On June 11, 1963, A Vietnamese monk Thích Quảng Đức sat peacefully on a street corner in Saigon, Vietnam. He sat unmoved in lotus position while his entire body was engulfed in suicidal flames. Thich was completely in control over his mind. He slowly burned to death without opening his eyes, without a flinch in his body and without a sounds from his mouth.
My mind on the other hand is not. My mind … hurts. I came to India in search of a little enlightenment. So far, I have been anything other than enlightened. I have been given the wrong directions hundreds of times. I don’t understand what a head bobble means and sometimes I lose my cool with the tuk tuk drivers.
Thats why I signed up for an intense 10 day silent meditation course. Vipassana meditation is a type of meditation that has become ever-popular after a Burmese man named Goenka started teaching these 10 day meditation courses. Goenka says that Vipassana is the Buddha’s teaching for his followers. Today donation based Vipassana centers can be found throughout the world from India to Illinois.
This is a little story about my experience from my first 10 day silent Vipassana meditation retreat in the stunningly beautiful state of Kerala in the southern most part of India. So my story begins.
My rickshaw pulls through the white gates where a beautiful field of towering palm trees shade two mongoose playing along the pathway. A sign welcomes me to “Dhamma Ketana Vipassana Center.” Inside the gates, all I can hear is a distant rooster, the honks and horns of India couldn’t feel further away, this place is pure zen.
After I am dropped off, I begin to cry. I walk out of the center and stroll down the quiet country road trying to gather my thoughts, to find my courage. Im petrified to sit Indian style, silently for the next 10 days. No writing, no reading, no talking, and no dinner. The rules are rigid and the scenery is gorgeous. I stop to rest on a little meandering creek. What the hell is wrong with me? Why am I freaking out so bad?
Three little girls walk over to me with enormous smiles. They are beautiful. They speak no English, nor do I speak the local lingua, Kannada. We speak through smiles and simple hand gestures. They cheer me up. Give me courage. Ok, I’m ready.
It is 4:30 am. the gong sounds five times. gong. gong. gong. gong. gong. All the females in my room leave their mosquito net-covered beds and slowly stumble into the meditation hall. On day one, we are instructed to focus on the edge of our nostrils. Air flowing in. Air flowing out. Minuscule hairs moving, skin vibrating, an itch, any sensation at all that I feel, I am instructed to be aware of. Hour after hour, this is what I do. I sit and concentrate on my nose.
Everyday we wake up at 4:30 am and meditate until 6:30. Then I eat breakfast. Back into the meditation hall for 4 hours until lunch, our last meal for the day. After lunch we spend another 4 hours sitting and meditating until tea time. Tea time is the highlight of my day. Then more sitting and concentrating on my nose.
At the end of each evening we listen to our teacher, Goenka, tell us little stories that make us laugh about the struggles we are going through. Before we know it it is at 9 pm. Bedtime. Lights Out
Midway through day 3, I feel more in touch with my nasal capabilities than a retired ear, nose and throat doctor. These first three days were pretty exciting for me. I couldn’t have been more proud to be meditating … or so I thought. It came as a rude awakening on day 4 when the teacher says “Today I will teach you Vipassana Meditation.”
So… what the hell have I been I doing the last 3 days? Shit!
Apparently, I had only been preparing, sharpening my mind’s ability to concentrate, becoming more in tune with the feelings and sensations inside by body. By the end of the 4th day, we were finally taught the Vipassana technique, opening our field of concentration from the nose to the entire body. We would scan the body noticing tingling, sweat dripping, muscular knots and pains.
First, one gains awareness of their sensations, then one learns to remain “equanimous” meaning to remain unaffected, neither enjoying nor disliking, merely observing. Thats the hard part.
By remaining “equinanimous” one is teaching the mind not to associate the pleasurable and unpleasurable sensations with reactions. It trains you to stop reacting to pleasurable and unpleasurable experiences. Most importantly you learn that all things are impermanent. The ultimate message is ingrained that “this too will pass.”
Day 5, my mind got mean. First, I spend hours distracted, agitated with the teacher’s use of the words “equinanimous” and “equanimity.” I am having a hard time understanding, accepting and being “equinanimous.” On top of that there is a knot on either side of my hips that hurts excruciatingly bad. The day is spent in pain and constantly distraction.
On day 6, after hours of needlessly philosophizing and confusing the simple technique, I sit before the peaceful teacher with tears streaming down my cheeks. “Sir, I am so confused. It seems impossible to neither like nor dislike the pains and pleasures I feel inside my body. By day 10, this will not have worked. I will have wasted all this time.” He responds, “My child, Why do you mention day 10? Today is only day 6. How is day 6 going? Please do not cry to me, cry during meditation being aware and equinanimous. Be patient.” I get up and start walking out of the meditation hall, equally confused when he says “and be happy.” I look back to see his white teeth glowing through his sincere smile.
Day 6 is the most difficult day for me. The 4 days left feel like eternity. I am fed up with it all. I want to eat after 11:30 am. I do not want to wake up at 4 am to sit in a dark quiet room half asleep trying to meditate. I am sick of all the women in the course too. There is a Russian girl who is showing too much skin, a dreaded hippie chick looking miserably depressed, a Muslim lady who keeps eating the bananas that are reserved for “old students” and this Ukrainian girl just sits through the 4 hour sessions undisturbed, not even opening her eyes like a super hot enlightened western female version of the Dalai Lama. Then there is me, taking unnecessary bathroom breaks and daydreaming out the windows with my eyes open for 20 minutes at a time.
Day 7. Gong Gong Gong Gong Gong. Finally I feel the “free flow.” I feel all the vibrations of all the atoms throughout my body, waves of sensation. This is certainly a breakthrough. I jump for joy, sing to the heavens, and you couldn’t wipe the smile off my “unequanimous” face. Thats the problem. I certainly am not equanimous.
My sensations become fluid like water, moving from head to toe within one breath. I do not even notice the excruciating knots in my hips for hours at a time. I do not move. I do not peek to look at the clock on the wall behind me. Time is flying by. Go me, go me, go me…. wait… that’s not equinanimous.
I become increasingly in tune with my body, the matter that is me and the movement of each atom. I am a “free flow” junkie and a pain hater. I am not balanced, unbiased or equanimous. I’m not merely observing, I’m getting high on this. Shit!
Once again, on day 8, I find myself sitting in front of my teacher crying that I am not capable of being equanimous. “I need to get it soon. I mean, it is already day 8.”
He laughs. “It takes a lifetime to perfect this teaching if you are very lucky, otherwise it will take many lifetimes. You must remain patient and continue as you are……. and ……. be happy.” He smiles.
So, that is what I do. The free flow fades into pain, then returns into enjoyable bliss. It ebbs and flows, Comes then goes. I inhale and exhale. The reality of impermanence becomes more and more apparent.
Luckily, by the end of day 9, my confusion goes away. I am no longer eager to leave. I am starting to feel a calm peacefulness inside of me. I’m finally content, no expectations and no fears.
On the very short walk to the dining hall at 6:30am for breakfast, I notice delicate purple flowers along the walkway. It dawns on me that in my rush to breakfast everyday craving food, I carelessly rush past, paying no attention to the little morning-glory flowers that bloom only in the early morning chill. Has it really taken me 9 days of silent, stillness to slow life enough to stop and smell the flowers?
Day 10. We talk and the words come back easily. Most of us ladies jump right back into it, chattering all day. All my distaste for the Russian, the dreaded hippie, the old Muslim lady and the peaceful Ukranian vanish. All the bitterness is gone, replaced with compassion, goodwill, love and happiness.
Through the talks with the ladies, we all realize that staying equanimous is a hard task. It is a goal that might take many lifetimes. Every little bit you do teaches the brain to react a little less, reminds one’s self that all is impermanent, so not to attach oneself.
It is hard to leave this incredibly beautiful peaceful place, where I have taken the time to watch the dew dissipate from the morning grass and listen to the birds serenade the sun goodbye in the evenings.
I learned a new way to look at things, a more optimistic way, a more realistic way. It is called the “the art of living.”
Just outside the gate, I wave down a small truck covered in chicken feathers. He agrees to take us to the train station. We jump in the back of the pickup. Standing up, holding on to a rack, I stand proud like a high school homecoming queen. We fly down the country road, hair flowing wildly in the wind. The local children giggle and wave as we drive past, fast and erratic. I just float.