I recently completed my second 10-day silent Vipassana meditation course.
I was telling a fellow meditator that the first time was like losing my virginity. I wasn’t sure what the hell I was doing, but I got through it. Later, friends congratulated me and I remember thinking, what for?
The second time, I kind of knew what to expect and wasn’t as shy about making my needs known. Same with Vipassana, sort of. On the second go, I knew enough to bring my favorite cushion, shawl, and comfortable clothing.
Having just completed my second 10-day course, I’ve come away much more humbled, invigorated, and pleased with my performance, as it were. In Vipassana, one is asked to sit in meditation from 4:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, not counting meal breaks and rest periods. One usually ends up sitting several hours a day.
When I first showed up to the course, I was filled with optimism. After all, I’m a dedicated yogi, meditation teacher, and a relatively calm person in my daily life. Well, after the second day I was ready to strangle S.N. Goenka (the master teacher) and his incessant chanting, which didn’t save me from the bitterness of my thoughts.
I got down on myself for not being able to focus on my breath for five hours a day. Everyone around me looked like they were holding it together pretty well, or at least their postures said as much. I could sit about a half hour before my legs started to burn and my attention faded thoroughly. All my yoga practice was defenseless against the archnemesis—my mind.
In the outside world, one can talk through their anxiety or tribulations. You can lean on any distraction, such as a friend, a TV show, a book, an intoxicant, sex, and so on. In a Vipassana course, all of that becomes forbidden and all you have to lean on is yourself and your own inner resources. At first glance, it seems like a piece of cake, but a few days in and the proposition to keep silent, keep sitting, and avoid eye contact seems abominable.
So how did I transform my anxiety, boredom, exhaustion, and ricocheting mind into one with graceful patience and equanimity? What started to shift, and how?
I’ll preface by saying that whatever I gained by perseverance and fortitude was only temporary, but progress is made by consistent intention and attention. The path to enlightenment is filled with forward motions, backward slips, and endless roundabouts. Indeed, for me, the path is most visible when I’m deep in a steady (daily) practice, among community, and able to feel seen and appreciated.
In Vipassana meditation, my inner resources were called into question, in the deepest way. I was put face to face with a whirlwind of anxieties and frustrations. I kept wondering if my sweetie would leave me after 10 days of absence. I wondered if my car would start. In the grand scheme of my life, these were minor troubles, but every possible thing I’ve ever thought to write, express, or perform suddenly became of utmost importance.
My mind was fighting me tooth and nail. It, like a puppy, did not want to be trained. But Vipassana trains the mind, and does so efficiently. By the fifth day or so, I could feel my mind start to give in and adhere to my higher voice of wisdom. I’d say, “Observe respiration, be calm, gentle, and aware.” I would repeat such things from time to time when my wind wandered—not as a mantra, but as a guide. And it wandered every which way it could until my sitting in stillness and gentle breath tired it out.
My jumpy, unsteady, childish mind steadily gave in and I could begin the real work of Vipassana.
Something shifted for me on the sixth day. I decided not to move from my meditation posture for at least an hour, come what may. No matter what bug landed on my nose. No matter how much my legs screamed for mercy. No matter what thought popped into my head about needing to do this or that. I would remain still and equanimous. In fact, one of the integral steps in understanding this style of meditation is the concept of equanimity. Basically, it’s about remaining detached from the pain or the pleasure of meditation. To remain one step ahead or above the practice is the goal—not easily achieved, obviously.
We are sometimes deeply invested in our experience. We often tell ourselves we can do such and such a thing for such and such a reason. The story I told myself was that I could only sit for a half hour because my knees were injured from many years of soccer. My excuse held me back from progressing, and I figured the idea of sitting for long periods of time didn’t apply to me. Bullsh*t. I had bullsh*tted myself into a smaller reality. A seemingly safer reality.
Again, only speaking for myself, it was my limiting self-talk that was my greatest obstacle. I’d heard this before, and intellectually, I understood it. The difference this time around was that I now could understand it in my body, and in the stillness of my mind—devoid of distractions.
Now I’m not going to get into the whole “the power within” and the “all you have to do is believe in yourself” narrative. It’s old and cliché at this point. Every tea bag label can tell you that. What I’d simply like to reflect on is how it doesn’t just happen by the snap of a mental finger. It has taken me years to get to this point. I was in talk therapy for many years. I took Vinyasa yoga classes for many years. I moved on to Kundalini yoga, mantras, and a variety of meditations. Each time, with each step along the path, I felt more self-compassion and empathy for others. Somehow there was something remarkable for me this time around in the Vipassana course. I managed to expand my narrative and self-talk; I not only told myself, while in the depths of pain and meditation, that I was calm, sweet, and gentle, but I told myself that this pain was temporary. That it would pass. And each time, with continued practice, it did. It transformed into a deeper and more grounded state of consciousness.
Vipassana asks us to remain equanimous and aware, no matter how elated or pained we become (of course, self-injury is to be avoided altogether). The challenge becomes to remain still and balanced even as the mind goes into whirlwinds, anxieties, future achievements, and past failures. And somehow, this time around, I understood this concept in my muscles, on a profound visceral level.
All this is to say that Vipassana is not the end all be all, but it can definitely help move you through some deep-seated beliefs and narratives that may be holding you back from rising above your self-defeating patterns. For me, time has shown that I need different tools for different times. At one time I needed talk therapy to discuss my family and the way I grew up. I needed to talk with an empathetic human being to help me see that my patterns began long before I could defend myself, or understand myself. They began when I needed a kind of structure in my life, to help me cope with the trauma of surviving the death of my father and, later, my brother.
The bottom line: life is messy.
Sometimes horrible events come crashing into our lives and we struggle to understand and stay sane under impossible conditions. Having tools, such as meditation, yoga, therapy, and community to cope with the inevitable is a healthy way to find peace within and around oneself.
My sincere hope is that you come to understand that you have options all around you. Finding a sense of peace through an authentic, stable practice is not easy, nor is it free of challenges, small and large. The challenge might be with your current environment or old, “trusted” patterns. It may be with modes of coping that no longer suit the “you” you’re striving to be. It may mean disappointing old friends, family members, or employers. I would never minimize such challenges. Nonetheless, the reward for accepting the truth within one’s being is not to be minimized either. The struggle to find that truth is perhaps our greatest task before we take our last breath.
It’s as if each breath we take leads to that last one, and everything we do in the meantime informs it.
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