Picture this: The Spanish Mountains. A tranquil valley, green hills in all directions, and snow-covered mountaintops looming in the background. Like at the start of a story in which the main character is blissfully unaware of the misery they are about to endure.
One of these hills lies a Vipassana meditation centre. It is custom-built by the organization, consists of several buildings, and can host 120 students at the same time. 60 men, 60 women, firmly separated to avoid temptation. It's an environment made for peaceful introspection.
It is the perfect spot to lock yourself up and commit to living like an imprisoned munk, in what for some people is a last desperate attempt to escape their internal demons.
Every other week a new group arrives and this December afternoon I was in one of them. I stepped off the bus, put my luggage down, and took a moment to soak in the sunshine. There was a vibration in the air, a frequency set between anxiety and excitement. We were all here by our own volition, knowing what we signed up for, yet also knowing how little we could be prepared. Regardless of this being our first or fifth time. Maybe it's a human quality before any big challenges, it doesn't matter if you're climbing a mountain or giving birth, something in our brains shields us from grasping the full picture of the pain we're about to endure, even if we've done it before and honestly should know better at this point.
After filling out the standard form, where I solemnly swear I have not done drugs recently or am actively suffering from depression, a slight creative take on the truth, I walked up to the woman managing the check-in. I gave her the form, put my phone in the plastic bag, and handed it over. In return, she gave me a key to a lockbox where I could put my valuables and told me my room number. No key is needed. She was friendly, as they always are, the volunteers.
I smiled at her, my stomach turned into a knot, silently asking why the fuck am I doing this to myself.
This was not my first rodeo. I’ve been kicked around, thrown off, stomped on by retreats just like this one twice before. Once in Italy, once in Switzerland. The first one was comparable to ten years of therapy and pardon the cliché, changed my life. The second was ... underwhelming. I was mostly happy to be unavailable from a toxic client situation and a bit bored. (If anyone is curious: there are easier ways to take time off work than committing to 100 of meditation.)
True to my nature I blamed myself for my lack of spiritual enlightenment. I was comparing my experiences, I was too stuck in my ways, I could not handle the freezing temperature in this Swiss mountain location, and if I only was more zen I would float out of the center in lotus pose, radiating love and light.
This time I vowed to not make the same mistakes. I was in desperate need of feeling balanced again, after two years of intense work and some recent drama in my personal life. This time I would do it perfectly. I was going to meditate so hard Buddha would look like Gen Z in comparison.
Because nothing says peace of mind as brute force determination and equating yourself to the founder of the most peaceful religion.
When entering my room I learned the true benefit of being a third-time student. A space of my own, complete with an ensuite bathroom. The luxury of this felt almost indecent. Did they know I barely meditated since my last retreat? The pandemic happened and from that moment on sitting in silence for more than five minutes felt incomprehensibly difficult. For the first five days I expected someone to come knock on my door, telling me it was a mistake, I was not liberated enough to qualify for this accommodation, I belonged with the beginner monkey minds in eight-bed dorms.
Nobody came. Not one single morning did anyone even knock on the door to make sure I was not oversleeping the 4.30am wakeup bell. That didn’t stop me from fearing it, though. Every morning I diligently got out of bed, put on clothes, sat back on the bed with the blanket wrapped around me, closed my eyes and within five minutes I tipped over to my right and fell back asleep. Not an ideal morning routine, but after three retreats I can confidently say that my brain is unable to meditate before 6am. The best I can do is sit up, slouching, while lucid dreaming about adventures with my latest sci-fi crush Murderbot.
A girl I met in Switzerland told me this was her third retreat that year and therefore she finally qualified to do the longer ones, 20 and 30 days. My response was “Wow, three retreats in six months” and that was all the encouragement she needed. On the tenth day, you are allowed to talk again and the meditators can be divided into two categories: the ones who get overwhelmed with the noise and interaction, and the ones who now have to voice every single thought they had and have not been able to share for nine days. She belonged to the latter, and me, well, you can probably guess.
She had done her first retreat only months prior and found it life-changing, as many of us do. When she came home she quickly panicked — staying calm and centered is easy in an environment as restricted as a Vipassana center, but in the real world, there are other people to interact with and to state the obvious, very few have the temperament of a Buddhist monk. So she signed up for another one. And another one. And here she was, high on her self-proclaimed bliss and wanted nothing to do with the real world. The next morning she told me she was accepted to stay for three months of volunteer work and wouldn't go back home at all.
Dedicating your life to meditating full-time and volunteering to create a sanctuary for others to do the same is admirable. But if you feel so strongly pulled to something that removes you from your previous life, it begs the question; is this you finding your path, or are you running away from something?
Twice per day, I put on my rain jacket and the trail running shoes I had packed with the logic "I don't need real rain boots and these will dry quickly". A deeply flawed assumption for anyone wondering. Walking was the only exercise allowed, and getting outside had been my sanctuary on each retreat, nothing short of a tornado could stop me from attempting to march away from my anxiety. This season sure did its best though. Every single day, the rain was pouring down. And every single day, I stomped my way through the muddy waters, soaked well over my ankles. Sometimes I made sad attempts to jump between small tufts of grass which looked dry, only to sink down even further into a puddle.
On day seven I realized the retreats had become a comfort zone in a bizarre way. It was hard and painful, but it was the devil I knew.
Equanimity is a word you will hear often in the teachings. In every guided meditation, you are reminded to be still, to remain perfectly equanimous. I struggled with this concept from the beginning: How do I know if I am equanimous or if I just checked out emotionally?
2023 was a year of therapy and one thing that became hauntingly clear to me was how oblivious I could be to my own emotions. I used to think that suppressing emotions meant you were aware of them and chose to ignore them. But some people, like me, are not even getting that option. Our minds choose for us, a safety mechanism from an early age, it was better to not even bother us with that information. Like an overly eager assistant, which means well, but fundamentally fucks up our ability to make informed decisions.
My first Vipassana experience served me well, but the second and third seemed to push me further away from myself. I tried my very hardest, and afterward, I kept blaming myself for emotions that came up. Thinking I should just be able to handle it better. Be more equanimous.
A couple of months after my last retreat I did a weekend course in connecting with others. Those two days gave me more insight into myself than the two previous Vipassana retreats combined.
The final day arrived. I had survived the mud, the back pain, the dreadful long hours sitting on the cushion, and even the agonizing scenes that kept playing the moment my mind drifted. I avoided the loud dining hall and sat in one of the chairs overlooking the little forest I knew intimately. The sun peaked out from the clouds, at last.
A woman sat down next to me. It was her first time. I recognized the bliss she felt. She asked what my experience was like. "Absolute hell," I told her. We both laughed. It felt liberating, to speak, to laugh, and to know I would soon leave.
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