NOBLE SILENCE - A 10 Day Vipassana Meditation Retreat
05/14/2014 - 05/25/2014 90 °F
Apologies for the delay and apologies for the extreme length...10 days no talking so now I have a lot to say!
Well folks, I did it and it is done! And with full ego I am patting myself on the back for doing so because 10 days of no talking and 8 hours of mediation a day "ain't no crystal stair."
On May 14th at 8pm, I, Ivorie Nicole Jenkins, of sane mind and healthy body, enrolled myself into a 10 day Vipassana Meditation Course. I state the above affirmation because after about three days I began looking for someone to blame for this torture and asking myself questions like: Who would willingly put themselves through this mindf#*k? Why on earth would someone CHOOSE to do this? Certainly there has to be ransom or a gun involved. Yet, I would not be able to place blame because the choice was mine and mine alone.
I arrived from Mysore (the city where the late and famed Yoga master Patabi Jois tried to get me to pay 1500 Rupees for a yoga class! That's more than a class in Santa Monica, California!) via a 3 hour train to Bangalore and then a city bus about an hour and a half to the outskirts of Bangalore to Dhamma Papullha Vippasana Meditation Center. Dhamma meaning truth and Paphulla meaning cheerfulness.
I arrived to no greeting...maybe silence already started? The grounds of the campus were dry and looked like the backyard of a foreclosed Las Vegas house. You know the ones that haven't seen a gardener or a water hose in a couple of seasons. I was a little disappointed as I had pictured rolling hills of green, wild flowers and wide meadows surrounding the place where I would find enlightenment. But I figured my eyes would be closed most of the time so the hell with landscaping.
Silence had not yet begun because when I reached the Women's Residence Hall, I was immediately scolded for indecent dress. I had on loose fitting, boy shorts that came down to my knees but no shorts of any kind are allowed. Of course I knew this already because they sent all the rules in an introductory email but it was hot as Satan's big toe nail that day and I am a self proclaimed "Habitual Line Stepper" so I went ahead with the shorts anyway.
A lady in a Saree with her belly hanging out the side asked if I had "more appropriate" pants to change into. I said yes but made no sudden moves to go change. She have me a look that clearly meant "now." The brat living inside me wanted to ask how my calves and ankles were more inappropriate than the rolls on the left side of her stomach hanging out over her Saree. Of course I refrained.
I completed the sign in process and was assigned to a room with an Indian woman named Sashi. I liked her right away and so was disappointed when they switched her with a Japanese girl named Tomo. Tomo and I were the only non-Indians females. There were only 2 other non-Indian men, one from California and one from Spain (the Spainard left after Day 2 btw). Foreigners need to be together was their logic. I've been in India too long to need the company of a fellow foreigner said my ego. I would quickly realize that this was the best decision made for me by someone else.
Tomo was amazing! She was just a little younger than me, living in Bangalore studying Yoga and Martial Arts. Her boyfriend is from Florida of all places but lives and works in Japan. Tie that off with the oh so romantic detail that they met in spirit-filled land of Rishikesh, India. So she was familiar with American culture and her English close to perfect. We hit it off right away especially knowing that our time left to talk was quickly ticking away!
At 5pm we went together to turn in all sensory objects. That meant books, journals, pens and pencils, iPads and Pods and of course cell phones. They told us that these objects would become tempting as the course progressed. They weren't lying either! Around Day 5, I noticed that there was newspaper lining my shelves. When I saw it that part in the brain that is overactive in drug addicts lit right up! And like a fein I got on my tippy toes and crooked my neck to see if i could get a sentence, a headline, a photo, a word, anything!
Outside of the office where we dropped off our links to the outside world, people stood around having their last words before the much anticipated oath of silence. This is where I met what would be my mind's first distraction.
His name was Amyth...I know a boy right?! Too cliche. He was young, tall, Indian, kinda cute and had this Indian swag about him that struck me right away. Tomo and I began talking to him and learned that he spent his childhood in the UK which explained the accent and the perfect English. But I detected some American influence as well because his slang was something I had not heard in 3 months of Indian travel.
This was his second time to the course. The previous time was 9 months ago but he left on Day 7. He said "Day 6 is the worst man! I started seeing shit... hallucinations and what not." This information didn't really assuage any fears Tomo and I were carrying. Why was he telling this to us anyway?! Was he just trying to prepare us for the worst? Was he oblivious that we were Vippasana Virgins and preferred our blissful ignorance to his frightening past reality? Nonetheless, he was back for a second try to fight off the Day 6 hallucinations and finish the full 10 days.
We continued talking a little bit longer and I found my body language turning the conversation from Tomo, Amyth and I to just Amyth and I. Was I crushing on an Indian boy????? And 20 minutes before I wouldn't be able to talk to him for 10 days but I would still know he's there in the same hall meditating with me. Great! Just great! My mind was going to have a field day with this brand new stimuli.
And so then it began. We were given some general rules the biggest one being Noble Silence.
We were then shown into the Meditation Hall where our cushions were neatly arranged with attached name tags. I was female #34. There we did our first one hour meditation from 8-9pm before returning back to our dorms for sleep because tomorrow was an early morning.
Time schedule for the next 10 days went something like this:
one of three Sevas (volunteers) walks past each room and rings a little evil bell. Every morning, i consider how i might sneak in her room during the day, steal the bell and burying it somewhere she would never find.
I don't even move. It is a 2 minute walk to the Meditation Hall so there is no reason for me to be up 30 minutes before...unless I am an Indian woman and I want to wrap a Saree, rebraid my hair and put on all my gold jewelry before leaving my room.
the evil bells rings again this time with a little more fervor. I moan and put the pillow over my head and sleep another 11 minutes.
I literally roll out of bed, grab my water bottle and head out the door. I defiantly choose to not brush my teeth or wash my face! I tell myself that the key word is silence so its not like anyone will be smelling my morning breath.
4:30 - 6:30AM
which was either a spicy rice pilaf, spicy wheat, cous-cous-like pilaf or Thalis (fluffy rice patties) - with a spicy cocunut chutney sauce and of course Chai. There was also fruit but only for the returning students. They only eat 2 meals a day the second one being lunch. No food after 12noon! Glad I wasn't a returning student.
During this time I would do one of three things as options for activities were limited: Sleep, Yoga or Laundry. Before silence began, Tomo and I decided our laundry day would be Day 3 and Day 7. We had to figure out logistical things like this before hand so we wouldn't have to break noble silence later on.
Seems early but not when you consider I've been up since 4! Lunch was the largest meal of day served buffet style. This moment of the day always made me feel like I was a female convict in an episode of Orange is the New Black which I renamed Sarees are the New Jumpsuit, being in India and all. The metal plates and cups, the way the Sevas sloped the heaps of white rice onto plates, starring at a white wall while
eating because the 4 window seats were already taken or looking at a room full of unsmiling women eat lunch really gave off that prison vibe.
Lunch tastes good though. There are usually 2 types of a raw vegetable, chopati, white rice and red rice, a curry or 2, and a very thin watered down curd (yoghurt) which is served in a metal cup like it's a glass of milk. Usually curd is thick like either buttermilk or yoghurt but I guess since it has to feed 100 people they make it go the distance with a little water.
During this time I usually take a nap or go for a walk around the grounds of the center then take a nap.
And by dinner break I mean snack break. It is difficult to meditate on a full stomach and what you eat the night before affects your practice the following morning so they only feed us a puffed rice and peanut mix, a piece of fruit (watermelon, papaya or banana) and of course Chai. But don't feel bad for me because the returning students who got the fruit in the morning only get lemon water at dinner!
Discourse on Meditation
This is my favorite part of the day! We all sit in the meditation hall and for the first time of the day our senses are stimulated. A big projection screen shows a video of S.N. Goenka, the guy who made Vipassana accessible to the masses by opening centers for mediation around the globe. He is a long time practitioner of Vipassana and a scholar of Buddha, his writings and teachings. He is a jolly fellow who, for one hour, transports us away from our cushions. He explains exactly why we are doing what we are doing in the way we are doing it. He has a fable for everything and he could really make us laugh!
you guessed it... Mediate
Day 1 and 2 were pretty peaceful. I was happy to be there. The meditation was going well. Some other meditators were having trouble with the physicality of staying in one position for so long but I was used to this sort of torture from years of dance training. My mentor and dance guru Homer Bryant would make us hold our arms in a la seconde for 5 minutes straight! That means holding your arms out to the side as if you were hugging a giant beach ball. When our arms started to falter or we began to moan he would shout "It does not hurt, it's slightly uncomfortable!" And now my Yoga teacher, Annie Carpenter also a former dancer, is no kinder. She says hold plank position and I am clear i should get real comfy with plank pose because we are going to be there awhile! All this to say, I am no stranger to holding uncomfortable positions and training my mind to go somewhere other than the pain.
My difficulty: shutting my mind up!
The first 3 days our only job was to focus on breathing. Follow the breath in and notice the sensation of the breath passing out. Simple enough. But remember, my Indian crush is sitting on the other side of the aisle about three rows behind me. Therefore my meditation goes something like this:
Inhale... Breath is warm...i feel it seep into my brain... Cooling exhale .. sensation of breath is passing gently over my upper lip.. ..Again... steady breath...Inhale...He's only three rows behind... Am I in his line of eyesight?... Maybe he's watching me!... Wouldn't that be funny if he's watching me mediate about him?!... Ivorie! Pull it together.... Exhale...sensation of breath on upper lip....Inhale... Sensation of breath on nose hairs... He did say he lived in Goa for 6 months. And I am going to Goa the day i get out of here... should I ask him to go with me?... Ivorie! Girl focus! ... Inhale... What if he's married with like 2 kids? You know Indians start early. Yeah he probably is. But no, i know a married man with kids when i see one. I didn't get that vibe... Ivorie!!! Okay okay....serious this time... Exhale....inhale...exhale...inhale...exhale...inhale....exhale...do I smell incense? Who has time to lite incense at 4am... maybe it's perfume... Incense inspired Indian fragrances... Is that patented already? If not it should be... Maybe that's what I could do to keep me in India. How am I gonna get back here? My knee is slightly uncomfortable... What time is it in LA? I wonder if any celebrities have done a 10 Vipassana course... Probably like Matthew McConaughey or Johnny Depp. They are wierd enough. Am i wierd? Maybe Brad and Angelina.... Uggh..I hate when celebrities invade my brain.... Back to my Indian man... if we got married we could totally have a cool Indian-American fusion wedding... And I would get to wear those beautiful flowers the women put in their hair... A ton of them... My hair would need to be longer though... Doesn't work with short hair...Why won't my hair grow longer anyway... Everyday I use that Indian hair oil and still all I got is this Jew fro curly mess. I should just buy more scarves before I leave. Will he want too wear a crazy Rajasthani turban at the wedding?... That might be to much. But our babies!! Tooooo cute! Now I won't have to abduct an Indian baby before I leave. I can just have one of my own. She will be so cute. I hope it's a girl! Wow!!!!! I've gone off the deep end...Did I just marry him and have a baby???! Wtf? Ivorie you are supposed to be here for YOU. How long has it been? Are we almost done?..Inhale... I wish I had a watch. I should get a watch from Commercial street before I leave Bangalore....
And so it was variations of the above all day long. This was the everyday battle between me and my thoughts. I would tell them to be quiet, they would quiet for 2.5 seconds and return and I would have to push them side again.
Go ahead! You try it! See how many breaths you can focus on before some utterly ridiculous thought breaks your concentration.
I'm guessing max 5 breaths or about 20 second right?
But this is the practice of training the mind to becoming of aware of thought patterns as well as our subconscious automatic reactions to these thoughts. And for the first 4 days we practiced mostly this. The thought appears, I observe but do not judge, be it good or bad... Even if I did just have a baby with a man I've know for only 30 minutes. I still push the thought aside and begin again. Over and over until slowly...very slowly the thoughts become less and instead of being distracted 30 times it is only 20 times.
My mind becomes steadier more concentrated and II am able to witness the surprisingly simplistic pattern of my thoughts. They are mostly the same damn thoughts over and over! Am I really this simple minded I think. Here I am thinking I am this complicated woman who needed India to help me figure myself out. But when I become the observer I see that my thoughts are on a loop. It's as if someone tricked me and put my minds' video on repeat to keep me from digging any deeper.
After Day 4 we began the actual Vipassana technique which involves observing the body's sensations. We sat meditating 8 times a day but now 3 of those times it became mandatory that you do not leave the Hall and that you actually try your hardest to not move a muscle. Of course torturing oneself is not encouraged. If you need to change positions, so be it. But the point is to observe why you need to move your legs and before you move your legs investigate. What am I feeling? Is it really pain or just an itching sensation? If I wait a moment will it subside? Do I have to react to every sensation that passes through my body? Or can I remain the witness and begin to understand that ALL sensations whether pleasant or unpleasant will undeniably pass away. So in these hour long mediation sessions all 100 or so of us would pan our bodies from head to toe observing sensations but not looking or waiting for the sensations because that would infer that you are no longer in the present moment. You are in fact anticipating a moment in the future.
I was surprised to find that within an hour or so of receiving these instructions I felt a current like flow of energy through my whole body! It was so cool. It felt like a natural high. I even reached a point where gravity no longer lived. I felt the feeling of floating with no separation between me the floor or the air around me. It was magical and I didn't want the feeling too end. But ahhhaaa! Now comes the second half of the Vippasana technique. Equanimity. Whatever feeling arises, be it pain or pleasure, can you remain equanimous? Dispassionate? Unattached? For me this concept seemed simple when dealing with pain but pleasure? Who wants pleasure to leave? And if it does have to go home or re charge, what time can it be available tomorrow and where should we meet?!
I understood the danger of this attachment on Day 5. As I searched my body for that surge of energy and waited for the floating feeling to return I got nada. The only sensation I was feeling was my ass was firmly attached to my cushion and my sit bones on fire from this 40 hour meditation marathon! And it felt like with each hour I sat my ass was spreading! No exercise besides a measly walk around a field of dead grass and too much rice and chopati was not a good look for the waist line. I decreased my breakfast and lunch intake immediately. Not like I needed the calories for meditation.
And top it all off guess what else happened on Day 5? My Indian boyfriend left! He didn't even make it to his past score of 6 days! What a punk for leaving me here! How were we going to have the amazing conversation about our new states of enlightenment over fish curry on the beach in Goa if he was gone already? Ugggghh. Maybe he is just sick and missing only the morning mediation. He'll be back for the video discourse in the evening, I lied to myself. He told Tomo and I the discourse was his favorite part of the day and whenever I would sneak a peak at him, there he sat on his cushion listening intensely with a big grin on his face. But he wasn't there in the evening either :-( and reality struck when they removed his cushion from the row. Sad day. He was gone and so were my Indian babies. My only hope was that he left his number for me so I could call him when I broke out of this joint. Then I had to reel myself in again. I was witnessing the attachment and watching the sorrow it was causing me all because I created some fake scenario in my mind with someone I hardly knew.
I wouldn't be able to tell him but he was wrong about Day 6, I saw no hallucinations and actually had a pretty good day. And the course was already half way through! The only mishap on Day 6, I locked Tomo in the room before our 4:30 am meditation! It was a complete accident. I wasn't present and locked the combination lock we shared after I left. But she was still in the room!. It was talking her a little longer to get up that day... She is usually up and out the door before me which is why I'm used to locking the door behind me. And I didn't even realize it until one of the Sevas came and told me that she had to break Tomo out of her own room that morning. She completely missed the 2 hour morning mediation... Seemed like I did her a favor is what that brat in the back of my mind said.
But then I did it again on Day 8!!! This was my worst day. The end seemed so near but so far away. Day 10 is a full day and we even have the 4:30 morning meditation on Day 11 before being released so the end was like a mirage tautening me all of Day 8. My mind must have been in this place of misery because instead of locking Tomo in with the combination lock I locked her in from the lock on the outside of the door. There is an inside lock to lock when you are inside and an outside lock to lock when you are outside. However, you only lock the outside lock if everyone in the room is outside otherwise they are locked in. I was specifically trying to be mindful not to repeat Day 6 so I left the combo lock on her bed but didn't think twice about locking the outside lock. What an idiot. I came back to the room wondering if she left meditation early because I didn't see her at her cushion which is behind me in the hall. It didn't even dawn on me that I could have repeated the mistake. But once again, the Seva came knocking on my door to break the bad news that I am an idiot! I broke noble silence when Tomo came in and with my hands in the Namaste position I mouthed the words I am so sorry over and over again. Of course she was so and gracious and told me not to worry.
On Day 9 Tomo and I broke Noble Silence and we broke it with laughter! She hates bugs, sleeping with no AC and general uncleanliness. I have been watching her battle the bugs all week. We are situated in a very remote area and so bugs are a reality. I actually broke Noble silence on Day 2 when a roach crawled out of my toothbrush holder...with my toothbrush still inside! Luckily I still had my Air Emirates toothbrush to save the day...love that airline! She also broke Noble Silence on Day 4ish as she screamed at a bug that invaded her suitcase! But we never talked with each other only screamed to ourselves.
Night 9 was hotter than usual because no rain had come that day. We were both snuggled in our mosquito netted beds waiting for sleep and waiting for Day 10 at 10 am when we were allowed to break Noble silence and speak to each other. After tossing and turning for some time, I opened my eyes frustrated that sleep was no where in sight. I opened my eyes to a huge flying beetle starring me in my face! But it was almost Day 10 and I was high on mediation. The word EQUANIMITY had been downloaded several hundred times into my brain and so my only reaction was observation. "Was this bug on the inside or the outside of this netting? Wow this bug is really big. It's wings are such a beautiful shade of blue."
I slowly got up so not to disturb the fellow in case it was sleeping. I turned on the light to see that Tomo was also no where near sleep. I tried to do a gesture dance to explain the situation but she just flat out asked me "a bug?! You don't want to kill it right?" I said no and she brought over a container and together we managed the fellow into the container and dropped him outside. Then we just went for it. I told her I couldn't sleep she said her neither. I tried to turn up the fan but ended up breaking the knob causing the fan to totally shut off. We tried all of our MacGyver skills to get it to work but in the end it was still broken. This was unacceptable to Tomo! First no AC and now no fan! No no no. She suggested we go find one of the Sevas to help. It was well past Lights Out but they were still up...on FB actually. I guess volunteers get to keep their cell phones. The Seva said "wait for some time" and she would be back with a wrench.
"Wait for some time" is a beautiful Indian expression used when you are not quite sure how long something will take but you don't want commit to estimating a time frame. It could be minutes, hours, days. It's perfect for people like me who are always running late. "I'll be there in some time." But infuriating if you are waiting for someone or something.
'Some time' I'm this case ended up being about 10 minutes. Ten minutes of Tomo and I laughing about the last 30 minutes of us being roommates... I also apologized again for locking her out. Gosh it was so nice to talk even if just for 10 minutes! The fan was fixed and we even said "goodnight" to each other. A roommate first.
On Day 10 the excitement was palpable. We finished our morning meditation breakfast and our first stillness meditation in silence. Then we watched a video about all the other Vipassana Centers opened by Goenka throughout the world. If interested find yours here http://www.dhamma.org
Then we were free...almost. We still had to complete two more meditation hours and we were not allowed to speak in the Meditation Hall but other than that we got our phones and personal items back and got to put voices to all the faces we saw each day. By this day 12 students had already left. 10 men and 2 women. I would love to see a statistic of which sex generally leaves before the 10 days are through. I have a hunch that women stick it out longer. Maybe there's a built in pain tolerance meant for childbirth that allows us to go the distance. Could be nonsense but worth the investigation.
Speaking of free - all should be pleased to know that [b]the entirety of this course is free. The lodging, the food and the knowledge. They ask for a donation of whatever you feel the course was worth to you and your bank account at the end. They only want you to know that your place at the course was made possible by a previous students' donation. So honorable right?
Everyone was so nice when they were allowed to smile. We all ate lunch over great conversation much of which were questions about my hair scarves. Someone asked if it was part of my religion. Someone else said she thought I was African. Lol! Naw ladies! Just too many bad hair days!
So did my Indian boyfriend leave a note for me? It was the moment of truth as I walked up to the front desk to ask. When I inquired, I tried to sound professional or spiritual or something other than desperate for a boy's phone number after 10 days of practicing equanimity. And I really had to practice equanimity when I found out that NO he left nothing for me! As if? I thought we had something!
I know what you're thinking...or at least I know what I would be thinking if I was the reader instead of the writer. Did my 10 days of intense self reflection boil down to a story about a boy and whether we lived happily ever after or not? Of course not. It really just makes for a good thread to keep you interested in such a long post.
In all honesty, I was relieved when Amyth left. Not for him but purely for my own selfish reasons. He was a distraction and I really did come to this course with the intention to dig deeper into the practice of meditation which I would like to become more intimate with. I wanted to get to know myself under extreme circumstances. I wanted the teachings of a technique which I could root firmly in and take back to my home in LA to develop further. I am drawn to spirituality but I don't care for religion or sects or religious dogma of any kind. I don't want someone else, who is just as unenlightened as I, telling me how to get to heaven or making me fear going to hell. So while the rest of you find peace and truth at church or mosque or temple, I also want to be able to have a spiritual place which to abide. I want a practice that is developed for me and by what I know to be true at this stage in my life with all I have come to experience as truth. I want to use all my doubts on religion and spirituality as signs of intelligence that the path is not yet clear and I still have work to make it so.
But the mind will find distraction no matter what and if it had not been this boy, perhaps I would have fixated on an ex-boyfriend or even thoughts of why I have no boyfriend. If it is not one thing it will be another. Therefore I do not mind ending this post with such a frivolous story of a me liking a boy. I did like him and even though he didn't leave me his number it didn't mean I couldn't be the aggressor and ask the front desk for his! The beaches in Goa would be so much better with a friend ;-)