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Meditation vacation

This 10-day trip was the most enlightening I've ever taken. And all I did, basically, was sit. This meditation retreat was as challenging as a mountain trek and as reviving as a staycation. The benefits were personal, as varied as the spoils of exercise: clarity, calm, confidence, happiness and weight loss.

Silence is the selling point of a little-known center named Dhamma Pakasa, a 20-acre wooded spot near Pecatonica, about 100 miles northwest of Chicago between Rockford and Freeport. Visitors arrive, check in, spend 10 days wordlessly co-habitating, meditating and eating wholesome vegetarian food before breaking their quiet.

Together they sweat, shiver, daydream, fret and grin — simply by sitting in the same room, in the same way, every day.

Dhamma Pakasa is one of 14 centers in North America that teach the vipassana method of meditation, a form of body awareness. The word is from the dead Pali language and means, basically, to see clearly.

Worldwide, every vipassana course is paid for by donation only. Some students donate nothing, many give more than $100, and still others volunteer to, for example, sew new curtains for the center.

Once you sit through a 10-day session, you can enjoy the shorter (or longer) courses in locales such as Hawaii, Indonesia, the Philippines, Italy, Latvia and the African nation of Benin. (I can think of worse ways to escape the bustle of Jakarta for a few days.)

Dennis Austin, an instructor at Dhamma Pakasa, said vipassana originated in India and was incubated in Burma for more than 2,000 years. In the 1950s, he explained, Westerners traveled to Burma (now Myanmar) to study the technique, and by 1980 a master teacher had come to the United States to lecture on the method. Courses began at the Pecatonica center in 2004.

Deborah Davis, a board member of the Illinois Vipassana Association and one of the founders of the Dhamma Pakasa center, said there is an early departure now and then.

"There are occasionally people who leave early," she said. "Sometimes people come expecting it to be sort of like a health spa instead of — whatever we might want to call it. It does happen. Ten days is a long time. Sometimes there's a family emergency, or sometimes they feel like they're just not ready. I'd say it's probably no more than 2 or 3 percent."

For the meditators in my group — a tea seller, a jazz musician, an emergency room doctor, an actor, a former rugby player, a photo booth entrepreneur and me — the vipassana experience was deeply transforming, even to a point of ecstasy. But first came the awful part: the beginning.

I nervously carpooled with a new friend one January afternoon from the Loop to Pecatonica. We arrived at the rural compound and made small talk with strangers over a thin vegetable soup. After a couple of hours, we formally checked in with vipassana volunteers, discussing our mental health and interest in meditation and signing paperwork. Then we surrendered our keys, pens and electronics.

The reality of our retreat quickly started to set in. Imagine a silent health-nut boot camp where we were meditating by 4:30 a.m. each day, culminating with a 5 p.m. "dinner" of fruit and tea. We agreed to abstain from all killing, stealing, sex, lies and intoxicants. These restrictions sound simple, but "intoxicants" include all literature, news, music, film, television, radio, hobbies, exercise and outside food. (No books. No jogging. No chocolate.) Meanwhile, we couldn't speak, touch, gesture or make eye contact. We could only rest, eat and shower at designated times.

Each day essentially was the same. Between 4:30 a.m. and 9 p.m. we meditated for eight sessions. We sat almost all day. Most sat on a personalized nest of blankets and cushions, rather than on chairs. A female and a male teacher together supervised our sessions and offered gender-segregated question-and-answer meetings — this was the only talking allowed. But the nitty-gritty of the meditation techniques was taught via audio recording from late vipassana guru S.N. Goenka. Each night, we meditators savored a rare bit of media: a video in which Goenka reflected on that day's lessons.

I was surprised by what I learned from 10 days of doing nothing. My experience eventually offered me deep new understanding of myself. I learned to keep my composure, realizing that emotions arrive and depart like storm clouds and that I don't have to be buffeted by them.

The meditation hall became a laboratory for my reactions: Even when I didn't feel agitated, if I was tensing my jaw, raising my shoulders and failing to breathe into my belly, I knew I was agitated.

I learned how little I need to keep myself occupied; once I had spent more than a week doing nothing, it seemed less important to overstuff my backpack with magazines for a cross-country flight. Now I'm able to sit comfortably on the floor. It's tremendously empowering to be liberated from chairs. After going that deeply into meditation, I can quickly access a meditative state, whether I'm chilling out or preparing myself for creative work like writing.

In a deeply personal way, my experience allowed me to grieve. I confronted the death of a dear boyfriend, which happened tragically in a motorcycle accident in Uganda. Uninterrupted focus led me from appreciation to anger to renewed grief to fresh acceptance. Old memories of Paul returned, things I'd forgotten, vignettes that were both bitingly vivid and gratitude-inducing.

To achieve those revelations, however, I had to experience monotony and discomfort — for hours, for days, for more than a week. Understandably, meditators get a little goofy. Here are notes about my thoughts during my experience. And this is from memory, of course, because I didn't have a pen!

Day 1: I don't properly meet my roommate before Noble Silence begins, so I have no sense of the courtesies she expects. Our shared alarm beeps at 4 a.m., so we dress, drink water and walk outside in the cold from the dorm to the meditation hall. There we pick our cushions from a communal rack. These are the pillows that we'll sit on every day for the next 10 days. After we meditate from 4:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m., we enjoy a breakfast of stewed prunes and oatmeal in the nearby dining hall. If we finish breakfast early, we might go back to sleep briefly in the residence hall before our 8 a.m. session. All day, we meditate in one- to two-hour sessions, which are punctuated by breaks to eat, rest, switch venues, walk or use the restroom. By 9 p.m. I can hardly muster the energy to brush my teeth.

Day 2: It is uncomfortable sitting completely still. You itch. You learn the stages of circulation failure, that your ankles grow hot and pulse before they chill and go numb. As for the food, if you normally cook with nutritional yeast flakes and liquid aminos, you will love this cuisine. If not, you will find the meals uplifting, generous, healthy and odd.

Day 3: Do you know what guru Goenka's recordings have taught us, what we've been thinking about for these three days? The space between our upper lips and nostrils. Just to hear something, I make a habit of walking back and forth from the residential quarters to the meditation hall. The porous yellow gravel makes a hollow crunch beneath my feet.

Day 4: While sitting in an uncomfortable session, I wonder what would I trade to never do this again. Yoga for one month? Music for four months? I decide I would give up movies for five years. In the meditation hall, I sit in the lotus position for about 30 minutes, and a fire starts inside my hips. I edge into the pain, and soon sweat drips down my back and face, but I am just sitting. Memories flood into me. I relate to my life from some strange observation deck. Then I cry for three hours.

Day 5: People seem to be going crazy. They meander at the pace of a wedding procession and stop to examine trees and rocks between the dorm and the meditation hall. One woman picks a spear of dried prairie grass and marches with her clandestine scepter. I miss being touched; I discover that the clothesline hangs low enough to massage my head if I walk back and forth under it.

Day 6: Food loses its charm. I might as well be as tired and hungry as I can — as close to dead as possible — in order to tolerate the dull oppression of sitting. (Have you ever meditated with a belly full of garbanzo curry? Not good.) It was sunny for a few days, and then a blizzard blew in. Our single-file footprints make a narrow path in the snow. I imagine Tibet. We thud our snowy boots together in the mudroom.

Day 7: I feel lighter. We are almost finished. Soon I will meet the man who snores and the woman with the creaky ankles. Soon we break Noble Silence. The wind whistles across the windowpanes. I realize that the meditative journey is a salve, a mirror, a gathering and a whip.

Day 8: When I sit still, my heart, like a metronome, thuds my torso with each beat, so my vision seems to jump a millimeter.

Day 9: Noble Silence ends tomorrow! I consider which loose, nonrevealing, dress code-approved outfit to debut.

Day 10: We break silence over popcorn. Everyone chatters and mingles. For the first time in my life, I literally feel sound: My body is bathed in the vibrations. The others tell me that they feel less angry.

In cultures that prize efficiency, self-exploration may seem baffling, gratuitous or privileged. But meditators are seekers, just like travelers.

Pecatonica isn't far from Chicago, but this kind of trip can take you to places you've never been. It seems to sharpen a person's understanding of his or her existence. Can you say that about Puerto Vallarta? And how often can you lose a few pounds just by sitting?

The Illinois Vipassana Meditation Center, Dhamma Pakasa, 10076 Fish Hatchery Road, Pecatonica. 815-489-0420. For information, visit The center will hold its annual open house from noon to 4 p.m. May 18.

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