My legs seared as though someone was sitting behind me with a cattle prod repeatedly sending volts of electricity through my back. I imagined certainly my spine was compressing disks to a degree that I would never recover from and that at least if I could no longer walk I’d have a new process in which to deal with it.
It is at this point where if you don’t meditate, if you think it’s hippy and “out there” and you think Venetia moved to the west coast and lost her mind — then you might stop reading. BUT. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re a curious human being and you wonder why someone would go live like a nun for ten full days with over 140 hours of sitting meditation. With two meals a day, waking up at 4:30 am, no verbal or non- verbal communication, no exercise, reading, writing, music — nothing. Just you, your mind and your body.
I just returned from something called “Vipassana” — a chance to purify the mind and body in a ten day course. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. When I checked in they took my phone and car keys or I probably would have left multiple times. At one point I actually crossed my arms in my little solitary cell and started to cry, turned into a pouty three year old and said, “I just absolutely won’t sit for another minute”. Luckily, one piece of advice had been given to me before I was sent off. A friend who had encouraged me to do the course for over two years told me, “I have one piece of advice”. At that time I didn’t have any idea of the difficulty that lay ahead and I sort of giggled and said, “Oh yeah? What’s that?”
He said, “No matter what. Just sit”.
I said. “Okay, okay” and went on my way.
But, in that moment of tantrum I heard his advice whisper to me and I didn’t leave the pillow. Instead, I accidentally fell asleep sitting up and woke up 40 minutes later with drool all over my neck (and more back pain). To say it was a low point is an understatement. But, as I wiped away the drool, I sat up and felt a teenie bit better. I closed my eyes, took a breath, and was able to get another 40 minutes of real concentration in. Therefore I realized that “Just Sit’ would have to be my mantra to get through this insanely hard experience, to stay on the pillow, and will now become my mantra for life.
I wasn’t the only one who had decided to go through with this. There were actually 100 other people (50 men/50 women) who had also made the choice to come and learn a 2500 year old technique to quiet the mind, silence the mouth and learn compassion, love, acceptance and ultimately, happiness. People of all ages, however, most of them being 20’s-35. What had compelled me to be one of them?
Well, last year I left the job of everyone’s dreams to pursue my own only to learn in the same week that my aunt was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. My aunt, who is like a second mom to me, became my focus. Cooking, picking out wigs, chemo appointments and foot rubs became the important thing. Every moment became about trying to be with her. The moments were so precious.
Then, one day while sitting having tea after a chemo session I got a text that said, “My dad has been shot. Please pray”. It was from my best friend of 16 years. I was floored. Another text followed. “My dad died this morning”.
I called my best friend as my mind whirled, tears fell and fear filled my entire body. I’m pretty sure I was in shock. It still feels like a groggy nightmare in which every day I imagine it didn’t really happen. She isn’t really having to deal with that right now. The truth is — she is. Every moment of every day since then. Her father was taken from us by a senseless act of gun violence in front of her mother as they went for a morning hike. Both of our innocence in a way was stolen that day. I had never had something so violent happen to someone so close to me.
Needless to say, the past six months caused my mind and body a lot of stress. I wanted to be there for everyone. Finally, as the new year was approaching I realized that this was to be life. These extreme ups and downs, and I was not really knowing how to deal with it. I didn’t know how. I feared for what lay ahead. Vipassana became a step in a direction to begin to deal with all that life was throwing at me. Vipassana works with all faiths. It’s more of a practice and not a religion. I wanted to learn a technique that could potentially help me get through these experiences.
I was tempted not to write about it because Vipassana is a technique that specifically encourages, “It must be experienced” but I wanted to write why I think meditation is a really magnificent tool in everyone’s life that few people ever take out of the toolbox. I should clarify that there are hundreds of types of meditation — but Vipassana in particular is very very deep mind surgical meditation — which makes it that much harder but also, the effects that much more lasting and powerful.
So, let’s begin with the mind. That brilliant cushy mushy thing in your skull.
Let’s be honest. The mind is a giant, non-stop talking wild elephant. A nonsensical, stream of conscious babbling nutso. We all listen to this elephant on a regular basis. We never turn her off. In fact, this elephant runs our lives and sits in the driving seat of our body in front of a dashboard of buttons hitting them all erratically day after day. The buttons say, “Exhilaration”, “Worry”, “Fear”, “Happiness” etc. There are hundreds of buttons all either making us “want something” or “run away” from something. This back and forth runs our lives until we ultimately die, worried about what will happen to our children, what we’ve left behind, all the things we did or didn’t do and measure ourselves more by what we’ve achieved than how we were as human beings on a daily basis.
The first part of understanding and coming to terms with what meditation is trying to accomplish is recognizing that your mind in general, drives you CRAZY and that you believe and sort of hope that there MUST be peace somewhere in this life. That your mind is in control of you and that you believe you can be the one in control. That this roller coaster of ups and downs just can’t be right. And the roller coaster is getting faster and faster every year and it won’t slow down. The only thing you CAN slow down, despite only checking social media twice a day, or less email, or more walking — is your mind.
You have tried to find this peace or maybe you don’t even believe there IS such a thing. Well, I certainly haven’t mastered this, but I am here to tell you I have glimpsed at it. In hundreds of hours of sitting, I felt a mere few hours of something “different”. Something, well, that had a semblance of peacefulness. Away from all my dreams and aspirations, fears etc. I felt my mind quiet and I had never felt that before. It was silent. It is what you feel and hear in that silence that can become transformational.
Those of you that know me know I am a very loud exuberant human being. So you could imagine that when I felt true silence I didn’t know what it was. It was a shock. My mind was just….well, doing nothing. I waited for thoughts to come…and they didn’t. I suddenly felt the strangest moment of calm. It had taken over 45 hours of sitting to just reach this one small moment.
Five minutes later my mind was back at it with every fear encroaching, a countdown of minutes to when this hell would be over and wondering what was for lunch, but in those few minutes I HAD FELT peace. I should mention that everyone feels and experiences something different and there’s no way to explain what that is.
I’m also not going to try and explain how the Vipassana process works…in fact, it’s too complicated. It’s based in science, I can say that — and so that part really resonated with me. All I can say is there is no blind belief with the process and that you can actually understand that it is completely reasonable and within the laws of nature.
What I am here to say is that anyone and everyone has universal worries and desires, and that we also all universally have the ability to take control of the elephant. I should also mention it takes a long and patient time. Elephants don’t get trained overnight. They kind of laugh at you when you ask them to sit and then spray water in your face. But, as any of us have seen at the circus, they can indeed, be tamed.
Unfortunately, so many people wouldn’t be open to this experience. When was the last time we were willing to gruelingly work harder than we knew was possible for something? Pushing our own boundaries? Doing what we didn’t want? Plus. Gasp! Ten days?! It’s two weekends and 7 days. It can be done.
It’s amazing what comes out when we let go. That’s what I ended up doing. It happened on Day 7. I resigned to the fact that I would do it no matter what and that was just how it was going to be. I was filled with fierce determination to do everything in my power to master this technique best I could. No, it didn’t get easier, but “Just Sit” got louder and more just “What I did” instead of “What I should do”.
Just sitting means that in life — as things come up, both good and bad, you aren’t running towards them like a dog running after a ball. It’s just sitting and watching them happen without reacting to them. That is what this practice teaches.
While I was eating lunch one day I thought of my aunt. A memory became so clear to me — us being at a nice restaurant after college and my aunt and uncle visiting me in LA and her whispering, “Get whatever you want. Appetizer, dessert, whatever”. I know this sounds lame, but I was broke and this seemed like heaven. That’s how I’d explain her. Soft, beautiful, and always giving. The idea of her suffering made me burst into tears. I let myself cry. You are still allowed to cry. To feel. You just don’t hold on to the emotions. Let it out and then let it go. How many of us have cried about something only to let the entire day dissolve into hours of misery, chocolate cookies, projections of hurt onto others and sleeping away precious moments of our lives?
Days 7, 8, 9 and 10 had their complete ups and downs. I didn’t crack any codes, I didn’t become enlightened, and I didn’t necessarily feel like, “By God! I’ve GOT it”. On Day 10 though, and even today, what I DO feel — is nowhere but here. And so beyond happy to be here. I have a lasso and a tool to keep the elephant at bay. Something I now have to work at every single day, but having glimpsed at this peace, am determined to do so.
Getting control of your mind is just the means. The end result is different for everyone, but with hard work it almost always becomes feelings of appreciation, gratitude, love, patience and countless other things. Who doesn’t want to live a more calm, accepting and loving life?
May you know the peacefulness that exists in your heart and mind and may you be determined to work to find it. May you learn that “Just Sitting” can eventually help get you through and is very possible to learn. If you’d like to take part in the Vipassana experience, I highly recommend the experience and here’s how.