I finished my first vipassana course a few days ago. A vipassana course consists of ten days of silent meditation, for approximately 10 1/2 hours each day. I had the intention of doing emotional healing and developing a stable meditation practice to help me cope with chronic, and sometimes paralyzing anxiety that I've experienced ever since I was 13. I imagined the course would be difficult, but I could not have imagined how incredibly emotionally painful it would be, and the realizations I could only have by fully experiencing the pain.
I shared a piece of land, a meditation hall, a dining hall, and a dormitory with about 40 other people. At the beginning of the course, we turned in our electronic devices and reading and writing material. We agreed to not in engage in physical exercise, and we agreed to practice noble silence, except to ask questions to the teachers. Noble silence means to abstain from communicating with others through speaking, eye contact, or touch. These guidelines were set in place to make it easiest for us to clear our minds.
On the first day of the course, I rose at 4am and walked to the meditation hall to begin my sitting practice, as according to the daily schedule, and directed by the teachers.
By the afternoon, I was in the midst of a battle in my mind to stay awake, and I was failing. I was forcing my eyes to stay open, even though we were instructed to sit with them closed. My whole body ached intensely. A heat and throbbing pulsated in my head. My neck and back ached, but the most pain was in my legs. My stomach began to turn, and I felt the urge to throw up. I wanted to run out of the room screaming and crying. When I was almost to my breaking point, a gentle bell rang for a five minute break. I pulled my body up and out of the room, crying, my mind wrapped up in fearful thoughts of my possible inability to complete the course, and guilty feelings for wanting to give up so quickly.
I approached the assistant teacher, asking for guidance, and when she was available I entered her room. She sat on a mat on an elevated piece of the floor, and I sat on a mat below her. Her room was cold, and lit with an orange light. She smiled down at me.
"How are you doing, Wren?"
"I am struggling a lot. I can't stay awake in the meditation hall, and when I am awake, my whole body aches intensely. The pain in almost intolerable."
"If you have this much physical pain, you must have experienced a lot of emotional pain in the past. There's a lot in your subconscious, and it is coming out, like pus."
"But, the pain, I can't handle it..." I start crying again.
Then she said, "Why did you come here?"
"To.. learn to relax."
"Then you have to do the work to get there. You have the tools. Don't give up. Give this technique a fair trial, complete the full course, and then decide afterward if you want to keep practicing vipassana."
I thanked her, and then left. Something clicked in my mind. I understood that the only way I could heal all my emotional pain of anxiety, anger, and sadness, was to observe it completely, in my body, and in my mind. I thought of the phrase, "The only way out if through." I felt a lot of empathy for anyone who had ever run away from something good for them because they were afraid of facing the work that would have to be done to get there.
I returned to the meditation hall after a tea break. I feared my lack of ability to focus, and handling of the physical pain. I pulled up my strength, and sat, my back and neck straight, my eyes closed, my mind focusing on the air entering and exiting my nostrils. I did not fall asleep. I did the work because I knew then how important it was.
Lessons in Meditation Become Lessons in Life
Over the next few days, I learned some important lessons. The first one was about equanimity. In meditation, it’s a tool used to observe bodily sensations, and not make the pain "my pain." I was told that equanimity means not wishing for unpleasant sensations to cease, and not wishing for pleasant sensations to continue.
I also learned about Anicha. Anicha is Hindi for impermanence. I think of the phrase, “This too shall pass.” While we sit, we learn to practice scanning our whole body for subtle sensations, such as itching or tickling. I observed many intense urges to scratch an itch rise and then fall away.
On the 6th day, almost all my bodily pain was gone, and I started experiencing pleasant, subtle, vibrating sensations sweeping all through my body. I felt like my body was dissolving into everything around me-an experience I’ve never had.
By experiencing all of these different sensations in my body, I could learn to use the tool of Anicha when emotions come up. When I am experiencing anxiety, my breathing is very rapid, and I feel like I cannot get enough air. I’m overtaken by a handful of negative, self defeating thoughts. I remind myself, “This is anicha.” It will pass, and it does.
I learned that I have spent most of my life living in the past, or worrying about the future, not experiencing reality as it is, and wishing I was somewhere else, doing something else.
The head teacher of the course was a man from India, named SN Goenke. Goenke said that it is easy to logically understand the concepts of impermanence and equanimity, but they cannot be applied in day to day life unless they are experienced through the body, because the body and mind are linked.
We're not Alone in the Darkness of our Misery
On the last day of the course, Goenke recited the meditation, “May I be happy. May all beings be happy. May I pardon anyone who has ever hurt me. May I be pardoned for ever hurting anyone.” Many people cried; releasing hurt feelings, forgiving, and extending love and compassion.
I felt so much compassion for those 40 other people surrounding me, who I never spoke with until the tenth day. I felt sadness to say goodbye to these people with whom I had shared this healing experience with, and after talking with others in the course, I found out that everyone else was struggling too. How often I think I am alone, but I’ve come to realize that we all have the same needs and the same struggles.
It was when I reached Chicago, to catch a bus, that I realized that I would be surrounded by the same kind of people.
We’re all just walking through life as though in a darkened room, grasping for something to hold onto, or looking for light, so we can come out of our darkness.
For me, my house is often filled with darkness, but now that I have some tools, I think I will open the window and let some light in.
When my bus arrived in Wisconsin, I went to the green bay and put my feet in Lake Michigan for the first time. The weather was cool and windy. I found myself wondering about the future-the next months I would spend at Teaching Drum, but then I drew myself back into just appreciating being at the green bay.
The future is always unknown. This is anicha. This is the change and flow of life.