A CrossFitter goes to 10-Day Silent Meditation Retreat!

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Back in February 2015 I went on my second 10-Day silent meditation retreat.  To get a general sense of what a silent meditation is read this first.

The retreat center in Joshua Tree opened its doors in 2011 so it’s practically brand new. As an ‘old student’, meaning I had already completed a 10-day retreat in the past, I got a dorm room all to myself. The dorms were comfortable and clean. I even had my own bathroom.

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One of the rules (and there are several) is to not bring outside food with you to the Center.  All meals are vegetarian and buffet style.  I was really worried that I wouldn’t get all the protein I needed to make my #gainz so I stashed protein powder, my Blender Bottle, and a couple of protein bars in my suitcase.

Breakfast is mostly carbs like fruit, bread, oatmeal, and stewed prunes. I toasted Ezekiel bread and topped with 1-2 TB of peanut butter and sunflower seeds OR butter and a layer of nutritional yeast.

Lunch is the best meal of the day!  Some items in the lunch buffet include Moroccan tagine, fried rice, marinated tofu, daal, rice, steamed veggies, and a legit salad bar.  Dinner is fruit and tea.  I drank all sorts of teas like chamomile (to calm the nerves and aid in digestion), peppermint and ginger (to prevent gas), green tea (slightly increases body temperature which increases metabolism), and a new tea I discovered called Bengal Spice.  The name says it all.

I lost three pounds (probably all water) within the first two days.  How did I know that?  I brought my scale with me.  I hid it underneath my bed and would weigh myself every morning before taking my first sip of water.

Let’s move on to technology.  No cell phones.  They have to be locked up in a closet by a staff member before the retreat begins.  I learned that you cannot be forced to give up your phone, so I kept mine in my room on silent.  Yes, I checked it.  Everyday.  Multiple times a day.  I had just started using an app called MyFitnessPal.  It tracks your meals and calories, and I was diligent/obsessed with getting my macronutrient ratio of 40% fats to 35% protein to 25% carbohydrates dialed in.  While there is a cornucopia of carbohydrates offered, you have to hunt for the healthy fats and protein.  Even though I enjoyed their marinated tofu, which kind of reminds me of eating weak ass mini steaks, I tried to stay away from soy in general.  I also checked my email often.  I sheepishly admit that I watched a ‘Ballet Beautiful’ workout on YouTube….a couple of times, listened to a Sam Harris podcast, took some photos, and sent some texts.

Walking is the only approved exercise.  The Center is even weird about yoga because they “do not currently have an approved facility for a yoga practice,” although yoga is considered compatible with Vipassana otherwise.  The Center at Joshua Tree is fortunate enough to have a walking path that is made out of rocks and sand and is about a quarter mile in length.  I went into business mode after lunch and would chalk up several laps on the walking path.  It started as a compulsion to get my cardio in every day.  After several days of that I chilled the fuck out and slowed down as there was, “Nothing to do, nowhere to go.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

With that said, I also did squats, sit-ups, push-ups, wall walks, and Ballet Beautiful (of course), when in the privacy of my own room.

Does sitting up tall with an erect spine, relaxed shoulders and slightly engaged core for hours and hours count towards exercise?  Yes, it is an exercise of the mind – possibly the hardest exercise of them all.

I definitely had an internal battle going on during this retreat.  I was defiant right from the start.  I adamantly refused to volunteer to ring the 4:00 AM ‘wake-up bell’ every morning.  I snuck in my own food and checked my phone often.  I exercised when I was supposed to be meditating.  I masturbated furiously every night in an attempt to tire myself out enough to fall asleep.  One night while I was in bed my body thrashed from side to side for what seemed like hours.  I was literally having full body spasms.  They were freaky as hell!  Ironically, my teacher spoke about this very thing the next day during the daily discourse.  I meditated when I wanted to meditate, which was about five to six hours a day.  When I sat, I sat with intention.  My intention was to let everything go once my ass made contact with my meditation cushion. I focused on turning off my internal chatter/judgements and being completely present.
Other key points to consider:

It’s so dry during the day that you’ll want to pack extra lotion, face moisturizer, and chapstick.

Bring shower shoes in case you have to share a bathroom.

Turn in your damn phone to the staff at the start of the retreat.  Just do it.  If there is a true emergency then make sure to give the Center’s phone number to your emergency contact.

If you don’t have regular ‘movements’, then consider not eating all the kale, broccoli, cauliflower, chick peas, and beans.  You’re going to be sitting for many hours in the quietest meditation hall ever with at least 80 other humans.  We hear and smell everything and we know who you are.

Dress appropriately.  You have to cover your legs past your knees and your arms past your shoulders.  No leggings or tights – Leave the Lululemon at home (unless it’s loose fitting and not revealing). Check the forecast and wear white or light colors during the summer and always bring layers.  It could be super hot or super cold outside on the same day. The temperature in the meditation hall fluctuates, so bring a lightweight, thin scarf to drape over your head.  This will give you a little more privacy and keep your head at the perfect temperature.  These conditions will make it that much easier for you to get in the zone.

Bring flip flops or sandals – you want to have a pair of shoes that are easy to slip on and off.

Bring a meditation cushion/zafu and practice on it for a few days at home before you start your retreat.

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Someone built a meditation throne.

I don’t want to reveal too much more as we’ve arrived at the actual exciting part:  the meditation.  That is for you to experience.  Now that I’ve given you the low down on what to expect at the Center you know that this is totally doable and even enticing.  It is up to you to show up, shut up, and go through a very complex, delightful, maddening, mind opening experience that is your own.  I would love to hear what you discover!

 

 

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10-Day Vipassana Silent Meditation in Joshua Tree, California

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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:

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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/