Yes, you read that right, I took a ten day silent meditation course in rural Illinois this summer. No talking, no phones, no reading, no writing…. It was an experience and a half! But before I go into that, let me first tell you how I ended up there…
Growing up, I didn’t know what meditation was. The word would have elicited an image of someone sitting cross legged, maybe with the back of their hands resting on their knees, their pointer finger and thumb touching, and their eyes closed- like Rafiki in the Lion King. But that was it. I had no idea why or how people meditated. I didn’t think much about it.
In my late teens I started searching, for what, I had no idea? But I was definitely looking for something, something more, something to attach to, something to explain myself and the world around me. This pursuit led me to a world religions course in college. This class could have been where I was first introduced to meditation, but it wasn’t. I studied Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity, but from an academic standpoint, not a spiritual one. If meditation was mentioned, I do not recall it.
This was the same season of life when I took my first yoga class. This too could have been where I discovered meditation, but nope, another missed opportunity. Not knowing anything about yoga, I signed up for a random class, at a random studio. The convenient time and location, and the popularity of the studio, were the only things I considered before signing up. It was a Bikram Yoga class. If you are not familiar with Bikram Yoga, it is hell. The classrooms are heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and the poses, pace and 90 minute class length would be difficult for me now, even after years of practicing yoga. I left the class half way through and swore I’d never take another yoga class.
Giving Yoga a Second Chance
In my mid twenties I did give yoga a second chance. Long story short, a friend of mine was preparing for weight loss surgery and invited me to take a yoga class with her. I did, reluctantly. The classes were slow and simple, much more my speed. Eventually, I joined a local studio where I began practicing regularly.
The studio was fitness oriented, as many are in the Western world, and I wasn’t a fan of that. But there were a few slow paced classes taught by teachers with a spiritual nature. I took those. The way yoga made me feel, the messages I received and the answers I discovered planted a seed that would eventually lead me to meditation.
In Case I Get Lost on the Road
When I set out to travel indefinitely, I made a list of things to do to center myself if, for whatever reason, I lost my sense of self or direction along the way. The list included practicing yoga, writing, teaching English and learning Spanish.
My first month on the road, I was completely lost. I didn’t fall into the backpacker party scene, as I’d feared I might, but rather, I got lost in my own mind. Riddled with anxiety and inertia I turned to that list. I was already writing all the time and that wasn’t helping, teaching English would have been too much of a commitment for such an uncertain time, and learning Spanish, well, I was in Thailand, so that was out. Yoga was my answer.
After searching the internet for days I ended up at Suan Sati, a yoga retreat in Northern Thailand. This was where I received my first official meditation instruction. At first, I struggled with it. The meditation instruction usually took place the first or last 20-30 minutes of a yoga class. I had a hard time sitting still. I would wiggle around, swat away flies and blow my nose. It took everything in my power not to jump up and run to my phone when I’d realized I’d forgotten to text someone back. Despite these struggles I really connected to the retreat center, the teachers, and the meditation instruction. Later I would realize how much the meditation practice calmed my anxiety.
The First Vipassana Meditator
I extended my stay at Suan Sati to volunteer. I moved into the volunteer house with a 38 year old Ethiopian American man who’d been living and volunteering there for weeks. While we worked we swapped stories about our lives and how we ended up in Thailand. It was during these conversations that I first heard about, what I would later find out is called, Vipassana Meditation.
He explained that Vipassana meditation is taught in a meditation center over the course of ten days. These centers are all over Asia. Basic necessities are provided including shelter, water and food. The courses are entirely funded by student donations and all the staff are volunteers. The students remain in silence for the ten day period and meditation is practiced 10 hours per day, every day. I pictured monks in a monastery. It sounded unfathomably intense!
It turned out, the whole reason he was at Suan Sati was to practice yoga so he could sit more comfortably during meditation (after all, yoga asanas were originally designed for this purpose).
Another Vipassana Meditator
Later on, I found out that one of the yoga instructors at Suan Sati, a thirty something white woman from the USA, had also taken a Vipassana course. She told me that she had attempted to do it in her early twenties but it was too difficult so she left early. Years later she returned and completed a 10 day course.
She too made it sound incredibly difficult. I assumed it was something only serious yogis and meditators could accomplish.
Bye Suan Sati
I left Suan Sati and put the whole thing out of my mind. And I mean the whole thing. I was so excited to be back in the world. At the yoga retreat I didn’t drink any alcohol, ate 100% vegan, and woke up everyday at 5:30am. When I left I completely rebelled. I immediately ordered pork dumplings and a beer. I stayed up late and slept in.
Yoga, mediation and healthy food were what I needed at the time, but by no means did I plan to stay in that world. As much as I appreciated what I’d learned and admired the yoga instructors and my fellow volunteer, I wanted to drink, eat meat, and stay up late.
With that said, I had absolutely no desire to meditate in silence for ten days. Ever.
Regular People do Vipassana Meditation Too
After Suan Sati, my Skyscanner to Everywhere experiment landed me in Vietnam. I backpacked through the entire country for 3 months. To my surprise, I met several travelers outside of the yoga community who’d done the 10 day Vipassana course. Some travelers seemed transformed by their experience. Others explained it like a traveler’s challenge, as in, those who completed it were rewarded with ten days of free room and board and a story to tell. I still didn’t think I’d ever do it.
Yoga Teacher Training
Yoga teacher training was a turning point for me. I read the Bhagavad Gita and Living with the Himalayan Masters. I was practicing asanas around the clock and was beginning to understand yoga philosophy on a deep level. This understanding forced me to change and grow in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Walls I’d put up to block out certain people and beliefs came crashing down. I stopped drinking and became a vegetarian.
Several students in my yoga teacher training course had done a Vipassana course and shared their experiences with me. For the first time, Vipassana was starting to seem like something I could, should and would eventually do.
Ashram Meditation Course
I attended a 5 day meditation course at the Sadhana Mandir Ashram in Rishikesh. There I met a middle aged white American man who’d just finished a Vipassana course in India. Taking the course in India had been a dream of his for awhile. He raved about his experience, saying it was one of the hardest things he’d ever done but was so worth it. He found our course at the Ashram to be a breeze in comparison. (Which it was).
The course at the ashram gave me confidence in my ability to meditate, or at the very least, to sit still for long periods of time. I got more familiar with the basics, like how to sit with my back straight and how to prevent my legs from going numb.
Vipassana was becoming tangible.
During yoga teacher training I met this white American girl who served as a mirror for me in the oddest way. She blatantly reflected the parts of me that I tried to hide from myself, the parts of me that I needed to heal. So, when I tried to convince her to take a Vipassana meditation course because it’d be good for her indecisiveness and lack of focus, it didn’t take me long to realize I was actually telling myself why I needed to take a Vipassana course.
I Almost Took a Vipassana Meditation Course in Asia
I spent my last two months in Asia in Bali. My Bali Visa expired on February 7th but I didn’t have to be in Chicago to watch my nephew until February 25th. There was a Vipassana course in Myanmar during that exact time period. I almost signed up for it.
However, I was experiencing major homesickness with my return to The States not far away. I didn’t want to be sitting in the course, wishing I was somewhere else, that’d defeat the goal. Imagine this, I was in beautiful sun shinning Bali, dreaming about going home to a crying baby and a sub zero Chicago winter. Clearly I was not in my right mind!
After doing a little research, I discovered there was a Vipassana center an hour and a half away from my sister’s house in Illinois. I was drawn to the idea of participating in something that once seemed so foreign to me, in my home state. Taking the course at home would also purify my intention to learn the meditation technique, as opposed to participating in what I previously described as a traveler’s challenge.
I put my Vipassana aspirations aside and enjoyed my last few weeks in Asia.
Chicago & The Art of Living
By the time I settled in Chicago, I was 100% vegan and hadn’t had anything to drink in over 6 months. It was the longevity of these lifestyle changes that ultimately let me know that I was ready to attempt a 10 day Vipassana course. Reading The Art of Living, one of the most popular books about Vipassana meditation, was the final step.
Upon completion of the book, I signed up for a 10 day course at Dhama Pakasa Illinois Vipassana Meditation Center. I was accepted and attended the course from July 10-21 2019.