So, I was nervous like crazy about this retreat before going, and as it turns out, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t know what I was in for. I’ve been meditating off and on for 10 or 12 years, but this was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
What did I know going in? Ten days (well, plus day zero evening and day 11 morning). Over 120 hours of meditation. Silence for nearly the whole time. Scary enough.
Vipassana ended up being something very different than what I initially thought. I thought it more of a “see things as they are” idea, more like mindfulness and that whole ballgame. Which it is, but it’s a ballgame with a whole ‘nother set of rules. It’s all about recognizing things in your physical body in an attempt to get at the deepest level of the mind and its reactions to sensations. Which is undoubtedly an oversimplification that doesn’t really do justice to the things that it *really* does, but it was a different way of looking at things for me while still incorporating some elements of ideas I’d encountered in the past.
But here’s how it played out.
Arrival Day (Day Zero):
After an hour+ ride out of Chiang Mai, I checked in at the “Foreigners Registration” table, locked all of my contraband in a locker (cell phone, all reading and writing materials, etc.), and got to my assigned room. I had no idea what accommodations would be (dorm-style rooms? one big room with all of the beds, camp-style? shared bathrooms?), so I was actually pleasantly surprised to find a solo en-suite room. Which makes it sound all posh, but really it was just “my own.” A piece of OSB with a 1-inch mattress turned out to be surprisingly comfortable!
On this day, we could talk to each other, but very few people seemed to speak English, so I was in that familiar situation where I could smile at people and say hello in their language, but then just kept walking or whatever. Visually, I was one of two Western women of about 75 (which turned out to be true in reality, too — me and the German girl). It made my transition to silence seem a bit more gradual than for those who could communicate better verbally with others, I’d guess.
At the “English Orientation” that evening, there were about seven women and four men. Since men and women are to have no contact, the men sat on one side of an imaginary line drawn down the middle of the room by Fu, the absolutely lovely organizer and our translator, and the women sat on the other. It cracked me up, even though this practice is probably to accommodate one of the five precepts that “all those who attend a vipassana course must conscientiously undertake … during the course”:
- to abstain from killing any living creature;
- (not even mosquitos. or ants on your cookie)
- to abstain from stealing;
- (not sure what i could have stolen, honestly)
- to abstain from all sexual activity;
- (thus the separation of sexes, i guess, although this only accounts for strictly heterosexual attraction, so….)
- to abstain from telling lies;
- (not so hard when you can’t really talk)
- to abstain from all intoxicants.
- (i only made up drinking games, like take a drink every time the recorded teacher, s.n. goenka, says diligently, ardently, persistently, patiently, equanimously, anicca…. We would’ve been shitfaced).
And then we started meditating (waaaaaait a minute. it’s not even day one and we’re meditating? huh.) and the Noble Silence began.
I went to sleep Night Zero feeling hopeful.
When the bell chimed (loudly and persistently) at 4:00 to wake us all so that we could arrive at the meditation hall and be on our mats by 4:30, I swore aloud (is this breaking Noble Silence if a gal cusses in her room and no one is there to hear her?). I started coughing the most unhealthy cough I’ve coughed in years, felt my throat on fire, and found welts all over my face when I looked in the mirror. What. The fuck. Some allergic thing, it seemed, but I only had about three minutes to think about it after I’d actually gotten dressed and washed up. Off to the mediation hall it was. In this “silence”, I repressed coughs and felt the pain as I sat. And sat. And sat. Two hours of meditation before breakfast at 6:30. Which is longer than I’d ever sat at once for meditation in my entire life. (but, okay, i got this. i can do this.)
Three more hours of meditation between breakfast and lunch.
Four more hours of meditation between lunch and dinner.
My body now ached. My hips were on fire when I sat, and my back felt like I was being stabbed by my worst enemy.
The manager is the only person to whom we were supposed to talk (other than Fu), and only at appointed times, so I went and said, “I’m wondering about getting a chair for meditation. My body hurts so badly that I can’t focus.” She looked at me with concerned eyes and said, “Oh, you must talk with teacher about this.” And we could only talk with the teacher at two times during the day — after lunchtime (must sign up in the morning for a time slot) and at the end of the day (9:00. yes, mediation goes from 4:30am-9:00pm). So, I could talk to the teacher about getting a chair, but I’d have to make it through the three more hours of meditation between dinner and the end of the day. Tears welled up. “Okay.” And a “thank you” in Thai that I didn’t really mean.
I went to lay in my bed (we did get a bit of rest time after meals before more meditation), and my hips ached that deep, deep ache that only comes when one has done something seriously physical. Ummmm…. Like sitting???? I mean, seriously, this was the ache only familiar to me from doing long runs training for a marathon. Or running actual marathons. And I get that this was “marathon meditating”, but I was NOT anticipating the physical component of this. And, of course, we weren’t allowed any painkillers, so my ibuprofen had been locked up in the contraband locker.
And have I told you that so far we’d focused on our noses? Just focused on my nose, from the ring of the nostrils and followed the breath in and out through the nose. All day. Nose holes. Nothing but focus on sensation in the nose holes. All day.
This is day one. Day. ONE. (there are NINE MORE days of this??? maybe i could leave. i could get my phone, call a cab. this is stupid. only gluttons for punishment do this kind of shit. i can do this some other time when I’ve built up some endurance. i’ll talk to the teacher at 9:00. dumb.)
Another hour of meditation, then the Dhamma Discourse (about an hour of watching taped talks by S.N. Goenka), during which Goenka talked about exactly (EXACTLY) what I’d been going through. About the pain. About the mental stuff. About the wanting to go. And I laughed (quietly, and followed by this hacking cough). Evidently I wasn’t unique in my experiences.
And in the next sitting, my pain subsided. Or maybe I should say that the suffering subsided (another one of Goenka’s topics… suffering being generated by the craving and the aversion (i won’t talk too much about the actual teachings here, but this was a biggie for me — trying to be equanimous in my observations of sensations)).
I went to sleep Night One feeling exhausted, achy, and schooled.
More cursing at the 4:00am bells. More focusing on the nose. Except this day we got to expand it to the upper lip where we felt the breath, too! Yes! An extra few inches! This truly felt like a gift. The pain was still there, but the suffering subsided, which made it just hurt less. And the food was really good for every meal, so that was a respite in the day. Still, with that cough (the welts had now gone away), and with some added congestion, I was less than physically comfortable in any way.
And in the kindest break of Noble Silence (although I’m sure it was for her benefit as much as for mine), a gal from across the hall gave me some cough drops. Or at least that’s what I assumed those things to be (all the writing was in Thai), and I shoved one in my mouth immediately without question for what it might actually be. Minty relief. They brought my coughing needs down to 432 in a two-hour sitting instead of 8,432, even though I only let myself cough twice (and wonder if I might actually drown). After lunch, I went to the manager and got more cough drops, a process I’d repeat multiple times. But I also got some coveted Ricola cough drops from that same lovely gal across the hall a few days later. I only allowed myself one of those each day, during the last meditation of the evening.
I went to sleep Night Two feeling relieved.
Cursing. Focusing on the nose (back to just the nose again). For a third day. Not kidding.
Pain just seemed necessary at this point and not to be avoided. But I was starting to get the things he was talking about doing. Focusing on sensation.
Feeling exhausted, though, I went back and slept every minute I possibly could after meals, so my schedule looked like this:
- (Repeat above x2)
- Listen to Goenka’s discourse (respite!)
I looked forward to the Dhamma Discourse each night, when there was only a bit of meditation left for the day, and I got to cough my way through some giggles (Goenka’s pretty darn funny and tells a good story!).
I went to sleep Night Three feeling exhausted but like I was settling into it a bit.
This day we learned the actual vipassana technique (it had been anapana up to that point)! But we also started doing one-hour group sittings where we did not move. We resigned to “not open our legs, not open our hands, not open our minds.” For one hour. Up until this point I’d been a bit of a wiggle worm, trying to adjust my way out of pain relatively frequently. So we started vipassana (which includes scanning the entire body for physical sensations – hooray! more area on which to focus!). And these one-hour sittings. And the pain came back. With a vengeance. I struggled, struggled, struggled, through the first sitting. At what must have been 15 minutes, my nose started running. My head itched. My right hip was screaming. But I didn’t move. By what I thought must be a half hour, my nose kept running. Then my eyebrow itched. And my arm. My back was alternating between cramping and shooting pains. But I didn’t move. At 45 minutes, everything either itched or was in pain or was cramping. But I still didn’t move. And then at an hour, Goenka started chanting and I moved. Into a whole ‘nother level of pain, but for just a moment before the relief and a sense of accomplishment flooded in.
That was the first of two of those sittings we had do that day, and the relief and accomplishment didn’t come the second time around. I walked (hobbled?) away the second time with only feelings of pain.
I went to sleep Night Four feeling defeated, unsure how I’d possibly do this three times a day for the next six days.
More of the same. Pain, with accompanying and increasing suffering. I signed up to talk to the teacher after lunch.
I finally got to walk through the meditation hall and up to the teacher (a Buddhist monk) who was sitting cross-legged on a platform in his saffron robes. I sat in front of him on the floor with Fu in tow to translate. After bowing in respect, I muttered, “I’m struggling with equanimity. I just want the pain to go away.” Fu translates. He tells me to return to the respiration focus when I can’t focus elsewhere, be equanimous, blah blah blah. I knew this was what I was supposed to do, and what I had been trying unsuccessfully to do, so my face contorted and the tears started. I wanted some magic bullet, some secret monk trick to making the pain go away (while still not having aversion toward the pain). I struggled ineffectively to hold back the tears, and repeated, “So just return to the breath when I can’t stand it anymore. Okay.” He confirmed, and said I could change positions if returning to the breath doesn’t work after a while.
And now I am really crying. I am a 41-year old woman, sitting on the floor of an expansive meditation hall in Lamphun, Thailand.
Fully crying. In front of a Buddhist monk.
And then he gets this beaming smile on his face, adjusts his position so that his body now leans slightly toward me, his hands further forward on his knees, and he says with a trace of a chuckle:
“Don’t be so hard on yourself! And don’t be so serious about it!”
And now I am laugh-crying, and the monk is laughing with me.
And the suffering is gone.
The next group sittings were better. All of the sittings were better that afternoon. I observed. I was equanimous. Good things happened.
I went to sleep Night Five feeling cold. Crazy cold, but crazy good.
Day 6: And then the cold really came. The manager started distributing all the clothing the extra clothing they had (I was lucky enough to get another scarf for my head and an extra long-sleeved shirt but not lucky enough to get one of the few sleeping bags). I started walking around and sleeping with six layers on top (tank top, three short sleeved-shirts, two long-sleeved shirts), plus the one shawl/scarf I brought and the blanket from my bed wrapped around me, the borrowed scarf over my head, then three layers on the bottom (capris under long pants under a long skirt) and the only pair of socks I brought. When I sat for meditation with the blanket pulled up over my head, I looked forward and see a sea of golden blanket lumps. Well, with a couple of white lumps (the nuns) off to the right side, and a few saffron lumps to the far left (the other monks).
I went to sleep shivering, tucked around a Nalgene full of hot water. For Nights 6, 7, 8 and 9. During which days the pain returned, left, returned, left… Anicca, anicca, anicca…
The warmth returned (anicca… yep. always.). The meditation continued until the morning, at which point we could talk again. And then, after those ten days, the other English-speaking gals and I chatted and chatted and chatted. There is so much laughter everywhere, that I can’t help but think this is the happiest place on Earth in this moment. But it all seemed so loud, too. Such a cacophony of laughter and chatter everywhere! Such a different experience than the last ten days. These were now women again, not just meditating lumps surrounding me.
I went to sleep Night Ten smiling.
After the morning meditation, we took our contraband from the lockers, and everyone frantically turned on their phones. I hesitated. I hadn’t really missed it like I thought I would (although I had wanted to message people at certain points to tell them what I was thinking). When I did eventually turn it on, the screen looked strange. So vivid, so sharp, so different. Had there been some weird update? Nope. (well, not to my phone, but perhaps to my brain.)
I snapped some pics, laughed more with the delightful gals, and hopped in the van with several of them back to Chiang Mai. And back to reality, reflecting on so many things I haven’t even written about…
Serious things (the concept of physical body, true equanimity, craving and aversion, and on and on and on…) and giggle-inducing things (the farting nun, salt soup, the junk food table, the “Happy Bear” socks one nun wore every day, and on and on and on….).
And now the real work begins — to try to incorporate this new learning into my life. I shall do my best, but with the words of a lovely monk ringing in my brain….
Don’t be so hard on yourself! And don’t be so serious about it!
Straight to my ears from the lips of a Buddhist monk in the middle of a vipassana retreat in Thailand.
Charmed life example #1406.