Dhamma Pakasa, Illinois, USA: a 10-day Vipassana Meditation Retreat.
Day 10, the retreat is completed. Noble silence ended this morning; a cheerful and relieved chatting started echoing in the Center—bursts of laughter all over, light bubbles of joy in the air.
Odd sonority, loud and, at first, disturbing after so many quiet days, but so full of good vibrations that I couldn’t help but smile (a big smile coming from inside) and be a part of it.
It was touching to be able to look at each other for the first time in 10 days, to talk and get to know a little of those with whom I’ve been living and passing through this intense experience. We’ve accomplished it altogether.
It’s been a challenging, deep, interesting, wonderful time. I’ve learned so much, understood better and went further in my practice. Day after day, I felt more and more awake and aware, shaking off the tiredness and drowsiness that stroke me at first: shock of the dramatic change of pace and mentality. Vipassana is not just a meditation teaching, but a deep and radical life that embraces change.
I’ve been walking blindly in the darkness of my ignorance and sorrow too many years, stumbling over too many obstacles, more than often on my knees, defeated, covered of bruises. Ironically, it’s by closing my eyes and observing the sensations passing through the framework of my body, that I’ve found a way to see—see the reality as it is, not as I want it to be. Becoming aware of the impermanence, the perpetual change of everything and the nonsense of attachment, craving, aversion for such ephemeral objects, starting by the so called “I.” Equanimity is the key… Easier to say than to apply, especially facing all the vicissitudes of life, but today I have a new strength, a precious tool: Vipassana and Dhamma.
This third retreat brought me new challenges, difficulties, teaching, breakthrough, understanding—a totally different experience, filled with many more benefits. It was the first I attended one in U.S., the previous two were in Asia (Malaysia and Thailand)—another atmosphere and feel.
Dhamma Pakasa is nestled in a pretty and rural part of Illinois, surrounded by yellow corn fields and bright red barns.
As I rolled in and parked, a very peaceful and serene feeling enveloped me. Numerous and various magnificent trees watch over the domain, and countless times I’ve leaned on them; I’ve hugged them, caressing their rough or smooth bark, feeling energized by the flow of life pulsing underneath and pacified by their reassuring presence and tranquility.
The imposed but soothing silence is full of sounds and music, a natural melody, a beautiful melody.
I felt in peace and harmony.
An interesting phenomenon happened throughout the course. A dense and compact corn field was surrounding the property, protective wall, screen to the outside. But suddenly, in the middle of the course, the farmer started harvesting.
Day after day, more rows were gone, opening up the field.
The disappearance of the corn underlined the importance of being here and now, going from moment to moment and understanding the perpetual change happening at any time. It also brought the thought that all of a sudden, we were able to see beyond, to see what was hidden, to see clearly.
Ten days is a very long time and a very short time. Some hours feel like a year, others vanish in a breath. The center is a world apart with its own rules and rhythm, a strict discipline refrains us from breaking any of the precepts we undertook at our registration. We are busy from 4:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The bell wakes us up in a chanting tinkling… the day begins.
Outside, everything seems asleep, a black curtain adorned with a starry sky wraps the scenery; the sounds are muffled. I feel like a sleepwalker guided by the diffuse orange lights of the lamp posts standing quietly on each side of the path leading to the Dhamma Hall.
The meditation hall is filled with good energy and serenity, favorable to concentration and introspection. Observing, scrutinizing, dissecting… patiently, calmly, attentively…
One becomes scientist, detached from one’s own body. It’s a subject of study, impersonal. Eyes closed, seated on a cushion, we look inside, observe our inner world, focusing at first on the breath, the natural breath, as it is. Simply observing it.
Three days dedicated to this exhausting exercise, forcing us to focus on the present moment. But the mind is a wild animal that refuses at first to surrender. It’s a patient work to tame it. Agitated and impulsive, hyperactive, it throws at us a flow of thoughts from the past or the future, distracting us from our tedious task. And sometimes we have to fight sleepiness and hunger.
A chanting, closing the last 30 minutes of this two hour session, pacifies and comforts. It also announces the coming and long-awaited breakfast.
Second bell, first meal.
A pleasant and fortifying pause, facing a relaxing white wall, comfortably sitting in the back of the room by the window, I was enjoying the beautiful morning light gently caressing my skin, very aware and appreciating each mouthful of my meal, each sip of the spicy chai tea I drank every day instead of coffee.
First, “strong will sitting”—during which we can’t open our eyes or change our posture. One hour that turns quickly into torture. Discomfort and pain manifest themselves, tensing the muscles, stabbing and trying, yet the only thing we can do is observe it and remain neutral; focusing on the sensation of it, not judging it as suffering which would generate aversion and negativity. Whatever you experience within the framework of your body, you have to stay equanimous. Stopping reaction to pleasant or unpleasant sensations, stopping the pattern of attachment, craving and aversion.
Some days every minute felt endless. The bite of the pain piercing my back, unacceptable yet, somehow, bearable thanks to a permanent focus, a total detachment from it. Other days, the hour flew, pain-free, totally immersed into the meticulous inner sweep from head to feet, from feet to head…
Ten minute break and… start again! Two other hours of work, during which some instructions and advice are given.
The bell announces the lunch, last meal of the day. We enter the dining hall, line up silently and fill our plate with the wholesome, various and delicious vegetarian food provided. A fragrant cup of herbal tea nicely closes this tasty interlude. I take advantage of the one hour break to walk around, stretch my legs, enjoy the light and the colors of this mid-day, happy to be outside in motion.
Push-ups, abs, plank, triceps, stretching… I started a daily routine. I needed to give my body some activity.
1 p.m.-2.30 p.m.
The bell reminds us that it’s time to meditate again. I mostly did so in my room for this session, using a chair to spare some pain in my back and be able to sit still the rest of the day. The concentration has often been scattered. My vagabond mind follows the hoot of the wind outside, the plumbing noise coming from other rooms. This sly mind keeps projecting images and scenarios on the screen of my closed eyelids. I had to use a lot the anapana technique (observation of the breath coming in, coming out) to redirect my attention.
2.30 p.m.-3.30 p.m.
Second “strong will sitting.”
Intense and draining.
3.30 p.m.-5 p.m.
Two hours starting with some instructions, that we can either spend in the meditation hall or in our room. The Dhamma hall was my choice. I preferred benefiting of the strong energy due to other meditators.
The bell rings. It’s tea time. Outside, a soft light wraps up everything in an orange and warm ton. I sip my cup of spicy tea, serene and smiley. The day is almost over and I’m happy I’ve faced it, happy to know I’ll have soon some rest and respite. It’s also time for a hot shower that relaxes my sore muscles.
Often, I’d spend time leaning my elbows on the railing around the pond, scanning the greenery at the surface, looking for a toad who played hide-and-seek with me every day. Sometimes, I thought I wouldn’t find it, and all sudden, it was here. Interesting parallel with the meditation and the capacity of seeing reality, seeing fully what is and not what we want to see…
6 p.m.-7 p.m.
Last and most difficult “strong will sitting.” My entire body was aching and I knew that any posture would be an ordeal. However, I managed each day to stay still and respect these “strong will” sessions. And each day, it felt like an accomplishment.
7.15 p.m.-8.15 p.m.
Time for some clarification, explanation, guidance through a discourse record on DVD. The brightness of the TV screen seemed too much for my eyes, but it was definitely another highlight of the day. Even though, as an old student, I know and understand the technique, I comprehended more at each discourse. Time also to release the tension and have some laughter, Goenka (the leading lay teacher recorded) likes to tell stories and one-liners.
8:20 p.m.-9 p.m.
Last meditation before returning to the dorm for some rest and sleep.
Tucked in the wrap I was using while sitting and meditating, I walked to my room under a starry sky, exhausted but at peace. Lying down on my bed, I swept my awareness one last time over body, conscious to sensations, especially while sleepless. The night was resumed to just a few hours of sleep, but somehow during the day I felt energized, awake, so present and aware.
This timetable has been ruling and giving rhythm to our lives for 10 days, and it’s odd not to follow it anymore. These 10 days are like an electroshock, intense and deeply shaking, but the real work is only now starting.
Step by step, I want to progress on the new path that brought me a new horizon, a new perspective, a new strength and balance. Step by step, I want to become and find out who I really am, get rid of all these layers of conditioning, wrong patterns and reactions (source of so much misery)… patiently, calmly, mindfully.
Elodie Saracco. I’m a French woman, climber, photographer, traveler. In 2006, in need of a life change, I decided to expand my vision and go out of my comfort zone by exploring more of this beautiful planet. Everything started with a round-the-world ticket: one year, five continents, 26 flights…
Shortly after I returned from this deeply transforming adventure, I quit my graphic artist career and settled life in Paris and left France for a remote place in Kentucky where I fell in love with the gorgeous sandstone and the amazing climbing community. It’s been now seven years that I’ve chosen another way of life. Mostly based in US, I keep exploring and experiencing different paths. My camera as a Third Eye, I’m trying to capture the moment and show the beauty all around in order to share with the Other.
Do not hesitate to contact me for more information and feel free to give me a feedback or leave a comment: I’d love to hear from you!
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Ed: Brianna Bemel