Wednesday, December 19, 2018

My 10-Day Emotional Roller Coaster - Vipassana Silent Meditation

In today's post, I wanted to take a deep dive into the roller coaster ride of emotions that I experienced during my first 10-day Vipassana silent meditation course. Here's a visual depiction of the ups and downs:

Days 1 and 2 were smooth sailing. I was getting accustomed to the daily timetable and trying to figure out what worked for me. I experienced minor ups and downs but nothing severe. I distinctly recall thinking to myself that I didn't understand why so many people experienced such severe emotions during the 10-day course. I thought perhaps I could get away with not feeling a similar level of intensity. How naive.

On Day 3, the novelty of being in a new environment was starting to wear off. The primary emotion for me on this day was homesickness. I didn't necessarily feel lonely, but I missed interacting with my family and friends. I regretted my decision to take the 10-day course, and I was very fearful that something would happen to my loved ones, and that I would never see them again. I kept thinking to myself, "Why did I come here? I didn't need to do this. I was happy. I'll never do this again."

I woke up on Day 4 feeling even-keeled. I was excited to be learning a new technique as we had concentrated on Anapana meditation for the first 3 days of the course. We started learning Vipassana meditation in the afternoon, but my excitement quickly evaporated. Coming into the course, I had read that this meditation technique involves awareness via the use of a body scan; however, I wasn't prepared for a very long and repetitive set of instructions. I became very impatient and frustrated during the 1.5 hour long audio recording that taught us the technique. It dragged on, lemme tell ya. I was expecting more insight, and I left the meditation hall thinking, "That's it? That's what I came here for?" There was one more group meditation session that evening. I dragged myself to the meditation hall and literally felt like bursting into tears. I reluctantly started meditating. After an hour, my mood had completely changed. I somehow came out of my funk. I'm not sure what happened during that session, but I thought to myself, "This technique works!!"

On Day 5, I woke up eager to try meditation again, but I found myself down in the dumps in the afternoon. During the first 4 days, the afternoon sessions were the most difficult for me. I had trouble staying awake, my mind would wander, and I would feel terribly helpless once the sun started setting. "How am I going to last 5 more days?" I went to the afternoon meditation session feeling again like I was going to cry. But then I started meditating and felt the sensations for the first time. These are basically vibrations you can feel on or within your body that feel a bit like tingling, numbness, and electricity all rolled into one. I was elated when I got out of this session and again thought to myself, "This works!" This was the day I decided to implement a daily meditation practice once I got home.

Day 6 was when I experienced pure bliss. My mind was bursting with creative ideas, and I felt so light that levitation crossed my mind (it didn't happen). I'm not sure what happened to make me feel such joy, but I felt incredibly strong and resilient. That being said, it was also a little frustrating, because I wanted to go home and get on with my life. I had so many ideas I wanted to pursue, but no outlet as I didn't even have a pen to jot down my thoughts. Even still, I felt happy and excited for most of the day.

Then the night arrived, and with it, the darkness. I was tired during the day, but I had trouble sleeping, which is rare for me. I had nightmares and woke up in a panic. I was filled with intense paranoia. I wanted to run away, but where would I go? How would I get home? I stayed in bed, paralyzed with fear, but I felt a little better on the morning of Day 7. The paranoia and fear I felt last night had subsided and I felt ok again. Not for long. That afternoon, after the group meditation session, I had what must have been severe anxiety. I was filled with irrational negative thoughts that were beyond anything I've ever felt before. I felt trapped, like I was suffocating. I tried meditate, but there was intense pressure in my chest, and I felt like I was being sucked into the ground. I thought I was losing my mind. Fortunately, the bell sounded for tea break, so I got up, turned on the light, and continued on with the evening. But I was shaken, and I felt anxious that I'd have another sleepless night. Fortunately (again), I had a good evening meditation session, and I was able to sleep through the night.

The next day arrived, and I felt pretty good. Day 8 was the day I felt the most consistently content. I was happy but not in a state of bliss. I went through the day feeling pretty good. I even saw a bird, similar to how Dan Harris saw one during his meditation retreat (as described in his book, 10% Happier), except mine was a white-breasted nuthatch, whereas his was a hummingbird.

I felt utterly exhausted on Day 9. I had started to have some mild headaches at around the halfway point of the course, so I knew I was experiencing some mental fatigue, but I wasn't prepared for the physical lethargy. I felt like my legs were about to fall off, and I barely had energy for my daily walks. I still wanted to get my steps in, but I did it at a snail's pace. Between the mandatory meditation sessions, I would go back to my room to lie down. Sometimes I slept. I thought I would be excited because we were so close to the end, but instead I just felt tired.

Day 10 was an exciting day. Not only did we practice the Metta meditation technique, we got to break noble silence! When our vow of silence ended, I felt a twinge of sadness. I really enjoyed this aspect of the course, and it took me a while to return to the speaking world. I found I wanted to be by myself quite a bit at first, but I gradually reintegrated, and it was really nice to talk to my fellow course participants. We also got a light dinner in the evening, which was a welcome change. This day went by reasonably quickly, and the next day was time to go home.

The 10-day meditation course is structured in such a way to allow negative emotions to surface in a safe environment. You are forced to experience your emotions to the fullest, as you're not able to distract yourself (with TV, books, journals, food, etc.) and essentially suppress them. When you experience these emotions, the key takeaway is that they are anicca--this is the concept of impermanence. Nothing lasts, good or bad, so just observe how you feel when the negative emotions arise and wait for them to pass.

I found it really interesting that my negative emotions mostly centered around fear, paranoia, and self-doubt. I thought I would feel more anger, impatience, and frustration, as these were front and centre before I quit my job. Instead, I didn't feel any anger--only a little impatience and frustration on Day 4. Having gone through the 10-day course, I can definitely see that I was a textbook case of repressed emotions. After all, I've spent years distracting myself through shopping, eating, travelling, planning--anything to keep busy.

I've learned to sit with (and observe) my feelings now, and I know they will eventually pass. I'm still rather new to Vipassana, so I have a lot to learn and experience, which is why I'll be continuing my practice. I've been consistently meditating for two hours per day since Monday. Time will tell whether this technique will work for me.

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