I was first introduced to Vipassana about eight years ago when my colleague and her husband, two enthusiastic Vipassana advocates, credited their calm at the end of rather difficult pregnancy to their daily meditation practice. Oh, how I yearned to have what they have! But I, with a school-age child and no major life crisis on the horizon, felt that I am not ready for an hour-long commitment, never mind 10-days Vipassana retreat. I was “transitioning”. When my transition completes, I will clean all on my plate and get ready to transform from the inside out. I was contemplating to sell my physiotherapy practice and getting back to my Master’s. I felt disillusioned by changes in the industry I was in, both from legislative and financial perspective. Eventually, the business was sold, the school was about to begin, and in the interim weeks the timing for retreat seemed to be perfect. But, by the same measure, it was not. My justifications were: my child is too young, my husband will feel the burden of my absence, my dog will miss me. Excuses won again.
A few years forward, my new, post-graduation job came packaged with a Vipassana-infused boss. I saw it as a sign and received verbal encouragement to have Vipassana stapled firmly on my personal agenda. My mind, however, refused. A couple of years down, in the early spring of 2014 I was left broken-hearted by the passing of my father. The growth was now imminent. Certainly, throughout my life I made numerous efforts to learn about and live with acceptance but only this tremendous, unexpected wave of grief prompted me to go into the very heart of denial.
I journeyed to the Vipassana Centre in Elgin, Ontario in December of 2014 with two seasoned practitioners, one my fellows, a non-profit worker and her partner, both on their 4th retreat. On our first night at the Centre we were given a gregarious reception and a beautiful dinner, somewhat sheepishly surrendering our phones and car keys to commence 10-days of silence and solitude.
Initially, it was not an easy or comfortable practice to have. If my fellows felt the same I could not know or see. We were instructed to keep our distance and lower our eyes to protect and give each other’s space. I shared a tiny (superbly winterized) cabin with a girl whose name remained unknown. We failed to introduce ourselves before the vow of silence and now we were sharing this tiny room without having any knowledge about each other. The silver lining was that the lack of privacy was my ticket to be consistent and diligent. I would arrive at the meditation hall daily at 4:30am, and sit throughout the day up until 9pm. The times in between I would spend either walking in the woods or, three times a day for 10 minutes each only, at meals in the dining hall. I embraced this wintery silence with the desire of a lost soul.
I fantasized about a great relief this retreat will bestow upon me imagining great romantic suffering. My literature major revoked a Goethe-esque Sorrows of Young Werther– type of grief but it was not my heart but my body that felt broken. My first three days were filled with an immense physical pain emerging in my right knee and right hip. I eventually surrendered my pride and asked to be given a chair. This tiny arrangement served as yet another personal defeat. While I pride myself as being judgement-free my Ego was anything but: “Only old people sit in chairs. Young are on the floor. You should never admit that you are getting old.” I also realized that a good portion of my-self worth stemmed from thriving on endurance for its own sake. But as I understood all elements being at a play, the pain suddenly and swiftly disappeared.
S.N. Goenka’s lineage disseminates Vipassana through a three-step process. Over the first few days, Anapana (mindfulness of breath) is practiced to narrow the mind’s focus. On day four, Vipassana (insight into true nature of reality) is introduced to provide insight to reality’s limitation to one’s immediate experience. The last two days include Metta (benevolence), an emotional wrap-up of kindness and self-forgiveness. Having so much time on our hands while being required to sit persistently, we do realize how much we are at the mercy of our own minds. In my case, Anapana helped me to realize the nature of my internal fragmentation. One of my mind-parts I called the “teenage mind” was perpetually angry and jaded deriving absolutely no pleasure from the emptiness within. And as much as I tried to pacify and bribe it helped only a little, and only for a few minutes. This mind got bored quickly inventing conflict-ridden dialogues and arguments that eventually crept into my physical body waking me up in pain. The Vipassana part helped to discover somewhat unlikely nature of my inner saboteur. I read enough of the self-help junk to make me believe that archetypal saboteur is seriously stiff and needs to be confronted heads on. My saboteur, however, emerged as humorous, childishly funny, loaded with stupid and dirty jokes that forced me to giggle at every attempt to” work hard” on meditating. The moment my resistance to humour and nonsensical interruption was gone I was back to the centre, to my practice.
One observation, however, that changed my perspective on my life was an insight about the impact of language on our perception of reality. Every evening we were encouraged to listen to pre-recorded videos or Dhamma talks in which highly spirited, late S. N. Goenka shares his views on daily challenges to our practice. Students with first language other than English were encouraged to listen to the transcripts. The rationale is that the teachings sink much deeper if absorbed in our first language. Looking around the room I noticed that about 15-20% of students used tiny Ipods listening to the transcripts. I, however, I chose not to. True, being of Croatian origin I am definitely an English as a second language speaker. I have been living in Toronto, Ontario for over 20 years but my connection to Croatian community is rather inconsistent. My family is of mixed German, Hungarian and Croatian origin with weak ties to all of the cultures. I feeel I mastered the English language well enough for proper functioning at home (where I have been using both languages ) or at work (where I use English, exclusively). One night, perhaps on the 9th or 10th day (Metta days), on my regular, after-dinner walk on the Dhamma Torana paths, I enjoyed heavy silence of pines covered with fresh snow and searched for animal footprints. At one point I looked at the sky and saw the Venus rising. While I am not an astronomer, where I came from some elementary knowledge of celestial orientation is given. 20+ years of living in light-polluted Toronto made me aware, and perhaps superstitious, to consider that actually seeing a planet on the night sky with my own eyes must be a blessing. And as I was just about to express my gratitude to Venus somewhere, from the deep inside, an old Croatian song I learned as a child arose. I sung quietly, softly, internally, not disturbing my wow of silence:
Blijedi mjesec zagrlio zvijezdu Danicu; A ja grlim svoju milu Anicu; Samo reci mi, dal’ me ljubiš ti; Da živimo ko svi sretni presretni. (A pale Moon is embracing morning star, While I am hugging my sweet Ann, Please do tell me that you love me, So we can keep living happy, happily.)
And as I kept repeating the first four verses, the only verses I knew, an incredible clarity mixed with deep sadness reigned over me. It became clear and clear all at once – what happened with my language and why it was hiding from me: the violence, civil upheavals and anxieties of early 1990’s while former Yugoslavia was falling apart and we left the country, movements of refugees, choices being and not being made, the people we left and people that left us. I felt as if my heart is opening up to all humanity on the run abandoning their identities and culture because to travel light is to forget. I also “saw” our first language as a programming code that is operating at the very foundation of our mind’s computational structure. I sensed how over the course of our life all other “applications”, including other languages, cultures and roles we play will change the user interface but might not affect the foundation. I also realized that every time we reach inside ourselves to allow for some innate knowledge to emerge (as in physical healing) or when we fight against our conditioning (breaking the cycle of addiction), our first language is triggered because it is bridging our nature and our nurture. And now with tears streaming down, not entirely sure if I am relieved, or have I made myself needlessly vulnerable, I knew that unless we integrate all add-ons – languages and cultures and roles we have layered throughout – we will end up fragmented. Every immigrant and first generation immigrant child does understand deep cultural dichotomies if parental language is not fluently spoken and parental culture is not fully assimilated.
My consciousness pondered – dealing with PTSD, domestic violence, war traumas or mental illnesses, all of it needs to incorporate the first language. Because, it is not the lack of fluency (add-ons) that fails but incompatibility at the foundational level. I closed my eyes and saw a visual image of amygdala from one of my biology books streamlining the input coded by our first language straight into our muscles and bones while bypassing our present experiences. I wondered, for the most of us, is it only that only our first language is sufficiently “equipped”to be immediately trusted by our bodies, our cells to prompt mental and emotional changes we are hoping to see? And if so, what are further implications for social services delivery? Do our diverse cities make enormous (and costly) mistakes by imposing exclusive dominance of official language(s)? Are we potentially creating cultural environments so inherently alien that cannot help anyone? Do “arrival cities” loaded with cacophony of cultures, such is Toronto, obliged to ask first – what is your language and your culture – before they ask you for your name?
And then suddenly, on that very cold night just couple of days shy of the Winter solstice, the moment of pure clarity abruptly ended. My consciousness turned over to pines, and snow and crispy air. I notice the Venus moved just a bit but the hills and woods were as I left them. I was surrounded by the safety of silence. With the volume of the world turned down I was somehow able to hear, even for a very short moment. With this, the trust that whatever transpired must be beneficial occurred too. Was I listening in Croatian? I am not sure. But as wisdom of Dhamma assures us, if it was truly beneficial I will be prompted to share, which is exactly what I am doing now.
Because if this knowledge assisted me to reach some greater truth it must be somehow useful to assist all of us on our snowy path going back home to our languages, to the primary code of our being..
Note: In 2015 I became a contributing member of the Croatian Translation Vipassana Committee (firstname.lastname@example.org) hoping to establish Vipassana retreats in Croatia by 2017. My hope is to be be able to complete another 10-days Vipassana retreat in Croatian. To help with translation was very humbling experience that brought me a great joyfor which I will remain eternally grateful.
*Images courtesy of Martin @ Understated Photography, stream: My 10 Days Vipassana Journey
- Ontario Vipassana Centre (Dhamma Torana)
- Vipassana in Quebec (Dhamma Suttama)
- Obituary – N. Goenka: The Man who Taught the World to Meditate (by Jay Michaelson, Huff Post)
- Huffington Post resources on Vipassana
- DOCUMENTARY: Doing Time Doing Vipassana – A 1997 Israeli independent documentary film project by Ayelet Menahemi and Eilona Ariel about the use of Vipassana as taught by S. N. Goenka