A Meditation Transformation: 10 Days in Silent Thunder
By Christopher Ponzi
The subtle vibrations undulate and gyrate throughout this vessel we call a body, like a shiver from a cosmic whisper. The barriers of my psyche have been pierced through one by one, day after day, revealing yet another hidden version of myself like a Russian Nesting Doll. Then it happens . . . after so long in this storm of silence, the thunder comes. It’s only for a few moments, a glimpse, but I suddenly feel, not just believe, the truth: that we are all subatomic particles dancing in perpetual vibrational love.
I recently returned from my first 10-day Vipassana Meditation retreat. What is Vipassana? “Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. Long lost to humanity, it was rediscovered by Gotama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. Vipassana means seeing things as they really are; it is the process of self-purification by self-observation.” It is the meditation technique that, when combined with the other foundations of the practice, can lead one on the path to full liberation: the eventual elimination of the ego and the eradication of craving, aversion, ignorance and thus suffering; a life that exists in harmony with “Dhamma” or the Law of Nature. It is not sectarian but universal. It is a practical yet profound method that can be practiced by all peoples, creeds and religions without conflict.
I began this course and practice at The Southern California Vipassana Center just north of Joshua Tree National Park in California, although there are hundreds of these centers across the world. The course is based on the teachings of the world-renowned Burmese-Indian Vipassana meditation teacher S. N. Goenka , who sadly passed away just over a year ago at the time of this writing. This 10-day, donation-based course, is a requirement for anyone wishing to truly learn and be serious about the technique of Vipassana, and for those (like myself) wishing to accelerate their meditation and go deeper into its capabilities and mysteries.
I have debated over how much to reveal about my experience and the practice to others. The reasons being are not that it is some great secret, most of the material is available online, but that this is an experience. I, nor anyone else, can authentically relay on an intellectual level of words, no matter how eloquent or descriptive, the first-hand experience one must have of this practice. You can read or watch all the material you like, it simply will not be the same. I am also forbidden, and with good reason, to teach this technique in any form as I am not properly trained. This is not like other meditation articles that will explain the “how” as best they can. This is a technique and an art of living that has been practiced and perfected for 25 centuries by thousands of meditators worldwide, ancient and modern, and I would not presume to do their teachings injustice. So I will convey what is essential, informative and intriguing without planting predetermined ideas that may dilute your own experience should you ever choose to take this course one day.
This reflection will also not go into the scientific and health benefits of meditation as there is copious material on that subject (just google “benefits of meditation”).
The Course: For the entire 10-day period, you must engage in “Noble Silence”: you may not speak to any of your meditation companions and basically act as if they don’t exist at all; no eye-exchanges, nods or physical contact. The purpose of this is important because in order to help quiet the mind at the deepest levels, one must also quiet the voice and refrain from “chattering” with others. There are no electronics of any kind and you can’t bring reading or writing material. When you are not meditating you are completely alone in your room or on the beautiful designated campus areas, with your thoughts and observations. This aspect proved to be the most challenging for many, which is understandable considering in our world of incessant distractions where with every free moment we can engage in a smart phone, video, music or any other high-volume stimulus, one is rarely forced to just sit alone with their psyche in all its beauty and horror.
The moment you arrive, men and women are segregated, even if you’re a couple, and the only time you will see (though you shouldn’t be looking at all) the opposite sex is when you meditate in the Great Hall together. You obey the five principles of “Sila” or moral conduct during these days, which are abstaining from: killing any being, stealing, sexual activity, telling lies and all intoxicants. You eat vegetarian meals, which are of high quality and tasty, morning and lunch with some fruit and tea in the afternoon. No dinner. For all intensive purposes, during these 10 days you are a monk or a nun.
How much do you meditate? Short answer: a lot. You could easily think of this course as a boot camp for meditation. For most, including myself, they will meditate more in these 10 days than they have their whole lives combined. We wake up at 4am and begin meditating at 4:30am and only pause for relatively short breaks, meals and a discourse until 9pm or so that night . . . day after day. You learn the Vipassana technique in stages, and there are entire days where you will simply observe one tiny spot where your breath meets your nostrils, for hours and hours, in order to build your concentration or “Samadhi.”
So why do something like this? I have been seriously practicing meditation for about 10 months prior to this course. I began with mindfulness meditation at the wonderful MARC courses at UCLA, then had a private meditation teacher who was a former Buddhist monk for a short spell, and a daily practice that started at only 15 minutes a day and grew to at least 35 minutes daily. While all these various styles and techniques are extremely beneficial to introduce and inspire one to begin meditation, they are, in my opinion, just an appetizer to the main course of Vipassana meditation. These techniques contain its elements, a morsel of its truths, but are ultimately children birthed from the womb of Vipassana that got lost along the way. It is a highly disciplined and structured approach that clearly lays the pathways to your progression as a meditator and as a human being.
What happens to you during Vipassana? As I mentioned, I will not go into great detail in order to preserve a purity of experience for future first-timers like myself, but here are some of my own experiences:
Hyper Awareness: Vipassana consists of developing a strong awareness to the subtleties of sensations within yourself. While it happens so gradually you barely notice, towards the middle of the course I began to, almost as if pushing a button, put my mind into a hyper-concentrated state of awareness that allowed me to feel and penetrate even the subtlest of sensations. I didn’t realize how profound the change was until after a week after Vipassana when, what used to take me only seconds to accomplish, took me many minutes if at all.
This state also follows you before and after your meditation sessions. Mundane things we barely pay attention to in our normal lives suddenly become mesmerizing with these new lenses of sharp awareness. I had several periods where I completely lost myself, transfixed by the simplest of things like the swirl of coffee in its cup, the graceful flutter of a butterfly wing and the deep green color of broccoli.
Less Thoughts, Longer Sits and a Discipline Kick: We sit meditating for an hour or two at-a-time, and at some point we begin to have sittings where we must be perfectly still in our poses for the entire hour. This might sound easy to some, but believe me, the first few sessions of this perfect stillness can be tortuous. Yet, as the days go by, you suddenly realize that those sittings have become easier and by the end, I could sit for almost 2 hours in pose without much physical discomfort.
One of the most continuously frustrating issues for all meditators, new and seasoned, is the obsessive onslaught of thoughts always interrupting your concentration and tranquility. In the beginning, it seems as though you can’t go two minutes without wandering off into some thought-tangent, fantasy, worry, past memory or future plan. While this issue never seems to entirely go away, you do recognize that, as time goes on, you are able to have less disruptive thoughts and quiet your mind for longer periods, which lead to a more productive and revealing session. This follows you in being able to block or re-focus your attention from negative or unwanted thoughts to happier ones in the world of the living.
Understanding the Habit Patterns of Your Mind: As you become more skilled in disconnecting and disassociating “yourself” from “your thoughts,” you begin to have an almost birds-eye view of your thought patterns; as if you’re watching their flows and rhythms from on top of a hill instead of swimming (or drowning) in their currents. I was obsessive compulsive as a child, touching doorknobs and everything, and it took me many years to break these physical and mental habits. I realized during Vipassana, however, that I still carry and am carried off by many deep-seated obsessive mental tendencies and patterns. While it was initially a distressing realization, I am also grateful for the awareness so that I can now break those patterns over time.
Being More Present: I also learned (and many felt similar) how truly my life is entrenched in the past or future; how often I am thinking about some past memory or speculating about some future event or scenario. Vipassana forces and cultivates you to be more present. You are instructed to, even when not formally meditating, be aware of your thoughts and sensations: the footsteps of your feet, the feel of a cold breeze, the warmth trickling down your throat from a sip of hot tea. In this way, you begin to keep your mind focused in the present to truly savor and appreciate every moment and sensation.
Equanimity and The Cool Calm: In life, we label most things as “good” or “bad” in some form or another. In Vipassana, we do our best to not impose these labels upon any sensation, feeling or experience we are having. We must be equanimous and treat every experience with equality. Why? Because when we label an experience as good or bad, we begin to have desires for the good experiences and desires to avoid the bad experiences. These wants and un-wants can evolve into cravings and aversions, and in some cases addictions, which ultimately lead to our suffering and unhappiness because everything in life is impermanent and both good and bad sensations will inevitably disappear. We learn not to react to them, but to be calm and equanimous amidst pain and pleasure alike.
Ego, Thou Art Smacked: I liked to think of myself as a relatively humble human being, though I had my moments. Well, after Vipassana, I realized that my ego is actually a huge cockroach living in my mental house. What I thought was a kazoo was really a trombone of selfishness and ego-centric behavior. It is humbling to truly learn how selfish and self-focused you really are. At least now I can work on it.
Experiencing the Deep Truths: We are all subatomic particles; we are all molecules; we are all vibrating energy. Many know this scientifically and understand it within a spiritual framework, but perhaps have not truly felt it. With Vipassana, this fact is no longer just an intellectual truth, but an experiential one. This was a crucial takeaway for me at the philosophical level: that there are profound differences in someone that intellectually knows something versus someone having experienced it first-hand.
As your discipline and training continues, you become more attuned and aware of the subtle vibrations of your body. I myself also had several glimpses, mere moments, of that feeling of pure love and energy that it is impossible to describe. It was not forced by my mind, but came upon suddenly without warning, and it was truly beautiful. The important thing though: I can’t crave it. I cannot desire to have this experience again because that means I most likely won’t and/or I can become addicted to it, which is a regression on the greater path of progress.
Likewise, before and after meditation sessions, I had automatic and profound feelings of love and gratitude for everything and everyone. I would see the daylight after the morning sunrise or the chirp of a bird and just be overcome with feelings of beauty, love and gratitude. I was walking around with a total body high and clarity of mind that truly felt at peace.
But I also had experiences of the opposite which I will dive into below:
Words of Caution: Our teacher, S. N. Goenka, rightfully referred to this course and practice as a “deep psychological operation.” Through this process, you are making an incision at the superficial level of your mind and penetrating through to the deepest levels of your psyche. Like all operations, there are nasty things that will bubble to the surface. While I had many moments of elation, I also had many moments of severe agitation. Images of a disturbing psychological nature would suddenly pop into my head, seemingly from nowhere, to haunt and challenge me. Some of my meditation companions went through similar, if not more severe, periods of these disturbances. Some would even begin to cry during sessions, reliving some past trauma.
As they state, anyone with serious mental disorders should not attend because people can, and do, have nervous breakdowns. It is important that everyone realize this is not a quick-fix to your problems; a heavenly eraser swipe of your inner demons. You will not necessarily come in with an addiction or deep-seeded issues and have them all disappear by the end of these ten days. You will undoubtedly come back with massive insights, a powerful skill and the discipline to continue your practice that will hopefully lead to a happy life and maybe more, but be realistic with your expectations in the short-term.
Prepare! I was fortunate enough to have time before my retreat to seriously prepare. What did I do? I increased my meditation sit times and frequency, cut down my already mild alcohol consumption to almost zero, no aspirins or medications I didn’t need to take, ate healthier with less portions, exercised more and even gave myself a practice day of silence. This preparation is important because many people think Vipassana is something “cool and badass” they can tell their friends about, which is totally true, it definitely is badass, but they leap into it because they want the experience without having truly prepared for it, and their time is less productive and much more difficult, even impossible. Know that more than a few people leave these courses early for one reason or another. Everyone has the ability to complete this, but not everyone does, and the more you can prepare, the more positive your experience will be. Take it seriously and you will receive serious benefits, it’s worth it!
In Conclusion: The author Joel S. Goldsmith said that, “Our greatest gift is the thunder of Silence.” Vipassana is indeed one of the greatest things I have ever done for myself. Period. Mentally, physically and spiritually. I had already experienced first-hand the incredible benefits of meditation from my own blossoming practice, but my knowledge and skill level has undergone a major transformational evolution. Not to mention I know more about myself than ever before and met friends whom I am confident will be life-long because of what we shared together in Noble Silence.
“Life-changing” can describe this experience for myself and many others, and my one hope of this article is that it has persuaded at least one reader to learn more about it by going here where you can read more and maybe check out nearby locations. If it intrigues and excites you, my advice is to ignore any excuses or justifications you may come up with to not do it, and just go sign up (though prepare well). If you do, let me know, and maybe we can meet someday and meditate together.