Life has been hectic this year, with getting used to a new job, planning a wedding, moving houses, and some irresistible travel. At the busiest moments, I kept looking back to the time I went to a meditation retreat in the southern California desert (at Twentynine palms, just outside Joshua Tree National Park), and wishing that I could find time to do it again. It was ten technology-free days of learning to meditate – in complete silence! Were these the hardest ten days of my life? Yes, and No. On the surface, definitely yes – it was lonely, unexpectedly cold, I was hangry all evening (lunch was the last meal of the day), and I’m definitely not used to being silent all the time. Also, meditation is hard. But – as you probably guessed, it was worth it in the end. Heading home ten days and a coffee fix later, I felt refreshed, nourished and a little wiser – because I had been able to glimpse what I was made of.
Here are some snippets from what I wrote about the experience right after I came back in March 2014. Note, this is NOT A GUIDE to Vipassana meditation. If you want to learn it, you must start with the ten day course that I am describing. Also, these are just my experiences, but everyone is unique. Don’t let this shape your own experiences in any way.
I left work at around 1 pm and began my drive to the desert. It was fun, I enjoy long drives if I have the right kind of music. Of course, when I started getting closer, the reality of the next ten days started to sink in, and I did feel like turning back. But I was also excited to see how it would be and luckily I kept going. The yucca plants and Joshua trees on the way are so weirdly attractive.
The course started at 7:45 pm, begin noble silence.
It is hard to maintain noble silence but not impossible. A hoodie helps. It is also really cold in the desert. Evening hunger, so much hunger. Imprisoned and hungry, but it was a new experience, so it was still exciting.
The highlight of the day, and all the following days was Mr. Goenka’s discourse in the evening. We could watch him on T.V! Believe me, if all you did the whole day was meditate, this would seem very exciting. Seeing Mr. Goenka was a shock – the discourses were filmed in 1991, and even then he looked so old. But he was a little bit funny, and what he said was interesting, so the discourses were definitely fun.
I saw a rainbow. It made the day better. More ana-pana meditation. I caught a cold – it could have been a real cold, or allergies, or an imagined cold because of observing my nose so much.
I was ready to run. The whole day had been so hard, with my cold, the meditation was so boring, so unrewarding. I was miserable and bored and freezing in the desert. Was it worth taking so much leave for something so silly? I needed to go home. I told Natalie I would talk to her after the discourse, and then I planned to leave the next morning.
But in his discourse, he said we would start actual Vipassana tomorrow. The first three days had been to prepare our mind so we could take that deep dive inside. I was torn. I had come all the way, everyone was expecting me to run, I really wanted to get rid of some miseries. Why not give it a chance? I decided to stay. And I am so glad I did.
Start Vipassana. Something new, excitement level rose again. Something hard, something to work toward. We had to start meditation of strong determination : aditthana sitting. It is so hard to sit in one position for an hour. My back hurt so much, my knees hurt so badly. But, observe the pain, do not react to it. Just observe. Just observe. Watch the pain disappear. I realized that this was something powerful – mind over matter. The cold disappeared. I don’t know what to believe anymore – about medication, about the power of self healing. My perspective has changed because of my experience, but it is so hard to come to grips with it.
If I don’t gain anything from this mentally, I should at least have some physical gains. The forced fruit for dinner diet was one step toward losing weight, I might as well take a few more now that the rain had stopped. Walk 20 rounds around the walking path everyday. Enjoy the mountains, the desert air, the stillness followed by the breeze. Walk without external music, let the songs play in your head instead. Think, think, think while also trying to relax.
Keep walking. Keep meditating. Keep looking for something that may or may not exist.
Three more days and I can be done. The native American lady who walks really really fast started crying a lot. Why hadn’t I started crying yet? Was my meditation technique flawed?
But I felt the “bhanga”. It feels like a very short jolt of pleasure. Do not get attracted to this feeling, do not get attracted to this feeling, do not develop new sankharas (bad habits).
Finally learned to tolerate, if not feel compassion for the guy who burped during meditation all the time. The feeling of disgust was lessening – observe, don’t react.
Misery! Misery! Misery! I spent the whole day crying and unhappy and I couldn’t bear to be outdoors. I just had to stay inside, inside of myself, hating my thoughts and yet craving them. I realized that there are only few things that matter to me in this world. I could live without everything else. It was a big revelation.
The last day to meditate sincerely, persistently. And I still hadn’t found the answers I was looking for. Was there nothing deep inside of me?
I started feeling lighter in my body – it could be the fruit diet, but it could also be that a lot of miseries were going away. I was still too sad to be outside walking though, it took so much effort. Besides, the afternoons were starting to get really hot and sunny.
Noble silence is broken! I could finally talk to all the women I made stories about, and find out that the stories were just that – stories. Even their voices were completely different from what I had imagined. Candi (my roommate) and I bonded – a couple of women said we both looked so cute and young, reminding them of their daughters.
We learned the ‘metta bhavana’ technique of meditation and I understood what P’ Bo must have been doing for me the whole time. I was so thankful to her. After the morning meditation, before breaking noble silence, I was still not completely out of my sadness. But after we could all talk again, I came back up to the surface, and felt so much better, so happy. The chocolate chip cookies helped too. I couldn’t meditate at all the rest of the day, I was done, mentally checked out. However, that means I might still have some miseries deep down, I still have a lot of work to do on myself. While 10 days is a start, it is not a miracle cure.
I could finally go home! We had to wake up at the crack of 4:30 am, which was really 3:30 am due to Daylight Savings. After some unbearable chanting and his last and final discourse in which he told us to continue to meditate for one hour in the morning and one in the evening, we were free to leave! It was hard to leave, I don’t know why. I was going to leave at 6:30, but ended up leaving at 7:30. I had to go back to the real world, leave the safe haven of the desert ashram. I was crying on the way back, but they weren’t tears of misery. Just tears of loss maybe? Being overwhelmed? It was a crazy, amazing experience. So hard, yet so rewarding.
Before I went to Vipassana, I wasn’t a sad person. I led a happy, fulfilled life, but I wanted to try Vipassana to see if I could make it better, and like most people in their twenties, to “find myself”. What I uncovered during Vipassana was sometimes a bit too surprising to handle, but the best part about Vipassana was that it taught me how to handle it.
If you want to spend some time getting to know yourself (which usually leads to self improvement), then I highly recommend Vipassana. They have several learning centers all over the world, and it is completely free. Of course, it is nice if you donate to maintaining these amazing centers. Learn more about Vipassana on their website.
The best journeys in life are those that leave you richer than you started, and Vipassana will help you achieve this goal!