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RAW IN CUENCAThe Vipassana silent meditation retreat scaled the heights and plumbed the depths

By Susan Schenck

Ten days of no talking, no dinner, no reading or writing, no TV, radio or internet, no meat, no caffeine, no contact with the opposite sex, 12 hours of sitting, getting awakened at 4 a.m. with the sound of a clanging gong—sounds like hell? For many Cuencanos and foreigners who participated in such a retreat it was a slice of heaven.

The Vipassana experience, a worldwide silent meditation retreat, was held Aug 3-14 just north of Cuenca at "La Asunción," a monastery, where 32 women and 23 men of various ages participated in this meditation boot camp. For me, not talking was a relief to avoid small talk with a bunch of strangers. Lack of sleep? No problem when the brain is relaxed by meditation. No dinner is a superior way to eat. I usually have a very light and early supper anyhow.

But as someone who’s used to reading two books a week, my mind was agitated by the lack of mental stimulation. I found myself reading the bulletin board over and over the first couple of days.

And the sitting was a huge problem for all of us. The first couple of days everyone was fidgety. Veteran meditators came prepared with thick cushions and even meditation stools. But no one warned me about this, and my bed pillow simply wouldn't do. I struggled for a solution and decided to sleep on it; in Spanish, the idiom is “consultar con la almohada”—consult with the pillow. I found the solution staring me in the face: my $125 tempurpedic pillow! If I ruined it, it was for a worthy cause. It literally saved my butt.

We began by watching our breath a couple of days, and later learned an ancient Buddhist technique known as Vipassana. Complete silence droned on for hour upon hour, day after day, with nine hours of meditation and three of instruction and discourse, all standardized on tapes in available in almost any language. Breaks occured every hour or so, including a couple of longer ones in which we walked around the parking lot and grassy area by a river: women and men in separate sections. To work off my agitated mind, I logged at least two hours of walking a day and squeezed in some yoga stretches.

The “noble silence” meant we couldn't communicate with talking, writing, sign language—not even smiles or glances. Each of us was in our own separate world, our own tunnel of nothingness. The first two days I went out of my mind with boredom, while striving to go out of my mind into No-Mind. All in my own world without distractions, I wrestled with a few demons. My mind formed dialogues with others. I managed to get into alpha brain states while sitting—but I knew that unless I got into the deeper states of theta and even delta, this was going to be a long long 10 days.

On the third day I was desperate. I prayed for help. Within ten minutes, I finally collapsed into No-Mind, the Void, the space where even pain or itches are observed with detachment. The left and right brain were synchronized. Time went much faster and the “I” disappeared as I experienced my true nature: bliss and pure consciousness.

On day six, three local women, all in their twenties, dropped out of the meditation marathon. One was sick, another a smoker. The rest of us stuck it out and on the 10th day, we were allowed to talk and get to know one another, sharing our experiences.

There were moments when I just couldn’t wait to get home to my books, email, and coffee—just that one cup a day. On the two days we were served instant coffee for breakfast I was thrilled: Nescafe never tasted so good! But on the last day, I found myself already plotting when and where to do my next retreat.

Some people go from country to country to get one in every month, so that after they accumulate five, they qualify for the 20-day retreat. As someone with a to-do list of 14 items a day, it was a genuine vacation to have nothing to do. Nonetheless, I was glad to get home. Surprisingly, it takes a lot of effort to do nothing! It’s a bit of a jolt to get back to the world of intense stimulation. For all I know, the U.S. could have been nuked. People weren't informed unless it was a family emergency.

I came back to my home with a continued sense of peace. The mind chatter was much lessened, as was the compulsion toward emails and reading. Certain inner conflicts were permanently resolved. But I knew it wouldn’t last unless I continued to meditate, and I do so, knowing that it helps prevent the brain’s aging.

Although we were each in our own private world, no doubt the group energy propelled us all much farther than doing it solo. For this reason, the local Cuenca group meets every Wednesday night to meditate together and one Sunday a month for a six-hour group meditation.

Cuenca offers this retreat every August and has to turn down hundreds of applicants, since they don’t have the money to do more than one a year. Be sure to apply four months in advance, in April, as it's first-come first-serve. Funding is by donations.

Website for worldwide meditations: http://www.dhamma.org. Cuenca contact: info@cuenca.ec.dhamma.org.

Susan Schenck, LAc, MTOM, is a raw food, health, and weight loss coach and the author of The Live Food Factor and Beyond Broccoli. She resides in Cuenca and can be reached at livefoodfactor@yahoo.com.