Adventures at Meditation Camp

I wanted to share this with all of you as I had such an overwhelming response to the post about my Vipassana experience. I was very fortunate to, on the last day at the retreat, meet some wonderful ladies, one of whom went home and wrote about her experience as well. It is wonderfully refreshing and very funny.

She has very kindly given me permission to share it so that you can have a different persons take on the experience. It is a great piece and I have compiled her 3 entries into one post. Her original posts are on her blog – The Sparkler –  here – Adventures at Meditation Camp Part 1 – Expectations / Meditation Camp Part 2 – Monkey Mind / Meditation Camp Part 3 – Itching is Not Eternal. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

*I believe that she intends to add more posts so I will continue to add them to this post as she posts them…

Adventures at Meditation Camp
Part 1 – Expectations

I promised a full disclosure account of my 10 days spent in silent meditation at the Southeast Vipassana Center but I’ve been putting this off—trying to digest what I learned and put what I learned into practice but mostly trying figure out a way to summarize a VERY COMPLICATED experience.

A few days after my return, my dad (ever the pragmatist) asked, “So, what was the take-away?” My response to him was, “An ancient Buddhist meditation technique that (I hope) will help me maintain some sort of balance through the next round of challenges life throws at me.” But my answer to him doesn’t really hint at the depth of what I experienced and learned, there and since.

Without a doubt, it has had a profound effect on me. Many who know me well have immediately recognized it in my face and demeanor (I call it the Vipassana facelift—I swear I have less wrinkles). But to tell the truth, it all seemed very ordinary at the start and quite a few days in I did not hold any hope of seeing any major changes. It was very peaceful there but it was almost over before I saw even the hint of the possibility of a change in consciousness, much less a drastic or revolutionary one.

There we were (me and about 60 strangers with whom I could not speak) in the middle of freaking nowhere in rural south Georgia (Jesup, GA, to be specific) on an enormous property accessed by dirt roads with no cell phone service within ten miles of the place.

The subtropical landscape felt like home, about an hour from the coast, lots of pines, magnolias and scrub oak, white sandy paths, cheerful waving palmettos and silvery Spanish moss in the trees (all very similar to coastal Alabama where I grew up).

I arrived just before one of the regular late afternoon thunderstorms. As we checked in everyone was supernice and calm, talking in low voices. Shoes are not worn in the buildings. There was a good vibe. Lots of cars in the parking lot had bumper stickers promoting peace and liberal political ideals. The folks checking in around me were diverse in age and ethnicity. The registration process included taking of all cellphones and other electronics and any belongings (car keys) that were not needed during your stay. All would be returned in eleven days as you departed. (This process was obviously scary for some participants. I watched as some students handed these items over with furrowed brows, many questions and nervous laughs.)

Eventually I walked into the freshly scrubbed and simply furnished dorm room I would share with three other women. I was immediately disheartened because they were all half my age and talking animatedly about things not remotely spiritual or enlightening. I was longing for a deeply spiritual, life-altering experience at this retreat and this was NOT AT ALL how I expected it to begin. I wanted to switch rooms, maybe join some of the older students, but I knew the dangers of holding on to expectations and made a conscious effort to just go with the flow.

Beyond this initial aversion to my dorm situation all was calm and generally blissful for the first few days. I enjoyed the quiet, the beautiful landscape around us, the food, even the meditation itself and the teachings of the guru, S. N. Goenka, whom we watched each evening by video.

Goenka is this adorable little man with a great sense of humor. I was often giggling to myself at his self-deprecating stories and his phrasing and pronunciation of certain words. Goenka would say slowly, “Alvays remain avare, remain avare,” sounding more like Bela Lugosi than a Burmese-born meditation guru.

He repeated everything twice. And in teaching us Anapana breathing he would pronounce “nostrils” as “nose-trills.” which actually makes more sense but still sounds amusing. “Focus all attention on the breath as it enters the nose-trills,” he would repeat slowly like a hypnotist.

I felt that the breathing technique we were practicing was super easy, but little did I know this was just to sharpen our minds before we learned actual practice of Vipassana meditation. Once we began Vipassana practice, things began to shift for me. The process became more challenging, and things began to intensify on many levels.

More on that soon.

Meditation Camp Part 2 –
Monkey Mind

At orientation on the first evening of the retreat we all repeated a solemn vow to observe “noble silence” until the tenth day of our stay. We were even advised to pretend that we were alone on this retreat, to not even acknowledge one another or make eye contact as we passed in the hall. No need for social formalities here. Just stay within.

I was ready for this, ready and willing. This retreat was a last resort for me. I was in desperate need of profound, positive change and we all know the most profound changes come from within.

We woke at 4 am to start our first day of meditation, wandering by the light of the moon to the meditation hall. The Center is run very much like a monastery. Gongs were sounded for waking, breaks and meals. We ate full meals at 6 and 11 am and then had just fruit and tea at 5 pm. (I hear your question and no, I never felt hungry and the food was amazingly healthy and delicious.) Lights went out each night at 10 pm. Everything ran like clockwork so we had nothing to do but face the challenges of the silence and the meditation itself.

As I mentioned previously, I was finding the Anapana breathing technique easy, like child’s play, but maintaining my mental focus was a whole other story. It felt like an exercise in futility even though I was an eager student.

The mind has ways and wiles you will never know until you try to meditate regularly. In the world of meditation this is called “monkey mind,” a mind that willfully refuses to be tamed (Very accessible discussion on this topic by Buddhist Lama Tenpa Gyaltsen herehttp://badlamaguide.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/enter-the-monkey/).

And oh, DID I EVER have a bad case of monkey mind. In those first days as I dutifully sat on my cushion for hours at a time, I wrote most of a comedic screenplay about a former job in my head. I designed dresses and came up with an entire business plan for the my company (which I decided to name Maude Designs after Harold and Maude). I had fantasies about Benedict Cumberbatch. I thought about baked brie and wedding cake and mojitos (not together). I also listened to long, grumbling south Georgia thunderstorms as if they were symphonies.

In other words, I found endless ways to distract myself and usually without even being aware that I was doing so until I had followed a random train of thought for a full half hour. But then, as the gentle Buddhists suggest, I did not berate myself for wandering. I recognized that I was following the monkeys, yet again, and came back to the breath. This is the process.

I did not have trouble staying awake as many others did (you would occasionally hear snores in the meditation hall) but instead my mind was in hyperdrive, perhaps from being denied the normal barrage of stimulation we encounter in everyday life.

But I also believe that a large part of the reason we cannot easily meditate (perhaps an even stronger reason than our limited attention spans) is fear. We are deeply afraid of what we are going to find when we really look within, and our mind does circus performances just to keep us from going there. This was definitely the case for me.

But by the third day things improved. I was able to sit for longer periods without shifting my position and I was much more focused. Goenka’s mind-sharpening technique seemed to be working. My mental focus increased and this happened just in time, because the next day we began our Vipassana training in earnest.

Will share the gory details about what happens next very soon. Peace out. ;)

image

Meditation Camp Part 3 –
Itching Is Not Eternal

Many people have said to me that they absolutely could NOT spend ten days in silence, much less in silent meditation. I readily admit that it is no easy task but I do believe that if I could do it and if prisoners in state penitentiaries can do it (http://www.prison.dhamma.org/), then pretty much anyone could do it. Being WILLING to do it is a whole other subject.

I was certainly willing and my mental focus was much-improved as I sat on the third day of this retreat, but physically I was still struggling. My foot would fall asleep. My back would ache. Random parts of my body would itch. A hair would fall in my face. I was suddenly too hot or too cold. All of these annoying and uncomfortable physical sensations would arise as I sat. But the teachings tell us to retain our composure of mind and sit through all of these annoying sensations, completely still and in the present moment.

One of the most basic tenets of Buddhist thought (across all traditions) is to have neither aversion to the unpleasant nor cling to the pleasant. It is believed that clinging and aversion are the roots of all suffering. And, an important aspect of meditation is to practice this non-clinging and non-aversion on the mat in order that you may take this practice into your daily life.

But me and my ‘beginner’s mind, beginner’s body” could not sit still. I tried different positions. I shifted around on the cushion in reaction to aches and pains. I could not resist the need to lean forward and stretch to relieve tension in my neck. I scratched things that itched.

Goenka knows his students so well. It seems that each time an issue came up for me, it would be the topic of discussion during discourse that evening. That night Goenka talked about sitting on the cushion, wanting to move or react to every unpleasant sensation. He laughed and said, “itching is not eternal.”  He explained that sensations arise and they pass away. We were advised to just sit and observe. Eventually each sensation, pleasant or unpleasant, will pass. Everything arises and passes in meditation and in life. Nothing is permanent.

And with this teaching I began to observe my need to “scratch each itch.” And I was surprised by how quickly the sensation goes away when you just observe it, not reacting. I have also been surprised how much easier aches and pains are to deal with when you focus on them, bringing your full awareness to the site of pain and observing it as an outsider, studying the sensation, not identifying with it. Separating yourself from it makes it easier to bear.

These were the things I was working on as we began our fourth day. This was the day that the retreat got really intense for me.

More on this tomorrow.

Image below of S. N. Goenka, teacher of Vipassana meditation

Meditation Camp, Part 4,
Equanimous Mind

I’ve delayed publishing this installment because I felt a moral conflict. I was hesitant to say anything remotely negative about my roommates from the retreat. But I finally concluded that if they ever read this, I would hope that they would not be offended and would know that by the end of our time together, I had no hard feelings and loved them unconditionally. So here goes…

I was already aware that silent meditation retreats are deeply challenging and not at all appealing to everyone but I became painfully and personally aware of this fact when several of my roommates decided that it was not for them.

The first of them to balk broke her silence on day three to announce that “she already knew all this stuff” and wanted to leave. She even went so far as to pack her suitcase a few times. I cannot deny that I was hoping she would depart on each of those occasions and make our dorm room a more peaceful place.

This roommate’s overall mode of being was forceful and determined. She moved in sudden confident bursts and slammed doors at entrance and exit. She would come into the room like a tornado, unconcerned whether anyone was meditating or sleeping. She was so irritable about being there that, even when she wasn’t exhaling long drawn out sighs of angst and misery, she exuded negativity like an angry thundercloud.

She reached a point where she ignored most every rule they asked us to follow. She even wore her shoes indoors which is a sign of real disrespect in this tradition. If she had been rooming on her own it wouldn’t have mattered but we were all sharing this intimate space with two sets of bunk beds and a single bathroom. She made sure that we knew how miserable she was at all times.

Mind you, I had real compassion for her. I knew her ego had taken over out of complete fear of dealing with the things she might have to face in the silence. Our minds will do all sorts of desperate and surprising things (even beyond the circus antics of “monkey mind”) to keep us from dealing with our own dark stuff.

But even though I recognized what she was doing and empathized, I was still feeling abused by her disruptive behavior and disrespect for others. It was as if she was not only going to reject the experience but to ruin it for those around her as well.

Frustration began to brew in me because I could not speak up to ask to her to consider the rest of us. I had made a solemn vow, and to speak up would mean breaking that vow. I decided to do my best to ignore her and to enjoy my time there, focusing on the work.

But on the fourth day we began practicing Vipassana meditation (more specifically the Vipassana meditation technique as taught by S. N. Goenka which is different from Vipassana as taught in the Theraveda Buddhist tradition). In the morning I felt very happy. I was now accustomed to the routine of waking at 4 a.m. and actually delighted in walking alone in the silence by the light of the moon to the meditation hall each day. Later in the morning it was sunny and clear, dragonflies flitted around and all seemed right in the world.

But after the morning sessions of Vipassana it seemed that all hell broke loose. A second roommate broke her silence (soon I was the only one in the room determined to honor our vow). This roommate was in her early 20’s, beautiful and full of energy. Meditating seemed antithetical to her nature. She could barely sit still. She brought her exercise mat and would exercise in the tiny dorm room (which was not allowed) even when others were trying to rest or meditate, huffing and puffing with her exertion. She found infinite ways to change her clothing and hairstyle each day, even shaving one side of her head about halfway through. Even though I did not know her, I could tell that she was a delightful person, but she was also absolutely miserable and complained in loud whispersabout wanting to leave.

My frustration continued to build. In meditation, I was struggling with the new meditation technique because suddenly my body was wracked with all sorts of random aches and pains each time I sat. I was extremely uncomfortable on the mat and I was unable to remain still for the full two-hour sessions. I went from “monkey mind” during the days of Anapana breathing to extreme levels of physical discomfort during Vipassana. I also found that the Vipassana body-scanning technique did not come easy to me. There was visualization required and a constant maintaining of focused awareness. Every session was like a mental wrestling match and it was really exhausting.

This struggle along with my whispering and restless roommates was making it incredibly difficult for me to maintain what our teacher, Goenka, calls “equanimous mind.” I kept talking myself down from getting really upset with each additional incident.

Each day there were times when we were allowed to meditate in our rooms. I found it to be the most physically comfortable place to meditate and it was full of light—a nice break from the dark meditation hall. But my roommates would not keep quiet in the room.

That afternoon as I sat in my bed with my back to the wall immersed in meditation I was interrupted repeatedly and on the fourth or fifth time, I gave up, slumped down in my bed and began to cry with my head in my hands. I cried because my roommates were making me miserable. I cried because I had such high expectations for change and healing during this retreat and because I felt that circumstances outside my control were ruining all my efforts. I mostly cried because it all felt so unfair. I just broke down.

But it was not long before all my Buddhist teachings came flooding into my mind, reminding me that suffering is caused by clinging and aversion, both of which were playing major roles in this meltdown. I realized that I was clinging to expectations for the retreat when I know full well that this causes great suffering. If we do not want to suffer we must accept things as they are, as they unfold, rather than constantly wishing that they matched up to some self-created ideal.

And I was feeling strong aversion to the behavior of the people around me when acceptance would have kept me from feeling increasingly frustrated and reaching a state of emotional breakdown. Both clinging and aversion are barriers to maintaining a state of “equanimous mind,” that the Buddha taught as the path to enlightenment. If we want to be free from suffering we must accept things as they are. Even if we do not like things, we do not have to react to them with aversion. Even if we really like something (or someone) we do not need to cling to it. It is all about balance.

We cannot control what other people do. We can only control our reactions. We do not have to suffer and, in this instance, I did not need to suffer. I realized in that moment that I would not be miserable if I simply accepted the situation and the people around me exactly as they are. I could not speak up because of my vow but I could choose to meditate elsewhere rather than spend time in the room, which was causing my greatest frustration. There are ways to make things better, to greatly decrease our suffering, even in difficult circumstances through acceptance and heartfelt compassion.

I am grateful to my roommates for pushing me to this epiphany. I experienced a “breakdown to breakthrough” and learned some things that I will be able to apply in daily life, but it was not easy. I came to a new and better understanding but that afternoon I thought to myself in a very non-Buddha-like way, “If I had a bottle of tequila, I’d be doing shots right now.”

More soon.

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