Okay, here’s the deal, I’m going to explain the structure of the retreat and then cover some of my experiences. Then, next post I’ll cover the most important of all … My opinion of the thing as a whole.
So, this retreat is all about A type of meditation called Vipassana. I first heard about this specific retreat back in my fourth year of college, before my passion for learning about spirituality was on my life compass. It caught my eye for some reason, but I never followed up. Then, flashing way forward, this thing keeps coming back up during my exploration of Buddhism and meditation. It keeps being brought up by respected people in every part of my life. Finally, I get the point the universe was trying to send to me and sign up for this course which geographically and timing-wise fits perfectly in with my plans.
The practice is broken up into three parts, all at first playing as an important foundation for the next pillar, but in the end having equal importance.
First, is morality. Like I said, there are very specific strict rules, which all play into the morality, but I think it is all summed up well as increase your actions and thought that bring peace and harmony to the world and decrease those that do the opposite.
The next pillar, is concentration. I think this one is straightforward enough.
The last one, is wisdom. It’s broken into three increasingly important parts. The first part, is the wisdom when information is passed to you. Second, is when you intellectually understand that information. Finally, your wisdom is complete when it turns into experiential knowledge, passing beyond our normal conventions of communication.
The course warns you before coming and the whole way through to maintain the moral rules. The first three days of the course are spent building concentration by watching your breath coming in and out of your nose. Then, on the fourth day, Goenka says the real practice begins. He teaches wisdom through watching sensations throughout your body and keeping the understanding that they’re all impermanent. The goal is to try to experience subtler and subtler sensations with the yard stick of progress being your ability to hold equanimity for each sensation, whether good, bad, or neutral.
Now for the daily routine. Everyone hing is started and ended with a bell. Wake up at four. Four-thirty there is a two-hour session in the hall for sleeping, I mean meditating, in your own room. Then, breakfast and some relaxation time. Then, group meditation in the hall, 10-minute break, followed by an hour and a half meditation in the hall or at your own place. The sessions like this, which follow group sessions usually have some kind of instruction in the beginning and then they leave you to meditate there or back in your room. Next, is lunch and an hour slot where anyone can schedule one-on-one interviews with the teachers. After that, there’s two one and a half hour sessions sandwiching an hour group session. 10 minute breaks separate these three. Then, afternoon tea time, followed by an hour group meditation session. Finally there is a discourse/Dhamma Talk, which consists of Goenka talking on a video for just over an hour, all followed by a group meditation for the remaining time until nine. Then it’s last minute questions for anyone to ask the teacher in the group setting before everyone goes to sleep.
Okay, now to get to my experiences. As with all of these types of retreats and intensive experiences, I dive right into everything head first and follow the directions exactly.
On day one, before we end the group session, right before the discourse, I already have tears running down my face. The timing for this retreat right after my time in Laos and before my next adventure in China couldn’t be a better time to help me digest this huge change in my life, more so than I had previously expected. This is the same as anytime where I’m able to be alone in order process my thoughts and experiences; some things come rushing up to the surface in a hurry. The first thing that just came up is my journey into China and how it all scares me to death. Partially because of the travel, but I think mostly because of the deeper goals I have for finding a better direction at least for my purpose in life and continuing my spiritual search for the understanding, as Goenka puts it, at the experiential level. Later that night, I go to bed feeling much better at just being aware that I had those worries buried down deep somewhere.
The second night, right around the same time, I have tears running down my face, yet again. I’m really on a roll here. This time though, for a different reason, which I’ve had come up and tried to process before. This time I feel a deep sadness, contrasted to the fear I felt yesterday. The sadness is coming from being thousands of miles away from my family and closest friends. I don’t feel lonely, I feel like I’m missing out. Missing out on us getting older and not getting to share those experiences in an intimate way. This feeling came up a few times in Laos and is by far the hardest part about living abroad. Then, the feeling hits me harder when I realize it’s a big part of why I’m here. Talk about a catch-22! It makes me think of a line from Austin Powers that I love, when fat bastard says “I eat because I’m unhappy … And I’m unhappy because I eat”. As silly as that line is, I think clinging and attachment for me really looks like that. There are things that I do that I know in that moment will perpetuate my unhappiness, there are things I’ve done in both the past and projections of things to the future that I don’t know how to detach from. But, back to my trip; on the other hand, I know in the bottom of my heart that this trip is exactly what I need above all else. I’m sacrificing this time away from those dearest to me, in order to be able to spend the rest the time I will have to spend with them in the fullest, most attentive and loving way possible. I also want to inspire them and anyone else I meet along the way to follow their hearts and not worry about checking the sequential boxes cultural has laid out for us. It will certainly be interesting to see how everything develops.
The days are passing quickly and around the middle of the time through I have this pervasive energy and sense of readiness for my trip around China. I will keep trying here, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ve done enough secluded reflection and now it’s time to go try it out and start a new chapter in my life. I think this will be the last meditation retreat I will attend for awhile. Not because they don’t work for me, but because I feel I’ve had meditation instruction overload and it’s time to turn it into experiential understanding, when it becomes apart of you and the understanding goes beyond our conventions of explanation. Something that you just know, but can’t capture the essence of in any other way. I always like the example here of explaining color to someone who’s been blind from birth. Unless the other person has experienced color them self, it’s not possible to explain other than referencing that experience.
Another conclusion that I’ve been dancing around for awhile, I’ve now solidified from my experience with this retreat. I think the problem with the way meditation is taught is that it has to be a form of self-torment, that’s not supposed to be fun. What one considers to be self-torment, another could really enjoy. For instance, I’m sure that a lot of people don’t enjoy Bikram yoga (sometimes called hot yoga, but don’t get me started on that rant). Even though some might consider it a form of self-torment, I loved it more than any other physical exercise I’ve tried. It had the whole package I was looking for and after I invested myself in it I was at a peak of my physical and mental conditioning. Another experience I had was on a summer conference about service learning with an organization that I loved from every pore of my skin. The workshop about reflection, which was my best and favorite part about leading those trips, I had the single most profound experience of my life. I’ve been obsessed with it ever since and from what I’ve found, it’s close to what scientists have studied with concert pianists, called the flow state. They enter this zone where it’s like they’re work is flowing through them, almost like they’re possessed and it’s coming from somewhere else entirely. In that workshop I felt a feeling of elation and like I had a team of writers in another room sending me ideas. Well, my second half of college, I spent with most of time with my very musically talented friends. I learned so much about how to listen, play, and discover music in things I never imagined as being musical; I also discovered a hidden talent and passion for music. It also dawned on me how it had always been there in my life, just never recognized in the same way. I would always be beat boxing, making silly voices, or trying to impersonate sounds around me. This even came up when I was staying at the monastery in Thailand where I would come back from a daydream to find my self in the middle of a beat box or drumming session, which was very against the rules. At this current retreat I bent one of the rings on the cheap close hanger rack and found out I could change the tone and make a clothes rack piano. I had to suppress that to make sure no one would put a Buddha curse on me. One of the meditation sessions in my room, I got into the meditation posture with my back supported, and then put on one of my favorite songs through my head phones. My goal was to be totally immersed in listening to every part of the music and nothing else. After a ten day meditation retreat I think I can keep my attention fixed for a three-minute song. At the end of the song, a fully developed new travel project popped into my head. I didn’t think about any of the parts of the plan prior and was totally immersed in the song, so I wasn’t daydreaming. It was the only experience the whole time where I had spontaneous creativity and it felt wonderful. All these teachers say to follow experiential evidence and that’s enough for me to keep looking for a style of meditation that fits me.
Regardless of what Goenka or any other spiritual teacher I’ve come across has said, the next stage of my development won’t be just with my legs crossed and eyes closed. That will certainly be a part of it, but I know that the real experience will come from going out and living it. Finally, likely blog name suggests, I don’t see this next adventure and development being the final product of anything. I expect this kind of exploration will last for the rest of my life, I just think this next stride will be a particularly important foundation for making this kind of exploration one that will also support me in a practical and conventional way.