I recently made this announcement to my family and friends:
“See u soon! Heading to my new home in a couple of hours: 10-Day silent (Buddhist) Vipassana Meditation Retreat at Joshua Tree National Park. Feeling excited and a tad nervous (no daily family hugs & kisses, no cooking, no reading, no journaling, no running, no social media, no TALKING for 10 full days… Just me and my cushion). I guess you can say that I find balance in extremes :-)”.
These were my last words before entering the Southern California Vipassana Center a couple of weeks ago.
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana means to see things as they really are. It is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation, rediscovered by Gautama Buddha more than 2500 years ago. Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind.
How did I end up here?
My mom has been practicing Vipassana for many years. She usually calls me five minutes before entering the center in Barcelona: “OK you won’t be hearing from me for the next 11 days. I love you!”. Vipassana has always been my mom’s thing. I never considered joining her on this adventure. After all, if I truly wanted to learn about my “limitations”, as I once told her, I would sign up for the Two Ocean Ultra-Marathon in Capetown or I would climb the Kilimanjaro. Of course, Vipassana is not about “limitations”, quite the contrary, but that’s how I saw it then, as an extreme meditation practice of some sorts.
A series of events, however, lead me to this path. After completing an eight-week Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course with my husband, the thought of attending a 10-day Vipassana retreat crossed my mind. “I can now meditate 45 minutes a day. How far can I push the envelop?” and “Can I really disconnect for 10 days?” Next thing you know, I logged in to the Dhamma website and put my name down on the waiting list (there were no openings at the moment). “If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be”. A few months later, they contacted me. YOU HAVE BEEN ACCEPTED! “Oh dear!”.
I am glad I didn’t check out the daily schedule then or I wouldn’t have signed up for it (going from 45 min to 10 hours of meditation a day was a little jump). I thought we were going to meditate 2-3 hours a day maximum.
This was our daily schedule:
4:00 a.m. Morning wake-up bell
4:30 – 6:30 a.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30 – 8:00 a.m. Breakfast break
8:00 – 9:00 a.m. Group meditation in the hall
9:00 – 11:00 a.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
11:00 – 12 noon Lunch break
12:00 – 1:00 p.m. Rest, and interviews with the teacher
1:00 – 2:30 p.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30 – 3:30 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
3:30 – 5:00 p.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
5:00 – 6:00 p.m. Tea break
6:00 – 7:00 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
7:00 – 8:15 p.m. Teacher’s discourse in the hall
8:15 – 9:00 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
9:00 – 9:30 p.m. Question time in the hall
9:30 p.m. Retire to your room; lights out
Day 0 – Wednesday – Arrival
It was 104 degree when I arrived at the Southern California Vipassana Center (SCVC). It was 4:45 pm. As I followed the signs to the registration desk, I noticed that the atmosphere was very friendly. Since the course didn’t officially start until 8 pm, we were allowed to talk to each other. We wasted no time! There were people in their early 30s, 40, 50s, 60s and late 70s. Women and Men were segregated.
After filling out some forms, I turned in my belongings (purse, car keys, phone, notepads and pens). I was then given my room number, W1 – 15. At 6 pm, we had a light meal (curried yellow dal) followed by orientation. We went over the Code of Discipline:
All who attend a Vipassana course must undertake the following Five Precepts: 1) No killing 2) No stealing 3) No sexual activity 4) No lying and 5) No intoxicants. We were also told that we needed to observe Noble Silence from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day (Saturday).
After the brief presentation, we proceeded to our rooms. My roommate was already there, a beautiful tall surfer-looking girl. I introduced myself “Hi, my name is Ciry, pronounced like the iPhone, spelled differently and more helpful”. She looked at me with an alert face. “Oh don’t worry! We can talk until 8 pm”, I told her. “Aaaa, OK!”. She told me that she was from a small island called Samoa. She was a mom of three. She wanted to attend this retreat for the longest time but never had the chance.
Separating our beds, there were two nightstands, two curtains, one window with a short ledge and an A/C unit. I asked her if she wouldn’t mind if we use the ceiling fan instead of the A/C. I had to mention this since we wouldn’t be able to talk again for the next ten days and I didn’t want to suffer (my body dislikes A/C). “Oh I am fine with that! I don’t like it neither!”, she replied. Perfect! Few minutes later, we headed to the meditation hall. No more talking for eleven days!
As we entered the hall, we were given our sitting placements (mine was E2). We listened to S.N Goenka’s recordings (Dhamma talks) and were introduced to the concept of Sila that provides a basis for the development of Samadhi (concentration of mind) and Panna (wisdom of insight). We were asked to observe our breathing. The instructions were pretty straightforward, simple but not easy: Notice how the air enters and exits the nostrils.
After the Dhamma talk, we headed to our rooms. We were supposed to wake up 6 hours later but I couldn’t sleep at all. The bed was hard like a piece of stale bread. No kidding!
Day 1 -3 – Am I alive? + Anapana Breathing
By the time I fell asleep it was almost 4 am. I was awaken by the sound of the gong (featured in the picture below)
We were given the option to meditate for two hours in our rooms or in the meditation hall. I knew if I stayed in the room I would fall asleep so I went to the meditation hall. Now, I am not sure I would call it “meditation” since I was really a zombie for the entire two hours.
At 6:30 am, we had a light breakfast followed by a short (sleeping) break. We were back in the meditation hall by 8 am for another 3 hours of meditation. By 12 am, on the first day, I was DONE. I wanted to leave the retreat. I remember sitting in my bedroom thinking: “Maybe this is not real. I must be in a hospital bed in a comma. Perhaps if I shed some tears, someone in the hospital will see them and realize that I am still alive!”. I really thought that something traumatic had happened to me. Otherwise, how could I be in so much discomfort? A few minutes later, I fell asleep. I woke up an hour later (12:55). It was meditation time again! We were given the option to meditate in our rooms again, from 1 – 2:30 pm. I looked at the clock and went to bed.
When I woke up from my second nap of the day, I felt renewed and with purpose. “Take advantage of this week! Work hard! Give Vipassana a chance!”
On day 2 and 3, we continued practicing Anapana Sati or “mindfulness of breathing”. We were given instructions to narrow down our focus and to observe our breath as it traveled through the triangle area between the upper lip and the nostrils.
On day 3, I learned a life lesson. I woke up at 4 am and ran for the showers. “There is no way I am going to meditate in this state”, I told myself. As I was getting out, I heard a very loud (conventional) alarm; each room was equipped with one. I thought “Wow, that’s pretty awful. That person is going to wake up the entire building. How rude and unthoughtful”, I thought to myself. A few seconds later, my roommate ran to the bathroom. As she opened the door trying to avoid eye contact (part of the rules of conduct), I realized that the “rude and unthoughtful person” was ME. Aha! I had set up the alarm earlier and completely forgot about it. I was rushing to the room feeling horrible. I wanted to say that I was sorry but I was not supposed to talk at all (verbally or through gestures). I walked to the meditation hall after turning the alarm off. My roommate followed my steps but decided to leave the hall within minutes. “Gosh I ruined her day! She usually stays for the entire two hours”. I was feeling guilty.
A few hours later, I saw her outside of the manager’s room. “I am in trouble! She is going to complain about me being loud”. The manager was not there. I saw my roommate rushing to the room. I interpreted it as a sign of anger. Little did I know she was putting a care package together for me: Lemongrass essential oils and cough drops. Oh my goodness, she is not mad at me at all! She just wanted to help me with the sniffing. And there I was judging myself, worrying all day for nothing, judging my roommate (I was pretty sure she is going to report me). It’s amazing how we make these big stories in our heads. I smiled at this realization. Suspend judgment!
I wanted to thank my roommate for the oil and drops but I wasn’t sure how to since we were observing Noble Silence. So I placed her bottle of essential oil in the short window ledge between our beds and left my ginger body lotion and lavender shea butter foot cream next to it. Hoping that she would get the message. Next day, she placed some raw probiotics and papaya enzymes next to my creams. “Aha, she got it!”. We had “accidentally” created a trading post, a little spa and new heaven. And while this was not considered “talking”, there was some beautiful communication between us.
Day 4 – 9 Vipassana Meditation and Adhitthana
On day 4, we were introduced to Vipassana. We were asked to perform body scans and to observe gross and subtle sensations in our body with true equanimity, accepting the reality of the moment without creating aversion or craving.
By day 6, I started feeling very grounded and comfortable. I truly enjoyed meditating in the hall between 8-11 am and 6-7 pm. I was now using my breaks to stretch my legs, go for walks, and wash my clothes. I was quite awake. However, as we learned in this course, nothing is permanent (anytha – law of impermanence). By day 7, we were introduced to Adhitthana or Sittings of Strong Determination. Three hours a day we were to meditate with our eyes closed, without moving our arms or legs. During the first two sittings I struggled. My legs were completely numbed but I was determined not to move. I had tears in my eyes at one point but hearing S.N Goenka’s chanting at the end of each meditation calmed me every single time. By day 8, my body was getting used to it.
During the Dhamma talk, on day 9, we were told that we would be breaking silence next day at 10 am. S.N Goenka mentioned we wouldn’t be able to meditate anymore. He was correct!
Day 10-11 – Metta Meditation and Breaking Noble Silence
The morning schedule on day 10 was the same as usual except we had a brief discourse after our group meditation at 9 am. Today we learned a new meditation technique called Metta. We were basically directing “loving-kindness” towards ourselves, towards people we love and ultimately towards all beings. I felt this was an incredible powerful way to finish the course!
Right after Metta practice, we were allowed to break silence outside the meditation hall. We were all smiles (no hugs allowed yet). I literally ran to my room to talk to my roommate. Finally! We had so much to say to each other. I told her I was into cooking. She told me that she dreamed two days before that we were in the kitchen together making vegan cheese. I told her I was finishing my holistic certificate from IIN. She told me she owns a Wellness Center. We talked non-stop for almost two hours when Angeles whom I met during registration came to our room. “Hurry, before the kitchen closes!”. We walked to the dinning hall and met everyone else. I hardly ate that day. I just wanted to listen to everyone’s experiences.
Suddenly something funny happened. I was sharing my contact information with another attendee: “My website is sunshineandkale”, when my roommate turned around. The conversation went something like this:
She:“I didn’t know you were sunshineandkale”
She: “I follow you!”
She: “Yes, I follow your website”.
Me: “Noooo you are confusing me with sunshineandsomethingelse.com. I don’t have that many followers”
She: Ciry, I have your website, bookmarked!”
Me: “Seriously? It can’t be!”
She: “Ciry is coming to work for us at the studio”, she told the girl sitting next to her.
I turned really red, tomato face. What at are the odds?
After lunch, we went back to our rooms. We continued talking for two and a half hours with our neighbor Kehaulani, a photographer from San Diego. Around 2 pm, we heard the sound of the gong. We had no idea we had another group meditation. I don’t think anyone felt like meditating that afternoon.
After this sitting, we all went to the dinning hall to discuss a few issues (car rides, post-retreat cleaning volunteering assignments, etc.). This was followed by our last dinner at the center, a combination of delicious left overs including some spicy Indian lentil soup that I will soon try to replicate.
This evening we were asked to go to bed at 9 pm to be fresh and awake for the final discourse at 5 am next day. We invited a couple of people to our room and continued talking, exchanging information. Around midnight, everyone left. My roommate and I continued chatting until we heard the gong at 4 am. “Wow”, we both said at the same time. We had been up all night talking.
I can’t recall much about the last video that we watched but I do remember several suggestions made by S.N Goenka to keep practicing Dhamma: Keep a daily meditation practice of two hours (1 hour in the morning, 1 hour in the evening) and attend at least one yearly retreat of ten days. He also suggested five minute body scans everyday before going to bed and right after we wake up.
After the last discourse, we cleaned up our rooms a little bit (leaving it in good conditions for the next set of students). We had a quick breakfast at the dinning hall where we picked up our belongings and exchanged contact information. I stayed for a few minutes to take pictures of the beautiful people I met as well as the center. I was filled with joy and gratitude.
This was a life changing experience that I will cherish forever!
Before heading home, I stopped by the Vipassana Bookstore located one mile from the Vipassana Center.
I am leaving you with a poem from one of the books that one of the Vipassana teacher recommended to me, “The Moon Appears When the Water is Still” by Ian McCrorie.
We must start from where we are,
not from where we want to be,
for where we want to be,
is to be content with where we are
If you have any questions about the Southern California Vipassana Center or about Vipassana in general, I would be glad to help! Leave a comment below or find me in Facebook (@sunshineandkale)
Watch out for (vipassana) recipes coming up soon!