I’m back folks! I survived 10 days of sitting silently amidst the nature of the Berkshires, eating vegetarian meals I didn’t have to prepare, napping twice a day and not having to make smalltalk! It was excruciating!
It was, actually…10 days of Vipassana meditation is no joke. I had an intense experience and learned a lot of tools to help make my life easier or at least more mindful as I move forward. But that happened in stages – my inner monologue is a bit of a Chicken Little at the most stable of times, so over the course of 10 days there was lots of time for the crazybrain to run amok.
Arrival day: Turned in my phone and my kindle and was shown to my tent, began to wonder if I should have worked so hard to convince my mom it wasn’t a cult and I’d be fine.
Day 1: Sitting for the first meditation, every single muscle in my body complained and I was sweating like a racehorse in the air conditioned Dhamma hall. My brain began playing music incessantly – Adele and Queen and whatever I’d just been listening to on the bus ride the day before. Began learning Anupana breathing technique, felt like every hour-long sitting lasted at least a day and a half.
Day 2: Discovered kneeler bench, and there was much rejoicing and relief from some back pain. Decided the men’s assistant teacher looked like Sanjay from Slings and Arrows, waited for him to quote Nixon. Began learning to tell time by room restlessness level – first half hour, quiet; next 15 minutes, deliberate self controlled stillness; next 5 minutes, unrestrained coughing, gasping and sighing; next 5 minutes, muted outrage during which decidedly nonequanimous threats and accusations of fraud were mentally hurled at assistant teachers. Soundtrack: Best of Broadway.
Day 3: Down to 3 strategic cushions, but still changing posture every 10-15 minutes. Begin looking forward to the nightly video discourse from the course’s instructor, live via VHS from 1991, like it’s a blockbuster movie premiere. Had first total meltdown thanks to physical discomfort, inexplicable heat sensations and construction sounds outside the Dhamma hall. Was moved from tent into dorm with 5 other women because the course managers kept finding me sitting in hallways since it was too hot to meditate in my tent. Hallucinated and sleptwalked on the world’s loudest wood-panelled floors. Awkward. Soundtrack: Bollywood, which was at least culturally appropriate but I couldn’t think about closely because while I can recreate the score in my head, I don’t know many of the words.
Day 4: Got period. Ever sloughed off a uterine lining with no painkillers and nothing to do but sit around and THINK ABOUT THE PAIN?! Well let me tell you. It is none fun. 0% fun. Ceased to regard Gautama Buddha as reliable spokesperson for suffering. Spent morning doubled over on kneeler bench, by afternoon had been given a back-support chair thing and was back up to 5 cushions. Learned actual Vipassana meditation technique and realized I’d spent 3 entire days just breathing through my nose. Soundtrack: Short clips of tunes from Paheli integrated with remixed quotes from the nightly discource.
Day 5: Cramps relieved, began to really feel effects of 4 to 9 daily hours of Vipassana, i.e. complete awareness of knee-related agony. Stopped wearing bras in favor of one or two tank tops under my tunicky hippie dresses, eliminated 70% of remaining backpain. Non-sectarian Hallelujah. Actually thought and sincerely to-the-bottom-of-my-soul meant the following previously inconceivable sentence: “This meal of tofu, rice, chunky apple sauce and whipped cream is the best thing I have ever eaten.” Soundtrack: On the Town, Showboat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Bollywood, episodes of Scrubs and Friends.
Day 6: Had second discomfort-heat-construction related meltdown, exacerbated by removal of all my rationalizations about my character flaws. Began to harbor paranoid delusions about “construction,” thinking maybe it was placed there to make the experience more stressful and move my progress along faster. Noticed baby birds peeping in their nest right outside the hall, regained humanity quickly. Began to hallucinate, necessitating a mental announcement of “Real Things Only, Please” at the start of every meditation. Soundtrack: My own voice from various recital and workshop recordings.
Day 7: Did an “It’s Day 7” Happy Dance before remembering I wasn’t supposed to be dancing or forming attachments to fleeting experiences. Walked out to the woodsy trail behind the center for the first time, briefly rekindled love of nature before being swarmed by mosquitos I had sworn on the first day not to kill or lie to. Saw someone putting honey on their evening snack, which had not previously occurred to me, and there was much rejoicing. Soundtrack: Glee numbers involving Darren Criss, Bollywood.
Day 8: Had meltdown to end all meltdowns. Even an “It’s Day 8” Happy Dance couldn’t help me set aside my grief and chagrin. Realized that getting depressed about character flaws is just more reactions that lead to craving and aversion and moreover, the baby birds were opening their eyes omg!!!! Course instructor’s story telling, always vivid and engaging, began to sound like he had a background in stand up comedy (we frequently broke Noble Silence to laugh during his talks. A lot). Soundtrack: Broadway, but now playing quietly in the background. 5 minutes of actual, total mental silence.
Day 9: Hit a meditation wall since this was the last full day of meditation and silence. Though I could now sit still for the entirety of the Adhittana strong determination sittings, my mind would get distracted into writing this very blog post, all the physical possessions I was going to get rid of since I was now so far into enlightenment as to be beyond petty box set collections that are all streaming on Netflix anyway, and how I was going to manage having bought Charlie Chaplin film tix for 2:15 and 5:30 at Symphony Space AND make Sportsbag Night at Citifield next Saturday. Soundtrack: muffled Gershwin.
Day 10: “Slept in” until 6 am for the first time in 10 days. After the 8-9 am sitting, Noble Silence was ended. Cringed when I heard someone speak for the first time and fled to the showers. Immediately wished we could all go back to avoiding eye contact, but gradually began talking with roommates and fellow course-takers, spoke with family members, etc. Sitting for meditation after having been among chatter made me realize how essential the silence really was – and that social anxiety triggers a very specific knot in my neck. Sat up “late” until 10 with roommates swapping stories and wishing college could have been this civilized, or that my head could always have been this quiet. First songs I listened to on iPod after returning? Dhire Jalna, from Paheli, followed by a bunch of Jane Monheit’s mellow new album.
Departure Day: Startled again to hear talking in the morning. Resumed wearing a bra. Boo-urns. Really missed the burbling insanity of isolation, while also excited to go home. Watched final discourse, said goodbye to baby birds, thought I’d be able to hide from doing service and helping to clean up for the next course, but somehow wound up sweeping and mopping the dining hall – guess that microchip they implanted works after all. Loitered around until 11:15, took cab to the Megabus stop which happened to be at a strip mall in suburban Massachusetts. Felt like an Amish kid on Rumspringah and actually chose Trader Joes yogurt and veggie chips over the fast food and pizza options all around me.
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And that’s how I spent my summer vacation, kids. I may make light of it, but that’s just because it is really hard to put into words what this experience did for me. If you’re interested in trying it out (and have a well-stocked haunted brain jukebox), learn more here, and feel free to ask questions (which I promise to answer sincerely).