I threw myself into a 10-day meditation retreat* about two weeks ago and I’m finally ready to report back about my experience. I’m going to write another entry about the teaching itself but in this first entry I want to tell you about my struggle to stay. Meditators often talk about the importance of learning to stay. When sitting in meditation, the objective is to stay present with all the emotions and sensations that arise rather than fleeing into numbing or distraction. Needless to say, facing emotional and physical discomfort head on is not a walk in the park. Every morning of my retreat I wanted to leave and every evening I was proud to have stayed, but it wasn’t easy…
I believe very strongly in the power of meditation, yet when I sit to practice my brain starts to tell me that I am wasting my time and that I should be doing something “more productive.” So I knew that getting through the ten days would be a challenge and that I would be fighting to convince myself to stick it out.
In the first half of the course, I actively deliberated about whether or not to stay. It happened that I am in the midst of a lot of big decisions. I’d made a lot of changes in how I manage my health and I’d been accepted to a number of degree programs that required a response. Depending on my decision, it was possible that I would be moving and starting school six weeks after returning from the retreat. So as the moments ticked by in the meditation hall, it was hard not to think to myself…what am I doing here right now!?! My inner dialogue, after half an hour of sitting each day, looked something like this:
“I’m so tired. This is awful. My back hurts! Why am I doing this to myself? I could be doing irreversible damage to my body right now. Bodies were not meant to sit for hours! I don’t need to do this to myself. What am I doing here? My mind is way too active to do this for ten minutes let alone ten days! I’m going to end up day-dreaming for ten days and meanwhile I should be at home packing to move to school! I’m bored. What if something really important is going on at home? What if something happens to someone I love and I never get to say goodbye????”
As you can see, I had a lot going on in my head. I didn’t know if this rebellion against meditation was just part of my mind’s usual tricks. I did have a number of critical, life-changing and time sensitive decisions to make at home…was I irresponsible for going to the retreat? I had doubts the night before leaving but came to the conclusion that it was something I needed to do. I wanted to reconnect with that conviction and I made the decision to break the rule forbidding writing. Just for five minutes! I know I’m being a bad example here but you gotta do what you gotta do and I had to make a list. It was that or I was ready to pack so I recorded all the reasons that I had made that final decision to go into retreat and posted it on my wall. As I wrote, I remembered how critical it was for me to be there.
I wanted to be less reactive so I could make more grounded decisions that truly reflect who I am and what I want. At home, I would be obsessively looking for information that I probably didn’t need to make my decision or asking everyone else but myself what I should do. I wouldn’t come to a decision sooner by leaving the retreat. In fact, it was likely that sitting in meditation for ten days would give me more clarity. I had gone to Vipassana to get in touch with myself and sitting quietly in the eye of the storm was just what I needed.
I cried a lot the first three days and I was a regular at noon interviews. Noon interviews were an opportunity to meet with the assistant teacher to raise any questions or concerns one might have regarding the meditation technique. I met with the teacher on eight of the ten days. She helped keep my anxiety and perfectionism in check and I am so grateful to her. She’d affirm all of the difficulty I was having telling me that “this is really hard work” and that she found it “much harder than giving birth.” Once I was back in touch with reasons for attending the program, this compassionate support from my teacher and my persistence were able to get me through.
Staying at the retreat required me to challenge my intolerance of uncertainty about what else might be going in the world and my desire to have everything in my life figured out as soon as possible (which means yesterday). I was able to quiet the external pressures that were influencing me and obsessive fears about making the wrong choices. Ultimately, I think wading through all these anxieties and expectations will facilitate my ability to make healthy and realistic choices about my future.
If you are considering doing something of this nature, all I can say is that there will never seem like a convenient time to do it. Things are always likely to come up and I think that going into retreat makes even trivial things feel urgent. If you have the impulse and the inspiration to give this gift to yourself and you can make the time, do not let your ambivalence get in the way. I think most people who arrive at a first retreat are scared and ambivalent. It’s not easy to clear 10-12 days of your time so if you manage to get yourself to a retreat then it’s probably worth working through any doubts you have about your decision.
I’m glad that I did. I left with a strong foundation in a practice that has already begun to transform my life. At the end of the course, they encourage you to continue practicing for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening. I have only missed one morning since I returned and this is a level of commitment that I have never achieved with meditation. My willingness to make time for myself and increased ability to tolerate being alone with my thoughts is the biggest change that I have seen since returning. I’ve always spent lots of time alone but being alone and observing my thoughts is a completely different thing. I’ve started to show up for myself every morning and face my fears head on. The ability to make time for my growth and having a means for finding peace within myself was definitely worth the ten days I had to “give up.” Really, it wasn’t a sacrifice at all and I’m already signed up for a one day Vipassana retreat next weekend.
*About the course
To give you some background on the course, it is over nine solid days of silence and meditation. Silence begins after dinner on Day 0 and ends a little before lunch on Day 10. During this time, you can speak to the manager if you forgot something like toothpaste and you can meet the meditation instructor for a few minutes at lunch for questions about the meditation technique. The gong sounds at 4 AM every morning and 10 PM is lights out. Meals and some free time to walk around the grounds provide breaks throughout the day. The course is completely free including room and board with the option to donate once you have completed the 10 days. Once you have completed the 10-day foundation course, you will have access to weekly one hours sits that are available in many cities and you can participate in 1, 3 and 5 day retreats.
Check www.dhamma.org to learn more or sign up for a course!