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Dhamma – Part 8

Day 9 – Agitation and blurry memories

[Check out Part 7, or read from the beginning]

Day nine was quite a day. I don’t really remember much, except that I was highly agitated for two reasons. One: Day eight was exceptionally trying, and I was still emotionally drained from my inner volcano explosion. Two: Shortly after breakfast, I realized it was day NINE and I only had ONE day left!!!

Needless to say, meditation was very difficult for me, I was struggling with my concentration. I spent my free time – all of it – outside walking around. I had already begun lamenting about leaving. I wandered the familiar paths, trying to etch all the sights, sounds, and smells into my memory. I wanted to remember all of this.

eyes wide open
Eyes wide open - I couldn't sleep!

Before I knew it, the day was over and I was laying in bed, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling. I couldn’t sleep! The agitation I was feeling about yesterday and tomorrow were churning inside my head. I started doing anapanna and focusing on my breathing, calming my mind. It took a while, but eventually, I fell asleep 🙂

Day 10 – Noble Chatter

I woke up on day ten with a smile. Meditation did not come easy first thing, but I put all my effort into it and managed to calm my mind and focus properly. After the morning group meditation from 8-9, Noble Silence would be lifted – and then we would all be having Noble Chatter! I was excited, but also pondering the surreality of being able to talk to people again.

After the 8-9 group sitting, the teachers announced the lifting of Noble Silence, and mentioned that there would be books, information, and posters up in the dining hall. I got up silently from my very comfortable and familiar nest, grabbed my coat and boots in the lobby, and headed back to the residence. I walked alone, ahead of everyone else (my usual ritual). I was definitely having trouble fathoming that I could now talk again!

When I got back to the residence, I went to my room and lay on my bed, staring up at the ceiling. My mind was abuzz… Soon, more girls entered the residence, and the chatter began. People talking about their meditation, people talking about the food, people talking about Goenka. I laid on my bed, silently listening to the chatter with a small smile on my face.

Moonboot came in the room, looked at me lying there, and asked “Are you still meditating?” There couldn’t have been a more appropriate silence breaker! I laughed and sat up – and the Noble Chatter began. We talked about everything – from day one to the present. We laughed and gabbed.

Soon, 11:00 rolled around and we headed to the dining hall for lunch. There were posters up all around the room, pamphlets and books laid out on a table, and two desks set up where students could give donations and also claim their technology back. Again, adhering to ritual, I fetched my tea, claimed a spot at a table and served myself my lunch and staple salad. I didn’t sit anywhere in particular. Moonboot came in and sat next to me with her friend Ash. We chattered amongst ourselves and with people around us. The sounds were wonderful! Everyone was smiling and happy!

After lunch, I claimed my technology and gave my donation. I left the dining hall by myself and looked at the things in my hands. iPod, phone, camera. Most would think that my first instinct would be to turn on my technology and see what the outside world had to say – but I honestly felt indifferent about them. I put the iPod and phone, both still powered off, back in my pocket. Now the camera, on the other hand… THIS item, I was excited to have back!

I spent the next hour or so walking around the grounds taking pictures of all the outdoor beauty that I had witnessed during my stay here. I took photos of the pathways, the lookout, Cyril the Cicada Shell, the river, the gong… everything! It was so wonderful to be able to capture the visual things that had comprised my home for the last ten days.

The maple tree that the gong hung on
The maple tree that the gong hung on
Me checking out an icicle
Checking out an icicle

As I walked around, just about everyone I met on the path said hello – because they could! Smiles were on all the faces I met. I chatted with a few different people as I walked around outside – hearing their experience and stories, and telling mine. The energy that was being given and received was all highly charged with positivity and happiness. We were all buzzing with it! The afternoon was excellent. I walked around a lot and really enjoyed my chats with my fellow meditators.

Boundary marker between men's and women's areas
Boundary marker between men's and women's areas
Beautiful outdoors all around
Beautiful outdoors all around

Group meditations today were practically useless. In the 4-5 group sitting, I tried anapanna for about 20 minutes, and ended up giving up and peeking out of the slits of my eyes periodically. I sat silently, unable to concentrate – wondering how many others were sharing my difficulty. At 5, I took my tea outside and ambled around again. A few people made comments about how they always saw me walking around 🙂 The evening meditation sessions were the same – lack of concentration. I mostly did anapanna.

At 9, we all headed back to the residence. Before we left, all students were responsible for vacuuming, dusting, and tidying their rooms, so the vacuum was running between rooms and people were bustling around. After we were done our chores, the chatter began again. Some people were chatting together in their rooms, but soon we all formed a large group in the hallway. We exchanged stories, we joked, we laughed. These conversations were amazing – it was great to get to know such an amazing group of people. I met girls from 21 years old (Mini Sherpa from France) all the way to a 48 year old mom who had moved to Toronto from Mexico many years ago. There were so many stories – and so many wide smiles! We stayed up until almost 11pm, and then grumbled a little when we realized that we would have to be up in the morning at 4… slowly, we retired to bed.

Day 11 – Release

Meditation on the morning of Day 11 was blissful and fruitful. My mind was calm and focused. I was happy and smiling. I relished listening to the chanting. I think my heart was bursting with happiness, compassion, and love. The Vipassana High! At the end of the morning’s last meditation (my last for this course) I sat there in disbelief for a little while. I had made it! … now what? After a little while, people began getting up and gathering the pillows from their nests. As we filed out into the lobby, we stacked our pillows (our home for the last ten days!) on the shelves, and headed out to the dining hall for our last breakfast.

The noble chatter was still alive and well this morning. I sat with Moonboot, Mini Sherpa, and Mini Sherpa’s roommate. Soon our table had accumulated another 8 or 9 people. It was packed! We were all exchanging stories and laughing. It was the best breakfast I had during my course!

Breakfast with Moonboot, Mini Sherpa, and roommate!
Breakfast with Moonboot, Mini Sherpa, and roommate!

After breakfast, people got together with their rides, gathered their things, and said their goodbyes. Again, it was surreal!

I had volunteered to help in the kitchen – so was bringing in trays of dirty dishes and then taking the clean ones from the industrial washer and putting them away. I learned the ropes in the kitchen very quickly. It was very interesting to see what happened behind the scenes!  I spent almost two hours learning some of the ins and outs of the kitchen. I put hundreds of dishes away, and chattered with the other servers.

At around 9:30, I said goodbye to the kitchen staff, and headed to my car. I had loaded it earlier with all of my things. It seemed a little foreign to get out my keys, start up the engine, and hear the radio chirping away after all this silence. I brushed off my car as it warmed up and was soon on the road back to real life… a smile on my face, and a new experience in my heart.

Photo day – rummaging through my phone

Hello, dear reader. If you’ve been following my blog since the new year, you’re probably reading this and thinking “What is this crap, and where is the last part of the meditation series?” Well, I have a post planned for tomorrow that wraps up the entire experience – so you’ll just have to wait! I wanted to take a short break from all this meditation stuff and please your creative and silly side with some photographs! Stay tuned tomorrow for Dhamma – Part 7!

It’s fun to have my phone with me, because you never know when you will see something photo-worthy, or just plain weird! Every once in a while, I clean out the photos on my phone and flip through them. Often there are some fun ones in the stack that I forgot I had taken! Here are some of the best 🙂

Help stop the sneak thief!
I had to snap a photo of this sign. It reads "Help stop the sneak thief" and encourages people to lock their cars. What I love is the burglar hiding behind the brick wall!
That's some piece of meat
While shopping at Costco - the store where EVERYTHING is family sized - I saw this HUGE pork roast, and couldn't help but take a photo of it
Christmas Cactus in bloom
A pic I snapped of my Christmas cactus in bloom. This pot holds three plants - hence the colour difference in the blooms 🙂
Andy the octopus
I took a photo of Andy the octopus - a little guy I picked up at the one of a kind show. He's made from sweaters and socks!
Weapons - isn't it time you felt safe?
I pass this building on the way to and from work. One day I noticed a new sign on this building. It reads (In huge letters) WEAPONS. Underneath "Isn't it time you felt safe?" and beside it is a large cross. I still have NO idea what this is all about, but it's definitely interesting!
Fragile - handle like eggs
I saw this writing on a box and it struck me as oddly specific. No one would cut, tear, punch or damage an egg... so I suppose it works!
Men waiting while their women shop
I titled this "Men waiting while their women shop" I walked into a LaSenza and saw these two guys playing with their phones as their wives and daughters shopped...
Amisi the wonder dog
A cute picture of my friend's little Boston Terrier. She's a sweetie!

Dhamma – Part 5

Day 5 and 6 – Cyril and Yoda

[Don’t miss Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and my personal favourite: Part 4!]

After all the excitement of day 4, I was exhausted. I slept so well that night! When the gong sounded the next morning, I was up and at ’em with a smile on my face. I just couldn’t shake the smile that seemed to have taken up permanent residence there. I found my cheeks hurting after a while, but it felt good.

Day 5 and 6 kind of blurred together for me. Now that I was practicing Vipassana, things were changing rapidly. I all of a sudden had a million questions. My mind was racing. I determinedly sat through meditations and craved the time of day that Goenka would come on the video and give us some more understanding of what we were doing, where we were going. I spent my free time thinking, walking, thinking, walking. I did a lot of thinking about myself, about going back to real life, about practical applications of Vipassana. As I grasped more and more of the theory, my smile widened. I was beginning to truly understand more things about myself and about the world.

During these days, I created more paths, more lookout points, and explored more terrain. One day while walking out to the ‘lookout point’ I had created a few days back, I noticed something I had probably passed by several times without seeing. As I passed a tree on the path to the ravine, I looked up at it. Something caught my eye.

Cyril the Cicada Shell
Cyril the Cicada Shell

At first I was taken by surprise! I wondered what a bug this size was doing outside in such cold weather!? But then I realized, it was a cicada shell! How many times had I passed this tree without even realizing that this was here? It was a perfect replica of a cicada bug that probably sang its heart out in August and September. I named him Cyril the Cicada Skin. Every time I walked by the tree after that, I’d say a mental “hello” to Cyril.

Yoda GoenkaOne night I had a kind of epiphany while watching Goenka’s discourse video. I was learning so much from this man – and almost all of it was common sense wisdom that I had either not thought of before, or had not thought of it in the way that he imparted this wisdom. I was sitting there, watching the video and giggling periodically at Goenka’s accent, or use of the English language, or his jokes – and I realized: Goenka is just a BROWN YODA! He’s so cute, and small, and squatty, just like Yoda. He is always giving us wisdom in a very patient manner. And he even says some things backwards like Yoda too! It gave me great pleasure when I made this association 🙂

What was I learning from all this meditation, all these videos, all this time to think and have introspection? A few simple things that together explain everything we have to deal with in life. One: Everything changes. Two: All misery comes from either craving or attachment to things, or aversion to things. It all sounds simple at first – I know. Believe me, when I first heard these things, I was saying in my head “Yeah – so what?” But after 6 days of meditating, thinking, asking questions, and learning – I began to understand the philosophy behind these things, and why meditation and understanding can bring you great benefits in life and basically help you to BE HAPPY!

Before I had come here to this 10-day meditation I had already been on the scent of some of these ideas and philosophies, but spending time silently by myself enabled me to cultivate these ideas. Absorbing the wisdom and practicing the meditation enabled me to gain so much more insight. A lot of things about life in general (and some things specific to me) came into perspective for me. Things seemed a lot clearer.

I still had a million questions, and my mind was going a mile a minute – but I kept telling myself that I still had 4 days of learning – of experiencing – to go. After day 6, I was at the point where I was teetering between being happy that I had made it through 6 days, and still wondering how I was going to do this for 4 more days.

[Check out Part 6!]

Dhamma – Part 4

Day Four – The day EVERYTHING happened

OK, so not everything happened on day 4 – but it felt like it at the time!

**GONG**

My eyes refuse to open. They are crusted shut. My throat is sore, and my nostrils are blocked. My head aches.

**GONG**

I begin to move and reach down to check the watch that I brought with me to be able to keep time and set an alarm if I felt I needed one.

**GONG**

I squint and read the time on my watch: 6:36 am. S#!T!! I slept in!!!

The gong I am hearing is the BREAKFAST bell, and I have approximately 25 minutes to get to the dining hall, wolf down my oatmeal concoction of the day, and rush back for my shower time slot of 7:00-7:20. I jump out of bed, crust flying out of my eyes, head swimming. Socks are shoved on, track pants go on over my pyjamas, I pull my hat down over my head and throw on a sweater as I rush down the hall to get my coat. In the lobby, I notice that almost ALL of the coats are gone. I groan internally, feeling terrible that I missed the morning meditation and that I’m so late.

As I finish tying my boots and throw on my coat, I stand up and my head spins. Luckily, I take a few moments to steady myself – and for this reason, my attention falls on a sign posted on the door. It read: Please note the change of time for the afternoon group sitting. 2:00-3:00 Group Meditation in the Hall, 3:00-5:00 Vipassana Training. A bolt of excitement runs through me. Today we get to learn vipassana!

The storm clouds that were forming in my head due to feeling sick and being late parted, and a ray of sunshine shone brightly through. I was excited and happy as I bopped to the dining hall for breakfast. How exciting that we were going to learn vipassana today, and how fortunate that I saw the sign, even in my morning haste! It’s funny how your mood can flip in such a short period of time. The universe works in strange ways. This morning it said Stop! Look! It’s going to be an important day!

My morning meditations went well (the ones I attended, that is). Today at 12:00, I had no questions for the teacher, so spent the free hour walking around the grounds. I saw a set of boot prints leading across the snow to the ravine, and followed them. Up until now I had thought that since there was no evidence of people walking “offroad” that it was not acceptable. This set of boot prints got me started on my path-making. I walked slowly and methodically – packing down the snow leading to the ravine, and created a path that anyone could walk on. When I got to the end of the set of footprints, I could hear water, but trees were blocking my view. I turned right, and pushed my path two meters to the right, made a left turn and shuffled forward. What a beautiful view! At the bottom of the ravine was a winding river. The sound of the water was amazing. I made a little circle of packed down snow, and dubbed it “the lookout point.” Now there was somewhere new for people to walk!

The lookout point
The lookout point

For some reason, I ate my lunch rather quickly. Perhaps I was eager to get back outside and make more paths, but now that I think back I think my motivation was to get into the bathroom quickly so that I could brush my teeth before the 11:20 shower slot – when all the bathrooms would be filled. I exited the hall just behind another girl – I had nicknamed her Crazy Hair, because when she took off her hat in the meditation hall, her hair all stood up crazily. Crazy hair held the door for me (with no eye contact) and we began walking back to the residence.

The deerLuckily decided to take the long way around, and walk by myself. I didn’t notice that a deer was walking through the grounds, and as I walked around the long way and turned a corner, Crazy hair inadvertently scared it in my direction. I stopped dead in my tracks. The deer was about 2 meters away from me. It stood there for a handful of seconds and we watched each other before fear took over and the deer began to run away. It bounced lithely through the snow, before hopping down the bank of the ravine. I was speechless (literally!). I stood there for a few moments more, and a smile crept across my face. As far as I knew, Crazy Hair had not even seen the deer, and the rest of the grounds were empty because everyone was inside eating. What a moment! I thought to myself: This must be a sign of some kind from the universe.

[Later, I learned that the entire kitchen staff had been watching the deer out the window, and saw my encounter. One of the guys approached me later to tell me they had been watching the entire thing. Apparently that is the first time in a very long time a deer has walked through the property, and they were all saying how lucky I was to have been out there at that time!] 

With a bounce in my step and a smile on my face, I headed to the afternoon group meditation – which was going to be followed by vipassana! This was shaping up to be an amazing day 🙂

Over the first three days, I had been trying to do an entire hour without moving. So far, I had not had success. I estimated that I had made it to about 45 minutes that morning, but I was determined to sit for the ENTIRE hour from 2:00 to 3:00 before Vipassana. I situated myself in what I determined was the least painful position – cross legged – and began to meditate. Part way through the hour, my feet went numb. My butt began to go numb. Then my knees began to throb. My hips chimed in with screaming pain at what I had hoped was very close to the hour mark. At some point I stopped doing anapana and began counting. It was excruciating, but I was determined to make it. Just as I thought I was going to crack, the final chanting came on – I had MADE IT! I sat proudly through the last five minutes of chanting, my joints screaming in pain, my bottom half numb in places, my back muscles burning – but I had a smile on! I had done it! I sat for a whole hour without moving!

After a short break, the time had come to learn vipassana, and I was practically vibrating with anticipation of this amazing technique that so many people talked about. We all settled in and listened intently to the audio. Confusion crept across my face as I listened. I wasn’t sure about this. One thing that I heard made me laugh inside. Near the end, Goenka said “From now on, when you sit for an hour at group sittings – you will sit with Strong Determination: without changing your position.” When I heard this, I was SO HAPPY that I had already accomplished this feat – I knew I could do it again!

The audio lesson ended and we were dismissed, I slowly got up and headed to the dining hall for tea. That was it? This is vipassana? What had been explained to me in that two-hour span did not make any sense to me. I was so confused and let down. A thought occurred to me. That deer from earlier? Yes, it was a sign from the universe. The message was simple: RUN!

After dinner, I headed to my room. I sat on my bed, still confused about vipassana. For some reason, I picked up the little pamphlet we were given on our first day and began to read. At some point, I came to a paragraph that struck a nerve with me, and gave me a little bit more insight into what I had learned that afternoon. I sat there for a few moments, and thought to myself: OK, I have to give this a fair shake. I have 6 more days to go. There must be more to it than what I learned today. I decided then and there to continue to move forward with an open mind.

I’m glad I did! At 6pm, I meditated using the vipassana technique we had learned that afternoon. Not only that, but I watched others prepare for the hour, and learned that I could put pillows under my knees to support them. Sitting was SO MUCH more comfortable now… That evening’s video discourse clarified a lot of things for me. See? I thought to myself. I knew there was more to it!

Despite my cold, and the sniffles it brought along with it, I was feeling happy again. I was on an emotional roller-coaster full of confusion – but only because I wanted the car to go FASTER and FASTER! I wanted to learn everything, to understand everything NOW! I was learning patience… and had so much more to learn and practice 🙂

Dhamma – Part 3

The story of my journey began in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. I suppose now would be a good time to give just a little background on what Vipassana is, and what all these funny words (like Dhamma) mean.

Vipassana loosely means ‘to see things as they are.’ The longer version is that vipassana is a meditation technique that helps you to become master over your own mind by giving you insight into the impermanent nature of the mind and body. Did you have to read that sentence more than once? (I did!) Basically, vipassana is a meditation technique that helps you to live a happy life free of negativity!

Dhamma is a more difficult word to define, simply because it could mean a few different things. From what I understand, dhamma is wisdom or teachings from an enlightened person that bring you to enlightenment. It can also be taken to mean ‘law of nature.’

To recap – I went on a 10-day silent meditation course to learn the technique of vipassana meditation as well as dhamma (lessons) from S.N. Goenka. Vipassana meditation AND dhamma are both required for the technique to really begin giving you benefits in your life. It’s not easy to cultivate and get established in the technique of vipassana, and it’s definitely difficult to grasp not only the concepts of dhamma, but how to apply them in practical life. This is one of the reasons I recommend people take this course. I think it would be very difficult to understand and fully absorb everything simply by reading it in a book or by hearing about it from someone. The 10-day course fully immerses you and allows you time to practice and understand. Not only that – but once you are done, everything changes 🙂

Day 2 and 3 – Nicknames and whale songs

Day 2 and 3 sort of blurred together for me. There were no distinct events special to either day, but some interesting events occurred 🙂

During these two days, I began to ‘associate’ with my course-mates. During the course, we are not allowed to speak to fellow meditators, nor are we allowed gestures, writing notes, or even smiling and nodding in passing. This creates a very odd social environment. I didn’t really know anyone’s names – not that I was able to socialize with them – but because of human nature, I began giving people names. They didn’t all get named on day two and three. Some of the nick names developed over time and were based on observations of these people.

Sherpa pants
Sherpa pants!!

The first nickname was my roommate. One day we were taking our boots off in the lobby of the residence and I saw the boots she was wearing. They quite literally looked like moon boots, only black, and had “MOON BOOT” written across the back of them. From then on, I referred to my roommate in my head as *Moonboot* 🙂 Upon seeing one of the other girls, I immediately pegged her as “mini sherpa.” She had the tiniest frame (hence mini), she wore these really cool pants (like in Aladdin – puffy!) and had a big mess of curly hair covered with a large winter hat. Mini sherpa was given this name, because she reminded me of a sherpa hiking through the mountains. The third nickname that I generated actually occurred on day zero. A woman with dark hair, olive skin walked (pranced) into the dining hall on day zero wearing large sunglasses, a blonde streak in her dark hair, a parka tightly hugging her frame, with fancy boots, and her face was made up to the nines. Therefore, I had no choice but to dub her “Versace.” More nicknames arose, but didn’t come until I made observations of different people and the names began to stick in my mind.

With regards to the course – day two and day three were definitely difficult. Each day the anapana meditation we were doing had modifications, so at least that kept me from going insane. I found that the more I practiced, the longer I could relax my mind by only observing my breath. By day three, I think I could calmly observe my breath for over two minutes before my thoughts ran by and stole my awareness and I began thinking in the old habit pattern… When I get home I have to remember to do this, this, and this; Oh, that time she yelled at me was terrible (followed by a mental review of the incident); I can’t wait to get my new laptop (followed by plans for both the old computer and the new one). It’s easy to get lost in your own thoughts of the past and the future, and forget where you are… here. I think this is part of what the anapana meditation was teaching us.

Another interesting thing that I noticed starting on day two and three were the strange things that happened during the evening group sitting. Because no one was having dinner, by the time the 8pm meditation hour rolled around, most people were feeling hungry. When we were all in that final meditation – there was a whale-song symphony of churning stomachs and growling tummies. More than a couple of times, I imagined that I was deep under the sea, surrounded by creatures calling to each other under the water. There are definitely some strange things that happen in your mind when you’re silent for so long!

Whales in our tummies

Before I knew it, day three was over. What an accomplishment! Yet in my mind, I was still thinking There are still SEVEN days left… how am I going to make it?! Little did I know that day four was going to be a pivotal day in my 10-day experience.

Dhamma – Part 2

Day 1 – Getting into the Dhamma groove

(Here’s a link to Part 1 in case you missed it!)

4:02 am **GONG**

My feet hit the floor even before I knew I was awake. I think it was more fear of missing something or being disrespectful than an actual feeling of wanting to get up. I quickly readied myself for the 2-hour morning meditation session before breakfast.

The grounds before dawn
Walking for a little woke me up!

Since I knew I was going to be tired, I had decided the night before that I was going to walk outside in the cold for a few minutes before entering the meditation hall so that I had time to wake up. I was afraid that if I was sitting cozily on my cushion that I’d fall asleep and then TERRIBLE things would happen… (of course this is all in my mind!)

After 10 minutes of looping around the womens’ side of the grounds, I felt I was ready to face the day – and begin my 11 hours of meditation slated for the day (and every day). Quickly, I settled on my cushion and assumed the position. I was not alone – a few others had come in before me. I closed my eyes and tried to calm my mind and begin focusing on my breath. You’d be surprised how incredibly difficult it is to clear your mind and simply focus on your breath. Idle thoughts keep flying in one side of your brain and out the other, leading to remembering something from long ago in the past, which reminds you of something you forgot to do three days ago, and then you feel bad… the mind is a messy place!

As the remaining students filter in, the CD begins, and we receive our morning dose of musical chanting and soft words reminding us of the technique we are to be using today, and words of encouragement. I’m slowly beginning to get used to Goenka’s accent. I almost understand all of the words he is saying in English now!

More meditation?I sat for as long as I could in a cross-legged position, then changed to have my knees folded up at my chest with my arms around them. Then back to cross-legged, and so on. If an itch arose, I scratched it. If I had to cough or sniff I just joined the symphony of bodily functions occurring every other moment in the meditation hall. I have no idea how I got through that first hour and a half… In the last 30 minutes of the morning sitting, more chanting in Burmese is played. I have no idea what is really being said, but apparently they are simply words of good-will and encouragement and love, to try and help us along. Goenka finishes with “Take rest, take rest,” and slowly we rise up, joints creaking and cracking, stretching and yawning, and stumble to the Dining Hall for breakfast.

Breakfast, I will learn, will be the same each day. Oatmeal, hot prunes in juice, granola with nuts, bran cereal, yoghurt, toast with butter, jam, or peanut butter, tea, coffee, and jars of sunflower seeds, raisins, flax seed, and sesame that we can combine in a variety of ways. I have been encouraged to eat the prunes at every sitting, as meditation often blocks up certain areas of the body, while unblocking our emotions and our mind 😉 I sleepily choose my meal, make some tea, and find a seat. It’s odd eating together with so many people but not being able to talk. I listen to the clink of the plates and the chewing crowd.

Lunch was an amazing vegetarian dish, accompanied by the staple salad. Again, I had tea. Part of me grumbled that I wasn’t going to have dinner – but I would soon get used to this schedule.

One thing I remember distinctly from Day 1 was repeatedly checking the schedule to make sure I knew when to be in the meditation hall. I was terrified of missing a sitting and not hearing some important piece of wisdom imparted via audio from our teacher, Goenka.

4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00-12:00 Lunch break
12-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room–Lights out

The hours seemed to drag on. On my breaks, in fits of boredom – I began walking the grounds. There were not many paths, but I managed to try several different combinations and permutations of directions and loops. It’s amazing the things you find to do.

After 5pm tea and a break, we re-entered the hall for our last 1-hour group sitting of the day, followed by our first video discourse and another short round of meditation. I was really looking forward to the video – I had heard this was the best part of the day. My sources were not wrong 🙂

The video began once everyone was situated. On the screen appeared a squatty little Indian man with grey and white hair. He was SO CUTE! And he has a sense of humour! It’s so nice to listen to Goenka talking to us so candidly, with such simple explanations of what we are doing here. We are offered examples and stories – which helps us all feel a little bit more human at the end of a long, silent day of meditating inside our own minds. It’s nice to laugh together as a group when Goenka makes a joke here or there.

After the video, there are about 30 minutes left to meditate before bed.

Somehow, I made it through the day’s meditation schedule.

Before I know it, day 1 is over. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. But just before I drift to sleep, I realize – only 9 more days to go…

[Read more in Part 3]

Dhamma – Part 1

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 🙂

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 🙂

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) 🙂

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 🙂

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.’  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.  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.  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 like  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.  Goenka finished his chant and uttered “Take rest, take rest” and the teachers let us know it was time for bed. I did it! I  meditated!

And so the journey began…

[Read on in Part 2!]

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