Sometimes I make questionable decisions. Usually, those decisions have to do with men. But most recently, I decided to do a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation course. For those of you who don’t know what this is (I wouldn’t expect anyone to know what it is), it’s 10 days (actually, 11 days because the first day is considered “Day 0”–how cute…) of meditating close to 11 hours a day, and students are not allowed to speak, read, write, listen to music, sing, exercise, or partake in any form of entertainment or indulgence (i.e. no phones, computers, fun…). Women and men are segregated, I shared a room with 4 other girls (although one left after the first day), and students are only allowed fruit past the 11am meal. This is what the daily schedule looks like:
|4:00 am||Morning wake-up bell|
|4:30-6:30 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|6:30-8:00 am||Breakfast break|
|8:00-9:00 am||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-11:00 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|11:00-12:00 noon||Lunch break|
|12noon-1:00 pm||Rest and interviews with the teacher|
|1:00-2:30 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|2:30-3:30 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|3:30-5:00 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|5:00-6:00 pm||Tea break|
|6:00-7:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|7:00-8:15 pm||Teacher’s Discourse in the hall|
|8:15-9:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-9:30 pm||Question time in the hall|
|9:30 pm||Retire to your own room–Lights out|
Yes, you read that correctly. The morning wake-up bell is at 4am. I was calling it a “retreat” until I realized that connotes relaxation. This was not relaxing. This was (at least for me) torture. Being that I’m an extremely extroverted insomniac (averaged 3 hrs of sleep/night the whole course, no jokes) with a short attention span, I might have been the worst (or the best, depending on how you look at it) candidate for this experience. But, I’m always talking about getting out of your comfort zone and sitting in that discomfort, so I thought I’d better walk the walk. In retrospect, a Vipassana “lite” course might have been a more realistic challenge, but hey…go big or go home, right?
From my understanding, the focus of the time spent in meditation is as such: To increase awareness of bodily sensations, to practice equanimity (or “objective” observance) of such sensations (rather than craving or aversion), and to sit with those sensations, physical and emotional–not trying to change or hold onto them–and experience their impermanence, thereby strengthening one’s capacity to tolerate and practise refraining and non-reactivity.
During the 11 days, I did a lot of thinking. I also set a record for the number of times I flossed in a day, acquired the flexibility of an acrobat (sitting with a straight back for 10+ hours a day made for some very sore muscles, which resulted in a lot of stretching), and rediscovered the joy of making wishes on dandelions.
On days 5 and 8, I decided I was leaving. Done. See-ya. I can’t put up with this BS anymore. But then my ego would chime in: “But Megan, what will everyone think?” “But Megan, (insert name here) was able to do it! So can you…” “But Megan, what are you running from?” I didn’t want to “stick it out” just because of my ego, but I didn’t want to leave just because I was uncomfortable. So, after deliberating over my “want” and “should” parts, weighing the costs and benefits of leaving, and imagining how I might feel about the experience later on if I left, and I decided to stay. Plus, I truly was curious about the experience, masochistic as it might be, and at least the food was good (the food was really, really good).
Because I wasn’t allowed to write, I couldn’t document my experience (for which you should be thankful as it would be very, very boring–e.g: Sit. Walk. Think. Try not to think. Sit some more. Stretch. Obsess. Realize I’m obsessing. Sit again), but here’s a brief recount of my progression into mild insanity:
On day 2, following my first 7am nap (I pray to never again be in a situation where a 7am nap is appropriate), I wondered about “accidentally” spraining my ankle and needing to leave. But then I thought I could probably still meditate with a sprained ankle. And even if I couldn’t, I wouldn’t be able to drive my car home with a sprained ankle. Darn. my brilliant plan had been foiled. And irrationality was brewing.
On day 3, Pitbull and Taio Cruz had made their way into my brain, filling every silence. The audio instructions meant to calm and focus me were lost amidst the incessant beat in my head: “Bring your attention to the temperature of the air going in and out of your nostrils.” I throw my hands up in the air sometimes saying AYO, gotta let go! “Notice how it is warmer when it goes out than when it comes in.” I wanna celebrate and live my life saying AYO, baby let’s go! “Keep your attention on your br-” ‘CAUSE WE GON’ ROCK THIS CLUB, WE GON GO ALL NIGHT, WE GON’ LIGHT IT UP, LIKE IT’S DYNAMITE… I didn’t know the rest of the lyrics. Those ones repeated over and over again. For 7 days. Quiet mind my @%%.
On day 5, I started reading the labels on my shampoo bottles for entertainment. In English and French. My mind begged for intellectual stimulation.
On day 7, I took my roommate’s sweatshirt out of my laundry pile, that I had initially chosen not to wear because it smelled like her, and put it on because it smelled like her. I was missing connection.
On day 8, while doing laps in my usual straight-jacket way in the walking area, I caught a glimpse of a meditator from the men’s camp. Immediately I had concocted a tragic romance of two lovers in this asylum, kept apart by the dictatorial owner. “Blue Sweatshirt!!! Blue Sweatshirt, it’s me!!! Baggy Grey Sweater and Baggy Black Pants! We can be together, Blue Sweatshirt, I’ll wait for you! I’ll waiiiiit fooooor youuuuuuu…”
Oh God. I was losing it.
On day 9, I spent part of a sitting with my eyes open, studying my name written on the ground in front of me, imagining it was a scrabble hand and I was to make words. Hmm MEGAN BRUNEAU. All are only worth 1 point, save the M, G, and B. BEAM. MUG. GUM. BAG. BRAG. GAMER. I wonder if the dictionary would allow “Gamer?” Or “Beamer?” Mmm Beamer. This process continued on until I come up with dozens of words, and found it amusing that two of my fears (“bear” and “gun”) could be made from my name. That must mean something. It ALL has to mean something…
I got progressively loopier, which surprised me as I had expected to come to some sort of resolution by the end of the 10 days. I imagine if I had stayed longer, I might have really lost it and then built myself back up again, but I didn’t find out. And I don’t plan to anytime soon. Now, amidst all the non-meditating I managed to do, I actually did do some. And you know what? Call me crazy, but I think it might have actually helped me. All that “sitting” in discomfort and anxiety, frustration, resentment, sadness, loneliness, and confusion… unconscious thoughts came to the surface in a dreamlike fashion and surprised me with their content. I noticed patterns in my thought processes that left me both enlightened and exasperated. I became more desensitized to a slew of difficult emotions. And I realized I really do enjoy hanging out with myself, now (It hasn’t always been that way), so that was pretty empowering.
Days later, I feel calmer, more grounded, and more in touch with myself (The whole experience was kind of like sawing off your arm to get out of a canyon, ya know?). I happily sat in rush-hour traffic on my way back to Vancouver, felt confident about being able to accomplish an overwhelming slew of tasks upon my return, played the best soccer game I’ve played in a while my first night back because I didn’t have performance anxiety seeping in and ruining my focus, and I felt less affected by past heartbreak’s latest posts on my Newsfeed (Sidebar: I know, I should really just unfriend them…do as I say, not as I do…).
And, because it’s only been a few days since I left, I’m certain I’ll continue to process the experience. As of now, though, here are a few lessons I gained (or was reminded of) during it all that I’d like to share with you:
- Get out of your comfort zone, sit in the discomfort, but remain in your safety zone: Get out of the comfort zone, but use your wise mind while doing so. Your uncomfortable zone should be uncomfortable, but not unsafe. You don’t have to become a stuntman to find that zone. And this goes not just for physical safety, but emotional safety as well. I would NEVER recommend that a person struggling with PTSD, fresh grief, or clinical depression attend a course like this. Challenge yourself, but do so in a context that you can be pretty confident you’ll survive–and not risk being retraumatized by should that be a concern.
- Be compassionate to yourself; adjust your internal expectations: Part way through the course, I realized I didn’t have to be holding myself to the same standards the theravadan buddhists do. I took more breaks, and responded with humor rather than frustration when I encountered yet another ridiculous (in my opinion, of course) aspect of the course. When I felt like my brain had done enough meditating, I thought about fun past experiences and all the things I had to look forward to upon my return. Yeah I know, that’s not very mindful or present-focused, but by permitting myself to do so, I didn’t feel badly about it. I knew I was still getting something out of the experience.
- Don’t get caught up in the logisitcs and prevent yourself from reaping benefits: I tend to think. Then I think about me thinking. Then think about me thinking about thinking. I analyze myself, my neuroses, my thoughts, my feelings. I pick apart my patterns and theorize about the roots of their development. I question the credibility of the source of the information given to me, then question my questioning. I couldn’t wait to get home to EBSCO for Vipassana-related peer-reviewed, empirically-supported articles. I’m all up in my head. This can be a good thing, but it also can be a great way to avoid what I’m feeling, maintain a false sense of control, and to prevent myself from just experiencing. Get out of your mind and into your body.
- That being said, don’t take everything a person in a position of authority tells you: We tend to do one of two things: We see people in positions of power and/or authority as knowing all, agree with one thing and therefore agree with everything, and refrain from questioning what we’re being taught; or, we disagree with one or tho things that person says and discredit them (and everything else they’ve said) entirely. We take all or nothing, and this can be limiting or dangerous (or both). In this experience, I found a good part of the material patriarchal, draconian, and outdated, and even found myself infuriated upon hearing some of the dialogue (“Tolerance, Megan. Tolerance…”). But I also found a good part of it progressive, practical, and brilliant. Take what serves you and leave the rest. You can always change your mind about what you choose to accept and reject later.
- Dont’ finish something just to finish; quitting is just fine: A few people left during the course, and truly admire their egolessness. A lot of people have said to me since I got back, “Good for you for sticking through it” or “Good for you for finishing it.” As kind as the comments are, I feel conflicted about them, because I don’t propone suffering through something “just to finish it” or to avoid being “a quitter.” We grow up in a world with a whole bunch of “quitter”-related sayings and rules, which leads people to do things they don’t want to do out of pride. If you’re not getting anything out of what you’ve “committed” to (e.g. program, job, relationship), don’t let the “don’t quit” voice keep you miserable. We have freedom for a reason. If something isn’t serving you any more or doesn’t appear to be worth the investment, quitting is the wiser choice.
- The world doesn’t fall apart while you’re not paying attention to it: I was convinced the next 9/11 had taken place in my absence. I was expecting to come back to the aftermath of the apocalypse, and I was certain all of my friends would have forgotten me. In actuality, when I asked my mom what I missed, the first thing she said was “James Gandolfini died.” That’s it? I mean don’t get me wrong, that’s really sad. I was a huge Sopranos fan, too, and I didn’t know the guy but if he was anything like “Tony,” he was pretty great. But in comparison to my preconceived post-apocalyptic vision, this news was totally manageable. But I was reminded that the whole illusion of control that runs our lives is just that–an illusion. Being “out of control” of current events for 11 days had no impact whatsoever on the happenings of the world. FYI: Being “in control”/aware has the same lack of impact.
Although I wouldn’t characterize my experience of the course as “enjoyable” (given that discomfort is the point), I seem to be somewhat anomalous. Many people who were at the course were returning for the 5th, 10th, 15th time, and when we were finally allowed to talk (on the afternoon of the last day), there were as many positive reviews (different strokes…?). You couldn’t pay me enough to do it again (OK, maybe you could pay me enough. If you have a number, we’ll talk), but I’m confident it’s benefitted me consciously and unconsciously (Proof? I can now spread the toes on my left foot, which I could never do before. Totally worth it. #rationalization). If, even in response to my tale of spiralling into mild insanity, you think it might be something you want to do (and feel pretty confident about the state of your emotional and mental stability), Godspeed (and here’s the website). But, if you’d rather spend 11 days conversing with customer service than committing to a Vipassana course, you’re likely representative of the majority of the population. You can still step out of your comfort zone in other ways that are less crazy-making and less inescapable; just do your best to practice self-compassion and nonjudgment while you do so. :). Now excuse me while I go pack for Vegas.
“There is a common misunderstanding among the human beings who have ever been born on earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the some. A much more interesting, kind and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our curiosity is bitter or sweet. To lead to a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is. If we are committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we’re going to run; we’ll never know what’s beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing…Ordinarily we are swept away by habitual momentum. We don’t interrupt our patterns even slightly. With practice, however, we learn to stay with a broken heart, with a nameless fear, with the desire for revenge. Sticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos, how we learn to be cool when the ground beneath us suddenly disappears.”