It was my friend Rachel who led me to Vipassana.
“Ten days of silence,” she said to me. “You can’t talk, read, listen to music—nothing. All you can do is meditate, and it’s free.”
I paused for a moment, wondering if I’d heard correctly. “Where?” was all I could think to say.
“Vipassana centers are all over,” she said, “There are three in California alone. Apparently they are beautiful.”
I had to clarify. “And I won’t have to pay a penny?”
“Donations of love are welcomed at the end,” she replied. “But you don’t pay anything to go.” I soaked in this information a moment longer. “So?” she wanted to know. Rachel’s green eyes gleamed a knowing smile, the way they always did when she knew she had a good idea.
“Okay,” I said. “How do we sign up?”
A week later, Rachel and I had been accepted on the retreat. We were not scheduled to leave until August, and it was still only February; we had six months to change our minds. Instead, I found that as I began conversations, the same sentence fell headfirst out of my mouth: “Have I told you that I’m going on a silent meditation retreat?” I was even surprised by my own excitement.
I hadn’t realized how desperately I’d wanted peace. For the past year I had been living in the chaos of freelancing in the entertainment industry, which isn’t exactly a calming experience. I was longing for balance and a bit more structure, and I had a hunch that this crazy Vipassana idea might just provide that.
If I couldn’t find peace in the outside world, I was left no choice but to look for it within.
Rachel and I had been practicing speaking with our eyes for weeks when she learned that she wasn’t able to go on the retreat. Suddenly the extra bounce in my step slowed to a hard skid. After all, my father had been working his hardest to implant paranoid ideas in my head. “What if it’s a cult!” he wanted to know.
I assured him he was crazy, but the truth was, what if he was right? I had no proof either way. All I had was a force of magnetic strength pulling me toward this experience, and I felt compelled not to let it pass me by.
Then, the night before the retreat, I had a dream.
An Asian woman sat staring crystal clear before me. Her hair was black and cropped short. Deep lines covered her face and she wore a simple linen outfit. For the breadth of my dream she stared straight ahead, seemingly at nothing; finally, with a slight shift of her eyes, she looked right at me. And just as I felt her peer into the depths of my being, I awoke.
The next morning she continued to irk me. I couldn’t understand why this woman I’d never met had such a strong presence in my dream. Her striking face lingered even as I made the long drive to Kelseyville, home to the Northern California center. My old car struggled to keep up as I followed the curve around the mountain.
The last hour of the trip I had turned my music off. I wanted to prepare myself for the silence ahead. Instead of singing, I turned my attention to the vibrant foliage that now accompanied me. I putted along until I saw the landmark field that the volunteer I spoke to on the phone had told me to look out for. The center was located directly across from it.
Sure enough, as my gaze dragged from the field across the road I was greeted by a sign that read, “Welcome to the Northern California Vipassana Center.” I drove up the hill to the parking lot feeling thankful that I’d found my way. “Please,” I thought, “don’t let this be a cult.”
Arrows labeled “registration” directed me across a gravel path and into the dining hall. I set my suitcase on the ground in the left line of the registration table and looked up. As I did, I felt myself go pale. Standing absentmindedly in the line to my right was the woman from my dream. Had I not been standing there in shock beside her I wouldn’t have believed it myself. But there she was, within arms-length of me, her black, short hair and linen attire familiar now, though stranger than ever.
Remembering where I was, I surveyed the rest of the room. Aside from the tall woman who stood beside me, and the lady facilitating check-in, the twenty-or-so other women in the room were all Thai. A couple of them looked a smidge older than myself, but the majority of them seemed to range from middle-age to elderly. The woman from my dream was not only what I realized now to be Thai, she was also the same age as these women.
I’m not necessarily a believer in premonitions, but I couldn’t ignore the coincidence that I was now a part of.
Although I cannot know for certain, I believe that this woman’s presence in my dream was a reassurance that I was going in the right direction, despite being on my own, with a worried family who had waved goodbye.
I would soon learn that Vipassana is a world-renowned practice, and many retreats provide the option of a second language. Our retreat was going to be translated in Thai. This shaped my experience in two crucial ways. The first was that it provided me with a new level of understanding about Buddhism, a philosophy that was partially responsible for my interest in this retreat.
I had been raised Jewish, and I proudly identified as such. But like many Jewish people my age, I thought of myself more as a cultural Jew, connecting to its heritage more than its spirituality. I felt closer to Buddhism’s focus on the individual as the path to “god” rather than praising some all-powerful being, and I liked its encouragement towards peace and objectivity.
Although we would be silent for the bulk of our stay, the first day we were allowed to mingle. During one of these mingles, the nine-month pregnant woman (whom I was in awe of for her bravery) shared that many Thai are Buddhist, and place great importance on a calm mind. She had come because she grew up believing that a mother with a peaceful mind makes for a child with a peaceful mind. “What a nice way to think about motherhood,” I thought. I wondered if the older women were preparing their minds for peace in their next lives.
The second way that Thai culture shaped my Vipassana experience was that we had our own personal Thai chef who prepared healthy, fantastic-tasting food every day. I sat over our first of many Thai meals, chatting with the four other non-Thai speaking women present. After all, this was our last chance to talk for ten days.
After dinner was First Meditation, when the Nobel Silence would begin. We talked about our backgrounds and our careers. I shared that Rachel had planned on joining me but at the last minute couldn’t make it. Lisa, a girl who at the time was a stranger but is now a friend, replied in her lovely way, “maybe your friend not being able to come is a blessing in disguise.” I was disappointed that Rachel wasn’t going to share this experience with me, but I knew what Lisa meant.
Meditation is an individual sport for a reason. It’s about getting to know yourself—by yourself.
Once we slurped our last drops of coconut soup, the time to meditate had finally come. The air felt heavy with anticipation as we made our first trek to the meditation hall. Vipassana is fully operated by volunteers and one was now giving us brief instructions and assigning us each a spot number. I took off my shoes and placed them on the racks outside, then entered the hall.
The floor was refreshingly cold against my bare feet, and for some reason it gave me the impression that I was entering a sacred space. The women’s mats were set up on the right side of the room and the fewer men’s mats were set up on the left side. We would meditate in the same space, but that was all. A curtain divided the dining hall between men and women and the area outside was split as well. And although men and women were allowed to be in the same area during meditation, we were not allowed to look or gesture at each other, or anyone of the same sex either.
For the next 10
days we would learn to be alone with our own energy, whether we liked it or not.
I found spot number 10 and sat down. People trickled in quietly around me. I shifted back and forth to get comfortable, but when no position was perfect I let it go. Only then, when I was finally sitting on my pillow, in spot number 10 of this cold meditation hall, located on a hill in a beautiful forest of Northern California, did it dawn on me that I knew very little about what Vipassana actually was. A chill of nervousness twirled up my spine as I wondered what I had gotten myself into, but I pushed the thought aside.
All I could do now was embrace whatever was about to come.
I had been lost in these thoughts when a door at the front of the hall opened and brought me back to the present. A man and a woman dressed in all white entered and placed themselves on their respective blocks that sat at the front of the hall. The man was American and the woman was Thai. Her name was Lee. She appeared to me as though she were birthed from the womb of serenity itself.
Lee addressed the room first in English and then in Thai, but kept it short. Then silence. I was starting to wonder if we were just going to learn through osmosis when a deep voice began to permeate the room. It started out slow, crackling almost, as though the person it belonged to had just woken up.
Soon it swelled into a chant in a language I could not place. Initially, I felt alienated by these foreign words. How could I connect to something I couldn’t understand? I was put at ease, though, when I learned what the words meant: “let us be thankful for those practicing meditation, as their practice will lead to a more peaceful world.”
S.N. Goenka is the voice behind Vipassana. He is the man responsible for bringing Vipassana to the Western World and to international attention. Raised in Burma and having lived in India, Goenka dedicated his life to spreading Vipassana when not one of the world’s top doctors could relieve his chronic migraines. This centuries-old meditation practice turned out to be his magic cure.
He has now spoken all over the world about the benefits of Vipassana, including at the United Nations Peace Summit. Today, Vipassana centers are global havens where people can come to find inner peace and learn how to share that peace with others. When the centers were new, Goenka led meditations himself, but since its spread he has enlisted several “assistant teachers,” such as Lee, to facilitate the sessions in-person and answer questions should any come up.
Goenka, however, continues to guide the meditations from a pre-recorded track, thus keeping the learning process consistent for all retreats. He also gives a nightly lecture via DVD regarding the philosophy behind the meditations. Somehow, Goenka manages to be the touchstone of Vipassana, despite never being physically present.
That first meditation, Goenka instructed us to focus on our breathing. “Just observe it,” he directed. “Don’t try to control it. Just get a sense of its natural rhythm.” As the breath passed, we were to focus our attention on our nostrils and the areas around the nose. Our thoughts would wander, he assured us, but we were not to get mad or frustrated if this happened. We were simply to notice that our attention had wandered astray and try to reel it back to our breath.
I closed my mouth and gave my nose full responsibility for my oxygen intake. Moments later I was alerted to the stuffiness of my nose as air struggled to get through. I felt frustrated already but I tried to stay focused. Goenka made it clear that we should refrain from judging our breathing or anything else about our meditation. It didn’t matter if we breathed out of one nostril or two, if our nostrils squeaked or were silent.
By observing without judging we were “accepting reality as it is,” or “seeing things as they really are,” which is what the word Vipassana actually means. I appreciated where he was going with this, so I did my best to curb my skepticism. I figured it was just the first of many things I wouldn’t understand in the coming days.
The next morning I awoke to a gong sounding at four o’clock on the nose. For the length of the retreat we would be following a strict schedule that included getting up before the sun, and eating only fruit and tea for dinner. I was initially excited by the idea of beginning meditation in the early morning. I had an image of myself lost in a transcendental state with the rising sun beaming a halo of warm, beautiful rays all around me. But that dream quickly dissolved when I found that, for me, meditating at four in the morning meant slipping back into sleep and off of my meditation pillow.
This is not a joke; I nearly toppled the woman in front of me. Thus, my first lesson in “accepting reality as it is” was to accept the fact that I needed more sleep to sufficiently meditate. So for the remainder of the trip I rose at six and decided that eight o’clock was just as good a time to start my practice.
Those first two days I was elated. The air was crisp, the trees were magnificently tall, and I didn’t have to talk to anyone. On Day Three I left my room feeling cheery as ever when I was greeted by a large sign reading “Day Three: Vipassana Day.” I had forgotten that in the lecture the night before Goenka had mentioned that Day Three was when we would finally learn “real” Vipassana.
Those first two days had just been the warm up. Now the test of our true strength had arrived. I ate my breakfast quickly and got to the meditation hall early, eager to get the party started.
As usual, Goenka’s deep chanting started off the session. Once he’d finished, he informed us that from now on we would be sitting for a minimum of an hour at a time without being able to move. With our arms, legs, and eyes closed, we would turn our attention to the “sensations” on and in our bodies. Only if we felt excruciating pain were we allowed to move. (Technically we could get up whenever we wanted, but for the sake of doing the practice right, we were encouraged to stay put.)
“Start at the top of the head,” he directed, “patiently and persistently.” Goenka instructed us to move our attention from the top of the head, around the face, along the neck, over the shoulders, and down the arms until we reached the tip of every finger. We’d follow a similar route from our middle down our legs to our toes. Anything we felt constituted a sensation: tingling or throbbing, heat or cold, numbness or burning, or even no feeling at all.
Very slowly, this Vipassana master repeated his instructions over and over again, “patiently and persistently, patiently and persistently,” until it nearly caused me physical pain. I listened with all the patience and persistence I could summon until I could no longer ignore the sharp burning rising within me. This wasn’t a burning that Goenka warned me about; it was an extreme restlessness heating every corner of my insides. I felt like I was going to boil over and explode.
“Must you repeat everything!” I screamed to myself. “I got it the first ten times! Get to the point!”
But Goenka ignored my cries. Instead, his low, omnipresent voice continued to guide me slowly, “part by part and piece by piece,” through the two hours of “real” Vipassana instruction, as time trudged by like it was the anti-thesis to the speed of light.
I left the hall feeling angry. I realized that the first two days I was happy because I was daydreaming instead of really meditating. Now I actually had to work and I hated it. I didn’t see the point of scanning my body for sensations. It was boring, and I felt angry that I was bored and not getting the magic that supposedly lay beneath. Even during fruit-and-tea-time I sat silently fuming.
It wasn’t until Goenka talked me through my frustrations in that night’s lecture that I began to cool off. He explained that, in Vipassana, we sit without moving to break a life-long habit of emotionally reacting to everything that makes us uncomfortable. People, he explained, are always reacting to two things: craving and aversion. We are in constant states of wanting and not-wanting, of liking and dis-liking. This creates misery for us because we never have but are always seeking satisfaction. As soon as we satiate a craving, we have another.
The most basic example of this is materialism. We crave a new house. We get the house, but then we must have the big screen TV. The surround-sound follows closely behind. We continue in this fashion, never feeling fulfilled because we think fulfillment is something we can possess. Aversion works similarly. For instance, we’re trying to fall asleep at night and can’t get comfortable. When we finally do, a train goes by. When the train passes our partner lying beside us begins to snore.
With each disturbance the misery grows. We wake up in a bad mood because we didn’t sleep well and get in a fight with our partner. On and on, the cycle of misery goes. I was beginning to process what I’d gone through that day, but I still didn’t like it one bit.
Day Four, I awoke feeling the residual effects of my anger. Three times a day we were required to meet with the group in the hall, but all other times we could choose to meditate in our rooms, (in other words, sleep to avoid having to meditate). So that’s what I did. The fifth day went this way as well, only enduring the torture when I had no other choice.
But instead of sleeping the pain numb, I tossed about anxiously. I was obsessed with how many days we had left, and the countdown was keeping me awake. In trying to dodge the misery, I found even more of it. So after Day Five I promised myself that I wouldn’t hide in my room any longer. I was stuck on this retreat and being miserable about it was not going to change that. I might as well suck it up and get something out of it. I vowed that I would be present in the meditation hall for every hour that was supposed to be spent meditating until I got whatever there was to get.
So, legs crossed, back straight, hands folded neatly in my lap, I closed my eyes and faced my meditation that sixth day. As to be expected, my attention quickly took its swim amid the rough oceans of my mind. I found myself sitting at my sister’s kitchen table in front of a home-cooked meal of steak and potatoes. A large glass of Cabernet Sauvignon accompanied me. I was planning to visit my sister and brother-in-law after the retreat. I imagined the steam of their cooking heating my face and melting my insides. I longed for the warmth of their home, the warmth of people that I loved.
I wanted to laugh, and dine and talk. I fell into this reverie until reality seeped its way back into my consciousness. Upon coming to, I had a flash of understanding: I didn’t just want my sister’s food, I craved it, and the more I craved it, the more miserable I would become.
It occurred to me then that this misery was actually the point.
By making us prisoners of our own minds, we would become acutely aware of all our cravings and aversions because there was nothing we could do to satiate them. Having to endure the physical discomfort of sitting without being able to move was a metaphor for our emotional and mental selves. Just as we react to physical discomfort by scratching an itch or adjusting our position, we react to emotional discomfort by getting angry or upset, thus denying us the chance to “see our feelings as they are.” I mean, who wants to feel regret, or jealousy, or sadness? So we react in anger, or hostility, or even ambivalence, so that we don’t have to feel what’s real. But here on this pillow there was no escape. Here on this pillow, I was being forced to feel.
I knew then that the only way for me to bear the next four days was to accept every second of misery, fully and completely. No more wishing I wasn’t there or craving to be somewhere else. So I swam my attention back to the present moment, where streams of itching awaited me: painful itching, on my arms, on my legs, on my back. Have you ever tried to resist scratching an itch? If not, I recommend it; it builds character.
For three hours I sat fastened to that pillow without scratching. Nor did I shift my position or peak an eye open to glance at the clock. I simply followed the flow of sensations as they moved along the curves of my body. “You are a warrior,” I told myself. “You are stronger than this misery.” At some point the itching ceased, and in its place a light tingle surfaced. Back and forth I swayed between tingling and itching, always trying to see the two sensations as equal, as neither pleasurable nor painful, but just “as they were.”
At one point I drifted into a rhythm. I won’t claim that the itching started to feel good, but its sting did begin to dull as I worked to welcome it, rather than fight it. From time to time, though, remnants of my old impatience made their way into the cracks of this rhythm. I couldn’t understand why.
As usual, Goenka quickly addressed my concern. As I traced my body in my mind, I was cognitively checking off where my attention was passing over, like so: “Okay, there are my toes… here’s my ankle… now I’m going up my shin bone…” And so on. Essentially, I was talking to myself, meaning I was still using the thinking part of my brain that I use each day. But Goenka urged us to resist labeling. Rather than hear the word “itch” in my head as I felt one, I might try to feel it at a physiological level only; because, to meditate, we must shut off our “thinking” brain.
This is the most difficult barrier to overcome in meditation, but if we can manage it, we unlock the key to meditations power. Many of us are trained to think on autopilot from the time we are young. It’s as though to adapt to our modern world, thinking became our default setting, so when we are idle, we think instead of feel. We have now defaulted to thinking for so long that we believe it to be our natural state of inactivity.
Now I’m no expert, but my hypothesis is that our “default thinking setting” can be blamed for a number of common frustrations including (but not limited to) difficulty sleeping, irritability and general anxiety.
So once again I tried to do what this meditation master suggested. I pictured words and thoughts billowing out from my brain as though from a smokestack; my brain was an ever-producing engine, endlessly churning the energy I needed to deal with the world. But my engine was tired. Tired of the constant to-do lists filled with whom to call and whom to pay; tired from small-talk and plan-making; tired from heavy worries about the future, whose weight could bring it to a slow crawl.
Now it was time to rest.
And so I willed my engine to stop churning. I watched as the billows of thoughts lessened and dissolved into the space around my mind. I took a deep breath in, enjoying the lightness of my new freedom, and turned my attention back to the itching and the tingling. They began to orbit me as though I were the sun at the center of their vast solar system. I was in my own, infinite galaxy. I soared through it steadily, forgetting where I was.
Suddenly, something passed over me that made me stop. It felt like a soft breeze. Cool and consistent, it beckoned to rock me back and forth forever. “Peace,” I realized. “This is what it feels like.” It was so kind, so sweet. I didn’t have to prove anything to it or explain myself in any way. It just sat with me, contented, taking in the moment.
I sat in peace until the session was over. Upon resurfacing, pure joy engulfed me. I had found what I had come for. I knew this sensation was not permanent; like the sensations on my body it would continue to ebb and flow. What I did know, though, was that it existed.
Somewhere inside of me, peace lived. All I had to do was remember where.
In the final days, I did my best to keep this peace close. This was a process, I knew, not a result, so I tried not to cling too tightly when it did show itself again. I tried to remain open to whatever came, soaking up the beauty of this new home that I would soon be leaving. In the nightly lectures Goenka continued to supplement my understanding of the meditation with a philosophical context.
He addressed my father’s concern about Vipassana being a cult, which it is not. Nor is it interested in religion of any other kind, be it one god or many. Vipassana supports a person’s belief in the god of their choosing as much as it supports their choice to not choose a god. What it is concerned with is that the belief is based on experience, and not blind faith. “Vipassana works at the experiential level,” Goenka explained. You only believe in it if it works for you.
This message resonated with me. I’ve always felt that any spiritual undertaking is a moot point if prayer is spent praising what someone else did, while not actually doing those things oneself. I was feeling thankful that I’d stumbled upon this Vipassana gem, and was excited to pass its beauty along. Only one, small hesitation lingered, and I had to have the answer to feel at peace with what I’d learned.
“If everything in the world is either craving or aversion, and we’re not supposed to give in to either, then… wouldn’t that just leave us doing nothing?” I hadn’t been to a question session yet, but now I sat folded in a pretzel position looking up into Lee’s earnest eyes. From her identical posture on her block above she responded, “Very good question. We are not trying to turn you into hermits. We know you have lives—I have a job myself. But we’re trying to teach you that when you act, make it a wholesome action, from a peaceful place, rather than just reacting to whatever comes along.”
Vipassana is not advocating that we stop feeling, or that we live our lives numb to the world’s pleasures. But it is suggesting that we stop and take the time to actually feel both the physical and emotional sensations taking place in our bodies before we act on them blindly.
On the morning of Day 10, I crawled soundlessly out of bed. It was just past four-thirty and the pre-dawn meditators were beginning their last sit. I layered myself generously, bundling my scarf around my neck and zipping my jacket up tight, then stepped out into the cold fog. The grounds were quiet, save for the small sound of my shoes as they brushed over the loose gravel. I walked slowly, taking in the emptiness.
Finally, I sat down on a rock that lined the path to the meditation hall and looked out over the field that had helped me find my way that first day. Large hills sat like a fortress around it, protecting the field and the center from any outsiders that might threaten our peace. Beyond them, a dull light fought to shine and I smiled in anticipation.
In all these days waking up in the dark, it hadn’t dawned on me to watch the sunrise. As I waited, I stretched my neck vertically toward the enormous pine trees that loomed above. They stared down at me as if they had been waiting all these years for me to stare back up. Through the thick door of the meditation hall I could hear Goneka’s chanting beginning the session inside and I reflected again on what it meant: “let us be thankful for those practicing meditation, as their practice will lead to a more peaceful world.”
“Is that true?” I wondered. “Can one person’s meditation spread peace?”
I took a deep breath in, letting the pines refresh my insides. I can’t remember how long I sat there, but I can still feel the familiar warmth that eventually crawled its way up my face. I opened my eyes to a new sky as the sun’s rays painted fresh color across the landscape. The image filled me with hope.
“Maybe peace is like the sun,” I thought. “Its rise appears from one place, but its beam radiates across the world.”
Taryn Newton-Gill is a writer, director, make-up artist, yogi and all-around enthusiast. She was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, California and earned her B.A. in Theater Arts from UC Santa Cruz in 2007. Taryn currently resides in her hometown and continues to seek and promote peace and balance.
Editor: Anne Clendening
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