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Sunday, June 5, 2016

NW Vipassana Center: Discovering My Inner Search Engine on a Ten Day Silent Meditation Retreat

It took Siddhartha a decade of study with the masters, six long years of extreme poverty and physical torture followed by forty-nine days in deep meditation under the Bodhi tree to find the answer to suffering and become an enlightened one, a Buddha. It took me ten days of noble silence and numerous hours a day applying his meditation technique to ummm, lighten up, a tad. It takes a minimum of ten days to learn the meditation technique Gotama the Buddha taught.

It was sunny for ten days and on the eleventh day, when I could use a camera, it turned cloudy and rainy. Behind the clouds is
our majestic snow capped Mt. Rainer.

Years ago ago I spoke with a physician of twenty years who attended a 10 day Vipassana retreat and afterwards decided to change careers. He got me started on meditation. At the time I had been teaching middle school for a decade and was becoming disheartened with the educational process, so I thought I would participate in the course when I could make the time. In May of 2016- a beautiful time of year at the center- I took the plunge thinking the silence and meditation might allow something to arise and steer me in a new direction. 

The Center is near the town of Onalaska, WA about 2 hours south of Seattle. It was built in 1991 joining over 200 centers worldwide. Why the wheel for a symbol? This is the Buddhist dharma wheel. When a wheel has 24 spokes, they represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination plus the reversing of the Twelve Links and liberation from samsara--better known as the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth until one reaches enlightenment.

The retreat website has a rideshare feature where one can sign up to give or get a ride. One way to make sure you are not going to quit -some always do- is to get a lift from a kind stranger! I don't think Uber is out there yet, but they would do a fair share of business the first few days driving people home who quit! This awesome couple from Vancouver BC, Jarred and Bethany, offered me a ride. This was his fourth retreat and her third. They're both massage therapists and world travelers. On the drive to the center they shared a wealth of information about the training, the facility, and the schedule which answered a lot of my questions. Since I was not familiar with the technique and a bit nervous about the meditation timetable (yikes, ten hours a day?), I felt relieved when she told me that the 4:30am sitting in the hall was not mandatory! The ride was a great way to settle my nerves. Knowing that easygoing, cool people with plenty of humor and sarcasm were the type of folks who go to this kind of thing brought great relief. Frankly, I was a bit suspicious of the crowd that would be attracted to this experience. You don't have to be maladjusted or unhappy or on a mission to "find yourself" to attend. Everyone who participated heard about it from a friend. And what a diverse and lovely group it was.

After registering and voluntarily handing over all my electronic gadgets as well as surrendering any reading/writing materials, we were told our room number, fetched a cart to haul our stuff and invited to the dining hall for a late afternoon meal--the only meal served after 11am for the next nine days.

The men's and women's quarters are separate--including the dining halls- and you'll have a roommate. Most retreats are full--I registered four months in advance. There is space for 48 women and about 38 men. The facility is beautifully maintained. Everything is super clean and operated by volunteers who have completed at least one ten day course. The rooms are sparse, but totally adequate. One bedroom has a door and the other a curtain. I'm so glad there was a wall outlet because I brought my electric blanket which turned out to be a good decision. It really cools down at night. You'll bring your own bedding and you want it to be as comfortable and inviting as possible after sitting all day!

I met my roommate who came from Oakland, CA. She was very nice, but snored and so did one of the women in the adjacent room--this was to be my cross to bear for the duration of the course. Good thing I was learning how to be nonreactive to my aversions- it was all I could do to hold myself back from pounding on the walls at 4am the first couple of nights! I slipped a note to the women's service manager after the first night asking if they had a bed available in a peaceful room, but she said they were full and handed me a small bag of earplugs. The walls are as thin as the leaves on the trees so don't plan to do anything that makes noise. I never thought doing sun salutations on my mat was loud enough for others to hear, but I had to be very quiet in case someone was sitting in silence in the next room.

Each double room has a super clean bathroom with a nice shower, fan and lots of cleaning supplies. There is also another big bathroom in the women's complex. Sometimes you feel like you have more privacy in a bathroom with many stalls rather than the one you share with a roommate! You may also wash your laundry there.

So we headed to the dining hall for our first meal and it was delicious. Basil lemon lentil soup, brown rice, big green salad with beets and carrots and lots of condiments and dressings. All homemade, all vegetarian. And best of all you can eat as much as you want! The thought of not eating a meal after 11:30am for over a week can make someone like me feel apprehensive and uneasy. And I wasn't the only one. Food scarcity is apparently a universal thing. We all loaded our plates. Looking back, this should not have been a concern at all. We were able to speak during the meal then we were given basic guidelines and info about the property/rules and noble silence commenced. I thought it would be unnatural not look people in the eye or say excuse me or please or how are you, but noble silence was really easy and lovely. I didn't speak to any of the women/staff for nine days yet felt a tight bond with them when they lifted the vow of silence. We engaged in conversation as if we had known one another for a long time. The "noble" part means gestures, looking at eyes, or any kind of communication.

 It was wonderful to see so many youngsters at the retreat, at least half of them were under 35.  They looked like a big group of snowboarders or mountain bikers. Imagine how your life would be different if you became introspective and meditated regularly in your twenties.  These kids have finished college and traveled. They are not keen on spending all their waking hours making oodles of money knowing it will not buy lasting happiness. They are looking to live with a higher purpose; to find meaning in their existence. About 9 of the 38 male students were what they call "old students" which meant they had completed at least one ten day course, as well as 17 of the 48 women. There were two very pregnant women which was so cool. What a gift to spend ten full days in silence feeling the sensations of the baby in the womb.  Buddhist will call the child a dharma baby. The mothers' special needs with food, physical comfort during meditation and lodging were happily accommodated.

After noble silence was lifted, Kathy- above with the cast- told me there's a big bathroom with a tub for special needs folks. Oh man, soaking for an hour a day would have been so nice--it's easy to meditate in a tub of warm soothing water with lavender scented bubbles!  Whenever I was feeling challenged staying still in the meditation hall I would peek over at Kathy who did the entire course with a cast on a newly broken arm. After about three days of watching Kathy struggle to get food on her plate- she was obviously right handed- I couldn't take watching her fend for herself any longer. She was holding a knife of sticky peanut butter in the air over a slice of toast just waiting and waiting for a blob to fall. Without looking at her, I grabbed the knife, spread the butter, cut the toast in half and put it on her plate then walked away. On the last day she told me it made her cry. 

We were led to the Dhamma Hall. You'll hear the word "dhamma" or dharma a million times. It means the law of nature; the teaching of an enlightened person; the way to liberation or personal duty. This is where you'll spend a good part of every day. Your name will be in front of a blue cushion and you may bring your own blankets, benches, pillows or whatever you need to make yourself comfortable in a sitting position. They have a stockpile of items to borrow - seen in the bottom right photo. The shelves were packed with props on the first day and by day four it was empty. This picture was taken the morning of the last day before most items were returned. There is no instruction on how to sit or time to play around with the props, so you had better practice sitting still at home to figure out what set up will work for you. The schedule and announcements are posted in the hall and you'll have a water cup there too.
time table/ water

women's entrance to the hall

If you forget to pack needed items, you can borrow stuff. They have a whole supply room of blankets and sheets and towels and clothing and feminine products. I borrowed a pair of boots the day it rained. My big score was a container of dental floss. I ran out on day 3. You'll have plenty of time to do a big floss everyday, so make sure you arrive with a full pack!

So what do you do all day, you ask?
Well, for the first couple of days you may want to wear a watch to keep track of the schedule and to sneak a peek when you could swear the last fifteen minutes of a one hour meditation session is taking FOREVER!! But after that you can live by the gong. It will be rung to wake you up, 10 minutes before every formal (required) sitting meditation, and at meal times. From 4:30-6:30 AM you can meditate in the hall or your room or, like me, sleep in until 5:00. Sorry, I jut have to have 7-8 hours or I'm a cranky mess. With two snorers and no sleep the first night, I justified it. Get to the hall by 5:45 for the meditation with audio chanting. You can wiggle around and make adjustments without everyone hearing you. Your head is clear when it's early and it feels good in the morning. Then off to breakfast at 6:30. I was elated to finally find myself in the land of tea. No Starbucks here. So many good choices of tea and almond milk. But why so many boxes of Smooth Move tea? I guess all the sitting can stop the train from running on time. With so much soluble fiber in the meals, the meditation hall was filled with digestive gurgling and growling and burping and cushion farting!  I noticed they had some Folgers instant coffee and it was getting a pretty good hit. I would not suggest using the eleven days away from home to get a jumpstart on kicking all your vices. If you overindulge in sex, booze, cigs, TV, social media or take your phone to bed, you're gonna suffer a bit, so you don't need to become a vegan and totally cut caffeine while you're there too. I wouldn't want major headaches while trying to be still in deep concentration.

Here's the daily breakfast menu: great granola, oatmeal, stewed prunes, nice selection of whole grain toast, lots of fruit, yogurt and an array of condiments like tahini, peanut butter, jam, butter, vegan butter and nut/dairy milks. It's fun to look at people's plates and see all the different ways food is combined, mixed and piled. Sometimes there is a special porridge or miso or bread pudding. You won't go hungry. It's all buffet style so you can help yourself to as much as you want. I must warn you though, meditation does not stimulate the appetite. It's quite a conundrum when you have all this beautiful, tasty, healthy, fresh, made-from-scratch food and you aren't very hungry! Meditative walking and stretching doesn't burn too many calories, so you're never famished. Oh and they cater to special diets. A separate fridge is available if you need your own provisions. And if you require an afternoon meal--like the two pregnant women-- it will be prepared for you. A gluten free and vegan option are available at every meal. The food is so good they published the recipes. You'll have to come to dinner at my house or complete the course to get access to the "older students" site which has the menu/recipes.
The gong

After breakfast you'll have an hour to
walk, shower, or rest then to the hall for the 8-9AM meditation. The timetable does not include a ten minute stretching/bathroom break after each hour session of meditation followed by another 20-30 minutes of silent meditation in the hall with a few minutes of audio guidance. You're gonna want to stretch like an athlete to counteract the stiffness in your lumbar spine.
The gong is located at midpoint between the hall, dining room and women's lodging. A server walks around the corridor of the men's/women's rooms ringing a smaller gong so you won't be late to the hall. All 80+ people in the hall wait quietly until everyone shows up to begin.

The morning session ends at about 9:45 so you can choose to continue to meditate in the hall or go to your room and sit on your cushion or lie down and meditate. I used this time for yoga. Very, very quiet yoga. Then it's back to the dining hall for your final meal of the day at 11AM. You won't be very hungry, but it all smells and tastes so delicious you'll be hard-pressed not to fill your plate twice. Dishes included: Moroccan stew, four inch tall rice noodle lasagna with bubbling cheese, tofu vegetable stir fry with spicy peanut sauce and the numminess continued. Having the time to be mindful of where your food comes from and grateful for all the hard work and love it was prepared with makes every bite taste special and delicious. I thought about all the years as a teacher I crammed lunch down my throat in ten minutes and returned to the classroom unsatisfied and unappreciative. I tried to make up for it by taking 30-40 minutes relishing every bite at every meal.

After your big and last meal of the day is your longest break. This is the time to go for a meditative walk on the grounds and nap on a blanket in the grass or wash laundry if need be. If you have a question for the assistant teacher you can book a five minute slot from 12-1PM to speak with her.

The property is lovely. That deer was six feet from my doorstep. On the walking paths you'll see many more deer and bunnies and snakes and birds galore. The sounds of nature are a symphony in every key. From frogs croaking to owls hoo hooing and wild birds chirping, tweeting, buzzing and singing. You definitely feel connected and part of the oneness of all living beings here.

From 2:30-4 you'll be back in the hall meditating. At 5 the dining hall offers bananas, apples and oranges with tea. From 6-9 you'll go back to the hall for an hour session of meditation followed by an hour of taped video discourse from the teacher, S.N. Goenka (1924-2013), who brought this long preserved technique from Burma back to its origin in India and to the West. You'll have a couple of stretching breaks and a final 15-30 minutes of meditation then you're done for the day. The final hour before lights out may be used at your discretion. I usually took a shower and went to sleep. I missed not having any reading material so every night I read the little pamphlet they handed out to us that shared info about the Vipassana technique and the code of discipline.

Some people claim that this is the hardest thing they've ever done in their life and it is said that everyone considers leaving at one time or another. About ten percent of the first timers quit including my roommate. On the morning of day 6 her bathroom toiletries suddenly disappeared and a nice note was on my bed. This was about as much drama as you can get at a silent meditation camp! Too bad, she didn't seem to have trouble sitting still, but you have no idea what goes on in people's minds and the sensation awareness may bring up past abuses and issues that are difficult to face. I gotta say that I did a little happy dance that night having a whole room to myself!

Below are shots of the dhamma hall. An aisle separates men from women. You'll see all kinds of contraptions set up from a single cushion to what looks like thrones as people start piling on the cushions and benches and bolsters and blankets to get comfortable. On day 1 everyone was assigned a floor spot. By day 4 there were 17 people in chairs for the duration. A gal in front of me had a total of twelve props. I called her setup boats afloat!
Notice the cushion and blanket on the stand in the lower right of the photo. This is for the female assistant teacher. Her male counterpart is to her right sitting in front of the men. These are highly trained Vipassana teachers with years of training. They can sit for hours on end perfectly still. The woman was so beautiful. Her heart-shaped face had perfectly clear and smooth hydrated skin and you could feel the calmness and joy of spirit through her bright eyes and curvy smile. These teachers are available for guidance, but will only take questions regarding the technique and to clarify the evening discourse. They are not psychologists or mental health professionals booking appointments for counseling, they are simply there to be role models of the technique and offer a bit of guidance. This experience is about ten full days of solitude with an opportunity to discover what it's like to eat meals in complete silence savoring every morsel, becoming keenly aware of the nature that surrounds you, and exploring the mind and sensations that are constantly arising in every body part. As soon as I arrived I felt at peace and didn't have any worries. Knowing I would be there for eleven days with no outside communication gave me total freedom to concentrate, relax and let go.

What does meditating mean, what are you doing with your eyes closed for so many hours a day?
I wasn't familiar with the Vipassana technique when I arrived and purposely didn't consult Wikipedia for an definition because a big reason I went was out of curiosity and to become a scientist of the inner mind. It's a form of mindfulness meditation, but not the kind that I usually practice. I started a few years ago by borrowing a CD from the library titled Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield. His mindful meditation often consists of words, images and feelings to calm the mind and bring awareness to thoughts. I've also engaged in loving kindness meditation where I choose a couple of people I know and focus on their happiness. I also picked up great hints from another American Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, in her book How to Meditate which says to keep coming back to the breath. Generally I just sit still imagining my mind as a big blue sky and allowing my thoughts to float by like clouds. After about 20 minutes or so I can usually experience a brief gap in thinking, a spaciousness, a field of expansion, a moment of complete stillness. I'm told this is pure consciousness. It makes me feel peaceful, balanced and blissful.
Have you ever been searching for a solution to an issue at work or at home and finally something comes to you when you are in the shower or washing dishes or doing anything but focusing your attention on that issue? This kind of calming meditation allows for a space to open so that those kinds of answers can arise. You have already logically thought out all your options to the problem at hand and when you finally let go of it, your intuitive sense surfaces to guide you. If you can train yourself to listen for that, all the answers will come.

The Vipassana technique is not passive at all and requires serious concentration. It begins with the first three and a half days of your full attention concentrated on your respiration in the area of space between the nostrils and the upper lip. This trains the mind to focus on a very small area and also gives you time to get used to sitting still and not reacting to all the itches that are begging to be scratched, the tight muscles and nerve pinches desperate to be relaxed and the all the other aches and pains your body seemed to have stored up just for this opportunity to make you crazy! At the end of day 4 the actual Vipassana technique is introduced. It's really quite simple, but don't expect to come into a blissful, trance-like state anytime soon.

For the next several days you will mentally scan each part of the body becoming aware of the gross and subtle sensations you are feeling and believe me, your body is full of vibrations and tingling and numbing and floating and pressure and pain and electric sparks and a host of other sensations. The body is energy dancing in form and constantly giving off vibrations. Getting a "good vibe" from someone isn't just an emotional signal. At the physical level, the body is composed of subatomic particles which every moment arise and pass away with great rapidity much like your thoughts. As they do so, they manifest in an infinite variety of combinations with the basic qualities of matter--mass, cohesion, temperature, and movement--producing within us the entire range of sensations. There is more going on in your body than you ever realized! It is a lot of work to be so concentrated for so long. It can be frustrating and exhausting, but you feel a great sense of pride just for being able to make yourself still for long periods and to be so completely focused. It amazed me that you could hear a pin drop in any one hour session on the last four days. So yes, you can do this!

My intention is to translate that kind of presence to daily life by living fully in the moment, conscious of every action and seeing things without judgement. The ability to be nonreactive to the constant cravings and aversions of the mind yet being fully active in your life's purpose should allow one to find happiness internally and therefore not relying on external things to bring anything other than short-lived satisfaction.

A friend asked me what it really felt like doing the meditation and I said it's like trying to explain the sensation of an orgasm to someone who hasn't had one or the taste of a handcrafted Jaques Torres chocolate or the pain of an abscessed tooth. It's ineffable. You can conceptualize and intellectualize all you want by listening to people's descriptions and reading all the literature on the subject, but you will only be able to truly understand through your own actual experience. And each person's experience will be unique.

OMG I can't tell you how elated I was to see Day 10 posted! Days 4, 6 and 9 can be brutal. The kitchen recognizes this and you will be rewarded! I won't spoil it for you, but everyone who has done the course knows that each of those days are like milestones. People have actually left on Day 9! Without the distractions of everyday life, time moves slower and each day is a gift and lovely in so many ways, but it is also work.

What to bring: the web site lists the basics, but I would add the following: thermos/water bottle, heating pad or electric blanket, lots of floss--you'll have plenty of time for this everyday--really good lotion and toiletries--spoil yourself--you won't be spending a dime for eleven days! Good walking shoes, slippers for the dining hall, a favorite blanket for the meditation hall and for the ladies one word: shawls. Comfort is key. The hall is kept at 68 degrees. I wore sweats, footies, a comfy, baggy T-shirt, a shawl and a super soft angora neck warmer scarf. Don't bring your makeup bag or jewelry. Nobody will be looking at you. I kind of wondered when I peeked in my roommate's room and saw a big cosmetic bag, writing journals, lots of pens, bottles of nail polish (really?) a big bottle of Aleve and enough clothes paired with accessories to dress stylishly for a month. Was she a travel writer sent on assignment from CA? If not, she misinterpreted what they meant by the word "retreat"!

The little pamphlet handed out upon arrival--the only reading material besides tags on your clothing and ingredients in your toothpaste that you WILL be reading by about day 5--states that the retreat is not a "rest cure" or "vacation".  I beg to differ. No cleaning, cooking, planning, appointments, shopping, commuting, dressing up, email or phone for ten solid days? Don't you feel more relaxed just thinking about that? And, you're in an idyllic setting surrounded by tall green grass, evergreens and pines, active wildlife and the glacier-clad summit of Mt. Rainer in the background. Clear blue skies, fresh air, star-filled space on cool evenings and no sounds of cars or machines. Volunteers are cooking incredible meals for you, it's totally quiet and you can have a nap everyday. To me that's a big part of what I call vacation. I hadn't had a solid day of rest for weeks so this was both a rest and a vacation for me. Yes, the meditation is work. It can be challenging, but if you just focus on the moment at hand, most of them are fantastic and when the hard ones come you know that they will pass. The whole training is about impermanence and not getting attached to thoughts and feelings and things. One of the goals of Vipassana is to mostly think of others; learning to develop real love for others, love that is selfless, one -way traffic: giving without expecting anything in return. What could be a better objective than that?

Now, what would you pay for this? It's up to you. There is no cost. It is completly free and there is no big pitch to get you to donate. In fact, they will not accept any donation from anyone who has not completed a ten day course. They have no corporate sponsors and no commercialization. S. N Goenka was a wealthy business man prior to teaching Vipassana and building the centers. He has never taken a dime for the decades of his life devoted to sharing this ancient meditation technique. On the last day of the course, there is a hall set up with pamphlets/books (optional viewing) and info including a chart that lists the finances of the whole operation. The center's cost for each person for a ten day course is about $270. They do suggest that you return as a server to meditate/cook/clean for between one and ten days if possible. When the centers opened in India it was predicted that millions would flock to them for free food and accommodations, but once the people realized they had to be completely still for hours a day, it lost its appeal to many!

When I returned home a friend thought I might want to be really quiet or join a monastery or act different, but I had no trouble being my usual spirited self laughing and planning the next good meal.
I didn't feel any major transformation took place in ten days and a new career has not jumped out at me, but the creative juices are flowing and a new path is being forged. I do feel the continued benefits from meditating each day and I will continue to experiment with this technique. There's something about just sitting in silence twice a day that brings a calmness to my life. I feel more centered and naturally lose the desire for things that are not healthy. I feel more connected to everything and everyone. I hope to become less judgmental and more compassionate each day. With that said, I am looking forward to a fun day on the beach, a cold beer and a half a bag of Kettle roasted garlic chips! Enlightened, no, lightened up a bit, yes!

If you want more info:

There's also a book titled The Art of Living -Vipassana Meditation as taught by S.N Goenka by William Hart.

May all beings be happy!

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