or “How I Spent My Christmas Vacation”
Back in September, while traveling in India, a colleague told me she was going to spend her Christmas holidays sitting a 10 day silent meditation retreat in the foothills of California. I was intrigued. I asked a few questions, and next thing you know, I was on the internet, signing up for the same course.
Three of us carpooled there on Friday, December 21. As we drove, we noticed the unusually beautiful amber afternoon sunlight. The leafless trees projected a glorious starkness against the visibly chilly air. Someone remarked that it was the winter solstice. We all agreed it was an auspicious beginning for our next ten days.
As per the website, I didn’t bring any reading, writing, or otherwise distracting materials. By day 3 I was chiding myself for being such a rule follower. Ugh. What I would have done for my journal. I challenged myself to keep a mental journal for 10 days.
Day 0: Pre-Orientation
I learn the schedule.
4:00 am — wake up bell
4:30 – 6:30 — meditation
6:30 – 7:15 — breakfast
8:00 – 9:00 — group meditation
9:00 – 11:00 — meditation
11:00 – 11:45 — lunch
11:45 – 1:00 pm– rest and individual question time with the assistant teacher
1:00 – 2:30 — meditation
2:30 – 3:30 — group meditation
3:30 – 5:00 — meditation
5:00 – 5:30 — evening tea (notice, I didn’t say “dinner”)
6:00 – 7:00 — group meditation
7:00 – 8:15 — evening discourse
8:15 – 9:00 — group meditation
10:00 — lights out
Seriously? We’re meditating for 10 1/2 hours a day? I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I thought there would be more rest breaks. Or something. The most I’ve ever meditated at once is, oh, about 30 minutes. Okay. I can do this.
We’re informed we are expected to keep noble silence during the duration of the course. Not only shall we not speak, we also shall not make any non-verbal contact with other meditators. No touching and no gestures allowed. We’re asked to focus on the ground.
There is complete segregation of men and women.
I am nervous I will oversleep. I wake up every hour, on the hour, all night long. 4 am arrives and I am exhausted.
Within the first half an hour of meditating, my legs fall asleep. Oh, no.
We’re supposed to be focusing on our breathing. I focus on my breathing for about 10 seconds and my thoughts start wandering. No, wandering is not an apt term. My thoughts remind me of the twister in the Wizard of Oz. Swirling, violent, random, and coming at me with tremendous velocity. Stop it!
Tea time. New students are allowed a piece of fruit and a cup of tea. Old students are allowed a cup of tea, no milk products. I feel guilty as I eat my apple and the old students silently sip their herbal tea.
As I lay down to sleep, I notice someone has scratched ten tally marks into the cinder block wall, much like you see in prison cells. I find this very funny.
Today my legs do not fall asleep, they simply exude pain. My mind is beginning to settle down. I can focus on my breathing for maybe, oh, 30 seconds before it starts wandering. So many people from my past visit. Former boyfriends, family members, colleagues, I keep reminding myself to focus on my breathing.
As I leave the meditation hall at 9 pm, I notice there is a brilliantly luminous full moon. I stand in awe. After living in the city for so many years, I’ve forgotten the truly awesomeness of a clear nighttime sky.
On the way to 8 am meditation, I notice a doe (a deer, a female deer, ray, a drop of golden sun…) standing in the field. I stand silently. She looks at me. I look at her. I continue to walk and she continues to graze. This makes me happy.
During the videotaped lectures, the teacher, SN Goenka, an Indian man with a heavy accent, keeps saying “In a chair! In a chair! In a chair!” What the hell is he talking about? We’re all sitting on cushions in the meditation hall and there are no chairs in sight. I make an appointment with the assistant teacher at noon. I ask her to explain why he keeps telling us to sit in a chair. She looks at me, puzzled. I repeat the words, using his accent. She laughs. “Eneccha. A Pali word meaning change. Everything will change. Nothing is permanent.” I leave, somewhat disappointed we’re not getting chairs to sit in.
We leave the meditation hall at 5 pm to find a heavy fog has settled. It’s beautiful, it’s mystical, it’s magical. I’m happy.
In the dining hall, someone accidentally bumps into me as I’m preparing my tea. This is literally shocking. Waves of energy ripple through my body. I now understand why physical contact is not allowed.
As I’m walking back to the dorm at night, there are several women in front of me, walking, flashlights shining in front of them. I feel a sudden urge to play flashlight tag. Somehow, I don’t think this would be welcomed. I resist the urge to tag someone with my beam of light. I refrain.
Today is Christmas Day. I wonder if the others know it is Christmas.
I finish breakfast early. I return to my dorm to rest. People seem to ignore the sign on the door that says “Please shut door gently”. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown accustomed to complete silence. Maybe it’s because it’s day four and I’m feeling slightly agitated. Every person who comes in lets the screen door slam shut then closes the wooden door with unnecessary force. I almost break noble silence by screaming, “DON’T YOU PEOPLE UNDERSTAND THE WORD GENTLY? GEEZ!” but decide better of it.
I walk to the meditation hall at 8 am. I’m irritated. I’m not sure why; I just am. I sit. Pain shoots up my back in torrents. The angrier I get, the more the pain intensifies. The thoughts in my head run along these lines: What the crap am I doing here over the holidays? Why did I think this was a good idea? Why am I subjecting myself to such torture? This is stupid. Oh yes, focus on my breathing.
At lunch we are served marinated tofu steaks. Seriously? You’ve got to be kidding. The meals up until now have been all in all delicious. All vegetarian and all super fresh, super organic produce. Today we have marinated tofu steaks, mashed potatoes, rice. This is my Christmas dinner? Ugh. I do not feel grateful, peaceful, or otherwise good natured towards my fellow human beings.
The schedule is slightly different today. It is Vipassana Day. We have focused on our breathing for 3 days, this afternoon we will learn the Vipassana meditation techniques. In the hall we listen to a pre-recorded lecture. I’m feeling slightly uncomfortable. This feels slightly cult-ish. If anyone passes around Dixie cups of Kool-Aid, I’m not drinking.
I leave the dorm at 4:15 am and walk into gently falling snow. SNOW! Snow. Yay. Winter. Quiet. Solitude. Beauty. I am happy.
I once again experience intense pain in my legs while sitting the 4;30 – 6:30 am meditation. I know the lesson we’re supposed to learn is that nothing is permanent, everything passes. Even with physical pain, if we sit long enough, this intense pain will dissipate. It also will dissipate if I just move my leg to a new position. Can’t I do that? Evidently not. Ugh. I get up, expecting to limp to breakfast. The pain has disappeared. Hm. Maybe there’s something to this after all.
I use the time during the “rest” period from 11:45 to 1:00 to get some exercise. There is a pond on the property; I walk around it. The other meditators are walking slowly, contemplatively, lifting each foot thoughtfully and placing it in front of the other. I speed walk past them. Move out of my way, people, this is my exercise time. I’m not feeling particularly contemplative.
At tea time, I realize there is honey for the tea. I chop up my apple and drown it in honey. Mmmmmm. At first bite, I am immediately transported back 30 years to fall in the mountains of North Carolina on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We would stop on the side of the road to buy honey from locals. I am happy.
Another angry day. Why am I here? Why am I doing this? Why aren’t I in my comfortable home in San Francisco? The pain in my legs and back is almost unbearable. Twice I get up and leave the meditation hall because I can’t stand the pain any longer.
Once again, I wake up to snow. This has an immediately calming effect upon me.
During the morning meditation, the teacher calls the new students up in groups of 5 to check in with us. How are we doing? Do we understand what we’re supposed to be doing? I’m the first she asks. Yeah, I guess I get it. I’m having a hard time feeling the “flow” of energy that are described during the discourses. She encouragingly tells me to keep working on it, it will come. The woman next to me is Miss Meditation Overachiever. She tells the teacher she not only feels her breath, but it connects straight to her heart and opens it, full of love for all human beings. Seriously? This may be the most annoying thing I’ve heard. Ever. I almost break noble silence and hit her.
I’m ready to talk. I miss reading. No one would have noticed if I had smuggled a book in. Why am I such a rule follower?
The tally marks on the wall beside my bed don’t seem so funny anymore.
Another angry day. Why am I here? This is ridiculous. Why am I subjecting myself to such pain? I’m not getting it. In the lectures and discourses, they keep talking about not craving the pleasant feelings that overcome you. What are they talking about? All I’ve had all course is pain. Pain, I tell you, pain. And the woman sitting 8 inches behind me is cooing. Once again, I have an overwhelming desire to turn around and punch her. That wouldn’t be very karmic. Oh, wait. I’m supposed to focus on the present. Okay. Present. I’m here at a beautiful location in northern California at the base of the mountains. I’ve seen ridiculously bright stars almost every night. I’ve seen deer, and squirrels, and birds. Woodpeckers (which I inexplicably find amusing) surround the center. I have the luxury of spending 10 days in complete silence. Okay, life is good. I focus on my breathing once again.
At tea time, I realize I can switch it up and have have an orange and half a banana. I’m ecstatic. As I’m eating, I hear myself saying (in my head):
Aren’t you glad I didn’t say banana?
I realize it’s probably time for me to leave. I’m starting to find myself amazingly entertaining.
We’ve been challenged to meditate continuously — while walking, while resting, while eating. While I’m walking back to my dorm after breakfast, concentrating on the sensation of the cold against my skin and the motion of my feet as I’m walking, I suddenly feel a force approaching me. I look up to see a stag, running towards me at full speed. I’m paralyzed. It passes about 18 inches in front of me. Whether from fear, or from the force of its motion, I tumble backwards. I wonder if it would have been acceptable to break noble silence if I had been run over by a deer. I decide yes.
Today we learn loving kindness meditation. I’m not feeling very loving, or very kind. I’ve just spent 10 days in utter and complete pain. I don’t feel any of the lightness or nobleness that they keep referring to in the lectures. What have I done?
We are allowed to speak to other meditators today. And I don’t want to. After the morning lecture, I find a rock, near the edge of the property, and sit in the sun and cry. And cry. And cry. And suddenly, I feel the lightness. I get it.
Day 11 — Post Course
As I was preparing to leave, older students asked me how my first experience was. They want to know if I would sit another course. I know this 10 days was a good thing. I know that I will be a kinder, less reactive, more compassionate person because of this course and continued meditation practice. But right now, I’m still too close to the pain. “Ask me in 6 months,” I reply, with a compassionate smile.