In usual Erika manner, I hurled myself into a petri dish of experiment of self-determination and exploration, a thing in which I now call... meditation boot camp. It seems like life, or at least mine, is a culmination of experiences quantifying to a now 38 year portfolio of experiments defining who I am.
Last month I decided to sign myself up for a doozie of venture , which I now call, meditation boot camp, formally known as Vipassana meditation.
Heres the deal ... 10 days - no technology whatsoever (cell phone, computer, ipod, etc. etc) no journals, no books, nothing whatsoever, on top of this, no exercise, no skipping, no running, no yoga. and the cherry on top is NO TALKING. yep, thats right, no speaking in any way shape or form the entire time, no gestures, no eye contact, no sign language, just plain no interacting with any other human being on any level. This actually felt refreshing to me. no need for social graces, no apologies, no excuse mes, no listening to someone babble on, no listening to myself babble on etc etc. fuckin silence!!
In my trusting manner, I said OK. I didn’t really think really hard about the schedule that was presented on the website that I would be meditating for about 11 hours a day and getting about 5-6 hours sleep. This rigorous schedule didn’t hit home until day 3 when I was transforming into a walking zombie.
Upon the first sitting at 4:30am, I settled myself on my little pillowed spot I was assigned to and thus the meditation began. We were given instruction on where to direct our mind for a few minutes and one of the directives encourages you to move as little as possible, as moving distracts the mind and also is a sign that you are succumbing to your inner chatter.
It is quite an eerie feeling to be in a dimly lit room with about 40 people sitting in silence. It becomes a little less eerie when you start hearing the sounds of humanness. Burps (a guy burped every ten minutes) , farts (less sound, more smell), swallowing (I couldn’t stop swallowing), coughs, knees cracking, ankles popping, shifting fabric, nails scratching skin became the soundtrack of my 10 day enlightenment. Partnering these sounds was the visual representation of peoples pain created with piles of carefully arrange pillows in order to support knees, back, hips, etc etc. After day 3 I decided to scan the room after a sitting to see what each persons stations looked like, as mine looked like a mini nest. Amongst the little pods of pillows peol had towered a 3 foot sculpture of pillows stacked to look like a sort of demented couch, this poor woman was suffering indeed!
Like a good little girl, I didn’t budge for an hour and a half for my first sitting, then a recording of a froglike chanting man came on, chanting incomprehensible croaks, which seemed like an eternity, not stopping going on and on and on. I forgot to mention the side effects of sitting still for that long. It is the most excruciating pain I have ever experienced in my entire life. My knees were going to explode, the muscles in my back to pop out and that I was carrying a cannon on each shoulder.
The culmination of the croaking and the searing pain in my body lead to a building noxious feeling. i thought OH SHIT! IM GONNA VOMIT, then the black curtain of passing out was creeping in,I thought JESUS! IM ABOUT TO FAINT! An intense sound filled my head, sounding like waves crashing with the volume cranked to maximum, and suddenly my body was covered with clammy sweat from head to toe, I was drenched, an finally my innards started to turn, I thought, OH FUCK! IM GONNA SHIT ALL OVER THIS MEDITATION HALL! then everything stopped and I felt and heard nothing and sat there in a complete and still void.
WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?!!?!! I immediately signed up to talk to the teacher where you have a mere 10 minutes a day for a private talk. I was ushered into a tiny room where the frail and nun-like teachers assistant sat cross legged on her pedestal. In my most polite and held back way as possible I asked WTF just happened she said "ah, it is working already" I thought, uh what’s "it". Well, It turns out that this wasn’t “it” working, it was actually a panic attack.
Like a clan of drones, we would silently convene 3 times a day in the cafeteria room which was the highest form of entertainment, EATING!!! Like a bunch of mutes, we sat at our table ignoring each other as the cacophony of utensils clinking on plates and crunching sounds of teeth moshing on apples filled the room. I felt like I was in an insane asylum as I folded my lipton tea wrapper into random origami shapes observing the eating habits of the woman sitting across from me, watching how she made piles of rice, and sections of veggies, and how she would get a second helping of rice and then use her spoon like a knife to push the food onto her fork and dip it into her concoction for soy sauce and cayenne pepper.
In the evenings was an hour discourse from Mr S.N. Goenka was played to us on two screens at the front of the room explaining the Buddhas philosophies and how this particular meditation is the technique that the Buddha taught himself. Many great positive life lessons about being in the moment were talked about, but every now and again I would hear messages discerning that if we didn’t practice this particular meditation, wed most likely die in misery. Or messages like, “if you leave now, you may suffer the consequences” or “the more you move, the more you are succumbing to the negative parts of your life” or “you must practice this two hours a day at home or you will not be on the path” or “ you should donate your time to the vipassana meditation center and volunteer to serv on others retreats” these little tidbits were fed to us with more frequency as we became weaker and more vulnerable due to the lack of sleep and interaction with the outside world and sitting still for 11 hours a day. These little nuggets stood out to me and I became defiant and angry. I realized OH SHIT!!! THIS IS A CULT!! Just like other very successful cult of Landmark Forums, Scientology, and basically religion itself, laced with nuggets of fear and threats about having a life of misery... Sigh, I JUST wanted to learn how to meditate goddamnit!!
BUT… the meditation technique rocked. Basically, your mind becomes more and more sharpened to sensations and you begin scanning your piece by piece, part by part, creating these vibrations of sensation wherever your mind is focusing. These body scans felt very relaxing and soothing. Most of the times though, the mind became so loud with thoughts, repeating, growing , going down dark roads, pornographic roads, creative roads, creating scenarios, reverting back to your childhood, propelling forward to the future, and theses thoughts became more and more exaggerated as the days went on. I realized how loud our minds are when we shut up.
On the morning of the last day, the veil finally lifted, and we were able to speak, but yet we weren’t allowed to touch anyone. I found this to be a tease and absolutely silly. We all chatted for hours about our experienced, some people were bleary eyed and had drunk the koolaid fully having a haunting smile that looked like they were brainwashed, some were more realistic like myself and had a sense of humor about the whole thing. I formed some close bonds with certain people and I am proud to say that I gravitate towards healthy minded people. (at least I think so).
I did come away with a great epiphany form this entire adventure. I saw in the entirety of my life as a series of extreme tests of pain and difficulty, ranging from being a dancer, to choosing one of the more intense yoga practices for 5 years, to attempting to be a kung fu artist for 7 years, and them pushing myself to perfection in my work then signing myself up for this intense meditation seminar, fearing failure, fearing inferiority, fearing myself as I am.
I come away with a new compassion and tenderness for myself, I don’t have to put myself through this kind of extremeness. I am fine, I am good just right now as I am. I can exercise and meditate and dance and kung fu, but but I don’t have to ACHIEVE, I can just be.
* This part is added a year after this experience -
after I returned form this "retreat, i proceeded to go into a deep depression for 3 months, this sounds dramatic, but it is true. I have handles some gigantic blows in my life, blows that last years, but this meditation thing rewired my brain so much that it took drugs to pull me out. this may no be everyones experience of course, we all have out own trauma points, but I just had to point out that this may be what you come away with as well.