Sharp: My 10-day meditation retreatWritten by Kenneth Sharp | | firstname.lastname@example.org
I applied for a Vipassana meditation course after only a brief introduction to the practice. I had encountered the practice scarcely three months ago while attending a meeting of a volunteer group I belong to promoting prison educational resources. I was interested in trying even though I had no idea what it entailed. I went to Google and searched and found Dhamma.org.
In the United States, there are less than twenty states or regions where one can apply to attend a session under the teachings of S.N. Goenka, one of the best known practitioners and under whose teachings Dhamma.org is run. I saw that the next and closest location was a course in late May 2013. Ten day courses, which are onsite retreats, are the shortest allowed for new students. I applied when the application process for the course first opened and awaited response. After two weeks, I learned I was accepted. I would be contacted no less than four times in the intervening weeks to make sure I planned to attend as they apparently always have a waiting list.
In order not to prejudice my experience, I did little research on the practice beforehand. I did contact an old friend, John Coyne, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco who has had experience with meditation techniques. His response of, “Wow, I am impressed” gave me thoughts of trepidation rather than pride. I understood this to mean it would not be easy. The only other research I did was based on his advice to get a meditation pillow early and to practice sitting on it an hour a day. I did not find any sources for such pillows in the immediate Toledo area and so regrettably I did not follow his advice. The day I left to go to the retreat site (the Emrich Center, an Episcopal Diocese retreat center in Brighton). I bought a large throw pillow on sale at a local retailer.
The day of check, May 22, I arrived early during the 2-5 p.m. check-in period. We were relieved of any valuables such as wallets, cell phones and car keys. These would be kept until the completion of the course in safe storage. As a typical cynical American, I had some doubts about turning these items over to complete strangers. These thoughts were abated by the realization my car has more than 200,000 miles on it, along with more than 15 years old, and that my wallet and bank account are always near empty.
We were served our first meal at 6 p.m. that evening. All meals were vegan/vegetarian. Next we were assigned our meditation spot in the meditation hall. I lined up with the others, now acutely aware of my oversized throw pillow, relieved to see other newbies with equally ridiculous pillows, like patio furniture cushions, and envious of the experienced practitioners with their seasoned, well-designed meditation pillows. Embarrassment and envy were not how I envisioned starting my path to enlightenment. We were given an introduction and our first hour of meditation. Afterward, we were released to our assigned rooms where we would talk for the last time in the next nine days with our new roommate.
Noble silence would begin with the morning gong at 4 a.m. Noble silence is silence in thought as well as speech. We were not to talk, except to staff or teachers as needed, and we were to block out any other contact with those around us, as if we were alone. I have lived alone for a number of years and did not think I would have a problem with noble silence. I would inadvertently break the noble silence on day three. On that day after the 4 a.m. morning gong, I went to use one of the three bathrooms in my residence. It was dark as I entered and before I turned the light switch I stepped into a puddle of water from an overflowed toilet. My immediate response was to let loose the granddaddy of all expletives. To my surprise, I still did so in a whisper that was nearly inaudible, noble cursing. I retreated and not seeing a staff person I was permitted to talk to, I closed the door and returned to my room.
Each day would begin at 4 a.m. with half an hour to prep and then two hours of meditation before breakfast. Breakfast from 6:30-7:15 a.m. and lunch from 11-11:45 a.m. were the only real meals. From 5-5:45 p.m., new students could have some fruit and tea or milk while returning students would only get hot lemon water. To my surprise, I never felt hungry in the evenings. The vegan/vegetarian food was not bad tasting, but I was not used to such a diet. The first two full days left me so gassy and noisy, beyond anything I had ever experienced in me or any other, that by day three I resolved to eat only packaged foods. That meant all my breakfasts were cereal and toast and all my lunches were peanut butter sandwiches. It worked. My road to enlightenment would not have me known as the Gassy Buddha.
Meditating for nearly twelve hours a day is not easy on the mind or body. This is not relaxing or contemplative meditation. It is active and difficult. I admit to allowing my mind to wander, often entertainingly so, to pass some of the time and distract from the physical discomfort. I envisioned the staff and teachers in a sort of Capital One commercial, going out each night to clubs after our ten o’clock lights out. After choosing a wallet or two from storage, I pictured them at some disco having a grand time joking, “What’s in your wallet?!”
Other scenarios involved real situations encountered. At one point, a burst pipe in one of the residences required a plumber to trench out from the building. He was resting when an afternoon gong (gongs called you to each activity) called us forth. We streamed out of our residences, in noble silence fashion, heads low, spaced many feet apart, in our loose comfortable clothes (think pajamas/sweats) trudging silently and without emotion to the meditation hall. Though I was not supposed to, I noticed his reaction. It was one of surprised confusion. He could not figure out what he was witnessing. I saw it from his perspective and nearly burst out laughing, “This is what the real zombie apocalypse would look like, feeble and sad, less like ‘Evil Dead’ and more like a people of Wal-Mart Facebook page.” His assistants just laughed at us.
There were meditation periods spread throughout the day. In fact, they make up the greatest potion of the day, nearly twelve hours. The first three days were spent incorporating meditation into the body, especially for the inexperienced. It begins by focusing on natural respiration. You are not to think about or try to control it. You are just to observe it. On day four you begin the actual Vipassana meditation. At this point, you are expected to attempt to maintain your position the entire meditation session. The first of these is nearly two hours long. During the first three days, I would shift my position at least fifteen times an hour. I also began adding pillows they had onsite to the one I brought. Nothing seemed to help. I felt an anxiety about trying to go two hours without much movement. I had noticed some people were allowed to sit on folding chairs. Just before the beginning of the actual Vipassana, I asked an assistant teacher if I could use a chair. My request was granted by the teacher. I only returned once, at the very last sitting, to the cushions, but did take a small cushion for the chair. I still found it difficult to maintain position.
Each session begins with an audiotape of Goenka chanting (the onsite teacher, an older Indian woman called Vigayah Nagesh, was trained by Goenka in India) followed by instruction or silence. I found the chants distracting. They were in Hindi and as my mind sought to make sense of them I kept coming back to Donovan songs. Each session ended with more chanting and Goenka calling, in Hindi, for happiness, contentment and peace for all things which would be answered by many students with “Sadu, Sadu, Sadu” which essentially means “we agree” and then bowing.
Goenka assured us that we should avoid ritual and to not make this ritual and only to respond if we felt like either chanting or bowing. I never did either as I never felt that call. In fact, as a lifelong nonreligious person I found it a little creepy. Religion was just never a part of my upbringing. I was always spiritual, but organized religion was not a part of my family and most of what I know of any religion or practice is from popular culture and only much later from some study.
Surprisingly, I achieved real benefits from the experience, both physically and mentally. The intense sitting helped in my hips (though not so much in my back), the diet and eating schedule helped to cleanse my system and the intense concentration (when I managed it) did open up new awareness. It will be up to me to decide how I carry this into my daily life. I am supposed to meditate for the next year twice a day for an hour, in a space I reserve for that sole purpose, once in the morning and once at night. We were asked to accept five precepts at the beginning, at least for those ten days. Most are common moral ideas. However, whether I keep up the practice of meditation, I do not intend to keep up the diet, a violation of one of the precepts. That too is OK. Just as in twelve-steps programs where it is said “fake it until you make it” (essentially don’t drink/drug whatever the addiction, and do the best you can on the rest), all the ideas do not need to be followed until you, by experience, find them to be true.
It was a very difficult, but rewarding experience. It was like a form of boot camp-Buddha camp. There are those who have complaints about the teachings of Goenka, or Vipassana in general, and I encourage anyone who is interested to do research. Most of these complaints appear to me to be of the typical variety either between rival schools of thought or from outside schools of thought. Some may be more legitimate than others.
My experience was positive, but not deep. Each person will vary. If you have an interest, I would not discourage you. If you have no interest, I would not encourage you and if you are on the fence, I would say wait until you come down on one side or the other. It is not easy and requires at least ten days of your life, so be thoughtful.