Updated: Oct 11, 2021
I can generally sit cross-legged, an entire hour of meditation, without moving. Observing the more intense sensations of discomfort and even the more challenging sensations of a tickle (because how could we really know if it is just a mind-made tickle or a tickle from an unwelcome insect) is relatively easy for me since attending my first 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat in 2019. I left that retreat being able to see my discomforts in meditation as the constantly changing sensations that they are, BUT adopting an equanimous mind, a mind free from clinging or aversions, did not translate as easily into my everyday life and relationships.
I can see now that in my attempt to become equanimous, I might have disengaged certain conversations, people, and situations under the misguided belief that I was choosing not to be reactive. Cultivating equanimity is not about abandoning certain emotions like anger and sadness, it is an ability to witness its felt/somatic experience and respond compassionately or engage with the world without being attached to a desired outcome.
For this reason and many others, I was determined to sit the September 15th vipassana meditation course in Jesup, GA, and even half-heartedly tried to visualize sitting the course in order to manifest being moved from 4th on the waitlist to being able to actually participate. When I was contacted and told I could serve the course instead of sit, I jumped on the opportunity, and drove up to Jesup for the retreat. I was told that if there were any last minute cancelations, I would be able to sit instead of serve.
Serving responsibilities & opportunities:
work in the kitchen
set up/clean up dining areas
required to join all 3 one hour group sits at 8:00AM, 2:30, and 6:30
wrap up each day with a 15 minute metta (loving kindness) practice and check in with the teacher
required to sit in on the morning sessions the day vipassana and metta techniques are introduced
there is an option to join the 4:30-6:30am sit if you are not needed for breakfast duties
if you get to take a day off (which I luckily did) you can do a full day practice and use their meditation cells where you can have less distractions for your practice
lights out at 10pm and breakfast duty began at 5:30am
The day finally arrived and I thought my manifesting visualizations had worked when I overheard there was a last minute cancelation. I asked if I could switch to sitting, but the teachers responded that they thought it would be best for me to serve instead. I tried to be equanimous about this, but of course there was a bit of disappointment. Instead of doing the deep work of 10 hours of meditation a day that I know would help me uproot habit energies that do not serve me, I ended up serving.
This was the biggest blessing in disguise! This gave me the opportunity to see first hand what it is like to work mindfully, compassionately, and equanimously.
As a server I was able to work with varying levels of vipassana meditators. They were everything from a very consistent 1-hour-a-day practitioner and M.D., a several-hours-a-day plus several 20 and 30 day courses completed - Vietnamese monk, and an inconsistent practitioner/recovering addict.
The ability to serve in a team of very mixed personalities and levels of practice gave me so much more than I could have imagined. I got to witness first hand how we can cultivate equanimity without being a pushover, becoming devoid of emotions, or a recluse.
Equanimity, the ability to be free from aversion or attachments, is one of the guiding principles of vipassana meditation, as well as one of the most challenging for us to adopt. Vipassana meditators will oftentimes sit an entire hour without moving, observing their pain in a shoulder or knee, and learning to witness the discomfort as the sensations that compose the feeling of discomfort. Although this became somewhat easy for me after my first 10 day retreat, the moment a family member pushed my buttons, it was still challenging to practice equanimity and not become reactive.
Serving allowed me the opportunity to work with a few major themes in vipassana, like equanimity, in real time (check out following blog to check those out!), and also see the way other vipassana meditators, long term and short term, faced challenges as well as clinging/attachments.
Seeing Aversions aka Dukkha or "Suffering"
I was lucky enough to have several insightful experiences which illuminated ways of incorporating a vipassana and a mindful mindset into everyday life as well as seeing more clearly how I continue to perpetuate my suffering through my attachments and aversions.
One such aversion - dishwashing. The kitchen manager noticed right away that when they assigned me dishwashing duties, I didn't seem too excited. She was generous enough to switch me off of dishwashing, but throughout the course, when I’d walk past the dishwashers, I kept realizing how much I REALLY did not want that job. Clearly, I still have my work cut out for me, and I love being able to see that...clearly. Now I can bring more awareness to activities that I might avoid or resist and become more mindful of how to thread them into my life. A few things on this list: talking politics with family, running, lifting weights, and a few other activities I know could be useful to my career. (update: it's been 5 days since I wrote this blog and I've gone for a run each of those days! Here's to consciously dissolving dukkha!)
The Pali (original language of the Buddha) word, vipassana, is often defined as insight. The prefix “vi” stands for “special” and “passana” means “seeing.” Some even say that we can begin to reduce suffering and have more equanimity once we direct our sight inward to experience this special seeing. When we cultivate this insight, or inward vision, we can see things more clearly. Instead of seeing everything through the lens of our history, our upbringing, our socioeconomic status, among several other filters we use unknowingly, we can open fully to the present moment as it is - as it is without our attachment with the story of who we are, or any narratives of the “other.”
I’ll be sharing additional insights from my recent serving experience, but I would also love to hear from each of you! Have you ever sat a vipassana retreat? Served a course? Do you have questions about the practice?
Feel free to leave a comment below or send me a direct message at email@example.com.
With a happy heart,
p.s. - No, I did not practice any ashtanga yoga although they do allow servers to exercise whenever we have free time. All I had the energy to do was different variations of legs up the wall as I laid in bed being delighted by the branches outside my bedroom window.