If you missed part 1 of my meditation experience you can read it here.
I’m at the airport waiting to board my flight, savouring my last coffee for 11 days (that’s right no coffee at the retreat) and texting my friends and family looking for reassurance and comfort, “I guess this is it? I’m really doing it. There’s no turning back now!”
I enjoy a glass of white wine on the plane, because obviously I won’t be drinking for 12 days!
I get picked up at the airpot by the very kind Trudie and her son Misha, who I connected with through the Vipassana ride share site. They agreed to pick up and drive three other participants to the retreat centre in Egbert, Ontario near Barrie. People’s generosity amazes me.
On the drive we exchange stories about why we’re doing the course. For three of us it is our first time. The third lady is an “old student” (what they call a returning student) as she completed her first 10-day course the year before. I felt it was a good sign she was going back again.
She says to me, “I guess you are planning to stay for the whole time then since you flew here. You can’t really leave can you!”
I didn’t think leaving was an option. Of course I’m going to do it and stick it out. We had to commit to the 10 days didn’t we?
It was a quick and easy ride from the airport to the centre. About an hour. We pull in and it’s almost time to turn off our phones. I make one final quick call to my husband. “We’re here. This is it. Talk to you in 11 days. I love you.”
This will be the longest we’ve gone without speaking to each other.
It’s day 0. Which is all about settling in, registering and getting oriented. We’re assigned our rooms and have some time before the “last supper” to unpack and register.
I say the “last supper” because, even though I read on the website that supper, or “tea” as they called it, was basically fruit and tea, it didn’t register what that actually meant. I was picturing big bowls of yummy fruit salad, maybe some nuts, seeds or granola to go along with it. A little yogurt or simple biscuit perhaps. Maybe even a finger sandwich or two. Those are usually part of “tea” aren’t they?
I’m in the same residence as the “old student” from my ride. Very cool, she can show me the ropes. The dorm rooms are similar to the pictures I viewed on the website. Basic twin bed mattresses on a wooden frame. A decent sized shelving unit, chair, a few hooks on the wall and a couple hangers. The room is divided in two by a sheet hung on a clothesline-type wire. I see a suitcase on the other bed. I wonder who my roommate is?
I sign up for a shower slot (once a day for 20 minutes the bathroom is all mine!), unpack, make up my bed and head over to the dining hall for registration.
There are a few documents to review and return (no reading materials allowed). Then you complete a background form that asks about mental stability, alcohol and drug use and for 5-6 bullet points with the highlights of your life. Finally, you agree to stay for the 10 days and sign off on the precepts to adhere to during the course:
- To abstain from killing any being
- To abstain from stealing
- To abstain from all sexual activity
- To abstain from telling lies
- To abstain from all intoxicants
I then hand over my phone and valuables to be locked up for safe keeping. I’ve never been this unplugged before in my life and feel a little sick to my stomach as I turn off my phone and watch the volunteer seal it up in a ziplock bag.
I go back to to my room and meet my roommate. She’s lovely Indian woman in her sixties, who was happily surprised when I said I flew in from Halifax.
“Really you’re from Halifax? My husband tried to get in touch with you about a ride from the airport. But we weren’t officially registered on the ride share board so I don’t think the email got through to you. My sister lives in Halifax.”
Oh how sweet. I feel like it is meant to be. We share stories of why we’re here and our backgrounds. Then a few of us from the residence head out for a little walk before dinner. The returning student shows us the grounds and we loop through the short walking trail.
The gong sounds. It’s time for dinner and I’m hungry. We make our way to the women’s dining hall.
A simple vegetarian buffet is set up. A big pot of lentil soup, cornbread and the fixings for salad. It’s warm, nourishing and satisfying. After the Christmas holiday indulgence, I’m actually ready to switch up my eating for a bit and go vegetarian. However, I’m a little worried about all the carbs and lack of protein. And typically my digestive system doesn’t do so well on beans and legumes. But this is all part of the process right? I am here to fully embrace the experience and my thoughts and thinking around food are all part of it.
After dinner we all gather (about 100-150 men and women) in the women’s dining hall for an orientation delivered by a guy named Bob. There’s no formal introduction but I get a sense he’s more of a facilities manager than a teacher. He gives us a run down on the schedule, the property, do’s and don’ts and a bit of what we can expect.
He answers some questions. Introduces the course managers who are different from the teachers. The managers are the folks we go to with day-to-day, logistical types of issues. Bob explains what will happen next during our first sitting this evening. Once that is over we will be in silence. It’s a helpful, yet light-on-details, overview. I leave with hundreds of questions swirling in my head.
Our first sit – silence has begun
We head over to the meditation hall and wait in the coat room to be called by name, row-by-row into the hall. Men and women are divided. Men on the left side and women on the right. We find our spots which are designated for the duration of the course. There is a large zabuton type cushion that forms the base, then one smaller square cushion on top.
Surprisingly, there’s no instruction on how to sit, proper posture, props or supports. This is up to each person to figure out. There are a few extra supplies (cushions, blankets, kneeling benches) out in the coatroom to use. Many people have brought their own.
After everyone is seated and quiet, the teachers arrive. To be honest things become a little fuzzy at that point. I remember Scott, the male teacher, introducing himself and his wife Karen and explaining that Goenka is the main teacher of the course and they are the assistant teachers. I don’t remember how long we sit for or what else he says.
I do recall having this image of how tranquil, peaceful and calm this scene of 150 people sitting in silence and stillness would look to an observer. But the reality is that on the inside, each one of our minds was likely going absolutely crazy with thoughts, questions, worries, fears and apprehensions.
I could imagine this scene as a cartoon with two pictures – the first picture captioned “here’s what it looks like on the outside” and the second pic being “here’s what’s really going on.”
It felt a little surreal as we left the meditation hall that night in silence. Heads down, no eye contact, inward focus, walking back to our rooms in the dark.
I also remember how good it felt to brush my teeth and crawl into my little bed. I was exhausted. A bit overwhelmed. Anxiously excited. And truly open to what would unfold over the next 10 days.