Final Thoughts on Vipassana

I vividly remember Days 7-9 of my Vipassana course thinking and feeling it would never end, yet, here it is over a month later and the course already feels like another lifetime ago. Since returning I have fielded countless questions about the experience and I’m not sure I’ve ever be able to accurately put it into words.

The most prominent personal insight I pulled from the experience is that I have an imbalance of pride and humility. If you guessed that pride is dominant, then you are correct. A spotlight shown on this when I asked myself why I stayed when I was miserable and the best answer is that I didn’t want people to think less of me because I didn’t follow through. This was highlighted again when I was given a meditation chair on Day 9 and my instincts were to refuse it. Why? Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than being pitied.  However, during one of my many walks in the woods, it hit me. What I have failed to see these past few years is most people are offering me compassion, which I translated into pity. There is a difference.

4141-Haruki-Murakami-Quote-Pain-is-inevitable-Suffering-is-optionalI love to suffer. I would rather suffer alone in pain and discomfort than look weak. It goes against every cell in my body. BUT, I need to remember it takes more strength to ask for help, be vulnerable and weak than it does to suffer, in pain, silently.

That being said, I learned I struggle with other’s emotions and reactions. I often sugar coat my health situation because I don’t want pity, but also because I can’t handle other’s crying, being upset, hurt or angry at my expense. I’m not sure there’s anything specific I can do to make this urge go away, other than continuing to strive to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. I can not control others reactions, but I geeze, I really want to.

 

Now, some lessons for the general good.

You can pretty much do anything (within the laws of nature) with patience, persistence and practice. When I told people I was going on to spend 10-days meditating in silence without my iPhone, a typical response was, “I could never do that.” And I’m here to say, yes you could, if you wanted to and I totally get that not everyone wants to.

Let it go. Let it go. Let it go. 99.9% of people I know have experienced a trauma in their life. And of that 99.9%, most of us (myself included), strive to not relive those bad experiences and push them deep down inside our brain. We all know this is not a good coping mechanism. In fact, I’m here to tell you it can be downright dangerous. In my case, I do believe stress and trauma contributed to cancer. Before the course, I received a call from a staff member at the Center who wanted to talk about my application. One of the things she said is that all those traumas are going to come to the surface and she was right. What I realized is the only way for the traumas to get out is through the surface. If you truly want to be free, you will let them come to the surface, deal with them and then, let them go.

The internet is the devil. I knew that social media and the news caused me anxiety and a 10-day Vipassana course was an excellent detox. So much that I’ve continued to limit my exposure and let me just say, OMG – living in the bubble is so nice. I have no idea what is going on in the world and I love it. While I agree there are many important issues to fight for at the moment, I’ve decided the best thing I can do is make sure I am happy, which makes me more kind to others and (hopefully) in turn makes those people pay the kindness forward and so on.

 

Other FAQs

Isn’t it boring? More than I could describe. You think you know boredom, but without talking, technology, books or journals, this was a whole other level.

Why 10 days? I’m sure I could’ve found a shorter meditation program, but it wouldn’t have been the same. If you read my last blog, I was having fun for the first half of the course. It wasn’t until the last half that I settled in and the hard, rewarding work began.

No talking, really? Noble silence means no talking, eye contact, gestures or communication of any sort. The quiet is necessary to focus. I realized this after silence broke and I tried (unsuccessfully) to meditate. You may talk to the teacher and course manager, which I did a few times.

What were the discourses like? Every evening there was a philosophic teaching video featuring the late teacher, SN Goenka, the Burmese man who brought Vipassana meditation to the western world. Some of the concepts really connected with me (impermanence, compassion, love, acceptance), but others, not so much. Specifically when he talked about craving and aversion. Naturally, I thought of cancer and questioned…when I was really sick from cancer, was I just suppose to not have aversion to my situation and not crave feeling better? Every video is concluded with a wish for all beings to be happy – is that not craving? Basically, take a seat, Goenka.

Is the food good? Breakfast and lunch were excellent vegetarian dishes that included tacos, pastas, soups, salads, etc. “Dinner” was only fruit and tea. I learned the first day that a full belly and meditation do not work well together. Those with health conditions can arrange for dinner, but I decided to try the holistic plan and was fine.

How much does this cost? The course is free and runs on donations from students who have completed the entire 10 days. I did give them a financial donation and a shipment of squatty potties to help future students with the digestive slowdown many of us experienced as a result of sitting for 11+ hours each day.

What were the other people like? The course consisted of 35 men, 35 women and a handful of people who were volunteers in the kitchen. Wait lists for each course are equally long. Approximately 20 were return students. One guy was attending for the 14th time. We had a bank CEO, sitting for the 3rd time. A Buddhist nun. Many yoga teachers. A few college students. Stay at home mothers. Retirees. A couple on their honeymoon. Immigrants from Colombia, Thailand, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Screen-shot-2011-01-19-at-2.09.13-AM1What do you do all day? Meditate, sleep, walk and eat. The daily schedule is shown to the right, but basically the day is 4am until 10pm, with many opportunities for rest and solitude. There are three, one-hour “mandatory” group meditations each day.

Can you leave? Of course and I was surprised that only six out of 70 people left before the end of the ten days. The teachers and staff really try to accommodate people and encourage them to stay the entire course.

In conclusion, I’m so glad I did it. I felt that I knew myself well, but after sitting alone for ten days, I learned some new things. I’m also happy to report that I have continued my meditation practice and think the technique will be very useful. During days 6-9, you couldn’t have paid me a million dollars to do another course and I constantly told myself, I never want to do this again. However, when I left the center I thought, I might do this again. And now that I’ve had some distance from the experience, I would do it again… but not anytime soon.

To learn more about Vipassana, click here.

Cancer Camp Reunion

This is the story of three, thirty-something girlfriends from Denver. Let’s call them Harry, Lloyd and Elle. They had wonderful marriages, adorable children and flourishing careers. You might say they had it all.

And then they all had breast cancer.

First to be diagnosed was Lloyd. Months later, Harry. After Harry, it was Elle.

Shortly after her diagnosis, Elle found a bracelet that said, LIKE A BOSS. She thought of her daughter and decided that would be her mantra for facing this disease. So the three friends got their forearms tattooed and the “Breast Friends” were born. From what it sounds like, they had a good time while confronting an experience, I would describe as the opposite of a good time. I recall a story of them sitting on Lloyd’s front porch laughing hysterically at the terrified expressions of passersby – three bald, young mothers watching their children play outside as if nothing about them was unusual.

img_1865Elle had a crazy idea that the three of them should go to a week-long surfing camp with First Descents, an organization that takes young adult cancer survivors on (FREE) adventure trips.  So, the three of them signed up. Then, Elle got really sick. Then, she died.  She was 36 and left behind two beautiful babies and a husband. Harry and Lloyd spoke at her memorial saying how she would be their lighthouse.

Harry and Lloyd knew they had to go surfing to honor Elle and so they joined thirteen other cancer survivors in California in September 2016. Their residence for the week – Pigeon Point Lighthouse. The universe works in poetic and mysterious ways.

1476993212Some of the most definitive moments of the week were not those spent conquering waves, but were when Harry and Lloyd spoke of Elle. They brought some of her ashes to be spread at the lighthouse and at Cowell’s Beach where we learned to surf. On the last day, our entire group was in the water, sitting in a circle on our boards, having a moment of silence for Elle, when a harbor seal popped its head out of the water. Call me crazy, but that was Elle and she got her wish – she was surfing in the water with her friends.

This past weekend, my husband and I voyaged to Denver for Easter. I was looking forward to visiting a new city and Rocky Mountain National Park, but I was most excited to have dinner Saturday evening with Harry and Lloyd. Over big bowls of ramen, we laughed and reminisced about our week of surfing with First Descents. Talking about the other campers, the funny moments and the mandatory nicknames (hence the story behind two comedic girls called Harry and Lloyd). We talked about how we loath being labeled as brave or courageous, after doing what anyone else would have done in our situation. We talked about people in our lives who have been recently diagnosed – children, mothers, friends, young women.

The injustice of cancer is mind-blowing and reminded me of a quote in Susan Sontag’s, Illness as Metaphor:

“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

And by having been citizens of that other place, Harry, Lloyd and Mitten (that’s me), decidedly agreed that because of cancer, we are all better people. And that to best honor their friend and the others we’ve lost along the way, we are obliged to be grateful, compassionate and out living our lives to the fullest, every day…like a boss.

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If you’re interested in learning more about First Descents, check out their website at www.firstdescents.com. Or if you’d like to financially contribute to the Like A Boss Team, click here. To date, Harry and Lloyd have raised over $13,000 – enough to send six other survivors to a week-long camp. Click here to read about my week with First Descents.

Review: All These Wonders

imagesAs a writer, I am reading all the time. Recently, my entire library waitlist came in at once and I found myself picking up fifteen books – all due back in three weeks. Geez, Louise, I better get busy.

What fills me with amazement is how the right book always lands in my palms at the right moment.  The universe just seems to know what we need and when we need it.

Let me share an example.

Last month, I traveled to Michigan to spend the week with my 86-year-old grandmother to hear any story she was willing to share with me about her life. I brought the two books that arrived at the library the day before I left, Moonglow and The Rainbow Comes and Goes.  I had no idea their premise but reserved them based on a recommendation. “Coincidently”, both stories were about characters spending time with an elder in their family. I can’t really explain it, but that’s just how these things work.

With a generous selection on my shelf, this week, I grabbed All These Wonders, a compilation of short stories previously performed at The Moth storytellers series. And wouldn’t you know it, the subtitle is, True Stories About Facing the Unknown. An especially relevant subject since I was dealing with facing some unknown myself this week.

So, I’ll share a few stories from the compilation that I think cancer survivors and/or anyone impacted by illness might appreciate. What I love about these stories is not the common theme of disease, but what happens before, between and after the character’s confrontation with disease. Reading these reminded me, it’s not illness what makes our stories wonderful and interesting and worth reading and hearing – it’s the moments in between and after illness enters our lives. However, the irony of it all is that without those bitter moments of illness, the moments in between and after would not be as sweet.

Ugh, it’s a double edged sword, people.

I hope you enjoy these wonderful stories and that they come into your life when you need them the most.

FAVORITE: It Matters A Great Deal by Kevin McGheehan
A son plans the party of a lifetime for his mother.

SUPER COOL: Who Can You Trust by Mary Claire-King
A doctor battles through heartbreak to make a breakthrough in cancer research.

SWEET: Kidneys and Commitments by Gil Reyes
A man receives the best gift ever from the love of his life.