Spending a week and a half focusing solely on my own thoughts pushed me to limits I never knew I could reach.
I’m sitting on a cushion and my butt hurts more than it ever has before in my life. I'm trying desperately to get a Pitbull song out of my head. Beads of sweat are forming on the crest of my upper lip as “Uh beh beh beh beh beh beh beh beh beh beh, I’m on fire” cycles through my head for what feels like the thousandth time. There’s an itch on my nose and a desperate tickle in my left knee, but I’m gritting my teeth and focusing on my breath, coming in, going out, in, out, in, out, in, out. Yup, I've been meditating.
For four days straight.
This was on Thanksgiving Day 2016 at the Dhamma Dhara Vipassana Meditation Center in Massachusetts. I was in the midst of a 10-day silent meditation retreat—no electronics, no talking, no gestures, no reading, no writing, no physical contact, no eye contact, and no exercise.
How did I end up there? Honestly, it's a total cliché: Back in July, I had a quarter-life crisis, and was in a panic over my life going nowhere. I briefly considered a few more drastic options—medical school, the Peace Corps—but I ultimately realized what I really needed was some time to myself to think. My mom had told me about the supposed life-changing, detoxifying power of Vipassana meditation (also known as mindfulness meditation), but beyond that, I knew nothing about it when I submitted my course registration.
Months later, as my Uber crawled up the gravel driveway to the Dhamma Dhara Center, I frantically exchanged phone numbers with my driver. I had finally read up on the course on the bus ride to Massachusetts, and decided I needed a way out in case I started to go totally insane.
The battle of the 'monkey mind'
Walking into the center for the first time, I was shocked that everyone there was so normal-looking. I expected goop-y, new-age yoga hippies in organic linen outfits (no offense to Gwyneth P.), but my fellow meditators were from all over the world, ranging in age from 20 to over 80 and of all economic, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. There were also a surprising number of pregnant women.
I fearfully turned over my purse containing all my devices, books, and writing materials, and walked into the common area in a daze.
That first night, we kicked off with a one-hour group sitting. I learned that the goal of Vipassana is to learn to observe your thought patterns and how they emerge. The teaching of the technique starts with the observation of your breath, without controlling how it happens. Then you focus on a specific area of your nose where the breath takes place. Eventually you start to acutely feel other sensations, from the flow of your circulation to the pulsating heartbeat in your fingertips, to the feeling of fabric on your body. Full Vipassana meditation is eventually being aware of all of the sensations happening in your body.
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The process is logical—the idea is that by learning to observe the sensations in your body and being able to focus on them without giving meaning to the discomfort (aversion) or comfort (craving), you can do the same with life situations, thoughts, or emotions that arise. You ultimately realize that everything is temporary and in your mind, from the pesky itching to the cramping of your legs while you sit in meditation.
Still, it didn't take long for me to think, “[Expletive], what have I done?!” I deeply resented everyone who had ever told me meditation was a great idea. I went on a mental tear of everything around me: the sanitary smells of the center, the meatless food, the sweats-clad women around me. Within the first two minutes of meeting my roommate, I decided she was awful—even though we'd barely spoken before the noble silence took effect. There was no rational reason for me to despise her; in those first days I just couldn’t help feeling annoyed by her bulky brown sweater, the way she stretched, and her pink woven blanket.
On the occasional walk outside, I would stand near the road and deeply contemplate hitchhiking out. Then I would come back to my room and silently scream at myself in the mirror.
The late Satya Narayan Goenka, Vipassana meditation pioneer and the creator of my course, had a fitting name for this anger: the "monkey mind." Your brain's full of chatter that runs through to-do lists while recalling arbitrary details, memories, surfing Facebook, judging people’s shoes, and deciding what to eat for lunch. When you attempt to turn off that chatter and your mind realizes what you’ve done to it—that you’ve closed it in on itself—it starts to rebel. Ultimately, through meditation, you can ignore the monkey mind and see into your subconscious. According to the Buddha, every person has the keys to happiness and harmony within, it just takes lots of work via meditation to access it.
A turning point
The first six days of the retreat were some of the hardest days of my life. It felt like I was mentally replaying every song I’d ever heard (even the thrash metal I loved as a 14-year-old), every embarrassing or mean thing I’ve ever done, every Facebook newsfeed item (why is everyone getting married?!), and every useless fact I've ever learned. In my mind, I fought it out with every bully I’ve encountered, held funerals for friends and family members, and even pictured a chessboard to play a game with myself.
But then, my mind calmed down. I realized that in their silence, my classmates were fighting an equally difficult battle with themselves. I gave them nicknames: A woman with funky dreaded hair became “Basquiat.” Another one who consistently walked around in colorful pajamas became “Mom.” The woman who had a cough became “Cough-y.” (Creative, I know.) I later learned that others identified me as “the cold one,” because I often walked outside without a coat.
Days 7 and 8 were my untangling days. I finally settled into the groove of the center and let most of the mental chatter go. I thought about what was really troubling me and realized that sometimes I was choosing to be negative and angry about things I couldn’t control, and other times creating tense situations where they didn’t need to exist. I wasn’t actively participating in my own life because of stress I'd created myself, and in my stress often overlooked the needs of people around me. But I wasn’t playing the blame-game with myself on these points. It was a realization that felt more like making a breakthrough in a math equation or a story line.
Day 9, with one day left, I discovered I wasn’t ready to leave. My anger and resentment subsided and I started enjoying the challenge of sitting and observing what was happening in my newly calm mind. That’s why Goenka tells you to keep your practice going for at least two hours a day after the retreat. Vipassana is meant to be a lifestyle choice.
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Life after the silence
Coming back from the retreat was seamless, but tough. I wanted desperately to preserve my zen-like state in the chaos of my New York City home. Sustaining a two-hour meditation practice has not been easy, and a few months after completing the course I’m still trying to get it down to a system. It seems that on days when I need it most, it’s even more difficult to sit. Having roommates who watch late-night reality TV doesn’t help either.
My ultimate test of Vipassana came five days after I came home. Growing up in New York City, I never learned to drive until my mid-20s, and had not yet passed my road test. I'd get so anxious before the test that I'd sweat through all my clothes and have to change immediately after. This time was different. I got into the car, smiled at my examiner, and told him that he was doing me a favor by letting me know whether I was ready to drive. I calmly executed all my maneuvers, including correcting a parallel park mid-way through. By the end of my test, the DMV guy told me I should have a YouTube channel about driving. I got my license.
Was it worth it? Heck freaking yeah. I’d do it a hundred times over—and plan to, starting with my second retreat next year.
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Think you want to try Vipassana? Search for a class near you at dhamma.org. Register early, because they fill up quickly—I registered for a November course in July. If there isn’t space in the one you want, don’t despair; people often get called from the waitlist. Courses at the Dhamma Dhara Vipassana Meditation Center are run solely on a donation basis, but donations are accepted only from students who've completed at least one 10-day course. (In other words, you won't pay anything the first time you go.)
The 10-day course is only the beginning. According to the practice, you must meditate an hour every morning and evening and head to a 10-day course every year as a refresher. For the very dedicated practitioner, 20-day, 30-day, 45-day, and 60-day courses exist.