Or, Four Days in Hell, Two in Outer Space, and Back to Hell
“Prison” (the organizer’s joke word for the 10-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat, also mine) let out this morning, and about 50 happy people dispersed to all points of the compass. It would be difficult to describe the experience in detail, and futile because by design and intent the experience is highly individual.
As well, i managed to break almost every rule in the book during the ten days, so my experience is probably not a decent representation of the course.
One of those rules was “no reading or writing,” but by day 3 i was compulsively keeping illicit notes on what scraps of paper i could find (mostly paper towels) with a pen pilfered from the men’s washroom duty list.
If there’s a chance you may be doing a Vipassana course yourself in the next year or so, i strongly suggest you DO NOT read those notes — not because they contain anything startling or secret but because they may colour your own experience and that would be unfortunate.
That said, there are several things i wish i’d known before going into the course that would have eased my journey, so do read and heed these points:
- The course is canned; it’s not a living, evolving thing taught by live teachers. The whole of the instrucion is in he form of videos and taped of S.N. Goenka, the course’s Burmese founder, recorded in 1991. Don’t let that put you off; he’s a very good teacher, even on video. Just know what to expect. There are “assistant teachers” there to answer your questions.
- Vipassana is the muscular, pain-is-good boot camp of spiritual traditions. I was expecting something like the feel-good experience of my only other retreat — a candy-ass Zen exercise two years ago — and i was rudely shocked by the rigor and demanding nature of this course. It took days to realign my head. Expect to work hard, and working hard at a meditation retreat means two things: sitting and meditating.
- For the love of whatever god(s) you hold dear, put together some kind of meditation seat that you can perch on without moving a muscle for an hour. That’s sixty point zero minutes. Then get used to sitting in it for at least that long. At full stretch you will meditate up to 10 hours a day, and everyone on the course (even the repeat attendees) had trouble with butt, shoulder and back pain. So will you — it’s inevitable — but do what you can.
One key thing, confirmed by the massage therapist/physical trainer i got a ride to Nelson with, is to maintain your lumbar arch: your lower back should arch forward slightly (a belly-out feeling). This stack your spine into vertical column and elps keep you from hunching forward — an invitation to back pain. Pelvic tilt is the key here: your seat should slope down to the front.
- In the initial days of the course, you may descend a mineshaft of boredom so narrow and dark that you will despair of coming out of it sane. I certainly did. At this point you must place your faith in the teacher and the method, and assume there’s a point to the whole exercise. This i didn’t do, and paid the psychological price. Remember, it’s a well developed course that has been taken by probably hundreds of thousands of students. It really does go somewhere, in shipshape logical fashion. Persist. Don’t despair. Or try, at least.
For the curious, i will soon post a hidden page with the (rough, fragmentary log of my 10-day Vipassana retreat.