“Focus your entire attention on the area below your nostrils. Calm and peaceful mind.”
I try. I really do. All my attention on the area below my nostrils. I’m the definition of zen. Calm and observing. And by calm I mean trying not to hyperventilate, and by observing I mean trying not to think about that time I missed a deadline three years ago, what the fuck I’m doing with my life, where that adorable sailor dress I wore on my 25th birthday went, and OH MY GOD MIND PLEASE SHUT UP HOW WILL I SURVIVE NINE MORE DAYS OF THIS?
This is the story about the time I checked myself into a ten-day meditation retreat and asked myself if I had finally lost my mind.
It’s a valid question.
First: A bit of context
As a traveling freelancer, I don't have much to complain about. I'm ridiculously privileged. But as with everything else, no matter how privileged you are, it does not come with an "always happy" guarantee. Life is life, after all, and it is going to wholeheartedly suck at times. You might not even understand why.
Traveling throws you out of your regular routine, giving you new perspectives without being asked. When you travel, you grow. But the emotional baggage you carried back home will still be firmly attached to your back, oblivious to whatever exotic destination you happen to flip-flop your way into.
Not in the picture: Me, hyperventilating over deadlines, Excel files and stressful relationships.
For me, that bag was chock-full of anxiety. Knowing that I should by all standards be enjoying life, and feeling guilty when I wasn't, added to it.
And even though I could sense part of the issue, I could never grasp the full picture. The lines were too blurry. I craved clarity and it was time to try something more radical.
A friend of mine did a Vipassana retreat two years ago. And as it is when you get introduced to something intriguing, it suddenly pops up everywhere. Jodi at LegalNomads wrote an interesting piece about it, and if you ever spend time in Bali, you will meet more people who have done it than not.
If the term Vipassana is new to you, it is a meditation technique said to be originated from Buddha. Dhamma.org holds retreats all over the world, all of which follow the same schedule and rules for ten days. You meditate ten hours per day, you don't talk or have eye contact with fellow meditators, and before the course start you check in all your devices, books and writing material.
When people asked why I was doing this, I told them I was curious. What happens with my way of thinking if I remove all my usual distractions? No mindless scrolling on Instagram. No reading on my Kindle. No chatting with friends. For ten days I was about to get very intimate with my own mind.
Turns out, I'm a complete basket case. (Who knew, right?)
Introducing: My own personal hell
“Go in with an open mind and prepare to be uncomfortable,” my friends told me.
I did. Thinking I was prepared, I walked into the meditation hall with determined steps. And the moment I sat down on my pillows, I was overwhelmed with such intense anxiety, I almost threw up. That feeling, the physical manifestation of angst, would stay with me longer than I thought possible. Similar to being stuck in a spinning wheel for days. "What the fuck have I gotten myself into", I asked myself, over and over.
What made the situation even more absurd was my surroundings. I was sitting in the most peaceful place you can imagine, in the middle of gorgeous Tuscany, to the soundtrack of a thousand birds and their daily orchestra. It could have been the setting of a Disney movie.
And yet, my world consisted only of the raging madness of my own thoughts, spiraling down paths I could barely keep up with, much less control. One moment it was vivid scenes of painful situations I would rather forget, the next what could best be described as hallucinations with my eyes closed. Sometimes it was straight up terrifying, making It look like a cute children story. But the memories and attached thoughts were always the worst. The what if's, the what could have been's, the why the fuck not's. Stories on a constant loop.
In the words of S. N. Goenka, the teacher of Vipassana, I created a whole lot of misery for myself. And at the same time, I became increasingly aware that the clarity I was craving would not be handed to me in a neat package. If I wanted to get anything out of these ten days, I would simply have do the work.
There are no shortcuts in Vipassana. The only escape, if you can call it that, is to meditate. One minute of focus meant one less minute down the mental rabbit hole.
All about impermanence (and equanimity)
On the third day, I started to notice the world around me. It got easier to breathe. My thoughts were slowing down. I began to see my mental patterns, and with that, it got easier to detach myself from them. A thought is only a thought, a feeling is only a feeling, and they will come and go without me having to react to them. Which is one of the fundamental principals of Vipassana, Anicca - the law of impermanence.
If it sounds easy, trust me, it wasn't. It took all my mental strength to stay, to focus, to do the work. Regardless of my wandering mind and the pain in my back from sitting. I sat there, trying to observe. Hour after hour. Working on not getting caught up in stories and reacting to them.
Slowly, it started to pay off.
A story that would stir up panic for hours the first day, would on day five only create slight quiver on the surface. I could still feel it, but not as close. By day eight, my relationship to the same story had changed so much, I would just shake my head at my previous reactions.
Around day six I found myself smiling a lot, both in and out of meditation. My favorite moment of the day was after lunch when you could spend time in the walking area. With my eyes on the gravel, careful to not meet the eyes of the others, I would first march around for an hour. Then sit down on my usual stub with a full view of the meadow. Sometimes with coffee in my hand. Watching bees and butterflies going about their business, finding it endlessly fascinating. Something I would rarely, if ever, take the time to notice in daily life.
"You don't know what you have until it's gone." Usually used for describing the loss of something good that you never fully appreciated. But it works for negative experiences too. I had no idea how much my constant anxiety affected me until it was not hovering over me anymore.
Vipassana was one of the toughest things I've ever done, but also the most rewarding. After all, if you can sit completely still with your own thoughts for an hour, it feels like you can pretty much do anything.
Curious about Vipassana?
If you are interested in doing a Vipassana course, I would say the same thing my friends told me: Go in with an open mind and be prepared to be uncomfortable. Everyone's Vipassana experience is unique. I would add, though, that if you are not used to meditating sitting, practice that and figure out a good posture for you. It will help.