Stronger Through Pain
10 days of Vipassana: The most valuable life lesson learned through pain
“What does the Vipassana meditation center look like?” my friend asked me the day before I headed for “solitary confinement”.
Getting caught up in reading about Vipassana retreat’s (or should I say “retreat”) rundown, rules, and “the code of discipline”, I was completely oblivious to the aesthetics of the center. I was determined to go.
Not sure if it were a wise idea to google search images of the center, pictures of a low-maintenance shelter enclosed with barbed wire fences showed up. Atop of the rusty green metal gates hung a sign “Hong Kong Vipassana Center”.
I looked at my friend and said sarcastically, “I’m literally sending myself to solitary confinement. I am so ready for this”.
With a track record in not talking to anyone for 2 days and having been considered as a quiet one since little, I actually found the 10-day silent retreat an oddly exciting challenge.
I wanted to isolate myself and be quiet and alone with my thoughts. That was what I needed. I considered that as my sweet escape.
As the retreat was getting nearer, I received comments like “You’re so brave to be doing this”, “Have you meditated for more than an hour?” “You’ve always been so active, doing this is a game changer!”
Being overconfident about my ability to remain silent for long and having practiced meditation on and off for an hour, I embraced their comments as blessings than concerns.
To give you an idea why I decided to get on this journey, before the trip, I withdrew from antidepressants half a year ago (August 2016) without doctor’s consent. Dealing with mood swings and returning depressive symptoms alone was tough. Whenever something stressed me out, I would be tempted to take the remaining antidepressants. Every morning I faced analysis paralysis.
I looked at the pills on my bedside table, knowing that taking pills was not a sustainable solution to deal with mental health - not only financially but health in general. However, at the same time I craved for security and peace of mind that the pills gave me. My thinking was the pills could catch me when I relapse.
I later learned through my vipassana mediation experience that my attachment to anti-depressants has created a strong mental barrier to living a strong and courageous life. I believe being strong and courageous are few of the important elements that contribute to success and happiness.
Just so I do not set the tone for my experience so grim, I am here in advance, so proud and grateful, to tell you that I am happy and content with where I am now after the retreat.
Apart from wanting to find absolute isolation, I had this slight hope that I would experience some brain chemical changes through meditation. I have read articles that wrote about the benefits of meditation. For example, if you meditate for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks, there are measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. Research shows that the gray-matter density in the hippocampus (important for learning and memory) increases while the gray matter in the amygdala (the region connected to anxiety and stress) decreases.
Soon after I injured my wrist from a cycling accident in February, I could not perform any workouts for two months. The timing could not be any better for a pure mental “workout”.
I did not expect to achieve what the popular culture would conceive the experience of a meditation retreat as a “transformational experience” and a “transcendental shift”, or even to feel that I could be a legitimate “spiritual gangster”. Jokes aside, I wanted to cultivate lucidity and find answers to my problems.
There I was arrived with a small red luggage that carried around the bare minimum - loose fit clothes and toiletries. I had to leave all the things behind, in which I later found were things I was attached to - books, journals, pens, wallet, phone, earphones. I left everything behind and began my retreat.
The daily schedule goes like this:
4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00- noon Lunch break
noon -1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room–Lights out
The schedule looks like prison rather than a retreat right? Told you it was a “retreat”.
Here goes my learnings:
“Nobody else can do the job for you; you have to work yourself. You have to explore reality within yourself. You have to liberate yourself.”
We all have one goal - whether we are aware or not - we want to attain enlightenment. The goal behind vipassana meditation is simple. We aim to purify the mind, eradicate mental defilements and negativities within and thus attaining liberation from all misery, attaining full enlightenment.
I learned that concentration was just a step leading to a higher goal. The aim of vipassana meditation is not about concentrating the mind, but to attain full enlightenment.
On the first day, we were told that our intention in the course was to learn the art of living.
In S. N. Goenka’s words, the art of living was to learn how to live peacefully and harmoniously within oneself, and to generate peace and harmony for all others; how to live happily from day to day while progressing towards the highest happiness of a totally pure mind, a mind filled with disinterested love, with compassion, with joy at the success of others, with equanimity.
For my first day of meditating I was introduced to the word equanimity. The idea behind was you restrain yourself from creating any aversion towards unpleasant sensations or craving for pleasant sensations.
To deliver this idea, you practice the awareness of respiration (Ānāpāna). The foundation of the practice is sīla — moral conduct. Sīla provides a basis for the development of samādhi — concentration of mind; and purification of the mind is achieved through paññā — the wisdom of insight. Throughout 10 days, we were encouraged to practice strong determination.
Sitting cross-legged on a meditation cushion for 10 hours a day was excruciating. I sat on my cushion and wrapped myself in a blanket. I tried to get myself as comfortable as I could. I later learned that no matter how “grand” and elaborate the setup was, or how mentally prepared you were, pain was inevitable.
My first sitting for an hour was okay. We were allowed to stretch our legs when needed. After 4 times of sitting, I felt more present. Physically, my legs were tired. During every practice, I would feel pins and needles in my legs.
At one point, while experiencing discomfort in my legs, I started to amplify the sensation to other things; negative thoughts and past episodes started to emerge to the surface. My mind started to drift to thoughts of the past. I was chasing one thought after another. It was as if I were orchestrating a series of sad memories that painted the story of my life. I understood the key of meditating was to observe the pain objectively, but I struggled to apply. I wanted to indulge in the sea of thoughts just to kill the time and get out of the room right away.
Every end of the night, we finished with a discourse. We listened to Goenka’s video tape. What I remembered clearly (at least what one important takeaway I remembered out of many other important ideas. Note that we were not allowed to journal.) from the discourse on day 1 was that the course was to learn to deal with pain. From the practice, we learned to breathe through pain. Through breathing and feeling the unpleasant sensations, we learned to apply the technique to deal with discomfort. We learned to observe the pain objectively and not to create any aversion towards unpleasant sensations.
My experience has brought to my awareness that when one faced a difficult situation, there was the danger of becoming agitated and multiplying the difficulties. That was why practicing equanimity through meditation was like performing an operation on the mind. From hours of meditation, you would notice how weak and infirm the mind was, always wavering from one object to another.
Meditation is a form of exercise to strengthen the mind.
Day 2 & 3
“One cannot perform an action that helps others without first generating love, compassion, good will; and as soon as one starts developing such pure mental qualities, one starts enjoying heavenly peace within.”
I came here for a reason. As mentioned in the beginning, I have been carrying the heavy weight of negativity towards my mental health.
I was however determined that I was strong enough to do it alone without medical aid. My thought process was I had to manage my anxieties with a better coping method. After numerous psychologist visits, nothing helped. I was too stubborn and reluctant to receive help. Partially indulging myself and stepping further into my own pond of misery, feeling sorry for not being able to be the best version of myself to everyone around me, I wanted to isolate myself the best way possible.
“No one can help you but yourself,” my inner voice crept in.
I signed up for the retreat to help myself put things into perspective.
As I sat further into my meditation practice, one of my painful and draining memories came into play. It was a session with a psychologist in which we performed Gestalt therapy (aka the empty chair technique). A chair was placed in front of me. I was asked to envision myself sitting there. I had to play the inner critic role. She told me to say out loud the things I would usually say to myself. The experience was excruciatingly draining and traumatic because I had to confront my deepest, darkest self.
Sitting on the sofa looking at the empty chair across, in my mind I was ruminating on negative self-talk, I opened my mouth but was lost for words. It was tough because I had to bring my thoughts to reality. After few long deep breaths, I finally managed to put words into sentences.
“You don’t deserve to be loved.”, “You are useless. Can you be more useful?”, “What are you even good at?”
After that the psychologist asked me to sit on the chair and imagine myself sitting on the sofa and asked me how I would respond to those comments.
At the moment, I felt very violated. In my mind, I knew I was abusive to myself, but my ego got in the way.
I was too stubborn to convince myself that the abusive comments were not the truth. I gave up and told the psychologist I could not.
I burst into tears. I have never felt so weak and vulnerable. I was hurt that I have been hurting myself tremendously and I was even more hurt having learned that I was being protective within my own hurtful, violent comments.
During the meditation, that traumatic memory got stronger and louder within the absolute silence in the meditation room. It was too much to take. I ended the session early, rushed out and sat in a chair and cried profusely.
“The law of kamma (Karma) - importance of mental action- four aggregates of the mind: consciousness, perception, sensation, reaction - remaining aware and equanimous is the way to emerge from suffering.”
After flushing the emotions out, I was ready to practice vipassana as fully as possible. I set aside my emotions and focused on my breath. The Vipassana breathing technique involved sequences of long body scans in a specific order - from the nostril, to the area in-between the tip of the nose and upper lip, from crown of the head, to the left side of the face, right side, front and back of neck, left side of the shoulder, armpits, back… all the way down to the toes. (Yes, it is that specific.)
I observed the pain in my joints and legs objectively. I brought my awareness to my sensations and pain I felt. I did not allow myself to react to how my body felt. In addition to the body scans, day four marked the beginning of practicing “strong determination”; meaning for one hour, you have to literally sit like a stone.
It was a challenge in a completely different level.
I am the type of person that does whatever it takes to complete a challenge I am committed to. I saw that sign outside the hall “practice strong determination” for 1 hour and I said to myself, “I’m going to do it”.
Guess what, I managed to sit through the hour without uncrossing my legs. However, I “broke” the code of conduct - I definitely did not handle the practice in a “calm, balanced way”. 10 minutes in sitting, I felt my nose itching like crazy. I observed it and moved on with my breathing to other body parts. I ignored the itch.
20 minutes in, my legs were set on fire.
I breathed deeply and said I could get through it. By that time, I have done the full sequence for about 3 times.
45 minutes in, I gave up on staying mentally strong and focused on performing the “job”- not going anywhere. I convinced myself that as long as my legs were crossed, I was still doing it “right”.
I compromised with myself and started to tolerate the burn, made my life comparatively easier by rocking my body from side to side to ease out the pain. If people’s eyes were open, they would be seeing a lunatic going through a rollercoaster ride. Physically.
I placed my hands atop of my knees, back was upright, and I was moving my body like a rollercoaster, rocking myself in circles. The pain got even worse in my legs.
I told myself, “this is like a marathon, I can pull through it and make it to finish line.”
Like what I would usually listen to when I pull through a run, I played the song “In Da Club - 50 cent” at the back of my mind. I connected my breathing to the beats of the song… eventually it worked. I sat through the whole hour. I felt so proud after accomplishing the “strong determination” session, but inside I knew that was not the way to meditate.
Meditation was not about accomplishments, ego, or pride. Now I think about it, there I was, to my surprise, I ignorantly converted myself to a “spiritual gangster”.
“The source of the process of suffering, the deepest cause, is ignorance. From ignorance starts the chain of events by which one generates mountains of misery for oneself. If ignorance can be eradicated, suffering will be eradicated.”
The remaining half of the vipassana journey was critical to me. Deeper introspection was engaged. I had many hours to sit and mend my relationship with myself. The experience marked a great impact on me because working through pain daily has brought me to view pain as a by-product of life. It did not have to be associated with suffering. The daily practice also sharpened my senses.
Air smelled fresher. Sense of taste became stronger. I could detect movements of people and objects faster and sharper. I have always associated antidepressants as instant remedies to sharpen my senses. Through practicing meditation and learning to cope with pain, at one point I made a pact to myself.
I swore that “I’m no longer a slave to antidepressants. I’m a living proof that I can work within my body to enhance senses. I am aware of my emotions and can manage them. No one ever said happiness would come easily. You need to work for it. I'm going to work hard for happiness.”
The moment of revelation set my heart at peace.
Feeling more settled with my issues, I continued practicing meditation diligently. I started to experience the beauty of meditation and in fact found joy within.
To see the big picture, doing the same thing over and over again for 10 days was boring. However, through the experience, I learned and experienced one of the most important elements of living - to live from moment to moment. It was not until practicing deliberately that it became clear that life was malleable.
Even when I sat at the same spot meditating every day at the same time, every second, every moment was different. I did not feel the pain the same way as the last second, the last minute, or the past day. Every breath I took was different from the last.
Birds chirped at one moment, your left eye itched at one moment, your left leg was screaming at one moment. Within the absolutely boring routine has marked a beautiful revelation and experience. I learned from the experience that pain would come and go. The feeling of pain felt eternal at the moment. But once you were aware of it, knew it was there, let it be, let it go, and pain would just fade naturally.
Throughout the journey, I planned a lot of to-do’s. I planned to talk to people in the past for closure. I felt ambitious at the moment, but as I walked out of the vipassana retreat and got back to reality, I found myself treasuring my moments with family more than anything. I let go of the painful attachments and press on to the people who mattered to me most.
Most importantly, the moment I got to my bedroom, I took the antidepressants on the table and flushed them down the toilet.
Checking in now, three months after the retreat, I am proud to say that I am content with my current state. I learned to face the vicissitudes of life with equanimity. It has been a proof that my work performance increased. One of my clients told me I looked different after the retreat. She could not tell what exactly it was, but said everyone should do it.
An acquaintance walked into a coffee shop and saw this very zened out person and did not realize it was actually me. For a person who has usually been very tense and restless, having told that I was very zen was a huge compliment.
Therefore, I would say, yes, everyone should at least experience a silent retreat. Find your way to reset, look into your inner thoughts and feelings, reframe your thinking, accept your past and press on to the better future with equanimity.
Love and light,