Vipassana Meditation

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.

A Few Times I’ve Been Robbed

This evening I watched a Netflix episode of what seemed to be a low-budget Canadian television series highlighting travel mishaps. There was a guy who was robbed in a taxi in Lima that made me think of my brother. There was also a girl whose backpack was stolen in Barcelona that made me think of every person I know who’s ever been to Barcelona. My travel robbery stories are too numerous to list in a single post, but here are a few highlights from my younger years when I tended to make more irresponsible choices…

Gdansk, Poland, Age 18

My seven-person high school Odyssey of the Mind team went to Poland for a competition and along the way we kept passing teams of gypsies holding babies and begging for money. Though our chaperones instructed us not to give any of them money, when we had free time to wander through the town square, my bleeding-heart self decided to give away $5 of the $65 that I had brought for the entire trip.

The woman I gave the money to was so grateful that she wanted to give me something in return. She would give me a palm reading. After deciding this in conversational English, she asked if I spoke any other languages. Upon learning that I was less-than-proficient in German, she decided German would be perfect for the reading.

She spun some generic tales about how great my life was and how many men were in love with me and then she asked me for some coins. I told her I had no coins. She became angry and demanding, telling me she didn’t want to keep my money she just needed to touch the coins for luck. It didn’t matter if it was for luck or not, I told her. I didn’t have any coins.

Then she stuffed her hands into my jean pockets and before I could stop her, she was holding my $60. I watched her very carefully. Very, very carefully. She told me to blow on the money. I blew on it, without taking my eyes off those bills. Then she stuffed the $60 back in my front pocket, while I watched her so, so carefully. And then suddenly she was gone.

I stood there for a moment, thinking about how odd our exchange was, how confused I’d been trying to converse in German, and how weird it was that she ran away. I put my hand into my front pocket. The $60 that I had watched her stuff into my jeans was not there. In its place was the $5 bill I’d originally given her.

Right then a few of my classmates walked up. One of them spoke German, so I had him tell the gypsies that I wanted my money back auf Deutsch. The leader of the pack talked to him with a face full of sympathy, explaining that she did not know the lady who took my money, but she had seen her run off and jump into a taxi.

After a few minutes of this circular conversation, I saw two police officers across the way. I went to speak with them and the women watched. The police did not understand a word I said, but our conversation of gestures included me pointing at the women and the officers signaling me to come with them to the station.

The gypsy leader saw this, and likely wanted no trouble with the police, so she had my friend call me back over. When I walked up, she pulled the $60 from her own pocket and told me she would return it, but she wanted the $5 I had originally given the woman. Though I was annoyed to agree to this, I agreed. Robbery problem solved.

Barcelona, Spain, Age 22

I spent the summer studying in Munich and a friend of mine was studying in Rome, so we decided to meet up for a weekend in Barcelona. We were having lunch with two Italian guys and I had my purse on the back of my chair when a beggar walked into the cafe.

I’d seen this maneuver several times. Beggar enters establishment and places a laminated card on every table. This card explains why they need money in 12 languages. Then the beggar walks to each table and stands there for a moment with outstretched hands. If ignored, they collect their laminated 12-language explanation and leave.

The beggar stood at our table for an uncomfortably long time before taking the hint. After he left, it dawned on me that I should move my purse to the inside of the back of my chair rather than the outside. As I moved my purse, I saw the zipper was open. Camera and wallet were missing. I was too late.

The four of us went to an Internet cafe so that I could Skype my dad and have him cancel my ATM card. While there, the two Italian guys were robbed next – their backpacks stolen while they sat typing at computer terminals. They also lost their cameras but, unlike me, they had left additional money and credit cards in their hotel room, so every way they had to access money was not cut off in a single pickpocketing incident.

When my friend and I went back to the youth hostel that night, everyone we spoke with had already been robbed in Barcelona. Someone even had a pair shoes stolen at the beach when they left them on the sand and walked down to the water. Literally the only tourist I interacted with in Barcelona who did not have a personal robbery story was my friend. And had we been making predictions about the person most likely to lose all of their possessions on any vacation, she would’ve had my vote.

I talked my friend into sneaking me into her bed at the youth hostel. It was the grossest place either of us had ever slept. The building had no air conditioning or air circulation and the sheets reeked of weeks’ worth of sweat as they were obviously not washed between visitors. We were already sleeping in other people’s sweat, I told her. We may as well sleep in each other’s.

I’m not sure why I didn’t borrow money from my friend and just pay her back when we were stateside, but for whatever reason, I did not. This meant that I had zero access to money until stepping off the train in Munich and walking back to my apartment. And in my apartment was simply a Discover card.

This was 2001, before you could use a credit card for every little purchase. It was also a time when very few establishments took Discover. So I spent the rest of the summer using an Irish Pub as my ATM because I’m pretty sure the staff misunderstood their owner’s directive.

The staff was not allowed to charge less than 50 Marks ($35 USD) on a credit card, so if your tab was under that threshold, they would run your card for 50 DM and give you the change in cash. Thank goodness for that Irish Pub because without them, I’m not sure how I would’ve had money for the grocery store (who didn’t take Discover) or public transportation (who didn’t take Discover) or every other establishment I found Germany (none of whom took Discover).

Budapest, Hungary, Age 23

On a train heading for Budapest, my friend and I were sitting in the dining car when passport control came through. After showing our documents to the officers walking through the car, we set them on the table. Moments later, the waiter approached and while clearing our plates he quickly scooped up our passports and darted to the end of the car.

I jumped up and chased him, catching up and confronting him in front of a border officer. The officer looked at the waiter and spoke to him in Hungarian, perhaps translating, as the waiter didn’t seem to speak much English.

First the waiter showed an expression of false confusion, then he dropped his act and laughed, pulling our passports out from under his vest. He dangled them in front of me then made a gesture with his shirt, lifting it in such a way that I took it as a demand to see my tits.

I looked to the officer for help, as I thought he was my ally, but he, too, was patiently waiting to see my tits. I smacked the waiter’s arm, gave him a mouthful of curse words, and grabbed the passports from his hand. He thought this was funny and in his international language of gestures, he shrugged as if to say, “Well, I tried.”

Munich, Germany, Age 23

Same friend as the passport robbery was with me at Oktoberfest and we were too cheap to get a hotel room that time of year. However, from an earlier visit, we knew a hotel that didn’t require a key to enter and had a private bathrooms, complete with a shower, on every floor.

We left our valuables in a locker at the train station and decided to sleep in the hotel hallway. We figured that if we were questioned by someone, like a maid, for example, we would act really sad and explain that we were most certainly hotel guests, but that we were fighting with our boyfriends and that is why we chose to sleep on the hallway floor. It was as genius of a plan as when we set our cruise control to 95 on Interstate 95, intending to tell any officer who pulled us over that we had been confused by the signage.

On our first night, Oktoberfest left me in rare form and I just wanted to sleep, so I left my friend early and headed for the hotel hallway. However, as I was en route, walking down the sidewalk, an automatic door opened. I realized it was one of those private ATM rooms and it was unoccupied.

It was so cold outside and so warm in the ATM room and I decided I didn’t need to walk all the way to the hotel to sleep. There was a cardboard cutout of a cartoon fox, the bank mascot I’m guessing, and I curled up behind him in the corner. The fox wasn’t too helpful though because the next thing I knew, I was being woken up by a flashlight in my face and two paramedics hovering over top of me.

I explained that I was fine and had a small case of the giggles, finding the whole situation rather funny. The female paramedic seemed to agree with me, smiling and laughing, but the male had a different idea about humor. After proving that I was not dead or dying, I left the cozy comfort of the ATM room and made my way to the hotel hallway.

When I arrived, my friend was already there. And with her was some guy we’d met earlier who turned out to be a trust fund baby who spent his nights back home in Canada flying to different nightclubs via helicopter. I know this not because he told us, but because my friend later met him in Canada and that is precisely what they did. And I include this detail because his obvious wealth and willingness to spend money makes it all the more absurd that he decided sleeping on the floor of a hotel hallway was a good idea.

My arrival woke them up and my friend quickly realized that our bag was missing. Apparently someone had stolen it from under her head as she slept and neither of them had noticed. It wouldn’t have been a major deal that the bag was stolen, as we only had toiletries and a change of clothes in there, but for some reason, my friend’s only pair of glasses and every pair of contact lenses she owned was also in that bag. The thief stole a lot of worthless things plus my friend’s vision.

The next day she walked around virtually blind and that night someone slipped a drug into her drink. The Canadian guy was still hanging around and thankfully they accidentally exchanged drinks so he got the full dose of whatever she was dosed with. I say thankfully he was drugged because whatever was in that drink left him bedridden for three days. She weighed all of maybe 110 pounds and he was normal guy size, so he was better equipped to handle it.

When we had a drugged-out Canadian on our hands who needed a bed, we opted to call it quits on our cheap hallway plan and phone a friend in Munich. He graciously accepted us into his home and let our new friend recooperate. Not only that, but in a random coincidence, our friend had received Lasik surgery the month prior and had a stash of contact lenses he no longer needed. His prescription was identical to my friend’s, so she was able to continue traveling with full vision.

In Summation…

The Netflix series reminded me why I prefer to avoid television. What I thought was going to be a funny series about travel mishaps wound up being quite terrifying. It highlighted people who had been shot, stabbed, and beaten simply walking down the street or riding in a cab. I don’t think that kind-of entertainment does any good for people who are considering taking a vacation or for people waiting for a friend or family member to return from a vacation. The program even served up an unhealthy dose of fear to me, making me rethink future travel plans, and I certainly know better.

Yes, the worst-case scenario is a possibility and some people unfortunately experience the worst of the world. However, in my experience, the times I’ve been robbed have been (1) fairly insignificant and (2) quite preventable. I’ve actually had more stolen in my own country than I’ve ever had stolen abroad, including thefts by former employees who I trusted (twice!) and a home robbery that my roommate walked in on (scary). So, no thanks Netflix – not watching anymore of your travel horror series.

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