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What A Meditation Retreat Is Really Like

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I really don’t know why I was thinking what I was thinking. (It may be because I’m a bubble-head who experiences much alarm every time life’s hairy forearm reaches through the rosy mist of my private atmosphere and pinches my bottom.)

When a friend of mine offered that I take part in a two-day vipassana meditation retreat, I accepted the opportunity with wholehearted excitement. My mind quickly flooded with images of my spirited self, in a lotus position, ruminating in a peaceful repose of mind and body. Peeps, I was so very wrong. And not because there was anything wrong with the retreat, either! It just so happens that meditation retreats are the opposite of hours spent harmoniously contemplating your own grain of sand existence. And yet, even though I was entirely unprepared for the determined internal struggle I was to wage, the experience blew my mind and took my understanding of meditation to a whole new level.

First off, you need to know that vipassana meditation (like any other form, really) focuses on awareness of the present self. The method used to make that happen is to internally name every physical and mental activity:  sitting, standing, walking, thinking, wondering, liking, worrying, etc. (The key being not to concentrate, but to be aware. Once I understood this distinction everything suddenly became much easier.) This is the basic principle which is practiced by both beginners and advanced practitioners.

The meditation itself consists of three stages. The first one takes you through a series of three predefined bows, which serve to calm the mind and bring it in alignment with the body. The next stage is walking meditation, where you walk at a snail’s pace up and down a room, all the while remaining acutely aware of every step, every thought, and every physical twitch you may experience. The third and final stage is the sitting meditation, where you place yourself cross-legged on the floor and remain still, recording only what is going on in your mind. The walking and sitting meditations can last from anywhere between 5 and 50 minutes, and are performed in cycles throughout the day, with short breaks.

At a retreat, you usually start with a shorter cycle and work your way up. Although I only managed to get up to 20 minutes, even that was torture. Meditation, I realised, isn’t all zen and relaxing. It’s actually quite difficult and unpleasant! Your back begins to ache, your legs and knees get sore, your mind gets tired of constantly being pulled into the present every time it takes flight elsewhere. Finally – and I regret that I didn’t experience this – your demons come out, gnawing at you with live images of that which you’ve been pushing to the back of your mind for years. It’s very much a physical and mental hell.

I fled the retreat after one day. I was exhausted and a little grumpy because of my aches and pains, but I’d like to try again, this time for several days. Meditation is quite ugly in the beginning, but I’ve heard and read that, after a long and earnest struggle, it does bring lightness and peace. Although I doubt I’ll be going away on a two-week retreat in a monastery in Thailand any time soon, I’m set on trying to continue to meditate occasionally on my own, for 10 – 15 minutes, just to learn to calm my mind and improve my capacity to focus. Even that’s beneficial, and it’s not very difficult.

I suppose what I really took back from my experience is that nothing worthwhile lies at the end of an easy path. Live and learn!

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