Hello, this Labor Day weekend I will be attending a three day meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Retreat in Barre, Massachusetts. Eight years ago when I was 23, I attended a 10 day retreat that changed my life. I wrote about that experience. I am posting it here to revisit that experience and share it with others. I hope to write about it again when I get back.
Peace and Harmony,
From May 2 – May 12 in 2006, I attended a 10 day Vipassana Meditation retreat in Shelburne Massachusetts. Vipassana Meditation is the contemplative practice originally taught by Gotama the Buddha in India 2500 years ago. The 10 day retreat serves as an introduction to the technique and the art of living. During the entire time, one does not have access to the outside world: no cell phones, emails, visits, or leaving the premises of the course. No contact is allowed with other students: no physical contact, no speaking to anyone, no eye contact. One is also not allowed any distractions: no reading, no writing, no listening to music, no exercising. Vegetarian breakfast and lunch are served, fruit and tea are served for dinner but not solid food. The daily schedule is as follows:
4:00 wake up bell
6:30-8 breakfast and break
12:00-1:00 interviews with teacher
5:00-6:00 tea break
7:10-8:30 evening discourse
9:30-10:00 question and answer with teacher
10:00 lights out
As you can see, there was a lot of meditating.
Each day the instructions were a little different and my experience of meditation varied. I shall give a day to day account of my experience meditating.
Day 1: We are told to concentrate on the breath, observe it flow in and out. If the mind wanders we are to bring it back to the breath. This will help to calm and focus our mind. All day I struggle with falling asleep. Focusing on the breath is so boring that my mind cannot remain attentive for even a few seconds. Thoughts wander all over the place, for as long as 20 minutes at a time. I think mostly about Edgar, the guy I had been dating on and off for three years. I lived in Salt Lake City and he in New York and we had not seen each other for almost a year. I planned to meet up with him two days after the course, and feel a lot of anxiety, excitement and agitation regarding it. I daydream for hours what I will say, do, how he will respond, how I will respond in turn. My back hurts after sitting for hours cross legged on a cushion.
Day 2: I get a cushion along the wall to help my back. We are told to keep our attention on our breath, noticing the touch of the breath on the inside of the nostrils. I breathe hard and count my breaths in order to stay focused. I feel light headed from breathing so much. I feel my nostrils filling with the cold air, and my chest expanding and contracting. Mind wanders off, I bring it back.
The discourse tonight is on morality. At the very gross level, religions tell us that if one does good, one will go to heaven, if one does evil, one will go to hell. Therefore, one does not want to do evil but to do good. At the rational level, religions teach that one should do to others what one would like others to have done to oneself. This is logical. At the subtle level, one understands that one cannot distribute negativities–anger, hatred, lust, envy—and live in a harmonious environment oneself. Therefore if one tries to make everyone around him miserable, then he will become miserable too. But at an even deeper level, the one generating negativity hurts himself ]more than the person one intended to hurt. It is impossible to become angry and hateful without becoming agitated and out of balance first. When one does vipassana meditation, this becomes very clear and one lets go of the need for anger or hatred or distress.
Day 3: We are told to continue to focus on our breath, to feel the touch of the breath inside of our nostrils and under the nostrils above the upper lip, and to feel any sensations that come up on the nose. The idea is to sharpen the mind to feel the subtlest sensations, at first on a small area, then all over the body. Occasionally, an itch occurs on my nose. I am not to scratch it, simply observe it. The itch feels like a little lightning bolt traveling across my nose. In my mind I imagine it as a filament of light that grows more intense, and gradually dies down. Usually there is not much sensation. However, I am able to stay focused for longer. Thoughts do wander occasionally but I catch it faster and bring it back. We are told that we have been practicing Anapana meditation, and tomorrow we will begin vipassana mediation. I can’t wait because I am so bored of thinking about my nose all day long. I keep thinking, one more day, one more hour.
Discourse tonight is about misery. Misery? Yes, life is full of misery. But there is a way out of it, Buddha says. The philosophy behind this technique is that human misery is rooted in one’s reactions to sensations caused by external stimuli. As a living being, one is constantly subjected to an array of sensual and mental stimuli. Sights come before the eyes, sounds enter the ear, taste lands on the mouth, memories flash in the mind, thoughts present themselves, and to every external and internal stimulus, the body responds by generating a sensation. If the sensation caused by the stimulus is pleasant, the mind quickly reacts with enjoyment and craving; if the sensation is unpleasant, the mind reacts with aversion, anger, or fear. These reactions of craving or aversion is the root of all human misery. However, human beings can become liberated from their misery and obtain lasting peace and harmony by not automatically responding to every stimulus it encounters. Vipassana teaches one to observe equanimously every sensation on the body, pleasant or unpleasant, without craving or aversion, with the understanding that all sensations and experiences change and will eventually pass away.
Day 4: Instead of teaching us vipassana, the instructions all morning are to focus on the sensations on the area underneath the nostrils above the upper lip. I feel frustrated because I don’t think I can think about my nose for another hour. I change positions, play with my bracelet all morning to alleviate the excruciating boredom. I follow instructions. I notice itches underneath my nose. I notice that when I exhale, my nostrils flare a little bit, pulling the sides of my upper lip upward a little. Sometimes I notice a pulse in this area. My nose and upper lip twitch from so much scrutiny. In the afternoon, we are told to begin moving our attention from the top of the head to the tips of the toes. We are to survey every part of the body, taking note of every sensation without skipping any parts or jumping around. We are to keep our awareness steadily and slowly moving throughout the body. If there is an area in which there is no sensation, we are to stay there for a while and then move on. I am relieved to finally think about something other than my nose.
It is a new experience to have nothing to do during the break periods. Usually, whenever I have a break, my routine is to check my email, get something to eat, or pick up a book. Here, I cannot do any of those things. There is an hour between breakfast and meditation, and two hours between lunch and the afternoon sitting. Today I will relate the things I did to divert myself during the long breaks.
Unless one takes a nap or sit somewhere and space out, the only thing there is to do during the breaks is to walk in the walking loop behind the center. From the first morning I noticed that there were a lot of ant hills around the foot paths. I bent down and saw that the ants would come out of their holes one by one, carrying a crumb of dirt and setting it down on the rim of the hole. In time, there were a ring of dirt crumbs around the hole. Every morning when I went out for my first walk, I would go around and inspect all the ant hills, see if they got larger, and every morning they did. Every day they got more numerous as well, so that the grass looked like it was covered with mini volcanic craters or like geysers in the Yellowstone. It amazed me how diligent these creatures were, and what fantastic structures they must be making underground. I begin to compose a poem about them in my head, lament the fact that I cannot borrow a pencil.
This morning, I sat on a tent platform and listened to the birds sing. I notice that they do not sing randomly, but call out to each other. There was this particular bird that made a noise like a cicada rubbing its wings. One in a tree would call out “swe-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e.” A short pause. Then another in a tree on the opposite side of the yard would begin, “swe-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e”. Then a third one, “swe-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e”, then the first two together “swe-e-e-swe-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e”. They went back and forth like this, speaking to each other all morning. I listened in wisdom and rapture until the bell rang, calling us to meditation.
Day 5: From the top of the head to the tips of the toes. From the tips of the toes to the top of the head. All day, I make my rounds. At first, I feel sensations mostly in my face, my arms, and my legs. I can feel a tender spot in my chest but not much on my back or my belly. There are a lot of tingling, itching sensations on my face. In my hands and feet a subtle vibrating sensation. Daydream about Edgar, how I’m going to spend my summer in Washington DC.
After several rainy, cloudy days, the sun broke through and the air was warm. I was so glad because the entire time it has been so cold. I only brought one sweatshirt and have been wearing it every day, sometimes with my jacket over it as well. In the meditation hall, I have to have a blanket. It feels like winter here after it was 80 degrees in Salt Lake! At lunch time today, I positively frolicked through the grass, admiring the ant hills, the clovers and bees. I am reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poem,
All it takes for summer
Is a clover and a bee
A clover, a bee, and reverie.
But reverie alone will do
If bees are few.
I started to pick dandelions, there were so many. That reminded me of Andy Goldsworthy, and I started to make a ring of yellow blossoms on the grass. This delighted me very much. Someone had also picked up some large pine cones and set them on the steps of the cabin. I picked up a few more of them and arranged them in rows on the steps, in two sections, with a pine cone at the head of each section. They represented all of us in the meditation hall with the teacher leading the session. These creations tickled me so much, under a pine tree in the walking loop, I started a big pile of pine cones and started stacking them on top of each other. Soon, I had built a little pyramid. The women who passed by me smiled, but we avoided eye contact. Suddenly, someone dropped a handful of pine cones beside me. I looked up but the woman had already walked away. I almost laughed out loud. I went to gather some more pine cones, and when I came back, I found a dandelion on top of my creation. I kept it there. Dinner time I worked on it some more. I no longer felt bored. I looked forward to the breaks. Even during meditation, I thought of my pine cones and dandelions. Who knew such simple things could bring so much joy?
Day 6: I’m becoming fascinated by the process of exploring the subtlest sensations in my body. It feels like a game to me. I go very very slowly, trying to feel every part of my body. I notice sensations I’ve never really noticed before. A subtle vibration in my arms, an energy in my wrist, hands and feet that sometimes feels cool, sometimes hot. There is a tender spot in my chest that I can dwell on for hours. I feel tingling on the back of my head.
At lunch time I gathered dandelions and arranged a heart with them in the walking loop. But I think it was too remote so not many people saw it. But I hope that someone saw something yellow in the grass and walked up to it to check it out, and what a delight to think of what they discovered!
The evening discourse is again about how misery comes out of craving or aversion. For a long time I have been thinking, I don’t get angry much, and I’m not a materialistic person so there isn’t anything that I crave. However, there is one thing that I crave with all my being and it makes me miserable day after day. It’s been almost a year since Edgar and I separated. During our months of breaking up, getting back together, breaking up, not speaking on the phone, speaking, I’ve gone through a roller coaster ride of the most intense cravings, aversions and miseries. Every day i watched myself cry, felt the pain, and went on with my day. I accepted it completely. For months I wanted nothing more than to speak to him on the phone, tell him about how I felt, try to get back together with him, but I left him alone and kept those feelings to myself. All the time I wondered why is it that I could not get rid of this craving, that I could get over any disappointment or negative experience, but not this one. Now I feel like this is what I am here for, to understand the root of my desire and liberate myself from it. I begin to concentrate myself on this task.
Day 7: I can feel subtle energy currents all through my body. The awareness is more fluid. I’m not stuck in the same place for so long trying to feel sensations. I move my awareness smoothly throughout my body, feel a flow. The teacher repeats, equanimously, calmly, patiently, diligently, accept whatever sensations come up, never react with craving or aversion, just observe, just observe. During the breaks, I walk around and test my new ability to be equanimous. I pull up images of Edgar, vignettes of times we spent together, the things he said and did that hurt me, and I watch, try not to react. Even though I feel as if my mind is not reacting, my body still does. A constriction in the neck and head, the tears flow. There is nothing to distract me. I am with it all day long. I speak to no one. No one looks at me or pays any attention to me. I let the tears fall, go back to the energy currents in my body.
Day 8: We are told to move our awareness throughout our body from top to bottom, in both arms, both legs, simultaneously and symmetrically. In my arms I feel this particularly strongly. I usually have to pause a while in my head and in my trunk. At moments I can feel subtle tingling sensations in my entire body at the same time. I rest in that for a minute, and then return to surveying the body part by part. I feel incredibly calm, grounded. Thinking about Edgar or anything else does not disturb me. I try to rest in the Witness, the seer who is not seen, the I-I who is witnesses sensations, emotions, thoughts but is not any of those things. I can sense my emotions, and I am sad that Edgar and I are not what I would like us to be, but ultimately, it makes no difference to me. The Witness will continue to exist. I enter into the stream of life but the shore is always at my side.
At lunch time, I gather a bowlfuls of dandelions and arrange them in a big heart on the lawn right outside the women’s residence. It cannot be missed there. A way to reach out to my brave comrades, illegal or not.
Day 9: We are told to sweep our awareness throughout our body and take in sensations over large areas at a time. This is unconsciously done at this point since sensations can be felt without my purposefully directing my attention to them. We meditate from8-9 and 9-10. I go from head to foot, both arms together. My body feels unified so that I do not feel my hands distinct from each other, or from my feet, but all a circuit of energy. The sensations are not subtle vibrations anymore, but feel very strong, like electric currents all over my body. At 10:30 I changed my posture, and an incredible thing began to happen. My ability to feel the energy in my body had increased to such an extent that I felt like a light house in the night, my entire body a beacon of energy. When I breathed out a wave of it came so strongly that I felt like I had been hit by a wave on the beach. The wave subsided when I inhaled, then washed over me again as I exhaled. I couldn’t control it or direct my awareness, I just let it wash over me again and again. It was incredibly pleasurable, almost like an orgasm, but more refined and lasting. This sensation lasted for half an hour, until the bell signaled that it was lunch time.
I was surprised and delighted by what happened this morning. In the evening discourse, Goenka told us that we would be experiencing very pleasurable sensations, but he said that this was a risky period, because these sensations are temporary, and not the goal of meditation. One is not to develop attachment or craving to the pleasant sensations. If we do then we will feel miserable when the sensations go away, as they inevitably will. One is to observe with equanimity whatever sensation that comes up, understand its impermanent nature, experience it and let it go like everything else. Only then can we make progress and become liberated human beings.
Day 10: Our last day began with a 1 hour meditation at 4:30am and a 1 hour discourse at 5:30. We maintain Noble Silence through breakfast. The dishes and utensils clatter and the hot water machine makes loud cranking noises, but no voices anywhere. I don’t find the silence difficult at all. In fact I really enjoy it. It’s very conducive to meditation and one does not worry about cliques or the social dynamics that invariably take place in a group. Silence makes us all equal. It makes us all humble students of dhamma. However, I am aware of the other students in the course even though I’m not allowed to speak to them. We see each other constantly. At meal times I look at this one girl who I think is particularly beautiful. Separation of men and women are maintained in order to eliminate this distraction, and I suppose same sex attractions are equally taboo. But a beautiful girl is too much temptation when one has absolutely nothing fun to do. So I secretly look at her, relish the delicate way she lifts her cup to her face, the pensive way she eats her lunch, her slow, meditative steps, enjoy the sensation on my body when she comes near. Once, I spilled a spoonful of granola because she was right behind me in the breakfast line. Embarrassing! I’m afraid I’m not a Buddha after all.
We learn a new technique after breakfast. We are told to translate our peace and harmony into compassion, and send it out into the world as beams of light as we listen to the teacher chant, “May all beings have harmony, may all beings have peace, may all beings have love, may all beings be happy.” He tells us that we should end every meditation with this ritual, to turn it into compassion and bless the world.
At 10am Noble Silence was over! We walk out of the meditation hall, single file, smiling. Back at our residences, we read the notice board, stand awkwardly around while thinking of what to say first. A woman approaches me and says, “I enjoyed your creations out in the yard so much! Have you seen the work of Andy Goldsworthy?” The ice was broken, and we all start chattering away. Oh, how excited everyone was! “How was it for you?” “Is this your first time?” “Which day was the most difficult?” One very touching moment was when one of the girls came up to me and said, “I want to thank you so much for making the dandelion heart on the lawn. I was so frustrated that day, thinking, all this talk about detachment and equanimity, but what about love? What about passion? How can one live detached from those things? I went to the teacher and asked her about it, and she said, well, we actually feel more love and passion when we are aware. Then when I went outside after my interview I saw your heart made of dandelions on the lawn, and I thought, it is about love!” Another woman told me, “Your flowers and pine cones saved my life! I thought, finally, someone is alive here!”
At night, my roommate and I talk about how it’s difficult following this path as a young person in today’s world. She has a boyfriend who drinks a lot and doesn’t have any interest in spirituality. She is also an activist for Asian American issues, but she feels that the movement is too angry and aggressive. She wants to make change with more compassion and wisdom. I told her about my struggles with Edgar and how I was going to see him in a couple of days. She was so nice and advised me to do what was good for myself. I’m nervous about it, but I feel ready. I repeat to myself, “Only love. Only compassion.” Tomorrow I go out into the world, and I am going to enjoy it. Because everything is all right when the Witness observes, and is not identified with it.