Vipassana is a ten-day silent meditation retreat with the original teachings of the Buddha and has been around for more than 2500 years. S.N. Goenka’s teachings are encapsulated in the video teachings shown each night during the retreat. The teachings are experiential as you learn how to let the sensations in your body rise and fall with equanimity. Goenka explains that Misery is Universal and that with Vipassana meditation, you can learn how to build a boat and ride out of the rocky waters of life that include greed, anger, hatred, and illusion. It’s part of the Art of Living.
All I knew was that I wanted to go and this would be my third time to apply to attend. I wanted to attend at the American Bodhi Center that is located in Hempstead and about thirty miles from my house and I didn’t want to be that far away from my dog Giselle. The first two times I applied, I was accepted into the program but had to decline for some reason. This year was different. This time I was the one on the waiting list, but I knew that someone would cancel at the last minute, just like I had done two years in a row, leaving a space for me. And of course, it happened. I got in.
As the date to enter drew closer, my mind started dumping all sorts of random images and thoughts and as I woke up I kept wondering what was happening. At the same time, I was getting a little nervous and anxious to go in, feeling as if it were like a jail. I also could feel that it would be life changing, so I started doing or eating something I would not be getting in the center like donuts, ice cream, and hamburgers. I knew it would be last time to even want such items. Plus, I’d been a vegetarian for years prior to being diagnosed with cancer in 2009 so the thought of going back just seemed like it made sense. It was time.
On Saturday morning we were to arrive between 1 and 5 pm and even though I was half packed I ended up sitting in my kimono in front of my IMAC watching episode after episode of Sense 8. Originally I wanted to be there by 1 pm, but then I decided there wasn’t any rush. I left at 1 pm and still got there by 1:38 pm. This is where I share with you that being on time is in my genes. Even when I try to be late, I am still on time. It’s just me.
We had been instructed to leave all devices, computers, journals, music, books and even pens behind and of course, I also followed the rules and did so. The only contraband I brought was a left over bar of dark chocolate from making smore’s at a recent regional burning event. For those of you who haven’t attended a Burning Man, these are local burns scheduled throughout the year. But I just have to say that leaving my favorite furry pens, sparkly journal and handfuls of jewelry behind seemed hard but only for a moment. I grabbed my luggage full of casual lounging clothes, said good bye to my dog Giselle and left.
The first video by Goenka was about the fact that we had agreed to follow the five precepts during our stay and they were as follows:
- We would abstain from killing. This meant we would be eating vegetarian meals and even while laying in the grass I did not kill any ants or insects while we were there. One of the girls even found a massive spider in the showers and she took him outside to set him free.
- We would abstain from stealing. I figured this would also be easy until I caught myself pondering which rock to take for my collection from all over the world when I was instantly struck with the notion that I would NOT be taking anything but my memories.
- We would abstain from telling lies. And this came with Noble Silence that we practiced for the entire time we were there and this included eye contact and touching. Plus, the men and the women were segregated so their path to the dining hall was separated from our path and so on. There were forty women and forty men and spending the retreat in silence and on a strict schedule from 4:30 am to 9:00 pm without any talking was a lesson in staying present and focused on ones-self. The only time we could talk was during interviews with the teacher and you would have to sign up at breakfast time for a five-minute session to talk to the female teacher starting at Noon.
- We would abstain from sexual misconduct.
- We would abstain from intoxicants. Being the purist that I am, I even abstained from Green Tea, Kava Kava and CBD oil the weeks prior to starting the retreat.
During registration, we received our bed assignment and the accommodations were in pristine condition. I had a private room with a bunk bed all to myself. And soon was taken on a private tour of the property which was beautiful. People were coming from all over the world and by 5 pm we were watching a welcoming video from Goenka. We were seated in rows and separated from the men when a roll of blue painters masking tape comes around and we are to put our name on our table since that would be our permanent seat for meals.
Meeting later at the Dhamma Meditation Hall everyone had their socks, when I realized that I forgot mine and we had to have them to walk inside. It was interesting to see all of us ladies arriving independently were seated casually around the steps talking and meeting each other, when across the area we could see all the men standing side by side silent, as we waiting for the meditation to start. I quickly announced that if anyone had an extra pair of socks that I would gladly share my chocolate! One lovely lady said she had two extra pairs and went back to the dorm to get a pair for me right before the doors opened and Noble Silence started.
Inside we were also assigned a seat cushion among the grid of seats to the right for the women in front of our own teacher and volunteer servers in front of us. While to the left, and across the carpet was the same matrix set up for the men. I was seated at D4. Everyone brought in their extra personal cushions, towels, blankets, and scarfs. Only our manager would whisper to us since she was in charge of taking care of us. She made sure we had everything we needed. Some ladies needed a chair or an extra cushion and only then would she get it for you. Because there was to be no stealing.
The schedule was as follows:
4:00 am Wake up Gong
4:20 am Ten-minute notice Gong
4:30 am to 6:30 am Meditation in the Dhamma Hall
6:30 am to 7:00 am Breakfast in the Dining Hall
7:00 am to 8:00 am Rest in the dorms
8:00 am to 9:00 am Sitting on Strong Determination in Dhamma Hall
9:00 am to 11:00 am Meditation in the Dhamma Hall
11:00 am to 11:30 am Lunch in the Dining Hall
11:30 am to 1:00 pm Interviews with the Teacher or Rest
1:00 pm to 2:30 pm Meditation in the Dhamma Hall or your Dorm
2:30 pm to 3:30 pm Sitting on Strong Determination in Dhamma Hall
3:30 pm to 5:00 pm Meditation in the Dhamma Hall or your Dorm
5:00 pm to 5:30 pm Tea and Fruit in the Dining Hall
5:30 pm to 7:00 pm Sitting on Strong Determination in Dhamma Hall
7:15 pm to 8:15 pm Teachings by S.N. Goenka
8:30 pm to 9:00 pm Meditation
9:00 pm to 9:30 pm Impromptu Interviews with the Teacher
What I found interesting is how much I loved the schedule, the silence, and the meditation. For the first three days we focused on one area of the body during our breath and that was it. There weren’t any mudras, mantras or asanas or breathing regimens. It was so easy anyone could do it. The challenge was finding the best posture in which to hold still for an entire hour during the Sittings of Strong Determination. During the first three days I tried sitting on my cushion backwards and ultimately got approved for a second cushion for the teacher which made a square instead of sitting on a ledge and it was so nice. Thank goodness I brought my own cushion because I used it for my legs to rest on. Plus, it was kept at a comfortable temperature but I enjoyed having my blanket around my body and scarf around my shoulders. The only sounds we heard for ten days besides a few words with the teacher or the manager was Goenka’s voice before and after the meditation, his teachings on video and his chanting. Even today I can hear him in my head! “Start Again… Start Again…”
As soon as we started, my mind kept releasing old thoughts, new things I was worrying about, and ultimately my mind was able to settle into meditation and it was so nice that time just flew by. You are instructed to just feel the sensations on, in and around your body without any attachment and with total equanimity. They were just vibrations coming and going, up and down, up and down and as we continued breathing and meditating with our eyes closed the whole time, they all eventually went away.
The beginning of the week, I slept like I’ve never slept before. I actually caught myself darting back to the dorm as soon as we were done at 9pm, to brush my teeth, change into sleeping clothes, laying down, closing my eyes and going straight to sleep. I’d hear the 4:20 am gong and get up from the same position that I went to sleep in and start another day. They had a tri-fold carboard sign in the Dining Hall with laminated information and a little number reminding us which day we were on. This way we could read about what was happening, see the diagrams of the center, the schedule and anything else they wanted us to read. And we all practiced our manners when opening the doors for each other without looking at each other, waiting in line for meals, drinks, and even washing our own dishes and returning them to our seats before leaving.
One day one, I remember going to bed with my legs vibrating so strongly. And each time I closed my eyes it was a new journey. On day two, my entire divorce came to me in scenes like a movie but instead of being a drama it was a comedy and by the end of the day, I knew I had the best source material for an international divorce turned into a comedy drama for a real screen play ready to go. But it was day three that I felt the tension from my left jaw permeate out, up and away from my body and the sensation was surprising. That night it all made sense since just this month I’d had to have two cavities redone plus the re treatment of a root canal that both dentists could not explain. My dentist figured that I had been seriously grinding on my left side to the point that my cavities were coming apart and my front tooth that has an old root canal had an infection at the root while the tooth was turning yellow so it had to have retreated. I was happy to be able to put all the facts and clues together. I was especially elated when I felt the tension escape from different parts of my left jaw bone throughout the day. This also reminded me to continue wearing what I call my non-grinder mouth piece at night. Especially this week just in case anything else was to come out in my sleep. I wanted to keep my new cavities and front tooth safe.
The best part of starting the retreat was watching the neighbors in their plane every day after lunch flying in the air pulling a glider and hearing him detach and then watching the glider just ride throughout all the puffy clouds during our breaks when I had to go outside to defrost and get some sun. I could watch them for hours and they would be up in the air over and over. One day I even saw a total of ten hawks come together and fly in tandem around in circles before they broke up and dispersed. It happened so quickly I had to look around and notice no one else probably saw what I did. Day three was also when I tapped into my inner easy bake oven timer because I’d also intuitively know when the Sitting of Strong Determination was about to end and this was when we were asked to abstain from moving for an entire hour and at first this was not easy. I’d be off in my own meditation flight and it was like ATC telling me I had to land. Then, I’d open my eyes once we heard Goenka singing and take off for a break and to drink more water. Meditation as a sport requires lots of hydration for me.
Day four is when Goenka says Vipassana begins and that’s when the fireworks got ramped up in my meditation. This is the day I ended up with what Goenka calls, the surgery. Little did I know what I was in for. But it started with a scene from my past with Amber who is a friend of mine who passed of metastatic breast cancer. Metastatic means it spread in her body and we shared a birth day and a passion for advocacy. It was the time we went to Austin for her friends’ party and together we made a pinata cake together. We colored the coconut and used snow cones, a sheet cake, and a freezer to create a pinata cake. Amber has always been with me and visits often. I should have known this would be my day to cry, but I didn’t. Throughout the meditation, I also had a lot of heat leaving my body and I’d just sit in it until it subsided. But today I was piping hot on and off throughout the day. And by the time we got to the teaching, Goenka talked about how we create misery through cravings and aversions and he explained how they multiply and that only in Vipassana can we experience cutting directly to the root so that we can eradicate misery. Boy, howdy, was he right. At the break, I went back to the dorm to use the restroom and found my way to my room and laid down for what seemed like a moment until there was a knock on my door. I was immediately frustrated to have been bothered during my silence, but it was the manager and she was very little. She said that the teacher asked that I return to the meditation hall and if I had any questions, I could talk to her afterward. I was feeling as if I was cold busted lying down in my room, but I obliged and went back to the meditation hall with the manager following me. When we got to the walkway outside of the dorm, my foot steps startled a cute little green garden snake that continued with haste to the other side of the walkway and he made me smile.
We had less than thirty minutes to finish the day in meditation and that’s when it happened. I closed my eyes and I broke down in tears. Big fat alligator tears for Amber and cancer and my divorce and little Zoe who had recently passed after fourteen years, and who else knows what, but the tears kept coming and for no reason at all, it was if I hadn’t cried in years. When Goenka started chanting I kept bawling until the manager came to me and asked if I wanted to see the teacher and this time I said yes. She was at the front and in front of everyone left, there was a line to see her. When it was my turn, I remember hearing my knees creak so loudly as I sat down close to talk to her. But I couldn’t. I kept looking around losing my words while she just stared at me with a smile on her face. I finally said something like, “It’s so SAD!” When she said, “You’ve had a Surgery!” and it made sense and it didn’t make sense. I was trying to listen when she kept talking about my surgery and then she catches my attention and looks me straight in the eyes and says, “This is a good thing. You are bound to be successful. You should be proud.” All I know is that I creaked getting up and when I got to my bed I felt like a dead bug I had seen earlier in the day outside on the ground. He was on his back flailing around I thought I might help him up, but then I said, he can do that himself. Well, now I am on my back not sure how I am supposed to sleep. I couldn’t decide if I should turn over or on my side or which was was up really. I was a dead bug before I passed out and soon heard the gong again.
Next day I got up a noticed that I was perfectly fine. No remnants of yesterdays surgery. Everyone marched to the meditation hall and to the dining hall and back and forth and the world was exactly as it had been before but different. Actually, the grounds were starting to catch my attention because even they were looking prettier and prettier every single day. And while sleeping during the morning break, I heard a set of lovely bells jingle a few times until I finally got up. But when I left the dorm, the manager was just starting to use the gong.
Day five is when I had a distinct image of a beach with a mountain and my dad standing on the sand while I was madly digging at the bottom of the water for something. It was as if he was watching over me while I tried to drown myself. By the end of the day, my head was above water and I was breathing. Then, my grandmother shows up to remind me that creaky knees are in our family. And that I needed to strengthen my knees. Plus, she always told me that she needed both knees replaced but she was too scared to get the surgery. At one point during the day I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by everything and finally asked for help just when I heard a helicopter over the building and I imagined all sorts of back ups were sent in to help me. Yes, there was an actual helicopter heard over head. Not sure if anyone else heard it but it was there. Later I asked the teacher about the helicopter and she just replied that I didn’t anyone else to help me, that I needed to stick to the breathing and remember not to use any other technique I’d ever been taught. She wanted me to forget everything and just breathe. Kind of like being on the Autobahn. The sign says, forget all the rules and just drive. It was just like that. This was also the day ALFALFA MARKET popped into my head and all I could do was sigh in love and gratitude for being there last year because it is my all time favorite place on the planet to shop. This place is in Boulder and it’s just exquisite with its music selection, particular attention to every detail and product they offer. Plus, I was proud of myself for being so brave to take that journey with so much courage and faith in life. Then, I smiled knowing that I needed a hashtag for my encounter with the mamma bear and her cub one night.
Day six more scenes for my international divorce comedy drama showed up with a new perspective I’d never thought about. How the whole situation was planned far in advance. All the little details that suddenly made sense. From a trip to Japan to spending new years in Paris with my parents and staying in a loft. Of COURSE, now I get it. Now it makes sense. It’s time to contact Sandra Bullock. And with every image or thought or sensation and bodily response, it was like watching the weather with complete equanimity. It WAS a movie. Plus, the helicopter returned.
By this time the days were not making sense to me. I could not figure out exactly what day it was. I used my fingers to guess at the day but it didn’t make sense to me. We were all facing out the windows during our meals and I noticed that most of us were just eating and staring outside. I wasn’t so insistent on getting to bed so quickly. And by now we were all using umbrella’s to walk in between sessions since the sun was so hot and I was feeling so sensitive to the heat. By now I had also washed out my socks after wearing them inside out for a few days. It was on day seven that my personal mission came flowing out of me from the depths of my soul. It just resonated so highly that it all seemed like perfect sense for me and my gifts and skills. I actually borrowed a pen and wrote it down on a napkin since I couldn’t resist writing down my personal manifesto. I had it laminated today. Plus, there was a song as you know I dream in music. It was Gloria Estefan, Get On Your Feet! Get up and make it happen!
- Basically, it’s about the fact that I desire to take my screen plays (3) and mold them into movies that inspire with my own production company.
- I also intend to launch a retreat in Amber’s honor and call it AHA, Ambers House of Awesomeness in Austin with programs run by and for cancer survivors. Both of these projects would create jobs for all the survivors out there like me making our own way in life.
- And I aim to produce my own series of 7 Pathways to Wellness and Happyness via video segments for those affected by cancer to keep them away from dis-ease.
- And finally, I desire to create an online network for research advocates like me so that discussions with doctors are open and easily accessible and then we could seek clients and funding specifically for projects with community-wide support. I could hear Matthew McConaughey saying, “She’s a Powerhouse!”
What seemed like I was vibrating at the most increased level was when I totally missed a day and then couldn’t figure out how that happened. I was at perfect cruising altitude and got the message that it was time to start to descend. I was almost surprised that I felt that way. But then I had attended every single session and didn’t want to miss a thing. I’d arrived coming to surrender and before I knew it the chip on my shoulder had blown clear off. Or it had evaporated with so many other issues and feelings. All I knew was that I had made it. But then, I knew I would. There was never any doubt in my mind.
And then one night Goenka said that tomorrow morning after the teaching at 9am that Noble Silence would be over and we all got so excited. As soon as I left the meditation hall and caught my neighbors attention, we all stopped to comment on our retreat. I’m not sure what my first words were but there was lots of laughter. And the girl that had offered her extra set of socks was there and I asked her about getting the surprise chocolate in her shoes, to which she replied happily, yes! The day went by quickly as we all laughed about so many little things that happened in complete silence. Then, I learned that each dorm was different and that I next to the Manager and only one other lady while the others were in bunk beds in small rooms or the one room with four bunk beds, which we figured was for the young adults. As it turned out more than half of the female students were half my age. And I don’t know if I would have ever made it to Vipassana at the age of 24. The old students had experienced the ten-day retreat before and they had their own rooms with their own bathrooms across the hall from us. It didn’t matter. We all had a great time even though we all noticed a few people disappeared throughout the retreat. Not everyone makes it to the end. And from day one they had stressed that we needed to complete the retreat or it may endanger our progress. All I know was that I needed it and loved it completely.
It was our last day when the Organizer asked me if I was available to lead the clean up of the dorms for the women or if I had to jet out early the next morning to catch a plane. I said no, I live down the street. Before I knew it, I was listed as the one responsible for organizing the clean up on the final slide show of exiting information and once it was over, someone asked for 5 volunteers to help me and more like 8 got on the list. I had an impromptu meeting, thanked everyone in advance, divided up the duties and at 4 pm everyone started cleaning. It was a miracle! By 5 pm we had more than twelve smiling faces working together and finishing in time for our final evening meal. And this time they added rice cakes and peanut butter and we were thrilled.
The next morning, which was our very last morning, I was packing up when I heard a few chords of Sweet Caroline starts in my head. It made me stop and I said, Oh, No. But when I was walking in the dead of night to the meditation hall I caught up with a fellow meditator when I started telling her about the song and busted out into song, and kicking up the three stairs singing, Good times NEVER Felt so Good! – so good, so good, so good! The girls in front of us couldn’t believe it… and after the final two hours of meditating, everyone just disappeared. It was over and as I left all I wanted was chocolate and lo a behold not seven minutes in the car, I pull up to Buccees! I walked in and bounced all around wondering exactly how to break my Vipassana and I decided on a red velvet cake ball. Oh, M, G. I got home and we figured out that the day Giselle came to me in my meditation was the same day she didn’t want to eat because she was sad that I was gone. I remember telling her that I’d be home soon, that mommy didn’t leave her and I was just down the street. Plus, later that day I had the fortunate opportunity to make it to the First Descents Rock Climbing Event with Genentech and it was perfect. I was beaming with energy and excitement and before I knew it I was rock climbing the green wall and hanging with the coolest people who couldn’t believe that I had just gotten out of a ten-day silent retreat. Happyness is coming home with Mediterranean food and abstaining from killing anything.
S.N. Goenka is available on Youtube and I’ve continued to meditate in the mornings and throughout the day when needed. Every person has their own experience and this has been an overview of my own journey. I also learned that there are Vipassana Centers all over the planet and they are free if you can get in. I could continue to attend these retreats anytime I choose. Plus there are 20, 30 and 45-day retreats. Goenka suggests that we attend a 10-day retreat once a year and continue to meditate daily. All I know is that I reached increased heights in my own meditation and continue to feel enhanced levels of ease and peace even know that I’ve never known before. I am thankful for the opportunity and grateful to inspire others to someday attend a retreat.
And finally, my knees don’t creak anymore!