Finding balance among the birds

Hilary Matheson

Behind black entrance gates are buildings and artesian wells, an oasis in an expanse of farmland. The 20-acre grounds of the Illinois Vipassana Meditation Center are quiet except for birds and whispering winds.

The center opened in 2003 and offers several 10-day classes throughout the year. Five years later, the courses are often filled with more than 40 people.

Classes are open to everyone, and harmony and peace are the goals achieved through breathing techniques and focusing on bodily sensations. The non-sectarian meditation technique does not involve mantras, gurus, gods and goddesses. It does, however, involve moral precepts.

Seeking Silence

Once participants enter the site, they are asked to leave behind religious objects, intoxicants, tobacco, iPods, cell phones and reading or writing materials. Participants also are asked to observe the “Noble Silence,” or to abstain from talking.

Kate Anderson, center manager for Pecatonica, said only then can people understand what silence really is. Students are asked to suspend other forms of prayer or worship, meditation or yoga. Anderson said this is advised in order to fully experience and understand Vipassana and not impede upon the meditation. She said monks, priests and nuns from a variety of religions have taken courses at Vipassana meditation centers.

“Everyone who comes here, they have their own religion – they’re Jewish or they’re Catholic or Muslim,” Anderson said. “They come here to learn this technique.”

Students of the course learn techniques to change their reactions in daily life from anger, negativity, misery and other stressful situations to positive ones, Anderson said.

Days begin with the low resonating of a Burmese-style gong at 4:30 a.m. Each day ends at 9:30 p.m. Students are required to meditate in the meditation hall three times a day, with other time slotted for meditation either in the hall or their room throughout the day. 

“It’s like anything else it’s like working out or studying for class – the more you practice, the more you do it, the more familiar you’ll be,” she said.

Walking down the women’s path, Anderson said the courses are segregated to retain concentration free from distractions. Men also have their own path on the opposite side. Both are in one building, but on opposite sides.

Freeing Up the Mind

Inside the dining kitchen are shelves stocked with multiple varieties of beans, soy and rice milk. These are some of the ingredients to the vegetarian meals prepared by volunteers for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“All they need to do is bathe if they want, Anderson said. “You might go on vacation, but the whole time you’re busy, you’re running. When you think about it, what a rare opportunity for someone to come here be completely taken care of.”

Once inside the dorm, shoes are slipped off and placed in cubbies to keep the dorm clean as well as keep noise to a minimum. Each student has their own room and every two rooms share a bathroom and sink. 

White walls enclose a single twin bed, white chair and window. There are no decorations and no distractions.

“Rarely in life do we have this time to really look within ourselves and find out who we are,” she said.

S.N. Goenka brought back Vipassana meditation from his home country in Burma (Myanmar) back to India. He learned the meditation from Sayagyi U Ba Khin of Burma. He began teaching the meditation in 1969 when he settled in India.

Vipassana meditation is based on a meditation used by the late Sayagyi U Ba Khin of Burma and traced centuries ago to Buddha, who also taught non-sectarian techniques, said Anderson. It was hundreds of years after Buddha rites and rituals were applied, she added.

Finding a Universal Peace

In 2006, Anderson left her job as a fundraiser for the Illinois Humanities Council and spent time in India to learn Vipassana meditation. She has been working as center manager since 2007.

She said once students learn the technique, she recommends they meditate twice a day to practice.

Martha Wolf of Freeport, referred to Vipassana as a “training of the mind,” which everyone can benefit  – from mothers, bankers, plumbers to lawyers.

The benefits of Vipassana meditation are mental as well as physical.

“It’s pretty apparent what you’re perceiving in your mind and senses manifests in your body and vice versa,” Anderson said. “I can blame my mom and dad for all my problems, but really it’s the way I react to things that’s the problem.”

Students are not charged for the courses, but are encouraged to volunteer time or give donations if they feel they benefitted Anderson said.

Ginger Lightheart of Rockford said she has been doing a variety of meditation techniques since 1992, searching for one that fit criteria she made. Some of  her criteria were: the ability to be universally applied, that it worked with the breath, that there wasn’t any dogma, memorizations of chants, mantras or visualizations, no guru or initiation ceremonies and was accessible and free to all.

“I started reading and searching, reading and searching, and found that most of the meditation techniques were in the Contemplative Orders, and what got me started was the Bible verse, “Be still and know that I am God,” it sort of grabbed hold of me like a bulldog,” Lightheart said.

Vipassana met all of her criteria.

“For the first time in my life, almost 15 years later, I had an inkling of what being still was, so it was, for me, the answer,” she said  “It’s like taking a mental bath, preparing yourself for the day and cleansing your mind at night, all a process of purifying the mind of letting go, or dissolving those habitual patterns of reaction.”

Lightheart continues to volunteer for the center by helping with registration. She said she was interested in wiping away any fears, hatreds, cravings, aversions and jealousies.

“I’ve always sort of wanted to become a clear pane of glass and get all the smudges out. I think that might be what enlightenment is, I think that might be what Jesus calls ‘deny yourself’ – which is really dissolve yourself,” she said.

The technique of heightened awareness, Lightheart said, is a grounding experience. She said sitting on a cushion took getting used to. The difficult part, she said, is calming the mind, which she thinks ceaselessly roves from one topic to the next.

Wolf said the first time she went to a 10-day course was in 2005. Since then she has gone back for shorter courses, but said she likes the immersion of the longer retreats.

Before Vipassana, Wolf said she had tried different meditation techniques off and on.

“We’re so busy and outer-oriented in our lives, so it’s just a real change of pace from being externally oriented,” she said.

Like Lightheart, Wolf has gone back to volunteer at the center. Volunteers help cook, clean and tend the grounds during courses. Anderson said the center is always looking for past students to become volunteers.

The close proximity was a bonus for Wolf’s busy schedule as a psychotherapist.

Anderson said those who wish to attend a course should register online and wait to hear from a volunteer if they are accepted into an available course. She said the courses during Thanksgiving and Christmas are already filling up. Also, a one-day course for children age 8 to 15 is being offered July 27.

The goal might be enlightenment, which Anderson said for most may be many, many years down the road. But with much practice, it might come from down a road in Pecatonica.

Freeport Journal-Standard