The Pursuit of Enlightenment, Attempt II
Posted on December 26 2018
Well, there are two things I swore I would never do: go on another Vipassana silent meditation retreat, and have biological children.
But since the Universe has a hell of a sense of humor, I recently got back from my second Vipsssana silent meditation retreat, while pregnant.
(I know, it’s been pretty shocking to everyone I’ve told so far, so feel free to take a moment to let that sink in: yes, I actually did another Vipassana silent retreat)
There are two reasons I’m sharing about my pregnancy right now. Originally I was hesitant because I am (as of a few days ago) 35 years old and still in the first trimester (though not for long), both of which make it higher risk for complications or miscarriage. But the truth is that this Bead & Reel community has been through a lot with me, and I want to be able to share in this journey together, too. I’m pretty tired of women’s bodies being censored and sanitized, and the natural female experiences having to be tip-toed around to make others more comfortable. Whatever does happen, I want to be open and honest about it.
Plus, any stories about my silent retreat experience would be wildly incomplete without acknowledging this elephant in the womb… oops, I mean room.
MORE ON ALL THIS LATER, BUT FOR NOW: WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT AND STUFF?
Vipassana Meditation: a specific meditation technique “which means to see things as they really are,” taught through 10 day silent meditation retreats (realistically: 12 day) across the globe. It varies from other forms of meditation in that it is not interested on quieting the mind or trying to create specific states of focus or peace, but instead is designed to teach practitioners to accept the present moment without trying to make it into something else. It is rooted in the idea that everything is constantly changing, and that our addictions to cravings and aversions are the source of all suffering (but, this can be broken when we learn to accept things as they are, which you practice learning through like 11 hours a day of brutal silent meditation).
Enlightenment: there are many different states, paths, and ideas of enlightenment, but the one taught in Vipassana is a balanced and harmonious state of mind where you want nothing, and avoid nothing. It is simple accepting, with compassion, everything that is, instead of mindlessly reacting (which - don't worry activists - doesn’t mean you can’t try to change things, it just means all your actions come from a place of awareness, not mindless reactions to what you do or don't want/like/wish).
So you might be wondering why on earth I decided to do another retreat after the last one was sooooo miserable for me? Like so many...bad?... ideas in my life, it all started with a man. A friend, who suggested we should do a retreat together because you know, it would be fun! (or, some other much more accurate word). We could do it together! (even though everyone is separate by gender… and totally silent). And for some reason, having just come off of two very intense yoga teacher trainings at the time, I was feeling strong, and like, totally in tune with the Universe, and decided that instead of saying no I would just leave it up to fate. I mean, there’s a whole application process, and these retreats can be hard to get into anyway, so there was a good chance I wouldn’t even be accepted. So, I submitted my application, crossed my fingers super hard, and said some prayers to a few deities (you just never know who is listening), assuring them that I would be, like, totally okay if I wasn't accepted. I mean, I would somehow survive that kind of rejection.
But, The Universe spoke, and I got in. And maybe it was fate, because honestly, it turned out to be exactly what I would need exactly when I needed it, though I didn't have any way of knowing that yet.
SO, WHAT HAPPENED THIS TIME?
This experience was vastly different than my last one, and there are a few reasons for that:
- The last retreat began one day after I moved out of my Los Angeles home and ended a long term relationship, which, honestly may not have an ideal time to go sit silently and uncomfortably. What I probably needed was a bunch of girlfriends, some sappy movies, and raw vegan cookie dough, not mind-altering, back-breaking, deeply intense soul work. So already, this time, I started off in a much better headspace “only” coming off of the Fair Trade Fashion Show and the recent news of an unexpected pregnancy, where silence and space were exactly what I actually did need.
- I went to a different location, which was much smaller (about ¼ the attendees, which was great for this introvert), and this time I had one roommate and a private-ish bedroom space, instead of multiple beds stacked in tiny rows while sharing a bathroom with five other women (which was not great for this introvert).
- The meditation hall contained both genders, which made for a very balanced energy, if not a worse smell.
- And obviously: I’m pregnant. Which, besides this being an entirely new physical, mental, and emotional journey, also meant I got various special treatments like: dinner!! (as opposed to everyone else, who just gets tea and fruit in the evenings). And food any other time I wanted too, set aside for me in a special little mini fridge! And I could lean up against the wall while meditating all day instead trying to keep my back straight in the middle of the room! And, best of all, I was forbidden from sitting entirely still, even though that's an important (and totally painful) part of the regular, non-pregnant meditation. I was basically told to practice in a “relaxed” manner which I interpreted in a variety of ways that I never bothered to clarify but did result in a significant increase in my naps.
So, overall, it was much easier this time. I knew what I was getting into, and I’ve been meditating seriously all year, so my body and mind were more prepared. And while I am going through another major life adjustment, the joy of this pregnancy is very different than the sorrow of a breakup. Plus, I had a little tiny friend with me to keep me company when things did get quite challenging, and I truly loved getting to spend time focused internally, bonding with my baby.
But it still wasn’t easy, at all. I got restless a lot. And tired a lot. And wildly nauseous a lot. And still had to attempt to sit quietly, patiently with the rollercoaster of emotions and memories and physical discomforts that this meditation practice is basically designed to bring up (and trust me, they allllllllllllllll do come up).
Like Anger, which hit hard on Day 3.
And let me tell you: I was furious. About so many things: various people in my life, general injustices, the patriarchy, and most intensely: dining hall etiquette.
We’ll get back to the patriarchy later I’m sure, but the real issue for me was that there are three specific mealtimes per day in the dining hall, with very clear signs asking politely for everyone to leave by certain times so the volunteer staff can clean up before their own meditation. We’re given 30 – 45 minutes to eat in absolute silence, which, seems fairly reasonable to me. And since we’re not allowed to have reading materials throughout the retreat, by Day 3, we’ve all read each sign roughly a million times, tenderly caressing each letter with our eyes repeatedly, so, I know everyone has seen the signs.
And yet, there was always a consistent number of people who would overstay. This happened on my last retreat too, and it really annoyed me then too, but this time, it was simply too much for me to handle. It's just soooooooo rude, and basically just sums up everything wrong with this world ("what I want is more important than what others need!"). So by Day 3, I was absolutely fuming, glaring, righteously, very loudly thinking to myself how I’m like, sitting over here creating a human life (NBD), and still manage to (try to) eat (for two!) and wash my dishes and GTFO out of the dining hall before the requested deadline – so there’s really no excuse (here is where I would insert expletives).
I'm pretty sure it's moments like this and people like me why there's mandatory silence throughout the retreat.
"I understand that silence can be terrifying; most people will do anything to avoid it. This is because in silence there is nothing to distract us from ourselves. We are confronted by our fears, insecurities, regrets, remorse, and shame. But this is precisely the groundwork for connection to God. We can use our fears, our cries of pain, our moans of despair and shame; they are prayers as surely as a hallelujah."
- Debbi Gelled -
CRAVINGS, AVERSIONS, AND CHANGE
There’s definitely some humor in being pregnant while doing a retreat which is supposed to help you overcome the human conditions of cravings and aversions, since that’s currently all I do all day: desperately needing certain foods and then physically rejecting certain others.
Like, intellectually I get it. When we spend our time craving something that isn’t happening, it leads to misery. When we spend our time trying to avoid something that is happening, it leads to misery. But my current pregnancy aversions to soy, sugar, brown rice, cooked foods and a whole list of other foods (cooked or otherwise) are like, literal, not just me being weak-minded, I swear.
Part of what this meditation technique teaches is to accept – on a physical level – that everything is always changing. Therefore you don’t need to crave things (unless you’re like, pregnant), or avoid things (unless, you’re like, pregnant), because, literally everything will eventually change anyway. And the… nice?... thing about pregnancy is that it gives you basically no choice but to accept this reality, every day. My body is changing constantly. My relationship with food is changing constantly. One day I could only stomach very specific ratios of peanut butter, Earth Balance vegan butter, and jam on flour tortillas. The next day, I felt that I might possibly die if I ever smelled peanut butter again. Which I think got me like, 4% closer to enlightenment because even though I truly felt that way, I also truly understood that this feeling wouldn’t be permanent (#almostenlightened!).
But between the pregnancy cravings and “morning” sickness aversions (I'll rant about the term "morning" sickness later...), it really made eating very very hard, and no amount of meditation could help me overcome that (trust me, I tried).
Now, before I get into this story I want to mention that the volunteer staff was incredibly generous trying to help me through my food troubles. Sooooo accommodating and considerate. They made me little treats, like special vegan cookies one day! One morning the only thing I could stomach was hummus (breakfast of champions), and some angel in the kitchen made me a whole bowl of it at 6:30am. And we were all trying, and yet, so often I was still physically unable to eat what was offered, and even when I was, I still rarely ever felt filled, full, satisfied with the limited vegan options available – which isn’t their fault at all, but it isn’t mine either.
So, by Night 7, I was hungry. Absolutely staving. I’d barely been able to keep anything down all day, despite my many attempts, and this had been going on for days. And as I was lying in bed, unable to sleep, my stomach growling and aching, I became more and more anxious. I was worried I wasn’t getting enough nutrition between the combination of “morning” sickness coupled with my inability to find anything I could stomach, and became absolutely convinced I was going to miscarry, that my body would reject the pregnancy because I didn’t have enough fat to sustain it in my already very petite yogi frame. I was terrified, and overwhelmed, and famished, and even though it was really late, I walked across the campus to the dining hall and raided my mini fridge, but I couldn’t manage to eat anything in there. Not a single thing. And so I snuck into the kitchen, and there, in the main refrigerator, was this giant industrial-sized tub of cottage cheese.
Now, I haven’t had cottage cheese in years, ever since going vegan. And since going vegan I haven’t even wanted dairy ever, either. But, something about this specific hunger left me looking at that tub and knowing, desperately wishing, that I could eat the entire thing, immediately. I salivated ravenously, ridiculously (which, is apparently a thing that happens during pregnancy), staring lustfully at that tub, and started to sob with wild desire.
Vegans often get asked this question: if you were stranded on a deserted island, with nothing to eat, would you eat meat?
And there I was, no phone, no car keys, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, so so so hungry, absolutely, completely convinced that the tiny life inside me depended on me to make the right choice in that moment.
I remembered a story I read almost a decade ago from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. It’s been…. a long time since I read it, and I’m going to paraphrase it and possibly get it all wrong, but here’s how I recalled it:
Jonathan’s Jewish grandmother was on the run from the Nazis. Like me (but way more justified) she was also terrified, and starving, and ended up being sheltered by a farmer. He offered her a meal – pork. But she was kosher, and her religious values were of the utmost importance to her, and so she turned the meal down, even if it meant she might not have the energy to continue running. Decades later, Jonathan would ask her, “Why would you turn down any food in such a dire situation? Clearly special circumstances call for special considerations.” And her reply was: “If there’s nothing left that matters, there’s nothing left to save.”
Through my shaking and tears, I decided that no matter how hungry I was, no matter how intensely my body wanted that cottage cheese, something still mattered to me: my integrity. The kind of world I want to bring this child into. The kind of person I want to be to this child. And so, as an expectant mother, I couldn’t justify – under any circumstances - stealing from another mother. I couldn’t support my own baby with food taken at the expense of another baby. On both a spiritual and cellular level, I couldn’t create in my own female body a life formed through the exploitation of another female body.
The very basis of an enlightened being is one who doesn’t cause harm to others, and I knew that I could sit and meditate for the next few days or even the rest of my life and never achieve enlightenment if my foundation was knowingly built on the suffering of another, especially another female. Especially another mother.
And unlike so many females in so many situations, I still had choices. I wasn’t on a deserted island. And so I turned around and walked out of the kitchen.
I met with the Teacher and told her my fears, my worries, my bottomless insatiable hunger, and that I was considering quitting the course simply so I could go eat. I thought she would talk me out of it but instead she told me that this was a serious situation, and she actually recommended I leave.
And I was surprised, and said, wide-eyed, “but I want to learn as much as I can and work through as much as I can so I can be the best mother that I can!” And she said, “Good, so go home and be a good mother and feed your baby."
And I said, “but I know I’m strong enough to finish the course. This fear of hurting my baby, this hunger, is just really painful for me right now.” And she said, “If enduring pain led to enlightenment, everyone would be enlightened by now.”
She promised me the path to enlightenment is long, and is always there, but for now, my most important job was to nurture my body and my pregnancy.
And I mean, let's be real: even the Buddha didn’t reach enlightenment while pregnant.
So, I left (and ate soooooo much guacamole, which apparently my body was equally happy with).
And maybe I didn’t reach enlightenment yet, but I was brave enough to try, again. I maintained my integrity, and my health. And most importantly: I left the damn dining hall on time each day. And honesty, that might be the closest thing to enlightenment most of us can hope for.
A note on ethics in writing:
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