Learning to Love Vipassana Meditation

The rules were strict. We turned in our car keys, our cell phones, and they locked the gate. The schedule was grueling with at least 10 hours of meditation every day starting at 4:30 a.m. and concluding at 9:00 p.m. All meditation was to be done either in the meditation hall or in your room. Men and women were separated. No talking. No writing. No reading. Just meditate. 

By noon on the first day, I couldn’t imagine how I was going to survive the next ten days. I thought the returning students were masochists. 

This was not a meditation retreat. This was a 10 day meditation course to learn the technique of Vipassana meditation. This was not a vacation. This was work. 

I wanted to learn how to meditate because I wanted a stronger connection with my instincts, with my heart.

Without the ability to communicate niceties like “excuse me” or to make eye contact, we were forced to read body language. Life became a dance. We flowed together, taking an extra moment to read the other person’s actions before moving ourselves. A give and take. An energy that ran on a string tying us together. Pull one way or tug another and we all move. 

These 30 or so women were strangers to me. By the end, I recognized them by the girl who walked slowly on the path, the woman who sat outside for lunch, the girl slept on the bunk above me. This is all I knew about them, yet we were all experiencing something very personal together. 

I sat for hours using my awareness to feel sensations on my body and practicing being an objective observer. While the first day was hard, I could feel myself improving with each day. I was taking small steps on this meditative path to happiness, curious to learn more all the while feeling fatigued by the many hours meditating. 

Then the afternoon of Day 6 arrived. 

As I sat alone in my room, misery blanketed me. I had one task: practice Vipassana meditation for 90 minutes as I had done at 1 p.m. for the past five days. Yet today this task was unsurmountable. My brain revolted, and I started to panic. How could I escape this unhappiness when my usual escapes were unavailable? I couldn’t exercise. I couldn’t talk to Martin. I couldn’t cook. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t access the internet. I had me. 

My brain refused to even attempt to meditate. I took a deep breath. While I couldn’t imagine meditating for the next 90 minutes, maybe I could meditate for the next breath. Maybe I could meditate if I focused on one body part instead of my entire body. Moment by moment; breath by breath; part by part, I survived those 90 minutes. By the end of that session, my confidence had improved – marginally. The moment-by-moment tactic had worked. Whew. 

I stood up and walked to the meditation hall to begin the grueling 60 minute group meditation session of “strong determination” which is code for NO MOVING! I was to sit like I was stone for the next 60 minutes surrounded by other meditators. Dread made my legs feel like cement. I had made it through the previous meditation session, but my nerves were dangling over a vast canyon. Determination was nowhere.

Not five minutes into the sitting, panic overtook me. Vipassana meditation focuses on keeping your awareness within the confines of the body, yet it also keeps your awareness moving. I heard the teacher say in his sing-song meditative voice “…from the top of your head to the tips of your toes from the tips of your toes to the top of your head…” Not helpful! My body wasn’t allowed to move and meanwhile my awareness was bouncing inside me like a caged animal.

I took a breath. “This is not killing me; this is healing me,” I repeated over and over and over and over and over again. I couldn’t think about when this would be over. I could only think about the present moment. Suddenly, I heard the teacher’s chanting start, signaling just a few more minutes. I left the hall shaken, but charged. I did it. I didn’t move. I remained focused on the moment. I didn’t faint or run screaming insane things. I felt stronger. I felt more confident. Maybe I could do this. Minutes later when yet another 90 minute meditation session stood before me, I didn’t panic. I wasn’t happy, but I also wasn’t scared. I was determined to face it. Moment by moment.

With patience and persistence you are bound to be successful. 

Day 6 marked a turning point for me. With every meditation session that followed, I deepened my practice. Sharp stabbing pain made the right side of my back feel like it was on fire. My thighs and knees ached. My stomach muscles were sore. No matter. I was filled with determination to understand this technique before I left, to begin purifying my mind of misery and make room for happiness and love. 

I’m not sure the extent of the impact this meditation course has had on me. I do know that I have cultivated more patience, that I feel things more intensely. I can only hope that my new meditation practice can help me continue to develop my understanding of impermanence in order to cultivate happiness and love. 

It was hard. It was painful. 

I’m so glad I did it.

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5 Responses

  1. Amy K B says:

    Wow Jill – way to go! I started to get anxious just reading this. What a challenge. I suspect the impact will keep revealing itself over time. Thanks for sharing this and all – you are very generous (and a great writer!)

  2. Molly B says:

    Wow, beautifully written. Felt like I was there with you… and kinda glad I wasn’t 😉 Thanks for sharing so honestly and deeply.

  3. Cynthia B. says:

    This challenge is a mountain – I am full of admiration for you and your quest to grow. I am inspired.

  4. Coralie says:

    So proud of you for seeking out this challenge and completing it! Will be interested to hear more about your observations over time.

  5. Malia says:

    Jill- what a great read and experience! so amazing to meet you and i wish you a wonderful journey ahead 🙂