Though this post is not photo-related, I thought I would share this unique experience in which many friends and family have asked.
On January 1, 2014, I attended a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat in Hong Kong. Because I was living in Guizhou, China, while teaching English with the Peace Corps, I had the opportunity to visit countless Buddhist temples throughout my travels. Visiting these temples sparked a deep interest in the culture and practices of Buddhism, as I have always been open-minded and fascinated by the world's religions. So, I decided there would not be a better way to learn about Buddhism than to sign up for a ten-day silent meditation retreat. The Code of Discipline at the retreat was very strict:
1. to abstain from killing any being;
2. to abstain from stealing;
3. to abstain from all sexual activity;
4. to abstain from telling lies; and
5. to abstain from all intoxicants.
These precepts are the first five precepts of Buddhism. To adhere to these five precepts meant attendees could not: (1) eat meat; (2) take anything that is not theirs; (3) please themselves sexually; (4) speak; and (5) drink alcohol and smoke. To add to all the abstinence, you are not allowed to make physical contact with another person, to exercise, use any electronic devices, listen to music, read or write, and even look at anyone else in the eyes. Members of the opposite sex were also separated by a barrier, except for when joining together for group meditation. These rules are designed to limit outside stimuli and the collective input from your five senses. They aim to keep you focused on the meditation practice at hand. Pretty interesting, huh?
For the first three days, our teachers had us focus on our breathing. Read that sentence again. We woke up every morning at 4 a.m. to the sound of a small gong resonating, a sound with which I had a complicated relationship. We ate a modest breakfast and enjoyed a cup of green tea to help wake us up. We then entered a small meditation room with a padded floor, grabbed a pillow stacked at the entrance, and found a place to sit amongst the rows of participants. Right away, we proceeded to meditate, for eleven hours a day, broken up only by 15-minute intermittent breaks and meals.
Have you ever engaged in a single activity for eleven hours in one day? Until this retreat, I had not. The first three days of mediation, 33 hours in total, was spent focusing on the sensation of our breath entering and leaving our noses. In hindsight, this was meant to train our focus for the following seven days of meditation. I found the act of focusing on my breath rather simple because I am a runner, and often paid attention to my breathing while running long distances. Also, while studying at UCLA, a friend from Berkeley gave me a book by a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, called The Art of Power. It explains how we can lower our stress and enhance our connection to our surroundings by focusing on our breath, whether that be contemplating in a quiet space or walking down a busy street. Ever since I read that book, I have been mindful of my breath. Because breathing is a human faculty that can be mindfully controlled, meditation can affect our state of mind and mood. Some practitioners, like The Iceman (Wim Hoff), even argue that we can control our nervous system by focusing on our breath.
Because of my love for running and reading Thich Nhat Hanh, I had a general idea of what to expect from the first three days of the meditation retreat. What I did not expect was excruciating pain caused by long periods of sitting in place. Exercise has always been an integral part of my lifestyle. Sitting with my legs crossed on a small pillow on the floor for hours on end was not. I soon came to regret all the years that I sat with terrible posture throughout my schooling. Quasimodo would scoff at the way I hunched at my desk. Prolonged sitting caused me so much pain that I had no other choice, but to stretch continually and to readjust my position. All this movement caused me to become self-conscious because no one else in the room was moving, which considerably decreased my ability to focus on my breath. On the upside, my posture began to improve drastically.
After what seemed like an eternity, on day four, our teachers taught Vipassana meditation. As the story goes, the original Buddha, a prince named Siddhartha Gautama from east India, discovered Vipassana meditation in the fourth century BCE. After renouncing his prince-hood and entering a life of spiritual development, he famously sat underneath a Bodhi tree and vowed to not rise from the ground until he discovered the truth behind reality. For over a month, he sat in place and suffered every pain imaginable. His body ached, he fought the drastic changes in temperature, and staved off severe hunger and thirst. It was through his suffering that he realized that pain is an essential part of the human experience. However, he realized he had the free will to determine how he responded to that pain.
So, the practice of Vipassana is essentially the retraining of our response to pain. Usually, when people experience pain, they do whatever it takes to prevent the negative feeling from continuing. They push it down, suck it up, fight, yell, or run. Most of the time, we end up intensifying our traumatic experiences by overreacting to them. For instance, we may accidentally drop and break our expensive electronics. Once our coveted possession breaks, there is no turning back the hands of time. It does not matter how much we yell or scream, or blame other people; the damage is done. We have the option of accepting reality by coming to terms with the accident and moving on, or letting it tear at us. I believe most people in this instance would react negatively. We may go to work the next day in a sour mood, subconsciously letting the negative energy from this incident bleed into other areas of our lives. Instead, we should take control of the way we react and the way we make the people around us feel.
This is what the Buddha realized, that life, experienced through the practice of prolonged meditation, is painful. It is painful and uncomfortable to sit and deal with the negative physical sensations we may encounter while meditating, like sore muscles, hunger and thirst, and lack of blood flow. So instead of reinforcing those negative sensations, Vipassana meditation teaches us to detach ourselves from them. Feel them—yes—observe the feeling—yes—but do not allow them take control of our well being. By resisting the urge to react to negative sensations, many practitioners find that past painful and traumatic experiences begin to arise in their memories.
Memories they have long forgotten about, somehow come to the forefront of their minds, because the brain associates the pain of both situations as one. When this happens, many people break down into tears. These painful memories are sometimes buried deep in their subconscious where they lay dormant for many years. When they arise again, through mental or physical triggers (or in this case our secular form of meditation), practitioners are offered a second opportunity to either (1) react negatively and reinforce the negative emotion or (2) experience the memories and emotions fully and detach themselves from them. The latter choice not only frees practitioners from carrying these burdens for the rest of their lives, but it also trains them not to repress future painful experiences that are an inevitable part of life.
Do I consider myself a Buddhist? No. Do I practice meditation regularly? Unfortunately, no. But I did take away many valuable lessons from this ten-day experience. Sitting in silence for ten days was one of the most challenging events of my life. While I look back on this experience fondly, I know I will probably not return to a retreat like this for a very long time. I am content living with the idea that we all have the power to determine how we react to life's happenings, and ultimately that we can choose happiness over suffering. I highly recommend this course to anyone who is interested in learning about themselves and has a heart set on developing an attitude for self-growth.
If you have any questions about my experience, feel free to leave a comment below: