I finished a 10 day silent retreat 1 month ago today http://www.kunja.dhamma.org/ .
I can honestly say it was one of the most intense and rewarding experiences of my life, and I have had some amazing adventures! Coming back from over 10 days of silence has been a little more interesting than I had imagined. I understand that for me, when I take adventures outside of my daily lifestyle, it takes me some time to assimilate back into my default world. There is usually learning from other cultures and jet lag that I have to physically and emotionally process. This time however, I am processing spiritual growth. It is an entirely different process than intellectual growth. My last month has been spent doing almost nothing but observing myself in this world. Where do I fit? What am I doing here? What is the point? Why are we alive? I have always been a learner and a seeker, Socratic in nature, looking for answers only to find more questions. Now? More of the same….
I arrived at the center in Onalaska, WA just in time to meet my roommate, establish the heat setting (I like heat) and have a group meal with the women I would be spending the next 10 days with. In Vipassana the women and men eat and sleep separate though we meditate together, however it did take me a couple of days to realize there were men in the meditation hall.
My first impression of my surroundings was one of gratitude. I learned about this retreat through the play ’10 Days to Happiness’ written and directed by Donna Rae Davidson. Donna Rae does not paint a pretty picture, funny but not pretty. The grounds were MUCH better than I had imagined. They are modern, clean and aesthetically appealing. After parking I followed the signs into a building that serves as the dining hall for both men and women. When the retreat officially starts this hall is divided into two sides, keeping the genders separate. To start, as well as end, it is open into one warm and inviting space. I was extremely nervous when I arrived but the woman who signed me in was very kind and reassuring. I explained that my family was in the car and wondered if I should have them wait while I filled out the papers or if we should unpack first and get them on their way. When she responded with whatever would make me happiest, I calmed right down. I had them wait. My husband, 10 year old son and adopted daughter helped me carry my sleeping bag, toiletries and 10 days’ worth of clothing to my temporary home. It was a large, one story building with rows of doors leading to single rooms with 1 bath each. I was in room 5. It was directly across from the meditation hall and I could easily see the dining hall, best though is that it was near the gong that would keep time for me. I later learned that all of the ‘older’ women were on the front side of the building leaving the back and further to walk to the younger women. When did I become an older woman?
My room was simple and clean. It was divided into two. Each side had a closet and shelf. Where her closet started on her side was a wood wall on my side and visa versa, this is what divided the room. My space was on the back half, bed B, hers was on the front, bed A. In bed A there was a window. In bed B there was a back wall. Bed B was nearest the bathroom and heater….did I say I love heat? There was only a small table with lamp and bed with mattress and pillow in my space. I was to bring bedding, towels and toiletries which I did. If people do not have those things the center will provide them.
After being comforted by the fact that I was staying in a modern facility versus a dilapidated cabin in the woods, my family left. At this point I was unsure if I had to stay quiet or not, apparently so was my roommate because she did not speak to me. When I saw the thermostat though I knew I needed to talk. In a whispered voice I asked if she was ok if we kept the temperature at 70*. She whispered back yes and we giggled. I asked if we were supposed to be speaking and she said she wasn’t sure either. It was her first Vipassana too. After I set up a little, her and I walked together, in silence, up to the dining hall.
At this point the dining hall had been divided into the male and female sides. Two separate entrances. When we arrived into the dining room it was abuzz with women’s voices. Clearly we hadn’t started silence yet! More laughter between us as we realized we were whispering for no reason! There was a buffet line that women were going through to get their dinner. Though I would see this line for the next 11 days this would be my last dinner for the duration. I found a group of chatty females at a table and introduced myself. It was all of our first time. Each of us had come for different reasons. Each of us had learned about Vipassana in different ways. And, each of us was nervous! We talked about the what if’s. We talked about our fears. After much discussion a woman began to speak at the front of the room. She made sure we had all met our roommates, she made a few suggestions and then she explained we would be walking as a group to the meditation hall to begin our noble silence. Noble Silence? What is noble silence versus just being quiet? Well, this means no eye contact, no acknowledging another person, and no nonverbal communication of any kind. Ms. Manners would NOT make it in this environment! Holding the door open for the woman behind you? Nope! Saying thank you or nodding for anything anyone may have accidently done for you? Nope! Oh, and did I mention that in this retreat of noble silence and meditation we were not to bring books, phones, reading or writing material? NOBLE!!
The mediation hall has a male and female entrance as well. Women and men do not cross paths at all during the retreat as the opposite gender may cause a distraction to the mind for some. There is an entry room on each side of the hall with shelves for shoes, hooks for coats as well as water and cough drops to share. As we entered this entry room to the meditation hall, our silence began. We were called one by one to enter the hall and find our mat. I found my mat in a row of three closest to the outside isle and wall where people who are unable to sit on the floor sit. This is not where I stayed but this is where I started. At our first meditation we were invited to go to the big wall and get any pillow we might need. I did not because I figured I have done yoga in the past and can easily meditate for 15 minutes….what a joke that was!! At 7:30 we watched what would be our first of many instructional videos staring our teacher S. N. Goenka. It was explained that we could move our bodies as much as we needed and that the next day would start our 10 days….if we start the next day, why were we sitting in silence and meditating? We also got our first instructions for day 1, breath through your nose and notice your breath.
The next morning we were woken at 4:10am by a small gong sound outside of our door. The schedule said we were to start meditation at 4:30 either in our room or in the great hall. I chose to stay in my room, which had a curtain covering each of our halves, hiding the fact I was still asleep. I had learned in the play that if you stay in your room during the times that had optional locations you could sleep. Just a little cheating wouldn’t hurt, right? After all, clearly Donna Rae had done it so, why couldn’t I? My roommate must have seen the same play because she was obviously sleeping too by the sounds of snoring coming from her half of the room. At 6:30am another gong sounded inviting us to breakfast. I went to the dining hall confused as to what exactly I was supposed to do. Everyone was taking off their shoes so I followed. Next I entered the same food line I had been in the night before. There was oatmeal, stewed prunes, some kind of scramble and a big bowl of fruit. I copied the woman in front of me and took a bowl of oatmeal and covered it with the stewed prunes. I am not going to lie here, I have never had stewed prunes in my life! Eating healthy is something that has happened as I get older. I was raised on boxed and canned foods, Captain Crunch for breakfast was common in my childhood. As an adult I make it a habit to never eat before noon! So, hopefully you can understand how lost I was in this sea of silence and healthy foods….After leaving the line with my bowl of oatmeal, I set out to find a seat. In Donna Rae’s play she mentions the big plate glass windows overlooking the meadow where the deer and the antelope play, or maybe just deer. She said that everyday she would race to get a seat at the window. I noticed the wall of windows and decided I did not want to be one of the women that HAD to have a seat there. I noticed at that point that not all chairs had cushions on them, I decided I would like to always have a cushion. I found a cushioned chair in a little nook with no windows and dubbed it mine. I settled in to try my oatmeal. To my surprise it was delicious!! Wow, who knew eating so early could taste so good?
I made it through the first day with 3 naps and 3 hours of meditation focusing on my breathing. That night, during our video lesson, S.N. Goenka asked if we had slept the day away. Really?!?! How did he know I had slept all day? Now, I would not feel right sleeping for the next 9 days! My plan to follow along in Donna Rae’s path and sleep through all the meditations was ruined for me!
Day 2 was slightly more eventful. We had been told in the video to now focus on not just breathing but also on the sensations of our nose. I spent each hour of meditation focusing on my nose. I was grateful to have a task. So many hours of complete silence was deafening. Breakfast was easier as I had figured out where to get tea and instead of worrying about what I should eat I followed the same routine as the day before, oatmeal and prunes. I would like to reiterate now how delicious this combination is! Lunch was the main meal of the day and each day was spectacular! Lunch starts at 11am and by the end of lunch I thought to myself, this is going to be easy! I am loving the food, there are no children needing my attention, I don’t have to manage a schedule, I don’t have to worry about deadlines, I only have to eat and focus on my nose for 10 days….10 days of peace and quiet. I had noticed that some women were going for walks in the meadow after lunch so, with my feeling of success I went for a walk. It was lovely! At 1pm I heard the bell calling us in for meditation. The 1pm meditation is an optional location meditation and I decided to meditate in my room. I sat on my bed, which had a sleeping bag covered with a beautiful pink quilt and a couple of pillows I had brought from home, and began focusing on my nose. All of a sudden, out of the blue, a thought came barging in to interrupt my focus! “My granddaughter is dying,” it yelled in my head. “Right Now She could be DEAD!!!” “You need to get out of here to save her!!” Tears welled up in my eyes. My heart hurt. I knew it must be a lie. What if it wasn’t though? What if it was an intuition and I was being selfish by sitting at a meditation retreat while my newborn granddaughter sat, at home, by herself, dying?!? Ok, reality check, she’s not by herself, she isn’t dying, I am going crazy. I began calming down a little and focusing on my breathing again. Phew…that passed. Breathe, feel my nose. “Is that my nose?” “Does my new husband like my nose?” “What is my husband doing while I am gone?” Then my brain went on to remind me of the conversation we had just before I left. He had been working a lot and spending much of his time and energy building his business. I had invited him to explore if being married was really what he wanted for himself. My brain went on to say, “Maybe right now he is with one of the young women that work for him!” I reminded myself that young women are really not his thing. But, My mind said, “What if one of your friends has reached out to him to make sure he is doing ok while you are gone? What if he does like your last husband did and cheats on you with one of your friends?!?” My heart starts to race even more than it had with my dying granddaughter…My brain yells “He is with your friend!!! Right now he is having sex with someone you know!! It is going to kill you this time!! You made it through your husband sleeping with a friend once before, we will surely DIE if it happens again!!! YOU NEED TO LEAVE!!!”. Tears were rolling down my face. Focus on my nose, I tell myself, Breathe….and then I heard the 2:30 gong. I wipe my tears away and leave my room to join the others in mandatory group meditation. I feel confused and conflicted. Is what my brain said true? Is this the difficulty that people talk about? Is my brain playing tricks on me?
As I entered the Meditation lobby I saw the women’s house manager. We were told we can talk to her anytime we like. I had not spoken to anyone for almost 48 hours. I approached her as my heart was breaking. I told her I had two bad thoughts during my meditation. She kindly told me to go to speak to the assistant teacher. I entered the meditation hall and walked to the front. I went to where the assistant teacher sat on a small platform. I sat in front of him. In the play the assistant teacher was a female so I had been surprised that this time it was a male. He nodded to me and I gave him a faint smile. “I am worried that my granddaughter is dying. She was a premie and has been at my house since she came home from the hospital. Her and her mom only recently went home.” I didn’t tell him about my fears that my husband was having sex with one of my friends because, frankly, at that moment, I was embarrassed I had even had that thought! I knew that I had not chosen a man who would cheat on me this time and I know all of my current friends love me and are loyal to our friendship, not just trying to get close to my husband. Tears started pouring out of my eyes. I could feel my face go flush. He looked at me kindly and said, “Would your family call if something happened to your granddaughter?” I felt a surge of indignation go through me. Does this guy even know me? Does he even know my family? We are a loyal family! Of course they would call me if anything happened!! “Yes” I replied. He smiled at me with those kind eyes and said he would be sure to get me if anybody called for me. I burst into tears. I was being ridiculous and at that moment I knew it. I asked him if this was my brain playing tricks on me and he smiled and suggested that the mind understands that I am trying to gain control and this could be its way of fighting back. That was it, no big counseling session, no debriefing session, just a nod of completion. Crying I went and sat down on my meditation mat for our 2:30 meditation.
During the 2:30 meditation, after my tears and emotions had calmed down, I heard a bear next to me. How had I not noticed that I was sitting next to a bear before? How had I not heard the growling, sniffling, burping, farting, coughing, nose blowing bear? I focused on my nose more. As the time passed I became more and more aware of this noisy bear. The bear became the focal point of my meditation. I forgot about my granddaughter and my husband and could only think of this bear and the bodily functions that were happening next to me. When we were released from meditation I broke the no looking at each other rule and glanced in the direction of the bear. It was not a bear, it was a girl! As I walked to evening tea I wondered how this girl/bear was raised? Who in their right mind sits and makes all that noise??? I spent almost the entire hour of tea in judgment of the girl/bear. At 6:30 was the next mandatory group meditation. I had forgotten for a minute about the girl/bear. I sat on my mat with my eyes closed and started meditating. Next to me, the girl/bear farted. Then she blew her nose, then she started swallowing so loud it made me gag a little. She burped, farted more, she snuffed, she blew her nose…she made noises I could not even figure out what they were!! I sat for an hour absolutely mortified that I was sitting next to a human petri dish!! My new husband and I had scheduled our honeymoon for the day after I was done with this retreat and if I got sick I was going to be mad at this disgusting sounding girl/bear!! I opened my eyes while everyone was diligently meditating like good students. I noted that one row in front of me was an open spot. The woman had either left or they gave her one of the spots in the chairs against the wall. Either way I wanted that spot. I stared at the spot, imagining how nice it would be to get further away from the girl/bear. I wondered if I was the only one that thought the girl/bear was vulgar. The hour took an eternity to go by. As soon as the meditation ended I jumped up and quickly went to the house manager. “Can I move?” I asked. “You will have to ask the assistant teacher.” She replied. Without hesitation I again went in front of the assistant teacher. “Hi, it’s me again” I said. He nodded. “Can I switch spots? There is an empty spot one row up and over one seat. It isn’t with the older students. The gal on the left of the spot is my roommate.” I looked at him with pleading eyes. He picked up the chart lying next to him and looked at it. “Yes” he said. I smiled! I was so happy!! I moved my mat and lived happily ever after! Or not. That evening during our video instruction we learned that day 2 is one of the hardest days and if you make it through day 2 you are doing very well! I made it!! When I left the mediation hall to go to bed, the girl/bear was waiting in the lobby to glare at me. I couldn’t care though, I was happy I had made it through the day AND I had been brave enough to ask for what I needed instead of sitting next to germs. I have a habit of worrying about other people’s feelings and in this moment I did not. I could not. Happily I went to my room and slept a very dream filled night.
Day 3 I decided to spend the entire day in the group meditation hall in hopes I would not have any of the scary thoughts I had the day before. In the dining room I had to find a new place to sit because girl/bear had discovered my small little eating nook and had joined us there. I was able to find a new place with a cushion. I decided then that each day I would sit wherever there was a cushion and girl/bear was not!
Day 4 there was a long guided meditation. I felt amazing after! Each day before this day I had eaten fruit during tea time. From this day on I no longer had any desire to eat during tea time. My days became blurs of beauty and thought from this point forward. I began to wake up at 2:30am after going to bed at 9:30pm.
Day 5, half way through! We got a cookie at lunch! It was delicious! I noticed a girl in the front row. She must be a pro to be in the front row, I thought. I started to watch her to learn how to meditate like a pro.
Day 6-8 and meditation was going great! I loved how I was feeling. I started seeing how Vipassana could help every being on the planet. I started having so many memories and great ideas! One minute I would be crying from an old memory that was ready to be released and the next I was giggling at something wonderful that had crossed my mind. I wished I had a pen and paper to write down all of the great ideas I was having. I got up and watched the sunrise almost every day, sometimes I cried at the beauty of the world and other days I just sat in awe. I started running into the girl that sits in the front row. She is sooo pretty. This must be why they separate girls from boys. My mind kept wondering to how pretty she is. I would stop myself from thinking of her to focus on the sensation that I was to be looking for during meditation. Sensation, pretty girl, meditation…..what an intense combination! I don’t think that what happened during one of my meditations is what they are teaching at Vipassana retreats! And, if everybody was having as good a time as I was having during my meditations the world would be full of meditators!
After my ‘special’ meditation I decided to try to avoid the pretty girl in the front row. I went to breakfast late because she seemed to go early. I kept my eyes down during lunch. I did everything I could to avoid being in the same area as her. Even with my efforts I literally kept running into her. In the public bathroom, when I walked to my room, bumping into her in the meditation lobby. It was as though the girl/bear stopped existing and the pretty girl showed up! Wasn’t I supposed to be emptying my mind not filling it up with thoughts of other people? I continued to empty my mind and focus on the vibrations that were running through my body. At this point in the retreat I felt as though I had already achieved mastery! I was walking around in a full vibrational state. I felt completely open to the vibrational flow that is running throughout all of life!
Day 9 I woke up, as had become the usual, at 2:30am. I lay in bed vibrating until 4am. At 4 I jumped up and took a shower. I had decided that on this day I would get ready to go home. I was really missing my husband and family. I felt arrogantly, that I had mastered Vipassana. I was open to the universal flow that lives in all beings. I had a great plan as to how to live in the default world. I was ready to leave with only 1 day left. I had a great morning meditation. I decided I would start packing after the 2:30 meditation. I realize that after the mandatory 2:30 meditation we were to either meditate in our room or in the meditation hall depending on what the assistant teacher said and so far the assistant teacher had said we could go to our rooms if we want. Because I was so good at all this Vipassana stuff I figured I would go to my room, skip the meditation and sneak pack! The day went great! I was flying so high with all the meditation that I went into the meadow and walked for distances with my eyes closed! This was a great feat as I broke my knee several years earlier and the ground is very uneven. My day was going so well that I had stopped thinking of the girl in the front row and gained a new level of compassion for the girl/bear. I had decided that girl/bear was a real live version of Pippi Longstocking who had not had a mother to teach her proper etiquette and since her father was a pirate she really could not help having no manners what so ever. I love Pippi so I now loved the girl/bear!! I even told myself that after the retreat was done maybe I could somehow help her!! Then came the 2:30 meditation….at 3:30, when the assistant usually says that we can continue to meditate in the hall or go to our room, there was talking. And then, there was more talking….For over an hour we were stuck sitting in a guided meditation!!! WTF!?!?!? I became furious!!!! I was so angry that during the entire guided meditation I could only think of how much I hated the man’s voice that was speaking! As soon as we were released I ran to my room to look at the schedule. Sure enough, it says we may be released or we may not!! How had I missed that?? I was even more furious! This is about the point I realized that though the next day was the 10th day, it was actually the 11th day I would be there AND I was not being picked up until the day after that!!! It was only fucking Friday!!! I was not scheduled to leave until Sunday!!! I wanted to go home! I no longer wanted to be at the stupid retreat with the stupid people! I became sure that my husband had decided to be with another woman AND I knew that my family was so selfish that they hadn’t called me when the baby died!!! I spent the rest of the day hating everyone and everything! It was as though I had caught a cold of hatred. One bad thought let to another bad thought. I had decided on something that did not happen (packing) and now the world was going to hell in a hand basket one negative thought at a time!
At 7:30pm we had our nightly video lesson. Again it felt as though S.N. Goenka had been following me. He talked about anger and how it can spread. He talked about how one bad thought leads to another bad thought. How it is our choice to accept anger and hostility. How anger is like a gift that you can accept it or say no thank you to. However, once you accept this gift, you become responsible for your own actions….again, really? How does this guy know what is going on in my mind each day?? I ended my day rethinking the cycle of anger I had created. I reviewed how interesting it was to live anger out in such a way that even a guy on a video screen could explain to me each of the steps I had lived that afternoon. My anger was not righteous it was just me taking on an emotion that I chose to take on.
Day 10 is the last full day of the retreat but, it does not stop at midnight on the tenth day. No, the retreat actually continues into the following day! My morning meditation the day after my angry day was amazing! I meditated for an hour and a half straight. I was able to set my mind aside for the first time since my arrival. I felt great as I was going into breakfast. There was a sign at the entrance of the dining hall letting us know that we would be given instruction for the remainder of the day after our morning mandatory group meditation. I was so uplifted and elated feeling that I actually did not mind the change in schedule. After my big, angry breakthrough and seeing where I try to control my environment through agenda, I knew I could go with the flow this day. And baby, the flow was wonderful!! We got to start talking as soon as we left the meditation hall! The day was open to visit, learn and laugh! At lunch I found the group of women I had first ate dinner with. Each of them had made it. I asked people how they picked their seat in the dining hall. I asked what the big breakthrough was for each of them. We all talked and talked and talked. I learned that 4 men and 1 woman had not made it through the 10 days. On this day we continued to do the mandatory group meditation and noble silence was adhered to in and around the meditation hall. The meditation times that were either in our room or meditation hall we did not do. That night at bed I really realized how much I love life, my family and especially my new husband. I was very excited to see him, the next day felt as though it could not come soon enough.
The final morning was more group meditation and a farewell video. We were finished at 7:30am and released for breakfast. This may sound early but when you have been up since 2:30am it feels like an entire day has gone by! I went to my room as soon as we were released and started the packing that I had wanted to do 2 days before. My husband arrived at 9am to pick me up and I have been processing my experience ever since. Tomorrow morning I am signing up to do another 10 day (12) silent retreat.