Initially the proposition seemed appealing. Attend a 10-day silent meditation retreat at the end of a tumultuous summer with five of my closest friends. Living in Dallas, we live less than an hour away from The Southwest Vipassana Meditation Center in Kaufman, Texas, a modest cluster of buildings on 34 acres of agricultural land that draws would-be meditators from across the country. For the last two years I have witnessed community members who have come back from the course and raved of the benefits. It seemed like it was finally my turn.
I had been looking forward to the sit all summer. In June my partner of two years and I broke up and weeks of painful wreckage ensued as we separated our lives. I spent the rest of the summer getting on my feet. It seemed like just the medicine I needed at the end of the hot months to unplug from the world, take a dive into quietude and integrate all of the highs and lows of the season.
My first clue that this event might not be the blissful repose I expected was word upon registration that we would not be eating dinner. At 5pm each day there would be a tea and fruit break. That’s it. My active metabolism did not like the sound of this. Still, I knew I was there for a reason, and I wanted to keep my mind open even if it meant being a little uncomfortable. I decided to stay.
The one-hour meditation the first evening wasn’t so bad. The Dhamma Hall, as it is called (“Dhamma” refers to the overall path itself), is a highly air conditioned den with plush cream carpet, low lights and a slightly raised dais at the front for the assistant teachers to sit on chairs. Approximately 75 women congregated in rows on the right. Men assembled in parallel rows on the left. The barrier between the genders marked by blue tape was several feet wide. That first evening I sat silently with my eyes closed atop my tower of pillows and noticed the familiar patterns of my busy mind, deciphering relationship puzzles, lamenting unposted Facebook posts and contemplating foodlessness after 5pm. We were instructed to keep coming back to our breath, and during small interludes between my thoughts, I did. The hour flew by and my rest in my simple dorm room afterward was deep.
The next morning my alarm went off at 4am. By my standards, that’s not morning yet. A friend of mine had volunteered to walk through the dorm room halls and ring the gong bell. “Doooooooonnnnnggg” went the resounding ring. I decided I would try the 4:30-6:30am morning meditation back in the hall, one of the windows during the daily schedule when we had the option to meditate either in the hall or in our residences. I wanted to understand my options.
I also thought, since this retreat is all about introspection, why don’t I leave my contacts out and let the world fade. Thirty years of wearing corrective lenses has rendered me acutely nearsighted and so the blurry world around me made it easy to anchor my focus inside.
That two-hour sit was grueling. I do yoga avidly, but within what felt like 20 minutes, I felt searing pain down the left side of my back and vaguely recalled a diagnosis of mild scoliosis from one of my medical visits. There was no clock visible to the meditators (I later learned it was behind me), so I had no way of knowing how long I had been there. And still we sat.
After what felt like an hour had gone by, I looked down to notice a big black blurry creature ambling by my cushion. I have a pretty strong aversion to insects. Not being able to see this thing clearly combined with the prohibition against loudly squealing did not help my equanimity. Discretely I flicked it away and kept one eye open for the next half hour to ensure it did not return. When the 6:30 bell sounded I made a resolution to spend the remaining mornings meditating in my room with my contacts in.
The days slowly ground by from there.
That first afternoon, the resentments erupted. As I sat trying to follow my breath, harangue after harangue bellowed between my ears. It seemed the scenes of unresolved conflict from my recent and distant memories were literally standing in a row waiting for my attention. And after each played out in the theatre of my mind and I mounted my rebuttal at the person in question, the next one stepped forward and I launched into the next diatribe. And then the lineup would start all over again. I was beginning to feel tortured.
We ended each day with a discourse given by the late S.N. Goenka, who in 2013 died at the ripe age of 89 after a lifetime of teaching 10-Day Vipassana courses like mine. Thirty years prior he had made videos of his discourses. Each night we gathered back in the Dhamma Hall after the evening sit for movie time. A giant screen would drop down from in front of the teachers’ dais accompanied by one of the few electronic “whirs” we heard all course. And Goenka, larger than life, a dark caramel colored face, heavily joweled, with a mirthful grin lurking at the edges of his lips, introduced us to the philosophy of Vipassana.
He called them “sankharas”. Technically defined as “mental dispositions”, in the context of Goenka’s teaching, sankhara refers to moments of sightlessness that accumulate like dust over the course of a lifetime inside the cracks of our psychic awareness. Through cultivating the ability to sit in Vipassana meditation, like skin peeling off of a reptile, layers of sankhara begin to shed off one by one. Goenka refers to it as exploding the “complexes” that attach us to misery. My psychic skin was getting a peeling.
My dreams from the start were vivid. I dreamt that I again worked for the VA, where in actuality I was employed after graduate school. In the dream my female supervisor said to me, as if I was new on the job, “You will be good with the vets. You have a heroine complex”. Dream Jessica replied, “What do you mean?! I don’t have a drug problem!”
Even my dream self was struggling to fully accept what my psyche was ejecting out.
On Day 3, after three long days of keeping our attention where the breath meets the nostrils above the lips (the instructions were very precise), we were given the instructions for Vipassana (everthing else had been a warm up, evidently). It went like this. Feel your body top to bottom, then bottom to top. Over and over. The instructions from the recording by Goenka took two hours but the practice boiled down to that. Start with the top of your head and go “part by part, piece by piece” in body scan fashion. It seemed so simple.
A thick spider’s web like a spine cleaved the outside of my dorm room window that faced the walking trails. I spent many moments gazing at the multiple insect corpses wrapped in the silky net like gems in the strands of a necklace. The sizable spider visited rarely, and when she did, she didn’t react in the least to my finger on the side of the pane of the glass, tapping a hello. As if she had a practice that steadied her insect reactivity. I called her the Vipassana spider.
I wasn’t as equanimous as the spider. Itches on my nose often compelled me to scratch. Seductive stories from my recent or distant past lured me away from the tingling of my shoulders or the coolness of my ears. I recall one particular one-hour sit when I’m not sure I got past the top of the head. But I kept sitting.
During an afternoon nap I dreamt that votive candles were balanced on my knees without a base so that the wax was melting and the wicks were singeing my kneecaps. And still I kept sitting.
I have never been in rehab. I know friends of mine who have. That week I felt like I was in a recovery process but without the benefit of therapy groups where I could talk to the other addicts. I was going through withdrawal. Withdrawal from busyness. Withdrawal from stimulation. Withdrawal from the self who is dependent on her identity through the outside world. And still I sat.
Walking the center trails during our daily break after lunch was one of the few sources of solace for me. There were two winding trails behind the women’s dorm through a small woods, a lush jungle of throbbing cicadas and thick deciduous and evergreen trees. One of them lead from the pond to the parking lot. Each day I walked it, I saw the car that would be our getaway vehicle after Day 10 and ensured it and myself that we would soon reunite. The other trail made a circle eight loop. No matter where you started, you ended up back where you began. It felt symbolic.
Every other afternoon following my walk, I would reread the one piece of literature I had access to, a blue informational brochure about Vipassana. In the opening passage it states “Vipassana means seeing things as they really are”. I’d read that before. I heard it with new ears. On my walks I found myself repeating out loud with each footfall, “Things as they really are, things as they really are”. How many times did I try to make the excesses of romantic relationships fit when “what really was” amounted to two people incompatible for connection, despite good intentions. How many other times in my life did I let my unresolved childhood wounds or the distortions of my fears warp “what really was” right in front of me. I kept walking. I kept sitting.
Day 6 I woke up crying. The scene that arrived on the stage of my mind was the faces of my three younger siblings from the year 1988. They were 10, 8 and 6 when my mother suddenly died of cancer. I was 12. The images of their sweet, defenseless vulnerability at that dark, unknown time in our lives felt haunting. I sat outside the women’s dorm after breakfast looking up at the day brightening and felt sick. I’ve spent much of my life since the age of 12 driven by the convictions of that protective older sister who is always looking out for the more dependent children. That day she showed up.
I made an appointment to have an “ interview” with the assistant teacher after lunch. I was first on the day’s queue. While I knelt at her feet, I cried and said, “I think I just need a little encouragement”. With this warm, grandmotherly face and a slight southern belle accent, she urged, “Stay out of the story of sorrow. Just feel the sensations of the tears”. So I tried on my afternoon walk to just feel the thickness in my throat, the tightness in my temples and the heaviness of my chest that signaled my childhood demons were visiting.
Later that afternoon it clicked. All of a sudden, sitting in my bed, scanning my body, drifting through waves of judgments and memories and then back to sensations, I got it. Feeling my sensations, I am coming back to my body. Again and again. And this is trauma healing, isn’t it?
My psychologist mind kicked in.
The most essential part of healing trauma as I understand it is saying to the body, “It is safe to be here and I choose to inhabit you despite the pain”. Trauma freezes us in the past, in a story, in the dissociative netherworld. But this attention I was cultivating was grounding me in the raw real present thing of my physical, feeling anchor. It seems my attention was saying to my body, “I am willing to pay attention to what you feel. I am not afraid of the pain. I am not afraid of the pleasure. I am wiling to notice each equally. Have your experience. I’m here to journey with you through it”. And in that way, there is no gripping or freezing. Just feeling. I believe in tethering to my sensations that day I was untethering from my old scripts that say, “It’s not safe. You can’t rest. You can’t feel vulnerable. You need to protect”. A new script was emerging. I kept sitting.
I wish I could tell you that it was a blissful ride from these realizations forward. But really it continued to be hard. I dreamt of my cell phone. I dreamt of soft serve chocolate ice cream. I sang to myself. I talked to the signs on the walls. I looked at the feet of my friends (we weren’t allowed to make eye contact). I counted the minutes. And still I kept sitting.
I’m starting to believe that cultivating equanimity isn’t about fundamentally being a better person than I already am. It’s more about staying power. The discipline of spirituality. One of the yoga teachers at my favorite studio, when she found out I completed the course and knowing many don’t, teased me and said in mock bowing fashion, “I’m not worthy!” I was embarrassed. I said, “Look, I’m no saint. I had no big moments of bliss. I just didn’t leave”.
It’s been ten days since that triumphant departure from the course. I’ve had moments of anger. I’m already back to staying up too late. But overall, I have never felt so patient. I have been noticing an ability to entertain perspectives beyond my own. To consider the possibility that I’m not right all of the time – my ego is getting checked – and to see a bigger picture of situations. I’ve meditated a handful of mornings so far, and each time I do, I feel what I can most easily describe as love. Something about hovering my attention over each inch of my body seems to communicate to my system, “You are important. You aren’t alone. You are worthy of attention”. I like how I feel when I grow the stores of my own love. I think I’m a better person to be around when I do. And so, though I fought for ten days to go anywhere but my cushion, now I keep sitting.
This course is not for you if you are looking for comfort. It’s not a vacation from yourself. It’s a dive right inside the core of yourself. If you aren’t ready for that, definitely don’t do it. But if you are curious to discover your ability to sit with yourself hour after hour, and if you want support to condition your muscle to stay so that it steadies your muscle that wants to leave, I want to make sure you know about the 10-Day Vipassana retreat. In the end, I am deeply grateful I went. And most of all, grateful I stayed.
I challenge you reader to close your computer after reading this blog and sit for 5 minutes. Start with your breath. Consider adding a body scan. And make a practice of it. It’s the only way you will know.
I leave you with a recipe I concocted for my 5pm evening snack at the course when I had on hand in the dining hall a bowl of fruit and a tray of condiments. It’s amazing what strong determination and hunger can cultivate! May all beings know the deliciousness of their own attention.
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1 crisp apple (granny smith, gala, pink lady)
1 ripe pear
1 ripe banana
2 tblspns of Flax Seed Meal
1 tspn olive oil
1 tspn lemon juice
Dash of salt
Dash of cinnamon
Drizzle of honey
Slice all fruit into bite sized chunks and put in bowl. Combine other ingredients and mix until you have a paste evenly distributed. Get creative and add other toppings (sliced almonds, goji berries, sliced dates). Eat with a cup of ginger tea. Then go back to your cushion!