At the end of 2014, I traveled for one month through Nepal. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life (Click here to see photos). Part of that journey involved a seven day silent meditation retreat. Read about my experience below.
One man’s experience in a seven-day silent meditation retreat….
“This will be your room for the next 7 days. We ask that you keep it neat and tidy and remind you of the strict code of silence during your time here. Also no music, entertainment, sex, lying, stealing or leaving the premises. Enjoy!”
And with that, the androgynous portly monk spun around and waddled away leaving me and his/her sandalwood scent in the simple, poorly lit, barren room. Three beds, a private bathroom, nothing fancy, but 5 stars in comparison with my last months’ accommodations. A wooden bed frame with a very hard 2 inch mattress and an old blanket sat there invitingly with a shelf as a companion for my personal belongings.
I took a deep breath, taking it all in, hardly noticing the one other occupant in the room. He looked towards me, as if to say “RUN”, but instead nodded silently and continued to stare at the wall. That was the only and last interaction I had with my roommate and the last eye contact I gave anyone for the remaining 7 days.
I came to the Panditarama Meditation Center in Lumbini after meeting 2 travelers during my one month journey through Nepal. It had changed their lives, they said, and I thought I too would seek the meaning of life, become a Jedi knight or at the very least learn to levitate and perhaps figure out a new recipe for veggie lasagna. Lumbini is about 45 minutes from the Indian border and is an auspicious place since it is the birthplace of Buddha (yes, THAT Buddha). In fact, the monastery in which I stayed was a stone’s throw away from the actual birth SPOT (which can be seen behind bulletproof glass).
All I had been really told up to this point was that it was 16 hrs of meditation a day, alternating between walking and sitting meditation. Up at 4AM – breakfast at 7, lunch at 11, “juice” at 7PM, bed at 10PM. Up until now, my experience with meditation pretty much only involved a ritualistic 3 minutes of silent breathing (with half-assed attempts at crossing my legs “Indian style”) before every test I took in med-school- Yea, I was a complete novice.
I walked outside after getting “unpacked” (3 shirts and 2 pairs of pants – hardly seems worthy of the term), looked up and stopped dead in my tracks. I didn’t know whether to run, laugh or cry. ZOMBIES! ZOMBIES EVERYWHERE! Silent figures were shuffling along in a conga line in slow-motion with blank stares and glazed eyes.
You see, what had I failed to truly realize was that this was a Vipassana meditation center (Vipassana is the practice of MINDFUL meditation). The precept is that it is through being “mindful” of one’s actions that one purifies the mind, body and spirit and becomes enlightened.
More clearly, what being MINDFUL means in the case of Panditarama is that yogis are instructed to be consciously and CONSTANTLY thinking of EVERY movement while walking and EVERY inhalation and exhalation when in sitting meditation -from the moment your eyes open in the morning till the moment you close them at night. EVERYDAY.
In fact, you are supposed to be so focused on these tasks that you are to ignore EVERY other thought or stimulus and ONLY FOCUS ON your walking and your breathing. Here’s an example: DON’T think of an apple. Can’t do it can you? Now, don’t think of ANYTHING…. For a WEEK!
Each step I took was to be divided into 3 parts: the lifting up of the foot, the moving forward of the foot, and the placing down of the foot. Each phase had to be mentally acknowledged, taken in and studied in minute detail: feel each muscle moving; feel the pressure on each part of your foot; the sensations; the temperature; each nerve ending. This, in turn, makes EACH STEP last 3-4 seconds. Your gaze is to fall at your feet and you are not supposed to look around (so why did they spend all the money on making the place look so nice?). You get the picture, right?
I fell into line and started my slow zombie shuffle with the others. I thought I could feel them judging me behind silent eyes like Andy Dufrain from “Shawshank Redemption”. Was I gon’a be the first new “fish” to crack?
Right foot Up…..forward……down. Pressure on the heel. Ankle flexion.
Left foot Up…..forward……down. Activating calf muscle. Big toe flexing.
Right foot Up…..forward……down. Flexing the ankle. Knee extending.
Left foot Up…. forw…. Oh, I have to remember to confirm my ticket and …. STOP!
Right foot Up….forward…. down.
Oh look! SQUIRREL ! Ha ha! That was a great movie! Wonder what movies are out now…… SHUT UP!
Left foot Up…..forward……down.
My nose itches- ARON!
Right foot Up…..forward……down
Again …. And again…. And again….
What I quickly and sadly realized is that, without the distractions of modern day life, my mind is a constant agitated story teller -with ADHD- and separation anxiety. AND IT WON’T SHUT UP! No matter how many times I tried to quiet my mind -no matter how many times I implored. I kept going on mental tangents. Non-stop -for days. It was a constant mental battle and it was EXHAUSTING!
We shuffled into the meditation hall and assumed our “positions”. The room was fairly non-descriptive with a 3 foot golden statue of Buddha in the corner (which honestly looked like it could have been bought in any Costco ornament section -Aisle 5. Above each sitting area was a personal mosquito net which made the scene look like something out of “The Matrix”. Wordlessly, we all took our spots (I actually mistakenly sat in someone else’s spot the first session without knowing (way to make new friends “newbie”!) and started to meditate – now focusing on our breath.
Innnnn…… I’m bored…… Outtttttt
Innnnnn……wonder what’s for lunch….. Outtttt….
Innn ……. God I want a steak….. STOP!!! Outttttt….
And so it went. My mental schizoid warfare continued over and over… and over again.
And then, the pain started to set in. First the neck pain from staring constantly at my feet (God, I need a pedicure!), then back pain (over-doing my gait causing the activation of different under-used muscles) and then, worst of all, my leg started to fall asleep. Here’s the rub: in Vipassana meditation, you are supposed to embrace the pain. As all of life is suffering (as per the Buddha), you are supposed to acknowledge it, understand its “nature” (?!?) and then ignore it. Shifting positions was a sign of weakness (and could be heard in the dead silence) and I wasn’t gonn’a be that “fish”. It was excruciating! After the hours-long sessions, if the zombies found humor in me dragging my cold dead leg behind me, they sure hid it well (Oh! but I found humor in the irony as I now looked even more like a zombie than they did).
In general, food was pretty good. Breakfast was muesli, yogurt and apples; homemade bread with cheese, peanut butter and jelly. Lunch was a variety of veggie dishes all delicious and in abundance (and grown on the premises). Juice was -get this- HOT Tang… (Didn’t they stop making Tang with the Apollo missions??!). And a piece of hard candy….
Every evening at 5:30, the head monk (German, but grew up in Kenya!) would give a Dharma talk -a lecture on Buddha’s teachings. It was here, on the first day, that I realized I was a Boy Scout in a Green Beret boot camp; that I had jumped head first into the deep waters of an advanced meditation retreat. All of my fellow zombies were Buddhist scholars! I mean I should have guessed this by the perfectly erect unflinching posture of their meditation poses, the perfect execution of zombie gait. But in the lectures it was clear that I was WAY outranked and outnumbered.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard of Buddha -something about a middle path and rubbing his belly for good luck. I even knew what he looked like (he’s the guy always next to the plastic waving cat at the Chinese restaurants). But these people even knew his favorite color! (Phyllo green). It sucks knowing you are the dumbest person in the room (sadly not the first time I’d felt it).
I sat there STRAINING to hear as the head monk spoke in hushed-holy tones that the mere sound of a mouse’s swelling hemorrhoid would easily outdo. And for the first 2 days I thought he had a stutter only to realize that he was speaking in an ancient Sanskrit language -“panini”- which has words 32 letters long, half of which are “ps”.
The early morning mist brought the sounds of gongs and guttural ancient chanting from the dozens or so surrounding temples. This was truly quite mesmerizing but, of course, you had to block it out and get back to your practice.
As the days went by, I too started to judge the new-comers, relishing the fact that I had less days left than them and making mental bets on which fish wouldn’t make it. But I knew this negative mindset was surfacing, because I was feeling quite demoralized. The solitude was absolute -not even your own mind to talk to- and was surely getting to me. I had already received “hate mail” from the Meditation Mafia. One note for wearing clothes that were “too noisy” and another (quite a mean one or was I overly sensitive?) for having too many pillows during my sitting meditation. (Further forensic analysis narrowed the last letter down to a Mrs Lesley L., 69 years old, staying for 84 days. Cross-referenced, the handwriting of the “anonymous” note in the sign-in log book has a P.O. Box in Ohio -guess who’s getting a lump of dog shit in the mail for Christmas…).
Everyone around me looked and felt more holy than me and really seemed to be getting a lot out of the breathing and the walking. All I was getting was more aches and pains and frustration for not being able to quiet my mind. I questioned whether I belonged there and if, quite frankly, I was getting anything out of it. All I wanted to do was “Up…..forward……down” my ass to the front gate and scream “YOU CAN’T TOUCH THIS! ” at the top of my lungs and dance the “Running Man” down the street.
So in a feeble (desperate?) moment, on one particularly cloudless night (day 3?), I looked up at the sky and asked for a sign that I was on the right path, that I was meant to be there and, sure enough, hand-on-heart, a shooting star crossed the sky right at that moment (I then quickly wished for Sofia Vergara and a Red Rider BB gun). It was the sign (or a coincidence) that I needed to keep me going.
The next day I was charged by a monkey (HUGE f&cker!) as if to remind me to stop looking around and keep looking at my feet and found a leech having me for lunch, but I was undeterred as I was now on a mission to get on with my task to the end.
As the days went by SLOWLY, I realized that there were people there with major life crises and even some with terminal illnesses. Some were staying as long as 6 months and many had been there before. This opened my eyes and made me not feel so “dumb” and also take things seriously (and also forgive Mrs. Lesley). It was then that I was able to really better focus and concentrate so that what I finally realized is this: EVERYTHING around us is “noise”, distractions of our consciousness. These external stimuli keep us from being PRESENT, in the moment. The practice of Vipassana is meant to hone our skills of focusing and concentrating and to accept that life is suffering. It is only through these practices that one can see past the noise and really see the true nature of things and ultimately become Enlightened.
Was it life changing for me? Well, that is yet to be seen. But for now, yes the air seems a bit sweeter. I do know though that I am a quarter turn sharper in the “pencil sharpener of life” and it was a MONUMENTAL personal achievement for me.
Now, on that note, STOP!!!! HAMMERTIME!
See you in Zihuatenejo.
PS: Private message me if you want that lasagna recipe.
*Disclaimer- this post was not intended to offend. Just a humorous portrayal of MY experience.
** It is not known by the writer if rodents actually get hemorrhoids.