I went to my first Vipassana retreat three years ago. A friend of mine had suggested that I go to one and after I researched it, I figured it could turn out to be a great experience if nothing else. I tried to apply to centers in Thailand, Switzerland and France but they were always booked up within hours that a new retreat would open.
Late 2013, I ended up going to a center in Spain, about an hour north of Barcelona. The retreat was to last 10 days starting right after Christmas and going into the New Year. I actually did not know much about what was going to happen as I had been told that part of the experience was to actually discover it moment after moment. All I knew was that I would spend most of my days meditating and that I would have to be silent for the entire retreat. That was totally fine with me.
When I got there, I was directed to a small room with two sets of bunk beds. Mine was one of the top ones. I am not necessarily crazy for bunk beds but I had prepare myself to just accept what was going to come my way and I was ready to go with the flow.
And so it started… 10 days in total silence, up at 4am and in bed by 10pm, meditating for about 10 hours a day in a large hall where women would sit on one side and men on the other. I wish I had written about that experience right after I got back to the real world, when everything was still fresh. I did not. But when I look back, I remember that I lived through some major body pains: my back, my shoulders, my knees, my behind, etc. On some days, my entire legs were hard as rock for spending so many hours sitting down… On others, I could barely keep my back straight from all the tensions and pain. But never once did I consider giving up. When I signed up to do this, I had subconsciously made a deal with myself that I would get through the 10-day retreat no matter what and it was not so much that I had to talk myself out of walking out, the thought simply never crossed my mind even though a few people did progressively disappear from the meditation hall as time went by. And in many ways, the pain is part of the experience and it also has its place in the practice. Still, there was never any kind of internal negotiations going on for me: I went knowing that I would make it till the end and that was it. I did…
The other thing that I remember clearly is how much I struggled with darkness. I think that for ten days in a row, pretty much all the thoughts that came to my mind were dark moments from past relationships: for ten days, upsetting, unsettling, crappy memories came back to me; some of them I had not even thought about in years and I was actually very surprised that they would still be lingering somewhere in my mind. They all had one thing in common: they were all about me being disrespected, put down, manipulated, underestimated, unappreciated, rejected, lied to, used and abused, etc. It was overwhelming… It felt like being dragged in a river of pain and sorrow where all the hurtful actions of the men of my past would wash over me like unstoppable crashing waves… But I just kept on swimming in this heartbreaking swamp as if it was just part of the journey I needed to go through to move on and leave it all behind.
Once I left the center, I meditated a few times but was unable to really make it a daily practice. To be totally honest, I did not know going in that I would be invited to start meditating for one hour twice a day upon my return to real life. I could not even fathom how that would be possible for me and simply did not consider it… However, about a year later, in the midst of an extremely painful condition that went on for months, I started meditating again as a way to manage the pain and remain in control of my daily life… I was trying to detach myself from the sensations and simply observe them, acknowledge them, but not let them beat me up and tie me down… and that’s when meditation truly became a part of my life. I never meditated regularly: I let myself off the hook by telling myself that accepting the fact that I do not meditate every day is my way to work on accepting the present and accepting what is, with detachment.
My second 10-day retreat was a year ago. This time it was in France and I ended up with my own little room with my own bathroom and it enabled me to fully be with myself, with barely any kind of distraction at all. The body pains I experienced that time were very minor and did not compare at all to the ones from my first retreat. And this time, I had come with intentions: I intended to put a lot of efforts into it, to keep trying whenever things would get hard, and to commit to Vipassana. All I did for 10 days was sleep, eat, and meditate… I only went twice for a walk in the little meadow where most everybody else would wander whenever we had a bit of free time (about an hour and a half each day)… I would crawl back in my bed any time I could, mentally exhausted by all the efforts I was putting into my practice.
In the end, there was no big revelation, no life-changing moment that leaves a clear “before” and “after”, no earthquake… But I was slowly making my way to a new healthier me. Upon returning from the retreat, I started pretty effortlessly waking up at 5:30am to meditate for one hour every weekday. I love that space early in the morning when I feel ahead of time, on top of the world, on top of my life… Still little by little, the stress of my life started overflowing and it got more difficult… I think I still meditated quite often even if it was not every day but it was not a daily practice.
I went back for a 3-day retreat last September. I figured it would be a nice way to jump-start my practice again… but things took a weird turn: I have been following the Vipassana practice of Mr. S.N. Goenka and some of the things I heard during that retreat left somewhat of a bad taste in my mouth… Suddenly, following the practice felt uncomfortable to me… I disagreed too strongly with some of the things I was hearing and I felt that I was going down a path that was a bit too extreme for me… So I continued to meditate but took a step back from the rest of the practice and researched other alternatives that would be more in line with my values and principles and that would make more sense for the person I was evolving into.
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
I had heard about MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) meditation many times in the past but had also been told that as a Vipassana meditator, there was no point in me attending one of those courses as I already was way more experienced that anybody else who might go there… Still, other aspects of the program fit with what I was looking for: a practice that would more easily permeates through every aspects of my life along with tools and resources that I could use even when I was not home sitting on my little meditation cushion. Plus, the new professional direction I was taking along with additional medical issues made me feel like I definitely needed to experiment with MBSR.
Turned out that it was what I was looking for: a way to be present to my surroundings and to myself even when away from my home and my cushion… A way to find a way back to me even when there were storms all around… A way to slow down my mind and take it one thought, one step, one moment at a time… I am not saying that I have fully mastered it… probably far from it… but I actually find it comforting to know that there are still much to learn and much more to experience; yet, it does feel as if I have found a key and that I am slowly in the process of opening a new door. I have learned to stop listening in order to hear better, to feel the ground under my feet in order to gain a clearer awareness of my surroundings, and to pay attention to my breathing in order to fully be with myself… it is most definitely the early steps of a practice in motion but the first few drops are already very refreshing…