All of us seek peace and harmony, because this is what we lack in our lives.-William Hart, The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S.N. Goenka
An inevitable question that you’ll be asked —and that you’ll ask yourself— if you choose to participate in a Vipassana retreat is why?
Why give up 10 days of your life to live in silence, eat two meals a day and spend all your waking hours sitting on the ground with your eyes closed in varying states of pain and boredom? It warrants an explanation. And those administering the retreat will be the first to want to know what yours is.
I didn’t have a particular malady I had hoped to cure nor did I have grandiose ambitions of attaining enlightenment —I still wasn’t sure about that whole deal. Here’s the reason I cited for attending the course on my application:
My intention in taking the course is to introduce myself to another perspective of meditation and living that I can practice and continue to integrate into my life and also to continue to develop compassion and loving kindness towards myself, others and the world.
I had stared at those words for almost an hour before I finally drummed up the courage to submit my application (which was of course, late). It was an intellectually pleasing answer and I felt good about it when I had come up with it. Kind of like I’d nailed a tricky essay question on the final exam. But as I continued to contemplate the question over the course of the retreat I realized there was a lot less to it than that. There was really only one reason I was here.
I was searching for a better way to live.
DAY 0: ARRIVAL
You are your own master,you make your own future.-The Buddha, Dhammapada, XXV. 21 (380).
I had been nervous about the length and the rigorous schedule of the retreat. I’d had enough experience with solitude and meditation to know that a ten day expedition through the cavernous depths of my subconscious was risky business. Who knew what might be lurking down there? Better to let sleeping dogs lie. Easier at least.
As a result I did almost no research beforehand, afraid that I’d only convince myself not to show up. In my mind I had pictured the retreat center as a serene and lush jungle oasis —the type of idyllic place that lulls the naive, first timer into believing his time on retreat will be pleasant. I was happily surprised when I arrived at a large, beautiful monastery. Bells chimed and monks in orange robes strolled around the manicured courtyard outside.
After five minutes of stilted and confused conversation with one of the monks we both realized that I was at the wrong place. This was a buddhist monastery. Where I’d be staying was around the corner and down the hill.
The Vipassana retreat center was less pleasing to the eye —by a few orders of magnitude. I walked through its steel gates (which I’d later discover had been chained shut with a padlock) and registered at the main office on the right. The office made up the third and top floor of an ugly, concrete building that was constructed like steps down the hillside. On the second floor was the men’s dining hall and below that was the women’s dining hall and a couple dorms. On retreat, the men and women live separately and only ever come together in the meditation hall.
Three parallel concrete paths ran at different levels along the hillside and connected the office to the meditation hall which was about a hundred feet away. The top path was about twenty feet above the bottom path. Just opposite the office, where the top path began, was a small concrete patio with a corrugated tin roof that gave shade to a beat up couch, a wooden bench, a table and a couple odd chairs. Directly below this patio, connected by the lowest of the three paths was a thirty-foot long shack also constructed of corrugated metal which served as the main dorm for the women who outnumbered the men two to one.
To the left of the topmost path and halfway between the meditation hall and the office was a small rectangular building divided into three, basic square rooms for the men. Freshly moved earth and piles of bricks indicated a fourth room was in the process of being added. Beyond this building, nestled back another twenty feet into the hillside was a three story building with an external staircase that looked, when I first saw it, as if it might be abandoned. The second floor consisted of additional two dorm-style residences, one of which I was assigned to.
Two lines of thinly padded beds formed a right angle against the far walls of my room. The only other notable features were a lightbulb and two windows, one that couldn’t be opened and one that couldn’t be closed and had been covered over with a thin layer of metal mesh, presumably to keep insects and other, larger animals out. There was a shared bathroom just outside my room which consisted of a hole in the floor, a shower head, a hand tap and and a small hand-sized bucket. There was a small sink outside and no hot water to speak of.
Directly below my building was a small concrete patio for the men that led down a few more steps and into the meditation hall. The women entered from a second entrance on the other side of the hall. Next to the hall on the same level as the men’s patio was a small, detached bungalow for the teacher.
The top two paths on the hillside connected making a short loop that when walking slowly, took me three minutes to complete. This loop and the patio near the office made up most of the men’s outside area. The women’s area below us was comparably small. The plants within the grounds were well looked after but sparse and did little to mask a layer of barren dirt and dead leaves that covered most the hillside. Trees stretched their branches out overhead, blocking out the sun in all but a few places for most of the day.
A row of hastily constructed, three story apartment buildings towered over us on the hillside above. Long, iron tentacles reached towards the sun from the concrete columns of their unfinished foundations revealing their aspirations to merge ever closer with the sky. A ten-foot high, concrete wall fortified the hillside and separated us from those greedy monsters. The wall had created a shallow ditch between it and the far side of the hill where piles of trash had accumulated and slowly spilled over the top of the wall into the retreat center. Barbed wire looped along the top of the concrete wall that ran around the perimeter of the retreat center.
For the next ten days this would be my world.
DAY 1: STRICTER THAN PRISON
The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company.-Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
I shared my dorm with a lanky, 23 year-old French engineer named Simon. During dinner the first night, before the retreat had officially began, he had told me he had never meditated. I had suspected it might be a tough ten days for Simon.
After dinner, Simon and I had sat on our beds talking while we waited for the retreat to officially begin. We had gotten on the topic of another silent retreat I had attended years earlier, a three day ayahuasca retreat led by a Quechuan shaman in Peru. Ayahuasca is a plant found in the Amazon that, when prepared properly and ingested, brings on an altered state of consciousness often accompanied by vivid visions that can last for 4-6 hours. The ayahuasca ceremonies are held at night in the dark. It had been an intense retreat, with its share of supernatural phenomena I can’t explain which I was now sharing in passionate detail with Simon. Afterwords we both sat in silence for a few moments (it’s a story that takes some time to digest). Then, Simon turned to me and said, “Thank you for sharing. I just realized that your story is going to be the last thing we talk about for the next ten days together.”
And as if on cue, the first meditation bell chimed from outside signaling the retreat was about to begin.
In the documentary Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, an inmate of one of India’s maximum security prisons describes the Vipassana schedule as “stricter than prison.” Here’s the schedule we followed from the Dhamma Org website:
It is hard to explain how this schedule actually felt on that first, long day when all of a sudden, I was in it. How it felt when the idea of an hour of meditation was replaced by the actual reality of sitting down in one place to attempt an hour of focused concentration. And how it felt each time I struggled through one hour only to find another identical hour of meditation awaiting me on the other side. The schedule quickly began to feel oppressive and the future heavy, as if each future block of meditation had been stacked on top of my shoulders. It forced me, as a sheer defense mechanism, not to look up. Not to look beyond that current moment for fear it’d all come tumbling down on top of me.
On that first day it became clear I had to surrender if I was going to survive. The only way I’d make it through this was one moment at a time.
DAY 2: RIGHT ACTION
You have to do your own work;
those who have reached the goal will only show the way.
-The Buddha, Dhammapada XX. 4 (276)
About thirty people from all walks of life had showed up on that first day to participate in the retreat. By the second day, four of those thirty —two men and two women— had left. Their empty meditation cushions sat like tombstones in the hall.
There are 5 precepts we must live by during the retreat:
– To abstain from killing any being;
– To abstain from stealing;
– To abstain from all sexual activity;
– To abstain from telling lies;
– To abstain from all intoxicants.
Old students follow three additional precepts:
Practicing right moral conduct, or sīla as it is called in the original Pali language,3 is the foundation which the rest of our practice is built on. In addition we take a vow of noble silence and refrain from all forms of communication which includes talking, gesturing and eye contact.4 We are also not allowed to read or write.
Sīla is the fertile soil required for the seeds of Dhamma to take root. Dhamma is the path to liberation as taught by the Buddha. Without first being firmly grounded in Sīla we are told, our mind remains too agitated to do the delicate work of introspection that the path requires of us.
We lived the life of a monk in other ways too. There is no cost to attend a Vipassana course —it is entirely donation based. The teacher and retreat assistants all volunteer their time without compensation. The cost of my food and shelter had been donated by those who came before me —people I had never met and would never know. It was a gift.
While meditating on that second morning I noticed a maimed caterpillar on my left leg. Next to it was a dark splotch in the orange fabric of my pant leg. During the next break I scooped it up, and as inconspicuously as possible, I tossed the dying larva into the bushes outside. Following Sīla might be harder than I thought.
DAY 3: SPIDERS DON’T MEDITATE
When the student is ready the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready… The teacher will Disappear.-Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Every day we listened to audio and video teachings from the late S. N. Goenka. Goenka had dedicated most of his life to sharing the teachings of Vipassana beyond the borders of Burma where he originally learned the practice. Although widely taught by the Buddha, the teachings of Vipassana had almost been lost to the world, but survived through an unbroken chain of teachers in Burma, where the teachings have been carefully preserved and practiced to the present day. So the story goes.
The retreat was also led by an experienced teacher who meditated with us and provided guidance around the teachings. Our particular teacher had been practicing Vipassana for over 27 years. I was intrigued and made a habit of asking him questions every day. On the third day I asked him about Dharma Jack.
Dharma Jack was the name I had given to the giant huntsman spider on the wall across from my bed. I had been alarmed when I noticed him almost immediately on the first day. Each day we had at least one meditation period where we were permitted to meditate in our rooms. It was a welcome opportunity to stack a pillow against the wall and give my aching back a break. During these sessions, because of the way the beds were positioned against the wall, I sat with my head only a couple feet away from Dharma Jack. He never moved. I began to think of him as my meditation teacher and I found an odd comfort in his presence. Whenever I entered the room the first thing I did was to check for Dharma Jack.
Dharma Jack was a predator who had to kill to survive. How was he to live by the five precepts?
The question might sound silly but at the time it was a serious one. I was grappling with the teachings and trying to fit them in with my understanding of the world around me. At first my teacher, a farmer and native of Nepal, had misunderstood me. He had thought I was scared of the spider and assured me (without ever seeing it) that it wasn’t poisonous. He told me how we can send our mettā, our selfless love and goodwill, to animals and that they can sense this. He shared how on three separate occasions a snake had intruded into the meditation hall, one of which had apparently been very large. By sending mettā, each snake had allowed him to pick it up with his bare hands and move it outside the hall. He had never been attacked.5
Finally one of the teacher’s assistants, who had been sitting in on our meeting, helped translate the meaning of my question. When the teacher finally understood he had burst out laughing. “Spiders don’t meditate.” he said, in the same way the kids tell that silly rabbit that Trix are in fact, not for him. And that was all he had to say about that.6
Dharma Jack stayed with me for another two days after that and I was sad when I noticed he’d finally departed. To this day I’m not convinced that what Dharma Jack and I had been doing, as we sat next to each other for those first five days, was all that different.
DAY 4: WHO IS IN CONTROL HERE?
You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, disbelief. Free your mind.
-Morpheus, The Matrix
The fourth morning was Christmas Eve. For the past three days we had been learning to train our minds through the exercise of anapanasati which translates as “awareness of respiration.” In The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as taught by S. N. Goenka, William Hart cites five reasons why we use the breath to practice:
- The breath is readily available to everyone.
- Fixing our attention on respiration develops awareness of the present moment.
- The breath acts as a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious mind, because the breath functions both consciously and unconsciously. Because of this, focusing on the breath can help us explore whatever is unknown about ourselves.
- Our breath acts as a reflection of our mental state —when we’re agitated it’s rapid and shallow; when we’re calm it’s regular and gentle. In this way our breath can alert us to our mental state which is the first step in dealing with it.
- A goal of Vipassana meditation is a mind free of negativity. In the teachings of the Buddha, this is our mind’s natural, pure state. As such it’s important that every step we take toward that goal is also pure. The breath is a reality divorced from illusion or delusion and as such is an appropriate object of attention for our practice.
On the first day we had been instructed to concentrate on the sensation of our breath. On the second day we narrowed our attention to only those sensations occurring within a triangular area that included the nose and the area above the upper lip. By the third day we had reduced this area further to only include our outer nostrils and the area above our upper lip. As we did this we were instructed not to control the breath in any way —only to observe the sensations that arise. By learning to focus our concentration on ever smaller areas, said Goenka, our mind becomes sharper and we develop samādhi, or concentration.
The simplicity of this practice can be devilishly misleading —anapanasati is not easy.
“As soon as one begins this exercise” explains William Hart, “it becomes very clear very quickly that in fact the mind is out of control. Like a spoiled child who reaches for one toy, becomes bored, and reaches for another, and then another, the mind keeps jumping from one thought, one object of attention to another, running away from reality.”
This can be alarming for a first time meditator and a source of frustration —it feels like we’re doing it wrong. But it’s actually progress: we’re becoming aware of the ingrained habit of the mind —a habit we’ve unconsciously been reinforcing for most of our lives. When we first get a glimpse of this it’s no wonder our impulse is to run like hell from it.
At this stage, when we notice the mind has wandered our only job is to gently bring our attention back to the breath —the current moment. Gradually, says Goenka, the time we spend in the present will become longer and longer.
“Now the real work begins” Goenka’s voice intoned ominously through the speakers before our first afternoon session on the fourth day. After three days of preparation, we were finally ready to begin Vipassana meditation.
The word Vipassana means observation of the reality within oneself. The way we conduct such an observation, as Goenka was now explaining, was to methodically observe sensation in each part of our body beginning with the crown of our head and working down to our toes. Over the coming days this technique of scanning the body would become more and more nuanced. At the very end of the day’s lesson, Goenka had added “one last thing”: three times a day we would now practice adhiṭṭhāna. Strong self-determination, as adhiṭṭhāna translates, is what the Buddha had sat with when he defeated Mara and attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.
For us, adhiṭṭhāna meant three, hour-long periods each day (after breakfast, after lunch, and early evening) where we were not allowed to move during meditation. We were not to shift our hands, uncross our legs or even open our eyes. I imagine I now know what Neo must have felt when he stood on that skyscraper in the jump program and watched Morpheus leap over an impossible gap to the roof of an adjacent skyscraper. I had taken the red pill and now Goenka was telling me it was time to leap.
It took half an hour for me to succumb to the screaming pain in my upper back and change position. Everybody falls the first time.
I walked out after that session in a full sweat, my mind rattled with pain and exhaustion. I quickly did the math: 19 more hours of adhiṭṭhāna to go.
I had entered that afternoon’s meditation with a growing sense of agitation I hadn’t been able to place. Now, after adhiṭṭhāna, it flared into full on frustration. Everyone around me irritated me. I could sense an emotional freight train just out of sight in the distance but I couldn’t get off the tracks. I watched helplessly as its blinding headlights steamed into view.
Over the next couple hours I went through a series of emotional upheavals. Frustration shifted to dismay which gave way to a deep feeling of pain and hurt. That too changed and before long I was angry. Finally, after tea that evening, I sat outside in a chair and quietly cried.
I returned to the meditation hall that evening to find I hadn’t been the only one struggling. On the women’s side of the courtyard I heard hushed voices and sobbing as a couple girls tried to console a fellow meditator who had broken down in tears outside the meditation hall. As a result, our meditation had started five minutes late. When I stole a glance I saw the woman sitting in a chair near the back wall. I badly wished it was me in that chair as our second period of adhiṭṭhāna began.
DAY 5: A CHRISTMAS GIFT
There are many winds full of anger,
and lust and greed. They move the rubbish
around, but the solid mountain of our true nature
stays where it’s always been.
-Rumi, The Essential Rumi
I had anticipated that Christmas might be a tough day for me. I can only think of one Christmas I haven’t spent with family —and for that reason it’s a time of year I’ve always treasured. When alone though, those times of the year can be hard.
It turned out however to be the best day I had on retreat. I was carried through the day on wave after wave of joy, happiness, and gratitude. Intense insights sparked in my mind —it seemed as if I could feel my neurons making new connections. The answers were all there. I badly wished I had a pen and paper.
I had sent some gifts from my recent adventures in the Himalayas home with a friend for my family and had been eagerly anticipating their arrival. I spent the idle parts of the day looking at my watch and imagining what my family might be doing at that very moment. I ran through all my favorite memories and family traditions: Mom’s warm, delicious coffee cake we always ate while opening gifts in the morning. The champagne toast to absent friends and family we made before the evening feast. I almost felt as if I was there with them.
The basic vegetarian meals we were served each day were always fresh and delicious. But the lunch meal on that day tasted especially marvelous as I imagined it to be my mom’s four course meal I knew my family would be sitting down to later that day. I knew every dish of that meal by heart and tongue. As I gazed out over the valley below after lunch on that golden afternoon the world felt absolutely electric —pulsing with energy and possibility. I was incredibly grateful to be a small part of it.
DAY 6: THIS TOO SHALL PASS
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose —the more it changes the more it’s the same thing.
– French proverb
The Noble Silence created a few funny situations over the course of the retreat. On the third morning Simon, who at around 6’6” was probably taller than any Nepali architect could have ever imagined, bumped his head on the door frame of our dorm on his way to breakfast. He had turned around to me, his face distorted with equal parts rage and pain, and screamed in a half whisper while shaking three fingers violently in the air. Apparently it had been the third time that morning. I found it hilarious and started laughing only to feel like a total jerk moments later when I realized he was probably in a lot of pain. But there was no talking about it. We both laughed about it later.
Simon and I also ate next to each other in the dining hall. Our evening meal consisted of a few slices of apple and some crackers. I follow a gluten-free diet and couldn’t eat the crackers but didn’t want them to go to waste so on the first day I dumped them on Simon’s plate. I had no way to explain why I had done this. He offered me some of his apple which I accepted. Later on I realized that had been a mistake. Now every day when I gave him my crackers he tried to give me his apples. Maybe he wanted his apples but felt like he had to give me something in return? I had never intended it to be a trade. The next day, in an awkward back and forth, I tried to refuse his apples but he snuck them onto my plate while I was up getting a second cup of tea. This type of thing went on for a few days.
On the fourth day I got the idea to add a little mystery to the retreat and secretly build a cairn that was visible above the men’s patio to represent each passing day. On the sixth day when I went to add a stone, I noticed two stones had been removed. I added them back along with the sixth stone. Then on the seventh day I found the cairn was now nine stones high. I added a tenth, figuring the game had become who could build the tallest cairn. But then the next day two stones had once again been removed. I went back to adding one for every day. I never found out who I was playing with or what the game was.
Once during meditation the guy to my immediate left let out an audible fart that I’m sure at least half of the hall had heard. The guy behind me busted up laughing and couldn’t control himself for a full minute. It took all I had to remain silent.
Another time I wanted to do some laundry. There was one bucket we all shared to wash our clothes in and I had been waiting near the bathroom as one of the guys (the same one who had farted) finished up using it on the patio below. When he eventually walked up stairs with the bucket I reached out to take it from him. As I finished washing my clothes I noticed he had been sitting on the stairs just above me the entire time. Immediately I realized what had happened: he hadn’t finished using the bucket, he had come up to refill it in the bathroom. I was too embarrassed to hand it back to him. Instead I left it outside the bathroom and hid in my room while he refilled the bucket outside.
As I crossed over the half way point of the retreat I felt a renewed sense of determination. For the first time, the end was in sight. I was no longer white knuckling it through the hour long periods of adhiṭṭhāna each day. In fact, I made it through all 19 of the remaining sessions without moving. Maybe I was the chosen one after all?
The emotional roller coaster of the past two days had been one of many lessons I received in anicca: the underlying reality of mind and matter that it is impermanent and constantly changing. This is what Vipassana meditation teaches us to observe and as we do we develop paññā which translates to right understanding or wisdom. This is “the wisdom that one lives, real wisdom that will bring about a change in one’s life by changing the very nature of the mind.” says William Hart.
And according to my teacher I had begun to experience this reality in another major way the previous evening. That evening I had noticed a tingling sensation in my arms and legs as if they had fallen asleep. I wiggled my toes and fingers, surprised this wasn’t actually the case. The pleasant tingling feeling flowed freely through my legs and my arms but was patchy or nonexistent in other areas of my body. I had no idea what to make of the sensation. It had been alarming enough to me at the time to cause me to check my pulse during the next break. I had thought that maybe something was wrong with me.
I had taken it to my teacher on the sixth day. What I had been experiencing, he explained and what Goenka would also later explain, was what the Buddha had described as kalapas —indivisible units that constitute the ultimate reality of matter. The Buddha had discovered that at the fundamental level, all of matter is constituted of these kalapas, which are constantly arising and passing away. According to this, the tingling sensation I was experiencing was the sensation of the ultimate reality of matter: that it’s a fluctuating stream of waves and particles. This had led the Buddha to another realization about that nature of reality: anattā —that there is no permanent self or ego.
If you’re at all like me, this may be a bit much to swallow all at once. What I found very appealing about the Vipassana approach is that it doesn’t ask you to buy into any of this. There is room for skepticism and I had plenty of it. All it asks is that you earnestly look for yourself and practice the technique. It’s a very pragmatic practice. As I did this, I found that a lot of my experience matched up with what I was learning about the Buddha’s teachings and that was really powerful for me. I appreciated the radically empirical approach. There are aspects I continue to remain unsure about. But Vipassana allows for that. Goenka claims that Vipassana’s teachings are nonsecular and anyone who adopts the practice —regardless of faith— will benefit. I tend to agree with him on that.
DAY 7: MAINTAINING EQUANIMITY
You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Another reality became clear to the Buddha. He realized that it is our attachment to an impermanent and ever changing reality —to something that is always out of our control— that is the source of dukkha, or suffering. It is our craving and aversion, our unwillingness to accept what is, that gets us into trouble.
Vipassana teaches that awareness alone is not enough to overcome our suffering. Equanimity is equally important. We must learn to stop reacting. In Vipassana we develop equanimity as we learn to observe sensation without reacting with craving or aversion to it. Shooting pain in your legs? Just observe it. Pleasant tingling sensation in your arms? Just observe it. Nothing at all? Just observe it. Watch as it changes. In this way we practice with everything that comes up in meditation, including the pain. Here’s William Hart again:
“If we can learn for one moment just to observe the physical pain; if even temporarily we can emerge from the illusion that it is our pain, that we feel pain; if we can examine the sensation objectively like a doctor examining someone else’s pain, then we see that the pain itself is changing. It does not remain forever; every moment it changes, passes away, starts again, changes again.”
It’s fun to talk about the agony of retreat as a writer but it’s worth mentioning that it was equally hard to practice equanimity during the meditation sessions that went well and were even, dare I say it, enjoyable. There were times when something seemed to give way and I’d fall, inexplicably, into a deep sense of peace, joy or acceptance. These moments were admittedly, much more rare than the moments of pain but they were equally hard to let go of. Learning to observe them and not hope that they would continue was equally challenging.
The most impressive display of equanimity during retreat came from Eugene, an enigmatic Ukrainian mathematician with thin, curly hair who sat two rows in front of me. I had spoke with Eugene briefly before the retreat. He had seemed amiable but aloof. He was somewhere in his forties and had once owned a bank in Ukraine but had sold it and been traveling for the past fourteen years. Currently, he was riding his bicycle through Nepal, which he had parked near the office. He owned almost nothing. Before retreat started he had told me that this was somewhere between his 40th and 50th Vipassana retreat. I had been stunned when I realized, during a meditation period early on, that that amounted to around a year and a half of his life.
Like Dharma Jack, Eugene never moved. He’d continue sitting through the breaks between meditation periods and only ever got up for meals. After retreat he had told me he usually sat continuously for 8 hours at a time. He told me other crazy things too. He wasn’t bothered by the cold, which seemed to be true as he often arrived in the hall in bare feet and a t-shirt while I was wearing two pairs of pants, wool socks, gloves, a beanie, a thermal, a fleece and a jacket to stay warm. Eugene also claimed to only need 4 hours of sleep each night and rarely needed to eat. He had invited me to go trekking after the retreat with him in a remote part of Nepal. I wanted to as I thought he might be my Obi-Wan Kenobi but finally decided against it after learning that twice before he had to turn back on this trail because there was multiple feet of snow and that he typically averaged 50 kilometers a day.
He hadn’t bragged about any of this, he just stated it matter of factly when everyone, who were all as intrigued as I was about him, had peppered him with questions after the retreat. I had no reason to doubt he was telling the truth. Regardless, there was one thing that became clear to everyone on retreat: he was on another level entirely. He seemed superhuman.
For mere mortals like me however, equanimity was not so easy. Working with pain in the meditation hall was hard, but harder still was getting out of my warm, cozy sleeping bag at the ungodly hour of 4:00 am.
There was no equanimity when I heard that first, piercing ring of the meditation bell each morning. Not a shred.
I tried everything to stay awake during that first, two-hour period of meditation every morning. I tried snoozing until minutes before meditation started. I tried shooting out of bed immediately and walking laps for 20 minutes in the freezing cold outside. I tried jumping jacks, squats and push ups to get my blood flowing. I splashed icy cold water on my face. I wore gloves in the meditation hall to keep my hands warm. I took them off in the hopes my freezing hands might keep me awake. Nothing helped. I’d nod off constantly only to be jolted awake seconds later as my neck reflexively snapped upwards each time. It was torturous. Finally near the end, after consulting with the teacher, we agreed that when the nodding began (usually around half way through) I should leave the meditation hall and splash water on my face and walk a few laps outside before returning. That seemed to help.
After the retreat had ended I learned that my morning experiments had been terribly confusing for Simon who didn’t have a watch to tell the time by. There were two bells every morning: one at 4:00 am and another one 5 minutes before we were to be in the hall at 4:25 am. Whenever he awoke he never knew which bell it was he had heard or which I had gotten up for. It must have been awful.
As I stumbled out of bed and shuffled my feet into my sandals outside the room on the seventh morning I looked down to see a stain on my socks. Sure enough, beneath my left foot was another caterpillar —this one definitely dead. With equanimity, I tossed it in the trash bin and headed down to the meditation hall.
DAY 8: THE RHYTHM OF THE WORLD
Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
As I learned to become aware of my own rhythms within, I also began to notice the rhythms of the world without.
When not sitting in the meditation hall, my favorite spot was a plastic chair on the third story of my dorm which gave a view of the sprawling southwest quarter of the city of Kathmandu in the valley below. From here I’d sit and watch as the world continuously changed around me. The retreat center had ceased to feel like a detention center and each day I grew more and more fond of our small sanctuary on the hill.
Every morning began in the same penetrating silence of those dark and chilly predawn hours. Nothing else stirred. At 5:00 am the lonely crows of a rooster began and an hour later the gregarious melodies of songbirds filled our meditation hall. In the early morning hours the highways below were empty save for the sounds of the occasional freight truck beating the morning rush, which grew into a deafening cacophony of horns, tires and motors in the hazy hours of the morning. The lunchtime hours were usually bright and clear and I could hear the happy chatter of people in the city below as they took a break from the business of the day. The afternoons were warm and seemed, for a moment, to lull the entire world back to sleep.
The clanging of hammers and the sounds of construction, which continued until dusk, signaled it was back to work. Occasionally I spotted a flock of long tailed parrots perching in the trees above the center in the afternoons and every evening I heard the strange, robotic-like, two toned call of a bird I never once saw. At exactly 5:45 pm every evening I watched the street lights of a gated community in the valley below flicker on. And far into the night, long after the hum of traffic had finally begun to fade, I could hear the many wild dogs that roamed the city’s streets below. Their restless barks and howls echoed through the night only to eventually be swallowed up in the silence of the early hours of the morning when the the world’s circadian rhythm began anew. These things and a thousand others punctuated my days. I appreciated them all.
My absolute favorite time of day was in the golden glow of the late afternoons when a warm breeze would gently rustle the leaves of the trees above and cause their branches to sway lazily back and forth. It felt as if the trees themselves were laughing and dancing and that they were waving for me to join in with them.
I often caught myself thinking how incredibly much there is to know about a place. How many secrets a place keeps from the hurried visitor! How many lessons it shares with those willing to spend the time and get to know it better. In the quiet stillness I sensed that the world was as deep as it was broad. It was overwhelming to think about.
DAY 9: THE DIVINE SOUND
To hold your breath is to lose your breath.-Alan Watts, You’re It.
I’m still learning to live with tinnitus. It’s a lot like a Chinese finger trap. The harder I try to escape, the tighter its grip becomes. It’s only when I’m able to relax my attention that it begins to fade into the background. Once it does I often go days without paying it any mind which is almost like it not being there.
The times I notice it most are early in the morning and late at night when everything is quiet. Usually the noisy business of the day or the unconsciousness of sleep cause me to forget about it until, sometime later on, it once again pops back into my awareness.
But when I noticed the ringing in my head on the seventh day of retreat there was nothing to take my attention away from it. And once I heard it, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. As I paid more and more attention to the sound, it got worse.
By the 9th day I had become desperate. I was losing sleep and I couldn’t focus during meditation. What I noticed days earlier as a subtle ring was now a roar. It never stopped and try as I might I couldn’t escape it. I was going mad.
I was at a loss for how to practice equanimity with this. Our practice was about observing the impermanence of sensation, but here was a sensation that seemed to me to be permanent. What then? I went to my teacher for answers.
Unfortunately he didn’t seem to have any nor did he seem to appreciate the gravity of my affliction. He had smiled and brushed my repeated questions off as hearing the “divine sound” —which is a fairly common phenomenon for meditators and others who spend a lot of time in solitude. Once retreat ended and I began talking with people, he assured me, it’d go away. I wasn’t comforted.
Usually I was so exhausted at the end of the day I fell asleep within minutes of hitting the pillow each night. On that 9th night I couldn’t sleep. I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling for hours wondering if I’d ever know the sound of silence again. It was a depressing thought.
DAY 10: BREAKING THE SILENCE
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
-Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
On the morning of the 10th day the noble silence was lifted and the schedule loosened up. This was done to help us reintegrate into the world which can be as disorienting as leaving it had been.
My struggle with my tinnitus had left me shaken and I didn’t feel at all ready to return to the world. I was sure people would sense my distress and I found myself wishing for just one more day under the cover of silence to try and sort things out.
But when the silence was finally lifted and I begrudgingly walked out of the meditation hall and up the stairs I was greeted by Simon’s huge grin which said it all: we were going to make it! I couldn’t help but smile and in an instant an involuntary wave of joy and relief flooded over me. It had felt like we had shared a lifetime together. Simon and I would spend the next few days together in Kathmandu and later on he shared that he hadn’t been sure on that last day if I would ever speak again which made me laugh.
I also learned later on from Simon that he’d almost left on the 3rd day but the teacher pulled something of a jedi mind trick on him. Simon was struggling and had visited the teacher once or twice before he’d finally decided he was going to leave. But when he walked into the hall to tell the teacher of his decision, the teacher spoke first assuming he’d come to tell him he was leaving. Annoyed that the teacher teacher had presumed that of him, he changed his mind on the spot and told the teacher he wasn’t leaving. After that he had been committed to sticking it out.
My tinnitus hasn’t disappeared and I still struggled with it on that last day but as my attention began to turn outward it became bearable again. Through the experience I’ve realized that although the sound may be quasi permanent my experience of it does constantly change depending on how much attention I feed it and my attitude towards it. I could see that by wanting it to go away and by projecting it into the future I had created an unnecessary layer of mental pain around the experience. It reminded me what a large and powerful a role my mind plays in shaping my experience.
DAY 11: WORLDS APART
A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!
-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
When I walked out of the gates I’d passed through ten days earlier it felt like I’d crossed the finish line of a long race I’d spent months training for. I felt ecstatic, momentarily drunk with the fresh and exhilarating freedom that I could do anything my heart so desired. There was no schedule! It was liberating. As the novelty faded I noticed a more subtle feeling underneath that’s remained —a grounded feeling of confidence.
For Nepal it was just another day somewhere in the year 2073 when I walked out those gates but for most the western world it was New Year’s Eve. It seemed fitting.
Instead of hiring a cab, a few of us decided to walk the 5 kilometers back to Thamel, the chaotic backpacker’s district of Kathmandu. There is a special type of camaraderie that comes from sharing an experience as intense as a Vipassana retreat. We had ventured together to a place words couldn’t reach and as a result it didn’t matter that we had shared only a few words previously in our lifetimes.
That walk through the streets that connected our quiet retreat center on the hill to the raucous city below felt strange and surreal. Not only because those two worlds seemed lightyears apart, but because as we excitedly shared our stories and experiences from the past 10 days, I realized that all of us on the retreat had been in our own private worlds that seemed equally distant. It was surprising, funny, and illuminating to hear how we had all interpreted things so differently during the retreat. And I began to notice that as the thoughts and ideas that constituted my world collided with theirs, they too, began to change.
A MONTH LATER
Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
The things in my life I’d be most likely to call “life changing” are those things that have helped me to change. Other than superficially, I’ve found that most things can’t actually change my life for me. The best they can do is show me a way I can do it for myself. Good books have done that. Friendships have done that. Powerful experiences have done that. For me, Vipassana without a doubt, falls into that last category.
One of the central themes of the retreat is that we must discover the truth for ourselves. It’s one of the reasons I find Vipassana to be a very convincing and powerful practice. We are our own masters.
It comes with a catch though: only we can do the work. This may not be palatable for everyone. It is very hard work. But I found the benefits to be immediate and worth it.
If you are curious about Vipassana, if there’s something inside you somewhere that says ever so quietly that maybe I should try this, a little voice that scares you a bit and you would prefer to ignore or placate with promises in the future, I’d highly recommend you go and experience it for yourself. I think you’ll be glad you did.
If this is you there is probably a Vipassana retreat center closer than you want it to be. You can see a map with all of the Vipassana retreat centers across the world here or search their worldwide directory here.
As Goenka would say, may you too experience real peace, real harmony, real happiness.
Here’s a few other perspectives on Vipassana that I’ve enjoyed:
Jodi Ettenberg from Legal Nomads
Shannon O’Donnell from A Little Adrift
Chiara Cokieng who is a fellow reader of this blog 🙂
The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S.N. Goenka by William Hart – Approved by Goenka, Hart provides an outline of Goenka’s teachings and most the terms and concepts that are introduced in 10 day Vipassana retreat. It isn’t a manual on how to practice Vipassana (you need to attend a retreat for that) but it does serve as a helpful introduction to Vipassana. I found it useful in reviewing what I had learned over the course of the retreat.
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach – Tara Brach is a prominent spiritual teacher and a psychotherapist who was heavily influenced by Vipassana. Her book isn’t directly about Vipassana, but many of its themes run through it. She shares free guided meditations and talks on her website which are also very good.
* Featured image at the beginning of this post is of a hallway in Varanasi, India.
- Old students aren’t to eat after noon. New students were given tea and some fruit and crackers in the evening.
- We all followed this precept.
- Pali is considered to have been the native language of Siddhattha Gotama, known as the Buddha.
- There are two exceptions: we may discuss our practice with the teacher and our living needs with the retreat assistants.
- I question the rationale of calming someone down about a spider by moving the topic to snakes.
- Later on I realized Sīla was a moral code of conduct to provide the necessary mental environment to develop wisdom and as such only applies to people.