Imagine being 10 days with no cell phone, computer or Internet. Imagine 10 days of silence, no talking or gesturing. Imagine 10 days of solitude, no hugs or physical contact with another person, or yourself. Imagine 10 days of no reading, writing, games or anything to keep you occupied. Imagine 10 days of mediating for 10 hours a day, rising at 4am and retiring at 9pm. I did it. And despite not being a fan of rules, I followed all of them. Ten days of silence, meditation, nature, me, myself, and I was truly amazing. This retreat has changed my life.
Amongst the tall evergreens in the mountains of Northern California I felt like I was on the set of a Twilight movie. The air was cool and crisp. Most days were overcast with a dampness in the breeze. When the sun came out to play, you could find most of us basking in the light like reptiles heating up in the wild. Delicious vegetarian meals were served that were a highlight of the retreat. There was no need to carry a watch around because the chiming of bells guided us through time. At night the stars twinkled brightly overhead and I was able to see every constellation and more. Disconnected from technology and vacationing from worries or responsibilities, it was the perfect setting to dive within.
I know what you may be thinking, “Why would anyone choose to live like a monk for 10 days?” My previous blog (read here) explains some of the reasons I was interested in this Vipassana retreat. Basically it’s a giant reset and enhancer button. During moments of solitude and meditation we are able to become observers of our lives and see things as they really are. We can evaluate the progression of our lives and where we are going. Every day we suffer in some conscious or subconscious way through our fears and anxieties, worrying about the past and living for the future without enjoying the gift of present, the only moment that exists. Vipassana is like accelerated therapy sessions, you work through some crap and then you come out healed, feeling even better and inspired to be alive.
As a person very much interested in the connection between science and spirituality, I appreciate how technical and logical this meditation technique is. Anyone can practice this technique and it’s very relatable because it is not associated with any dogma, religion, or ceremony. Although I will not explain the technique in its entirety because only the 10-day experience can do it justice, the gist of Vipassana is to bring awareness into your body. This concept is not new to me because I keep my awareness in my body during my daily Ashtanga practice (a type of asana yoga). Given two different ancient healing practices advocate for the same type of intentional body awareness makes me realize there is definitely something to this technique. We store memories and traumas in our bodies without even realizing it. Think about a time you were embarrassed, or even when you’ve felt embarrassed for someone else. What was your body doing? Was it cringing? Were some muscles contracted and tense? Do you currently notice any areas that cause you pain or discomfort where you may be holding tension? The more you pay attention to your body, you can see how it reacts to what you are thinking and experiencing. With Vipassana you work through your subconscious by working through the sensations in your body, enhancing the mind-body connection and more. This is a more gentle way, if you think about it, than diving straight into your subconscious via therapy sessions where you may be resistant and not ready to face some of your fears. Everyone’s Vipassana experience is different, however, the majority of people experience a variety of physiologic reaction such as chills, hot flashes, tingling, sweating, etc., most of which are measurable. This is evidence that something is happening. How else could you explain a person experiencing waves of transient physiologic sensations just from sitting completely still on a meditation pillow? The scientist in me was definitely sold on this technique.
Silence is extremely helpful for deep meditation. Whenever we are in a talking mode, we tend to have more thoughts. By engaging with others we tend to have more thoughts. We tend to think about conversations we have had or that we plan to have. Silence allows for the simmering of thoughts. Surprisingly, silence was really easy for me and I actually enjoyed it. On the tenth morning of the retreat we were allowed to break silence and connect with fellow meditators. We all noticed how difficult the following meditation sessions were compared to the previous silent days.
Being in silence for so many days made me realize that we say so many unnecessary things. My return to talking has been interesting. It feels different believe it or not. I find I have more intention with my word choice and what I choose to say now. I listen more. My listening skills have enhanced as well because it’s not just about what I’m hearing, it’s more about what I am observing. I resonate with the saying, “I can’t hear you because your actions speak so loudly.” Communication is more that words. When we aren’t busy running our mouths we are able to see and experience more. So many times during the retreat my hands were filled with a plate of food and a cup of tea and without having to look up, a fellow meditator would smoothly open the cafeteria door just as I was approaching it. Almost every morning, a fellow meditator would be next to me at the condiments while we dressed up our oatmeal. Immediately after I’d finish shaking the cinnamon I’d passed it straight to her as she handed me the honey, never once making eye contact. We some how knew what the other person wanted and we were able to communicate it to each other without words or gestures.
The amazing and challenging things…
As I’ve already mentioned, the silence was easy. By the third day I expected to be in agony, but rather I was skipping through the woods like a starburst of love being flooded with inspiration. Which brings me to my first challenge- not being able to write. Writing has become a part of who I am. Everyday I wake up with words flowing from my lips eager to be manifested into content that can be read and shared. I remember telling myself to remember the beautiful ideas washing over me but it didn’t really happen. In reality, not being able to write really allowed me to be in the moment.
I was ecstatic and loving life. I was hugging trees left and right. Which bring me to the second most challenging rule- no physical contact. I’m a hugger and not being able to hug anyone for 10 days was madness. Especially because I started developing connections with people and when the silence broke and my intuition about how awesome these people were was validated, it made it even harder not to hug anyone. We literally had to restrain our arms to prevent any sort of affectionate nudging.
Waking up at 4am was super easy for me, I always woke up before the bells started chiming because I naturally rise with the sun and I was on New York time, but staying awake once the sun set was torture. I learned how to fall asleep sitting straight up in meditations which was quite an accomplishment. Evening 5 and 6 were the most challenging for me in terms of staying awake, and I was really hard on myself about it. I felt like I wanted to scream, but it passed. I slept like a rock every night, yet others had difficulty sleeping, as I said everyone’s experience is different. Some moments I’d be blissed out zinging through the mediation technique feeling delightful tingling and pulsations all over my body, and then other times I worried I had regressed because I’d get lost in these convoluted thoughts, some about past painful memories. The meditation teacher made me realize that it was actually progress because I was in fact digging up my subconscious. I was healing myself.
Ladies, if you’d like to know where hunky men are meditating, they are in Northern California. I understand why solitude and no physical contact with yourself and others is a rule. There were a few moments where I’d be deep in a meditation and suddenly get crazy horny. It was the oddest thing. I even tried to see if I could make myself orgasm via meditating and breathing and I came pretty close believe it or not. Hmmm come to think of it maybe I should actually spend some time seeing if I can actually achieve this because I’ve heard some people can.
The most important things I learned…
Adopt the pace of nature. Her essence is patience. As I was wandering between the trees during our lunch breaks, I couldn’t help but observe the circle of life. So many pinecones fall from the trees, yet only a few will sprout, and even fewer will root down and grow tall. Leaves blossom and seeds ripen at the exact moment they are supposed to. There is no rush. There is no pressure. Rain will fall from the sky and the sun shines down upon the earth, providing all the energy needed and more. The process resonates with everything that happens in life. Trust. Patience. Everything will happen in its own perfect way. I feel calmer and more secure in the unfolding of my life. I don’t have any more information about what my future holds, but spending time in nature allowed me to trust in the process of life even more.
Passion vs compassion. This was a really interesting lesson for me. Releasing the passionista from my fiery Colombian, Brazilian, and Italian persona was major. I’ve always considered myself a passionate person. I was all about living a life of passion. Passionate love. Passion, passion, passion. And then I had an epiphany. Passion is all about pleasing the senses and immediate gratification. I’ve had passionate connections with people and for the most part they aren’t sustainable. Passion is to lust, as compassion is to love. I realize now it’s all about living a compassionate life- living a life of love where you wish to give and for others to benefit without expecting anything in return. This is how to feel most fulfilled. It is choosing to love without expecting to be loved in return. Compassion is about holding space for others and what they are going through and trying to help in any way you can without expectation, judgment or being attached to the outcome. If you always try your best and come from a place of love you will live an amazing life.
Everything is constantly evolving. Seasons change. Desires change. People change. You change. I change. When we begin to understand and fully embrace the first law of nature, impermanence, our suffering can begin to dissolve. Nothing in life is permanent. I laugh right now just thinking about all these desires I used to have, “I want to live in this city, with this job, and this kind of life.” Just two years ago I wanted a completely different life than now. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been because I’m not attached to anything, and my change in perception in understanding that everything is constantly shifting, allows me to ride the wave of life in a more liberating way. Think about an unpleasant situation you recently experienced. It passed right? In the moment it may have been terrible, and if in the moment you had reassured yourself “this will pass,” it’s likely to have been more bearable. The same goes for euphoric moments. They pass as well. Everything is constantly changing and in flux. Situations we imagine don’t turn out the way we expect and it causes suffering because we become attached to the material world- a person, place, or thing, instead of how we want to feel. When we become attached to anything and try to keep it exactly the way it is, like holding onto the idea of forever, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. It’s sad how many butterflies get strangled. Just enjoy life and be grateful for every moment. I’ve adopted the new motto, “this too shall pass.”
The most beautiful thing about the retreat was the diversity of age and people, and all the love that was shared amongst the group, which only strengthened once silence was broken. I was placed with the most perfect roommates and I knew it immediately. I knew I’d be friends with them had we met somewhere else in life. On the last night, despite how difficult it was for me to stay awake most evenings, we had beautiful conversation until 2am, having to force ourselves to go to sleep because we had to wake at 4am. I truly love these ladies and was so grateful for our connection. I felt the same about our manager who has already planned to introduce me to her entire New York clan. I was even able to be of service and change another beautiful soul’s life with a brief life coaching session. Leaving this retreat I never felt more fulfilled and inspired.
To finish off a magical healing experience, and to continue to push our boundaries, a bunch of us decided to go swimming in the Harbin Hot Springs. Naked. :)
To learn more about Vipassana and to apply for your 10-day donation based, silent retreat, visit dhamma.org.
May all beings be happy. May all beings be peaceful. May all beings be liberated.