Some years ago I journeyed to North Fork, CA on a mission to explore Vipassana, a meditation technique that has been around since the Buddha’s time, more than two thousand years ago. As usual I was impulsive, not fully informed and entirely unprepared for the experience; the perfect start to any story…
January 1998, about one hour outside of London, England on top of a hill in a little town called Harrow. It was a cold, gray morning and a rotund, young schoolboy was waiting, once again, outside the familiar oak door of the Headmaster’s office.
“ENTER!” A voice bellowed from beyond the ancient monolith.
The boy opened the door and approached the desk, behind which the headmaster stood, arms crossed and a tiresome look upon his face.
“Ah, the mutinous lad himself! Now what’s this I hear that you’re not attending chapel this week?” He peered over the top of his glasses which were pushed down, close to the tip of his nose.
“Well, Sir, we talked some weeks ago about this. I don’t really feel that the school’s chapel services really reflect my spiritual beliefs…”
“SPIRITUAL BELIEFS! Ha! Well, I can’t imagine what those are!” He snorted. “And I’m very interested in hearing what your parents think about this!”
“Sir, my mother wrote a letter and said she respects my decision…” the boy said, placing the letter on the table in front of the Headmaster, who picked it up and gave it a quick glance before placing it back on his desk.
“Well, we can’t just have you loafing about, can we?”
“Absolutely not, Sir. So I’m converting to Buddhism.”
“Oh don’t be so silly, boy. What do you know about Buddhism?” The Headmaster sneered at the boy.
“Actually quite a bit. I gave a talk on Buddhism last week for public speaking class. I presented slides that illustrated Buddha’s teachings…” Indeed, over the previous Summer, while visiting his sister in Seattle, the boy had picked up a copy of “The Path to Enlightenment” that he’d found amidst the incense and the crystals at a New Age store.
“Well, You… I…” The Headmaster was obviously running out of angles, “We’re going to have to get a monk up here for you or something!?” The desperation in his voice was hugely enjoyable.
“No, thank you Sir. I’ll be managing my own spirituality from now on…” The Headmaster’s mouth remained slightly ajar as the boy turned on his heel and boldly strode out of the office, down the musty corridor and out into the refreshing morning mist. This was one of the few times he ever had, or ever would emerge from that office victorious. In the months that followed the daily chapel bell would still ring. The Sunday chapel bell would still ring. The other boys would crawl out of bed, pulling on their uniforms and begrudgingly march through the drizzle to sing archaic hymns and listen to boring sermons. All the while the young boy slept deeply, cozy beneath the blankets of his newly discovered spiritual freedom…
Ten years later, I smiled to myself as I drove through the Exact Center of California, and the story of my early religious rebellion still made me proud. Until about two weeks earlier, it was still pretty much where I stood, or perhaps I should say where I lay, spiritually. But a lot can happen in two weeks. Now I’m leaving North Fork, which is also incidentally known as “The Exact Center of California”, at least as claimed by a large sign that greets visitors upon their arrival. The entire town sits astride a curve on Road 220 in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains outside of Fresno. It’s the kind of town where the fire station is also the library and there are at least two farm stores but nowhere to buy an alarm clock. North Fork is also the home of the California Vipassana Center where I’d just spent the last 12 days. So what is Vipassana and what business do I have doing it? Patience my friend, first it’s important to learn about my mental state.
For the last couple of years I’ve been living a very mobile life, traveling to new places and working remotely on various web projects while exploring exciting new cultures. I call it the way of the TechNomad. The way I live and work can be described as ADD manifested. I’ll sometimes be working on a project, then get into reading some news, then I’ll go for a walk, dive into a few emails, make lunch, go to the gym, and then I’ll finish the project at an odd hour of the night, who knows, perhaps even from a different bed, or even a different country. While it’s been enjoyable to be so free, recently I’ve been feeling like my brain has begun to mimic my body on its path of ever evolving tangents. Ironically I was beginning to long for the very structure that I’d struggled so hard to break free of, and I needed to regain some control of my mental trajectory.
At the end of 2007 I was recounting this humorous paradox to a good friend who has a heady job in Silicon Valley. I asked him how he managed to keep his head level with all the stresses and challenges he faced in his life. He asked, “Have you ever heard of Vipassana?” I told him I hadn’t and he went on to tell me that it was a type of meditation that he felt was perfectly tailored for the exact problems I was having. It doesn’t take too much to convince me to try new experiences so with no further research I booked a 10-day retreat for the following month. I figured it was just what I needed, a spiritual enema with no talking, healthy food, and a heroic portion of meditation. How hard could it be?
And so, two weeks prior, I had departed from Los Angeles bound for North Fork. I passed over the grapevine, veering off the 5 freeway onto the 99, making my way through the farmland of the central valley. Eventually I left the highways behind and wound through the hilly mountain roads. As I passed ‘Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ I thought to myself, “It seems that we’re venturing into cult country! What have you gotten yourself into this time, buddy!?” Some miles later I saw a small, unassuming sign for the CVC, the California Vipassana Center, turned in and followed a curved driveway up a hill to a few simple structures.
I had left Los Angeles at the crack of dawn. My friend who had told me about the course, suggested I arrive early to avoid lodging in the trailers and instead try to secure a bunk in the new dorms. The greeter informed me that registration wouldn’t open for another couple of hours so I explored the grounds. The CVC compound occupies 109 acres of wooded lands about five minutes from ‘downtown’ North Fork. There are a couple of administrative buildings near the parking area, some server’s quarters, as well as the kitchen and laundry areas. The men’s and women’s dining halls were also nearby; apparently we’d be segregated throughout the entire course. No problem, I had had extensive practice in this from my ten years of all boys’ boarding school in England. Three paths wove through the men’s partition of the compound; with one path snaking up to the housing and to the meditation hall, or ‘Dhamma Hall’, at the top of the hill beyond. Dhamma is the name given to the teachings of the Buddha so it made sense that it was the place where all the magic was to happen. The other two paths wound through some neatly maintained wooded landscape. This area of California is damp and green with lots of growth everywhere, a stark contrast to the more arid, urban landscapes of my home in Los Angeles. An initial survey indicated that there are two prevailing types of trees, one covered in moss and lichen, most likely black oak, and the other one coated with smooth, red bark, apparently called a manzanita. The bark of manzanita trees is so smooth it almost looks like plastic moulded on top of dead wood, and when it gets wet it takes on a blood red patina. The tips of the living branches are crowned with dusty-mint-color leaves, creating an altogether lovely ensemble.
When I returned to the reception area I was surprised to see that the parking lot was now almost completely full. As I entered the dining hall, which doubled as the registration office, I found about forty other men quietly milling about. I was instructed to fill out a bunch of forms, various orientation documents as well as a signature page that assumed complete responsibility for my mental health. Once complete, I approached the front desk.
“Welcome Douglas – is this your first time?” Asked a man with kind eyes and a pleasantly bald head.
“Yes, a friend told me about it.”
“Well that’s wonderful.” His eyes passed down the list. “OK, you’re all set.” He said, once satisfied that I didn’t have any red flags. “You’re in building 20, bed 5. Did you bring sheets and a towel?”
“Oh, no I didn’t…”
“No problem, we can provide them for you.” He reached next to the table and handed me a flannel set of Star Wars sheets and a well worn lavender towel.
“Is there anything else I need that I need that I might have forgotten?”
“Well, did you bring an alarm clock?” Nope. “And how about a flashlight…” Nada. I felt slightly embarrassed at my lack of preparation. “OK, I think we have a couple of extras.”
“OK, great, thank you!”
I gathered up my sheets and my small bag and followed the man’s instructions, walking up the path, right past some newly remodeled dormitory buildings, before finally reaching building 20, a run down trailer, which was apparently my home for the course. No worries, I thought. I’ve stayed in some dingey rooms before, and anything seems upscale these days after the $2/night rooms in the back streets of Varanasi, India. There were a couple of partitioned rooms inside; a small kitchenette, three beds in the main area, one of which was mine, and a few more beds in a connected double-wide extension. It was warm enough and the hot water worked so I couldn’t complain. After unpacking my things I meandered back down to the dining hall where a few of the men had once again gathered, and were waiting for orientation to start. After a little while some conversation began; the ‘no conversation thing’ didn’t start until after our first meditation session later tonight so this was our last chance for a while. I was happy to hear that some of the other fellows had never meditated before and also had no idea what to expect; so we were all in this together.
“So what building did they stick you in?” I asked one guy next to me.
“I’m in building 20, well, the trailer…” The slim, energetic looking fellow replied.
“Oh cool, me too, I’m bed 5!”
“We’re roomies! I’m in bed 4.” He said. “I’m Kevin!”
“Awesome! I’m Doug.” It felt good to lighten up the serious mood a little. He told me where he was from and that he and his girlfriend had come on this course to help them learn to better communicate with each other.
“Well I’m glad we met, cause I should tell you: I have epilepsy” Kevin said. “It’s no big deal though. Sometimes at night I have minor seizures – I just tense up a little. Just glad I got to tell you before this all starts.”
“No worries,” I replied, “I had a teacher who was epileptic.” I didn’t think I’d go into the details about my poor, old French teacher Mr. Pitman and his intense ‘grand mals’ that cropped up at the most inopportune times: at dinner time he once blacked out right into a large serving bowl of chicken nuggets that went flying across the room as he fell to the ground shaking, in French class, during a test now less, he had a fit and busted his skull on the corner of a desk, and even once during in the 3 minutes silence in chapel on Memorial Day. Every time it had been quite a scene, so I felt pretty ready for whatever Kevin was dealing with.
The orientation meeting began and there seemed to be about fifty men present, all of different ages and ethnic backgrounds. A Woody Allen type guy began to go through the basics of the schedule, the ground rules and who to speak to if we had any problems. Besides making a firm agreement to stay for the whole course we agreed to:
– Cut off complete contact with the the outside world. Everyone’s favorite #1 cult rule.
– Discontinue reading or taking notes. This would be very hard for me.
– Abstaining from physical contact.
– Maintaining the segregation of the sexes.
– And finally, after tonight, we must obey the ‘Noble Silence’. This meant no communication with each other, vocal or otherwise, until the final day and is intended to help further quiet our minds. We could only talk to the teacher at specified times or the management, as the course assistants were called, if we had other troubles. All of these rules were set in place to help minimize distraction.
In addition to these rules we had to obey the 5 precepts:
– No killing. Meant more in terms of not eating meat than actually going psycho, but the latter was no doubt also heavily frowned upon.
– No stealing. Even if your roommate has a nice alarm clock.
– No lying. Which included no smuggling of secret cookies or pies or other vices.
– No sexual activity. Even masturbation? This was not made clear.
– No intoxicants. The Woody Allen man said it was all going to be ‘trippy’ enough, without compounding the experience with other stimuli.
We were told that this collective moral code is known as the practice of Sila (“Sheela”) and is the first part of the three pronged attack to eradicate our suffering.
By the time we left the dining hall the skies had darkened and we made our way back to our dorms to prepare for the evening meditation. When I got back to our room, Kevin was lying on his bed.
“Man, I wonder which one of us is going to go nuts first and count all the holes in the ceiling.”
I looked up and saw what he meant. There were tiles covering the ceiling all perforated with hundreds of little holes.
“Ha ha, yeah, seriously.” I laughed.
As the other roommates arrived, about ten in all, we carried on our idle banter, obviously enjoying what would be our last words for some time. Eventually the gong sounded from outside, signaling it was time to go to Dhamma Hall for our inaugural mediation session.
“Well, see you on the other side, brother!” Kevin jovially remarked, as I stepped out into the night air. It had cooled down considerably but luckily Building 20 was only about a one-minute walk from Dhamma Hall. I felt the excitement brewing, emanating from my stomach upward, a familiar feeling when any novel experience is imminent.
Arriving at Dhamma Hall I slipped off my shoes, leaving them outside on the rack and walked inside to see what the next ten days had in store for me. My first reaction was one of surprise. There were about 130 people gathered, a far larger group than I was expecting. The room was split down the middle, men on the left, women on the right and each person had been assigned a number, corresponding to a position in the grid of mats. There were extra cushions and blankets on offer to make ourselves more comfortable. At the front of the room were two raised platforms on top of which quietly sat the two assistant teachers, one male and one female, eyes closed with a look of sheer peace on their faces. It was obvious that we were meant to follow suit so I navigated to mat 45 and sat down. I was seated on the back right corner of the men’s section, right on the edge of the aisle that divided us from the women. I couldn’t help but steal a quick look over to the ladies and like the men there seemed to be a large range of ages and ethnicities. The actual design of Dhamma Hall was not as ‘spiritual’ as one might expect. In fact it was very simply built, with wooden beams, plain white walls with pleasant uplights and cream carpeting; no other details really stood out. This was all probably designed to further minimize the distractions to the meditators.
Eventually silence fell over the room and some prerecorded, and humorously guttural chants resounded through the hall. A little while later a man’s voice began to speak in a rich Indian accent, projecting a warm and calm demeanor. He went through the rules and precepts again and emphasized the importance that we give this technique a serious chance by fully engaging ourselves throughout the course. He then explained that before we launch into the practice of Vipassana, it’s first imperative that we gain the ability to quiet our minds. He then introduced the technique of Anapana, the simple process of observing your respiration. Well, it seemed simple enough: “don’t try to control your breath, just observe its flow, particularly in the triangular area from the tip of the nose to the corners of the upper lip. Pay special attention to the nostrils…”
“Easy enough.” I thought, but before I knew it my mind was somewhere else: a feature I could add to my website… back to the breath, nostrils, breath… a recent episode of Heroes I’d just watched… breath, nostrils, breath… someone I’d forgotten to email before turning off and locking my phone in my car… breath, nostrils, breath… the guy next to me shifting his sitting position… breath, nostrils, breath… WHOA! This was hard! After about an hour the recorded chanting started again until the voice returned, imploring us to be patient with our progress and it was now time to “Take rest, take rest…”.
Everyone started to vacate the hall; I got up to leave and almost immediately fell over into the aisle and onto an unaware hippie girl. My knees had cramped up and my left foot was totally numb. My mental and physical weakness astonished me and I realized that big challenges likely lay ahead in the days to come.
As I silently limped back to my trailer, thick snowflakes began falling. I brushed my teeth, got into bed while still wearing most of my clothes and instantly fell asleep.
It was 4:15am when the shrill buzzer of my borrowed alarm clock went off. At first I forgot where I was and why the hell it was still so dark, but then memory flooded in and a rush of excitement thankfully injected some extra energy into me. I threw on some clothes and walked outside, into a full on snowstorm that was falling from the dark skies. The snow had already amassed half way up to my knee. I stumbled up the invisible path and was happy to get into the warm hall.
Dhamma Hall was dimly lit and the session went by so quickly that I think I must have fallen asleep for part of it. At 6:30am a large outside gong was struck signaling it was time for breakfast. As I walked down the trodden path I looked at my trailer and something looked different. That’s when I realized the entire tree outside my windown had fallen over sometime during the night, apparently burdened with too much snow. Luckily it had narrowly avoided falling directly on top to the trailer while I had been sleeping.
The course was still all so new and exciting still that the first day flew by. The basic schedule was as follows:
4:30-6:30am : Meditation in your room or in the hall
6:30 – 8am : Breakfast break
8 – 9am : Group meditation in the hall
9:10 – 11am : Morning instructions, followed by mediation in your room or the hall.
11 – 12pm : Lunch break
12 – 1 pm : Rest and individual meetings with the teacher
1 – 2:30 pm : Meditation in your room or the hall
2:30 – 3:30 pm : Group meditation in the hall
3:40 – 5 pm : Afternoon instructions, followed by mediation in your room or the hall.
5 – 6 pm : Tea break
6 – 7 pm : Group meditation in the hall
7 – 8:15 pm: Teacher’s discourse
8:15 – 9 pm : Group Meditation in the hall
9 – 9:30 pm : Question time / retire to your room
10 pm : Lights OUT!
Yes, all in all that’s twelve hours of meditation each day. The CVC explained that the strict schedule had been formulated through the teachings of thousands of students and was the only way you could reach a decent level of practice in only 10 days.
Breakfast was simple but very welcome after a couple of hours of morning meditation. Oatmeal, fruits, bread and various spreads. Lunch offered a delicious vegetarian buffet: hearty soups, pastas, grilled tofu and a salad bar.
The break after lunch provided a good time to go for a walk, shower and relax before the afternoon schedule commenced. I’d alternate between sitting in bed, using the time to practice being able to keep my legs crossed for longer without cutting off the circulation and lying on my back, staring at the little holes in the ceiling. Then the gong would sound and we’d all quietly walk back up to Dhamma Hall.
There was no dinner, just an evening tea break which consisted of hot drinks and was accompanied by fruit and honey, reserved for first time meditators like myself. The final evening session was my favorite part of the day as it was when I felt at my most relaxed. At the beginning of each session the same soothing Indian voice would instruct us to “Start again, start again with a calm and quiet mind. Yet an alert and attentive mind. You must work DILIGENTLY!”
The evening sessions also offered the only source of our daily televised entertainment, and after the mediation was over there was a one-hour discourse. Two television screens, one on each side of the room, were turned on, and who appeared on them? Who else but the man whose voice I’d been enjoying, Mr. S. N. Goenka, or just Goenka, as he referred to himself. In each video the old teacher appeared next to his silent wife and would explain the basics of the Vipassana practice. The camera would zoom into his jolly, fleshy face which was divided by deep contours that ran down from the corners of his nostrils to either side of his chin, all framed by neatly trimmed silver hair. His eyes were small and the whites were only visible when he made an expression of humorous surprise. Although his accent was thick, he spoke English with exceptional skill. He wove his stories together with clarity and injected humor just when it was getting too heavy or dry. He used metaphors and parables to illustrate his message and even though sometimes they didn’t quite translate to American life, they still mostly resonated and seemed to almost preempt the exact questions that I’d had on my mind that day.
This first night he explained why we were starting with Anapana. He said it was necessary to be able to calm our minds in order to achieve Samadhi, a hindi word which best translates as ‘mastery of the mind’; this was the second prong in our assault on our personal suffering. The observation of respiration is an ideal method to investigate our inner reality as it offers a bridge between the conscious and unconscious states of our mind.
Goenka then went on to describe the history of the most famous Buddha, Siddartha Gotama. The term ‘Buddha’ actually means ‘enlightened person’ and while there had been Buddhas before Gotama, at the same time as him and even after him, Siddartha was special as he discovered, and subsequently spent his entire life teaching Vipassana, a technique he pioneered as a path to achieving Panna (“Paan-ya”). Panna, also known as universal wisdom, offers insight into our own nature and is the third and final prong we use to gain mastery of our minds. Vipassana (“Vipah-shah-na”), is a meditative technique which means to ‘see things as they really are’, and teaches us how to live each moment peacefully, productively and happily. At the same time, we continue on the long path towards mankind’s highest goals: purity of mind, freedom from suffering and living in enlightenment.
Well that sounds like the magic cure to what ails ya so SIGN ME UP!
What I found particularly attractive was that the Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught Dhamma – the path to liberation – which he described as universal. In other words it doesn’t attempt to replace existing religious beliefs but can be layered on top of them, if so desired. Some might reject the theory, but who can reject the practice? I wondered. Who can argue with living a life of morality, gaining control of the mind and freeing ourselves from negativity, while generating love and goodwill for all?
After Goenka’s discourses there was a final meditation session before bedtime, during which I often felt most able to fully drop into the present moment. The discourses always left me feeling more relaxed and reassured; I liked this Goenka fellow. Then it was time for bed; we’d return to the trailer, brush our teeth in silence, and then without any acknowledgment of each other’s presence, go to sleep.
Day 2 was more of a challenge. My mind apparently did not like these new parameters of control and started to retaliate with full force. I could not keep my thoughts clear for more than a minute before getting distracted. Soon after meditation began I was opening up projects in my head and starting to plan what I needed to do when I left the course. Then I’d focus my awareness by trying to count… 1… 2… 3… but before I knew it my brain was off again; planning a talk that I had to give at a conference when I got back… FOCUS… thinking about the slides …FOCUS… then even imagining giving the talk. God dammit, it was driving me crazy. I almost felt out of breath from the wild goose chase that was going on in my head.
“Start again, with a calm and quiet mind…” YEAH RIGHT, GOENKA! I can’t do it. This is a joke.
To make matters worse I was now worrying that I was going to forget all the great ideas I was having and I began to further chastise myself: “What’s wrong with you? What a mess you are!” I was beginning to think I was going insane with all these voices arguing inside in my head.
Luckily by Day 3, I finally got my mind off work, but what replaced it was far more distracting. I began to get extremely horny. Women began parading through my imagination in sexy lingerie. Old girlfriends showed up stark naked in my mind’s eye, separately or as a pack of sultry sirens, determined to wreak havoc on my poor brain. Current romantic interests stepped clearly into focus, promising to fulfill anything my imagination could conjure up. Girls that I hadn’t even met joined in on the fun. Russian ballet dancers and Catholic schoolgirls appeared from out of nowhere, as well as fetishes I didn’t even know I had, nor am willing to share right now. It was entirely exhausting and I was getting far too aroused to be spiritually acceptable. I opened my eyes hoping these thoughts would disappear and looked around the hall. Everyone was doing way better than me, I was sure of it. My eyes settled on a pretty girl wearing a scarf. “I bet she’d be a nurturing wife.” I thought to myself. “We would cook healthy meals together and engage in nonviolent communication. She’d be a good lover and… OK, CALM DOWN BUDDY!”
Eventually the torturous spell was broken by the sound of the gong. After lunch I was lying down in my room, looking at the ceiling and trying to take my mind off sex. Each tile actually had the same pattern of holes. 15 x 23. 345 Holes. 9 x 17. 153 Tiles. 345 x153. 52, 785. So I think there were around 53 thousand little holes in our ceiling. And now I had to wait a week to tell Kevin. That is if I didn’t go completely bonkers first.
That night, after the first evening session, Goenka talked about the importance of learning through experience. Many people before Buddha had taught the theory behind developing Panna and how to stop blindly reacting to things around you. But it was just that, theory. To really grasp the essence of universal wisdom, direct experience is necessary and that’s what made the Buddha’s teaching so simple yet profound. Through meditation we can begin to become so aware of our senses that we can start to observe our reactions with increasing mental acuity. In time we can avoid blindly reacting at all. And when that becomes possible we can reduce the power that our cravings and aversions, the cornerstones of human misery, effectively have on us to zero. The basis for much of this realization comes from Anicca (‘Anicha’), meaning the Law of Impermanence. As we observe things around us, we can remind ourselves that “this will also pass”. Good sensations, bad sensations. Everything is impermanent.
“Patiently and persistently, you are bound to succeed…” As usual, Goenka was a great comfort and my mind felt settled once again. I eased into the final session and paid extra special attention to my nose area. I felt the breath going in, coming out. I felt it as it brushed my nostrils. Suddenly I felt more than just my breath. It felt like the entire rings around my nostrils had started buzzing. Almost like small petals around the rim were blooming as the air passed by. I GOT IT! I WAS DOING IT!
“Take rest, take rest…”
I was so elated I almost skipped back to the trailer. I got in bed and was so excited I couldn’t sleep for another hour. Tomorrow they were going to introduce the Vipassana technique and I was SO ready!
Day 4. Vipassana Day! There was a slightly different schedule and you could feel the buzz in the air. I had no idea what the new technique was all about but I was pretty over observing my respiration for the last three days so any change was welcome.
The snow had melted and the weather was beautiful. All around the CVC I could now see the mountains that had been cloaked in mist and clouds during the first few days of the course. Somewhere far away a dog was barking and I heard the distant laugh of a child. “I wonder if the neighbors know that there’s a bunch of silent weirdos over here in the woods?” As we walked the paths there was no acknowledgment between meditators, besides making way for each other as we passed by. At first this was hard but it became easier; as everyone was following the same rules.
After the three days of damp, seemingly unshowered humans, Dhamma Hall had begun to take on the smell of wet socks and fermented apples. In addition to this, the high fiber, vegetarian diet was making everyone extremely gaseous. By forgoing communication for the last few days, social standards seemed to loosen and after mealtimes the silence in the hall was now punctuated with intestinal pops, squirts and gurgles. The foreign man on my left had an amazing amount of burps; the rather noisy man wearing a Maine sweatshirt on my right was representing the other end of the digestive system and the whole effect was creating a nauseating gastrointestinal symphony. Needless to say I had begun to spend more time in my room when the option was made available.
After lunch I was so excited about beginning Vipassana that my mind had set off running again. “Oh I can’t wait to write about this and tell everyone how great it is and how easily I got it! I will write a story and spread the good news far and wide!” And of course, that’s precisely when the trouble started.
There was a special session in the afternoon when Goenka introduced the Vipassana technique. Now, instead of focusing our attention on your nose area, we had to observe the sensations at the top of the head. Then, “part by part, piece by piece” we’d work down the body to the tip of the toes and then back up. “OH CRAP, NOW I DON”T FEEL ANYTHING!” I had gotten so excited that now I couldn’t even feel my nose tingle! I cracked open my eyes and peered out. Everyone else was motionless and silent. “I bet they were all feeling it, they’re all so much better at meditation than me. This sucks!”
After the session I left the hall defeated. I had failed. I felt so down I just went and lay on my bed and felt sorry for myself. I didn’t even want to go to teatime for fear that I’d infect others with my shitty vibes. Eventually I went down the long way and got some tea. I stood outside and looked over the parking lot and in the corner I could see the roof of my car. That’s when I hatched my plan: during the evening session, while everyone was in the hall, I would make my escape. I could even stay in Fresno for a few days so that none of my friends back home would know that I failed.
As I walked back, I decided to take the long way to Dhamma Hall. I had about a half hour until the evening session so I took my time. I came upon a particularly scenic area and stood there for a while, admiring the beautiful manzanita trees and the lichen covered oaks. The surface of the oaks looked like miniature jungles; I was completely absorbed by what I saw. My sight moved to some moss covered rocks, so thickly covered that it looks like some artistic hand had coated them in rich felt. I knew that moss takes a long time to grow and it reminded me of Goenka’s words: “Patiently and persistently…” Sometimes I get so hard on myself, I really need to lighten up! As I turned to go some movement caught my eye. I had been standing so still that a few deer had gotten quite close and my sudden movement must have surprised them, but they didn’t bolt, they casually just walked on by me. They’re probably used to the peaceful humans that occupy this land. It was cold, and as I wondered where deer slept at night, nature itself was once again inspiring me to keep persevering. “Patiently and persistently, you are bound to succeed…” I decided that I’d give it another shot.
That evening during the final session I began to feel a slight tingling at the top of my head. It was just a tiny sensation but just enough to keep me going.
Later that night in bed, just as I was replaying the rollercoaster of the day, I heard a slight giggle, then some strange swallowing sounds. I looked over to Kevin who was apparently having one of his ‘no big deal’ seizures. He had turned on his side, all tensed up and then suddenly he sat straight up and looked at me. Everyone else was asleep and I felt compelled to break the Noble Silence. “Kevin, you ok, man?” He remained rigid for a few moments more and then lay back down and went right back to sleep; I was glad that he’d mentioned this before the course started.
Day 5 and from now on it was full time Vipassana! The schedule was the same as before but three of the daily sessions had now been labeled as ‘Sittings of Strong Determination’, and any movement was highly discouraged. We were instructed to pick a posture, and sit still for the entire hour, never opening your hands, legs or eyes. By this point my back was aching so I chose to move to the rear wall where some other people had also retreated to for back support.
That lunchtime I signed up for a meeting with the teacher. Overall I was feeling much better but I still had some lingering questions and at the very least it’d be nice to talk to someone for a few minutes. So after lunch I went up to the hall where a couple of other students had gathered and waited for my turn. Eventually I got the signal from an older student who was organizing the line to go into a small room through a side door in the foyer.
The teacher’s name was Philip and he was a very sensible looking white guy in a blue button down shirt and chinos.
“Hello Douglas.” It felt good to hear my name spoken.
“Hi Philip.” He was sitting on a small podium and I sat on the mat in front of him. “Well, I have a couple of questions.”
“Well, my first is more simple… I’m a pretty creative kind of guy. I’m having lots of ideas and thoughts and I was wondering if it’d be OK if I wrote a few of them down. I’m not talking about a full journal entry or anything, just some little notes to get things off my mind. Because I’m pretty sure if I do then I’ll be better at this whole ‘clarity of mind’ thing. Is that OK?”
“Douglas the rules are in place for a reason. Let me tell you, I’m a creative guy too, and when I started Vipassana it was a real struggle. But if you start to really practice this technique, then get ready for more creative powers than ever before. It’s amazing the clarity and focus you can gain. Now if you begin writing down ideas, then you’re running right back to your comfort zone and you’ll never be able to get off that path. Trust me.”
“OK, I thought you’d say that but I had to ask.” I geared up for my second question. “Well this next question is sort of funny. I’ve had some great sessions, some less good, but let me tell you if it’s not the creativity thing distracting me then it’s the sex. Honestly, there’s been this procession of beautiful women parading through my head…”
“Haha, I know what you’re saying.” Philip began to smile. “Believe me, when I was getting into this I used to chase all the girls. Eventually I had to ask myself if I wanted to continue playing that game or if I wanted peace of mind…” I wanted to say ‘or piece of ass’ but I thankfully managed to hold my tongue.
“Well, OK, I thought as much. But it made me wonder, I know we agreed to no sexual activity but I wanted to ask if that only applied to activities with other people or you know, is masturbation OK? You know how it is, guys have this stockpile that builds up and if it’s not released and it starts to make us act funny.” I didn’t tell Philip that one of my early girlfriends had identified this trait, and as long as I got some morning loving then she could even take me shoe shopping and I’d be fine, even happy to comment on sandals or pumps, at least for an hour or two. “Basically,” I continued, “If I could just take the edge off then I’m pretty sure I’d be more cool, calm and collected at least for another couple of days.”
“No, no, Douglas. You took an oath of celibacy and you have to stick to it.” He gave me a look that said: “We’re not going to find you in the bushes near the girls’ dorms are we?” At this point, I hoped they weren’t.
“OK, sure, no problem. Ha ha, you knjow, I just thought I’d check!”
As usual, that evening Goenka popped up on screen and began spouting wisdom. He talked of the importance of remaining an objective observer. The sensations might be pleasant, or unpleasant in the forms of aches and pains. They might even not come at all. We should not have expectations one way or the other but merely observe our reality. “You must always remain equanimous…” Was one of Goenka’s favorite terms. He then launched into some ideas about reincarnation and just as I was thinking, “Well I don’t know about that!” he mentioned that it wasn’t even important to believe in that part, and to just accept the parts that fit into our reality. I was feeling much better than the day before and without any expectation I settled into the final meditation session of the day. And that’s when my hands started tingling.
It felt like a light vibration at first but soon got stronger. It was like tiny bubbles were popping up, out of my skin or that a mild electric pulse was being conducted through my hands. It was a pleasant sensation and it then started spreading to my feet. By the end of the session my hands, feet and area around my nose were all tingling simultaneously. I WAS ON MY WAY TO BEING A VIPASSANA PRO! But I wasn’t getting too excited, I was cool and most importantly I was remaining equanimous…
By Day 6 it was snowing again and people were beginning to show signs that they were in need of interpersonal communication. Someone had drawn a happy face in the snow next to one of the trails and written “You rock”. Perhaps it was a supportive shout out to everyone who walked by, or perhaps just a joke, as it was written next to well, a large rock. Further along the path another person had stamped a circle in a patch of snow so I paced out a triangle next to it. When I passed by later that day a square had been drawn next to my triangle. It all felt very primal, like neanderthals making marks in caves. As I returned to my trailer someone had built a small snowman on a little rock. It was a reassuring reminder that the silent beings that co-inhabited this place were actually human too.
During my meditations I had begun to become aware of more sensations and they were now flowing up my lower arms and legs and across my entire face. Goenka had explained what these feelings were; we all have them, all the time but our brains have become dull and in most cases humans are no longer aware of them. Our bodies, like everything in the universe, are made of tiny vibrating particles, energy wavelets rising and passing away. Buddha explored the framework of his body so acutely that he managed to identify this long before any modern day scientists.
By Day 7 the different parts of my body were beginning to join together to become a unified flow; all except my back, which was still feeling quite numb to any sensations. I was also able to go almost the full hour with an entirely clear and focused mind. All was going well until the evening session when I finally almost lost it on the guy in the Maine sweatshirt. Throughout the week he had been acting thoughtlessly towards the other meditators. He walked loudly and generally showed no consideration. Once I even went into the foyer to get him a box of tissues for the aggravating sniff that he’d share with us every other breath. He had then proceeded to just dab at his nose rather than blow it! But this time it was just unreasonable. For some reason he’d started breathing so heavily it was just getting ridiculous. At first I kept calm. Then he began holding his breath, so the exhalations were erratic and extra heavy. After some time, I found myself just waiting for his next breath and getting stressed when it happened. He was totally ruining my experience and I felt like I was about to break the Noble Silence with a noble, “Dude, shut the hell up.” but instead I chose to go outside and get some fresh air. As was the custom when someone would leave, the management, in this case a small attentive looking fellow, would follow the person outside to inquire if everything was ok. He appeared outside soon after me with a look like he knew why I was pissed off.
“That dude in the Maine sweatshirt is just breathing unreasonably loud, I mean, come on.”
“OK, can I perhaps seat you somewhere else?” The fellow offered.
“I was just going to finish up tonight in my room.”
“Come back in and sit on the side, it will be OK.”
“Well alright, but someone should really ask him to quiet down.”
“I know he’s loud, but really take it as a challenge: find no aversion in it…”
“Ha! Sure, OK, I’ll try.” But the management had a good point.
By Day 8 the snow was beginning to melt again and I was enjoying one of my increasingly long walks on the remote paths. I had begun to practice Anapana, keenly observing my breath, throughout the day and I was now able to walk from Dhamma Hall to the dining hall with barely a passing thought. Just sensing the crunch of gravel, the flapping of my trousers against my legs and the cool breeze on my cheeks. As random thoughts came into my mind I was able to swat them away, almost like a mental windshield wiper. “That’s interesting, and I can think about it later…” or, “That’s a good idea, if it’s really good, it’ll come back at another time.” Was I really finally gaining control over my tumultuous mind?
As I passed by my trailer, I saw someone had made a second little snowman next to the first, but it seemed to have fallen over. As I explored more closely however, I discovered that it hadn’t fallen over at all. It was in fact a snowwoman, lying on her back; I could tell it was a snowwoman by the hair which was made of leaves and by the fact that she had her little twig legs spread eagled and was being sexually assaulted with the twig penis of the snowman. Her arms were also extended and a circular manzanita leaf created an “OH MY!” shaped mouth. I broke the noble silence in the woods with a sudden laugh out loud. At least someone else was also feeling the sexual frustration!
Later that evening my Vipassana skills were once again faltering and I had lost the ability to sense the tingling. Then of course like clockwork, Goenka appeared during his regular evening discourse and talked about this being an important stage. “You are making great progress but if you began to crave the pleasant sensations then not only have you missed the point completely, but it will be severely detrimental to your path. You must remain objective, equanimous…” I would have hugged the jolly Indian man if I could.
The weather had once again shifted and it was now hailing marble sized ice balls, so many that they covered the ground. You could actually scoop up a handful of hail. But this was the last serious day of mediation so I braved the downpour and went to all the sessions. After lunch, I signed up to see the teacher again as a few things were still bothering me.
“Hello Douglas! How have you been getting on?”
“Hi Philip. I just wanted to say that things are going a lot better. That Goenka guy, he’s amazing! He always seems to know exactly what’s on my mind.”
“Yes he’s quite special.”
“Well, I know you’ve got a lot of people to see so I’ll make this quick. First of all I’m a pretty passionate guy, I stand up for what I believe in. So I guess what I’m asking is… Well, all this pacifism in the mountains is all well and good but how does it translate into real life? I mean, once we get back to our lives?”
“Aaah, so impatient, Douglas! Actually Goenka will cover that exact topic tonight. You see, Buddha didn’t teach pacifism, he taught non-violence. The difference is that you can, and should, still stick up for what you believe in. You can even shout if you need to, but all your actions should be based in love and compassion. If you stop a thief from robbing a weak person, you feel love and compassion for that weak person, yes?”
“Well, Buddha instructed that you should feel even MORE love and compassion for the thief, so deep in his own misery that he should commit such an act!” I thought back to when I was spanked as a child and my mom said she was doing it because she loved me. My little sore buttocks certainly didn’t feel like they had been spanked with love, but I guess I turned out OK, so maybe it all works out in the end? Hmmm, maybe that was a poor analogy.
“OK, I think I understand. And I also had another question of morality. You see, I like to party. I do things, I mean, you know, things that the precepts don’t really allow…” Nights of debauchery in Las Vegas came to mind, steak washed down with liquor, cocaine and hookers. OK, maybe not all of those things, but I was certainly no saint. “So what I’m asking I guess is how can I really change so much?” I continued. “And is there any flexibility in these rules?” All I wanted him to say was, “Sure Douglas, after a serious day’s mediation, all Buddha liked to do was roll up a fat joint and get stoned while he got a lap dance…” But Philip had other ideas to share apparently.
“Listen Douglas, we don’t expect you to leave here and become a monk. But if your actions are outside of Shila, outside of the code of conduct we ascribe to here, then pay careful attention you’ll feel how they affect your meditation and your life’s journey.”
“OK, cool, Philip. Just checking, ha ha! You know how it is!” I wasn’t sure if he really did, but thought we’d both appreciate a little levity.
I had been almost completely focused and clear headed for the entire day apart from a brief jaunt when I allowed my mind to dip into the realm of imagination. I envisioned a wooded land that I had cultivated and a little cabin in a clearing. I lived there with my rusticly pretty wife, tending to the land and making sweet, sweet love next to the wood burning fireplace. Eventually we extended the cabin to make some room for our growing family. Then when the apocalypse hits the distant cities, friends who I’d given directions to could come out and we could live off the land and exist in peace… OK, that’s enough imagination!
That night I began to sense pulses running through my entire body. Sometimes they followed the beat of my heart, sometimes they move more fast or slowly. I can best describe it as as if a sped up meteorological map, with the clouds appearing, swirling and disappearing, was playing out in sensations over my skin. The shifting and morphing tingling sensation had that sort of random yet fluid motion. At will I could focus on any palm-sized area of my body and within a matter of seconds feel the sensations in that particular region. Over time my brain had started being able to observe different areas simultaneously. Goenka’s talk that night said that this is still only the beginning and the next step would be to start observing the body with the accuracy of a fingertip sized area. In time, he said, disciplined meditators would be able to begin piercing the body, going beyond the skin and into the flesh and bones. “Only when there’s full dissolution of the body can the deepest impurities can rise to the surface and pass away” Goenka informed us. “This is called ‘Bhanga’” OK, I’ll work on that.
Day 10. The final full day and the day we would finally break the Noble Silence. We had a typical morning session but at the end Goenka taught us the technique of Metta, a simple projection of super good vibes that you could employ at the end of your meditation sessions, in order to spread happiness, goodwill and love to all sentient beings. We were then instructed that we could break the Noble Silence immediately afterwards and begin interacting with everyone down by the dining hall. Everyone got up to leave Dhamma Hall but I stayed behind. Usually I’m a total loud mouth and while the Noble Silence had been a challenge now part of me was a little nervous to start talking again! I kind of wanted to ease into it. I wondered if the same thing was going on in the heads of the three or four other people who remained in the hall. Eventually I got up and decided to walk the long way to the dining hall. What would be my first words? Something noble would be good. I’d just let it come naturally. As I neared the dining hall a tall, dark man approached me on the path. I’d seen him throughout the week and he seemed like a kind soul. Our eyes met. It felt strange, almost as if I was naked. He nodded at me. My mouth opened to say something but I just nodded back and kept walking. OK, next time for sure! Further along, my path intersected with another man . As he walked by our eyes met:
“Good day to you, Sir.” I instantly felt that I sounded like a total idiot.
“Hey, hi! How’s it going?” Neither of us broke our step, I didn’t quite have a follow up comment ready and as soon as it began, the moment was over.
When I got down to the parking lot I spotted my roommate, Kevin, outside the girls dining hall, apparently super happy to be talking to his girlfriend again. I decided that would be a good place to break in.
“So I counted about 53,000.” I said, and he immediately knew what I was talking about. We both laughed as we compared our tallies of the small holes in the ceiling of our trailer. Everyone had so much to say that at first the sentences didn’t come smoothly but soon we were all yapping away like old friends. Nothing bonds people together like a shared challenge. Some other people joined the group and the conversation steered towards who had experienced rough times. As it turned out, almost everyone had:
“Oh for me it was day 5…” One person said.
“On Day 6, I was seriously writing an apology letter to the teacher in my head…” said another, a guy who’d I’d been so sure was completely having an easy go of it.
It was all very reassuring. We went to the dining hall where other lively pockets of conversation had sprung up. As lunch went on the babble grew into a joyous cacophony. Everyone was so pleased to be expressing themselves once again. Well almost everyone; a few people still remained markedly silent, but hey, that’s just how some people are normally I guess. There was a common camaraderie – we’d all made it through together. Or had we? As it turns we soon heard that a few people had left early, something that apparently happens in every course, and a fact that made me feel even a little more proud of sticking it through.
On the walk back to our dorms after lunch, I met up with another guy who I’d talked to before we had started. Jason was a jolly fellow who had become my silent, video-time giggle buddy during the discourses, occasionally glancing at each other and having to look away before cracking up. Some people you just get that vibe with. We had sat next to each other so many times but never actually spoke so it was welcome when it happened. Jason told me that he had a few things that he’d wanted to show me during the retreat. Meditators were discouraged from going out of bounds by numerous ‘Course Boundary’ signs posted along the edges of the path. But at a certain curve he looked both ways and said, “Follow me!” We wound through a few low lying trees to a pretty clearing in the woods. “This is where I’d occasionally come to chill out…”
“Wow, what a rebel. I never left the path!”
The next place he led me too was a forked tree with both trunks extended into the air. At the base, wedged into the crux was a perpendicular log that had been put there so long ago that the forked tree had grown around it.
“I call this one the Penis Tree!” We both laughed.
“Well, what about that snowman porno near the trailer.” I replied, “Did you catch that scene?”
“Haha, yeah. I can’t imagine who would have done such a thing.” He said sarcastically. It seemed that I’d found our resident pervert.
On the final night we learnt that before Buddha’s death he had trained teachers to go to distant lands and spread the teachings of Dhamma and the Vipassana technique. He had made it very clear to the teachers heading to Burma that they make sure to teach the technique clearly, for he said that in time the rest of the world would forget it, but Burma would keep it in its pure form. Supposedly, he said that 2500 years later, right around the time of my visit to the CVC in fact, the knowledge would rise again and spread around the world. In the coming centuries after Buddha’s death the purity of the teachings did in fact fade away in most of the world, eventually tainted by dogma, rituals and rites as seems to be the tendency with humans. Goenka, so the story goes, was taught the pure form of Vipassana in Burma in the 60s. He then moved to India and started teaching it. More and more people wanted to learn Vipassana so he opened a center. And then opened more centers, and there’s now one hundred and forty centers all over the world. Buddha’s prophecy it seems, came true.
After the final evening’s session it had started raining hard and I was standing under the tin roof overhanging the side of the trailer and discussing the idea of my utopian ‘permaculture’ village to a rather sharp hippie fellow who went by the name of Singing Bear. As we stood there chatting, the rain began to move in slow motion and then, before our eyes and ears, the sound of the pattering let up and the downpour turned into a thick snowfall. That was the first time either of us had ever seen that happen. I thought to myself “It’s amazing, this whole time nature has been showing me how impermanent everything is. The snow piles up. The tree falls. The sun comes out. The snow melts. The land dries. The hail falls and finally the heavy rain turns into snow right in front me me. “Anicca,” I heard Goenka’s voice say, “the Law of Impermanence.”
On the morning of our departure there was a final discourse regarding where we go from here with our practice. First, the ever-wise Goenka, in his eternal quest to eradicate blind faith, prompted us to question what we learned here. Had it been practical? Logical? Beneficial?
He also implored us, if we wanted to continue, to not treat meditation as a hobby but to dedicate time and effort towards it as any worthy study might demand. One hour in the morning. One hour in the evening. Five minutes before sleeping and after waking up, being aware of your senses and partaking in group mediations whenever possible. We also should return for 10-day retreats yearly if possible, perhaps serving as old students the next time. After breakfast we cleaned up our dorms, packed up our things and returned to the reception area for check out.
So how much did this all cost? The teachings, the food, the electricity and the questionable trailer bunk? It was all totally by donation. At the end of the course we were asked to provide the funds needed to teach the next student. I’m sure some people in the crowd will pay more and some less but the overall net effect has to be positive – they have plans to build a new pagoda and are consistently opening new Vipassana centers across the world.
Did I feel like my life had changed forever? I certainly knew I would think more about my actions and reactions. I also knew that I would be more aware of my senses and how things affected me. I can’t help but agree that cravings and aversions are at the heart of most of my troubles so getting a handle on those emotions would no doubt be of service. After more than ten days of healthy, clean living I definitely felt the urge to be more a moral person. But come on, you can’t exactly change everything over night. Ultimately was I ready to give up sex, drugs and rock n’ roll for pure contentment and universal truth? Sure, I was. Just not quite yet.
I left the mountains and snow of the Sierra Mountains behind me. As I drove I became aware, even without having to focus, of the subtle vibrations emanating throughout my entire body. My mind felt crystal clear. As I let my thoughts wander I was able to recall things that I hadn’t thought about in years, or even decades. Names of my art teacher and friends from kindergarten came to me with ease. I knew what I needed to do to feel more fulfilled with my work. I knew what I was looking for in my next relationship. I felt lucid yet unhurried.
I was about half way to San Francisco when I decided to stop and get a sandwich. I strode confidently into Subway and thought to myself, “Wow, so this is going to be my first interaction with anyone public since the end of the retreat, I wonder if they’ll know that I’ve now reached a state of semi-enlightened…”. I stepped up to the counter.
“What can I do for you, hon?” A cute blonde woman asked me.
“Hi, I’d like a 6” tuna on Italian please.” I watched for any cue from her. Had she noticed the waves of energy that were literally cascading through my skin as we spoke?
” No problem, what do you want on it?” If she did, she certainly wasn’t showing it.
“Lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, pepperoncini, and the spiciest mustard you have…”
“Oh you like it spicy, do you?” She asked, innocently enough.
“Yes, ma’am. Yes, I do.” She gave me a slightly inquisitive look. She’d either sensed the powerful flow of my energy or it was something in the way I had responded to her spicy mustard inquiry, but either way it was good enough for me. I paid her, leaving a nice tip and left the shop content to eat my sandwich on the side of the road, watching passing cars as people rushed about their lives.
A couple of hours later I was almost in San Francisco when the misty form of the Golden Gate Bridge appeared in the distance. I could feel the pulsing in my fingers as they gripped the steering wheel. I could feel my toes buzzing as they pressed on the accelerator. There was a cool breeze blowing through the crack in my window, caressing my tingling skin. And then, as if on cue to wrap up the whole affair, the voice of Frank Sinatra began blaring from my Oldies playlist:
“That’s life (that’s life), that’s what all the people say
You’re riding high in April
Shot down in May
But I know I’m gonna change that tune
When I’m back on top, back on top in June”
And suddenly, this whole life thing, the highs, the lows, the dreams and failures, the laughter and the tears, all of it, this whole wild ride, seemed to make a lot more sense. The good, the bad and the ugly. This too shall pass. The Law of Impermanence.
“Anicca, anicca…” I laughed to myself, thinking of Goenka and his jollyy, wrinkled face, as I made my way back into the city.
More info on Vipassana Courses at www.dhamma.org