The day I signed up for a silent meditation retreat, I had no idea what I was getting into. The first day, I piled into a red sedan in San Francisco with a 40-year-old hippie in a Hawaiian shirt, a 20-something product developer from India and a straight-faced, vegetarian Indian woman who had been meditating for years. I thought I was about to embark on a great adventure, but little did I know I was beginning the hardest ten days of my life.
I went into the experience with an open heart and mind. My knowledge of Vipassana meditation was minimal, but I did know I had signed up for a 10-day course that taught students the basic method of this ancient Indian type of meditation. Every day we would be fed a vegetarian breakfast and lunch. We’d receive no dinner and begin meditating 4 a.m. until the evening, with various breaks.
Vipassana literally means to see things as they really are and has aims to eradicate mental and physical suffering. With time they say this is achievable, but getting there is the hardest part. Another aspect of this process involved a vow of silence. There was no reading, writing, emailing or using your cell phone in this place. All communication with the outside world was entirely cut off. I couldn’t remember the last time I didn’t check my email, let alone Facebook for 10 days. How was I going to survive?
Surprisingly, the first few days went by easily. But at day three I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown. My mind was going crazy and I felt overwhelmed by ruminations on how the details in my life that had gone terribly wrong. Meditating for over six hours a day was starting to take a toll on me, both mentally and physically. People had told me I would have a breakthrough that would put all of this into perspective. All I knew was that I hadn’t gotten there yet.
I was imagining a transcendental out of body experience, but all I was felt were emotions run wild and pounding headaches and backaches from meditating for hours on end.
I was finding it impossible to concentrate during these sessions and my mind would keep wandering from the mundane to the serious—what I wanted to eat for lunch to what I was going to do with my future. There were sporadic moments where I felt like the silence and the meditation was helping me work through some issues. Like the meditation was some sort of internal therapist helping me deal with past woes. I knew the reasons why I chose to come. It was part curiosity and partly an attempt to to deal with the stress and anxiety in my life. But sitting in a room cross legged on the floor trying to meditate, I would look around me to the nameless group of individuals sitting in still silence and wonder if they were transcending into some sort of out of body space that I wasn’t experiencing. I started to feel jealous and antsy.
As day five came and then day six, I noticed that the meditation was starting to get easier and there were periods where I was not thinking about anything at all. There was one hour-long meditation in particular where all of my past regrets and relationships came whirling at me like a baseball out of nowhere. I don’t know why they had surfaced but I had to deal with it then and there and tears just started streaming down my face. I wondered if this was normal and thought it probably was. Somehow, through those tears and the meditation, I learned to forgive myself for the things I regretted. I let go of anger toward the people that hurt me. I didn’t understand how I got to this point, but tried not to question it because I was starting to feel at peace. I felt grateful. Grateful for my friends and family and for the life I was given. I was learning to really appreciate.
Everyday felt like I was breaking through a new barrier and the more days that went by, the more insight I gained. I didn’t understand how it worked but somehow I felt like I was being purified. It was like a full-on mind-body detox. I didn’t know if I had hit that breakthrough yet, but on the ninth day I sat for an entire hour without moving. As I flowed through the process of focusing on every limb of my body as they taught us to, I finally felt it. It was this flowing, effervescent, transcendental whole body pulsation that made me feel all at once tranquil and–for maybe the only time in my life–wholly content.
On the tenth day I left feeling like a new woman. I was liberated. I knew I could always come back to meditation to deal with stress, anxiety and day-to-day life stressers that often consume us. I was ready to face the world head on. I didn’t really understand how it worked, but somehow meditation changed my outlook on the world. With every step of my life thereafter and every hurdle I found, meditation –and that retreat particularly–helped me get through it. It has helped me appreciate the things around me and live life day by day instead of always worrying about the future. I still stress and I still worry. I am human after all. But the meditation has helped me see life as it truly is—wonderful.