A little over than a week ago I came back to my life after a 10-day silent meditation retreat.
The goal of the retreat is to teach Vipassana, a Buddhist meditation technique grounded on feeling your breathing and bodily sensations as a way to realize the impermanence of everything. This in turn breaks you free from the bondage of dukkha - loosely translated as suffering or unsatisfactoriness - when you develop equanimity - emotional evenness - making enlightenment possible.
Hope that made sense.
The retreat - or course, as the organizers call it - is not meant to be vacation, and it involved about 12 difficult hours of meditation per day. The organizers want you to completely focus on learning the Vipassana technique with as few distractions as possible, so there was no talking, no reading, no writing, no exercising, no eye contact, no physical contact, and complete segregation of the sexes.
While at the retreat, I didn’t have any revelations. The problems I have didn’t magically solve themselves. I didn’t see god, and I still don’t believe in her. But I didn’t expect any of those things to happen, so I wasn’t disappointed.
I’m not one to look for quick fixes. I know from experience that real transformation comes only in proportion to the hard and tedious work you put in on your day to day. In fact, this is probably my favorite thing about Buddhism - that there are no shortcuts, no band-aids; you have to do the work if you want to see results. Blind faith won’t get you anywhere.
Every couple of days a student would disappear from the meditation hall, their cushion sitting empty until the course manager removed it. I was determined to make it until the end of the course, even if it meant the end of me. The first five days were pretty easy, discounting the physical discomfort that was almost always present. Day six nausea hit. Days seven and eight my stories got the best of me. Day nine my body revolted. I’m happy to report that I made it despite these struggles.
Did I mention that there was no talking?
This - the no talking, or Noble Silence - was what I was most concerned about, but it was surprisingly not difficult. You see, being “very communicative,” as my cousin recently put it, means I always feel the need to express my ideas, to make sure my opinion is known and heard. It was surprisingly refreshing to not have that option. Yes, I felt the urge to talk a few times, but those waves passed, and eventually I soon realized that I don’t really need all the talking.
I like not needing things.
When we did speak again on the final day, it was strange how something so integral could feel so foreign. As I sat down to meditate after a chattery lunch, my body buzzed in an unsettling way, and I knew that some of the peace I had acquired during the past few days was gone.
I found this a bit sad.
But I did enjoy matching voices and accents and verbal personalities to the bodies I’d seen for so many days. My fellow participants were very interesting people that reminded me of how much freedom we have in structuring our day to day lives. One in particular made a mark - she lives in a commune, grows all her own food, and has dropped out of the banking system in order to be a student loan “debt resistor.” She makes less than five thousand dollars a year and manages to put some away. I didn’t know such a life was possible.
On the actual meditation front, we were supposed to sit for 12 hours a day, starting at 4:30AM. I gave up on this preposterous start time somewhere around the fourth day. I’m not sure if I enjoyed the two extra hours of sleep I got because sleep or because I was transgressing on one of the center’s rules.
Physically, meditating was very difficult, sometimes excruciating. No position was comfortable for more than one sitting. Muscles twitched and throbbed, joints hurt, and my right hamstring pretty gave up on me on day 9 - so, so close to the end. My latent “meditation Tourettes” kicked into high gear, manifesting as profuse and effusive yawns, involuntary face twitching and scrunching, and shocks up the left side of my neck to jolt me out of the deeper states of consciousness I nearly reached.
Sometimes nausea hit after the hours of sensory deprivation. Occasionally it morphed into a headache tracing a big C around my right eye. One night it got so bad I skipped the final meditation and went to sleep before the sun was down.
My mind would not calm without a fight. There were days it would convince me someone had died and I hadn’t been told. Tears would stream down my face as it ran with the story. Sometimes it would ponder my death, while others it planned hypothetical weddings, picked baby names and decorated imaginary houses.
There were the two days of sexual obsession. “I CAN’T STOP THINKING ABOUT SEX!” I announced as I stepped into my five-minute interview with the teacher that day. “That is very age appropriate for you,” kindly responded the waif-like elderly lady in white sitting across and up from me. “Try to feel the sensations in your body to not get carried away from the story.” I’m not sure how that is possible.
Dreams were very vivid. One friend featured in four of them. Some nights dream pain turned into physical pain that woke me up in a bit of a panic. And some nights there were dreams about sex...
I felt love throughout the retreat center. Love from the volunteers, love from the other students, love from the roommates I got surprisingly attached to despite our deficit of words. Love from the teacher - Goenkaji - who delivers Pali chants and Buddhist scriptural lectures over video, as he can’t be at hundreds of centers throughout the world at once, especially since he died three years ago.
There were moments of extreme peace. Moments where I felt my whole body tingle, moments nothing could have phased me. But there were moments of extreme boredom. Moments of looking at my watch’s compass feature repeatedly, spinning around to check if it was really measuring degrees accurately. Of wanting to physically spend energy, to run, to dance, to do anything but just sit there and listen to myself. There was no rhyme or reason for the alternations of peace and boredom.
At one point, let’s say day 8, I started counting down the hours to leave. I started power walking the trail with purpose, trying to break a sweat. I started making my to do list for my return. As I got closer to the finish line, I started wanting to be back in the world again. I started writing this piece in my head - I called it “I like bondage” because I knew wasn’t ready to be liberated yet, and also because it sounded like provocation.
But then as the hours actually drew down I felt sad about my return, like I was going to lose something special I had found. I knew I couldn’t stay, but I didn’t want to leave. I wanted the peace and calm I felt, but I wanted it in my regular life.
I can never be satisfied.
Some people come back from such experiences full of plans for changing their lives, for meditating hours a day, for eating healthier, for quitting drinking.
I had a beer within a half hour of walking into my apartment. I didn’t even attempt to meditate the full hour in the morning and a full hour in the evening that Goenkaji suggested. But I have committed to make my occasional half hour of meditation in the morning a permanent thing.
A little more than a week in, I still feel more emotionally even, more gentle, more kind to people. Most of the time I remember that everything is impermanent and that I have to put in the work to maintain this state. That this is a journey of a million steps, and I’m hopefully closer to the beginning than the end.
I might still be in bondage, but I did learn some lessons. And if I want liberation, I know I gotta do the work - I'm not sure I'm ready to just yet.