How to transform your relationship with yourself and the world around you
When loved ones and strangers ask me, with curiosity, what it is like to complete a 10-day silent meditation retreat, I smile and respond with an answer that hasn’t changed in the months since I returned.
It is as if I’ve been sleeping for the past 32 years, and I’ve finally awakened.
By no means is the journey of learning Vipassana, one of the oldest of Buddhist meditation practices, an easy one. Nor am I suggesting that I experienced a life-altering, spiritual awakening. But the teachings of the late Mr. S.N. Goenka (Goenkaji) — the foremost lay teacher of Vipassana meditation of our time — allowed me to understand that I was a prisoner of my own habitual thought patterns. Thoughts I chose, formed stories about and believed in wholeheartedly. They were the root of my own misery.
Vipassana is a mental technique that teaches one how to experience the world in an entirely new way. In Pali, the original language of Theravada literature, Vipassana can be translated as insight, the simple and direct practice of moment-to-moment mindfulness. Through intentional and sustained observation, we experience for ourselves the ever-changing flow of the mind/body process. We use our breath as our focus. When the mind wanders from one thought to another, otherwise known as the “monkey mind,” we practice anapana — we focus on our breath as we inhale and exhale through the nose. Our breath becomes our primary object of meditation.
But, how do you focus on your breathing when your mind and body seem to be disconnected? As someone who has struggled with mindful breathing for years due to anxiety, I wasn’t sure how to master this technique. In fact, I was terrified. But where did that fear really come from? Was it the anxiety itself? Or, was it my relationship, my attachment, to this story that I held on so tightly for years? I identified with the anxiety story because it defined my existence in this world, at the detriment of my own well being. It disconnected me from myself. My anxiety was among the many masks I wore — that we all wear — to keep myself safe. But more about it this later.
We arrived at Dhamma Dharā, the first Vipassana Meditation Center in North America, on a cold afternoon in February. After a warm meal and introductions, we took a vow of Noble Silence — silence of body, speech and mind — at 8 PM. On our first night, I panicked. What did I just get myself into? I voluntarily took a vow of silence at a time I needed the presence of loved ones the most.
The first few days were the most difficult. Just as we use physical exercise to improve our health, Vipassana was like CrossFit for the mind. My mind took me to places I didn’t want to go to, and my body endured pain from sitting for hours a day. I had no means of escaping the misery — no phone, no social media, no journal, no books. To perform the task of self observation effectively, one cannot be distracted. How often do we run away from our feelings and emotions on a daily basis? During this self-exploratory journey, I was forced to unlearn these habits. Vipassana served as a mirror reflecting my inner nature — my thoughts, feelings, judgements and sensations — back at me.
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana beautifully and poignantly explains the technique:
“The Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s original discourse on mindfulness, specifically says that one must begin by focusing the attention on the breathing and then go on to note all other physical and mental phenomena which arise…[t]he mind is tricky. Thought is an inherently complicated procedure. By that we mean that we become trapped, wrapped up, and stuck in the thought chain…[w]e use breath as our focus. It serves as that vital reference point from which the mind wanders and is drawn back…[w]hen you first begin this procedure, expect to face some difficulties. Your mind will wander off constantly darting, around like a bumble bee and zooming off on wild tangents…[w]hen it happens, just note the fact that you have been thinking, day-dreaming, worrying, or whatever. Gently, but firmly, without getting upset or judging yourself for straying, simply return to the simple physical sensation of the breath. Then do it again the next time, and again, and again, and again…[i]t takes practice, so we start small. We start by becoming totalIy aware of one small unit of time, just one single inhalation.” (“What Exactly Is Vipassana Meditation”)
The idea is to sit with your emotions, observe them objectively and not get attached to them. But, why would I practice detachment from something I connect with so deeply? I am an emotional human being. Emotions were a part of my identity. And there lies the problem: my attachment to something so ephemeral. My attachment to anything, really. The root of my suffering was very much connected to my own attachment to my cravings and desires. This is a universal experience.
To put it simply, we like pleasant feelings — the feelings that arise from a good joke or a delicious dinner. Even painful feelings give rise to craving. When we have painful thoughts, we bury them or distract ourselves with hours of Netflix or overpriced cocktails. We want to get rid of the pain and enjoy some pleasure. That clinginess, the superficiality of our desire, ends unavoidably in disappointment and suffering.
Meditation reminds us that pleasure, like any feeling, is impermanent. If we hold on to a memory, a thought, a sensation or feeling, the mindfulness disappears. We experience temporary happiness, wishing to keep the experience forever. But all feelings or sensations eventually pass. This is the Law of Nature, or what Goenkaji referred to as anicca.
“Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind.” (“Vipassana Meditation”)
Learning how to observe the sensations and feelings on my body during my practice was witnessing the law of impermanence in action. Whether it was a tingle in my left forearm or an itch on my lower back, or sharp pain in my thighs from hourly sitting sessions, I was taught to simply observe the passing sensations in my body and not react. This, in Vipassana meditation, is called equanimity. Remaining “equanimous” while scanning the body means to be able to observe both pleasant and unpleasant sensations and not react with craving or aversion. Though I’ve done “body scans” before Vipassana, they were usually quick and short, more like check ins.
The Vipassana technique requires one to observe rising sensations from the top of the head to the toes, back and forth, over the course of an hour. It terrified me as I wasn’t accustomed to this relationship with my own body. I didn’t like feeling the knots on my shoulders; aside from the fact that they were painful, I kept thinking about how terrible my posture was and how I slept wrong. Shame. I was attached to the shame I associated with that particular part of my body. Slowly, with great practice, I learned to observe and remain curious about these sensations. But no session is ever the same, and that is the point. The experience changes every moment. The trick is to remain still, no matter what. My desire to celebrate a success or be harsh towards myself when I couldn’t sit through entire sessions defeated the purpose of Vipassana’s teachings: to remain equanimous. This teaching alone made me think about my own responses to life’s ups and downs. How many times I’ve allowed a person or situation to determine how happy and sad I would be, rather than simply observing the feelings, accepting them for what they are and gracefully letting them go. Throughout his taped teachings, Goenkaji would remind us often about anicca. “There’s no itch that lasts forever.”
The last two days of our retreat were bittersweet. Though in silence, we remained connected as a community. Each of us arrived with a story that led to us to this journey of deep self exploration. I arrived with a simple intention: to understand the source of very personal, very rooted feeling of loneliness within me. It is the kind of loneliness that is historical and that I am slowly trying to befriend through patience and understanding. Vipassana taught me how to seek those spaces in my body that “felt” lonely, acknowledge its existence and slowly let them go with each inhale and exhale.
I haven’t been able to keep a consistent practice mostly due to a lack of time, but I’m hoping to maintain at least my evening sessions. Still, perhaps the most important benefit I’ve gained from the retreat is mindful breathing. Even for a few minutes, breathing has helped me connect with my body when my mind is on fire. “Breath is a phenomenon common to all living things. A true experiential understanding of the process moves you closer to other living beings. It shows you your inherent connectedness with all of life. [It] is a present-time process,“ says Bhante Gunaratana. Breath is what helped me finish this piece, which has been on my mind for months. When fear overwhelms my ability to create, a simple breath brings me home to my inner source, as fresh oxygen fills my lungs.
On my train ride back to NYC, I looked for “The Long Road” by Pearl Jam on my Spotify playlist. I was never one to remember lyrics, but I thought of the song often during the retreat. I understood only afterwards why I felt so connected to it. This one line in the song reminded me of impermanence.
All the precious moments cannot stay.
My deepest gratitude to the teachers and volunteers at Dhamma Dharā. For new students: the center runs 10 day courses a few times during the year, which fill up quickly. You can find the schedule here.
If you like this piece, you’ll enjoy my latest project, “Homecoming of the Human Spirit.” A curated collection of writings on, among others, philosophy, science, nature, literature, mindfulness, ideas, culture, mythology, psychology, art and spirituality, Homecoming is for those who believe in making a commitment to personal transformation, both individually and collectively. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or a creative, in your thirties or in your sixties, spiritual or agnostic, if you are on a journey, this is for you. Subscribe here and thank you for supporting womxn of color writers/artists/creatives. *Fun fact: Homecoming was an idea that fully transpired during my time at Dhamma Dhara. In fact, the trees in the branding are an ode to the woods (pictured above) near the center, which offered me much needed solace.
I wrote this article with the intention of sharing my personal experience at a silent meditation retreat. If you’re looking for more detailed information about the technique, there are some great articles on Medium and video content on YouTube. Of course, each journey is unique so please keep an open mind & heart. The technique cannot be learned online. It is not taught commercially, but instead is offered freely at centers in the U.S. and around the world.