Thursday, January 8, 2015

Letting Go of What is No Longer Needed: Vipassana Meditation Retreat

by Janet M. Shlaes, Ph.D.

I just returned from my annual ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat, or what I affectionately refer to as “Meditation Boot Camp.” Vipassana is an ancient non-sectarian form of meditation that is initially taught in a ten-day retreat that literally removes you from daily distractions. Imagine 10 days of 10 plus hours per day in sitting meditation; yes, 10 days without reading, writing, music, working out, conversation of the external variety and, most importantly, no technology of any form. Yikes! Although this type of retreat is not for everyone, I find it to be amazingly challenging, restorative and inspirational on a variety of levels which organically evolve from year to year. Each year, I enter the experience with an expectation regarding my experience and each year is rarely what I expect. Having said that, one aspect of every retreat that I’ve participated in is a phenomenon involving foraging, hoarding and releasing. Let me explain…….

Our present lifestyle is built on continuous movement, external engagement and distraction, especially the many delightful distractions provided via technology. Eliminate movement, interpersonal conversation and technological distractions and what you have left is the challenge of inner dialogue and the powerful physical discomfort of sitting for extended periods of time. Each day serves to intensify the physical discomfort, along with the desire to alleviate this pain. During the short hourly breaks, retreat participants frantically forage for additional cushioning in a storage area filled with discarded meditation cushions and pillows from prior retreats. Participants collect and pile up selected pillows around their designated meditation area, hoarding them for current and potential use. By the second day of the retreat, all of the pillows housed in the storage area are now in various piles around each retreat participant. No matter how many pillows one collects, arranges and rearranges, the discomfort of sitting continues to prevail. During each hourly break, participants rearrange their amassed pillows in new combinations that ultimately fail to relieve their physical pain.

As retreat days pass, pillows periodically reappear in the storage area and promptly are snatched up by other participants. The prevailing hope is that someone else’s “pillow of pain” will turn out to be their “pillow of salvation.” The hoarding of pillows continues, along with the discomfort of sitting. With nothing external to distract participants, internal sensations, mostly unpleasant at this point, continue to intensify. And then, about mid-way through the retreat, something phenomenal occurs. Participants start to settle into their internal experiences and begin the elegant process of letting go of tension, emotion, cravings, aversions, beliefs and anything else that is no longer needed.  It’s hard to put into words how powerful this experience can be. The hoarded pillows migrate back to the storage area as participants more fully immerse themselves into the experience. Over time, the intense physical discomfort dissipates and something shifts internally. Time has a surreal quality as the shifting and letting go process continues.

The foraging, hoarding and letting go pattern is present on every retreat I’ve participated in; it also shows up in similar ways in other life arenas. I often wonder…….. “How many things do we need to accumulate to relieve our discomfort? How many metaphorical pillows, cushions and other material items are enough to alleviate discomfort? What happens when you intentionally sit with and move beyond discomfort, organically shifting to a place of letting go of what is no longer needed?” The answer to these questions is different for each of us. My ideal combination of pillows will most likely be different from your combination. I invite you to sit with the concept of enough. How many pillows do you currently need? What is your current “enough?”


For additional ideas to ponder, I invite you to review the following posts:



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