When I was invited to Vipassana for the first time it was by a colleague who just gave birth to twin girls. She worried that her meditation practice will not be sustained after the babies were born and began planting Vipassana seeds to lean on later on. She was a gentle, kind, disciplined soul but also thoroughly infused with mother’s guilt – something I could easily identify with. In my life, contemplating spiritual retreats was off-limits. I had a child under ten, no family close by, and no real practice except practicing mother's guilt. Only a selfish mother would allow herself the luxury of time. An unselfish one burdens herself.
A few years later, another colleague and Vipassana practitioner rekindled my desire. Yet, my interpretation of what is "allowed" was pretty much the same. No time. No support. No justification. It took additional two years, and a family death to move from the guilt to acceptance of the need for care of Self. My father, whom I was deeply connected to, passed away suddenly (do we ever say “timely”?) after a few short months of illness. I lost not only support but one of the greatest loves of my life. My heart, bursting with grief, made me extremely vulnerable. I was in tears and assumed an aching body. I knew needed to find a way of living with grief as an adult.
Studies about the benefits of meditation on mental health from the “mindfulness-based stress reduction” (John Kabat-Zinn) to various meditative traditions and approaches thought by Pema Chodron, Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield or Thich Nhat Hanh popularized the understanding of why is important to go inward and reduce external stimulus. Large universities, hospitals, MBA schools, businesses, top athletes, and entertainment stars have been showing continuous improvement by incorporating the benefits of meditation within the “mental health” or leadership paradigm. Stepping outside of the comfort zone into silence to address a deep internal void is now accepted as, perhaps, one of the solutions to address fragmented life.
I wish I could say that my experience was easy and pleasurable. It was not. Not initially, anyway.
I journeyed to the retreat in Elgin. Ontario in December with two Vipassana practitioners, already on their 4th retreat. By all standards, it was a gregarious ride, followed by lovely reception, and a fantastic dinner. Eventually, we surrendered our phones and car keys to the wow of 11 days of silence and solitude.
Initially, the retreat started as physically unbearable. The pain in my left hip (iliofemoral) ligament in the first few hours of sitting extended its crippling sensation up to my lower back. We were instructed not only not to speak but also to keep our distance and lower our eyes to protect each other’s space. My pain was mine only to be witnessed and explored. I shared a little (superbly winterized) cabin with a young girl who arrived late and I was never introduced. Partially because of the lack of privacy and partially due to the persistence of the pain my attendance at the sits was formidable. I was sitting at 4:30 am. And I was sitting at 9 pm. I am not quite clear what else than sheer desperation helped me to endure long hours.
When I was fantasizing about going on a Vipassana I imagined experiencing an equivalent of great romantic suffering and emotional breakthrough. Yet, aside from frequent bouts of anger, it was mainly my body suffering. Eventually, when it became unbearable to sit on the floor I surrendered to the fact that I will likely need to move to a chair. And this brought me to tears again. Even here, I had no control over what was happening to me. I was defeated. I was powerless. Yet, as soon as my mind and body moved toward accepting what IS the pain left my hip as swiftly as it arrived.
Goenka’s Vipassana is a three-step progression program arising from learning Anapana (mindfulness of breath) to Vipassana (insight into the true nature of reality) and culminating with Metta (benevolence), as a final, emotionally rich response of kindness and (self-) forgiveness. My body recognized the grace of Metta in four days. My mind needed more time.
As the physical pain left my anger, rebelliousness, and contrarian Self not so obvious to me initially took the front stage. I realized how incredibly difficult is for me to develop any mental discipline over my thinking. My inability to concentrate at will made me angry. After a couple of days, when anger was very much exhausted my mind found yet another type of disruptor - a trickster mind with a quite bizarre, if not childish power of imagination. In the middle of meditation practice, I kept receiving a continuous flow of images depicting rather cute penguin choirs, mice with Victorian hats, and petite gummy teddy bears flying in tiny wooden planes. They all were, in fact, hilariously funny and made me laugh. The more I resisted wanting to be committed and serious about this practice the more amusing the little characters in my head became. So I had to laugh and surrender to this too, accepting that maybe in my version of Vipassana practice I will need to roll with laughter. And again, as I gave in the bizarre tension left my mind, quickly and effortlessly
Each night the recorded Dhamma lectures offered opportunities for students whose first language was not English, such as myself, to use players with recorded interpretations. And each night about 20% of the room reached out to tiny players listening to Dhamma lectures in Arabic, French, Mandarin, German, Russian, Romanian, Italian, or Urdu. I could not. First, my native language group is tiny, and the odds of finding an interpretation in Croatian are rather small. But I also discovered that I would probably turn away from it even if it would be available.
In my later 20s, I left my home country retaining an aversion toward the political and cultural environment of that time. As a result, I subconsciously decided to abandon the active usage of my 1st language, and bury my cultural past under the Canadian carpet. Besides speaking to my partner, I did not speak, read or socialize with anyone from my previous cultural environment. Partially this was due to negative experiences but partially, as I understood it later, it was also a family thread. I was born as the 5th generation of emigrants, each generation being forced or deciding for one reason or another to abandon their place of birth. My father belonged to a German minority group and his grandfather was among those who colonized Bosnia after the Austro-Hungarian annexation of 1878. On his father’s side, the family arrived in the 1890s acquiring some land, building housing, and initiating a profitable lumber business extracting from the woods of Krivaja. When my grandfather reached the marrying age, he had the option of going to Galicia to bring Lutheran German girls to the south. In the colony, they spoke German at home and in public places, received German education, and drank coffee in German cafes in Zavidovici. The onset of the 2nd WW II in the Balkans gave them a bit of an obvious advantage. However, for the rest of the 1940s, they were on the road first expelled to Austria, then Germany (they never lived in), and eventually to “rehabilitation camps for Germans” in Serbia and Poland. Growing up as a child in a post-war society, and as an enemy of the state, you learn from hostility and hunger quickly. Yet, the trauma of ”hidden identity” impacts not one but several future generations, as studies about epigenetic trauma demonstrate. One of the first things you leave behind is the language, culture, and name. My father’s name was changed and in his life, he was actively discouraged from speaking German. This he took seriously, except when his sisters and mother were visiting and we could not hear anything but German. We, my mother, brother, and I could not understand them. The world they were born into and the one they inhabited now were forbidden to be translated into each other.
One evening, perhaps on the 9th or 10th night of my after-dinner walk as I enjoyed the heavy silence of pines covered with fresh snow, looked out for animal footprints while inspecting the skies. I also noticed Venus rising in the east. Where I grew up some essential knowledge about elementary celestial orientation is given, and finding Venus or Jupiter is considered a blessing. And as I was about to begin expressing my gratitude to Venus a very old Croatian song about Venus, one that my father sang often and loved almost the most, arose from the depth of my abdomen. I started to sing it quietly, softly, preserving the silence of the pines:
Blijedi mjesec zagrlio zvijezdu Danicu Pale Moon is embracing morning star (Venus),
A ja grlim svoju milu Anicu While I am hugging my sweet Ann,
Samo reci mi, dal me ljubiš ti Please do tell me that you love me,
da živimo ko svi sretni presretni So we can keep living happy, happily.
I could not remember further than the first four lines and I was singing the same four verses over and over again. And with repetitive chanting of what I knew or remembered, incredible sadness and a sense of loss washed over me like a huge tsunami. Yes, of course, it was my personal loss that first triggered this experience but it was significantly more to it. I felt the grief over forceful choices being made in my part of the world. I felt a sense of deep grief arising from the experience of the 1940s. And the grief of the 1990s. I saw children, like my father was in 1942 at the tender age of five, leaving their homes, and I saw the children of Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo doing the same some fifty years later. I felt how my heart is opening to everyone, but children primarily, being forced to leave their homes and being instructed not to speak. And saw with utmost clarity how this forceful amnesia and oppression of what was once safe led to fragmented future identities, creating guilt, creating shame. I also sensed the depth of the power that maternal language has over our memories. I saw how our first language, preserved in lullabies, songs, in the sounds of safety is an instrument of calming our "fight or flight" response through the activation of the oldest parts of our brain. And I felt that unless we find a way to fully embrace our entire lineage, all cultures, skin colors, and all languages being spoken across all ancestors’ lines going as far back and as wide, we will remain fragmented, incomplete, guilty, and scared. The implication of this insight, particularly when working with immigrants or asylum seekers recovering from violence, and any type of trauma I felt, could be immense. And this was also the experience of Metta, the emotional, inclusive kindness and (self-) forgiveness. My heart was able to feel all of it and still remain open.
On that cold night just two days shy of the Winter solstice, I also realized that I am somehow redeemed. The burden of guilt and grief disappeared. Not forever, of course. and not in absolute terms. But I was pain-free, heavy-heart free, grounded, centered, and at peace. I was grateful for the experience that worked for me but I do not think that it would work for everyone as universally guaranteed. What is universal, however, is that the potential to find truth, guidance and a source of wisdom is always available within us. To reconnect with it we need to turn down the volume of the world just a bit to be in a better position to find our way on the snowy path that will take us back home.