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.
- 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!
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