I vowed that when I got back from my 10 day Vipassana meditative retreat in Ontario this past weekend that I would immediately write down all of my experiences. Our ten days consisted of meditating, eating, light walking and no communication or forms of entertainment to distract the mind. I was bound to write something interesting, right?. “I’ll get home in the afternoon and have one typed and edited by the evening” That’s what I thought on the first couple days of the retreat.
My, how naive I was..
Even before I returned to society; that moment when noble silence was lift and we could talk normally again, I felt a chaotic earthquake forming within myself. 10 days of silence and meditation had shaken me up. It had broken the emotional stability that I thought I had going into the experience. The next day when I was spit back out into the world and stepped into my apartment back in Buffalo, writing a blog post made me nauseous. I was alone, depressed and extremely uncomfortable.
Vipassana, a meditation based on the teachings of the Buddha and popularized in western society by the recently deceased S.N Goenka, attempts to rid the mind of its impurities. The meditation lasts ten days during which one takes an oath of “noble silence”, no communication of any kind to anyone except for the teachers or the assistant teacher. Meals are simple and vegetarian. The daily schedule consists of 11+ hours of meditation with breaks for food and rest in between and an evening video discourse on proper practice by Goenka. Wake up at 4 AM. In bed by 9:30 PM.
This meditation is not to be taken lightly. It is one of the most challenging mental, emotional and physical things I have ever done. Yes you read that right, it was challenging physically even though we were mainly just sitting down cross-legged on meditation cushions or going for light walks.
So I racked my brain and tried to think what I can write about now that I am starting to get my confidence back and can really appreciate all that I learned while I was there. I don’t want to give too much away because I had expectations going into it and for those who may want to try it, my one piece of advice is to let go of any expectations. It seriously diminished the focus and quality of the meditation. But I do want to share one of the many beautiful lessons I not only learned but came to fully understand through experiencing it myself;
“Stop making mental pain out of your physical pain”
The calm, reassuring recorded voice of Goenka’s spirit projected by the speakers boomed throughout the meditation hall. It was almost as if the old man was there with me. Knowing exactly what I was feeling in that moment when I needed encouragement most of all.
3 times a day during the latter half of the meditation, there are hour-long sits of “strong determination” as the Vipassana meditation calls it. You cannot move or open your hands, eyes, or legs. You are in one position for the entire hour. I was somewhere in the middle of one of those agonizing hours.
In that situation, physical pain is bound to show up. Personally, my knees, left hip, shoulders and a majority of my upper back were the hot spots. There were points throughout the meditation that it felt like someone was taking a hot fire poker and like a sadistic sculptor placing it on points through out my body and hammering away on the end of it. Deeper and deeper the pain became.
“Know that all sensations, including the gross, intensified sensations will not last forever”
The only problem with intellectual understanding of the law of impermanence, which is what Vipassana focuses on, is that when it’s actually happening, it doesn’t matter if you know it or not. Your mind just screams “STOP THE PAIN NOW, YOU CAN’T LAST THE WHOLE F*CKING HOUR MAHYAR. GET UP AND LEAVE”.
Of course, you are taught to stay equanimous, treating everything equally due to the impermanent nature of all things. When you feel the pain you are taught to just notice it, stay objective, “like a doctor examining a body” and then move on to the next body part. When you feel the pain though and it is very intense, it becomes quite difficult to stay equanimous. The pain becomes your focus.
But with Goenka’s guidance I started to assess how much of the pain was real and physical and how much of it was created by my mind and my perception of the pain. I soon realized that it was not the actual pain that was hurting me the most, no, it was the monster I was creating in my head from the pain.
It was no longer just “there is an intense sensation in my left knee”. My mind was spinning a horror tale. I pictured the woe and pure agony I would have to deal with for the rest of the ten days with all this pain. I was now experiencing the pain and anxiety of 10 days worth of intense sensations. “Once this pain goes away, then I can focus” I foolishly thought to myself. I was not objective. I was not equanimous.
It took a while for me to realize this but I slowly understood that this behavior was not limited to the meditation hall. How often in life do we have silly “pains”; undesirable situations that cause worries and anxieties that consume our life when we could be doing other things and actually enjoying ourselves. Anytime life isn’t perfect, we cannot relax. We cannot enjoy life itself.
I had some bills I had to pay that I was worried about while at the retreat. I was constantly thinking and worrying about those when I could’ve been meditating. The pain was that I have bills to pay – that was real. The monster I created, however, told me that I would end up broke and destitute and forever a slave to bills and payments.
Yeeeeshh… That’s dramatic. And it would consume every activity and every moment of my being. No bueno.
Did that help me pay the bills? No. Did I have a better experience meditating because of my incessant thinking? Definitely not. The quality of the meditation seriously diminished because of it.
But at one point, I decided I wasn’t at the retreat to get away from the world, I was there to face myself. And what would be accomplished if I were to run away (mentally) from all the aches and pains that started to show up. “Maybe what this old Indian man is saying over and over again has some merit” I started accepting all the pain that was there and I kept myself composed. I stopped reacting. I put all my energy into keeping my mind balanced and not creating any mental pain, and guess what, the physical pain started to leave all by itself. I had learned a very important lesson.
There will never be a moment in our lives when something “bad” isn’t there in the background. Life cannot be all up. There must be down, at least as much as our perception allows there to be. Nothing lasts and the law of nature is the law of impermanence. Those who wait for all their problems to be solved in order to be happy will be waiting past the day they die.
So keep a smile on your face, know that the bad times will end eventually, and be grateful for the good times because those, too, have an expiration date.