This is a guest blog post by Ashley Platz, a powerful actress and formidable yoga teacher (among many other things) whom I admire very much. We met while working on a film a couple of years ago, and she is always up to something interesting. Following is her account of her first 10-day silent meditation, and I am honored to have her contribute to the Polyblog. For more information on Vipassana Meditation courses, locations, and schedules, check out www.dhamma.org.
They say meditation is medicine.
“They”: the ones who don’t have 9-5 jobs with mortgages and children and student loans. They say it’s powerful for helping your nervous system, makes you less reactionary, helps with migraines, cures insomnia, and (the biggest one) makes you happier.
That’s what they say.
But a lot of people feel that it’s hard to sit still, to focus, that there are too many thoughts. They say meditation makes them fall asleep, they get frustrated, and (the biggest one) there isn’t enough time. So, while it’s a nice idea, a meditation practice isn’t for them.
I should begin by admitting that I am a yoga teacher. This might sway your opinion of my ability to persevere the following experience. Understandable. I thought I would have had an edge myself. I began my yoga teacher training 5 years ago, and, naturally, meditation was a part of the curriculum. Yet I resisted.
We were asked to meditate every day of my 2 month, 200-hour training for just 11 minutes a day. I made it about 12 days before I forgot. Restarted. Made it about 5 more days. Restarted. And so forth and so on. This has been my “meditation practice” ever since. I’ll go months with nothing and then do 15 days straight.
Inconsistent, to say the least.
What Is Vipassana?
You may have heard of the “Silent Meditation” that some people do. It’s a 12-day experience with 10 days spent in total silence. No speaking, no gesturing, no eye contact. Zip. Sounds like a blast, right?
It’s called Vipassana Meditation. Vipassana means insight, experiential insight, or “to see things as they really are.” This type of meditation is aimed specifically at spiritual liberation, nirvana, and enlightenment. It’s a mindfulness meditation that does not use visualization or mantra.
It’s often mentioned that as a byproduct of this experience, a lot of mental health issues are eradicated. And the primary physical focus of Vipassana is to allow the body to experience sensations and to practice not reacting to them.
This is a massive understatement about what happens during the experience, but more on this later.
I signed up in 2012 after learning about the 2 week “retreat.” (I hate that people call it a retreat.) You have to sign up 3 months in advance because they fill up so fast! After about a month, I panicked. What if I book a movie that films then? What if I get the chance to travel? What if I would rather go on a Netflix binge? What if, what if, what if.
It went on like this for 3 more years, signing up and canceling way before learning whether I was accepted or not. My ego knew this wouldn't be a vacation. My ego knew this would be a deeply vulnerable, self-confronting, self-awareness-building endeavor. And my ego knew this would be something I had to do alone. Not by any delusion of heroism, but because I knew that nobody else could fix my issues for me.
There comes a time in any self-aware person’s life when you notice that the common denominator of all the shitty things around you... is you. You made the choices. You continue to make those choices. The relationships, the jobs, the food, the stagnation, the fear, the secrets, the anger.
What I didn’t know was that Vipassana Meditation would be the antiseptic to this misery wound. Committing to this type of self investigation is both brave and courageous. It is walking onto the battlefield of your life and dropping the shield.
As a Los Angeles-based yoga teacher who sees the ease with which we exist in self-hatred, negative self-talk, fear and anxiety, I would deem this experience necessary. I equate day 1 of the 10-day Silent Meditation to voluntarily cutting open an infected, puss-filled, often-ignored and always-growing, wound.
And only when you acknowledge it, accept it and decide to open it up can true lifechanging healing begin.
Everyone’s journey with the 10 days is different. I’ve spoken with many people--artists, athletes, healers, chefs, lawyers, stay-at-home dads and moms, social workers and more--who have all had dramatically different and wonderfully positive experiences.
This is a fraction of mine.
It has been very difficult for me to accurately articulate all that I learned and experienced. I have often described it as a huge white puffy cloud over my head where light rays of knowledge are caught, and every now and then one will poke through and smack me in the temple and say “REMEMBER YOU KNOW THIS NOW!” Here are some of those lessons.
1. I developed a deep sense of compassion.
This virtue has always been a challenge for me. Bullshit and shit-talking were my second and third languages. However, when you’re waiting in line for food that you’re not paying for, that is being served to you by volunteers, you can’t help but notice how you’re no different than a monk or a nun, or (in L.A.) the homeless.
Nobody can look at you, acknowledge your presence, or speak with you. This is why homeless people sometimes go crazy: they begin to believe they are as invisible as they feel. At times, this experience made me feel just as invisible. Since leaving the course and returning to the city I have made it a part of my life to look every homeless person in the face and acknowledge that I see them. This is the least I can do.
2. Nobody can ever upset you unless you allow it.
We truly are the governors of our reactions. This practice gave me very practical tools to curb, slow, and even completely change my reactions to things. Three weeks after the course I was in a car accident. I was hit by a man who was texting and driving. It was very upsetting, naturally. He fled the scene. I ended up finding him.
Now, I was born and raised in New Jersey and am known for an attitude that I cannot usually control; however, that day when I found the driver who had nearly driven head-on into my car my first question to him was, “Are you ok?”. I managed to effortlessly stay calm and grounded through the entire insurance exchange and never raised my voice. This was huge for me.
3. I am immensely hard on myself.
Every evening a new instruction was given to the group, another layer to our practice. I was always excited for this and couldn’t wait to go deeper. However, I found myself listening to the most negative self talk you could ever imagine. I mean ridiculous.
“Ashley, you’re thinking! Jackass. Stop drifting off. God, you suck at this. What kind of teacher are you? Why can’t you do this one simple thing? Why are you so tired? What’s the matter with you? You’re fuckin’ up.”
On day 5, I decided to sign up for a 1-on-1 with the female teacher. I confessed to her right away what I had learned: that I was beating myself up. Her advice?
Yup. Just stop. I was angry with her answer and also freed. She didn’t say it out loud but I felt like she had told me in that moment, “It’s not motivation. It’s just useless chatter. Let yourself off the hook.” After all, this is what I would say to a yoga student in my position. It is now a daily practice now of catching myself and affirming the opposite. This is still hard, but so very important.
Sitting for 10 hours a day and confronting your memories, your brain chatter, your habits, your heartbreaks, and your physical experience is intense. We have so many pieces of our lives that have knotted up. Just beginning to untangle the threads of who we are is so difficult. It means we have to know our truth fully, accept who we are entirely, and take responsibility for the knots.
I have created every tangle in my life. I am the common denominator in everything that I deem negative. I cannot cast my line out to new and better waters if I leave it all bound up. This is not the fault of my parents, my teachers, my lovers, or my friends. It is mine. I am solely responsible for the knots that I carry. Vipassana hands you the beginning of the thread and teaches you: “Here is where you begin to untangle.”
And while you must do this alone, everyone around you is going through the same exact thing.
This is just a thimble full of the benefits I received and continue to receive from Vipassana. Does it work? Yes. Was it hard? The hardest. Would I do it again? I believe I need to. If not every year, every other year. I have never given myself a gift like that before. A gift of true, focused, specific healing.
I have recommended this course to everyone who asks, and I recommend it to you. Give yourself 10 days. Just 10 silent days out of the decades of your life to stop. To investigate. To locate your knots and examine the ends so that you may begin your own untangling.
About The Author
Ashley Platz was born and raised in New Jersey, and has narrowly escaped the accent. She grew up acting locally and in New York City. She lived in Brooklyn for a few years while attending Pace University in downtown Manhattan where she graduated with a BFA in Acting.
She eventually got tired of transit strikes, black outs, and blizzards and skipped coasts to Los Angeles where she is much more comfortable with earthquakes, traffic and aggressive vegans.
Ashley is an actor, writer, producer, yoga teacher and occasionally performs spoken word poetry.
Follow her on Instagram at @ashleyplatz