An interview with Sage on the Vipassana experience
By Morgan Hannah, Life & Style Editor
My friend Sage has always been an interesting and delightful individual, finding offbeat paths towards self-discovery and creativity. Recently, I learned that she attended a Vipassana 10-day silent retreat, so I just had to interview her and get the inside scoop on what it’s like attending something so unusual and personal.
A quick refresher on Vipassana: it’s an intense silent meditation course held in many locations all around the world. The course is free, but students usually donate to the retreat once it has ended. I wanted to know what Vipassana meant to Sage, so I asked her to describe it to me.
“Connecting with yourself without tools. Finding your purest self through the purest state. A lot of meditation techniques can get you to that purest state where you realize your truth through breathing techniques, focusing on images. Vipassana strips away every technique and crutch that you’re comfortable with. It encourages you to get ‘there’ without using anything,” said Sage in a phone interview with the Other Press.
The retreat was held in Youngstown, Alberta—also known as Sportsman’s Paradise. Sage was inspired to take on this personal challenge by Yung Pueblo, an activist, former Vipassana student, and writer who supports individuals with their healing and growth through his writing.
A day in the life of a student at the Youngstown Vipassana Retreat Centre is heavily based upon routine and, of course, meditation. Lots of it. Phones and other devices are surrendered on the first day and shortly after, “Noble Silence” begins. Women and men are separated except for co-ed meditation in the hall, and every single day starts at 4 am. Students are given a 30-minute break in the morning to get ready for the day ahead and shortly after, they must wander over to the hall and silently meditate until 6:30 am. Morning meditation ends with a prerecorded chanting session from Goenka (which Sage admitted that she found annoying at first), and a light breakfast is served—followed by silent free time until 8 am. Then mediation continues in the hall until 11 am. Students are given one hour for lunch and one hour after that of free time (silently), then meditation continues from 1 pm until 5 pm in the hall. From 5 to 6 pm, tea or a light snack is served, shadowed by more silent meditation until 8 pm, at which the day wraps up with discourse, a prerecorded video of Goenka’s praise for having gotten through the day, as well as instruction on what to expect the next day—and an early 9:30 pm bedtime.
Over the next 10 days, Sage challenged herself in many ways, learning to be more present and to appreciate life more. She learned about determination, her strength, and the impermanence of everything in life. That’s not to say that she didn’t have struggles maintaining a clear mind. Like most people, Sage had wandering thoughts.
“I noticed I would start to imagine future experiences. The whole point I thought I came here for was to figure out what to do after the retreat—like, where to move and stuff like that. I wanted to find peace of mind here and to calm down so I could figure out my life. During this time, I would also fantasize, so I said to myself: ‘You’re not being present girl, come back! Why are you doing that? Are you uncomfortable in this moment? Are you always doing this? I started to notice how often I do that. There’s a time and place to imagine your future and plan it out. But, if you’re at a meditation retreat to sit with your thoughts, feel your pain, and eradicate your pain, then why are you not present right now?’”
Her most memorable moment came during day five. During the discourse, she was feeling frustrated with the pain in her body and with people around her breaking Noble Silence. Then she looked across the room and saw a man completely still and unbothered by the noise, completely peaceful. She thought to herself that if he could be so peaceful and calm during the chaos, then so could she.
“Basically, I used him as an excuse to be peaceful, to cultivate the strength in myself to not be irritable anymore.” She had to learn to let go of the thoughts that found her during her silence and did so by imagining herself interacting with the things she had difficulty getting over. This helped give a sense of closure.
From this moment forward, Sage began to experience a sequence of memorable things happening to her—starting with a change in her relationship with food. During meals, the retreat staff would put blinders on the windows and all the chairs were facing the walls, encouraging no eye contact with one another. “This helped to enforce that this time was my own. We would politely stay to ourselves, we would wait in line—serving ourselves. I was taught how to be more present with meals and how food is medicine. My relationship with food was probably the number one thing I took out of Vipassana.”
By day eight, Sage was able to get past physical pain in her hips during meditation by challenging herself to sit through it regardless of how she felt. She visualized the muscles in her body as red and throbbing and sat with the pain until she saw her muscles turn to a neutral grey, like a rock, and all of a sudden they grew heavy and no longer hurt.
When asked if she would recommend attending the Vipassana retreat, Sage said she would recommend going if you’re interested in putting some work into yourself for lifelong growth—and you’re ready for that growth.
Her greatest takeaway from the retreat, besides her relationship with food, is that if you don’t believe in yourself, there is no one else who will. The belief needs to come from you—you’re the one who needs to cultivate the energy in yourself.