When I last left you, dear reader, I was preparing to leave for a 10-day meditation retreat. Now, I’m back in the ‘real’ world with a big smile on my face, but wanted to share some of the experience with you πŸ™‚

The 10-day Vipassana Meditation course that I took was held at a center in Egbert Ontario, on a beautiful little patch of land just north of Cookstown, Ontario. From 8pm on the night of Day zero until 9am on the morning of Day ten, I and approximately 90 others were meditating together in noble silence (silence of the mind and body). Yes, for ten days, I was completely silent! I won’t go into detail about the meditation technique or philosophies, because I am not a Vipassana teacher – and not even close to qualified in advising people on the technique. Please take these entries simply as an account of my personal experience πŸ™‚

Day Zero – The Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

December 29, 2010
This morning started with a leisurely pace. I woke up just after 9am, and slowly began my tasks for the morning. I had pre-packed some items the night before, so most of my work was already done. Nerves were definitely setting in though, and I was thinking to myself What am I doing? I really had no idea what the facility was going to be like, how things were going to work, or if I was going to be able to make it for ten days! I began buzzing around double-, triple-, and quadruple-checking my bags. I checked items off lists, peeked in pockets and zippers, and piled and re-piled my things in an effort to get ready.

I don’t think I could ever be ready for this experience.

Registration was from 2-4, and the drive to the meditation centre was just over an hour – so I had time to spare. To numb my mind, I started watching episodes of The Big Bang Theory (hilarious show) and eating the last few snacks and cookies that I would know for about 12 days. Did I mention that the menu was entirely vegetarian? Oh – and that we only got breakfast and lunch? Oh yes – at 5pm daily we were afforded tea. New students are allowed to have fruit as well. No dinner! Thoughts like these were periodically racing through my mind, but leave it to some mindless television to help numb the buzz.

The clock struck 1 (my mentally noted departure time) and I wasn’t moving. OK, so I was nervous… I was stalling… I was procrastinating. Finally, after some more puttering and a final (redundant) bathroom break, I began loading my two bags, two pillows, blankets, and sleeping bag in the car. We were asked to bring our own bedding, so it looked like I had packed enough for a month, but the contents of my extra luggage was mostly blankets and extra socks.

Once I was in the car and rolling, I began to feel happier. I could feel myself moving forward – mentally, physically, emotionally – toward something fantastic. I bopped and sang to songs on the radio (the last of which I would hear for far too long) and reveled in the idea of having ‘peace and quiet’ for the next while. Thinking of leaving the rush and bustle behind me for a while made me smile even wider.

Signs at meditation
A photo of some of the signs leading the way (taken on Day 10 when I got my camera back) πŸ™‚

I arrived in perfect time – the clock read 2:14 – not too early, not too late. Once I pulled in the driveway and up to the gate, I was directed to the women’s residence where I was to drop off my things, and then return here to drop my car off. After that – off to registration! My initial thought was How am I ever going to remember where everything is? The grounds were by no means large enough to get lost on, I quickly realized. A looping, winding road led me to my residence, where I parked briefly to unload. I was one of the first to arrive and was rooming with one other girl, so I got to pick my bed. The day was already starting to look up πŸ™‚

At registration, I handed in my iPod, my phone, and my camera. Students are not allowed technology, ways of contacting the outside, or other forms of entertainment – including books, sketch books, journals, or anything of that nature. Leaving my technology behind did not bother me. Experiencing life without these items would not be even close to one of the difficult parts of this particular journey.

After some idle chatter in the residence with the incoming women (women and men are almost completely segregated during the course), we headed to the Dining Hall at 6pm for a “light dinner” and orientation. Dinner was an amazing soup and what I would come to know as the ‘staple salad.’Β  The food was delightful, the chatter was fun, but everyone was nervous and full of questions. Orientation was simply a tape re-iterating everything we had read on the website and on our applications. Then we had a brief talk from one of the people who runs the center with a few more directions and words of encouragement.Β  We were told that at 8pm we were required to be in the Meditation Hall, when noble silence would begin and we would experience our first taste of meditation. I could feel myself tense up at the thought. My nerves settled back in.

At 7:50 – the bell was rung. I began to notice that in each residence there was a ‘bell’ which was a chunk of flat brass that was cut out. Beside the bell was a little hammer made from a small log and a large stick. As I walked to the Meditation Hall, I noticed there was also a bell hanging on a very large Maple tree. This was the main bell that could be heard across the entire meditation center.

Meditation gong
A photo of the meditation bell and hammer

I carried my little Zafu meditation pillow and my meditation blanket to the hall, along with crowds of students, both new and old.Β  With trepidation, we entered the lobby of the hall (Womens’ and Mens’ entrances were on opposite sides of the building) signs indicated that we were to take off our boots and hang our coats. “Socks only in the hall,” was plastered everywhere. As we shuffled in, we passed a shelf full of cushions. I chose a large, flat one to act as my base under my little Zafu. When we entered the hall, the lights were dim, but bright enough to see by. Our names had been printed out and each lay by a 2-foot by 2-foot square of foam with a blue slip cover on it – our home for the next 10 days! We each found our respective spot and settled in. I watched as others positioned themselves, and tried to choose a position I thought would be most comfortable. Everything was the same on the other side of the room, as men found their row and cushion, and settled in. An meter-wide aisle separated the sexes.

The lights dimmed and the teachers (one male, one female) sat at the front on raised seats – and assumed the Bhudda position. Then the terror set in. I was scared to move, sneeze, cough. Everyone else was thinking the same thing, because it was complete silence. Not a movement, a cough, or a swallow in the place! But once one person sneezed, it was like a flood gate opening. Involuntary and voluntary actions and noises fired every few moments.

I was determined not to disturb the silence. Inside my nose was a growing sensation of an impending sneeze. My left nostril seized, blocking with phlegm – just as the audio started with Goenka’s voice telling us to breathe calmly through our nostrils only. In my mind, I was chanting I will not sneeze I will not sneeze over and over again. It was working! Tears began rolling down my right cheek (on the side of the affected nostril) and my sinuses bucked likeΒ  a wild horse trying to throw its rider in an attempt to release the sneeze. Thankfully (when I peeked) everyone else’s eyes were closed and they were all concentrating, so they couldn’t see me struggling. Finally, my mind won over the impulse to sneeze. The tears stopped. Then I realized – I have been missing what the teacher on the CD is saying!!! I quickly brought my attention back to listening, and then calmly began to follow along, breathing calmly and naturally through my nostrils (know-st-reels, as Goenka put it in his thick Indian accent).

I’m not sure how I sat for an hour in that room. I switched my position frequently (only after noticing that others had moved as well) and fidgeted through the entire meditation. In the last 5 minutes – the CD began again with Goenka chanting in Burmese. These musical chants would become the signal to my freedom – and the end to hour-long group meditations.Β  Goenka finished his chant and uttered “Take rest, take rest” and the teachers let us know it was time for bed. I did it! IΒ  meditated!

And so the journey began…

[Read on in Part 2!]