A 31-year-old seeker finds peace of mind by bailing on what was advertised as the ultimate self-awareness experience — a 10-day ‘silent meditation’ retreat by a famous guru
In the ancient language, Sanskrit, “vipassana” literally means “seeing deeply.” In 2010 California, it means a group of 20-odd people gathering in a secluded summer-camp setting. Our purpose: to sit in meditation for ten days, specifically not communicating with each other. No talking is allowed – not to the guy sitting beside you at mealtime – or even to yourself. Silent night? Try silent night and day. It’s kind of like the spiritual equivalent of discipline-testing reality shows like, Survivor.
The California challenge I enrolled in was organized by the contemporary Indian guru, S.N. Goenka. Explained via video at the beginning of the retreat, Goenka relayed to us via a pre-taped lecture that the mind is like an infected wound, and as you cut it open, the puss begins to rise to the surface. That puss is our chattering monkey-mind, which is a reaction to pain. Through meditation, we learn to train the mind like you would an animal.
This is all fine and good, except that if you kept any animal in a cramped cage for 10 days it’s bound to get a little pissy. My revolting mind seemed less like puss rising to the surface, and more like a wake up call from my own intuition. It kept asking, “Say what?”
Context: I’m a 31-year-old male with a master’s degree in the field of holistic counseling who has felt a spiritual calling.
I had been dealing with pain for the last few days knowing full well that a big portion of the technique we were engaging was to learn how to give pain another name. I practiced embracing my personal pains as mere sensations within the catacombs of my brain. And for the first few days I “succeeded.” My meditations were wonderful, a mixture of frustration and surrender, as I truly began allowing the pain to melt into a relatively neutralized sensation.
Yet, something inside me was telling me that this whole process was non-organize, spiritually-speaking. I began to model all of the other ways that I could inflict pain throughout my day as a form of meditation. Hey, why not make the same point by biting my tongue whenever eating became too mundane? Or, hell, just stub my toe on purpose.
It seemed counter-intuitive to search for inner peace by putting myself through a form of inner torture. I don’t believe human bodies are made to sit up straight for eleven hours a day, ten days in a row. It’s as contrived as army boot-camp.
Then in the midst of these mental meanderings I suddenly realized what was truly behind my dogged determination to see this course through: I didn’t want to disappoint S.N. Goenka.
While he existed merely as an image on a screen (oddly enough the meditation halls were decked out with two giant flat screen monitors, used solely for our daily Goenka lectures on DVD) I could somehow feel him watching over me, monitoring my progress. I didn’t want to be a failure.
I had signed up with the noble ambition of upgrading my level of meditation and spiritual awareness. Now I realize that meditation is not something to be achieved or overcome. It is the process of surrender, of unfolding, of allowing sanity to replace madness a gift to oneself.
There is no forcing that process.
So although those five days of meditation were a wonderful experience, I bailed on Goenka’s spiritual boot-camp. And while I did leave a little sheepishly, tail between my legs, it was a life lesson in humility.
For me, spiritual liberation cannot be a goal set for the future, like some form of degree, only to be attained once I pass all my exams and get all my credits. Spiritual liberation is the subtle and beautiful moments during my day when I choose peace over chaos, acceptance over resistance, love over fear.
He recently returned to the city after living for a year in a spiritual commune in northern California.
This is his first column for Soul’s Code.
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