“Grasping at things can only yield one of two results: either the thing you are grasping at disappears, or you yourself disappear. It is only a matter of which occurs first.”
The above quote is attributed to S.N. Goenka, a Burmese-Indian teacher of Vipassana meditation. His recorded voice would become one of the only voices I heard over the course of a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.
With the assistance of Google and smart phone apps, meditation was something I had tried (and failed) many times before. Attempts at meditation usually resulted in me crying in the fetal position on the floor of my apartment.
My utter lack of self-discipline never led to a successful meditation practice, and like yoga, running, my gratitude journal, daily intentions, painting, and fiction writing, I never gave it the time or patience necessary to become part of my daily life. I certainly never allowed it to actually help me, and potentially alleviate the anxiety and depression I had come to accept as personality flaws.
After living in Japan for four years, I was grasping onto a life that didn’t exist anymore. I knew before moving home that I was going to need something to help me cope with the change. So, with the knowledge that I wouldn’t have health insurance or access to affordable therapy right away, I enrolled in a 10-day silent meditation course. I was holding onto hope that something could save me from disappearing—so with little experience meditating (or staying silent), I took a leap.
Upon arriving in New York City to catch a shuttle to the retreat center, I met a group of seemingly normal people at the pick-up location. One of the women waiting had actually done this before—twice. With a sense of relief that I wasn’t, in fact, joining a cult, I boarded the van to get in some quality time with my smartphone.
The retreat center was in the middle of nowhere. The grounds were wooded and the scenery was beautiful. A large, out of-place, gold pagoda could be seen peeking out from behind the otherwise plain building. After filling out some paperwork, turning over my wallet and phone, and unpacking my belongings onto shelves in my single room, it was just about time for total silence to commence.
After being ushered to a large closet filled with cushions, where I chose a small, circular pillow I wasn’t sure what to do with, each meditator was assigned a spot in the meditation hall. Once everyone was settled, we were asked to take refuge in three things: in Buddha, in dhamma, and in sangha.
While I would come to understand what this meant and not object to any of it, the repetitive nature of this act seemed a bit religion-y. The idea that I wasn’t going to be practicing any religion was part of what attracted me to this in the first place. All of this repeating and bowing was making me nervous.
Before the first sit, we agreed to a number of rules which we were to abide by over the course of the 10 days:
1.) To abstain from killing any being. This wasn’t too problematic, but I did make a tiny spider friend for the first two days of the retreat. While this normally might bother me, I did chat with him (albeit in my mind) as I adjusted to the loneliness.
2.) To abstain from stealing. My evening hunger pangs almost drove me to sneak food back to my room, but ultimately I never caved to this temptation.
3.) To abstain from all sexual activity. Abstaining from sexy time isn’t usually an issue for me even in situations when men are in close range and I am permitted to speak to them. Considering men and women were kept completely separate, it was a non-issue. We did share a meditation hall, and if you stared in a direction you didn’t need to, you could observe the sea of man buns and beards from a distance.
4.) To abstain from telling lies. I definitely lied each night when I told myself the next day would be better.
5.) To abstain from all intoxicants. Why anyone would consume anything mind-altering on this retreat is beyond me. It would certainly make an already difficult experience not only more tolling, but a waste of time.
Aside from the above rules, students agree to remain silent. We were meant to feel as though we were going through this experience alone. Meditators are permitted to speak to the teacher if they need clarification on anything. Students are not allowed to keep a journal, exercise, or mix any other meditation technique or religious practice with Vipassana.
So without further delay, an abbreviated account of my 10 days (based on what I remember, since my journal and pen taunted me from inside my suitcase) follows:
Day 1: The first day was filled with total ignorance of what my subconscious had in store for me. We were instructed to focus on observing our breath as it passed in and out of our nostrils. I went for a couple of walks, slightly weirded out by the signs that said “Course Boundary” when I ventured a little too far from the center. Was I in a matrix? I took a nap during one of the breaks. When my mind wandered, which it frequently did, it turned to happy memories of friends, family, and things that generally make life worth living. First kisses, camping trips, Christmas mornings, traveling, and crossing finish lines. Memories played in my head like a movie marathon, and today was the happy reel. Why had this meditation business been so difficult in the past? This was cake.
Day 2: The morning bell rang at 4 a.m. I quickly showered and arrived in the meditation hall by 4:30. I was fairly “hangry” since we were only permitted to eat fruit in the evening and breakfast wasn’t for another two hours. I continued to focus on my breath. Today we were instructed to focus on the area where our breath hits our skin, right below the nostrils. My mind continued to wander. Today was apparently the sad reel.
Every time I have ever felt rejected or devalued played on a loop. I started missing my dad (who passed away about 14 years ago) in a very tangible way—similar to how I felt for a year or so after he died. I felt alone and started questioning whether or not I should even stay. Maybe I wasn’t emotionally stable enough to be here.
Day 3: We were still focusing on our nostrils. And the area below our nostrils and above our upper lip. Staying focused became a little easier today. I started to feel some sensations in the areas we were instructed to stay focused on. My mind still wandered, but not as frequently or as out of control. Time was passing so slowly, and I began using meals, naps, and the evening lecture as my reality markers. It wasn’t necessarily bad, but it wasn’t good either. Everyone was beginning to look like they were in a Paxil commercial. I wondered if this is what it felt like to admit yourself to a mental facility.
Day 4: Vipassana Day! A word I couldn’t even pronounce a few months ago. This is what I was here for. All of that nostril stuff was to set the stage for this technique. Today would be the day I would learn to manage my garbage brain a little better. When we started learning the technique, I felt a little like I was doing magic. We were warned not to react to good sensations or pain. We needed to be cautious of doing this in order to avoid creating cravings or aversions. We had to remain equanimous with everything we felt. In essence, we were reprogramming our subconscious.
The sensations on my head, face, and neck felt tingly. It was amazing to me that I could feel sensations on the surface of my body just by focusing on those areas. As I scanned downward, I could feel my heart start to beat—fast. I started to pour sweat and my entire body suddenly felt like it was on fire. Pain from my legs shot through my body. I was certain I was going to have a panic attack or vomit—and from prior life experience, I knew those things were not mutually exclusive. And then the self-loathing internal monologue began: You suck. You can’t even sit there peacefully. You are going to fail at this like you fail at everything else you do. You just wasted four days of your life on this bullsh*t. All of these other people can do it. What exactly is wrong with you?
The sobbing started and Goenka’s voice chanting began to play over the speakers. I could get through this. Only a few more minutes…
Days 5-8: The idea of impermanence—that everything in life rises and passes away—is a major theme of this practice. At this point in the retreat, I had all of the ups and downs a person could have. Sitting for an hour without moving was surprisingly challenging and we were expected to do so in a group setting for three hours a day.
These days were some of the most miserable days I have ever experienced. Time, something that has seemed to pass so quickly over the past few years of my life, was moving painfully slowly. This, paired with the inability to get away from myself, was highly uncomfortable.
I decided I was a mean person when I found myself frustrated with someone because she was wearing a skirt and smiling. I looked straight at her during lunch one day and thought, “How can you be so annoying without even opening your mouth?” She did not make eye contact with me, since she was following the rules. B*tch.
On the seventh day, I felt really angry—for the entire day. I felt similar to how someone stuck in traffic for three hours without coffee or having eaten breakfast might feel. At the end of the day I approached my teacher, unsure of what I needed to say exactly. When I knelt in front of her I blurted out, “If one more person coughs or sneezes while I am trying to focus, I am going to punch them in the face,” before bursting into tears. She told me to lie down and meditate the next day, something I had avoided for fear of falling asleep. It did the trick, and my anger subsided after realizing I was being pretty hard on myself, and in turn was pretty hard on other people too.
One of the meditators had an extremely genuine and peaceful aura about her. Her head was completely shaven and she reminded me of Tilda Swinton’s character in Dr. Strange. Every time I saw her I knew I would get through this, and just seeing how content she seemed in this setting reminded me that it would benefit me to be there. She helped me get through the last few days without knowing it.
During meditation, the sensations I felt varied from amazing (for example, an ongoing jolt of energy throughout my body) to the annoying (an itchy nose) to seemingly unbearable pain (usually in my knees and thighs). Everything rose and passed away. As time progressed, I got better at acknowledging sensations and then continuing to scan my body. By the end of the eighth day, I could feel pain transition to a tingly sensation, and eventually disappear altogether. At one point my head felt a little like a balloon floating above me. I was starting to truly feel and understand impermanence because I was living it. I didn’t savor the good sensations or dwell in the bad ones, and I started to feel incredibly light.
Random thoughts and memories continued to invade my mental space, but I was better able to sift through the junk. I was able to reach some honest conclusions about myself and the source of patterns of pain in my life. I started to understand why I was there—and really felt that I was meant to be there.
Day 9: At this point, I began to become impatient for different reasons. I couldn’t stop thinking about people I wanted to talk to, people I wanted to try a retreat for themselves. Time was still moving quite slowly and I was ready to leave.
Day 10: At 11 a.m. we were permitted to speak to the other meditators. As a true extrovert, I immediately felt energized as I reconvened with my new friends from the shuttle ride. I was riding a high I did not want to end right up until a few days after the retreat.
I feel lighter. I feel more in control of my own life than ever before. I truly feel like my brain has been reprogrammed.
Sure, I still have feelings about things and people—but they hold different weight than they did before the retreat. I now truly believe that I am responsible for my own happiness, because I experienced actually changing it.
My reactions to people and situations are completely within my control. My cravings for things to turn out a certain way or for people to feel a certain way are the cause of my own unhappiness. Once I truly accepted that, I could take ownership for my own actions and stop blaming and consequently resenting others. All we need is love for ourselves to be happy. The other positive things that sometimes come our way are just the cherries on top of an already delicious sundae. As for the negative stuff, it doesn’t last forever, and we are strong enough to ride it out.
I have been hesitant to share my experience with others for a couple of reasons. First of all, I don’t think it’s possible to put everything I thought and felt over the course of 10 days into words. It also doesn’t really matter how I felt, because it’s going to be different from how someone else felt or how you might feel. My feelings only need to matter to me.
Secondly, it seems pretty unbelievable that something that only lasts 10 days can have such a profound impact. Stuck-in-traffic Alice probably would have laughed at this post and then felt sorry for herself for the rest of that day.
Third, it’s only been a couple of weeks. This is a practice I have just started implementing into my daily life and I am looking forward to seeing how it plays out, but I can’t give testimony to it for the long haul just yet.
All of this feels tremendously personal. Everyone really is on their own path and very rarely do we know or understand what our friends and family (let alone the strangers we interact with everyday) are battling. For that reason, I felt it might be okay to share my experience with whomever felt like reading it in case they wanted to give Vipassana a whirl.
You have nothing to lose, and only happiness to gain.
Author: Alice Carcilli
Editor: Emily Bartran
Copy Editor: Travis May