During the ten days of my Vipassana retreat, nine of which were spent in Noble Silence, the words Ambling Full Tilt did not occur to me until sometime during the last full day, when we had ended our silence and were sharing our stories among cabin mates and other attendees. It was strange and also kind of a relief to be able to hit the “pause” button on this adventure and take an equally arduous, yet rewarding and life affirming journey of my own.
Naturally, I missed my partner. But the rigorous nature of the retreat, and the mere fact of not being able to communicate in any way with anyone other than brief whispers to teachers, managers, or servers when necessary, required me to become my own partner in a way I never had before.
I was happy to discover than I very much enjoy my own company. I’m kind of hilarious in my own head. But coming up with witty titles for fake books on how much flatulence a spartan vegetarian diet creates in the average omnivore, and how one should stealthily deal with it so as not to disturb fellow meditators, only carried me so far in maintaining my ability to smile during such a visceral examination of my psyche.
And smile I did, beatifically and uncontrollably as I strolled about the women’s side of the camp. A respite of joyousness and lightening, in all senses, in between sessions of wrestling with profound physical and emotional discomfort, and the “monkey mind” (a term I have since learned from a dear friend) I have been plagued with since birth. During these strolls, I marveled at the fact that I used to protest that I wasn’t going to walk around smiling “like some kind of idiot” whenever my natural facial expressions (colloquially known as Resting Bitch Face) caused some obnoxious coworker or random stranger to exhort me to “SMILE”. Smiling, naturally and from deep within, felt surprisingly liberating. Though that’s not to say that there weren’t times I felt very much imprisoned.
At least once during the first afternoon and intermittently for three full days thereafter, I wanted to bail. Allowing the mind to begin examining deep-seated hurts while trying to maintain an impassive awareness of them is difficult enough. Add to this difficulty a near constant agitation created by the aforementioned roiling intestinal distress, the magnitude of NOISE inevitably created by 300 humans and their various discomforts occupying a “quiet” meditation hall, and the unbelievable incivility that arises in people when they are only given so long to get their meals and aren’t allowed to give someone the courtesy of saying, “Excuse me”, and it’s easy to see why some people never make it past the second day. But sometime during Day 4, even before we learned actual Vipassana (body awareness) technique and the Anapana (breath awareness) was starting to get tedious, it clicked for me that all of these distractions were actually a boon to my mastery of the practice. After all, I was there to learn to be unfazed by the things that were plaguing me in the outside world by first learning not to react to, but simply to observe, whatever external sensations (manifestations of my internal cross-examination) arose from plumbing the depths of my own mind.
Once I figured out that self-sabotage was once again attempting to take the reins by dominating my mind, I began to push through the discomforts and win the internal struggles more frequently. I started replacing the ugly words that popped in my mind with the names of flowers when dealing, silently, mind you, with less-than-ideal situations and less-than-courteous people. Bitches became begonias. Hate became hyacinth. My mind began inventing perfectly logical stories behind people behaving badly. I contemplated valid reasons why I might do the same things. This tactic proved especially useful in calming me down or, better still, subduing any kind of reaction in situations that might otherwise aggravate me. I saw that there was no sense whatsoever in angrily questioning the things people often do obliviously.
This isn’t to say that the remaining six days of my retreat experience were all placidity and platitudes. Vipassana is a technique that takes a lifetime, or many, to master. Every single day I was in the sanctity of that environment, something shook me out of my reverie long enough to let me know that this new found self awareness and stewardship will be a full time job for the entirety of my existence. But I was making a career out of misdirected hypervigilance anyway. Now my attention is a tool, not a torture device.