During the whirlwind that is the end of the school year, I received an email letting me know I had been accepted to a Vipassana retreat in North Fork, California. I had applied to attend months before and after watching my friends graduate I headed north for my adventure, all without knowing what exactly I would be doing during these 10 days of silence. Turns out there are many things to learn, even when there are no books or professors present; here are five of them.
HOW TO FART LIKE A GIRL
The first three days were very hard for me because I was seeing little results despite my invested attitude. On the plus side, the food was good, and vegetarian. It is not the case for everyone, but I tend to get gassy when I eat predominately plants. This does not bother me, I got over the whole, “girls don’t fart” theory, a while ago. However, at a silent retreat, farts seem much louder and therefore a bigger deal. I did not want everyone else to judge me as harshly as I was judging them, because the reality was that I was judging everyone!
Since there was no chance to get to know any of my retreat-mates through communication, all I knew of them was their appearance, and some of their actions. While I did not learn much about the Vipassana method of meditating those first three days, I started becoming aware of how much I judge and am concerned with others’ judgment. I did a very good job of “farting like a girl,” that is quietly and/or alone, but I could not address every possible reason for judgment. Instead, I took a cue from the edgy girl who slept in the cubicle next to mine; I started to learn how to care less what others thought of my behavior or attire. This of course does not mean that I let myself go and acted like an animal. Rather, I became more in tune with what I like about myself – what I wanted to wear and how I wanted to act – and I became less conscious of the millions of possible judgments those around me may or may not have been considering.
HOW TO MAKE A ROCK CALENDAR
Being a person who has little time for patience, I’ve always been bothered with the concept of patience as a moral trait. Sure, people who are patient are often better company, but this does not mean it is a virtue, or so my thinking went. Besides, patience seemed to always get in my way of completing my to-do list packed with projects and chores. I preferred to reserve the little patience I possessed for the people I cared most about.
This shallow patience reservoir was depleted soon after the start of the retreat. I felt like I was going crazy because I had no phone to tell me the date and how much longer I would need to wait. I was waiting for the end of the retreat; for the part of the retreat where this method of meditating made a difference; for the next meditation lesson so I could start practicing something new; for the next meal and the next chance to eat; for anything and everything. I even created a rock calendar, specifying unique rocks for the first and last half-days, a broken rock for the middle day, and a colorful rock for the day that noble silence ended.
It wasn’t until the fifth day that I started to let go and release the physical tenseness that often accompanies my feelings of impatience. I became less focused on my rock calendar and started redirecting the restless energy I’d been using to fuel my impatience for the task at hand, meditating. With this came an inner peace I previously assumed was only for those who didn’t really care. Instead of no longer really caring, I realized I’d been allowing myself to become distracted by my impatience. Now I could focus on what I really cared about.
HOW TO WIN WITHOUT COMPETING
I’ve been competitive for as long as I can remember. I would compete with people who knew we were playing, with people who had no idea they were a part of my competition, and – if there was no one else to compete against – I would compete with my past self. Early in life this seemed to translate into perfectionism and commitment, qualities my mentors and I both appreciated. As life has progressed however, my competitiveness has turned against me and has instead taught me to berate myself and to constantly compare myself to those around me; a comparison that often resulted in a conclusion that I lacked one or another important quality.
On the second day of meditating, I started comparing myself to the girl assigned the meditation square to my left. She was amazing! She could sit for hours without moving or opening her eyes, and we hadn’t even gotten to the “exciting” part yet! As I stared, eyes wide, at her statuesque form, the others shifting close-eyed around me, I knew I could never receive the promised benefits from this retreat if I followed my pattern of competing with those around me. If I continued my old patterns, I would ultimately lose this competition by becoming distracted from my goal and by focusing on keeping track of her progress instead of mine. I came to terms with this that night, letting go of the game I was so used to playing, and discovering a new mode of self-talk.
Once I let go of the white-knuckle-hold I had on my internal critic, I realized, that was not the most motivational inner voice I possessed. I could still be productive and successful while also being gentle with myself. Turns out, as a result, I was happier with who I was and what I was doing. (I know, what I huge surprise.) Even though my days still consisted of the same – sleeping, eating, and meditating – every task, event, sight, and sound became more enjoyable. And in the end I won, because I could better value the discoveries I made of myself through the Vipassana method by being gentle with myself.
HOW TO STRETCH TIME
As do many Americans, I saw time as a commodity. So many view time this way because we have been taught how to use time as a limited resource, once you’ve lost it you can never get it back. Because of this mentality, it was difficult for me to “give up” ten days of my life for an experiment. Part of my initial impatience was fueled by feelings of wasting time. However, this feeling changed as my other perspectives of judgment and success shifted.
Prior to my retreat, my significant other had explained the physics of time dilation. Which, as I understand it, means that time is not the same for everyone; it can be longer or shorter depending on the person, that person’s activity, and that person’s mood. Basically time is stretchy. While I had perceived time as longer or shorter prior to my retreat, I still saw it as a commodity. Around day 5, I found myself forgetting to keep track of the time and my schedule. My rock calendar became a silly game instead of my tether to sanity. With this came a nonchalant view of time, it was no longer something I could save and spend in the most efficient way possible. Time instead became just another way our capitalist society is structured. And, now that I had lost my obsession with time, it seemed to stretch on eternally.
This removal of myself from an imposed, yet invasive, structure would not have been possible had the retreat center not also been removed from society, both physically and structurally. Now that I am back home, immersed in society’s structure, I still remember how it feels to ignore the structure of time, as well as the feelings of flexibility and endless opportunity that accompanies such a mentality. I no longer feel the stress of having a limited resource to spend wisely on the many projects I pursue, instead I am learning how to focus on my pursuits and set an alarm for work.
HOW TO LET GO OF WOUNDS OF THE PAST
Turns out I am very bad at hiding my emotions. Luckily, I am usually happy enough that this makes little difference in my day-to-day interactions. However, when I do feel angry or hurt, those around me know. I’ve had a multitude of reactions, from those getting upset at me because they think I am trying to be manipulative, to those who see the emotional shift as genuine and insist on comforting me or helping me see things from a more positive perspective.
While I wish I could have kept my cards closer to my chest, I know that my closest friends and family were well aware of a collection of hurtful experiences I refused to let go of. I felt that it was important that I remember these hurtful experiences because I deserved justice for the wrongs done to me and forgetting these wrongs would excuse others from giving me what I deserved. I also felt that if I forgave those who hurt me the most, that meant I would have to trust them again, and I knew I couldn’t do that.
One of the most important things I learned from the evening discourses and personal experience of meditating, was that by holding onto these grudges, I was not preserving anything of value. Instead, I was allowing those hurtful experiences to continue to hurt me. While I still think I deserve justice, as do all who have been wronged, I have come to terms with the fact that I will not receive this justice and that that is okay. In addition, I have learned how to find compassion for those who have hurt me, because those that are hurtful are only so because they are also hurting.
Contrary to my previous conception of forgiveness, I have found compassion for those who hurt me without excusing the action. But neither do I feel the need to hold onto this hurt for the purpose of insuring the action is never excused. I was then able to process this on a bigger scale and now feel much more secure in my ability to deal with and confront systemic wrongs. While this is a much bigger issue with plenty of ethical implications, this blog post will not address all the important aspects of this lesson. Instead, I will conclude with the sense of freedom I felt after letting go of those hurtful experiences that had previously been siphoning off too much of my emotional, mental, and physical energy.
While this blog post was initially intended to be light and fun, it is clear that my experience was not so. This adventure turned out to be a very deeply meaningful and revealing one. And therefore, many of my deeper issues are exposed through my articulation of the lessons I learned. In the end, I hope my readers can see how important this experience was for me and how much of an impact it had on some of my most fundamental behaviors and views. Perhaps she or he will even feel inspired to go on a similar adventure of her or his own.
(If you are interested in attending a free Vipassanā retreat you can find information at https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/index.)