Monday, December 1, 2014

Jesup, Georgia: An Experiential Trial of Vipassana Meditation

Note: This is the first blog post I have posted where I skipped many days in-between because I wanted to account for a lot of memories in my mind during the 10 day meditation retreat before time stole those memories away. Usually I have many pictures to remind me of significant events but in this situation I could only take pictures on pre-Day 1, and Day 9 and 10 after the Vows of Silence were lifted. - This note will disappear after I get caught up with the in-between blog posts.



I had first watched the Dhamma Brothers on Netflix. Possibly a year or two ago. 


And I made a mental note to find out more about the type of meditation they used and look into trying it out sometime in the future. I was practicing various meditation techniques at the time to quiet my chattering mind.

A year or two later when I went on my road adventure across the US, I stopped in to visit my friend Stephanie Goodell's home in Framingham, Massachusetts. When we started talking about finding myself on the Camino she related by telling me about one of the hardest things she's ever done which was Vipassana Meditation. A challenge - especially a hard one - always intrigues me and I immediately looked it and decided to sign up for a course. 

Unfortunately at the time, I thought the best time I could do it was in California. This is when I had a large block of time that could be rearranged, but all the courses in California were taken up. I ended up reserving a place in Jesup, Georgia and then moved it again to a different date.

So after leaving Joe, I drove down from Nashville, Georgia. Through the cotton fields.


And regular terrain.


And beautiful scenery.


Till I got to Jesup and saw my first Vipassana sign.


Made a right turn to the dirt road.


And made another right turn to enter the Southeast Vipassana Center also called Dhamma Patapa.


And entered the woods. Officially in the boonies although according to my phone I still had 1-2 bars of service.


There we go... the official official sign.


More driving paths.



All parked.


And ready for the registration area.


All my clothes for 10 days of meditation.


The course has boundaries.


Leave your shoes at the door - typical. :-)


Ah registration. Goodbye phone, car keys and hello complete isolation and lack of communication for 10 days - which means no pictures for you readers :-(


What transpired next was the most intense mental agony and liberation with some physical pain using a prison-like regiment I have ever encountered. I embraced the challenge to complete the next 10 days and not give up no matter what. And no matter how much effort or little effort I exerted in meditating.

I cannot recall a day by day detailed analysis of the entire experience but this is what I originally committed to, endured, and fell short on, accomplished and completed with regrets and reflections.

But first the almost

Daily Schedule from Day 1-9:
4 AM: Morning wake-up bell
04:30 AM - 06:30 AM: Meditate in the hall or in your room
06:30 AM - 08:00 AM: Breakfast break
08:00 AM - 09:00 AM: Group meditation in the hall
09:00 AM - 11:00 AM: Meditate in the hall or in your room
11:00 AM - 12:00 PM: Lunch break
12:00 PM - 01:00 PM: Rest, and interview with the teacher
01:00 PM - 02:30 PM: Meditate in the hall or in your room
02:30 PM - 03:30 PM: Group meditation in the hall
03:30 PM - 05:00 PM: Meditate in the hall or in your room
05:00 PM - 06:00 PM: Tea break
06:00 PM - 07:00 PM: Group meditation in the hall
07:00 PM - 08:15 PM: Teacher's discourse in the hall
08:15 PM - 09:00 PM: Group meditation in the hall
09:00 PM - 09:30 PM: Question time in the hall
09:30 PM: Retire to your room; lights out.

Pre-Day 1 and Day 10 schedules were different since they did not encompass a full day.

Committed to:
  1. Abstinence from killing any being (easy)
  2. Abstinence from stealing (easy)
  3. Abstinence from all sexual activity (frustrating but easy)
  4. Abstinence from telling lies (relatively easy)
  5. Abstinence from all intoxicants. (easy)
  6. Abstinence of all forms of communication with students during the entire course (difficult) a.k.a. the Vow of Noble Silence
  7. Abstinence of Eye and Physical Contact (difficult)
  8. Using all forms of techniques, rites and forms of worship (not easy and not difficult)
  9. Vegetarian food (easy)
Fell short on:
4, 6, 7, and 8.

#4 and 6. I accidentally and unintentionally broke my vow of Noble Silence by Day 3 when I said 'Sorry' for something and 'Excuse me' when I sneezed. But I really broke my vow of silence intentionally on Day 7 when I blurted something out to a group of people because inside I was dying to tell something funny that happened to me and could not contain it any longer. After I broke this vow I continued to occasionally say a word or two with some of my roommates although they rarely replied back since they were observing their vows of silence. I was also chatting with another few people occasionally who I knew were up to chatting because they got tired of the vow. I would come to regret this later. I'm sure at some point during my chats I exaggerated the truth a little which ties into #4.

#7. I made eye contact after Day 7 because I couldn't take the lack of socialization anymore. And with my 'Noble Chatting Buddies' I made physical contact. I would regret this more later.

#8 I used some past meditation techniques accidentally and then some intentionally while working on my meditation. But generally this was very very very limited.

While I wanted to get up for every meditation session, I decided early on after the first days 4:30 AM session that to avoid burn out I would not meditate during the 'Meditate in the hall or in your room' sessions (6.5 hrs) between 4:30 AM-6:30 AM, 9:00 AM - 11:00 AM, 1:30 PM - 2:30 PM, and 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM. I would definitely attend all the required Group Meditation sessions which was about 4 hours daily. I actually don't regret this decision. I used that time to catch up on sleep or relax between meditative sessions since meditating for an hour continuously almost made me feel brain dead.

I didn't sleep very well in the rooms. I lived in a trailor with 7 other men.


Two small rooms for 2 people each and the other four in one room. I was in the four room section in the middle. My bunk is the lower one.



I am a light sleeper. Some of my roommates would get up for the 4:30 AM sessions and walking around to go to the bathroom, turning the smaller room light on, doors opening and closing, footsteps, tossing and turning on creaking beds, snoring, talking in your sleep (all of which I am guilty of too) made it difficult to get a good night's rest. So catching naps during some of the meditative sessions in your room options was essential. Otherwise I would have fallen asleep during a meditative session - and one time I almost did.

Enduring pain: 

The meditation hall was a wonderful facility. Pretty during the day.


Men and women segregated by the middle line with two Assistant Teachers in the front: one for males and one for females. 

Unfortunately, I was on the right end of the male section. On the left side of me were all men. On the right side of me all women. And immediately to my right was a very attractive lady with a more attractive personality. I know, I know ... HOW UNFORTUNATE!


Back to the meditation hall... it was even prettier at night.


I really enjoyed meditating at the hall when I felt close to or at a 100% well rested.

The physical pain of meditating with legs cross folded (Buddha style) and the accompanied pain of your back was tough. You were allowed to SIT comfortably in whatever position you wanted and I wanted to sit in Buddha style. My back hurt tremendously after every 1 hour meditation session - so that took away my ability to sit for longer periods even if I mentally could. It was painful, until I mastered how to deal with pain - something you learn on the course through the practice of mind training and at the same time adjusting my alignment of my back until it felt right. Eventually I found the sweet spot and form and could sit nearly perfectly still for more than an hour. Pain creeped in always around the 45 min mark and at most times I managed to deal with it.

Regrets:

Towards Days 8-10 I caved in and readjusted a lot instead of staying fixed because I didn't care about keeping form since I knew I could easily revert back. Also since I broke my vow of silence I noticed that my distracting thoughts during meditation on days 8-10 significantly increased and so did agitation in my form. This is one of my biggest regrets for the course: Giving up on my Vow of Silence. If you are reading this and considering doing your first 10-day Vipassana Meditation don't break your silence vows - no matter what.

On the 9th day:
We were dismissed from the Silence Vows on the 9th day except in the Meditation Hall where silence had to be always observed.  We also got to desegregate near the pond and registration center, so many - if not all of us took the opportunity to meet and mingle with members of the opposite sex. After all we were separated from each other for 10 days and had taken some challenging vows.


It was quite entertaining to experience and see. Everyone was engaged and talking to each other.

This was also the day I was able to get my phone back to make any necessary calls and take pictures. So all my pictures were taken on either pre-Day 1 and Day 9 and post.

At lunch time it was good to mingle and talk to the guys a.k.a. Noble Chattering at the dining hall.




Some of my favorite people.


The other dining hall.


And one of our favorite viewing windows. :-) I felt like I was in high school in Dubai.


One of our favorite activities was to walk after lunch on the Men's Walking Trail when the weather co-operated. A very small trail but it was great to kill time and get some relative exercise in since all other forms of exercise were disallowed.






Occasionally there was a bench to spend sometime meditating.


And then there were more course boundaries.


And then segregation course boundaries.



Some of the other dorms in the area besides my trailer were nicer in some ways but I think we lucked out better with our room.



Their rooms were really really small.


While making necessary texts for confirming a place to stay on the next day I discovered that my couch surfing family near Savannah, Georgia actually recently hosted a couch surfer who was volunteering for the Vipassana retreat that I was doing. And after paring the name with the description I finally met Dave who stayed with my future couchsurfing family. SMALL WORLD.


I believe he is biking across the Atlantic coast and is also a blogger, documenting his travels. Read about his blog here: http://exuberantdave.blogspot.com.

I took some pictures with rommates in one of the adjacent smaller rooms that I frequently saw going in and out. The other adjacent smaller room had a separate entrance - so we rarely saw those roommates except if they were using shower.


On the 10th day: 
Everyone got up early at 4:30 AM and headed to the Meditation Hall for the final discourse and dismissal.


And then it was time to gather for breakfast.


One last small group picture of us at breakfast before we depart.


Time for me to head back to the dorms and get my stuff.


People leaving.


And packing up things into their cars.


And after a few goodbyes around, getting keys from the registration area, I was jetting out of there.

Reflections:
The Vipassana Meditation is a no-joke course. You do get a serious benefit out of it. The courses are held all over the country and fill out quite quickly. It does require a 10 day commitment and people do quit because meditating for 10 days for long hours is NOT EASY.

I thought I knew a lot about meditation previously and had practiced some. This course for me aligned and centered a lot of my spiritual but not religious views. I know many people in the course who are practicing Catholics, other Christian denominations, Hindus, and they didn't find conflict with their continuing their existing belief systems after the 10 day retreat. Meditation and specifically Vipassana Meditation has nothing to do with religion. It is independent of it. It is purely learning about the mind (both conscious and unconscious) and the body and the interaction between the two through your own experience. Hence my blog title: An Experiential Trial of Vipassana Meditation. The reason I wrote this paragraph is because that there is a lot of mis-information that meditation is a religion. IT IS NOT.

And the course is absolutely free due to the good will donations from people who have completed the course prior to my visit. They do not ask you to pay them anything upfront for the course. They do suggestion making a donation only after if and only if you have completed the 10 day program so that they can continue providing a free service for others who seriously want to take the course. And you make a donation that you can afford. I know one of the students who gave a blender as his donation and it was accepted with no complaints. Please note: this suggestion of donation is NOT a guilt lure. It is completely done in a genuine manner with no guilt or entrapment feelings.

The meals were all vegetarian. No meat was used. Some of the meals were delicious and some were good (not great). After a while the daily breakfast routine got old but fortunately they mixed up the lunch menu. There was no dinner except for the first day. Just tea and fruit.

One of the things I loved is creating nicknames for people since you mostly forgot people's names so you'd create nicknames for them based on their personalities. There was
Grumpy: guy who had a grumpy look on his face since Day 1
ThroneGuy: guy who stacked three cushions on top of his meditating mat ... thereby reaching higher elevation
RulesGuy: one of the male managers who was always enforcing the rules... he didn't catch me in the act of breaking it though .... whew
SlowWalker: guy who walked really really really slow with every step deliberate and intentional
MovieStar: guy who looked like a movie star
StomachGrumbler: self explanatory and it happened a lot during meditation
TossAndTurner: one of my roommates who tossed and turned all night
WeirdGuy: and one of the guys that I couldn't get a read on

I almost choked up at the last session at 4:30 AM on Day 10. On Day 9, I was tired and ready to get the hell out. I was sick and tired of sleeping on the beds, not getting enough rest, not eating a full three meals, and having to follow a strict regiment. On Day 9, we had all-student meeting and the checkout person leading the process told us that tomorrow we are not going to want to leave. I doubted his words but he was right. As the session was ending I had to hold back tears and use whatever tissue paper I had in my possession so as to not make it obvious. I didn't want to leave. This place and meditative schedule while difficult and frustrating at times truly made me grow and I felt very connected to it.

It was MENTALLY harder than my Camino: 550 mile walk in Spain in 31 days. But just like Spain it has given me a glimpse of who I really am and what I am truly capable of becoming when my mind and body are aligned and working cohesively.

I AM EXCITED ABOUT MY FUTURE.

Expenses (for 12 days: 11/19/2014-11/30/2014): 
None. I did make a cash donation but that is between me and them.

7 comments:

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  3. Thank you for sharing your experience. I applied for a 10 day silent retreat in September.
    Blessings.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you Karl. Your feedback is appreciated.

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    2. Thanks for the interesting details

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  5. Thanks for the interesting details. Good luck in your future endeavors

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