Vipassana: A Near Death Experience

Here is the room I meditated in for ten days, ten hours a day.

I arrive at the gate, little did I know then, that gate would become an object for me to stare at with a burning desire for escape in only a number of days.  The grounds are surrounded by forest- lodge pole pines, trees, pine cones. The warm aroma of earth fills my nostrils and I am excited for what is to come.

The first night I sleep well.  The gong rings at 4:00 a.m. and it is easy to hear.  I rise from my bed, throw a blanket over my shoulders, put on my hat, shiver at the cool air incoming through the window and put on my socks.  I step out onto the porch and begin the walk up the path to the Dhamma Hall.  Crunch of rocks and dirt and pine needles are the only sounds and the stars shine beautifully in the sky.  I slip off my shoes at the door, chug some water, and enter the hall. Head down, silent, and make my way to my cushion.  I have a meditation cushion and two little foam pieces to prop up my knees.  I throw another blanket over my legs, find a comfortable position, clasp my hands, and close my eyes.  This sit will be for two hours.  I can get up and come and go as I please.  The teachers are not present for this early morning meditation time, but I feel good to be with so many others as I practice and the early morning air has me feeling ignited and refreshed.  I sit, and soon, I am in pain, my legs are aching, heavy, tingling, falling asleep.  That old back pain that has been such a pest for so many months now is creeping up and I want to move.  I head out the door as silently as I can and I find downward facing dog.  Thank God for Yoga. I move through a few sun salutations, though I am not supposed to, but it feels so good and my body craves it like never before.  The sun has risen, shining golden light on the leaves and trees, sparkling, magical, and I am happy to be alive.  I feel as though it is the sun’s birthday, we are approaching the Summer Solstice and I am torn up about my choice to be in such silence at the height of the summer, but I am here.  What can I do?  I can go back to sitting.

I am only in the first two hours of sitting and it is hard.  I leave and go to my room to check the schedule again.  Is this for real?  Seriously?  I have to sit for that many hours?  What comes later?   Breakfast and then sit.  Lunch and then sit.  Tea break and then guess what?  SIT.  What was I thinking?  WTF was Devin thinking suggesting I come here?  This is hell.  I can’t do this.  Just this, for TEN straight days?!  I don’t want to.  That is over a week. That is a European vacation.  There is no way I can stay here and just sit all day, every day, for ten days.  Think of all that I do in a week!!  Shower, work out, work 8+ hours, hang with friends, make food, drive to other cities, have meetings, read books, spend time on the computer, watch movies, go for walks. Oh God. How did I get myself here?  I don’t trust myself. Only a crazy person would register, find a ride, buy a plane ticket, fly across the country to do nothing but sit on a cushion during the height of summer.  I’ll leave. Even though I don’t have a car, I can hitch hike.  I will.  To get out of here, that is not a problem.  I’ll do it.  Well, I can make it through today, and tomorrow, I will talk to the teacher. Find out my options, and get out of here.  Yes, that is it.  Tomorrow I go.

I’m in bed.  It is only the first day.  In the discourse the teacher, Goenka, says, “Surrender yourself, you are here in a deep surgery. You would not leave the hospital in the middle of your surgery, no, the doctors would not let you go.  The teachers will not let you go.  You are in prison for ten days of your life.”  His words roll through my mind.  Prison?  I don’t want to be in prison!  What makes Devin think I want to go to prison?  I will kill him when I get back!  He did not paint an accurate picture.  I can’t stay here.  My chest is tightening.  I can’t breathe. I feel claustrophobic. I imagine myself running to the porch and screaming at the top of my lungs.  I cry.  I drift into sleep.  In my dream my aunt is standing at my side and she has a knife in her hand.  She is cutting the cotton of my shirt around my neck but it feels like she is about to slice my head off.  I wake to the bell.  The sky is dark. I am not getting up.  Screw meditating.  I am leaving today, anyway.

I awake at 6:30 to the sound of the breakfast bell.  I immediately get up and head on my way.  I haven’t eaten anything but a banana in the last twelve and a half hours and there is no way I would miss out on the almond butter, that only comes out at breakfast.  I head into the dining hall, head down, eyes on my own endeavors.  I put my toast in the toaster and then add almond butter to my bread.  I find a seat in front of the only window and eat.  I take my time.  Eat slowly.  Watch the people outside, coming and going.  There is no hurry here. There is nothing to do.  When I am done, I sign up for a private meeting with the teacher and head to the walking trails.

The trails are beautiful and weave through the forest.  Spider webs. Green sparkling leaves. Rustling, decaying leaves on the ground.  I am walking fast, I need the exercise and my mind is full of steam.  I have friends at the Kundalini Summer Solstice Celebration in New Mexico.  They are dancing, chanting, doing yoga, meeting some 2,000 people and I am here.  I can go to the airport. Catch a plane to NM. I can fly home and drive to NM. God, I am here.  I flew here.  Maybe I should stay here.  There must have been something that motivated me to keep moving forward with plans to come here.  I never should have listened to anyone else. This is prison, you don’t recommend prison!  I am so angry. I hate him. I will kill him when I get home. Asshole.

I shower.  Brush my teeth. Floss.  Drink water. Time to go sit.

At noon I see the teacher.  I enter the Dhamma hall and sit on the cushion in front of her.  I look up and say hi.  Tears begin to stream down my face.  I say, “I can leave, right?”  “Of course.” She says, with a gentle smile. “But these tears, they mean you are doing the work, you are going deeper, facing things, it is coming up to be released. You are healing. It is so worth it.”  “Will it get better?”  “It is different for everyone, I can’t say, it will change, but yes, it generally gets easier.” “Okay.  Thank you.”   I get up and walk out with my head down, tears streaming down my face.  I step into the sunshine and resolve that I can make it. Devin said the first four days are the hardest and then it becomes surreal.  I can make it through two more days.  Then I will feel fine maybe, blissful, even.”

Day Three

Today my anger subsides a bit and the benefit comes shining through like light through a hole in darkness.  There might be something here.  I am here to work.  I can do it.  I walk slower today on the trails.  I watch the butterflies.  I stretch.  I enjoy the silence. I am slowly seeing that it changes.  One minute I am plotting my escape and the next, I am blissfully feeling energy course through my body, or watching a lizard for ten minutes.

Day Four

I take off my shoes on the path. I feel moss under my feet.  I sit, for the first time in my life for an entire hour without moving.  I lie in the forest and watch a spider in its web for thirty or so minutes, who knows, what is time? I french braid my hair for the first time since high school.

The teachings each night are poignant and speak directly to me and what I am experiencing.  I realize I am like everyone else, thousands upon thousands of humans have done this work and experienced similar feelings.  I am not alone.  This is just the nature of my mind.  I can watch.  I can sit.  I can experience it change, from minute to minute, day to day.

Day Five

Today, I enjoy the pleasures here.  Toast with almond butter.  Braiding my hair.  Walking in the woods barefoot.  Lunch.  By afternoon, though, I am tired.  I am done.  It has been four full days and I don’t feel blissful.  I feel sad. Five more days?  I have meditated ten hours a day for five full days.  I have walked and walked. I have braided my hair everyday. I have showered everyday. Flossed/brushed three or four times a day. Seriously, please, mercy.  I am done. I get it.  I understand. I don’t need to stay to get the point.  I see the manager, I can talk to her.  I approach and say, “Has anyone ever left who didn’t have a car?”  “Sure, she says, “All the time.”  “I will beg you to stay though, you will make so much growth in the next five days.”  “Okay.” I say.  “I just want to know that I am not trapped.” “Oh, you are trapped,” she says.  “The gate is locked.”  I laugh and retort, “I am quite aware of that.”

I go back to my spot on the hill.  I can stare at the gate and every now and again a car goes by and it is exciting. Someday, that will be me again, free as a bird, heading whichever way I choose.

The days go on.  Sometimes, I close my eyes and think this is just a dream.  When I open my eyes again, I will be at home, in my bed.  I hear the noises around me and I know it is just wishful thinking.  I know right where I am and I brought myself here, willingly.  I had no idea what I was getting myself in to.

The main teaching of Vipassana is Anicha, change.  Everything arises, seems to stay for some time and then passes away.  It is the law of the universe.  Anicha.  Change. Vipassana was the method taught by Gotama the Buddha 2500 years ago.  It is the technique for liberation.  It has been passed down through teachers over thousands of years.  Buddha is just a name given to anyone who is enlightened, that is to say, knows the truth.  Gotama was just one of many Buddhas.  He did not want a religion, or to be idolized, or to create different sects.  He just wanted to teach a meditation technique of awareness.

When one sits and does Vipassana meditation, the purpose is to notice sensation and then just observe.  Do nothing.  Don’t react.  It is in our craving of pleasurable sensations and our aversion of unpleasant sensations that we suffer.  When we can’t be with what is arising in the present moment, but are always habitually reacting with craving or aversion, we stay in a cycle of suffering.  On a deeper note, the sensations that arise in our experience are our karma.  It is sitting with our karma, observing with perfect equanimity- no craving, no aversion, that we burn that karma away, eradicate our suffering.  The purpose of being in Vipassana is to be so isolated, spend so much time in continuous meditation, that one can go deeper and deeper into the psyche and meet the sensations, our karma, our pain, that arise and observe them with perfect equanimity, thus eradicate them.  I’d like to note that the discourses are very enlightening when it comes to the explanations of how, for example, our anger is like a seed planted and that anger is in us and will arise as a sensation.  The explanations of this, and the relationship between mind and matter and how karma works on a molecular level, are incredibly interesting.

In my experience, when I would feel pain and just observe, it stays for some time and then it goes away.  One may think your foot is about to fall asleep, will need to be amputated and you have to move it for circulation.  However, if one stays with it, observing only and not averting the sensation, one experiences that it goes away.  Then, one is experiencing the law of the universe on an experiential, personal level. It is one thing to read a book, or hear a quote, and get, on an intellectual level that change is part of life, but it is an entirely different phenomenon to sit in the world of oneself and experience, over and over, that EVERYTHING arises to pass away.  This is facing death.  This is understanding non-attachment.  Do not attach to pleasure.  It will arise to pass away. Do not be attached to youth. It will arise to pass away.  Do not be attached to living this life.  It arises to pass away.  One takes birth to die. The flower blooms to die.  It is law.  It is Dhamma-the way of all things.  The more we sit and observe all the sensations of the body with out attachment, the more we become equipped to accept life without trying to control, crave, resist.

As I sat there, for one hundred or so hours over the course of ten days, feeling all the sensations in my body, pain, bliss, etc. I realized I need not create such a drama in my mind over my aches and pains or pleasures, for they will pass away...just as surely as they arose, they will pass.  I had memories from my past of events long forgotten to me.  I felt places in my body where I had stored pain.  I felt deeper and deeper layers release as I was healing psychosomatic pain from lifetimes.  I went deep within to do the work of facing my karma, facing that NOTHING in my external reality is the source of ANY of my pleasure or pain, it all arises from within me.  The universe, all of everything, is in me.  By far, the most powerful teaching and experiential learning experience of my lifetime.  I trust myself deeply.  I have met myself.  I know what lurks under the surface of the mind. I am a spiritual warrior.

Here we are at the end of the course in the car, free at last!

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13 responses to “Vipassana: A Near Death Experience

  1. wow Rachel thanks for that. It sounds both amazing and terrifying what you experienced and I don’t know if I would have the courage to embark on such a journey. Gratitude for allowing me a glimpse into your fantastic adventure.

  2. beautifully written! you are brave to get through it! how did you feel going back into the real world after 10 days away?

    • Thank you for reading! It felt really good to go back. I felt very appreciative of all the freedom I have, all the choices, all the variety of food I can eat! I missed some of the quiet, the space and time for myself and the structured meals that were cooked for me each day!! 😉

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