For the past decade, I’ve attended a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat once per year. No cell phones, no electronics, no technology, no books, no writing utensils, no talking. It’s just ten days of meditation. The center provides accommodations and meals, fueled by donations of previous attendees, so you’re living off the generosity of others much like if you were a monk or a nun. I’ve sat courses (attended) and served them (prepared meals for attendees) and each time is a unique and powerful experience. When I’ve sat, I can only explain it as a reconnection with myself. I find balance, priorities, and a heightened sense of intuition. When I’ve served, it’s been more of a social experience and I’ve met some great people and learned how to cook some delicious food.
I’ve been attending so faithfully, at least once per year since 2008, no matter what country I’ve found myself in, and in the process I’ve accidentally become an advanced student. I don’t mean “advanced” in the sense that I’m a talented or disciplined meditator. It’s more the pressure of expectation, that feeling that I’m supposed to be better than I am. It’s one thing to come back for a second visit and tell the teachers that I haven’t been maintaining my practice at home for two hours per day as prescribed. It’s another thing to make that statement after eleven years. A new student can be forgiven for failing to sit still entire hour, but those of us positioned in the front row should be setting an example. We shouldn’t be squirming or taking a pause every ten minutes to crack our necks.
The truth is: I am often the worst student in the room. After Day 4, we’re told to sit with strong determination on our three one-hour daily sits, not moving a muscle. I’ve done it four times. Once another server made me feel guilty because I confessed that I didn’t find the requirement to sit still an important or worthwhile goal, so I ignored the directive. She was so baffled/disappointed, that I felt guilted into a statue-esque meditation. But just once that visit. And then, this course that I’ve just returned from sitting, for some reason the fifth day really clicked for me. I sat still without much effort all three sessions that day. But other than those four times, when my leg falls asleep, I reposition. When my back screams in agony, I stretch it a little bit. My movements are fairly futile though, as everything still hurts. No movement other than exiting the meditation hall when the the hour is over actually cures the pain.
Every night for evening discourse we watch a lecture on DVD and the man responsible for the recent flourishing of Vipassana centers provides insight into the history and technique. According to the theory, the physical body carries mental defilements and by simply observing them, they will evaporate and disappear. So pain manifested in the body is actually rooted in our emotions and we will be liberated if we simply sit through the pain and allow it to pass. I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around that concept. If I sit upright for one hour, my neck and back are going to hurt and I think it has more to do with gravity than with my life’s wrongdoings.
But that’s the thing… I’ve found that I don’t buy-in to several aspects of the technique. I’m completely willing to admit that I could be missing the point. It may very well be that by not surrendering and not suspending my disbelief for the ten days, I am doing myself a disservice. But I have a hard time buying-in to things in general. During the discourses, I’m told that it’s okay. I can take what I want from the technique and as I see that other parts are good and correct, I can accept those too. It’s okay not to have blind faith. But talking to other meditators, others who have been making repeat visits to the centers, I’m feeling very alone in my personal rebellion.
There are two points that I’ve had the most conflict over. One is alcohol. We take five precepts when we begin a course and we’re “supposed” to be carving lives within these guidelines. The five precepts are a vow to abstain from: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, wrong speech, and intoxicants. When completing an intake form for each course, the only precept we’re asked about is our history of intoxicants. This focus on intoxicants filters through to the Vipassana community and in conversations with other meditators, drinking is seen as such a taboo. I enjoy a glass of red wine. Sometimes I enjoy two glasses. I have a healthy relationship with alcohol and I believe that can exist in harmony with meditation. But it bothers me that this particular precept is seen as the all-important, overarching dividing line between serious and non-serious mediators. They can be eating three different animals, violating the first precept, and still talk with such indignation about a glass of wine.
The other point I’m resistant to is the prescription to sit for meditation one hour every morning and one hour every evening. I love meditation, I see great results, and I want to incorporate it into my daily life, but two hours per day seems like a recipe for personal failure. Two hours is a lot of time. I feel very accomplished with a good 20 minutes every morning. Twenty minutes of true meditation. When I do a one-hour sit, my mind wanders so much because I feel like I have a whole hour to get on track. When I sit for 20 minutes, I hop right to it with pure focus because it’s only 20 minutes. There’s a minimal effective dose for meditation and it’s probably individualized. For me, it is not an hour. Maybe after a few years, I will want the full hour, but right now I don’t.
When I’ve really connected with someone at the Vipassana center, I’ve found myself in intense conversations over my lack of buy-in, broaching these subjects on a quest for answers. I want to hear about their experiences and I want them to share a piece of information that I hadn’t considered, but the conversation usually devolves to a question of my seriousness as a meditator. Even a question of: well, why are you here? And that’s unfulfilling. It doesn’t provide any insight and the blind devotion to what is “right” sounds as if we’re all joining a cult.
Even if I’m not sold on the absolute rightness of this particular style of meditation. And even if I’m bothered by it’s claims of being the true and pure form, implying that other styles of meditation are inferior or polluted. And even if the rights and rituals of chanting/incantations are packaged as “this is not a right or a ritual” in a way that gives me a flashback of that time I was invited to a coworker’s home to join in a pyramid scheme that he kept insisting was not a pyramid scheme. And even if I keep being told Vipassana is not a religion, but the fingerprints of Buddhism seem to be all over it, with the original Vipassana meditator being Buddha himself. All that aside, I still love attending the courses. Each time is an intense experience and I come out a little different than I went in. But I’m not so sure it’s solely the meditation that changes me…
Every year I check out of civilization for a week and a half, without saying a word to anyone. Not even an apology when I bump someone’s elbow reaching for the lemon juice. I’m left alone with my thoughts. And we’re on a really rigorous schedule, with specific time carved out for each activity, so I’m kept disciplined, focused, and on task. I think everything involved in the process plays a role in the change. How can I extrapolate the meditation from the entirety of my experience and praise that as being the one thing that made the difference?
My first time at a Vipassana center was on a bi-lingual course in Thailand and I literally hated it. Hated it. I didn’t follow the majority of instructions because I was so bored not understanding them in Thai that when we switched over to the English translation, I had already tuned out. When I did catch the instructions, it was my natural inclination to rebel. During the allotted meditation time, I sat there as if I were being punished. I often opened my eyes in a personal protest and didn’t even attempt to meditate those first few days. But that first time was my most impactful time. I could write an entire post on what experiences I had during that course and what trickled in after the course ended. I truly connected with the world and with myself. But I wasn’t meditating until the end of the course. Maybe on Day 7 or Day 8, I finally got into the experience. So how can I say that meditation was responsible for the changes? It felt like an accent to the intense solitude.
I’m trying to tackle this year with a bit more purpose, devoting each month to a specific project or goal. February began with a Vipassana meditation retreat and it’s my intention to continue meditating 20 minutes per day. I’d like to keep this habit up all year and all my life, but I’m beginning with this bite-sized approach of February. After each course, I seem to slowly slip away from meditation in the same way that the well-intentioned let their gym memberships go unused, so as a preventative, I’m just focusing on the month. I’m making sure to get in 20 minutes per day every day for the month of February. And the idea is to habitualize meditation so deeply that it’s as much a part of my morning routine as brushing my teeth.
Maybe after a year or two or three the discourses will make more sense. Maybe I’ll find that there is truth in the physical body carrying emotional pain. In my yoga classes, we’re told something similar — that emotional pain is often stored in the hips, so hip openers can be an emotionally draining stretches. I have no personal experience to say this is true, but on the flip side, I have no way to disprove the null hypothesis either.
So I guess what I’m trying to express is that I’m open. I’m open to being a little more enlightened. Maybe one day it will all click for me and I’ll think my initial resistance was a foolish reaction. Who knows? I’m open.