LET’S START FROM THE VERY BEGINNING
A couple of years ago I was introduced to Vipassana, a silent meditation course offered all over the world for… get this… FREE! In my travels, I began meeting many people who knew of or had experienced the course themselves. Intrigue and curious, and through all of my inquiries, I realized that this might be an endeavor that I would like to undertake. My thought, I’m a yoga teacher, we practice silence in the programs that I work for, we meditate, this is an opportunity for me to take some time to really work on my meditation practice… indeed.
My first attempt to take the course was in Massachusetts last year. I registered, and was put on a wait list. The opportunity to attend did arise, just days before the course was to begin, forcing me to decline the offer due to obligations. Still wanting to pursue this, I found some free time this spring, a 3-month gap. Surely, I could make myself available. With little research, I discovered a Vipassana course 3 hours North of my hometown, outside of Rockford, IL. As luck would have it, a course was happening during a desirable time frame. I noted the date when they would be accepting applications, when it arrived I applied. Within a couple of weeks, the teacher guiding this specific course, Ginger Lightheart, contacted me. She was very kind, and asked me questions only solidifying the truths behind my application, about following the guidelines set in place to best learn the technique of Vipassana, while attending the 10 day course. My application was accepted a couple weeks later.
Did I mention that I chose to do this course over my 33 birthday? Yes… Silence for 10 days… over my entire birthday week. Choosing not to tell every person I met that I was going to this silent meditation course, was probably a good idea. Many of my close friends I did tell had little faith in my abilities to keep my expression to myself for such an extended period of time. Doubt began to arise in myself, and not telling anyone would make me less of a failure in people’s eyes if I chose to not complete the course, right? I'll discuss that more in detail in a moment.
Well, not leaving you in too much suspense… I did complete it. And… it was the probably the best and most difficult undertaking I have voluntarily done. Hopefully you have made it this far, and were gripped by the title, because I will now indulge more of the sentiments that I have expressed. If you have been considering a meditation course, are interested in starting meditation, who is looking for something but they don’t know what that thing necessarily is, or you are just plain curious to find out the secret (not so secret, because it’s available to anyone and everyone for free!!!) to living a happy peaceful life. Then you can have this first hand experience told to you, and you can decide for yourself whether you have the strong determination to force yourself to learn to be silent, alone, with nothing to do, but listen to what you are actually thinking… in solitary with your own thoughts. Actually, you are getting the technique to learn how to clear your mind of that clutter, but do you have the will to practice it? My experience was unique, as each person's is. With that, please read this with an open mind, and understand that we are all on a different part of our own path.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s just start at the beginning of the course…
DAY OF ARRIVAL
There was absolutely anticipation leading up to the course, feeling anxious to what might occur, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to have conversation, read a book, or even write in a journal. But whatever… I had been mentally preparing myself for this endeavor since I first heard of it, and I had thoroughly read the rules and guidelines several times before even applying. Upon arrival I felt a little nauseated… not from nerves, but the anxious eating that I did on the 3 hour drive. Seriously, I ate all the snacks that I had brought as if I were ravished, and then made a dreadful food decision and stopped at Tacobell & got a cheesey gordita crunch! Why did I do that? Fast food is a rarity in my life… I despise it almost, but at the last minute I decide, oh let’s just eat something so terrible for you. Whatever it happens. Bad idea… Regardless, I arrived.
Check-in, I go find my room… great bunk bed. Which, was not the case for the majority of the people in attendance, but for purposes of my article it’s great. This is what you imagine in a prison; a bunk bed. And of course, this bitch got the top bunk. Prior to the first evening’s guideline talk and group meditation, we congregated in the dining hall and were able to talk, where I met several lovely women right away. Later it would be nice to know their names, because many of the women I would not find out their name until the end of the course. Everyone chatted away before we began, and then here it went. The first evening was not so difficult… we’re just beginning. However, the situation with your roommate is a tad odd. In our room in particular, because we are not to communicate, with eyes, hand gestures or the like, you constantly felt as if you were getting out of the way. Luckily, my roommate was a very respectful woman, and I didn’t need her to talk for me to recognize that.
Okay, let’s get into some of the details of the course, which I would like to say, anything that I share with you is based merely on what I have learned and is not meant to be teaching you any of this instruction. I appreciated being the student and having this technique for my practice alone, and not having to teach it to anyone else. That is exactly what you can do for you, but you have to take a 10 day course, like I did, to do it.
WHAT IS VIPASSANA?
If you have never heard of Vipassana, it is a specific technique of meditation reintroduced to the world by S.N. Goenka. The meditation is to help any and all people to find peace of mind, and true inner happiness. Vipassana itself means “to see things as they really are”. The meditation course is offered all over the world for FREE (they accept donations only after you have completed your course).
S.N. Goenka teaches the Vipassana meditation technique through pre-recorded video lectures. You must take a 10 day course, which has many rules that you are expected to follow. As I go through my experience of Vipassana, probably the most challenging and the most rewarding thing I have ever done, you will see more and more the reasoning for the title of this blog. Then you can decide for yourself, what your experience may be like if you choose to be introduced to the technique.
Vipassana is one of the world’s most ancient meditation technique’s, hailing from India and rediscovered 2500 years ago by Gotama the Buddha. Gotama helped many people of India to achieve higher levels of enlightenment in all walks of life. The technique was lost in India, but was preserved and maintained in Burma, where Goenka was taught, and he has now brought this technique back to the world. Goenka has now passed, but his charming, humorous, honest personality is revealed in the videos. During the day, and mandatory sits, you hear his voice, but every evening you watch the discourse; video of him explaining the teaching of the course. He is relatable, and his genuine straightforward approach is easy to understand and to access the depth of these teachings. It is not a cult, you do not practice rites or rituals, but you are expected to follow the rules of noble silence, dress code, and take an honorable approach to the technique. Like with anything that you would like to learn, giving it a chance, practice, and learning if it’s for you. With 10 days you are merely scratching the surface of the ocean of knowledge, but you have a clear idea of how to practice the technique, and you have a proper start. It is your choice to keep in the practice.
With the course offered for free, there is no expectation of the place that you stay. Even though I have joked about the room, it is a modest dwelling and what more do you need? The males and females are separated by boundaries on the grounds. You rarely see the opposite sex expect for when you all join together in the meditation hall, but even then… you don’t make eye contact or speak. Meals are silent and gender is separated as well. No saying ‘excuse me’ or assisting your fellow inmates… you can’t speak to them. You are solo. Now if there is an emergency… of course you can speak. You have a teacher assistant, or as I fondly thought of them, prison guard, to ask questions or assist you in something you might need to make your stay more comfortable. And then there is your teacher, which you have the opportunity to speak too. In my case, Ginger Lightheart, an older grey haired fairy who walked in and out of the meditation hall on her tiptoes. Lightheart was that indeed, with soft and sincere direction on the matter at hand, Vipassana. She would give us instructions from one part of the day to the other, and we would be asked into a private room in small groups to answer questions about how we were progressing. I enjoyed these opportunities to talk, because the other attendees (inmates) were able to speak in front of me. It was helpful to hear their answers and questions, but also nice to hear their voice. I would discover that these ladies were from all over the world, some from Eastern Europe, Russia, South America… giving me more insight. I know I’m supposed to be turning in, but the mind is not easily controlled. With no entertainment this subtle observation was much appreciated. You could also set up private meetings with the teacher if you needed to discuss the technique in more details. But that’s it… all the talking that is permitted.
MY FEELINGS ON NOBLE SILENCE… DID I TALK?
I will not tell a lie… I broke the noble silence… mostly to myself, trying to not go mad. Silence was broken for very specific reasons. For instance, a fellow student had a nagging cough… I hooked her up with some cough drops. I’m sorry, but we are to be compassionate. I have them, I could help, and I know what it feels like to have an awful cough. Then there would be the accidental speaking; when I was startled by someone that I didn’t know was there or you accidentally stepped on someone’s heal… where I come from, you say you’re sorry. It became easier to not say things as time went. Nobody else is speaking, and they will not speak if you try to speak to them, so just let it happen.
Some days were darn right maddening. Geonka joked in one evening’s discourse that people had the hardest time on the 2nd and the 6th day. My hardest were the 3rd, 7th, and 9th. The 4th day is when you start really delving into the technique and the patience required for the preparation in the first 3 days was a struggle. Remember, you are meditating all day long... 10 hours a day. The wake up bell, which sounds like a gong, started at 4am, and from 4:30-6:30am you have meditation, then breakfast and rest, then mandatory meditation, lunch, meditation and the day continues like so. Lights out at 10:00pm. Again, ALL of the pertinent information can be found on any Vipassana web site. Between group happenings we would get 10 minute breaks to stretch your legs and go to the bathroom, and where I would walk the edge of the female boundary contemplating my last meditation, and secretly wanting to just step over the invisible boundary line (One inmate told me she felt like she had a shock collar on, would she get shocked if she crossed the line… of course she told me this after we were allowed to talk.). While in these breaks, I would also observe my fellow inmates; females in my boundary and males on the other side. There would be extended breaks through the day, where you were able to rest and walk your designated grounds. You were not to exercise at all, but light stretching and movement is permitted. Okay then… so I would walk laps about the course, casually stretch by the pond, or find a secret spot and do handstands. No one is claiming to be perfect here. (I’ve also set a goal of 365 days of Handstands and I needed to practice.) During these breaks, it was a challenge to feel entertained.
It seemed to me, that many people would sleep during these times, and perhaps one day I took advantage of the mid-day nap, but I typically used the last 45 minutes of breakfast break for a nap and then I would drink coffee when I woke from that nap. (Yes, coffee was permitted… thank the lord.) So I chose to walk the grounds, which were absolutely beautiful. Being a world traveler, but originally from Illinois, I feel like I appreciate the beauty here so much more than I once did. And in this place in particular, it was stunning. Twenty-five acres were restored to the natural habitat, with weeping willows and wild flowers. The wildlife was abundant, and under observation, seemed quite relaxed in the presence of humans. Interactions with chipmunks were a daily occurrence, and in my frequent stretching near the pond I would observe the many frogs and geese that hung around the property. The pond was fascinating with frogs and fish... so many frogs, hiding under the mosaic of green moss that would pulsate on the top of the water like sound vibrations in the breeze. This miraculous lively piece of art changed every day, throughout the day, and I enjoyed surveying it from the different angles, heights and areas which were allowed. I don’t deny that waves of envy would sweep over me, when I would observe the men walking the bridge over the pond, and that they were allowed to have more access to the water. However, I’m pretty sure the girls had more places to enjoy scenically, so I let that go.
STOP AND SMELL THE ROSES
One day while laying in the grass a bee landed on my bright greenish blue fingernail, and I was able to examine the little guy for what seemed like a matter of minutes. Never have I studied a live insect in this way before. Relaxed and calm as the bee used what appeared to be his mouth to inspect my nail. This moment was so pleasant for me. Very primal and explorative, allowing my attention to be on this moment and to really enjoy the interaction for what it was. Actually, all of the moments that I was able to just really relax in nature were so calming and peaceful. The breeze in my hair, the sun on my skin, bright big blue sky in my eyes, with the aroma of beautiful flowers in my nose. Literally, I would stop almost every day and smell and many flowers as I could. The tiny pleasures that we sometimes miss when we are in such a hurry, is lost when you are held captive (not really you can leave when you want) and you are completely off the grid. When do we really stop, discover and appreciate the simple blessings around us? Even though I feel like I try, in my everyday life I am too busy to just let a bee sit on my finger, staring, studying and pondering about what it’s all about. I thank God for these special little moments.
Moments outside in nature, enjoying the sunshine and smells of the day were definitely the best part, and then you would have to go back to meditation. At first, I would quickly find my spot and be in place, but as the days slowly moved by I found myself reluctant to go back in the room. Perhaps for fear of having to be with myself, and no stimulation, or just because I desperately wanted to be in the sunshine was the reasoning for this hesitancy. However, I would arrive on time and be in my seat ready to combat my own mind, keeping thoughts and sometimes drowsiness at bay. It was quiet in the room, and with each day and after each discourse I felt that I had more energy and determination to really give the technique a proper try. When we were able to meditate on our own, I would give it effort, but also would break it up with a couple of handstands. Guarentee, I fell asleep on numerous occasions. Mediation, voluntary or mandatory, in the meditation hall was nice for the extra support and energy from your nobly silent counterparts. Undoubtedly, the noises and odors drifting around the room from my neighbors was sometimes distracting, and because I am how I am, somewhat amusing, but you try not to pay any attention. You can’t say anything about it so why let it concern you? The whole time is spent... meditating... or trying to not think the thoughts that you are thinking. This in itself makes you feel a little kooky. Especially, when you are trying so hard to not think of anything. Yet, the mind doesn't want to allow you to be still, it's going to creep up on you at all moments. These experiences of course are different for each person, at each phase of their life. Perhaps, others can still their mind, but I think we are all in the same boat of working hard to stop the thoughts, rather than being in that thoughtless moment.
The moments of insanity are where the prison like quarters make you begin thinking of escape or search for some sort of entertainment, other than your introspection. It’s time to come clean… I made a list. When attending this course I came with the attention to follow the rules as close as possible. I did not write in a journal or bring paper to take notes of any kind, but I did bring a clock. A brand new clock in its box. And that box, had a manual. Buried deep in my purse, which had been put away, because I was not carrying it around, I had a pen! Eureka! First I was just happy to have the manual for literature, because after all the vegetarian meals it was nice to have reading material on the toilet. But also to make a few notes of what I really wanted to hang on to, but then one day Ginger said, ‘if it’s really important, you will remember’, and I thought she is right, and suspended the activity. And she was right, everything that I jotted down, I remembered, and really now only laugh at the scribbles of people’s names I wanted to speak to when I got home, and the packing list for my upcoming travels. Truly, all of that could wait. But, as I imagine it is in prison, you are desperate for anything to entertain you or engage you other than the twisted images that arise in the mind. There were so many moments that I was like, ‘Where the hell did that thought come from?’ or ‘Why on earth am I thinking of that?’ … Who knows?! Only you can go to the deepest levels of your psyche. Vipassana gives you the tools to do so, and all you need is an open heart and an open mind. And through the days, as onerous as some days were, you made it through.
MY BIRTHDAY IN SILENCE… NOT SO MUCH.
The 7th day of the course was the next most difficult day. Reason being… it was my birthday. My birthday is my favorite day of the year. The day where I can do whatever I want, and all the people that love you in the world reach out to tell you how amazing you are. Right? Wrong. I spent this day in silence, with no fancy dinner, with many people who did not even know my name. I realized that it was no matter; who cares… realistically your birthday can celebrated any day. However, this was the day that I chose to speak to the wonderful, kindhearted Virginia, where I walked in, announced it was my birthday and burst into tears! What had come over me? Well, the female prison guard had spoken to me in a way that I did not appreciate directly before I walked into the room, and I think the build up of overall emotion just came over me. Man, was Ginger just perfect. She was kind, fair, and understanding. I wasted most of the 5 minutes that I had with her, acting a fool, but got the opportunity to ask a few more questions later in that day. Plus, I think it was meant to be that on my 33rd birthday that I take some time to really evaluate my path in this world, and would not trade it looking back now. Aside from my outburst, the day was the same as any other.
The 9th day arrived. Well, we’ve almost made it all the way through. The countdown was on since day one, and the excitement was practically more than I could bear. Lying in my top bunk, I thought I’m surely not going to fall asleep because I’m so excited that we get to talk tomorrow. There were many questions that I would like to ask some of the fellow ladies. For instance, my roommate… where is she from? What is her background? I wanted to apologize for talking in my sleep (I know that I do this, but hilariously I was waking myself up from the sound of my own voice while talking in my sleep. Hahaha), also I wanted to thank her for her cleanliness and compliment her on belches. Yes… she was a woman that weighed no more than 90lbs and had burps that would make Barney from The Simpsons blush. Hilarious… and I couldn’t compliment her the whole time! A woman that I had met at the beginning of the course, I couldn’t wait to give her a hug. She was so sweet and emanated such love and kindness. Throughout the course I could tell she had a hard time not smiling at me or just being a polite person in general. I could not wait to ask the students that were returning for another round of prison camp, if the course was easier the more you did it, or how their experience with the technique was growing. Thinking about all of this, made it difficult to sleep.
THE LAST TWENTY-FOUR HOURS
Then the morning of the 10th day came. We would be able to speak at 10am. When we entered the meditation hall for our mandatory group sit my heart was pounding so hard that I felt I might have an anxiety attack. I do not recall in present days of being so excited. The childhood memories of Christmas come to mind, and even then I think I was more excited at that very moment. Then the time came. We left the hall and entered our common area, still gender separated, and the first thing I said; a compliment to one of the women’s outfits the day before. Really? Instantly, I felt apprehensive to approach anyone and just start talking. Very uncharacteristic behavior for myself, and I went and sat on the bench overlooking the pond. Then here she came, one of the more entertaining students that I had witnessed over the course of the week, who also had sat next to me coughing, spitting into Kleenex, and farting uncontrollably all week, and I couldn’t have been more happy it was her. She was from China and instantly bought up something from the day before, a brief interaction that we could have had, which we had both avoided because of the rules. It made me laugh instantly and we began sharing our stories. She was as humorous as I imagined, and I was so happy that she eased me back into the world of the talking. She also unapologetically admitted to her bodily functions. She was awesome! We visited and then I went to the dining hall, where I found a couple of women that I wanted to speak with. The conversation was non-stop and so entertaining. Many asking what I did and telling me their observations of me throughout the week, and it was nice to hear that many of us were thinking the same things. We had similar difficulties, insecurities, and thoughts. Then the sweetest thing in the world happened. One woman, who sat on the other side of me during meditation, found out it was my birthday and organized all the ladies to sing for me. It was very nice, and made me feel really good.
Once the words started flowing, there was no going back, and less than 24 hours to go. Each moment was being counted down. When asking the old students about going through the experience again, they admitted that it was not any easier the second, third, or sixteenth time around. (Yes a fellow student was on her 16th, 10 day course… wow.) Yet, they keep coming because that is their path and they have found a sense of calm, tranquility, peace and more in their personal mediation practice. This is exactly what it is, personal. Only you are able to meditate for yourself, you examine yourself for who you truly are, and it does not matter about any other. True compassion and love can be found within yourself and you must give that to yourself. Vipassana gives you a technique to help you on this path. Does it claim to lead to enlightenment? Yes. Will you be enlightened after taking this course? That is for you to find out. Will you walk away from this course with a better understanding of yourself? Absolutely. Do I recommend this course to people that I know and love? Without a doubt. We all need the opportunity to discover something about ourselves, and you know you wonder what you might find? Vipassana is free to anyone, everyone, from all walks of life, from all religions; anywhere you find it in the world. If you are curious, take the opportunity. Am I running to take the course again soon? Hell no. However, I can’t say that I wouldn’t do it again, or volunteer to offer my services in some way, since all of the centers are strictly run on donations monetary and through the service of others. I appreciate the people that went before me to give me the opportunity to go, and I hope to give that liberty to someone else. Now is the time to practice the technique for myself.
TIME TO GO
After volunteering to clean the hall, and cleaning my own room with my roommate. (By the way, my roomate ended up being originally from Thailand and living in Chicago. She was very kind and sweet, and told me that she only heard me talking in my sleep during my naps. ) Once all of the chores were complete, we were free to leave and I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. My feelings toward this being like prison, are merely the fact of have so many rules & I was ready to break them. Perhaps enlightenment is not in the cards for me this time around, and without judgement of myself or anyone else, I was ready to get the hell out of there. I wore a dress (definitely not to code), hopped in the car, put on bright red lipstick, pulled back the sunroof, found Van Halen on the radio, cranked it up and peeled out of the driveway. … Okay so maybe I didn’t peel out, but I sure as shit drove a little fast all the way home. FREEDOM!!!
In conclusion, the best and most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Vipassana was worth every moment, and each moment is precious. My meditation practice is not as rigarious, but I find that the technique, along with other techniques of meditation that I practice, help me to be calmer, more thoughtful about my actions, and more loving in my heart. Which in the end, is what I really want; to be a loving, peaceful and compassionate person... that is not confined to any area with so many rules.
Please feel free to email me with any more questions, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find out for yourself... Vipassana Meditation.