** NOTE: If you’re intending to go on a Vipassana retreat, you might want to read this afterward – not because it’s negative, it may inject certain expectations that could make your sit more challenging. On the other hand, if you do read it, remain equanamous ;)”
I recently went to North Fork, CA on a mission to explore Vipassana, an ancient Indian meditation technique. As usual I was impulsive, not fully informed and absolutely unprepared for the experience; the perfect start to any story…
*** Preface ***
January 1998, Harrow, England. It was a cold, gray morning and a rotund, young schoolboy waited outside the familiar oak door of the Headmaster.
“ENTER!” A voice bellowed from beyond the ancient monolith.
He opened the door and approached the desk behind which the headmaster is standing with arms crossed and a confused look on his face.
“Ah, the mutinous Mr. Campbell! Now what’s this I hear that you’re not attending chapel anymore?” He peered over his glasses.
“Well Sir, we talked some weeks ago about this. I don’t really feel that the school chapel services really reflect my beliefs…”
“BELIEFS! Ha! I can’t imagine what those are! Well, I’m very interested in hearing what your parents think about this!”
“Sir, my mother wrote to you and said she respects my decision…”
“Well, never mind that! We can’t just have you loafing about, can we?”
“Absolutely not Sir. That’s why I’m converting to Buddhism.”
“Oh don’t be so silly, what do you know about Buddhism?” He smiled, but not in an amused way.
“I gave a talk on Buddhism last week in the Speech Room. I had slides that illustrated Buddha’s teachings…” Indeed, some months earlier, while visiting his sister in Seattle, Campbell had picked up a copy of “The Path to Enlightenment” amidst the incense and the crystals in a New Age store.
“Well, You… I… We’re going to have to get a monk up here for you or something!?” The desperation in his voice was hugely enjoyable.
“No, thank you Sir. I’ll be managing my own spirituality from now on…” The Headmaster’s mouth remained slightly ajar while Campbell turned on his heel and boldly strode out of the office, down the musty corridor and out into the refreshing morning mist. This was the only time he ever had, or ever would emerge from that office victorious. In the months that followed the daily chapel bell would still ring. The Sunday chapel bell would still ring. But young Campbell slept through them all, cozy beneath the blankets of his newly discovered spirituality…
*** Present Day ***
February 2008, The Exact Center of California. It’s a decade later and the story still makes me proud. Also, as of about two weeks ago, it was still pretty much where I stood, or perhaps I should say lay, spiritually. I’m just leaving North Fork, “The Exact Center of California” as the sign reminds me. The entire town itself sits astride a curve on Road 220 in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. It’s the kind of town where the fire station is also the library and there are two hardware stores but nowhere to buy an alarm clock. It’s also the home of the California Vipassana Center where I’d just spent the last 12 days. So what is Vipassana and what business do I have to do with it? Patience my friend, first it’s important to learn about my mental condition.
For the last couple of years I’ve been living a very mobile life, traveling to new places and working remotely on my various web projects while exploring exciting new cultures. The way I live and work can be described as rather ADD. I’ll sometimes be working on a project, then get into reading some news, then I’ll go for a walk, dive into a few emails, make lunch, go to the gym, and then I’ll finish the project at an odd hour of the night, who knows, perhaps even from a different country. While it’s been enjoyable to be so free, recently I’ve been feeling like my brain has begun to mimic my body on its path of ever evolving tangents. I was beginning to long for the very structure that I’d struggled so hard to break free of; I needed to regain control of my mental trajectory.
At the end of 2007 I was recounting this paradox to a good friend who has a heavy job in Silicon Valley. I asked him how he managed to keep his head level with all the stresses and challenges he faced in his life. He asked, “Have you ever heard of Vipassana?” I told him I hadn’t and he went on to tell me that it was a type of meditation that he felt was perfectly tailored for the exact problems I was having. I can be famously impulsive and he certainly didn’t need to sell it anymore; with no further research I booked a 10-day retreat for the following month. It was just what I needed, a spiritual enema! No talking for 10 days, vegetarian food, meditating. How hard could it be?
*** The Arrival ***
Two weeks ago, I departed from Los Angeles bound for North Fork. I had left the highways behind and was now winding through the hilly mountain roads. As I passed ‘Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ I thought to myself, “So this is cult country! What have you gotten yourself into this time, buddy?” Some miles later I saw a small, unassuming sign for the CVC, turned in and followed the curvy driveway up the hill.
I had left LA at the crack of dawn to make sure I arrived early; another friend, who I found out had also attended, told me to try to avoid the trailer housing and procure a bed in the new dorms. Registration didn’t open for another couple of hours so I explored the grounds. The CVC compound occupies 109 acres of wooded lands about 5 minutes from ‘downtown’ North Fork. There are a couple of buildings near the parking area, male and female dining halls, some server’s quarters and the kitchen and laundry areas. The men’s and the women’s areas are separate and throughout the entire course we would be segregated. No problem, I had extensive practice in this from ten years of boys’ boarding school in England. Three paths led into the men’s area, the right path going up to the housing and eventually to the meditation hall, or ‘Dhamma Hall’, at the top. The other two routes wind through some neatly maintained wooded paths. The North Fork area is a typically northern California ecosystem; damp and green with lots of growth everywhere, a stark contrast to the more arid, urban landscapes of my home in Los Angeles. An initial survey indicated that there’s two prevailing types of trees, one covered in moss and lichen and the other one coated with smooth, red bark. The bark of the manzanita trees is so smooth it almost looks plastic and when it’s wet the red looks like it’s varnished. They’re crowned with dusty-mint-color leaves to make a completely lovely package. “Good,” I thought, “I’m already getting into chill out mode.”
When I returned, registration had opened and I was surprised to see the parking lot was now almost full. I entered the dining hall, which doubled as the registration center and found about twenty other guys milling about quietly. I filled out my forms and went up to the counter.
“Welcome Douglas – is this your first time?” Asked a man with kind eyes and a pleasantly bald head.
“Yes, a friend told me about it.”
“Well that’s wonderful.” His eyes passed down the list, probably checking that I hadn’t noted any mental disorders. “OK, you’re all set. You’re in building 20, bed 5. Do you have your sheets and things?”
“Oh, I didn’t know we had to bring anything…”
“No problem we can give you sheets.” He reached next to the table and handed me a flannel set of Star Wars sheets.
“Is there anything else I need that I need that I might have forgotten?”
“Well you might want an alarm clock…” Nope. “And you might find use for a flash light…” Nada.
“OK, great, thanks…” Next time I would be less impulsive and read the packing list.
After a quick dip into town to find that it wasn’t the sort of town that sold alarm clocks, I returned to track down my lodging. I walked up the path, passing some nice new dormitory buildings and finally reaching building 20, the trailer home. No worries, I’ve stayed in moldy rooms in India before; after that, anything seems classy. There was a couple of rooms, a small, appliance-less kitchenette, three beds in the main area, one of which was mine, and a few more beds in a connected extension. It was warm-ish and the hot water worked; I couldn’t complain. After unpacking my things I wandered back via the long path to the dining hall where a few people had gathered, waiting for orientation to start. After a little while some conversation opened up, as apparently the ‘no conversation thing’ didn’t start until after our first meditation session later tonight. I was happy to hear that some of the other fellows had never meditated before and also had no idea what to expect. OK! Then we were in this together.
“So what building did they stick you in?” I asked the guy next to me.
“I’m in 20, it’s the pretty rad trailer…” The slim, energetic looking fellow replied.
“Oh cool, me too, I’m bed 5!”
“Hey roomie! I’m Kevin, I’m in bed 4.”
“Awesome! I’m Doug.” It felt good to lighten up the mood a little.
“Well that’s good, cause I should tell you: I have epilepsy – but it’s no big deal. Sometimes at night I have minor seizures – I just tense up a little. Just thought I should tell you.”
“Hey, no worries, I had a teacher who was epileptic once.” I didn’t think I’d go into the details about my poor, old French teacher Mr. Pitman and his intense ‘grand mals’ that cropped up at inopportune times: at dinner time into the chicken nuggets bowl, in French class during a test, even in the 3 minutes silence in chapel on Memorial Day…”Yeah, so that’s cool, no problem.”
The orientation meeting began and there seemed to be about fifty men present, all of different ages and ethnic backgrounds. A Woody Allen type guy began to go through the basics of the schedule, the rules and who to speak to if we had problems. Besides making a firm agreement to stay for the whole time we had to:
– cut off complete contact from the outside world.
– discontinue reading or taking notes.
– abstain from physical contact.
– maintain the segregation of the sexes.
– obey the ‘Noble Silence’. This means no communication with each other, vocal or otherwise, until the final day and is intended to help further quiet your mind. We could only talk to the teacher at specified times and the management if we had other troubles. All of these rules were to help minimize distraction.
In addition to these things we had to obey the 5 precepts:
– No killing. Meant more in terms of not eating meat than actually going psycho, but the latter is also heavily frowned upon.
– No stealing. Even if your roommate has a nice alarm clock.
– No lying. No hidden cookies or pies.
– No sexual activity. Even solo practices? This was not clear…
– No intoxicants. It was going to be ‘trippy’ enough, without compounding the experience with other stimuli.
This moral code is known as the practice of Sila (“Sheela”) and is the first part of the three pronged attack to eradicate your suffering!
By the time we left the dining hall the skies had darkened and we made our way back to our dorms to prepare for the evening meditation. When I got back to our room, Kevin was lying on his bed.
“Man, I wonder which one of us is going to go nuts first and count all the holes in the ceiling.”
I looked up and saw what he meant. There were tiles covering the ceiling all perforated with hundreds of little holes.
“Ha ha, yeah, seriously.”
As the other roommates arrived, about ten in all, we carried on our idle banter, obviously enjoying what would be our last words for some time. Eventually the gong sounded from outside, signaling it was time to go to Dhamma Hall for the first mediation session.
“Well, see you on the other side, brother!” Kevin jovially remarked, and we stepped out into the night air. It had cooled down considerably but luckily Building 20 was only about a one-minute walk from Dhamma Hall. I felt the excitement brewing from my stomach upward, a familiar feeling when any fresh experience is imminent.
Arriving at Dhamma Hall I slipped off my shoes, leaving them outside on the rack and walked inside to see what the next ten days had in store for me. My first reaction was one of surprise. There were about 130 people gathered, far larger than I was expecting. The room was split down the middle, men on the left, women on the right and each person had a small numbered position in the sea of mats. You could also grab a couple of extra cushions and a blanket from the foyer to make yourself more comfortable. At the front of the room were two raised podiums on top of which each assistant teacher sat quietly, eyes closed with a look of shear peace on their faces. It was obvious that we were meant to follow suit and I found mat 45 and sat down. I was seated on the back right corner, right on the edge of the aisle that divided the men and women. I couldn’t help but steal a quick look over to the ladies and like the men there seemed to be a large age and cultural range. The actual design of Dhamma Hall was not as ‘spiritual’ as one might expect. In fact it was very simply built, with wooden beams, plain white walls and cream carpeting; no other details really stood out. Again, this is surely to minimize the distractions to the meditator.
Eventually silence fell over the room and some prerecorded, and humorously guttural chants resounded through the space. After a little while a man’s voice began to speak with a rich Indian accent, balanced tones and a calm demeanor. He went through the precepts again and emphasized the importance that we give this technique a serious chance by fully engaging ourselves during the course. He then explained that before we launch into the practice of Vipassana, it’s first imperative that we gain the ability to quiet our minds. He then introduced the technique of Anapana, the process of observing your respiration. It seems simple enough: don’t try to control your breath, just observe its flow, particularly in the “triangular area from the top of the nose to above the upper lip. Pay special attention to the nostrils…”. “Easy enough.” I thought, and before I knew it my mind was somewhere else: a feature I could add to my website… breath, nostrils, breath… an recent episode of Heroes I’d just seen… breath, nostrils, breath… someone I’d forgotten to email… breath, nostrils, breath… the guy next to me shifting position… breath, nostrils, breath… WHOA! This was hard! After about an hour the chanting started again and then the voice returned, imploring us to be patient with our progress and it was now time to “Take rest, take rest…”.
Everyone started to vacate the hall; I got up to leave and almost fell into the aisle and onto an unaware hippy girl. My knees had cramped up and my left foot was totally numb. My mental and physical weaknesses already astonished me and I realized there would certainly be challenges ahead.
As I silently limped back to my trailer, thick snowflakes started falling. I passed a large tree just outside my window, went inside, got into bed while still wearing all my clothes and fell instantly to sleep.
*** Day 1 ***
4:15am and the alarm went off. At first I forgot where I was and why it was still so dark, but then memory kicked in and rush of excitement injected some energy into me. I walked outside, into a full on snowstorm cascading through the dark skies. The snow had already amassed half way up to my knee. I stumbled up the invisible path and was happy to get into the warm hall.
Dhamma Hall was dark and the session went so quickly that I think I must have fallen asleep for part of it. At 6:30 a gong was rung outside signaling it was time for breakfast. As I walked down the trodden path I looked at the trailer and something looked different. That’s when I realized the entire tree had fallen over, apparently burdened with too much snow. “That’s kind of surprising!” I remember thinking, “I hope it doesn’t symbolize anything bad!”
It was still all so new and exciting still that the first day went very quickly. The basic schedule was as follows:
4:30-6:30am : Meditation in your room or in the hall
6:30 – 8am : Breakfast break
8 – 9am : Group meditation in the hall
9:10 – 11am : Morning instructions, followed by mediation in your room or the hall.
11 – 12pm : Lunch break
12 – 1 pm : Rest and individual meetings with the teacher
1 – 2:30 pm : Meditation in your room or the hall
2:30 – 3:30 pm : Group meditation in the hall
3:40 – 5 pm : Afternoon instructions, followed by mediation in your room or the hall.
5 – 6 pm : Tea break
6 – 7 pm : Group meditation in the hall
7 – 8:15 pm: Teacher’s discourse
8:15 – 9 pm : Group Meditation in the hall
9 – 9:30 pm : Question time / retire to your room
10 pm : Light OUT!
All in all that’s 12 hours of meditation each day! They had explained that the schedule was so tight because it had been formulated through the teachings of thousands of students and was the only way you could reach a decent level in 10 days. No one seemed to argue with it.
Breakfast was simple but welcome after a couple of hours of meditation. Oatmeal, fruits, bread and spreads. Lunch was pretty excellent vegetarian cuisine: hearty soups, pastas and always a good salad bar. The tea break consisted of hot drinks and was accompanied by fruit.
After lunch was a great time for a shower and a calm down before the rest of the day. I decided to practice being able to keep my legs crossed for longer without cutting off the circulation and would also lie down for a little while, staring at the little holes in the ceiling or at the faux-wood paneling. I could look anywhere except at anyone else, that was the deal. Then the gong would ring and we’d all head quietly head for Dhamma Hall.
The evening section was my favorite meditation part of the day. At the beginning of each session this calm Indian voice would instruct you to “Start again, start again with a calm and quiet mind. Yet and alert and attentive mind. You must work DILIGENTLY!” OK, I was no expert yet but he was calming to listen to at least.
Each evening, after the first session was over there was a one-hour discourse. Two TV screens, one on each side of the room, were turned on. And who appeared on them? Who else but the man whose voice I’d been enjoying: S. N. Goenka. Goenka, as he referred to himself, always appeared next to his submissively silent wife and began to explain the basics of Vipassana. The camera would zoom into his jolly, fleshy face which was divided by deep contours running down from his nose to his chin and all framed with neatly trimmed silver hair. His eyes were small and the whites were only visible when he made a surprised expression. Although his accent was thick, he spoke English with exceptional skill. He weaved his stories with clarity and injected humor just when it was getting too dry. He used culturally humorous metaphors and parables to illustrate his message and seemed to almost preempt the exact questions you had in your mind at the time.
This first night he explained why we were starting with Anapana. He said it was necessary to be able to calm our minds in order to achieve Samadhi, ‘mastery of the mind’ and the second prong in the attack on suffering! The observation of respiration is a perfect method to investigate reality as it offers a bridge between the conscious/unconscious states of the mind.
He then went on to describe in brief the history of the most famous Buddha, Siddatha Gotama, and why the Vipassana technique was so special. The term ‘Buddha’ actually means ‘enlightened person’; there had been Buddhas before Gotama, contemporaneously to him and even after him. What made him so special is that he discovered, and subsequently spent his entire life teaching, a path to achieving Panna (“Paan-ya”), meaning universal wisdom. Panna offers insight into your own nature and is the third prong in the attack on suffering! Vipassana (“Vipah-shah-na”), is a meditative technique which means to ‘see things as they really are’, and teaches you how to live each moment peacefully, productively and happily. At the same time you start on the long path towards mankind’s highest goals: purity of mind, freedom from suffering and full enlightenment.
Sounds like the magic cure to all! SIGN ME UP!
What I found particularly interesting was that the Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught Dhamma – the way to liberation – which is universal. It can even be layered on existing religious beliefs if so desired. Some might reject the theory, but who can reject the practice? Who can argue with living a life of morality, gaining control of the mind and freeing yourself of negativity while generating love and goodwill?
After his excellent talks there was a final session before bedtime, which was always my favorite. I always felt more calm and reassured after the discourse; I liked this Goenka fellow. Then it was time for bed; we’d return to the trailer, brush our teeth in silence, and then without any acknowledgment of each other’s presence, go to sleep.
*** Day 2 & 3 ***
Day 2 was more of a challenge. My mind started to retaliate with full force. It certainly did not like these new parameters of control. I literally could not keep my mind clear for more than a minute. I was opening up projects in my head and starting to plan what I needed to do when I left North Fork. Then I’d try to focus… 1… 2… 3… and before I knew it my brain was off again. Planning a talk that I had to give at a conference when I got back. Then actually imagining giving the talk. FOCUS! It was driving me crazy. Sometimes I was almost getting out of breath from the mental wild goose chase that was going on.
“Start again, with a calm and quiet mind…” YEAH RIGHT GOENKA! I can’t do it. This is a joke.
Then I started worrying that I was going to forget all the great ideas I was having and I began to further chastise myself! “What’s wrong with you? What a mess you are!” I was beginning to think I was slightly insane with these voices in my head.
On Day 3 I finally got my mind off work for a change but what replaced it was far worse. I began to get extremely horny. Women began parading through my imagination in sexy lingerie. Old girl friends showed up completely naked, separately or as a pack, determined wreak havoc on my brain. Current conquests stepped into focus promising to fulfill anything my mind could imagine. Girls I hadn’t even met yet joined in on the fun. It was exhausting and I was getting far too aroused to be spiritually acceptable. I opened my eyes hoping these thoughts would disappear and looked around the hall. Everyone was doing way better than me, I was sure of it. My eyes settled on a pretty girl wearing a scarf. “I bet she’d be a nurturing wife. She could cook me healthy meals and we’d engage non-violent communication. She’d be a good lover and… OK, CALM DOWN BUDDY!”
After lunch I was lying down again looking at the ceiling. Each tile actually had the same pattern of holes. 15 x 23. 345 Holes. 9 x 17. 153 Tiles. 345 x153. 52, 785. I think there was around 53 thousand little holes on our ceiling. And I had to wait a week to tell Kevin. I think I was beginning to go insane.
That night, after the first evening session, Goenka talked about the importance of learning through experience. Many people before Buddha had taught the theory behind developing Panna and how to stop blindly reacting to things around you. But it was just that, theory. Direct experience is needed to really grasp the essence and through Vipassana you begin to become so aware of your senses that you can then start to acutely observe your reactions. When that becomes possible you can identify and then reduce your cravings and aversions, the cornerstones of human misery, effectively to zero. The basis for much of this realization comes from Anicca (‘Anicha’), meaning the Law of Impermanence. As you observe things around you, you note “this will also pass”. Good sensations, bad sensations. Everything is impermanent.
“Patiently and persistently, you are bound to succeed…” As usual, Goenka was a great comfort and my mind felt settled. I eased into the final session and paid extra special attention to my nose area. I felt the breath going in, coming out. I felt it as it brushed my nostrils. Suddenly I felt more than just my breath. It felt like the entire rings around my nostrils had started buzzing. Almost like small flakes were blooming as the air passed by. Then, even when I held my breath! I GOT IT! I WAS DOING IT!
“Take rest, take rest…”
I was so elated I almost skipped back to the trailer. I got in bed and was so excited I couldn’t sleep. Tomorrow they were going to introduce the Vipassana technique and I was SO ready!
*** Day 4 ***
Day 4. Vipassana Day! There was a slightly different schedule and you could feel the buzz in the air. People were so tired from observing their respiration for the last three days that any change was going to be welcome. We had no idea what the new technique would be but bring it on!
The snow had melted and it was a beautiful day. All around you could now see the mountains that had been cloaked in mist and clouds during the first three days. Somewhere far away a dog was barking in a playful way and I heard the distant laugh of a child. “I wonder if they know that there’s a bunch of silent weirdos over here in the woods?” As we walked the paths there was absolutely zero acknowledgment between meditators. At first this was hard but it became easier; everyone was doing it. I hoped that this wouldn’t affect my friendliness when we finished. I always try to say “Hello!” to random strangers, almost to the point where they’re suspicious.
After the three days of damp, unshowered people Dhamma Hall had begun to take on the smell of wet socks and apples. In addition to this, the high fiber, vegetarian diet was making everyone extremely gaseous. When this is coupled with no communication for a while, social standards begin to break away and after mealtime the usual silence in the hall was now punctuated with intestinal pops, squirts and gurgles. The foreign man on my left had an amazing amount of burps; the rather noisy man on my right in a Maine sweatshirt was representing the other end of the percussion and the whole effect created a nauseating gastrointestinal symphony. Needless to say I had begun to spend more time in my room when the option was available.
After lunch I was so excited about beginning Vipassana that my mind had set off running again. “Oh I can’t wait to write about this and tell everyone how great it is and how easily I got it! I will write a story and spread the good news far and wide! AWESOME!” And of course, that’s when the trouble started.
There was a special session in the afternoon when Goenka introduced the technique. Now, instead of focusing your attention on your nose area, we had to observe the sensations at the top of the head. Then, “part by part, piece by piece” work down the body to the tip of the toes and then back up. “OH CRAP, I DON”T FEEL ANYTHING!” That was it, I had gotten so excited that now I couldn’t even feel my nose tingle! I cracked open my eyes and peered out. Everyone else was motionless and silent. “I bet they were all feeling it, they’re all so much better than me.”
After the session I left the hall defeated. I had failed. I felt so down I just went and lay on my bed and felt sorry for myself. I didn’t even want to go to teatime for fear that I’d infect others with the bad vibes. Eventually I went down the long way and got some tea. I stood outside and looked over the parking lot and in the corner I could see the roof of my car. That’s when I hatched my plan: during the evening session, while everyone was in the hall, I would make my escape. I could even stay in Fresno for a few days so no one would know I failed.
As I walked back, I decided to take the long way. I had about a half hour until the evening session so I took my time. I came upon a particularly scenic area and stood there for a while. I admired the beautiful manzanita trees and then to their lichen covered friends. The surface of these trees looked like miniature jungles, and I was completely absorbed by what I saw. My sight moved to some moss covered rocks, so thickly covered that it looks like some artistic hand had coated them in rich felt. Moss takes a long time to grow and I thought back to Goenka’s words: “Patiently and persistently…”. Sometimes I get so hard on myself, I need to lighten up! As I turned away some movement caught my eye. I had been standing so still that a few deer had gotten quite close and my sudden movement must have surprised them. They must be used to the peaceful humans that occupy this land because they just walked on by me. “Damn, it’s cold. Where do you guys even sleep when it’s snowing?!” Again, nature was inspiring me to keep persevering. “Patiently and persistantly, this too shall pass…” OK, I’d give it another shot.
That evening during the final session I began to feel a slight tingling at the top of my head. It was just a tiny sensation but just enough to keep me going.
Later in bed, as I thought about the rollercoaster of a day, I heard a slight giggle, then some swallowing sounds and I looked over as Kevin was having one of his ‘no big deal’ seizures. He turned on his side, tensing himself up, then sat up and looked at me. I think I broke the Noble Silence and said “Hi there!”. He then lay back down and went right back to sleep; an odd end to an odd day.
*** Day 5 ***
From now on it was Vipassana in full effect! The schedule was the same as before but three sessions had now been labeled ‘Sittings of Strong Determination’! Any motion was highly discouraged. Pick a posture, and sit still for the entire hour, never opening your hands, legs or eyes. By this point my back was aching so I chose to move to the rear wall where some other people had flocked. My rationale was that I would build up to the proper form as I developed my skill, but the truth is I never went back after that. Call me lazy, but hey, I gave it a good effort.
That lunchtime I signed up for a meeting with the teacher. I was feeling better but I still had a couple of questions and at the very least it’d be good to talk to someone for a few minutes. After lunch I went up to the hall where a couple of other people had gathered and waited for my turn. Eventually I got the signal from the old student who was organizing the line to go into a small room through a side door in the foyer.
The teacher’s name was Philip and he was a very sensible looking white guy in a blue button down shirt and chinos. I’d seen him up close a couple of times already; occasionally small groups of students were called to the front for short meditation sessions and to make sure everything was going OK.
“Hello Douglas.” I was happy that he had remembered my name.
“Hi teacher.” He was sitting on a small podium and I sat on the mat in front of him. “Well, I have a couple of questions. My first is more simple…”
“Well, I’m a creative kind of guy. I’m having lots of ideas and thoughts and I was wondering if it’d be OK if I wrote a few down. I’m not talking a journal or anything, just some little notes to get things off my mind. Because then I’m pretty sure I’ll be better at this ‘clarity of mind’ thing. Is that OK?”
“Douglas the rules are in place for a reason. Let me tell you, I’m a creative guy too, and when I started Vipassana it was torture! But if you start to really practice this, then get ready for more creative powers than ever. It’s amazing the clarity and focus you can gain. Now if you begin recording ideas you’re running right back to comfort and craving and you won’t be able to get off that path. Trust me.”
“OK, I thought you’d say that but I had to ask.” I geared up for my second question. “Well this one is sort of funny. I’ve had some great sessions, some less good, but let me tell you if it’s not creativity trying to distract me then it’s sex. Honestly, I’m seriously distracted and there’s just this procession of women in my head…”
“Haha, I know what you’re saying.” He began to smile. “Believe me, when I was getting into this I used to chase all sorts of girls. Eventually I had to ask myself if I wanted to continue playing this game or if I wanted peace of mind…”. Versus ‘piece of ass’, I laughed to myself?
“Well, yes, so I was wondering, I know we agreed to no sexual activity but I wanted to ask if that only applied to activities with other people or you know, if I got some quality time to myself if that was cool…?” The truth is that guys have this stockpile that builds up if it’s not released and it starts to make us act funny. Even past girlfriends had identified this trait. If they made sure that we had some loving in the morning then they could even take me shoe shopping and I’d be fine, happy to comment on sandals or pumps, at least for a couple of hour. I knew that if I could just take the edge off then I’d be more cool, calm and collected at least for another couple of days.
“No, no, Douglas. You took an oath of celibacy and you have to stick to it.” He gave me a look like “You’re not the kind of guy we’re going to find in the bushes near the girls dorms are you?” At this point, I hoped I wasn’t.
“OK, sure, no problem. Ha ha, just thought I’d check!” I think the light, humorous handling of the matter saved me.
Again, that evening Goenka popped up onscreen and began spouting wisdom. He talked of the importance of remaining an objective observer. The sensations might be pleasant, or unpleasant in the forms of aches and pains. They might even not come at all. You should not have expectation one way or the other but merely observe the reality. “You must always remain equanimous…” He then got into some ideas about reincarnation and just as I was thinking, “Well I don’t know about that!” he mentioned that it wasn’t even important to believe in that part. Just accept the parts that exists in your reality. I was feeling much better than the day before and without expectation I launched into my favorite evening session. And that’s when my hands started tingling.
It felt like a light vibration at first but soon got stronger. It was like tiny bubbles were popping up, out of my skin or that a mild electric pulse was being conducted through my hands. It was a pleasant sensation and it then started spreading to my feet. By the end of the session my hands, feet and area around my nose were all tingling simultaneously. I WAS ON MY WAY TO BEING A VIPASSANA EXPERT! But I wasn’t getting excited, I was cool, I was remaining equanimous…
*** Interlude ***
By now I had left the mountains and snow behind and I was about half way to San Francisco when I decided to stop and get a sandwich. I walked into Subway and thought to myself, “Wow, so this is going to be my first interaction with anybody since the end of the retreat, I wonder if they’ll know that I’m semi-enlightened…”. I stepped up to the counter.
“What can I do for you, hon?” A cute blonde asked me. Oh if only she knew.
“Hey, I’d like a tuna on Italian please.” I watched for any cue from her. Did she know I was flowing with energy as we spoke?
” No problem, what do you want on it?”
“Lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, pepperoncini, and the spiciest mustard you have…”
“Oh you like it spicy, do you?”
“Yes, ma’am. Yes, I do.” She gave me a slightly inquisitive look, it was either my energy flow or the spicy mustard comment but it was good enough for me. I paid her, left the shop and ate my sandwich on the side of the road while admiring a cargo container that had been turned into a trucker’s chapel.
*** Day 6, 7 & 8 ***
By Day 6 it was snowing again and people were beginning to show signs that they needed to communicate. Someone had drawn a happy face in the snow next to one of the trails and written “You rock” next to it. It was a kind and supportive shout out to everyone who walked by. Another person had stamped a circle in the snow so I paced out a triangle next to it. When I passed by later that day a square had been drawn next to my triangle. When I got back to my trailer after one walk someone had built a small snowman on a little rock. It was reassuring to see that the silent beings that co inhabited this place were actually human too.
I had begun to become aware of more sensations and they were now flowing up my lower arms and almost entire legs and face. Goenka had explained what these feelings were; we all have them, all the time but our brain has become dull and in most cases is no longer aware of them. Our bodies, like everything in the universe, are made of tiny vibrating particles, energy wavelets rising and passing away. Buddha explored the framework of his body so acutely that he managed to identify this long before any modern day scientists.
By Day 7 the different parts of my body were beginning to join together to become a unified flow; all except my back, which was still feeling quite numb. I was also almost able to go the full hour with a clear, focused mind. All was going well until the evening session when I almost lost it on the guy in the Maine sweatshirt. Throughout the week he had been acting thoughtlessly towards the other meditators. He walked loudly and generally showed no consideration. Once I even went into the foyer to get him a box of tissues for the aggravating sniff that he’d share with us every 2 breaths. He had then proceeded to just dab at his nose rather than blow it! But this time it was just unreasonable. For some reason he’d started breathing so heavily it was just getting ridiculous. At first I kept it calm. Then he began holding his breath, so the exhalations were erratic and extra heavy. After some time, I found myself just waiting for his next breath and getting stressed when it happened. I felt like I was about to break the noble silence with a noble, “Dude, shut the hell up.” but instead chose to go get some fresh air. As was the custom when someone would leave, the management, a small attentive looking fellow would follow the person outside to inquire if everything was ok. He appeared outside soon after me with a look like he knew why I was pissed off.
“Dude, he’s just breathing unreasonably loud, I mean, come on.”
“OK, can I perhaps seat you somewhere else?”
“I was just going to finish up tonight in my room.”
“Come back, and sit on the side, it will be OK.”
“Well OK, but someone should ask him to quiet down.”
“I know he’s loud, but really take it as an ultimate challenge: find no aversion in it…”
“Ha! Sure, OK, I’ll try.” Luckily in the next break a couple of other people complained and he never was such a nuisance again. But the management had a good point.
By Day 8 the snow was beginning to melt again and I was enjoying one of my increasingly long walks on the remote paths. I had begun to practice Anapana outside of the hall and I was now able to almost walk from Dhamma Hall to the dining hall with a clear mind. Just sensing the crunch of gravel, the flapping of my trousers, the cool breeze on my cheeks. As random thoughts came into my mind I was able to swat them away, almost like a mental windshield wiper. “That’s interesting, I can think about it later…” or, “That’s a good idea, if it’s really good, it’ll come back at another time.” Was I really getting control of my tumultuous mind?
As I passed the tent area, which was not inhabited during the winter, I saw a little snowman on one of the flat, raised tent foundations. “Oh another snowman!” I thought and went to explore more closely. Then I noticed a second snowman next to it, but had it fallen over? No. It was a snowwoman; I could tell my the hair made of leaves and by the fact that she had her little twig legs spread eagled and was being sexually assaulted with the twig penis of the snowman. Her arms were also extended and her leaf mouth created an “OH!” shape. I broke the noble silence in the woods with a sudden laugh out loud. At least someone else was feeling the sexual tension!
Later that evening I thought I was losing the ability to sense the tingling. Then of course like clockwork, Goenka appeared and talked about this being an important stage. If we began to crave the sensation then not only had we missed the point completely, but it would be severely detrimental to our path. “You must remain objective, equanimous…” I would hug him if I could.
*** Day 9 ***
The weather had once again shifted and it was now hailing marble sized ice balls, so many that they covered the ground. You could actually scoop up a handful of hail. But this was the last serious day of mediation so I braved the downpour and went to all the sessions. After lunch, I signed up to see the teacher again as a few things were bothering me.
“Hello teacher. I just wanted to say that things are going a lot better. That Goenka guy, he’s amazing! He always seems to know what’s on my mind.”
“Yes he’s quite special.”
“Well, I know you’ve got a lot of people to see so I’ll make this quick. I was pondering a couple of things. First of all I’m a pretty passionate guy, I stand up for what I believe in, sometimes you’ve just got to get your point across. So I guess what I’m asking is all this pacifism in the mountains is all good and well but how does that translate into real life?”
“Aaah, so impatient, Douglas! Actually Goenka will talk about this exact issue tonight. You see, Buddha didn’t teach pacifism, he taught non-violence. The difference is that you can, and should, still stick up for what you believe in. You can even shout if you need to, but all your actions should be based in love and compassion. If you prevent a thief from robbing a weak person you feel love and compassion for that weak person. But you feel even MORE love and compassion for the thief for he is so deep in his own misery and his life if so negative.” I thought back to when I was spanked as I child and my mom said she was doing it because she loved me. My little sore buttocks certainly didn’t feel like they had been spanked with love, but I guess I turned out OK, so maybe it all works out in the end?
“OK, I think I understand. And also I just wanted to ask about the morality again. You see, I like to party. I do things, I mean, you know. Things that the precepts sort of don’t really allow…” Steak feasts washed down with pitchers of beer, debauchery in Las Vegas. Things like this came to mind. “So I mean, how can I really change so much? Is there any flexibility in these rules?” All I wanted him to say was, “Sure Douglas, after a serious day’s mediation, all Buddha liked to do was roll up a fat joint and have a smoke while he got a lap dance…” But Philip wasn’t having it:
“Listen Douglas, we don’t expect you to leave here and be a monk. But when your actions are immoral, you’ll feel the negative effect that they have on your meditation and your journey.” Again, I felt that he was trying to make sure that I wasn’t going to streak through the girls’ dorms on one of these last nights.
“OK, cool, teacher. Just checking, ha ha! You know how it is!” Could humor save me again?
I had been almost completely focused and clear headed for the entire day apart from a brief jaunt where I allowed my mind to dip into the realm of imagination. I envisioned a wooded land that I had cultivated and a little cottage in a clearing. I lived there with my rustic, yet pretty wife, tending to the land and making sweet, sweet love next to the fire place. Eventually we extended the cottage to make some room for our growing family. Then when Armageddon hits the distant cities, friends who I’d given directions to could come out and we could form a new town: “Dhammaville”, and we could live off the land and exist in peace… OK, that’s enough imagination!
That night I began to sense my full body pulsing. Sometimes to the beat of my heart, sometimes independently. You might visualize it like a sped up meteorological map, with the clouds appearing, swirling and disappearing. The tingles on my skin had that sort of random yet fluid motion. I could call up and observe any palm-sized area within a matter of seconds and after some time, your brain starts to be able to observe different areas simultaneously. The talk that night said that this is only the beginning and the next step was to start piercing the body with the accuracy of a fingertip sized area. Only when there’s full dissolution of the body can the deepest impurities can rise to the surface and pass away – this is called ‘Bhanga’. OK, I’ll work on that.
*** Day 10 ***
Day 10. The final full day and the day we break the noble silence. We had a typical morning session but at the end Goenka taught us the technique of Metta, a simple explosion of good vibes at the end of your meditation sessions to spread the happiness, goodwill and love to all. We were then instructed that we could break the noble silence immediately afterwards and begin interacting with everyone down by the dining hall. Everyone got up to leave Dhamma Hall but I stayed behind. Part of me was a little nervous to start talking again! I wanted to ease into it, probably the same as the three or four other people who remained. Eventually I got up and decided to walk the long way to the dining hall. What would be my first words? Something noble would be good. I’d let it come naturally. A tall, dark man approached me on the path. Our eyes met. He nodded at me. My mouth opened to say something but I just nodded back and kept walking. OK, next time. Further down the path another man approached. As he walked by our eyes met:
“Good day to you, Sir.” I instantly felt that I sounded like an idiot.
“Hey how’s it going?” Neither of us broke our step and the moment was over.
I spotted my roommate, Kevin, outside the girls dining hall, super happy to be talk to his girlfriend. I decided that would be a good place to break in.
“I counted about 53,000.” I said. We both laughed as we compared our tallies of holes on the ceiling. Everyont had so much to say that at first the sentences didn’t come smoothly but soon we were all yapping away like old friends. Some other people joined the group and the conversation steered towards who had experienced rough times. As it turned out, almost everyone had:
“Oh for me it was day 5…”
“On Day 6 I was seriously writing an apology letter to the teacher in my head…”
It was very reassuring. We went to the dining hall we her pockets of conversation had sprung up. As lunch went on the babble had grown into a joyous cacophony. Everyone was so pleased to be expressing themselves. Well almost everyone, some still remained markedly silent, but hey, that’s just how some people are. There was a common camaraderie – we’d all made it through. Or had we? As it turns out a few people had in fact left early, this made me feel even a little more proud.
On the walk back to our dorms after lunch, I met up with another guy who I’d talked to before we had started. Jason was a jolly fellow who had become my silent, video-time buddy during the discourses. He would sit down next to me and occasionally we would catch a glance of each other and have to look away before cracking up. Some people you just get that vibe with. He told me that he had a few things that he’d wanted show me during the retreat. Meditators were discouraged from going out of bounds by numerous ‘Course Boundary’ signs posted along the edges of the path. But at a certain curve he looked both ways and said, “Follow me!” We wound through a few low lying trees to a pretty open clearing. “This is where I’d occasionally come chill out…”
“Wow, you’re such a rebel. I feel so naive, I never left the path!” What other things had I been missing?
The next place he led me too was a forked tree with both trunks extended into the air. At the base, wedged into the crux was a perpendicular log that had been put there so long ago that the forked tree had grown around it.
“I call this one the Penis Tree!” Why had he thought of me when he saw this tree? As I say, some people you just get that vibe with.
On the final night we learnt that during Buddha’s life he had trained teachers to go to distant lands and spread the teachings of Dhamma and the Vipassana technique. He had made it very clear to the teachers heading to Burma that they make sure to teach the technique clearly, for he said that in time the rest of the world would forget it, but Burma would keep it in it’s pure form. Then, he said, 2500 years later it would rise again and spread around the world. In the coming centuries it did indeed die out in most of the world, the pure message eventually being tainted by dogma, rituals and rites. Goenka was taught the pure form of Vipassana in Burma in the 60s. He then moved to India and started teaching it. More and more people wanted to learn Vipassana so he started opening centers. And more centers. There’s now 140 centers all over the world and 1000s of students. Buddha’s prophecy seemed to have come true.
On the final night it had started to rain hard. After the final evening’s session I was standing under the tin roof overhanging the side of the trailer and discussing the idea of my utopian ‘perma-culture’ town of Dhammaville to a rather sharp hippy-type by the name of Singing Bear. The rain began to slow and there, before our eyes, the sound of the pattering let up and it turned into a heavy snowfall. That was the first time either of us had ever seen that happen. I thought to myself “It’s amazing, this whole time nature has been showing me how impermanent everything is. The snow piles up. The tree falls. The sun comes out. The snow melts. The land dries. The hail falls and finally the heavy rain turnes into light snow. Anicca, the Law of Impermanence.
*** Departure Day ***
On the final morning there was a final discourse regarding where we go from here with our practice. First the ever-wise Goenka, in his eternal quest to eradicate blind faith, prompted us to question what we learned here. Had it been practical? Logical? Beneficial?
He also implored us, if we wanted to continue, to not treat meditation as a hobby but to dedicate time and effort towards it as any worthy studies demand. One hour in the morning. One hour in the evening. Five minutes before sleeping and after waking up, being aware of your senses and partake in group mediations when possible. We also should return for 10-day retreats yearly if possible, perhaps serving as old students the next time. After breakfast we cleaned up our dorms and packed up.
So how much did this all cost? The teachings, the food, the electricity and the water? FREE! Well, at the end you’re encouraged to make a donation so that you’ll be providing the money needed to teach the next student. It’s certainly likely that some people in the crowd will pay more and some less but the overall net effect has to be positive – they have plans to build a new pagoda and are consistently opening new centers across the world.
Did I feel like my life had changed forever? I knew I would think more about my actions and reactions. I also knew that I would be more aware of my senses and how things affected me. I agreed that cravings and aversions were at the heart of most of my troubles. I felt the urge to be more moral although you can change everything over night. Ultimately was I ready to give up sex, drugs and rock n’ roll for pure happiness and universal truth? Sure, just not quite yet.
*** That’s Life ***
I was almost in San Francisco and could make out the form of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. Without even needing to meditate I could feel the tingling in my fingers as they gripped the steering wheel. I could feel my toes pulsing as they pressed on the accelerator. There was a cool breeze blowing through the crack in my window and what could be a more perfect ending? Frank Sinatra came up on my oldies play list that I’d been cranking at a comically loud volume:
“That’s life, that’s what all the people say. You’re riding high in April, shot down in May. But I know I’m gonna change that tune, when I’m back on top, back on top in June…”
“Yes,” I thought. “I’ll be managing my own spirituality from now on…”
More info on Vipassana Courses at www.dhamma.org