Each day was a battle. The room was filled with a symphony of coughs, sneezing, shuffling and shifting of cushions. Inside my mind, random thoughts roared like a lion for attention. The pain from cramps overpowered my self-determination to sit still cross-legged for one hour. Many emotions danced in and out and forced me to run for the Kleenex box every few minutes. Wait, where’s the nirvana moment my friend experienced in meditation?
Last year, I saw a friend glowing with calmness and happiness like Yoda. I wondered if he was on a special pill. The source turn out to be very simple. My friend had returned from a Vipassana retreat, where he meditated for 10 hours each day, lived in silence and observed the source where everything starts: the mind. He persuaded me several times to explore this technique to find everlasting happiness and to really understand the root cause of my stress and challenges. I was skeptical. Moreover, I feared disconnecting from the world for 10 days!
Early this year, several events inspired me to sign up for the waiting list and pack up without guarantee of admission until the day of the retreat. Though people refer to this as a "retreat," it was far from relaxing. It was physically challenging and emotionally overwhelming. From early morning we meditated for 10 hours, lived on 2 meals a day (breakfast and lunch) and remained in silence without eye contact. Only a deer received a faint “hello” from me.
The aim was to observe sensations and maintain equanimity. My mind was very agitated thinking about the past and the future not the present. The pain cluttered my focus from the breadth. Many times, I opened my eyes and broke away from stillness seeking relief. In one hour I moved 17 times! It’s incredible how the world has trained us to multi-task that paying attention to the breath feels like climbing to the top of a summit. Add to the mix the temptation to return home.
One evening I decided to come back home but the teacher spoke to the experience that brought me there, “only you can do the work, nobody is going to do the work for you.” For many years, I was dependent on a therapist, antidepressants and many distractions to find happiness. But I took a leap of faith on Vipassana to stand on my own two feet. Instead of leaving, the next day, I showed up at the meditation hall at 4 in the morning despite the heavy rain. By day 8, the shuffling of cushions stopped. All the discomfort did not come from having the right amount of cushions and support—the pain was created by the mind. The trees outside, the broccoli, the rain, even the worms crawling out of the dirt, shined. I embraced the silence and continued to work patiently and quietly through this journey, accepting the world as it is, not as I want it to be.
The retreat is over now, why am I still sitting down each day and night in silence? Wasn’t the retreat more than enough to sharpen the mind for the rest of my life? The retreat taught me the technique—that alone is not enough to keep the mind sharp! Just like a gardener who nurtures his seeds, the mind will only stay sharp if effort and time is given to it. Last summer on a roadtrip, I posted a photo on Instagram and said, “Sitting still is my way of falling in love with the world.” At the time, I traveled to different national parks seeking peace and happiness. Looking back, peace and happiness are not achieved through the external world or given by other people. Today, I say that sitting still anywhere (even my bedroom) in silence is really my way of being at peace with myself and the world.