After sitting in silence: finding balance

its been about fourteen days since I got back from the meditation retreat, and those days have been pretty intense.

after getting home from the retreat with the instructions from goenka to meditate twice a day for an hour each, I did a pretty good job for the first day or two. All I really had on my plate (other than writing the next great American novel of course) was working on moving since joe and I were headed to the second floor from the third. It was easy to make time for meditation, but the meditation itself wasn’t easy. My intention was there, but my focus wavered. I was no longer able to tell time with meditation (of course I always overestimated — “it’s been 40 minutes!”  Nope. 20.). And the sensations I got were different. From sounds to temperature to a different posture to the brightness and darkness, it all felt different. All my sensations were also dulled, harder to notice, which I kind of expected.

Then, a day or two after getting back, I started getting angry again. I was still unhappy about the things I mentioned in the last post, and a few other things started nagging me. In his discourses, Goenka had noted that vipassana was the “true, undiluted” meditation that the Buddha himself had taught so many years ago but that had been lost for ages. He also alleged that vipassana was the only true way to reach enlightenment.

It took me all of the ten day course and three days after to realize that I thought this was kinda bullshit. So I got angry. I talked to Joe’s sister, Sarah, about it, and she agreed that the idea vipassana was the only way to enlightenment was pretty ridiculous. But, she asked — did it do anyone any real harm to believe it? No, not really. And did vipassana help me anyway even if it wasn’t THE path to enlightenment? Indeed, tons. Sooo…..does it really matter what was said?

No…………buuuuuttt.

But what? But I felt foolish! Like I’d been taken in and it took me what felt like forever to even question it. April, who it turned out was having pretty similar thoughts to mine, put it best:

There’s a lot of different kool-aids out there and that one tasted pretty good, but it was kind of the first kool aid for both of us, so of course we’re going to think it tastes the best. And of course everyone that sells the kool aid is going to think its the best.

Ha!

Maybe vipassana is the only true way. And maybe the only way to know for sure is to take it to its limits — to do a  45 day course, or become a nun or something like that. maybe the only way to know is to try every type of meditation out there and see what happens.

Or, maybe I can forget all that stuff, all the old stories and the buddha and karma and past lives and true enlightenment and everything that felt wrong to me. Maybe i can just use the vipassana techniques i know and see how they better my life.

And they do better my life. What I do know is that days I meditate, I’m happier and calmer. I know that when I sit for a hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, it feels right. I know that I feel more patient, that my anger and sadness are over more quickly, that I’m more likely to deal with “annoying” situations as if they are just neutral ones. I use waiting in line as an excuse to meditate.

And, I see the world a little differently, and myself differently. Now, when people say something unkind to me, I am aware of whether or not I wallow in sadness or anger about it (and sometimes I do wallow). When I get sad or angry or I panick, it passes more quickly. When pleasant or unpleasant things happen, I’m aware of anicca, that everything changes, and while I enjoy or dislike them, I try to temper my reaction. It’s as if the world I saw before the retreate was slightly off-axis, unnoticeable until attention was drawn to it, and now it feels like I’m seeing straight. Or maybe like now I feel like I can take a step back and see situations for what they are, instead of feeling as overwhelmed by them.

Its a good, stabilizing feeling.

So, ten days after my ten day course, I’ve moved, got a new part-time job teaching at-risk middle schoolers science in an afterschool program, starting writing again, and established a wavering but good meditation practice that improves my overall well-being. My meditation is also helping now that I’m in Orlando, planning to stick around for a few weeks to take care of my mom after a surgery. I had to take a leave from the teaching job, and writing will be more difficult to fit in, and sometimes those things are stressful to think about. But the reality is I want to be here now and those other things are less important right now. Anicca. Everything changes. 

So, I’ll keep you updated here and there on how the meditation is going, how everything is going, but if you have any questions about or the retreat, please feel free to reach out. And thanks for reading…I’ve enjoyed sharing very much.

Sitting in silence, day 10: make some noise

Noble Silence is lifted

We couldn’t start talking right away on day 10. Instead, the day started at 445 am with a required group meditation and chanting, after which noble silence was lifted.

It was a weird morning. I had mixed feelings about starting to talk. On the one hand, starting to talk meant i was going to be going home soon to the people I loved, to books and writing and whatever life was going to look like now that all my adventures were done. But on the other hand, I had really, overall, enjoyed the silence, how it had affected my mind and the space it had created around me in which I was free to change and think and just be.

 

What do I say?

I was also unprepared for what I would say. Over the last nine days, I’d realized my urges to speak were often just to fill silence (“so how’s it going for you?”) or to talk about something obvious (“hot day, huh?”) or to bounce my opinions off other people (“what’d you think of _____?”). All normal human ways to communicate, but those last nine days, I’d discovered that sometimes not speaking was better. Sometimes it didn’t matter what someone else thought. Sometimes I didn’t need to fill the silence.

So when noble silence was lifted, I ran off to the pagoda for a little more meditation instead of jumping right into the fray. And after that, I snuck back to my room so as to sidestep the sounds of conversation and the risk of getting pulled into one.

And in my room I found April! Awesome April! With April, I felt calm and at ease and we basically spent the rest of the day, except when we were meditating, talking about life, meditation, the last ten days, everything. We made plans to come back and volunteer at the center, to visit each other, we shared challenges we knew we were going to face when we got home, and how to handle them.

The experience would have worked without April, but having her at the end to talk to and feel at home with was a joy, and I was really thankful for it.

As I started to talk to other people at the course, I realized that everyone had a pretty different take on almost every aspect of the course: one girl said she had received no benefit whatsoever from the meditation. Some people thought every word out of goenka’s mouth was gold. Some (me) were getting turned off with the more spiritual and repetitive side of the discourses. Some people revealed they hated the pagoda. Others couldn’t wait to eat meat. Some had had surprising, tearful revelations. Others were surprised they hadn’t.

It was overwhelming, the different ways those ten days affected everyone. It was especially this day that I was so thankful for the silence we’d been forced into, for the ability those last nine days to only worry about what WE were thinking and experiencing for ourselves. What a gift.

 

Selling me vipassana, past lives, and things I don’t believe in

The discourses by day 7 had started to frustrate me and by day 10, I was over them. Day 7 had felt like an advertisement for vipassana, talking about all these old stories of people who were helped way back when about vipassana. The drunk whose alcoholism was cured. The woman who’d lost her entire family who found piece. The many people whose lives had seen profound changes because of vipassana. The thing was, I didn’t doubt these benefits. But it just felt too preachy, especially for a technique in which you’re supposed to only depend on or believe in what you experience. It’s great that it’s helped other people — one of the reasons I did the course was because I felt it could help me. But I was annoyed by the discourses that seemed to be trying to sell me on it with highly charged stories meant to make me think that vipassana was the true and only way to be totally happy. “Back off!” I wanted to yell at the TV.

I was also tired of the talk of karma. I’ve always thought of karma as something that happens in this life. So, you act like a dick to everyone and karma was probably going to bite you one day. But in the discourses, goenka talked about karma from past lives: “this man was poor because off bad karma from his past life.” “This woman was rich because of great karma from previous lives.” Screw that. Maybe maybe maybe there are past and future lives,  other dimensions in which we live infinite versions of our lives. But to me, what we get in this life is a combination of luck (where were you born, to who, in what health, and what happens to you) and character (how you treat others, how hard you work, what you spend your time on).

 

What we deserve

The biggest issues, though, came during the discourse on day 10. The first issue was in how goenka talked about how we might handle the philosophies or ideas he shared over the last ten days that we didn’t buy into – karma, past lives, sankharas, etc. His (good) advice was that it didn’t matter if we didn’t believe it. If we don’t believe it, fine, “take it out,” and just focus on whether vipassana creates positive change in your life. That, I was good with. But then he went on…

He compared this to a mother making her child a delicious sweet pudding with cardamom seeds (which are black). The child sees the black seeds and says that he won’t eat the whole pudding because there are black rocks in it. The mom tells the child they are cardamom seeds, but he still doesn’t want to eat it. She says to just eat around them, it’s still tasty. The child says no. She picks out all the cardamom seeds so that the pudding has no more black spots. But the child still says no and pushes the bowl away. The child still won’t eat any of it, because the cardamom seeds touched the pudding. The mom smiles and shakes her head knowing one day the child will understand the pudding and the seeds are tasty.

I didn’t love that in this story, I was the child, foolishly throwing out tasty morsels of knowledge (karma, past lives, etc) because I was too immature to see their tastiness, while mother goenka sakes his head with pity, knowing he is right, knowing I’ll come around eventually, when i grew up.

The last thing to turn me off was the biggest. In his last discourse goenka talked about how he’d received letters from all over the world from people who had attended his vipassana courses and gone home only to have amazing events take place in their lives.  Raises. Promotions. More money. Better relationships. “Don’t expect this to happen for you, but it might!” While I believe that vipassana and the meditation practice can improve our outlooks and improve our lives, I though that to even suggest that something like getting a raise could be related to having attended this course was just mean. Like those who go home and don’t get a raise or who instead get sick or lose money or experience the death of a loved one — like those people didn’t meditate hard enough or try hard enough.

No, I don’t think so.

I believe life is wonderfully, and sometimes unbearably, random, that pain and suffering are just as likely as joy and harmony. I firmly believe that bad and good things happen to good people and bad and good things happen to bad people. I don’t believe that wonderful things happen in mine or anyone’s life because we deserve them (or because of karma) and I don’t believe that horrible things happen in mine or anyone’s life because we deserve them. I think things just happen. And we do our very best.

 

yet still…

Nevertheless, meditation was still working for me. I felt calmer, more stable, more able to listen to others, to focus, to move with intention. I planned to continue doing it at home. I was happy I’d done the course.

So, just like goenka said (which yea, annoyed me as i decided it), I decided I would ignore the parts of the course I hadn’t liked. I’d take them out.


Last meditation post, on how the two weeks post retreat have gone, coming soon. 

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