It must’ve been 10 minutes until 5 p.m., or just minutes from dinnertime, on Day 8 when I experienced a breakthrough. I recalled what Anna Chmielewska of the former Fruitarianna.com had said over the winter when Arnold Kauffman, owner of the Lansdale, Pennsylvania, raw food café Arnold’s Way, called late one weekend morning to check in. She told Arnold: “We just lost our heads. We were meditating.”
“Lost our heads,” I, a veritable rookie in meditation, pondered after sounding out the words in my mind in drawn-out fashion.
“That’s it!” I thought to myself in an instant. I was so excited over this eureka moment, which helped me make meditation a visceral, rather than a cerebral, experience. Yet, the very next moment, I drifted into a black expanse, like an astronaut in space, only there were no stars or planets. I was at one with my breath, which felt effortless and natural and eased me forward, as if I were being pulled by a string. I observed my body’s sensations and any thoughts that bubbled up in my mind but refrained from exhibiting reaction.
I was finally meditating.
Throughout Day 9 of a 10-day Vipassana Meditation retreat in Kanchanaburi, Thailand (actually, the retreat is three hours from this city in a remote location not disclosed to us), I engrossed myself in the meditative state with success during most of the several mediation periods. This triumph made everything I went through over the previous days worthwhile, and I count this entire experience to be among the most challenging of my life, and I certainly will never forget it.
Time will tell whether it’s among the most rewarding, as Jenee “Fruity Gypsy” Hallick calls her experience. The recently deceased Satya Narayan Goenka, who the 89 students (about a dozen men and women, who greatly outnumbered the men, dropped out of the course) enjoyed plenty of guidance from during audio and video lessons, urged us to meditate one hour every morning and one hour every evening—plus spend five minutes before and after sleep in deep reflection. This is a serious commitment and one I’ve already faltered on during my first week out of the retreat. Part of me doesn’t want to spend two hours motionless like this.
Goenka might’ve been a meditation guru, but, with all due respect, he didn’t look as if he could run a mile. We are designed to move, and exercise gives us health benefits as well. I will strike a balance in time that works for me.
Days 4 through 7 were mountains of struggle. The excitement and freshness of the meditation experience had yielded to the reality that observing “noble silence” during the first nine of the 10 days and that being alone with your thoughts—and aspiring to free yourself of any thoughts—for so long is no easy matter. What was even harder was the schedule—morning bell at 4, with quiet time starting at 9 at night and full of 10 hours of meditation a day. What was hardest was the seated cross-legged meditation position, which my body fought relentlessly, stirred my mind endlessly and flat out broke me.
I also struggled mightily with food, bent on keeping wholly raw during this entire experience. I knew my body would react unfavorably to rice, for example, making me feel the effects for as long as four days after consumption. I recalled all those rice- and bean-filled vegan burritos I ate—about three a week for dinner—over 2011 as I transitioned to a low-fat raw food diet. I recalled writing a few friends about how ill I felt in a February 2012 e-mail whose subject line says it all: “The last burrito.”
It was over these thoughts, which I had prior to making the 16-plus-hour trek from Chiang Mai to the retreat, that I knew I had to be 100 percent raw for me to get the most out of this meditation experience. I had considered doing my first water fast but was told this is not advised because of the energy needs the meditation schedule demands.
So I subsisted on an average of 1,200 calories a day. Ordinarily, I eat about 4,000 daily calories, but heavy recent travel and a six-day sickness from a water-borne parasite infection had brought my weight down and my intake to about 3,500 calories a day walking into the retreat November 6. On an average day, I ate a couple of plates of papaya, pineapple or watermelon chunks and lady finger bananas. I ate 10 to 18 of these and a few more in dried form that I snuck into the retreat. I hoarded bananas in a sack containing our bowls, plates, cup and utensils to be sure I had enough calories to get me through the day—and to help ripen these often green-flecked nanners. Some days, I enjoyed lavishly cut cucumber wedges for an added mineral boost.
Staff informed me over the summer that fruit would be served but that the retreat center could not meet my fruit needs. I was advised to talk to volunteers about my diet, and they came through, bringing out more calorie-dense bananas during most mealtimes. Still, there was barely enough fruit, and during a few afternoon meditation sessions, I retreated to my 5-by-7-foot bamboo shack for slumber after almost toppling over in exhaustion.
All told, I made about 85 percent of these sessions, which ran from 4:30 to 6:30 a.m., 8 to 11 a.m., 1 to 5 p.m. and 6 to 7 p.m., followed by an 80-minute video and 15-minute session to cap each evening. When the bell rang for five-minute breaks, the sound brought an overwhelming calming relief to me many times—until the final days. I endured constant physical pain for 10 years until I found the Egoscue Method, whose program of E-cises, or stretches and light exercises, is designed to bring the body into alignment so one can be Pain Free—the title of Pete Egoscue’s landmark book. While in the cross-legged position, my body sounded alarms in either my hips, knees or ankles, comprising six of our body’s eight load-bearing joints, depending on how I shifted my weight. When I built a “pillow fort” on which to rest my knees to ease unbearable lower-body pain, pain shot forth in my neck and the middle of my back.
I opened my eyes from time to time, especially when distracted from the construction of a building wing next door. Others fidgeted as well. By the end of the retreat, there were “pillow forts” and extra foam blocks at many spots, especially among the non-Thais.
Beginning the afternoon of Day 4, we were called on to remain fully motionless for three periods each day lasting an hour. My body wouldn’t stand for this. Vertigo, which saddled me from fall 2009 until my early days of doing Egoscue Method E-cises in spring 2010, returned, and this produced dizziness when I was seated and when I walked as well as gave me tremendous dis-ease in my stomach. I tried hero pose, sitting upright with my thighs covering my calves, but this vertigo I experienced worsened.
I observed how the monks, several of whom lined a row closest to a wall of windows in the beautiful meditation hall, replete with dark hardwood floors, walked. Their feet splayed wildly outward, and our feet are designed to walk straight ahead. I could feel my posture, a continued work in progress I have spent 30 to 60 minutes improving just about every day over the past three-and-a-half years, coming undone, and my feet were beginning to turn outward, caused by stress in my lower body.
We were told not to exercise, but I snuck in several E-cises in my room and outside in an attempt to rebalance my body. Even so, a few minutes of exercise wasn’t enough to reverse 10 hours of being seated cross-legged. I was in constant, worsening pain. I was also getting nowhere with meditation, unable to quiet my mind and treating the directions in the earliest days to observe my breath and bodily sensations too cerebrally, too clinically, too mechanically.
I did what I had to do so as not to squander this rare opportunity to break from the pressures and reality of life for a complete 10 days. I asked for a chair. They put me in the back of the room beginning Day 7, and I finally began to find a measure of peace in my body.
At long length, I would find peace in my mind beginning late Day 8. Vipassana retreats were once as long as seven weeks, but their timetable shrank to as few as seven days in busier times. It was discovered students couldn’t settle their minds in fewer than 10 days. When I talked to fellow male students (male and female students were separated during the retreat and had no interaction, save for mingling at the bookstore the final day) on a relaxed Day 10, a few told me they found their breakthroughs on Day 8 as well. Some told me they don’t think they ever achieved a breakthrough. On this Day 10, the male students chatted with one another as if they’ve been longtime friends. We had been through something together, and we wanted to learn about one anothers’ experiences and share ours. Photos were taken, and e-mail addresses were exchanged. I felt calm and refreshed—and relieved the 10 days were up as well—and many told me they felt the same.
The Vipassana Meditation technique builds slowly and simply. So as not to spoil prospective students’ experiences, I will refrain from explaining much about the technique, but suffice it to say, in the early going, it’s about striving to achieve a calm, quiet mind, connecting with your breath and observing your body’s sensations.
After what’s been a challenging, tumultuous year for me personally—full of sky highs and crater lows—my mind threw lots at me in the form of replayed events and even fantasy dialogues I’d imagine myself engaging in. More than anything, I wanted a happy ending to a story in my life that quickly sparked its way to a warm, cozy fire of incredible promise a year ago but burned out on one end. This retreat gave me sorely needed time and space to observe what’s unfolded in my life and to begin to find closure.
In the early going, to try to quiet my mind, I pictured myself batting with my hands white balloons that contained thoughts written on them into a clear black nighttime sky. A few days in, I grew tired of this practice and wanted to see thoughts—the entirety of them in all their colorful details—as they floated in front of me. I wanted to understand why these particular thoughts came to me. Sometimes I was successful in showing no reaction, as per Goenke’s directions, but other times I expressed emotion—happiness, sadness, love, confusion, regret and even anger. Most of all, I wanted a clean slate for me to find peace, which has often been missing in my life during 2012 and 2013, by far the busiest years of my life.
I was also guided back to home, Greater Philadelphia, during my meditation. I planned to come to Thailand for reasons that never materialized but rejiggered my journey to discover whether it’s ideal for me for a longer stay, possibly leading to dual-residency with my U.S. citizenship. I searched my heart and found home—family, friends and the Arnold’s Way community—calling me back. This feeling stuck with deep comfort in the days afterward, and after a week, I bought a plane ticket back for early December.
Meditation, healing and finding where you should be and what you should be doing at a particular time, I’m learning, is an adventure and lifelong journey. I’m happy to have made strides during my retreat, whose program at Kanchanaburi during this stay operated like a fine, well-oiled piece of machinery. Which is to say flawlessly.
“Patience and persistence,” Goenke’s voice replayed in a slow, drawn-out fashion over the loudspeakers in the meditation hall every day.
“Patience and persistence … .”
Check out my sidebar story, “A Look at the Meditation Position with Egoscue Method Eyes.”
Story 1: This Is My Meditation
Story 3: Practicing Awareness with Words