Oh where to begin? Last week’s Vipassana meditation retreat was life affirming and life shaking in the most positive way!
Vipassana means “to see clearly” and it is a form of meditation for insight. In fact, it is often called insight meditation. So it is quite interesting that I got conjunctivitis, pink eye, on the first day. I felt like the universe and I could laugh together!
My room, our bedroom, that those of you see when you practice yoga with me, quickly became my refuge and sanctuary. I had no idea just how much so until the end of the retreat when in the moments before logging off, I didn’t want to leave. When I did log off for the last time from the group Zoom, I let myself burst into tears.
It was so emotional at the end because not only had I experienced such a safe container in my home and in this practice, but I also experienced the safe container of the group. Over 50 other participants from around the globe came together, multiple times a day, to sit with each other. We learned together, we sat together, we stood in standing meditation together, and we laughed together.
During large group Q and A’s, some of us shared vulnerably. And in our small group where we were meant to share about our practice and ask any questions to the teachers, we all shared. I’m so grateful to those who I had the privilege of being with for this week.
And the teachers, so grateful. Donald Rothberg and Ronya Banks were phenomenal in their guidance. They were authentic in their presence. Both of them brought their own unique flavor to the teachings of the Buddha as they so masterfully imparted the teachings unto us. I am forever grateful with hands at my heart to each of them. And I hope one day to go sit with Ronya in Asheville, North Carolina, at her insight meditation center.
What I learned:
The teachings they were imparting to us were the four foundations of mindfulness as taught by the Buddha. Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, learned all that he then passed on to all of us by being so present in the day to day living. He paid such nurturing attention to his own thoughts, emotions, body and breath, as well as others, that he awoke to all that is. Hence how he received the name Buddha, “awakened one”, “enlightened one”.
It is through such grounded practicing that his teachings become the same portal and invitation for us to be so rooted in this moment now.
What I gleaned in learnings from the retreat:
- the four foundations of mindfulness
- how loving the Buddha was
- how deeply compassionate this mindfulness practice truly is
- community is so needed
- great teachers are imperative (and you are invited to follow those teachers your most resonant with, and to question all your teachers, as my teachers even invited me to do)
- how necessary it is to occasionally practice noble silence, and always practice mindful communication
- how fun cooking actually can be when you are a person who does not like to cook / practice mindful preparation and mindful eating
- find a good sitting posture for yourself
This practice is truly about being in the here and now and being with what is here and now. What is surprising about this, though it may not be surprising to you, is that it feels very similar to what I’ve been practicing and teaching through yoga for many years, and yet it feels slightly different. Sometimes I can’t bring it to words, it’s a feeling. It’s a different entry point. It’s less transcendental and more Earth bound. And yet, it all gets us to being in union with our divine self.
This practice of being aware and having focus and concentration on just what is here now, becomes our portal to knowing our Buddha nature, which is our Highest Self/Love.
There is a through-way to our Highest Self by being present. Right now. It’s an entry point, it’s a process, it’s a practice. It’s possible.
Sitting formally in awareness
When we formally sit to bring our awareness to a safe anchor, whether that’s a place we connect to with our breath, or a neutral and comfortable place in our body, that anchor is where we start our concentration. This anchor we return to time and time again whenever something distracts us or pulls our focus away from it.
This anchor becomes a grounded place within ourselves that we can return to at any time, anywhere. We can take this practice with us off the mat and off the cushion.
When we are in a “formal sit”, meaning formal seated meditation practice, we find our comfortable physical posture, as comfortable as possible, and then we start our concentration on the anchor. And the practice is to keep our concentration there as best we can. And that’s where love and compassion come in; inevitably a thought or an emotion, a scenario we’re experiencing, or random thoughts are going to just pop into our mind. So, with kindness and grace, we invite ourselves back to the anchor.
We try to keep our concentration there on the anchor for as long as possible. And it is through this practice of just being present with the anchor that opens up the portal for insights. What then happens, as we learn more of the foundations of mindfulness and the teachings of the Buddha, we are gifted with the kindness of permission and allowing ourselves to be with whatever arises. And we are taught by the Buddha to be with what is, especially if it is deeply uncomfortable, only when we are available to truly be with that which is difficult.
This is not to say that we always suppress and turn away from that which is difficult. But rather, we courageously look towards it when we have the wherewithal, when we have the bandwidth, when we are grounded within ourself enough to have the courage to look towards that which causes us discomfort, challenge, and pain.
“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”-Budda
That ‘pain is inevitable’ is so true. Maybe you’ve stubbed a toe before? Maybe you’ve had your partner break up with you? Maybe you didn’t get that job that you interviewed three times for? Our living life in the human condition is going to be painful.
Everything else that follows the pain is optional. It’s how we respond that is within our control. It is how we perceive the pain that is within our control. It is how we experience any given moment that is within our grasp; to experience it with equanimity, balance, and much compassion.
Neurobiology has discovered that an emotions course from the moment we experience the pain for the emotion to complete its course through us, through the body, takes 90 seconds. This might seem like a long time, and yet it is a very short time. What I mean by short time, is that oftentimes, and most times, it’s the stories we ruminate on, it’s the stories we repeatedly say within our mind that keep us suffering beyond the 90 seconds.
I have stubbed my toe! S***! That really hurt! I’m so angry at the chair! Who left the chair out? Who could be so inconsiderate to not push it back in?! 90 seconds goes by, and the toe begins to calm from its throbbing pain. But, a half hour later I’m still angry. Determined to find who left the chair out! Going through the story of what I’d say to that person in my mind’s eye! Showing them my swollen toe that I’m icing! Blaming them. Angry within my own self, and feeling that anger just continually heightened because I continue the stories. This is the suffering I am causing myself.
I have experienced that story above in real life. And luckily my toes are fine. I have all these practices now, adding the four foundations of mindfulness to these practices, that serve me in moments of pain.
Because of these practices I experienced after this retreat a lot of equanimity and acceptance of the impermanence of life. We see the impermanence of all things, including our thoughts and our emotions. And even when we see the impermanence of our own life, we see it with equanimity and do not become overwrought with sadness or fear.
Balance + Care = Equanimity
I felt and experienced that equation above within myself in one of my most profound personal insights from this past week. I am a deep striver. And it causes me much anxiety and exhaustion.
I noticed during the moments in between the modules how, even though silent, I would catch myself doing small, menial things throughout the house. Putting away the dishes, putting away the clothes, sorting out the kids’ toys, rearranging the kitchen countertop, wanting to dust my dresser drawer, and many other little things that I became aware of that I did not need to do at that moment. And so I became curious.
Again, compassion was so wrapped within these four foundations of mindfulness! As a week progressed, we were taught how allowing ourselves to leave the concentration of our anchor and explore that which was persistent in our life and in our mind, could also lead to insights.
As I busied myself around the house, I began to question and investigate. Something that we developed the practice and tool to use in our formal sitting was exploration and investigation.
In this formal sit, I started with the anchor. I stayed there until I was in a place of calmness and clarity. And then I chose to invite curiosity around my busyness into my mind, body, and heart. I stayed curious with equanimity. “Equanimity shows up and doesn’t look away, and equanimity can show up as acts of love,” says my friend Leslie Booker.
I was curious if this was one of the hindrances to the mindfulness practice which is aversion. Aversion did not feel resonant. It felt more of a desire. Wanting and desire are one of the difficult energies that can hinder our mindfulness practice.
The 5 Hindrances/ Difficult Energies are:
- Wanting/ desire
- Not wanting/ aversion
- Sloth and torper
I discovered the insight that I had the desire to make things just so. It was a form of perfectionism and the desire to have things complete. The desire also to have things completed. (Who else here, raise of hands, says to themselves, “I will meditate once the house is clean!” Or, ” I will do this when x is done”, and then you never get to the meditation or you never get to that thing that you actually wanted to do.)
This insight led me to the deeper insight that I fear how other people will perceive me depending on the state of my physical home space. I fear how other people will perceive me if I say or do something that is to their dislike. I want to show and strive to be a good person, doing good things and presenting good things in the world. And though this might not sound bad, my desire is so strong that it becomes exhaustive and riddled with anxiety; striving beyond what I can actually do, and then I am depleted. (Who else will overbook themselves because you want to give your time and energy to your friends and family?! Raise of hands?! That’s good, AND, you must take care of yourself too!)
When I had this insight, I burst into tears. I sobbed for a good couple of minutes during my formal sit. It was so cathartic and releasing. It was so healing and transformative. It felt really purifying and deeply nurturing as I released it.
Then I started breathing again. I slowly could come back to my anchor. And as I came back to my anchor, I also witnessed how I felt in my body, heart, and mind. And I did feel clear. I felt calm. Yes, simultaneously positively expensive. I felt happy. I felt at peace.
I pray that this insight continues with me for a lifetime. I know it will. And I know I will be triggered again. I know it will come up again. But because I have had this insight now, it will be less in the future. This is something that neuroscientists have discovered in now researching mindfulness; that the mindfulness and insights that we gain as we practice do not dwindle. In actuality it grows! Thank goodness! Lol.
This insight has already helped me to not take some things personally that happened after the retreat. This insight has already helped me to be a bit more calm and have a slightly lower level of anxiety in certain high anxiety provoking moments of my day (hello kid pick up and hanging out with other parents!). It has opened more love for myself and others. It has offered me the freedom to not be so concerned about how others perceive me, and has actually supported me in inviting myself to be my authentic self more often already. Again, I am so grateful for all the practice.
Things I was surprised to find:
-The Buddha felt that the mind and emotions were one. This is why in the four foundations of mindfulness that the mind is one of them and this includes our emotions.
– That my seated posture was virasana, hero pose, with a bolster under my hips. I also had a blanket over my lap so my hands could rest more easily upon it and my shoulders could release. My legs didn’t fall asleep!
– I thought I lived a pretty mindful life, but I had no idea. I see opportunity and possibility to live even more mindfully now. And I was surprised to find how mindless most of my day is. And I do feel that a lot of our living, and this is my humble opinion, is lived very mindlessly. Too often we are either thinking about something of the past or trying to anticipate or tell a story about the future. And though there are benefits of returning to the past and envisioning the future, there are many moments throughout the day where it does not serve us.
– I loved to sit! I knew I had been wanting this, but I had no idea how settled I could get.
– Surprised and deeply grateful when I learned that each of the four 2-hour modules every day were not 2 hours straight of sitting! The first half hour was teachings, then a formal 20 to 30 minute sit, followed by walking meditation, and then formal sitting again, concluding with questions and answers. (In between these 8 hours a day, we also were required to do two more formal 20 to 30 minutes sits.)
What was so heart opening:
**What was so heart opening was not only the people and the teachers, but this practice. I’m so deeply moved and changed by it.**
Thank you for reading thus far. Thank you for being with me! If you want to know what we were learning it was the ‘sati patana sutta’.
The four foundations of mindfulness:
- Body, includes the breath.
- Feeling Tones (not emotions); naming if something is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
- Mind, this includes emotions.
- Principles of phenomena; There are five of them. * We were only taught one, called the seven factors of awakening (bojjhanga), in our retreat.
The four foundations of mindfulness in Pali language:
* The seven factors of awakening are mindfulness, investigation, energy or effort, rapture or joy, tranquility or calm, concentration, and equanimity. In our training. We learned about each of these a little bit more in depth.
The fourth foundation of mindfulness, the principles of phenomena, our frameworks that complement the first three foundations.
I hope this gives you insight into what I learned this past week and some things I experienced.
And I’d like to close with the dedication of merit that our teachers always closed each session with:
” May your practice serve you. May your practice serve others. And may your practice serve all.”
All my love,
Breathe and Believe.
P.S. I did a mindful movement yoga practice twice during the week also, that was mind blowing and fun! 😉 I ended up in the splits! Haha.