Disclaimer: This is a long post. It was difficult to write because a lot happened and I was unable to take any notes, and I was compelled to leave a lot out, but give it a go.
The Dhamma Malaya meditation center was only 60 kilometers away. I had really enjoyed my campsite the night before, and the swim in the ocean was a refreshing rarity. The ride down the coast had been such a rush that I had no chance to contemplate the fact that I would spend the next ten days meditating in stillness and silence.I put it off a little longer: I still had to get there. The road inland was unpleasant. The shoulder disappeared and there was a surprisingly steady stream of lorries, but I survived. I finally found myself on a highway with a shoulder, and soon I was a kilometer from the center. I dawdled, found some food, scanned a copy of my passport (they said I needed one, but I didn’t) and finally headed in. I wasn’t really nervous until I hit the driveway. There were no signs, but the center shared a driveway with a resort, and I quickly found myself before a gate. A guard stepped briskly out. “I am looking for Vipassana…” I said uncertainly.
He nodded and whipped out a list with my name on it, which he crossed off and raised the gate. Some quaint signs directed me along a paved path through a lovely palm plantation. As I pedalled patiently along in the dappled light filtering through the trees my nervousness mixed with some elation. Ten days off the bike! I had no idea what to expect, but for once I felt like I belonged somewhere, I was to live there for almost two weeks.
I came to another gate, through which I espied the forested grounds and reception area of the center. I rolled my bike up and was directed to the dining hall for registration. How many times can I say I wasn’t sure what to expect? Everything was new to me, I had no idea where anything was or how this was going to go. It was like a summer camp or a retreat, and I hadn’t been to very many of either. This course was to be taught in English and Tamil, one of the only courses that didn’t offer Mandarin. I was not sure how many Westerners there would be, how many Indians, or how many Malaysians, if any, for the country is predominantly Muslim. There seemed to be plenty of Westerners, by which I mean six or seven, a few Chinese looking fellows, and the rest I assumed were Indian. The check-in process was fairly simple, just some paperwork and light reading. One part of the form asked whether I had any experience with drugs, and asked for a description if answered “yes.” There were only three slots, so it seemed best to leave it blank. The next question asked about how long and how extensive the experience was, and it seemed as if they expected dates. I put down “in my youth.” Then I was asked about addiction and had to explain that I had no physical addictions. All this seemed incredibly naive to me, but I suppose Vipassana has had a few expereinces with unintentional rehabilitations and some rule breaking. I have a lot to say about intoxicants and the nature of addiction, but this post is bound to go long as it is.
I was early I had a bit of free time, more or less, so I walked the grounds. The compound is bilaterally symmetrical, with administrative buildings down the center as well as the Dhamma Hall (where we meditate) and the building containing the individual cells for the older students in the back. Dorms- male and female respectively- run along either side. The dining hall was towards the front and separated into male and female areas. As everyone registered, a glaring distinction between the natures of male and female presented itself: the men’s side was almost completely silent, the motivation being obvious: after an hour or two we would not speak to nor even look at one another for ten days. Anything we learn now might distract us from our meditation, and so it was best to save the introductions for the end. Logical. The girls were chattering like birds, with all the enthusiasm of the first day of summer camp. Men and women are different.
It did indeed feel like the first day of school or day one of a summer camp: we registered, ate a light meal and moved into our dorms. To my surprise, we each had a private dormitory, which is not the case in other centers and I assumed I would be sharing a room. This was a pleasant surprise. The dormitories were in blocks, with eight to a building. They were well-lit and draughty, which in Malaysia is a good thing, and generally homey. From under a common porch, one enters into a small, high-ceilinged room with a sleeping shelf with bedding to one side and a clothes rack and raised meditation seat on the other. A door at the back of the room opened into the washroom, with shower, sink and toilet. Excellent. I fancied I was on holiday.In the evening we congregated in the dining hall for initiation, where the rules and schedule were explained. There are five rules or precepts one follows during Vipassana:
No harming of any living creature
No sexual misconduct
Along with this one takes a vow of Noble Silence: No speaking, no physical communication, no eye contact. Presumably this extends to one’s self, for no reading or writing is permitted either.The last rule is that one puts aside all religious rituals and artifacts. It is explained that we were there to give Vipassana meditation a fair and diligent try for ten days: for a mere ten days to set aside all else, to the best of our ability, to allow the technique to speak for itself. I found it amusing that it was necessary to specify that no crystals were allowed. This process took some time, and I was pretty nervous. I and my stolid companions were diving into a mystery, an unknown, yet we knew the schedule and the rules beforehand, and had come here of our own volition. No one was to enforce the rules, it was our responsibility to follow them: No one checks your bags, and no one inspects your room, but if they catch you breaking the rules, you may be asked to leave, and there was some irony in the situation because it was difficult to follow these rules- particularly the schedule- of our own free will, despite seeking out the experience ourselves.
Let’s have a look at the schedule:
4:00 am- Waking bell
4:30-6:30- Meditation in your room or the Dhamma hall.
6:30-8:00- Breakfast break
8:00-9:00- Group meditation in the Dhamma hall.
9:00-11:00- Meditation in the Dhamma hall or your room as the teacher instructs.
11:00-12:00- Lunch break
12:00-1:00- Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00- 2:30- Meditation in the hall or your room.
2:30- 3:30- Group meditation in the Dhamma hall.
3:30- 5:00- Group meditation in the Dhamma hall or room according to the teacher’s instruction.
5:00- 6:00- Tea break
6:00- 7:00- Group meditation in the hall.
7:00- 8:15- Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00- Group meditation in the hall.
9:00-9:30- Question time in the hall
9:30- Retire to your room
10:00- Lights out.
That’s a lot of meditation. I must note that our teacher let us meditate in our rooms once during the whole session, on our first day. I think this was so that he could speak with the old students. Tough customer, that fellow.
Our names were called and we were assigned a place in the hall. We queued up, and when we were gathered, we were lead down the lit path to the Dhamma hall at the other end of the complex. I must admit it felt a bit like a cult initiation as we filed along the path, the lights gleaming like torches as we filed along beneath palm trees and a brilliant night sky. We found our places in the hall, each of us assigned a cushioned mat on the floor with an additional cushion to sit on. This relieved me immensely, I was afraid we were expected to sit on the floor!I was surprised to see that the men and the women shared the hall. We were only separated by a path a few feet wide running down the center of the hall, but it was enough to keep one’s thoughts pure, I found. We caught the first sight of our teachers, a man and a woman on their respective sides, middle aged, Indian, garbed in clean white linen. I can’t recall whether there was an introduction, but I certainly remember that first meditation. We only meditated for an hour, I believe. At first I was comfortable, for I had not even expected cushions, but after five or ten minutes I had to shift position. I was not used to sitting like this. I come from the land that invented the Lay-Z-Boy. I had noticed with some dismay how difficult it was to sit like this in Thailand, when I was eating dinner with Di and her neighbors. It is traditional for Thai people to sit on the floor. This is certainly the case in India and many other Asian countries, the land of low set tables and pillows for chairs. By the end of the hour I was in a lot of pain. My hips, my knees, my back, they all complained. As I shuffled back to my dorm room I told myself that in a few days I would be feeling fit and hoped it was true.
The next morning the bell woke me suddenly, despite its peaceful tone. I sat up, groggy. I was accustomed to take coffee first thing in the morning, but now I would have to wait two hours before I could have my drug. I elected to meditate in my room. I turned the light on, as much to keep myself awake as to allow the course managers to see that they need not wake me. When the second bell rang I sat on my meditation perch, prepared for a peaceful session, determined to follow the schedule faithfully. I took my time adjusting, trying to find a comfortable position, and settled in. After about fifteen minutes I began to fidget. I got bored, opened my eyes from time to time, shifted regularly. The perch was nice because one could lean against the wall and sit with your legs on the ground, like a normal chair. Unsupervised, however, I found it difficult to keep discipline. I grew uncomfortable and lay down on my bed for ten minutes or so, but then felt guilty and returned to the chair. Much of that first session was spent daydreaming with my eyes open, interrupted by a hardly necessary bathroom break, occasional resting on the bed. At last the breakfast bell tolled, and I eagerly abandoned the confines of my room.
The food was absolutely delicious, for one- all vegetarian, all wonderfully spiced, with many vegetables and meat substitutes I was unfamiliar with over different flavored rices and noodles. There was always coffee, tea, milk and oatmeal available, and toast with butter, peanutbutter and jam always served at breakfasts. Meals were a joy, and breakfasts especially, for they provided us with coffee and the first real meal since one o’clock the day previous, we would discover. When, after breakfast, we convened for group meditation, a gutteral chanting broke in after the first five minutes. It was one of the strangest things I had ever heard, deep, mysterious, evocative. Turns out it was a recording of the voice of S.E. Goenka chanting in ancient Hindi, in a style very much his own. Goenka was the man who reintroduced the technique of Vipassana meditation back into India, and from there, introduced it to the world. Each group session would involve this chanting, which Goenka did simply because it helped us get in the spirit of the teaching, not as a ritual. His voice was deep and rich, like a Burmese Johnny Cash. I could say a lot about Goenka, he was a remarkable man and very much an instrument in the sense that the path his life took seemed very circumstantial, a concatenation of coincidences. Judging by his demeanor- or perhaps as the result of the peace at the center of his being, when he told stories about how he came to be where he was, one got the sense that he was simply carried there by the current of fate. He was not a man who got where he was because of any ambition or desire, he simply found himself on a far shore, like a piece of driftwood washed up on the beach. Every respectable elder seems this way though. Perhaps it is simply towards the end one looks back and marvels at how little control we have over our lives, how pivotal a part seeming happenstance and coincidence play in our lives. Each evening we would watch a discourse. It is impossible for me to convey their nature, but in brief, we learned about the history of the technique, a little bit of the theory behind the practice, the practical aspects, and examples of how it will affect our lives. Goenka was very wise, possessed of a morality that was straight as an arrow: simple, direct, powerful and far-reaching. Truly, what is appalling about the technique is how straightforward, concise, and obvious it is. Each night after the discourse I was greatly comforted.
From then on I decided to meditate in the Dhamma hall. It was much easier to focus when you were in a room with 100 other people all bent to the same task. The first day was long and painful, but not too worrisome, for I knew what I was in for. The second day was worse.
What at first seemed a summer camp began to feel like a prison. We ate, we sat, we walked the paths- no exercise was allowed, no yoga, no running, no sunbathing either- we handwashed our clothes. That was all. I still felt like I was on holiday come the morning of the second day: I was resting, I had my own dormitory, cooked meals, it was luxurious! By the end of the second day I was having a hard time avoiding the reality that I was to do this for another eight days. It seemed quite impossible, and yet people had done it- many people I knew had done it! But how? For me it was not the meditation that was a problem. It turns out that in this regard I was ahead of the game. Without any instruction, I had become quite adept at quieting the mind and sensing my body. In fact, I had reached a strange point that I hoped to pass during this course: I had come to a wall numerous times, past which I sensed I might dissolve, and I feared what lay beyond that threshold, but felt I ought to explore it.
Allow me to recite a brief history of my experience with meditation:
I began to meditate shortly after my brother completed a Vipassana, but as I write this I recall specifically when I became interested in it- it was after my friend Ryan showed me a video about Alan Watts discussing meditation, back in 2013. After that I began scouring Watts’ books, and from there plunged into the depths of Zen Buddhism, the Tao, Eastern Mysticism, and eventually, Western mysticism and esoteric works of ancient origin. I must admit that my chief fault in meditation- and just about everything else in my life- is a lack of discipline. I will vainly attribute it to the general aptitude I have for just about anything I try (excluding anything to do with computers, but even this I do not doubt I could develop a fair hand at, if I had the slightest interest). This jack-of-all-trades propensity is a blessing and a curse. I tend to do well at anything I put my mind to, but I have too many interests and not enough time, therefor I am master of none. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that I have a touch of Attention Defecit Disorder, I begin many projects and am hard pressed to finish anything. This compliments my very loose sense of personal continuity, the newness of each moment always has me scrambling to keep myself knit together, to maintain a linear focus. It often feels like a few different people are bickering incessantly in my head. This is betrayed in my writing- glaringly- if I fail to edit it, as I often do. It as if the narrative is picked up by a different person every few seconds, but once again, I digress.
So it follows that I had never been patient enough to sit for any meaningful length of time. I mostly use meditation to fall asleep. Lying in the darkness, with a fitful mind, I try to quiet it, and I took to trying to feel every bit of my body at once. I had some big breakthroughs by trying to shut myself down completely, to see whether I could recede into nothingness, essentially. I had no way of knowing how I was doing, but come Vipassana, I found I was an old hand at that part. But the sitting.I was hardly able to meditate because I was in so much pain! It was terrible. I felt as if I were breaking myself, I just couldn’t figure it out! I was not the only one. All the new students sit furthest from the teacher. Of course, we would peek at each other to see how we were doing compared to other people. I resented the Asian students, who had been sitting this way their entire lives. I squirmed a lot, shifting position quietly, but frequently. I have always been somewhat inflexible, with wide hips, for a man, and thick, meaty knee joints. Nevertheless, some huskier fellows seemed to be sitting without issue… it is impossible to compare one’s experience in a meaningful way: you can either do it without breaking yourself or you can’t.
Some of the older fellows sat in plastic chairs along the perimeter of the hall, which looked nice, which suggested that one could still reap the benefits of the technique without this posture I was attempting. I was surprised to find that no direction was given as to how we were actually supposed to sit, although it was clear that thousands of years of experience favored a certain posture: back and neck straight, knees folded. I did assume that we were supposed to keep still as much as possible, but as no direction was given pertaining to that either, I changed position when necessary. As we were released from each session, all I could focus on was the pain. How was I supposed to meditate when I was distracted by discomfort? I just hoped things would get easier. “Just make it through the first three days,” my brother had told me, which I was to repeat like a mantra.Day three came, and come lunchtime I was wondering how I made it this far. I was frustrated, and angry. I was beginning to ask myself why I subjected myself to this- my ego was beginning to squirm and contort itself, attempting to evade its own destruction, for it was sure to be harmed should I complete the course. It wasn’t looking good… until that afternoon: I finally found a comfortable position! I was elated. I was actually able to practice! Not the whole session, mind you, but at least I was able to work! It was as if the sun had come out from behind the clouds, and my fragile determination was shored up.
Physical discomfort and a certain amount of boredom which is inevitable when you sit still all day have an effect on the mood. At times I would be annoyed by my silent companions for no reason. One fellow I misliked for wearing a polo shirt: who wears a polo to meditation?! Another older fellow I simply disliked for how miserable, weak and defeated he seemed, even after switching into a chair. He walked like a hip was broken, and I seemed to get stuck behind him walking in his slow, self-pitying, injured way. I was lashing out. I really disliked a certain Slovakian fellow for some time, mostly because he seemed to be having such an easy time of it. Other moments I would be happy and full of compassion, but the mood swung freely, just as at times my mind would be rutting in the mud of the subconscious or float around totally unfocused. Overall, I was doing better than some of my companions at least, that much was evident. Inevitably one makes a study of all the silent companions, and when you study them for days on end without being able to speak to them, or even look them in the eye, people become defined by their most salient characteristic. Many I made note of for their sitting ability, for example. There was a Dutch fellow (I was pretty sure of it) who was in the very front corner, closest to the teacher, who fascinated me, he was an implacable sitter. An Asian man, I knew not where he was from, I was drawn to from the first day simply because he seemed down to earth. One Western fellow had comically massive flip-flops, like boats on his feet. I referred to him as flip-flop man. Another fellow I was fairly sure was from the U.S. was massive, probably about 6’3″, with the biggest lats I’ve ever seen, a back so muscular it seemed as if he were trying to grow wings. He seemed very friendly and I found him the most tempting to speak to. The fellow in front of me, either Indian or Malaysian, also sat very well. The fellow behind me would suck air through his nose frequently, the sound one makes when one sucks spit from the nostrils into the mouth to spit a loogie, but he never spat. I ignored this, but I remembered him. Add to this the pitiful old man and the bastard Slovakian who I even suspected might be doing drugs, he was so relaxed. There were many others I noticed, but these were the principle.
Perhaps I should describe a bit about the technique:
The first three days we focused on breathing and sensing the area around the nostrils, focusing on feeling everything in that limited area. In that evening’s discourse I laughed when Goenka addressed the very things we were feeling, speaking about the perils of doubt, mentioning in specific how the ego was telling us that “this is not my scene, I don’t belong with these freaky people, I don’t need this,” trying to justify removing ourselves from this extreme discomfort. He explained why the course was ten days long and why it was necessary, and we all tried to believe him. Each night after the discourse, everyone’s spirits seemed to be revived, we were held up and inspired by Goenka and weary backs straightened for the last short meditation session. Every afternoon, the teachers would call for us in small groups to ask us how we were doing and to clarify the technique. Ours had a thick Indian accent and spoke very softly, but I managed to understand most of what he said. He seemed to make a lot of eye contact with me in particular, and after the first time I tried to sit further away from his strangely intimidating gaze, but he found me every time. Perhaps he responded to my expressive face. It was a rare experience for me, not only to have an Indian spiritual teacher at my disposal, but to have a mentor so far removed from me, so superior. It didn’t hurt that he was an Indian man garbed in white seated on a raised dais, that certainly augmented the effect, but regardless it was humbling and strange. I mean no disrespect, but I have never sensed such wisdom from my elders- not my parents, my grandparents, nor my teachers, and certainly not from priests or pastors. Here I was, sensing something my intuition told me must exist, but had never experienced. These were nice opportunities to guage how you were doing with the practice. It seemed I was doing very well for a new student.
*To this day I can not say whether I would accept his continued guidance- one Mr. Subrahmanian, I believe, I need to remember his name- but Goenka I certainly will.
In these little pow-wows it was difficult not to note another distinction between men and women: we sat quietly, passively, quiet, hesitant to ask or even answer a question out of humble respect, while a few feet away, the girls were asking a thousand enthusiastic questions, interrupting the teacher even, like little girls talking to a loving grandmother. There was a bit of indulgence evidenced that embarrassed me a little, but also a comfortable vulnerability which, although a bit obsequious in this case, is painfully lacking in many aspects of male society in the West. There is nothing wrong with the reticence of us boys or the openness of the girls, of course, but the disparity between the interactions was glaring and amusing.
On day four I had a terrifying experience. I decided to try going betyond the threshold. It seemed the only way to escape the pain, and perhaps the key to finishing the course. I dove in. I quieted my mind until I couldn’t distinguish my eyes from the rest of my face (I found in years previous that the eyes rove a lot of their own accord and distract the mind). Once they are still, the mind is quiet enough that a charge begins in the body, focused on the head, for me. I focus on the present moment, cutting the moment in half and halfing it again and again until I am focusing on what feels like a thousandth of a second) and I am sucked towards some sort of vortex, getting closer and closer to the smallest division of presence possible. If one focuses thus, it becomes impossible to think about yourself at all, but you have to outpace the instantaneous speed of the mind, which is almost impossible. When I get close to achieving this, I reach what I now describe as “the door.” I came right to the edge of the threshold, where my last hold on myself is, and in my mind I let my feet slip over the edge. It felt as if I was on the edge of a waterfall, holding two strands of rope, my feet skipping as they bounced off the surge as it disappeared into nothing. I began to hyperventilate, trying to brace myself to let go, but I couldn’t do it- I loved my self too much, or perhaps I feared the unknown too much. I retreated, fleeing from the door, and it receded. I scrambled back, full of a terrible fear. I did not sense anything good from beyond, it felt dangerous. Was it truly dangerous, or was the fear produced by myself? I may never know… until I die, I suppose, and by then I shall have rid myself of fear, I hope. I was badly shaken. I was breathing hard, too hard. I worried the others would be distracted. I almost cried, and sat there hugging myself with my eyes open for a long time. I had learned that Siva (the deity described as the creator and preserver in Hindu mythology) as he dreams, reclines on a seven-headed snake. There are many statues and reliefs in Southeast Asia depicting a meditating figure with a seven-headed serpent splayed above his head. Di told me it was there to protect the meditator from demons. I conjured one up now. I lined the way to the door with guardians, frightful demons in their own right, the kind that guard the gates of towns and temples in this part of the world. I began to meditate once more, with these guardians of my imagination protecting me. I sank in again, trying to approach the door, a knot of fear rising every time I sat in the present moment and began to speed toward the door. I suddenly had a vision of myself as a white serpent, protecting and attacking, and realized that my spine was the snake and my skull the hooded head of a sacred viper. I read too much mythology, study too much religious symbolism, perhaps. Whatever I tried though, the door was barred, I had sealed it myself, walled it up with my own fear, and maybe a little desire as well. Perhaps that door will open to me again later in life, but I know now that it is not to be approached- it will come, and we enter only as it passes over us, only accessible in this life by one without desire or fear.
Am I sharing too much? I do not know what to make of it. I wanted to ask the teacher about it, but I wasn’t sure he would understand it either, so I didn’t bother. As usual, I tried to stand on my own two feet, averse to admitting my weakness, my fear, and my failure. Some habits die hard. Was that one of my own, or something I had been taught?The funny thing about teaching others is that one can never know what a given child or person will take away from what one says. I can see that many of the things I was told in my youth did not make the intended imoression, and without a doubt much of this was a result of those teaching me failing to understand what it was they were saying, implicitly. I was a sensitive child, who was often able to see the meaning behind the symbol, the intent- conscious or subconscious- behind the message, and this can be most unfortunate if truths are concealed or unacknowledged. All indoctrination is just such a mishandling. The world I was introduced to was full of lies, consciously and unconsciously peddled. Practical truths are self-evident, however, and therefor the most persuasive. Just because something is generally agreed upon has little to do with whether it is true or not, and this proved to be the crux of the teaching as expressed by Goenka. We were not there to be indoctrinated, we were not being taught a ritual, we were here to experience the truth for ourselves, and he had no interest in convincing us of it, other than to invite us to try it for a few days and determine for ourselves. Like all things in life, it was our own responsibility to work, to try it in earnest. No one was going to save us, no one but ourselves. Our misery is self-created, and only we can destroy it.
This is an inconvenient truth for most people. No one wants to take responsibility for their misery, because then they are obligated to acknowledge their own hand in the matter and compelled to make changes- God forbid- in order to eliminate their suffering. Gurdjieff said much the same thing, and I have always remembered it:
“I have already said before that sacrifice is necessary… Without sacrifice nothing can be attained. But if there is anything in the world that people do not understand it is the idea of sacrifice. They think they have to sacrifice something that they have. For example, I once said that they must sacrifice ‘faith,’ ‘tranquillity,’ ‘health.’ They understand this literally. But then the point is that they have not got either faith, or tranquility, or health. All these words must be taken in quotation marks. In actual fact they have to sacrifice only what they imagine they have and which in reality they do not have. They must sacrifice their fantasies. But this is difficult for them, very difficult. It is much easier to sacrifice real things.”
“Another thing that people must sacrifice is their suffering. It is very difficult also to sacrifice one’s suffering. A man will renounce any pleasures you like but he will not give up his suffering. Man is made in such a way that he is never so attached to anything as he is to his suffering. And it is necessary to be free from suffering. No one who is not free from suffering, who has not sacrificed suffering, can work.”
Gurdjieff quoted in In Search of the Miraculous by P.D. Ouspensky, p.274.
And yet, this is only half true, in the sense that it is one side of a coin: our self-pity is triggered by aversion, and we take a perverse solace in comforting ourselves. We have fear, hate and desire, but fear and hate are aversion, and aversion is only a negative desire, the desire for something not to be, as opposed to the desire for something to be. It is far easier to subject oneself to pain, to resist aversion; far more difficult, particularly for young men and women, is to resist the pleasurable, the desirable. The young are drawn to physical pleasures by the will of nature, and how difficult to ignore the calling that each and every ancestor of ours has heeded in the history of life in the universe! The young have a much harder time avoiding this, if I am any measure. Few instincts are inexorable, and no instincts are inexorable all the time. Herein lies the meat of the teaching though: to break the circle of misery it is necessary to eliminate all aversion and desire. When one wants something to be or not to be, one sets up a pitfall of discontent: until said object is either obtained or removed, one is not content. This has nothing to do with anything in the outer world, it is all internal. Say I love ice cream. Do I? When I crave sugar and have a moderatley empty stomach, I see ice cream and I must have it. When I am stuffed full and have had too much sweet, the mere sight of ice cream may make me ill. The same with all food, really all pleasure: I do not want the food, or the drug, I want the feeling associated with said object. Food makes an empty stomach feel good, drugs make a body feel good. But these are only internal reactions to external objects. It is not the fault of the object that you desire it, for you only desire what you have a defecit of. Another man with an excess has no taste for the same object.
Unfortunately, this means that we must develop self-control, and dissociate ourselves from the physical body. Goenka explains that these aversions and desires are called Sankaras, and they are generated when we associate ourselves with the physical body and the sensations triggered by objects in the external world. If we can resist the generation of Sankara, we generate no misery. How can one be miserable who needs nothing, fears nothing? We began to practice two different types of meditation on day four. Instead of focusing on the nose, we began increasing our awareness by focusing on every part of the body. In this also, I seemed to have experience. We passed slowly over every surface of the body, trying to feel every bit. If you try this, you will likely find you have many blind spots. This is a stepping stone to a subtler experience of reality. Once one eliminates the numerous blind spots, one is able to scan the entire body in a matter of seconds, a tingling awareness flowing over every part of the body. While we did this, we were intsructed not to allow our focus to linger on strong spots (i.e. pain or itching) and not to react to any sensation, positively or negatively. If you have an itch, don’t scratch it. If you have pain, ignore it. If you feel a pleasant sensation, do not attach oneself to it. Everything is impermanent: every sensation arises and passes away, arises and passes away. Continuity is an illusion, just like a ray of light: it looks like a steady thing, yet it is a rippling wave composed of distinct particles, ever changing. Or take a river, for example. You never swim in the same river twice. The river is not a thing, it is a flow, everchanging, ever new. Time is the same. The only moment that ever exists is the present moment. We live and die in the present. Future and past do not exist, we cannot go there. So it is, every sensation is a vibration, rising and falling like waves in the ocean. I know this to be true, because I have experienced it.
The realization of impermanence is called “Anichur.” Why we associate ourselves with these ephemeral bodies is something of a natural mystery, for this attachment is responsible for all of our miseries and also our fear of death, despite the certainty of it. Our cars, our wives, our children, our shoes, our virtues, our faults. Who is it that possesses? A creature that lasts hardly longer than a lightbulb. Do you mourn for each lightbulb you change? Do you resent anyone for using one of your lightbulbs?
We learned the truth of this by practicing “sittings of strong determination.” Three times a day, beginning on day four, we were urged to sit completely still for one hour. This is incredibly difficult for those out of practice. Our teachers and the students in front sat still for hours at a time, I shifted every fifteen minutes. The volunteers were seen to sit for two hours at a time. So the pain began. One was not supposed to open the eyes, nor look at the clock. When in pain, and desiring for the pain to cease, 15 minutes feels like an hour. That day I managed to sit for 35 minutes though. The next day, day five, I sat for 35 minutes in the first session, 25 minutes each of the next two sessions. This was a vast improvement. All I wanted was to sit through an hour a time or two by the end of the course. If I finished the course.Up to day five I was ready to quit. The fellow next to me was squirming worse than I was, and on day four he was absent, and by day five three students were gone. This provided the rest of us with a breach; some had left already, it was not umprecedented if we did the same. I tried to convince myself that I didn’t care whether I finished or not, that it would be good for my ego if I quit early, that the only reason I was staying was to avoid the shame of these strangers I will never see again knowing I quit, that I was only staying so I could say I completed it. This was half true, but it was ultimately my self whose judgement I feared most. I knew this was good for me. Every day had been a toruture. When I made it to day three, I congratulated myself and told myself that in two days I would be halfway through, and two days after that I will have made it a week, at which point I would only have three days left. I knew I could do it. A strong-willed individual such as myself is cruel to the present self, because they know the future self is not them, therefor one can, say, send them to Portugal with a bicycle and laugh at the future self, entertained by the pain one foolishly imagines will be inflicted on someone else. Sometimes it works differently, though: The present self can indeed be too confident and ambitious concerning the future self, but often it is too sympathetic and protective, because we know how difficult, harmful or unpleasant a future task is bound to be. If one is successful, however, one knows the past selffor a weakling, looking back with condescension at one’s past self, so full of pity and suffering. “It was not so bad,” you laugh, an utter fool. There is nothing worse than failure, though. Once one gives up where you feel you shouldn’t have, how much loathing one has for the past self! It is an odious sensation, one to be avoided at all costs, although sometimes one has to admit that you bit off more than you could chew. Sometimes you get your ass kicked. This is good for the ego. Of course, the present self feels the fool as much as the victor, because the past self is always setting traps that the present finds themselves in, and the future self is often vain, overconfident, ambitious. I knew how I would feel if I quit, but oh! How the present self worries and suffers and wallows!
The breakthrough came on day five. I was having bad pain in my knees and hips: nothing I could not handle, if I didn’t care to be able to ride a bicycle or hike again- I could tell I was damaging myself. Sure, this was Sankara, attachment. I accepted this (a huge aspect of avoiding the generation of Sankara is nonjudgement of yourself: if you create Sankara, don’t create more by chastising yourself. Most of us create a cycle of aversions and desires this way), I was attached to the health and well-being of my machine.
What I needed was more cushions, but the mountain of extras had been dispersed, there were none left… aside from my neighbor’s vacated ones, that is. You see, he quit, but the next bus out was not for another two days, so I saw he was still here, and I could not speak to inquire whether he was sick, or if he would rally and return, so there was a possibility he would be back. But I needed those cushions if I was going to get through an hour.
I stole them. Before the session started I kept peeking each time I heard movement to make sure he hadn’t returned and discovered my appropriation. I was safe, however. It was only day five, but I saw this could be my only chance to use these cushions, so I went for broke, all in.
And sat. Really, the first 15 or 20 minutes are actually comfortable, if one can suppress the apprehension of the pain sure to come. At thirty minutes I usually become uncomfortable. The next fifteen minutes felt like an hour. The pain was incredible. It hurts enough that you see stars, and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t but focus on the pain, hating it and giving it strength. But I swear to you, if you hold out, the pain changes. It does not go away, by no means! But if you accept the pain, it is cut in half; how the mind amplifies it!
Most physical pain- like muscles and joints- is a combination of heat and tension. You feel a sharp pang of pain, but if you dissect it, most of what we call “pain” is a really intense, concentrated heat, accompanied by a sense of tightness. These sensations are not inherently unpleasant, our mind is responsible for that… it’s easy to tell yourself that though.I had to break through three or four barriers of pain. It becomes so intense you are sure you must shift, but you guile yourself into remaining still one way or another. Really, the pain is hardly changed, but your abstract sense of how long the pain has been and how long you expect it to remain exacerbates it. If you simply acknowledge it without hate or desire, it becomes something different. I began counting to sixty, and when I got to sixty I counted again. I gave up the counting and just did my best to accept the pain. Goenka begins to chant five minutes before the session ends, and when the chanting began an explosion of elation washed over me, and the pain retreated. When the bell rang indicating that we could move, I almost felt as if I could continue. That was one of the greatest senses of accomplishment I have ever experienced. It was more impressive because it was the last session of the day, when you are worn out. As we listened to the discourse, I was buzzing, so happy! Goenka joked about how hard the last fifteen minutes were, and I was pretty sure I was the only newbie who could laugh along with him, aside from that damned Slovakian, maybe.The next session I sat for an hour almost easily. The one after that was much, much more difficult, but I made it. The evening session I made it forty-five minutes, but I wasn’t too hard on myself, I was worn out. Unfortunately, I could see I was causing myself some injury, and realized that I wasn’t exactly on an up curve. I tried to stretch in my room during every break, and it became my routine to shift as much as I liked during the long sessions in order to save myself for the sittings of strong determination. The morning of day seven I realized I had definitely hurt myself. Damn. There was no way I was going to risk my ability to cycle this close to the finish, so I took it easier after that. I managed two more hour-long sittings, one a surprise, and once sitting in a different position, with my legs under me. I couldn’t walk afterwards, my lower legs had no blood in them. I was so stiff and my ankle joints were so tender that when eventually I did get up I almost fell as I descended a step about four inches high. I decided I was done, I had done enough, I sat through five sittings of strong determination. I proved to myself the truth of Anichur. I am now certain that I exist distinct from my body too, isn’t that interesting? I exercised the power of my soul. There is a reason the will is stronger than the body. I have one more accomplishment to mention. Once one can pass over the entire body, sensing every bit, you experience what is called “free-flow,” in which you feel an electric buzzing in your whole body as it courses through. I had felt this numerous times in my own practice before the course, but there is another step, in which one probes inside the body, feeling your heart and lungs and brain and such, and try to feel your whole body at the same time. I was having trouble with free flow, it was fickle- when one is fatigued it is hard to feel, and almost impossible if you try to force it. I was feeling fatigued, when unexpectedly Goenka’s voice echoed through the hall and began to describe this next stage, and I found myself diving right into it as he described it. Your whole body becomes no more than a writhing mass of vibrations and you feel like you are glowing. We had been warned that there are points at which meditation feels very, very good, and if one becomes attached to these sensations, it can hinder your practice. I watched with hesitation as I plunged into an incredible high, a self-induced drug experience, better than anynrunner’s high, and on a level with sensations released by the stronger recreational drugs. It felt amazing, and I knew it was too good, I would be seeking it again. After five minutes it passed, and I was left an empty husk. I suspected that it was a real high, a release of all my endorphins, my dopamine, my seratonin, and it would take time for them to be replenished. This seemed to be the case. I could hardly get a free flow after that, and my focus was hampered by the memory of the elation.
The last two days I was somewhat relaxed and somewhat fidgety. My body felt drained and I gave up on sitting still, hoping my legs were alright. On the ninth day I saw a hornbill.It was strange to realize that I had made it. At the end of day eight it was incontravertible that I would succeed, and it was a surprise, something I wasn’t sure how to feel about. I had undergone a profound spiritual experience, some sort of transformation, easily as significant as the collective experience of the entire cycling trip. Ten days, and I was changed as much!
The course is really only nine days, although you stay there for twelve, if you include the intro and exit days. On day ten, we meditated until breakfast, returned to the Dhamma hall for another discourse, and after that the Noble Silence was lifted.
I was afraid. I didn’t want to break the silence, and after we disbanded, I bee-lined for my room, did some laundry, and walked the empty paths as everyone chattered around the dorms. I was tempted to leave even, I felt like a caged animal, but there was no helping it come lunch time, and I grudgingly reintegrated. Soon, I was chattering so much I embarrassed myself. Everyone is curious about each other and about their impressions of the course, their difficulties, their experiences. The big man was from South Africa, and we talked a lot. The Asian guy I was initially drawn to was in fact a Malaysian fellow named Leon, and he was hilarious. He had named all of us white guys “John,” the big fellow, Rob, was “Big John,” the Slovakian guy whose name I can’t remember was “Little John,” the fellow who quit was “Skinny John,” I was “Hippy John,” probably because of my hair and beard, and the fellow with the giant flip-flops, a German fellow, was “Emo John,” on account of his hipster glasses and the bleach accents in his hair. I couod write another post about the conversations we had that day, but I will only mention the strange experiences people had.
I was surprised to find that many people came to Vipassana seeking “an experience.” Few really did, as experiences of a spiritual nature recede before desire. However, people spoke of seeing lights, and three of my fellows began to shake during meditation: I had seen one man rocking back and forth, but I assumed he was bored or restless. It turns out it was a strange physical effect of a certain level of meditation. While that fellow rocked lightly, Leon said he rocked quite violently, and the more he resisted, the more he rocked. It wasn’t in time with his heart beat or breathing either. Apparently I didn’t see it, no more than I saw the Slovakian fellow violently shaking, as if possessed. What’s more, these three were in a line in the hall, and the fellows behind me said they were concerned at seeing three people in a line rocking and shaking, almost going so far as alerting a volunteer for fear of a seizure. I pretty much missed all of this, but I was quite intrigued. The German fellow, Emo John, was the most German fellow I ever met, so far as experiences were concerned. He was here looking for one, saying he had done a lot of research and reading on it, and interested as a student of psychology, dry and stoic and analytical, classically German, and we all laughed at his confusion a lot, all of this went right over his head, he exemplified the soulless extreme of Western culture, our greatest handicap. He will be fine, probably be very financially successful, and a good chap, but he won’t be having any “experiences” anytime soon. Inspoke to the Dutch fellow at the head of the hall, or rather, he spoke to me. It was like talking to a wizard. There was something about his eyes and his demeanor that unsettled me, I could feel energy from him. We were both walking to the hall, and we talked the whole way, him having addressed me as his “ponytailed friend.” Powerful, that one. It seems he has been too a load of these types of retreats. I didn’t think to ask him what he experienced. I spoke to a strange American businessman who had been to four of these, and seemed wholly unenlightened. He struggled to express himself in a way that made me anxious. However, he said he could sit the whole time, without a cushion. I avoided him the rest of the day, his speech was too choppy and wayward, despite his obvious success in business and as a family man.
I could write in detail about the volunteers as well, but I am growing fatigued, and perhaps my audience is as well, so let me simply say that a few of them seemed a littld cultish or a bit over-reverent, some seemed laid-back, others uninteresting, but they all sat quite well. The next day I was anxious to be on my way before the sun got too hot, but I was roped into volunteering for clean-up, which I was assured would only take an hour. I was essentially guilted into helping clean the grounds because no one would fill the last spot, and my conscience got the better of me. Well, after two hours we had completed a third of our duty and quit- there were about a thousand pounds of fallen leaves that had obviously not been gathered in many a session. We were forgiven.
Lord knows what you made of this rambling and long-winded account of a Vipassana session, but I will tell you this: I have always sensed that there was something missing in my life, that some secret eluded me, that someone must understand the nature of life and figured out the art of it. I searched high and low, in books and under rocks, in myself, in others, dismissing the churches and the temples and the mosques early on. I have been spiralling in toward it, slowly, but I was a long way out. Vipassana is the thing I have been looking for my whole life. It understands the problem, the nature of it, the nature of the universe and of humankind, ans the solution. If you feel that void inside you, if you are maddened by your own suffering, perplexed by the meaning of it all, you might give Vipassana a try, it’s only ten days.
I will add this about faith: faith is for the doubtful, for those who do not know. If you have faith but not knowledge, keep looking. We do not seek knowledge either: knowledge can be acquired from information fairly easily, if the information is understood. But when you behold the truth of knowledge for yourself, if you witness it and experience it, then you have wisdom. Wisdom is knowing beyond faith, it satifies the intuition, the instinct, the heart and the mind. Without doubt one may set faith aside, as well as falsehood.
That’s all I have to say about that.