The Vippassana retreat at Wat Rampoeng certainly stands completely unique amidst my life experiences.
I am most grateful to have done it. There is no way to adequately put words to what came up over the 10 days. In fact, as with most experiences that touch upon the sacred, I would rather not to try to force it into language.
However, I do feel a desire to attempt to give some description, in loosely outlined sketches, of some of the more profound dimensions of experience that arose for me through such an intensive period meditation (around 12 hours a day).
At times I sat enduring considerable physical pain, witnessing my mind producing a whole spectrum of responses to that pain—concern over the possibility of sustaining injury, a swelling of anger toward Theravada Buddhism, even accusations toward the monks for too-narrowly viewing pain through Buddah’s doctrines of Dukkha (life is suffering), Anicca (impermanence) and Anatta (no self) while neglecting the value of the body’s physical well-being. I began preemptively blaming my instructors for encouraging me to harm myself. These inner voices were met in opposition by other voices insisting that if I were to shy away from the pain then I would be selling myself short of the potential benefits of the practice, and I would fail myself by not trusting the instructors and embracing the full opportunity afforded by the retreat. This battle would come and go, especially during the early days of the retreat—temporarily disappearing and subsiding, then temporarily reappearing and waging on.
At times I experienced a whole other side of pain, as I gradually became aware of where my muscles were tight and contracted, identifying various unconscious somatic holding patterns (particularly in my right hip) and slowly beginning to release them as my body learned to trust that it would find support from the earth below. The pain at times slowly became sweeter, even transmuting into pleasure, as I elongated my spine toward the sky, allowing my legs to quiver in release of psychosomatic energy and eventually relax into stillness.
There were periods during which long-neglected memories floated to the surface, rethreading various past selves to the present. I was reminded of the incredible amount of flux and change I have continually moved through during the course of this life, knowing it will continue.
Midway through the retreat I walked, very slowly, across a balcony with my gaze fixed on the green waxy leaves of a tree. It appeared so lucid before me in the absence of any thought or reverie intruding upon my mind, leaving me to be absolutely present to my senses in the moment.
At times I would be so naive as to think that I had reached some lasting breakthrough in my meditation, as though a threshold had been crossed and I was now at a more advanced level in my practice finally beyond persistent physical and psychological difficulties. But the most still and peaceful states of mind would always inevitably give way, and I would eventually find myself mired again in unpleasant moods, showered by cascades of uncontrollable thoughts and wandering mental chatter.
While, in a certain sense, I did indeed notice considerable progress occur in the quality of my meditation throughout the course of the retreat, it also very much felt as though I never got beyond square one. The feeling of progress consisted, it seems, in simply arriving at new ways of being with what is, of being with myself from moment to moment—whether in pain or pleasure, dissatisfaction or peace (whatever it may be, it will always change again)—without grasping so hard.
I came to fresh recognition of certain areas of conflict within myself—different elements of my psyche that stand in mutual tension. I hope I can remain conscious of these internal contradictions, so I might find ways of holding them that are less destructive and more creative.
The space created by the retreat allowed me to get in touch with layers of myself that are typically not so readily accessible. Layers are peeled back, more insight emerges, but there is always more, and the problems and questions never disappear. I remain as ever a mystery unto myself—and I imagine that will forever be the case.
I can’t say it all, and so leave much unsaid.
Waste not your breath on winces over past follies.
Save your strength and spare the gavel that loudly cracks judgement upon prior missteps.
Turn now to face the trail of offcast rinds that hide behind you.
Could you conceive that this present form would be the final?
Should it now withstand the serpentine power ineluctably shedding you, through restless transience, time and time again?
Don’t you sense your skin already breaking?
Grant this present pain permission to pass through—its full embrace is its funeral pyre.
Tread lightly, breath after breath, upon the soles of fleeting feet.
Each step, a death.
Each step, a birth.
I anticipate that I will be integrating the experience for some time to come.
I intend to do another Vippassana retreat, eventually. To anyone else who feels curious or drawn to it, and who is not overly daunted by the challenging aspects it presents, I would certainly recommend it.