My Vipassana Experience (Phoenix Rising from Ashes)
How did I hear about Vipassana?
The first time was with my flat mate in Oslo, Norway. It’s been told to me that Vipassana comes to you, when you are ready, and trust in one thing, I was ready.
When you have left your home country with only hope, no real plans or thought out logic, but intense set of instincts, you sort of carry with you a feeling of trusting oneself deeply. I did, and still do, when looking back on many decisions made in haste.
It was around early February and my 3rd place to stay in the Oslo area had found myself by fate living with a unique, very special woman who I won’t name.
Everywhere I had gone, teachers of some type seemed to emerge, a new experience out of nowhere that aligned so well into the puzzle of my rebirth to this day it’s hard to say “coincidental.” These affirmations, pointers, really “signs along the metaphorical road” just kept appearing. I could try and deny them, but at some point you just open your heart a bit and trust.
Yep, a woman my own mother’s age, a therapist trained in Rosen method and Gestalt, who had been to this specific course 3-4 times in the last few years, and even volunteered as service worker 1-2 times was the one who mentioned “I might be a good fit.” So my curiosity led me to the site, and while she would not tell me much about what the experience would be like, I knew quickly that if not now, the only question was “when” would I arrive at this 10 day noble silence meditation retreat.
I had been staying in a local shop nearby (Baldron – Alternative Medicine, Healing, and Earth Based Retail Products) volunteering in the day and some into the night with social media marketing, helping with newsletters, and enjoying the thrill of being part of a team very much like the Solgave one I had been building with my wife off and on over the last 4 years. We had unique dinners together every night and worked hard. The coffee was good, and our souls also aligned perfectly. They were all Steiner or Waldorf educated and that just happened to be where both my children were at. Yeah, reflecting back, my god….What a ride this year has been.
While I signed up through WWOOF to help on their farm with the bees, and other things happening, there were no cabins with warmth yet and my stay at my friend and mentor who hosted me when I landed was wearing a bit on both of us I suspect as I needed to get going on my own. It’s easy when landing in a foreign land, to get complacent, one of many lessons and themes you’ll read here, is to keep moving. Nothing will go wrong with flow, if heart is aligned.
At night I pulled out a little mattress and slept in the small therapy room used for healing in the day, so when the time came a couple of months later with this offer of a bed near this unique Solgave like business and family that felt like “blood” it was impossible not to pass up. My body was wearing down with no consistent place to shower or put on fresh clothes, but I knew somehow every week, every experience, was part of this long and slow rebirthing. I share these details in my blog only because I think they all tied to how and why I ended up at Vipassana. More importantly, why I was ready for the first time in my life to take this on.
So while it was hard to say goodbye to my second place, the conversations of living with a Gestalt based therapist were maybe some of the deepest of my life. She does not like surface talk, and frankly neither do I. (most of the time) That two month period was worth a year’s worth of counselling and I’m forever grateful, not just for that, but the friendship and soul connection.
So while helping her with a website and inspiring some powerful writings she had ideas about, and had written some, about powerful events in her own life that, in my strong opinion, should and would make a great novel… was not an official “Work Away” arrangement, I got to stay in her son’s room who was at college and we just felt it out week by week to make sure both of us found some benefit out of this “barter” of cosmic helping. So in this period, I signed up for two courses and waited on their answers. The information they need on your background is very detailed when you apply for the course, and I was very honest.
What is my background in meditation?
Likely not a lot different from yours. Often, I would “meditate” to some music or attempt to sit quiet for 15 minutes and just “not think” I could lay out years of my life where I did this more than others, but to be really honest, never in my life had I attempted a real “meditation” practice.
Nor had I ever had any experiences consistent enough to believe, or accept the power of the benefits it could have on my own soul.
There is a LOT written about Vipassana and where it comes from, why it was important to Buddha, and the science behind it. I will put links in, but my own journey will be what I type out today. I knew it was a sitting meditation where you learn to become comfortable with the uncomfortable, because of the law of impermanence and eventually something we heard a lot about, an experience called equanimity.
It was the most important thing, the most powerful thing, the hardest thing, I had ever done in my life. Period.
I sensed I needed to go, I knew the time was now, and I knew that I would not come back the same person.
I read the basic guidelines that you can look at here at the Q and A about the course.
To see if I met the standards. Trust me when I say, just about anyone would.
So I was in okay shape, not great, mindful of what this would entail, but in no way shape or form was meditating at all. I hiked a lot and found my meditation in those ways, but not a true silence based sitting meditation. Later I would learn how far apart these two things are.
I did take the time the week before to begin sitting still and in fact made sure I could sit for one hour. It was hard, let me tell you! I am the type that sitting still for 20 minutes is tough, I prefer to keep moving, but I knew its importance and had to be able to do this to believe I could make the course.
That day I documented what happened and found the most profound realisations it seemed of my life. That was at my friends place outside Oslo just leaning against a wall, sitting for as long as I could. Wow? Then what would ten days do?
Let’s take a look.
How I got there?
At the time I had no money. None. My work was done through exchange of services. I would help out via chores, walking dogs, doing computer work, helped in that shop, cleaning the house, whatever was asked during my volunteer periods (Work-away and WWOOF) where you stay with a host family that has specific needs you help on) you do for 20-30 hours a week (25 typically) and get a free room and 3 meals a day. It’s an amazing way to travel the world, meet host families and learn about the culture.
So I had given up on my April retreat because of no signs that enough would drop before going to get me in as someone on the waiting list. It’s not uncommon to sign up, and then life or a work situation occur and you get last minute cancellations so the waiting list is a vital part of it. But this means no time to prepare, or think much about it!
Well, with 4 days to go and no email that my waiting list name would be called, I let go of that round and thought it must be the late May one I was meant to go to.
See I was waiting on an appeal decision from Norway after losing my first request for a self employed based Work Permit (received a denial letter stating I had 6 days to leave the country or get this appeal filed) to get a one year VISA and was days from possibly having to leave the entire Schengen area. A time in my life where I did not know for sure what country I’d have to get to within days and that period drug on 8 weeks.
That was powerful in and of itself and Vipassana came right near the end. Looking back with no money or idea where I’d be the following week, I was the most “free” and spiritually connected of my life. I had to find solace in uncertainty. An important part of growth.
My friend told me to check out Ride-share when I mentioned I had no money for the bus fare down, even if called. This is a neat program where you can see who’s going to each retreat and maybe catch a ride. The problem was, I did not even have money for fuel. I was at the end of a long period where that round of finances had run out and the world had not opened back up yet as it would shortly after my return from Vipassana.
So I told the girl in an email that I’m an American, I can promise only to pay you back one day but I made the cut of this trip and see you are passing through Oslo, could I go?
Yes, she replied, just don’t tell the other girl in the car, which made sense to me. So with only 3 days notice and not a lot of time to freak about the no coffee, the lack of food, the actual process I was about to endure I begin to prepare.
And by begin to prepare I mean I cut coffee down, was sort of, but not really, mindful of not eating too much (You’ll see why when you see what we ate) Footnote, when I finally got my financial situation back in a different state, I paid her 3 months later for that fuel money I owed her. You begin to think about karma, that is the idea of this course, pay what you can afford, when you can, and only if it benefited you. Well, it did. So I part of my writing this is an homage. A t shirt design is another homage, and there are other ways to “give back” to something that gave you so much.
My host (I was watching dogs and overseeing his place when he was not there) and mentor at the time of this retreat (not the therapist lady) had been to Vipassana in Thailand a decade before and also knew the benefits would be huge, if I could make it. He showed me how to best sit on a mat to endure the long sessions and knew if I could make the one hour sitting I told him I did in his house, I could do it. I was still not sure what that meant fully, but I trusted him.
I had only enough money to get the local train to the pick up point and would have had to sneak on to the T Bane with no ticket in fact, if not his small gift as I walked out the door. That 500 kroners was exactly what I needed to get there, have a bun and know I could get back home from the drop off 11 days later. Another divine thing.
So I look for a women in her mid 40’s with dreads also waiting for the same car, that the spunky French dancer and white river kayaker who was living in Norway that year would be driving. It was around 10AM and we loaded up after a quick hug and took off.
Everyone but the driver was new to the course experience, and so we quietly asked questions along the way, and quickly you sensed that the type of people doing Vipassana have something in us that relates. A hunger to go deeper, something hard to describe.
That 6 hour ride from Oslo was the first part of facing fears, and continuing to show up to life as my journey since leaving the US December of last year had shown me I could do.
-Arrival (Day 1)
Unlike my friend from Oslo who heavily advised I stop drinking coffee (we shared a final cup together when he came by to talk to me about it, loan me sweat pants, bed roll, and the flashlight I would need when arriving (see list of items here) we seemed to be approaching it as a happy send off with coffee from the shop, chocolate, whatever. I was trusting the fact she had been the year before and must know something I didn’t so I quit worrying about the things like “How do I go that long and not eat each day, or how do make it without coffee?”
What a neat ride through parts of Sweden I had never seen though. I was quietly taking it in, nervous, really nervous because of the gravity of what I knew lie ahead.
The retreat center, like most I suppose was deep in the middle of nowhere. The energy around it, special…
I saw people just drinking tea and standing alone, many not talking to anyone already, some bunched up into groups and speaking Swedish. With English being the only language we spoke in the car, sometimes one can forget you are in a foreign country.
So I sort of said “good luck” with a smile to the people I came with and we made our way to the entry door of the check in room.
I sent one final text to Sunniva and then powered down that phone I was attached to and put it into a zip lock bag with my wallet and headed off to visit with some of the people there before noble silence began.
The excitement or anticipation was intense, I visited with several unique men from Scandinavia and realised, yet again, a tribe a people seemed very familiar to me. Many were on their 4th retreat, while many others were like me, “new students”
We of course had the most intense wonderment of what this was, but after being on a waiting list for months and sort of preparing, nobody was naive to the experience and what going through it meant.
I knew not everyone would make it, at leat this was consistent with stories I read, and friends who had gone, and sometimes you look around glancing and wondering …“Will it be me?”
My fear, another one that creeped up a lot was ‘what if my ride leaves early?”
I have no money or no insights into where I am fully to even possibly get home.
Trust, surrender, release.
These words sort of some up how that plays into this process.
It finally struck me that if our driver and new friend had gone last year in Mexico, than she of course knew what this was about, and would indeed be their at the end.
See, men and women are split by where we sleep, where we eat, and even in the Dharma Hall (the large meditation hall) we each take different sides, this ties to the CODE OF DISCIPLINE you can read here.
We had an amazing vegetarian dinner (all food was prepared with intention I would realise along the way) and were just an hour from noble silence beginning once the rules were read aloud and dinner was over. It was 8PM when the gong rang and noble silence began.
No eye contact with others, no gestures, no speaking. This journey is about going in, deep, and any distractions from the type of clothes you wear, body deodorants or perfume, soap used to shower, even coughing can be something to take one away from the journey so mindfulness of all these type of things is very important. You want to blend into nothingness for ten days so that all you have is your inner voice and thoughts. As a loud person in general, and an American by culture, this was good training for me. A powerful reflection into my own mannerisms.
We ended the night with as much as we could do for a one hour sitting. We each had a tag on the floor in the big hall to show us where we would be sitting for close to 100 hours the next ten days. My spot was on the 4th row, the place near the aisle, and it would be my spot for this entire journey. The meditation hall felt special, my first time to ever set foot in a dharma hall of any type.
You get a meditation blanket, and can arrange the pillows or cushions in any way you fashion to find that spot you will call home during every 1-2 hour sitting.
People with back problems or issues maintaining the posture could use a chair or sit on the back row by a wall.
I remember glancing to the men in my area of the hall as we prepare to try and sleep the first night, and we had smiles and a bit of naive excitement of what was to come and silently took turns using the restroom without looking at each other to the best of our ability. This flow begins slowly but by day two becomes the norm.
Day 2 and 3
The gong rang at 4AM and we quietly get up off your mat and begin making your way to the meditation hall by 4:30AM.
My back was not in the kind of shape you need to be to meditate that long. It uses muscles in your core and back that mean just sitting still, takes time to adapt, but trust it will eventually.
Our schedule for the day was this. INSERT DAILY SCHEDULE
I will say day two and three was hard. It was the first full day that was overwhelming, it sunk in just how demanding this would be on the body, not just the mind. Noble silence was sort of enjoyable in the beginning as a novelty, and I realised the importance of it going in. As someone who needs contact lenses or glasses to see much at all, I left mine out the entire ten days so I would never even be tempted to make eye contact with others or even see good enough to get distracted on any specific thing happening around me.
Our breakfast is at 6AM and trust me that you are hungry for this mea after fasting 19 hours. A unique oatmeal with raisins and this raisin based sauce was served each day. We could eat this very high energy bread only at breakfast, but quickly you realise that mindful eating is part of this life, and not overeating becomes easy as your stomach and organs all begin operating differently. I LOVED THE FOOD and made notes about powerful this adage I’ve always said in my head, but not lived day by day is…”We are what we eat.”
Again, for a big eater I was a bit worried of how I could manage not eating from 11AM to 6AM every day (the 5PM tea sitting you get one piece of fruit as a new student and a cup of tea) and it warns you to not eat an amount for two meals, which is tempting in the first two days, as it would effect you’re meditating and like everything else at the course, your body and mind are adapting very fast.
The food was definitely served with intent. By this I mean day two was very lean, mostly baked veggies and we could use flax seeds and olive oil on top of these amazing flavourful organic meals that had several intentions, or salads made very holistically. The food should not make you sleepy or lethargic, it should not be hard to digest, in no way shape or form should it effect your meditation negatively, but if anything…. enhance the mind, body experience. And my god it did…
Trust that by the the final hour of mediation I was in pain those first two days I was in a lot of physical pain. My back really was the issue as I had not sat upright with my long torso for so many years it just took time to adapt And there is some belief that stored pain, wounds, are inside the body and do their own releasing along the way. I used to doubt this a lot, but after experiencing it and “seeing it” coincide with my visions through deep meditations, I believe it.
The nightly discourse was important and described the technique we were learning and using each day, and how it applied to our real lives.
You can actually watch all the discourse via Youtube and on the last day when able to talk `i found out some had viewed them all prior to coming. The level of preparation between students varied widely, but “older’ – returning students would be more mindful of practical mental preparation.
DAY 4 The first 3 days would be focused breathing meditation and you were allowed to stand up if your body was aching or cramping, you could shift positions, just sit in that spot for one hour every time (we had breaks between where you could walk outside, sit quietly, lie on your mat, etc)
What happened just through that period was astounding. We focused on the part of the nostrils where breathing is going in and out. I have allergies that plague me and a deviated septum so breathing through my nose only is not natural. But by the second full day of this exercise and focused breathing with Gfoenka’s guidance (audio played at the beginning of a few of the meditations during the day reminding us how to breathe, and sort of help get you started into the process of Vipassana meditation) ….I could breathe, and breathe well, my god things were happening already I could not explain or have predicted.…
Day 4 was where things started to come through deeply. People go to Vipassana to grow deeper into themselves, to stop smoking, to get over a tough relationship loss, addictions, or to take a meditative practice and expand it.
The process can liberate one from anything, suffering is not unique to certain types of people….you cannot help but leave with a deeper understanding of who you are and enough release from the patterns of the brain to taste what is possible if one continues to practice.
One of the only rules I broke was to not write. In my backpack I had a book I brought for the ride up and down by Pema Chodron and there was a pen in there.
So when I could find a moment alone I would take chicken scratch notes inside the pages and put the time and day. It was powerful man, what was happening. I had to place a few words here and there to capture the essence of this rebirth.
By not giving any examples are that are too personal, here are some
“ Give examples and time stamp them and put the day” I had …visions, so clear the final 5 days I had to get them on paper. Interestingly enough, the mother of my kids is now back tied to Solgave Project and seeing it as her path. A clear vision indeed.
When you get used to the sitting meditations twice a day that require no movement, no standing, and suggestions you can’t even scratch something on your eye you begin to feel the power of meditation.
It took me a few days to get there, but my first hour where I achieved this, meaning did not have to quietly cross a leg over that was burning, or scratch something, you feel amazing.
You start to apply these lessons to your own life and realise the tie between experiential changes, physical changes, mental changes, but also the general way to see this in your life.
When we face things that are tough, a death of a family member, a break up, a memory of something stored we have not healed or released, we have patterns in our brain that show us we can run from it, aversion, or find something pleasurable and cling to it.
Money and power bring things to cling to, but these are fleeting and very slippery foundations to build anything upon spiritually, and running from fears, uncomfortable talks, burned bridges only magnifies these aspects of our mind that are creating anxieties and fears.
Anxiety in the body often stems from stored up things, memories, brain patterns.
In the course of this journey and the day by day changes as we learned to focus on equanimity I realised what my life had been all about. And I realised how universal this really is.
So we sit, and we sit when it hurts, and we sit when it feels amazing, and through techniques learn to not focus clinging thoughts to the bliss, and not to focus our thoughts on the pain of a resentment, or the foot that was numb, just sit….follow your breathing, let the thought pass, and eventually it will go away. (that feeling)
You know what? It does….unless injured in some way physically, almost every physical sensation or mental image came and passed.
My first days I worked through jealousies and insecurities. Whether real or not, I felt I had valid reasons to believe things were happening I did not know about several creeped in. I would lay on my cot those days in tears, (tears are a release and don’t fear it) certain my visions of were right, my fears of this relationship were right.
But then you keep sitting, keep meditating, and like an onion with so many layers you go deeper.
I saw my mind as having rough turf on the surface and the first two days peeled away a lot of bullshit. Again, real or not, those thoughts should not matter to an independently, spiritually healthy man or women (not codependent)
Interesting enough, day 3 none of those thoughts ever came back. I went deeper. And deeper, and the awarenesses and visions were becoming more clear.
The process is described as surgery on your mind, one reason they highly suggest not leaving on day 7=8 because the methods and thought are so detailed that the final two days are really salving the wound that was opened on purpose so we could heal it, not bandage it.
At the end of the course I knew those words rang true. I had not spoken a word in 9 days, forgot that the men were mostly Swedish and after the hardest days were over, I looked forward to the 2 hour strong sitting meditations where not moving was required. It’s suggested at all the ten hours, but not enforced.
In fact some of the hours we could use the time to lay on our cot, or kneel by our cot, or even sit outside occasionally. The key is you stay in this meditative state.
My meditation went deep. When I met the mother of my children we did meditation together and I heard crickets chirping through the computer, like a high frequency was detected through Skype. Over the years since I discounted that as not real, yet by day 3 in the Dharma hall with 79 students meditating in this spiritual sacred room at the same time I went into a trance within minutes. The deep kind of meditation where my head and neck go straight on their own, as if entered by another lighter being.
There were hours so hard I used my mind to count minutes, so pissed off that 5 hours of meditation were left and I was tired and hungry, but that too is part of this.
This too shall pass. All of the bad and all of the good, are just part of life.
Sankaras are the words used to describe what we release if we reach equanimity and don’t cling to the bad or run from the good but sit. Each time we do that, whether metaphorically or literally, you release old ones. I see these as patterns of the brain, ways of thinking.
Behaviours or patterns that are really deep, are not lines in sand my friends, but etched deep in stone. So if you want to wash those away, and they can, it will take time.
The car ride home was unique. We were quiet mostly, sharing some of the highlights though because you do speak the final 24 hours to get you used to the real world again.
Everyone was transformed. Everyone I spoke to was in a different way.
I made some friends, and hope to link up with one guy from Denmark in a course this winter.
You have to go to 4-5 10 day courses to be eligible for the longer ones.
I’m a man of extremes, an addictive mind, but spiritual at my core. I finally got monastic life. I understood why busy lives make “inner knowing” almost impossible.
This is why I advocate one ten day retreat. What do you have to lose? I think so many of our issues are psycho somatic and even addiction is really about this plague of our thinking.
I have seen the studies with Vipassana in prisons and if it were in any treatment centres for drugs that I had been to throughout my 20’s or 30s, I believe my path might have changed sooner. For ME, it was far more powerful than any 28 day rehab.
Tolls, Chodron, Gabor Mate, they all speak of addictions in ways that make sense to me as we are still understanding the science of it day by day. But it’s really emotional and behavioural patterns, disconnects, traumas, pains, and an inability to cope with life that makes long lasting patterns hard to break.
Liberation as I now know it, it is liberation of suffering. Buddha become enlightened by ending suffering. He spent many years on this, and 40 of his last living just helping others find tools to do just this.
Vipassana may or may not be for you, but it had the most profound impact of my life today, and I know I’ll be back for another ten day course as I need a recharge.
You leave thinking OH MY GOD, I’m only supposed to meditate two hours a day now, the one hour sitting the AM and one at night? How easy?
Ahh, but the grind of life comes back in so fast and we justify 100 other things.
Thank you for the guides that led me here, thank you for the Universe for allowing it to happen, and I look forward to Solgave Clothing having a Vipassana inspired design where 10% of profits this first year go towards my “donation” to this facility and process that showed me who I am.
It isn’t just about the deferments of our mind, that is a huge part of what needs to be released, it’s about remembering who we are. I suddenly was inspired to create again. Wrote notes about Solgave in every page, spoken word poetry, my pure artist came back and the love of who I am along with the awareness of my flaws that need so much work.
Like walking loudly, closing doors loudly, not being mindful enough of my surroundings.
Progress and not perfection, remember that Law of Nature reminds of this. From birth until death we slowly decay, and accepting that fact and law of impermanence helps us to get through the best of times and the worst of times with a more balanced approach.
Ending with my favorite youtube video, I just don’t have the time but hoped to do my own video blog about this, as I’m often better expressing on video than writing. Enjoy!