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NEWS

The Sounds of Silence

Jennifer Oechsner

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For the past few years I have toyed with the idea of taking part in a 10 day Vipassana course. I never was sure I could handle it and didn't think I was a serious enough meditator to take on something like this. What is Vipassana? It's an ancient meditation technique that was practiced in India roughly 2500 years ago. The tradition became adulterated and watered down and eventually died out. It was reinvigorated in Myanmar in the 20th century and is now practiced around the world. (For more information go to dhamma.org)

There are several Vipassana centers in India and Nepal and it seemed like the perfect time for me to take on this challenge. To be honest, going in I didn't know much about it other than that it was 10 days of silence and a whole lot of meditation. I thought maybe it was better to go in without expectations so with an open mind and a trusting heart I signed up for the June course in Pokhara, Nepal.

As June 1st grew closer my excitement gradually gave way to fear and apprehension. I questioned whether I would be able to handle it. Then, on the way there in the taxi I stopped at the ATM so I could pay the driver and I wasn't able to access any cash. I tried 4 different ATMs and none of them would work. Sweat dripped down my back, my breath quickened, and a knot formed in my stomach. There had been other obstacles I had to overcome in the previous week and I was feeling panic with this new one. Miraculously I was able to contact the bank and they were able to fix the issue. I definitely lost my cool on that one. Interesting timing wasn't it?

When I finally arrived at the meditation center I was pleasantly surprised by the view. The center was situated on the top of a hill overlooking a beautiful lake and rolling mountains as far as you could see. On a couple of mornings that are rare for this time of year the clouds dispersed and the mighty, snowy peaks of the Himalaya revealed themselves. Another metaphor for the journey we were on together for those 10 days.

When I was taken to my room I was surprised to see that I would be sharing a room with 5 other women. Would be interesting to be in such close proximity to 5 people I couldn't talk to or interact with.  As I crawled beneath the blanket on that first night and listened to the rain pound on the metal roof I felt the grip of fear return. I thought to myself, "what the hell am I doing here? How will I possibly get through the next 10 days?" It turns out, one day and one breath at a time. 

When the morning gong echoed through the air at 4am I peeled my eyes open and got ready for the first round of meditation. What transpired over the following days and hours of sitting on that cushion in that sometimes stifling room was an erratic mixture of emotions, sensations and energetic flow.

I knew that some people didn't last the whole time and on day 2 the first person left, then a few more as the course went on. I was determined make it through. I was fascinated by what would happen to my brain while sitting in meditation for so many hours. Turns out, it's really hard to concentrate. Part of Vipassana is connecting to the sensations of the body through a type of body scan. Starting at my head, I would often only get to my nose and my mind would wander to wondering what was for breakfast, what the next phase of my life will look like in China, wondering what happened to my first boyfriend, or the girl who was so mean to me in 1st and 2nd grade....the list of distracting thoughts goes on and on. Then the questions would arise. Was I failing?...just breath...How will I get through 9 more hours?...just breath. Will my back hurt the whole time?...just breath. I had to continually remind myself to come back, to focus, to persevere and that nothing is permanent. I had to remind myself to be grateful to be there and to embrace the gift of the journey I was on.  As I look back it was truly a microcosm of life. There is often pain in life. There so many distractions that take us from our path. We are so often faced with the choice of taking challenges head on or burying our head in the sand. We can choose to run from the pain of growth or dive in and experience the pain so we can see more clearly how to get through it the next time it arises.  There are times when we question our inherent wisdom and forget our innate compassion. The practice of Vipassana can help bring you back to your truth.

As a yoga practitioner I understand the connection of mind and body and understand that our body holds tension that is generated in the mind. Like yoga, this is part of the expereince of Vipassana. When we are able to connect to (however uncomfortable) the pain in the body, we can then release the patterns of misery generated in the mind. The hips can hold deep rooted pain. The lower back can hold tightly to traumas the mind holds tightly to. The upper back can hold tightly to the tension of a fearful heart. I felt all of these in my body. And I also felt release. The release came with rushes of energy flooding areas of my body and this energy was often accompanied by tears. Not tears of sadness or even tears attached to a particular thought, but rather, tears of release; tears of letting go. These moments were profound. The tricky part of this was not becoming attached to the experience and letting the waves come and go with the grace of an ocean tide. 

The teaching of Vipassana is rife with life lessons. One that stood out to me that I wanted to share is the power of planting the seeds of the fruit you wish to have in your life. Do you plant seeds of doubt or seeds of hope? Do you plant seeds of faith or seeds of cynicism? Do you plant seeds of joy or seeds of misery? The mind is a powerful tool but can also be a powerful weapon when left to run wild. I believe that we can all train our mind to nurture and cultivate seeds of positivity. As the story goes, if you want to have sweet mangos, then you can't plant seeds of the bitter neem tree.

When the vow of silence ended on the afternoon of day 9 it felt strange to talk. But quickly the room buzzed with joyful conversation. Somehow we had created relationships through the shared energy and shared experience.  It felt as though a special bond was created. While at first I was disappointed to be sharing a room with so many people, it turned into a wonderful experience. Another way perspective shifted my reality.

These 10 days began a new chapter in my long journey of self-discovery. The path of awareness, the path of Dhamma, is one of truth. But it is also a path that requires patience and persistence. The path can be painful but it can also lighten your mind and your heart and deepen the most important relationship you have in your life; the relationship you have with yourself. 

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