I was a shipwreck. Or rather, I was clinging onto the pieces of driftwood scattered across the stormy seas originating from the flaky (but fabulously pink and sparkly) ship I had been frantically sailing from harbor to harbor in an endless pursuit of … well, yes… something. Swimming in murky waters of uncertainty, I was growing weary of the tiny lifeboats I exhausted myself building. I was drowning.
This is when I found myself signed up for a Vipassana course. Described as “a way to eliminate suffering” I was grasping at anything that would help keep me afloat. ANYTHING. And something about the teachings, the philosophies of the meditation-technique resonated with me. Yes. Yes, this was exactly what I needed to do. There was a reason I stumbled upon this. This was a real lifeboat.
So, there I was on a train out to the middle of nowhere in England. Broke, up to my ears in deadlines, anxious and stressed as a rabid hamster, and still, there I was. Just hours away from embarking on a 10 day silent co-existence with approximately 100 strangers, about to meditate for 100 hours. I must be crazy I thought. This is ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. I called my sister in a last-minute attempt to flee the situation. “What on earth am I doing? Why can’t I just get a 9-5 job and be a proper adult?” I kept on saying to myself “Sit down in the goddamn boat woman, stop making life so fricking hard”. Then it dawned on me. I didn’t have a boat, remember? It had been utterly obliterated. I needed to build myself a new one. And I was determined that this new boat was going to be a proper one. A majestic tank. A warrior of the seas. A unicorn-ship of the waves.
I washed up on shore on the English countryside with all the bits and pieces of my poorly constructed joke of a boat and noticed that I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t the only one descending on the sandy beach this sunny morning with salt-drenched hairs, ruffled clothes, a bit scratched or bruised, and with a mildly confused gaze. Besides from my fellow ship-wreckers there were even more people showing up to face the harsh morning sun. Some in modest home-build boats, others finding their way out from the woods, and some just sailing in with a broken compass, stopping to find a new route home. There were the curious adventurers, explorers and then there were the locals, who knew the area and strolled around the pebbly seaside mindfully, carefree.
We were all going to share this beach. It had begun.
“You must be sure that you are willing to stay for the entirety of the retreat, all 10 days”
The facilitators asked for probably the fourth time. Were we absolutely sure we could abide by all the rules and did we realize that this was going to be hard work? If not, we should back out now. Leaving mid-course wasn’t really an option.
A slight flutter of doubt. Could I really? Should I really? I can still run away. Who am I trying to fool? I am not a real meditator! I am a fraud, here again trying to hustle for worthiness in yet another area. I would not make it. I shouldn’t even try. This was utterly irresponsible. I had real matters to attend to. I didn’t have time for this. Oh, and did I already mention it was crazy?
But then a line from a book I had just been reading came to me. “Healing is a gift that life gives us, but it is also a mission we have been given”. Since when is it irresponsible to take responsibility for your life? For your happiness? Yet another line from one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Gilbert, made its way into my train of thoughts: “You have to work relentlessly for the manifestations of your own blessings”. I was here now. To work. This was where I was supposed to be. To work on this wrecked ship of mine. I texted my sister. “I am going to make the most of this and see this as a job, this is going to be my mission now for ten days. May it make me or break me”.
A cookie caught my attention, as customary in my daily life. A girl a couple of years younger than me reached out with a Digestive and a cup of tea she had brought for me. We started talking and soon I was chattering left and right and realized I wasn’t the only one questioning this endeavor. “I have never even meditated”, one of the women exclaimed with laughter. I exhaled. We were all frauds, we were all mad and irresponsible or we were all brave as fuck. I couldn’t really make up my mind which. I just knew we were all there for a reason or another. Something about this mission had resonated with all of us and I knew, if they could make it, I could make it. At least we would be miserable together.
And so, we exhausted ourselves with chatter for one more hour. What do you talk about when you know that you won’t be able to talk for 10 more days and you have 57 minutes left to empty you word-well? Oh, maybe noble words of wisdom and citations of great minds? No, we talked about snapchat, asparagus and floppy-discs. “Floppy discs are like Jesus, they died to become the icon of saving”. I heard myself saying, reciting some silly 9-gag image I had seen the other day. And the others laughed. That is how desperate we were to fill any voids of silence. 5 minutes left. Nervous hysterical laughter.
And so the time had come. Silence. We weren’t allowed to make eye-contact, gestures or touch anyone for the remainder of the stay. We were from here on now to work as in solitude.
Day 1. The gongong (ohyes, they went full Tibetan on our asses) rings at 4 am. Time for meditation. I go in full of energy and leave the sitting hall 2 hours later, surprisingly pleased with myself, exhilarated to be honest. I had survived my first sitting! Sure, my mind had wandered aimlessly for a majority of the time, but still! I had sat there! Persevered! Now time for breakfast.
I didn’t know what to expect and was in awe of the buffet of porridge, toast, fruit, yoghurt and various spreads laid before us. So perplex that I ended up having porridge, oats, corn-flakes, sunflower seeds, peanut butter and yoghurt all in one bowl. That should tell you something about the nature of my frazzled mind at that point. I was simply in a state where I couldn’t make any decisions and I kept looking around at others plates to see what they were eating. Glancing at my neighbor’s neatly sliced toast with a smooth layer of tahini and the porridge with meticulously chopped pieces of apples I stared down into my bowl of disaster and thought to myself “well, isn’t this symbolic”.
After breakfast and one hour of rest (without permission to take naps – even though- yes I sneakily did the first two days) there were two more hours of meditation before lunch. Two hours of just concentrating on your nostrils and the air moving and moving out. Moving in and moving out. In and out. Endlessly it seemed like before the food bell rang again. A delicious vegetarian meal was served and then, wait... What? No more food? NO MORE FOOD!? Just more meditation and then a fruit snack and hot lemon water at 5.
NO MORE FOOD. “What am I to do??! I need to eat, that’s the only way I keep my sanity! “I need my mouth be entertainnnnnnneeeddddd and I am going to be sooo hunggggrryyyyy”, my inner, chubby-cheeked, cookie-nibbling five-year old yelled hysterically. I filled my lunch plate up to the rims as if I was going to hike out on a 10 mile treck. “I might make it now”, I thought pleased with myself but soon drowsy from the gigantic portion. At the 7 o´clock discourse our Vipassana guru Goenka (a sympathetic Indian man with a glowing face being projected on a big screen in the meditation hall every night for one hour) explained the food-situation. “It is best to not be over-full when meditating”. No shit Sherlock.
At 9 p.m it was time for bed and I crashed onto my pillow and stared up into the ceiling. “Only 9 more days, only 9 more days”.
Day 2 I was mentally packing my bags. I couldn’t take one more hour of focusing on my nostrils and that tiny little area underneath our nose where we were supposed to feel sensations. I was going mad. MAD. During the two longer meal breaks I wandered aimlessly in the teeny-tiny wooded area we had been provided with for “recreation”. There we all strolled around, heads bowed down on the tiny paths, like patients from a mental institution let loose in the court-yard, trying not to run into each other (run is the wrong word, it was more like small slow-motion crashes without sound). During my midday “promenade” I heard a car on the other side of the fence and it filled me with nostalgia. “I know that world” I thought to myself longingly and then objectively examined my previous thought. “Heidi. You have been here for 42 hours. Get a grip woman”.
So the days piled up. I started to be able to tell people apart by recognizing their feet. I don’t think I have ever been so fascinated with feet in my entire life. Or my fingernails. I would scrutinize them daily, realizing that my left pinkynail is actually a bit wider than my right one, imagine that!
The meditation was still a challenge and during the breaks I had started the task of trying to sort out my life. But my mind wasn’t cooperating. I was sitting there, underneath a tree, preparing myself mentally, bracing myself and then shouting out (in my head obviously) “come on then, hand me those big life questions now!”. And what did I think about? Soups. Was my favorite really carrot soup or had I started preferring lentil soups now? Oh, yes, and how come Kellogg’s chose a tiger as their front figure? And what was the name of that tiger again? Was it just… No, it couldn’t be. Yes, I believe it was… Just… Tiger? No, no, no, wait. It was Tony, Tony the Tiger, That´s almost worse to be honest. Something about that name just doesn´t sound trustworthy. Well. He did market a product that mostly is made up of sugar. Of course he would have a name that sounds like a questionable cheap car-dealer.
Yes. Those sorts of questions aroused. Deep stuff, I know.
On day 3 I actually started to make head way with some issues and had one of those ahaa-moments (I have read somewhere that an ahaa-moment is actually when your soul recognizes something as a truth, something it already knew – LOVE THAT) and I was sitting, basking in the sun, relishing at my newly found wisdom and then this old indian woman sits next to me and lets a big fart rip.
So much for enlightenment.
I also found myself having a lot of arguments with my inner teenager. You know, the bored, eye-rolling, rule-ignoring brat with heavy eye-makeup.
- “This sucks. I want to do somethiiiiiingggg” – she would howl relentlessly. “I know, I want to sing!”.
- “No, Heidi, you are not allowed to sing”. I would answer calmly.
- “Well, I DON’T CARE”, she would yell back defiantly. “I am gonna sing now”.
- “No, you will NOT, young lady! You will NOT!”
- “Try and stop me”, she would growl.
So I gave in, like any overworked teenage mom.
- “Okey, we will go out into the woods and you are allowed to sing ONE line from a song, okey? ONE LINE”.
Off we went into the woods and I let my inner teenager pick the song and she busted out… “You spin my head right round, right round, when you go down, when you go down, down.”
Mic drop. My inner teenager has horrible music taste.
On day 4 I had started peeling sunflower seeds, chopping them in half and eating them one by one. Slowly.
Halfway through the retreat my mind had surprisingly enough started running out of stuff to think about and meditation was getting easier. And my head was not liking it. That’s when it started getting desperate. Such an attention whore. “Look, look, LOOOK! Listen to meeee!!”, it would scream. It was frantic, lacking coherent words and arguments it started throwing out shapes and forms. “Look, look! Here is a big, pink, blob! Look at it! Oh, and looook noooow, NOW it turned into a cupcake and now it’s growing legs and it’s running away. Chase after it, chase after it!!”.
See? Desperate I tell you.
And then the crazy part of my brain started springing into action whenever the opportunity arose. You know that weird part that keeps making you question your own strength of will and decency and well, general self-preservation? The one that starts whispering when you stand by a cliff or a big bridge. “What if I was to jump…?” You laugh a bit at the thought, but then you end up taking a step back from the edge. Just in case. Well, THAT part had a BLAST. Example: the girl meditating in front of me had only one earring, a silverloop, and that excited my inner weirdo to the brink of insanity. “What if… What if I were to just, you know... Bite it. Bite a hold of the ring and just hiss at anyone trying to rescue the attacked woman from my teeth-grip”. For three sittings I sat with my jaws tightly clenched. You know. Just in case.
But that’s when the movies began. Movie plot after movie plot unraveled in my mind accompanied by the never ending soundtrack of Pitbull-songs (again blaming that teenage-brat living inside of me) and Foo fighters “he doesn’t look a thing like Jesus”. And that of course made me think about Jesus and how he would look in a music-video with Pitbull.
Interesting, is the answer you’re looking for. Very interesting.
In the meantime, the meditation got serious. One third through the retreat we were introduced to the Vipassana technique which is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body dissolving mental impurity that is meant to result in a balanced mind full of love and compassion. Well, sign me up for that!
We were now scanning our bodies in search for sensations to gain better understanding of our mind and the interconnection between them. Every body part, piece by piece was to be equanimously scrutinized. According to Vipassana teachings, there are two main reasons for misery, craving and aversion and they manifest in the body as sensations. Now it was time for us to face those layers and layers of misery surfacing from the unconscious and trying to remain balanced as we were realizing that everything is in-permanent. The nature of sensations is that they arise and they will eventually pass away. That is the law of nature. The key is to remain balanced and not let the spawn of misery shake us. This we then could apply in real life in dealing with difficult emotions and situations resulting from either overly clinging to stuff or profusely frowning upon things.
All good and well, right? But. I started doubting, worrying. With this technique we were trying to rid ourselves of craving and aversion. But… but… maybe I like craving? (we will not even start with my cookie-addiction here). And what determines what a craving is and what is a “healthy” want and ambition? And also, this whole staying equanimous through misery, will that also put a damper on the highs of life? To be able to appreciate the good, you gotta have the bad, right? Was I by the end of this going to be an emotionally flat-lined vegetable? I was freaking out, so I booked an appointment with the teacher, a woman exuding compassion and warmth. She listened to my anxieties patiently and said “Oh, no, you will still want things in life, but the difference is that if you don’t get it, you won’t be thrown into despair. And with joy, it will actually be a purer form of joy, since you will be aware that moment is fleeting”. Smart woman, that one. I was relieved and went back to work. Back to purifying the mind little by little. A grueling endeavor. They had warned us. It was going to be tough. And they were right.
On day 7, we were all broken. There was no energy left in the atmosphere. I had become a sticky rice ball, and not the fun sushi-kind topped with soy and pink salmon. I was a plain, over-cooked rice ball with questionable hygiene. I had barely enough energy to get myself to the toilet and I was convinced I left a trail of goo behind me in my attempt to snail my way to the showers. Lifting my head and looking across the yard, it looked like a scene from a zombie apocalypse. People were laying sprawled out everywhere, sitting stoically with blank stares or just standing, staring at leafs or whatever bug that would happen to cross their path. The only intellectual entertainment provided was the 7 o´clock discourse and I never thought I would be so thrilled to see an old Indian man wearing a towel talk for 1 hours and 15 minutes. But they were good talks, enlightening talks. About how misery is a product of our own making, that nothing outside of us can affect us unless we let it affect us and that we are all responsible for our own happiness. It all resonated with me, giving me ahaa after ahaa. BUT this Indian man, talking to us through a recording from 1991 (ohyeesssss) kept coming back to the importance of knowing the truth. Feeling it. Not merely intellectualizing it.
So, I decided to put 110 % into this. I wanted to know the truth. I wanted to understand misery at the physical level. Stare it in the eye. So, I dusted myself off from sitting for too long on the beachy sand dune, looking across the sea for answers, and started picking up the pieces of my wrecked ship. One by one. Relentlessly.
I sat for two and half hours without moving. Going through my body, piece by piece, feeling the vibrations, sensations. Hotness, coolness, tingling, throbbing. And then. A massive pain. In my left butt-cheek (yes, very poetic). It made me uncomfortable and my first reaction was to start wiggle around in an attempt to soothe it. Then I caught myself. No, Heidi, remain calm. So, I kept scanning my body, focusing on my breath, and slowly the pain went away. I was buzzing. I GET IT NOW. Misery isn’t permanent! As long as I stay balanced it will eventually subside and even out. I can objectively observe my misery without letting it throw me off into a soggy ditch of despair. I determine my reaction! It doesn´t control me!
On the next day, my old friend anxiety raised its ugly head in my chest in the form of intense throbbing and I was short of breath. I recognized it, welcomed it and calmly said “oh hi, there, I have been waiting for you”. And I waited it out. I focused on my breath, scanned my body and eventually noticed my anxiety fading away. I hadn’t let it got the best of me.
I was walking on clouds. Feeling lighter by every experience, by every meditation session, ridding myself of old baggage and gaining more and more insight about my sensations, my feelings and their interconnectedness. And then, THE PAIN struck. I thought I had experienced pain before, but naaa-aaah. My left thigh had been a blind spot for a while (not having any sensations) and then suddenly BOOM, massive, excruciating pain. I tried to breathe through it, tried scanning my other parts, tried to observe the pain objectively, but it started spreading through my body, making me dizzy and light-headed. I couldn’t focus, I was losing balance and the pain was unbearable. I felt myself starting to come to the brink of passing out and I gave up. I opened my eyes, cradled my legs in my hands, the pain immediately went away and my body just started shaking. I started crying without being able to control it. I walked out of the meditation hall and sat in a corner, in a little ball, shivering and crying. After 10 minutes I looked up with a tear-drenched face and decided to go back in. On trembling legs I stood up, went back to my seat and finished the session.
After that I was shaky. I had to talk to someone, so I went to see the teacher. I told her about my experience and she looked at me with a soft gaze and said. “Heidi, that is a good thing, that was some really deep stuff surfacing.”
But how to handle it?, I asked.
“When we face the storm, we put down our anchor, the breath, and we hold onto it.”
Next session I was ready. I knew the pain was going to come back. I had given up and it was going to come for round two. And after a while it did. The sensation was getting stronger and stronger and I was tensing up. But as I saw the storm coming I put down my anchor and stuck with my breath and scanned my body. The pain lingered. And lingered. And I realized that pain and misery can exist without throwing everything of balance. There are ups and downs and sometimes there are both at the same time. The pain, however, like the natural laws command, subsided. It eventually went away and left only a warm, subtle, throbbing sensation. The storm had passed. My boat was still intact, clucking gently on the soft, vibrating surface.
I stepped out into the sunshine and lay down in the grass. My body started shaking again. But this time with laughter. I lay there, with the sunrays beaming on my face and I laughed uncontrollably. I simply couldn’t contain it. I was laughing for no reason at all, other than pure joy.
On the last day of the retreat, an hour before we were allowed to start talking again, I sat with a cup of tea, enjoying my last minutes of silence. It was a breezy, sunny day, but I was sitting in the shade of the tree. The sun was heating up the right side of my face and after a while I noticed my left cheek getting colder, shaded by the leaves and cooled by the wind. I felt the slightest sensation of misery arising, just the subtlest notion. Well, that is ridiculous I thought to myself and turned my face so that both cheeks could enjoy the sunshine, a moment that I knew was fleeting, allowing me to fully enjoy the warmth in the present. In the now.
“If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate the suffering in 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.”