I returned home from the 10 Day Vipassana Meditation course this past Sunday. Its taken me awhile to digest all that I learned and experienced over these 10 days of complete silence, reflection, and meditation and I am sure I will continue to digest things and realize more and more as I continue my meditation practice on a daily basis. When people ask me how it was, my answer is that it was equal parts wonderful and horrible. Luckily, right before I left for the retreat, one of my mentors suggested when things get tough that I remember the “wisdom of no escape”. He was referring to our tendency to resist letting go of our habitual patterns, and when we become uncomfortable in our regular lives we attempt to escape in some way (maybe watching TV, surfing the internet, eating, drinking, etc.) which distracts us temporarily but the misery and suffering is still there underneath, leaving us vulnerable. At the 10 day course, we agreed to observe noble silence (no talking, gesturing, eye contact) with our fellow students and no writing, or reading, and certainly no electronics. So, between meditating 10 hours each day, and being alone and silent other times of the day, there was literally no escape! When I wanted to go home (everyday) and wondered what I was thinking signing up for this course, I kept remembering that there must be wisdom in not running away from discomfort.
At first, I was pretty irritable complaining about things in my head – “this or that rule makes no sense!”, “I don’t like all this chanting”, “why did my roommate just turn off the bathroom fan? I left it on for a reason!”, “why 10 hours a day of meditation? Don’t they understand the law of diminishing returns?”, etc. By Day 3, my mind started to calm down and I realized I was complaining in a house of mirrors! Very humbling. Eventually that initial irritability gave way to deep and profound sadness as I understood that it was time to let go of that habit and face the relentless self-criticism and unrealistic standards I have for myself lurking underneath. Days 4 – 8 were days of grieving and really intense dreams not to mention increasingly intense back pain from all the meditation. On Day 9 I finally asked for a “back jack” – a little apparatus you add to your meditation set up to support the back. At the time, I felt so terrible about myself that I couldn’t just “deal with the pain” and “get through it” without asking for the extra support. It’s interesting how this pattern of self-criticism and harsh standards can attach to anything! Our teacher suggested to me that this was a very good thing that this pattern emerged for me to observe and investigate, and though it was emotionally and physically painful, I would have to agree with her!
The sense of peace and well-being I experienced on Days 9 and 10 I believe are a direct result of having no escape, and having to face this pattern and the sadness and grief surrounding it to come out the other side. Based on this experience, I have a new appreciation for this concept of wisdom in staying put, being present so that you can cultivate an openness and kind-hearted response to yourself, to others, and to the ups and downs of life. One of the main teachings from the course was, “this will also change” – that all experience, even it feels like its going to go on forever actually has a predictable pattern of rising and falling – coming and going. Our teacher said, “why get upset about something that is temporary?” and everything is temporary. During our meditation practice we were instructed to cultivate equanimity. Equanimity was defined during meditation practice as observing unpleasant sensations without aversion and noticing pleasant sensations without craving – to simply be interested and open to sensations as they are vs. how we might want them to be. Our teacher often said things like, “just see how long it lasts” – “it” during meditation could be an itch, a tingle, an ache, etc. and not “escaping” these sensations during our practice helps support us to meet life experiences with the same equanimity…..eventually.
There are many similarities between psychotherapy and vipassana meditation. One similarity is that both require courage as they both involve deep reflection on ourselves and revisiting painful