I’m still not sure what inspired me to enroll in one of the most intense meditation courses in India last month, but I’m sure glad I did. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, an insane roller coaster of struggle and growth, anger and happiness, agitation and tranquility — emotions racing from one spectrum to another minute after minute, hour after hour, for 120 hours of silent meditation. Here’s a very personal, light-hearted look at what I experienced.
Day 1: You have one job: Sit still, breathe, and be perfectly reasonable about everything.
We start meditating before the sun comes up, in the ultimate stillness of early morning. This is really nice actually. I think I’m going to like it here. Or not. I almost forgot, I’m in rural India and every temple within a 5-mile radius blasts some kind of holy Bollywood music like it’s the music itself that makes the sun come up. This isn’t meditation, it’s psychological torture. I can officially sit cross-legged and feel zen for about 20 minutes. Then, excruciating physical pain.
My back, my knees! I’m told not to give importance to the pain, that it’s an unconscious manifestation of negativity and resistance. And how exactly do I do that, wise and beloved guru?! This place has so many rules. Where I can walk, where I can sit, what I can wear… I eat only what I’m given, when I’m given it, and go to sleep at 9pm and wake up at the 4am bell.
I really don’t like being disciplined, I realize. I want to be special. I want exceptions made for me! At 5pm they give us dry beans and a banana for “dinner.” I’m told I won’t be hungry in a couple days (!) because all I do is sit. And I’m here by choice! What a lunatic I am. It’s a full-on war on insects out here. Back home, the mosquitoes come out at sunset. Here they come out for sunset, sunrise, brunch, afternoon tea… There are spiders the size of my fist in our dorm room, caterpillars the size of Cuban cigars squirming their way around on the floor. I’m DYING. Vipassana involves a lot of talk about riding ourselves of misery and anger. Our guru says it’s like “taking out the garbage” of our minds.
But I don’t get it. I’m not miserable, I don’t have problems, I’m a happy person! I’m just here to become even HAPPIER.
Day 2: Taking out the garbage.
Just kidding, I’m a mess — where did all these problems come from? Have I always been this crazy? Man, leave a girl alone in her head for a couple days and all sorts of issues come bubbling to the surface. It’s 9am and the construction crew shows up. I’ve officially picked the only Vipassana center in India STILL UNDER CONSTRUCTION. Hammering, banging, coughing, yelling, burping… this is a nightmare.
How can I meditate? I visit my wise and beloved guru at lunchtime on the brink of a nervous breakdown. I can’t stay here for 10 days. He tells me not to give importance to the noise, to look for the solution inside, to make myself an inner oasis of peace, to not feel anger, and to use it as an opportunity to grow in my meditation practice. And HOW do I do that?! The outside world looks so… free. Look at that cow out there. Eating whatever grass he wants, blissfully unaware of a higher calling or spiritual path. For heaven’s sake, he was BORN holy!
Want to trade places, cow? The 5pm banana comes and all I can think of is Pizza Hut and steaks and mint chocolate chip ice cream. Damn it. The evening discourse teaches me a new idea: I am not negativity. I can experience it, but it’s not me. I just have to decide what to do with it. End of Day 2! Oh my God, 10 days is going to be an eternity.
Day 3: Something is happening.
It’s official: I’m 5-feet tall, 110 pounds, but my mind is a 500-pound bear. I’m still drowning in my thoughts, and there’s no logical connection between one idea, one memory, one fantasy, one feeling, and the next. The difference between me and the homeless guy with the shopping cart yelling at himself in Union Square? Unclear. While my mind is a total mess, the body is starting to cave. Sensations come and go, including discomfort, and I can sit for longer and longer every session.
Maybe I can do this after all! At 5pm, all 15 of us are circling the dining room like starving dogs, waiting for our banana and ration of beans. During evening discourse we learn that humans naturally form ideas about how we want reality to be, and then we project those desires onto the world. But reality is a public good, so why do we become upset when the world doesn’t cater to making us happy? This is the recipe for craving, attachment, aversion, and misery that we break with meditation. I think: Are all humans demons? Are we all possessed by this crazy, selfish notion of “I”, and live with angry, ignorant, reactive spirits?
Despite the hunger, pain, boredom, isolation, and entrapment, I’m really starting to love this. The whole process is like completely unplugging myself from modern society and rebooting my system, defragmenting the hard drive, emptying the recycle bin one file at a time, and downloading all new software. I needed this. Everyone should do this!
Day 4: So much anger!
Who am I kidding, no one should do this. Why are people here doing this AGAIN? Now we’re doing this thing where we sit for one hour and aren’t allowed to move a muscle. All I feel is pain. Pain, pain, pain, and my mind is numb from trying to stay calm. HELP MEEEEEE! And I start thinking… Problems? I’m going through all of this to get rid of my problems? Nooooo thank you. Actually, I like my problems. I’m totally attached to them, they give my life purpose. Why would I want to get RID of them?
At lunch the resident dog bounds over to me, stopping to scratch himself with bulging eyes that only a totally absent-minded creative could have. And I think: Do I want to be like that dog, uncontrolled and reacting to every sensation of my body? AM I like that dog? Is that why I can’t sit still for even an hour? No, I have a stronger mind than that four-legged fleabag and I’m going to conquer this whole meditation thing. Inspired by my will to become a more evolved creature, I sit motionless for the entire evening meditation hour, something I don’t think I’ve ever done before in my life. I can do this, I think. I can be strong! And I realize by commanding my body, my ship, my mind is bound to strengthen and my whole outlook on the world will shift for the better.
Day 5: Being the therapist AND the patient.
4am meditation is officially psychological torture. I drag myself into the hall with my blanket still wrapped around me and struggle not to fall asleep. Many others do. I do one body scan and it’s just too hard. I’m tired and hungry and have no concentration left. Why am I doing this? Do I need to feel my elbow tingle to know I’m alive and ever-changing? Is my relationship to my left nostril going to lead me to enlightenment? I drop my forehead to the ground and cry quietly, wanting to make this spiritual journey but feeling utterly incapable. Breakfast is salvation.
Another life-giving sunrise, and an old bus packed with passengers chugs down the dusty village road outside and the sun beams onto the green grass and red south Indian soil and cows moo and birds chirp. Then a remarkable thing happens: One of the village women who cooks for all 50 of us two and a half times a day walks by. We briefly make eye contact and I give her a tiny smile, bending the rules. And what does she do? She smiles broadly and locks eyes with me, radiating pure LOVE. That was all I needed. It’s funny being here and making friends without words.
There’s this one Israeli girl, who I think hates this the most out of any of us, but she’s always over at the fence smiling at the neighbor’s cows and helping herself to seconds at lunch, and I know we’d be buddies if we could talk. Or crazy Yvonne, who constantly giggles to herself and sits with me at sunrise. Or the blonde ponytail who complains — in the most Vipassana-like fashion — about the small meal portions and secures extra dry beans for all of us. My girls. People think meditation is just sitting and feeling calm, but it’s actually the most exhausting and excruciating form of mental exercise.
You’re exercising something that has been formed almost exclusively by external forces for decades and now you’re suddenly attempting to shape it with an entirely new force, from the inside. It’s like doing pull-ups with your pinky finger. I feel like I’m in intense therapy, but I’m the shrink AND the patient — two roles I was entirely unprepared to assume when I walked through these doors 5 days ago.
Day 6: Captain of the ship, baby Something happened today.
I totally broke down watching the sunrise. I put my scarf over my face and cried and cried, letting the salty drops roll down my face, the warmth of the sun mixing with the warmth of the tears. It was like I was being born again, crying for no reason and every reason, crying because there was so much beauty around me, because there always has been and always will be, because only NOW am I beginning to feel its depth and power and even BEGINNING to understand that all this beauty is inside me, too.
I cry because I am ignorant and weak, and cry because I am grateful for the chance to face myself and see the world anew. Finally I wipe my tears and wade back to the meditation hall, the depth of my feelings like a thick mud around my ankles. There’s a creative energy overwhelming me today. I’m so observant of the life around me, and all the little details and all the little thoughts bring TONS of inspiration. Every time a thought comes up, I ask: why, why is this important to me, what does this say about my nature? And I have revelation after revelation about myself and the way my mind works, session after session, hour after hour. Ok, I swear the old man (ahem, wise and beloved guru) fell asleep up there during one of our don’t-move-a-muscle sessions because it was definitely over an hour, but I made it!
On Day 1, my thoughts were like an angry flock of birds, today they are like swans gliding across the surface of my mind. I’m a creature of adaptation: If I want to get good at something, I just have to keep doing it. If I want to stop doing something, I stop, and it hurts for awhile, but then I get used to it. We’re all like this. Tonight I giggle as I look down and see what I’m wearing: black and pink socks, red leggings, black and white pants, blue button down, purple scarf, orange blanker wrapped around me like some Burmese villager. And I laugh and laugh because I’ve never been happier.
Day 7: Sorry I’m late, I was having an epiphany 26 years of life is starting to process.
The quiet and stillness are letting new connections form. A new voice is emerging in my head, not the voice of a restless ego, but a voice of higher consciousness. The observation of the smallest sensations in my body has helped me do the same in my external environment, and I find amazing joy in the sounds of insects and birds, the hot tea cup in my fingertips, the warmth of the sun on my face, the cool mint chutney on my tongue, the leaves crunching under my feet, the firm press of the earth against my bare soles. Why do we distance ourselves from all the beauty and joyful simplicity that exists EVERYWHERE with our day-to-day rat race?
Because we think everything we’re doing will someday bring us the same sensations we can already so readily access by opening our eyes and hearts! The madness! 8am meditation takes me deep into the body. I feel intense pulsations come, come, and then explode, my skin and cell walls disintegrating into the outside, carried away with the sounds of birds and breath. I feel no difference between my body and the world, the illusion of separation has completely broken down. My awareness floats above the body, 6-foot tall waves of blue. Am I losing my mind?
Doubt brings me back to India. A few hours later, it happens. My purpose, what I’m here to do, is revealed to me. After 26 years! It turns out it was here with me all along, just like my shadow. The world just made me so confused, I couldn’t even recognize the very thing I’ve always wanted to do. And tears, not of happiness or sorrow, but tears of recognition, of relief, of calmness, burst onto my cheeks. I have never cried this breed of tears before, but it feels so right. Then I laugh like a madman.
All this focus on sensations and I’m here figuring out my true calling! Bahahaha! How wonderful! I realize my understanding of this purpose will waiver once I’m back in the chaos of the world. I must have courage, I tell myself. This is the burden of knowing one’s purpose. And then I find myself doing something close to prayer, asking something outside for strength. But the real mantra, I realize, must not be “Oh please give me strength,” but “I am already strong. I will stay strong. I will not waiver.” Reliance on the self, walking the path to my own internal salvation, this must be my guiding force.
Day 8: Please, please no more epiphanies…my head hurts.
Phew, 10 days is a really long time. How much longer can I keep psychoanalyzing myself? How many more profound revelations about my truest inner nature can I handle? How much longer can I stay alone in my own head? Today’s morning session was that it wasn’t “good” at all, but I didn’t get upset. It’s just where my mind and body were at. It’s reality, and I’m accepting it.
That’s so Vipassana-esque of me. I decide that I’ve been so insightful lately, I deserve a mental vacation! So I let my brain turn into a potato for a few hours today. I plan my next big trip, have a few inappropriate fantasies involving a cute boy on the other side of the room, mentally devour a steak and glass of Bordeaux… Then at tea time, I had TWO bananas and THREE cups of tea. That’s the Indian equivalent of eating a whole bag of Doritos. Oh well, I feel better. Like a mortal again. A sense of humor has been so important in getting me this far.
Those moments of illegally shared smiles between us girls, the smiles I shared with myself, my internal belly laughs at the Indian guy snoring in the back during every 4am session or seeing my roommate whisked away in her own little world doing yoga on top of her bed, or me crying with a scarf over my head because life is beautiful?! Life is HILARIOUS. All the times the gaps between my expectations or desires and reality would have normally caused agitation, like my meditation center being located on a bloody construction site or the chorus of 30 Indian men burping after lunch, I just laugh. And it is the best kind of therapy. I feel so calm about my feelings and surroundings, about who I am and where my life is going. And I wonder, how will this hold up around in cities of angry and miserable non-meditators?
Day 9: I’m going TOTALLY INSANE…in the calmest way possible.
Ok, I’ve had enough. Not in an angry way, just in a honest recognition of my feelings way. Like yep, this has been amazing, but I’m ready to go out and take action now. I suddenly realize how powerful this environment alone has been. I mean, when is the last time I went 10 days without money, camera, phone, books, exercise, speech, or even choosing my own food? Never! I’m so grateful for the humility and self-discipline it has imposed on me this whole time. Have you ever seen a group of people make love to their lunch? Just eat with 50 Vipassana students after 9 days of non-stop meditation.
It’s like we all took slightly different doses of LSD at slightly different times. I look around and at any given moment I see someone crying over their lunch, someone squatting next to the flowers, someone doing their laundry like they’re bathing their first born child, someone laughing to themselves — it’s all utterly hilarious. And I see it in myself: one minute I’m smiling like I’m eating rainbows, the next I feel like I’ve been down in a dungeon wrestling dragons all week. Oh wait, because I have. But my “dragons” amuse me these days. I just kind of take inventory of them and go back to work. Like, “Oh right, I’m still crazy, but at least the crazy bits are locked up now.”
Day 10: Release Vipassana for me is like being asked to dig a tunnel through a mountain.
Knowing that paradise exists on the other side but I just can’t see it yet. So I start digging, and it hurts, and it’s so much work, but it’s also exciting because I really want to see what’s on the other side. At times I throw down the shovel, but eventually I begin to see little rays of light coming through the mountain. So I work harder, and I see more light, but I’m still very far away from the other side.
And that’s where I end on Day 10: feeling an intense gratitude for those rays of light and harboring a true will to finish digging my tunnel. During our last meditation before the vow of silence broke, one guy cried for the entire hour and a half — loudly, endearingly. I remembered my own bouts of intense emotion on this floor, and felt sheer love and compassion for him, happy he was also experiencing that kind of breakthrough. Everything comes at exactly the moment we need it to, doesn’t it? When silence broke, I sat alone in the meditation hall for awhile, not wanting the preciousness of the moment and place to slip away.
I told myself: I can’t cling to this, I can’t become a nun, I have to go out and face the world and it’s negativity and challenges. I will be strong. This moment, like all things, is passing away, but a new one is ready to be embraced with my heart full of love. And I thought, everything that has EVER happened and that WILL ever happen has brought me to this moment now, brought all of us to it.
This moment offers a one-time-only gift, and it is our destiny. And I listened to the voices outside growing louder, laughter ringing out freely, Indian sunshine beaming down on new human connections… and I knew a wonderful life awaited me.