A couple of years ago I set out on yet another adventure. This one for the mind. At this point in my life I’d taken quite a few; I was no stranger to psychedelics, graduated from art school in NYC, of all places and most importantly I’d recently started a business, perhaps the biggest mindfuck of them all. Although I’d obviously “signed up” for it, I still had no idea how much those 10 days would unfold into my biggest adventure to date.
Ten days “off the grid.” A sort of sadistic birthday present to myself. I mean, who really wants to be alone with just their thoughts? We don’t really want that – well at least most people don’t, judging by the amount who drop out of Vipassana and the amount of times (and ways) they ask students to confirm. They’re serious about you being serious.
“Do you commit?” They asked the group once, twice, in fact, they asked us 5 times, every step of the way, right until the bell tolled at 5pm to begin what was called “noble silence.” Our first agreement was when we applied and from there a mix of digital, written and finally as a group right before we officially begin. Agreeing to the Vipassana program was a big thing, especially since people were notorious for dropping out, especially during the 2nd and 6th days which were apparently the most difficult.
As the minutes to silence wound down, I found myself in the middle of a conversation about weed. Apparently a fellow student, who ironically ended up being my suite mate, hadn’t grasped the concept that along with the long list of almost every other substance, cannabis wasn’t apart of the plan and was advised to be avoided for at least a month before. As we stood there with all of our personal items like phone, books, writing utensils or anything else that could possibly distract us from ourselves, in a box to be locked away, she was stoned.
And I was jealous. I’d spent the last 3 weeks sober and the last 3 hours in a debate with my dad on why I was doing this in the first place. Once we got to the site; an isolated, meadowy compound situated near a farm, and a lifetime away from the city I knew, it got worse. My mother, on the other hand had started her protest weeks before, “Why can’t you just do the 3 day one” she asked after she announced that she’d done her own research and discovered celebrities like Ellen were big proponents of mediation, which wasn’t exactly Vipassana but I digress. Nevertheless, I applauded my mother’s research skills as well as Ellen’s enlightenment efforts despite neither of my parents applauding mine.
Although there are hundreds of Vipassana centers around the world, I’d decided to find a location close to where I grew up and ironically a time around my birthday. What better way to do this, I thought, during my birthday no less, and to have the people who created you drop you off and pick you up like some spiritual sleepover camp. “Created you,” a term I use very loosely although that’s exactly what parents do, for better and for worse (and then you end up in places like Vipassana trying to take it all apart and make it the way you really want.) But again, I digress.
2005: How Vipassana Found Me
Although a guest at Quilt event in LA recently re-ignited my interest in Vipassana, I was actually introduced to the practice over a decade before, in 2005, during a shoot for a jazz singer when I lived in NYC as a photographer. At the time I was fresh out of college and well on my spiritual journey, having been accused of witchcraft by middle (Catholic) school amongst other attacks on my curiosity with spirituality over the years. Although I didn’t know the jazz singer well, I could definitely tell she’d been changed by the experience. 10 days in silent meditation hmm? “I could totally do it,” I commented to my boyfriend at the time. Fast forward to 2018 and I’d still only attempted to meditate a handful of times but because I was over 14 years into my practice of juice fasting (for up to 2 weeks at a time,) I figured that this discipline couldn’t be that different…
The Immediate (and Obvious) After Effects
…and I was wrong. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve experimented with all of the (mind) things (well, most) at this point and meditation was in a way the last station, which I soon learned was really the first and arguably the only. When you think of plant-medicine or even some of the pharmaceuticals out there, the main effect, despite what the fine print says is flow. When you smoke that joint or take that pill or travel to Peru to sit with that shaman, you’re essentially seeking that state of flow that meditation naturally provides. It’s a shortcut of sorts and I’m not mad at it, I just wanted something more.
Long story short, in my humble opinion, there is absolutely nothing that comes close to the effects of Vipassana Meditation. Although Ayahuasca is extremely helpful and “smoking the DMT toad” a la Mike Tyson deserves its own article, again nothing, and I mean nothing compares to the “drug” in you.
It’s taken me a year to write this because I’d always been on the fence about sharing it in the first place. I also knew I’d do myself a disservice by allowing people in my head too soon with feedback because I had a hell of a lot to figure out before I could assess the long term effects.
On the other hand, log on to any social media platform right now and you’ll likely find some perfectly posed person pondering on about their meditation experience barely after they’ve finished it – which was likely way less than 10 days. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to bash anyone’s meditative efforts or their obsessions with sharing it,but after 10 days that was the last thing I wanted to do.
I’d actually felt this way on the very first day and then that pivotal moment after 10 days “offline” when you get your phone back confirmed it. You realize a lot of things in that moment, the first being you didn’t miss it as much as you thought, the second is that most of what we do socially is bullshit and last but not least, the biggest question, how exactly are you going to allow yourself back into it all?
The Day to Day (for 10 Days)
Imagine that minute of awkward silence in an elevator with another person and multiply that by exactly 14,400 and you’ve got an example of what Vipassana can be. Or not. It’s up to you, and that’s the thing that is so tricky about sharing an experience of this magnitude.
At the end of the day, we’re all extremely unique and since each person’s experience can vary so wildly, it makes no sense to put ideas into anyone’s head about what is or isn’t going to happen. There is no preparation for this with the exception of cutting out any drugs before hand. I didn’t read some starter guide or spend hours reading or watching about other people’s deep experiences… and I suggest that you don’t either.
With that said, although we’re halfway into the story already, there is actually nothing definite that I can truly tell you about the details of my experience that would definitely help you. Me telling you that I spent a considerable amount of precious meditation time “walking” through all of the houses that I’d lived in (in life) is a waste of your time because now, somewhere in your mind, even subconsciously is an expectation of that experience for yourself… whether you want to or not.
OK, ok, so the only thing I will say is there is a lot of crying. Like a lot, seemingly from everyone around although since there is no eye contact allowed, you can’t really tell but there is always a sniffle somewhere in the room. Always. In fact literally everyday, I cried at various points during the day for various reasons. From forgotten memories of early childhood to the pile of responsibilities that laid for me after this “event,” everything seems to come out – when in reality your mind should be completely empty.
As a first time mediator, an “empty mind” wasn’t really an option for me. Although I was definitely able to reach new mental states, the voices were still very much in my head. In fact I spent almost 24 hours getting Anderson Paak’s song “The City” out of my head (which was the last song that I’d heard). Distractions are indeed everywhere and now that I have been through it, I completely understand why there is no speaking or eye contact allowed. As the days roll by and you go deeper and deeper within, it makes total sense that something as simple as the way someone says hi could set someone off into a mental spiral, good or bad. Believe me, the mind is so tricky that you will nevertheless find ways to associate something, anything, perhaps seeing a fellow student’s shoes that remind you of…and off you go.
And that’s the name of the game, my friends, being able to better master your mind and emotions. Recognizing your triggers positive and negative from a cellular level is a big part of it as well. I know now that my perspiration from anger is different than the perspiration I get from thinking about a new money making idea. That lump in my throat that I always get when I…it was all there waiting for me to acknowledge and manage it.
Speaking of the physical, another aspect is potential pain. Since I decided to go into this experience with very little meditation experience, I actually spent the first 2 days figuring out how to sit, which unfortunately was not the stereotypical full / half lotus position. Just like fitness, every-body is different and throughout the room there were people in full lotus, half lotus, in chairs, stools, cushions and any other position you can think of – as long as it was in your designated space and you didn’t point your feet to the front. I ended up finding that sitting on two stacked meditation cushions worked best for me. Your mileage may vary.
A large part of the Vipassana experience is about developing better mental techniques to manage pain, so expect to see some potential breakthroughs in that department.
Last but not least, getting up at 4am everyday in 40 degree weather, in a time zone 2 hours ahead for someone who sleeps like a teenage boy was at first a challenge but like all things in life, if you want to do something bad enough, you will indeed find the will to do it.
As a plant-based chef I was pretty impressed. The vegetarian lunch was super simple but nevertheless quite tasty, in fact, the mac and cheese rivaled my mothers. Breakfast on the other hand got a little weird. By the 3rd day I found myself eating my feelings of toast, butter and jam, in the exact fashion I would as a child – even eschewing the vegan butter options available. It’s incredible how deep the mind will go to seek comfort…
Enlightenment in 10 days… or your money back?
Vipassana is a lot of things but it’s not some “Enlightenment in 10 days or your money back” kind of deal. First of all, no one is actually obligated to pay anything. In fact, there are tons of stories of wealthy, yet seemingly spiritually bankrupt people who leave the program writing checks bigger than the whole groups contribution because of the profound effect it can have on your life. More than anyone, these students understand that money isn’t everything.
After the course, I decided against my parents picking me up and ended up getting a ride back from a fellow student who’d spent the first hour of broken silence literally cursing the whole program. She’d decided that it had been a complete waste of time and that her experience as an ER Nurse was sufficient enough to understand life, death and enlightenment in comparison to “this Vipassana shit”. Then seemingly out of nowhere, about halfway into the drive she began to vomit, so much that I had to take the wheel. Although I kept it to myself, I knew I was witnessing a major transformation. Sure enough, a few days later, I received a lengthy text from her walking back her angry rant 100%. Apparently Vipassana had indeed changed her life and even made her a better nurse.
Me: One Year Later
As I write this, exactly one year has passed since my first Vipassana. To say that I automatically fell into a flawless mediation practice after a 100 hour spiritual “boot camp” of sorts would surely be a lie. In fact, it almost took me 10 months. Sure, the first week was easy but after I returned home and back to my routine, meditation didn’t naturally become apart of it — because it wasn’t apart of it before I went in.
These days I am 80-90% on a daily practice. Case in point, as I write this I am potentially skipping out on my morning practice because I woke up a bit late and I am taking longer to write this than I thought.
So in the end, the hardest part is not meditating, but creating the space in your life to consistently do it.
With that said, I myself am “too busy” this year to take another 10 day course but I am looking forward to it in the near future. I recently tried a one day course (available to all 10 day graduates) in NYC of all places – and needless to say one day in the city was more of a challenge than 10 days in the middle of nowhere. This time around, it was less of a refresher on the technique of meditation and more or a reminder of the feelings that accompany the experience.
Nevertheless, I can definitely say that I am a better person because of Vipassana. In fact, I believe so much in this practice that I am willing to adjust my work schedule to help watch my brother’s kids so that he can have this experience. I can’t say I’d make this offer to anyone else, but since he’s my brother, I figure he’s got some of the same shit to deal with as I. But, since it took me 12 years to attend from when I first heard about it, the offer may be open for a while. And that’s ok.
We’ve got eternity.
Learn more about Vipassana here.
Check out a timelapse video below of a recent 2 hour long session (and all the things that go through my head which are far from silence).