My epiphany did not come on top of a mountain in a distance land, as I have so often read about. Instead, it arrived on day 3 of meditation boot camp.
The following entry is my observations, feelings and reactions to the Vipassana 10 day meditation course I attended in the Philippines. If you are planning to attend such a course, I do not recommend reading the entry below. It is best to not have expectations tainted by the experience of others.
I also wrote these thoughts all at once after Day 10 since we were not allowed to write during the course. My feelings and observations are not written in the moment or day during meditation but in memory.
Day 0 – arrived at Dhamma site. We were asked to surrender all electronics, things that beep, important valuables (money, passport) and reading, writing material. I gave it all and was surprised it was about 1/3 the weight of my bag.
I don’t know where I had received the lofty image that I would be somewhere with lush gardens, walking paths and waterfalls. Instead, I was greeted with make shift grounds and facilities that resembled a trailer park. The dorm held 20 cots and curtains separating each “cell”. Each dormitory is separated by gender. Our dorms feel like how orphans must live. On a simple cot without luxury.
Later I learned, this camp is transitory. The earlier camp was across the street, much nicer but they had to move because the family reclaimed the land. I think the nicest facilities are in Malaysia were 100+ students all have single rooms with attached bathrooms.
We were told to bring our own sheets, but since I did not want to buy or carry them, I made do with what I carried for the last 6 months. A sleeping sack, sarong as blanket, t-shirt as a pillow case and jacket as an extra cover. Others, of course, were more prepared, bringing sheets and blankets. I was most impressed by the girl who brought a mosquito bed cover and another girl who brought a hair dryer. They probably were not traveling from far away.
I probably would have been a lot more comfortable had I brought proper sheets and a blanket, then donated them. My discomfort, probably helped me get up each and every morning at 4 a.m. I sat at the meditation hall at each sitting instead on my bed, because it was not comfortable.
The meditation hall is a simple white enclosed building with fans. A blue square cushion is given to you for your legs and a smaller square cushion for your butt. There is nothing to look at because your eyes are closed for each meditation period. We are each assigned a cushion where we will sit for the next 10 days. I issued spot #8, a lucky number in Chinese. It makes me think this week is off to a good start.
We sit on our cushions, eyes closed for one hour, then to bed, to wake for the morning session at 4 a.m.
Day 1 – schedule is as follows:
4 am wake up gong, 4:30, shuffle to hall
8:00-9:00 1st group session in meditation hall
12-1 meet with teacher for questions or rest
2:30-3:30 group session in meditation hall
5-6 Afternoon tea break
6-7 group session in meditation hall
7-8:30 evening discourse by video recordings
No dinner. I didn’t know I wasn’t going to not have dinner for 10 days.
Day 1 was not so bad. Followed the schedule. Definitely was entirely asleep for the 1st sitting at 4:30 a.m. I was proud to have risen at that hour, but sad that I was asleep sitting up. During meditation time, I thought only about my to do list, they were rapidly flying through my mind like kites in the wind. At noon, I went to ask the teacher about my difficulty sitting. He said, it was ok to adjust my sitting position as long as I was comfortable. Relieved, I mostly sat with one leg crossed in front of my body and the other on the side. I found sitting in a lotus position, both legs crossed in front, slightly painful for long periods. It is important to sit in a posture that allows your spine to be straight, allowing or easy breathe flow.
Sleeping is difficult since it is an open room, no walls. Although we are always in silence, we hear each other. A few girls snore very loudly and one girl shouts in her sleep most nights around 2 a.m. I have ear plugs but still hear them.
Walking to your cell, some girls tip toe so quietly and respectfully I do not notice them. While others, walking like a thunderous elephants charging down the hall. I hope I sound like Bambi, quick and nimble. I think my senses are heightened because of the silence.
Day 2 – I am sure this is what prison, house arrest or a religious cult must feel like. In Philadelphia, there is a historic penitentiary, famous for it’s cruetly of isolating a person for 24 hours a day in a cell without contact with others. They were not allowed to see anyone or talk with anyone. We we were given instructions quite similar, only allowed to speak with those serving us (the volunteers who make things happen behind the scenes and our teacher to ask questions during 12-1 and 9-9:30). I did not realize when I took an oath of noble silence, it meant all communication was to stop. No gestures, no eye contact with others, only silence. This noble silence is best for meditation and will lead to mental silence. 10 days of ignoring others, pretending they are not there, will be difficult. How do you not acknowledge someone and look the other way when they are walking near you? Every day becomes more challenging than the last. I feel like I am in a scene from the movie, the Matrix, free your mind.
In meditation, we focus on our breath, aware of the respiratory pattern, air traveling into our bodies through a nostril and out the other. For the whole day, we followed this technique. When our mind wanders, we bring it back, focusing on this triangular area of the nose and upper lip.
Day 3 – thoughts still spinning, but made a break thru in the afternoon. It has been the single most clear thought in months. When deprived of all that is important to me, communication devices, photos, what I missed most was writing and movement. When I return to the States, I plan to apply to a Ph.d program for writing and to continue massage therapy on the side. The Ph.d program will give me tools to teach at the university level so I can work abroad at other institutions or travel during summers or school holidays by teaching online. I also hope to be a good published writer, maybe the next Barbara Kingsolver. I recognize writing may not be profitable, like J.K. Rowling experienced early in her career. She was homeless or near it, before Harry Potter was discovered. I have enjoyed learning about Thai massage, and my personal ability to help heal others from their pain is satisfying. It is a career I can stand behind, be proud that I have a wholesome, giving and serving career. While I apply to grad school, I can continue to learn other types of massage, and work.
Day 4 – the shower is an interesting concept. It is a spout and bucket. I honestly stared at the shower wondering how one was supposed to shower. It takes a long time to fill the bucket and dunk it on one’s head. I didn’t feel particularly clean afterward but only remotely better than before. I also realized that I have taken cold showers for months now, not even remembering what a hot shower feels like. It wasn’t until day 7 that I realized, it was a lot faster to put my entire head under the spout and save the water in the bucket for my body. It took 7 days to realize a better method to shower!
On day 4, we were taught new Jedi techniques to free our mind. Day 1-3 was only prep work. Ugh, really, I thought day 1-3 was hard work. Those days were only for us to get used to sitting. The schedule and now the real work begins. Today, we were taught to be aware of the sensations in and around our body, on the surface and within. By observing each sensation, we are quieting and calming the mind. You start at the top of your head, working down to the forehead, eyebrows, eyes, nose, lips, neck, arms, fingers, front of body, back of trunk, legs, ending at the toes. We do this process, individually, part by part, then later, simultaneously and equaliamously. 3x a day, during group sitting times, we practice “addhiture” (ancient Pali word for sitting with determination). We are asked to not change your posture, hands, eyes, and feet for one hour. You sit like a Buddha. If you have an itch, you just observe it with the mind. The idea is to feel the sensation and work through it. I think Buddha who thought of this technique must never have experienced an endurance event like a marathon. If he had, he would have known, many people feel this sensation often. Pushing their mind past the pain to get to the finish line. I have made it to the finish line many times through mental endurance.
I find the entire sitting with determination period very painful. I moved to sitting in a lotus position with my hands resting on my knees, palms facing upward. This position seems easier to hold than others and I can work through the sensations better. Sometimes the pain is on my back, on my hip, through the leg or on my feet. Sometimes it is so intense, I must breath very hard to move the observation past that part of the body, constantly moving forward. The goal is to realize the sensation as not permanent and not as pain. It is impermanent, always changing. By observing the sensation without judgment, like a doctor observing a patient, without craving or aversion, you come to terms with it. It is neither good or bad, just an observation. Observing the bodily sensation, you are ridding yourself f of craving and aversion, you can come out of your misery. The sensation does not become part of you, there is no me, no mine, less ego. Later after speaking to others, I learned many others felt emotional pain, but for me, it was always physical.
concentrating on the sensation clears my mind. As days pass, I find meditating to have a calming effect. No longer am I thinking of the to do lists, just focusing on the sensations or breath. The sensations to me feel like a warm around the body, except on the head, where it feels like a light or heavy weight.
Day 7 – why am I still here?
Day 9 – I made another break through today. The person who made the Matrix trilogy, must have been a Vipassana meditator. The theme of the movie and concept are exactly the experience I have come to understand. By observing bodily sensations, we are freeing the mind. As Neo, at the end, he created a balanced world by letting go of his ego. This too is what we strive for, mental stability of a clear and calm mind.
Day 10 – we made it. I honestly did not think this day would come. By day 7, I was counting down the hours I could leave. I have gratitude for being taught this technique. It is not for everyone and there are many types of meditation. I like this technique because it follows the teaching of the Buddha.
The evening discourses gave me words and a language to describe what I feel like I have been experiencing over the last 9 months of travel. Take ownership of your own happiness and misery. It is not superficial, external objects may bring you pain, heartache or joy, but it is from within that we associate sensations with them. The less attachment you have to material items, the more you can separate yourself and purify your mind.
Over the past year, the changes I made in life have given me joy. I quit my job to find one more balanced and wholesome. I am now ready to return home, realizing, it is not time off, being on extended leave/holiday/vacation or a foreign country that has brought me happiness but instead I took control of my life and put myself on a path towards happiness, towards what we say in this meditation course, “liberation”.
At the end of the course, the video recordings, the instructor says, I wish you to break free from the bondage, chains and shackles of your misery. To experience real harmony, real, true happiness and peace within. I wish that for you too, to experience this path and work towards it.
Day 11 – I was able to resist the temptation to talk. I spoke to the person serving a few times, once to inquire about food because I have a mango allergy and food was not always labeled. She was happy to bring different fruit to me. I also asked to buy more toilet paper when I ran out. If someone theoretically asks you, how much toilet paper one person might use in 12 days, the answer is not 1 but 3 conservatively, 4 if you plan on sneezing.
I spoke to the teacher 3 times. Day 1 to ask about sitting. Day 4 to ask about writing. I had all these thoughts I would normally write down every day and now deprived of the act of writing, meditation was difficult at periods when my mind would wander to these thoughts, remembering everything I wanted to write. He said to let them flow, and they would eventually leave. Not to ignore or suppress them but to let them be and focus on your body or sensations. If the mind wanders away, realize it has wandered and refocus. On Day 9, I asked inconsequential questions. Why were we not served dinner? Answer: Eating on a full stomach is not helpful for meditation. The body focuses on digestion and not meditation. Why no exercise? This is not a exercise camp. If you ran, your body would be breathing heavily, unable to focus on the sensation. Why no high beds in the precepts/vows for returning students? In the days of old, only the wealthy had luxurious high beds. Monks had lower, harder beds. This vow does not apply to today. When I have pain during the sitting with determination period, how to I work through it? Breathe harder and just keep moving forward.
I was able to sit through 10 days without writing. One girl, took her eyeliner out and wrote words. I am surprised I did not go through such creativity.
Day 7 or 8, I started to miss technology. All I had to entertain myself was watching movies through my head. initially, I remembered romance movies, Matrix, Star Wars, and then Gran Torino (recent conversation before the camp about it.)
Some girls eat dinner which I think is unfair. Can they all have a medical condition, like low blood pressure? I have not felt jealous over food before watching someone eat when I am hungry.
Every evening I enjoyed seeing the stars at night. It feels like it has been a long time since I have seen the open sky and heard crickets chirping.
I miss smiling and laughing.
Being “alone” for the first time in my travel gave me the bodily sensations of being cold. At night, I used my jacket for warmth and socks in the 4 a.m. session. Never before in South East Asia have I needed my jacket.
On Day 10, coming out of silence, I was surprised to hear the sound of my voice.
The video recordings from the instructor, sound a little like he learned his English from the Count on Sesame Street. He repeats certain words, like be avare… instead of be aware.
Day 11 – in the evening, my new friends and I meditated at the hostel. It was among many strangers, all speaking in the background. I loved it. It was great and calming. I plan to try to sit for one hour every morning and every evening. I plan to continue Vipassana – remembering the spirit of giving, serving others, not expecting anything in return and having compassion for others. Most importantly remembering I take responsibility and only I am in control of being the master of one’s own happiness and misery.