Every time I told someone where I was going for 10 days, their faces would twist in horror and the responses would be:
- “You’re doing what?”
- “Why in the heck would you want to do that?”
- “You are crazy!”
- “Be careful”
- “You’ll last two days.”
The first time I heard of S.N. Goenka was when the newsfeed of his death skirted across FB. I was curious about him and started reading about his life and teachings. I shared the news of his passing on my FB page wishing I had known about him and his teachings before his passing. India News Report
After that day I did not think about him or his teachings again. Fast forward five years, a student of mine mentioned she had gone on a 10-day silent meditation retreat at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Sherburne, MA, just two hours from my home. I asked her if she found it helpful and if it deepened her meditation practice. She said yes. I told her I would love to attend but it would most likely be cost prohibitive for me. I was surprised to find out the center is run solely on a donation basis, making this course accessible to everyone!
[“According to the tradition of pure Vipassana, courses are run solely on a donation basis. Donations are accepted only from those who have completed at least one 10-day course. You can give a donation on the last day of the course (not before) or any time thereafter.”
Wishing to share the benefits with others, one gives a donation according to one’s means and volition. Such donations are the only source of funding for in this tradition around the world. There is no wealthy foundation or individual sponsors. Neither the teachers or organizers receive any kind of payment for their service. This way the spread of Vipassana is carried out with purity of purpose, free from any commercialism.”]
Why would I want to do this?
We spend a lot of time working on conditioning our bodies. I wanted to spend more time conditioning my mind. As I get older I have found I have gotten stuck mentally; I, me, mine, self, attachments (clinging to things, to experiences) aversions (to any physical or mental discomforts). I practice yoga, I have studied yogic philosophy, I practice meditation, but 10 days away in monk-like quarters just meditating and contemplating, stepping back from outside stimuli and moving inward made sense to me. I filled out the application, set the date. I was committed.
Day 0 (Arrival)
I arrived at 2:00 pm. I am given my room number, a map, and the evening schedule as I handed over my phone to be locked away for the next 10 days. I didn’t know what to expect, I wasn’t sure what the set-up would be, dorms? Shared showers/bathrooms? Filled with nervous apprehension I walked, luggage in hand, to my room. (Yay! Single room with private bathroom/shower.)
We head to the dining hall for our one and only evening meal for the next 10 days.
styled hair and lots of chatter,
people in groups,
all different walks of life,
from all over the world,
ages from mid-20s to 70+.
I am sitting at a back table just watching, wondering what brought everyone here.
10 days to go…
My scheduled life for the next 10 days.
Slept through the 4:00 a.m. wake-up gong and my travel alarm clock. Luckily I woke up in time for breakfast. The first day was hard but I felt good.
Tea break. Everyone is looking down, not making eye contact, makeup is gone, hair is less tended to, everyone working hard to move inward, I am looking outward.
I enjoyed the evening’s Dharma talk with S.N. Goenka (All instructions are given through Audio and Video. Any clarifications are made by assistant teachers.) Goenka is humorous and peppers his teachings with personal stories, stories of Buddha’s teachings, and lots of history of Burma and India.
Got up for the 4:30 a.m. meditation and sat for almost two hours with very little movement. I felt pretty good, all puffed-up about my ability to sit still. Then came the 8:00 a.m. meditation. I ached. My back, knees, ankles, neck, and arms ached. I had pain in areas I didn’t know could have pain – like my eyelashes and toenails. After the 8:00 a.m. session I went to the assistant teacher and told her I needed a wall. Her response: Pain is normal. “Oh no, this pain couldn’t possibly be normal”, I said. She just gives me a peaceful look and tells me she will put a meditation chair at my mat. Oh how wonderful, I thought, I will have no problems now.
At the 2:00 p.m. session, the chair did not help. I was annoyed. I am ready to bolt from this place. This place is not for me. It can’t be healthy to sit this long. I am going to injure myself sitting for 10 ½ hours of meditation a day and a 1-hour lecture at the end of the day. That’s 11.5 hours of sitting! I want to bolt. How in the heck am I going to make it another 8 days!
Thank god for the video discourses with Goenka! “…So you come here and think you should be master meditators in two days?”, he said. He also mentioned how he wanted to pack up and leave on day two.
At 4:30 a.m. I went to the hall to meditate. SO much noise, knuckle cracking, coughing, sneezing, meditation benches collapsing, and snoring! Who is so comfortable sitting they fall asleep?! I was annoyed. He was comfortable and I was not. Who can meditate with all this noise?
I am in pain everywhere. How can I focus on my breath when the only thing I can focus on is my pain. Again I go to my teacher. “I need a chair, you don’t understand, I’m going to injure myself sitting on the floor, my knees are swollen.” She gave me a knowing look and asked if I was focusing on my respiration using my Anapana. “No! Not at all.” Well you see, that is what you must learn. I realize I’m not going to get anywhere. Then she said, I will tell you what I will do. I will put a chair at the wall and if you think you need it, you can sit there. YES!
First thing I do is dart to my chair…oh, I am so happy. I sit, I try to meditate, I am uncomfortable, I can’t focus, I am fidgety. At that moment I realized it is not the floor, the wall or the chair, it was me presenting full-on resistance to this process. I went back to my mat. I sat in Virasana supported by my zafu (meditation cushion). I am semi-comfortable after realizing all this angst was me.
2:00-3:00 p.m. We were taught Vipassana Meditation. How can I learn this when I still haven’t gotten the hang of Anapana yet?
3:00-5:00 p.m. We were instructed to practice Vipassana with complete stillness. The first three days we could change our sitting position. Today we had to learn to practice with complete stillness. This is called, Adhiṭṭhāna (strong determination sitting). You should not change the position of your body and you should not open your eyes during this time.
Twenty minutes into the sitting, everyone is so still and quiet. I opened one eye to look around; everyone looks so zen. I am still, with the exception of my one open eye, but I am not zen.
Day 5 (Humpday! Halfway there!)
During each break, I would throw on my waterproof clothes, dart up the trail to a perfect sunny spot on the hill, plop my body onto the snow and bury myself in it. Nature’s ice pack. Sigh….
We are not supposed to talk, use gestures, or look directly at one another, but every time another student would walk by me, comfortably buried in the snow, I could hear the footsteps halt for a number of seconds before they continued on. One day I was face down in the snow and this prompted a more abrupt halt and a longer wait before the steps continued.
Am I a better person yet? Well, I didn’t want to jump out of my skin at lunch today when the person in front of me selected each green bean, on her plate, individually!
During today’s rest time I needed to practice yoga. Yoga, although compatible with meditation, was discouraged because it is a distraction to our meditation practices. I was stiff. My body needed my practice. My mind needed my practice. So I practiced.
After the tea break, I went for another walk along the trail and found two sleeping porcupines in a tree. I was internally screaming! OMG, OMG, PORCUPINES! I was so happy! I looked around wondering if anyone was nearby. Of course, even if they were, I couldn’t tell anyone because I couldn’t talk or use gestures. We weren’t allowed to play charades. I did a little jig all the way down the trail.
I wasn’t able to focus during the 6:00 p.m. evening group meditation. My head was filled with porcupines.
After each evening discourse, we are required to meditate for another 45 minutes. I was calm and focused, no pain, completely relaxed. Then a visual of thousands and thousands of black and grey eels came endlessly squirming out of my head. My first thought, of course, was to try to ID them (I think they were American eels, Anguilla rostrata). My second thought was, if these are all of my negative saṅkhāras, it’s going to take a hell of a lot of lifetimes to clear these out!
[Loose translation of Saṅkhāra (Pali; Sanskrit saṃskāra). Each time you react to a body sensation, you create a saṅkhāra, a positive or negative attachment. The goal of Vipassana is to stop creating new saṅkhāras by staying totally and profoundly equanimous when observing them].
I went out to check on the porcupines after breakfast. I got within 50 feet of them and they started scream-squeaking at me. I left them and buried myself in the snow. Thank god for nature’s cold, white, Motrin.
During the 8:00 a.m. group meditation, I dropped into a deep meditative state. I did not move at all (and did not need to) for the entire hour. I was surprised when it was time to stop, I could have stayed much longer. I was pulsating with little electric currents rising and falling, swirling. I felt jittery when I came out. I felt like my eyes were vibrating like the actor Pruitt Taylor Vince. I was feeling a little unsettled and decided to practice yoga in my room. My practice seemed to increase the vibrations so I threw my legs up onto the wall in Viparita karani and fell asleep until lunch.
Meditation was not as deep as it was yesterday, but I was surprised when the hour was done. Several students have been coughing horribly over the last few days. Yesterday all I could think was, “OMG don’t come near me!” Today my first thought was, “How awful they came to this retreat and are so sick.”
The 6:00 p.m. group meditation sittings are the hardest for me. It’s hard to get settled and there is a lot of physical discomfort. I have learned ‘mostly’ how to work with the discomfort and midway through the meditation, I fell into a calm, relaxed, state and found an answer to a question I didn’t know I had.
PAGODA DAY! I have never been in a Pagoda cell before and I was very excited! The Pagoda is beautiful. The 13,000-pound roof was shipped from Myanmar to the United States in 2016. Zedi Bells chime throughout the day and reflect gold and orange rays in the early morning sunlight.
During the 8:00 a.m. practice, I fell deep into meditation. After this session, we were given our cell numbers and taken to the Pagoda. I had a very intense experience. Since everyone experiences the effects of meditation differently, I debated on whether or not to write about it. I didn’t want to color someone else’s experience but in the end, I decided to share it.
I wanted to challenge myself and work toward developing equanimity toward physical discomfort, to break the habit of immediately reacting to it rather than sitting with it. Vipassana teaches students to acknowledge sensations (painful or pleasant) observe them objectively (without aversion or attachment) and eventually they will pass (impermanence). For example, a tickly nose itch. We jump to scratch it, to eradicate it and alleviate our suffering (aversion). Instead, we should acknowledge it for what it is, an itch. An itch is not infinite; it will pass.
I appeared to have mastered the discomfort while sitting endlessly in Virasana and decided to work on this in Padmasana (Lotus pose). Padmasana has always been challenging for me; I can sit in it for only 5 minutes before deciding to come out. I placed my legs in Padmasana, a few minutes later I was experiencing intense discomfort. I started to analyze the discomfort. Where was it uncomfortable? Outer hips, glutes, nothing injurious. I kept observing the discomfort, I focused on my breath and waited for the pain to dissolve. After some time, a wave of vibrations and light flooded my entire body. It was overwhelming and fascinating. I came out of Padmasana, sat in Sukhasana (simple cross-legged pose) and thought about what just happened. What did happen? The pain was dissolved but replaced with light and vibrations. I felt a little like William Hurt in the movie “Altered States” and honestly, I wasn’t ready for that. There was a feeling of exhilaration knowing our minds have so much power to overcome adversity, to change how we think and see things, but maybe smaller steps toward this would be better for me. I’m Irish after all, we talk of Leprechauns but we don’t really believe in them.
4:30 a.m. I practiced meditation in my room. It was calm and deep, but not “Altered States” deep. Time flew by and before I knew it it was 6:15. I felt strong.
I went to look at the porcupines after breakfast but the cold snowy weather had them hunkered down deep in the tree cavity. I took a long walk past the course boundary, past the property marker, and through a No Trespassing sign to stand in front of a beautiful, meticulously manicured apple orchard. I stood for a long time enjoying the orchard and the snowfall. I got back just in time for the mandatory 8:00 a.m. meditation session.
Twelve hours of sitting today, 10 ½ of those hours meditating. Two hours of sitting in the Pagoda. I just sat simply in Sukhasana and focused on my breath.
Evening Dharma talk: Goenka jokingly said, “Did you expect to have gained enlightenment in just 10 days? If you are 10 percent improved (making the right responses to stresses in your life) then this process has been successful for you. Keep practicing! One hour in the morning and one hour in the evening and you will continue to see progress.”
I thought about not getting up to meditate at 4:30 a.m. I am glad I did, it was productive.
Today was the last full day. We had a mandatory meditation from 8:00-9:00 a.m. Then from 9:00-10:00 a.m. we practiced Metta meditation (Lovingkindness meditation). At 10:00 a.m., “Noble Silence” was broken and everyone could speak to one another. This is referred to as “Noble Chatter.” It prepares our minds to return to our everyday lives.
10:00 a.m. EVERYONE was talking! There was so much noise. It was very strange hearing everyone talk, it felt like a physical assault to my ears! I headed toward my room. As I approached my room, a woman I had seen on the trails introduced herself. I asked her if she wanted to see porcupines. With a quizzical look, she responded, “What? Uhm, sure?” We proceeded outside and onto the trail in search of porcupines.
Talking to one person on the trail was much easier than listening to 56 women talking all at once! The dividers that kept men and women separated during the last 10 days were taken down and now there were 50 men talking as well.
After lunch, I went back outside. I walked the trails, walked the entire apple orchard, and returned to sit with the porcupine who was now hanging out of the tree cavity resting its head on folded paws.
One of the things you are required to do before leaving the center is clean your room. I got a lot of satisfaction scrubbing down the walls, floors, shower, and sink. Much more satisfaction than I have ever had cleaning my own home.
My last 4:30 a.m meditation, my last Goenka discourse, my last view of the porcupines and apple orchard. Back to the other world, I came from.
Questions people asked when I returned.
Was it worth it?
Yes. Definitely. Will it alleviate our suffering, turn us into better people, teach us to stop wallowing in our own self-absorption and get out of our own way? Well, you won’t be an enlightened being at the end of it, but it’s a start.
Was it easy?
Maybe for some but it sure wasn’t easy for me. It took me 5-days to get out of my own way.
Would you do it again?
The 10-day, not right now, but the 3-day retreat for returning students? Definitely! I am already planning it.
Are you maintaining your meditation practice since you have been back?
You are asked to maintain an hour practice in the morning and an hour in the evening and I am. However, I feel like I am starting from square one. It’s difficult to come back home after meditating 10 ½ hours a day and enter into the world of everyday life. Two hours doesn’t seem enough.
Even though my meditation does not feel as deep as it did the last days of the retreat, I find I ponder more and react less. I have spent much less time on my phone and more time reading books. I am less focused on how something makes me feel and more on seeing another’s perspective.
Would you recommend it for everyone?
Yes. But, it is an intense program. I didn’t know what my friend meant when she said ‘be careful’. You have to honor your body and your mind. You have to find your limits, touch them, acknowledge them but don’t blast through them. Talk to the meditation teachers about your experiences. Sign-up for the one-on-one interviews (I did not do this, but I think I would have benefited from discussing my experiences with my teacher.)
Did you break any rules?
Anyone who knows me knows I don’t always stick to the rule book, so here it goes.
- On day two, I went to my car to retrieve my Hillsound Trail Pro Crampons without the express permission from the meditation staff. On day 10, I found out my crampons were the envy of all meditators slipping endlessly on the ice.
- On day four, I went to my car to retrieve gloves and a sharpie without the express permission from the meditation staff.
- Every day from day 4 on, I jotted down notes on my experiences to get the thoughts out of my head and onto paper.
- On day five, I went off the course boundary path and ended up on the men’s path. I realized, looking down at the size of the footprints on the trail, they could only be from a sasquatch but when I looked up I was surrounded by male meditators. I turned poppy-flower red, one guy broke silence to laugh, and I bolted back to my section.
- On day 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, I explored all off-course boundary trails and bushwhacking (not anywhere near the men’s section) to find more porcupines and fewer people. I located bobcat, coyote, fox, ermine/weasel tracks and many other animal tracks in my wanderings.
“bhavatu sabba mangalam”
“May all beings be happy”