Finding happiness in silent meditation
Story + Photos by Michele Roldán-Shaw
The quest for happiness is common to all human beings. And yes it is absolutely a quest, because none of us, not even the unblemished child, are automatically happy all the time. We are constantly in search of things to make us happy, or perhaps merely provide a crude approximation of happiness in the form of passing pleasures. Too often we look in all the wrong places. That deep, unfailing wellspring of inner joy remains elusive, perhaps even inconceivable.
As someone who’s been around the world a few times looking for answers — both physically and in the pages of books — I never dreamed they’d turn up in my own backyard, on a tract of scraggly woods outside Jesup, Ga. You couldn’t pick a more unlikely place to find enlightenment. All I knew about the Southeast Vipassana Center was learned in a chance encounter with a stranger on the train who explained that the retreats were free including room and board, that the technique was nonsectarian and open to all, that you took a vow of silence and meditated 10 hours a day, completely cut off from the outside world. Then he said the words I’ll always remember: “Basically this technique teaches you how to be happy all the time.”
How can I describe a 10-day Vipassana retreat, which I have since done many times?
Quiet: From the moment you step on property, a tangible peace descends.
Chaotic: The void created by lack of external stimuli is quickly filled by the endless agitations of your own mind.
Easy: Meals are served to you, the volunteer staff is kind, and you won’t pay a single bill.
Brutal: With no outside distractions to save you from yourself, you face untold self-created trials.
Simple: Your only two jobs are to perform basic maintenance of your body (eat, sleep, shower etc.) and attend to the object of meditation.
Unfathomably deep: That same object of meditation, which is nothing but the actual truth of phenomena taking place in the framework of your own mind and body, will carry you all the way to enlightenment.
Yet all this has no meaning if it’s just an isolated experience, a 10-day escape, another check on your bucket list in a culture of endless lust for new things. I don’t live my life cross-legged in a quiet darkened hall. I live in the nitty-gritty of the world, and there would be no point leaving it for 10 days if I didn’t come back a better person.
Hilton Head Island to Southeast Vipassana Center
Duration: 111 miles (2 hours, 17 minutes)
Details: The Southeast Vipassana Center is located in southeastern Georgia in Wayne County, 10 miles south of the small town of Jesup. Set in a secluded rural area and surrounded by 40 acres of beautiful pine, oak, and mixed hardwood forests, the Center provides an ideal meditation environment for Vipassana students in the Southeast.
After nearly a decade of practice, this is what I can say: Vipassana has softened me, made me more patient and gentle-hearted. It has given me moments of grace in the eye of raging life storms. It has made my mind sharper, more able to see piercingly into things, which is very helpful in dealing with situations; the world is a tricky place, and sound judgment is not praised as much as it should be. I’m still dead serious about whatever I happen to be working on, but I don’t it take so hard when the desired result doesn’t come. I know the peace of surrender. I judge less, help more. I was never a very sweet person in the past, but now sometimes I am. Problems still abound in my life, and sometimes they even threaten to sink me; but just below the surface of this overwhelming stream of ordinary existence, there now lies an unshakeable confidence in something deeper, something that gives meaning and context to life. And not merely because I have faith, but because I have a way, a method, a practice that shows real results.
Vipassana is a technique of mental purification, meaning it helps rid our minds of negative states like anger, fear, anxiety, depression, greed and egotism. With careful examination, one realizes that it is these unwholesome mind-states, not the outside events that trigger them, that actually cause us to suffer. The less we give rise to them, the happier we become. I am prepared to work on this my entire life — and many more should such be the case — because what choice do I really have? There is no day off from the pursuit of happiness. And if any of this rings true to you, consider a 10-day retreat. dhamma.org