On the other side of Vipassana
The first day is the longest day of my life. I am surrounded by 75 strangers who all seem a bit dazed about what we have gotten ourselves into. Because the ten day meditation retreat is free, we are all given ample opportunities to back out as we sign away our cell phones, keys and move into silence upon arrival. Will you agree to maintain perfect silence, adhere to the daily timetable, respect property rules and stay for the entire ten days? The group nods mute yeses and shuffles off to bed, still ignorant of the gauntlet ahead. The gong rings at 4am on the first morning and I grab my meditation pillow and head up to the dimly lit hall, bleary eyed and unsure if I will be able to stay awake for the first two hours of morning meditation. The instructions for the day are simple: Follow the breath in and out. Use no mantras. Use no visualizations. Stay entirely present. Control the mind. Immediately, my mind is a wild horse that refuses to be tamed for two breaths in a row. To stay awake, I shift positions every few minutes and the seconds tick by like Chinese water torture. Finally the gong rings to signal the end of the first session. It is 6am. Only ten more hours to go of the first day. Meals provide a welcome punctuation to the day, if only for 30 minutes at 6am and 11am. A 5pm tea and fruit break proves to keep us satiated and alert for the hours of evening sitting, surprisingly going without dinner is not much of an issue for me. We are expected to avoid all nonverbal communication, including eye contact, door holding and gestures, which I suppose is a good thing because by 11am on the first day my eyes are popping out of my head, signaling to anyone who caught sight of them "what the hell is this" and "do you believe what they're asking us to do?!" My resistance - indignant, anger, aversion, entitlement - is in full swing, enraged that there is not more context, explanation, or upfront instruction provided. At peak volume, it issues a nonstop stream of blustering protest, and I spend hours hijacked by its uncontrolled future planning, creative idea making, and minutia obsessing, each time attempting to draw it gently back to the breath. It’s exhausting. When I make it to the 7pm dharma talk on the first day I collapse in relief, but any hopes I had of a theoretical unveil are quickly dashed: The point, and practice, is to follow the breath. Period. Day two instructions are revealed: Follow the breath touching the nostrils. All. Day. Long. I spend all of day three picking out baby names (for non-existent future babies). Day four, we are introduced to the concept of Vipassana itself - the first three days have been merely preparatory work to focus and concentrate the mind - which turns out to be the practice of tuning into the body's sensation to come fully into the present moment. I feel like we are finally getting somewhere until they make clear that from now on we are expected to sit in strong determination, an hour at a time without shifting position. Let me tell you, no amount of pillows or props can mitigate the pain – back pain, neck pain, leg pain - that starts to arise holding one position for a solid hour. But you learn, as the hours progress, through day four, five and six, to start to watch the pain from a place of neutrality, equanimously and patiently watching it arise without judgement and watching it pass over time. You come to see the deep mind pattern of judging every sensation as good or bad, clinging and avoiding, and you begin to subvert this pattern at the most subtle level of the body by building awareness and attention. Eventually, I found this new awareness translating into the wisdom that all experiences are pure, neutral sensation - neither good nor bad - but simply vibrationonal information that the mind habitually judges and labels, thereby trapping us permanently in a vicious cycle of trying to move towards or away from external phenomenon.
The idea that inner neutrality/equanimity provides us with freedom from this chronic pattern and is our gateway to fully accepting and experiencing the present moment is new. But the practice of vipassana certainly drove home a new level of experiential understanding, grounded in my physical reactions, that will stay with me for a long time to come.
By day eight I am dropped in so deep I do not want to come out. My mind is still, and clear, and follows the sensations for a full hour. I begin to observe sensation outside of the formal practice, too: While eating in the dining hall, while walking back to my room. Instead of indulging my voice of resistance, I actively turn away from it, finally committed to being fully present to this experience and accepting it totally.
The moments stretch long in front of me and time in meditation passes in that dreamlike state between sleep and waking, brain waves in theta. Deep attachments float to the surface and lift like temporary bubbles on my left shoulder, my right knee. When they finally end silence on the last day, and we are able to chat with the other participants, I find that my experiences are shared by many, and the gratitude and connection that rushes through me feels infinite, sweet.
On the other side of vipassana, subtle shifts have changed the color and orientation of my life. My mind is busier than ever - or I am more aware of its tendency to run wild in future fantasy and compulsivity. My essential self - the small, wise, centered voice that always knows my truth – is louder than ever and I am determined to follow its lead, even when it feels inane and out of step with old patterns: Pass up that party? Stay home and write? Say no to leading that corporate training?
Choices are clearer. Relationships are fading away, as others come into sharp focus. The business is not about the business per se, it is about being a vehicle for service in every interaction in my life, every day. S.N. Goenka, founder of vipassana and teacher upon whose oral teachings and daily dharma talks the course is built, advocates that by living a life of service, humility, truth, generosity and morality we will progress along the spiritual path.
For my part, I recognize that, spiritual path or not, these shifts help lay a foundation of a life lived in authenticity, integrity and deep connection, exercising the muscles and practices of compassion, generosity and truth that have been my sign posts along this journey for many years.
A ten day vipassana retreat is certainly not for everyone, and there are many experiences and modalities that help to concentrate the mind and release us from reflexive attachment and aversion, the root causes of our suffering.
But whichever doorway you choose to walk through, do it with deep commitment to yourself and your learning. Walk through boldly and bravely, resistance in check, with a gentle, kind and stable mind, open to the learning and love you will find on the other side.