When I told people that I was going on a “retreat” over spring break, they immediately thought I was going on a vacation to a spa, getting massages, doing yoga on the beach, drinking cucumber lemon water and escaping reality for a few days. What I actually went through was the complete opposite of that. This was in every sense of the literal, old-school word retreat: “the act of withdrawing…to a place of privacy or safety”. I took this meditation training as a prerequisite to move forward in teacher training for MBSR in Des Moines (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) courses for adults. I compared it to the difference between reading a book about what training is like in the US Military, versus actually going through Navy Seals training where they practically drown you but never let you die, push you to mental and physical limits that you’ve never reached before. Sink or swim, sister.
This is NOT where I went…
I attended a 10-day silent meditation course in Menomonie, Wisconsin that teaches a peculiar and ancient technique called Vipassana, meaning: seeing things as they actually are (not how you want them to be). (Their website, here) It’s a process of “self-purification by self-observation”. A non-sectarian, non-religious, universal technique to ultimately relieve the practitioner of suffering, figuring out by experience what causes us to remain miserable and how to change the habit pattern of the mind by going deep into the root of our problems. Then through living our lives, we start to be in better relation to both the good and the bad of it. After all, if you’re human and you’re breathing, there is suffering of some kind or another on any end of the spectrum of intensity. With this specialized form of meditation, you work within the framework of your own body sensations and the breath, and with persistence and patience, you slowly begin to realize our bodies and minds are sending and receiving countless communications about our well-being.
When I explain the details and the intensity of the course, people look at me like I have 5 heads and say, “Why in the world would you want to go do something like that??” Same look I got when I told people I was doing the Tough Mudder – why does anyone challenge themselves….? For personal growth and improvement, to see what we’re really made of. As our lives get more and more busy, constantly connected and attached to our devices and detached from our lives, looking to things and people outside of ourselves to make us happy, we’re losing the ability to relax, replenish and nourish ourselves. The outside world is so flashy, loud and alluring that we fail to notice that there’s an entire inner world going on in the framework of our minds and bodies.
I was a bit nervous going into this as I knew we were going to be living in close quarters, female dorm style for 10 days. What types of weirdos would I encounter on something so out there? Come to find out, the men and women that attended this retreat were all completely normal! A physician, a chiropractor, sales, director of multicultural affairs for Queens, NY by day and Cuban salsa instructor by evening, a software engineer, childbirth educator, a consultant for IBM. These women were amazing, courageous and determined….and I didn’t get to actually talk to them till day 10. Most of the time we were like ships passing in the night, 🙂 aware of each other but unable to communicate. About half of the people that participated in this course had to fly in from the coasts as their local Vipassana retreats were booked up through this summer. This struck a chord for me – That people are in need of silence and stillness that they will go to even greater lengths to find it these days and that there HAS to be something absolutely profound about the technique of Vipassana.
I am the ultimate skeptic. However, I’m equally as curious. And since I needed to have a longer silent retreat under my belt to begin teacher training for MBSR, which is my ultimate goal, I pulled up my big girl pants, took a deep breath and surrendered myself and trusted the process. Here is a typical day:
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 / Rest
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 instructions
11:00-12:00 pm Lunch break / Rest
12 -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 instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break / Rest
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
No joke. 17 hour days, roughly 10 hours if sitting meditation. You have tea and fruit at 5pm and don’t eat again till 6:30am the next day. Everything in the course has a specific reason and everything was so structured and organized. There were many times throughout my time there, I wondered if this is how an Olympic athlete would feel with physical training. Every cell of my body did NOT want to go into that building to do yet another sit. I would take deep breaths and settle myself before I walked in the meditation hall and gave myself a pep talk….silently, of course.
Thankfully, we were able to break silence the morning of the 10th day as a kind of shock absorber to real life. It was fascinating hearing other girl’s stories since they were so similar to mine. Here are a few things I learned on my journey of mind training through self-observation:
Silence is Golden – We were asked to hold Noble Silence the entire retreat. That meant silence of mind, body and speech….no talking, no eye contact, no touching. No technology, writing, reading, even exercise. All of these were made for very specific reasons. Reason being, it was to quiet yourself and slow down enough to just begin the process of sharpening the mind. I craved to stop talking and longed for quiet, because I don’t get that a lot in my normal life. But silence can also be torrential and overwhelming if we don’t see the wisdom and purpose in it. From the moment we’re born and open our eyes, the outer world floods in and we fail to realize there’s an inner world we ignorantly don’t pay attention to. Our body is constantly sending us signals and communicating with us, but it falls on deaf ears until we blow up and yell at someone we later regret, or have an 8-hour crying marathon like I did on day 5 where I officially lost my stuff for a while, but fortunately regained my composure all on my own.
Don’t Scratch the Itch – We were asked to not react to physical pain, instead, respond objectively. In normal life, we automatically avoid any kind of pain, we run away from it. Even something as tiny as an itch, we automatically scratch, make it go away without thinking. In meditation, you sit with the itch….every time I watched one, it would change and eventually go away. Similarly, when your knees are screaming in agony and you feel like your back and neck are on fire from hours of sitting and holding a sitting position, your body wants to run away, numb yourself from the pain. However, if you sit with it with perfect equanimity, and just observe sensations…you come to realize the Law of Impermanence. Everything in our lives is constantly changing, in a state of flux. What arises will pass away, sooner or (hopefully) later as in the case of my knees. This teaches that thoughts and emotions, cravings and aversions fit into this. There’s no reason for attachment to something or pushing something away if it’s not going to be there the next time you turn around.
Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide – There was no distracting myself from ANYTHING. I came to realize the hard way through experience, that I had nowhere to run from my mind and thoughts. The only way was through them. In our daily lives we’ve learned maladaptive coping mechanisms to stress and negativity. If something starts to crop up, we don’t even realize a slight increase in the heart rate, a little bit of sweating, shortness of breath. Instead, we habitually distract, like shopping, alcohol, eating, socializing, reading, even exercise. I was in a padded cell with my mind. I thought of myself like a sealed liter of soda. Not yet opened, you shake and shake, set it down, but nothing happens. When you quickly let off the lid, it explodes. Same to life — with meditation, you learn to twist the cap tiny bits at a time to let out the carbonation of negativity that has been lying dormant in the unconscious that has yet to be dealt with. I had the opportunity to take a good, hard look at myself and how I deal (or don’t deal) with negative shit in life. I was brave and sat with myself, felt the feelings with compassion.
I Will Not Starve if I Skip a Meal – We ate 100% vegetarian meals. I went 12 days with no meat and had absolutely no craving for it. I found we communicate with food and noticed my relationship to it and how I use it as entertainment and comfort. I realized very quickly that I could decide if I wanted use food to comfort myself. Not having an evening meal was very eye-opening because I realized that we don’t need as much food as we usually consume. And guess what, I was never hungry. Eating in solitude, not talking, putting your entire attention on what you’re eating is also a great way to cultivate gratitude for what you have and how this food got to your plate. Check out Food and Swine for more on that!
Put Your Oxygen Mask on First – Never, ever, ever have I been so well taken care of. Delicious meals were fixed for me and there was always someone compassionately and kindly watching over me. I have never taken such good care of myself either in my entire adult life. Small things like – brushing my teeth after lunch, taking contemplative walks, taking a freaking nap for crying out loud and not feeling guilty about it. For women especially, we are caregivers by nature. We tend to take care of everyone else and put ourselves last. We squeeze every minute out of each day, and little by little, there is less and less time to nourish ourselves. I put myself first.
I Lived Like a Monk – This is as close as I’ll get to knowing what it’s like to live a life of solitude. I lived for 10 days from the generosity of others. I completely removed myself from my life with no communication (of course numbers were given in case of emergency) to the outside world. And, you know what? The world went on just fine with out me controlling everything. All of the people running the course, the teacher, assistant teachers, cooks, cleaning, taking care of us, were ALL volunteers. There is no payment for this course, you don’t pay room and board. It’s on donation only, and only what you think you can afford or what it’s worth to you. And you can only donate after finishing the course, from the goodness of your own heart, not expecting anything in return. The money goes to the future students to learn the technique because you want to help spread it. It’s the epitome of paying it forward. You find loving compassion in your heart and put it out there to help others. (No matter if they’re difficult, even nasty… I’m still working on that one. 🙂
Walk the Walk, Don’t Just Talk the Talk – This is my path, no one can walk it for me. No one is coming to save me. Wisdom can only be gained through experience. Do the practice, live your own life. Pick yourself up by your own bootstraps, find the courage within to be your best self. Life is too short. Be the change you want to see. Stop all the talking and relentless thinking, just be a human“being”for a while here and there. Shut the hell up and do the hard work. It’s worth it.
Outside of our dorm – So proud of them
I learned more in 10 days than I have in years because it was experiential and practical and totally immersive. We didn’t conceptualize or analyze or intellectualize, we felt it for ourselves as it was, not how we wanted it to be. This was mind training at the deepest level. We took the first very tiny, but important step of many on the way to being the master of our own minds. Only we can save us from ourselves, and be truly happy and content from the inside out.
The closest thing I can compare this experience to is natural childbirth. My first being unintentional, and the second, on purpose. If you get too far into your thinking mind, you go out of control and “freak out” from the pain. And only women that have gone through this can fully understand; it’s terrifying, there’s fear of the unknown, there’s fear of the pain, both emotionally and physically, but it’s equally as rewarding. When baby is born, it’s almost like a curtain is pulled back and there’s something so special that comes out of it, it’s beyond mind and matter. EVERYTHING is created from within…the good, the bad, the ugly. Our minds and bodies are the ONLY way we experience our life.
Training our minds is like polishing that lens we view the world through. I want mine as clear as possible to not get to the end of my life and realize I didn’t do the hard, intensive work and missed out on a myriad of experiences. It solidified my intention that I’m on the right path with my mindfulness work and reinforced the strength and confidence that this is what I really should be doing. Helping myself will in turn lead to helping others.