As the world turns its eyes on the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, and so many of us feel the pull of global citizenship, I reminisce of a time eight years ago when Vancouver hosted the games. During that time instead of participating in the massive international party, I escaped the sporting spectacle to look deep within myself. This is my story…
There are certain life events that can hasten us along the path of self-inquiry. For me, becoming a parent necessitated turning my powers of observation towards myself. As a working mother I was noticing a dramatic lack of personal time available to reflect on life. Yet raising kids seemed to be a time when contemplation was most essential. It seemed that now, more than ever, I was required to look closer at the discrepancies between my relationship values, and how I responded in times of frustration and irritation. Such crossroads in life can either shut us down, or open us up to the possibility of personal growth. Faith in the power of personal transformation was what brought me to the Dhamma Surabhi Vipassana meditation center in Merritt, B.C., one cold February day back in 2010.
When I arrived, I was asked to surrender everything personally meaningful. I had to lock up my books, journal, camera, and car keys. For the next ten days I would live a monastic existence of deep inner reflection. I was there to observe strict rules of personal conduct. Everything we needed was provided. All we had to do was show up, and work diligently on our own practice. The schedule was demanding. We were up by 4am each morning. My fellow seekers and I would spend ten hours each day sitting in meditation, punctuated by simple vegetarian meals, and periods of rest when we could silently walk the crisp winter grounds. We were being given a valuable gift, and all we had to do was choose to reach out and take it.
The first evening there was a formal ceremony where the segregated groups of male and female meditators entered the meditation hall from separate entrances for the first time, and laid eyes on our guru appointed Vipassana mentors. There was an aura of reverence and anticipation. These ancient traditions of Vipassana had been passed down from the Buddha himself. The techniques we were about to learn had been preserved for over 2500 years. We began by taking a vow of noble silence, meaning there was to be no communication whatsoever with the others assembled. Noble Silence meant no talking, no writing, no gestures, no eye contact, and no distractions from our inner work. It had begun, and there was no turning back now.
The first full day of meditation started well enough. We were asked to sit and follow our breath, nothing more than just to sit, breath in and out, and remain aware of our breath. I found myself often thinking of home; projects, people, work. I drifted in and out of fantasies about how the next ten days would transpire, and what I imagined I would come away with when I was finished. I dreamed up conversations with others, and with myself. My monkey brain was busy swinging from the proverbial chandelier. Pretty soon I found my legs screaming loud objections to the long hours of sitting erect, cross-legged on a small cushion. I changed my posture often. There were about 45 other meditators working at the same time as myself. I’m sure we all shared lofty expectations of finding something meaningful from the experience, but for now the meditation hall was one incessant fidget. We were all struggling, and this was only the beginning.
That evening I dropped into bed at 9pm and fell asleep almost instantly. I awoke in a cold sweat at midnight after having one of the most vivid and disturbing nightmares I can ever remember. In my dream I was horrifically stalked and brutally murdered by someone I used to know. The entire dream had pierced me with an uneasy angst and dark sense foreboding. I got up and groped my way to the bathroom. The dream had been unnerving in its graphic violence. I splashed my face with water and stared at my vulnerable reflection in the mirror, reminding myself that visions of death do not always mean physical demise. Death can often symbolize a shedding of the old to make way for the new. I tried to comfort myself with rational optimism. Death in nature is always followed by rebirth. I shivered, even though it wasn’t cold, and went back to to my sleepless bed.
The next two days we were asked to sharpen our awareness, to focus our minds on the delicate skin around our nostrils, and pay attention to any sensations we felt as the soft breath flowed in and out. Happy, I was getting better at maintaining my concentration. In the beginning it had been so difficult to keep my mind on the breath. Now I could concentrate on my breath for longer periods of time before thoughts began to seep in. However, I was still physically uncomfortable. Several times per day I would exchange my sitting cushions for a whole new set. I built soft towers of foam trying to fend off the leg cramps that kept stabbing at my legs. Finally, I found the right arrangement of cushions and support, and to my relief, the leg pain diminished. Overall, I was having a fairly easy time. I felt serene and confident. My mind was quieting down, and I began to experience a deep sense of peace.
During our scheduled rest periods many chose to wander around the small walking space available on the women’s side. There was a short road, and a collection of pathways shoveled in the deep snow winding through a patch of scrubby pine forest. One particular day I sat on my bed looking out over the scene outside. A dozen women walked slowly and thoughtfully through the paths. I could see them circling the complex, all staring intently down at their feet. One woman, with an uneven haircut, short on one side and long on the other, was marching emphatically down the road. I laughed to myself. To an outside observer this place might resemble a turn of the century mental institution, with its medicated inmates shuffling around silently, eyes cast downward. Inside women sat raptly staring out at unchanging frozen landscapes, as if engrossed by some mysterious relevance. When the bell rang everyone rose noiselessly in unison, and headed for the dining room. I realized that I was in a mental institution, of sorts. All of us had voluntarily checked ourselves in for a self-imposed stay, to have our behavior and thought processes scrutinized and examined. Not by a team of head shrinks, but by ourselves. I wondered, as I chewed my stewed kale, if I would be having the full frontal lobotomy, or a mild version of shock therapy.
Day four was a turning point in my experience. I went to bed the night before with very sore legs, and awoke in the middle of the night with intense cramps that wouldn’t go away. No reclining or sitting position was comfortable. Nothing made the pain subside expect walking. I had an intense charlie horse in each of my hips, and my hamstrings felt taut as rubber bands stretched to within an inch of snapping. At times during that day I felt like I was only making contact with the ground by my hamstrings. To top it off my back started to ache, my lower back throbbed, between my shoulder blades burned, and my neck felt like a giant muscle knot. I was genuinely puzzled by this level of excruciating pain. I had been maintaining flexibility and muscle tone for years through a serious and regular yoga practice. Yet here I was feeling like I’d been run over. Before arriving I had been nervous about lingering tenderness from a sprained ankle, but ironically that was the only place that didn’t hurt. The mental fatigue finally caught up with me, and this was when I genuinely started feeling miserable.
At this point in the Vipassana retreat we were introduced to ‘Sittings of Strong Determination.” Up until now we had been allowed to change our posture when needed. For three and a half days the whole meditation hall had echoed with the sounds of bodily discomfort. By day four we were asked to spend three separate one-hour sittings in quiet stillness, and simply observe our sensations, but not react to them. Vipassana meditation is a technique that strives to create an awareness of sensations that occur over the entire body, one part at a time. We pass our awareness throughout our whole body, part by part, noticing the solidified sensations of pressure, temperature, pain, itching and tickling. Gradually, through practice, and the sharpening of our awareness, the idea is to feel our more subtle sensations. For this we were asked to embrace short periods, where we were to try and not respond to sensation, but only observe it. Simply, this meant try not to move no matter what the discomfort.
I made it through some of the ‘Sittings of Strong Determination’ without moving, but most often I had one or more severe leg cramps that could not be merely observed. I became certain that sitting through this intense discomfort was exacerbating my pain, because it gradually got a lot worse. I began to feel agony both day and night. For the next 48 hours I struggled. I fought through severe pain, and held back tears during the day. At night I haunted the bathroom, or the road outside, unable to sit or even recline. I could not sleep, I could only pace back and forth, fretting about possible life long chronic pain disorders. I finally broke down and sought advice from the mentor. I sat cross-legged on the floor, spilling my tale of woe to this middle-aged woman dressed in purified white, perched above me on a meditation platform. She was mildly sympathetic, however the main point I took away from that interaction was, ‘Your pain is very good news, you are being challenged. Now respond with equanimity. This is what you are here for.’ I left slightly confused. I was here for significant internal growth not to give myself sciatica.
After a fleeting fantasy of liberating of my car keys tucked away in the safe, I resolved to take the instruction and work harder. Every evening, shortly before lights out, we would sit in the meditation hall and watch a videotaped talk given by the International Vipassana guru, S. N. Goenka. Each night he would shed light on what we might be going through, and gave us instructions for how to utilize the remainder of our time. His words were inspiring, and daily he seemed to speak directly to many of my unsettling emotions or concerns. I began to understand that my mind is polluted. Like most other people walking the earth today, I occasionally experience deep suffering. I know I suffer the most when I am unable to be the person I want to be. It hurts when I get angry and yell at my kid. I suffer greatly when I find people or situations so irritating that I allow it to destroy my personal equanimity. I sat and listened, and understood. Yes! How reactive our minds are. I learned to recognize that human consciousness appreciates ‘good’ things like praise, and success. We are capable of developing strong cravings for these states. Sometimes we can feel anxiety, or even devastation when we do not get what we think we need. Conversely, we do not like ‘bad’ states like embarrassment, or failure, or physical discomfort. We develop an aversion to experiencing these states. When we get what we do not want, it can make us miserable. That was definitely what was happening to me. It was an understatement to say that I was not enjoying this constant physical pain, and it was driving me crazy.
Over the next several days the pain went away, and came back again. A nasty little tug of war played out in my mind between aversion and craving. However, I began to realize that this physical discomfort was simply a conduit for driving strong emotions to the surface. There were many days when I felt like I was completely flailing around in a sea of emotional turbulence. However, I began to understand if I had stayed in that lovely state of peaceful serenity of the first few days, I would never be learning as much. I came to understand the meaning behind the mentors words. I needed to take this discomfort and transform it into my personal growth. I found my resolve and continued to show up and sit.
On the seventh day I was walking outside, enjoying sunbeams as they danced over the snow covered pine forest, All of a sudden I experienced a crushing sensation of pressure in my chest. I couldn’t breath. At first I was mystified. I could feel this intense sensation, but I couldn’t link the sensation to an origin, or to a specific emotion. I searched my mind for a reference. I felt as though I was about to write an exam I hadn’t studied for, or worse, I was about to step in front of a firing squad. Then it hit me, I was feeling something akin to panic, an overwhelming feeling of fear. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was afraid of. I tried desperately to walk, and breath, and let go of this sensation, but it had a tight grip. Perhaps, I wondered, I was afraid to sit another minute in that meditation hall. Finally the gong sounded, and I trudged slowly to the hall entrance. My heart was pounding. When I sat down to meditate that afternoon, I experienced some of the most dramatic physical sensations of those entire ten days.
I focused my mind on the physical sensations I was experiencing, and soon I became aware of my body as nothing more than a buzzing collection of atoms, all bouncing off one another in constant motion. The gross sensations I was feeling, the clamminess of my toes, the weight of my hands on my knees, the pain in my legs, and tightness in my chest, all gave way to a great spasm of intense flowing energy. This energy rippled through my entire body like waves of current, flowing up and down and all around through me. It felt like supercharged tiny bubbles flowing through this collection of atoms that I refer to as me. I sat transfixed in astonished observation as my whole being dissolved. Then after several moments it completely stopped.
I checked all over my body to find that feeling again. But I felt nothing but clammy toes, my tongue in my mouth, the pain in my legs, the pillow growing harder under my sit bones. I sat in disbelief. I was amazed at the power and beauty of the experience I had just had. I was certainly wanting more of it, but trying to remain mindful not to create any sort of craving for that delicious sensation. I continued to observe the gross sensations now available to me. The tension in my chest had returned. Then the previous several nights of painful sleeplessness finally pounced on me like a ravenous predator. I started to yawn. These massive yawns emerged from my mouth, but emanated from deep within me. I felt that I might dislocate my jaw, as the yawns made my mouth open wider than I had ever thought possible. They were long and luxurious yawns that forced me to shake my mane, letting their long tails completely escape from my face. There were dozens of them. They squeezed tears from my eyes, and made my nose run. I kept my eyes shut tight not daring to make eye contact with the golden beings observing us from their angelic perch at the front of the meditation hall. Then the giant yawns ended, and I was once again left with my gross sensations. The gross sensations were a little different now I noticed. My arms and legs felt heavy, my back registered a soreness that had not been there for days, but to my delight my chest was no longer clutched in tightness.
I sat for a long time. I felt spent. We were allowed to remain in the hall, or work in our rooms, but crazy as it might sound, I felt I needed to stay put. My mind wandered a little more now, but each time I diligently pulled it back to the dullness of those gross sensations. I followed those sensations up and down my being, from the top of my head to the tip of my toes and back. I made many rounds up and down, checking in, trying to find that subtle energy awareness, I experienced only fleeting bubbles of energy rippling then quickly passing away to gross sensations once again. All the while I was growing more tired. Overtaken by a stubborn refusal to get up, and go do something else, I stayed.
Then, from out of nowhere, I felt an strong current shoot straight up my back as if lightning had struck my tailbone. The bolt shot up my spine then left my body out through the top of my head. Along the way I felt it hit every single chakra, and flip them all on like switches. It was so intense it jolted me like I had received an electric shock. I felt fully awake, every neuron in my brain alert and firing. My mind registered a pure white glowing, and there was a strong sense of release. Then briefly, euphoria.
In Hindu Mythology there is said to be a serpent goddess called Kundalini, who lies asleep in all of us. She is coiled three and a half times around the 1st chakra at the base of the spine, and can be awakened by profound experiences in yoga, pranayama or meditation. When awakened she travels up the spine like a jolt of energy, opening and connecting the chain of chakras, and finally piercing the crown chakra above the head. She is thought to represent the unfolding of divine energy. She unleashes the creative potential of humankind. I thought maybe I had awakened my sleeping serpent. The experience seemed to fit. The rest of the day I drifted as if in a dream. My feet might not have touched the floor, I don’t honestly remember.
The remaining three days were almost anti-climactic. I was exhausted, and barely capable of maintaining focus on anything. My mind now wandered often to home and family, back to my life that would resume shortly, with its unending list of projects and plans. Then, as the final phase was upon me, I began to ache for my young child back home with her father. Since her birth we had not spent this much time apart. I could no longer focus on anything except holding her in my arms, and breathing in her warm sweet smell. After seven long days of being with only my own thoughts, I was desperate to be everything to someone else again.
After two and a half more days of torturous solitude the noble silence was lifted, and the group began to speak to one another again. At first I felt very shy, unable to face the pressure of human contact. But gradually, after doing much more listening than participating in the conversations around me, I emerged transformed from my silence. Deeply touched by the experience, even though I didn’t have the words right away to describe what had happened. I just knew. I knew something deep within me had shifted in the same way that you know when you are in love. Once the floodgates of speech opened it was hard to close them up again. The group talked, and shared, and laughed, and hugged, and cried together. I felt unexpectedly close to these complete strangers. As we talked to each other, and shared our unique experiences and observations, my own inner journey began to crystallize and make perfect sense. I had figured out a powerful truth. That I was the master and the maker of my own reality, in a way that I had never truly understood before. Now this simple idea had taken on a whole new reality. I found I couldn’t wait to get home and live in this new reality. One that I had been transported to through the power of my own enduring awareness. It had all been worth it.
Namaste, and thanks for reading
“Sometimes a leap of faith is your only available means of transportation.” -Margaret Sheppherd
There are hundreds of Vipassana meditation centers all over the world. To check out one near you go to www.dhamma.org