Warning, Warning – Long Post! It’s the conclusion to Vipassana I couldn’t help it!
Days 11 to 14
These final three days were considered the days of determination. Yeah, ‘cause days 1 to 10 were like a beach holiday? We were asked to practice in solitude, only in our rooms, not even eating in the dining hall, but bringing our breakfast and lunch back to our rooms. In addition we were asked not to sleep for the final 72 hours. Say whaaaat?
The goal was to be in a meditative state 24 hours a day except for eating and breaks; these were to be done mindfully. I laughed at my teacher when she told me this. “Maybe for maximum benefit I should fast too.” I said, sarcastically. “No, that won’t be necessary,” she said calmly. Right, ok, thanks.
I was not excited about this not sleeping stuff – at all! Having only 4 hours sleep the previous night, 5 before that and 6 before that, this seemed unimaginable to me! After the initial shock though, I rationalized; ok, I’ve done all this work for 10 days, I wonder what my mind is capable of when I subject it to these extreme conditions. I’ll slip into another dimension and all truths will be revealed. No, no, a golden Buddha will drop down from the sky to impart all wisdom. Uh-huh, yep.
There was some brief excitement about it, like reading a book, desperately wanting to know how the story would end. A subdued sleepy kind of excitement. It wouldn’t last long though; the sun would be going down soon and I knew this would probably be the beginning of the most difficult thing I’d ever voluntarily subjected myself to.
Ten o’clock came and went. The rest of the girls would be drifting off to sleep now. Oh, how I envied them. It would be 6 long hours of quiet until they’d be moving around again. It would just be me and whatever crawly things moving around in the night, which were many.
I found it challenging to stay vertical for the walking meditations. I had to keep one hand against the wall as I walked in a drunken like state, feeling I’d fall over at any moment. It was hard to see how this was benefiting me since my cognitive function was compromised and I could barely stay standing. Walking meditations had been my nemesis and I loathed them even more in the wee hours of the night.
I fell over from a sitting meditation a few times. The floor accepted me with open arms and being horizontal was a seduction I could not resist. I moved a cushion from under my knee to my head and slept on the hard floor until my timer went off for my hour meditation session.
I didn’t beat myself up or give myself a guilt trip over my lapses. I realized they were asking me to do something that was beyond most people’s capability. I am not a 70-year-old monk that’s been doing this since childhood.
I carried on.
The daytime hours were obviously easier. The sunlight energized me and kept me awake most of the time. I did catch a bit of sleep here and there when I couldn’t stand it anymore, thinking maybe, just maybe, if I could rest for 30 minutes I’d be able to make it through the night. It was a constant battle I fought with myself over three very long days.
A heavy rainstorm blew through the second night driving dozens of oversized winged bugs into the house. They kept flying into me while I was doing my walking meditation – it was freaking me out! Then they’d land right in front of me on the folded blanket I had on the floor; my back hurt so much from the slow barefoot walking on the hard floors, the blanket helped a bit. But there they were, the bugs right in my walking path. I tried to make peace with them. They are living beings just trying to make it in this world, just like me; be cool honey bunny. Being in the Buddhist community I’d taken a vow not to kill anything, so accepting them was my only option. I just stood there in a sleepy daze watching them until they flew off.
I wrapped a sheet around me like a tent covering my head and body when I sat for my meditations; only my face was exposed. The whirring of the wings fluttering was all around me as I sat in the silence in a semi-conscious state.
My timer sounded an hour later and I slowly opened my eyes. A gecko sat right in front of me and we stared at each other. He opened his mouth and inhaled a big flying bug right out of the air. I just sat motionless watching him in amazement as he chomped around the bug carcass taking in more and more of the giant bug until he was completely gone. I looked around the room; all the flying bugs were gone. Only a few fat geckos running around and some wings floating in the corners of the room being blown around by the fan. Had I imagined the flying bugs? Was I hallucinating? Were the geckos even real? Had the nature channel just played out in my room, the geckos magically taking care of my problem?
With my diminished cognitive function I was acutely aware that I might not actually be able to decipher what was real and what wasn’t. Hmmm, I wonder, can you even be acutely aware with this level of diminished function? I don’t know, but it all was just freaking me out! This was unsettling to say the least, especially given some of my family history.
The sun finally rose and I was in a more coherent state; the wings were still there floating in the corners. When the sun fell later that day, the geckos came out again to find anything that moved. It had all been real. Whew.
The final night was more of the same prolonged agony. One last night, I had to push through. I new the finish line was in site and that I’d be home in my apartment the next day. I could eat a gluttonous meal and sleep for 3 days if I wanted to.
We’d been given a few different exercises to perform within the meditations, all having different effects. I didn’t quite understand how it all worked within my mind; I’m not sure if there’s science yet that can test these sorts of things, but I did feel like something was magically dissolving away from my psyche.
I’ll come back to that in a few minutes though. I want you to read what I learned in the order I learned it because it correlates to the depth of the meditations.
Early on in the retreat, maybe day 4, I had insights and interesting truths arise, and those alone made it worth me being there. Two big ones were:
- I realized the next step for me is to write a book. I came here to Chiang Mai to settle for a while and start something, but it had not been clear to me what that would be. I’d thought the book would be my next venture back before Africa, but I’d lost the inspiration and I didn’t feel I’d write a good book if I forced myself into it, so for whatever reason, before vipassana I just couldn’t get myself mentally into the book idea. I had a feeling vipassana would sort me out one-way or another. I’m not going to put pressure on myself to publish; my goal is to pour my heart into it and complete it.
- When I finish the book I’ll start some sort of business helping other people. It’s clear to me that this is hugely important. I’ll be beginning with the mandala bags that are being finished up now in Tanzania, but there are some other ideas in the works as well. What I’m envisioning is a website that sells beautiful hand made products from all over the world benefitting people that have special needs, mental or physical challenges, extreme poverty, etc. So far I have ideas sparking with my people/organizations I’ve met in Tanzania, Rwanda and India, but I’m sure more will arise. Like the mandala bags, I hope to be directly involved in the design of the products I sell, but this might not always make sense, we’ll see. I’ve secured the domain name consciouscreations.world (there’s nothing there yet) could there be a better name than that? And how lucky for me the .com and .net were too expensive; who even knew ‘.world’ existed? Perfect! I’ll likely put the mandala bags up first and then just add products to my site as I connect the dots with my people around the world. I know if I go gangbusters on starting a business now I’ll never write the book, so that will take priority.
Back to the last three days, whatever was happening within my psyche was hugely powerful. I asked my teacher about it and she explained that when you get into these final days, the deep stuff, your mind starts kicking out imprints that have left marks on us as we’ve experienced life. Ok, stick with me for a minute. We all go through life experiencing different things. We have good things that affect us, but we also have bad things that affect us. Like the layers of plaque I used as an analogy in my previous post.
Certain events, usually involving extreme emotional pain leaves heavier layers of plaque, an imprint on us. It alters who we will be, it causes us to be insecure or jealous, or to form attachments to quickly, or to be afraid of attachments; there are dozens of personality traits that can stem from painful life events or prolonged emotional stresses. And we’ve ALL experienced deeply painful moments in life whether we like to admit it or not; it doesn’t have to be something extreme like physical abuse, drug addiction or abandonment. I am fortunate not to have had to deal with anything that traumatic. And listen, it’s not something we even need to make a big deal of. It’s life. We all experience it and there’s no one left untouched by emotional pain at certain points in his or her life.
The thing is though we’re not given any tools that help us to deal with these events. I think there are many ways we attempt to deal with them, some good, some not so good – prayer, therapy, addictions, neurosis, depression and your run of the mill unhealthy, unproductive emotions.
Some may say prayer is the answer. I personally have prayed a lot in my life and although it may have given me hope for better times and some general acceptance about the situation, whatever imprint had been tattooed on me was not removed. It actually never even occurred to me that this was possible to remove it. Maybe God led me to have these experiences while traveling I don’t know. I’ve recently had a conversation with someone heavily involved with teaching the Christian faith and she tells me there are programs you can get into that are Christian based that are extremely helpful at a similar deeper level. This was interesting to me as I’d never heard anyone from my Christian background talk about any of this, they were likely unaware. I’m still curious what that’s about.
Then there’s therapy. I saw a few therapists in my early 20’s. I can’t say therapy was pointless, but it was only helpful to a certain extent. In my opinion, therapy may help you intellectually understand what happened, or why it happened, or give you some acceptance which allows you better to deal with it, but if it doesn’t remove the imprint, your personality will still be the same. Not to mention therapy is typically a long drawn out process before you see major effects; in the meantime while you’re going to your once a week session, your everyday behavior is likely causing you to do things that are a further detriment to your emotional health, compounding your problems and distracting you from personal growth.
For example, I’ll use myself. I had a propensity to prematurely attach to men in new relationships; I would roll from one to the next, then the next, etc. This may seem like a relatively minor and harmless thing, but it led me to be in and continue relationships that were not so healthy for me. This was my pattern of behavior from age 14 until 37. That’s 23 of my 38 years on this earth – my entire adult life. Therapy and prayer gave me hope and helped me understand why I did this but it didn’t change my needing to attach. The emotional need felt essential to my survival almost like my need for food and water.
I’ll be totally honest with you, when I left the states to travel, one of the goals was to not have a boyfriend. I knew the cycle of behavior existed, but I knew I wasn’t strong enough to break it in my normal environment. I figured if I moved around exploring, I wouldn’t be anywhere long enough to have a long-term boyfriend. I was forcing emotional independence on myself. And it actually worked!
My forced independence and the first meditation retreat were hugely powerful in my newfound emotional freedom and that led me to being open to Vipassana.
I only go into such detail about all of this because I know many people are unhappy in the United States – and around the world. I’m just like you. I’m just a normal girl that has struggled with life and is now finding happiness. Hmmm at 38, I suppose I’m a woman not a girl…sigh. I may not be qualified to even touch on these subjects, I’m no psychologist or wise sage, although I always have had a natural curiosity about our minds and why we behave the way we do, so I have researched a bit through the years trying to find answers. The point is though, I’m a real person that has found a way to be happy and to let go of the heaviness that was weighing me down. That’s life changing!
I remember saying that the first meditation retreat, which was called Shamatha meditation, was like 6 years of intense therapy all wrapped into 10 days. I guess I’d say that Vipassana meditation removes the need for therapy. Wow! I suppose depending on how thick your plaque like layers are and how open you are to the process will determine how fast you have insights and results. I’ve been slowly moving through an emotional evolution since my dad died 8 years ago, so the timing for this more intense stuff seems to have been perfect for me.
Other Insights and Observations
I was thinking about the difference between knowing something vs. knowing it deeply. You can read an inspirational quote on facebook or whatever it is I may write here and momentarily think, Ohhh good idea, I’ll live a simpler life (or whatever). But I think for most of us, until we have our own life experience teaching us or a major life event that drives us to seriously consider something so different to what we know, it will likely be less impactful.
When you’re a child and your mom tells you not to touch fire. You hear what she says, but at some point you’ll touch fire and only then will you have a deep understanding that fire is dangerous. Unless you’re a pyromaniac and you still won’t have that understanding, then jump back to the section on therapy, prayer and vipassana. Ha!
But maybe you can somehow go beyond just reading these words on a computer screen and let them sink in to a deeper level. Ok, here we go…
A very high percentage (like 90%) of our thoughts are:
- Pointless – they do not yield any positive results.
- Repetitive – we will have the same few subjects scrolling through our minds on repeat. This is not beneficial.
- About ourselves – bringing some form of happiness to ourselves and avoiding things we find unpleasant.
- Stories we tell ourselves – how many times have you told yourself an entire story about something that never came to fruition? A promotion for example. Oh, when I get the promotion, I’ll send Susie to a better school, I’ll plant a garden, I’ll buy a car, etc. A story was built up around this promotion, thus you’ve given it power. Then when you don’t get the promotion what happens? Extreme mental anguish. This is applicable to relationships and all sorts of every day life events. If we stop telling ourselves the stories and can see things as they actually are and not how we would want them to be, we will be happier people.
If you look at how active our mind is when you combine the four bullets above, we are putting loads of energy towards thoughts that are unnecessary. This puts our mind in a constant state of stress because we are constantly grasping for something. When we are stressed it causes physical ailments, this is scientifically proven now. When the mind is calm and peaceful we are healthier as a whole. We are literally wearing ourselves out with excessive thinking. This is why you need less sleep when doing a retreat like this.
When you can really get quiet with yourself and cut out all the brain chatter you will have a deeper understanding of yourself, your purpose; answers to questions you never even thought to ask. Usually our minds are too loud and hectic and we’re too busy to even hear what our inner voices are saying. That’s tragic!
We also have to free ourselves from whatever it is we’re hiding/running from. We all have skeletons in our own or family closets. Some people have commented how amazed they are that I’m so open on my blog about my struggles and how honestly I talk about things. This has been critical in my self development. It’s what has allowed me to truly be free and alive. It only weighs us down emotionally when we avoid these things and act like they don’t exist. They do exist – for everyone! So why are we so scared of it?
Someone mentioned to me I should be careful not to proselytize about these meditation experiences. Like when someone finds Jesus for the first time and feels like they’ve ‘seen the light’ and found a new way of life they want all their friends to benefit from. And I get it, I don’t want to go overboard, I understand their point. But this is not about swaying you towards a religion it’s about finding inner contentment and happiness; that’s universally beneficial to all. True, these meditations are based on Buddhist principles, but these retreats are about meditation and ending suffering – period.
“If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself;
if you want to eliminate the suffering of the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself;
truly the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.”
~ Lao Tzu
This is the basis of the meditation. Good stuff, huh?
The truth is, some people will choose to go deep and explore themselves in the name of self-development, and others will not. Some people aren’t ready for it yet, don’t see value in it or don’t see it as a priority and don’t have time, and that’s ok. I’ll be the first to admit it would have been an impossible ask for me to spend my vacation time doing something like this. I am so incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity and taken this year for self discovery and development.
I’m not saying meditation is the answer to all the worlds’ problems. But then again, maybe it is. It brings greater compassion to ourselves and to all others we come in contact with. Wouldn’t that make the world a better place? And since when does anyone say, ‘Oh that Dalai Lama could really learn something from _________ “(insert anyone/thing).
When I took the first meditation course in India, there was a Tibetan saying that really struck me, “One is one’s own refuge” or, you are your own refuge. You can save yourself!
You! That’s right – You Can Save Yourself!
As it turns out I’m posting this on my dad’s birthday. He would’ve been 70 today. He’d be so thankful that I’m healthy, happy and developing myself in such positive ways.
See! This blog just isn’t enough for me, I have too much to say, I have to write a book! LOL
The food – that spiky pink thing is a fruit!
This is my room – apparently I was lucky to have a Buddha in my room. This is where I spent day and night those last 3 nights 🙂
The house – Like Big Brother Vipassana. Ha!
Dining Hall – There were approximately 100 students about 80% thai and 20% western
The Meditation Hall – Spent many long hours here too.
Thanks to my friend Barbara Leonard for these next few pictures. They’re around a lake that we could walk around just outside the monastery. Beautiful!