There I sat, glumly gobbling glop in a silent mess hall full of equally glum glop-gobblers, a knit watchman’s cap pulled down over my makeup-less face and nothing to look forward to but my daily walk in the yard. Re-reading the fine print on my lemon-ginger herbal tea bag for the 1,000th time, it occurred to me that there’s a fine line between glum and pious…and that though we were all here voluntarily, this meditation retreat was basically just a minimum-security New Age Prison for White People. Navel-gazing is the new black!
Of course, I’m being facetious — my fellow glop-gobblers weren’t all white; there were a few east Indians among us, an Asian or two, and at least one Mexican. But the overwhelming majority of those seeking peace at this silent Buddhist meditation retreat were whiter than almond milk, and the irony was not lost on me. Enlightenment is classic Stuff White People Do!
This was, of course, my long-awaited Vipassana retreat in the mountains of Northern California: ten days of nothing but meditation from the time they gong you awake at 4am until they finally let you pass out in bed around 9:15pm, and all in complete silence. No talking, no physical contact, no eye contact, no communication of any kind whatsoever. No reading, no writing, no cell phones, no laptops. No sex, no drugs, no rock-n-roll — nothing but meditation!
Vipassana is actually a really interesting meditation technique in that they don’t try to sell you anything or make you chant corny catchphrases or anything like that. It’s more or less grounded in reality and science, and the people who teach it are basically squares — no beards, beads, loincloths, etc; in fact, the guy who introduced Vipassana to the West resembles nothing so much as your typical east Indian Silicon Valley H-1B software engineer. It’s basically just a technique which helps one to focus on the reality of one’s body — no spiritual mumbo-jumbo, and minimal psychobabble.
Moreover, the Vipassana retreats themselves are free of charge — aside from teaching and guiding you in the meditation technique, they also provide comfortable, heated accommodations with hot showers and 2.5 fantastic vegetarian meals per day…for free! At the end of the course, they almost casually mention the fact that your retreat was paid for by the students who came before you, and that if you want to donate toward the next students, you are welcome to give what you can. But they definitely don’t strong-arm you — there’s no need, as there is no shortage of enthusiastic graduates plenty eager to spread Vipassana to as many people as possible.
Those who undertake a 10-day retreat must surrender all their tech devices (they secure them for you), and agree to abide by five principles for the duration of the course:
- to abstain from killing any being (hence the vegetarian meals)
- to abstain from stealing (there are no locks on any of the doors except the bathrooms)
- to abstain from all sexual activity (males and females are strictly segregated, and are asked to dress modestly)
- to abstain from telling lies (you can’t talk anyway, so this one is easy)
- to abstain from all intoxicants (I had to leave my pipe and cookies at home, boohoo).
You also agree to observe what is called Noble Silence (no speaking or otherwise communicating with other students, though you can talk to a teacher or course manager if you have a problem with anything)…and you agree to stay within the boundaries of the course property for the entire ten days. Of course they can’t force you to stay — if you have a medical or family emergency, you can leave. But they really, strongly encourage you not to leave until the entire course is complete…and to that end, it’s a bit like being in prison — or more aptly, pri-Zen.
And of course even more aptly….pri-Zen for White People. I mean, what other prison feeds you tofu steaks and sautéed kale??
Anyway, I enrolled in the course hoping it would help me chill out; as you know I lead a very high-octane life, and as a result have problems sleeping. My sister had taken a course before, so I had an idea of what I was in for and wasn’t fostering any unrealistic expectations — but I did go in with a positive mindset, thinking to give Vipassana a fair shot. I loaded up on cozy knitted ethnic ponchos, jammed a fair-trade kombucha-hemp suppository up my ass and carpooled the 10 hours from Vegas in the Mini Cooper of an NPR journalist friend who was taking the course for his second time. We blew through the desert and the red-state part of California, up into the misty, majestic vineyards of Napa Valley; nothing but moss-covered faux chateaux and the smell of Enlightenment wafting from the quaint stone chimney of every Michelin-starred restaurant we passed. So far, so good!
To stifle my inner cynic, from pretty much the moment I set foot on the retreat property I pulled my aforementioned watchman’s cap down low over my eyes — as low as I could while still being able to see where I was going, but low enough to where I wouldn’t be tempted to peek at the other students’ faces and make cynical judgments based on their appearances. And to avoid being the subject of their cynical judgments, I topped the utilitarian dollar-store beanie with a colorful and funky but structurally inefficient knitted ethnic coverup cap — when in Rome, etc!
Either way, of course, it didn’t work. Though I could only see my fellow students from the waist down, you can tell a lot about a man by his shoes….and $150 Uggs, furry leg warmers, Lululemon leggings and North Face jackets tell you all you need to know. Additionally, Noble Silence didn’t start until a few hours after arrival, so I had already gotten quite an earful as everyone was signing in: “OMG, you’re a yoga teacher too?!” “I’ve been living on an ashram in Grass Valley.” “Excuse me…are these bean patties gluten-free?”
With all that going on, it was a blessing when Noble Silence finally descended like a cozy, knitted fair-trade ethnic pair of earmuffs; I pulled my cap even lower, and prepared to enjoy the silence. Prior to my departure from Vegas, many of my friends had commented “LOL how are you gonna shut up for ten days?!” as I’m usually a very outgoing, social, life-of-the-party-type person. Well, I’m here to tell you that shutting up was amazing!
I found it wonderfully therapeutic not to have to b.s. or kibbitz with anyone; no laughing at stupid jokes, no “Grass Valley? How interesting,” or “Oh wow these photos are great!” I am actually by nature kind of an introvert — growing up (and in fact until I started drinking alcohol at the age of 23) I was bookish and almost painfully shy, so in a weird way it was kind of a treat to be able to regress for awhile. And I was really good at it; though I heard other hens nattering in hushed tones throughout the course, I maintained total silence for the entire ten days. (I was forced to whisper responses when the meditation teacher asked about my progress every few days, but I kept my answers to an absolute minimum: “It’s fine,” “I’m feeling tingling,” etc. I also had to ask for an alarm clock at one point…but all in all, I probably spoke fewer than 50 words all week, and those in a hushed whisper. And I certainly didn’t chant “Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu” at the end of the meditation sessions like many of the other students; supposedly it just means “Well said” in the ancient Buddhist language of Pali…but like those Chinese characters people get tattooed on their persons supposedly meaning “TRUTH,” how do I know it doesn’t really mean “I’m a white dumbass and my privilege is choking me?!”)
Aside from keeping my mouth shut, I was also really good at not peeking at the other students; the idea behind Noble Silence is that you’re supposed to create the illusion that you are alone, in isolation…so though I couldn’t avoid seeing the others’ feet and legs, I managed pretty successfully not to look at anyone above the waist. I didn’t even know who was sharing my own bedroom until the end of the week — and those were close quarters! Also, though the male and female students were segregated for the duration of the course, we all meditated in the same hall, so it was possible to catch glimpses of the men as they walked through the woods to and from their sleeping quarters to the meditation building….but I didn’t try to spot my NPR friend the entire ten days, and in fact had no idea if he was even still there until the 10th day. (I had a feeling he might have left after a few days because he seemed out of sorts on the drive up, but since my mom lives close enough to this retreat to be able to come rescue me if needed, I didn’t try to keep tabs on him.)
Meanwhile, I had come here to fix my sleeping disorder — so how did that go? Well, the accommodations at this particular retreat were less than ideal for someone with sleep issues; the facility used to be some kind of summer-camp-type resort made up of several small cabins arranged around the mess hall and the meditation hall. Some of the cabins were configured into dormitory-style bunks; the cabin I was in was divided into three bedrooms — one solo room, one two-top, and one three-top. Lucky me, I scored a bed in the three-top…but as it turned out, one of the beds in our room remained empty, so it was just me and one other woman. Meanwhile, one of the chicks in the two-top bailed after the second day…which meant that the other two lucky ducks in my cabin had private rooms. (I’m sure if I’d spoken with course management beforehand and explained my problem, they might have given me a private room…but I was trying to be low-maintenance and just go with the flow…ya know?)
It was actually a blessing that we had two empty beds in our cabin, as there was just one shower and 2 toilets/sinks for all of us. I grew up in a fairly large family full of women, so I was sort of used to jockeying for bathroom time. But negotiations are tricky when one is observing Noble Silence — so to that end, there was a dry-erase signup sheet posted outside the bathroom where you could write in your name each day and reserve a 15-minute block. Bathing opportunities were limited to the short periods of free time allowed after meals, plus a small window first thing in the morning and another just before bed. I ended up jumping in first thing each morning at 4am, right after the gong mistress came in to gong us awake, just to get it out of the way before anyone else got any ideas. And it worked out fine; nobody else was insane enough to argue.
After showering, the gong mistress would come around again to remind you that it was time for the 4:30am meditation session. Throughout the day, students are expected to meditate a total of 10-11 hours; three mandatory one-hour sessions in the hall, plus several chunks where you could stay in the hall or do it in your bedroom. Fortunately, the 4:30-6:30am chunk was one of those where they let you stay in your room…so after showering, I would bundle up warmly in all my cozy knitted ponchos and shawls, and “meditate” on my bed. For the first couple of days I did this early session in the hall…but after a couple of days my butt was so sore from sitting on the hard-ass cushions in the hall, that I wussed out and started doing most of the non-essential sessions on my bed, in the interest of saving my ass and lower back for the mandatory stuff.
Now, I wasn’t a total slacker — I tried to meditate. But it was 4:30 in the freakin’ morning, in deepest, darkest December, with freezing cold rain (and even snow) pouring down outside…and there I was on my comfy bed, bundled up in cozy ethnic crochettery, all nice and warm and drowsy. What would you do??? That’s what I thought! Hey, at least I made the bed first and sat upright while dozing 🙂
Besides, I was severely sleep deprived! The entire ten days was like being in a sleep-wake fugue state; as exhausted as I was, I slept unevenly at night, tossing and turning and coughing and probably driving my poor roommate nuts with all my getting up to go to the bathroom, etc. And since they only allowed us 6.5 hours in bed in the first place…is it any wonder I dozed off here and there throughout the day?
Ironically, my sister had advised me that based on her experience (at a different facility down near Yosemite, where she had a semi-private cell divided by privacy curtains), if the meditation didn’t work out for me I could just sleep through most of the ten days; apparently she’d slept right through the 4:30-6:30 session every morning, and napped here and there in the afternoon. But such is my weird sickness that my brain wouldn’t let me cheat like that; in addition, rightly or wrongly I felt the judgmental eyes of my roommate, who attended every session in the hall with a ramrod-straight back the entire time, watching me. I was half afraid she would report me or something — so I continued to pretend, and sit up while I dozed. What a farce!
Anyway, after the 6:30am session it was breakfast time, and when the gong went off we all shuffled silently down to the mess hall. It was the same thing every morning: a huge vat of oatmeal and a huge vat of stewed prunes, raisins, apples and oranges; plus yogurt, cottage cheese, dry cereal, granola and toast. In addition to cow’s milk and sprouted-grain bread there was soy milk and almond milk for the lactose-intolerant, and of course gluten free bread for the glutards. There was also a huge bowl of bananas, apples, kiwis and oranges…plus sunflower seeds, almonds, honey, jam, peanut butter and butter/vegan spread. To drink, it was either herbal tea or instant Folger’s — I actually went the entire ten days with just tea, as instant Folger’s is pretty much the worst thing I have ever put in my mouth (and I have had some nasty things in my mouth). I also developed a fondness for buttered toast with miso paste — some freaky health-food concoction made of fermented garbanzo beans that was really awesome on toast!
After stuffing my face, there was still plenty of time before the mandatory 8am group sitting, so I would go for a walk in the woods behind the women’s cabins, to digest my breakfast, get some fresh air and stretch my legs before the physical torment ahead. As mentioned, these retreats are strictly segregated, so the men had their own seperate walking path on the other side of the mediation hall….but us lucky gals got to endlessly meander around a maybe .5-mile labyrinth of trails up a gentle hillside through a pine and oak forest. I got to know those trails very well — I pretty much spent every allowable moment, rain, snow or shine, day or dark, wandering around on them.
Then the gong would go off again, and it was time for the first mandatory meditation sitting of the day. From 8-9am we all meditated together in the hall, which was the size of a small-ish church, but with no pews or anything, just precisely arrayed square cushions assigned specifically to each student — women on one side, men on the other. It was dim and warm and cozy in the hall, and they had a whole bunch of extra cushions of all shapes and sizes so that each student could build up a sort of pillow fort to suit his or her level of comfort. It took a few days to figure out a workable system, but I ended up sitting on a sort of moon-shaped beanbag, with a square of super-squishy foam atop that, and then a stack of more beanbags on each side to support my knees when I crossed my legs. It was fairly comfortable for up to an hour; after the first three days they ask you not to shift your position during the mandatory one-hour sessions, which they call periods of Strong Determination. But during the unstructured periods, you were permitted to shift as needed. And if you were really suffering physically, you could sit in a chair along one of the walls. That was another cool thing about Vipassana — they don’t force you to sit cross-legged or anything fancy, they just tell you to find a comfortable position that you can hold for one hour.
I am in pretty good physical condition — I run, hike, lift weights, etc., have no physical ailments and am not overweight — so for me, it was pretty easy to sit still for one hour. More difficult than the physical aspect, however, was the mental part!!
For the first few days, all you do during the meditation sessions is observe your natural breath. That’s right — for 10.5 hours per day, you’re supposed to think of nothing but the sensation of breath coming in and out of your nostrils!! They don’t teach any weird breathing techniques — you’re just meant to observe it as it naturally occurs. These first few days are basically to get you to calm down, focus, and take notice of the reality of your body, so focusing on an area as tiny as your outer nostrils and the area directly beneath them is meant to fine-tune or sharpen your mind. Well, I really tried…here and there. But I was very easily distracted, and before you know it I was thinking about Burning Man, or what kind of drugs I was going to do when I got out of this place, or that one time I hiked Half Dome and posed naked at the very top.
Here’s another cool thing about Vipassana: you’re not supposed to get mad or depressed when you find your mind wandering — you just accept that it wandered, no judgment, and put your attention back to your nostrils. Well, I did that on and off for the first two or three days…but I was admittedly very lazy about it, and spent most of my meditation time thinking about all kinds of crazy shit. I mean, I basically went back and relived my entire life, year by year, from as early as I could remember up through the present day. I remembered every Christmas gift, every camping trip, every mushroom trip, every job I’d ever had, every car I’d ever driven, every movie I’d ever seen, every book I’d ever read, every game my sister and I used to play with our Barbie dolls, every hot spring I’d ever soaked at. I mean, I really cleared out my storehouse of memories!! Thank dog I’ve had a full and interesting life, or I’d have gone bonkers. (Or maybe succeeded at meditation, haha. Could it be the same thing?!)
After three days of just focusing on your breath, however, on the 4th day they teach you the actual Vipassana technique, which is sort of a body-scanning thing: you start at the very top of your head and slowly scan down your entire body, from scalp to skull to ears to face to throat to shoulders and all the way down to your toes, taking note of any sensations you feel on each individual body part. Do you feel a tickle? A prickle? A pain? You are simply to observe each sensation, taking note of it without judgment — just sort of objectively identifying and studying the sensation, breaking it into components and then moving on to the next body part. This is supposed to cultivate absolute equanimity with regards to pleasure and pain — the great Buddhist doctrine of “anicca” (pronounced aneetcha) asserts that all of existence is impermanent, and change is constant, so it would be silly to get upset by pain or suffering. Instead, just observe it and let it go — anicca, anicca, anicca.
Easier said than done!! Most of the time I got distracted before I even got to my throat — and would have to refocus and start all over again. But I did eventually get to the point where I could force myself to do at least three full-body sweeps in an hour — in between which I would allow myself to think of cabbages and kings, Antony and Cleopatra, the cast of Family Ties and the lyrics to Pete Seeger’s “Die Gedanken Sind Frei” (heh heh). What a treat! Like I said, it’s a good thing I have such a rich inner life. I had plenty to keep me busy!
After a few days of the body-scanning technique, you are meant to reach a point where you can just let the sensations flow through you in a continuous wave of energy from top to toe and back again — at which time you can sit and allow this continuous pulsing wave of energy to flow through you non-stop, as you sit and bask in the glow of coming Enlightenment. Unfortunately for me, I was never able to attain this level of proficiency…and so I pretty much figured I was a total failure at Vipassana. I was too lazy to keep refocusing my attention on each individual body part, so before you know it I was wallowing in childhood memories, thinking back to all the things my mom did for me growing up, all the weird shit I went through, all the poor decisions I myself made in my adult life. Every miserable trade show I’ve worked, every impractical pair of high heels I’ve bought, every regrettable penis I’ve had in my mouth,. Sitting with those thoughts for 10.5 hours a day for 10 days was intense, and more often than not made me really depressed…sometimes to the point where I’d start crying a little.
Then I’d remember I was supposed to be body-scanning, and I’d get even more depressed at what an absolute failure I was at meditation! Here I was, way up in the mountains and woods with nothing to distract me but a roomful of supportive, encouraging people…and I still couldn’t fuckin’ focus on my bodily sensations, just my thoughts. What was wrong with me?! Why was I wasting everyone’s time and resources doing this, when I clearly wasn’t applying myself??
After thinking about all of this and discussing it post-retreat with my sister and friend, however, I’m not sure I was a total failure. On the last day of the retreat, after they let us start talking again, I picked up a book in the mess hall about a Vipassana program they ran in a maximum-security prison down in Alabama about 10 years ago. Many of the students in that course were big, tough, nasty dudes — but by their own accounts, many of them wept openly during their course, as revelations came to them about their behaviors and past transgressions. They ended up unearthing and coming face-to-face with all kinds of terrible junk hidden in their psyches…and that retreat was considered by all to be an unqualified success; totally life-changing for most of the students. Well, if they had only been focusing on bodily sensations, I wondered how all those painful memories had come up and been dealt with?? I was under the impression that thoughts were just a distraction…but maybe thoughts and memories are considered sensations, to be dealt with just like itches and aches: with equanimity. Anicca, anicca, anicca…even shitty thoughts shall pass.
There was an opportunity after lunch each day to speak privately with the two Vipassana teachers who sat at the front of the meditation hall on little wooden platforms, ostensibly guiding us in our practice but not saying much. These two were a Zenned-out looking married couple in their 50s who looked less like the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and more like a heavily sedated Gray Davis and Ellen DeGeneres — right down to the button-down shirts and Dockers they wore. They seemed enlightened enough, but these private interview sessions were limited to 10 minutes each, and I didn’t feel like I could really figure anything out in 10 minutes…so I never even tried. Another failure….arrrrghhhhh!
But failure or no, the fact remains that I was able to sit perfectly still and perfectly quiet for one-hour chunks and beyond…so I guess that counts for something. I even remained silently immobile halfway through the morning sitting on the seventh day, when the meditation hall was rocked by a 5.0 earthquake! If you’ve ever been in an earthquake, you know that’s a pretty decent magnitude…but though most of the other students started laughing nervously, and one wag quipped “It’s just sensations,” I did not budge. Anicca, anicca….just plates in the earth moving. It did occur to me that what we’d felt might have just been the long-distance effects of some major quake down in San Francisco, and I worried for my family members down there….but the retreat staff posted a notice in the mess hall afterward to let us know that it was just a 5 pointer epicentered about 8 miles away, that had caused no reported damage. Whew!
Anyway, back to logistics: after the mandatory 8-9am group sitting, you have two hours to meditate on your own before lunch. At first I would go back to sit on my bed/doze off for this session…but towards the end of the course, I started staying in the hall, for the simple fact that I was so fucking sick of staring at the four white walls in my bedroom!
Then the lunch gong went off at 11am, and everyone would again file silently into the mess hall for the main meal (and basically, the highlight) of the day. As mentioned the food was all vegetarian…but it was really, really good! The menu was different each day: lentil soup, sautéed kale, burritos, coconut curry, macaroni and cheese, roasted potatoes, fresh salads…and always enough sprouts and nuts and seeds to feed a flock of seagulls. They even had chocolate cake and cookies on a few occasions! I think the meals are pretty much the same at all Vipassana retreats, no matter the location, and are prepared by volunteers from a master recipe book — once you have completed a Vipassana course, you have the option of returning for any additional courses and working as a server in the kitchen. As a server, you still get to meditate several hours a day…but you also spend several hours in the kitchen, prepping and cleaning so that the other students get to enjoy delicious meals. It actually sounds like a nice way to break up the days, which in my experience got pretty monotonous. Doing anything, even scrubbing pots and pans and dicing tofu, would be a welcome break in the monotony!
Anyway, partly because it was the only highlight of my day, but mostly because I have minimal self-control when it comes to bomb-ass food, I ate waaaaay too much at every meal. Consequently, thanks to the massive amounts of fiber and sprouts and whatnot, my stomach made the weirdest noises during the after-lunch meditation sitting! It felt like I had one of those Jiffy Pop pans in my gut, with kernels exploding and popping one at a time…until I wised up and dialed back on the harder-core accoutrements like sprouts and chickpeas. I mean, I didn’t want to distract my fellow meditators…ya know?! Meanwhile pretty much everyone in the hall was gurgling and farting at one time or another, so it wasn’t the end of the world…but still.
Meanwhile, the hardest part about lunch was sitting there in silence, glumly masticating without conversation or even being able to read a friggin’ book. All I had to read were tea bag labels and the stickers covering my travel coffee mug, which I had brought along so that I could take hot tea back to my room afterward — and which unfortunately consisted of a bunch of crazy Burning Man and smoke-shop-type slogans, many of which weren’t exactly pious. One day I noticed that a particularly egregious example reading “FUCK YOU! I WORK FOR PYRO PETE” in bright red capital letters was facing directly out to the room…so I quickly turned the mug around so as not to offend anyone. Alas, the opposite side had a sticker featuring Buddha and the slogan “ZEN AS FUCK,” so it wasn’t much better. I mean, in my normal day-to-day life I think nothing of such language — but in this atmosphere, it felt like I was wearing a Nazi armband and goose-stepping around the dining room! So from then on, I left my travel mug in my room.
After lunch, we had a free period of an hour, during which we could talk to one of the teachers (which as mentioned I never did), take a nap, or walk in the woods. On a couple of occasions I had bathroom-cleaning duty (there was a dry-erase signup sheet in our cabin for that as well), but most of the time I just endlessly wandered that same labyrinth of trails in the walking area — over and over and over again, rain, snow, frost or shine. Because I had my hat pulled down so low I focused mostly on the ground, and it was amazing the kinds of stuff you notice when you’re forced to walk the same earth over and over. It being the tail end of autumn, there was a carpet of beautiful oak leaves in all shades of brown, yellow and orange, and an astonishing array of mushrooms sprung up here and there among them. I’ve never seen so many different types of mushrooms! There were little brown fairytale-type caps, creepy white ghostly-looking ones, slimy black evil-looking clusters, and big soft yellow ones that were apparently really tasty to the deer, as I went out one morning and found they had all been eaten! Boy, that was the social event of the week, let me tell you — well, except for the one morning after breakfast when I went out and actually saw some deer creeping through the forest. Woo hoo!!! It was better than Netflix. Let me tell you, I felt like Henry David fuckin’ Thoreau, wandering around those woods.
As I walked, I also got philosophical, thinking about the course and the Vipassana teachings. A contrarian by nature, I started to wonder how strict these Buddhists really were about the five precepts — for instance, the one about not killing. I knew they were pretty hardcore about it because of the little plastic Tupperware tubs in each cabin labeled “BUG RELOCATOR;” you weren’t even supposed to squash an insect, apparently. But at the same time, there were hand sanitizer dispensers everywhere reading “KILLS 99.9% OF GERMS.” OK, so germs aren’t sentient beings — but then neither are worms, and those were definitely not OK to kill. So maybe they just mean don’t kill anything in the animal kingdom; obviously plants were OK to kill, as I was massacring an impressive amount of those every day at lunch and breakfast.
But then one day I switched out my sleeping bag (which was having issues) for some of the spare blankets they had in our cabin, and felt a bit itchy the next day…and found that I had a small welt on my ribcage. Bedbugs!?!!
It turned out not to be bedbugs (thank dog), but that got me wondering if even bedbugs were not to be killed — and by extension, lice and fleas and all manner of other bothersome parasites. For that matter, what if I was at the retreat during summertime, and found a deer tick embedded in my leg?? Was I supposed to allow the tick to feed peacefully, possibly transmitting Lyme disease and whatnot? Thankfully none of this happened, but it gave me an interesting philosophical quandary to ponder and fill some of my many lonely hours. Maybe it was OK to kill beings that had no purpose other than to harm us — but that seemed like a slippery slope to me, as the same argument could be made about child molesters and crackheads, if one were so inclined. What a puzzle — and not the kind that could be solved in 10 minutes, so I didn’t even bother asking the teacher about it.
The other puzzle I briefly considered asking the teacher about was the whole equanimity thing. The purpose of Vipassana basically is to accept that Life is Misery, but that “anicca, anicca” — change is constant, and nothing is permanent; not the greatest suffering, nor the greatest pleasure, so you are not to put too much stock in anything. Do not form any aversions to pain, nor any cravings for pleasure — just observe them objectively, with absolute equanimity, for what they are: temporary sensations.
Well, that seems like a shitty kind of existence, in a way; like my sister pointed out, it’s like being on Prozac, which dulls your senses and levels out the highs and lows. I can see letting go of pain and anger, but am I to understand that all cravings should be dispensed with as well, and that I should form no attachments to enjoying a delicious meal, a beautiful hike, the touch of a lover’s hand, etc? What then of the profound enjoyment and satisfaction they spoke of experiencing when one performs acts of dana (giving or charity) — as when they encouraged us to consider taking our next course as a server? How could serving others be so intensely rewarding, if one is not to enjoy rewards in the first place?
Anyway, these were the kinds of things I thought about as I meandered around and around and around the forest, eventually being gonged back to my meditation practice after lunch from 1-2:30pm in my room, and then from 2:30-3:30 in the main hall with the others. Then there was another solo session from 3:3o-5pm, and then it was time for evening tea — the last meal of the day being nothing but tea and fruit.
Now, I ate so much at breakfast and lunch that I usually wasn’t even hungry for tea, and would mostly just slice up a banana with honey drizzled on it, with a cup of chai to keep me alert for the after-dinner sitting. But some of my fellow pri-Zen-ers would go nuts, madly chopping up mounds of apples, kiwis, bananas and oranges, dousing the piles of diced fruit in honey and cinnamon and then shoveling the sticky lot into their gaping, Enlightenment-seeking maws. All that sitting around on your ass really works up an appetite, I guess! In any event, the men’s dining room was separated from the women’s by a thin curtain, and many’s the time I snortled to myself at the sight of all us miserable crones furiously chopping up bananas in stern silence while on the other side, the poor celibate men were probably sniffing the curtains and dreaming of pussy, blissfully unaware.
After evening tea, there was usually about a half hour of free time before the final 3-hour session in the meditation hall. Because I knew I’d be on my ass for three hours, I usually tried to go for one last walk in the woods, even though it was pitch black out by that time and I ended up stumbling around alone in the dark forest like some deranged character from the Brothers Grimm. It didn’t help that I was wearing a red hooded coat through all of this, like Little Red Riding Hood; I half expected some gnarly wolf to come raging out of my psyche at any second and gobble me alive — which, in a sense, I guess it did (see above vis-a-vis miserable sense of failure and tears). But even when I walked all the way to the end of the trail and back in complete darkness, feeling my way along the path in the spooky, silent woods using just my feet and hands, I never did come to any harm. The worst that happened was the gong would go off while I was still halfway up the trail, and I’d have to cheat and switch on my headlamp, and go running to the meditation hall like that flibbertigibbet Maria in the Sound of Music, ever late for vespers.
The final three-hour block of the day consisted of one last hour-long group meditation session, followed by an hour-long DVD wherein the guy who introduced Vipassana to the West, the aforementioned H-1B software-engineer-looking guy (whose name was S.N. Goenka), would ramble on about Vipasanna and its various nuances, techniques and applications. Occasionally he would bust out a funny story or parable, and we were all so starved for entertainment that even the weakest joke always provoked roars of howling laughter in the hall. But in all seriousness he did come off as totally unpretentious and completely likable, so I didn’t really mind sitting there watching and listening to him. He struck me as a genuinely good and caring person who sincerely wanted to spread Vipassana far and wide — from the miserable stinking prisons of Mumbai to the misty, forested vineyards of the Napa Valley and beyond. Enlightenment is enlightenment…and people are miserable everywhere!
After the evening discourse (as the DVDs were called), we did one last quickie meditation session and then we were free to either ask the teachers questions or go to bed. I always made a straight fucking beeline for bed — if I was really on my game, I could be under the covers with the lights out by 9:15, and hopefully asleep by 9:30 — thus allowing me 6.5 hours (give or take, minus nighttime tossing and turning and peeing and fretting) of precious sleep, before being gonged awake and doing it all again: SHOWER MEDITATE BREAKFAST WALK IN WOODS MEDITATE MEDITATE LUNCH WALK IN WOODS MEDITATE MEDITATE MEDITATE TEA WALK IN WOODS MEDITATE DISCOURSE MEDITATE BED SHOWER MEDITATE BREAKFAST WALK IN WOODS MEDITATE MEDITATE LUNCH WALK IN WOODS MEDITATE MEDITATE MEDITATE TEA WALK IN WOODS MEDITATE DISCOURSE MEDITATE BED SHOWER MEDITATE BREAKFAST WALK IN WOODS MEDITATE MEDITATE LUNCH WALK IN WOODS MEDITATE MEDITATE MEDITATE TEA WALK IN WOODS MEDITATE DISCOURSE MEDITATE BED ….
Arrrrrghhhhhh! By the 7th day I was going nuts, but I somehow made it through that day, and the next, and the next, and then…..finally, it was Day 10. Freedom Day!!!
All week I had been thinking about this day, and how exciting it would be to finally raise up my hat and look my fellow students in the eye, to finally look over and see if my friend was still there, to finally open my mouth and utter words out loud. The way it works is, you get up and start the day as usual, and then Noble Silence ends after the morning meditation session. I stayed in the meditation hall right up until lunch, and when I finally went into the mess hall it was overwhelming! All the women alongside whom I’d silently, glumly, morosely munched kale and chopped bananas with an air of resigned piety — now were nattering and giggling and shrieking and howling! The curtain separating the men had been thrown back, and the guys were there too, guffawing and yukking and staring earnestly into each other’s eyes…and it was just all too much!!
As previously mentioned, I was very shy and introverted growing up, but ever since I discovered booze around the age of 23 I have worked diligently, patiently and persistently to force myself out of my shell, and have genuinely turned myself into an extrovert over time. Most anyone who’s ever met me would agree that my transformation was a total success — maybe too much of a success, haha, as nowadays I rarely shut up. Well, walking into that loud, buzzing, crowded mess hall was like stepping into a time machine: I felt like I was right back in junior high, at yet another new school facing yet another roomful of new people, all of whom were gabbing and chatting with each other like old friends while I stood awkwardly to the side, not sure what to do with myself.
Just like in the old days, my eyes lit on a stack of books on one of the tables, and I made right for the sweet refuge of the printed word — something I had sincerely missed the last ten days, as I’m a huge reader, but also a convenient escape from the social hubbub of the mess hall. Thank dog they had put up all these little displays on tables around the room — the history of Vipassana, the history of that particular facility, the history of Vipassana in prisons. It gave me plenty to look at by myself, and then I discovered that book about the Alabama prisoners who did the Vipassana course (which is really, really a cool story) and I ended up sitting there reading that for the entire break period. Saved yet again by books, wonderful books! OMG, I am such a total nerd at heart.
But still, I was freaked out: had all those years of hard work conditioning myself to become an extrovert been undone over the course of this 10-day retreat? Had all my soul-searching and navel-gazing somehow wound back the clock, so that I was once again back to square one: a shy, scabby, nervous kid in the corner?? Say it ain’t so!!!!
After the initial shock of entering the barnyard full of squawking hens and crowing roosters, I did eventually acclimate, and finally cast my eyes and ears around to make friends with my fellow students. There was my NPR friend — still hanging in there, smiling through the glow of enlightenment and a 10-day crop of stubble. There was my roommate, with whose shoes and ankles I was intimately familiar, but whose fresh-scrubbed, rosy-cheeked face I’d never laid eyes on until then, along with a smattering of other fresh-faced, rosy-cheeked sparkling-eyed young white hippie chicks I’d last seen struggling under the weight of massive backpacks at registration. All these adorable little white girls heaving their worldly possessions up and down the state of California, voluntarily locking themselves up in a minimum-security retreat in search of enlightenment! What is wrong with white womanhood these days that we are so unfulfilled? Can’t we just get knocked up like we used to and call it a day? Aren’t toasters enough anymore???
Looking around, I matched up shoes to faces — ahhh, the Uggs go there; the furry leg warmers go there! Then, my ears finally began to untangle the knot of voices babbling furiously all around me, and I made out distinct threads of conversation: “OMG, you’re a yoga teacher too?!” “I’ve been living on an ashram in Grass Valley.” “Excuse me…are these bean patties gluten-free?”
And I very happily returned to my book.
All snarkiness aside, I did gradually re-acclimate to the real world over the next 24 hours. After lunch, there was another silent meditation session, followed by a complicated ride-sharing meeting (“Is anyone going to Berkeley?”) and evening tea, and then one final meditation session before bed. Bedtime was different in that my roommate and I actually said “Good night!” to each other, but after that it was the same deal: pass out immediately, only to be gonged awake one final time at 4am for the final group meditation session in the hall. After that we had breakfast….and then we were free.
Part of the reason my friend and I had carpooled to this retreat was that we wanted to decompress together at a nearby hot spring resort afterward, to share our experiences and talk over what we’d learned. My sister and a few friends had also planned to join us, and I was really looking forward to comparing notes with her, as well. But the hot spring was only about 90 minutes away, outside Ukiah…so before we left, my friend and I volunteered to pitch in and help clean the kitchen, which we did for about an hour and a half — him washing dishes and me sweeping up every stray lentil and grain of rice, until that kitchen was clean enough for the next crop of students to eat off the floor!
Then, finally, we were done. I picked up my electronic devices and turned the old cell phone back on, facing a deluge of email and messages that made the post-Burning Man flood look mild…but I made my way through them over the next several days, diligently, patiently and persistently. My friend and I stopped for our first cup of real coffee in 11 days at a little cafe, and by the time we arrived at the hot spring, I felt pretty much 100% re-acclimated to the Real World.
The hot springs decompression was a great idea. The place we went, Orr Hot Springs, has a peaceful, Zenlike ambiance…but they do allow you to talk, so long as you keep your voice hushed, as in a library. So it was the perfect place for three white people to sit in a steamy pool of hot water, blathering about their experiences seeking peace, quibbling over the nuances of Buddhism and endlessly rehashing the exact types of lint they’d found whilst examining their navel. Lucky for us, none of us had to work until after the New Year…so we had plenty of time to sit around yakking in all our naked, self-important glory. Like I said…enlightenment is classic Stuff White People Do.
But, as I also mentioned….not everyone at the retreat had been white; there was a decent representation of east Indians and Asians sprinkled throughout, and a few Latinos as well. So we weren’t all white…..but we did have one thing in common: we all had plenty of time on our hands; there wasn’t a paycheck-to-paycheck retail worker or a migrant fruit picker among us. Maybe those guys do stand around between harvests talking philosophy and the finer points of bug vs. germ-squashing…but I have my doubts. If there’s one thing I learned from this Vipassana course, it’s that although it’s technically free, the quest for enlightenment is a (relatively) rich man’s game — who the hell else can afford to take 2 weeks off work?
Of course, I’m being facetious again….that wasn’t all I learned. I also learned that Stash Teas will gladly send you a free catalog if you write to P.O. Box 910, Portland, OR, 97207.
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