First I want to say – I’m in Greece with limited internet but have been following the fallout of Hurricane Sandy and my heart goes out to you all. My family was all affected but are getting life back in order. We’re thinking and praying for you all. xo
Karan and I finished our Vipassana course in Italy last week, and I’ve finally found a computer so I can share about it. Vipassana is a Buddhist meditation technique taught all over India and the world. I’ve wanted to take this course for a long time, so that I can get a real meditation boot-camp. Karan did Vipassana back in India ten years ago, so this was his second time. Hard to convey all it’s about, but I’ll try my best.
I guess you would call this Day 0. We take a shuttle from Faenza, Italy to the Dhamma Atala center about 40 minutes away. This morning I have loaded up on food – bread, cheese, chocolate croissant, cappuchino – everything I can get my hands on!
We arrive and do registration and I give up my camera and book. I’m also supposed to give my journal and pen but I sneak it, I can’t imagine going 10 days without my journal and decide that will be my one ‘cheat’ but actually don’t end up touching it. If I had a cellphone, music device or laptop I would have to give that up too.
I settle into my dorm room with 5 Italian women, that night we get a light dinner of soup and bread, a briefing, and silence starts at 8pm and we meet in the Meditation Hall and get our assigned meditation spots. We sit on a mat on the floor with a cushion. There is some strange chanting, a short meditation and we go to at 9.30. I usually stay up later than that but with no talking, books, tv – there’s not much else to do but sleep.
Here’s our daily schedule, tell me if this is not the craziest thing you’ve ever seen!
4am: Wake up gong
4.30 to 6.30am: Meditate
6.30am: Breakfast and rest
8 to 9am: Meditate (in the hall)
9 to 11am: More meditation (but sometimes you can do this session in your dorm room)
11am: Lunch and rest
2.30 to 3.30: Meditate (in the hall)
3.30 to 5: Meditate
5-6: Tea, snack and rest (you may notice there’s no dinner!)
6-7: Meditate (in the hall)
10: Lights out
To me the most astonishing part was that by 9am each day, I had meditated for 3 hours, eaten breakfast and taken a 1 hour nap! What a morning.
The first 3 days we practiced a meditation that focuses on watching the breath pass through your nostrils. Although this seemed boring at first, it helped to calm and concentrate the mind. Very interesting to see what roly poly things the mind does when you start watching it closely! From past to present to future, mine jumped like a cricket all over, but then you keep remembering to watch the breath. Slowly slowly, I could focus for longer. (Then my knees or hips would start screaming from sitting for so long, it felt like 2 golfballs were under my right hip pretty much the whole week.)
Big day. First there was a water shortage in the morning, so during the 4.30am meditation all I could think was “I hope they can still make my oatmeal!” I was still getting used to life without dinner. But water came back in the afternoon.
Also in the afternoon, now that we had concentrated our minds for 3 days, we finally learned the Vipassana technique. “What do you mean, that’s not what we’ve been doing the past 3 days?” I feel it’s not right to summarize something that was taught by a serious teacher over 10 days. But it’s a technique of self-observation, to learn to maintain mental balance (or equanimity) so that reactions to upsetting events diminish, negativities dissolve, and your mind becomes peaceful and full of compassion.
An example – on day 3 I went back to the room for one of the sessions when I was supposed to stay in the meditation hall, totally by accident, honest mistake. The assistant teacher came to my room and told me I needed to come back to the meditation hall. I was so thrown off by this! I felt embarrassed, like the teacher was scolding me! Now this is such a small event. But because of the silence and learning to watch the breath and notice reactions in my body, I was able to see how even a small disturbance can throw off your composure. So one way to explain the Vipassana technique is that you learn to maintain your composure (or equanimity) in the face of life’s vicissitudes.
Or here’s a really simple way to say it: an agitated mind is not a happy mind. Sounds obvious, right? But through the 10 days we were learning that truth in a very experiential way.
I actually got upset this day after learning the technique. My first reaction was that it was stupid, I didn’t like it. But because of silence, I had no one to complain to, no one to express my doubts to. I could only here the teacher saying, “you are bound to be successful.” And I got back to work.
Day 5 – Scorpion!
Day 5, I’m getting ready at 4am for morning meditation, which I love by the way. Something magical about walking up the hill under the starry sky in the middle of the night. So I’m making my bed because my roommates are all very diligent bed-makers and what do I see under my pillow but a scorpion!
This is the one and only time I violated silence. I yelped, but that doesn’t really count. The real violation is that I tapped my roommate on the shoulder to see – I simply couldn’t handle this alone. She gasped, then opened the window. I scooped up the scorpion in a plastic cup (leftover from the water shortage) and tossed it out the window. And then without skipping a beat, we continued getting ready for meditation.
The purpose of Noble Silence is:
1. To get rid of excess chatter (I had plenty of chatter in my own mind, so the idea is to reduce all the extraneous chatter as much as possible)
2. To cut out your ability to express doubts and complaints (you can always talk to the teacher if you have questions, but not to other students)
3. To allow you to have a personal experience.
4. To create a foundation of morality – if you’re not talking, it’s much harder to be dishonest
And it helps on all 4 counts, and everyone takes it very seriously. And silence is not just talking – it includes hand gestures and pointing. Even with the scorpion it was clear to see that silence leads to way less drama.
These were mostly great days, with some ups and downs. I settled into the routine, I got the right combination of cushions to help my hips, my appetite calmed down and I got used to not having dinner. I took less naps during breaks and took more walks.
We started something called “Sittings of Strong Determination” which meant that for 1 hour you were not to open your eyes, unclasp your hands or unfold your legs. This really helped me to stop squirming and fidgeting.
Ready to be done!!! Antsy.
Last day! I gave up my cherished morning nap to take a shower and dry my hair and put on makeup, I am so excited to see Karan again and talk again. (Men and women have been kept entirely separate at all times, so I have glimpsed him throughout the week and we smile at each other each night to say a silent ‘goodnight’ but otherwise we have had no contact whatsoever).
We have our last meditation in the morning, a receive a closing blessing, and then Noble Chattering begins. I walk out with my roommates and soon find Karan and we’re all thrilled to laugh and talk, it was a real celebration. That day at lunch we even had brownies!
As I re-read this, I feel I haven’t captured an ounce of the experience. This is an outline, but there was a lot of juicy stuff that’s hard to convey. It was a fun, funky, truly life-changing experience. I left about 15 days ago and still feel a big shift. I’m calmer, happier, less sensitive, less emotional about every little thing, quicker to laugh, and more secure in my relationship. We both lost weight, too .. but more important I feel emotionally lighter. The teachings were wonderful, and then the intensive experience of putting them into practice from 4am to 9pm was hard work, but powerful.
Karan has written a wonderful explanation on meditation in this “Meditations on Meditation” if you’d like to learn more.
We are now in Greece doing our own writing + meditation retreat before we head to India for yoga teachers training at the end of November.
Much love and blue skies to all,