About a year ago I adopted a dog. He’s a mix of about fifteen different dog breeds and has fluffy, brown ears, and big green eyes that have turned me to Jell-O since the day I first saw him. Shortly after I brought him home, it became clear that he was the complete opposite of the care free dogs so many of us are accustomed to. Literally every single thing in this dog’s world elicits some sort of a response. If a squirrel runs by, he reflexively lunges to chase it. If I drop my keys on the table by the door, his head shoots up like a gun went off. Living in my tiny one-bedroom apartment, a stone’s-throw away from the bars was no easy feat. With every muffled voice from my neighbors, door knock, car backfire, or floorboard creak, his ears perked up, eyes widened, and body tensed, as he growled, barked, and ran to the door. This dog basically only relaxes when he sleeps, and even then, his legs twitch and he growls as he fights off whatever monster he’s evading in his dreams. I sometimes joke that it sincerely looks like he believes the world will literally come crumbling down around us if he didn’t do something, anything, about the scary noise coming from the kitchen… the knock at the door… the clanking of the pans as I make breakfast. This guy is on high-alert all. the. time. Even when I’m sure he’d prefer not to be.
In it’s natural state, my brain is kind of like this. It’s riddled with anxiety, worry, and the incessant need to do something, anything, to control my environment– to plan– to make sure that things turn out exactly the way I want them to. Oh and then the worst part? If they don’t… if, God forbid, I fail, a wave of shame ensues that resembles something like this:
My tendency to be hyper vigilant to things in my body (Does that mole look weird to you? God… hope it’s not skin cancer), my schooling (Advisor hasn’t returned my draft? He probably hates it and I’ll need to re-write it), and my relationships (Someone cancels plans? Clearly he doesn’t want to see you), was getting out of hand. The anxiety and incessant commentary was absolutely exhausting, and frankly was getting in the way of things I wanted in my life– success, confidence, relationships, for god’s sake… happiness, etc. etc. The voice inside my head was, for lack of a better word, a complete and total asshole, and I was completely over letting it call the shots.
In short, I think Elizabeth Gilbert once said that every journey to self-discovery begins with a moment where the person gets sufficiently fed up with his or her own bullshit. I had finally reached the end of my rope with mine.
This weird thing called “Vipassana” (and no, it’s not a cult).
Many of my friends and family were baffled when I decided to enroll in a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. “You’re going to do WHAT?” they would say, and subsequently give me a look of absolute horror. I’m sure they were convinced I was joining a cult or had finally completely lost my mind. This post is largely a response to all of my friends and family who want a bit more explanation than “I went and meditated in silence for ten days. It totally changed my life. You should do it.” (Though those things still stand, and really, you should).
So what is Vipassana?
Vipassana meditation has been described by some of the most hardcore yogis as “the extreme sports of meditation.” The technique is about 2500 years old and was promoted by Buddha as a strategy for developing self-awareness and equanimity (the ability to dispassionately witness the contents of your consciousness without getting caught up in them… I’m still working on this). If practiced properly, this type of meditation is said to purify your mind, promote inner peace, and help you develop compassion.
A number of different meditation strategies exist and, generally, all of them are incredibly beneficial. I’m definitely not arguing that this is the ONLY way to effectively meditate, but what sets Vipassana apart from other forms of meditation is that, when you practice Vipassana, you sit silently and in complete stillness, without moving or shifting your position, and observe your thoughts without judging them or reacting. If your back or hips start to hurt, you are instructed to remain completely still and observe your pain silently and calmly. Throughout the retreat, you’re taught to scan your body in stillness, dispassionately observing your sensations without reacting to them.
Needless to say, the practice of Vipassana meditation is grueling. Therefore, to minimize distractions and help people focus on their practice and on the purification of their mind, the retreats are designed to eliminate any and all distractions. For 10 days, they therefore require you to adopt “Noble Silence”, which means you are not allowed to communicate in any way with anyone at the retreat or from the outside world. This means:
No hand signaling
No facial expressions
No eye contact
No texting or phone calls
They also have a few other rules.
No killing (this applies to anything by the way, including things like bed bugs, but more on that later)
No sex (LOL because I had so many opportunities…)
No consumption of intoxicants (were these actually available somewhere? If so, why wasn’t I invited?… jokes)
Men and women are separated (This seemed really arcane and unnecessary and I was initially quite annoyed. I mean seriously… they don’t trust us to keep our hands off of each other for ten days? And then I found myself getting really distracted by one of the guys on the other side of the meditation hall day 4 and realized… ahhhhh that’s why this rule exists).
In addition to all of these rules, every day you adhere to the following rigorous schedule:
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Basically, I agreed to spend 10 days of my life at meditation boot camp. And as it turns out, I wasn’t entirely prepared.
Now, I realize many of you may be thinking… Good god. Is that really necessary? I mean I had the same thought. The silence, the separation from the outside world, the 4am wake up bells, and the 10+ hours of sitting silently watching to contents of your brain every day…. Why? What’s the point?
I have a lot to say on this subject…far more than can be contained in one simple blog post (I’m seriously considering doing this in multiple volumes here), but here’s the simplest way I can explain this.
Every single day, we have THOUSANDS of thoughts, and for the most part, we’re complete slaves to those thoughts. Your nose itches? You scratch it. Feel bored? Scroll through the pages of social media… You think of something unpleasant? You change the mental channel, either by thinking of something else, calling a friend, watching TV, sending a text message, or trying to solve the problem…
Everyone experiences mental patterns where they think of something, experience a feeling craving or aversion, and then react, often by doing something to alleviate the uncomfortable feeling we just experienced. These patterns dictate our behavior and allow us to literally waste hours and even days reacting to our thoughts and emotions.
Not to mention, every single one of these things that you go without on a 10-day retreat— technology, work, talking, music, reading– they’re all inputs that impact the contents of our thoughts and distract us from what’s naturally happening in our brains. Vipassana meditation retreats allow us to slow down, cut through all of the bullshit, and witness our thoughts and mental states at rest, and come to peace with them. In short, they force you to actually face your emotions and any issues that might be residing in your subconscious and witness your mind in its natural state.
Vipassana (and meditation in general) is from what I can tell, the absolute best strategy I have found for cutting through all of this BS and getting in touch with who you are. With concentrated practice of Vipassana, you get really good at recognizing your own thought patterns, emotional baggage, and mental habits and, if you’re willing to work your butt off, freeing yourself from them.
Can you think of the last time you removed all of the distractions and external influences in your life so you could get really up close and personal with your thoughts? I couldn’t think of any time in my life where I’d consciously observed my brain at rest– no distractions. No friends. No social media. No work or “productivity” to distract me. Just me and, well… me. So, even though I was honestly kind of terrified, I jumped in.
Part I: Bringing a knife to a gunfight
Arriving at the retreat center was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. My overriding thought process that day was, “What in the HELL have I gotten myself into?” I felt like I was checking myself into a monastery… Oh wait, that’s because I was.
The first few hours, we were allowed to speak, and they laid down the ground rules (see above). They gave us a tour of the center and where we were permitted to walk. There were little flags, like the ones they use for invisible fences for dogs (not kidding), delineating the women’s territory and the men’s, and they did not overlap. I have a history of having issues with rules and authority, particularly if I think they’re illogical, so naturally, I immediately fought the urge to throw myself over the boundary and dance around yelling, “You’re not the boss of me!” but I decided to play along… at least for now.
The first days of the retreat were some of the hardest days of my life. That said, for some reason, I never once considered leaving. I was determined to kick this retreat’s ass, but that’s not quite how the first few days panned out for me.
Let me be clear, these first days weren’t hard the way graduate school comprehensive exams were hard, or the way my last bad breakup was hard, or even how, I would imagine, marathon running is hard. No, this was a street fight. This was hard in the way that pushing a boulder up a mountain would be hard. It felt like manual labor. It felt like every time I would get the boulder to budge, it would slide back down the mountain slightly, rolling over my fingers and toes. All the while, I was wondering (1) Am I even doing this right? And (2) Why am I doing this again?
Oh, yeah. And in this metaphor, the boulder is YOUR MIND.
Let me explain. The first few days of this retreat, you’re instructed to sit still, focus on your breath, and allow your thoughts to simply float by without getting caught up in them. If your mind wanders, you’re supposed to non-judgmentally and unemotionally draw your attention back to your breath, remaining calm and unattached from the process. During a typical meditation practice, this can happen hundreds of times. It took patience and persistence beyond anything I had ever practiced before.
Another complicating factor… this type of meditation HURTS. As someone who does absurd things like Crossfit, ice baths, and races on a regular basis, I’m really no stranger to discomfort. But I do not exaggerate when I say that your body throws a hungry three-year-old with permissive parents-level temper tantrum on you when you tell it not to move for such long periods every day. Parts of my body started hurting that I did not know existed, and you have to learn to sit through it, often meditating on the very pain that makes you want to get up and run from the room screaming.
That said, the physical is nothing compared to the mental gymnastics you perform during these retreats. Those first few days, I would sit down to meditate and my brain would immediately go, “Oh look! All this free time? Let’s use it productively, now… so let’s try to figure out [insert relationship issue, something with my family, something with my dissertation, something with my dog…. At one point I even spent a good 15 minutes thinking of how fun it would be to learn the ‘Cups’ song from Pitch Perfect. I wish I was kidding].”
Then, two things might happen… (a) I would dig my heels in and get pulled off into some mental space where I relived every upsetting exchange in my mental space, and then do my best to bring my attention back to my breath, or (b) after hours of this back and forth, I would sometimes throw my hands up, open my eyes, and give up. These were the last things I wanted to be thinking about. I just wanted inner peace, goddammit!
But, no. My mind would. Not. Shut. Up. Oh my god. I almost wish I could have recorded my thoughts these days so you call could see the sheer lunacy of them. I swear to you, it was like my brain could tell I was trying to will it into submission, and it threw everything you could imagine at me to keep from losing control. I was reminded of traumas that I had completely forgotten happened. I remembered things I haven’t thought of in YEARS. I analyzed and re-analyzed every romantic relationship I’ve probably ever had at least a dozen times, and far more for the ones with more emotional gravity to them. I remembered embarrassing conversations and scenarios. I remembered fights. And all of this happened as I felt like I sat there mentally screaming “Please STOP! I came here for inner peace, not for a front row seat to all of my neuroses”
(As a side note, I’m also happy to report that at the end of Day 1, my brain switched strategies entirely and decided to try to distract me by playing Taylor Swift’s “Shake it off” on repeat in my head. I shit you not when I say that I could not get that song out of my head for four days.)
I realize that the above sounds dramatic and unpleasant, and if you’re still reading, there’s a 99% chance you think I’m bat shit crazy at this point. I have no response to the latter, but with regards to the former, I’ll respond that I only include these details to emphasize that I am NOT naturally good at this. I can’t tell you how many people have looked at me since I got back and said, “I could never do that.” Let me be clear– YES YOU CAN. It just takes grit. It takes a willingness to repeatedly fall on your ass and pick yourself up. I would also mention that, while I’m dramatizing this slightly for entertainment value (listening to someone detail their experience sitting silently in a room with a bunch of strangers for ten days doesn’t provide much comedic value for blog posts), I now know that this is actually a pretty normal reaction when people start meditating. Often times, your neuroses and emotions flare if you try to eradicate them too quickly or aggressively. What you resist persists, and gee willickers, my thoughts were persistent…
Part II: The Big Guns
In the midst of this mental struggle, I relied heavily on meetings with my teacher(s) for guidance. While they were the source of a wealth of information, the most useful thing one said to me was that, when you close your eyes to meditate, you experience EXACTLY what you’re supposed to experience. At any given moment, meditation (and I suppose, life in general), gives you exactly what you need to grow and learn. Stop looking at what the guy next to you is doing and feeling envious of his experience. Yes, lots of people go to meditation retreats and feel rejuvenated and restored and peaceful and calm. Guess what? I’m not everyone. I never have been. What I was going through those first few days were exactly what I needed to grow, and I could 100% handle it. At that point in the retreat, I needed to see that, sometimes, I wasn’t in control, and that’s ok. These retreats have a way of delivering exactly what you need at that moment, and in this case, I needed I big ol’ slap in the face to remind me that, sometimes, I couldn’t be in the driver’s seat.
This lesson prompted two things from me. First, I decided that, even if the whole ten days were spent wrestling with my thoughts, witnessing my own neuroses, and simply becoming aware of how loud and overwhelming my brain could be at times, while learning other things… like to sit still, even when you’re in pain, or to be silent, even when you want to talk… even if that’s all I got, it would be enough. I was going to get every single thing out of this retreat that I possibly could, and even if I was simply silent for ten days and got to introspect, that alone would probably change my life. So many people go into retreats like this and want some big out-of-body transcendental life changing experience– some a-ha-moment where they commune with the divine. At this point, I very simply let go of all expectations for how this thing was going to pan out.
Second, I decided that, even if I couldn’t (and SHOULDN’T) control the outcome, I was going to show up to every single meditation and give it my all. Some sessions, that meant accepting that my brain was going to be chaotic, but refusing to move for the duration of the sitting. Other times, it meant bringing my attention back every single time it wandered with as much discipline as I could muster. Regardless of how my brain showed up for me that day, I showed up to every single session with laser focus and elite athlete-level determination. I was determined to learn everything I possibly could during these ten days. So I earnestly said to the universe, or god, or whoever… maybe just myself… whatever you’ve got, bring it on. There is no challenge you’re going to throw at me that’s going to make me walk away from this.
Part III: Sleep tight…
This is the part in the story where I imagine the cosmos looking down at me, chuckling, and saying, “Holy shit. This is going to be fucking hilarious.”
Because this is when the cosmos gave me bedbugs.
Now, I want everyone to note here that I seriously considered omitting this detail from the story. The last thing I’m interested in is having this tiny detail overshadow how amazing this retreat was (and let me be clear, I actually think this retreat was awesome, partially, BECAUSE of the bedbugs, rather than in spite of them, but more on that shortly). Also, the organization running the retreat was not at fault in this situation, and honestly handled the issue to the absolute best of their ability, and somehow, managed to deliver a truly life-changing experience in spite of this obstacle. I am incredibly grateful to them and want to point out that this was not a Vipassana issue. It was really and truly simple bad luck on their end, though it was on some level, exactly what I needed.
So there we were. Roughly 25 women of all ages gathered in silence in pursuit of peace and mindfulness. We were all looking for different things, hoping to get over different personal issues, or maybe just to relax and unplug for ten days. We were all looking to learn to be less reactive to our environment and remain calm, centered, and equanimous regardless of what was happening in our environment or in our body. So, what does the universe send us? Bed bugs. Fucking bed bugs.
We woke up on day four to one of the dorm rooms packing up their bags, stripping their beds, and throwing all of their belongings into giant, shiny, black garbage bags. Having had experience with bed bugs in college, I immediately knew what it was. I checked my body for bites (I had none, thankfully) while I mentally walked myself through every possible outcome. If it’s bedbugs, should I leave? If I don’t, what do I have to do to make sure I don’t give them to my parents? Would they let me go sleep outside? Could I sleep in my car? Should I light all of my belongings on fire?
Then, remembering that bedbugs tend to die in corners of rooms (fun fact: this is one way you can determine if you have them), I grabbed my flashlight, yanked my bed away from the wall, and started inspecting the corners of the room as my roommate looked on confusedly.
If I was going to get a break at this point, this most certainly was not it. There was a pile of bugs the size of softball roughly eight inches from where my pillow sat on my bed. I audibly yelped.
At this point, my roommate, who had been trying very hard to ignore me, finally made eye contact and motioned with her hands and shoulders to communicate (I assume), “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING YOU WEIRDO?”
So I did the only thing that made logical sense at that moment. I start trying my hardest to mime “bed bugs” to my dear roomie. I scratched, I made little crawly motions with my hands… and when all of this failed, unsurprisingly, I said “fuck it” and blurted out “I think we have bedbugs!”
Now I realize I took a bit of a gamble here. First, I broke the whole Noble Silence thing (which I quickly re-adopted after this incident), but I considered this to be an extenuating circumstance, as it had to do with public health and a possible safety concern. Second, what if I was wrong? What if I, Lauren Borden, single handedly caused mass hysteria and exodus among the women in the one context where things are supposed to be cool, calm and collected, by being the one asshat who decided to break the no talking rule and tell everyone that little insects were feasting on all of us as we slept? Happy meditating everybody.
Thankfully, my roommate was pretty level headed about the whole thing and promised she would go find more information on what was happening. While she set out for more information, I decided to go on a walk. I continued thinking at a million miles a minute in typical Lauren form. Holy SHIT, bed bugs? Seriously? I HATE bugs. I’m one of those people who has to call in reinforcements when there’s a spider, however small, in my apartment. This was NOT going to work for me. On top of that, we were only sleeping a few hours a night, and we’re doing a completely grueling 10-hour per day meditation practice. Sleep was supposed to be the one time where we could rest and, NOT MEDITATE.
What happened next was truly a testament to how effective this meditation practice is. All of my thoughts (see above) came to a screeching halt. I just stopped. For the first time in my life, I just hit pause and took a deep breath.
And to my surprise, I started laughing.
Surrounded by retreat attendees in completely silent meditation, I started audibly cracking up. This was actually hilarious. It was as though the Universe had heard me say to myself “Ok, let’s do this. I can handle it”, chuckled and said “LOL Can you? How about now?” And the funniest part? The practice prohibits you from killing any living thing you encounter throughout the ten days, even if it’s actively eating you for dinner. So, we weren’t even technically allowed to kill them!
I knew that the next few nights would be challenging for most of us. Most people who have bed bugs have a hard time sleeping, they may have nightmares, and some have intense allergic reactions to the bites. It was as though we’d been provided with the ultimate test of the skills that we were learning. How badly did I really want this?
I quickly set all of my concerns aside and decided that I was going to stay. First, I had no bites to speak of, so panicking really seemed premature. Second, I figured that to keep the bugs from spreading to my parents’ house, I was going to go to a Laundromat on my way home, and that could either happen now, on my way home early from the retreat, or at the end of the retreat once I’d finished the program.
While roughly half of the women in our dorm left the retreat early, I decided to stay. Oh, and by the way, I slept completely fine. Suffice to say that if this had happened to me pre-Vipassana when I hadn’t had the tools to cope with this, I would have been a wreck, and I likely would have left. But instead, I was sleeping soundly and refusing to let bedbugs get in my way. If anything, after this incident, I became more focused and determined, rather than less.
You guys, this stuff works.
Part IV: Pulling it All Together
After days of meditation that felt like manual labor, bed bugs, and a two-day virus with a cold and a fever (I’ll spare you the details on that last part), I experienced a complete and total shift in my experience.
This is when I started having crazy productive meditation experiences. I do not exaggerate when I tell you that these were on the totally opposite end of the spectrum as my early meditation experiences. I would have sessions where I would close my eyes and feel like I was floating, I’d experience euphoria, or I’d have out of body experiences. Most of the time though, I would close my eyes, everything would quiet, and I’d open my eyes only to realize two hours had passed.
I walked out of many of those meditation sessions with life lessons I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. I let go of old wounds I hadn’t realized weren’t fully healed. I learned to calm my anxieties and worries. I learned to forgive others and myself for times in my life when I’ve fallen short. Most profoundly of all though, I learned that regardless of what’s happening in my head– whether that be unshakeable peace or tumultuous chaos, I have the capacity to deal with it. In short, I learned that I have the capacity to withstand far more than I ever thought possible.
I had been correct. This meditation retreat turned out to be the absolute best thing I had ever done for myself. Since finishing the retreat, my anxiety has improved tremendously. I’m off of all of my anxiety medications, my relationships have improved, and I have much more control over my own mental state and my reactions to things. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been eyeballs deep in dissertation defense preparation and job hunting since November, and I’ve had plenty of stressful moments, but Vipassana has given me the clarity of mind to set my emotions and worries aside and think clearly in the midst of my highly-stressful, completely human moments.
I really and truly believe that everyone could benefit from these retreats, regardless of your religious background or meditation experience. The retreat pushes you both mentally and physically, but it gives you the tools you need to successfully navigate stress, relationships, decision-making, and problem solving. I truly think these are skills that should be taught in schools, and that people should make a point of doing at least one of these in their life, but that’s just my two cents.
Final Thoughts/Advice for those considering attending a Vipassana:
Everyone’s meditation experience really looks different. Some people have intense emotional releases, some people feel incredibly peaceful, and some people feel like I did days 1-4 the entire time. Regardless of your experience, Vipassana meditation is incredibly cathartic and productive. If you decide to embark on one, please feel free to reach out to me with questions. I’m passionate about this and love talking about it, and would be happy to talk anyone through this who might be considering this kind of an experience. In the meantime, here are some of the most important lessons I learned:
1. Let go of your expectations and surrender to the experience. This is how you get the most out of these retreats. Yes, they’re hard and they will be uncomfortable, and worse case scenario, you might not have some crazy epiphany or life changing realization. THAT IS OK. These ten days are about learning about your self. How do you respond to adversity and discomfort? What mental patterns do you have that aren’t serving you? Etc. etc. Just roll with it. I’ve never heard of anyone regretting going on one of these retreats. And YES, you can do it. It’s difficult but 100% doable.
2. Bring your own meditation pillows and maybe even a bench. Test these out beforehand. You’re going to be spending a LOT of time sitting. Do your homework and determine what works best for your body ahead of time. Your booty will thank you for it.
3. Walk during your breaks. You’re not technically allowed to exercise or do yoga on these retreats. In addition to my disregard for the Noble Silence thing post beg bug fiasco, this is the only rule I broke, because I quickly realized that my meditation sessions were more productive when I let a little bit of my energy out of my system. Some days I did 30 jump squats in my room or a few sun salutations, but most days I would just take a brisk walk. For some reason I found it easiest to quiet my mind during meditation if I hade taken a walk, and you also get bonus points for not technically breaking any rules!
4. Bring melatonin or some other natural sleep aid if you’re prone to insomnia. This one is compliments of my badass friend Tonnie who recommended Vipassana to me. Some people experience a bit of insomnia when they do these retreats. Buy the smallest dose of melatonin you possibly can and split them in half (I aim for .5-1mg before bed if I’m taking it to avoid drowsiness the next morning or any weird side effects). I wouldn’t recommend this every night, lest you make yourself drowsy the next day and fall asleep during the meditation (there’s nothing worse than being the person SNORING through the meditation sessions… we’re all trying to by zen and not easily annoyed, but please, don’t test us).
5. Follow the rules. I know this probably sounds silly coming from someone who just admitted to breaking roughly half of the rules, but bear with me. The rules are challenging, but they’re there to help you get the most out of your experience. This was tough for me because I don’t like rules (I’m actually 27, not 17, but I bet I fooled you), but in retrospect, the rules really added to my experience.
6. Zip it. SERIOUSLY. I can definitely say that being silent made my meditation sessions WAY more productive, and when I wasn’t, I had a much harder time calming my mind down. This is difficult to explain, but when you speak with people around you, it has a way of impacting your thoughts that’s difficult to fully notice when you’re not in this kind of environment. The whole point of this retreat is to witness what your brain does without these kinds of external influences, not to mention, talking to other people has a tendency to make you think of about ten thousand other things you’d like to say or talk about. Do yourself a favor and just wait until day ten when noble silence is lifted.
7. Be kind to yourself. Even though it’s really important to follow the rules as closely as you can, don’t beat yourself up if you mess up. There were days where I had a really hard time meditating, and spent entire sessions planning out sections of my dissertation in my head. There were plenty of days when I was ANYTHING but mindful as I went through my daily activities. There were also sessions where, instead of sitting still, I freely itched my face and adjusted my legs. Sometimes, I just wasn’t feeling it. While I would encourage you to be as disciplined as possible, if you screw up, let it go. You’ll still get a ton out of the experience if you just make an agreement with yourself to do your best. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
In Cheryl Strayed’s bestseller “Wild,” she quotes her mother, who said that sometimes you have to make a choice to put yourself in the way of beauty. You wake up early to go see a sunset or you hike across the country to see the wilderness and find yourself. I think this also applies to situations when you’re looking for answers. Sometimes, we have to make a big gesture. We have to be willing to try something difficult and scary to find what we’re looking for. We have to go out of our way to put ourselves into a situation where we’re open to receiving whatever it is we’re seeking in our lives. For the first time in my life, Vipassana helped me do just that. And I have to say, the view was spectacular.
Now it’s your turn. Go do it. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even see you there.