I recently met a fellow yogi about to attend a 10 day silent Vipassana meditation retreat at the same center I went to about four years ago. Talking about it with her made me think about what a difficult experience I had. An experience that I am still very grateful for today.
In the weeks leading up to my retreat, people kept asking me if I was crazy. “Do you need to speak to someone?” Haha! It was so hard for people to wrap their minds around why I would want to sit in silence around a bunch of strangers for 10 days. My grandma thought I joined a cult. “Why would they take your cell phone?!”
I was looking forward to the silence but I had some anxieties going in. From the beginning, the entire experience was incredibly stressful. I decided to participate in the ride share program the meditation center offered so I couldn’t leave early if I hated it. The driver I was paired with was over an hour and a half late. He had another passenger in the car who had also been waiting around for him. He was totally oblivious to the fact that it was rude and inconsiderate to be so late without even a text. By the time we arrived at the center, there was only a few minutes left for dinner. The driver ran in, dropped his bags by the door and went to eat. The other passenger and I went to get our room assignments as was requested by the staff when we arrived. We didn’t get dinner.
We all met to hear the rules, our job assignments and the schedule for the next 10 days. We saw the meditation hall and found our cushion assignments. I was assigned a cushion in the middle of the room. I was very surprised because I had spoken to the women’s meditation teacher prior to coming about having Crohn’s disease and my stomach often making loud sounds. She told me I would be seated on the outside corner. The cushion to the left of me was empty and I was relieved to have a little space. The silence started that evening.
The women’s dorms had individual rooms with private bathrooms. We all went to our rooms to settle in for the night. I had just got comfortable when I heard a “plop” sound on the floor by the foot of the bed. I jumped up and turned on the light. Even without my glasses, I could clearly see that a large spider had just “plopped” down from the vent by the foot of the bed.
During our meeting earlier that evening, we had been told about the “cup and paper” method for removing bugs and relocating them outside. It was a plastic cup and a laminated sheet of paper. For a second, I thought about going to get the cup and paper. Then I thought, “Fuck that,” and smashed the spider with my chancla. I wasn’t going to relocate a brown recluse or whatever it was out there in the East Texas wilderness. After some tossing and turning, I eventually managed to get some sleep. I woke up early the next morning to the sound of a loud gong in the hallway. Time for our first morning meditation.
The cushion to the left of me was still empty. I felt pretty good during this meditation session. After, we went to breakfast and then had some free time. When it was time to go back to the meditation hall, I was disappointed to see a woman sitting on what had previously been the empty cushion next to me.
From the first second, I couldn’t stand this woman. She kept staring at me. Obviously staring. Turning her whole head and upper body to face me. Many times during the next 10 days, I would be deep in meditation when suddenly, the feeling that someone was watching me would creep over me. I would open my eyes and find her staring straight at me. Chin resting on palm, elbow propped up on her knee. The teacher came over several times to tell her to sit up and close her eyes. By the end of the first full day, my whole body hurt, I wanted to punch that woman in her face and I seriously started to think that coming to this place had been a huge mistake.
That night, I got a good night’s sleep and woke up determined to make the best of the situation. It didn’t matter if she kept staring at me. I was going to ignore her. We were in our morning meditation when I heard the first “POP.” It came from the left of me. Just ignore her. I settled back in, reconnected with my breath and then, “POP!” She was popping her knuckles. Slowly. One…by…one.
I’d hear the pop, feel the rage, calm myself down, reconnect with my breath…and then “POP!” This went on every single day. She would pop every finger, then pop each finger sideways. And somehow, that still wasn’t enough. She would end the cycle by pounding her fist into her palm to pop them all again.
I had incredibly murderous thoughts. I fantasized about cutting her fingers off with garden shears. Joint…by…joint. Kicking her head in American History X style, “Put your mouth on the meditation bench!” Beating her face out the back of her head until she was nothing but a bloody unrecognizable puddle on the floor. After leaving the retreat, I heard of a phenomenon where you come to hate someone during a sitting practice. It was called “vipassana vengeance.” That shit is so legit.
It took everything I had not to snap on her, scream in her face. I would go back to my room at night with bruises on my knees from where I was anxiously digging my fingertips into my legs. I kept thinking to myself, “I’m having a nervous breakdown. This is what a nervous breakdown feels like.”My homicidal rage wasn’t reserved just for her. The recordings of Goenka also pissed me off. “Continue to work. Continue to work.” SHUT THE FUCK UP!
I wasn’t finding the silence I had come here to find. I certainly wasn’t finding the peace I had come here to find. I knew I would have to work through a lot of things but I started to think that the universe was punishing me for killing that spider on the first night. Maybe karma really is a bitch. A bug-eyed, knuckle cracking bitch.
Several days in, I almost demanded my phone back so I could call someone to come get me. I was seriously afraid of what I was going to do to this woman. And I was hungry. There was no dinner, only ginger water and a piece of fruit. I would eat cereal for breakfast and often just a salad for lunch. There was lasagna a few times but it was mostly spicy Indian food. I had already told the teacher prior to coming that I couldn’t eat spicy food because of my Crohn’s. I felt so nauseous all the time. I threw up a couple of times and had diarrhea most days. By the end of the retreat, I had lost about 6 pounds.
One afternoon, I think it was day 7 or 8, I felt like I was on the brink. I was constantly clenching my teeth. There were fingertip bruises all over my legs and arms. I was struggling to connect with my breath. My body was so tense and my breaths felt angry, almost labored. We were seated in the meditation hall when I felt the hot tears streaming down my cheeks. Then, “POP!” I couldn’t take it anymore. I started screaming. Screaming so hard my throat felt like it was on fire. My head was pounding, I couldn’t catch my breath.
No one reacted. No one opened their eyes. No one turned to look at me. The teachers weren’t coming to take me away. I thought to myself, “Either these people are incredible meditators or I just completely lost my shit.” It was definitely the latter. I was screaming on the inside. Screaming so loud it physically hurt. I tried to pull myself together. Told myself that this ordeal would soon be coming to an end. Nothing lasts forever. That night I cried. I curled up in bed, buried my face in the pillow and cried harder than I had in as long as I could remember.
This self control shit is really hard. Out in the “real world” I would have blown up on that woman the first time I caught her creepily staring at me. I had always been a very reactive person. Explosive even. A lover of confrontation. Having to keep it all inside made me feel like I was suffocating. Like I was being consumed by my own rage.
On the final day, the silence ends and you can speak to the other practitioners. I didn’t really want to talk to anyone. The dining hall was deafening. So loud with chatter after the long silence. Everyone was talking shit about the knuckle cracker. “Who was it? Where was it coming from?” I told a couple of people that it had been the woman sitting next to me. They asked how I managed to deal with it the whole time. She drove everyone crazy. Apparently I wasn’t the only one having murderous thoughts. She wasn’t in the dining hall.
After I finished eating and gossiping, I went back to the dorms to pack. She was in the hallway talking to someone about how this was her third retreat. That really pissed me off. She had gone through this experience before and still was so disruptive and inconsiderate. She stared at me as I walked by. I ignored her. A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door. I opened it to find her standing there. I didn’t say anything. I just looked at her with what could only have been vitriol in my eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said. “For what,” I asked. Yeah, I’m that bitch that wants to hear you verbalize your bullshit. “I’m sorry for bothering you the whole time.” I probably should have felt better. She was apologizing and attempting to make amends. But her apology only further pissed me off. She knew what she was doing and she didn’t control herself. She knew she was disrupting everyone and continued to do it anyway. I said, “OK, thanks,” and closed the door while she was still standing there.
When I was done packing, I started walking to the parking lot at the front of the center. The women’s teacher was walking towards me. We stopped and chatted. She told me that she thought I did great work. I told her I felt more angry now than before I arrived. I told her about my violent fantasies. She just laughed and said, “Oh, it was the woman sitting next to you? I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. You should have told me. I would have spoken to her.” I told her that it was probably for the best. It was excellent practice in self control.
I was so ready to go home. We still had the same ride share assignments. The other passenger and I waited in the car for almost an hour. Finally, the driver came running out, making excuses about why he took so long when he had already told us he was ready to go. It was a long awkward ride back to Austin.
I left the retreat exhausted, covered in mysterious bug bites and overwhelmed by my feelings. The driver dropped me off with my boyfriend. He looked worried when he saw me. “We need to get you some food.” But I couldn’t eat. He tried twice that night to get me to eat something. Taking me out for some of my favorite foods, that he had to eat because I couldn’t have more than a bite or two. He asked if I wanted him to stay the night but I said no. Part of me wanted him to hold me all night but an even larger part wanted to be alone. Truly alone. In silence for the first time in over a week. After he left, I sobbed uncontrollably for a long time. That night, I finally found the silence I was searching for.
Despite this experience being somewhat traumatic, I’m so grateful for it. I walked away being far less reactive. Situations that would have set me off in the past now seemed almost laughable. However, this experience completely derailed my meditation practice. For months after, I would instantly feel rage when I would sit down to meditate. I could hear the “POP” of that woman’s knuckles as vividly as when she was sitting an arms length away. Many times I’ve gotten up from attempting to mediate with clenched fists. It took me a long time to separate her from my meditation practice.
I shouldn’t have had expectations going in. I went in search of something very specific. I was taught some valuable lessons. I didn’t get what I wanted but I definitely got what I needed. I needed to learn that all things are temporary, even shitty situations that feel like they will never end. I also needed to learn self control. My whole life I would just react. I wouldn’t pause to reflect or consider the consequences. I would just explode and feel like, “Fuck them, they deserved that.” People came to expect this type of behavior from me. But I realized in this experience that you often don’t need to say anything. Shitty people usually already know they are shitty. The universe sat that horrible woman next to me and I’m so grateful for it. It really did change me as a person.
Now, it’s been about 4 years and I’m starting to think I might be ready to sit another retreat. I would love to hear about your experience or your thoughts about attending! Comment below!
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