In 2006 I went on a journey. I didn’t venture out. I didn’t take in the scenery. I didn’t visit squares, museums, galleries, or historical places. I went inward by sitting in stillness and silence for 10 days.
I can’t remember what prompted me to seek out such a challenge. I could have attended an evening mediation seminar for a couple of hours to learn a new technique. I realized that mediation, whatever form of practice, isn’t about technique. Rather, it’s about the consistency of practice. So I chose to go all-in and commit to a 10-day Vipassana practice at the Ontario Vipassana Centre.
I took the GO Bus from Toronto to the closest drop-off point to the centre and was met by one of the retreat’s volunteers. During the drive he shared his experience of crippling back pain, surgeries, and how Vipassana meditation had helped him overcome and understand the nature of his pain.
After checking in and enjoying a communal vegetarian dinner, one of the organizers explained what to expect from the next 10 days. There was a protocol for how to ask for assistance, since all verbal communication would come to a halt as of 7pm for the duration of the retreat.
Not talking was the easiest part or my journey.
There were three, one-hour group guided meditations every day. For the rest of the time you could mediate in the hall or in your room. I chose to practice in the hall, to remain accountable to myself and not distracted by things in my room, tempted to nap, or stretch out in some way. I didn’t come all that way to give a half-assed effort.
The 10+ hours of meditation per day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. For the first three days we practiced breathing to sharpen mental awareness. We were taught to focus only on the breath at the nostrils and the area above the upper lip. I noticed the temperature of my breath going in and out, the perspiration on my upper lip (it was a very hot August), tingling and itching sensations, and if I was breathing through one or both nostrils.
During this practice you’re instructed not to judge what you are sensing. Instead you focus only on the area around your nose and your breathing. This helps to sharpen mental focus by noticing any sensations in that limited area, which is how you pull back from your mental chatter.
These first three and a half days allowed me to practice an ever increasing awareness and to deal with the discomfort of sitting for so long. This was a true experiential process. You can discuss the benefits of kindness and equanimity, but that doesn’t lead to change. To get through the 10 days I had to do the work to experience any level of inner peace.
On The fourth day we were taught Vipassana. This technique is about scanning the body from head to toe, to be aware of any sensations on the body, be they “subtle or gross sensations.” These could be a simple itch, a vibration, or in my case physical discomfort and pain from sitting still for an hour. My challenge was to observe the sensations of my own physical body, no matter how severe, and to accept them without judgement.
I noticed my habitual impulse to react to the discomfort of sitting motionless. I noticed the sweat dripping down my forehead and trickling down my back. My mind was reacting to the pain in my lower back. Every thought was negative, angry, and based in frustration. At one point, eyes closed and conversations rushing in my mind, I remembered that I choose to come to the retreat to learn. The teacher’s instructions filtered back into my mind: “awareness and equanimity.” I kept repeating the word, equanimity, over and over in my mind. Somehow the pain in my back diminished. It was still there but the level of intensity lowered. This was a powerful awareness on the characteristic of sensations: they arise and they pass. The pain in my back was taking a long time to pass, but it was passing regardless.
What I found was that the level of discomfort diminished if I choose to observe it without judgement or emotion. This helped me to create a disconnect between body and mind. Instead of reacting to sensations, I observed them for what they were. As a result I was exposed to deeper layers of my mind: old habits, patterns, stories, feelings, and worried thoughts about my future. I kept practicing breath awareness whenever I’d get lost in distracting thoughts to come back to non-judgement.
Sitting still for an hour or longer in meditation forced me to take a hard look at my negative and judgemental thoughts. I was surprised at how they showed up in my brain non-stop. I was able to accept my judgemental self for “what it was” and chose to change the pattern. Each time judgement showed up I interrupted the pattern with self-acceptance and love.
On the fifth or sixth day one of the mediators had a bad cough. In a room full of 70 silent meditators, with only the sounds of nature filtering through the windows, a single cough is like a jackhammer. It was jarring, unexpected, and uninvited. I was pissed! “Why doesn’t she just take a fucking cough drop or at least get up and leave for this session?” I sat there stewing in annoyance until I noticed what I was doing. I went from being physically calm and silent to aggravated, twitching, and feeling pain in my back again.
Awareness and equanimity — this was the core teaching of the retreat. To be aware of this very moment, for what it is right now, without judgment, attachment, or aversion.
I thought to myself, “Poor woman. She’s probably embarrassed and frustrated. I bet she wishes she could stop coughing. She probably feels bad. Who am I to judge? I’m always clearing my throat and coughing…which is strangely absent today.” I started to relax as I broke down the emotional connection between mind and body. Then I wished her well in my mind and was grateful for her being here, in this moment, as a lesson. I learned how to allow the sound of the cough to pass through simply notice, not judge, and let it go.
The retreat taught me about the mind-body connection, and the difference between our reactive mind and observing mind,
I now understand how my self-criticism, anger, and judgement made itself manifest in my physical body. My thoughts were making my body sick and uncomfortable.
Sitting in stillness helped me see where my discomfort came from and why and how it manifested in my body as movement. I became more aware of my external reactions and realized I could control them.
I also discovered that time is a linear construct of the mind. With meditation, when you focus on the moment, and every moment for what it is, there is no time. Being in the present moment is where (not when) we realize our potential. Spending 10 days meditating allowed me to experience that time-less-ness. At one point I was fortunate enough to be completely present and at peace. There was no connection to self, emotions, or time. I felt that bliss for a few seconds. I was aware I was no-thing and it felt like I was inside the cosmos. I had reached nirvana. As soon as I realized what I was experiencing it was over.
The Flex Your Mind Project
Mark Whitehand invited me to play and take part in “The 30 Things About Me Experiment.”