My Sorta Secretive Return to Vipassana (a.k.a. Meditation Jail)
Updated: Sep 12, 2021
I’ve recently returned home from my second Vipassana course! Oh, you didn’t know? That’s because it was a sorta secretive return. I just didn’t feel the need to shout and flail my arms and say “LOOK AT ME I’M DOING A THING!” this time. I definitely did feel like that the first time around, which resulted in many blog posts - one I wrote before going to my first course, one I wrote upon returning home, and one I wrote around the one year anniversary. Keeping the ball rolling, I figured I’d write about this experience, too!
I went to another Vipassana course!
It was great!!
Change is constant, just accept it
Previous experience builds confidence
I’m very distracted by my own mind, pretty much constantly
My mind is hilarious
Hunger is interesting
I'm chock full of love and compassion!
I’m still not enlightened but I’m getting there
I probably have less sankaras than I once did, but there’s no real way to tell
I’m doing my best to meditate twice a day, most days, for an undefined period of time
Are you thinking about sitting (i.e. going to) a Vipassana course??
People ask me how it was and I say “It was great!” because it was great, but also because it’s just easier than trying to explain the full experience. More accurately, it was amazing, boring, funny, frustrating, wonderful, unpredictable, liberating, pretty hard, kinda easy, and very snacky (more on that later!). Here are some key realizations I had during my second sentence in meditation jail:
FIRST, A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT ABOUT CHANGE
People have all kinds of things to say about change. Is it good? Is it bad? Can you spare some? I can answer the first two questions with “Yes!”, but the last one is always a hard “No” due to my laundry machines requiring all my change. What I can tell you about change is that it is always, constantly happening, whether you notice it or not, whether you acknowledge it or not, and whether you like it or not.
It’s freeing and enlightening and soooo beneficial to choose to stop resisting and lean into this unavoidable fact of life. I was very proud of myself during the course for being able to roll with each pleasant experience (“This is fun! I’m so good at meditation! I think I’m enlightened now!) and enjoy it without expecting it to stay, and do the same with each unpleasant experience (“I’m bored! My foot’s asleep! Somebody bring me a sandwich!”). All of that is part of the same whole, and accepting that is incredibly helpful for, you know, life in general.
So when the first day of the course went so amazingly well and I felt like I’d returned home, I caught myself thinking, “Sweet! I’m killin’ it!” and before I could add, “Seems like smooth sailing from here on out!” I reminded myself that “Everything changes!” I wasn’t about to start clinging to my good vibes at the start of a course designed to teach you to detach and accept reality without reacting to it. That could have been bad news down the road!
IT’S GOOD TO BE OLD!
After finishing your first Vipassana course, you become known as an “Old Student”, whether you like being labeled old or not, so just accept it! (I would prefer “Seasoned Individual” but meh.) The first time around the Old Students seemed so mysterious to me - who are these crazy hippies doing a second or third or tenth course?? I must observe them, and see which kind of meditation pillow configuration they are using (pillow configuration is very important when you are meditating 9 hours a day!). Old Students are allowed special privileges like getting a 3x5 foot meditation cell (cue prison jokes here) for more time than the new students, and by ‘doing service’ (i.e. a woke term for ‘cleaning stuff’). And yes, I have shit to clean at home and I mostly avoid doing it, but when all you can do in a day is meditate, walk around, and eat (and only sometimes!), having tasks to do is somewhat glorious as far as mental stimulation goes.
Arriving on Day 0 as an old student, I chatted with fellow students and it relaxed me to realize I’m one of these weirdo hippies Seasoned Individuals who keeps coming back for more of these good times, and therefore I had lots to offer the new students, even beyond pillow configurations! I felt more a part of a community, whereas the first time I was really focused on myself.
It was my first time sharing a room. Most students share rooms, but my first time around I had a sweet cabin to myself). My roomie was amazingly cool and chill. She legit wrote me a gratitude speech which she read aloud to me on Day 10 when everyone is allowed to talk. Seriously, how do I keep lucking out with the best people??
THE PRESENT MOMENT IS DUMB! WAH!
One thing I finally learned / accepted / let go of / gave up on was this idea that paying attention to the present moment is something “I” want to “do.” Because I most definitely do not. “I” hate the dumb present moment because it’s boring and lame!
Fortunately, I am smart enough to realize that meditation is so beneficial, that sticking to it despite my near constant resistance is the best course of action. So I do. But my monkey mind has so many great memories, good ideas, creative tangents, fun daydreams, grocery lists, and future TED Talk drafts up in it. All this means is that my perfectly normal human brain is a huge pain in the ass during meditation. C’est la vie! And I’m not alone in that struggle, that’s for sure!
One big lesson during this course is not to cling to the idea that ‘one day’ I’ll be totally focused and not distracted at all and completely Zen. Every meditation is a negotiation with your own mind - moment by moment by moment. You must try and resist the resistance, because there is so much to be gained by being present.
Vipassana meditation is all about observing your sensations with awareness and without judgment or reaction. We are always reminded not to look for special sensations or crave a certain experience.
Fairly early on into the ten days, I experienced some fun all-over vibrations, which sometimes happen when you can sustain your focus and attention and ‘sweep’ your body as you scan. It’s so cool that the tricky part is not clinging to it and accepting that it will end at some point, while simultaneously engaging with the sensations and enjoying them! What a balancing act!
I also experienced many sensations by participating in what I like to call “semi-consensual intermittent fasting” (not eating after noon, which is one of the precepts the Old Students must follow. I worried about it a lot so, of course, it was not nearly as hard as I’d worried it would be. I learned a lot about hunger and how it ebbs and flows and moves around from place to place in my body and changes over time. Proudly, and somewhat unexpectedly, I didn’t freak out from being hungry for almost half the day (the 9pm bedtime and ban on exercise helped!), and even found that meditating in the evening was so much better on an empty stomach. As a self-described hangry person , this experience was very illuminating.
GIVING UP ON ENLIGHTENMENT … SORTA
At some point through my first ten day course, all the talk of enlightenment had gotten to me and I became very ambitious about ‘getting’ enlightenment. I mean, enlightenment sounds dope, so I figured I would get some for myself, and maybe before Day 10 since I’m such a quick study (cue eye roll here).
This time, I listened not only to the inspiring parts of the enlightenment stories, but I paid equal attention to the bits about how the road is long and no one can do the work but you and sometimes it takes several lifetimes, several reincarnations, to reach enlightenment. That part can feel like a stone-cold bummer but I really appreciate, from the perspective of a Life Coach and a person who gets easily annoyed with themselves, the clear and realistic expectations.
So instead of feeling that pressure and urgency about getting enlightened ‘real quick’, I was able to focus on what mattered: to commit to doing the work, day in and day out, and be soothed by knowing that I’m taking tiny steps towards enlightenment every day (or almost every day). At the very least, I’m relatively more enlightened now than I was the first time. Even if I’m only 10% enlightened, it’s sure a hell of a lot better than being 0% enlightened!
AN ABUNDANCE OF WARM FUZZY FEELINGS
I remember thinking one day “Wow I’m a really fucking happy person!” And, let me assure you, there was never a time when everything was ideal. I really missed my cats, friends, laughing, reading, music, dinner, and smiles. One day I missed smiles so much that I just stood there smiling at myself in the bathroom mirror (which I have actually kept doing since and it’s lovely. If you’ve never looked yourself in the eyes and given yourself a big ol’ smile, then mentally complimented yourself for having a lovely smile, give it a try, it’s actually quite uplifting.)
It is such a supportive environment there - there’s nothing quite like it. Literally everyone - from the servers who make the food to the teachers who patiently answer the same questions all day every day - are working their moderately enlightened asses off for free so that you can have a successful course. The whole operation is run on the donations of previous students, which is incredible! My parents, neighbour, cat sitter, friends, and colleagues all helped me in different ways so that I could leave my own life for ten days. I was so focused inward during my first course, that I didn’t fully realize the depth and power of these many sacrifices and little favours that make it all possible. This time I was able to step back and see how truly amazing it is to have so many perfect strangers bending over backwards to help you get a little more enlightened.
The first time around, I had to put a considerable amount of effort into cultivating compassion and tolerance for others when thoughts like “Do people really need to sneeze like that?” or “How dare you expose your tattoos when the rules say to keep them covered and I am keeping mine covered?!” popped into my head (which they did with embarrassing frequency).
This time I felt genuinely full of love and compassion from minute one. Maybe I really did change from the first course! Watching all the baby Vipassana meditators struggle and strive and stretch away the incredible soreness that sets in with 9+ hours of sitting on the floor all day - and how seeing how they adapted over the days- was so sweet to see (not that I was people watching, I was totally immersed in my own practice the entire time… Okay, okay I was people watching! You got me!)
SANKARAS: PROCESSING PAST ANGER AND FEAR
During my first course, I was really interested and freaked out by the teachings about Sankaras , which are ‘habit patterns of the mind’ or your mental patterns, weird stories, and limiting beliefs all rolled up into a big ol’ mess. We learned about how we need to release our old sankaras, and also try not to create new sankaras, but really we are creating them all the time so we’re kinda screwed. I felt like a damn Sankara Factory. Terrible news!
After we were introduced to that concept, I had a dream about having to carry around all this heavy baggage and every time I put it down, it multiplied like Gremlins. Naturally, I refused all the help that was offered, because even Dream Vanessa is too proud sometimes. Suffice it to say, I woke up spun out from this incredibly unsubtle dream.
The next couple of days I would, at times, become aggressively sweaty during my meditation sessions, which was weird since I was in the same strictly climate controlled environment and was wearing the same damn clothes. Then I learned that releasing sankaras of anger often produces heat. Being a reformed / reforming rageaholic, this made sense to me and was encouraging, though physically uncomfortable to the max. It did afford me many useful opportunities to practice equanimity, since I generally dislike being hot and sweaty for ‘no good reason’ (though I suppose seeking enlightenment is a good reason...).
This time around, I felt confident I wasn’t going in with suitcases full of steaming hot anger sankaras. But I had just about finished an entire year of big life changes and lots of fear around my still changing, uncertain future and the choices I had made that got me to this point. I was apprehensive about diving into all that, or more accurately, about it bubbling up and ‘getting me’ somehow.. So Yes, I was afraid of releasing my Fear Sankaras, and Yes, I know that’s kind of backwards and totally counterproductive, and Yes, I ‘felt the fear and did it anyway’ (*pats self on back, but non-egotistically, of course*).
At one point in my (meditation) cell (think: “enlightenment closet”), I broke down crying, thinking to myself, “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way!” about something that, naturally, wasn’t supposed to happen any certain way (except in my mind). As we do, I’d created a story around it, and even though it was in the past and totally unchangeable, that story had been noodling around in my head for a while, but I had been only marginally aware of it. Once it bubbled up I was able to look at it directly, I let it go by accepting that everything happens the way it’s meant to - we just don’t always like the way it makes us feel about ourselves, then we freak out or withdraw or engage in some other nonsense (Thanks a lot, Ego, ya big galoot!)
LIBERATION FROM THIS BLOG IS IMMINENT!
After my first course, I felt like I was finally able to actually practice equanimity in my day to day life, whereas previously I had only an intellectual understanding. My anger issues almost disappeared entirely (emphasis on the almost!), which was amazing! Recently I had to explain to someone - using my words! - that I was angry. I literally had never needed to do that before because it had always been so obvious I was angry that no one needed an explanation.
I was curious about seeing what a second course would be like, and I’m really happy that I went again. This time solidified what I learned the first time, and really strengthened my practice. I went just before Christmas, and my experience at home with my family was noticeably more harmonious and compassionate than it had been before. Like a mind-blowing difference that I almost couldn’t believe myself. It was very cool to see everything ‘coming together’ right in front of my eyes!I texted my BFF / adopted sister / boss / mentor / all around visionary Mandy to humble brag about how great things were going, and she sent me back this perfect Ram Dass quote:
After my first course, I’d been meditating for an hour every morning with very few exceptions, almost every day for 45-60 minutes, and then most days for 30-45 minutes by the time the second course rolled around. Even a stubborn Taurus like me starts to backslide after a while.
They recommend meditating twice a day for an hour each time, until enlightenment I guess, which is kind of a lot of meditation over a looooong time. I had already decided to stick with my once a day practice, when a Vipassana sister told me she was going to try and get the second session in because “If I got all these benefits from meditating once a day, what will happen if I commit to the second session?” Damn, that was compelling logic, so I decided right then and there to make a strong determination to do two sessions per day. There are many days when the afternoon / evening session doesn’t go down, due to my schedule, and an occasional day here and there when I can’t get my morning session in. So, I decided to adopt a policy not skip my second meditation session two days in a row. That keeps me on my toes when I’m looking at my schedule and deciding what to do with my time.
I plan on sitting a 10 day course once a year (and not because they recommend it - I’m the boss of me!) because if I can get this much benefit from two courses, I imagine there’s more to come.