The eve of January 1st, I arrive in Kaufman, Texas. A few miles off the main road, down some winding side streets through woods that remind me of fall in Maryland, past some dry fields and onto a dirt-and-pebble road, passing small farm houses before the directions tell me to turn into a grassy driveway. I pull up to a cluster of brick buildings set on several acres of land. This is the Southwest Vipassana Center, called Sri Dhamma.
Cars are parked side by side on the gravelly grass, yet it is quiet and I see only a few people— walking from one building to another, or strolling the grounds in couples. The buildings appear rather inconspicuous and uniform, like red brick ranch-style homes, without large signs or plaques or anything denoting status or function. Then, wandering the sidewalks, I see a small poster saying “Registration” propped up next to a door that also has a little printout in it’s window saying, “Male Dining.” Perhaps (or perhaps not) this is where I’m meant to enter.
Inside the door, in a windowed hallway, Ifind shoes lined up along the wall. A folding table is set with bins of water and soap— a dishwashing station. I hear talking on the other side of the wall, and through the swinging door a few people come in and out, so I follow suit.
Across the room at another folding table sit two older women, to whom I must “turn in my valuables.” Ceremoniously, I hand them my cell phone and car keys (now I’m committed!) I’m assigned room number 20 and they direct me to an L-shaped building just a short walk away. I venture forth.
The dorm halls are carpeted, plain and long and narrow, with doors on either side. I can peek in and see people beginning to unpack, settling in for the 10 days ahead. There seems to be only one bed in each room, and my happy suspicions are confirmed when I enter my room and see just a single bed. I’d expected this to be a roommate situation (many Vipassana centers are), so this is a pleasant surprise, indeed.
The Noble Silence begins that evening. Day 0. This means: no speaking; no eye contact; no hand gestures; no writing, no reading; no technological devices, of course. However, there are opportunities to ask questions pertaining to the Vipassana meditation method with the assistant teachers (a man and woman couple who look to be in their 70s, who sit in the front of the large meditation hall, and give minimal instructions before and after meditation times, such as, “You may take rest for about 5 minutes, then return to the hall for instruction.”) But we are strictly asked to refrain from communicating in any way with the other meditators.
Nevertheless, there are brief moments where my eyes from time to time can’t resist the habit of meeting the eyes of whoever passes me in the hall, or making hand gestures of gratitude when someone holds open the door. But some people are quite diligent and very careful to not engage even in these small ways.
Men and women are kept separate, which takes away an obvious distraction for some. Dorms are on opposite sides of the land, and dining halls are in different buildings; but we do all convene in the same meditation hall—where about 150 people quietly sit for hours and hours every day—men on one side, women on the other.
I soon notice some interesting mental reactions to these unusual circumstances. The imposed lack of social interaction has my mind spinning: feelings of being an outcast occur within the first 24 hours, my brain wondering, “Hmm, why doesn’t anyone want to look at me/ talk to me?” Even with clear knowledge of “why,” I observe nevertheless my feeling rejected by the behavior of others (a very vivid example of why it’s wise to “not take anything personally!”)
I notice myself sneaking glances across the grounds to the men’s side. Who are these disciplined, self-aware creatures, the sort with whom I have so little personal experience? I realize I’m trying to catch someone looking at me—an indication of a potential future mate, perhaps. In which moment, of course, all eyes are forward or down, in a disciplined following of the rules. I think, “Wow, I’m the animal here, scouring the male population with lapsing self-control— not the other way around…” (as one might stereotypically expect of the testosterone-fueled beings.) How interesting, indeed.
After a light dinner, we have our first official group “sit” (a “sit” is a term ascribed to seated meditation.) Men and women are instructed to gather in their separate entrance halls to receive our assigned space—a 2×2 blue cushion with a smaller cushion placed on top. Adjacent to the entrance hall are shelves filled with additional props: round cushions, square cushions, small benches, stacks of blankets— for us to use as needed… first-come, first-serve. I opt for a stiff circular cushion and a very snuggly-textured blanket. With excitement and nervousness racing through my body, I follow others through the swinging door leading into the main room. I notice a sign that says “Please refrain from reclining or stretching in the meditation hall.” Oh boy.
Now, I’ve heard from a friend who’d completed a 10-day Vipassana before that instructions are given through vocal recordings of S.N. Goenka— a Burmese man who learned this method in his 20s, and spent the rest of his life (he lived to be 89) teaching the method to people from around the world. For whatever reason, I didn’t research Goenka at all before signing up and accepting the invitation to come to one of his centers. (Maybe because I like surprises, and wanted the experience to unfold organically, untainted by preconceived assumptions or others’ opinions.) But I did find it curious that all these Vipassana centers would continue to simply use audio and video recordings of Goenka to teach attendees; why not train teachers to teach, and let them give the lectures, carrying on the lineage in a more personal, alive way?, I wonder.
Goenka’s voice echoes throughout the meditation halls, instructing us to observe our breath. “Focus on the triangular space from the corners of the mouth to the top of the nose. Feel the sensation of the air passing in and out of the nostrils. Observe where the breath is traveling— right nostril, left nostril, or both nostrils. Notice the temperature— cool, warm. Notice any tickling of air on the upper lip. And as you observe, maintain an ‘equanimous mind.’ Calm and quiet. Without trying to change the breathing. Without judgement. Be diligent. Be patient and persistent. Remember: the nature of reality is, Everything is temporary. ‘Annicha.’”
Then the instructions end, and we are left to sit on our cushions to do this focused work for the next 2 hours.
My mind is bouncing. The monkey mind, Indian culture calls it, for good reason. Jumping from one thought to the next, swinging from tree to tree. Up and down, back and forth, left and right. Elation and fear, past and future, food and sleep. Distraction, craving, aversion, craving, distraction. Okay, back to the breath. Breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out, breathing in… oh no, my foot is asleep… my hip is burning… aaah, it hurts. Okay, everything is temporary. Everything is temporary. Breathing… breathing… patience and persistence… you’ve got this… you’ve got this . . . . . . . . . . Mmm, I wonder what’s for breakfast…
The end of the sit is signaled by Goenka’s voice resounding through the room: “Bhavantu Sabba Mangalam, Bhavantu Sabba Mangalam, Bhavantu Sabba Mangalam.” (A blessing that means, “May all beings be happy.”). The collective group of meditators replies, “Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu” (which I later learn means, “Well said!”) Then one of the “assistant teachers” sitting at the front of the room gets on a microphone and announces, “You may now retire to your room for the evening.”
I let out a sigh of relief. I lean forward, and my legs feel like pulsing, tingling wood. (I would usually say “my leg is asleep,” but it actually feels incredibly alive, with a mind of its own because I can’t seem to access movement.) Not sure if my legs will collapse from beneath me, I shakily come to a stand. Lots of little pops! come from my spine as I fold forward. All 150 people get up from their assigned spaces and silently exit the group mediation hall. It’s easy to imagine everyone else feels fine, I’m the only one in pain… but surely, this isn’t so. Through the cold, starry night, we women take the short walk back to our dorm, some of us pausing to marvel at the clear sky and growing moon. It’s just after 9pm, so I quickly shower (we have our own sink, toilet, and shower in our room, praise the lord) and gratefully slide into the soft blankets before 9:30, anticipating the morning bell that will sound at 4am. Morning meditation, will be from 4:30-6:30.
It seems I’m asleep for only moments when the sound of a gong echoes through the halls. (A volunteer student walks up and down the hall each morning, banging the gong in front of every pair of doors.) I feel dreamy, but rested, and energized by my resolve to show up and be on time; still, it takes until the second gong at 4:10 to slide myself out of the warm pile of covers I’ve accrued as my bed-nest. Within 15 minutes I stretch my body, drink some water, slip on fresh stretchy pants, re-wrap my air cast (oh yea, I forgot to mention, I sprained my ankle 3 weeks earlier), and adorn myself with my comfiest amenities— compression socks, leg warmers, a sweater I’ve worn about 1,000 times, a knit hat I’ve worn about 10,000 times, and a woven purple Mexican poncho that was my sister’s.
My drowsiness dissipates once I walk outside. The air is brisk and the dark sky is moonless and full of glittering stars. I can see my breath in the air for the first time since I can remember, after living in Florida for years. I enter the shoe room outside the hall at 4:28. Not a sound can be heard, yet there are pairs upon pairs of shoes lined up along the walls. I listen through the swinging doors, wondering if I’m in the wrong place; it’s so quiet, where is everyone? I push open the door. Rows of meditators are seated upright on their cushions, in a silence I’ve never experienced with so many people present (even with some cushions empty, since it is optional to stay in your room to meditate at certain times.) I tip-toe to find my place, and decide to kneel and sit on my round cushion (a conducive position for navigating my casted ankle, and also less likely to involve a screaming pain in my hips as I’d experienced the night before.) A few minutes go by. I focus on my breathing, awaiting more instructions… but none are given.
Well, I had imagined the morning meditation would be the easiest— a calm, quiet mind in a half-asleep state. Relaxed, peaceful, comfortable and snuggly. Gentle thoughts, cleansed from a decent night’s sleep. …But I was wrong.
My mind commences it’s monkey business. Except instead of it’s usual ponderings of life decisions, relationships, plans, creativity— in a half-dream state, strange images start emerging, odd movements of objects and characters swirling in and out of my awareness. I’m fighting my body to stay awake, in it’s desperate attempt to fall over and pass out into full-on dream mode. I try to stay calm, and just observe what is happening, resisting the urge to lie down while also “remaining equanimous,” trying not to feel like I’m battling myself. But the effort is nauseating. Heat floods through my body. I’m sweating, and my inner belly feels like a fiery furnace. Several times I wonder if I’ll need to run out of the room to vomit. Are there bathrooms out there? What if I throw up in the grass? Maybe I can throw up in a bush…. Oh no, everyone could probably hear me, it’s so quiet! Does anyone else feel like this? Everyone’s sitting so still!
Swaying with the dizziness of thoughts and rushes of sensation, I find momentary relief in adjusting my position, pausing to curl my knees into my chest and rest my forehead down… breathing, breathing. Time becomes wobbly, and I lose all sense of it’s passing— like I’m in some limbo, burning away impurities of mind and body. Would I be feeling better if I hadn’t eaten chicken two days ago? Are my negative thoughts being purged through this physical discomfort? Maybe if I was a kinder person my knees wouldn’t be screaming at me…. Then suddenly, a booming voice says, “Annay-CHUUUH…!” Anicha. (A Pali word meaning, Everything is temporary.)
A recording of Goenka continues to play. He sings in the Pali language— the same as spoken by the Buddha 2,500 years ago— phrase after phrase. I don’t know what it means, but I find some solace in the sound. It quiets my thoughts, and I expect, just as the night before, the start of his chanting is signaling that 2 hours of sitting is almost through.
But it keeps going… and going… The nausea persists, as waves of heat flood through my body. I struggle to stay sitting upright. Goenka’s quality of chanting is deep and guttural, and the groaning sound echoes my suffering. At the end of a phrase, he holds the note of the last syllable and drags it out until his voice is a deep croak. The depth of the sound penetrates deep into my belly and through the storm of thoughts, until I feel like it’s myself that’s making the sound. Groaning, aching, deepening. The chanting continues, seemingly never ending, and I’m forced to surrender to the discomfort. Swirling in the sensations, but exhausted by trying to resist, I watch it all happening, swept up in the indecipherable yet deeply resonating sounds of Goenka’s voice.
Then I recognize something familiar: Bhavantu Sabba Mangalam, Bhavantu Sabba Mangalam, Bhavantu Sabba Mangalam. May all beings be happy, May all beings be happy, May all beings be happy.
To which I hear many voices reply, “Saddhu, saddhu, saddhu.” (“Well said! Well said! Well said!”). I put my hands in a prayer position, and bow. Then with deep relief I move to my hands and knees. I wonder if perhaps my legs will never work again. And like some sort of miracle, all the aches in my knees vanish, and my body feels… fine. Not hot, not sick. Not dead. Gently I straighten my legs and walk my hands back, folding forward… hearing my back crack painlessly… then I slowly rise to stand… And follow the rest of the morning meditators out of the swinging doors, toward the dining hall for breakfast.
I never thought I’d feel so happy to see a tray of warm stewed prunes.
It’s just a short line’s wait before I have a bowl in hand, and I scoop a big plop of oatmeal, a layer of gooey prunes, some plain yoghurt, and a drizzling of tahini. A sprinkling of cinnamon. And a mug of hot water with a chai tea bag and honey. No eye contact or talking allowed? No problem! Not worrying about who I sit next to? Fine by me! The building seems to have once been a house, and there are 3 different dining rooms to choose from, each with different-colored intricate wallpaper reminiscent of the Victorian era, and folding tables and chairs facing the walls, with a few windows here and there. I’m happy to just take the view of blue floral wallpaper as I sit in silence, relishing this hot breakfast.
The morning is cold, but invigorated by breakfast, I explore the grounds, strolling along a leaf-covered path that loops around a small lake. Red cardinals flit about in the bushes, and I hear the chirping of sparrows and songs of mockingbirds. The naked oaks remind me of autumn in Maryland, and from the rich soil I see dandelions and chickweed growing strong, even in the morning frost. The sky turns from pink to orange to baby-blue as the sun makes its way over the horizon, the songs of the birds growing more cheery by the minute. Then I hear the gong: Our 8am group sit is approaching.
Now the hall is full, all cushions occupied. This is a required “group sit” time, when we’ll receive more detailed meditation instructions.
Again, Goenka’s voice resounds. A chant in the Pali language, and then, “Remain aware… remain aware of the respiration.” The task is explained the same as the evening before, and the longer instructions simply include reminders: You may adjust your posture if you like, do not worry about that. But remain alert. Remain attentive. Be vigilant. Like a watch guard, do not let any breath pass your nostrils without your noticing. Patiently and persistently… Patiently and persistently… You are bound to be successful. Bound to be successful…
I notice I feel more resilient after having a meal and a morning walk. There is some discomfort in my body, but it is not overtaking my awareness. But I also notice that my mind is very active… and eager to be creative. How will I write about this experience? How to tell the story of sitting on a cushion for hours every day? I know, I’ll write about how my thoughts flow through my mind! Ouch, there’s that little knee pain again… Okay, I’ll adjust my legs a bit…
There’s a young girl sitting to my left. (I know her name is “Chyna,” because when we were assigned our spaces, the Women’s Manager had trouble pronouncing her name, so she spelled it out.) I sense her struggling to get comfortable— adjusting her posture frequently and doing things like cracking her knuckles, rounding deeply forward to stretch her back, rolling her head and shoulders… Eventually I resist opening my eyes to see what she’s doing, but I continue to hear the movements. I can also hear people’s stomachs rumbling throughout the room, some sniffles here and there, intermittent deeper breathing, a few sighs, the rustling of postures being adjusted… Every little sound is amplified.
The hourly 5-minute bathroom breaks arrive and pass quickly. The opportunity to walk to my room, relieve my bladder, and sip some hot tea from my thermal mug are rejuvenating enough to get me through the next hour of sitting without feeling like running away. My brain tries to distract itself: inventing imaginary friendships with the people around me; remembering my favorite dessert recipes and recreating them, step by step; pondering the last conversation had in a failed romantic relationship. By the time the lunch bell rings at 11am, I feel exhausted… of course from trying to sit upright, but also from the flurry of incessant thinking. Am I negating all this sitting by doing so much thinking?
Lunch time! Meditation teaches us to let go of craving and aversion, but that doesn’t mean we can’t feel joy and gratitude when we receive delicious food. The Vipassana Centers are always vegetarian, and also offer vegan options, so there is an array of food— stewed curry lentils, masala garbanzo beans, steamed basmati rice, a rainbow of salad makings with homemade sesame-sunflower dressing, roasted spiced cauliflower… Plus bread, jelly, peanut butter, rice cakes, a tray of chocolate chip cookies, and a dish filled with Andes mints. I notice with a smile how the meditative awareness we’ve been practicing has carried over into lunch, and how over-eating isn’t appealing… but enjoying every bite in silence? That is. And after a little mental back-and-forth, I skip eating the sweets.
The longest break of the day is during the lunch hours. After the meal and another little walk around the pond—where I watch a woman watching a heron sitting patiently on a fallen tree branch in the water— my body demands it’s time for a nap. Laying in my bed, propped up on a pillow so my food can digest, I snooze until the gong rings for the afternoon session. Interesting how sometimes a short nap feels utterly refreshing, and other times, it feels like being jolted awake from deep sleep, with a head full of dreams. I experience the latter, and I notice a longing for dark chocolate (oh, glorious cocoa stimulation…ah, okay, I see, “craving” is happening. Alright, alright…)
The next few hours, we continue to be instructed per Goenka’s voice to “remain aware… remain aware of the respiration.” Work diligently, patiently and persistently… patiently and persistently… you are bound to be successful, bound to be successful… My mind ponders, “Successful in what, exactly?” Staying focused for more than 3 breaths, perhaps. (Which is shockingly difficult.) Becoming fully enlightened, I suppose. I realize, Hmm, I’m not sure if I’ve ever fully accepted this as my goal. I’ve practiced yoga for years and years, which over time has shifted from simply a way to stay fit into a way to calm my mind. But the yoga I’ve focused on hovers around the third and fourth limbs of “asana” and “pranayama.” There being 8 limbs of yoga, there’s a whole realm that I’ve often viewed as a goal “for later,” the fruits of a life-long practice that perhaps would emerge once I’ve got the rest of my life figured out.
In recent years, I’ve taken more seriously the first two limbs of yoga: the Yamas and Niyamas, or restraints and observances. Being at the Vipassana Center reinforces these codes of morality, particularly the restraints, which are: non-violence, non-lying, non-stealing, no sexual misconduct, and non-possessiveness. Upon arrival, we all signed an agreement to adhere to these exact qualities (plus abstaining from all intoxicants.) In the entrance halls, there are even “bug removal devices,” i.e., a Tupperware container and a laminated piece of paper. (No being shall be intentionally harmed, not even buggies!)
The niyamas are also mirrored here, but there is no contract signed to adhere to them. They are: cleanliness; contentment; purification; self-study; and surrender to a higher power. These are inherently cultivated through the Vipassana practice, although they are not explicitly spoken about. Except, maintaining “an equanimous mind” is explained as a technique for purification of the mind, and the process of observing the breath and body of course are a practice in self-study!
The idea of “surrendering to a higher power” often has implications of a deity. But Vipassana points to something more scientific. Goenka’s teachings (which come from the Buddhist lineage) rest upon the concept of Dhamma. Dhamma is the law of nature; it is what the Buddha realized when he first became enlightened sitting under the Bodhi tree. It is the fact that all of our physical and mental reality are constantly changing. Sensations and thoughts are always arising and then passing, arising and then passing. Modern science now proves this, but it has been observed by enlightened beings for thousands of years. In Vipassana, it is to the law of nature, to the Dhamma, that we must surrender, with our equanimous acceptance.
These concepts are explained in the evening discourse (which we watch together in the group hall, after having tea and fruit at 5pm in the dining room before returning for another hour of sitting at 6pm.) The first moment I see a video of Goenka’s face— radiant, joyful, playful, compassionate— everything seems to fall into place. I understand why so many centers around the world rely on recordings and videos of this great teacher. You can replicate the method, but you can’t replicate enlightenment.
The next three days continue in a similar fashion. Me, struggling in the morning with nausea and resistance, then rejuvenated by the sight of sparkling frost on the grasses in the early-morning light, and a belly full of oatmeal. Hours of sitting morning and afternoon, with wild thoughts that can’t seem to resist the tug of distraction (creativity, fantasy, fear, planning.) On the third day, I start to feel mounting anxiety that oh my god, this is only day 3… will I survive? I feel tightness in my chest, exasperation from the lack of quiet in my head (it doesn’t even seem like I’m in silent retreat, with my brain going full-force like this), exhausted by the constant battle to bring my attention back to my breath. Frustrated and concerned that it seems impossible to stay present for just one-dang-straight-minute!
But then, the evening discourses again and again miraculously revitalize me— with poignant insight and humor, relaying stories to illustrate the path of meditation, and to remind us we are not alone in our struggles… and blessing us all on our journey. My questions and doubts accumulated throughout the day are assuaged by these hour-long evening videos. And afterward, the 45 minutes of meditation before bed feel re-inspired.
Day 4, we are told the night before, will be “Vipassana Day.” What, Vipassana Day? We’re not already doing Vipassana? This was news to me. A bulletin board with a posted schedule tells us our first group sit, after breakfast, will relay the Vipassana instructions. Hmm, okay… so I haven’t learned ‘Vipassana’ yet and it’s already been 33 hours of seated meditation… interesting!
The instructions start again, the same as always— a chant, then instruction to do anapana, focused breathing. My attention feels heightened, in anticipation of something new to come. But still, my thoughts tug and tug, begging for attention. “Follow me!” They urge. “I’m important and need addressing immediately” “No, me! I’m worth your time!” “Wait, I’m over here! This way! Let’s imagine this!” Then I hear Goenka’s voice intercept, with a new instruction: “NOW, BRING YOUR AWARENESS TO THE TOP OF YOUR HEAD.”
*Ding!* My attention suddenly becomes razor-sharp, my thoughts shut the f*ck up, and I’m wildly aware of the teeniest of sensations on this little area at the very top of my head. Ahhhh, my mind seems to say. What a relief! Finally we can try focusing on something else besides breathing! “NOW SPREAD YOUR AWARENESS FROM YOUR HEAD, DOWN THE FACE AND NECK, TO YOUR RIGHT ARM, TO YOUR LEFT ARM…” Goenka walks us through the main parts of the body and instructs us to scan for any sensation felt in these areas. “Part by part, piece by piece. No area going unnoticed. If you cannot feel sensation, pause for a minute or two, until you can detect the slightest of sensations. If the sensation feels intense, do not remain for long— notice, and then move on.”
My body is radiating with tingling sensations. The aim of the first three days has served its purpose: to sharpen our awareness. It feels effortless to hone in on a tiny spot anywhere on my skin, and feel the subtlety of warm or cold, the gentle touch of the air or clothing, perhaps even the little movements of body hair. It also feels easier to leave behind the more intense sensations begging for attention… to just notice them, and then let them be, without feeling overwhelmed by their dense and fiery nature (well, sometimes.)
Another aspect of Vipassana is presented in the afternoon: Determination. Now, from here on out, during the mandatory group-sit times, we must employ adhitthana, or “self-determination.” Meaning: resolve to not move your posture. Don’t move your legs/feet. Don’t move your hands, don’t open your eyes, don’t open your mouth.
. . .Ohhh boy, here we go, I think. This is what I see when I envision a Zen master. This is what I have basically never attempted in my life. This is what I’ve avoided in my practice. Just… sitting. Enduring. Witnessing. Accepting. Not trying to change anything. Be with what is.
That afternoon, a sense of peace moves with me as I walk through grounds. I am inspired to create little altars out of the winter brush— dry, spiraled vines; red berries; curved seed pods; acorns and pine cones. Delight finds me as I craft little mandalas and leave them as gifts for my fellow meditators to find on the path. And even more delight, when I begin to find beautiful creations left by others. It becomes my duty during rest time to tend to these altars, and to create new ones when inspiration strikes. There is an urge within me, I notice, desperate to take photographs to preserve the beauty of these transient sculptures. But I appreciate the freedom to just be, since there’s no technology to distract me. And I sit with the acceptance that nothing will last forever, so… we may appreciate it all the more, in this present moment.
There’s a phrase Goenka repeats throughout:
“Yeh-TAH BOO-TUH.” (Yathābhūta.) As it is.
“ANAY-chuuuuh,” Goenka says. (Anicca.) Impermanence.
These words are anchors, beginning, during, and ending our sitting sessions. Reminders of what the enlightened ones know. Reminders of what modern science reveals. What we perceive as reality is constantly changing. Any suffering you experience? That’s temporary, too.
“Why cling to something that is so impermanent? Why develop aversion to something so fleeting?” Goenka asks us to consider.
Well, easier said than done, when your legs are pulsing and screaming to be released so the blood can get to your toes again, and your knees are burning and your shoulders are aching and if only you could just stretch for a moment then everything would be just fine but no, you are practicing determination and oh god, how much time is left because I think I might die?
Then something shifts and somehow the pain morphs into little vibrations that individually felt are, well, not so bad. If I bring my attention to the teeny-tiniest of points amidst the intense, burning sensation… it is fleeting, indeed. Arising and passing away, even when my brain is still telling me, “There’s pain in that area.” But it becomes more tolerable, zoomed in, piercing the sensation with awareness. It doesn’t necessarily go away (until it’s time to finally move, praise the lord…! Oops, is that craving?), but it transforms, when the mind remains equanimous.
The instructions and discourses continue to supply guidance toward solace. When we doubt we will make it through… when the pain is almost too much the bear… when we question our practice, “I’m not cut out for this!” Or, “What’s the point of this anyway?” Goenka reminds us: Take refuge in Buddha. Take refuge in Dhamma. Take refuge in Sangha. “Buddha,” extending beyond the singular man to include all enlightened beings, past and present; “Dhamma,” to live in harmony with the laws of nature, through upholding sīla, samādhi, & paññā— morality; focus/complete presence; and wisdom (“wisdom” as an understanding of impermanence, which helps to purify the mind); “Sangha”— the community of fellow meditators. Together, these 3 aspects are known in Buddhism as “the Triple Gem.”
Indeed, in moments of intense pain, I feel comforted by remembering the sweet, calm demeanor of women I’ve discretely observed here, who seem fully immersed in “equanimity” and appear disciplined and self-contained. I find strength in imagining I am doing this work for the benefit of all beings— for in shifting my way of being in the world, I am impacting all those around me. And there is a sense of greater confidence in knowing I am living in alignment with my highest good, that I am doing my best, that I am uncovering truth with every present breath.
The days continue to unfold and begin to blend together. I enjoy the flow of this new routine— although I wonder if the 4am wake-up time would be sustainable for me beyond 10 days. But hey, with a little nap in the afternoon? Sign me up for the 40 days! Heck, I think I’m ready to take my vows and become a nun!
I start to welcome the “sits” that reveal intense pain. The sensation forces my mind to be more present. When my body happens to be rather comfortable and painless for whatever reason that hour, my imagination starts to gallop away. It feels entertaining and joyful when this happens, and productive in a way (I find myself giggling out loud when my imagination comes up with the “You might be at a Vipassana if…” list [included at the end of this post]).
But being creative isn’t the point of meditation. The point is to be as present as possible with what is. Fantasies are alluring distractions. Sleep, and the urge to be productive doing something else— these are the enemies, Goenka teaches us.
We are armed against them with our faith and determination. But not with blind faith, no. We can gain wisdom from our own experience— not just from what the masters tell us. It is up to us to attain our own liberation. Blind faith will not save us. Prayer, mantra, ritual… all of these can help focus the mind. But it is with diligent work, diligent practice, that we untangle ourselves from suffering. We must simply observe what is, and practice equanimity. It is simple, but requires much discipline.
On our 8th day, the full moon illuminates the sky. I am reminded of the story of the Buddha, who was said to have attained enlightenment under the full moon, emerging from 40 days of sitting. On the 9th day, clouds swirl in the sky, and moisture is in the air. I remember we are in Texas, and I wonder about the possibility of tornados. The discourse that night informs us our final day for serious practice has come to a close— because day 10 will be the introduction of metta meditation, and the noble silence will end before lunch. Day 10, Goenka says, is like the balm for the wound of the psychic surgery.
After the end of the discourse, sure enough, an assistant teacher announces, “There’s been a tornado warning. So we shall resume meditation in the hallway of the dorms.” In good form, everyone seems to remain equanimous in the face of natural disaster. We retire from the meditation hall, and scurry through the rain, wind, and lightning to the refuge of our dorm.
I sit in the hall outside my door, and continue Vipassana… noticing the fear in my body, and my mind’s imagining of what ifs? as I listen to the rain and wind rattling the walls. The moments in the hall as I await the storm’s passing feel timeless. I trust that all will be well— yet my heart is racing, my breathing is deep, and my skin perspires. Surely it’s these heightened vitals that are conjuring vivid images of these great saviors in my mind’s eye: the 8 arms of goddess Durga, rising up with her righteous weapons to protect us; Christ on the cross, still full of love in the throws of suffering; Buddha and Quan Yin, composed and compassionate, seeing beyond the flimsy fabric of reality and into the depths of the heart and spirit; Anandamayi Ma, a fountain of joy, accepting of all.
As the storm ceases, we are allowed to retire to our room. My awareness emerges from this trance, yet I feel a bond has remained between myself and these sweet divine beings. My first steps back into my room feel like walking through an alternate reality, and I’m reminded of past psychedelic experiences.
Day 10. Metta day.
This word sounds familiar to me, but at first I cannot recall the meaning. This day being described as a “balm” for the potential shock from the first 9 days, it must be a loving-kindness meditation!, I think (from the little I know as described by masters such as Jack Kornfield and Ram Dass.)
After a morning of 4:30am sitting as usual, and another scrumptious breakfast of oats and stewed prunes, we gather as a group to learn Metta. At first, the meditation instructions seem the same: scanning the body with equanimous awareness, head to toe, patiently and persistently. Dropping out of my busy mind and into the buzzing body happens almost immediately, thanks to the last 9 ½ days with just over 101 hours of seated practice (more “sitting” than I’ve done in my entire lifetime, surely.)
“Now, allow all your sensations to transform into vibrations of love, radiating out. Vibrations of compassion, radiating out. May all beings share in my Dhamma. May all beings share my peace, and my harmony. May all beings be happy… be happy… be happy…” Goenka’s instructions resonate deep in the bones, in the soul. I feel profound relief as I imagine my energy radiating outward. Discomfort transforms into compassion, and pleasant sensations extend out to be shared with the fabric of existence… A momentary glimpse of what existence must be like for a saint or enlightened being.
Before breakfast, I realize with dismay that after the morning group-sit on the 10th day, the Noble Silence will be broken (WHAT?! Why not the morning of Day 11?!) There is excitement in the air, and already bits of uncontained chitter can be heard (“Wait, so we can talk now?” “Ssh, not yet!”). There is a feeling of rawness, of vulnerability, that I sense in my body and my mood. I don’t feel ready to face social norms! During the past 10 days, often I would observe fear arising at the thought of returning to “regular life.” How can I maintain this Dhamma— this morality, focus, and purity of thought— in the face of all the stressors and temptations that bombard human beings? (Seriously, could I become a nun? Can I please paint and write poetry worshipping the beauty of nature by candlelight in a stone cell?) I feel the warm, tingling, watery surge of tears coming to my eyes.
Sure enough, full-blown conversations erupt as soon as it’s allowed. The extroverts make themselves known, seeming to talk to no one in particular, just needing to speak no matter who might be listening. In the dining hall, a few young women are helping each other move the tables into a circle in the middle of the room, exclaiming how ridiculous it was to eat seated facing the wall the whole time. Without a word, I gather my things and slink out the door across the hall to a different room where people are still quietly eating, facing the walls as usual.
There is extra free time today, so people can begin packing and cleaning their rooms. I do not feel in a rush to prepare to leave. But my usual outdoor refuge presents that possibility of social interaction, so instead I spend more time in the meditation hall. The women’s side is empty, and a handful of men are in their seats, seemingly in deep, quiet focus as usual. With much gratitude, I find my seat, and continue the Vipassana practice that now feels so familiar and comforting.
By dinner time, I notice myself inching a little closer to my fellow meditators. With a desire to chime in on conversation, curious about others’ meditation lives— “Have you done this before?/ How many times?/ How do you manage to keep it up?”— I begin to break my silence. I happen to be sitting next to a woman about my age, early 30s, who when I tell her I recently completed a Plant Spirit Medicine Apprenticeship, she comments, “I always end up sitting next to herbalists!” Her name is Zena, and she’s a plant person herself, having spent many years in the Sacred Valley, Peru, assisting her shaman boyfriend in Huachuma ceremonies. Nibbling the “light dinner” we are provided— hummus, carrots, celery, chips, and salsa… the first time we’ve had more than tea and fruit for dinner in 10 days— we are soon deep in conversation, discussing the master plants Ayahuasca and Huachuma; the misunderstanding of the word “darkness” as a negative, when in fact it is the source of all life: the womb, the seed underground, etc.; the politics of the shaman world, and the danger of black magic; the possibility of the collective consciousness undergoing a massive paradigm shift, etc. (No need for small-talk here!). We exchange emails, although she tells me she’ll be taking a hiatus from technology for awhile, while she supports her boyfriend in writing a book.
As I walk out of the dining hall, down the sidewalk in the setting sun, a young woman comes up to me and says excitedly, “Oh my gosh! You! You did so good! Can I give you a hug?” At first I think she is just being friendly and giving this compliment to everyone who made it out the other side of these 10 days, but then she says, “You were like a rock! You like, set the bar! Watching you kept me going… And seeing you in that kneeling posture, that was a game-changer for me! I tried sitting like that after I saw you, and it felt so much better! Thank you!”
It warms my heart to know my efforts and struggles served to inspire endurance in others… But it felt strange to receive this compliment, since I could have pointed out at least five other people sitting in front of me who were like Zen masters compared to my desperate attempts to not curl up into a ball and nearly die. I am flattered by her gushing over me, which happens again when we cross paths soon after in the dorm hallway, but I also notice how this dynamic is a temptation, tugging me away from the quiet contemplation I am still carrying, and into this social engagement that in some ways feels pointless. The girl, after complimenting me again in the hallway, in front of several other women, then says, “So, tell me all about yourself, I want to know more about you!” And these women smile at me and wait with wide eyes for me to answer. Errrrrrr…. My thoughts-to-words brain function is out of practice, and I find it difficult to form the sentences that I usually use to explain my current life path. My voice feels quiet and talking about myself feels bizarre (after doing hours and hours and days and days of meditation work that’s dissolving the personality and getting down to the true essence of ourselves that’s beyond all this external… stuff.
We have our final group sit on the morning of the 12th, and the hall is full by 4:30am. I relish these last few hours, feeling focused and alert. Our official 10 days closes with one final video of Goenka, encouraging us to employ determination to continue practicing one hour in the morning, one hour in the evening, for a whole year. “By the time you do this for a whole year, you will experience such benefits, you will continue to make time for your practice without resistance!” He tells stories of students who say, “Oh, but I have no time for this!” (Clearly, this is a common complaint, and there are ample excuses for avoiding long, daily practice.). Bottom line is: do it, or don’t. But if you want salvation… it’s up to you. No one is going to save you except yourself, through disciplined effort.
Saved from what, exactly? Salvation in religion implies access to heaven. What does it imply if religion is out of the picture? “Heaven,” rather, is a state of mind, a way of perceiving and existing in the world. When one practices meditation, we begin to untangle our habits of craving and aversion that lead to our suffering. Goenka says, “The way to know whether or not meditation is working for you is by these two things: First, an increased sense of gratitude. Second, an increased desire to serve others.” As we practice just observing any thought patterns of blame, shame, fear, anxiety, depression— and not getting lost in them as our reality— we begin to see the world from the viewpoint of our true nature, which is love.
This, then, is heaven-on-earth.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
You might be at a Vipassana Retreat if:
—you can’t stop fantasizing about how you’ll prepare your oatmeal at tomorrow’s breakfast
—a person across a room filled with 100 people can hear your stomach growling
—sucking on a stewed prune is the most decadent thing you’ve done all week
—without having every spoken, you imagine you’re best friends with the person sitting next to you
—from seeing only the back of the guy/gal across the room, you’ve already fantasized about meeting, getting married, and raising enlightened children together
—no one says “Thank you” or “Excuse me” …but that’s not rude at all
—within one hour, your brain has gone through every past romantic relationship you’ve ever had and re-envisioned how you could have done better
—within an hour, your brain has planned and replanned your entire future, then gave up and scrapped the whole thing
—you decide it’s best to just become a nun/monk
—the idea of never speaking again feels totally normal and optimal
—you track the sounds/sensations of the entire digestion/gut-procession of the curry-lentils you ate for lunch
—the accepted trendy fashion is sweat pants and comfy blankets worn like capes
—you start developing blanket envy
—you’re practicing non-attachment, but you’re pretty sure you wouldn’t survive without your foam roller
—walking the long way to the bathroom for each 5 minute break is your method for getting exercise
—not moving your legs for an hour makes you cry
—you learn to release your feelings of blanket envy
—you try to sneak a closer look at how people have crafted their meditation-cushion thrones (without appearing too interested, in fear of looking like a rookie)
—bringing your own extra-big mug for tea feels like the best decision you’ve ever made
—not bringing dark chocolate in your suitcase feels like the worst decision you’ve ever made
—lying on the floor for 1 minute during a bathroom break feels amazing
—the burning sensation in your knees/hips/shoulders starts to feel a little orgasmic
—you realize not bringing dark chocolate in your suitcase was actually a brave and wise decision (and a great service to your willpower)
—you start to feel a kindred connection to the dandelions blooming along the sidewalks
—the weather begins to feel like an intimate friend, that you can read like a book
—you identify people by either: a) their room number; b) the sweater they wear everyday
—you wonder if wearing socks with foxes on them would violate the dress code
—you determine someone has else has violated the dress code with their animal pajama pants (because they make you giggle during meditation)
—you wonder if you’ve spiritually regressed when you accidentally step on a beetle
—you decide to ceremoniously bury the beetle to express your sincere remorse
The retreat officially ended after breakfast on the 11th day, January 12th.
As participants scrambled to clean their rooms and catch their shuttles to the airport,
I leisurely lingered and took one last walk around the pond.
My mission: to photograph the altars that I so treasured for these past 10 days.