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.

fitness · meditation

Tracy is about to take meditation and unplugging to the next level

Image description: drawing of a cell phone inside a red circle with a line through it, indicating “no cell phones.”

Back in March I wrote about a silent at-home retreat that I did one weekend for 24 hours. I gave a detailed post-retreat report here. My focus that time was more on silence than on meditation, even though yes, it included some meditation.

When I re-read the report, I see that it also involved a lot of other things: reading, journalling, colouring, running, cooking, a leisurely morning without an alarm clock. I wanted to unplug and enjoy some silence. It was a great antidote to my normally over-scheduled days, but I sure did keep myself busy.

Tomorrow I am going on a ten-day meditation course at the Ontario Vipassana Centre. It will be my first time at the Centre and my first time in a meditation setting for that length of time. The Centre is dedicated to teaching Vipassana meditation, as taught by S.N Goenka in the tradition of Sayagi U Ba Khin. According to the website, “Vipassana is one of India’s oldest techniques of meditation, first taught 2,500 years ago. It is a practical method of self-awareness that allows one to face the tensions and problems of daily life in a calm and balanced way.” Some of you may know it as “insight meditation.”

The course will be taken in noble silence. “Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow students, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is prohibited.” In addition to noble silence, there will be no opportunity for the sorts past-times I engaged in on my at-home retreat. Students may not read, write, listen to music, or engage in physical exercise other than walking.

Each day consists of about ten hours of meditation, with wake-up at 4 a.m. and the last session ending at 9 p.m. It includes regular breaks and rest periods. For the first three and a half days we will practice Anapana, a form of meditation that focuses on the breath. After that, we will practice Vipassana, “the meditation of mental purification through insight.” I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it’s a course, so I am sure I will learn (or at least be introduced to it in some manner).

I have no idea what ten hours a day of meditation feels like. It will no doubt be a challenging experience and I’m going into it feeling excited and curious. This will be the first time in over a decade that I have turned off my phone for ten days in a row. Totally off.

I also feel super fortunate. You have to apply for these courses and there is a long waitlist (especially for these prime summer courses). The course is offered at no cost, on a strictly voluntary donation basis whereby each student gets to decide at the end of the course how much they wish to donate. Only students who have completed one full ten day course are permitted to donate.

If you’ve had experience with organized meditation courses, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Fear · habits · meditation · mindfulness

Nine Nifty Things I Noticed in 150 Straight Days (and counting!) of Meditation

As I write this, I just hit 150 days of meditation in a row. That is a big accomplishment for me. My longest meditation streak ever. 

The day I started this streak, I participated in a meditation workshop and the teacher suggested that all we needed to do was noticeduring our sits, be mindful of our noticings. So that’s what I’m doing. 

The biggest thing I’m noticing is that I’m in a constant state of re-learning what I already knew, but somehow forgot or thought I had changed. Or I’m discovering that circumstances have changed and what I learned no longer applies. Or I am the circumstance that’s changed and therefore needs to learn anew.  I don’t got this, but I am getting it. Very few changes stick forever, no matter what, no backsliding. Good to know, so we don’t judge ourselves as falling short! This whole streak has been about impermanence and the wow-reallys?of staying curious. 

Small brass yogi sculpture in cross-legged seated position, reading a book, wearing a red string scarf (made of a string I was gifted by a fellow attendee at my first silent meditation retreat)

Here are 9 more noticingsthat jazz my curiosity and keep me coming back for more: 

  1. Practicing daily makes it easier to drop into a meditation. Every day is different, but most days there’s a moment (often in the last moments of the sit) when I feel like my mind drops away and my body simultaneously gains 100 pounds and sinks into the earth and slips the bonds of gravity. I find that this moment may happen right away now. Not that it lasts the whole meditation, but the opening fidgets hardly have time to squirm before I’m noticing my mind and body in that more concerted meditation-y way.
  2. A short meditation is better than no meditation.When I started this streak, I sat for 10 minutes a day. I knew that if I demanded more from myself that I would fail. Why set myself up for failure in advance? There have been days when I’ve only managed 8 minutes of riding on the personal rollercoaster of my mind. Great. I accomplished what I set out to do. Often, I am more open to a longer meditation when I’ve given myself the grace of a short one the day before. 
  3. Noticing feeds itself, so I notice more details when I’m not meditating. Over the last months, I’ve become more aware of the complexities and hidden corners of how I am in the world. What feels most sharpened is my sense of responsibility for who and how I am. I notice that blame is futile. Better to open my heart, to consider how I might change the circumstance, even if that’s just changing my own attitude. Pissed off by someone else’s thoughtlessness, how can I be more thoughtful somewhere else? Noticing slows the world down enough to create a pause for reflection.    
  4. There’s a lot of dogma around meditation, which we should not be dogmatic about. A lot of people prepared to say that there’s one right way to meditate and at the end of their suggested path lies … fill in the blank—peace, bliss, no pain, wealth, happiness, fulfillment, career success, spectacular sex, love, the source of infinite wisdom and so on. The dogmas conflict, no surprise. We have to self-test and find the combination that works for each of us. To do that requires tuning into where our mind and body is at, making an honest assessment of our condition and situation and choosing for ourselves what feels right, which, by the way, may change. I’ve been self-testing a lot of different modes on my meditation app (Insight Timer)—various guided, recorded music or chanting, timer with background of rolling OM chants; plus some other guided meditations I’ve downloaded, and meditating on specific subjects or objects (my spirit guides, space-time, elevated emotions like joy and gratitude, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, fear). 
  5. Meditating on fear is squirrely and uncomfortable. I recently read Kristen Ulmer’s book, The Art of Fear. These past days, I’ve tried on a bit of her dogma, meditating on fear. The idea is that getting intimate with my fear will transform the feeling into a healthy catalyst, instead of a dreaded obstacle. My list of fears stretches the length of the alphabet and more, ranging from losing my ability to move easily, to not connecting with people, to my washing machine going on the fritz and flooding the downstairs neighbour’s apartment. Plus, the existential, running subtext fear that my life doesn’t have meaning. Simply allowing fear the space to express itself, instead of telling myself to get over it, is new. I feel a small catalytic effect. As in: okay you’re scared, that’s okay, let it be, and hey, maybe you can still do the scary thing.
  6. Owning my woo-woo is scary. Meditating on, for example, one’s spirit guides feels out there. I fear that I’ll lose credibility (whatever that means) if I admit to any kind of woo-woo experiences or encounters. I am allowing myself to be more woo-woo curious and owning up to it (like in this piece about a puppy in India, that I wrote around day 100). 
  7. Sneezing during meditation is like an orgasm. As a kid, I read Where Did I Come From?, which compares an orgasm to a sneeze. Over the years I wondered if I have orgasms wrong, because they never felt like sneezing. Then I sneezed while I was meditating the other day. Because I was alone in my office and in the midst of a meditation and quite sure I wasn’t about to sneeze out great gobs, I just let myself sneeze without holding my arm in front of my face or ducking my head or any of all the twisting we do to be polite and not sneeze on others. Holy crap. That sneeze went right through me like a wave of sparkles over my nerve endings. Our well-justified, necessary public fears around sneezing mask the thrill of the simple sneeze.  Like orgasms, something to look forward to in private.
  8. I think a lot of non-contemplative thoughts when I’m meditating. In addition to thinking about sex when I’m meditating, back on day 45, I narrated a succession of interior design thoughts I had while meditating. I still have such thoughts. Everyone does, even monks on high mountains. Oh, and I did get the new duvet from Boll and Branch I was thinking about, which makes bedtime even more delicious. (I’m with Tracy, who writes often about the radical pleasures of sleep.)  
  9. Meditating regularly enables me to be kinder with myself. Noticing generates the gentle pause, in which we see our suffering from the outside and thus cultivate compassion. A truism worth repeating—if we are more compassionate toward ourselves, we will be so with others.

All of these noticings are small. Yet abundant enough to keep me going on my streak. Have you noticed anything in your meditation? Or in another streak you’re having? 

meditation · self care

Have you unplugged lately? Tracy’s at-home silent retreat

The last time we polled readers about what kind of content we could do more (or less) of, someone requested more on things like meditation and rest. We have posted a few things about meditation (there is this and this and this and this) and more than one of us has found it to be beneficial. I have had meditation as a part of my life since graduate school, when I bought myself a copy of a book called The Joy within in the hopes of finding some peace. It helped, even though it was really hard at that time even to sit quietly, in silence for five minutes.

And that was before the internet. Before cell phones. Before streaming. Before “devices.” So few people had email back then that it was exciting to get a message (can you even remember those days?).

This past weekend I decided that I needed some silence. I usually enjoy silent retreats with a focus on meditation, but I won’t be able to do anything remotely like that any time soon. So when I noticed a couple of weeks ago that this past Friday night and Saturday were clear in my calendar, I blocked them off for a silent home retreat: 24 hours.

The first challenge was to keep them clear. How easy it is to allow things to seep into that open space in a schedule? It’s like a vacuum that wants to suck commitments into its void. But I did it.

The second challenge was to define my boundaries. I often listen to music at home. But if I was going for silence, then there could be none of that. Ultimately I made a list of what I could and could not do.

Permitted: meditation, cooking, reading (but not for work-only books related to meditation and spiritual practice), adult colouring (I have an adult colouring book I love), knitting (never got around to it), journalling, walking or running outside (alone, no music), naps, baths, photography (but no editing)

Not permitted: devices, communication, work.

I came home from my workout on Friday after picking up a new artwork, a lovely painting called “One Can Always Tango” by my talented friend Kim Kaitell. The firs thing I did was hang that painting with some music playing in the background because it wasn’t quite 7 yet and I wanted to be able to admire it on my retreat.

Image description: A textured canvas painting, dark in the lower half and light in the upper half, with three large red circles (grapefruit moons) and the silhouette of three birds, two standing in front of two of the moons and one off to the left side. Title: One Can Always Tango by Kim Kaitell.

I finished that (which promised to be a bit more work than I’d planned because I put a hanging wire on the painting and needed plugs in the wall, so it required the drill and all manner of measurements and so forth…but by 6:58 the painting was up, the music was off, and the phone was in my bedroom night table drawer on airplane mode without wifi).

If you have a busy life with lots of activity in it, it’s tough just to stop–or at least that is my experience. So I started cooking. Chopping veggies is kind of meditative for me, so I grabbed a rutabaga and a squash, neither an easy subject to tackle on a cutting board, and my favourite heavy knife, and spent the first 30 minutes of my silent retreat prepping them to roast in the oven. I had some lentils and rice simmering on the stove at the same time. And when I opened the veggie drawer in my fridge, I found some portobello mushrooms that needed attention and got it in the form of sauteed portobellos with a soy-maple glaze. Okay, so dinner was on its way. While I waited for everything to cook, I snapped a few pictures of fresh flowers, one of my favourite photo subjects.

Next up: mindful eating.

By the time I finished dinner, it was already almost 9. Still not ready to sit quietly in meditation, I took out my adult colouring book. I’m not artistic but I absolutely adore colour. I started a page that said: “Today is going to be awesome” with full confidence that it contained an accurate prediction about tomorrow.

Image description: Coloured-in page from an adult colouring book. In the middle it says in handwritten block letters “TODAY IS GOING TO BE AWESOME” and that is framed by a swirling abstract floral pattern.

Without belabouring every moment, I can tell you that it was the best thing I’ve done for myself this month. By the end of the first evening, my mind had quieted. It felt good to go to bed (after a leisurely soak in the tub) without having to set an alarm. I almost always have a Saturday morning yoga commitment and Sunday run, so there is rarely a day when I don’t need to get up for something. I lay in bed that Saturday and just luxuriated for a little longer than normal.

Then I got up and sat in meditation for 30 minutes and followed that with some candid and much-needed journalling. I didn’t do a whole lot of anything that day — a bit more colouring, a bit more photography, some reading, several timed meditation sessions, a 30-minute run. I’d wanted a nap but I think by the afternoon my mind felt so quiet and I was at peace and feeling rested, so I didn’t feel the need. And that was after less than 24 hours.

Image description: Two orange flowers in the foreground and one blurred in the background, against a further blurry (bokeh) light background.

By the time the clock was approaching 7 p.m. (and I did have a 7 p.m. commitment), I was so into my retreat that I didn’t want it to end. But I did one more meditation, a bit of journalling on my experience, silently expressed gratitude for the opportunity, and left the house to celebrate an occasion with friends.

If you think you’d like to try this, just google “planning a home silent retreat” or something like that and a few articles will come up. I used “How to Create An Amazing Silent Retreat at Home” as my rough guide. The whole thing felt like a loving thing to do for myself and I will be doing it again.

Have you ever retreated silently at home?