I felt like an impostor.

I was introduced to Tibetan Buddhism at the age of 27 by the love of my life, whom I married shortly thereafter. When I heard the message of love and compassion towards all, which is the heart of Buddhism, I thought, “Where has this been all my life? Why am I only hearing about this now?”

My future husband, Adam, took me to West Coast dharma centres where we chanted pujas and attended teachings with visiting Tibetan Rinpoches. I studied the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

The clashing cymbals, banging drums and deep bellows of the horns during lively Tibetan pujas sent shivers through my limbs. I loved the philosophy, the heartfelt prayers and the wise words of the Rinpoches I met.

And yet, I had a dirty little secret.

A Buddhist who never meditated


Pedestrians at rush hour - A 10-day vipassana course

Whenever I sat down, straightened my back, and tried to still my mind, my skin would crawl. I would think of a million things I needed to be doing, and within moments, I would leap up to do them. I figured I would try again, another time. When the kids were older. When the house was clean. When the bills were paid. And so, 20 years went by.

The study of Buddhist philosophy without meditation practice is said to be akin to reading menus in five-star restaurants but never tasting the food. Meditation is the way to make progress on the Buddha’s path to transformation, to liberation from self-made suffering, anxiety, neuroses and greed.

Over the years, my husband encouraged me, again and again, to sit a 10-day Vipassana meditation course and get a foundation in meditation practice. He walked his talk and sat four of them during our first two decades together.

Vipassana meditation is a technique the actual Buddha used to attain enlightenment, and then taught to his disciples. The tradition was maintained over the centuries by Theravadin Buddhists, mainly in Sri Lanka and Burma. The word ‘Vipassana’ means to see things as they really are.

My ancestral DNA—my Jewish singing, joking, kibbutzing genetic make-up—resisted 10 days of silence, 10 days of sitting still, as though it would kill me. If the sitting didn’t kill me, the no-eating-after-the-noon-meal-just-like-the-monks-in-Buddha’s-time would.

Over the years, I found every excuse why I could not go. The kids. My job. The house. My health. The weather. Thanks, love, but you go.

Eventually, the babies grew into teenagers, the job changed and I accepted the cold, hard truth that the house would never be Sunset Magazine perfect. As I approached my late forties, the golden years in a woman’s life known as the change, my emotional swings became wrecking balls, destroying peace in my family.

My bouts of fierce rage, aimed at the people I loved the most, were bad enough for me to finally face my fear of dying of silence and go learn to meditate. I needed some help seeing things as they really were, without the big emotional reactions. I needed help remembering to practice compassion towards all, especially my family.

Vipassana


On the eve of my 49th birthday, I left my family and drove five hours south to the California Vipassana Center to enter a 10-day Vipassana meditation course.

Upon arriving at the centre tucked in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Yosemite, I registered and received my Introduction to the Technique and Code of Discipline booklet. The rules I would follow included 10 days of Noble Silence. No phones, books, journals, crystals or ritual items. No physical contact with anyone. No music, reading or writing. Modest dress. Only fruit after the noon meal. No outside contact. No intoxicants.

When I saw that the daily schedule began at 4:30 a.m., I wanted to turn around and run.

The meditation sessions, broken up by meals, instructions and teachings, as well as time to walk in the forest, stretch and rest, would total nine hours a day. When I saw that the daily schedule began at 4:30 a.m., I wanted to turn around and run. But I reminded myself: You gave birth, twice. This isn’t hard—you can do anything for 10 days.

My cell phone was turned off and locked away. I was given a private room in a cabin shared with 10 other women, and after an evening chatting over dinner with the 60 women who would be sitting the 10-day with me, the course began.

That night I lay in my bed, my grandmother’s quilt pulled tight over me, and listened to the frosty silence of the January mountain night. I thought of what I would be doing at home—washing dishes, nagging kids about homework and screen time, negotiating with my husband about tomorrow’s plans, scrolling Facebook.

What a relief to be getting a break from the distracted rush and chaos of my daily life. I vowed to make the most of my time and give learning meditation a fair shot. As I drifted off, the winter silence was beautiful and not frightening at all.

The Noble Silence was simply glorious   


My memory of the entire course is vague, because without my journal, there was no way for me to keep track of experiences. But a few things do stand out, mainly from the beginning and the end.

One is that the first day was excruciating. My shoulders ached like the bones would crumble away, my legs seized and my mind leaped around like a kangaroo on methamphetamine. My no-dinner hunger in the evening boiled in my gut with rumbles I imagined the whole meditation hall could hear.

I sobbed in my bed that night, and my hunger woke me up at 3 a.m. the following day. I looked at my watch in disbelief that breakfast was three hours away and I was awake. I got up and stumbled to the meditation hall, wrapped in a wool blanket. During that sit, my body felt more at ease and my mind less agitated, and it was almost pleasant.

I walked to the dining hall in a mild euphoria, due to the fact that I had actually meditated, and that it was 5:55 now and breakfast was in five minutes.

I was so ravenous, I imagined breakfast would be the most delicious, sensational meal I had ever tasted. When the toast with peanut butter and oatmeal was nothing more than toast with peanut butter and oatmeal, I silently cried into my coffee cup.

I sat in the dining hall, filled with women yet silent except for the scraping of chairs and the clinking of silverware, and my lifetime of issues with food, overeating and body shame rose up and encircled me. Hello, food issues, fancy meeting you here.

I was able to observe these issues in a way I never had before, with love and compassion for myself. I recognized them for what they were—thoughts and stories—and then they dissipated. After that, keeping to the strict meal schedule and not overeating was no longer a problem.

The Noble Silence was simply glorious.

The amount of energy you save by not talking is remarkable. This is something you would never know until you experience it. No explaining myself; no coming up with clever remarks or stories; no listening to someone go on and on about something irrelevant and unimportant, forcing me to listen and pretend to be interested.

The silence gave me the freedom to stay with the practice, even when walking, eating or resting. It lent itself to inner contemplation, and a natural settling into the present moment.

The joy of simple things


By the third day, my mind was noticeably calmer. I could actually sit and watch my breath without distraction for … well, I am not sure how long, but sometimes minutes and sometimes nearly an hour.

This was the practice of shamata, or calm-abiding meditation, and I was ready for the Vipassana (or insight meditation) instructions. From the fourth day on, the course swept me ever deeper into the meditation practice.

I loved it. Each day felt like a gift, a precious opportunity to purify my mind of the emotional swings, attachments and aversions that normally consumed my thoughts, and learn to sit in awareness and equipoise just like the Buddha did 2,500 years ago.

I sensed my body dissolving into energy centres and light, and experienced the truth that everything arises and passes.

I was assigned a tiny, windowless cubicle where I could sit in darkness for a couple hours a day. I could use extra pillows and lean my back against the wall in that box-like space.

With less physical pain, my meditation sessions felt ecstatic. I sensed my body dissolving into energy centres and light, and experienced the truth that everything arises and passes, arises and passes. There were moments that were hard every day, but the overall feeling was peaceful and relaxing. I couldn’t believe I had waited so long to experience this.

Simple things became profound, subtle dances. Chewing a single slice of toast. Washing my hands with clear cold water, then soap, then water again. The five robins who came each morning to drink from the rain puddle under my window. My dreams.

One night, my eldest daughter came to me in my sleep, cracking through the space-time continuum with a “Hi, Mom.” Later, I would find out she broke up with her boyfriend that night. I began to feel genuine love for the women I shared space with in our cabin, although I didn’t know their names, and we weren’t even supposed to make eye contact as we passed each other or brushed our teeth side by side.

Our gazes averted towards the ground, we moved past each other slowly, with intention. But I felt them supporting me, while they were going through the same things, and I never felt lonely.

A calm, balanced, joyful centre


When the course finished, I ran to my car and grabbed my journal, in order to write the following things down before I forgot.

What I learned in this Vipassana course is that there is a calm, balanced, joyful centre within me that shines forth when I am alert, aware and in equipoise. When I remember that everything is arising and passing, arising and passing. When I use my awareness to avoid clinging, craving and aversion.

This calm, joyful centre cannot be found by taking medicine or drugs, or by drinking wine. I won’t find it in food, not even in salty, greasy snacks. I can’t get it from a book deal, “likes” on Facebook, or anywhere on the internet. I can’t even get it from connecting and chatting with my best friends. Or from my amazing children.

            IN FACT…

            I had to strip ALL that other stuff away

            to find it

            and discover it was right here the whole time!

            Now that I have found it, I will continue to cultivate it.  I will not forget.

            I will stop regretting that I have waited so long to do this.

            May All Beings Be Happy.

            Bhavatu Sarva Mangalam.

Postscript: Twelve months later, I still sit in meditation for 40 minutes at a time with ease. The techniques I learned are easy to remember and continue to help me react to things with more spaciousness.

Here is proof that there were observable results: My eldest daughter, a high school senior, was so impressed by what she witnessed with my experience, she signed up for a 10-day Vipassana course herself. And thus, she sat her own Vipassana course, at age 18, during her last weeks before leaving for college.

“What better way to start my college life?” she reasoned. I only wished I had done this at her age. I told her I couldn’t agree more.

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