My Journey Into Silence and Through the Looking Glass. Vipassana Meditation.

Thinking about recounting my experience for the last two weeks seems like I would have to write a small novella. And so, I will just let the words flow and see what feels right.

So, I have been wanting to do this Vipassana 10 day silent meditation retreat for a strong two years now. Two years - and a bit ago - back I was really struggling with some personal foundational issues in my life. Yoga had opened me up where I had been comfortably closing myself off a little bit at a time. Even to myself. We all do this. At one point, or in one way or another.

I thought I would go to India to a Vipassana retreat but the more I considered the idea of being a woman traveling by myself to India for the first time and being already in need of reprieve, not a be on your toes and best awareness adventure... I rethought India at the time and I headed off instead to beautiful and peaceful Bali. Two years later, Vipassana has indeed happened, although in California instead of India. I will get to India one day. I think it is a place I need to see and experience.

Bali Rice Fields

But back to the meditation experience. I will tell you that Vipassana meditation is it's own kind of thing. It's not the meditation that you do when you listen to guided meditations, it's not thinking of a mantra, it's not imagining your personal God or Goddess, it's not even body scanning exactly, although it is. You don't exactly know what it is going in. At least I didn't. And you might not even fully understand it by day 4 of your time into the retreat. At least I didn't. It was night 4 that it started to sink in for me.

Going in, I knew that I was going to have to wake up before dawn at 4 am. This was issue number one for me. I am not an early riser.

ah, bed. 

I knew that I was going to have to be silent for the entire 10 day period. I thought that I could handle this pretty well, I do talk a lot but I don't have a problem being silent either.

I knew that I was only going to be able to eat only when they fed me and what they wanted to feed me. This was a huge issue number two for me as I like to eat when and what I want and do so all day long normally. And admittedly, being without food can make mama a bit cranky.

I knew that this meditation would require me to sit, and to sit still for long periods of time. This was issue number four for me as I am a girl who likes to move, fidget, do vinyasa yoga for God's sake, dance around the house, etc...For example, one of the main things that I used to hear from teachers in school is "Erin, sit in your chair, please."

I packed ultra lightly for the trip. I figured what did it really matter if I wore the same pants, tee shirts, etc... so I packed five pants, two flip flops, one pair of sneakers, and 8 tee shirts for the two week period along with a pair of jean shorts to wear after I left. (Dress code is very modest, no showing shoulders or above the knee and no super tight no yoga pants?!).

And so, I went in on the afternoon of July 2nd with some fear and hesitation, along with excitement and hope for clarity, focus and peace. When I walked in, I only just for a moment had the thought of, "oh my god...what if these are a bunch of crazy people and I'm the only normal one? Wait, what if I'm not normal? Why am I here? Why am I so into self exploration and growth? Will I ever stop wanting to grow?" And then I laughed at myself for being such a fear monger and told myself that no, I won't ever stop wanting to grow (and thank God) and walked in. 

I started talking to some of the girls filling out their forms (you know stating that we knew all the rules and agreed to stay the full 10 days) to enter and they were awesome people. For example, I shortly spoke with a beautiful Mexican woman who was a mother, a late twenties girl who works for the Smithsonian in Washington, and a model/actress who lives in Topenga Canyon, California. So, no worries. (And my friend in Ohio asked me immediately after I exited the retreat, on the phone if they were crazy people so it made me laugh. If you're thinking's not like that at all).

You only have a very short time to speak on the afternoon that you arrive as you then get your bags and take them to your residence and settle in before dinner and then, quickly after, attend a meeting where you begin your Noble Silence that you will maintain until you release Noble Silence on Day 10.

And so it begins. Walking up the path after the meeting, the immense peace of the place settled upon me. The natural beauty of California is breathtaking, but this place seems to have soaked up the extra healing of the people that come there with their good intentions and hard work. The subtle shades of brown and green and pops of wildflower color in the fields around you catch your eye every day as if for the first time. The wildlife abounds, as I was daily reminded of and sometimes caught off guard with, (those stories will be on another post) but mostly just thoroughly enjoyed. The property that I went to is in North Fork, California and there are walking paths on both the men's and the women's sides, respectively, as men and women remain separate for the entirety of their stay there (until the last day when you are allowed to mingle).

Woodpeckers were everywhere on property, which was so cool. Their symbolic meaning is awakening. 

The schedule: You wake up at 4 am. They ring a gong (three times to make sure that you heard it) and then you meditate from 4:30 until 6:30 in your room or in the meditation hall. Then at 6:30 you eat breakfast and have a break until 8 am. This is a nice time to go for a walk on the grounds. You meditate as a group from 8 until 9 and then on your own again from 9 until 11. Lunch comes at 11 and it is the meal of the day, really. All vegetarian, of course, and quite delicious and sufficient. You then have a break until 1pm and then you meditate on your own until 2:30. Meditate with the group from 2:30 to 3:30. On your own until 5 when you have tea break with some fruit and are free until 6. 6-7 brings another group meditation, which is followed by a discourse by Goenka via video and then we end with a group meditation until 9 pm. For 10 days.

S.N. Goenka who revived Vipassana meditation, bringing it back to India and to the larger world.

So, to clear it up. It is not really "fun." It is not a vacation. It is work and, in fact, that is the number one word used by Goenka in the videos that you watch. Work. Number two would probably be patiently. Number three would probably be persistently. The fact that you are diligently (number four word consistently used) working does not mean that it is not without it's moments of bliss and enjoyment.

The first day, the second day, the third day... I felt great. Small issues came up that I thought about but on those days you are not yet doing Vipassana meditation. You are doing a technique called Anapana which is a form of breath awareness where you continually narrow your focus to a smaller and smaller point just under the nose and above the upper lip. The smaller your focus the more aware the mind.

By the end of day 3, I swear to you, during break I was sitting on the patio of the cabin and there was this California ground squirrel sitting right under the tree in front of me about 7 or 8 feet away. My vision seemed like that of a hunter cat, narrowly focused in on him with the surrounding area falling away. It was incredible. I can't explain it better than that. I realized it was happening and I was like, whoa focus. (I know, very spiritual reaction). And no worries, I didn't actually want to eat the little squirrel (despite the limited diet), I was just enjoying watching him eat his little acorns.

Moving on to Day 4. I left the Vipassana instruction, which was given to us in the afternoon session. Angry. Wanting to leave. Not believing that I could possibly do this for another 6 days of my life. I made up stories in my head that this is the same stuff that I do during Yoga Nidra. Body scanning and you have got to be kidding me that this is what I was waiting for.

I assure you, I soon realized that my mind was just very uncomfortable with the intense inspection it was receiving through slowly exploring in a systemized matter, the sensations of the body but not allowing myself to react to them. Why you may ask? Well, you would have to experience it to truly understand. (and I do fully recommend that everyone experiences it for themselves if they have the slightest inclination). But, also I am a girl who makes sure she's comfortable. I bring a sweater wherever I go in case I'm cold. I have snacks in my bag. Why suffer, I've always thought? My mind was saying...NOT REACT?? SURELY YOU JEST. And then it promptly proceeded to freak out. 

The thing is, by dealing with the discomfort and the pleasure as equals, having equanimity, it brings up your bodily memories and emotions, where they may wreak havoc for a bit and this is a process of helping to release them. Feeling them but not reacting in a way such as, oh my god, this is the worst thing ever, poor me, it's always me, God hates me, and on and on. The theory is that with wanting things to be different, we create craving which turns into clinging. With aversion to what is happening or at hand, we create hatred. And with both of these we create misery for ourselves and for others.

Besides Day 4, for me Day 7 was the next hardest day to get through. Anxiety welled up within me like a water balloon about to burst... Talking to the other ladies on Day 10, you realize that although everyone seems quite peaceful on the outside, on the inside there is a lot going on for all at one point or another. Everyone had different days that their "stuff" seemed to float up to the surface and demand attention. Sharing on Day 10 was amazing and we could hardly stop ourselves by the time we had to leave on the morning of Day 11.

Touching back on my issues, none of them seemed bad at all in the moment. Except sometimes the continual sitting.The food was actually delicious and all I ever needed. I got some of the best sleep of my life and I napped on the regular, which until now has been a very uncommon occurrence in my life.

I felt clear as day when I drove away. And I have noticed a difference in myself. Of course, I am not some saint that has no reactions now. But I react less often...and with less intensity. I feel generally lighter and happier. I intend on keeping meditation in my life although I have not yet been able to incorporate their twice a day one hour meditation recommendation.

I plan on attending another one someday. Although...not anytime soon. They have a 20 day and a 45 day. I can't even imagine. But maybe one day I could. Who knows? That's what makes life such a magical adventure. 

One last thing I want to mention is that these centers (all over the world, are totally donation based. So, very accessible for anyone to experience.

I hope this post was helpful for anyone who had questions. Feel free to post questions below if you have any. 

Namaste and much love. 



Kimberly Ford said…
Thanks for sharing!
Harley Carroll said…
This is beautiful, Erin! I can feel your lightness just by reading these words. I'm so happy for you <3
Erin Kouvas said…
Thank you, Kim and Harley for stopping by and I'm glad that you enjoyed the post. Looking forward to seeing you both soon. xoxo!

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