along the way we saw some cool sites — I showed him the faerie glen (second time) , we saw incredible islands and rock walls, an old cemetary and SHEEP! A lot of the sites didn’t lend themselves to pictures but the church ones did!

Frans dropped me off at a bus stop and I missed my bus anyway (turns out where I was standing wasn’t actually a bus shop :)), so I had soup and half pint of beer at this cute little place and wait for the next one, which took me o portree? Where I waited for the final bus back to uig.

I felt like I hadn’t moved enough that day so I decided to go for a run to the faerie glen( third time!)and it was awesome. I haven’t really run the entire time Ive been in Scotland, so being able to stretch my legs and MOVE FAST was refreshing. And, I got a sweet picture of thesunset.

After, I figured I’d have a quite night since bridie and Frans were gone, but alas, I met three wonderful women instead. They’d met at a camp years before and were in a road trip together. One of the women is a Scottish farmer! Another is an English doctor working in New Guinea! And the other is a Scottish woman who….I cannot remember. :(! (This is why it’s important to write things down right away, people!)  we laughed and chatted most of the night, sharing our stories and adventures and they so so kindly offered to drive me to portree to my bus in the morning and along the way there stop and see some sites. Then it was off to bed.

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pretty sure this tree is alive…[

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cemetary walls?

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plants grow where they want

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frans as he realized i was taking his picture

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portree port!

third time visiting the faeries! sunset sun is awesome.

third time visiting the faeries! sunset sun is awesome.

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sunset on my run. braved midges to capture this pic

  
August 28 – Friday – the day I traveled to Inverness! First things first, I took the group to the faerie glen (now my fourth –and last–time!) and smiled as the ooo-ed and ahh-ed over the waterfall and the rocks and the beauty of it. I felt bad because the girls were a little rushed becUse of Mexico, but they seemed really good natured about it. We stopped at another waterfall, which was overwhelmed by tourists, and stopped to take pictures of any cool sites we saw along the way. We listened to Scottish music and laughed all along the way. Love the kindness of strangers :)

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some super sweet rocks :)

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the very cool but disappointingly touristy waterfall

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the old man of storr

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picture memories on my fourth time at the faerie glen :)

August 29 – Saturday! – I rented a bike for entirely too much money and spend the day riding 25ish miles up and down the coast of Loch Ness! Which was a much more “me” way of exploring the lake versus a boat tour. The weather was variable, with some tough biking winds, some rain, and a teeny bit of sunshine :). I sat along the loch here and there and read my book for an hour, ate some packed lunch, and enjoyed the fact that I’d made it to Loch Ness, which I didn’t think I’d get to see on the trip.

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selfie while biking. dont do this at home kids

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i wanted to pack up these baby cows and take them home with me. SO PRECIOUS.

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THE loch ness

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grain (?) everywhere

After getting back to the hostel, I met a guy (who’s name I can’t believe I now forget – blame the alcohol) who had just spent a few weeks biking Skye and the western islands. (!). We decided to try to find some local music nearby at some places I’d heard of and it was fun to go out and listen but I also drank waaaay to much. Like 4-5 drinks. NO GOOD. Eventually I had to put a stop to it and fell dead asleep in my bunk only to be awoken not too much later by my alarm.

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August 30 – Sunday – despite being oh so hungover, I caught the bus to the cairngorns ski centre, where a local outdoor shop told me to pick up a fairly easy trail to the top of the cairngorns highest mountain. The forecast said sunny, so I wasn’t worried, tho like a good little hiker I brought all my rain gear. Which is good, since is rained ALL DAY. off and on, but still. Because the wind was so high, the rain came and went quickly, and it didn’t fall too hard. It took about an hour and a half to get to the top of this hill but I stopped at one of the ski centre buildings on the way up to warm up and sit for a moment before continuing the rest of the way. And ended up falling asleep for an hour folded into a comfy couch. :)

When I came to, I continued up through the unrelenting wind (“wind?” said the ranger at the station later. “That wasn’t wind!”) to the top of this peak (more like a hill) and man oh man, not only did I see my first reindeer ever (which made me tear up) but from the top of this peak, the views were just bonkers. Nutso. Gorgeous. My camera does NOT do it justice.

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so first of all, REINDEER!!! and, also, they make this snorting noise thats like a cross between a pig and a horse. it’s to die for.

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August 31 – Monday- yesterday!! Arrived in Balmaha, along the eastern shore of the famed Loch Lomond. (According to two Scottish girls I met in Uig, they play this song at new years)

The ($50! way too expensive) bus dropped me off about a mile from Balloch, where I needed to grab a second bus to balmaha. About 30 seconds into my walk, it started pouring! Lucky that pouring in Scotland is relative — nothing like pouring in Florida. I scooted under a tree to this little ditch to wait out the rain but after a few minutes looked down and realized the ditch had become a full on stream of rainwater that was inching up my boots. Whoops! After laughing at myself a bit, I figured I’d walk in the rain and ambled along to pick up my second bus.

I finally arrived in balmaha around 6pm, 7 hours after my journey started and was horrified to find out that I did not in fact have a reservation at the bunkhouse. !!! I had accidentally made the request for my reservation for July 31. Not August 31! Very luckily, they had one bed open for me and were able to fit me in! That’s rare!! I settled in and immediately cooked up some dinner. I ended up chatting the evening away with three very fun German folks — amri (from Berlin, an illustrator), Vanessa (from a small town in Germany) and heiko, Vanessa’s husband. We drank beers together and chatted about jobs in Germany and how some companies in the country try to imitate American companies. Which is a bummer for the employees because America is one of the more rigid place for workplaces from a vacation/quality point of view.

September 1 – today! It’s officially been a month since I left America! Woke up today for breakfast with amri, Vanessa and heiko and we ended up chatting a bit more about America. The school loans and vacation time — too much and too little, respectively — as well as healthcare, which is, thankfully, slowly becoming more humane (yay obamacare)!

Amri was really surprised that companies in the U.S. generally only give two weeks off (if that!). In Germany, 4 to 5 is MANDATORY. and most places give 6 weeks. I wish I had been born in a another country from America so I could take advantage of the healthcare, workplace values and FREE school they have elsewhere. America might have the whole “work ethic” thing down, but what’s work ethic really mean if you don’t get to really enjoy the fruits of your labor? During my exit interview for my job in Rhode Island, one of the things they asked me was if there was anything that would make me want to stay. Knowing what I know about other countries, I told them that I’d probably stay if I got the 5-6 weeks that is normal elsewhere. We could learn a few things from these countries, me thinks. I wonder if we will.

Today was a bit of a rest day for me–amri and I hiked up this 1000ft hill that overlooks the highland fault line and the town of balmaha and the surrounding countryside. We talked about traveling alone (it’s Amri’s first solo trip) and how it can be very, well, lonely, but also really great, and we shared stories about our anxieties.

Here’s some of the sights we saw as we walked:

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those thin stretching islands lay on the fault line

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the shores o loch lomond

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the ever present sheep and cow poo that accompanies you on every hike, everywhere

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it’s me!

The rest of today I plan to relax and write and read and tomorrow I plan to walk seven miles to the base of a 5-6 hour hike. Big day!! And the last day in the outdoors! Exciting!!