I recently finished a 5 day Vipassana meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. While I have had a meditation practice for a couple years now, I have never participated in an intensive meditation retreat, nor have I ever meditated longer than an hour or so at a time.
At the retreat, we were in what was called "noble silence." There was no talking to fellow community members, verbally or non-verbally, and we did not have any phones, books, notebooks, or any of the regular distractions one might have. We simply had a room with a bed, lamp, and small shelf, and three times a day we sat in the dining hall together to eat our meals. The rest of the time was spent in meditation, with one hour of the day set aside for the teachings to be shared from our teacher (Sharda Rogell).
The meditations alternated between sitting and walking meditations every 30 or 45 minutes. We were practicing "Vipassana" or "Insight" meditation, which is a teaching from the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Vipassana means to see things clearly, or to have insight into the way that things really are.
In our typical daily lives, we live in somewhat of a dream state. Most of us are lost in our own thoughts, fantasies, plans, desires, hopes, fears, memories, etc. and we are completely out of touch with our direct experience of reality. We are all living in our own mental realities, which are usually far from the reality of what is actually here and now. So what we were practicing was to actually see things as they are, and not as we believe them to be.
The meditations involved a simple awareness of the sensations of our body, feeling the pressure of our body on our seat, feeling the places where our body was in contact with the ground, feeling any tensions, feeling the rise and fall of the breath, and just trying to stay present and mindful of the changing sensations occurring in our body--not trying to make anything out of them, label them, or do anything other than simply witness them and stay present with them. This is much more challenging than one would think, as the habit of distraction is so strong in us. The thinking mind quickly tries to find something to hook it's attention on, because it fears what it cannot know.
Whenever we noticed our attention had wandered, we simply brought it back to the breath and the sensations in the body. After some time of doing this practice, we then began to introduce another element. We began to notice whether the feeling tone of the body was pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We were instructed to observe our current state, and see what was present, without making a story around it. For example, if I felt a pain in my knee from sitting for so long, I was to just simply notice the sensation as an unpleasant sensation, without going into the story of why my knee hurt, fearing if it would get better, getting angry that it was disturbing my practice, etc. It's amazing how quickly the mind creates a story around what it is experiencing.
After working with that for some time, we began to then simply practice noticing the mind as the mind, and the body as the body, again, without allowing the habitual patterns to take us into some mental fabrication around what was happening. Essentially, all the practices revolved around being mindful of what is actually present, and accepting what is here and now, rather than trying to change it or form some false opinion around it.
I was introduced to an interesting acronym that helped a lot with the practice. The acronym was R.A.I.N. and it stood for Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Non-Identification. So we were taught to use that when we got lost in thought. We would recognize the state of our mind, accept it, investigate into it openly, and not identify with it, but just see it as the thinking mind and its patterns--seeing the mind as the mind.
I had a lot of profound and interesting insights on my retreat. Some of the curious things that I observed during my practice were:
1. Restlessness. I have an underlying restlessness that strongly influences my thoughts and actions. I think that many of us can relate to this, and it appears to be a driving force in our overactive society. We find it so challenging to simply sit and be, we feel that we always need to be occupied, doing something, anything to keep us busy. It was interesting to notice this in myself, and to not identify with it, but just see it as a habit of the mind, and learn to accept it. When I did this it created spaciousness between the restlessness and I could see the impulse but not feel disturbed by it or feel the need to act on it, and thankfully I was able to relax it for quite some time.
2. Self criticism. Something that caught me by surprise was to notice the critic in my mind. I didn't realize how hard I have been on myself. When I would meditate and lose my posture or get distracted easily, a voice crept in that criticized me for slouching or for getting distracted. I saw that this self-criticism was something operating in the unconscious blind spots of my mind for probably most of my life, and to see it so clearly and not identify with it, I was able to bring in a very kind and loving awareness that calmed and quieted this inner critic. I can't believe how hard I have been on myself. I can't help but laugh in disbelief at this and feel deep freedom and peace even as I write this now.
3. The impermanent nature of reality. This one was really interesting. Intellectually, and at times experientially, I have had an understanding of the impermanent and ever-changing nature of things. I'm sure we can all acknowledge that this is true, but to feel it and see it so clearly and so deeply as I did on this retreat was absolutely profound. Things are always coming and going, rising and falling. Whenever we try to cling to something it always eludes our grasp. It is like sand falling through the cracks of our fingers. Nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts. Every single second things are changing, and the nature of things are really transient. We try so hard to grasp at reality, and to wish that things remain the same forever. But this is not how reality is. Reality is fluid, moving, dancing, living, and by trying to cling to what is impermanent, we only make ourselves suffer.
Our minds form very rigid ideas about things, and because of this, we believe things to be fixed and static. But this is not the truth, it is simply our minds misperceptions. It is very easy to see this if we look clearly. Just close your eyes for even a few seconds and see how quickly sounds and sensations come and go, popping in and out of existence. This made me realize that within myself all things are also changing constantly. If one moment I am restless, the next I am peaceful, perhaps then I am happy, yet later upset, can I really identify myself with any of these? What can I really identify with when all things are changing constantly, including this "I" which seeks for identity. To see the emptiness of things so clearly was profound, interesting, and strangely freeing. If I am not this, nor that, than what am I? I am the river of life, moving, dancing, vibrating, shifting. There is nothing permanent to grasp, nor is there really anyone there to do any grasping. I am not bound by anything. I am completely free to be.
Our teacher Sharda Rogell mentioned a quote from a Buddhist teacher, I wish I could remember who it was, but it went something like "we don't become a Buddha, we just cease to be deluded." When we look at reality clearly, detaching from our minds and our conceptual fabrications, we gain insight into the true nature of reality, and allow our own original nature to come forth. I am so grateful that I had this experience, and I am in awe at how much insight I gained from only 5 days of meditation.
It is interesting to see the impermanence in the retreat as well, it came and it went, as all things do. But what a beautiful place to be! I highly recommend looking into Spirit Rock if you have the chance. It is such an amazing meditation center and they created such a beautiful container for these teachings to be shared and practiced. I encourage all of us to continue looking into the dreams that we live in, to see that we so often live in a cloud of our own mental delusion, and to practice looking deeply at our experience so that we can wake up from the dream, and touch the true nature of reality as it is in each and every moment.
I bow to you with honor and love divine being, may we awaken from our delusions for the benefit of all!