Book Club · meditation

40 days later: FIFI book club meditation update

Hi readers– a lot has happened since we finished reading and blogging about Sharon Salzberg’s 28-day guide to meditation practice, called Real Happiness. In short, it’s been mayhem within and without.

I found this on a coaching website. Dunno if screaming is the malady or the cure. Feel free to pick either, or both.
I found this on a coaching website. Dunno if screaming is the malady or the cure. Feel free to pick either, or both.

Just to insert a moment of levity here: when I googled “mayhem” and checked out images, it displayed this, which I adore. It has forever rehabilitated the word “mayhem” for me, and I hope it does the same for you:

High street in Hanoi, Vietnam, with little kids driving little motorized vehicles every which way.

In the midst of mayhem, can we find a little peace and quiet? Maybe we can. Sharon Salzberg thinks so, and provides some tools through her explanations, stories and exercises. Some of us have been meditating off and on (some mainly on) for years, and others are newer to meditation. Yet others were curious about how using some meditation techniques would enhance their own contemplative or therapeutic regimens.

If you’re curious about what we had to say about the Real Happiness book, you can check it out. Here’s the most recent one, and there you’ll find links to all previous posts.

If you’ve read the book, or read some of our posts, or been meditating in the past 40 days, how are things going? What is your relationship with meditation these days? Let us know in the comments.

And now, 40 days later, here are our reflections on where we are. Let’s start with Tracy:

My main goal in doing the Real Happiness Book Club with the bloggers in September was to get back on track with my meditation. I can honestly say that I have managed to stick to a daily practice consistently ever since.

Most days I use the Insight Timer meditation app, for either a guided or timed silent meditation, depending on what I feel like. After my session, the app tells me how many days in a row. Yesterday it said I’d hit 50 consecutive days of meditating with the app.

Since September when we started I have missed one day of meditation and I’m feeling grounded. It’s partly because meditation itself is grounding. But also because, for me, routine is grounding. Even the kittens have a routine around my meditation and usually, by the end, they are sitting quietly nearby (sometimes one will end up on my lap). Amidst the uncertainty of COVID and the seemingly endless amount of time spent in front of the computer these days, meditation has become a cherished part of my daily life again.

Here’s me (Catherine):

It’s not an overstatement to say that meditation has been a lifeline for me these past few months. I’m honing my new-found tool of neutral identification of emotions, sensations and thoughts that arrive around the clock, sometimes blamming into me with intensity.

What does this tool do? It allows me to feel, and be aware that I’m feeling. That last part always strikes me as miraculous, every single time it happens. It’s not a knee-jerk denial or rejection of feelings or thoughts. No, it’s a method for seeing them without their stories and associations and self-judgment PR campaigns attached. And what a relief this is– to feel what I feel, and let the feelings do what they do, which is come and go.

There’s another tool I’m learning how to use, courtesy of meditation: viewing the world (including and especially me) with full-on compassion. What do I mean here? Sometimes (I’m working on increasing the frequency…) when I encounter something or someone that provokes judgment– oh, that’s stupid! what was I thinking? argh, there they/I go again!– I take a beat. Then I think, oh, poor them/poor me. That’s hard. Just a little sympathy– for myself or others– enlarges my capacity to love and understand the world and myself.

Even though I’ve been developing and working on these tools for a while now (for many years, in fact), I’ve felt a pressing need to sit daily, sometimes twice daily, in the last 40 days, for obvious reasons. And doing so has made these last 40 days more meaningful. Have I gotten more work done? No. More exercise? No. More sleep? Maybe. More peace? Yes– in moments. And moments of peace are good.

Here’s Martha:

I am not good at meditating. I read the book and enjoyed much of it. I even took away a number of good tips. Did I implement a daily practice? No.

I realized I’m someone who likes to “do and be mindful” and I’m not someone who likes to “sit and meditate.” I do have a routine where I gather my thoughts at the end of the day and also at its start. Is this meditation? I don’t know.

What I do know is that I am aware of how my body feels at different times of the day. I am more mindful about what I am doing and that has slowed me down, and that is good. I’m more reflective, but in a productive way and not in “let’s go spiraling and overthink all the things” way.

I’m glad I read the book. I will likely read it again and try to implement if not a daily practice, perhaps a weekly one to get started. I would also recommend the book because I did change my approach and I grew my understanding of what a meditative practice would look like.

Here’s Christine:

Despite my best intentions, I have not added meditation to my days.

I enjoy the process, I see the benefits, and I *want* to do it but I don’t.I know that my challenges arise from some combination of my uneven schedule and the task initiation issues that plague people with ADHD. It’s really hard to switch off what I am doing and choose to be still.

Yet, I feel like a solution to when and how to fit meditation into my life is only just outside my reach at the moment.

So I’m going to keep switching tactics and keep trying to fit it in.It may work, it may not, but I won’t be too hard on myself about it either way.

Meanwhile, if you can, read Salzberg’s book. It’s an encouraging, helpful read, whether or not you end up with a meditation practice.

And Mina wraps it up for us:

This morning I meditated for 10 minutes, because I felt the weight of all I had to do in the day crowding around my meditation time. Really though, there should be no because in that sentence. That’s my usual amount of time anyhow.

During the period we were reading Real Happiness together, I was inspired and upped my minimum daily sit from 10 to 20 minutes. But as soon as the book was done, so was I. I didn’t gradually reduce my meditation time. I cut back from one day to the next. Whether or not the day’s agenda feels pressing, I only sit for more than 10 minutes once a week. Initially, I was disappointed with myself for not sticking with the longer sits. Then I reassessed. Did I feel like I’d gotten more benefit from the 20-minute sits? No. For me, the benefit is the daily-ness, more than the length.

And there’s this—one of my personal takeaways from Sharon Salzberg’s book was that meditation is not the one and only source of the benefits she talks about in her book. She didn’t write that. This is my personal, anecdotal observation in my own life.

I’d go further. Meditation and mindfulness are just one of the three central sources of the benefits Salzberg describes—benefits such as emotional and psychological resilience, ease and peace of mind, focus etc… Other sources of introspection and growth are important for me.

For example, I’ve recently been doing a lot of training in Non-Violent Communication techniques. My new skills support my meditation practice and my meditation practice supports my learning the new skills.

Another important source of the benefits Salzberg talks about is movement. In addition to all the shared stressors we face in this moment, I’m also in the midst of moving from my home of 27 years. The change is my own free choice. But it comes with heartbreak, grief and a whole wasp’s nest of logistics. While my meditation practice is one part of sustaining my balance and flow through this period, movement is as (or more) important. I need to literally sweat the stress away some days, not just OM it away.

So, in a paradoxical way, reading Salzberg’s book gave me permission to accept these particularities about what feeds my soul and to use that knowledge to support myself. Instead of being disappointed by my 10-minute meditations, I’m happy to have the resource of meditation and to have the extra time when I’m not meditating anymore to devote to another mode of support. I didn’t fall off the wagon when I cut back my meditation time after the book club. I recognized that the wagon had more wheels than just meditation and I am taking time to keep them all rolling smoothly.

meditation

In need of meditation? Sharon Salzberg free session tonight

Some of you may remember that we did a series of FIFI book club posts on Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Happiness, about how to get started on a meditation practice, what meditation is for, and why you might find it useful. You can start reading about it here.

In advance of the US election, Sharon Salzberg is leading a free online meditation Monday night November 2, 7–8pm Eastern Daylight Time. Here’s the link. And here’s some information about the session:

On November 2, the day before election Tuesday, renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg will offer an hour long program including two short, guided meditations. The first will focus on mindfulness of the breath to cultivate calm and stability. The second, on lovingkindness, will aim to help restore our connection to ourselves and to one another. In this one-hour event, Sharon will also offer words of wisdom and encouragement as we navigate this difficult time.

“We practice in order to cultivate a sense of agency, to understand that a range of responses is open to us,” Salzberg writes in her book, Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and Our World. “We practice to remember to breathe, to have the space in the midst of adversity to recall our values, what we really care about—and to find support in our inner strength, and in one another.”

I’ve registered and will be there tonight.

One more thing: it’s been 30 days since our last FIFI book club post, and we promised to update you on how reading the book has influenced our relationships with meditation. We’re going to save that until next week. So stay tuned, and we will be back with you then.

In the meantime, be well. And if you’re worrying about the world (and who isn’t?), sitting quietly for a few minutes and breathing can’t hurt.

fitness · meditation

What 101 days of meditation does (and doesn’t do)

On July 13, I started meditating (again). Meditation has been an off-and-on thing in my life for the past 30 years. I got started courtesy of an MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) course I took in graduate school. We did eight weeks of skills development for using mindfulness to reduce stress and tolerate pain (in case of those with chronic illness). I have to say, it didn’t take. To say I was a bit resistant is an understatement. Maybe this illustrates it better:

One person walking upstairs, against the downstairs flow.

But something must’ve wedged itself in my subconscious, because a mere 10 years later, I took the course again. This time, I was wide open; I had just been denied tenure and was trying to figure out what I was going to do– apply for academic jobs, leave the field, run away… Nothing was certain. But, I discovered stability and grounding in sitting and breathing. That’s it– just sitting and breathing.

Fast forward a bunch of years, and I’m in an academic job I love (mostly), living in a place I love (completely, except for the traffic), and I’ve reintroduced yoga as a regular habit. Several of my yoga teachers use short meditations at the beginning or end of class, and I came to look forward to it. Sometimes I couldn’t settle– maybe I was hungry, or idly thinking about online shopping— but I got used to the quieting of my body, sitting, and focusing on the breath.

Still, meditation outside of class never made its way into my weekly schedule.

Until July 13, 2020.

I took a 4-day meditation workshop at 7:30 in the morning (which is the equivalent of 4:30am for most people) with yoga and meditation teacher Alex at Artemis, my beloved local yoga studio. I blogged about it here, saying what I learned in 10 days.

Now it’s day 101 of meditating every day. Really. I promised myself I would meditate each day, even if it meant doing a 3-minute meditation on the breath, or a meditation for sleep at bedtime (and in bed).

My life, post-100 days of straight meditation, is different. What has it done for me?

#1: When some emotion or feeling arises (sometimes feeling like a bus bearing down on me), I have some mental space between me and the feeling. That means I can now a) recognize that something’s happening; and b) take a moment and look at it to see what it is.

This is huge. Huge. HUGE.

#2: When I engage in the process outlined in #1, I focus on what this experience of whatever-it-is feels like in my body. I ask: a) where in my body is it? Throat? Belly? Head? Somewhere else? And then I ask: b) what does it feel like? Is it tingling? sharp pain? Pulsing or thrumming? Wavy? And then c) I take another moment to watch it, notice it. And what I notice is that it changes. Whatever feeling I have, it morphs, waxes, wanes, fades, dissolves, transitions to some other feeling.

This is really huge. Why? Because when I’m having an experience of, say, panic or shame or fear, I have somewhere to go, something to do. Which is:

  • Stop.
  • Breathe.
  • Notice.
  • Locate.
  • Identify.
  • Watch.
  • Then resume whatever I was doing.
  • Notice that nothing much happened.
  • But also notice that something tremendous happened.

Meditation isn’t a cure-all. It’s not even a cure-anything. It’s not about curing. Here is what it doesn’t do:

#1: Change me into a person who isn’t vulnerable to fear, panic, anxiety, shame, and other strong emotions that I struggle with.

I still experience strong feelings, and dealing with them takes time, medication, support from friends, family and therapist. Those activities are also important for self-care, and they’re not going away in this lifetime.

#2: Solve other behavior change aspirations I have and work on when I’ve got the oomph to deal with them. I’m not neater, more punctual, a better paperwork processor, or an everyday exerciser. Or if I am from time to time, it’s probably not because of meditation. It’s rather that I approach these aspirations and hopes and plans with a greater sense of awareness of my feelings around them, and self-compassion for the difficulties I have and have always had around them.

At the same time, I am happier, less judgmental of myself and others, and sold on the idea that daily sitting practice is indeed just what the doctor ordered. And that doctor is me.

Readers, if you meditate: what does it do for you? what doesn’t it do for you? I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have.

fitness · meditation

Finding a sitting posture during meditation: an experimental process

I’ve been doing daily meditation since July 13. It’s something I’m really happy about– I get to experience a lot of different emotions and sensations, and also a make some space to abide with them, as it were.

Below the neck, there are also issues to deal with in meditation, namely, how to sit. The aim isn’t maximum comfort, but rather stability, alertness and sustainability. To meditate, you need to be able to sit quietly, in a still way, for anywhere from 1 minute to an hour or more at a time.

These days my sitting periods are 10–20 minutes. That’s long enough for my knee to start aching, my foot to fall asleep, or my hands to want to change position. There’s no rule that says you can’t move during meditation (well, some meditation practices do have those rules and for reasons, but that’s not what I’m talking about here). In fact, one of my meditation teachers told us during an all-day workshop that if a foot or leg starts to fall asleep, feel free to adjust subtly. Good.

But, the question remains: how should one sit for optimal meditation performance?

Woman in a full lotus pose, legs crossed and sitting on opposite thighs. Totally not required.

The image above is one of the ways to sit in meditation, but there are lots of others. I’ve tried all of them, and make use of them depending on how I’m feeling, where I am, what time of day it is, and what else I’ve done that day. Below are some positions to check out.

In a chair. Sometimes this feels better than sitting on the floor, and works when floor space is limited (or there are dogs/cats about!)
Kneeling (hero pose, which I totally can't do), with support between knees (I still can't do it, but others like it).
Kneeling (hero pose, which I totally can’t do), with support between knees (which I still can’t do, but others like it).

The next two poses are pretty standard seated poses, both of which I like:

And then there’s the lotus family. Not comfortable for me, but they are for many others.

Thanks to this website for all the nice pictures of meditation postures.

You can also lie down for meditation. I don’t do this often, mainly because I have trouble focusing (read I get too sleepy) lying down. But YMMV, and again, experimenting is good.

Lying down meditation. I use a blanket or pillow under my knees; some use a blanket under the head.

If you’re still here and reading, you may be thinking, okay. But Catherine, which pose really is the best one for meditation?

The answer is: whatever pose helps you to sit long enough to meditate: in a house; with a mouse; in a box, with a fox! Whatever works for you is the right one.

Readers who meditate or have tried meditation: what positions work for you? Which ones definitely don’t work for you? Have you meditated with a mouse or fox? We’d love to hear from you.

cycling · meditation · mindfulness · motivation

Mountain Bike Meditation

I love mountain biking. In these COVID-times, with all the additional stresses, the sport is a meditative source of grounding, focus and joy.

This was not always so. It took me a lot of years to arrive at the relationship I have with the sport (and my bike). I dabbled in mountain biking for many years; i.e. a couple of decades. The first time I tried out mountain biking was more than 30 years ago. I bought a mountain bike to replace the city cruiser I had, figuring that it could do double duty—replace my dilapidated cruiser and be a source of off-road fun exercise too. I couldn’t quite achieve the off-road fun bit. I didn’t trust myself or my bike. I was so frustrated by my lack of skill, that I could never relax enough to develop the skills. I spent a lot of time walking my bike, while simultaneously cursing my ineptitude.

Then about eleven years ago, we bought this place I’m at in the California mountains that’s a stone’s throw from a huge network of fabulous trails. I ride out the driveway and I’m on single track trails within 2 minutes. I started riding once a week, as an off-day from trail running (another love). I still walked my bike a lot, but I improved. Very. Slowly. Then, when various running injuries forced me to reduce my mileage, I started to ramp up my time on the mountain bike. Well, hello, turns out when I ride more than once a week, I actually improve. Noticeably. And that’s a pleasant virtuous cycle—the more I improve, the more I enjoy the sport. I’ll come back to what I mean by improve in a moment. Then 5 years ago, as solace after my father died, I bought a new mountain bike. And holy cow, was I shocked to discover that all the new bike tech really did notch up my potential. For the first time I really felt like I was riding with a partner and friend—my bike, that is. I painted a flower on her crossbar with green nail polish, in thanks.

This year I’ve been riding a lot. Not because I can’t run, but because I want to ride. In a period of such pervasive anxiety (societal anxiety fuels personal anxiety and around the merry-go-round the anxiety goes), mountain biking demands my complete presence and attention. When my mind strays, I get knocked off my bike. When my mind focuses, I make it over, through and around obstacles I thought were impossible. Over and over again on my bike, I get an up close and personal look at how my mind either obstructs my progress or harmonizes fluidly with the world. In the best moments, I feel like I’m dancing on my bike. Pure woohoo joy (yes, I shout out loud, the happiness is too much to resist). In the less harmonious moments, I can usually see exactly how my own thoughts interfered.

There are, for example, certain obstacles I only “make” on some days—a steep sandy uphill, a hairpin over rock clusters, a pincer gap between two boulders. The days I don’t make them, it’s most often because I’ve started talking myself out of it before I get there. I’m thinking too much about whether I’ll achieve. The days I stay on the bike, I find the flow between going for it and not worrying about the outcome. So, when I mentioned above that I have improved my bike skill, that’s the skill I mean. Not whether I can ride over, around or through an obstacle, but whether I can find the right mindset.  In other words, my mountain bike rides feel like an object lesson in learning to find that harmony between effort and no effort that allows us to feel in flow with the world. I liken this harmony or flow to what Taoism calls wu wei, or effortless action.  

Being in flow on my mountain bike certainly doesn’t mean that everything is possible. There are still obstacles that are objectively not within my skill set. Yet. Or maybe ever. Staying open to the flow and noticing its ebbs, enables me to see more readily where I can do more and where I should stay humble, get off my bike and leave that steep rock drop off for another day.

One more reason why mountain biking works as a meditation—because, even as my skill evolves, every previous challenge has stayed fresh in my mind. Even if the last time an obstacle stumped me was a decade ago, I am grateful each time I meet it with ease. There’s no complacence in my developing skill. Going around rocks, whooshing through gulleys or popping over fat tree roots, I remember that they used to stop me in my tracks and I take an extra breath of thanks. Gratitude fortifies my ongoing curiosity and seasons each new skill I acquire with humility. Inside this sport, I am present with the delicate balance between acquiring and acknowledging my own expertise, while simultaneously staying curious (without judgment) to what’s new or changed.  

The more I can learn to notice these subtleties in my rides, the more I can see how the same patterns play out in my life off-the-bike. How can I foster the harmonious coexistence of expertise and curiosity? Where can I find more flow? When am I giving up too soon? What can I let go of?

In meditation practice, being in the flow is what teachers describe as finding the calm below the turbulence of the waves in an ocean, or letting the silt settle to reveal the clear water in a glass. These are the metaphors for a clear, uncluttered, unobstructed mind. More than any other activity in my life (including my longstanding meditation practice), when I’m on my mountain bike, I get robust glimpses of the power of my clear mind. Again, meditation teachers tell us that the more familiar we are with that space and its possibilities, the more readily we can access our clear mind again.

I have found that to be true, on my mountain bike (and in life). The difficult part is that it takes constant curiosity. I was going to say hard work or vigilance, but those are such effortful terms. Just like peace is not achieved through violence, finding the flow of effortless action is not achieved by forced labour. What’s needed is expansive, open-hearted curiosity. Over and over. Staying alive to possibility is challenging. I want to do better. My mountain bike meditations help, but I’ve got a long road ahead. But then again, if the journey is the destination, to bowdlerize Ralph Waldo Emerson, well then, I’m doing okay.

How about you? Where do you find flow most easily in your life?    

fitness · meditation

5 things I’ve noticed from 10 days of meditation

10 days ago I restarted my meditation practice. I’ve meditated off and on my whole adult life, and every time I restart, I always think to myself, “why don’t I do this all the time?” The answer is: it’s easy to let a new habit slide, and when it slides, it never becomes an old habit. The only rejoinder to that is, “okay then; I’m restarting now. Here’s hoping!”

The kick-off was easy: I signed up for a meditation workshop, which I mentioned in a blog post here. Being with others (even virtually) and having an instructor made reentry much smoother. Also, I have apps, websites, youtube videos, and actual paper books to help guide and urge and cajole me into getting a routine going.

So far, my routine looks like this:

  • Get up in morning
  • make coffee
  • drink coffee and possibly read some of one of the meditation books I own (I’m currently reading Sharon Saltzberg’s Real Happiness, which has QR codes you can scan with your phone to access guided meditations– cool!).
  • sit on yoga bolster on floor and do a guided meditation for 10–15 minutes
  • go about my day
  • get in bed
  • play some meditation app thing, breathe and sleep

Notice, I don’t look at my computer or phone at all during this period (except to access one of the recorded guided meditations). This part is crucial. Once I start reading email, the game is over.

Turns out it’s really nice to get up and start my day this way. I don’t have children, or dogs that need walking, or other commitments right away in the morning. I know I’m lucky to be able to devote the beginning of my day to this, and this alone.

It also turns out that I think this meditation thing is kind of working. That is, I’m starting to notice some things– good and/or interesting things.

One: My feelings of panic and fear and shame show up in different parts of my body.

Last night I was doing a meditation before bed, and some thought or feeling came up, and all of a sudden I was feeling ashamed of something or other. I kept breathing, and noticed that it manifested as an unpleasant tension in the back of my mouth and jaw. Very curious bodily sensation. I focused on it, kept breathing, and it passed. Fear was more in my gut/midsection– it felt like waves of movement, forward and backward. And panic– well, it’s what you would expect: a tightness in my throat. Again, breathing, noticing, not attaching these sensations to thoughts or focusing on the thoughts, and eventually they subsided.

Two: I’m definitely a bit more chilled out now.

My base level of anxiety has dropped enough so that I can consider and take on a wider range of choices and tasks for myself throughout my day. Feelings and worries still arrive, but there’s space between the feelings and the negative thoughts they represent.

Three: I’m worrying a bit less about my sleep and am also sleeping a bit better.

The past four months has been insomnia central at my house. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Boy is it yucky! I’ve tried a variety of medications, changes of diet (I only drink one coffee in the morning, so don’t even mention the idea that I’d give it up…) and restorative yoga before bed. None of them helped very much. But meditation seems to help me take a few steps away from my thoughts, so I can turn my attention to my breath and what’s happening in my body.

Four: I’m feeling more creative and doing something about it.

On Tuesday afternoon my friend Pata and I did zoom crafting together for a couple of hours. Pata is an artist (among other things), and makes jewelry (along other things). She’s been teaching me how to make beaded necklaces, and I made a couple of them in late 2019. However, on Tuesday, the muse was with me, and I made four necklaces! They’re not masterpieces, but I like them, and really enjoyed both the design and the handwork of putting them together. Yay!

Five: I’m feeling like I don’t have to rush so much in my life. Which translates into doing less and being okay with it. This is very much a work in progress, but I feel it starting.

I hate rushing and can’t stand being behind or feeling like I’ve got to hurry to catch up. On anything. Being way behind others while cycling has never been fun (I know, many other people don’t mind this, but I do). I don’t like to be the last to arrive or to turn in things, etc. One way to avoid this problem is to put fewer tasks on my plate. That way I can focus on the thing in question, and I’ll have more resources to devote to it without feeling so frantic or rushed.

Honestly, I’m feeling strongly this way about upping my level of physical activity. I’ve been more sedentary than I would’ve liked during the pandemic, and I don’t feel like rushing into fitness. I want that process to be more pleasurable, more doable, more sustainable. I want it to be like meditation; I do it every day, focusing on it, and it’s a part of my daily life. Yes, I’m willing to sweat and to put in some effort. But I want to be able to breathe through it the whole time.

Meditation for 10 days is helping me realize that I can do this. And I am.

Dear readers, do you meditate? What does it do for you? I’d love to hear from you.

fitness · Guest Post · meditation · rest

Float Therapy: supposedly good for your well-being (Guest post)

For my latest birthday a friend gave me a coupon to try “float therapy.” I hadn’t heard of that before (even though as I just learned, Cate blogged about it over THREE years ago). It reminded me of the “tranquility tanks” from the eighties (I think it was the eighties). You may remember those sensory deprivation tanks where you would float for an hour in dark silence. Now it’s called “R.E.S.T. (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy),” because, you know, everything in these days of wellness is “therapy” of one kind or another.

It didn’t appeal to me then. And I wasn’t so sure it appealed to me now (claustrophobia!). But when I checked the website I saw that you could book either a room or a pod. They seemed aware of the possibility that people might have claustrophobia, so they suggested that first timers try the slightly more spacious room over the pod.

Image description: float room, shallow tub that spans the full length and width of the room, pictured here with low blue lights and a side handle for getting out of tub.
Image description: float pod with lid open, dim blue light inside, set in a room with a chair with towels on it and a small table.

It’s supposed to be totally relaxing because you’re floating in a shallow pool where the water has over 1000 pounds of epsom salts in it (more salt density than the Dead Sea) and that means you effortlessly float. Once in your floating position you’re in a zero gravity state, and that’s supposed to relieve your muscles, central nervous system, and spine of their usual load, thus alleviating the effects of gravity on these systems. If you turn off the lights and sound and move as little as possible, you purportedly go into a state of deep relaxation. The website makes the bold claim that research has shown one hour of floating is like four hours of sleep. I guess that’s if you do it right for the whole hour instead of taking 40 minutes to settle into it.

I think the first time is almost a throw-away experience. I was a mixture of skeptical and worried. Even though the room was recommended for first timers, when the attendant showed me the room I felt claustrophobic at the mere sight of it. You enter into your own space where there is a shower and a place for undressing and leaving your clothes. The float room is adjacent to that. It resembles a very large shallow bathtub, perhaps 8 or 9 feet long and about 4 or 5 feet wide, with ample head room of at least 6 or 7 feet.

I had a brief orientation where she showed me the room and told me to keep the salt water out of my eyes, mouth, and ears (they provide ear plugs). I would have seven minutes to shower before and some time to shower after as well. I would know my session was beginning because a woman’s voice (who sounds like “Mother” from the movie Alien) would come through the speakers to tell me it was starting. The attendant also repeatedly reminded me that the floor was very slippery, both in the anteroom with shower and the floor of the tub. This proved true and made me wonder how anyone with the least bit of balance or mobility issues could do this (I don’t think they could safely get in and out of the float room alone—I had to be very careful myself).

I found it alarming that there is no panic button inside the floating room. But the attendant made it seem as if I was the very first person ever to ask about that. She said if I was really panicking I could bang on the door (which turned out to be a useless piece of advice, as I will explain in a moment).

I undressed, showered with their super luxurious bath products, put in the recommended ear plugs and the head float thing (a flat buoyant circle of floaty stuff that fits around your head for extra support), and climbed in.

When you pull the large door shut, you’re in an insulated enclosure. The floating area (the tub) extends entirely to the sides, so there is no “edge” to speak of. Just four walls. Beside the door are two buttons to control lights and music. The water is not hot or cold — 93.5 degrees F, or the “skin-receptor neutral” temperature. The air within the enclosure is about the same. The air outside, in the shower and change area, is cooler, making it a bad idea to leave the door open.

Why might you want to open the door, you ask? Well, for my part, I found it difficult to breathe. The air is thick. And the enclosed nature of the thing, with no obvious ventilation system to circulate air into it besides the door, made me afraid to let go completely for fear that I would run out of air and suffocate. I kept thinking of things like refrigerators and container trucks where trapped people die from lack of air.

Once Mother told me my session was under way, I lost track of time, so what follows are estimates. I spent the first 15-20 minutes fiddling with the lights and music. At first, I had them both on. Then I remembered it was recommended as a sensory deprivation experience, so I turned off the music and tried to dim the lights. They were a lot like those hot tub lights that change colour every few seconds. If I could’ve steadied them on red and kept my eyes closed, I think that would have been fine. But I could see the changing brightness through my eye lids and I found it distracting. I messed around with it only to discover that there were just two settings. Completely off or cycling through the colours. I tried it with the lights off.

In this windowless enclosure, when the lights go off, it is capital “D” Dark. Like, can’t see your hand in front of your face Dark. I tried to settle into it, lying back in my floating position suspended in the salty water. But the level of Darkness just freaked me out even though I had my eyes closed. So I wanted to turn the light back on. But by then I had floated into a different position relative to the door and the light switches and I could find neither. And that’s when the panic began to rise and I thought for a few moments that I would lose my mind. And I absolutely couldn’t breathe and felt sure I would die right there. Which is why the instruction to bang on the door if I panicked did me no good at all because if I could find the door I wouldn’t be panicking.

I fumbled around and then remembered that basically it was just a room with four walls and if I traced a path along the wall with my hand I would find the door handle (it was like the bar you would find in the accessible shower stall). Beyond the door I found the light switch and turned the lights back on and then opened the door for about 30 seconds for some air.

At that point I started wondering how long I’d been there and how much longer and was I doing it right and I’m a seasoned meditator so why is this so hard? I didn’t do enough research into what you’re supposed to do, so I just tried to relax as much as possible and calm my mind. And breathe, which remained difficult. I settled into it enough after about half an hour to keep the lights off, but I opened the door for air at least four or five times. Finally, with I’d say 20 minutes to go, I settled in, confident that there was enough air in the room to last me to the end and that any sense that I couldn’t breathe was actually not accurate. I could breathe just fine, salt is supposed to be good for you, and in any case it’s almost done. I only had brief thoughts of abandoning the whole thing and had already decided this would be a one-off because…why am I here?

And that’s when I floated into a state of total, zero-gravity, sensory deprived R.E.S.T. I stopped thinking “when will this end?” and drifted off into floaty, relaxing, thought-free bliss. I’m guessing about 15 minutes passed before Mother’s gentle voice coaxed me out of my nothingness. If one hour of floating is equal to four hours of sleeping, my 15 minutes of mind-free floating must have been equal to an hour of sleep. And I did feel revived and recharged, disappointed that it was over.

Getting out was a careful process of trying to climb over the edge without slipping on the floor of the tub and then the floor of the shower and changing area (which is, to me, unnecessarily more slippery than it needs to be). I got a bit of the salty water in my mouth, and it tastes like something sour and disgusting and almost rotten. I showered with the luxurious bath products again, dressed, and went out to the vanity area to fix myself as best as I could for the outside world.

I asked to see a pod before I left. One look at the pod and I knew I would not be signing up for that. But I do think I will try the room again. Now that I know what to expect I think I can settle into a good experience a lot more quickly. I liked the final feeling of weightless zero-gravity and temperature neutrality. It’s comforting and stress-free (if you can get there). I’m not sure if it’s any more or less “therapeutic” than any other thing that forces you to quiet yourself for an hour, suspending the demands of the world. But the added bonus of zero gravity and sensory deprivation invite relaxation a lot more easily than, say, an hour of Vipassana meditation.

It’s not cheap. When Cate went, she paid $39. I had a $55 gift card (because it was my 55th birthday present) and I paid a $29 top-up for my hour of floating. I’m keen to give it one more go, which is more than what I would’ve said 30 minutes into it. But the price makes it an indulgence.

Have you had a floating experience? And if so, what was it like for you?

Fear · feminism · meditation

Mina’s Still Streaking—300 Days of Meditation and Counting …

After a meditation workshop on December 2 last year, I set an intention to meditate for ten days straight. Ten became thirty became 150, which brings me to 300. Every day since 100 has been my longest meditation streak ever. I’ve described it before as the wild ride on which nothing much happens. That’s still true.

Orange-yellow flower streaked with bands of light.
photo by Moritz Schumacher on Unsplash

Have I made progress? Am I cured? 

Progress from where to where? Cured of what? If the answers are supposed to be: Progress from too much stress, anxiety and disappointment-in-self to divine understanding and unassailable self-worth, not to mention cured of all doubt; nope. 

But (!), I’m not stopping. Because despite the fact that the heavens have not opened and granted me a supernova of universal insight and salvation, I feel moments of profound peace, joy, love, connection, daring, courage, vulnerability, gratitude and strength, which I can only credit to my commitment to the cushion. I feel both as if my nerves are rawer, my emotions closer to the surface, and that I am less subject to the vagaries of those nerves and emotions. I can notice, even accept, without allowing them to dictate the terms of my day. Not every day. But a lot more days than before. 

That’s the biggest noticing of these last 300 days. And since meditation is about nothing more than noticing (the practice is the outcome), here are some noticings that have cropped up since last I wrote about my practice:    

  • When I meditate right before a workout, I give more to the effort. But, when my run (or other activity) is first thing in the morning, slotting something in before first thing robs me of sleep. Both sleep and being active improve my mood and energy throughout the day. If I’m not training for something in particular, I will generally choose the benefits of sleep over the benefits of the meditation enhanced workout. Weighing the benefits of sleep vs. workout effort is part of my ongoing dance with balance.
  • Music is another of my dances with balance. I like meditation music, especially The Bahktas, who create electronic remixes of Sanskrit texts. Some days, the music makes the meditation seem too easy. Other days, the music agitates me and I resist the meditation. Then again, the same can be true with a meditation in silence. Depends on the day. The experiment is the result.
  • As some of you know, I also experiment with meditations on fear. Turns out that once you open the conversation with fear, fear keeps the conversation going. Even when I’m not specifically meditating on fear, she always has a lot to say. A few recent examples include:
    • My upper arms are too old and baggy (despite my strength) to wear sleeveless tops anymore. Plus, this might be the last summer I’ll wear shorts. 
    • My needs take up too much space and are unreasonable. Plus, I am indulgent with my needs. 
    • My anxiety is a weakness. And then, the act of judging my anxiety is a failure of personal mastery. (Wow. I can’t win coming or going.)
  • Here’s another confounding logic loop: Overly positive meditations have the opposite effect. Here’s an experience I had recently. I chose a new meditation on opening up space in our minds. Within the first minutes of the 10-minute meditation, the guide asked me to imagine I was floating in space. Then she immediately told me that I had left all my preoccupations behind. I was now happy, according to the guide. The thing is—I had most certainly not left all my preoccupations behind. My mind was awash with thoughts vying for my attention. I was trying to let the thoughts pass through and away, like clouds; they were not. Also, I wasn’t instantly happier than before I sat down on my cushion to meditate. In fact, I felt frustrated, because I had not achieved what the overly optimistic meditation guide told me I should have. Sigh. 

Meditation gets super tricky around this idea of optimism. Our task is to truly sit without judgment or expectation. To be curious for its own sake; not in pursuit of some optimistic result, such as perfect inner peace and bliss. Sooner or later, curiosity yields insight. Maybe not the insight we want or expect. If we allow it to work on us, meditation delivers what we need. As I write that, I wonder if I am blinded by my faith in meditation; if the effects I observe are caused by the observation; if curiosity is its own reward; if patience and practice create their own self-nourishing cycle. And, if so, are these cyclical effects the whole point or distracting churn? My head starts to spin. I think about Tara Brach’s RAIN—recognize, allow, investigate, nurture. The next day I sit back down on the cushion and let it rain. 

p.s. Since this is a feminist blog, you may be wondering, “what does meditation have to do with feminism?” The answer is—the act of women taking time for ourselves is feminist. The act of pausing to gather together the threads of our strength is feminist. The desire to live fully, to unbind ourselves from societal pressures and simultaneously nurture our individuality and our connection to community is feminist. Taking time to meditate is saying, “I am worth this period of self-reflection.” 

I am worth … what could be more feminist?

meditation

A few more random thoughts about the meditation course

I’ve had a lot of questions since my post on Tuesday about the 10-day Vipassana meditation course, so I thought I would follow up with one more post about it. These points are in random order and are themselves random.

Waking up at 4 a.m. No question, it’s not easy to wake up a 4 a.m. If you’re staying in one of the residences, they assign someone to take care of the 4 a.m. gong. And then there is another at 4:20. And you’re expected to be meditating in your room (not in bed!) or in the meditation hall by 4:30. Once I relocated to the cabin I needed to wake up on my own. I’m really glad I had my Timex Ironman watch. I don’t think I have ever used it so much. I set the alarm for 4 a.m. daily, and I used the timer whenever I was meditating in my room and also to wake me up from naps that I took during the longer breaks.

Image description: close up shot of the face of a Timex digital Ironman Triathlon watch, showing a daily alarm at 4:00 AM, on a wrist.

The food We had two meals a day — breakfast at 6:30 and lunch at 11:00. At 5:00 we had a tea break and new students could have fruit (anyone who for medical reasons needed a meal at that time could pack up some extra at lunch and heat it up for dinner). The food was simple but good.

Breakfast was the same set of choices every day: Oatmeal, stewed prunes, bran cereal, granola, raisins, sunflower seeds, flax seed powder, nutritional yeast, cinnamon, almond milk, soy milk, cow’s milk, bananas, apples, oranges, sometimes sliced fresh pineapple, 12-grain bread for toast, butter, vegan margarine, peanut butter, tahini, and jam. Instant coffee, black tea, green tea, hibiscus tea, peppermint tea, chamomile tea. I always had a coffee and a tea, both strong because I needed the caffeine.

At lunch, we usually had brown and white rice, some sort of stew or stirfry, veggies (roasted or steamed), salad with optional toppings of shredded beets, shredded carrots, raisins, chickpeas, sprouted lentils, choice of dressings (including a really delicious sunflower seed dressing they made there), and about 4-5 times we had dessert. Same choices for tea and coffee as at breakfast, with almond milk, soy milk, or cow’s milk. My favourites among what they served for lunch were: the thai tofu curry, the grain pilaf, the roasted beets, the roasted broccoli, the Persian rice, the sunflower dressing on shredded carrot with chickpeas and raisins (I made that every lunch time), and the cassava pudding (OMG it was amazing; I need the recipe). I always had a strong black tea with soy milk with my lunch.

Having only tea and fruit at 5 wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I didn’t feel terribly hungry but I was grateful to be a new student because the old students only got tea, no fruit.

The silence: what if you had an issue? A few people have asked me about this. The course was conducted in Noble Silence, which means no communication. But that was only among the students. The goal was to enable an inward experience to work on the technique. I think this was a good idea because it prevented (as much as possible) us from comparing where we were at with where others were at. And it prevented people from having negative and complaining conversations about how hard it was. That could have created a downward spiral of commiseration that wouldn’t have served me well.

However, we were definitely not left alone in our heads with no recourse. If you needed something or were having difficulties, you could talk to the course managers about it. That’s how I ended up getting moved from my room in one of the women’s residences to a cabin of my own. It’s also how I ended up being permitted to sit in a chair during the evening discourse rather than having to sit on the floor, which was causing me some difficulty. We could also speak to the teacher, which I did on two occasions to ask her about ways of easing my body during meditation. She made some suggestions that were helpful. Finally, the teacher checked in with us periodically, calling us up to the front in small groups and asking us questions about our progress. During those periods we spoke.

So it wasn’t as silent as all that — I did talk a number of times during the course. You could also speak with the kitchen servers if you had questions about the food.

Was it hard not to exercise? I went for a walk most days and did a lot of stretching. Frankly, that was about all I could handle. At first I was bummed that I couldn’t go running, but with ten hours of sitting in meditation in a day that went from 4:00 a.m. to about 9:30 p.m., I used most of the off-time when I wasn’t eating to lie quietly on my bed.

Was it hard to follow rules? There are a lot of rules. From noble silence to indoor footwear in the dining hall to showering only during your designated 20 minute time-slot to meditating during all meditation time, remaining within the course boundaries while at the centre, respecting a modest dress code, not bringing any of your own food, maintaining a fragrance free environment, meditating only inside and never outside, not to mention the 5 precepts (against killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and using intoxicants)…to name a few. They give a lot of advance notice. I think someone who really felt like these rules would challenge them and make them feel controlled (or defiant) probably isn’t temperamentally suited for this type of thing. Myself, I didn’t experience them as a big issue, not for just ten days. But some struggled with the modest dress code, with the silence, with the fragrance free policy, and with the requirement to meditate during all of the meditation times.

What was the best part? That’s a tough one. I liked most everything, even if it wasn’t what I would call “fun.” I enjoyed the nightly discourses (the talks) by SN Goenka. These are videotaped recordings of talks he gave during a 10-day course in 1991. They are excellent and engaging, and gave context to what we were learning. I also relished the silence and the permission not to engage in social interactions. And I liked the challenge of it all–I felt as if I was doing something that would change me in ways I couldn’t anticipate. I’m pretty sure I was right about that.

What was the worst part? I’m not sure I would define this as necessarily “bad,” but it was definitely a lot more physically demanding than I anticipated it would be. But the worst part was probably the first three days when we were doing the breathing meditation (Anapana) and I couldn’t focus for more than a minute or two at a time. It was mentally and emotionally frustrating. Plus I was exhausted — the 4 a.m. wake-up was pretty difficult and never got easier for me during the entire ten days.

Would I recommend it? This is the sort of thing that someone needs to get curious about on their own and apply for only if they’re drawn to it. In that sense, I can’t say I would recommend it as something for everyone. I don’t think it’s for everyone. My suggestion would be for anyone who was intrigued to take a careful look at the “What to expect on a course” page on the website. I suggest looking more carefully than I did (I kind of read it but didn’t take in the intensity of the schedule). I don’t think I would have been dissuaded had I fully appreciated what I was signing up for. But I would have been better prepared, psychologically, for what I was about to undertake.

Okay, I’m done talking about it now. I feel a strong commitment to continuing to work on the technique of meditation that the ten-day course introduced me to. I do think that employing this technique on a daily basis can and will improve my life. Already I have experienced clarity about a number of things and, though that is not the exact purpose of the technique, it is a result of it.

My question: has anyone gained a curiosity and interest in the course (and possibly a desire to apply) from reading about my experience with it?

fitness · meditation

The path to enlightenment is not a vacation: Tracy’s ten day Vipassana meditation course

Image description: Tracy, short hair, smiling, dressed in loose black pants and a long sleeved jacket with a t-shirt sticking out the bottom, standing in front of Cabin 4, a light green-blue cabin with a white door, two steps leading up to it, grass in front.

A couple of weeks ago I posted about how I was about to take unplugging and meditation to “the next level.” I was preparing to attend a ten day meditation course at the Ontario Vipassana Centre, Dhamma Torana. It was not a retreat. Or a vacation. I mentioned there that there would be ten hours a day of meditation. I mentioned there that we would be getting up at 4 a.m. I also said I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. And maybe that was a good thing because it meant I didn’t get scared. Had I known exactly what was coming, I might have been at least a little bit afraid.

And that would have been entirely appropriate. Because ten hours a day of meditation is not trivial. I think it is the most grueling physical undertaking I have ever endured (more cumulatively taxing over the ten days than running that marathon a few years ago was).

Before I left, I have to admit that the thing that attracted me the most was the silence. The entire course is conducted in noble silence. Though it is not everyone’s cup of tea, I absolutely love noble silence–where people occupying a space together refrain from talking or communicating in any manner, including gestures, written notes, or eye contact, and more generally maintain as quiet an atmosphere as possible. Though it is somewhat challenging because the urge to interact, even with a smile of greeting, is so strong, once you’re in the swing of things, noble silence takes off the social pressure and let’s everyone do what they need to do for their own practice.

I arrived at the course on Day Zero. We were still allowed to talk until 8 p.m. that night. Everyone was directed to the dining hall to register, check in their valuables (that included all electronic devices), find their room, start unpacking and be back to the dining hall for dinner and an orientation meeting. No meditation to speak of on Day Zero (I think–I actually can’t remember Day Zero so much). Day Zero was also the day to sign up for your shower time–that would be your 20 minute shower time for the rest of the course. Mine was originally at 7 (half an hour after the start of breakfast) but then changed to 7:20 when I moved my room (more on that later).

One thing I do recall from Day Zero is a conversation I had with an “old student” (that’s what they call students who have already completed one ten day course in the past). She said she thought she would never do it again because it was “so painful.” “Painful?” I really hadn’t thought in terms of pain. But she made it sound as if everyone knew that. Nope. Not everyone. But then the next thing I knew it was time to go into silence and I couldn’t really ask about it again until I got an interview with the teacher later in the course.

The course is designed to teach the Vipassana meditation technique. It starts with Anapana, a breathing meditation that focuses the breath on the small area between the upper lip and the top of the nostrils. We spent three days on that, learning to feel the sensation of breathing, and, finally, to focus on the sensations we could feel in that area between the upper lip and the start of the nostrils. Three. Days. It’s a challenge to stay focused for ten hours a day on such a small area, but there is a reason for that and it did pay off in the end.

During those days, we were instructed that if we got uncomfortable we could change our posture. That was good and I found myself changing quite a bit because my usual meditation posture turned out not to be great for long sitting. I had to spend a lot of time stretching out my legs in order to alleviate discomfort. Also, my mind wandered all over the place. This is normal in meditation, I know. But I couldn’t keep my attention on the requisite area for five minutes in a row at the beginning. My mind just ran all over the place. So between the shifting postures and the mind run amok, I struggled those first three days.

I forgot to mention too that we had to wake up at 4 a.m. and were supposed to meditating, either in our room or in the hall, by 4:30 for the first two-hour session of the day. I mostly did that session in the hall because otherwise the temptation to go back to sleep was just too strong.

Here is the timetable:

Day four: Vipassana. Each evening we had a discourse, or Dhamma talk, by Goenke, the teacher whose method we were following. He explained Vipassana as a technique for enabling people to experience the reality of impermanence (based on Buddhist teachings, but offered as a nonsectarian technique that can be practiced by anyone of any faith or none at all). The idea is to observe the bodily sensations (of which the first three days training develops the ability to be aware) with equanimity (a balanced mind that neither craves or is averse to any particular sensation). This is supposed to be possible after some time practicing awareness. Though he didn’t call it a “body scan,” it’s something like that though much more subtle and “advanced” perhaps (I’m not sure if “advanced” is the right word — it’s definitely different) than mindfulness meditation.

The thing with Vipassana is this: though it may sound perverse, it’s not designed with the goal of “feeling good.” Not in the moment of meditation, in any case. It is designed to sharpen the mind’s awareness and equanimity with respect to bodily sensations and to maintain an attitude of neither aversion or craving towards any particular sensations. Why? Because, as taught by Buddha and countless others, aversion and craving is the source of human misery. We get miserable and suffer when we get what we don’t want or when we don’t get what we want. (I don’t really want to debate the finer details of this picture — it does make sense to me).

The course emphasizes repeatedly that it is the technique that we are there to learn. It’s a practical thing, not a ritualized undertaking to be done without attention and alertness. They emphasize as well that proper practice has immense benefits. Through the technique, as practiced (purportedly) by Gautamo (the Buddha) 2500 years ago, the student comes to experience the ever changing nature of reality at the level of bodily sensations (which are themselves ever changing). Developing equanimity towards sensations such that we don’t react and increase our misery then carries over into the rest of our lives (so they report–I just got back a couple of days ago).

There are several layers of teaching delivered in the evening discourses, but I’m not going to get into all of that here. The main thing is that attention to sensation. Okay, so this brings us to the sittings of “strong determination.” Remember how for the Anapana part of the course we could shift position? Well, not so much with Vipassana because the whole point is to be able to observe whatever sensation you’re experiencing and not react to it — to bear it with equanimity. So on the fourth day they introduced the idea of these three sittings per day (8 am, 2:30 pm, and 6 pm) where for a full hour you weren’t supposed to move.

Before the first day of Vipassana instruction (day 4), when we were told we had to remain in the Meditation Hall for the full two hours without leaving (!!), everyone who knew what was coming was already in the foyer stretching and getting primed. It kind of reminded me of the start of a race.

It was about the time when he said we shouldn’t move for the hour that I started to panic. Why? Because I had up until then been moving every 5-10 minutes because of pain and discomfort. My knees and quads and hips were okay for about 30 minutes in a cross-legged posture if I really pushed it, but after that I needed to get some relief. My preferred method was to stretch out my legs. But when I met with the teacher she suggested instead that I just bring my bent knees up in front of me and hold on to my legs for a bit (kind of like a sitting version of the fetal position, which seems appropriate).

The thing is, you are motivated to move as little as possible during the sittings of strong determination (or, as I liked to call them, “hard sittings”) because in a silent hall with 100 other immobile people, the slightest shift on your cushion makes noise. There is peer pressure not to be the one to make a sound. That’s amazingly motivating and got me to sit through all sorts of pain and discomfort for longer than I anticipated. Not that I never moved. In all the seven days of Vipassana, I only completed three of those hard sittings without having to shift my posture at all. Note that you were not supposed to leave the hall when in the sittings of strong determination.

Ten days alone in your head is a long time. Besides the physical demands of Vipassana, there’s the whole mental side of the house. I became very aware of my thoughts as the source of my own misery. I mean, I was interacting with no one else and yet at times I was having all sorts of drama.

The life for students at the Centre is likely as close to monastic living as I’ll ever come. The schedule is rigorous and exacting. Besides the scheduled sittings (ten hours a day) and the evening discourses, the meal schedule was strict. Breakfast at 6:30 and you had to be out of the dining hall by 7:15. Lunch at 11 and you had to be out of the hall by 11:45. Tea break (with tea and fruit for new students, black tea for old students) at 5 and you had to be out of the dining hall by 5:30.

The course was fully gender segregated, with men’s and women’s residences on opposite sides of the grounds with course boundaries that did not permit any intermingling at all. There were separate entrances to the Meditation Hall and we meditated on different sides of the hall. The Dining Hall had two identical halves with separate entrances and a curtain drawn down the middle. We didn’t see or eat with the men at all. We even had separate walking trails.

There were some times in the schedule where you could meditate in your room. But we were given strict instructions that we were to be meditating at those times, not sleeping or walking or sitting outside. Meditation was not to be done outside, ever.

They also had a fragrance-free policy that was well-articulated ahead of time and I went to great pains to respect. I bought special products and other than my toothpaste, nothing had a scent. I appreciated the policy because though I am fine with the scents I am fine with, I react strongly to scents that I can’t handle. I had some difficulties in my residence with someone using essential oils. When I brought this to the attention of the Course Manager, it happened to be the same day another student had asked to move out of a cabin into a residence room instead. So I was offered my own little cabin and I absolutely loved it. It felt like an upgrade and I had my own space, and a bit more space. I didn’t want to develop a “craving” but oh how fortunate I felt.

I can’t really get into the full measure of details but suffice to say that I am enormously grateful that I had this opportunity. These courses are free. The Centre runs fully on donations from old students. No one can make a donation who has not completed at least one ten-day course. Once you complete, you can donate with the idea of paying for someone else to attend (or more, or less of course, according to your means and what seems right to you).

On the last day, we learned a new type of meditation called “loving kindness” (metta bhavana), with which I am somewhat familiar already. It was a really beautiful way to end, and it is suggested that a few minutes of metta bhavana be added at the end of each Vipassana session provided you are physically and mentally fit (that is, not in physical pain and not in any kind of emotional tumult).

After we learned the loving kindness meditation in the morning, we were released from noble silence at 10 a.m. We had lots of longer breaks that day, and much of the time was spent in chatter, finally being able to meet and speak to these women I’d been meditating and eating and living alongside for the past ten days. It was overwhelming and exhausting in its own way, but lovely to exchange our reflections on our experiences.

I had a profound experience there. I had no issues with the rules. As my experience of noble silence, the rules kind of let me off the hook. I followed the schedule for the most part, oversleeping three times but not by much. I did my utmost to remain in the same posture during the hard sittings. I stuck to my shower time. We had committed to five precepts — no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, no intoxicants.

The only one I struggled with was the no killing because summer in that part of Ontario means mosquitoes, and I confess that though I didn’t kill a single mosquito outside, I did kill a few that made their way into my room at night. Maybe 6-8 in the ten days, which isn’t so bad. But when you’re lying in bed with your aching limbs (even my fingers ached from holding on so tightly when wrapping my arms around my legs and clasping my hands together when I was taking a break from sitting cross legged) and trying to fall asleep because of a 4 a.m. wake up…it’s hard.

I’m going to follow their suggestion to give it an honest try for one year. That means one year of two one-hour sittings each day. My schedule is to do one at 5 a.m. and one at either 5 p.m. or 9 p.m. depending on how my evening looks. Being on leave until September 2020 will help a lot.

The course is for not for everyone, but it is for anyone who is already meditating and is already of the mind that much of our misery lives in our head, and that equanimity in the face of difficult challenges is a worthy approach to minimizing that misery. That doesn’t mean that the world needs no changes. I like the idea of training my mind through the practice of awareness and equanimity, and I believe that the more people who engage in this sort of life-changing practice, the more the world will change for the better.

So that’s my experience more or less at the ten-day Vipassana course. It was not a retreat in the “wellness” sense — no spas or luxurious bedding or quiet spaces where you could curl up with a good book and take refuge from the world for a bit. I feel confident that it was so much more than that. Instead of being a break, which is how I always experience vacations, it was more of a beginning, introducing new students to a technique that if practiced with diligence, attention, and commitment can change their lives.

Have you ever done Vipassana or any other practice that is designed to transform the way you see and interact with the world? Do tell.