from the archives – October 28th, 2008
Vipassana Retreat near Merritt, BC
The gong rings at 4am and it’s a lovely sound to wake up to — a deep, rich, peaceful sound that vibrates gently through the hallways of the women’s dorm.
I roll over in my single bed in my spartan room and wrap my quilt around me a little tighter, knowing that I don’t really need to get up yet. I will lay awake until 4:25am and then roll out of bed into the cold morning. It only takes a minute or two to brush my teeth, wash my face and walk down the hallway to the meditation hall and in 30 minutes, I will be sitting in the meditation hall in my pyjamas, wrapped in my meditation blanket and
I have slept, but lightly and I am not tired. Other nights, sleep didn’t seem to come at all but it didn’t matter. I am aware and alert and fresh from 10 hours a day of intentionally relaxing and clearing my mind. I have no stress. I have no worries. I have nothing to do all day but meditate and think.
We are not allowed any entertainment– no books, no TV, no journals, no conversations with other students. Nothing to distract us from the technique. No gestures or physical contact. Not even eye contact. We can speak to the teachers in the meditation hall after certain sessions to ask questions about the technique and we can speak to the managers about any material needs, but that is it. The vow of Noble Silence– silence of body, speech and mind– began at 8pm the night we arrived and will last until our Metta Day (Day 10).
It is far and away the easiest thing about the 10 days, not talking.
It is a beautiful thing to be silent. I realize almost immediately that 80% of what we say is unnecessary. For the entire time I am there, I feel no desire to speak and when I do ask the teacher or manager a question, I keep it simple and say as little as possible.
I have surrendered myself completely to the experience of Vipassana and I feel infinite gratitude for the discipline, and the rules. The days are long and hard (and boring as all hell) but I know that my job is to learn the technique, be gentle with myself and above all be aware and constantly seek equanimity in myself. I do my best.
One day at lunch, a young woman hands me a knife to cut my apple and I am startled. Her head is lowered and she does not look at me but instead of placing the knife on the cutting board when she is done with it, she hands it directly to me. I take it from her and my mind whirls as the point of the knife pierces the skin of the fruit. I look at her and she is beautiful. I become slightly obsessed with her for the remainder of the course because she handed me a knife. Such a small gesture that becomes so big.
I understand why they have the rules that they do. Noble Silence is for our benefit, to make it an easier experience, not harder. All the rules are in place for our benefit and as the course progresses and my commitment is strengthened, I am grateful for the sparse, disciplined, long and difficult days.
I begin to find that my mind is clearest in the mornings. I have missed a few of the 4:30am meditation sessions, but I stop skipping them because meditation comes easiest for me in the cold, quiet mornings.
We are required to meditate in the hall or in our own place for the majority of the sessions and some people sleep through these or go outside and walk in the field. It is very, very difficult to meditate for the entire scheduled time. There are 3 one hour group sessions each day (at 9am, 2:30pm and 6pm) when we are required to sit together in the hall. On Day 5, they are called Sittings of Strong Determination because we are not allowed to change positions for the entire hour. In addition to these group sittings, there are 2 hours of meditation before 6am breakfast, 2 hours after breakfast and 3 hours in the afternoon. At night, we meditate and watch the daily discourse video and then meditate some more. It is a gruelling schedule.
I learn that I have a combative relationship with time. It does not pass quickly enough for my liking so I begin to hate it and wage war against it. I decide that it takes 4 hours to meditate for 1 hour. I am certain that at least 3/4 of an hour has gone by, but when I sneak a look at my watch, only 22 minutes has passed. I die a little bit inside. How could time move so, so, so slowly? Why is this so hard? I know that I should not look at my watch, but I cannot resist and my battle against time wages on.
I cannot win. I know this and on Day 7, I concede. I finally take off my watch and leave it in my room. I don’t need it and I shouldn’t have brought it to this place. It tortures me. I tell myself over and over again that time doesn’t matter. Where else am I going to be?
What else am I going to do? Go sit in my room and stare at my cuticles for another 10 minutes? Go outside and stare at the sky for another 20 minutes? Lay in my bed with my eyes closed, not sleeping for a few more hours?
All I have to do is learn this technique. This is why I am here. I finally surrender to this, too, but my battle against time never really ends, not even on the last day. I just become a better loser. Or time stops being such a bitch as the final days of the course come rolling in.
My thoughts take me places that surprise me. I spend so much time back in India, remembering and comparing this experience to all the things that I did there. I know that I am joining that experience and this one together and that I am pulling myself back on track after losing my journey for a year and a half.
I think about my career as a massage therapist and consider re-taking my board exams. I am blown away by this urge. I never thought I would feel any desire to go back to that career again, but the connection that I am making with my body and my mind through Vipassana brings it back to me. I think about this a lot and although I conclude that it is still too physically demanding for me, I realize that I want to have a career where I am giving and serving people.
I think about the job that I have just left and how humiliated and betrayed I have felt. I got angry and worked through the anger over and over again. I concluded that none of that matters. It only matters that I behave and speak in a generous, compassionate way and focus on the fact that I am better off this way. I am happier and that is all that matters.
I think about the people I love and it makes me cry. I think about how grateful I am for all the blessings in my life and I want to share them. I want to tell the people that I love how much they mean to me.
On Day 10, we are allowed to start speaking again. I am nervous as the day approaches. We sit for a special meditation and learn the final aspect of the technique– Metta or selfless love and compassion. We are guided and directed to fill ourselves with feelings of compassion, goodwill, peace and love and to share these feelings with all other beings in the world.
“May all beings be peaceful. May all beings be happy. May all beings be liberated, liberated, liberated.”
“Be happy. Be happy. Be happy.”
I am brimming with these feelings and profoundly, deeply humbled and grateful. After some time, the teachers quietly leave the room. Slowly, other students stand up and quietly exit the hall. I am not ready. I begin to hear voices in the hallways, laughing and chatter. I continue to sit and tears start to silently stream down my face.
Soon, there are only half a dozen people in the room and I start to hear others sobbing quietly. The chattering gets louder in the hallways and one of the managers closes the door and then hands out tissues. We sit, crying separately but together, holding on to the last minutes of this incredible experience.
I am on the verge of panic. I do not want to leave the meditation hall. I do not want to speak. I think that I may never want to speak again.
I cry on and off for some time, just sitting. Eventually, I think that I am ready, or maybe that I cannot stand to sit there crying any longer, and I stand up and walk into the hall. I turn the corner and see a group of women beaming and talking excitedly and one gives me a look of such unadulterated joy, but I cannot speak yet. I drop my eyes and shake my head in apology and go to my room to cry some more.
When I finally emerge, it is to join in a conversation about how grateful we are for the experience. We are not allowed to have physical contact, and it is excruciating not to hug people, these people I have been living with for 10 days.
I am asked over and over again, “How was your course?” And every time, I have the same response.
My eyes fill with tears and I say, “It’s just beginning.”