What happens when you are alone with the company of your thoughts? Sure, there are other meditators around you but according to the vow of Noble Silence, you are not to communicate with them in any way to include glances and gesture. What happens when there are no Instagram feeds to scroll through mindlessly, no faux controversies to decipher, no laundry lists to worry over? What happens in that space?
There were times during my vipassana retreat where I felt purely happy. I liked waking up at 4 am to a gong strangely enough: the clear skies were littered with billions of stars and it felt like I was a part of something grand and secretive. Sometimes during my walks around the grounds, I took off my shoes and experienced the primal pleasure of connection to the natural earth. And to my surprise, the vegetarian meals were actually very tasty! One day we were even gifted chocolate ginger cookies. Sometimes I rose from meditative sit angel-light and Julie-Andrews-spinning-in-a field-joyful. Nothing can bother me anymore! I am free! Look at the blue sky, aint life grand?
Happiness is a part of life but so are her Debbie Downer friends: anxiety, sadness, anger, boredom, etc.
Every night, we listened to a dhamma talk given by S.N. Goenka, one of the preeminent teachers of the vipassana meditation method. Goenka passed away several years ago, but the 1990’s recordings remain in all their weird close-up, pre-social media glory. I looked forward to these one-hour visions of wisdom—mainly because it meant that a full meditation day was over.
Happiness was a part of my meditation but so were her Debbie Downer friends.
I won’t lie to you, vipassana wasn’t the simple, zen experience I expected it to be. I read several blogs prior to my sit where varied people detailed their experiences, but there was still a deep well of hope in me that I would depart the vipassana retreat “high on life.”
What happens when I am alone with the company of my thoughts? Everything.
I’ll explain my experience via the five enemies of meditation! Here they are:
Reading about these five enemies before the meditation retreat in an entry Buddhism guide – $8
Attending a Brooklyn yoga studio’s meditation hour – $15
Directly experiencing craving, aversion, anxiousness, lethargy, and doubt? – Priceless.
(By the way, if you don’t remember the old Mastercard commercials the preceding three lines won’t make much sense. Sorry.)
Craving: The vipassana meditation technique teaches that both craving (wanting something that isn’t present) and aversion (wanting what is to go away) lead to misery. This fact wasn’t intuitive to me. At all. Who doesn’t like getting shit done, amirite? What could possibly be wrong with that? When you are sitting for 10-12 hours a day in silent meditation, all quiets after a while. I could viscerally feel craving: a steady and strong pull at my chest level.
During many of my sits, I was really disappointed that my body was in such pain and discomfort. I craved for release. I craved to be home hanging out with my sister in LA. I craved to be eating bacon and wearing form-fitting clothes. I craved to be watching the many sitcom episodes spinning through my brain IRL. In the quiet of vipassana, I finally could see (for a few brief moments) that these cravings were making me more miserable than if I let my pain, boredom or WTF-am-I-doing-here moments be what they are. Have you ever seen that whole PAIN x RESISTANCE = SUFFERING equation that floats around the Internets every so often? I saw it all the time. I didn’t understand it until I sat vipassana.
Aversion: The retreat had all kinds of pillows and back supporters to make one’s sit as comfortable as possible (and I took full advantage). And yet. There were times I’d feel a searing, painful prod in my right hip so powerful that I’d start to sweat. The point of vipassana and sitting still isn’t some masochistic game. You can change position and when the pain became unbearable I did. It’s all about what you do with the pain while that pain is happening. Sometimes I would clench up, pushing it away like I so often did with the anger, sadness, disgust, (Insert “Bad” Emotion Here) I experienced day to day.
In my effort to argue against reality, I was making my experience so much worse (notice a trend here?) It always seemed like my pushing away was helping, but the anger or loneliness was always there. It just was waiting. Oftentimes, it would rebound with an even stronger force.
Eminem’s “The Way I Am” was on constant replay in my head during my vipassana retreat. Mind you—I haven’t listened to Eminem since high school (ten years ago). At first, I pushed it away. What the f- is this doing in my head, shouldn’t I have some India Arie going on here? Didn’t work. As I got more and more into accepting defeat mode, it faded away on its own.
Sometimes the pain in my hip or my back or wherever would fade too. Sometimes it would linger, stubborn and loud. I wasn’t always “successful” in surrendering to my difficult meditation moments with equanimity, but I learned more about acceptance in these ten days than I have in my whole life.
Doubt: Doubt is mainly looked at through the prism of self, teacher and practice.
We doubt we can sit meditation “right”. We doubt it will “work” for us.
We doubt that our teacher at the moment knows what they are doing.
And we doubt meditation works at all. We decree meditation hippie BS.
I was lucky enough to experience all three doubts during my sit, but the strongest was by far doubt of self. I approached vipassana in the manner I approach many new tasks: Trying Too Damn Hard. When I had a difficult meditative sit (more often than not my experience), I was pretty glum about it. I knew this shit wouldn’t work for me. I might as well have stayed my ass at home and had ten days extra to prepare for school. Most nights, I stared at my closet and counted my limited outfits. Okay, once I wear the black pants twice, it’ll be time to go home. I was a regular Pollyanna.
Thankfully, Mr. Goenka covered the five enemies of meditation during a dhamma talk. Thankfully, my heart hadn’t given up totally. I was able to recommit and stick with it. He encouraged patience, equanimity, and awareness and so I practiced them all. It helped (though I must admit, I counted outfits until like day 6 or 7).
Mr. Goenka also spoke on the doubts concerning the practice of vipassna. Vipassana is meant to be a practice that anyone, no matter their faith or lack thereof, can practice. I can’t say all aspects of Buddhism are agreeable to me at this time or that I don’t want to try other forms of meditation. Thankfully, Mr. Goenka and Gautma Buddha think that’s just swell! Take what assists you in life and leave the rest, Goenka said during several dhamma talks, don’t throw out the whole dish just because of a couple of cardamom seeds (he related this allegory much better than I).
This girl will NOT be everything out due to some cardamom seeds.
Oh, and by the way, even The Buddha struggled with self-doubt: http://www.tarabrach.com/video/2013-10-30-Healing-Self-Doubt.html
Lethargy: Dullness, falling asleep, muddle-brained, body-tired. There were times during a meditation, I’d find myself wading in and out of REM land, head nodding, eyes drooping… Most of the time this sleepiness was connected to my second helping at lunch. Sometimes the tiredness came after my sporadic insomniatic nights. Many meditation teachers advocate focusing on one’s breath and if that doesn’t work, walking for a couple of minutes.
Walking around the grounds helped a lot since vipassana meditators are encouraged not to take part in strenuous exercise during the ten days. The meditation eating facilities, walking paths, and living spaces are segregated by sex. Sometimes I’d see my roommate on a walk and part of me wanted to give a You too? smile, but I had to bury that instinct and look at the sky or the large sized ant hill. Walking became easier when I pretended I was in NYC again, avoiding eye contact on my commute home.
I can only imagine if some random person stopped by the Northwest Vipassana center to ask for directions and saw us meditators walking the paths. We walked buried deep within inner turmoil as if we were all struck by the same word-stealing malady. I’m pretty sure the person would think they had happened upon a cult/new age mental asylum.
I walked a lot during my stay. It was good for an energy lift, the surroundings were gorgeous, and sometimes I saw a baby rabbit. Oh, yeah and it helped me stay awake enough to sit.
Anxiousness: Anxiousness is something like circling thoughts, uneasiness, nervousness, an unsettled spirit.
1990s family films, people I wish I had told off in a zen-like manner, creative writing ideas, lists of songs to jog to, Magic Mike XL inspired fantasies, repressed traumatic memories are just a sample of the thoughts sprinting through my mind during vipassana. At times I was fidgety and restless, eager for lunch or a break or for the stupid flies to stop their flying near my ears.
There were several instances where I had to take a pause from vipassana to practice anapana (watching the breath with no effort to control it) for a bit to get myself calmed down. Sometimes I’d practice anapana the entire vipassana meditation depending on the level of my anxiety and what scene from Powder (1990s sci-fi/fantasy drama starring Sean Patrick Flanery) was playing in my mind. (It’s always the last scene where Jeff Goldblum and Co. are laughing at the sky.)
Anapana always did the trick for me but it will be different for anyone.
It is now late September. I left the meditation center on August 16th. (How I longed for that day in the beginning! Especially since I was promised pancakes and bacon upon my return to civilization.)
I write this post not to scare anyone, nor do I write this to be dismissive of vipassana. Neither do I write this to convince you that you JUST HAVE to try this meditation.
BUT. I am forever changed because of this experience. I did not return to Real Life with the calmness of a Tibetan nun. But, I know have the thing I wanted most: direct experience of wisdom.
I’d heard the truisms. Read the books and pastel colored Instagram quotes. I knew life was a series of ups and downs and that it didn’t last forever: My cousin died unexpectedly five years ago. A close friend is slowly regaining her motor skills after a tour bus accident in the Caribbean.
Before vipassana, these life lessons were things I knew on paper. They were things I understood for a little while but then their wisdom would fade and I’d start being worried about stupid shit again.
There’s something about sitting with yourself and being mired in all the joy, muck, pain, sadness, anger, desperation, boredom for 10 to 12 hours in a day. There’s no running. There’s you and your breath and the stories living inside your head space.
On Day 10, we could finally speak to the other meditators. Most of us wanted to leave at some point or the entire time. Some of us did. All of us had our ups and downs, our angry tears and Julie Andrews moments. We were all in the same shit.
I don’t have the keys to the Universe that I hoped for (darn). I do have an awareness of how miserable I was making myself on a daily basis: the hearty, negative projections I placed on others, the cynical world view I was tethered to, the anger and sadness I was dragging, and the constant disavowal of what the present moment.
I’m still not a perfect meditator. I don’t know what I believe about karma.
I come back to my present breath much quicker now. I can see with my own eyes and my own heart that most of the misery in my life is of my own creation. I let my emotions be their selves more. So, thank you to the meditation center’s cooks and servers, Mr. and Mrs. Goenka, Buddha, my Coast Guard friend, the Dhamma Brothers and the friend who suggested I watch the film. You have brought me a deeper connection to Life As Is.
May all of you reading this be happy and if you want to try vipassana one day (and you think you’re ready), I highly suggest it. Just be careful not to listen to too much Eminem beforehand.