Surrounded by scared looking women, I kept to myself. Nervous chatter filled the idle space between strangers. I knew no one and we weren’t here to make friends.
Seasoned meditators and first-timers turned in their phones and their car keys to the volunteers at registration. We made a commitment to the staff and to ourselves that we’d stay for the full ten day session. We agreed to follow the strict time table provided, to take the five precepts, and to observe what they called, “Noble Silence” (silence of the body, speech, and mind). We agreed to 18 hour days, 10.5 of which we’d spend meditating, silently propped up across colorful cushions, and cozied deep beneath meditation shawls.
This was my introduction to Vipassana meditation.
Vipassana meditation, as I explained to my skeptical east coast father over the phone, is the type of meditation taught by Gotama the Buddha. It teaches us to see and accept things as they are instead of how we want them to be. This means that no matter how magical or miserable a situation may seem, we confront it honestly, accept it as it is, and observe its impermanence. We don’t cling onto it, hoping things will never change, nor do we long for a rushed demise.
We don’t attach to the emotions and thoughts that arise in us, mistaking them for our identity or for things we need in order to feel whole. We don’t ignore and mask painful, hard, unpleasant situations with distractions and distance for temporary relief. Unlike other forms of meditation that help us identify and stop certain thought patterns, or calm the mind using mantras and visuals, Vipassana trains her practitioners to focus the mind on feeling the most subtle physical sensations. It’s believed, after all, that these sensations are the root and the trigger of our thoughts and emotional reactions. By recognizing these sensations at their conception instead of letting them develop and take us over, we can change our thought patterns to minimize misery and live a more joyful life.
We all had our reasons for arriving in Onalaska, WA that Wednesday afternoon. Some meditators sought the relief of pain or illness. Others found themselves at a crossroads and craved a stronger sense of direction. Old students sat to deepen their practice and to serve newcomers. For me, this Vipassana held the transitional space between a 9-month road trip and the rest of my life. I had worked hard to keep the end of this trip open by refusing all plans and commitments that snuck into my life, asking me to schedule away my September and winter days before they had arrived. I said no. I refused everything. I would not make plans today.
Booking this meditation was the exception, and I did so months in advance knowing I’d be feeling uprooted, directionless, and unsure of my next steps. After all, this year was full of towering changes for me. To start, I quit my job and moved out of the infamously overpriced San Francisco and into a Ford E-350 to travel around the country. While on the road, I ended a seriously loving and important relationship with my partner of three years. Now, approaching the potential “end” of this trip, I froze with the same sticky uncertainty around lifestyle and career decisions that I’ve become quite familiar with.
I had so many questions when I parked my van on the lawn of the Northwest Vipassana center and walked in with nothing but a bag of loose-fitting clothes, my dirty white stuffed dog, and a red, round meditation cushion that had never been used. I promised myself I would not use this time to try and “figure it all out”, even though I craved that. I promised myself I’d stay the entire 10 days, knowing full well it was not going to be fun, easy, or comfortable. Anxiety lingered around the meal schedule (no dinner?!) and I wondered how I could possible wake up at 4:00 am every morning. No exercise. No dinner. No masturbation. No reading. No writing. No eye contact. No phones. No talking. No yoga. No music. And definitely no pointing your toes towards the teachers (I’m still not sure why).
The Dharma hall welcomed us with a sign reading, “Day 0”, ouch. The door opened into a spacious room with deep blue mats that organized the floor into grids; home for the next 10 days. The women sat together on the right side of the room in front of our assistant teacher, Rosa. The men sat on the left side facing Grisham. Unlike most educational institutions, our teachers practiced with us for the entirety of the course as students themselves and as examples of where we were going.
Grisham and Roa sat tall as the lights dimmed and the audio recording of an Indian man’s voice settled us into our first meditation. We were off.
This wasn't my first time meditating. In highschool I used to drive myself twenty minutes out of town to join a happy man dressed in an orange robe for an occasional lesson. I grew fond of insight meditation because it was productive. I’d use the time to learn about my thought patterns, explore my emotional triggers, investigate my demons, my weaknesses. It was work. I love work. What I hadn’t done before was care at all about the sensations within the framework of my body beyond the annoying discomforts that reliably arose.
We began the Vipassana by focusing all our attention on the sensation of respiration across our top lip. We would search for sensation on this limited space under and around our nostril and upon finding a sensation there, we’d search for an even more subtle sensation. We went on like this, literally for days.
On day three—or was it day four?—we began moving this focus across our skin throughout our entire bodies. From head to toes, then again, starting from head and moving slowly down to the toes. Where sensation refused to show itself, we’d linger patiently before continuing down the body. Head to toes, moving the attention from head slowly down to the toes. Trying to feel but not attached to finding feeling. Sharpening the mind to feel subtler and subtler sensations.
Through this practice, I became blindingly aware of just how detached my thoughts had grown from the physical sensations of my body. As I practiced, scanning with a focused attention slowly from head to toes, I’d occasionally (okay, that’s optimistic, I’d often) start thinking. As soon as my thoughts began, all awareness of sensation stopped. They could not coexist. It felt as though my thoughts happened outside of my body, and had no relation to what was going on inside this accumulated mass of organs, bones, and tissue.
Every day I sat. I slept. I ate. I sat. I walked. I watched the ants work endlessly across the path I touched with barefeet. I noticed these ants work significantly faster midday compared to the early morning. Like humans, maybe. I watched the sunrise, the stars appear and disappear. I watched three baby deer play, chasing each other and feasting in the shade of an apple tree. I sat. I felt sensation. I focused on respiration. I wondered what time it was. I sometimes fell asleep during the 4 am meditations. I initially felt guilty about this and then I accepted it, “as it were”. I encouraged myself with kind thoughts. I thought about the conversations I’d have after the tenth day. I tried to stop counting down to the tenth day. I planned all the presents I’d make my friends and family this December. No dreams catchers this year, I don’t think they liked those. I sat. I adjusted. I slept. I sat.
Day six—or was it day seven?—was hard. 18 waking hours made for long days and I unhappily discovered my thoughts and awareness of sensation could now exist peacefully together. Suddenly, I had spent two hours feeling sensations across my body while questioning my opinions on monogamy and nonmonogamy. Suddenly, I’d been feeling sensation as my attention moved from head to toes, toes to head, while I thought through the future of my career. Certain sittings felt great, by which I mean easy, fast, and comfortable. The mind was beautifully focused without distraction and the body felt no pain at all. This, however, was always a red flag, for I quickly began to crave these sittings and hate the harder ones. This, of course, is part of the practice—accepting your reality “as it is” instead of how you want it to be.
On the ninth day, we broke the Noble Silence and everyone could use language for the first time since we began. I wasn’t ready. I took myself walking on the path while I heard female laughter in the distance. I spent time with the familiar ants and the intricate spider webs stretched between the tall grasses. I watched scattered groups of women move together and I couldn’t join them yet. I had so many thoughts to be with before exposing them to air.
Going into the Vipassana, I had very strong opinions about relationships, about routine and contentedness, about personal freedoms and morality. Driving away on day 10, I felt completely detached from so many of these perspectives I’d built my identity upon but it didn’t feel like a loss. It felt like the beginning of a new education.
I had uncovered some deep patterns that begged for my breaking. I wanted, for the first time ever, to confront my aversion with routine and address my insatiable craving for newness and amplification of experience. I had clarity and perspective to challenge my opinions on modern relationships. And I felt inspired by the subtleties that live within that same cup of coffee we taste every morning, the familiarity and comfort of the touch that connects us to those we care about, the frigid winter air we dread confronting, the smile we share from neighboring porches, the frustrations and grudges we nurture, and the range experiences, however mundane they may feel, that make us human.