Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Joe Omundson

My experiences at a 10 day silent meditation retreat

I went to a 10 day Vipassana course in Oregon last Thanksgiving. It's a silent meditation retreat that gives participants a chance to dive deep into meditation in an intentional environment, providing food, lodging, and instruction on a donation-only basis.

Most of this blog post is based on an email I wrote to a friend & yoga mentor shortly after returning home. I'm grateful that I wrote about the experience then, because I would never be able to capture all the same thoughts if I were to start writing it now.

We meditated for 10 days, for about 10 hours each day: 4:30am-6:30, 8:00-11:00, 1:00-5:00, 6:00-7:00, and 8:30-9:00, with some short breaks in the longer blocks for going to the bathroom etc. The environment was set up intentionally to minimize distractions; we were forbidden from reading, writing, music, videos, talking, physical contact, exercise (other than walking in a field), intoxicants, and leaving the course boundaries. Basically I had no choice but to get really deep into my head and experience my psyche. All information after the orientation day was conveyed via signs rather than verbal announcements, so as not to disturb our mental space. Everything was efficient and logical -- for example, at mealtimes, they would simply ring a bell when the food was ready, and we'd all walk in to the empty room and serve ourselves buffet style and eat in silence. No drama with waiting for staff members to instruct us or anything like that. The food was actually great, it was very healthy and adequate. I was profoundly grateful for every meal. They didn't serve dinner, except for fruit and tea. I'd never eaten so much fruit before.

The meditation technique started with 3.5 days of Anapana meditation -- devoting complete attention to the awareness of breath, and to all subtle sensations in the nostril area alone. The purpose of this was to settle the mind, and to sharpen the brain's ability to detect sensations in a very small area. We were to notice anything from tickling, tingling, pain, heat, cool, expansion/contraction, pressure, pulsing, heaviness/lightness, basically just any sensation that existed in that area at all. Whenever we noticed a thought enter our heads, we were to dismiss it and return attention to the sensation around the nostrils. At first I could hardly go 5 seconds without thinking about something, and it would be a few minutes before I realized my mind was wandering. But gradually I got faster at gathering my wandering mind, and I was able to go 30 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes just focusing on the sensation without my mind starting to chatter. By the end of the 10 days, it was no problem to sit with my mind at rest for a full hour.

After practicing our awareness using Anapana meditation for a few days, we started turning that same quality of attention that we had placed on the nostrils to all areas of our bodies, scanning from head to feet, feet to head, detecting sensation from part to part. This is Vipassana meditation. After all the practice with putting attention on one small area, roaming the whole body was like exploring a new world.

This is the philosophy in a nutshell: our minds are burdened with these things called "sankaras" which are basically the equivalent of a neural pathway which is heavily used; a habit pattern of mind and body. They are related to cravings and aversions. You might have a craving for something pleasant, and then the mind automatically goes down the path of the sankara to seek out the craving; or you experience an aversion to a situation, and automatically generate feelings of panic and anxiety or try to run away. As you sit and meditate and scan your body, these sankaras present themselves as sensations in your body; muscle tension, discomfort, pleasure, or it could be anything really.

The main goal of Vipassana then is to notice these sensations on all areas of the body, and *remain completely impartial* to them, experiencing them with complete detachment and equanimity, in a purely objective way. The idea is to train your mind not to react with attachment to these cravings and aversions, but rather to maintain full awareness that all sensations are temporary, because everything in life is in a constant state of flux; when we feel great cravings and satisfaction from pleasant sensations, and great pain and aversion to unpleasant sensations, our lives become miserable because then we are at the mercy of the random, impersonal phenomena that surround us and are beyond our control. We feel that our experience of life is determined by our circumstances, when really we are reacting blindly instead of taking control of our own minds. If we can learn to accept the pleasant and the unpleasant with equanimity, with the understanding that nothing lasts forever, we will experience greater peace and true happiness... and ultimately we will come to terms with the fact that life eventually ends, and it's OK.

Overall, I thought this philosophy was pretty sound, and the technique was good. I don't know that a "sankara" is a real thing that exists, but I thought it was at least a good metaphor for the human condition. A lot of the ideas about impermanence, constant change, habit patterns, and the connection between mind and body resonated with what I have come to believe personally through my own experiences. So I felt comfortable with the teaching.

Starting on day 2 or 3 I had some powerful personal revelations.

I gained insight into some of the ways that gender was handled in my childhood, by my family and by society. I realized that I connect more with the idea of feeling beautiful and graceful, than tough or manly. I noticed how uncomfortable certain people were with any feminine aspect I presented when I was growing up, and how I'd learned to repress those parts of me, trying to make myself masculine enough to meet with their approval. Along with this realization, I lost some of my inhibition about the idea of loving men. That was always portrayed as a woman's job, and therefore shameful for a man to do. But love is love, and what does it matter how your lover's body is made? After my time at Vipassana I felt like I was more receptive to the idea of intimate experiences with males. Being in the presence of so many peaceful, authentic, self-aware males was a healing experience.

During my limited free time, I thought much about two women who I loved. One of whom I had dated for about 9 months and had had somewhat of a rocky time with after our explosive start, and another who I had met while hiking the PCT and idolized as my ideal partner. It was interesting to notice how my feelings about them changed during the retreat. I had been telling myself I wasn't interested in dating the first girl anymore after getting to know the second one, but I realized my reality wasn't completely in line with my ideals. Despite whatever pain I felt from our interaction, I still felt a shared passion with the one I had dated, which I didn't feel was quite mutual with the other one. Indeed I later discovered that my PCT friend didn't have feelings for me. At Vipassana I realized how strong of an aversion I had to conflict and criticism, and how unhelpful that was in my life, and how that was really more my problem than anyone else's. This inspired me to give tenderness with my past love another chance.

While I was at the course, my step-mom was in hospice care, dying from cancer. Unable to distract myself from this reality, I spent much time weeping and experiencing intense grief. I thought very deeply about the end of her life and what it would mean. She was such a beautiful and inspiring person. She is probably the one most responsible for awakening in me an interest in bodily awareness, joyful movement, attention to breath, and loving acceptance of others. She was one of the biggest supporters I had throughout all stages of my development and she always advocated for my right to express my individuality. In a sense, this whole blog is dedicated to her because she encouraged my writing like no one else.

I gained a clear picture of just how much I was going to miss her, and resolved to spend as much time with her as I could when I got home. I had not asked anybody to call the retreat if her condition rapidly deteriorated, and by day 8 or so, I realized that this was a mistake. I didn't want to miss the end of her life just because I was meditating an hour away from home. I wanted to go be with her if the end was imminent. I expressed my concern to the staff, and they graciously found a solution, calling home for me to get an update, and her condition was still relatively stable, so I stayed for the remainder of the course. The instructor told me that finishing the Vipassana course would enable me to be more present, supportive, and attentive during the difficult period ahead. He was right about that.

My step-mom died less than a month after I returned from the course, and I got to spend the last week or so at her home, helping with her care, enabling her to experience death in the way she wanted. I didn't allow an aversion to pain to keep me from connecting with her. If I am most grateful for one thing about my Vipassana experience, it's the way it gave me tools for going through her death. Of course it was still very hard and traumatic, and I was depressed for a time afterward, but I have no regrets about the way we parted. We both knew how much we loved each other.

Certainly, I am glad I went. It was a lot of hard work and totally exhausting at times, I cried a lot, went through a lot of ups and downs, but I feel that I made real progress at removing some of my reactive habit patterns. The mental state I entered was really interesting. When I take psychedelic mushrooms, from about 4-8 hours after eating them, when the effects are wearing off, there is a period that just feels wonderful to me -- sanity and realistic perception are restored to the mind but there is a deep feeling of calm, peace, and ease that lingers for a while. During Vipassana I felt that way for days on end. My mind was not constantly wandering, I could sit down to meditate and immediately dive deep into exploration of my body with no distraction. That was really cool.

As a bonus to the mental and emotional benefits, it felt pretty amazing to develop a mind-body connection in such a direct and thorough way. I recognized some deep physical patterns that I had never realized before, and even as I sit here and type this, I can feel how they've been present all along -- bouncy legs, tendency to contract something deep in my left side-body, tension in my neck/collarbone/shoulder area. Doing yoga in the frame of mind provided by this meditation was profound. My body felt better than ever, and my mobility and range of motion were noticeably increased, which was certainly not an expected result from sitting still in the same posture for hours on end.

This supports my hypothesis that yoga, bodywork, dancing, massage, and other activities of that nature are all aimed at increasing a simple conscious awareness of the body. You can practice yoga poses for years but if you never learn to notice your own sensations and put awareness into other parts of your body than just your head, it does very little good. I think I will always love yoga and find personal benefit and meaning from it, but this practice has kind of ruined other kinds of bodywork for me; why pay upwards of $60/hour to have someone show you how to be aware of your body, when you can do a much more thorough job of it yourself, for free?

I really appreciated that the course was run on donations, and in my opinion it lends a lot of credibility to the practice if they are willing to house and feed dozens of people for 11 days for free, trusting that the students will benefit enough to want to give back in a big way. I love that model of doing business. I think it makes the experience richer for the students too, as it removes the expectation that they *have* to get something out of it because they paid good money for it. Receiving it as a gift makes it more of a pure thing.

There were parts that I didn't like, too. They keep males and females entirely separated except for in the meditation hall, which is not a problem for me personally since I am mostly straight and I did not go there to meet women, and for me it was easier not having to face that as a distraction. But I feel it was a very heteronormative way of dealing with things, and does nothing at all to ease the experience of homosexuals who are made to share a room with others that they may be attracted to. I actually have a friend who is a lesbian who went to Vipassana and was assigned a room with another lesbian, and it was a distraction for them. Separating male and female in this way also reinforces a gender binary that some people do not want to subscribe to. I'm not sure what solution would work better, perhaps making it completely co-ed, or maybe finding a way for each person to have their own room. I've heard of some retreats where each student gets their own room.

While I found the meditation technique itself to be completely secular/rational and removed from any kind of religious philosophy, imagery, dogma, or beliefs, the philosophy that was expounded in the evening discourses (75 minutes every day, as recorded by S.N. Goenka in 1991) was distinctly Buddhist. It was interesting to learn more about Buddhism, but I felt it was a bit heavy-handed at times. In the last couple days of the course, I actually became upset with the way it was being handled; though Goenka kept reiterating that the practice was rational, non-sectarian, etc., he often relied on references to specific Buddhist ideas such as karma and reincarnation to make his points. I didn't see how that was necessary for learning a simple meditation technique. I don't see those concepts as very rational or secular.

In Christianity, when someone leaves the faith because it doesn't work for them, it is commonly insisted that "since this person left Christianity, we can know that they were never a true Christian, because if they had experienced Jesus authentically, they never would have wanted to leave." I am here to tell you that that's the biggest load of bullshit ever. I could not possibly have been more sincere in my desire to connect with Jesus and I sought him constantly for years. Yet I never had any sense that any of it was real, that he was present or true, so when I left the faith it was with a very thorough understanding of what I was doing. To say that people like me were never true Christians is a completely invalidating and dismissive attempt to protect the legitimacy of the faith; if people give it a fair trial and reject it, the clear implication is that it *doesn't* work for everyone. But if they can't say that literally *everyone* needs Christ, then the foundation of their belief falls apart.

Goenka tries to avoid this kind of propaganda by saying "evaluate the technique for yourself, and if it provides tangible benefits in your life, for yourself and the people around you, only then should you accept it." This is fair, and yes the technique deserves a fair trial for evaluation. He could have left it at that. Or he could have followed it up with "and if it doesn't work out for you, try to find some other way to gain control of your reactions and free yourself from your suffering".

Instead, he followed the Christian route -- "the technique has been proven to work for many thousands of people around the world, so there can be no question that the technique works; if you try it and it doesn't work for you, you aren't practicing properly, and you need to talk to an instructor to determine what you're doing wrong." Well, maybe, maybe not.

He insists on practicing 1 hour in the morning, and 1 hour in the evening, in order to become established in the technique; otherwise you will never be free of your suffering and your life will be "meaningless". Basically my problem is that he seems to insist that Vipassana is "the way" to "full enlightenment" (whatever that is). As with the gender separation, this is not a personal hindrance for me; I can see right through this kind of petty manipulation and I'm smart enough to know that meditation is nothing more than a tool I can use at my discretion. No big deal if it doesn't work for me, I have other tools like yoga, and backpacking, and marijuana, and maybe I only need to use this technique every once in a while to maintain equilibrium. I'm not about to suffer from the delusion that I *need* to practice this one kind of meditation to have a fulfilling life.

But from the conversations of people around me on the last day, I could tell that many people were getting sucked into the same kind of salvationist mindset that Christianity pushes. That they need to make a big effort to maintain this practice, even if it doesn't work for them, when the truth is that you'll practice it willingly if it works for you. I don't have to force myself to go to yoga, I go joyfully because I love it and it improves my quality of life. They're making it about effort and work just like legalistic Christians. So, I was upset by the fact that Goenka would set people up to get attached to the practice in that kind of way... if the whole goal is to free people of suffering and attachment, why invite them to feel attached to having a consistent practice, feeling like a failure if it doesn't work out?

I do recognize that a lot of people have a much more conventional approach to life than I do, so they are coming to the course (as one guy I talked to) never having taken time off from work in 3 years... and maybe these people like practices that involve discipline and scheduling. Maybe the idea is to encourage them not to return completely to the numbing influences of society, but to keep a persistent practice as a source of liberation and insight, and I suppose I can get behind that. Personally I tend to be less regimented. I think that in my life, I've already removed myself from a lot of the suffering that people experience in terms of desiring nice possessions, trying to hold on tightly to certain circumstances, getting really upset about loss and injury, striving for "success", and those kinds of things. So for me it feels less important that I develop a strong meditation practice as a source of liberation -- I already feel quite free and happy in many ways. Not that I don't have a lot of room to grow in that area. And it did show me some new ways to be free and happy. I definitely see ongoing value, I'm just not super attached to maintaining a schedule. [Now that I am going back through this text, I'm starting to wonder if I was really as happy and liberated as I thought, or if I was just rationalizing a way that I wouldn't have to go against my aversion to discipline and create a regular schedule. Perhaps I would actually benefit from that.]

So I think overall I would definitely recommend a 10-day Vipassana course to nearly anyone. Even if you don't continue the practice afterward, you can still get some good realizations out of the 10 day experience. I would just caution people not to worry too much about how well they maintain the practice, and rather encourage people to keep seeking some kind of meaningful spiritual psychosomatic experience that helps them see themselves more objectively, if this one doesn't work out.

Subscribe to this Blog via Email :