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.