By Ben Kousholt, Wellness Travel Seeker
Halfway through Day 2 of the retreat, I got up from having sat cross-legged, squirming through another hour of focusing on my breath as it passed over the small area beneath my nose and above my upper lip. My knees ached as they stretched under me, pins and needles in my lower back as I walked the few steps to the assistant teacher at the front of the meditation hall and kneeled on the cushion in front of him.
I silently cleared my throat so as not to disturb my fellow meditators and disrupt the code of silence. “I think I’d like to sit in a chair,” I whispered, glancing at the chairs along the sides and back of the room. It felt good to hear my voice again, although I noticed an uneasiness to it that felt new. My assistant teacher leaned in over me from the raised platform he was seated on, still cross-legged on a thin folded blanket. “Have you tried supporting your posture with pillows?” he replied in a slow monotone voice, “some find that helpful.” I turned to behold my fort of cushions, blankets and pillows, gradually modified to meet discomforts as new ones continuously arose.
“Yeah, I’m not sure it’s working for me.” “Well,” he answered, “It’s Day 2, it’s still early, if you can sit with it a little while longer, we’ll introduce tools for you to work with the pain on Day 4. For now…” A warmth brushed over one corner of his mouth “… try smiling at the pain.”
The warmth in his voice provoked me, as it seemed to suggest my discomfort was part of the course and that everything was going according to plan. A silent moment lingered between us as I thought, ” These tools had better be some serious ones.”
As with many older brothers, I grew up earning my parents’ attention by “being good,” and, with one older and three younger siblings, this attention was in short supply. “Ok…I can do that”, I finally answered and noticed that familiar taste of submission. Forcing a smile, I headed out the hall up the stairs to my room, where I collapsed on my mattress, ten minutes before the next sitting.
The ten-day retreat was held at Vancouver Island Vipassana Meditation Centre in Duncan on Vancouver Island. It revolved around a series of pre-recorded lessons by the late S.N. Goenka, a Burmese meditation teacher.
Vipassana meditation is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques, drawing directly on teachings of The Buddha. Vipassana means to see things as they are, and that is what is encouraged. To not rely on belief or “told truth,” but merely “experiential truth” – what happens to or within oneself, when applying this technique.
The course is taught all over the world and offered in many prisons. Whether or not the course is successful or has a positive effect doesn’t matter as the very fact that the retreat is provided free of charge, with all efforts and donations made by volunteers, may be proof enough. It states on their website, dhamma.org: “There are no charges for the courses – not even to cover the cost of food and accommodation. All expenses are covered by donations from people who, having completed a course and experienced the benefits of Vipassana, wish to allow others also to benefit.”
Attended in what is referenced as “noble silence,” no talking or direct communicating is allowed (for concerns or questions, assistant teachers and housing managers were available and very kind and helpful). In practice, this meant avoiding eye contact with anyone but staff, even your roommate, throughout the course. By the second day, my roommate and I established a pace and pattern of movements to maintain this.
One controversial aspect is the segregation of men and women. We lived in separate dorms and only saw each other in the meditation hall. Even then, the men were seated on one side and women on the other, only addressing the assistant teacher of their gender. The intention seemed genuine to avoid distraction. Whether or not it’s an outdated maxim, pushing heteronormative as “the norm” – or how the organization meets applicants subscribing to other gender identities, I’ll admit I chose to lose sight of this as I emerged myself in practice.
Each day started at 4 am when a bell woke us for morning meditation. At 6:30 am, breakfast was usually an oat porridge with fruit and granola, and at 8 am, the first of three mandatory “group sittings” of one hour began. After this, students were free to meditate in their rooms or the meditation hall. Lunch was at 11:30 am, which would also be the last meal of the day (first-time students were offered fruit at 5:30 pm but encouraged to eat very moderately). After lunch and a one-hour break, we meditated on our own between the two remaining group sittings at 2:30 pm and 6:30 pm. Finally, there was an hour daily discourse, followed by a thirty-minute session, after which we’d eventually stumble back to our rooms and, more often than not, fall asleep right away, at 9 pm.
The rest of Day 2 and all of Day 3 was a struggle. I would go from feeling sleepy, hungry, aching, distracted, then sleepy again. Every formal sitting would begin with a short instruction from Goenka over the speakers, more often than not, opening with the phrase; “start again.” And that is what we would do. Focus all of our attention on the breath as it brushed over a small area of our body. In this case, the small area around the nostrils, and every time thoughts or bodily sensations would distract from this; we’d start again. Again, and again.
It may sound simple – and it was until about a few seconds in, when the thoughts came rushing. The term “monkey mind” is frequently used in meditation circles for a reason.
Stepping aside, off the highway of life, most of us lead of rushing from one task to the next left me jet-lagged. My body was used to constant movement, reacting to discomfort and restlessness, and so was my mind. Sitting with what came, in the present moment only, not thinking up future red flags or recalling past ones, was difficult.
We’re creatures of habit, and if our habit patterns work well enough to keep us alive, neither the body or mind sees reasons to change them as historically, the risks of changing have been too high. When an unexpected e-mail or a disapproving look from a stranger can throw us down spirals of anxious thoughts, we’re “self-preserving” at a degree where paranoia is inherent in us and, more often than not, unnecessary. Letting thoughts and sensations come and go, by continuously bringing one’s attention back to the breath, a distinct body function, running without conscious effort, allows us to observe reality as it is and not as we’d like it – or as we fear it to be.
“Start again,” Goenka’s slow voice commanded again over the speaker. Most of the sittings started this way; I felt myself waiting for it, as people silently filled the meditation hall. This afternoon, however, a new instruction followed. The “tool” promised two days earlier was shared with us. Focusing on a single point of the body, we were instructed to “scan” the whole body, feeling the top of the head, the face, the neck, a shoulder, to an upper arm. Then repeat, while – and this was crucial – maintaining an equally non-judgemental attitude towards all the bodily sensations we’d come across. Such as not reacting stronger to lower back pain from sitting than an itch in a pinky finger.
Primarily we were practising equanimity, seeing all sensations as “equal signals” from the body, arising and passing, always changing – too short-lasting to hold on to and too persistent to wish away. We can either try to hold on and get “rope burn” when things do change, because everything does, or we can practice patience and observe changes objectively and not get carried away by habitual thinking and reactive patterns.
In practice, though, this way of non-reacting is very far from how most of us go through our lives. Changing this is a step further than “just” directing one’s attention back to the breath. Most of us have been conditioned to avoid any physical discomfort; we even have traumatic experiences from our past attached to bodily pains. Sitting through the arising and passing of these, while maintaining an observant, non-reacting role, became a physical task, not unlike a physical work out. The mindset immediately became key; changing the perception of “pains and discomforts” to “louder signals,” made all the difference.
After another day sitting, I felt where this was heading: I was aware of the signals from my body but not at their mercy. I was more of an authority, more in control, acting from what I deemed most beneficial — not reacting to discomforts or fears. When our assistant teacher asked us, one by one, if our sense of serenity was growing, I nodded, and that same night, when questions were encouraged, I thanked him for not having given me a chair, when I’d asked.
“Start again,” Goenka asked again, and as I sat there, scanning my body, again and again, different “signals” of different flavours and volume submerged, lingered and faded. Some warm and light, others sharp and tense, some stayed for longer, calling on feelings and memories, flashes of summer forests near my childhood home, that time I let down one friend, because I couldn’t say no to another. I felt shame when seeing myself bully a classmate or whining for toys I couldn’t have and waves of compassion for that little kid in me, stumbling ahead, struggling to find his feet on his path.
“Start again.” The hours and days melted together in a blur of sitting, resting and sitting again, scanning and rescanning the body as everything and nothing came floating up towards me like pockets of air from the depths of an ocean. Old childhood habits I still clung to, fears and needs. As one tension in my lower abdomen loosened, a warmth spread with realizing that deep down, I always believed I had to earn love and worth, and I’d repeatedly hurt myself and others to support this. Another knot formed with a rush of remorse for having punished myself with guilt for the sake of punishing and on and on it went until the bell finally released us and I dissolved into my foam mattress.
But I didn’t sleep, a vigorous warmth and lightness had remained. All sensations seemed like open channels lingering in my chest. I felt waves of gratitude for my body against the sheets and my thinking, skipping, jumping monkey mind and everything I got to witness in this brief little life of mine. When I finally fell asleep, it was four hours before the morning bell, yet I woke up feeling rested and in awe of what a wonder everything is.
A ten-day meditation retreat will unlikely lead to full enlightenment or the salvation of many. Yet spending ten days watching one’s sense of self and behaviours unfold, can leave one, as it did me, feeling like you have caught a glimpse behind the curtain of the centre stage of consciousness. I saw how my idea of what was “me” were stories I’d told myself, most of them having very little to do with what was real. What was – and is real, is only this moment and what’s in it, everything arising and passing away.
For more information on this enlightening experience please visit https://www.dhamma.org/en/schedules/schmodana.