I recently completed a ten day Vipassana meditation course, which entails no talking, no reading, no writing, no entertainment of any kind. Just all meditation, all the time. Here is a summary of some of my experiences.
As I pulled up to the Northwest Vipassana Center, my friend Hayley texted me: I had a dream last night that you won a regional karaoke competition. I texted her back: Nice! I took it as a good omen for the upcoming ten days. Little did I realize that I would have a hours upon hours to choreograph and rehearse (in my head) my upcoming karaoke hits, including but not limited to: Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon”, Amy Winehouse’s “(You Know) I’m No Good’, Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” and Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”
The first few hours there we had not yet entered Noble Silence and around the dinner table I met a lot of amazing women. One of them told me that the Seahawks meditates and does yoga as a team every morning! I said, “Shit, I wish I hadnt turned my phone into the authorities yet! I need to facebook this!” I had left my 12th man water bottle in the car, not wanting to come off as a total sunburned jock amongst all the enlightened dharma bums, but I proudly wore my Hawks jersey throughout the retreat after learning this little tidbit.
I had a bit of a viscerally negative reaction to our first sit in the meditation hall. There is a strict gender segregation maintained during the course. Men and women sit on separate sides of the hall, and otherwise never make any contact. I’m not a secular chauvinist, but having a lot of negative experiences related to Islam and patriarchy, I bristle against gendered restrictions. I can concede, though, that it makes sense during Vipassana, as one of the noble precepts that students must accept is to refrain from sexual activity of all kinds.
On the other hand, the course was mostly populated by Pacific Northwest hippies, so when the men all have long hair and the women all have short hair and everyone has a beard, gender becomes kind of fluid, knawmean? (Let’s not even get into the assumed heterosexuality.) Not to mention that 90% of the attendees were wearing drawstring dropcrotch baggy hemp pants and North Face polar fleece jackets and I definitely saw some Birks-socks combos, none of which gets my clitoris a-quivering.
Of course the soundtrack of my life looped through my mind throughout all this silence, and my current anthem is Prince’s “Pussy Control.” How apropo during this period of enforced celibacy.
A strange thing happened on the fourth day. The Vipassana meditation technique is all about body scanning in order to just feel the real physical sensations in one’s body. People start having all kinds of metaphysical experiences (or not) but the point is just to stick with the present moment. But emotions get stuck in the body, and certain sensations in certain places give rise to specific thoughts or memories. So I’m going along, scanning my awareness on my body and when I get to the underside of my left breast, Kirsten Dunst’s face comes out from underneath, floats out past my face and up into the ceiling.
I spent a lot of sleepless nights wondering what the hell Kirsten Dunst was doing in my boobs.
The fifth noble precept is to abstain from intoxicants of all kinds. I’m assuming that the prohibition against over the counter meds stems from this precept. But I snuck in a bottle of Advil anyways, because I knew that I would get my period during the course and if I had to sit in meditation for 11 hours a day with the lower back pain that seems to be a prerequisite for bleeding from the crotch, then I would have broken the third noble precept: to not kill anybody.
I also had brought in half a bar of dark chocolate. This may not have been breaking a noble precept, but it is against the center’s policies to have food in the dormitories. I did it anyways, though. Why? See my reasons for taking Advil above.
On the third day of the retreat, they served chocolate cookies at lunch. I was surprised that we got a dessert. And yet I had already eaten too much, and having finished my contraband chocolate bar that morning I decided to pass on the cookies. I did so feeling all “equanimous” the way our guru encouraged in his nightly taped and televised lectures. Little did I know that I would be thinking about those cookies that evening when I had a cup of decaf black tea and a banana that served as my dinner. I continued to think about those cookies for days.
My greatest regret from Vipassana is not eating those fucking cookies.
A funny thing happens when you aren’t allowed to speak to anyone. There would be 50 women in the dining hall, maneuvering around each other without speaking, gesturing, touching- no communication of any kind. I began to notice the things that usually hide behind conversation. How much food everyone took. The fact that people would race to save a spot by the windows. Since no one could speak, everyone just faced toward the view. I cared less about the view and more about getting natural sunlight, so I would sit with my back to the windows and face everyone else. It was like walking into a crowded elevator and then just standing there, with your back to the doors and your face three inches from someone else.
Breakfast and lunch were fine enough, but the 5 o’clock break was a tea, when we could have a beverage and a piece of fruit. You could tell who was pregnant, though, by who got to eat a full plate at dinner. There was one woman who I called Ursula in my mind because she looked like she came from strong Swedish stock (because no one was talking it was easy to imagine that they were all European, so it was weird when she opened her mouth on the last day and let out a real Joisy accent.) She always took A LOT of food. She wasn’t overweight by any means, but I imagined that her life of chopping wood and raising barns required a lot more calories that my life of lying in bed typing on a laptop. She constantly side-eyed the pregnant ladies at dinner. Her face said she was thinking, Bitch, I will eat you and your fetus for dinner and not feel the slightest bit guilty about it.
I’m proud to report that I did not end up killing anybody or anything… but I’m still watching the ground everywhere I go, making sure I don’t stomp an earthworm with my Doc Martens.
I spent about 70% of my time at the course freaking out and the other 30% completely at peace. I was phoning in a lot of the meditations, until about the 7th day. By the 9th day, I had really settled into my practice. I walked out of the meditation hall after a four hour long sit to see a column of smoke rising up to the right of Mount Rainier and a large construction crane hanging out next to it. The destruction of nature but the realization of the impermanence of all things washed over me and I started crying. Seriously, tears were streaming down my face and yet I was smiling and felt a little high. It was a real double rainbow moment. “It’s sooooo beauuuutiful…but what does it meeean!?”
Vipassana is hands down the hardest thing I have ever experienced, and I would say I have seen my fair share of shit in my thirty years. I’m really glad I did it and I’m really glad that I stayed the whole time. I came face to face with my anger and had to grapple with it on several occasions. There were times that I was shaking with so much rage I would have to leave the meditation hall and walk it off. I really saw myself clearly for the first time; not the person I project myself to be, but who I really am. I observed how I have been running since my sister died eight months ago, the ways I have been hiding and avoiding and engaging in pure hedonism to escape. I have no regrets because I also have been living in integrity with my emotions for the first time in my life, meaning that I no longer do things because I should or because someone else wants me to or because it’s the “right” thing to do even though it feels horribly wrong. However, I also see that I have caused a lot of suffering through the process of working through my own pain and for that I am truly sorry.
Yet now I feel really clear on what my path is when, before, I had been indecisive and afraid. I have more energy. Every day feels full of boundless potential and so precious. I am seriously so happy to be alive. I wouldn’t change a minute of it, which is really saying something.
Now pardon me while I go masturbate, drink beer and eat McDonald’s for three days straight.