It's been a few weeks since I spent 11 hours a day in silence meditating in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. As crazy as that may sound (to some)...it was an interesting yet transformative experience.
And it's probably a good time to now reflect upon the experience.
When "noble silence" was lifted upon all of us, it took a little while before people were comfortable approaching one another to chit-chat. It took me a few tries before being able to form a question because I somehow forgot how to talk!
But as soon as mouths started chattering, buzz and excitement filled the air. Small groups formed to discuss one another's experiences. While each person's experience was distinct and different, one could tell by the flow of positive vibes that those 10 days of silence were indeed quite transformative...
There was Charlie, a recovering drug and alcohol addict who drove all the way from Colorado with his girlfriend to "try it out." It was his first retreat but by the way he was preaching, I had thought he was quite the experienced guru. For the past 2 years, he's been cleaning up and passing "Thank You" coins from the Random Acts of Kindness foundation, which has reached over 2,000 people around the world. It started as a movement to protect his high school son from being bullied at school...perhaps a simple coin or "thank you" could change the way people, even high schoolers, react? It worked, and he's trying to start a movement to promote peace and compassion. And the retreat really rejuvenated his spirits...what began as skepticism ended with a renewed passion to follow his dreams. Keep fighting, Charlie!
And then I tried looking for my rideshare buddy, Marvin. Apparently he left in the middle of the meditation retreat for unknown reasons. I knew he was going through a tough time going into the retreat, and I hope that he's doing well.
The one guy I wanted to reconnect with was my new friend from Sacramento, Alex. He came into the retreat through a recommendation from a family friend who had done one 5 years back, and he saw how life-changing it was. Recently, Alex had been going through stressful times with running a business while raising a family, so he decided to take 10 days off to try it out...and when I saw him afterwards, he was all smiles. We took several walks across campus, and he excitedly explained to me what he had learned and how he was going to try to apply it in daily life. I was so happy to see a happy man come back into existence.
Since my ride had left early, I found another ride back to the city with Chuck. It was Chuck's 6th retreat, but he said each one is different. Super interesting and nice guy who has been running the Sony Music video department for the Playstation platform for the past 20 years. Then there was Mike, the ex-History teacher, who quit his job earlier this year to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. 3 months into the woods, he broke his ankle and was forced to drop out. He has plans to return one day...
Mind vs. the World
As for myself, it was a roller coaster of emotions but a metamorphic experience nonetheless. Walking into the retreat, I had no expectations and didn't necessarily believe I had problems surfacing on the outside, but boy was I wrong. While my experiential travels did have a huge impact on my perspective and well-being, there are undoubtedly superfluous doubts and anxieties lurking within.
The process of self-introspection first begins by detaching and freeing yourself from all pains and joys. It is the process which Goenka describes as observing "equanimity," meaning we must not place a higher emphasis on pain or joy but just observe all such emotions as reality - this is the basis of Vipassana. Sounds abstract - yeah, I know. But what that really means is being so focused and aware of all physiological and emotional feelings to the point where you don't react, but just observe it for what it is. That sounds even more abstract - yeah, I know.
But somehow it works...most times, we react to pain or emotion before thinking, but what if we just observed (even if it is for a brief 1/10th of a second) and then react? The first few days were mired in suffering and pain in the joints and back. I kept twitching and turning. How painful! But once I learned to just "observe" each pain point, the pain eventually faded away. Such is the way of life. Nothing is ever constant. Everything passes.
How do we apply such learnings to daily life? Remember how much anguish and pain we placed on ourselves from a previous argument or fight? Was it really worth it to ruminate such evil thoughts in our minds for days and weeks for a petty argument or a "scratched iPhone?" Once we have the power to train and control our minds, we can control our happiness and emotions. In other words, you have the power to be happy.
Many times my mind wandered off to Viktor Frankl's experience in the concentration camps. While he saw thousands of other Jewish prisoners die off due to a weakened mind which in turn led to hopelessness, he held onto hope by focusing on some type of meaning to be alive...to one day be reunited with his wife. That is ultimately the power of the mind.
Yet in today's world, many of us suffer because of external forces, forces that in reality may hold no value and dissipate with passing time while this suffering of ours holds on. Are we able to train our minds to prevent suffering? Vipassana believes so. It's been told to have changed thousands of lives and cured states of depression. In fact, scientific research on meditation (while growing is still in its infancy) proves that meditation does have beneficial changes to our minds.
While the process of self-awareness and introspection had started during my travels, the "shut the hell up" retreat really brought it to another level. I was able to connect so intimately with my senses in a way I never thought possible...sort of like Jason Bourne. The sensory explosions that existed during those 10 days faded away once back in society, but they did exist. It's amazing what we can do once we channel our focus on ourselves instead of allowing external forces guide and control us. Many moments throughout the retreat brought me to a deeper understanding of myself, my values, and ultimately my story up until that point.
However, the biggest test is how you apply the practice in daily life. The 10 days were kind of like a training ground preparing oneself to re-enter the Colosseum we call society. Most old-timers warned me that it was difficult to maintain the level of meditative intensity once back in society, and I understood what they meant once I re-adjusted back to society. With all the noises and buzzes of society, it is indeed difficult to maintain 2 hours of intense Vipassana meditation...
However, those 10 days were transformative. It taught me that there is indeed a way for us to control our minds. I felt it. I experienced it. It's with this experiential confidence that leads me to this day to believe that with proper practice and continuos effort, we can take control of our lives. Because at the end of the day, our experiences are really just projections of our minds.