I’ll be transparent (as I often try to be), It’s hard to know how to organize my thoughts in a way to verbally match what I just internally experienced. So to begin, I’ll lay the foundation. A few of you may be familiar with Vipassana meditation, some of you may have even attended a course, but the majority of people I know are probably pretty lost at the mention of the word. Vipassana is a very traditional form of meditation dating back thousands of years — it is said this is the technique Guatama Buddha used to reach enlightenment and transcendent liberation, although the 10 day courses at Dhamma Center are not affiliated with any religion or sect. It’s a method to sharpen and purify the mind in order to also connect to the art of living, but from an experiential level using the framework of your own body. Over the 10 full days and 11 nights, the schedule calls for 10 hours of meditation a day, and ultimately, no distractions: no phone, no contact with the outside world, no processing by writing, no reading, observing noble silence by not speaking or communicating with fellow meditators, and little eye contact. Oh yeah, and a 4am wake up gong (I’ve included the full schedule at the end for those curious). Somewhere along the way the word “retreat” got thrown out, which in the West we often associate with relaxing, restful, a white girl in linen pants meditating on the beach. No. This is mental and spiritual bootcamp (and that’s not a bad thing…but for basic understanding, get the meditation on the beach picture out of your head). So for the sake of the rest of this, I will be referring to it as a “course” rather than a “retreat”, because that seems to be way more appropriate. So I know a lot of you are already thinking “why the hell would anyone do that?”. Some of you may be intrigued by the challenge (like I was), and some may even think it sounds nice. The various reactions I listed reinforce that part of being human is these vast range of experiences we each have that shape our perception. So as you read this, please know, my experience is my experience; and only that. I ended up attending 5 full days, 6 nights, and although I left early, I personally found my experience to be fascinating and in the end, empowering. To understand from my perspective why, you can continue to read…
A consistent meditation practice has been life changing for me — and while I often fit it into my daily routine, it is nowhere near 10 hours, or even one full hour a day. And that’s okay. You don’t necessarily need to be on that plane to attend a Vipassana course, although I think it is helpful to have a solid understanding of your own practice and a sense of self-awareness. I had been looking at various Vipassana style courses, and was naturally more drawn to the 3 and 5 day ones I found because of the duration, but those are not associated with Dhamma Centers and were often more pricey. Dhamma Vipassana as taught by SN Goenka are traditionally 10 days (option for longer or shorter stays for old students), donation based, and are known to be more rigorous; more “purist” in lineage, if you will. They do screen for any present or past mental health issues (very important, in my opinion…not just because I’m a therapist but because of said rigorous nature of the course), and since I honestly answered noting that I have been diagnosed with panic disorder in the distant past and still have panic attacks from time to time, although it is rare, I was asked to fill out a separate form. Once my application was received, I got a screening call from the assistant teacher scheduled for my course. She made sure to let me know that it could potentially trigger panic attacks due to the intensity of its nature, and wanted to know how I typically handle them. I reassured her that I have learned how to manage them well after all these years, and after all, it is pretty rare that I experience them anymore — but I understood the concern and hoped I would still be able to attend despite the history. I was admitted to the course (the second one I had applied for, as I was wait-listed for the first, which often happens…they fill up fast)! Fast forward three months later….
As I write this on my first few days reintegrating back, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the past week…even the sound of my typing feels overpoweringly loud. I had nerves and excitement about Vipassana, but ultimately, I went into it with no expectations, maintaining a curious mind and a strong determination to be open to receiving as much as I could, even during the hard moments. I wasn’t expecting bliss, but more an opportunity to get to know myself and connect to my core nature even more. I knew the course would be challenging as I would be climbing wayyy up high into the observation tower of myself (something I often do, but just not 10 hours a day for 10 full days), and that it was…”challenging” even feels like an understatement to describe it. Every single day presented a plethora of insights, from agonizing to enlightening. Essentially, I feel like it’s something like a 10 hour work day in your head, with your eyes closed. Although the purpose is to just observe….breath, sensations, and not necessarily process or react, the irony is that as humans that’s nearly impossible to do for prolonged periods of time (hello purpose of meditation). BUT in practice we will have more and more moments of being that wise observer, and over time, we will feel more equanimous. However, I dont want to get too much into the intellectualization (which I am excruciatingly good at) of the process, but rather describe my own direct experience. Personally, for me, everyday was a struggle, but I wouldn’t describe it as misery. I was able to observe what was coming up for me and in that, connect dots and map to certain patterns I’ve long held. When I first met with the teacher on day 2 to consult with her about my physical pain from constantly sitting, the tears also streamed down my face “the self-doubt is coming in waves,” to which she replied “we want you to leave that here and the technique will help you do that…if it’s coming in waves, it sounds like you’re learning how to surf”, and also encouraged me to keep experimenting with sitting positions since we didn’t have to sit still for the full hour until day 4 (yes, you heard that right…sitting completely still for the full hour, sometimes longer in group meditations). She was easy to talk to, and compassionate in her response. Fortunately, I did find a position that was more bearable for longer periods of time after some experimentation, because otherwise the sciatic nerve pain I began to experience was miserable. The most powerful (and painful) day for me emotionally was day 3. I felt an overwhelming sense of what I would describe as homesickness. I felt nauseated, longing, tightness in my chest, knots in my stomach. I made the strong connection to the feeling I used to experience as a little girl when I went through a period of time of extreme anxiety at night time, night terrors, and ultimately had a hard time spending the night out or attending overnight camp during this period. Pow-er-ful to experience this again. We never really knew why, but I would often feel anxious to the point of feeling sick every night. I sleptwalk on three different occasions during this time, but otherwise never have. Obviously, more came up for me emotionally throughout my time there, but not all things are meant to be shared. As I experienced that particular emotional pain again with a felt-sense in my body, I kept thinking “no way I can make it to day 10”. I knew I couldn’t leave during such a painful time or else I would feel stuck in that pain, disappointed in my experience, and did not want to return to a pattern of avoiding or running the second something felt unbearable. So it was around then I made the decision to show myself gentleness and compassion, to take the pressure off of myself to stay the full 11 nights, but to give it at least 5 full days; to allow myself to be open to receiving as much as I could during that time rather than getting swallowed up in stories, attachments, and old patterns, and all the while practice self-compassion. I battled with this back and forth, getting caught up in “what will people think if I dont make it 10 days….what if I regret leaving…what if, what if, what if”. We all know how that dialogue goes. I could see clearly that if ego was the only thing keeping me there the whole time to “prove” I could do it to myself or others, regardless of what I felt was healthiest for me, then that ultimately blocks me from receiving PERIOD. I believe it often times requires a level of humility to do what is best for us, especially when it goes against the typical cultural or expected notions of appearing to “have it all together” or be “tough”. After all, the course is meant for our benefit, not for ego or outside judgment. During my 6 nights, I did experience two times where I began to have panic attack symptoms, but was able to observe and manage it without being sucked into a full one. One of the nights proved to be more intense (night 4), and as the expert when it comes to myself, I knew that as much as this was a part of what the technique can bring up, to teeter on that edge of being flooded with cortisol and adrenaline daily was ultimately not in my mind or body’s best interest. However, I was still committed to giving the course five full days and seeing how I felt on the 6th morning, and to be open to deciding to stay if it felt right. I chose to consult with the assistant teacher over my decision on that fifth day, and I am so glad I did. Initially, I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect — would they pressure me? Make me feel guilty or weak? I noticed a lot of my fears were a reflection of the judgments I had originally shown my own self. While I waited to speak with the teacher, the women’s manager (we are allowed to speak with her regarding any needs) who I needed to go through to get to the teacher, lovingly said “for what it’s worth, I’ve been in your shoes”. That was worth a lot to me. As it turns out, the teacher was also gracious, compassionate, validating, and supportive. She reinforced the need to trust my own wisdom (which has been a top priority for me to carry into and build on in 2019), show myself compassion, and even voiced her deep respect for my ability to push myself, but recognize my limits in a healthy way. She lovingly recognized that vipassana is hard work, and its not necessarily for everyone (or may not be the right time), and 10 days is a lot; all to which I agree. She encouraged me to come to her at any time if I was struggling and felt like I needed to talk, even if it was 2am. I felt reassured, and safe. I told her I wanted to give myself the rest of the evening and would check in the next morning of day 6. I woke up with a deep sense of knowing my time there so far had been an incredible gift to sit with myself; but ultimately I needed to exercise the self-compassion I had found and to trust the wisdom in that deepest sense of knowing. It was time for me to go. I met with the teacher one last time that morning to express my gratitude for her graciousness and compassion and ask one last question of “why the 10 days?”. Her answer was basically what I had already read: traditionally vipassana was taught in courses lasting seven weeks, but with the transition into more modern times they experimented with shortened times and decided 10 days was the very least needed to benefit from the technique. She told me to be gentle with myself over the next few days as normal things may feel overwhelming and some “stuff” may still bubble up the surface. She told me if guilt ever started to come up for me for leaving early, not to let it; that I needed to trust my wisdom and not let guilt cloud my experience.
As it stands now, I feel like I have a fresh set of eyes and it almost feels like I am seeing a whole different world around me. I chose to drive to my parents in Alabama to take rest and continue to honor my reintegration by staying off social media and not contacting anyone but a few people very close to me. On the first day back, it almost felt like I was on a low grade of psychedelics in that my senses were heightened. I could feel sound, which actually is composed of vibrations, but often times, unless the music is turned up very loud, it is so subtle, we can hear it, but not necessarily feel it. However, I could feel the vibrations of the music, even at low volume, moving through my body. Typical noises I wouldn’t give much thought to, were loud, and almost like I had one of those funny little dog cones on my head. I felt like I was picking up sound from greater distances. On my 6 hour drive to my parent’s house in Birmingham, I cried a handful of times…it felt like puddles of gratitude dripping down my face, for so many things, for everything. I felt so overwhelmingly, vibrantly present and happy…even though I left after 6 of the 11 nights. The Art of Living, indeed. There is no way I will know if I had stayed what it would have looked like or felt like, but in my state, I felt confident it wouldn’t have been healthy for me to push my limits further (or in the best interest for my transition back into work with my clients, which is extremely important to me, as it should be). There’s a difference between lovingly challenging yourself and torturing yourself. In all things. I haven’t regretted or felt guilty over my decision to leave early. I have chosen to see it for what it is, to me — a golden opportunity on my own path of self-discovery, healing and knowledge; a reinforcement of my own connection to my Self, and a tool to strengthen my own meditation practice. I am empowered and I can stand on that solid ground with both of my feet firmly rooted. What a gift. And damn, it feels good.
4AM: Wake up gong. When you hear the gong, it typically means its time to eat, or to meditate. I started to jokingly associate the sound in my head with Pavlov’s dogs and classical conditioning #chzytherapistjokes.
430-630AM: Meditation in the hall or in your own room. The first day I sat the two hours in meditation hall to acclimate to it (but jokes on me because turns out I had PLENTY of time to do that), but otherwise opted to stay in my room and usually allowed it to be a mix of more sleep and meditation.
630-8AM: Breakfast + Rest. The food was INCREDIBLE. Vegetarian based, and plenty of options. In the mornings I usually had hot oatmeal with dates, and cinnamon raisin toast with strawberry jam. I set a routine of showering before or after breakfast in the mornings and with the remaining time, would lay back down.
8-9AM: Group meditation in the hall.
9-11AM: Meditation in the hall or your own room according to teacher’s instructions. I would usually spend some more time in the meditation hall, but mostly would choose to assume a more supported and comfortable position in my room for part of it as well.
11AM-1PM: Lunch + rest. There was also the option to sign up for noon interviews with the teacher during this time. After lunch, I made sure to take good care during the rest period . For me, this usually consisted of stretching and walking A LOT. There are course boundaries set in place so we are limited where we can walk, but it is enough space, and there are even two ponds and a walking trail that can be used. I took advantage of spending this time outside absorbing my surroundings and m-o-v-i-n-g any chance I could.
1-230PM: Meditate in the hall or in your own room.
230-330PM: Group meditation in the hall.
330-5PM: Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to teacher’s instructions.
5-6PM: Tea break. All students could have tea, but only new students could also eat fruit during this time, and old students were required to only have tea. My daily go to: a banana with cinnamon and an orange. I have never had so much hot tea in my life as the 6 days I was there (not really a tea girl because, coffee)…to which I can now blame for my lemon ginger tea kick I’m continuing at home.
6-7PM: Group meditation in the hall.
7-815PM: Video discourse in the meditation hall. This consisted of videos of SN Goenka explaining the technique, purpose, and challenges we may be facing day to day as recorded from an early 90s course. I found these to be refreshing, informative, and mostly validating and like many others, often looked forward to this time. Goenka was a compassionate, humorous, and knowledgable teacher. The humor he integrated into such serious topics was a welcomed breath of fresh air by the end of the day.
815-9PM: Group meditation in the hall.
After 9: Retire to your room to rest, lights out by 10PM.