This post was written by one of our work trades and Queen Street Conversations organizers, Leslie! Leslie spent 10 days this past summer in meditation at the Ontario Vipassana Centre. In this post she shares what she learned from sitting still and breathing.
Experimenting in mind-matter
Did you ever wonder what it might be like to get up at 4 AM and sit directly on your ischial tuberosities (those are your sitting bones 🙂 ) for ten or more hours… for ten days in a row? Me neither – but this past August I did happen to find out, and am here to report back on exactly how that kind of thing feels. It’s tough and it hurts, but wouldn’t you know, it’s worth the struggle.
The precise details of this experiment in living monastically can be found on the website for the Ontario Vipassana Centre – a fully-functioning retreat and service space in the tradition of S.N. Goenka, offering the opportunity to learn about and practice Dhamma and the meditation techniques of Anapana and Vipassana. For me, a school teacher in summer-mode, the schedule was punishing. The noble silence was astounding. And with seven hours of self-directed meditation time and three and a half hours of group sitting, the mental work, boredom and solitude ran the gamut from insufferable to incredible. With a mere six-week course of introductory meditation at Queen Street Yoga under my belt, I pretty much dove into the deep end after one quick toe-dip.
So what exactly happens when a run-of-the-mill yogi (in the modern, Western, I “do” yoga kind of way) gets serious about exploring the reality of their mind-matter conscious experience?
Testing their boundaries, and mine
On one hand, there were conflicts. The course details make it very clear that while Vipassana and yoga asana (postures) are considered compatible practices in regular life, under no circumstances were we to practice asana while at the retreat. “Light stretching” was permitted, but as the participants were to discover, the line between yoga and stretching is less of a line and more of a wisp of smoke that curls and bends and fundamentally disappears. What seemed to me like a beautiful place to ease my tight hips and release my spine, the lushly manicured lawn outside the meditation hall, was deemed off-limits to stretchers after a few days of too-enthusiastically-executed forward bends and thread-the-needles. I was confined to doing illicit chest openers on my dormitory-room floor and long, lazy legs-up-the-walls on my bed between sits.
I was fine to comply with this requirement, but wondered about the rationale. Officially, Goenka says that to mix Vipassana while on retreat with other practices, even yoga, is to mar the purity of the learning, work and trial you are giving to the technique. Fair enough. But I think there is another reason, which, while not stated explicitly, is a lesson we were meant to learn in every aspect of living. Each time I snuck in a twist or pulled a few seated cat-cows, I was grasping at comfort, craving relief from my aches and pains. Sure, we practice yoga to develop a relationship with our bodies, becoming more aware and responsive, but we also do it because damn if it doesn’t feel really good. And by giving in to my cravings to feel good, I was feeding my aversion to feeling bad (or stiff, sore, or tight), and ultimately impeding my mental progress.
Going deeper and getting real
In other ways, there were and continue to be beautiful harmonies resulting from the Vipassana and asana dance I’ve begun. My asana practice has changed, not dramatically, but significantly. The technique trained my observing mind to focus on increasingly subtle sensations in my body. This skill-development has had direct, beneficial implications for the kind of embodied awareness that turns a cue like, “Broaden the back of your ribs with breath and release them toward the floor,” from a senseless euphemism for, “Fail miserably at trying to move a part of your body you can’t even locate,” to an instruction that you can realize through proprioception and action. No joke, before the retreat I was unable to follow a handful of cues because my mind did not know how to find, direct or perceive signals from certain areas of my body.
Awareness of these sensations doesn’t exist in a vacuum. My mental habit of reacting to sensations with craving (“I need to be able to do this – move, ribs!”) and aversion (“I don’t like this yoga teacher, or my stupid body!”) became subject to the equanimity I’d begun to cultivate. On the eighth day of the retreat, I was witness to several hours of searing, penetrating, fiery pain, grinding its way up my back, under my scapula and over my trapezius. In between frantic mental planning to book appointments with a physiotherapist, a chiropractor, a massage-therapist and an acupuncturist, I told myself, (in Goenka’s deep, resonant voice), I am equanimous to this pain, I see it, I accept it, and I know it is impermanent, just like everything else. How enlightened of me, right? Except that I was totally lying. I continued to fake it in the hopes that I would make it, until day ten. That afternoon, some neurological connection that had been incrementally reaching to make contact finally fired, like the sprout from a deeply buried seed breaking the surface of the soil. I saw the pain, back again as it had been for three days, returning every time I sat. I didn’t react with craving for pleasure or even comfort, or aversion to my suffering. I studied the pain like it was an interesting bug, moving about, doing bug things. It was no longer me who was feeling the pain, the pain just existed, and then after a few minutes, it didn’t anymore.
There are so many “negative” things we might encounter during a typical asana practice – pain, fatigue, tightness, imbalance, lack of awareness, and the inability to express the pose as we’d like to. The experience of this ten-day retreat has given me the gift of not just awareness, but equanimity towards those unpleasant experiences. When experiencing my inability to balance in half-moon, my head used to fill with cravings: Why did my teacher leave this pose until so late in class that my legs are already too tired? I just want to be able to let go of my block! Well, if I didn’t go climbing yesterday I would totally be able to do this! Now I can study my inability to balance, taking a careful look at what’s really happening in my body as an object of interest, remaining compassionate towards myself, my teacher, and the other students in the class who might be nailing it or working somewhere along the path.
And when you leave the mat
As much as I appreciate the effects of Vipassana on my yoga practice, it’s really only a demonstrative case of how the retreat has changed my life on a larger scale. Irritating things are less irritating. If I do get riled up, angry, or anxious, my observing mind can see those feelings coming from farther away, and help to resolve such internal events sooner than I was previously able. While I haven’t stopped craving or feeling aversion, I can see them for what they are, rather than identifying with them as my ultimate reality. Now instead of repeating the same old reactions, I more often get to make intentional choices, taking action.
When I tell people about the course, they often say, “Oh, I could never do that!” as if I (and every other person on the course) had some special superpower that allowed me to sit and focus for ungodly lengths of time. Those ten days were some of the hardest-worked days in my life. Goenka constantly reminds you, if you work, you are bound to be successful. But to succeed, you must work seriously, and correctly. Like our asana when we strive to align with care and with the necessary effort, in meditation I learned to attend with care and diligence. Even if our downward-facing dog doesn’t look like it belongs on an instructional poster, we still get the rewards of our efforts in the form of increased strength and flexibility. Similarly, even if we can’t tolerate a one-hour sit without moving or maintain our focused attention for more than a few moments, we still cultivate awareness and equanimity. So yes, it was challenging, but the benefits are there, within reach for any of us who wish to attain them.
Leslie’s day job (which she loves) is working as a substitute teacher for the WRDSB. At Queen Street Yoga, you can find her colouring chalkboards, making digital posters, and hosting Queen Street Conversations. She is currently into wearing #allthepatterns and climbing hard at Grand River Rocks.
Thank you for sharing your reflections on this, Les. I still don’t feel ready for a ten-day retreat (silent or otherwise), but I am nevertheless inspired by your story of changing your relationship to pain.
I am very fortunate to have experienced only minor injuries in my life, up until I distorted something in my sacro-iliac joint in early August. The pain has never been chronic or intense, but I can’t say that occasion, recurring, moderate pain is something I’ve accepted very well over the past few months. Studying the pain like it’s an interesting bug would be great. Noticing the pain just exist would be great. Not reacting to it in any particular way would be great.
The question is, can I cultivate such a mental switch (for lack of a better term) without having to go on a ten-day retreat? The exploration continues…