Monday, February 27, 2017

My Vipassana retreat - what 10 days of silent meditation taught me

Vipassana means “as is”. It means to see things as they really are. It is a meditation technique taught by Gautama Buddha 2500 years ago in India. The technique of Vipassana Meditation is taught at 10 day residential courses across the world, during which participants learn the basics of the method, and practice sufficiently to experience its beneficial results. The day starts at 4 AM and includes 10 hours 45 minutes of meditation and 1hour and 15 minutes of discourse every day.

When I registered for Vipassana, I felt it will not be tough for me. I embrace silence, love to meditate, I am always eager to experience a different form of meditation and for the most part, I am stress free and calm. Very soon, I would discover that Vipassana was the easiest and perhaps the toughest form of meditation I had undertaken. On Day 0, the rules were clearly laid out. No talking, no eye contact, no reading/ writing, no gadgets, no killing (glad we got that documented), no stealing, no food from outside or OTC medications, simple vegetarian meals cooked by them and no dinner (OUCH!), no sexual activity, no physical contact, and no fragrant products. Essentially, the idea is to master the 6 senses – the five senses and the mind. 

The first day was the toughest. While I have been meditating almost daily for several years, I had never meditated 10+ hours in a day. Further, I follow a different meditation practice so each time I would start meditating, I would naturally gravitate to the meditation that I was used to. The idea of practicing “anapana” or mindful breathing for such a long period of time was super challenging. Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol (both are famous Indian actors) traversed the landscape of my mind singing "Gerua" for the most part of the day. By the afternoon, I had created a game in my head. I challenged myself to take 100 breaths without getting distracted. Hitting a century was the goal. But there were moments that I could not even hit a boundary (cricket lovers will appreciate how inadequate that feels) i.e. could not even get beyond 4 or 6 breaths without getting distracted. Clearly, I struggled on day 1 but I took solace in the fact that I had proved that you can take an Indian out of India, but you can't take Bollywood and cricket out of an Indian. This was a super comforting thought. Anyway, I promised myself to get back on the crease a.k.a. my mat and sit with determination without changing my posture (called “adhitthana” in Pali, the original language of Gautama Buddha). The perseverance paid off. By the afternoon of Day 2, I had scored a century. While I had lost count after 25 breaths, I had a fabulous meditation session. Yay! I spent the next sit trying to figure out if I was Dhoni or Tendulkar (For those who are not tuned into cricket, these 2 are crickets legends).

Over the course of the next few days, I experienced all kinds of emotions. I smiled, I cried, I choked and I was overcome with elation. Each sit (meditation session) had it’s own high or low point, some sits were better than the others, but the days got progressively better and left me emotionally lighter and mentally rejuvenated. It is difficult to explain what I truly felt, but I have attempted to explain below what I benefitted from this retreat. However, I must add that my experience is indescribable, because words work only for things that have limits. 

Eating habits - The biggest challenge for me was the regimented food routine. Breakfast at 6:30, lunch at 11 AM and Tea with fruits at 5 PM. They do not serve dinner. Anyone who knows me, knows that I love my food (including the late night snacks) and especially my multiple cups of "chai" every day. Day 1 and 2 were tough when it came to food. I spent hours trying to understand my relationship with food. Those who know my family, know that my parents feed me, overfeed me and then some. This pattern of demonstrating love continues to this date :-) So, by the morning of Day 3, I had decided that I must have starved in a previous lifetime and attributed my desire to keep eating to that period and left it at that :-)  I felt at ease eating smaller meals and by Day 6, I was enjoying every bite I took, appreciated the “no added sugar” diet, and did not miss dinner at all. I came back home a few pounds lighter (let's hope it stays that way) and more mindful of every morsel I ate.

Let go & Let be – Having practiced different meditation techniques for several years and not seeing any incremental benefits by Day 3, I questioned my decision to sign up for this course. But thankfully, I had the wisdom to surrender to new beginnings and that each successive day would only deepen the level of self-awareness and acceptance. And it did. It slowed my mental clutter, it challenged me to “just be”, sit still and focus on my breath. Thoughts kept arriving especially on February 7th (Day 6 of the retreat) , when New England Patriots were playing in the Super Bowl, Tom Brady was front and center in my thoughts. I sent him good vibes and returned to my stillness. I was on a journey of self-purification by introspection. As Carl Rogers said, "The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change."

I am the master – The idea of sitting with determination without moving for one hour is daunting.   But when I experienced it multiple times a day for 10 days, I come to the realization that the need to scratch my back, and clear my throat was “anicca” (transient in Pali). Sensations come and go. How I react to it is in my control.

Equanimity – Emotional uneasiness including fear, sorrow and guilt, made it’s grand entry in my mind. And so did those beautiful memories that evoked feelings of love, affection, and happiness. But all of these emotions are also impermanent. Vipassana empowered me with that understanding, which resulted in stability and equanimity.

Bye Bye sensory overload - I realized how much noise I drown myself in. And as if the noise of my inner thoughts and the noise of my family was not enough, I choose to create more noise by embracing social media, news, and TV. The retreat left me with the insight that reducing the frequency and the decibel level of external noise helped me to go within.

Nature therapy works – Almost every day I walked for some time after lunch. Never before had I paid so much attention to the chirping of the birds, the various hues of green and brown, and the expanse of the sky. I started noticing the changing shape of clouds and enjoyed the warmth of the sun. And as a result, I felt a higher level of wellbeing. Nature's ability to heal is profound. 

The “Aha” moments –  I was cautioned by a well meaning friend that I will be bored out of my mind. On the contrary, 12 hours of meditation every day left my mind razor sharp. Day 4, 6, 8, and 9 were exceptionally fruitful. My imagination and creativity soared. Ideas sprouted in my brain in a short time. Among other things, I had a plan of convincing my husband to take a longer vacation on the destination of my choice. And just for the record, we are implementing that plan. Vipassana works :-) !!!! 

Sheer bliss – There were moments I felt so light, I felt I was levitating. There were moments when I felt my body had disintegrated and turned into unlimited energy. 120 hours of meditation/ discourse over 10 days gave me a natural high. When I experienced those moments, I wanted to grab them and cling to them, but that’s when I remembered the law of impermanence, “This too shall pass”. And just like that, while I know and have been practicing most of these life lessons, my insight deepened to a whole new level and I learned to experience the world with the lens of objectivity, equanimity and detachment. I continue to be a "work-in-progress" but Vipassana helped me to move forward. 

For more on Vipassana, visit