Today, in part 3 of my series, I share some of the highlights of the actual meditation/retreat experience. Let’s start with the daily schedule.
The daily schedule:
4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30 – 6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30 – 8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00 – 9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00 – 11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00 am – 12:00 pm Lunch break
12 pm – 1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00 – 2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30 – 3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30 – 5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00 – 6:00 pm Tea break
6:00 – 7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00 – 8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15 – 9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00 – 9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room — Lights out
While this looks pretty intense, it ended up being more flexible than I thought it would be.
I learned after the first couple of days of following the instructions 100% that there was room in the schedule for some naps and walks.
I could sleep in a little bit and show up at the meditation hall at around 5:45 am when the teachers arrived. At that point we’d sit through a 20-30 minute chanting session by Goenka.
This was one of the low points of the retreat. The morning chanting. While chanting has the potential to be quite lovely, harmonious, pleasant, I’m sorry to say that Goenka falls short.
The Pali suttas or verses chanted by Goenka before breakfast were an assault on the ears. Painful to sit through. It was almost laughable, I thought “Is this serious, does anyone else think this guy sounds drunk and incoherent?”
His gravelly, unmelodic voice would trail off into a groan at the end as he used up every last bit of breath in his lungs in a throaty exhale. And then there would be a pause, during which I’d think, “yes it’s over, bring on the breakfast.” But no, he’s start in again and it would continue, on and on and on. I had no idea what he was saying or what it meant. But we sat through it every morning.
I’d also use a couple opportunities throughout the day, when the instruction was to “either meditate in the hall or in your room” to get outside and walk for 30-40 minutes. Just before meal time usually. It was great to get some fresh air and get the body moving.
And then after lunch I usually took a little nap before the afternoon session would start.
Within this modified schedule I was still mediating for 6.5 to 7 hours each day.
The technique and teachings
The meditation course is divided into three aspects or phases of meditation. The first three days was learning and practicing a technique called Anapana Meditation. This is all about focussing on the breath to help calm the mind to get centred and grounded.
Through Anapana we realize the mind never wants us to be in the present moment. In fact, it will do anything to take us out of the present and distract us. And that’s when our long held mind and thought patterns kick in.
On day 4 we learned Vipassana which is like a body scan meditation where you work through individual parts of the body to observe sensation. When you do encounter a sensation, the instruction is to not react. It is neither good nor bad, it just is. This is the practice of equanimity.
Observing these sensations helps with aversion and craving which is what the teaching says causes most suffering. If we react to craving or aversion that’s when we create the suffering or misery. These cravings and aversions are daily occurrences of being human. We can’t eliminate their existence; what we can do is change is our reaction to them.
We want to move away from things that we don’t like (aversion). And we want to move toward things we do like (craving). By sitting with, and not reacting to, any negative sensations in the body we work on the aversions. And by being equanimous with the pleasant sensations, we work on the cravings.
Also on day 4, sittings of “strong determination” start. This is where you have to sit for the full hour without moving your hands, legs, opening your eyes and refraining from itching and scratching. This takes place three times a day and is mandatory.
On the 10th day we learned Metta or loving kindness meditation.
Each day we listened to instructions recorded by Goenka and each evening we watched video taped discourses by him explaining the practices and teachings. The evening discourses were a highlight for me.
At various times through the day we’d have an opportunity to approach the teacher to ask questions in the larger group and over the lunch hour we could book a four minute time slot to ask questions one-on-one with the teacher.
My Aversions and Cravings
The critical mind
By day 2 I was getting a pretty good sense of my top mental impurities. Where my mind liked to go most often. Its default position. My mind loves to judge and criticize. In fact it “craves” and “thrives” in this place. And boy was this place giving me a lot of fodder. In fact, I believe the whole process is designed this way. To provide the setting and circumstances for our thought patterns, habits and triggers to come out and rear their ugly heads.
There were so many rules everywhere you went. Rules in the dining hall about not taking food back to your room. Rules in the meditation hall waiting room about not doing yoga. Rules in the bathroom to take one piece of paper towel to dry your hands. Rules about when to take a shower and how to leave the bathroom in a tidy condition after you left.
I’m a rule follower. I do exactly as I’m told. But it became clear pretty quickly that not everyone is like me.
I watched someone make a peanut butter sandwich and put it in her pocket and take it back to her dorm. I witnesses people at every break in full pigeon, downward dog and half moon pose in the meditation waiting area. I’d take my measly one piece of paper towel to dry my hands and watch the next person crank out three sheets from the dispenser. And each evening when it was time for lights out, I’d notice someone heading into the bathroom to take a shower at a non-designated shower time. And she did not clean up after herself or leave the bathroom in a tidy state!
I just assumed the course mangers would also notice these rule-breakers, pull them aside and give them a stern “talking-to”. But I quickly learned, there is no enforcement of the rules. No one is called-out for not abiding. I guess they go by the honour system. And this made my critical mind shift into overdrive. I actually started to feel bad and overwhelmed. Here I was supposed to be calm, focussed and present, but all I could do was make stories up in my mind about these rebels and fantasize about chastising them.
I scheduled a time to chat with the teacher on Day 2 at noon. I had 4 minutes to get her help. “What do I do with this critical judgemental mind,” I asked. “I feel like a horrible person,” I admitted with a touch of shame and a lump in my throat.
“Do you mean like on day 10 you feel like to want to tell someone off?” she asked? “Yes, exactly,” I said. “I can relate to that. It’s common,” she reassured me. “Instead of reacting, focus on the breath. Always keep coming back to the breath.”
Over time my critical mind started to calm down. When I wasn’t sitting on my cushion, I turned more inward and tried to keep my mind clear and focussed on the breath rather than looking at other people and being critical of their actions. I was slowly cultivating more compassion, tolerance and goodwill. I sensed a positive shift emerging.
The worried mind
The other thing my mind likes to do, to take me out of the present, is worry. And being out of touch with the rest of the world (having your phone locked up), makes this type of mental craving even worse because there is no way to confirm or deny your worries.
I woke up one night in a panic after a horrible nightmare that my mom had died. The next morning my mind was filled with anxiety, “what if something happened to her? What if she’s in the hospital but may family doesn’t want to interrupt my retreat?”
And then there were the worries about home. “What if I left the stove on, my house caught fire, burned to the ground and and my kitties died? What if Mike, my husband, got in a plane crash and never made it home?”
Crazy, unreasonable, unfounded worries created by my mind to distract me from my breath and the present moment. What a sneaky, manipulative, suffering-inducing beast the mind is.
So back to the teacher I went. “I’m worrying and panicking about my mom and others at home, what do I do? I know the teaching recommends non-reaction, but what if something has happened?” I ask. “Reacting from those old deep patterns and habits is what gets you into trouble and causes the panic. But we are not suggesting you never take action,” she clarifies. “The reasonable action in this instance (if you did have your phone) would be to call and check in with home. In the meantime, go back to the breath. And this too will come to pass.”
A reminder of impermanence. The worry comes, and if you breathe through it, it passes. It might take awhile, but it does pass eventually.
I’m in decent shape. I work out. I do yoga. I can sit cross legged. I wasn’t overly worried about sitting for long periods of time. So when the pain in my upper and middle back set in, I was a little surprised and dismayed. I’ve experienced this before but had forgotten how truly painful it could be.
Another distraction for my mind. Instead of allowing me to focus on my breath and be in the present, my mind immediately jumped to finding a solution.
The first strategy was to simply shift and move my body to release some of the back tension, but that didn’t alleviate the pain. I also had the two sitting options with I would switch between – cross legged and sitting with my legs tucked underneath me on the meditation bench.
I noticed many students had backjacks which are meditation seats for floor sitting with a back rest. I knew that leaning up against something would definitely help ease the pain. But I didn’t see them stacked anywhere and I couldn’t talk to the others to ask where they got them from. I assumed the teacher had them locked up somewhere. At the break I went to the teacher, expand the pain and asked if I could get a backjack.
“I could put a chair out for you,” she said “But if you use a support you will never really know if you are moving through the pain or it is the backjack that releases it.”
Right. The point is to sit with the pain and see it come and go. Not to simply remove it. Okay. Back to my spot I go.
On Day 5, during a sitting of strong determination, the pain was so intense I broke into a wicked sweat and thought I was going to either pass out or throw up. If either of those things happened I hoped someone would come to help me.
I had to move slightly to remove my wrap and sweater, but otherwise I sat through it for the whole hour. There were tears, worry, fear, praying for it to be over, imagining myself getting up and running from the room – the whole gamut of emotions. But I did it.
Again I went to the teacher after the sitting and explained what just happened. “You were very brave to sit through it,” she said.
Bravery. Interesting. Is that what we’re here to develop? Brave is my word for 2018 and I guess I know why.
My initial excitement about eating differently for 10 days wore off pretty quickly. So. Many. Carbs. Toast and oatmeal for breakfast. Rice and starchy vegetables for lunch and then fruit for supper. I was definitely missing my protein.
It was okay for the first few days but after 10 days of the same breakfast, same salad at lunch and those same freaking apples, oranges and bananas for supper, I was done.
Food for most of us food provides pleasure, enjoyment, comfort, reward, something to look forward to. Well all of those aspects of food are gone here. Because all of these emotions we connect with food are created by our minds. So when you take food down to the basics and provide the body what it needs, the mind goes crazy. It becomes very evident how attached the mind is to craving food and using it in ways it was never intended for.
I started craving food. I had a list of the top things I was going to enjoy after the course. I would fantasize about how good it would all taste. Coffee. A big juicy burger. An egg – a simple wholesome egg. A glass of wine.
And then they played a few tricks on us. One day there were cookies at lunch. Another day there was a big pot of hot ginger tea during supper. And then randomly another day there were brownies! But these treats were’t consistent. And they really messed with my mind.
During meditation I’d start to wonder and imagine what treat would be at lunch or dinner that day. “Maybe this would be the day they’d alleviate our suffering just a little.” I’d look forward to it and cling to any little bit of comfort, reward or pleasure I might get that day. And then I’d be so devastated when there was nothing there. No treat. Just the regular old fare.
Dealing with disappointment eh? I’m staring to see how this whole experience is a metaphor for life.
The room mate
My sweet roommate was sick. She told me on day 0 when we first met that she hadn’t been feeling well and had tried all the preventions and precautions in the days leading up to the course, but felt her cold was inevitable. I was at the tail end of a sinus infection and taking medication. I did not want to get sick again.
I could tell she was really suffering. The coughing. Sneezing. Nose blowing. Frequent naps. When I’d catch a glimpse of her I could see the pain on her face. The dark circles under her eyes. She was in bad shape. “Why is she sticking it out,” I thought. “If that was me I’d be gone home!”
Fortunately, I had ear plugs for the night time but I could still hear her coughing through them. And since I was on penicillin for my infection, I felt fairly protected. But it was close quarters. Just a flimsy bed sheet on a clothesline separating us. I was definitely breathing in her germs.
“I know it’s is all part of the process,” I’d tell myself. “Dealing with the distractions, disruptions, irritations and other people. This is what life is. So breathe through it. Don’t react.”
On Day 8 with still three nights left, I noticed the room beside ours was vacant. My mind got very excited and started to develop a plan. So much for not reacting! I could easily just move over, give my roommate some space and I’d be more comfortable as well. I really don’t want to get sick again.
Back to the teacher I went the next day at noon. I explained the situation and rationale for wanting to move rooms.
“Well it’s not as simple as that,” she explained. “You can’t just move yourself over. There is a process. You have to pack all of your things up and during meditation a volunteer will come into your room and move your things. Otherwise other students will think they can just move rooms. Plus that’s not how you get sick. You get sick by not washing your hands. So make sure you do that. Do you still want to do it?
“Yes,” I said. “I do.” My mind wasn’t letting go of this one. I didn’t care about the hassle. I wanted my own space. I reacted.
Signs from home
There were a couple bright lights throughout the whole experience that helped me get through. They were signs from home, from my husband Mike. This was the longest we had gone without speaking to one another since we’d met. And I was missing him dearly. He’s my person. My number one go-to. And to not be able to share this with him was tough.
But I believe the universe sent me a couple signs and signals to reassure me, to let me know he was there thinking of me.
The first showed up on another student’s coat. She sat down across from me at almost every meal. Three times a day. She’d eat with her coat on. And the brand of her coat was Beaver Canoe.
And why is Beaver Canoe so meaningful? Well my hubby Mike likes to call me by various nicknames. He’s a bit of a jokester. He calls me things like vegetable lasagna, captain tights and yup you guessed it “Beaver Canoe.” (I think it has something to do with my teeth.)
Anyhoo, reading those words on her coat at every meal made me smile. I got a little flutter in my heart and of course my mind loved it as well. Let’s make up a story around this and latch onto it. To distract you from the boring food. Sounds about right.
The other sign from home occurred while I was out walking one day. The walking path wasn’t long and it become icy after some rain and very cold temperatures. So I began a ritual of walking a circle around a small tree out in front of the meditation hall. It was a walking meditation. Head down, no eye contact with others, slow intentional steps coordinated with the breath.
Breathe in, step right. Breathe out, step left. Around and around and around. Usually for 30-45 minutes twice a day.
On one bright, sunny morning I looked down and saw three numbers that had been stamped into the snow from the bottom of someone’s boot. It looked like the numbers were 292. I had to stop and take a closer look to confirm. Yes indeed, it was 292. A big smile crossed my face. My heart warmed with gratitude. I had a little chuckle to myself. Thank you. Thank you.
The first three digits of Mike’s phone number are 292.
Another sign from the universe. Another thing for my mind to cling to. Another story for it to create.
I didn’t care at that point if I was reacting. Indeed a little boost. A little bit of hope. A sign that all is good in the world and I’d be okay.
Check back next week for the final instalment where I’ll share my takeaways and learnings from the experience.
Here’s Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3