After my first 10-day Vipassana meditation course

On Wednesday, August 9, I got up early, loaded my car, made a home visit to massage one of my regular clients, and drove from Austin to Kaufman, Texas, a 3.5 hour drive.

BTW, my client commented afterwards that it was really a great massage. He even had a waking lucid dream toward the end of the session. I attribute that to his learned ability to relax deeply while staying awake and to me having more presence and being more tuned into him and myself. I knew that for the next 10 days, I’d be stepping out of my everyday life and meditating quite a lot without distractions. I didn’t have my normal everyday thoughts about logistics (travel, meals, timing, errands), which made a huge difference in my ability to really be present. So it started before I even left town.

IMG_0175I arrived at the Southwest Vipassana Meditation Center near Kaufman mid-afternoon. I registered, was assigned a room in the women’s dorm, and surrendered my wallet and cell phone. I had left books, computer, and writing materials at home.

I unloaded my stuff and set up my room, which was small, furnished with an extra-long twin bed and a plastic chair and small table, with open shelves and a place to hang clothing, and a bathroom with a shower. And a big window looking out on trees and clothesline. Very simple and adequate, and yet this particular Vipassana center is considered one of the more luxurious centers worldwide.There was an orientation, a meal, and our first sitting in the meditation hall. We went into silence after that: no conversations, except that every other day we were brought in groups of about 6 to meet with an assistant teacher, who asked us questions about how our meditation practice was going: “Are you able to focus your attention on the sensations in your nostrils? Can you go one minute without a thought? Can you move your legs only 3 times in an hour?” We were also able to sign up in advance to meet one-on-one with our assistant teacher after lunch, which I did on day 7. These sessions were 5-8 minutes long and are intended for when you are having problems meditating.

I don’t want to give it all away for those who haven’t yet done a 10-day Vipassana course. I didn’t know what to expect, except what I had read on the website beforehand. It was good for me to not have a preconceived notion about it (except I did, in that the people I’ve met who have taken at least one 10-day Vipassana course seem to be people who are happier).

It’s not easy. You work hard. In the first days during group meditations, you can hear people moving, coughing, sighing, etc., quite a lot. In the later days, these group sittings got really quiet. Something happens. People’s nervous systems calm down. Mine sure did.

Not everyone makes it through the 10 days. There were a few dropouts, but not many. Most attendees seem to understand there’s a process here, and the teachings take into account your discomfort, and there’s much to be gained by completing the 10 days.

Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 12.36.30 PM

At Dhamma Siri, everyone is required to participate in group sittings for 3 hours every day in the meditation hall, spread throughout the day in one-hour chunks. There are periods when you can meditate in your room or (later) in a cell in the pagoda, or you may choose to stay in the meditation hall. If you stay in the hall, you will sit for an hour, have a 10 minute break, and sit for another hour or two. That was hard. There was also one two-hour period in the middle days.

spinealignerI found myself wishing I had gotten a chiropractic adjustment before the course, wishing I had brought a foam roller for my back. I did bring a spine aligner, which helped quite a bit, as did lying on a rolled-up yoga blanket. I also carry arnica pellets in my purse for muscle pain, and I used them all up by day 4.

Speaking only from my experience (but which I suspect is common), dealing with pain was a big deal. At home, I’ve been sitting on a very nice v-shaped zafu and zabuton with my legs crossed, keeping my spine upright without being too rigid, for an hour for maybe once per week, but more often 20-30 minutes. (Yes, I know these cushions are expensive, but I saw it as purchasing long-term furnishings for my home.)

You can request a chair when you register, and I may do that next time. (Yes, suffering is inevitable, but if you can prevent it, why not, out of self-compassion?) They have white plastic lawn chairs (the same as in the dorm rooms). A few people brought canvas director chairs. Many brought stadium seats, and I saw one backjack.

Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 12.22.58 PMI brought a Nada Chair (right), which I used for the first couple of days on my zafu and zabuton.

Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 12.20.25 PMI switched to a seiza bench (left) during the middle days after I got a first-hand impression of how bedsores can form on the skin under the sit bones from near-constant pressure.

I switched back to the zafu  for the last three days, no longer bothered by imminent bedsores. And throughout, I meditated in the chair in my room when permitted, working up from 5 to almost 10 hours of sitting per day over the 10 days.

The center offers a variety of cushions and seiza benches, but if you have a home meditation setup you’re accustomed to, I recommend bringing it, unless you  have a super strong, aligned spine.

I became very aware of my cravings (I want what I don’t have) and aversions (I don’t want what I have), especially relating to the pain I felt in my back and shoulders. A couple of the main teachings are knowing that everything changes (anicca) and to practice equanimity (neither craving nor aversion, the causes of our suffering).

So my pain served me. I noticed that if I just kept practicing the techniques, my pain became less prominent. This was something I’d noticed years ago when I first started meditating daily: that awareness is vast, and it’s like a lazy Susan. Whatever is in the forefront of awareness gets more attention and intensity. It’s possible for pain to be at the back of my awareness, so if I check in with it, yeah, the sensations are there, but I don’t care. Neither attracted nor repelled. Equanimous.

The learnings from this Vipassana are still sinking in. I found some parallels between the craniosacral biodynamics I offer and this Vipassana technique. My brain seems to have switched from left-brain dominance to right-brain dominance. I have no idea how long this will last.

Another is that the 10-day course allows people with social and economic responsibilities to experience the benefits of a monastic experience:

  • Decision-making is simplified. There’s a set schedule for daily prayers/meditation starting early and ending late.
  • There is silence and a lack of distractions.
  • Simple, healthy, tasty vegetarian meals are provided.
  • Men and woman are segregated.
  • You check in with a teacher/superior.
  • Responsibilities are limited (clean your room and help clean the common areas at the end).
  • There are paths you can walk on the grounds, but you stay isolated from the larger world. At one point, I realized that if Trump bombed North Korea, or vice versa, I would not learn about it until after this course.
  • The overriding intention of this whole experience is for your own liberation and happiness and to extend that to others (metta). So really, it’s about creating world peace, starting with your own inner peace.

I have long felt drawn toward monastic practices. I understand the benefits, but taking monastic vows is hugely daunting. Vipassana courses seem like a happy medium. You take vows for 10 days at a time, bring your experience back into the world, and repeat as needed.

Right now, my plans are to do this at least once a year.

 

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