Its already been 2 months since my first Vipassana course ended, and I’m finally ready to share some of my insight from the experience. Finding the words to describe this journey is not easy. The landscape of consciousness is not limited to words. It dances with swirls of images, colors, sounds, and sensations. In meditation we come into silence and stillness to witness the sensations in the body. We learn one word that will be repeated over and over again through out the ten days. That word is Anicca.
Impermanence, also called Anicca or Anitya, is one of the essential doctrines and a part of three marks of existence in Buddhism. The doctrine asserts that all of conditioned existence, without exception, is “transient, evanescent, inconstant. All temporal things, whether material or mental, are compounded objects in a continuous change of condition, subject to decline and destruction.
In the beginning of the course we’re told that the root of all suffering comes from our aversion to pain or attachment and craving for pleasure, and that the goal is to use Vipassana meditation to develop equanimity to both. As I sat I discovered something important about myself. I found out that while I have a fairly high pain tolerance, my attachment to pleasure has indeed led me to a lot of misery in my life.
In order to move through what can become a constant chase of pleasure or run from pain, we must remember the law of impermanence. This too shall pass. The only constant is change. There is no point in being attached to feelings, people, places, and things. We will die and take none of it with us when we do. I’m a scorpio, so naturally I’m fascinated by death and rebirth. It is believed by Buddhists and Hindus that we are reborn again and again, that in fact our consciousness (or soul) never dies. So, in that case, if we create deep enough imprints onto our consciousness, can we take them with us into our next life? In Vipassana that is the belief and the goal of the technique is to heal these imprints or Sanskaras.
Samskaras or sanskaras (Sanskrit: संस्कार) has several context driven meanings in Indian philosophy and Indian religions. One of these is “mental impression, recollection, psychological imprint” and this meaning is the basis for its use in Hindu philosophies, particularly in the development of its karma theory.
It is not as if you go to one Vipassana course and poof all Sanskaras gone. On the 8th day I took one of the five minute time slots to speak to one of the teachers. While I overheard many of my fellow meditators asking how to deal with their back pain from sitting so long my question was about how to deal with the immense pleasure I’d felt. On the 7th night I had a full on nirvana experience for the entire hour sitting of “strong determination” which meant we weren’t supposed to move a muscle. I was completely out of my body, blasting off into the cosmos. Everything in my body felt unified and blissful. After that, it was all downhill so to speak. My body ached for that experience to return. After explaining what I experienced I asked the teacher “How do I detach from pleasure?”. Her answer was simple; “It takes time to develop equanimity”. My eyes welled with tears, and she asked me if I was okay. I just nodded and left the hall. I walked to the end of the small courtyard where we could see the mountains in the distance and where we’d gather to silently watch the epic sunsets. I sobbed, feeling the weight of this obstacle in my life and seeing all the ways it has shown up for me; addictions, attachments, choices that had led me into darkness chasing dragons.
When I first arrived to the course I was confronted with this ‘darkness’ immediately, when I was called ‘Nicole’ by the course manager. I promptly informed her that although my passport says my name is Nicole Elena Davis, I actually go by my middle name. She smiled at me and said matter of factly; ‘I’m going to call you Nicole because that is what we have here” and she then handed me a blanket wrapped in plastic with the name ‘NICOLE’ written on it in bold permanent market. When I had my first meal in the dining hall I sat there at my assigned seat confronted with that name again, written on a label stuck to my table. Three times a day, breakfast, lunch, and our afternoon snack I stared at that name. Four years ago I chose to go by Elena and it was during this course I realized I’d locked that name and the girl I associated with it away in my mind, shaming and punishing her. By the end of this course I felt like Arya Stark from Game of Thrones. The attachments to my name were beaten out of me. A girl has no name. A girl is both darkness and light, a girl is not a girl at all. A girl is not limited to any identities. A girl is whole, infinite, dynamic consciousness. (If you don’t watch Game of Thrones and don’t get this reference, I’m sorry)
When you’re meditating for twelve hours a day the mind can obsess over some strange and funny things. Sometimes I’d picture me and my fellow meditators in a epic rap video because the longer it went on the more gangster I thought we all were for making it another day. My hair became a weird obsession. I forgot to pack my shampoo and conditioner so I had to use soap in my hair that dried it out. It wasn’t like I could ask my fellow meditators if I could borrow theirs. I became envious of the other girls shiny healthy locks. I just wanted to shave my head. Then, I felt afraid. I realized that I’m deeply attached to my hair. It represents femininity and beauty in many societies. I kept picturing myself without all of my hair. Hair is such a good example of the impermanent nature of life! You cut it and it grows back! And yet I haven’t had a drastic haircut since I was 14. By the time the course ended, I felt like my next stop to Rishikesh, India was the place to do it. And, yet I released attachment to the whole idea. Deciding, if it was gonna happen it’d happen without my needing to plan it.
On the 5th day of the course was my 31st birthday. A day that involved a secret conversation with a butterfly, a roller coaster of emotions, and loads of memories of past birthdays surfacing. I imagined I’d walk into the dining hall and everyone would pop up screaming ‘Happy Birthday!’. I smiled imagining it even though I knew it wouldn’t happen. It was indeed powerful to spend my birthday at a silent meditation retreat. It brought up a lot of loneliness. Although I had chosen to spend my birthday this way, I felt as if I had no where better to be, or rather no one better to be with. And, isn’t that the point? Who better to be with than myself? We are always alone with ourselves, and yet, we are connected to one another on such a deep and profound level.
On the 10th day of the course when noble silence was broken, my fellow spiritual gangsters and I hugged and cried. I shared with a few people that the 5th day was my birthday. I really received those few ‘Happy Birthdays’ into my heart space. I immediately journaled. It was weird to try and carry on conversations at first, to form words and string them together to describe feelings after such an inward experience. Later on in the day, a woman whom was in the furthest bed from me in my room of 4 came to me excitedly. ‘I heard the 5th day was your birthday?’ she asked me. I said yes. ‘The 23rd of October?’. Yes, I said. She burst into tears; ‘Me too!”. She shared with me how alone she felt. What are the odds that two women, about 10 years apart in age, born on the same day, one from Colombia, another from the United States, would choose to spend their birthday at the same Vipassana retreat in Indonesia and end up in the same room? Is this not the perfect example of the alone and yet connected nature of humanity?
After the Vipassana course I went to India to my yoga academy for the Sattva Summit, and it was a deeply powerful and transformative experience all in itself. I got to sit in satsangs with my Guru Anand, and be with sangha on the sacred land there. It was truly the perfect thing for me to do after the Vipassana course. Sattva is a second home to me and the land there is abundantly healing and supportive. If I was going to shave my head I knew I wanted to release the hair into the Ganges that run through Riskikesh. I wasn’t thinking about my hair anymore, there was so much going on to process just within the summit. This blog would be much too long to go deeply into it. But, by the end of the summit, on the very last night, I was ready. It happened spontaneously, as I knew it would. A Italian by the name of Matheus has a shaved head so he had the razor, and a Goddess by the name of Yashoda Devi Ma from Colorado had the balls. With a small group surrounding me, we sang the Shakti Mantra and shaved my head. I didn’t shave it all, for I do love having long flowing hair and thats okay. I did this for me, not for anyone else.
The next day I took the hair and released it into the Ganges. My dear friend Dana who met me in India and came to the summit with me is an incredible photographer. She took photos of me while I released the hair with a prayer. I had no intention of going all the way in as I had done so on my last trip to India in May. However, as I stood there ankle deep my heart began racing. I felt her calling me in. I cried as I swam in her healing waters. Purification. Release.
What led me to Vipassana was the idea of taking a ‘shiva’ practice. As I wrote about in an earlier blog, I have been told I have an abundance of Shakti. The idea of balancing these energies within me with a practice that is grounded, still, and a bit rigid appealed to me as someone comfortable with flowing, moving, activating ‘shakit’ practices. What I came to understand is the dance of consciousness is Shakti and Shiva is the dancer of consciousness. The longer I sat and the more still I became, the more hyper aware I was to the movement of each and every particle in my body. My physical body, my energetic body, my mental body, my emotional body. Everything is in constant movement, constant flux, constant flow. The complete stillness only led me to uncover the dynamic, ever evolving, impermanent nature of…nature.