My limbs ache with fiery heat and my face is steaming, breath like an exhaust pipe that lends little relief. I wonder what it’s all for. This pain. This life. I treat this exercise like my life depends on it. Because in a sense, it does. Defying comfort, defying what I want for what I need, acknowledging a sensation without judging it except for when I do.
The quality of my life depends on it, I decide. I’m not here to f-ck around. So I sit. Silently. Still. Imagining this as a small fraction of what that one monk felt. The one who fatally set himself on fire in Vietnam in 1963. All the while, engulfed in flames, he sat there saliently still. Pathologically still. Transcendentally still.
It’s like that, but I’m on fire from the inside. And I’m ready for it all to burn. To be overtaken, subdued, and liberated. You see, many of us have an intellectual understanding of the concept that nothing is inherently good or bad, it just is. Judgment is our own creation. We can think this, and understand this, but it’s another thing entirely to truly know it. To observe our bodily sensations as they naturally arise without changing a thing. It’s the root of observing life’s happenings without being reactive, lashing out or withdrawing.
The main takeaway of my 10-day silent vipassana meditation course is the difference between intellectual and experiential understanding.
Vipassana emphasizes that our mind understands to let negativity pass. The thought causes more suffering than the actual experience more often than not. But to practice, this act of relinquishing and releasing is even more powerful and root-level with meditation. We’re sitting in a position that we could deem painful, and perhaps unpleasant buried memories surface. Mental and physical anguish ensues, but they’re not reflective of the current state of your truest self.
Imagine if we could sit with the things in our lives, embracing all that comes without desire or aversion. No attaching to something you once had or never had, or despising something that once was and now occupies your time and focus, expanding that freckle in time. What if we could be in the moment, seeing each person, situation, and happenstance with fresh eyes? This isn’t to say we can’t enjoy certain moments of pleasant thoughts or experiences, the key is to not long for them after they pass. This isn’t to say we can’t acknowledge we’re suffering if that’s true for us, the key is to not let the experience of pain linger after it passes.
So here we are, 240 of us, eyes closed, sitting, observing the sensations that arise, following them like a stream. Crashing waterfalls. Roaring tsunamis. Sometimes tiny ripples in the energy that makes up our physical experience, that both cluster and wane, grow and dissipate, at their own will. Itching. Tickling. Throbbing. Aching. As the silent days wear on, the sensations multiply. Or perhaps it’s just the awareness of them.
5 Precepts of the course:
- abstain from killing any being
- abstain from stealing
- abstain from all sexual activity
- abstain from telling lies
- abstain from all intoxicants
22 Things I didn’t know before I started my 10-day silent meditation retreat:
- It’s not 100% silent. It’s “noble silence” with your peers. The minimum you’ll speak is every-other-day when you engage with a brief check-in with a teacher. The very last day is a “talking day” so you can begin to reacclimate.
- The days are 4:30 am-9 pm and each session begins with a gong sounding throughout the compound.
- Men and women are segregated. You won’t see someone of the opposite sex unless it’s in passing during check-in at the beginning, or on the very last day.
- At least one of the precepts will be top-of-mind during the course. A lot. (See above.)
- Vipassana meditation is when you observe your natural breath while staying as physically still as possible, often for 30-120 minutes at a time.
- Wear slip-on shoes since you’ll be coming in and out of the meditation hall every 1-2 hours.
- Do yourself a favor and bring a fluffy blanket for your bed and the meditation hall. Comfort is not something to skimp on, all other conditions considered.
- You’ll get 2 meals per day, not eating afternoon unless you’re a new student (then you get fruit in addition to tea at 5 pm).
- During “free time” of about 2-hours per day you get to walk since no formal exercise is allowed.
- You cannot read or write at any point during the course.
- No technology use is allowed except for an alarm clock and flashlight.
- There’s an evening 1.5 hour Dharma talk with philosophical lessons, technique instruction, and storytelling.
- Vipassana is intended to be secular and accessible to any religion, but its roots are largely Buddhist.
- Vipassana isn’t about focusing on the positive, it’s about relinquishing both desire and aversion since each takes us out of the moment (aka equanimity).
- There were some total newbies at the course who’d never meditated before, and others were veterans.
- It’s free. Organizers aren’t concerned this will be taken advantage of due to the rigor of the course and application process to screen intention.
- Donations are accepted at the course’s close. Each participant would need to donate $250 to cover food and lodging.
- “Sankhara” is the term for the personification of desires and aversions. We’re meant to begin to purge them during this course. It takes many lifetimes to fully purge.
- The goal of vipassana meditation is enlightenment or equanimity.
- Vipassana means “to see.”
- The chant we hear the most is translated to “May all beings be happy.”
- The Bay Area Vipassana Center (the one I attended) hosts the largest Vipassana meditation course outside of India with 240 people.
I’ve meditated for over seven years, and have facilitated meditations for one year. The type of meditation I facilitate is breath awareness mindfulness meditations, where we control our breath count and can relax into a body posture and switch it up whenever we’d like to. This is the opposite of vipassana, so I found it intriguing and challenging to get in the rhythm of what I typically don’t do. People have asked, “Did you have fun?”
I reply that ‘this isn’t necessarily the type of experience you embark upon for fun.’ It’s work, but it’s meaningful. Or it has as much meaning as we attribute to it. It’s ten days in which we’re going against the grain of our human hardwiring to be social and seek pleasure.
I’m glad they gave us a buffer day to speak. We were primed for a couple of days before on day 8 that a ‘speaking day,’ was coming. The first 5 days felt like 10, and the last 5 felt like 2.5 days. When silence was lifted for the last day, some people immediately began chattering. Laughing. Asking questions. I promptly headed for the restroom. I needed some time to settle back into the normal way of being in the world, where you say “excuse me” when passing someone in a constricted space, or “hello” when you see someone you know or would like to know. It felt overwhelming, so I retreated for a few minutes before re-entering. Appropriate at a retreat, yes? Once I collected myself, I settled into a group of women to stand and listen to, before offering my voice. Even as I write this one week later, I still feel like I’m decompressing from the introvert version of Burning Man.
People have also asked, “Would you recommend it?”
It’s hard to say what physical or emotional experience someone would have, so no, I wouldn’t blindly recommend that any and everyone embark upon a vipassana course. But if something in you is feeling called to try it. If something in you feels curious, determined, and ready, then listen to yourself.