Meditation, Vipassana, a Silent Retreat

At the center of Buddhism is 'detachment'. Sitting still in meditation teaches us to detach from drama and conflict.

Our subconscious reacts to conflict with either craving or aversion to something we perceive; neither of which gives us lasting happiness, instead both create unhappiness at the end. According to Buddhism, 'Not reacting' is the solution to disrupting old negative karma reaching back to thousands of past lives; and a way of creating new, bright Karma in our present life.

I attended a ten-day Silent meditation retreat searching for comfort and answers to my present situation in life; I attended with no expectations, I wanted closure and renewed peace from losing loved ones in the past two years.

There were aspects of this ten-day experience associated with a monastic life; I received free room and board and had all of my needs met. The center was located in the country side where it was quite and there were no disturbances. I lived in total silence; communication with other meditators was not allowed: verbal, physical, through signs or eye contact; complete silence for the ten days. No electronics, telephones, reading or writing materials were allowed. I committed not to steal, not to lie, not to engage in any sexual activity, not to kill any living things, to respect the personal environment of others, and to be tolerant of others should they disturbed my silent space. No exercise was allowed with the exception of walking. These rules provided total isolation and my mind slowly went almost blank; I was surprised how simple-minded I became, there were no running thoughts.

I lived in communal quarters with twenty other meditators and shared all facilities; food was served three times a day all vegetarian and always light meals that were perfect for the low daily activity. Women and men were strictly separated for the entire ten days; wake up was at 430am and meditation periods went throughout the day with meal times and some rest in between. 

We did not seek quietness for the sake of experiencing a spiritual connection to anything specific. There were no deities or instructions on following any specific mantras of visualization to achieve a meditative state. Vipassana was instead based on breaking the link between events happening in our lives and the process in which we transformed thoughts into sensations, actions and reality in our lives. It addressed our unconscious  mind which always ‘responded’ by labeling sensory stimulus as either pleasant or unpleasant and created perpetual misery always leaving us ‘craving’ for more of any pleasant experience, or leaving us with ‘aversion’ to unpleasant experiences.

The Buddha came to the enlightenment that focusing his attention at the physical response to events, as they came to him through any of his five senses, would break this chain of misery by not proceeding ahead to think, respond verbally or take a physical action. He first observed a change in his breathing pattern and then physical sensations in his body; he watched them come and pass no longer labeling them as pleasant or unpleasant but simply observe them. Not responding brought him inner peace.

He committed to stillness while meditating, did not respond to his body sensations and instead focused on mentally watching the sensations come and pass. He understood that ‘Not reacting’ was the enlightenment thousands of Buddahs had come to realize before him and that thousands of Buddahs would realize after him.

Until that moment his unconscious mind had catalogued every sensory experience as a ‘craving’, or an ‘aversion’. By giving his unconscious mind the option ‘not to react’ he stopped the ongoing misery he always felt; erased past karma or Sankharas associated with the specific sensations; and stopped accumulating unwanted karma he would otherwise inherit in the new life that followed immediately after each death.

The word Sankhara originated from Sanskrit and in this context related to ‘having been formed’ and used as a synonym of karma.

The process for his meditation became a watchful, careful, equanimous observation of his physical sensations as he sat for long periods of meditation, committed to stay still and non-reactive to the physical distress he fell; instead he used all sensations to break down Sankharas. He brought this attitude of contemplation and equanimity to all events in his life bringing instead unconditional love, understanding, forgiveness, empathy, and healing to all situations while remaining detached from conflict; in this manner creating only brightness and positive karma for the future.

I was following the Buddah’s path; the ten-day training was a combination of tolerance and acceptance; for me, tolerance to follow the difficult schedule of practice; and acceptance of the physical distress my body experienced during the long periods of sitting still observing my body sensations and breaking down negative karma of the past.

The process of learning to feel was progressive and slow to assimilate; the first two days were narrowed to the perception of sensations on the upper lip and the nostrils as they reacted to the intake and output of air; sensations of cold, dryness, itching, etc.; identifying them and watching them pass without moving or touching.

On the third day we sat concentrating on scanning the full body for sensations on the skin, identifying them and watching the sensations pass and accepting them as temporary; this led to the concept that everything in nature was temporary and that ‘Change’ was the Universal Law that applied to all things in nature.

Time seemed to slow down for me and I fought to remain calm; to allow myself to relax and to let go of my usual tendency to busy myself with things like work, reading, writing, painting, seeing friends and I felt in prison. I consulted daily with my teacher; I often felt foolish complaining about anger and resentment for being there; for submitting myself to follow directions, something I had never been good at but my commitment to stay ten days became part of my honor code, a commitment I would not break.

I came to realize that my anger and resentment were not just against my confinement there but that I was in fact angry and resentful at everything in life. I day-dreamed lucid and almost psychedelic fantasies and caught myself doing it; I recaptured my mind, returned to the focus of the meditation and fluctuated between both estates as days went by.

I had daily lectures as reminders that ‘change’ was the universal law of nature; ‘matter’ was composed of atoms attracted to each other by magnetic forces and were always changing; everything was changing from moment to moment, and that I and all things in nature were different from one moment to the next. Nothing was static.

I kept asking about emotions and how they related to all of these and was told always to wait. I fell emotions come and pass; and thought about the importance of my emotions; the time I allowed to feel them, to experience them. I came to realize I could possibly do with ‘no reacting’ in life but I could never live without being emotional. How many nights had I allowed myself to mourn listening to music, drinking and allowing myself to wallow on sadness and grief; a sadness party of sorts. I knew I was addicted to emotions.

I thought about these concepts I had contemplated so many times before and fell I was at the right place. The connection to this understanding of our universe always brought me a sense of peace and took away the stress of facing my daily life which I always took to be in fact real, forgetting that everything is spiritual in nature from thought to solid matter. I thought about the concept of totally disengaging from all the aspects of my physical life including relationships that were emotionally so important to me; I thought how I had encouraged my clients to pursue detachment, to let events pass; how difficult this was for me, and I imagined a non-reactive world.

I had to think even farther into my concept of spirit, the essence of who I was and how I related and connected with the universe; an exercise I faced every day of my life. Each day I woke up and came to the reality that my life was not my own but rather that I was following a path already marked for me and every day I gave myself privately to that universe, a universe I knew maintained me alive; I allowed myself to believe that it was in fact responding to me, that it heard me when I prayed and that knew every part of me, that it wanted me to be happy. It was always at that moment that my day had started and only then I had allowed myself to be happy; every day I engaged on all the activities I loved and I called them work: I wrote, painted, created healing, made phone calls, shopped, paid bills; that was my life.

At the end of the ten days I had learned that during each meditation I had had been destroying old karma or Sankharas; that each sensation on any specific location of the body had been attached to specific Sankharas of the past. They encouraged me to work diligently on cleaning as many of these Sankharas as I could while I was at the training, and reminded me that just as the Buddha had experienced I too would see the results soon after by gaining tolerance, patience and equianimity’. All of these while gaining more focus on me and less on others; I knew the outer world did not make me happy or unhappy, that I was the only one responsible to create and experience lasting happiness in my life. I was reminded that ‘The Present’ existed only on each moment and only within my own body and mind, not on the outside world.

I felt a release of so much pain and anger I was left exhausted every night. I did not know how much tension this anger had caused me, how painful my body felt as I let go of the tension and how many memories had been associated with my anger; memories flowed, tears flowed. This went on for days but just as on a vacation by the time the tenth day came I knew it was time for me to go home. I had had enough cleansing and emotional recuperation.

I teach mediation and most of these concepts were familiar to me but the total physical focus of Vipassana meditation provided new information. It narrowed my concept of meditation to my relationship with Darmah or ‘the nature of things’, ‘the right way of living’ and the universal law of change. It brought new awareness, a better focus and purpose when sitting to meditate. I liked the concept that I affected my life each time I sat for meditation ridding myself of old karma and bringing change in me and my life.

I returned home and it seemed that my mind let loose; I found myself talking incessantly about the meditation in general and slowly came to the realization that it was all about erasing negative karma; that taking charge of my unconscious mind was a task I wanted to pursue in order to better perform. In the days that followed, my mindset toward personal relationships changed, feeling more caring. I realized that my personal losses had deeply affected my relationships; that my tendency to protect myself from pain had brought me to become sporadically self-seeking and that I had acted on occasions with disregard of the feelings and emotions of others. I had lost self-confidence and much of my personal strength.

The universe gave me more when I was ready to handle more, a new opportunity to grow; I had needed this Vipassana experience I just did not know it. One month before I was accepted to attend, I had had a dream where I felt I possibly had died; I found myself in this beautiful meadow surrounded by a light blue mist. I was alone and I knew I was living as a hermit; I felt good not sad, I felt I liked who I was and where I was, and I liked the people around me even though I was alone there. I felt connected to women as well although the only women I could see far to my left was a group of traveling semitic women. I also saw my dead father in law who appeared to be in his own bubble of mist far towards the left as well. I saw him and I had the sense he knew I was there. I woke up.

I analyzed the dream to be my present life where I am alone one more time in life but happy in my home and surroundings, happy with my friends, and connected to women in a very nurturing way. I liked the reassurance I received in the dream; but when I arrived at the Vipassana farm my dormitory was facing the meadow of my dream surrounded by a beautiful blue sky.

I knew at that moment I was supposed to be there; the dream had been a premonition. My birthday felt in the middle of the ten day class and that day I stood looking out at that meadow and feeling exactly as I had in the dream; my mind was blank, the women lived to the left of the meadow as well in their sleeping quarters and they were Indian, Arab, and a mix of American and other ethnicity. I understood that this retreat came to me as a gift from my father in law who had been in my dream. I had wondered what he was doing there. He had been looking after me; he was there and connected to me. I thanked him and embraced his presence.

In the days that followed, I came to know that I needed to depend less on others to feel grounded and that it was time for me to take back charge of my own happiness; that I was ready to create bright karma in my life one more time. I thanked my friends for their support, for grounding me those two years of loss and grief. I felt it was time for me to accept that I was moving forward on my own two feet and that I was going to be OK, that Darmah had other plans for me and I had to be present.

Jaime Izquierdo