It’s Day 2 (of 11), and I’m staring down my “dinner”, a dry orange, while the fluorescent light flickers overhead. For the past 48 hours, I haven’t spoken to or made eye contact with anyone…I’ve basically been living with disembodied shoes and leggings.
No, I’m not surviving the zombie apocalypse…I’m at a 10-day vipassana meditation retreat. No talking, no non-verbal communication / eye contact, no food other than fruit after midday (and all vegetarian at that!), and no cell phones or reading/writing materials. No email or texts for 10 days! Instead, 11 excruciating hours of meditation sitting cross-legged every day starting at 4:30 am.
The camp was like a woodsy prison with better food…you eat on a schedule, you get exercise breaks to walk around the prison yard (a pond), boys and girls are generally separated (and no conjugals), and you have meditation “cells”.
I am anxious upon arrival, especially since someone had scratched out the days (a la dead man walking), which the staff did a poor job covering with masking tape. I thought to myself: at least in prison, you can make friends.
Some might say sitting for 100+ hours of meditation in 10 days is crazy. My mind said it was crazy. Actually, my mind said a lot of shit. “I love you, mind, but please shut the fuck up!” Part of the personal journey is learning the difference between your mind talking and your soul talking.
Of the 10-11 hours a day, I probably meditated a solid 50% of the time with the rest split between passing out (intentionally and otherwise), walking around not meditating, writing emails in my head, singing along to the non-stop Taylor Swift “Blank Space” loop in my head, sexual fantasies…oh, the sexual fantasies, and overanalyzing the past relationship over and over and over (though not as much as you’d think).
Interestingly, the teacher, Goenka, is actually dead. He died a year ago and all the audio and video is from 1991…think VHS and high school filming skills. At first, it feels jarring, then hilarious, then familiar and familial. There are assistant teachers, with whom you can sign up to meet for 5 minutes a day to ask questions about the meditation technique. And that is all the communication (verbal and otherwise) that you are allowed. The only voice here is Goenka’s…this is how I would brainwash people.
Here’s generally how the 10 days played out (I’ve omitted the details about the meditation in case you’d like to try it. I think everyone who is remotely open to meditation, should do this. It’s not about an intellectual understanding but an experiential wisdom – see below for my crude summary).
Day 0: after our last “dinner” of soup, we meditate for an hour in the evening…exceeding my previous continuous sitting record by 3x. Oh dear.
Day 1: my back is in excruciating pain…I go to ask the assistant teacher for a backjack, an amazing backrest, seemingly created for the sole purpose of meditating for hours on end.
Me: Ummm..my back is killing me…can I have a backjack?
She: Do you really need it?
Me: (mumble) I had childhood back and neck surgery
She: Vipassana is not about childhood surgery…
Me: (cautiously) I guess I could see how today goes…
She: Don’t put a time limit on it…that’s not how vipassana works
Me: (I return sheepishly to my cushion sans backjack. By the end of the retreat, I had amassed a fort of 11 pillows, but no backjack
Day 2: Is it possible to go mentally crazy by sitting in your mind? I perfect the survivalistic brain shutdown (i.e., passing out while sitting up)
Day 3: I think I have a major breakthrough in meditation because I am overcome by another state of consciousness and a deluge of painful memories…my assistant teach assures me this is not what vipassana is about.
Day 4: I will orgasm if I can just scratch my ear. I wonder if sitting for these long periods of time will give me deep vein thrombosis
Day 5: I think I have a major breakthrough again…the assistant teacher again assures me I am wrong and urges me to “feel, not think.”
Day 6: 4 more days… ugh. As I ruminate on unplugging from the matrix, I realize the matrix is the mind…consider my mind blown!
Day 7: Every time I sit down, I think “this is a fucking lot of meditation”
Day 8: I can do this…a couple more days. I can t tell I’ve lost some weight though I’m generally not hungry. Between 7-8pm, I get really hungry but figure that’s a part of the process
Day 9/10: it ends abruptly and I find Carmen (the MX chick) outside and embrace her. We’re both crying and the first words out of our mouths are “that was fucking hard.” I am wondering if I have always sounded so loud in my head when talking. Even though I have barely spoken to these women (and didn’t even know some of them were 3 beds down from me), I feel a kindred spirit. Everyone seems so much nicer when they smile and hug
Carmen and Olga, a Bikram yoga teacher from Siberia who had the bed between Carmen and me, become my spirit sisters and we will cement this sisterhood in Vegas.
More than a month later, I’m struggling to meditate 20 min. every day (recommended amount was 2 x 1 hr.!). However, most people I’ve spoken with have said that the meditation retreat continues to pay dividends over time. For me, I’ve noticed myself being more aware when I’m craving and not wanting something fun to end. I remind myself that everything is impermanent and that I’m craving. The awareness in and of itself seems to loosen the grip of the object of my craving. Meditation’s allowed me to live more in the present and less in the past or future.
Note: I’ve spared everyone the details of vipassana, but if you’d like to learn more, let me know or check out dhamma.org. At a high level, this meditation technique is quasi-buddhist but generally non-sectarian. it’s about recognizing the impermanence of everything, which means we have no reason to attach to either pleasant sensations (which leads to craving and clinging) or avoid unpleasant sensations (which leads to aversion and hatred). Attachment is the source of all unhappiness (i.e., when we want something to happens and it doesn’t; when we don’t want something to happen and it does). Meditation helps to break that patterned response of attachment and bring about a more balanced mind / equanimity. A good intro to meditation is the headspace app available on both iOS and Android. It’s guided and has really cute, helpful animated videos