For the third time in as many years I have attended a 10-day silent meditation retreat in which I got up at 4am every day, sat cross legged on the floor with eyes closed for more than 10 hours per day, ate no food after noon, made no physical or communicative contact with another human being, and otherwise cultivated a sense of complete isolation in which to explore the inner depths of the phenomenon of my own mind and body.
What on earth would motivate an impulsive wanderer like myself to submit to such rigorous discipline for so many hours? Well, read on, young grasshopper, read on…
More info on Vipassana at www.dhamma.org
Vipassana meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka falls formally under the Theravada tradition of Buddhism and was brought by Goenka from Burma (Myanmar) first to India and then to the rest of the world beginning in the early 70s. Goenka’s move to India in 1969 was actually a return of the practice to the land of its origin, for it is maintained that both the words and pure practice of Siddhartha Guatama (the Buddha), who lived and taught mostly in North East India, were maintained in their pristine purity for centuries in Burma long after the major divisions and countless subdivisions of Buddhism diverged and spread throughout Asia.
After studying the practice in Burma for decades, Goenka originally went to India to teach the technique to his father and ailing mother. Several other people attended the first 10-day course as well. The results were so positive that the demand grew and grew until hundreds of people from every religious tradition and caste in India began to attend. Vipassana centers began to spring up across India and beyond. There are now dozens of centers throughout the world providing continuous retreats, and many more “gypsy” locations offering occasional courses.
I sat this course just outside of Rockford, Illinois at a beautiful farm that has been converted into a full time center. Twenty-some acres with a variety of gorgeous mature trees (Maples, Birch, Willows, etc.), ponds, flowers, walking areas, muskrats, morning-doves, frogs, butterflies… It has three main buildings: A farm house serves as the meditation hall (pictured above), there is a new and very comfortable residence building with private rooms, and a dining hall. Dhamma Pakasa (the name of this particular center) serves about 40 men and women per course and operates year-round.
Every center functions in roughly the same way. New students spend 10-days learning the technique and practicing. Together in the meditation hall, they receive instruction by Goenka himself by means of audio and video recordings. Assistant teachers, who have spent years practicing and have been thoroughly trained, oversee the seminar. The cooking, maintenance, and management of the centers are done by people who have completed previous courses (old students) on a volunteer basis. No one, including the teachers, receives any sort of wage or compensation for their work. The courses themselves are free, and people from any and every walk of life are encouraged to apply. Each center operates as an independent financial entity, entirely funded by donations coming from old students who want to see the work continue.
The timetable and rhythm of each of the ten days is the same. The schedule is as follows:
- 4:30-6:30am Meditate in the hall or in your room
- 6:30-8:00am Breakfast
- 8:00-9:00am Group meditation in the hall
- 9:00-11:00am Meditate in the hall or in your room per instructions
- 11:00-12 noon Lunch
- 12:00-1:00pm Rest, and interviews with the Assistant Teachers
- 1:00-2:30pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
- 2:30-3:30pm Group meditation in the hall
- 3:30-5:00pm Meditate in the hall or in your room per instructions
- 5:00-6:00pm Tea break
- 6:00-7:00pm Group meditation in the hall
- 7:00-8:15pm Teacher’s discourse in the hall (Goenka on video)
- 8:15-9:00pm Group meditation in the hall
- 9:00-9:30pm Question time in the hall
Noble silence is maintained. There is to be no physical contact or communication between students at any time. All reading and writing materials, cell phones, ipods etc are surrendered at the beginning of the course. Modest clothing is required. Men and women are segregated at all times- eating, sleeping, and walking in separate areas. Exercise is allowed only in the form of walking around designated areas during the meal breaks. The idea is to cultivate an atmosphere of isolation in which to focus on continuous meditation during all waking hours. All potential for distraction is limited.
The food is vegetarian and very good. Breakfast is the same each day, with oatmeal, granola and cereals, fruit, milk and yogurt, toast and jam, orange juice, tea. Lunch is different each day and varies from veggie burgers, to lasagna, to Indian curries, to chili, etc. You take whatever you need, which, after gorging yourself for the first couple days, you realize is very little. There is no supper. New students are given some fruit and old students are allowed only tea or lemon water.
In the meditation hall, each person is assigned a roughly 2x2ft square mat to sit on. Everyone sits on a cushion or cushions on the mat on the floor. There is no prescribed posture, but it is recommended to keep the back and neck straight, and no lying down. The elderly and people with special needs or injuries are given chairs to sit in or are otherwise gracefully accommodated.
Upon entering the course, students make a strong determination to stay for the whole ten days regardless of how difficult it gets. They make a formal request to the teacher to teach them the technique of Vipassana, and they agree to abide (while at the center) by 5 precepts: not to kill, not to steal, not to lie, no sexual activity, and not to ingest any intoxicant. Instruction by Goenka is given on audio recording at various times throughout the day. Students are given opportunities each day to speak privately with the assistant teachers if they have questions or problems.
Although of Buddhist origin, it must be understood that the entire emphasis of the course is on teaching a specific technique of meditation. There is no solicitation, indoctrination, dogma, religious rite or ritual, or attempt at conversion. Goenka emphasizes over and over that the technique is universal and is meant to be of benefit to all persons regardless of religion, race, gender, class, or other distinction. All instruction pertains to the pragmatic application of the technique. The discourses in the evening (Goenka is quite funny and very lovable) are meant to help clarify the practice and provide some background and theoretical explanation. Although the technique requires rigorous and persistent discipline, and can be quite hard, everything, including instruction, is provided with grace and a gentle spirit.
The practice itself follows the three principle trainings taught by Buddha: Sila, Samadhi, and Panna. Sila (morality) is practiced by taking the 5 precepts mentioned above. Samadhi (concentration/mastery of the mind) is taught in the form of anapana. For the first three and a half days, students practice becoming continuously aware of their own respiration by training their minds to focus on the natural flow of breath as it passes through the nostrils and over the area above the upper lip. This sharpens the mind, increasing awareness, and prepares them for the next stage. Panna (wisdom/insight that purifies the mind) is taught in the form of vipassana. On the fourth day, students learn to systematically pass their focused attention throughout each and every part of the body and objectively observe whatever they find, whether pleasurable or painful, without any sort of reaction. Through these three practices, the mind is purified, resulting in a tangible increase of awareness and equanimity. On the tenth day, students are taught the meditation of Metta (loving kindness) in which, having spent hours and hours purifying the mind, one stops focusing on one’s self and extends the resulting increase in love and compassion to all beings.
How It Works
For me, the benefits of the practice are astounding. But how can training your mind to be equanimously aware of breath and bodily sensations have such a huge impact on your sanity and overall well-being? Basically, the idea is that all of our suffering and misery is rooted in habit patterns of the mind that are born of continuous subconscious reactions to sensations within the body. Beneath our typically haphazard and chaotic thin veneer of waking consciousness, we are constantly responding to wanted or unwanted stimuli, whether a physical sensation or mental ideation, by creating strong reactions within our body/mind. Something pleasurable happens, and as soon as it fades, we react by wanting more. We come to feel agitated and dissatisfied until we get what we think we want. Something unpleasant happens, and we react by by strongly rejecting it. We are agitated and dissatisfied until it goes away. Craving and aversion in the “unconscious” portion of our mind is at the root of all our misery.
The third root of suffering is ignorance. Our minds race willy-nilly all over the place. We have little control. We spend most of our time lost in and reacting to a chaotic onslaught of memories and hopes/worries about the future, spending very little time experiencing the only actual moment of our living: the present. Because we fail to recognize the internal process of the generation of our own patterns of reaction leading to suffering, we blame external circumstances and other people. We believe the external object of our attention is the cause of our pain. Craving, aversion, and ignorance within together abstract us from our actual experience into a fantasy world of our own creation, in which we get lost in vicious cycles of thought and reaction and end up agitated and dissatisfied. In short, we suffer.
Vipassana teaches you to observe this process at the deepest roots of the phenomenon of your own mind/body. Vipassana means “to see things as they really are”. Nothing is induced; no imagination, no mantra, no controlled exercise or breathing. You only observe with sharpened awareness and equanimity, without reaction, the normal breath and actual physical sensations occurring in your mind and body in the present moment. As you break the usual subconscious patterns and no longer generate new reactions, the old habit patterns of reaction stored in the mind as repeating scripts (of anger, depression, etc) and in the body as tension and disease, rise to the surface unhindered and are dissolved and released. You become unburdened. Lighter. The mind becomes clearer, calmer, saner. The body untangled and fluid. You become aware and equanimous. You feel good. Happy even.
My Spiritual Journey
Along with the many joys and adventures, I have suffered a lifetime of depression and anxiety. Ever since I was a little boy. I remember so much of fear growing up; fear of the dark, of other people, of God and the devil. As I grew older the fear became existential. I was literally frightened of my own existence. In high school and early college I sought solace with desperate enthusiasm in the charismatic Christian faith I had grown up in. I clung to the hope of the gospel and the experience of the Holy Spirit. I was an evangelist. I was assured, sometimes arrogantly. But the inner pain remained. My faith was shocked to the root when a dear friend revealed a part of himself that I found myself, because of the moral imperatives I had adopted, unable to accept. I began to question my beliefs. As a leader of worship, I began to wonder how much of the group experience of God we found in worship was dependent upon my own presence. If I played the wrong chords, would God go away? I began to suspect the whole experiential/enthusiastic approach to the Christian god that was the foundation of my faith and sense of purpose. I demanded an accounting.
I put everything to the test. Challenging every tenet of faith, exploring different systems of thought, and eventually experimenting with psychedelic drugs. I got to the point where not only my faith, but reality itself, completely unraveled. I was lost, still terrified of my existence, and unable to find any sort of foundation upon which to stand. I would sit on the couch for hours, depressed, unable to think of a single thing to do. Obsessive thoughts began to develop a life of their own. I understood nothing. But I never gave up entirely, never considered ending it all. When God left, I defied the emptiness. And kept looking. As I no longer trusted my own experience or perceptions, I kept looking for a rational framework for hope. A tight argument for life. A philosophy.
I decided to have one last look at Christianity before I dropped it for good. I went to a Christian community in Switzerland called L’Abri, founded by Francis Schaeffer, who gave a rational defense for biblical Christianity. In the doctrine of the trinity, I thought I found what I was looking for: an ontological foundation for a meaningful personal existence in community. If the very origin of all that is is a community of persons living in undifferentiated unity, then clearly there is a foundation for my own personal existence in relation to the world and others. The ideal is the perfection of personal unity in diversity. The problem is sin, or separation from God and others, which is suffering. Redemption is the restoration of true community. God acted historically in the person of Christ to effect this redemption, both personally (for me) and universally, by taking this sin/separation into the very heart of the trinity (“my god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?”), and overcoming, transforming, shattering it, resulting in a new creation of the perfect community of God and humanity in the power of the holy spirit. The implications came crashing around me like a tidal wave. It seemed clearly, self-evidently, true. This was a justified faith, not based on vagarious personal experience and blind hope. Rather it was both philosophically necessary and verified by correspondence to actual reality. I felt transformed.
But there were problems with my philosophy.
I went to seminary to study theology, figuring that it would give me an excuse to pursue my new understanding of God full time. I needed certainty, and to me that meant a rock-solid argument, rational proof. But there where some things that I just could not understand. The biggest problem was evil. Why evil? And what exactly was Christ doing in his death and resurrection to overcome evil? My own experience of reality was of the simultaneous presence of opposing extremes: both the sheer joy of embodied personal existence, and a tearing awareness of suffering. I was sure that creation, embodied reality, was good. And I was sure that evil was truly evil, unjustifiable, and had no right place or function. I began to study various Christian approaches to the so-called problem of evil. But it became clear to me that every theodicy (the theological justification of God in light of the reality of evil) which sought to explain the existence of evil ended up theoretically justifying its existence. Somehow it served some purpose in God’s overall plan. I had a friend who worked in a shelter for abused children. She told me of a two-year old girl there whose sexual organs had been mutilated because her mother had sold her to men for sex. I could not accept that there was any justification, any purpose for that kind of evil. Any theoretical explanation seemed the most insidious patronization, a blithe affront to the reality it danced around in safe, privileged abstraction.
The limitations of rational coherence started to become evident. I remember walking into the seminary library and looking at the stacks and stacks of books, all varying interpretations of some aspect of the same faith, and thinking “which one of these books holds the truth?” The whole enterprise of theology began to feel like a meaningless and abstract game of chess, everyone moving the same basic pieces around in endless variations, each new school of thought nothing but a novel rearrangement mistaken for a solution, defended by ego to the death, having no impact on, not even touching, the actual living and suffering going on in the world. But if my own subjective experience of god (as a charismatic) was a hermeneutic quagmire, and if the rational coherence of faith shattered on the event horizon of the reality of suffering, where was I? Still very depressed and anxious, still full of pain.
But at the same time, in this Lutheran seminary, there was planted a seed of grace. Finally, convinced that I had worked as hard as was possible, relentlessly exhausting every possibility, despairing of my own efforts to make sense of myself, god, the universe- I threw myself onto the mercy of the court. The essence of Lutheranism is that you are saved by grace through faith. I said “OK God, I give up. I don’t get it. I don’t trust the subjective emotional sensation of experiential religion, so subject to suggestive interpretation. And I can’t find a rational foundation for faith or for any sort of understanding of reality. I quit. Whoever or whatever you are, it’s out of my hands. Do what you will.” And then I went off to play music.
Throughout the band years and afterwards, I suffered. I still read a lot, still thought about everything, but abandoned my desperate need for certainty. I drank to relieve the depression and anxiety, which of course made it even worse. When bad things happened due to drinking, and I got sober, my unbalanced mind was exposed raw and unrelenting, battering me. Medications helped, but always felt unreal. I mustered up as much courage as I could and just drudged on through the waxing and waining of the pain and insanity. When I was desperate, and cried out to God, no one answered. But underneath it all there was this current. I would consistently have a nagging sense, in spite of it all and without justification, that God or Karma or the Ultimate or Whoever/Whatever was taking me somewhere. I remember having the clear feeling one evening that God was handing me a gift, that he was giving it to me, and that I was to wait to open it until the time was full. This seed, an idea, began to grow that what I needed to do was to stop striving, stop trying at all, and trust that God or the Ultimate was going to work it out, in spite of my inability to understand or even believe in God.
One year, on a trip out west, before I went sober, I was up late drinking in a small town bar in Montana. Next morning, sick, I started to drive up into the mountains. I was listening to a song by Lauren Hill in which she sings about the joy her young child has given her. I suddenly began to have this overwhelming sense that I was listening to a prophetic voice. Tears started streaming down my face. As I drove up onto the high plateau toward Big Sky, I heard a voice, not audible, but in my mind that said, “now I will show you something of who I am”. And a shimmering energy filled my body. And it was as though the mountains opened up and were rolled back, and underneath and within and infusing all was an unquenchable, boundless, sovereign, eternal, immense, inferno of love, that was also power, power that was love. And I was given a certainty that has never left me. And the certainty is this: at the very heart of the universe is a love that burns with such strength that nothing can stand before or against it, that in spite of all, it is there, it is suffusing all, and it will not be moved or defeated.
Several years ago, a friend and I somehow found our way to an informal presentation about Vipassana at a local library. We watched a video about the movement to bring Vipassana into Indian prisons, and the profound effect the practice had on the lives of the inmates. We learned about the 10-day courses and both thought that it might be worth doing some day. Then I forgot all about it. A couple years later, when my mind was hurting bad, and after I had already tried alcohol, medications, counseling, therapy, light boxes, etc, I decided that I really needed to give meditation a shot. But I knew very little about it. Where to begin? While thinking about it, the memory of that video appeared. I somehow remembered the word “Vipassana” and plugged it straight into Google. This led me to www.dhamma.org and to a list of all the centers and course schedules worldwide. I signed up. Looking at the rigorous timetable of meditation all day every day for 10 days, I thought, “this ought to get me started”.
I went blindly, knowing very little about the organization or practice. I didn’t know who was behind it all, whether some freaky cult or self-serving guru or what. I told a friend, “if you don’t hear from me in 11 days, come and get me.” But I went. On the 8-plus hour drive to the center, I started to get very sick. I had to stop, pulled into a seedy motel, and spent the night sweating and puking and laying on the cold tile bathroom floor. Next day, still sick, I felt a huge compulsion to turn around and head back home. On top of the stomach flu, a raw and itchy rash from poison ivy started to grow up and down my legs. But I pressed on.
Arriving at the Northwest Vipassana Center (Dhamma Kunja) in Onalaska, Washington (I was living in Boise at the time), my first impression was how beautiful the staff seemed. They had clear, healthy-looking skin and seemed taller for their various sizes than normal. They were fairly glowing, genuinely kind, and quick to laugh- in stark contrast to the cloudy, pained, or nervous faces of all the new students rolling sleeping bags out onto bunks in the sleeping quarters. There was a brief orientation, noble silence began, we all filed into the meditation hall and received our assigned mats… and then the fun started.
As we began anapana (observing the natural breath), it took only a couple hours for the first great insight about the reality of my mind to appear. I had no control. An incessant stream of thoughts was constantly arising in my mind, some loosely connected, some completely random. They arose of their own, from somewhere within, without my will or volition. I could choose to direct them, following a particular stream of thought for a while, but they rose of their own accord, directed or not, and mostly I just got lost in them. I would remain aware of my breath for perhaps 20-30 seconds, and then I would be off again in the fantasy world of my own thought processes. Sometimes it would be 30-40 minutes before I even realized that I had long ago forgotten all about the breath and was simply daydreaming. I realized also that the content of the thought was basically of three types: either I was having a memory of some past event, or I was imagining future events, or I was thinking about the things around me. I also saw that there were at least 4 different things going on in my mind at all times: music (usually an annoying and incessantly repeating pop song), a complex simultaneous ringing of tones and overtones covering the entire harmonic spectrum from very low to very high, a disjointed narrative (thinking about things), and an awareness of all this and the things happening in my body and environment. I also became aware that I spent most of my time identifying with the content of the narrative thought process, reacting to it emotionally, and basically ignoring everything else. I realized that this is what I do almost all the time: I spend the vast majority of my time lost in the fantasy world of my own thought processes and reacting to the content there, I am almost completely unaware of this, but it still obscures my experience of the real moment I am living. I am neither aware of the process of thought happening underneath the surface of consciousness, nor am I clearly consciously aware of my actual experience of the present. I live in a fog. A dreamworld. All of this became clear from what would seem to be the simplest, easiest, and most natural human act– sitting still and observing the natural breath.
During three days of anapana, my ability to remain aware of the breath increased and my concentration sharpened. As I stopped identifying with, and getting lost in, my thought processes, the content of those processes became clearer. Patterns, habits of thought and reaction, started to emerge. I started to see that my very identity, my self image, was largely built upon the anxieties, fears, and hopes/desires which formed regular patterns of reaction to the contents of mind. I realized that much of my inner pain was rooted in this process of subconscious emotional reaction to repeated thought patterns, to “scripts” that I would repeat over and over in my mind. I was, in effect, in emotional bondage to the uncontrolled and repeated habit patterns of my own mind.
You must understand, none of this was suggested. The direction given is wholly pragmatic, consisting only of clear instructions on how to sit and observe. It is in fact stressed over and over not to look for anything in particular. Only learn to observe the reality as it is, let dhamma (law, nature, truth) take care of the rest. In the evening discourse, some explanation is given, and I often found Goenka talking about the very things that I had been experiencing earlier that day of my own accord. In giving background about the technique, Goenka would sometimes mention some aspect of the Buddha’s teaching that I did not agree with or found philosophically troubling, maybe reincarnation or karma or whatever. But he also kept insisting that none of that mattered. If some part of the teaching bothers you, throw it out, he would say. Only learn to practice properly the actual technique and accept only what you observe for yourself in the real moment of your own mind and body. The theory should follow directly from the practice. This is about reality, not doctrine. This seemed emmanently fair and reasonable to me, and I pressed on.
On day four, we switch from anapana and concentration on the breath to the actual practice of Vipassana. Anapana is considered a preliminary, an exercise to sharpen and concentrate the mind in preparation for Vipassana. In Vipassana, the attention switches from the breath to the whole phenomenon of mind and body. This takes the form of systematically observing the sensations experienced in the body, from “the top of the head to the tips of the toes, from the tips of the toes to the top of the head”. Also on day four begins the sittings of adhittanha or “strong determination”. During the three one-hour group sittings per day, each student makes a strong determination to sit the whole hour without moving the arms or legs or opening the eyes. The result is severe pain. You would think that just sitting quietly on a soft cushion for an hour would be a breeze. Think again. Half an hour into it, and the pain in the legs starts to grow. Every impulse says “Move!” At forty-five minutes it becomes intolerable. Every minute after is like another hour. I don’t remember how many times it took before I could sit through the whole hour without moving, but when I finally did, it was only through dogged stubbornness. I was not going to move. I just swallowed the pain until I was trembling and sweating. When the hour was over, I tumbled outside for a break, shivering with chills.
Sound fun, this Vipassana? The point, of course, is not to induce pain. The whole point of the practice is to come out of all your suffering and misery! During Vipassana, you learn to observe all the sensations occurring in the body without reacting to them. You learn to be equanimous with whatever arises, however painful or pleasurable. As my equanimity and concentration increased, I began to become aware of a whole other layer of sensations, much more subtle, occurring throughout my body. The gross sensations of pain or fatigue began to give way to an underlying current of subtle and very pleasant vibrations, arising and passing away with great rapidity, like a warm electricity. As I passed my awareness over my body, beginning at the top my head, it felt like electric honey was slowly pouring over me. As I concentrated on one hand, the other hand would also “activate” until both were pulsing with vibrations. Over time, whole sections of my body, my arms or legs or feet, would start to vibrate in symmetrical sympathy. It felt like all the hardness of the gross and mundane sensations of the body was systematically dissolving into a free and weightless flow of energy. Soon I could sit easily for an hour with no pain whatsoever. It was, to say the least, remarkable.
Each time I passed my attention through my body was a bit different. Pains, aches, itches, heat, pressure, weight- all the different aspects of gross aggregated sensation- would seem to appear and pass away at different times and in different places. The whole thing was in flux, constantly changing. But there was also a process happening. As I would place my attention on some particular area of the body with a gross sensation, the tension there would begin to dissolve. I would hear a kind of loud crackling, like bubbles popping, in and around my ears and upper shoulders. The solidity of my body seemed to be progressively dissolving, the weight disappearing. By the end of my first course, I reached the point where I felt as though I had dissolved completely, except for a very dense mass about the size of a plum that kept morphing in shape and moving into different areas of my body, as though my awareness was pushing it around. I felt invisible. I could feel the slight breeze in the room passing right through my body without hindrance. I opened my eyes and looked down to see if I was still there. (I was) ;-)
During my first 10-day course, and sometime later during my second, I also became aware of the intricate interrelationship between my mind and body. They seemed two different sides of a single phenomenon, an “interior” and “exterior” aspect if you will. The practice is to concentrate on the physical sensations, and basically ignore or at least stop reacting to the stream of thought which continues on. But I began to find an association between particular patterns of thought and the dissolution of the aggregates of gross sensation in my body. It was as though the thoughts themselves were lodged in my body in the form of gross sensations. I became aware of a flow of energy that moved through my spine from top to bottom and bottom to top, and extended out through my limbs past my fingers and toes. I realized that I was caught in a habit of holding tension in various places throughout my body. When I simply observed, and stopped resisting, the flow itself would direct a natural course of release. My body started to unwind itself freely, like letting go of a tightly wound rubber band. My back and neck slowly aligned themselves. Without effort, I was being adjusted from the inside. Often a loud crack would ring out in the hall and my spine would straighten a little more. My ears and sinuses cleared, and it was as though my breath was reaching parts it hadn’t touched in a long long time. My vision became much more vivid and detailed, smells more vibrant and recognized. I could sometimes intuit and sometimes witness habit patterns of thought and reaction dissolving, lifting, evaporating along with the physical tension and tightly wound crookedness. Besides the flow up and down my spine, as things opened up, I also became aware of a “rotating” motion happening along the horizontal axes of my pelvis and shoulders, each kind of like the pedals of a bicycle rotating around a central axle. When everything was moving freely, it felt as though my body was a well-tuned gyroscope of flow and vibration. By the end of each course, I physically feel light, fluid, taller, straight, open, freer. After the first course I went straight to the mountains and hiked up and down for hours without fatigue.
The theory of Vipassana suggests that all of our misery is generated at the point of subconscious reaction to physical sensations. As you learn to observe physical sensations without reaction, you stop generating new patterns of craving and aversion that lead to suffering. But once you stop generating new reactions, the old stock of reactions and of patterns of reaction buried deep within the body/mind start to emerge. Deep rooted complexes rise to the surface. You observe them with equanimity and awareness and they rise up, stay for some time, and then pass away, “evaporating” into the air around you. Most of the time while practicing Vipassana, I would experience the dissolution of smaller aggregates of gross sensation and tension scattered around my body. But every once in a while, maybe two or three times per course, a very deep complex would start to emerge. Without warning or apparent cause, I would feel a welling up of terrible energy, usually beginning at the very base of my spine, rising up to overpower my entire body and mind. At times it would take the form of panic. Much like the panic attacks I have experienced on occasion in my “normal” life, a terror would seize my chest, my lungs would begin heaving, and an overpowering wave of bright fear would seem to take over and threaten to consume my reality, sanity, or life. I would feel that I was either losing my mind, was about to die, or was otherwise about to be transported into an alien and permanent existence somewhere else. Or it would come in the form of a sick, green, sulfuric nausea which again rose from the root of my spine, up through my stomach and chest and throat, and up and out my head and shoulders. Without knowing exactly what it was, I could recognize that this was a deep complex emerging. In spite of the terror, confusion, or sickness, and the accompanying impulse to run out of the room, I would sit and observe as it rose up, seemed to overwhelm me, and then passed through and left. For good.
That, all of the above, is essentially the experience I had practicing Vipassana during the three 10-day courses I have sat over the last several years. 10 hours a day for 10 days is a lot of time, and of course there are loads and loads of nuances, insights, creative impulses, memories, side-tracks, and other stuff that happens. But these are the main elements. It is a process of purification. It isn’t easy, but it gives incredible benefit. As equanimity and awareness increase, as the burden lifts, you discover a naturally flowing wellspring within. Instead of generating negativity, you feel a natural flow of loving kindness, peace, and compassion. You realize that this is the true, innate nature of the self, so far from the falsely constructed ego you usually hang onto for dear life and defend to the death. You start to see clearly the many ways you have reacted with negativity to other people- especially friends and family- and feel a strong desire to make amends, to forgive and to be forgiven, and to begin to live life altogether differently.
After the Course
The re-entry into the “real” world can be intense. On the 10th day of the course, noble silence ends, and everyone spends the day in non-stop chatter and easy laughter. This gives some time to try to readjust to being a social being, but you are still within the protected confines of the center, and by that time there is very little negativity being generated there. Everyone is glowing with a peace that really does pass understanding. Then, on the morning of day 11, you re-enter the outside world. Your senses have become so open and sharpened, the details so vivid, that the world can come at you in a psychedelic cacophony. You start to see clearly the extent to which other people are lost in their own dreamworlds, spending very little time actually experiencing the present reality. You see clearly the way that consumerist society is designed to generate patterns of craving and aversion, and to specifically threaten and entice the falsely constructed ego. You see the way that friends and family are caught up in their typical patterns of pain and suffering, and you want them to feel as free as you do right then.
With time, the intensity of the experience fades, especially if, like me, you fail to keep up the practice on your own from day to day. You are no longer held to the five precepts of no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, and no intoxicants and opportunities for breaking them abound. But, also with time, you realize that a permanent change has taken place. Even if you only practice in spurts, even if you break your sila and start falling into some of the old patterns, there has been a qualitative improvement worked within. You got rid of a lot of shit. You are calmer, more aware, less reactive, wiser, less prone to care about polishing your ego. After years of suffering the pain of depression and anxiety, I have found the practice of Vipassana to be the single most effective remedy. I have been med-free since I started, and have found that the intensity and duration of bouts of depression/anxiety have diminished significantly. I still have neuroses, phobias. I still fall into patterns of self-abuse, distraction, and desire. Full liberation is a ways away. There is still a lot of work to do. But the inner pain that I have carried with me ever since I can remember is fading. When I get crazy, or hurt a lot, it’s usually enough to get me back to sitting. And before long the storm passes. I’m basically happy for the first time in many years.
That’s my story. What does it all mean theologically? How can the godless ahistorical universe of Buddhism jive with the personal God and narrative arc of the Christian gospel (which still holds my heart/imagination captive)? Is there a true self which can abide in perfect community with other selves, or is there only no-self? How can the almost diametrically theologically opposed systems of Buddhism and Christianity (when practiced in purity) seem to result in the same spiritual fruits of kindness, goodness, faithfulness, tolerance, understanding, love, compassion, and a peace which passes understanding? Are there other paths, other religions, other forms of meditation or practice, which produce such amazing results? There are so many questions. I don’t know the answers. And a part of me doesn’t care. I no longer have a desperate need for certainty. By whatever grace, I have stumbled upon a path with heart. There is no ambiguity or trickery. It works. It makes me freer, and it makes me a better and happier person.
Postscript: The Hilarity
Life on a 10-day retreat can be very somber. No one is talking. Everyone is turning inward. Every time you look at someone, they are either avoiding your gaze or are sitting quiet and motionless. There is pain and struggle. Most of the time you feel like an open wound, beat up, and ready to get the hell out of there. You start to wonder if these Vipassana people ever have any fun. But it is also truly comical. In spite of the goal of creating an atmosphere of isolation, people’s personalities leak out. Your mind runs all over the place, and as it frees itself, it starts to wander into increasingly hilarious territory. In my first course, I often found myself dwelling on some comical thought and having to choke down laughter. A couple of times I got up and fairly ran out of the meditation hall, out of earshot, and busted out laughing until tears were streaming. It is said that if laughter breaks out in the hall, it can be very distracting. Someone giggles and it spreads like fire. The whole place catches it and starts roaring. As soon as everyone quiets down, another snicker in the corner, and it starts all over again. Best to concentrate on the pain.
You get your assigned mat and you pick a cushion from a varied selection piled in a corner outside the main hall area. There is no restriction to the type or number of cushions you may use. Most people grab one cushion and give it a try. Others take several from the start. But once the sittings of strong determination begin, there is a general emergence of latent cushion-engineering genius. These utilitarian masterpieces stabbing toward comfort build up slowly. Somehow the fact that almost all the old students are just sitting on a simple cushion doesn’t register. The problem is pain and the solution is more, or more expertly arranged, cushions. Elaborate teetering piles are constructed that require long and carefully observed rituals of sitting and tucking under. Like dogs, people seem to circle around their mats six or seven times before deciding on the perfect placement and plopping down. One guy, a bulky ex-serviceman with a crew cut, used no less than eight separate cushions to build a virtual Lazy Boy complete with arm, leg, hand, and foot rests. He would come into the hall, stand in front of his creation, exhale loudly, and then fall like a cut tree back onto his pile with a big poofy thud. After several days, most people realize the effort is futile and go back to a simple cushion or two, learning to observe the pain without reaction until it goes away.
On my second sit, a friend (James) and I went together, and on the first day (before silence) we met a bus driver from Oregon who appeared to care only about two things: Meditation and the TV show “Survivor”. In his mind, he was a model meditator. He had been on several sits, had visited Vipassana centers in Burma and India, wore a dhoti wrapped around his waist instead of pants (“The only way to go!”) and went barefoot even though it was cold in the hall. He had all the Vipassana books, and delighted in telling everyone how much he loved to serve people. But mainly he talked about Survivor. He was planning to submit an application video for a place on the show and was desperately searching for ideas for the video. He had the rest all worked out. Once he got on the island, instead of the underhanded plotting, scheming, betrayal, etc, typical of previous survivors, he was going to win by serving the others on the island. Stardom would be his vehicle for even greater service. When he won, became the last survivor, he would come out as the spokesperson for Vipassana, thus helping countless people around the world find their way to meditation. He would give away the majority of the prize money as an example of pure selflessness. We listened to him go on about all this for a while, and then it was time for noble silence. He sat up in front of me, and for 9 days I watched him go in and out, seemingly earnest in his meditation. On day 10, when noble silence ended, he found James and me and immediately launched into a conversation about Survivor. He brought up some of the things we had said about his ideas before the course, apparently having spent a good part of the last 9 days thinking them over. James told him he should play up the meditation idea. He would wear a tight superhero suit with a cape and a big “M” on the chest. He would be MEDITATION MAN and overcome the forces of negativity on the island with the power of dhamma. When we parted, he was still contemplating this idea. I don’t know if he ever got on the island. But more power to you, MEDITATION MAN, wherever you may be serving now.
Depending on your penchant for flights of imagination, conspiracy theory, paranoia and such, weird ideas can emerge in the meditation process. The assistant teachers for the course sit up in the front of the hall facing the students. They mostly just sit there meditating, the male occasionally giving a simple direction after a session like “after a short break, we’ll begin again.” The assistant teachers for my second course were a rather non-nondescript couple named Norm and Deb, looking for all the world like any Midwestern white kid’s mom and dad. After several days sitting, during a group session, I felt a deep unease welling up from within. Fear was growing stronger and stronger. Then suddenly it became very clear to me what was going on here. This was no simple meditation center. No, no. It was something much more sinister. Masquerading as a hall of dhamma, it was actually none other than an alien incubation laboratory. It all made sense. They use this Vipassana as an innocent guise to lure unsuspecting hosts into their lab. Somehow the technique itself is used to create the proper conditions for fertility. Norm and Deb, now appearing much too normal, suspiciously normal, were actually aliens who had fertilized and were essentially hatching alien children using the students as hosts. They were presiding over a process of incubation which slowly took over the minds and bodies of the host students until the normal ego was dissolved completely into the newly emerging alien identity. I looked around at every one sitting in the room, wrapped in blankets, in neat rows, unmoving. They looked for all the world like a bunch of eggs. Wasn’t it just too much of a coincidence that Norm and Deb had been the assistant teachers at my last sit? Wasn’t it just too strange that the course manager was the same as my last course? Hadn’t he given my a wry, knowing look upon my arrival and said, “Nice to see you again, Nathan”? In fact, Norm and Deb were likely the assistant teachers at every course in every center in the world. They were the founding parents of a new alien race. In fact the whole road toward liberation was nothing other than a process of gestation. Liberation itself was simply the final realization of your own newly emerged nature- that of an alien being. This thought pattern continued to the end of the group hour and on into the break. I was shaken. I already had a deep fear of abduction. In my life, I had had many moments when I felt that I was on the verge of suddenly being coopted from my known reality and transported to a different and permanent world that was metaphysically alien. Now my deepest fears seemed to be coming true. The fact of my previous paranoia itself seemed to confirm the truth of this horror, as though I had always known this was coming. Somehow I pressed on through the break and went back into the hall. I sat down. Norm and Deb were a minute or so late to get back in the hall, and I suddenly had this image of them in the back room trying to get their human flesh-suits on, and of Norm cussing up a blue streak as he got his zipper stuck. Norm finally wobbled back into the hall, and I had to stifle my laughter as the paranoia broke and the ridiculous hilarity of it all flooded me. Ever since then, that deep fear of abduction and metaphysical vertigo has never returned with any strength.
Again at the same course, James and I got a ride to the center from a gentle, soft-spoken older man from Portland named Ian. We talked amiably on the way up and stopped to pick up tubs of tofu to bring to the center. Several days into the course, during a group sit, we suddenly heard a loud human cry/grunt and then the sound of a hard thunk on the floor. No one moved from their meditation, but I looked up to see Ian, dazed, slowly being raised up from the floor by the student manager. He had apparently passed out and fallen forward, knocking his head on the ground. He was escorted out of the hall and was gone for some time. I was worried. But he reappeared in the hall a while later with a white bandage taped onto his forehead and sat the rest of the course without incident. When day 10 came, and we could talk again, we asked him what happened. He said he had just been sitting there meditating as usual when suddenly sparks started shooting out of his butt and he was flung off his cushion, knocking his forehead hard on the floor. The assistant teacher told him that the sparks were nothing to worry about, it was just the eruption of a sleeping volcano of deep internal complexes. Good that it had come out. We rode back with Ian to the Portland airport, teasing him the whole way. Once we got home, James and I sent him a card thanking him for the ride, along with a protective helmet he could wear while meditating, lest he encounter any more sleeping volcanoes.
One last story. Goenka stresses that dhamma is universal. The technique is for anyone regardless of color, religion, gender, or class. At my third sit, in Rockford, there was a great diversity of people from different countries and stations in life. The dhamma talks were provided in five different languages. There were people from India, China, Europe, Cambodia (I think), white kids from the rural Midwest, and several black people from Chicago, among others. One older black woman was hard to miss. She sat in the back and, noble silence or not, would laugh loudly and openly when Goenka cracked a joke in the evening discourse. She would sometimes pepper Goenka’s dhamma teachings or stories of the life of the Buddha with an “mmm-hmm” or a “that’s right” after every few phrases, as though she was in church on Sunday morning caught up in the call and response of preacher and congregation. On day ten during the morning session, we learn and practice the technique of Metta, in which we seek to extend vibrations of love and compassion to all beings. At the end of this, just before noble silence ends, there is an almost transcendent peace that seems to fill the room. But after 9 days of silence, the time comes to speak. And the first words I heard, from the back of the room, spoken with hushed, heartfelt gratitude, were, “Thank you, Jesus.”
For more information about Vipassana, locations of meditation centers, and course schedules go to www.dhamma.org