A Silent Retreat Teaches Me About Pain
Pain comes and goes and comes . . .
Several years ago, at the age of sixty, I attended a Vipassana ten-day silent retreat. It was held near the little town of Brookton, in Western Australia, during winter, when early morning temperatures approached zero degrees.
I had a choice of living in a dorm or bringing a tent. According to my husband, I was experiencing a spate of heavy snoring, so not wanting to spoil everyone else’s spiritual awakening, I bought a pop-up tent and erected it as far away from everyone else as possible.
At 4am each morning I was woken by a monk-like figure walking through the mist around the grounds, clanking what sounded like a giant cow bell. I stirred my old bones, added two more layers of clothing over my fleece-lined pyjamas, and within half an hour was seated on a collection of cushions in the hall, “meditating”. Two hours later I was lining up for breakfast, which I ate sitting outside on a rock in a patch of dirt. I felt like a modern, female John the Baptist in the wilderness.
Not talking or having eye contact for ten days was easy for me but sitting on the floor for more than ten hours every day was agony. During the retreat I used a combination of cushions, a stool, and a cut-down chair that made me feel I was in kindergarten, but nothing could stop the pain in my lower back, my legs, my shoulders, my fingers.
Sometimes — rarely — the pain went away, and I became aware of other sensations throughout my body. I sensed aspects of myself I’d taken for granted, for instance, my toes. I felt them humming with busyness. My scalp prickled with aliveness. My heart pulsed warmly.
I suspect one of the aims of this meditation practice is to feel my body dissolve, so that I, as an entity, cease experiencing myself as separate, and, instead, sense the interdependence and intimate connection of all things. To quote Thich Nhat Hanh in The Miracle of Mindfulness:
Contemplation on interdependence is a deep looking . . . in order to see that the great body of reality is indivisible. It cannot be cut into pieces with separate existences of their own.
But this didn’t happen for me. Pain got in the way.
Twice during the ten days I requested a normal chair to sit on — one with decent legs, a padded seat, armrests, high back, and perhaps a recliner button. Both times I was told by a benignly smiling meditation teacher that accepting and moving through body discomfort was part of the process. I was initially resentful, then resignedly rearranged my cushions, struggled unsuccessfully with the lotus position, and resisted the urge to lie flat on the floor and cry.
The ten days finally ended, I drove home, and learned to talk again.
My family expected me to turn up sporting a halo or speaking in tongues, but I was still just me. No sense of dissolution had been vouchsafed me. No bright lights had illuminated my soul. No visions had enlivened the endless sittings. All I’d been granted was lots and lots of pain. And a realisation that pain comes and goes, appears and disappears, solidifies and dissolves, manifests and unmanifests — and mentally running away from it only makes it worse.
With love, Marlane
First published at Medium.com/spiritual-secrets