When the day comes for us to head to Western Massachusetts, the mornings are getting chilly and I am wearing long jeans again. I pack light. Super light – a pair of yoga pants, an ankle-length dress, a flannel, a hoodie, two long sleeved shirts, a scarf, a beanie, socks and underwear, and few tokens that remind me of home – dried lavender and chamomile, and a keepsake bottle Jim had given me that contained two beautiful, dried flowers and a tag from the Yogi tea brand that states, “Where there is love, there is no question.” The clothing is sprawled out on my bed as I contemplate. Satisfied that minimal clothing would suffice and aid in focus, I pack it all into my compact 15L backpack, and am ready to go.
On our way to Shelburne Falls, we stop in Boston to pick up a fellow meditator from Cleveland, Ohio. At 1:00 PM on the dot, we scoop him up outside the city and continue on our way, exchanging introductions and new energy. By the time we hit the groove of the route, we are chatting about meditation, consciousness, and what it means to live spiritually. He is serious and calm, there is something rigorous about his nature.
When we arrive at the meditation center, dark rolling clouds arrive with us and as we ease into a parking space, some weather god awakens and buckets of rain pour on us. The timing is uncanny.
We are sopping but grinning as we squelch into the lobby of the center, checking in with a gale of blustery wind and rain. I smile and breathe in the aroma of excitement in the air. Here I am. I walk quietly to my room, 34B. The Noble Silence would not begin for another hour or so but I wonder if I should begin my silence now. That is quickly put to the wayside when I arrive at my room and meet my roommate, a bubbly woman from Boston, here on the recommendation from some of her coworkers. She asks what brings me here.
What brings me here? Is it that I have been interested in meditation for so many years and never really dedicated myself to the practice until recently? Now, I seek in earnest. My previous life had so many distractions to occupy my time. I was more concerned with my social life and partying, numbing my mind with drink or other substance so I didn’t have to think about anything that was too weighty. All the questions I didn’t have the answers to – what does one do with those questions?
These questions have never been answered consistently nor concisely by any of the religions in the world or any philosopher whiling away the hours with intellectualism and philosophizing. It occurred to me they just led people around in ferocious circles of starvation, a carrot dangling on a stick in front of a hungry, dumb rabbit. If I could never have absolute certainty in this life that a religion or philosophy is true, what is the point in even starting? Being raised in a very religious family, my experience of spirituality was one of dogma and ideology obscuring Truth. And so, I continued on my path of distractions throughout my 20’s, content to be engrossed in my life of hedonism rather than continually seeking, which seemed like a path of perpetual thirst. How ironic.
From where I am today, I see that I was confused. This path is one of discovery that requires the traveler to walk it with her own two feet and only then will the answers come. They do not come neatly packaged in a Sunday sermon at the grocery store of religion or philosophy, conveniently pre-made by some division of Kraft Foods Group Inc. for me to purchase and take home with me along with the rest of my weekly groceries.
Now at 29 years old, I’m finally heeding the call as a devotee of the path. I am sober from toxic substances for the first time in my life since I was 17 years old. I am ready to take on the journey in a new way.
So how do I explain all that to my new friend? I give her the brief version – I’ve been interested in this world for a while, devouring philosophy, religion, and science for much of my life, and now having begun a creative project with my partner, here I was. I share my struggles over the summer and my search for balance and centeredness. She nods sympathetically. I like her earnest nature, it glows with honesty.
After hanging my few clothes and arranging my objects just so around the room- toiletries in the bathroom and reminders of home on the windowsill by my bed, I walk to the dining hall where we are to gather for dinner and the course introduction. The vibe of the center is so peaceful it soothes my soul immediately. I melt into the space like a drop of water into a lake, settling in and becoming a part of the greater body of cool, calm, blue languid liquid.
As we eat a simple meal of soup and salad, the dining hall is abuzz with chatter and laughter. Everyone is in high spirits and there is a nervous happiness making music with the anticipatory energy. I am seated at a table with my roommate and women from Mexico, New Hampshire, and Manhattan. Except for the lady from Manhattan, this is the first Vipassana course for the rest of us. No one seems to have any expectations for what would come, at least none we are fessing up to, and we grin nervously at each other while Manhattan crows with happiness. She blesses us with her energy, so excited to witness the opening of this amazing journey for four young women.
The hour dawns when a thin lady who carries herself like a teacher steps up to the front of the room. She introduces the center and house rules, i.e. the Five Precepts: to abstain from killing any being,to abstain from stealing, to abstain from sexual misconduct, to abstain from wrong speech, and to abstain from all intoxicants. We are to honor this code of conduct while in the course. With that, the Noble Silence begins.
In the hallway, there is a bulletin board where any news and updates are posted for our review. I stop and read the daily schedule – it is intimidating. I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into – ten hours of meditation a day! Whew!
Day One – Aches & Pains
The following day is our first full day and my shoulders are aching. First, a low and slow throbbing presence that grows in intensity from which there is no respite or recourse. No amount of re-positioning helps. I am silent in my agony. I consider its rigor. It distracts me, pulls my attention to it, sucking my energy to its devotion. I contemplate it. I feel the lumpy knots gnawing at my shoulders and imagine the muscles deconstructing and reconstructing, the sinew and tendons re-wrapping themselves to the bones, and the architecture of that region re-modeled into a more symmetrical geometry. With that perspective, I sit even taller, even more composed, and my posture straight as an arrow.
When one sits for hours upon hours, the time feels endless as a blank space of sprawling time. I think of everything in these hours, so easily distracted from my meditation but at least I am keeping perfect posture. My mind flickers from purpose and fulfillment, regrets from early adulthood, and traumas of childhood. I think of my relationships – romantic, friends, family, and acquaintances. I think of my relationship with my mother and her relationship to her mother. I think of societal pressures of how I should be. I think of my project with Jim and ideas for how we could better facilitate our progress. I delve into justifications for where I think my life could be, or should be, different. I wonder whether I am doing the right thing, whether I made the right choices, and whether I am enough. My mind skips from one topic to the next and for the first few days I am dragged along with the never-ending story, so enraptured and self-absorbed in the happenings of my life, like a movie-goer at the cinema, my eyes never leave the silver screen as the events and thoughts unfold.
Face to Face with the Monkey Mind
In the midst of this, I am struck by the negativity of my thoughts and how, when left to its own devices on autopilot, my mind takes me on a rambling ride through a nightmare ghoulish world of insecurities, doubts, and regrets. And even more unsettling is that I need to make a concerted effort to recall something positive or generate positivity. It takes energy and presence to do so. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is the universal tendency towards entropy, the measure of chaos or disorder. This natural law is at work in my mind as it moves automatically toward a state of chaos. I am like a scientist in observation of my mind.
As I stumble out of the meditation hall, I am reeling from this confounding discovery. I had always considered myself a glass half-full kind of person. Of course I had my moments, but don’t we all? And in general, I am tenacious in my desire for growth and possibility. I am here striving to elucidate my consciousness after all! And yet, there it was so plain for me to see, this radio playing all the time in my subconscious! Negative thought after negative thought. I sit still on a bench outside, my entire being agape and wrenched open, and with a thousand mile stare I think, “Wow! I am a miserable person!” It’s no wonder I’ve been in a spiral. I’m subconsciously terrorizing my thoughts. There is a criminal Johnny Appleseed planting seeds of negativity in my thoughts and my conscious self is reaping this which is sowed in the dark. Busted!
These thoughts, they ramble through the open fields of my mind and carry with them emotions and reactions, like a roaming tribe of nomads with their caravan of things all jingle-jangling behind them. And through the landscape of my mind, they travel with the sunrise at day’s start into the sunset at day’s end and under the moonlight of my dreams. Constantly there. Sometimes when they broach my consciousness, my heart palpitates with the sound of their arrival; my breath quickens and I am immediately pulled into whatever story they have stowed in their hitch. My emotions tumble and roll at the mercy of these stories. Sometimes I am ecstatic and giddy, other times I am hysterical in angst, or hopeful and alight with possibility. What remains constant is the inconsistency. Sometimes I’m up and other times I’m down.
For the first time in my life I have a clear visual of my monkey mind in all its theatrics. It swings wildly from branch to branch in an ever evolving twisted fantasy, and here I am, a limp puppet, dragged behind on a collared leash; the strings of my consciousness in the hands of a megalomaniac puppeteer. All throughout this summer, and in past periods of my life where the effluvia of helplessness and desperation was like a bad perfume, I turned to my mind to analyze and rationalize what was going on around me. I give so much weight and power to my monkey mind that I was now realizing likes to create stories, make crazy assumptions, and lie to me. This blind trust I have in the rationality of my thoughts creates an abundance of confusion and disorientation in my life. And as the spotlight of awareness shines on this monkey dangling off a synaptic tree branch deep in my neurological jungle, it gives me a panicked look and withers just slightly, wavers ever so, its strength diminished from its original robustness.
Power in Acknowledging Impermanence
“Annica,” says Goenka. Everything is bound to pass away … Always changing … So do not develop craving or aversion. Craving pleasure with aversion to pain, otherwise you are creating misery for yourself. This is the practice of Vipassana and we learn this on the evening of the fourth day.
These days, my meditation practice is strong. My eyes are open to the frenetic and persistent nature of my thoughts so now when they arise, I acknowledge them with a diminutive pat on their elementary head and send them on their way. I don’t make them right or wrong based on their negative or positive nature, but simply redirect my attention to the goal at hand – my meditation. The pain in my shoulders has subsided. I think my anatomy has been totally reconstructed. Now, the source of pain is in my hips, knees, and legs. They creak and groan under my weight and the gravity of the hours. Vipassana practice calls for being aware of reaction to pleasure and pain. Because everything is Anicca, or changing, to react to discomfort or to pleasure is to create attachment to them, which then invites misery into one’s life. We are instructed to be still and maintain equanimity during the meditation. We are instructed to apply Adhittana, strong determination. If there is an itch, do not scratch it, otherwise ten more will sprout in its place. If there is discomfort, do not move, or else the pain will grow like a yawning wave.
That night, I take to the newly introduced technique like a fish slipping into water. I am still. Ever so still. All around me, there is a silent protest, shifting in seats and readjustment of bodies into more amicable situations, but I remain upright and pin straight the entire hour, moving through my meditation, yes distracted, but able to maintain my equanimity.
The next day is again ten hours of meditation as all the other days, but now we are Vipassana meditators, maintaining our balance through discomfort and I hold myself accountable. I take on each meditation period with full commitment, never moving, and somehow I find myself doing it with relative ease. Two hours in the morning at 4:30 AM, no problem. After breakfast another three hours, after lunch another four hours, after tea another two hours, with five to ten minute breaks in between. I am in a flow state, almost ecstatic in meditative reverie. It feels like my body is at rest in some vegetative hibernation but also a growth state. A conservation of energy maximized with a huge input of potential energy.
The next morning, I am dead to the world. Being awake is arduous and this is confirmed and re-confirmed with every shuffling step I take in my warm winter socks to the meditation hall. It is 4:30 AM and my body is stiff. It feels as if I have been through some intense physical labor and merely keeping my body upright is difficult, let alone not moving for the next two hours. The entire time, I focus on the pain and am in profound agitation. All I can think of is the stiffness of my joints, the aches in my muscles, the generalized pain in my body, and the very heavy burden of effort needed. Then, a very acute cramping makes itself known in my right leg. It grows into a throbbing pain as a mental battle starts within myself and every minute or less I wonder aloud, “Should I re-adjust?”
I come up with every justification I can think of why I should allow myself to move; I make a list of pros and cons, I think of how well I did the day before – why not just allow myself this leeway? But I am rigorous in my commitment to this practice and surprise even myself with my staunch resolve. I dare not move a muscle. Then, like the sound of a thousand heavenly cherubs, Goenke’s voice comes on the speaker and begins chanting. Over the past few days I’ve learned this means we have about 30 minutes left in the morning meditation, which is great for me because the pain in my right leg has become excruciating. My face is actually wincing from the caliber of discomfort, twisted and scrunched, like the rest of my body feels. I think I am going to pass out. I review the hypothetical scenario of what would happen if I fainted right then and there in the Dhamma Hall, the fuss and the commotion. Oh god, the drama! Just what I need at a meditation retreat! It was all my mind needs to break and I shift my position. I am awash with relief. Fifteen minutes later, the gong sounds, marking the end of the meditation. I slump over.
My entire body is in angst towards me, shaking its fists at me, its omniscient and distant god, like I do towards the forces that be when I am in pain and crumbling. And just as life marches ever forward, so do I into the next meditation that follows breakfast. The next three hours follow much like the morning meditation. I am hurting and battling my insides. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and force of will. I was not equanimous that day. In fact, I was bubbling with anger. This is messed up. This is crazy. This is not meditation. This is just plain suffering. This is mental. I am concerned that I am putting myself through this, actually; I find it remarkable that for whatever reason, I am like steel, tempering my resolve through this crazy endeavor. I find myself wondering, “Why I am even doing this? Am I a glutton for pain?” And I am brought back to my childhood.
My parents had all sorts of different punishments for me as a kid. One of their favorites was for me to kneel off to the side somewhere they could keep an eye on me, or in the basement in the dark, with my arms straight up holding a heavy object over my head- their favorite was a gigantic encyclopedia, and once it was a dining room chair. I would be there for hours, usually until they went to bed and if I was caught lowering my arms, my punishment was doubled. My way of coping was to enter a trance state. I pretended that my arms weren’t aching and my knees and legs weren’t throbbing, it was all okay. I would ignore the pain and continue on, refusing to show my tormentors any sign of weakness or recognition of pain.
Kneeling there in the darkness of the Dhamma Hall, I am brought back to those years. My back straight and shoulders back, I begin crying; all those years of torment where I practiced a Zen-like apathy as a survival tool have conditioned me for this practice of equanimity and I’m unsure how to feel about it. It is like I suddenly awoke into a cruel joke, finding my adult self in the same exact position I was in as a child, a Samsaric comedy played by the gods. The gong sounds and off I shuffle to lunch, a dismal shadow flickering between the past and present.
On my way to lunch, I pass the bulletin board updated daily with information regarding new techniques we learn, changes to the schedule, or any general news for meditators. I see a poster about Adhittana, the technique of strong determination that we’ve been integrating into our practice. My eyes scan the page as I read the details about the technique and stop when I get to specific instructions that we are to observe Adhittana only during the hour-long group meditations scheduled at 8:00 to 9:00 AM, 2:30 to 3:30 PM, and 6:00 to 7:00 PM. My eyes narrow and I internally facepalm. No wonder I struggled with this! I was observing Adhittana the entire day! I breathe and my body melts into a fuzzy relief. After lunch is my scheduled interview with the assistant teacher. Scheduled interviews are a time for meditators to receive guidance on their practice and are the only time during the ten days we are allowed to speak. I ask her, “What is the difference between apathy and equanimity?” Although the result from apathy and equanimity may look the same, the place from which it is born is different; its volition is different and therefore, the essence changes completely.
After this very physical struggle in the middle of the ten day retreat, my mind and body regress into a waning enthusiasm, curling into their respective selves and beginning a countdown of the days. However, at the same time, I find myself in a nice groove, easing into the practice of ten hours of daily meditation, especially after the break in tension of the fifth day. My strict determination has acclimated me to this schedule and the sixth day is a rhythmic blur of meditation, food, and sleep. I am adjusted to this monastic schedule. I’ve broken in these shoes.
A Compelling Dream
In War and Peace by Tolstoy, there is a prisoner , Platon Karataev, who says a prayer every night before bed, “Lay me down like a stone oh God, and raise me up like a new bread.” I’ve never forgotten that quote and these nights I go to bed like Mr. Karataev, my eyes close and immediately I am taken by Morpheus into his world of dreams. On the seventh day, I have a riveting dream about a place in the sky. I am in a giant building, 30 or 40 stories high like a skyscraper with an atmosphere and large, cavernous interior like a shopping mall. And although my mother and sister are there at a shop looking at clothes, it is not distinctly a shopping mall. It is a space that has more than just a commercial value. On the ground floor is a pit large in surface area, but not in depth, a shallow pool of a black, sticky, and oily tar-like substance. You do not want to get this substance on you as it is nearly impossible to remove. But never fear, if you do somehow manage to blunder your way into a mishap with this tar, there is a solution – Pumpkin Spice. The name elicits a glowing feeling, and if you look up, you may see the heavens open their gates and a chorus of angels seated on clouds singing in harmony and there is Pumpkin Spice at the very center and very top of this building in all its glory. It is a sparkling spa and salon- clean, shiny, and beautiful.
As luck would have it, I end up falling into the tar pit and become soiled. I am reminded of Pumpkin Spice- I need to get there! A guide shows up at that time, someone who works at the spa, and he directs me to a long bungee cord with a handle on the end that dangles near the pit, running all the way up to the spa. In theory, I pull this cord taut and it would fling me all the way up and neatly into the open doorway of Pumpkin Spice. Carefully, I follow his instructions – Pull, pull, pull and release! Boingggg! Whoa! I am catapulted into the air, thirty stories high. The dizzying height is frightening as all I can do is cling on for dear life with my two hands while shooting up, up, up and past the doorway to Pumpkin Spice and then fall thirty stories down, down, and down. My heart pumps wildly with adrenaline, I am disappointed but determined – I must get to Pumpkin Spice! So again I try, and no luck! And a third time, still I am unable to cruise into the entrance. The heights and free-fall are terrifying and my hands are shaking. I ask my patient guide if there is another way and he leads me to a platform that is exactly horizontal to Pumpkin Spice. Again, there is a bungee cord and I am to pull it taut and somehow vault myself directly into the foyer. I try my best but am unable to pull the cord tight enough to sail into the entrance.
Desperate, sweating, and high on adrenaline, I ask my guide, “Is there any other way?” He says, “There is one more way, but you’re not going to like it …”
Together, we descend the levels of the building, past the black pool down to the nether regions and find ourselves in what feels and looks like a mine. All around us is the noise of drills, hammers, and construction. I turn to my guide in confusion, but he is no longer by my side. I survey the scene. Hard at work are many men with mining helmets on, flashlights beaming, and face mask protection against the dust that billows and clouds the air. I spot a set of stairs in front of me that ascend into light, beyond which I cannot see. On these steps, is a nondescript man chiseling away with some hammer-like tool, who takes no notice of me, so intent is he on the work.
“Excuse me!” I yell loudly. He glances up from his hammering, “Is that the way to Pumpkin Spice?” I gesture up the stairs he is standing on. He shrugs his shoulders and throws up his hands to say, “I don’t know.” I frown and sigh. Taking another look around this place at the clouds of dust, bobbing flashlights, and preoccupied miners, these stairs seem to be the only sign of another world outside of here, so I set myself for the journey. Somehow I intuitively know it is a long and arduous climb up to Pumpkin Spice and that I have no other option than to take one step at a time. I step onto the staircase, and another and another …
Presence in the Present
I awake into the seventh day. This day is difficult and I miss Jim and some creature comforts. I find myself thinking of my phone for the first time the entire week. It surprises me it has taken this long. Not being allowed a phone, computer, writing materials, or books sounds much more daunting to deal with than it is in reality. My rest periods are spent taking walks in the trails through the woods. Each day, I begin to notice more minute details everywhere I go. One morning, I stop to take in the sunlight filtering through the trees and see spiderwebs glittering all around me. Not just one, two, or three, but tens of them, all strung between trees and stumps like delicate, glittering necklaces adorning the forest. The earth is packed hard from the many footsteps throughout the years and looks like smooth clay. I can’t help but remove my shoes and walk barefoot on these trails, my feet padding over the cool, dark earth as I try to maintain my awareness of each step, of each breath, and of each moment.
It is hard to do, even here in this quiet and peaceful setting, where each waking hour is spent devoted to the practice. My mind still roams like nomadic caravans. I spend time sitting on a bench outside watching life unfold. Overnight, swarms of flies have hatched in the grass and this afternoon, there are millions of them limping along the grass struggling to move or stay upright, while another billion surge through the air. I observe the drama of these flies, the fluttering leaves in the trees, the quality of the clouds in the sky, and the sound of the wind rushing past my ears. Anicca. This word is all I can think of – impermanence, the ever changing nature. Sitting still on this bench, time seems to stop, and all of a sudden there is a moment when I viscerally feel the present moment totally and completely; for just that incredible flash of an instant, I experientially know this great Truth, that there is no past, there is no future, there is just the present, with my entire being. I experience this strange flip of reality, almost as if the illusion of time wavered in front of me for a second and I saw through that hologram.
I am beginning to see something for myself in this monastic life. The schedule, the practice, the solitude, and peace all appeal to me. I think about life in a monastery. I would have time to practice meditation, space to bring awareness to each moment, a community to learn with, and a place of devotion.
The End of Silence
When the Noble Silence ends on the tenth day, I am not ready for it. The hall is buzzing with energy and loud chatter and I find myself recoiling. Instead of joining the other women, I retreat to the pagoda and soak in the darkness, silence, and stillness one last time. The silence throughout the week had settled on my skin like a second layer. It acts as some sort of force field that I can actually feel. My awareness to sensation is so heightened through the work I know the noise would puncture it. For an hour, I meditate, tears rolling down my face. These past ten days have been incredible and I am in such gratitude for the experience. I have been blessed by the meditation. The gong sounds, marking the end of the hour.
Walking into the dining hall for lunch feels like a mushroom trip. Everyone is talking and the entire room is a cacophony of clamor. My head is buzzing and feels fuzzy. My ears are hyper-sensitive and the sudden, explosive noises are shocking my system. My entire body is sensing and pulsing from the energy within the room. Even my skin feels like it is “hearing” the noise. The four women I sat with at the very first dinner here are seated in the same seats and seeing them, I grin and make my way to the table. Speaking is interesting. I am so aware of the words coming from my mouth, each syllable is considered before making its presence. Before the retreat, I was so anxious with my language, tripping over words and hurriedly trying to get them out before I even knew what I was saying. Now, my tongue touches each letter and every word is carefully chosen.
My smile is easy but my heart aches a bit that the time here is over. Anicca, I remind myself and just ahead of me, past the dining hall doors, I see Jim. My heart leaps a bit seeing his face. It has been ten days and I can’t wait to give him a hug!
When we meet outside, Jim looks different. I don’t know if it is his appearance or my seeing that has changed. He remarks that I look different. Well, I feel different. I am different. Something shifted in me these past days, a subtle change that goes to the root, not a symptomatic change, but a causal change. I am unsure even how to describe it. When my new friends ask me, “How was it for you?” I do not know how to encapsulate my experience into a few sentences because I don’t even really know what it was I had just experienced. It was all so huge and vast. “It was incredible,” is all I can really say. What was my experience? What had taken root in me over these past ten days? I feel so… so… Mystified. It was a confounding experience.
I experienced life in a radically different way. Soulful and devotional. Quiet and sacred, considerate and divine. Now I am apprehensive to return to life outside these meditation walls. I fear being sucked back into my high-strung worries, the turbid anxieties, and free-falling ruminations. Life moves so fast and loudly in the modern world, will I be able to maintain my presence and awareness? Will I find myself multi-tasking again? Scrolling on my phone while eating breakfast, carrying on a conversation while making a to-do list, looking through Spotify for the perfect song while driving, or getting lost in my thoughts while walking to the store. Will my mind become cluttered with asinine insecurities and bouts of petty jealousy and comparisons? Already my mind is taking me some place far from here. So, I stop. I stop ruminating on what if’s and became present to what is.
When the time comes and passes for goodbye’s, I bring my things out to the car and find a present waiting for me. Artistically arranged on the armrest between the driver and passenger seats is a pretty pair of acorns, a ripe peach, a tiny and most aesthetically pleasing dried Amanita mushroom, and a little tag from a tea bag with an Emerson quote that reads, “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” I smile and give gratitude for everything in my life.
Rumbling out the drive of the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Falls, we take the winding road out of town. It is still morning and we are driving to the Green River to take an icy dip. The air is cold and clean like it usually is in this part of Massachusetts and when I get into the water, my body is trilling with the birds. So alive with electricity.