For about 3 years I had known of this 10 day meditation retreat called Vipassana. I heard it was 10 days of silence and meditation–no speaking, no physical contact, no eye contact, no phones, no computers, no yoga, no music, no writing, no reading, no chocolate. Simply you, alone inside your own mind. Immediately the idea terrified me which was of course a sign that I needed to do it.
In 2012 I was traveling through India with a friend and she was keen to give it a whirl. She signed up for a retreat in Sri Lanka but I chickened out because I didn’t feel ready–I was more inspired by deepening my yoga practice at the time. So I stayed in my safe haven of the Sivananda ashram in Kerala, India and practiced a mere 20 minutes of meditation in the mornings and evenings, sang Kirtan, worked on my pranayama and asana practices, drank chai, and ate vegetables with my hands. Don’t knock it til you try it.
In 2013 I moved to Berlin to design the global Headquarters for SoundCloud. That year was particularly hard for me as I dealt with a breakup, my first Berlin winter, German bureaucracy, and a lot of sausage eaters, plus I couldn’t find a yoga teacher or community that I felt connected to. There was too much masculine energy all around me and I needed more femininity in my life. I knew I had another year before the project would finish, and one particularly difficult evening I got the message that I needed to build my own spiritual community. So I opened a small yoga studio and began to teach my yoga practice to others. This changed everything.
For about a year my little yoga studio kept me grounded and fulfilled while I navigated this huge design project, sausage egos and all. Toward the end though, it became clear that my yoga wasn’t enough. Even though the project was hugely successful, I lost my cool and let my own ego win in the final phase, hurting a few colleagues and friends that I loved dearly in the process. This was a realization that I needed to go deeper in my spiritual practice. It was a wake up call. I needed another tool.
So I began planning a kind of pilgrimage outside of Germany. Away from SoundCloud, away from tech. Similarly, when I left Airbnb in 2011 I moved to Australia to take space and unpack everything I had learned. Part of my new pilgrimage would involve learning Spanish, meeting Ayahuasca, and my first Vipassana retreat.
On January 2, 2015 I arrived at the meditation center alongside 59 others, about an hour outside Buenos Aires in the middle of the countryside. I’m the only female who is not a native Spanish speaker, which of course doesn’t matter at all. The only sounds around were cows, crickets, birds, and the occasional donkey. I swear the cows mooed louder and more frequently than normal because they knew we weren’t allowed to talk. Men and women were totally segregated–we used different entrance and exit doors, ate separately, and always sat on opposite sides of the dining hall and meditation hall. The first night we were given some general instruction, showed to our austere dormitories, and told to have a good course. The days would be subject to the following schedule:
- Morning Bell @ 4am
- 4:30-6:30: Meditation in the hall or in your dorm
- 6:30-8am: Breakfast/ Relax
- 8am-9am: 1 hour meditation in the hall
- 9am-11am: Meditation in the hall or in your dorm
- 11am-1pm: Lunch/ Relax
- 1pm-2pm: 1 hour meditation in the hall
- 3pm-5pm: Meditation in the hall or in your dorm
- 5pm-6pm: Fruit/ Relax
- 6pm-7pm: 1 hour meditation in the hall
- 7pm-8:15pm: Lecture from the Teacher
- 8:15pm-9pm: Meditation in the hall
- 9pm-10pm: Questions for the teacher
- 10pm: Lights out
Gulp. Here goes.
The first day I slept a lot. My mind knew something intense was about to happen and my body just wanted sleep. This is a good time to say that when I was supposed to be “meditating in my dorm” I was lying down most of the time. Naughty.
On the second day the mind-washing started and I started having dozens of visions and dreams of situations where I either needed to forgive other people, or to apologize. Some of these situations were from years and years ago involving people I hadn’t thought about in ages. And they were very specific–down to the very sentence of something that was said. I couldn’t believe the accuracy of the memories that were coming back.
During both the 2nd and 3rd day I started having some mild headaches–which was strange for me because I never get headaches. I drank a ton of water but they were still there. I later learned this is a very common experience for people who are cleaning their mind. And that’s exactly what Vipassana is–It is a deep surgical cleansing of the mind.
I also experienced something kind of awkward given the circumstances; A lot of sexual energy was arising in me. Dreams, visions, physical sensations–it was as if I had been repressing this energy for a long time and it was finally able to come up now that my mind was becoming very still. Interesting.
Something else that happened in the early days and continued throughout the retreat is that I started having really creative visions about my work and what I should do in the future. This had happened to me years earlier while I was in India for the first time–I had a very clear vision, almost like a calling, of what I wanted to do next to serve the world. And though I wasn’t supposed to be thinking about anything while meditating, it was as if these creative visions came from somewhere beyond me. Like I was channeling something that didn’t originate in my own brain. The creative shakti was flowing. Groovy.
On the 4th day we learned the full technique of Vipassana. We learned to simply sit in stillness and scan the entire body over and over again observing sensation. Any kind of sensation– heat, chill, goosebumps, tingling, itching, pain, pleasure–anything. And we were told to observe these sensations with complete equanimity. Remaining equanimous is a pillar of the practice. Not labeling things as good or bad, pleasant or painful. But simply to sit with ourselves without reacting, observing sensation and knowing that everything would eventually pass. On this day I started to understand. The better we get at remaining equanimous, the smoother we will be able to flow through life. And this takes practice. Hours, days, weeks, years of practice. I was getting it.
Day #5 came with it a lesson that solidified my understanding. As I walked to the morning meditation, I saw dark clouds and lightning way off in the distance. It was far away so I didn’t think much of it. A short while later we were sitting silently in the meditation hall when the storm began to approach. Soon it started getting seriously crazy. Insane lightning, cracking thunder, violent winds, pouring rain. Suddenly we lost power–the lights went off, the fans stopped. I started seeing scenes from the movie “Twister” in my head where a giant tornado would come and lift the roof from over us. I opened my eyes feeling panicked and looked up at our teacher waiting for him to signal us to go into an underground bomb shelter or something. But he just sat there. He didn’t even flinch. And perfectly, exactly as the storm passed, the closing chant began and the meditation was over. I had to try hard not to laugh and the obviousness of the lesson.
There will always be storms. There will always be times where things go horribly wrong. This is life and we are humans. We need to develop as many tools as we can to not react and freak out when the storms come. That is Vipassana. And storms always pass. No storm lasts forever. So the better we get and keeping our cool amidst the chaos, the more our lives will flow.
Once we were halfway through I was on a roll. I found my routine, sitting was becoming easier, and the time would pass more quickly. Some sittings were harder than others but generally I was able to surrender and just be present. I had moments deep in meditation where my entire body would completely dissolve, and I experienced very vicerally the truth that yoga had taught me for years; That we are all one. There is no “I” or “me,” only different manifestations of the same energy. Another tool leading to the same truth. Between meditations I spent a lot of time looking at the ground, the plants, watching how insects crawled and how birds flew, seeing that same energy manifest in other forms. I felt each sunrise and sunset.
Not speaking was surprisingly easy–And not hearing anyone else speak was awesome. I realized on a deeper level how much noise pollution we are subject to every day, and how much energy we waste talking about and listening to nonsense. But it was really hard for me not to sing. Every now and then I’d get a song stuck in my head and would be dying to sing it. And of course I wanted to know who these women were that I was sitting and sleeping next to day in and day out. Not being able to make eye contact, to smile, to connect with them was a challenge for me. We would sometimes exchange a brief glance, but this was rare because generally we were each there to be with ourselves and everyone was on board with that. But amazingly, I was still able to feel love and connection to everyone even though there was no exchange.
My saving grace each night was the one hour video lecture from Goenka. He was funny, quirky, and incredibly universal. He cracked jokes about what we were going through and made light of the difficulties that arise in trying to sit still for 10 days. He told dozens of stories about his own life, his journey from businessman to Vipassana teacher, and my favorite, which were the stories about Buddha himself. Stories of compassion, tolerance, and healing. I had always felt a connection to Buddha, but after these stories, even more so.
Then day #8 came around, which was somehow the most difficult day of the whole retreat. I was really uninspired by the lecture on the 7th night. I was getting antsy in the sittings and then became frustrated with myself because I “should be making progress” and this “should be easy by now.” I was attaching to my own expectation. I was craving some idea of what progress looked like in my head. And sure enough, in that evening’s lecture, as if he knew exactly what I was going through, Goenka addressed it.
He laid it out that our minds cling to certain patterns that we’ve held onto for our entire lives. [And our past lives]. These patterns are called ‘samsaras,’ which can also be thought of as karmas. If those words are too heady, you can even think of them as patterns we’ve picked up from our parents, which they picked up from their parents, etc. These samsaras tend to own us in a way, keeping us in a never-ending cycle of craving and aversion. Craving things we like, avoiding things we don’t like. And when we sit for Vipassana we take a break from these cycles and remain equanimous. When we sit for long periods of time without buying into our samsaras, they begin to clear away. The mind begins to clean.
The explanation that resonated with me the most involved a fire. I love fire. If you have a nice bonfire going and you add more wood to the top, the fire immediately begins to eat the new wood. The old wood stays at the bottom and doesn’t really disintegrate. So when we keep adding new fuel to the fire (new cravings, new aversions) our old junk can’t burn away. But when we sit silently and equanimously, we don’t add new fuel, and our mind can release all the old stuff it has held onto for ages. Boom! I realized I was walking around with a very clean, flexible, healthy yoga body. But my mind wasn’t clean from all my past samsaras. That’s why I was still acting like an idiot sometimes. Then I remembered that this is a very natural progression of the spiritual path. First, take care of cleaning the body. Once the body is clean and open, we can sit in meditation for long periods of time and start cleaning the mind. My determination came back, and I had great sittings for the rest of the retreat.
On the 10th day we were allowed to talk again. Right away I walked out into the fields and started singing my heart out. I sang to the sky, the trees, the birds, those loud-ass cows, smiling from ear to ear. Ironically I could finally talk after 10 days of silence and had to use my broken Spanish. But I didn’t care. More importantly, we could finally look at each other. [Still no hugs allowed though.] People look so different when they are smiling and laughing. The energy was so light, so beautiful.
On the very last day, we had our final lecture from Goenka. This sealed the deal for me. As I mentioned earlier, I had many creative visions regarding my work while on this retreat. One vision that was very clear was that I needed to bring these spirituality practices into companies. In my past work at Couchsurfing, Airbnb, and SoundCloud, I had been doing this indirectly. But I got the call to do it on a deeper level. For so long I had thought companies would freak out at the word “spirituality,” but I got the message that it is time. It is 2015. People are ready. Don’t be afraid. And in the final lecture on Day #10, Goenka talked for 30 minutes about how he brought Vipassana into shady corporations. How even the most corrupt businesses turned themselves around from these practices. Tears streamed down my face as he said this, and I knew my vision was a message from beyond.
Long story short, I can’t recommend this experience highly enough. It has been one month since I finished the retreat, and I have done my best to keep my daily practice. I’ve noticed that I’m more patient in situations where I would normally lose my cool. My life is flowing with more ease than before. And I’ve realized on a deeper level that the most important work I do every day is on my yoga mat or on my meditation pillow. Everything stems from the inner work, and I am more committed than ever to the spiritual path. If you’re curious, there are Vipassana centres all over the world–check it in. And guess what? The retreats are by donation, so money isn’t an obstacle. What are you waiting for? Giddyup.
Thanks for listening.