Okay. I’ve given up trying to get everything down all in one post, as i’ve found it to be completely impossible. So here is part one in a longer series of what my 10.5 day course was like. This covers the 1st three days, which were amazingly frustrating, but ultimately very worthwhile.
I went into this meditation retreat with a sense of total wonder — and really it was so far from being a retreat, with all the work and time commitment, it was a course, a damn difficult one, not a retreat. I wondered if it would be worth it. If I would be wasting my time. If I would find all the key answers and come out some sort of enlightened sage. Okay, so that last one was more of me sarcastically wondering just how much a religious dogmatic sham, covered in the old tale non denominationalness it would be. Apparently my cynicism blooms ever so greatly no matter what continent I am on…
I really had no idea what to expect. I went in pretty blind aside from reading the FAQ and having a bit of contact via email about what to bring and whatnot. My only experience with meditation prior to this was when I was 10 and 11 and they tried to calm down my hyperactivity though “biofeedback” and me sitting in the lotus position on my bed periodically over the last two decades trying to shut off my extremely noisy mind to which I would invariably become immediately frustrated and quit within 10 minutes as I was never able to get to that “meditative place” I had heard so much about. But after talking to a friend in Delhi it sounded like this course could help quell that frustration as the Vipassana technique teaches you how to quiet the brain. I was a bit suspect, as I guess I am perpetually, but in the scheme of things what is 10 days to try something.
The worst that could happen was I would walk out of the course labeling it a “crystal enema” as I have taken to calling much of the flim flam of the new age movement. And truth be told, I knew if it was so bad I would not have to stay the entire 10 days if it made me utterly miserable.
So I went in full of questions. Full of suspicions. Full of hope. Full of trepidation. Full of worry I could not keep my mouth shut for 10 days. I mean if you’ve read my past few blog posts you sort of get where my mind has been, lurching, grasping, almost as if it was struggling for air. I am not foolish enough to think they were not directly influenced by this upcoming course and all that was possible from it. I am also not saying they were just influenced by this course, but it sure played a big role in getting to a place where I could express those thoughts.
I mean if you have known me a long time, how often have you ever seen me so openly ask the type of questions I’ve been asking? How often have you even seen me be open with my feelings? So yeah, this whole thing is a big deal. And for some reason I guess I saw much of the past few months — since I got my diagnoses — culminating here. Maybe I was forcing it to be that way? I am not sure. Regardless, my head was full of questions and suspicions about what I was about to undertake.
But, rather than stay on the ledge wondering how far down the leap would be, paralyzed, my typical modus operandi, I charged ahead, closed my eyes and plunged into the unknown saying “what will be, will be.”
So I get to the course complex, a very nice, mostly secluded facility on the banks of the Ganges river about an hour north of Kolkata. And after a horribly inefficient registration system, though it honestly was better than I thought it would be, as I am more than used to Indian bureaucratic hell by now, I set my self up in a very minimal shared room and got ready for orientation. Here they went over the schedule and the rules of the course to the 40ish of us who were there.
Then it was our 1st hour of mediation in the grand meditation hall. Now to give you a feel on what this meditation consisted of I want you to imagine spending an hour with the single focus of seeing/thinking about/feeling how you breathe through your nose. Sounds rough, eh? Well that is exactly what we did as we listened to a tape recording — yes, cassette tapes…. I know it hurt my head too — of what we should be focusing on in our breathing. Then it was time for noble silence and no talking for the next 10 days and bed.
To say the meditation experience was strange would be an understatement. I mean it was just breathing. I knew breathing was the focus for the 1st few days, i just did not understand how it would be the only focus at the beginning. And so I lay in my bed and just wondered and my thoughts took off, as they are wont to do, and sleep was far away. Which made waking up at 4 am even more difficult.
Remember how I said to imagine how frustrating it must be to spend one whole hour focusing on just breathing in and out your nose. Well lets see…. for the next three days, a total of 36 meditation hours, that is all we did. It is a process called anapana and it focuses and hones the mind. I’ll be totally honest and say that as time wore on it seemed to focus and hone my frustration more than my mind. And it is amazingly hard work to spend that much time on thinking about/feeling just breathing and its effects. Very tiring too.
The most difficult thing about this whole episode was that is was hard. I guess focusing on any one thing for that long would be quite difficult really. But breathing and following along with noting different types of sensations in/on different areas of my nose was most difficult. Mainly because I found at times I was incapable of doing what was being taught — my focus still too scattered. And here is a little secret about me: I don’t do hard. Not that I don’t do it well, or I struggle with it till I get it, I mostly just quit and run the other way when things get difficult. Like in college, I took challenging difficult courses, but nothing about them were hard. They just took time. They were all within my educational comfort zone. I stayed away from any course that would have required studying. As I just don’t do that. Practicing things always seemed like you were admitting you were not good enough. I either get it or I run away.
I’ve know this for so very long and it is one of my worst and most embarrassing qualities. So that these breathing exercises were hard, that I had to practice them, over and over, and that I did not quit was a huge step for me. Not only was I learning how to shut my over active mind down — though it sure did not seem that way at the time… — I was also learning it is okay to admit I don’t know something, another fear that I need to get over. That some things are worth the work to get better at it.
So I slogged though and struggled with breathing for 36 hours. Thirty Six Hours. Thankfully it got easier as time went on and by the end I was finally, after 36 years, able to turn off my mind without the need of mind altering chemicals. Sure it was for a minute here or two minutes there, but I proved it was possible. This is huge. A cataclysmic sized change even. And as time continued to ebb forward I could do it a bit longer and longer. And here is where I stopped wondering if it would be worth it, because even if everything else in the 10 days was useless, I proved I could do something I’ve long craved doing: stemmed the blitzkrieg of though pattens in my mind.
Next: Vipassana starts and my life is all the better for it.