Thursday, September 1

[the sound of silence: no copyright infringement intended]

(Note: This is a great post that includes a simpler explanation of the practical benefits of Vipassana and how to adapt Vipassana to fit your life.)

First thing you need to know is that Vipassana camp is like a road trip: always pee when you have the chance.

I just returned from a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat. Why on earth would someone participate in something like this? Well, I like my alone time. And I'm moving to the Middle East in two weeks, and wanted the chance to spend some time alone reflecting and developing deeper self-discipline before I go. And, I thought, hey, child monks are sooooo cute! And Buddha is a pretty cool guy. Sounds awesome.

Anyhow, the teaching of this particular technique requires students to commit to Noble Silence for all 10 days - this includes no speech, no gestures, no physical contact, and no eye contact. Students are free to ask the management or the meditation teachers for help if they need it, but no communication with fellow meditators is allowed. They're also asked to commit to several precepts, like no killing, lying, stealing, etc. Here's the schedule:

4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher's instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room--Lights out

Altogether, that's 10+ hours of meditation per day. There is no dinner, only a piece of fruit and some tea. No talking about your feelings with your co-meditators, no asking your roommate to please change her behavior because it's irritating you, and no exercising (including situps, yoga, jogging, etc.) except walking on the pathways throughout the grounds on the sex-segregated areas. No reading or writing materials allowed, no contact with the outside world, and no phone or laptop.

The course is narrated by S.N. Goenka, a man of Indian origin but born in raised in Burma. The technique asks students to objectively observe their respiration and physical sensations in order to truly understand reality (it's more complicated than that, obviously -- here's a longer explanation). All group meditations began and ended with Goenka's voice on a CD, and every evening at 7:00 PM, all students (new and returning) sit in the meditation hall for his hour-long video evening discourse. Here's a Youtube clip of the hilariousness and oddity of the man.

So. Here follows my own personal account of my 10 day retreat at the Northwest Vipassana Center in Onalaska, WA. Background: all staff and teachers are volunteers, old students who have already completed at least one course (some more than 20!). The teachings are free. No fee is charged from students for the teachings, the lodging, or the food - it's run entirely on
donations. And let me tell you, the food was FANTASTIC. We had chili, Thai curry, mashed potatoes, and all sorts of delicious things.

I encourage everyone - anyone - who wants more peace and mental self-discipline in their life to look into these courses. Go to, and feel free to email me at

Day 1. Full of energy and commitment! I can do this! A little fidgety in meditation sittings, but loving all the quietness my brain and ears are getting. Nap during breaks. Afternoon: SO BORED. Did my hair in multiple coiled braids Swedish-style. Drop into bed exhausted around 9:15 after observing my breath for 10+ hours.

Day 2. Roommate talks in her sleep. Ironic. Afternoon break is spent splitting leaves of grass and looking for four-leaf clovers.

Day 3. Couldn't get Goenka's accent out of my mind. Wonder absently for several hours why he says "aware" with a 'v' sound and "very" with a 'w' sound. Can't stop replaying Russell Peters routines in my head.

Day 4. Rearranged furniture in my imaginary apartment in my mind. Refolded all my clothes. Today's the day we learn Vipassana meditation (we have been practicing Anapana for the last three days to prepare our minds for Vipassana.

First Vipassana sitting of adhitthana, or determination. We're asked to sit for an hour without changing out posture (opening our eyes, hands, or legs). 10 minutes in, I realize that if my mind is calm enough I can stop a sneeze with a single thought! Nifty trick. 20 minutes in, the woman next to me starts shaking and sobbing. Oh god, oh, oh, god. Half an hour in, I decide my first meal post-retreat will be waffle fries and an oreo/peanut butter milkshake. 45 minutes in: may have experienced nirvana! ...Or my limbs may have just fallen asleep.

Done! I made it through my first adhitthana sitting and didn't move for an hour. Go back to my room and jot notes on my tissue box, where it occurs to me how ridiculous it is that I keep a secret pen and take notes on the underside of a tissue box, like a POW.

Day 5. Sleep through entire morning meditation session. In bed. So this is what stir-crazy feels like. Later in the day, I wonder if the tingling sensation I feel in my arm is akin to the feeling of having the Dark Mark activated. The meditation mat of the girl behind me is gone! Food brainstorm: thin pesto hashbrowns with a soft-boiled egg. Maybe I'll get a tattoo of Buddha's eyes, like my favorite stupa in Nepal. Yeah. Maybe "work out your own salvation with diligence." I feel like Cipher from The Matrix, wanting chocolate cake even though I KNOW it's not real.

Day 6. No, this is what stir-crazy feels like. My awesome roommate Alisha and I have done our hair the exact same way for the last two days. I guess we were each so bored that we came up with the exact same, equally complex hairdos. Had dreams about chilling with Fergie, watching an alternate end to the Titanic (tidal wave!), flying like an astronaut over zero-oxygen islands that look like a desert/bubbling/Madagascar-like, sci-fi world. Are they slipping something into my food?? 6-7 PM meditation: felt like a superhero! Observed all sensations equanimously.

Day 7. Wake up with "Party in the U.S.A." by Miley Cyrus stuck in my head. I take it as a bad omen. Later: YOU GUYS. I felt like Yu-Gi-Oh when he transforms. Or the Little Mermaid. Or, sparkly, like Edward Cullen in direct sunlight. I can feel all my limbs tingling at once! I did it! Felt a free flow of subtle vibrations throughout the body!

Between meditation sessions, still getting bored. Drum out a rhythm on my tummy. Fold and unfold travel alarm clock. Attempt to balance said clock on one finger. Evening meditation sessions: woman dashes out of hall five minutes before adhittana is finished. I can hear the sounds gravel flying as she races down the path toward what I presume is the bathroom. Learned that lesson early, grasshopper.

Day 8. HATE the sound of Goenka's voice. Intensely. Remotely aware that this is not conducive to Vipassana or world peace and is probably a manifestation of some craving or aversion which my brain is attempting to face. 2 more days. 2 more days.

Day 9. Had dreams about being chased by a deviant psycho-killer who looked like Katy Perry. What is it with the pop stars? And this comes after the dream about the entirely nuclear-dependent world where I'm trying desperately to convince everyone to snap out of it.

At breakfast (where Noble Silence is also maintained - it's 24/7), my roommate and I arrive at the toaster at the same time and drop our slices of bread in and push the lever down. Once. Twice. ...Three times. Something's not working. We both reallllly want toast. She goes under the table to tug the cord over to another outlet and I silently assist by sliding the toaster over the counter. Still not there -- she peeks out from under the table. I slide a little more. She peeks out again. This repeats several times until we finally look each other in the eye and burst into a fit of silent, quaking giggles. SHOCKED by how good it feels to laugh!

Cat nap after breakfast: dream that a freak electro-magnetic pulse has turned on all my electronic devices and everyone knows it was I who broke the Noble Silence.

Later: I DID IT! I felt my entire body at the same time. Even the insides! Neat. Can I go home now?

Rest period before "dinner": tap out a jazz version of "Frosty the Snowman" on my tissue box. Do some Kegel exercises. Watch the numbers change on my alarm clock. 16 minutes til dinner.

Day 10. I made it! 10 days. Do I get a badge or something? There was a gorgeous, crescent moon out this morning, one of my favorite...wait, the ONLY good part about waking up at 4:00 AM. Three more hours til Noble Silence is broken.

Vow of silence is over! People are talking and laughing joyously, and it all sounds so foreign. Like hearing the deepness of a man's voice outside your dorm room, Smithies. I wonder if this is a tiny reflection of what liberation from Nazi concentration camps felt like (note: please ignore the obvious dissimilarities between meditation camp and the Holocaust).

We get a real dinner today! And our last dinner is hummus, falafel, and tabouleh -- a good omen for my upcoming trip. I make it a ritual to, on my last night in any one place, eat the food of the place I am going to next. An excellent omen indeed.

Day 11: day of departure. Wake up with "Baby" by JBiebs stuck in my head. Take it as an
excellent omen. 20 minutes of morning meditation, final video discourse, cleaning, and breakfast, and DONE! Wheeeeeee! Get a ride from two nice Bangladeshi guys back to civilization and enjoy the glow of enlightenment.

Overall, the course satisfied my goals of sharpening my self-discipline and self-awareness, and I also gained many other benefits, like alternative actions I could have used in certain situations in my past, deeper compassion for those I feel have wronged me, and a stronger ability to observe my thoughts and sensations neutrally.

Buddha once asked, "What happens to a gift which you refuse to accept?" The answer is that it does not become yours. If someone in your life presents you with a gift of abuse, or anger, or control, even if it's based on love, you don't have to accept it, and it remains with the giver. I used to hate all that "it's all about your attitude" crap, but this, this I can understand. At a deeper level, Vipassana is about understanding truth and reality as it is, and not as we would like it be. And we begin with ourselves. Compassion for all, and especially ourselves.

I'll admit that it was also really nice to be without phone or internet obligations for 11 days. My mind slowed down, and I became conscious of every step, every bite, every thought and every breath. And living off of the donations, goodwill, and service of others in a free course such as this one is a humbling experience. People of all backgrounds and means come to Vipassana courses, and there are Vipassana centers all over the world. Anyone, regardless of life experience,
profession, age, race, class, gender, religion -- anyone -- can and will benefit in some way from this sort of course, even if you're not big into meditation.

The courses and free of charge, and they're free of dogma. I enjoyed the quiet time and the chance to gain deeper insight into the workings of my own mind. And Goenka's nightly comedic antics during the discourses are more than enough reason to go take a course.

Buddha says that to become a monk or nun, to renounce worldly responsibilities and
devote oneself fully to Vipassana and to living with morality, mindfulness and wisdom, is the fastest way to reach liberation.

This course has solidified my belief that I can create more meaning, generate more goodwill and compassion, and do more good in this world and for more people as a layperson. I can clothe and feed more people when I am not required to beg for these items myself, as a monk does. I may take longer to reach 'liberation' or 'nirvana', but I will remain committed, as I was before participating in the Vipassana course, to a life of mindfulness, compassion, and honesty