It had only been two weeks since I came back from the Amazonian jungle. My first week home was spent recovering from traveler’s diarrhea, and with only one week left, I had secretly hoped that I would book a commercial or modeling job to get out of going to this Vipassana retreat. I was mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. Under the circumstances, the thought of meditating in absolute silence for 10 days without being allowed to read, write, exercise, do yoga, listen to music, use my phone, use the internet, take photos, take drugs, or drink alcohol was unappealing. Thank goodness I didn’t let that scare me off because it was my most profound experience of 2013.
I didn’t know a single soul at this retreat so I was essentially surrounded by strangers with at least one thing in common: We all wanted to practice Vipassana. I thought that the silence would drive me to insanity but instead it was my sanctuary. All of the societal pressures to engage in conversation and make eye contact were forbidden. This was surprisingly refreshing and relaxing. I savored every moment of it.
Here’s the daily schedule:
|4:00 am||Morning wake-up bell|
|4:30-6:30 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|6:30-8:00 am||Breakfast break|
|8:00-9:00 am||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-11:00 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|11:00-12:00 noon||Lunch break|
|12noon-1:00 pm||Rest and interviews with the teacher|
|1:00-2:30 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|2:30-3:30 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|3:30-5:00 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|5:00-6:00 pm||Tea break|
|6:00-7:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|7:00-8:15 pm||Teacher’s Discourse in the hall|
|8:15-9:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-9:30 pm||Question time in the hall|
|9:30 pm||Retire to your own room–Lights out|
The only required activities were the three daily group sits. Based on this schedule one could meditate anywhere from 3 to 11+ hours per day. I averaged about five and a half hours. I had experience in different styles of meditation, but I hadn’t seriously meditated in a long time. Every time I tried to practice in the privacy of my room, I dozed off right away. I made the most achievements with my meditation practice when I joined my fellow meditators in the group hall.
Now, scroll back up to the first photo in this post. Take a look at the left side of the picture. See that strange thing hanging on the wall? I started creating that on Day 5 of my silent meditation retreat. That was the day I began acting a little bit kooky out of sheer boredom. On the morning of Day 5 I felt a strong urge to break out of my monotonous routine. At this point I was wearing my dark purple, fleece robe all the time. I practically lived in that thing. That morning I decided to style my hair into two braided pigtails using facial tissue as ribbons in the hopes that I would look like Pocahontas, but instead I looked more like a mental patient. I was fascinated by the possibilities of tissue. I had rummaged through everything in my toiletries bag looking for more art supplies. Bingo! I had found a pocket-sized sewing kit and an unusually large number of hair ties. I scavenged for the perfect dead branch from outside. This was the final outcome of my project:
I experienced some of the most excruciating pain of my life while I was there. I initially blamed the throbbing pain in my left shoulder-blade on a crappy bed I had slept on while I was in the Amazon. To my surprise, I discovered that most of my misery was coming from my mind. I only fed the fuel of my pain by blaming it on something outside myself. It wasn’t until the second day that I was taught how to not only neutralize but eliminate my suffering. It wasn’t easy. I almost screamed in agony in a room of 60 meditators at one point. As I developed my practice for eliminating my physical pain, I went through waves of burning discomfort and solace. By Day 6, I had considerably reduced my pain and by Day 10, I was pain-free.
I had heard of cases where people experienced such anger that they wanted to kill their teacher. I even knew of one person who had to leave a Vipassana retreat early, because she had a mental breakdown. And then I met a woman who had been going to retreats consistently three times a year for nine years. She spoke to me with the enthusiasm of an excited child on Christmas morning. Another friend couldn’t put into words how much Vipassana had changed his life for the better. My experience was a positive one. This has been by far the most effective form of meditation I have ever practiced. Vipassana not only brought harmony and equanimity into my life it also uprooted some of my suffering. It did all of this without any religious ties or blind faith because it is based on logic, reason, and science.
My journey will look, feel, and ultimately be very different from yours should you decide to experience it for yourself, and I recommend that you do. It isn’t about comparing, judging, or trying to make your experience look a certain way; it is about being present, non-judgmental, compassionate, and patient. It has been one of the most profound and dare I say enlightening experiences I have ever had.
Can you believe that Vipassana retreats operate on a donation-only basis? Believe it. Meals, lodging, accommodations, and teachings are all free. Donations should be based on your means and volition. 10-Day Courses run all year round and fill up quickly, so try to sign up several months in advance.
To learn more about Vipassana meditation visit their website: http://www.dhamma.org/
To learn more about the Southern California Vipassana Center in Joshua Tree visit their website: http://www.vaddhana.dhamma.org/