After my first night in India and meeting up with colleagues, we made our way to the Vipassana meditation retreat center. Still adjusting to the sights and smells, we pulled into the center, which felt a bit like a sanctuary – albeit one with monkeys and peacocks running around. (Which somehow is quite symbolic of how my mind operates.)
I didn’t know what to expect, so there wasn’t much I could do but take it in as it came. One breath at a time – which turns out to be precisely what you need to do when meditating.
The first day took me some effort – sitting was very uncomfortable (I didn’t grow up sitting on a cushion on the floor) and was quite restless. The second day was even harder – my rear end was a bit sore, and the day dragged on and on. Time stood still. It felt like my mind wanted to do anything but focus on my breath. The monkeys too, didn’t seem to want me to meditate, for they kept jumping on the roof of the pagoda and scampering across… and I gladly invited any distraction.
That day felt like a year. Even in my resistance, my thoughts started becoming so clear – so much that I became quite distracted by all the wonderful things I could think about, and in such detail. Turns out, that’s not what you to do when meditating.
You can only push yourself so much. And pushing yourself isn’t the point either.
The point is to observe what comes. By the fourth day it began to get easier… possibly because I started hoarding extra pillows and blankets to make myself more comfortable. If I was going to observe my sensations, then at least I could minimize the most distracting ones. (Not really the point, but it helped.)
I was okay for a couple days, until the 6th day when again, I just felt agitated. You see, as you meditate, stuff comes up, and that’s just part of the process. Old worries and anxiousness about the future started dominating my thoughts.
Meditating certainly takes patience and persistence. Sensations are impermanent – they don’t last, and the whole practice of Vipassana is to observe this impermanence without creating and extending the craving and aversion from which misery arises.
One cool experience – not part of Vipassana – was that I had two astral projections on the 9th day, in the morning when I should have been at the 4:30-6:30 meditation… I had returned to my room and I relaxed in my bed, and found myself floating above my body, in a world that closely mirrored what my room actually looked like. There were some subtle differences, but the extraordinary thing was how ordinary the experience was. It was quite different from lucid dreaming, more real… and a bit like going for walk on a quiet afternoon, except that I was swimming in this astral world. It was vivid and clear – I could maneuver and fly about, and was quite conscious all throughout. I remember it as clear as if it happened yesterday.
Technically I should have been meditating, but that was just cool. I’ve only had one other astral projection that I recall in such detail, but it’s influenced a decade of my thinking and reading.
On the last day, we started speaking again. It was really interesting meeting the people I meditated with – over the first 9 days, I had exchange smiles and glances with people – and I could relate when I saw others struggling… and almost naturally you create stories about the people you see. (Just because you meditate doesn’t mean your mind quiets down and stops thinking – that was probably my biggest realization.)
I remember one man had taught theology in an Indian university for decades, and he was in awe about having experienced what he had taught intellectually for years. I also met my first nomadic travelers… two guys who would return home to the UK and work for a month or two, save up money, and then travel for 6-8 months, moving around as they wished, staying in guest houses, living inexpensively and with a copy of the lonely planet guide for when they got stuck.
Leaving the center, my experience of India was quite different. I watched the cows, the camels pulling carts, the block filled with goats, a few rows of motor bikes, hole-in-the-wall shops, and so many people just sitting around. So many people. I wondered what they would think of me. But in my wondering I kept noticing my thoughts trying to analyze what I saw, and kept noticing my sensations.
Back at the airport, I put my passport, ticket and wallet in my jacket to keep them safe – but then I left my jacket on the plane, and had to wait for them to bring it to me. Ten days of meditating and the results spoke wonders.
Days later I was back in school, and I felt so out of place – everyone rushing around in suits going to summer internship presentations. Half of me was still in India wandering around the Vipassana sanctuary. At the time I wondered if Vipassana and meditation would become part of my life… and I wrote in my journal that only time would tell.
It has been a long journey, but it’s still with me. I certainly didn’t sustain a daily sit after my first course. Or my second, or third. It wasn’t until last summer when I finally established a daily sit. (I realized I needed to start with the habit, you can do most anything for 5 minutes a day, and once the habit is established grow the 5 minutes to 10 minutes, to 15 minutes…)
But the trip to Jaipur, India is where it started. A seed was planted, and that’s how it starts. It’s the effort, patience and persistence that allows the seed to grow.
Also published on Medium.