I’m not going to sugarcoat it folks… the ten-day Vipassana Meditation program was brutal.
Somewhere around day three Goenka, our Indian teacher via a pre-recorded session, told us a story about a man finding Vipassana because one day he happened past a center when a course was ending and saw all of the happy people out front. He enquired about what made them so happy and was told of Vipassana. He took the next course.
At this point in my own meditation I was closer to agony than bliss and this story made me think that Goenka’s logic here was a bit akin to walking past a prison on a mass-release day and thinking that the smiles on the prisoners’ faces were attributable to our stellar system of incarceration. That recidivism is likely traceable to how great prison life is… I gotta get me some jail time!
But this thought came from a jaded place, one that I had yet to flush out completely. Nonetheless, I still think Goenka should come up with a new story for day three.
The retreat actually covers twelve days. The afternoon you arrive you take your vow of silence, eat your last dinner and get your first taste of the meditation you are in for. Everything that night foretold the hardships of the coming days. No Egyptian cotton sheets here folks, in fact no plural to sheets. My residence consists of a platform bed with a one-inch thick foam mattress, a mediation cushion for a pillow, one sheet and a clothesline. Obvious omissions from my standard comfort level… about 12” of mattress, towels, plural bed linens, heating and WiFi.
At Vipassana Camp – my name for this place – we were given two square meals a day – at least I think they are square meals, truth be told I had absolutely no idea what I was eating most of the time. After lunch we have a tea and fruit break at 5pm and that’s it.
I was pretty down with the program on the first full day – a bit stiff from sleeping on thinly veiled plywood, but feeling strong. Granted I went from sitting in lotus on just one cushion to crossed legs on two, then three and started using more pillows to prop up my knees and my thighs, actually by the end of day one I looked like a caricature of the Princess and the Pea, but still I felt hopeful.
Day two started off well enough. I trudged to the 4:30am mediation and lasted about 45 minutes before the non-mandatory nature of that morning meditation period started resonating with me and drawing me back to bed.
Mid-day two through mid-day four I boarded the express train to Crazy Town. Goenka told us to not let our mind wander to the past or to allow it to fantasize about the future. We were meant to just experience the sensation of the present moment. But I was a crying, angry, fantasizing mess. Each day we were asked to narrow more and more our area of attention. The smaller the area got the broader the reaches my mind traveled to.
Hours would go by in the mediation hall where the only corner of the Earth my mind didn’t pause on was the space below my nostrils where all my attention was supposed to be. In my mind I was in Ohio again, I was 17 skipping school, I was 22 drowning in debt, I was 28 getting married to the love of my life, I was 34 about to be divorced. And then my mind stopped. I hit marriage/divorce and settled in for the long haul.
In my mind I created a whole world where Colorado could be my reality again and once I mentally opened that door, I could no more close it than focus on my upper lip as Goenka was urging me to do. When I would try to drag my mind back to the task at hand I found myself getting angry and so I would try and focus on what that felt like, but still my mind wandered.
Out of desperation I met with my teachers and told them of my fantasy world, their advice to me was “return to respiration”. Respiration has a woefully weak draw when compared with homely comforts.
As I ardently tried to focus on respiration I think I began to understand how laboring women feel when their doctor says “breathe” and they reach the point where the only possible response to such an inane suggestion is “give me drugs!” Only here drugs are not an option, my trusty stash of Valium and Ambien was confiscated at check in along with all reading materials, my laptop, and my cell phone. No way out, only ways in.
So I was left with two options… stay there and suffer, or leave and suffer. Staying offered a new way of breaking the old misery-causing habit patterns… so I trudged through.
Begin at the Beginning
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