Recently, I attended a ten-day silent meditation retreat. At a Vipassana retreat, your aren’t allowed access to books, journals, iPhones or even eye contact. The intention is to eliminate all external noise in order to create a conducive container for meditation.
Left to my own devices, I’m the type of gal that reads three books a week, listens to podcasts constantly, and compulsively checks social media. I knew this was going to be a challenge. My neurons were habituated to constant stimulation and the transition was rocky. On day three, I was sitting on a bench outside and a mosquito bit me. I was elated---finally some stimulation! On day four, I found myself laughing a little too loud at the nightly dharma talk, reaching desperately for some comedic relief. I read and re-read the course rulebook. And, eventually, I gave up. I finally surrendered to my inability to control my sensory input and started tuning into my surroundings.
So, what was underneath my constant need for stimulation? Lots of boredom. Emotions: some pleasant, many not. A mind that is obsessively interested in replaying past memories (mainly regarding ex-boyfriends and even some reality TV episodes. Careful what you take in folks, it stays there.). And a persistent feeling of emptiness that I’ve all my life felt compelled to constantly fill with noise, busyness, and persistent stimulation. Pema Chodron talks about making contact with the fundamental slipperiness and mystery of our being, which has no fixed identity. She calls this place the fundamental “groundlessness” of being. This was the place I’d been running away from.
But, is this “groundlessness” to be feared? What compelled me to persistently run away from it? As I continued to sit with this groundless feeling in my meditations, I realized that it is extremely threatening to the part of me that believes I’m in control, the part of me that’s attached to a fixed identity, and prefers pleasure, and resists pain. Sound familiar to anyone else? These are evolutionary mechanisms our brains have evolved to protect us, so moving away from these instincts naturally brings up resistance. As I began to feel more comfortable with and even to befriend the sense of groundlessness, I found a newfound fearlessness arise. If I could stay with the discomfort long enough to notice that all my sensations were in constant transformation, I felt braver to sit with whatever arose. Also, as I was able to sit with the direct experience of groundlessness, there was, in fact, all the stimulation I could ever crave. Here, everything constantly arises and falls away. There is nothing stable in sight. Everything is always new.
Tuning into this constant flux, with neutrality and kindness, offers wisdom about the very nature of reality. Sit with this direct reality long enough and you may even make contact with that which is eternal and unchanging.
To experience the raw nature of reality for yourself, I’d highly recommend attending a course. They are free (donations accepted) and one of the best investments of time you will ever make. In a culture that is hyper-focused on the value of the mind through education and accumulation of knowledge, we are not given tools to understand the mind’s limitations and train it for liberation. Vipassana is Bootcamp for mind liberation. For more information visit: https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/index
I recently sat a full Vipassana Meditation course in Menomonie, Wisconsin and loved it. I highly recommend it, even though I wanted to quit everyday because it was really hard work. Today I going to make a St. Patrick's Day post on Instagram and was going through some images looking for something good. The first thing that came up was an image of a shamrock and I immediately remembered when a fellow meditator gave one of the best gifts I have ever received.
If you ever sit a Vipassana course you will take a vow of noble silence, which means that for most of the time you are there you will not speak to anyone or touch anyone or make eye contact with anyone for the duration of the course. During your time there you really have an opportunity to become very quiet and very clear. I honestly recommend it and think you should do it when you feel called to sit your first course. I loved it and have been vibing out on the benefits of Vipassana meditation all winter long.
After days on end after being silent for so long, deprived of human contact & connection, it must have been day 7, 8 or 9, it was a beautiful day outside and we were on a break between meditations. During breaks you are encouraged to take a walk on the path on your designated side of the retreat center, or rest in your dorm. I was outside deep in thought and out of nowhere the woman who sat behind me in the meditation hall, walked up to me and made eye contact with me with her sparkling blue eyes, and took a breath and handed me a four clover and then continued her walk.
I was completely overwhelmed by the human connection of eye contact, the touch of her hand and also overjoyed by the sight of a four leaf clover, which I had never seen in real life before. My current meditated state allowed me to feel all of the emotions of human connection and receiving gifts in this way that I had never experienced before. I felt a myriad of emotions: overwhelming joy and gratitude, longing, peace and complete overwhelm, along with the fear of tarnishing my Vipassana record with now having broken my vow of noble silence even though I was just sitting there and my gift giver broke it for me. All of my joy of receiving this beautiful, lucky gift took over and I decided to not create more drama by fretting over this brief encounter of human connection and just let the joy flood in.
Peace, and then more anxiety started forming. At that moment I felt like I had never received such a pure, authentic, beautiful and genuine gift. I didn't know what to do with it. I couldn't take a picture of it, because that wasn't allowed, and I was following the rules. The question that came to me was "should I keep this to myself or share this beautiful gift with someone else?" I ran through the different scenarios in my head if I kept it, then I'd be the only one to knew the true bliss of this shamrock. If I gave it away perhaps the recipient would also pass it on and so on and so forth until it got back the original gift giver and then all the women in the camp would have experienced my joy and gratitude.
I quickly decided to share my joy with the woman who sat directly in front of me in the mediation hall because she walked past me at the exact right moment. I called her "Secretary," in my mind because I hadn't met her prior to my noble silence vow and didn't know her name. (I gave everyone I didn't know secret names.) Immediately after I gave my gift to her I felt remorse because I no longer had my blessed and perfect four leaf clover and I also had no way of knowing what the Secretary would do with it. I was so stressed out because I felt like I had made the wrong decision. I had to process all of those feelings, all because of this gift!
I had to make peace with the fact that I gave it away, and that was that and I wouldn't know what became of my little four leaf clover until the final day when we could break our silence. I remembered that in the book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo says that a once a gift has been given and received, it has served its purpose, to be given. It is gift -- its purpose is lived out.
There was so much emotion and anxiety and guilt all wrapped up, excuse the pun, in receiving this one little gift. All I could do was sort through that because I was on my silent meditation retreat so I had plenty of time to think about it.
One of the many lessons I learned during my 10 day Vipassana course was about gift giving. I learned that the joy of giving and receiving gifts does not come from creating judgement or getting what one expects, it's about receiving kindness from another human being. SO no matter if you are given a four leaf clover from a silent, unknown friend, or sapphire earrings from your husband, that you never plan on wearing, it is not about the value of the gift, it is about the value of the effort, thought and energy given from one human to another. So I thank you for reading this. Happy St. Patrick's Day! This blog is for you!
For each petal on the shamrock.
This brings a wish your way
Good health, good luck, and happiness
For today and every day.
Elizabeth Camp, Founder of Yoga Camp