Danielle’s 10 day to Enlightenment by Danielle Bussone
A few years back, my sister-in-law gave me a t-shirt as a gag gift. On it was a drawing of a ghost with a caption in large letters that read, “I’ve had a difficult past few lives.” She didn’t know the half of it.
In the last year, my stress level has been off the charts. I’ve been running back and forth across the country doing cooking demonstrations, teaching classes on how to prepare delicious plant-based whole foods, speaking at festivals, wellness groups, and senior centers, doing radio and television interviews, and making instructional YouTube videos. All the while I’ve been creating recipes for and writing my second book, interviewing athletes and health experts and writing restaurant reviews for my blog as well as maintaining a social media presence. It has been worthwhile, great fun and terribly rewarding. But, it has also been stressful. Even good stress is stress, and it erodes our health and chips away at our immune systems.
After breaking three molars this year from incessant tooth-grinding in my sleep, I decided something had to give. For some time, I have been looking around for a good meditation class; something credible, not just some weird, wild-eyed, drug-induced hippy bullshit. I didn’t want to know about my past lives or have an out-of-body experience. I just wanted techniques that would help me sleep peacefully while keeping up a hectic multi-tasking schedule.
One day it fell right into my lap. A local woman who had bought my book called me out of the blue. She said she had had an epiphany and decided she wanted to become a vegan. She wanted to know if I would be interested in sharing some bulk food orders with her. “Sure!” I said, and promptly invited her over to learn how to make vegan calzones. While we were devouring the results of our labours, she told my husband and me about a meditation “boot camp” (called Vipassana) she had recently completed in Georgia. It was ten days of monastic living; no speaking, no eye contact, a gruelling ten hours of meditation each day, beginning at 4 am and ending at 9:30 pm. She claimed it changed her life.
Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are.’ It is a meditation practice that was developed in India over 2500 years ago as an ‘art of living,’ a means of training ourselves to enjoy selfless, happy, peaceful, and compassionate lives. The program is completely free of charge. Your room and board are paid for by the generosity of others who have completed the course before you, a kind of pay-it-forward system. You are not allowed to contribute a nickel until you have completed a ten-day program and then, only if you have true volition to do so, according to your means. The courses are run purely by donations, and the teachers, assistants, groundskeepers, cooks and staff of all kinds volunteer their time so that you can devote your time to learning this technique of meditation. It is seen as an act of loving service. There are 168 centres across the globe where there are often long waiting lists to get in.
So, Rich and I signed up. I was determined I would learn to relax if it killed me. Rich was essentially going along to support me, even though the men and women would be housed in separate quarters and would have no contact. He’s that kind of guy. We wished each other luck and separated for the duration. I was introduced to my room-mate with whom I exchanged a few words about our living situation, and our group shared a light meal before silence was invoked. It was a racially and culturally diverse mix of men and women from around the world who met in the meditation hall or Dhamma Center for our first instructions. There was an aisle dividing the sexes and a short wall making it impossible for me even to get a glimpse of Rich. Once we entered the dimly lit hall, a shroud of silence descended upon us.
To follow the path of Dhamma—the natural order of the universe—we learn Vipassana, a technique of purifying the mind by observing the sensations that occur within our bodies and their connection to the mind. By observing these sensations, we discover how our judgements, thoughts, and feelings are experienced by the body. We learn that to attain mastery over our minds is to attain mastery over our lives.
What followed were ten gruelling days of physical agony as we pushed our pampered bodies into unaccustomed and uncomfortable positions and our minds into intense focus, fighting off sleep and an onslaught of random thoughts that refused to be mastered. Emotional revelations bubbled to the surface of our psyches from places so deep we hadn’t realized they existed, leaving many of us writhing in pain and whimpering in our sleep.
Pain, according to this teaching, both physical and mental, can be the result of accumulated karma through multiple lifetimes. If this is the case, I must have once been a real ass-hole in former reincarnations because the karmic payback was a bitch. In the end, we learn how to release our torments and marvel in awe as they dissolve into the ether leaving purified spirits in their wake.
From the first evening, we learned techniques to deepen our awareness and our focus, and we were provided wonderfully kind and insightful teachers to whom we could turn if we had trouble understanding what was expected of us. (Yes, we could speak to them.) We were fed delicious plant-based meals, and there were wooded trails to provide respite to our aching limbs and joints.
On the final day, we were permitted to speak again. I had an opportunity to get to know women that I had only observed through the body language and facial expressions of concentrated introspection. Some, I learned, had suffered insurmountable loss. My room-mate’s son had committed suicide; another woman’s husband had been murdered. There are stories of abuse, loss, and struggle. One young woman left the program early, unable to handle the isolation pressed upon us. I wish I could have told her that we were all in this together, that we were all sending her our support and well wishes, that we all had her very best interests at heart. But we weren’t allowed to speak or touch; we weren’t allowed to give her solace. One must walk the path to Dhamma alone.
As Rich and I departed, I looked fondly upon my ‘Sisters of Silence.’ Many had arrived broken. While I can’t say with certainty that all the pieces of their shattered lives had been restored, I can say without hesitation that we all left feeling a bit more whole. We had been given tools for our own redemption, a technique that helps one retain peace in the midst of chaos. We need only practice to keep it alive within us.
Indeed, I may very well have had a difficult past few lives, but with Vipassana, things are looking up.
AUTHOR OF TIME FOR CHANGE series
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