“10 days of silent work, being trained through direct experience of how to cure misery so you may truly experience real happiness.”
If I could recommend only one experience for every person to try in this lifetime it would be a Vipassana course.
I wish more people knew about vipassana meditation. It is making a resurgence across the globe after being lost to the world for almost 2500 years. This was the original insight and method Guatama the Buddha discovered, handed down for all those years in Burma, while the rest of the world lost or forgot the pristine, universal nature of vipassana. I was not unfamiliar with meditation, as most of the world now knows that such a practice exists, but it was the couchsurfing community that brought me to vipassana. I had two different guests visit me right after completing their 10-day courses and I could see the glow in their faces as well as feel their calm nature. I was set on finding 10 days to consign myself to 11 hours a day of meditation for 10 days in a row and oh yeah, totally in silence.
As soon as I made quitting my job in my mind official, I signed up for my course. There are courses offered all around the world and each is taught in exactly the same way. I chose to attend the center in Shelburne FallsMassachusetts as I would be in the area for other reasons. Upon arriving I was immediately impressed with the grounds natural beauty and almost shocked that the buildings were so new and even dare I say of the standard suburban look. I had some half expectation that everything would be rough and simple, like a monastic lifestyle. I guess looks don’t really matter, meditating and eating delicious, yet simple vegetarian meals is about as monk as one needs to get. Sleeping arrangements are beyond adequate. Most men and all women had a single room and bathroom, and the rest of us men got a wood cabin outside which I was so much happier with, especially because it rained a fair amount and the sound and atmosphere this created was pure delight. It reminded me of summer camp and pleasant nostalgia of days gone by. Once settled we got our orientation and took our vows to follow the 5 precepts of morality (No lying, stealing, harming living beings, sexual misconduct, or any intoxicants) and the Noble Silence began. The entire center is designed for the least amount of disturbance to the students while they work seriously and diligently on meditating. The only problem I think anyone had with Noble Silence was not saying thank you for people holding a door open. The days pass one hour at a time, and after each hour of staying present in the moment the past is gone and the future is just another hour. The days feel long and short. You practice feeling every moment yet they keep disappearing to the past. Despite sitting all day you are tired and fall into a peaceful sleep after floating around in this state of introspection all day.
I thought I knew meditation, but what I was really doing was soothing my surface mind, creating a nice feeling and getting though my days peacefully. Any meditation is great, but this technique is something far greater. This is a direct, scientific and experiential process that cures your current misery and then goes to town on all the past miseries, stuck in your subconscious mind. The ultimate realization is to experience fully 100 percent “Annica”, the Pali term for impermanence. This annica is the law of the universe; that everything is changing. That everything is constantly arising again and again and that nothing is ever the “same”. The Truth that everything comes and goes, pleasure and pain, and not getting attached to either is enlightenment. The process of discovery is two fold, being aware of what you are experiencing directly this moment and keeping your mind equanimous/balanced by releasing craving/desire for positive feelings and avoidance/fear of negative feelings. By attending the course you practice hour by hour to feel the sensations really happening to you and to train your mind to be centered. I have been told this before, ive read this before and thus I have integrated this at the intellectual level. I believe this to be true, but that isn’t enough. The Buddha discovered you need one more step to reach liberation; you need the EXPERIENCE of being centered and watching as misery dissolves. The reason this course is so intensive is really because it is just enough time on target to experience the truth of this technique. It hit me on day 8, which happened to be summer solstice, after evening tea I had a breakdown, a gut wrenching, abs burning, no holds barred laughing fit. I practically had to stuff my hoodie into my mouth so I wouldn’t break Noble Silence for the others, but it struck me dumb, out of the blue how simple and effective this technique is. In those 5 minutes that I laughed with pure joy everything was so clear and simple and I had known it all along. Even in that pure joy I reminded myself, annica, this too will change; and it did, and I knew for the rest of my life that this is the true nature of the universe and everything is going to be just fine no matter what I am experiencing.
That was a decisive turning point. I was half ready to get the last 2 days over with and done after struggling through days 5 & 6, but I re-concentrated myself to work and get as much benefit as I could. This is work, its mentally challenging to stay focused on what is happening right now. The mind is so used to moving into the future or remembering the past that the work is really just concentrating on feeling the present moment. You will be in the middle of feeling your shoulder for instance and next thing you are aware of is that some memory has taken over your concentration for who knows how long and you have to pick up again where you left off, if you can even remember where that was. This is what happens to us each day. We choose to change our lives, be better at something or other and at some point invariably the mind swoops in and distracts you because that’s what its been doing your whole life. To un-train this pattern is work, practicing again and again to have it work for you rather than “have a mind of its own”.
There were physical struggles too. Each I think will be unique to the individual and so too will be the break through. My hurdle was an intense point of back pain; slowing growing from hour one till my cracking point on day 4. Ill remind you that I was sitting for 40 minutes or so twice a day in preparation for this course and not once did I have back pain. I have to conclude that being in this environment was affecting me from day 1 and I was moving some deep fear out of my back while also suffering from a real problem with my posture. We were asked on day 4 that for 3 special sits, not to move one thing about your posture and be in complete stillness. On my first try I was breathing intensely, shaking uncontrollably and grinding out the pain till the bell rang. I wouldn’t wish to do it again, but I learned 3 great lessons from this 1 hour sitting. After getting up, the pain disappeared 100%, reminding me the truth of the universe, anicca, this will change. Two, that I always have a choice, I can choose to get caught up in feeling pain (or anything for that matter) or I can choose something else. Three, it was time to make a choice and do something; update my posture in this case. After that torturous hour, I got me some new pillows under my buttocks and knees, then on day 7 a pillow on my lap to take some weight from my arms and thus I was floating through the rest of the sits. It was my choice all along, but I chose instead to just sit there like I had, in avoidable pain, till I learned my lesson. Pain also helps you focus mightily. I was almost sad to see it go because it was such a sharp point of focus I was in constantly. I know that sounds strange, but it certainly helps illustrate how people get attached to their misery and even when something better comes along to free them they hold onto the old habit, the old pain. I got the message loud and clear and moved into the real work of meditating. I still struggled with just practicing and learning the technique, but letting go of my stubbornness to ask for help is what saved me.
In the end, I didn’t want it to be over. I had thought many times throughout the days how this post might read and on many days it was, “The hardest thing im glad I did once”. As the course was wrapping up, I was ready to sign up then and there for a second course. I believe I found my next, just outside Paris in November. Along with a new goal of attending a 10 day course in every country I spend more than a month in. The experience is that profound. It continues to sink in as you return to your normal life and return to the daily distractions and business of being a householder or caring for a family. You realize quickly how much of a gift 10 silent days are in a center catered to meditation. Even maintaining my practice with 2 hours morning and night, I am barely scratching the surface of how deep a healing occurred at this course. Carolyn Myss said that once you establish a habit of feeing your soul meditation, don’t withhold the nutrition; make a commitment to liberation. Even if this was a real first step on the path to enlightenment or just a few more steps down the path, I feel forever changed and will never stop walking in the direction of liberation. May all beings be happy. May all beings be liberated. May all beings be at peace.
The courses are offered around the world and are donation based. You get to try the course for free because an earlier student found it so rewarding. If you find this isn’t for you, no pressure.
Vipassana is not a religion nor does it have anything to do with conversion. The subject matter is universal and there for you to experience the truth of, not take anyone else’s word for. I hope you enjoy one day.