For almost two weeks, I lived like a nun at a silent meditation retreat center.
But to do so, I had to be down with some of the center's basic ground rules.
That included waking up at 4 am, wearing baggy clothes, not exercising and meditating for 10 hours a day. It also required eliminating the use of "wrong speech" (lying, gossiping, etc.), which in this case, also meant not talking to anyone at all.
There could be no killing, which meant not eating meat and trying not to step on any ants outside.
Sex wasn't allowed, which meant complete separation of men and women, and no masturbation or touching someone else in any way.
You also couldn't consume any intoxicants like booze, cigarettes or in my case, coffee.
To be fair, it isn't called a retreat.
It's a 10-day Vipassana meditation course taught by SN Goenka.
Finding my energy
The course describes itself as “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.”
Basically, it shares the teachings of science (think Einstein's physics), the four elements (everything comprised of air, earth, fire and/or water elements) and what the Buddha — who was a real person living 2,500 years ago — discovered for himself: that everything — from the universe itself to the tips of your toes, to that rose in your garden — is an ever-changing, impermanent flow of subatomic particle waves.
And if we sit quietly and in stillness for long enough, we can actually begin to feel those waves in our body and breath and directly experience this subtle phenomena for ourselves.
It's kind of like how dolphins and dogs hear things we can't, and how a microscope “sees” things we don't see with the naked eye.
But because we aren't trained to feel our own body's subtle vibrations, we aren't aware of what's actually going on inside ourselves. In essence, we're a product of conditioned habits and don't even realize it.
This becomes important when we enter real-life situations where we always find ourselves in an endless cycle of grasping and hating, of wanting more and wishing for less.
Instead, in the training, we basically see that if you keep on observing — without judgement — how the vibrations in your body come and go over time (all while remaining balanced, objective and equanimous), then you'll be able to be less reactive and more responsive when you get triggered by an external event.
Basically, you allow yourself to think twice before sending that nasty email, yelling at your partner or eating that bowl of ice cream you didn't need.
Like I said before, I sat in meditation about 10-13 hours a day for intervals of 60 to 90 minutes at a time.
Once, I sat in total stillness for up to 90 minutes (and survived). I noticed the vibrations come and go in my body, and I observed my natural breath rise and fall.
Another time, I sat for 60 minutes, and toward the end, my body was on fire.
I wasn't sure I could tolerate the tingling, burning sensation in my left leg, but finally, the bell rang and I started to cry.
I felt relieved and victorious.
You're probably wondering, "Why go through pain to get to a place of inner stillness?"
Because the whole point is to realize the pain is temporary.
You're supposed to just watch those sensations come and go, and by continuing to do that, we train ourselves out of our conditioned habit patterns of, say, scratching when we get an itch, or stretching out our legs every time we “want” to make a slight adjustment.
Letting go of my thoughts
While I got used to sitting still and letting go of my urges to make sudden movements, my thoughts continued to run wild.
Even though I was trying to focus my attention on observing my natural breathing pattern and bodily sensations, my mind would wander and run with all kinds of fantasies, thoughts and stories.
Those thoughts included past relationships, new ones, guys I did and didn't like, exes who've broken up with me, people I've dumped, people I've hurt, mistakes I've made and things I want to change about my life.
But, the thing about thoughts is, they come and go.
And thoughts are always about the past or future, not the present moment.
That's why we use meditation: to focus on the here and now.
Is it a short breath? A long one? Is it more prominent in your left nostril? Your right one?
What's happening in your left shoulder blade area? Sensations of tension? Cold? Heat? Tingling?
All that subtle stuff we rarely pay any attention to is what I focused on every day for hours on end.
More than focusing on the present moment, I was learning to pay attention to the sensations in my body that were occurring in the present moment.
Inevitably, it made me slow down, which in our digital, fast-paced culture almost seemed impossible before the retreat.
Above all, the course really allowed me to embrace the "now" because it forced me to view everything as impermanent.
From our smallest movements to our most impressive thoughts, everything comes and goes.
Changing my habits
As I alluded to before, all of this is based on science and the law of nature that governs everything: With every action, there is an opposing reaction.
This rule applies to our daily lives, too.
For example, think about a heated argument.
If you can notice the sensation that arises in your body, like maybe a tightening of your heart when your partner is bugging you, then you can create the space to respond in a balanced way before even opening your mouth.
You're still reacting, but you're not snapping at the person and making things worse.
With regular practice of this meditation technique, the immediate “reaction” naturally erodes over time.
We literally become more peaceful. “Take a deep breath and relax” takes on new meaning now, doesn't it?
The whole goal is not to be “right,” but to see things clearly. You act more with kindness and compassion and less with fiery passion.
Often, that means not taking things personally. It means really listening to someone else's point of view and taking it all in before immediately thinking about yourself and how the situation concerns you.
So, in 10 days, what did I learn?
That I was pretty darn fierce. That at the end of the day, my happiness rests on and within me.
And at the same time, I learned there really is no “me” after all. There are just these sensations arising and passing that I can then choose to act on or not, based on how well I observe them objectively.
It's all part of the law of nature, what some might call consciousness or even pure awareness.
In a strange way, after sitting there for awhile with over 100 other people, you actually start to feel the shared vibrational energy in the air.
You feel like you aren't separate from anyone or anything else.
At one point, I felt like I was an airy mass of little tiny bubbles just floating in the room.
I learned that pain is inevitable. Shit happens in life we can't control, but that doesn't mean we have to create more drama and stories around it in our own heads.
We've lost loved ones. We've broken up with people we cared for.
We've been fired from jobs we thought we'd have forever.
We've gotten swindled out of money. We've experienced all of this and more.
The pain in life is inevitable, but the suffering is optional.
Learning to be able to objectively observe the sensations in your body and your breath is a simple ticket to freedom and happiness.
But, it takes a commitment to practice.
To establish this new habit pattern, the course recommends meditating for a minimum of two hours a day.
I don't know if I can or will do that, but I am committed to change.
You just have to take one little step to get started.
Re-entering the world
The truth is, the real test for me occurred when the retreat ended.
My mom, who had kindly been cat sitting for me, appeared to have lost one of my two cats.
Instead of freaking out, I just went about what was practical: to have her look again and for me to drive home with my other cat.
Instead of yelling at her or guilting her into feeling bad, I told her if my kitty was gone, she was gone, and there's nothing we could do.
Without even realizing it, I responded to that situation with balance of mind, detachment and equanimity.
We ended up finding my cat under the sofa, but this instance proved how these teachings could help me in real life.
It's been said we can't change what happens in life, but we can change how we relate to what happens.
After taking this course, I'm pretty confident that whatever happens to me now, at least I have a toolbox filled up with gadgets I never had before.
Now, I can use them to help others as best I can, and I can try to be kind to all beings as well as myself.
We ended each meditation with the words, "May all beings be happy."
I think those are life goals we can agree on.