Months after her father had passed away, the pining for deep answers to life lingered more than ever within Sofia. All the books and articles she read merely wet her palate, instead of satiate her appetite for understanding this maze of life. Everything seemed bland around her, as though functioning only on a surface level, and lacking any depth.
She expressed this empty churning within her to Claire one day as they were sipping on coffee and catching up, “I need more depth in my life. This pain I have had to endure after my father has passed opened up a whole new channel inside me. Everything seems mundane. I cannot watch a movie or read a book or carry a conversation and walk away from the experience feeling fulfilled.”
Taking a sip of her soy latte and glancing meaningfully at Sofia, Claire knew just what her friend needed to achieve this yearning for depth. “Why don’t you sign up for the silent meditation retreat I have told you about? That experience will certainly afford you the depth you are seeking, not to mention help alleviate some of this pain you are going through.”
“Claire, the meditation technique you are recommending is a process of going through pain,” Sofia was almost angry at her friend for even thinking she should endure more pain than what she had been going through.
Gently setting her coffee mug on the table, and with the utmost compassion in her eyes, Claire reached over and took a hold of Sofia’s arm. “Listen to me; I would not throw more pain on you intentionally at this moment in your life. You know I would not. The pain that comes out of your body is part of the experience of this retreat. It is not the whole experience. Think about it Sofia, this pain is already in you. I see it and feel it as I sit across from you right now. Yes, you will feel pain come out of your body, but you leave the ten day retreat having worked through that pain and walk away a much more lighter person. Not to mention more enlightened about this process of life too.”
“Why is it called a retreat when it sounds so difficult?”
“A retreat is not always a spa getaway where you get massages and sip on champagne, Sofia. The meaning behind the word retreat is a place of seclusion where one can focus on prayer and meditation.” Noticing her friend’s facial features soften, she continued, “I think it is just what you need. After your divorce and now your father’s passing, as a friend I would recommend for you to take time out of life, even if for ten days and just go be for yourself and try to figure it all out.”
Picking up small crumbs off the plate of sliced vanilla cake they were sharing and pondering in thought as each crumb reached her mouth, Sofia slowly looked over to her friend, and almost hesitatingly responded, “I think you are right. It does not sound like a blast, but it may be what I need at this point in my life.”
A wide smile expanded over Claire’s face. “You will be amazed at this journey you will be embarking on,” she knowingly commented.
“At this point, I don’t think there is much that can amaze me, my friend.”
Laughing, Claire sat back in her chair and replied, “Just wait and see! Or actually, just wait and experience!”
As the two ladies got up from their seats and began walking towards the parking lot, Claire said, “Let me know when you decide to go. I will look into my schedule and see if we can go together.”
“I would love for you to be there! But if it’s a silent retreat, what’s the point of us going together?”
“Just so you know we will be going through it together.”
Comforted, Sofia gave her friend a warm hug goodbye and said, “That sounds awesome! I will go online tonight and look into the schedule.”
Two months after they were sipping on coffee and talking about the retreat, Sofia and Claire were both set to depart on their journey together. With their sleeping bags neatly tucked away in the trunk of the car, underneath their suitcases filled with clothes comfortable enough to sit in long hours of meditation, the friends began their ascent north, from Orange County, on Interstate 5 towards North Fork, California, their destination. Having packed a picnic lunch, they munched on sandwiches, chips, dried fruit and clusters of cashews, as Claire drove through the Los Angeles traffic and the hills of the Grape Vine onwards to the serene landscape of Yosemite National Forest, close to the site of the retreat.
Upon arrival and after registration, everyone had to turn in their phones, laptops, headphones and music devices, and any other items that may have been had an interference to surrender during the ten days. Yoga mats, books, magazines, journals, recorders, and outside food were not allowed either. The purpose for abstaining from all of those items was to give complete acquiescence for the duration of the time spent on the retreat, to the complete absorption of the technique, without any influences or distractions. Similarly was the explanation as to why outside food was not allowed. Everyone had to basically live like monks and accept the food and accommodations that were provided so that there was no discrepancy or desire provoked from anyone.
Going along with the monk lifestyle, men and women were segregated on the retreat. The men’s sleeping quarters, dining hall and walking paths were completely out of sight from the women’s. Only in the meditation hall were both groups of people together, but again divided into the men’s side and the women’s side.
After the ladies finished registration, they hulled their sleeping bags and suitcases up the path towards the women’s sleeping quarters. Stopping mid way, Sofia, took in a long breath, while taking in her environment. The setting of the retreat was amidst a small mountain of large trees, scattered bushes, all sizes of wildflower, crisp air, and even a small pond. Yet, the first conspicuous realization Sofia had of the land was it’s deep tranquility.
“It’s weird, Claire, there seems to be an unruffled peace surrounding us. I feel so calm all of a sudden!”
Setting her sleeping bag on the ground and stopping in her tracks, Claire felt of wave of joy pass through her. “Let me be the first to welcome you to the path of Dhamma, my dear!”
“Dhamma? I thought the technique of meditation is Vipassana!”
“You are correct. Once you are practicing Vipassana, the wheels of Dhamma will begin to turn for you. That is when you will be ingrained into this harmony of life and nature you are feeling right now. You will learn soon enough for yourself.” Throwing her sleeping bag over her shoulder again, she set forward to walking again.
Excited and giddy, Sofia paced quickly after her. “I’m actually looking forward to this! You were right, this may be just what I had been seeking this whole time!”
Once the two friends were settled into their separate rooms, they met the rest of the meditators in the women’s dining hall for instructions and overview of the rules of conduct while in the dining and meditation hall. This was followed by a light vegetarian dinner, which would be the last dinner they would eat for the duration of time spent on the retreat. The purpose behind this was to cleanse the mind, while keeping the body light, in an optimum state for meditation. The breakfast and lunch served each day would be vegetarian, and to Sofia’s pleasant surprise, the prepared food was always a very healthy, hearty, and wholesome spread, making mealtime a highlight for the day.
After the light dinner, the women made their way from the dining hall to the meditation hall, each chatting aimlessly and filling the air with words that would soon become nonexistent, once the noble silence began. During noble silence, no one was allowed to speak, make bodily gestures or make eye contact. Again, this was all part of the technique, to allow each meditator to live amongst each other, while simultaneously going further inward.
As the women crowded around outside the meditation hall, Claire turned to Sofia and with a warm and gentle smile, noted, “Have a good sitting. Talk to you in ten days!”
All of a sudden nervous, Sofia just nodded back in reply, the silence already settling in her. When she heard her name called, she walked up to the course manager for the women and was told her mat number. Each person was designated a mat which was theirs for the whole time. Again nodding her head in acknowledgement, she grabbed a few pillows from the pile close to the entry of the hall and went in to sit down, and embark on this silent journey of self-reflection and self-realization.
The large meditation hall was segregated between men and women, with a male assistant teacher and a female assistant teacher sitting in lotus posture on a raised platform before the joined groups of meditators. Once everyone was situated, the CD player was turned on for instructions to be given by the main teacher. Sofia would later learn that this form of meditation was taught at its centers throughout the world by only one teacher, yet each center would have assistant teachers to facilitate the sittings and answer any questions. The purpose behind this method was to diminish any additions or subtractions to the Vipassana teaching from any of the assistant teachers, and to maintain the technique in its purest form. She would also learn that this was the final form of meditation that the Buddha practiced, enabling him to reach Enlightenment. So the teacher, S.N. Goenka, talked over speakers, giving instructions for the following day. Each meditator was to focus on the breath. That was it. They were not supposed to focus on an object or a mantra. They were only supposed to focus on the breath going in and out of the nostrils.
By 9:00pm, the day was over and each person was to retire to his or her room, with lights out at by 10:00pm. Each day Sofia and the other meditators had to follow a strict schedule, with the course manager or a student waking everyone up by the chime of a gong, at 4:00am. The practitioners had to begin meditating by 4:30am, either in their room or the meditation hall. There were three mandatory group sittings in the hall, at set hours throughout the day, where everyone meditated together. By the time the day was over at 9:00pm, everyone was supposed to have meditated for 11.5 hours per day. The first night, as Sofia was meditating, it felt very cozy to be in the hall with everyone else. She had always meditated in her room with her door closed, by herself. But now what had been a very private and solitary 20 minutes of her mornings was shared in a room with 200 other strangers, besides for Claire. With the lights dimmed in the hall, people perched atop a variety of pillows big and small, enveloped in thin blankets, the goal was the same for all – to observe the breath and nothing more. “I can do this for ten days,” Sofia calmly thought to herself. “It may get a bit boring, but this does not seem that intimidating.” Just then the voice of the head teacher came on the loud speakers telling everyone to “Take rest.”
That was not bad at all Sofia thought to herself as she put her shoes on outside and began heading back to her room, allowing the faint glow of the moon shimmering behind the mountains to guide her on the paved dirt and grass trail.
The next morning, at 4:00am exactly, the gong began to chime. Its clanging came from afar at first, but then moved its way closer to her building. Still intoxicated with sleep, she managed to stumble slowly out of her sleeping bag and with one eye half closed still, walk towards the bathroom to wash her face. It had been a difficult night trying to sleep at an hour her body was used to being wide awake reading, hanging out with friends or watching television. She opened the door to the bathroom and shower area she shared with the other women of her residence quarters and walked right into a lady drying her face. “Oh...” She came to apologize as would be the common courtesy in such a situation but immediately stopped because she was not supposed to utter a word. She looked down and in her head hoped the woman would accept the apology whirling around her mind as she put the toothpaste on her brush to brush her teeth. “I need coffee so bad!” She protested to herself as she walked the same path as the previous night back to the meditation hall.
Once inside she positioned herself atop her pillows and began to observe her breath. The simple task proved incredibly difficult over the next two hours that they had to meditate until the morning breakfast intermission. Sofia found herself not having to keep track of her breath but of her fatigue. More times than she could count a bodily joint would lurch off her pillows and fling into the air as if though having fallen off a ship. It did not help that someone on the men’s side was gently whistling through his snores. The concept of a bed had never seemed more luxurious than at that moment of the daybreak hour. Then at 6:00am, for a full half an hour, the voice of the teacher came on the loudspeakers chanting in what seemed to be a cacophonous moan, having no rhyme and coming deep from the belly. With her own belly twisting in agony from hunger, she wanted to flee but knew she had nowhere to escape except outside in the cold dawn air.
After what seemed like days instead of hours, the mellow bell for breakfast could be heard all over the grounds of the retreat. Scrambling to her feet and almost running to the dining hall, Sofia could not get her hands on a mug to make coffee fast enough. She felt so worn out and the day had barely started.
Her day did relent a bit and ease on the difficulty once she had some food, coffee and a shower. Feeling somewhat normal again, she sat through the rest of Day 1 trying hard to acquire the bliss that is supposed to be offered when one meditates. However, towards the evening, it became hard to sit and meditate for a number of reasons: she was getting tired of the repetitive action of observing her breath, her muscles were not used to sitting for so long in one posture, but more importantly a pain had arisen in her back that would not go away.
At the 7:00pm hour of the day, a discourse was given. Aside from the scrumptious lunch menu, the evening discourse would become another highlight of the day. In the discourse, the main teacher, S.N. Goenka, would lecture and tell stories on from a pre-recorded DVD that was displayed on two television sets, one facing the women meditators and one facing the men meditators. The man who had a deep moan to his voice that bellowed through the hall in the morning actually had a very pleasant and jolly disposition to him. His full round cheeks, gentle eyes filled with compassion and knack for storytelling would turn the meditation hall full of silent pain during the day into a snug and splendid setting for the time he was on the screen. Each night he talked about the day that had passed, highlighting on key issues that the students had been inaudibly going through. When Sofia would notice a quiet nod or a knowing smirk from a fellow meditator, she knew she was not alone in this quest. The teacher would talk about the reasons behind the technique and give examples and stories to back up his statements. For example, the focus on the breath and nothing but the breath had a reason; it was to focus the mind. If a meditator focused on an object or a mantra, those actions would help calm the mind, but ultimately they would not help focus the mind to go deep inward. Upon hearing this, it comforted Sofia. It gave rationale to a day that was beginning to lose rhyme and reason.
Quite the contrary, what was not comforting was when the teacher said the next ten days would be like a surgery going deep within the mind. The pain of that surgery would be felt, but the anesthesia to numb that pain would not be injected. Instead, each person was to go deep within the incision and heal the wounds. The result would be to come out of the self-inflicted misery inherent in all humans. He explained that all meditation is good. However, they work at the surface level of the mind. They do not go deep within the mind to diminish misery.
Misery was what the Buddha wanted to conquer and did so through this technique. However, it was reiterated time and again that this practice was not part of Buddhism, or any religion, cult, or sect. It was for anyone who wanted to give it a try and if they did not like it, they were not bound to anything. Sofia believed this to be completely true, because the whole ten-day retreat, with hot water, heaters and air conditioning, healthy food and comfortable accommodations was free of charge. All the centers throughout the world were based on donations only. It was later explained in a discourse, one of the following nights, the reason behind the free retreat. If people were charged for something, such as accommodations or food, expectations would arise. Once expectations or complaints were whirling in the minds of the meditators, they would not be able to completely surrender to going inward and focusing on themselves.
The discourses were always filled with lessons of the day, lessons for the following day, and lessons for life in general. For the Day 1 Discourse, the teacher concluded with instructions to be followed for Day 2. The following day, the students were to observe the breath more closely… to observe the breath as it went in and out of the entrance of the nostrils and also the inner walls of the nose. That was all. For eleven and a half hours the following day, all 200 meditators had that one simple task. Except it was not simple by any means.
Day 2 had the same schedule as the previous day. The only things that were different were the lunch menu and the pain that Sofia was feeling in her back. Below her scapula, on the right side of her back, the pain was becoming more prominent with each passing hour. It was a stinging sensation, evolved into a burning sensation. She could not escape the discomfort that was beginning to take over her whole body. Squirming in place, atop her cushions, she began to twist her arm around to gently massage her aching back. This kneading did not help. It was an inescapable gnawing that took her attention from her breath as it grew in strength. At one point in the day, she got up to go outside and catch her breath because it was becoming difficult to even breath with this tempestuous pain. Standing and walking helped her, which was weird. It was as if walking out of the meditation hall she was able to also walk away her pain, to a small degree. She was sore during lunch. But the delicious food was a welcome break from the monotony of her previous couple of hours.
After the midday break, Sofia mustered the courage to walk back to the hall once the gong had chimed alerted everyone it was time to get back to the work of focusing on the breath. As soon as she sat down on her cushion, the burning torment in her back presented itself. At that very moment, it dawned on her, “This must be my pain! The pain that is supposed to come out during this 10 day course!” She was able to recognize its purpose, but that realization did not make her matter any better. All day, the pain in her back remained. Not only was it present, but it gained momentum by the end of the day too. It was a ruthless burn similar to a fire that started small and slowly became an uncontrollable, acrimonious giant that was not tamable. That night, during the discourse, there was lightness in the air as the teacher spread his goodwill and love illuminating through the television screen. But as the discourse came to a close, Sofia sighed quietly to herself for the instructions for the following day did not seem like they would ease the tension she was feeling. On Day 3, all the students were directed to focus on the breath as well as any sensations on the area above the upper lip and below the nostrils.
On that day as soon as Sofia sat on her meditation pillows, the pain came back without a moment’s pause. She began to feel restless and sad because the day had barely began and already she was suffering. The pain did not relent at all as the day passed. Not even the anticipated lunch lifted her spirit. During the midday meditation sitting, the burning sensation in her back took a turn for the worse. Now it felt as if someone had stabbed Sofia in the back with a knife and there was a large open wound penetrating with a throbbing pulse. The sheer terror of the feeling she was experiencing brought tears to her eyes. In fact, the tears would not stop.
Feeling completely defeated, she was not able to sit anymore on her mat. And she certainly could not focus on any sensations above her lip and below her nostrils. Just thinking about having to conduct such a remedial task of trying to feel slight sensations on her face pissed Sofia off because it was incomparable to the agony and discomfort of the feeing her back that was like a knife laceration, dripping with blood. Trying to keep her tears under control so she did not attract attention to herself, she walked out of the hall and straight to her room where she tried to crawl into a ball within the confines of her sleeping bag and silently weep her heart out and her pain. The endless waterfall of tears wet her cupped hands holding her face, her shirt and her sleeping bag. The pain she had endured during her marriage, during her divorce, and during her father’s death all seemed to come together like a hard, impenetrable mountain that was on fire and would not allow her to escape its wrath. She wept until she felt suffocated. “I can’t continue this anymore,” she thought to herself “the pain I am feeling today makes yesterday’s pain feel like a tease.” A rambunctious debate about whether to leave the retreat began going on in her mind. Finally, a small internal voice willed her to stay. And the rationale behind it was that the following day was the teaching of Vipassana. That was the very reason she had signed up for this experience.
So with a deep, searing sensation in her back, dried tears on her face, eyes puffy from all the crying, a crestfallen spirit and sadness in her heart, she made the glum walk back to the meditation hall. Needless to say, the pain she was feeling in her body and mind did not abate through the rest of the day or through the evening’s discourse.
Day 4 was the big day. It was the day that Vipassana was to be administered by the teacher, over the speakers, to all the meditators. Everyone situated their pillows and bodies as comfortably as was possible with all of the distress and anguish in the room. The teaching of Vipassana was to take from the lesson of the previous day and the focus on sensations. This time the sensations felt were all over the body, starting from the very top of the head and working all the way down to the tips of the toes. The purpose of Day 1 and Day 2, with the strict focus on the breath and nothing else was to concentrate and sharpen the mind so that very feeble and indistinct sensations could now be felt as the meditators scanned their bodies. The purpose of Day 3 was to become accustomed to the understanding that when concentrating deep enough, even the modest, delicate sensations can be felt on all parts of the body. The students had to merely notice these sensations and not react to them. No matter the sensation, each person had to keep a steady mind.
This was not an easy feat. The knife that Sofia felt in her back had deepened its gash and gone further inward, feeling as though it had cut through her muscles and reached past the bones of her rib cage and into her heart. Not only that, it felt as though it was twisting and turning within the incision. It was so unbearable that again, it made the pain of the previous day seem subdued in comparison. Yet underneath all of this pain, there was something fascinating about this technique that Sofia was beginning to understand through the administering of Vipassana over the speakers in that hall. She was in too much pain to think clearly, but something was happening within her that was far deeper than words could describe. All she knew for the time being was that there were other sensations all over her body. They were not as distressing as the one in her back. They were not intense or grotesque. Some parts of her body had a light, airiness to them. Some parts of her body had a slight tingling sensation. Some parts of her body had solidity devoid of pain. It was amazing how deep she was going. Was this what people meant when they said we are all just energy? These sensations felt alive. It was real. It was amazing. She was beginning to feel the underlying current running within her body if she just focused on it instead feeling the torment of the fire in her back.
Once the teacher had guided all 200 meditators through their body, it was time for a break. When Sofia opened up her eyes, she felt something different, within her mind and within her body. She felt more aware, yet bewildered by what had just happened. She felt at peace, yet she could not escape the war going on in her back. She felt like a circuit of energy walking out of the meditation hall and into the fresh air. The mountains in the background stood so present. The leaves on the trees within eyesight seemed to glow. The air had a touch of vitality to it. It was definitely an extraordinary moment she was silently experiencing for herself. She looked around for Claire to see any signs of her personal experience visible on her face, but she could not find her. The other women around seemed to have a different gaze in their eyes as well. She wondered desperately what they were thinking, how they were feeling. Remembering to keep to herself, she just sat on the patch of grass before her, and pondered at the mountains straight ahead. There was something behind this web of nature and life, it seemed. Without further opportunity for reflection, she heard the chime in the background signaling everyone to come back to the hall. It was time for the one of the mandatory group sits. With more confidence and curiosity, Sofia marched back to the hall.
Just when she was beginning to feel some relief and understand the dynamics of the whole technique, the teacher’s voice on the loudspeaker informed everyone that from that moment on, at each of the three mandatory sittings through the day, everyone was supposed to sit completely still and not move their hands or their legs. “What?!” she yelled to herself. “That is impossible,” she thought, feeling defeated again.
But she did sit without moving for the duration of the hour. It was almost torturous. Scathing in pangs of torment, she told herself to endure this pain and learn to overcome it because it just kept getting harder each day, and the next day would probably be a killer. So she focused on scanning her body for the different sensations while trying to be equal to all of it, even the prominent one in her back. When the hour was over, Sofia felt as though she had endured one of the most difficult experiences of her life. Looking around, she could see that people were flushed red in the face, could not move their joints to stand up, hung their heads low in despair and some looked like they were holding back fountains of tears. “Ok, I’m not alone in this,” Sofia thought to herself. She did not understand why they had to sit without moving. What was the purpose behind that? To say it was unfair was an understatement. And so the day continued with the pain and the technique of meditation that was perplexing to say the least. She was beginning to find hope during the Vipassana hour, but then lost hope again once they were told to sit without moving, which seemed unnerving.
It was actually during the following evening, during the discourse of Day 5, that a light bulb illuminated for Sofia. The teacher talked about suffering that is inherent in all humans. Talking to the meditators, he acknowledged that they were in pain. And the pain they were feeling was a bodily pain. But he asked if they had turned that bodily pain into a mental pain, becoming agitated with those around them, with the retreat, with life in general? Also, he asked if they had turned that bodily pain into emotional pain, by feeling subdued or even crying? He mentioned that it is natural for all humans to take a discomfort or agitation in one aspect of their life and braid it with other aspects of their life. “Oh my gosh,” Sofia thought to herself, “I feel like he is talking to me.” She thought about the pureness behind those words and how true they were. The pain in her back had taken over all her other senses and rationale. By focusing on its magnitude, she had weakened not only her mind but her emotional strength as well. The same concept was true when, for example, a colleague would walk into work after a bad night at home and take their negative state from home into the work environment. She thought of strangers on the street who do not take their hand off the horn of their car, and make an incessant, strident, jarring, statement that they do not appreciate another car crossing over into their lane. They inadvertently spread the irritation they are feeling not just onto one car, but all of the other cars on the road within a close proximity. “How amazing the chain of thought patterns can be to not only one person, but also those that they unconsciously affect.”
The teacher continued on edifying his students with more truth. He said that to simply try and understand misery at the intellectual level would not liberate anyone. One had to go deep within the mind to get to the root cause of the misery. He explained that the Buddha started observing reality within his body like a scientist and observed all of the different sensations with their fleeting and temporary nature. With precise attention, he comprehended that no matter how painful or prominent the sensation, it would not last long. Again, Sofia felt her mouth drop slightly with incredulity. “Wow!” she thought, “So this is what the adage all things shall pass means! There is so much truth behind it! And I get it now… This technique makes me not only learn about the impermanence of all things, it makes me experience it within the framework of my own body!” Walking back to her room at the end of Day 5, she felt an uplifting assurance for the remainder of her stay at the retreat.
The certitude she sustained that night set the foundation for Sofia to work hard the following few days. She would sit on her meditation pillow ready to conquer the throbbing pulse of stabbing pain, in her back. She now knew that the way to obliterate the pain was by becoming neutral to it. She had to give just as much focus to the rest of her body as she did to her back. The essence was a simple awareness, without any like or dislike labeling the sensations in her body. This was easier said than done. After much determination of following the instructions given to her, tiny little miracles of comfort began to pop up. The first time the pain conceded just a little bit, a wave of joy ran through Sofia. “I got it!” she thought silently to herself, “it’s leaving me!” But as soon as that thought came, the pain returned with full force. Feeling crushed, she took a deep breath mixed with an exasperated sigh. She realized she should not have reacted to that moment of non-pain. Calming her mind, she began scanning her different body parts in a uniform motion and remaining indifferent to all of it. It was a tedious process, but she did not have anything better to go and do but this one task.
She deciphered why they were supposed to relinquish cell phones, reading material, or any objects that had any connection to the outside world. Apart from giving complete surrender to the erudition of the Vipassana technique, for the times that the students became bored, alternative choices of activities were not afforded. They had to literally sit with the boredom and witness it pass. It was not just boredom that passed through her. She would go through a multitude of emotions each day. At times, walking to the meditation hall, she could not fathom more continuous hours of sitting still and focusing on the sensations within the framework of her body. Yet, shortly after those irking thoughts, while in the practice of her meditation, she would feel a rush of nostalgia or peace flutter through her, filling her with encouragement and tenacity to continue.
The instructions for Days 6-9 were basically the same. The students had to scan their body, feeling the different sensations and remaining neutral to all of it. An ancillary step they had to conduct was to not only go from the top of the head to the bottom of the toes, but to also reverse the process, going from the toes to the head. They were also instructed to scan both sides of the body at the same time, from head to toes and vice versa.
The experience did not get progressively arduous as the first 4 days had been. But it did get much deeper. She felt the depth not just for herself, but something was changing in the energy of the hall, with all of the meditators. In place of the agitated expressions people fostered the first few days, a calm was settling on the faces of her fellow students. In fact, with each passing day, those mandatory three hours of meditation that the students were not allowed to move became less harrowing. She knew this, because everyone in the room fidgeted less. They let out less sighs of grief from under their breath. They were not so flushed in the face once each mandatory sitting was over. Sofia herself began to marvel at the simple yet extremely powerful impact this technique of meditation had on her. Each day, she built more capability within her mind to overcome the pain that was in her back.
She learned by sheer experience of sitting over eleven hours a day learning this technique that when something happens in life, good or bad, our body reacts to it. If it is positive, our mind penetrates a craving. This craving could be towards a situation, a person or an object of desire. On the flip side, the same is true for negativity. Our mind creates an aversion towards that situation, person or object. This craving and aversion affects our body by building slight pain within it. Add this pain up over a span of years or decades, and it will manifest itself in ailments and disease. The underlying doctrine behind this technique of meditation, what the Buddha discovered, is how to become neutral to the cravings and aversions of life. And an important fact is that it does not make a person a vegetable incapable of feeling. It simply teaches a person how to act instead of react in all situations. With each new unearthing revelation behind the teaching of Vipassana, Sofia became so overwhelmed with amazement at the depth, yet simplicity of it that she could not help but to shed tears of marvel.
This time it was not tears for her pain or for her life. It was tears of gratitude and wonderment for this retreat she was so blessed to have encountered in this life of hers. By Day 8, it all made sense. It made sense that for the first three days, the students had to sit and focus on their breath and fine-tune their mind to feel the subtle sensations all over their body, meanwhile allowing the pain of past experiences to build up to point that became intolerable. This unbearable pain was a representation of what happens to the body unknowingly when we are in a desire or despise of something or someone to the point it takes a toll on our mind, body and spirit. The gradual undoing of this pain came from Day 4. Once the pain was drifting away, like rain clouds dissipating by beautiful sunshine, the essence and radiance of the soul could be felt.
On Day 9 when Sofia was almost free of all her pain, during meditation, a euphoric bliss came upon her. Not reacting to it, she just sat with it. It was a beautiful, serene feeling full of grace and tranquility. She was not in pain for that short moment. Instead she was swimming within a gentle, warm sea of placid energy. It was an enchanting, divine few minutes. Just then, Sofia remembered her dad and the aura surrounding him in the hospital the day he had passed away. Snapping out of that bliss and into a new reality, she thought to herself, “This is what it must be like for dad right now. This feeling that came upon me must be what his spirit is feeling all the time.” Again, tears began to stream down her face. It was tears of appreciation for the bliss that came upon her. It was tears of acknowledgement for her father’s present state within this universe. It was tears of elation for the connection she made to her father’s world. She uncrossed her legs from her lotus posture, stood up, and glided out of the meditation hall. She walked over to the grass and situated herself down on its blades, looking at the mountain covered with trees in the foreground and mulled over what just happened to her. “He is ok,” she concluded for herself. “My beloved father is fine. His spirit is in an eternal peace. The people that are around in this life, in this dimension, have to work hard on a daily, momentary, basis to attain a fraction of the peace that he and all those who have passed on encompass.” She felt incredibly humbled for the occurrence that filtered through her in the meditation hall.
She cogitated on that day in the hospital. Her father had left this world, lying on a bed which was not his own, in a room that he had not occupied for longer than half of a day, in a building that he did not pay the mortgage or rent to inhabit. He left solely with the spirit that he had shaped during the time that he lived as a citizen of this world. In the end, Sofia discerned, it is not all of our material possessions, our worries, our memories, our struggles, our triumphs, our joys or our miseries that we take with us, or that even matter. What matters is how we cultivated our spirit through all of the wonderful or awful experiences we had to endure during this life. What matters is how we turned adversity and setbacks into lessons learned, moving forward with as much integrity and agility as possible. “I guess the adage the art of living is referring to all of these realizations I have acquired.” With that final thought, she got up from her spot on the grass and walked back to the hall for her final hours of meditation. On the following day, Day 10, silence would be broken and all the meditators would prepare to leave the retreat and head home to their normal lives, but with completely different mentalities.
Day 10 was a jubilant one. Being able to talk, to share, to laugh and to reminisce over the time spent on the retreat was not only a welcoming break to the monotony of the schedule, but it also weaved everyone’s experiences into one. Although each person came in with different weight from their life, with different body parts in pain, the common denominator shared by all was that this is all part of the human experience. Once stories were told, Sofia fathomed that some people had it worse than she did, with pain on more than one part of the body. The whole time she sat in silence, thinking her pain was the so unmanageable, wondering if the quiet bodies in the hall were experiencing a pain even slightly comparable to hers. She did not decipher some people may have had it worse than she did. “I guess you never really know what people are going through beneath all of the layers they publicly display. The grass is not always greener on the other side,” she thought to herself. At that moment, a wave of compassion with so much strength rippled through her, washing away any judgments or notions she carried. And this wave was so pure and so strong that it changed her perception about people and humanity from that moment on.
With a huge smile, from ear to ear, Claire strutted over to Sofia as she was basking in her life-changing realization. “What are you thinking?”
With tears of empathy welling her eyes, Sofia looked over to her friend and responded, “I am blown away. I am thinking how we are all in this together. We are not alone. This whole game of life does not have to be as hard as we make it. Our difficulties are not just for us. Every single person has struggles. Compassion, letting go, and love can lead to so much harmony.”
With raised eyebrows, a knowing smile that grew even bigger, and a softness in her voice, Claire replied, “My friend, you have been touched by this profound technique of Vipassana.”
Speechless, Sofia allowed the compassion, love and peace emanating behind her tears speak volumes on her behalf as she nod her head in agreement with her friend.
They left the retreat and headed back to Orange County the following morning. But Sofia returned as a new person. The self-realization and the life-realization she obtained on her retreat were not inculcated by shallow means. The 10 day retreat truly made a profound, positive impact on her whole existence. She realized all of the meditating she had done in the past had only been a band aid effect. It did not get that far deep within her conscious and unconscious mind for an everlasting result of harmony with life and a peace in day-to-day living. She learned that life in this dimension was about difficulty and lessons to be learned. It was how we dealt with the difficulty that would be the art of living. No one comes into this world and escapes hardship of some kind. It is here for all of mankind. Some people have a better way of masking it, while some people have a better way of handling it.
She learned to not sweat the small stuff. She learned to observe her life without attachment. She learned to view the big picture, expanding her soul and her mind. She learned to have compassion for all of humanity. She learned to have acceptance with the passing of her father, for now she knew the beauty of the peace he was resting in.
It was with all of these lessons learned that she set out to begin a new chapter in her life. Her friend from Paris had found residence in Sofia’s favorite city. From the day Harlow had moved to New York City, she had prodded her friend to move there as well. She wanted the two of them to relive the beautiful moments they shared, being roommates, while they were residents of Paris.
So Sofia finally decided to take Harlow up on her offer of moving to New York City. She packed her bags and flew to the city of human connection, with an earnest understanding for that connection that she did not have while having been a resident there with Earl. This time, her journey in her favorite city was going to be on her terms, as a new person, with a depth of joy and compassion ingrained deep within her. She lived with love for all. She lived with compassion for all. She encountered each person in her web of life and spoke to them from the heart… She would always state, “…this comment, this experience, this moment is coming From My Heart to Yours.”