The Start of my Vipassana Experience.
I’m outside, walking on the small path that leads from the large meditation hall to the lunchroom, grumbling with frustration. My mind keeps on criticising and commenting on the women around me, judging the similarities of their outfits and the frequency of their tea-drinking. My mind also keeps on singing songs for some bizarre reason. Because this is a silent retreat I’m on, the snarky voice-over comments and repetitive pop-songs remain confined to my own personal enjoyment.
“Is this irritable persona who I truly am?”, I ask myself in the background. “Is this what I want to wake up to?” But also: “Why the heck do I always need to seek these spiritual / personal exploration things? Why can’t I be more like the rest of my family, enjoying the simpler things in life?”. I keep on muttering and complaining, criticising and seething, getting in my own way, wishing I could just be goddamned more peaceful and accepting right now – while simultaneously snickering about the unspoken meditation fashion & day-long tea-drinking practices I notice in the women around me and which I find myself rebelling against.
It’s day 2 of a Vipassana retreat: an intensive, secluded meditation course I’ve been trying to attend for years. And yet, now that I’m here, I’m already thinking about the conversation I’ll have with people afterwards on how this simply wasn’t for me, and how they’ll say: “Good for you, at least you gave it a try! Now you can do what you really want to do.”
Change is Permanent.
I’m outside, standing in a field overlooking a landscape of hills, forests and small villages. I’m on my one hour break between morning and afternoon meditation. The sky is bright blue. I notice how the fields of clouds above me seem to be moving quickly. I look down at the hills ahead of me, noticing how the clouds form shadows on the landscape, coating certain spots in temporary darkness. I decide to remain standing here in order to observe the shifting of the shadows. I pick a handful of trees in the distance as my reference point, still shrouded in darkness. A few seconds later, to my excitement, they’re basking in sunlight again. I decide to remain here, staying rooted in this spot, in order to keep noticing this process of change unfolding – one that is always there, but I never pay attention to or have the patience to stand still long enough for.
A few minutes later I notice the line between darkness and light creeping towards me on the fallow field in front of the patch of grass I stand on. Within seconds, the temperature and the light of the spot I stand on changes from warm and yellowish to cold and grey. I shiver with excitement, joyous to be privy to this experience of reality, as other meditators scattered in the field around me seem to be either resting witht their eyes closed or walking with their eyes directed towards the ground. A few seconds later, I’m standing in sunlight again – smiling to myself about the beauty of the moment I just experienced, how it so elegantly visually captured what I’ve experienced here: that life, at its core, is ever-unfolding change. How, even though my present reality may feel cold or grey, or sunny and light – only by identifying with this moment and believing it will last, do I suffer. By knowing it’s just one moment of something that is bound to shift again – can I be present with it, without fearing or getting tangled up in it.
It’s day 5 of a Vipassana retreat. Now that I’m here, I can’t even imagine putting into words what I’m experiencing and realizing here – it seems so trivial and subtle, yet so life-changing and profound; like the moment of the shifting shadows on the landscape – there, but easily missed.
Reality isn’t always in my hands – but my response is.
I’m inside, sitting on a pillow in my home-office, trying to meditate, as was recommended during the Vipassana course I came home from a few days ago. I’m getting frustrated, as I notice that I’m not experiencing the same kind of physical sensations I had while there. In fact, I’m experiencing very little, other than my own growing dissatisfaction. I continue to slowly scan my body with my mind’s eye, going from the top of my head, to the left side of my head, to the right side of my head, to my forehead, to my nose and downwards – staying a minute or so with each patch of my body. “What am I doing wrong?” I start to wonder. “Why am I not experiencing any strong physical sensations anymore? Maybe I’m just not good enough“, I start to conclude. And yet, I continue to go down, willing myself to stay here, sitting, breathing, scanning, observing, remembering that the point of this isn’t to ‘feel a certain way’, but to just observe reality as it is – even as my thoughts start to wander and that familiar feeling of irritability, about this moment not being how I hoped it would be, starts to rise.
Afterwards, I walk into our living room. There are peanut shells and candy wrappers on a couch I vacuumed a few days ago – signs of my husband’s late night snacking before coming to bed. A few weeks ago, this would have triggered me into hours of frustration, leading me to start questioning our relationship and ability to live together, to critique my own perfectionist tendencies, to feel disrespected and resentful as I would either grudgingly clean it up myself – or bark at him to do so as soon as he’d wake up. Now, I notice the trigger – and realise I have a choice in how to respond to this reality. I don’t need to extend the suffering of this moment. I can limit it to this small rise of frustration. After a few minutes, I decide to vacuum the couch and create that, which I know will make my morning more enjoyable. While doing so, I start to realize that my husband most likely didn’t consciously leave these shells and wrappers – that he must have been exhausted from the workweek he’s had and tried to comfort himself with snacks and show-watching, while slowly falling asleep on the couch. As soon as he wakes up, I give him a hug, as he tells me he feels restored. Later that day, he apologizes for leaving a mess.
It’s a week after a Vipassana retreat. Since coming home, I’ve tried to hold on to that feeling of presence and wakefulness I had at the retreat – yet notice that that too, is something that is already shifting. Old triggers and dislikes, as well as coffee cravings and chocolate binges are returning. And yet, the core lessons I learned remain embedded in the back of my mind:
By slowing down – a different reality emerges.
My truth is not the whole truth.
Both comfort and discomfort are a normal and natural part of life.
Pain is an intense physical sensation that rises and slowly recedes again.
When I pay attention to my breath or physical sensations, I come back to the present.
Nothing is permanent, everything is always shifting – whether fast or slow, visible to me or invisible.
No matter what this moment looks like, I am always free to observe it, stay calm and equanimous, and if overwhelming, breathe through it.
I am here for you – as is your own, forever shifting, inner world.
And yet, these insights too, will shift again as well, whether fast or slow.
If life is challenging for you right now – or you’re finding it hard to find a sense of groundednesss amidst a lot of tension or change, know that I’m here to support you. Not to be your guru or saviour. But to help you reconnect with your own dynamic source of wisdom within.
Wishing you love and peace, wherever you are,