“Stillness (begins piece),” I scrawl at the top of my scant meditation journal. Taking the most miniscule of mental detours, I mark the beginning of what I feel pulled to reflect on once this seemingly endless continuum of morning to night mental engagement is complete. It is day six out of a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat: Lumbini, Nepal; Thanksgiving day.
— I am suddenly struck with an eerie realization. It was four years ago, also Thanksgiving day, at a retreat center in Elbert, Colorado that I too was seated amongst kindred strangers, consciously and quietly eating my savory vegetarian lunch. Freshly divorced and seeking solace, I dove into my first and last retreat of this intensity, understanding very little of what I was getting into. Inspired by the intriguing description…an invaluable atmosphere of silence, meditation and self-transformation with peace as the ultimate prize, it was just what I craved.
Bong….Bong....Bonnggg… The first gong sounds its vibratory song at 4am, signaling it is now time to rise and prepare for the first navel gazing session. The remainder of the day unfolds slowly, with moment-to-moment mindfulness, alternating between hourly sitting and walking meditations until the final session coolly fades into the night at 10pm (psst, I fade sooner — no tellie!). Sleep. Darkness blankets the sky upon retiring and a misty fog envelops the center upon awakening. In the pre-dawn stillness, this thick haze settles over the long, narrow pathway, as it softly disappears into the distance. The echoing backdrop of mystical chanting from distant monasteries permeates the air, furthering the enchantment amidst this continually elapsing landscape.
Inside the tranquil darkness of the meditation hall, mosquito nets, dropped from hooks in the sky, form pod-like cocoons, protecting yogis from all outside trivialities. While there are few mosquitoes in the hall to speak of (they all seem to be hiding under my dining table), this thinnest of veils comes to evoke in me a warm sense of comfort. In the cozy seclusion provided by this personal nest, I can almost invisibly climb in and let go amongst this roomful of consciousness pilgrims.
The first few days feel like a shedding; layers of built up residual thoughts and tension from the external world clear and fall away. Then the real work begins — maintaining the balance and self-discipline to hold a vigilant yet soft focus on the rising and falling of the breath. Contrary to what I once believed, the primary aim of Vipassana is not to sustain a pinprick concentration but to impartially witness the thought formations as they arrive and depart without actively participating in their illusory nature.
The carefully crafted conditions give retreatants a safe environment, free from distraction of the modern world which to explore the link between thought, emotion and sensation. Moreover the center provides a non-judgmental space to perform the turtle-like slow motion movements we are all meticulously executing. The meals are unsweetened vegetarian faire, rooms are stark and the water cold; no electronic devices allowed. One could question the sanity in volunteering for such an endeavor. Yet I have come to appreciate the rare existence of such a setting, created solely for the purpose of developing purity of body and clarity of mind.
Here’s where it gets interesting. One might speculate that with the removal of sensory pleasures and freely roaming thoughts we would instantly implode. Instead, like a snow globe settling after a good shake, the water gets calm, the flakes come to rest and finally, we just ‘are’ — no inner or outer disturbances. Ahhh, sweet peace. Until... Step right up! You have just won a front row seat to the Cerebral Circus — an unobstructed view of the sensory instability and erratic thought parade, swinging mental monkeys, and emotional tightrope walking. Doot doot doo doo doo doot doot doo doo …
“What are you still doing here?” I silently cry at old, haunting, and random players as they spontaneously spring and sprout in my mind. Aches, pains, and mysterious tingles arise and then pass as I non-reactively observe their individual qualities and nature. The good news is that it does get better and there are secrets and strategies to successfully dealing with such distractions. AND THEN THEY STOP WORKING. Nonetheless, observing these transparent swings from divine bliss to the pits of fiery discord is precisely the magnification of the human condition rooted at the core of self-awareness leading to personal growth.
Upon emerging from the experience, it’s as if a vacuum has removed the unnecessary debris from my being, leaving a clear mind, calm presence, and joyfulness of spirit I can’t explain. Vipassana, translated as, seeing things as they are, is an explicit technique perfected to guide aspirants toward boundless clarity and wisdom. When experienced, if only for moments at a time, this sacred luminescence stirs an unquestionable desire to further explore the intricacies of this doorway to nirvana.
Four years ago and emotionally raw with only 22 minutes of meditation experience, I set out to find serenity. What I’ve discovered is that there are no shortcuts on the road to self-discovery; developing a steady practice takes time. It is only through patience and purposeful resolve that we may meet with lasting truth, clarity, and ultimate bliss. While just beginning to traverse this deeply transformative practice, it is evident — the efforts may be many but the rewards are immeasurable.
And yes, stillness begins peace.
~ by Amy King