by Gina Caputo, CSOY Founder & Director
My beloved friend and colleague, Jason Bowman, basically dared me to do one of the 10-day Vipassana meditation courses he does at least once a year. No talking, no eye contact, no gesturing, no reading, no writing, no phone, tablet, computer, no yoga practice. The mere idea of 10-days of silence, never mind the 12-hours a day of meditation, scared the shit out of me. And yet, that fear was intriguing...could I do it?? So there was that, a challenge as well as a sincere desire to go deeper into a practice I was consistent with but knew I was merely scratching the surface of. And, if I were to be completely honest with myself, there was a little bit of wanting Jason to think I'm legit. So I decided 2016 would be my year and blocked off the dates and waited patiently for the application period to open for the California Vipassana Center's fall program in the Yosemite valley. And like I was trying to score Pearl Jam tickets on Ticketmaster, I had my fingers poised over the keys the moment I could apply. And then, just like that, I was accepted. It was real and I was gonna have to follow through. I made sure to tell Jason immediately so he could hold me accountable and not let me bail out because I was "too busy" (btw, you're always too busy to take 12 total days off to meditate) or if I just got too skerred of the whole thing.
So the year flew by and November finally rolled around and the start date approached. I researched packing lists online and asked Jason for his must-haves. Comfortable bedding, a thermos, shoes that slip on/off easily and massage roller balls. Check! Strangely, we weren't allowed to wear yoga pants, which was a actually great excuse to invest in a few pairs of new sweats. Because, who doesn't love sweats?
Months before, I had scored a single ticket to the instantly-sold-out Temple of the Dog show in Seattle just days before the course and my mom had just recently moved to the Puget Sound area so I made the odd decision to freshen up my neuroses with a quick family visit and go back in time to 1992, when I was trying to figure out who the f*ck I was (kind of like, well, now). This would guarantee me plenty of fodder for my 120+ hours of cushion time AND provide me with a most epic mental jukebox. From there I'd fly down to the Fresno/Yosemite airport and begin my adventures in tush on cush. What happened in Seattle is a whole blog of it's own, for now I'll limit it to Vipassana.
I read online that most of the "rooms" were singles but a few were doubles. The idea of being silent is one thing. The idea of being silent amongst others is another thing.
The idea of sharing a tiny cubicle with another person and not talking to them sounded like more than I could handle. So I resolved to arrive first and explain my urgent need for a single. And, true to my word, I got there first like an eager beaver only to find they'd assigned beds long before that moment and what you get is what you get. I was in Bed 1 - SINGLE. From there the only instruction was to "go left" and be back to this dining hall at 6pm for a light dinner. Ok...I had a coffin-sized suitcase with 10-days of clothing and all my bedding so I walked out relieved and just turned left. And proceeded to drag that mofo of a suitcase up a dirt road until I finally saw a house in the distance and figured that had to be the right place. Later, of course, I noted they had little pull carts for people to get their stuff to their rooms but I must have not heard that part in the "go left" directive and invoked my inner mule instead.
The "rooms" are really more like cubicles with 3/4 walls that provide visual but no audio privacy (ruh roh, no farting for the next 11 days folks, Houston, we could have a problem). My bed was twin-ish, more like a yoga mat sized with about a foot on one side of it in which to navigate in and out of the cubicle. So much for sneaking in some yoga in my room. Nary a single ujjayi breath would have gone unnoticed, and I didn't have enough space to even do trikonasana. So I made my bed up and unpacked my sweats and then started walking around our house. We were able to speak (until after dinner) at this point. I purposely came on a course where I wouldn't know anybody so that my efforts at silence would be less challenged. So imagine my surprise when the second person in our house and the first person I meet rolls in, I ask her if I can help her find her bed and she says "Wait, what's your name?" And I say "Gina" and she says "Oh, I'm Tania, we met in Boulder and had lunch once". Sure as shit, she's a friend of Jason's and now I'm going to have to seriously suppress my communication urges. Damnit. I go back to my bed and stare at the ceiling for awhile. It's still 3.5 hours until dinner. What to do? Since the course didn't officially start until dinner, I did what any other addict would do, I walked back down to where my iPad was stashed, hid in the parking lot and then read until 5:59pm. At dinner, which was some tasty, light soup, they laid down some of the rules and expectations. As I looked around, I realized, this does not look ANYTHING like a typical yoga class demographic.
Nay, nay, we of the fairest skin were the minority. Iiiinteresting. This makes me happy.
At this point, Day 0, I'm excited and have no idea what to expect and am anxious for the meditation to begin. After dinner we hike up the hill to the meditation hall to get our cushions assigned. Picture 7 rows of 8 cushions each for the women and same for the men. You get assigned your spot and you sit in it the whole time. The OGs get to be in the first couple of rows. Meaning, you're seated in order of experience until you get to the newbies and then I think it's just luck of the draw. I'm assigned D1, first aisle seat, fourth row which is the first row of noobs. I realized when you're a "1", you're in the direct line of the most experienced person in A1. That had to be a good omen, right? Maybe I could get some of her juju. I was also on an aisle, right across from the guys who had an identical set up. We're completely segregated, except when we are in the meditation hall and aren't supposed to communicate. But I stealthily side eyed and noticed that my counterpart in the dudes D1 was a gigantic human being. Basically he looked like this:
Just watching him accordion himself onto his cushion for the first time made me feel for him. His knees were keeping his ears warm. I sent him some good luck vibes. I sense a presence and the person who will be my next-door neighbor is filing in to her cushion. Who do you think it is? Tania. Bowman's friend. Out of 56 seats, she's seated right next to me. HOW AM I NOT GOING TO TALK TO HER?!?! Noble silence has been imposed until we're complete, 10 days from now. Yikes.
There are 2 real-life teachers who don't say much at all and our main teacher via audio and video recordings is, S.N. Goenka. A very interesting dude. As soon as everybody was in their places, the lights dimmed and Goenka begins the course via recording with...some kind of chanting? Hey, I like chanting, maybe I can join in! Wait, what is this? I've never heard chanting like this before. I know my fair share of Sanskrit and feel like I can pick out a word here and there but WTF is this chanting?!?! And it wasn't just the language, it was the way he chanted. I feel terrible saying this now that I've come full circle but on that night I thought he sounded like James Earl Jones, Marlon Brando and a handle of rum all got together one night with a chanting hymnal. In all our conversations about it, neither Jason nor any other friends who have done a course mentioned his rather unique chanting style. I'm baffled, he goes on and on and on. And there isn't a single mention of it in the Vipassana literature other than (I found this later) one sentence that basically says "Don't worry about the chanting". I found myself growing agitated and aggravated because it was so unclear what we were supposed to be doing. AND WHAT LANGUAGE IS THIS? Is it just really awful pronunciation of Sanskrit?? Let's just say this is the first occasion for full-blown aversion to raise it's ugly head. I guess this means I have an attachment to KNOWING and being IN THE KNOW (shocker, right?!). And an aversion to being chanted at, instead of with. This goes on for some time and eventually he starts giving the first technique which is specific breath observation, with focus on your NOSE-TRILS. That's how he said it, no fewer than 108 times that night. Nose-trils. My mind takes off. His English is perfect and why hasn't anyone told him its "nahstrils" not "nose-trils"? Oooh, aversion take 2! Damn, this is going to be a long 10 days. We have our first sit and after about 10 minutes, the room starts to sound like a popcorn machine.
The dudes start popping off first, moving and fidgeting and that's just permission for the women to wiggle as well. The first 2-3 rows were like statues and from rows D-G it was like pre-schoolers resisting nap time. For my part, because Tania was exquisitely still and I was right behind an "old student", I stayed pretty still. Let me rephrase, my body was relatively still. I mean, my spine is on the verge of breaking through the skin but I could manage to survive with some minor seated cat/cowing. Inside was a cage of aggravated monkeys. On this night, Goenka reminds us repeatedly to approach this "patiently and persistently". Ok, that sounds like a good mantra. Patiently and persistently. I can do that. After a final round of unintelligible chanting we're released to our beds. It's 9pm, I climb into my flannel sheets and the real aversion starts. I like to read. No, I LOVE to read. I consume books. Some are quite erudite, many are total garbage mystery thrillers that I escape into. But I'm a bonafide addict to reading. I actually love the feeling of my eyes consuming words, left to right, line to line. At check-in they gave us a little pamphlet with the rules and a short intro. I don't know if this counts as contraband but it's the written word and I took it with me so I read it cover to cover, all 4 pages or so. And then I panic. Now that I've read it, what will I read the rest of the nights?!?!?!
I got lucky, I guess. Someone needed to volunteer to ring the wake up gong at 4am. The gal 2 beds down from me volunteered which means I got to wake up to her alarm at 3:45 so she could ring it at 4am. Yippeee! Needless to say, I was wide awake and ready for 4:30am meditation. Wooweee look at me, I'm up when it's dark and I'm going to meditate for 2 hours!! Surely I'm legit now. We silently march up to the hall, take our assigned cushions and get to the nose-trils again. Once again, all goes well until about 10 minutes in and then the wild fidgeting starts. And everytime someone moves, you notice and start thinking about it. Over and over and over and over. At about 6am, with 30 minutes to go, the chanting starts again and goes on for 30 minutes. I'm witnessing that the chanting is still pissing me off. More than a little. This is going to be a long 10 days. I remember 10 years ago Jeff and I were on a yoga retreat in Santorini and we all went out on a boat to watch the sunset. The plan was to chant the Gayatri mantra 108 times as the sun went down. I was all in. Jeff didn't say a single word. Later I said "Babe, why didn't you even try?" And he said "Because I can't chant with genuine feeling when I have no idea what I'm even saying". I'd fallen in love with yoga hard and fast and at first, I never cared what I understood or not, I wanted it all. I did it all. I chanted it all. But right now, I finally understood how he felt. And what was happening to this group? The coughing and sneezing and phlegm hacking was kicking in with a vengeance. And each and every one pulled me away from my nose-trils. FINALLY the drunken chanting ends and it's time for breakfast. We only get 2 meals a day, one at 6:30am and one at 11:00am. At 5 we can drink tea and eat a piece of fruit. So I'm nervous in anticipation for my evening suffering so figure I should probably eat 3x my usual amount at the first 2 meals and hope my bloatedness will keep me from being hungry. In the dining hall I serve myself a lineman's sized portion of oatmeal. Like a boatload. Hey, it's boatmeal. Friends, this is the shit you think about when you can't talk.
After breakfast we have another sit from 8-9am and then 9:15-11am. Holy mother of germs, what is happening to this group? People are falling apart. How is this possible that in 15 hours, 50% of people are sick? My father is a germaphobe and I inherited this tendency. Why oh why didn't Jason tell me to bring a mask?!?! I start thinking about what I could possibly make one out of. And every time someone sneezes I try to silently tuck my face in the hood of my sweatshirt without moving anything but my neck (this is hard, try it). Aversion!! Germs! Sick people! Getting sick! Alert alert alert!
Lunch break. This is our last meal of the day. AND IT IS 11 AM. Surely, I will die. So again, I eat enough to feed the entire 10th Mountain Division AND decide I need to steal a banana for later, JUST IN CASE. This banana became the most important banana in the world. It was going to save my life.
After lunch we go back to our cubicles and have "break time". No exercise is allowed other than walking around a nearby pond. As I lie there staring up at the ceiling with nothing to distract myself with and the knowledge that I'll be doing many more hours of meditation later, I think back to how prisoners mentally survive incarceration. Well, at least how they do in movies. And I feel like the most successful ones have routines. So I decide I'm going to do 5 laps of brisk walking around the approved pond every single day during this post-lunch break as my mental health routine. A little known fact about me is that I could have been an Olympic speed walker.
I don't know why or how I have this gift but we've all got our something. So my walks around the lake are most definitely pushing the limit of the no exercising rule. I'm not sure my fellow meditators appreciate my high-altitude self bulldozing them as they solemnly walk like Buddhas.
In the afternoon we sit in 2 sessions from 1-5pm. And I discover that between 2:30-3:30pm, there is some rip in the time-space continuum and we actually take a side time loop of about 6 additional hours inside what the rest of the world thinks is 1 hour. No watches and no clocks so I can't prove this but I am POSITIVE that was not one hour. I may need to conveniently be sick from 2:30-3:30pm from now on.
At 5pm we get tea and a piece of fruit as our evening meal. I decide to stop back at my place for my thermos to refill hot water and arrive a few minutes after everybody else. These hungry vultures left 2 lemons and a lime in the fruit bowl. OMG HOW AM I GOING TO EAT A LIME FOR DINNER?! And obviously, there's no tequila to wash it down. At that point I'm panicking and scanning the room madly for something, anything but these lemons and this lime! Then I notice someone has left a half an asian pear and another someone has left half a red delicious apple on the counter. Like a hyena, I grab them both. Let me mention, I effing HATE red delicious apples. They are an embarrassment to other apples. Can you imagine being a Honeycrisp and having to admit you're related to a Red Delicious?
Anyway, to take this revelation further, I don't even love fruit. I know, I know, as a yogi that's sacrilege but I'd rather eat a pound of steamed broccoli than fruit. What can I say? I like savory. So in an attempt to make my half "apple" and half asian pear more palatable, I look around and notice that although there is no other food available, they left all the condiments out from lunch. I take a closer look and see gomasio (sesame seeds and sea salt) and flax seeds and nutritional yeast. HOLD UP! Gomasio is delicious, flax seeds are good for you and apples and cheese are delicious and nutritional yeast kind of tastes like cheese so OMG I might live after all. I cut them both up into bite sized pieces so I can eat them with a fork, like a real meal, douse them with my contraband condiments (they didn't say not to but I don't think that's really the idea behind restricting our evening meal). And now I'm feeling pretty chuffed with my plan for my evening "meals". Just need to get down here first next time! I'm nothing if not a planner.
Now from 6-9pm we have a combination of 2 more sits and a discourse, which is a video of Goenka giving us a recap on the day and advice for the next day. He says two things that night that stick with me. One is that this entire course is like doing a deep surgery on your mind. And that it is important to stay for the whole surgery. You wouldn't get up halfway through open heart surgery, and say "hey, I'll try this again later". And just like that you don't want to get up and leave with an open wound. And I'm thinking, ok, maybe if you don't chant as much I'll survive and won't leave. I can't seem to get past the fact that they won't say a word about the chanting. It sounds crazy now but it was irritating me to no end. He also tells a story about a mad man, an insane person and describes how his behavior and what we'd equate with madness, looks a hell of a lot like what our minds do all day, it just doesn't come out our mouths. He kinda had a point there. So basically, we're all insane but mostly manage to practice restraint in revealing it.
And on that note, it's bed time. I race to my flannel sheets and hop in. I grab my pamphlet and now start rationing it. Tonight I will read just pages 1 and 2 again and then put it away and then I'll read pages 3 and 4 tomorrow. Phew.
Beep beeep beeeeep that must mean it's 3:45 and my neighbor will be banging the gong soon. Rise and shine! I forgot to mention that in navigating around Seattle with 2 roller bags (one for Vipassana and one for my short time there) I pulled a muscle in my upper back. Awesomesauce because there's nothing like embarking on a 10 day sit, 12 hours a day with a pulled muscle in your back. And for some reason, this pulled muscle has even more aversion to the unintelligible chanting than I do. It is SCREAMING this morning. And OMG everyone is coughing and sneezing and hocking up phlegm. At this point 75% of the people here have tuberculosis. How is this even possible?! And who the hell is Patient Zero? I'm filled with bitterness today. I feel certain I can't complete this course sick and how the hell will I not get sick under these circumstances? I decide that if I get sick, I'm going home. That's final.
Breakfast. Just in case I stay though, I might need more bananas. At this point, I didn't even eat the first banana I hoarded but I find comfort in having it. I'd better steal another one. OMG is this a thing? Emotional Support Bananas? Because it sure feels like it.
More sitting. Then lunch. Then my 5 prison laps. Lots more sitting.
The guys are especially losing it. We're not much better but they're over there flailing around on their cushions so much I crack open my eyes to see if they're ok. With all the flopping around going on, it's starting to sound like an episode of Deadliest Catch up in here with a bunch of swordfish flopping around on the deck.
I'm hurting too, I won't lie. And I was feeling irritable AF. Between the chanting and the germs and the sick noises and the guys flopping around so much, I was feeling angry. By 7pm, my back is spasming from the damn pulled muscle. So when they roll the discourse video, I adjust my seat so I'm leaning on a stack of cushions kind of on my side. This is to change my back position and get off my sitting bones, which I am certain are bleeding at this point. About 10 minutes in, a course helper comes over and busts me and tells me to sit up. And now I'm extra angry and resentful because they didn't tell us what was expected so I broke a rule unknowingly. When it's live, I get it, when its a video, I figured we could get a little more comfortable. Nope. So now I basically hate her too. I also haven't pooped yet and this is a problem, especially considering how much I'm eating at breakfast and lunch.
And oh I am so angry at the man in E1. I can't see him with my side eye but I am sure he has some kind of an amp installed inside him so that his every sound is so loud that I can't even hear the sounds in my own head over them. He is fond of burping, grinding his teeth his teeth, popping his jaw, suckling some kind of imaginary teat, coughing, yawning, sneezing and farting incessantly. Why can I hear him so loudly? Are we wired together somehow? I feel close to screaming at him if he makes that suckling noise one more time. And he flops around like a big tuna. I'm seething. Did I mention aversion? I'm getting a PhD in it so far.
And then, I shit you not, Goenka says in his discourse "You are the first victim of your anger." Damn. As much as I initially disliked him for the chanting, I'm starting to get the impression he's done this before and might know exactly how we're feeling and this might all be part of a master plan.
This day is pure agony. Everyone is really sick. I'm still not. But how long will this last? I feel like I'm at ground zero in the movie Outbreak. Every time I come into this hall, I am risking my life. I didn't remember to bring my hazmat suit. Shit.
They now give us permission to do some of our sits in our "rooms". Oh sweet mother of pearl, YES! I'm all over that. But I've got to be disciplined since there's nobody to verify I'm not just napping. But I tell myself that I can nap at home but no way will I have this space and quietude in which to sit. So I actually sit, true story.
By lunch I'm starting to realize that I can actually survive on 2 meals a day. Shock, right? So I stop stockpiling Emotional Support Bananas. But right around now they start looking for other ways to make us suffer, more rules, more restrictions. I'm getting angrier and angrier at the program helpers who are supposed to be there for us in the event we have a total meltdown but they are so subservient to the 2 live teachers (who don't speak) that they seem almost mean to us. They certainly don't come across as a safe harbor. Keep in mind, my mindset is reflecting my detox from basically everything. I'm also angry at this meditation system. It strikes me at this point as yet another body-negating practice. And I get really up in arms about this inside my head. We're working on our minds, right? Well here's some important news: YOU ONLY HAVE A MIND BECAUSE YOU HAVE A BRAIN AND A NERVOUS SYSTEM AND A BODY. Why can't we accept that they are inseparable and quit trying to quash our bodies? Basically I'm pissed at everything.
The guys continue to flail around so much during our group sits that I become fixated on their flopping and am convinced someone over there has got to be close to losing it. They are reaching some kind of flopping crescendo. Any minute now I'm expecting some poor dude to yell "I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE, GET ME THE F OUT OF HERE!!!" And I'm ashamed to realize that my mind is so bored with my nose-trils and my upper lip at this point that I'm kind of hoping it will happen, just as a distraction for the rest of us.
By the evening sits I'm in so much pain I realize I finally, fully understand how Wolverine felt when he was getting his Adamantium skeleton installed. Not an X-Men fan? Here it is - this is EXACTLY what it feels like to be on Day 3 of a Vipassana retreat:
And in this video you will see what you feel like when a sit is finally over:
I realize on this night that an undisciplined mind is like a parent trying to bring their child along on errands. You've got a mission to accomplish and they just keep getting distracted and pulling you away to 108 other things along the way and you actually get nothing done. So basically, I decided not to have children and I still had a child. Shit.
And then as if on cue, in the evening discourse Goenka says "No one can hurt you more than your own undisciplined mind. No one can help you more than your own disciplined mind." Game on.
Day 4 is called Vipassana Day.
Wait, what? I thought they all were. Why don't they explain anything? Aversion aversion aversion.
In the afternoon Goenka gives us the full technique. And this practice isn't body-negating at all! Gautama the Buddha was a smarty pants. And Goenka clearly has a master plan here. I think he did a great job of stirring us up first to help us see. He calls what we've learned today "Vipassana Kindergarten" implying that this is just the beginning, and that our practice evolves more and more each day we sit for the rest of our lives. On this day we have our first Adhitthana sit. This means "strong determination". Know what that means? For 3 of our daily sits, we cannot move. Not for an itch, a pain or any other damn thing. Vipassana is about awareness and equanimity. It gives us the opportunity to cultivate awareness, understand impermanence (even pains pass apparently) and free ourselves from the attachment/aversion cycle but you've got to practice discipline for these opportunities to be available. I don't know how this is going to go over for the rest of the flopping swordfish but I keep looking at those first 3 rows of women sit like statues and I know it is physically possible. Let's do this thing.
Surprisingly with the full technique, I'm able to sit in absolute stillness for an hour at a time like a mofo'in statue! Bam!
I wake up feeling so empowered. I get this!! But I'm also EXHAUSTED. The afternoon sits were deeply tiring because I was truly focusing with the technique instead of that combo of focus and monkey mind. And dang that kind of focus really takes effort. I also felt a surge of energy, not completely pleasant, it was the kind of energy that makes you feel antsy. There was excess energy that I couldn't successfully channel into meditating. I desperately wanted to discharge that energy with a yoga practice or SOMETHING physical. Gaaaahhhh...Meditating with others majorly puts the pressure to not move on. But still, you can hear someone move across the room and that starts a chain reaction, as if it's some kind of permission slip once someone breaks the movement bubble and you start thinking, "oooh you're gonna get BUSTED". So you're kind of in agony but there's also this kind of guilt around moving that keeps you in that state of strong determination.
Side note: I'm craving crunchy, salty things. Everything we eat is sweet, from boatmeal to brown rice to sweet potatoes, it seems like everything is sweet and mushy. I want things like taco shells and chips. I start fantasizing about crunchy taco shells.
By evening, I'm hanging in pretty well. My least favorite thing are my legs. I still feel like Wolverine claws are going to pop out of my knees any minute now. But I watch a few itches come and go, several tingles come and go. Holy shit, I think I get it. This not moving reveals habit patterns of craving and resistance. Not reacting is the goal - to know everything is changing anyway so why put so much emotional energy into something that's going to change anyway?
By bedtime, I have stopped reading my rationed pamphlet. I think I can survive without reading. Maybe. If I get desperate, I can always read the ingredients on my toothpaste tube.
I'm deeply exhausted today. It's almost like at this point the practice is bringing all the "tireds" I have ignored in the last two years back up to the surface and those sleep debts are demanding payment. Because my back is still spasming, I tried one sit in my room lying on my back, still trying to be perfectly still. That didn't go so well. I started out fine and the next thing you know you're having those weird pre-sleep dreamy thoughts that make no sense. Know what I mean? No more "laying down" sits. I make it through to lunch.
In the afternoon we get assigned meditation cells in the Pagoda next door, the gorgeous building pictured below. To some this will sound awful, but remember that everyone was crazy sick and my biggest struggle at this point was all the sick noises people were making in the hall and even sits back in my room were punctuated with fellow meditators coughing and sneezing. A meditation cell is basically a 6x3 room with nothing but a light switch and a meditation cushion. Maybe I'm a weirdo but I thought I'd gone to heaven. Total silence, total darkness, total solitude. Wow the quality of my sits increased significantly. I immediately begin planning the build out of my meditation cell at home. I immediately begin planning my retirement into said cell. I consider asking if I can just stay in this cell for the rest of the course. Hell, I'm considering sending a carrier pigeon to Jeff to tell him I've moved here and will be living in cell #148 from now on. It's heavenly.
Holy shit I am HIGH ON MEDITATION today! Tons of energy. Powered by prana. After lunch I did my 5 prisoner laps and added an extra one because I felt so good. Woo! I also do my laundry in a 5 gallon bucket today because my hoodie is getting FUN-KEE. Does seated meditation make you sweat from your soul? It's crazy how fun it is just to have an activity that isn't sitting. I really never thought I'd think "Yay laundry!!"
I feel bad though. Everyone is looking terribly morose except me. I have to assume some of it is from being so sick. Each day we seem to lose another dude or two and I notice a few of the women's cushions are missing too. My giant neighbor finally calls it on Day 7. I want so badly to pep talk him here in the home stretch but he disappears. Not like it's a competition but I do start thinking about women and our ability to suffer. And I think we might be winning.
By 5pm tea, people were looking so glum I wanted to break noble silence and shout on the top of my lungs - "Cheer up cuz we're goin' DEEP y'all!!" But then I thought I might get ratted out to the course helpers who look so mean so I don't. We've gotten into a rhythm now of lights out immediately upon arrival back at the house. We brush our teeth at 6pm so we can zoom directly to bed after the final sit at 9pm. In our discourse tonight, Goenka talked about taking this practice into the world, not just reserving it for when you're doing a sit but being in continuous practice. Basically, be aware of everything. Back at the house its lights out and then silence. But tonight one of the ladies farts at volume 10. For the second time today I almost break noble silence by saying into the dark "I am aware that one of you just ripped ass." But I put my head under the covers and chuckle silently to myself instead. Because, you know, I'm mature like that.
Oh damn, I crashed hard after all my "high on meditation" antics yesterday. I'm super sleepy today. This day was characterized by a good amount of suffering. But the suffering is changing. It's not so much about the physical pain anymore but other attachments and aversions. I'm totally developing an attachment to my meditation cell. And an aversion to others. I just want to be alone. At this point, I don't ever want to talk again. I think I'll become a Buddhist nun and sit in a meditation cell all day. It's hard work, being so vigilant with the activity of your mind. And now I'm swinging away from aversion to attachment. Weeeeeeee!
This is our last day for "serious" work as Goenka puts it because on Day 10 noble silence is lifted and you can't work seriously under those conditions he says. I'm committed. But after yesterday where I was sure I had completely transcended physical pain, I'm back to Wolverine again today. Was it a bad cushion set up or was my meditation high masking the pain? One of Goenka's messages is to accept reality as it is on any given day, in any given moment. You don't have to love it or do nothing about it but in truly accepting it you're able to move forward and act with more equanimity. Ok then, so today is Wolverine day, I accept it. At this stage the technique has evolved one more step but I feel left in the dust. In a nutshell we're supposed to go from noticing gross sensation in our bodies to noticing subtle sensation in our bodies. Like subatomic particle level of sensation. You might be able to feel that you are actually made of wavelets. I'm feeling every muscle and every bone. Not so much subatomic particles. I'm surprised at how many blind spots I am noticing when I scan my body. I can feel the painful places, and a few other places feel more like vibrating energy but some places are just dull, blank. As a yogi, you'd think I'd have those neuronal pathways lit up like Vegas. Nope. So at this stage I'm resigned to the previous technique, I feel like I have a ways to go before I'm just sweeping my body with awareness and working on not getting attached to the pleasant sensation of being an energy body. I'm still part Wolverine I guess. But is everybody else feeling the subtle energy? I feel like many people still struggle with operating major body parts with grace and ease so is it possible that everyone around me is already experiencing themselves as liberated energy? Interestingly, I'm ok with that if its true. I'm ok with still being in the physical pain / aversion realm. It will take time and practice. I'm committed or at least that's what I keep repeating to myself.
I can feel myself prepping for my return. I'm thinking tons about the school, next steps, ideas, plans...oh to go back to where all I was thinking of was the muscle spasm in my back! Now I'm feeling aversion to returning to the real world. We have our final sit that lasts until 10:30am and then he lifts noble silence. Remember how concerned I was about being able to restrain myself from talking? On Day 10 I desperately don't want to start talking again. After he chants again, (I finally figured out he's chanting in a combo of Pali and Hindi and I hate it a bit less now but that might be because it signals the end of a sit and we're not really far off from Pavlov's dogs) he cuts us loose for talking. But we also have the option of going to our cells so I run to my cell and hide. While in there I'm realizing I'm finally getting sick. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?! I held out until the morning of Day 10? Actually, I'm bummed but strangely not deeply upset, more accepting. Did this deep mental surgery work after all?? When the lunch gong rings I give in and decide to rejoin the talking. The first person I find is Tania, who is also reticent to talk again. So I tell her one thing that's been on my mind is how grateful I am that she was next to me for every group sit. I derived comfort from her quiet countenance. Surprisingly she said she was doing the same in her own moments of freak out. Funny that we'd been a source of support for each other without words and without knowing. We end up down at the dining hall and I find a quiet group and talk about the MOST important things that happened during the course: the apple crisp on Day 2 and the mac and cheese on Day 5. Ok, talking isn't that bad after all, I can do this again. One more sit in the cell and then we've got to focus on clean-up and our final group sits. I feel a sense of accomplishment, just the right amount, not enough to get attached to and am both excited and sad to leave. I realize I could use some more time in seclusion, in quietude and in rest.
One more sit and discourse and then I'm up and out by 7am. I get to the airport and I want to check the news. I had convinced myself that something big happened in terms of the election, that Standing Rock had been completely resolved, that the Buffs were going to the Rose Bowl and that I'd make it home in time for the Broncos. None of those happened but I realize that I can work with that. I had my family to look forward to. And when I finally got to Boulder, my incredible family sat for 8 motherloving hours listening to me recount every detail. I love them so.
Days 12 and beyond
Several people have asked what the big takeaway has been. And that's hard to say at this point. I know how it went (and now you do too) but I don't know what it's impact truly will be. I can say that I hoped for a massive change in my outlook and reactions. But upon my return the HVAC at the school wasn't working after I'd promised everyone a toasty room and an inspired class and the equanimity I'd spent over 120 hours cultivating fell short. I cried. I realized that when the unpleasantness only affects me, I can handle it. But when it affects others, particularly others that I've made a commitment to, that's when I lose my poise and revert to habituated responses of frustration, anger and resentment. I'll have to dig deeper into that one.
I guess the bottom line is that it's easy to go into something that feels so intense or radical (compared to "regular life") expecting an equally radical result. Like, surely, a huge change will occur because of this. But the reality, for me anyway, is that nothing major happened. I was able to self-witness my ability to do something extremely difficult and dance with my capacity for unpleasant sensation and the restriction of things that give me comfort and those are actually big things in terms of my sense of self. But what I feel most of all is more resourced. Though there wasn't a huge, immediate shift in my psyche or behavior or relationship with the world, I do feel like I have a practice that will facilitate slow, gradual, nearly imperceptible change in my life. It may not sounds as sexy as instant enlightenment but it's real.
I'm sitting an hour a day in the mornings now. I feel more clarity, I am witnessing everything, I'm recognizing impermanence and trying in tiny ways to make better decisions about where to put my energy. But it's not fool proof and takes time and investment in the practice to rewire habit patterns. And there are some root feelings that are hard to derail, like a sadness around betrayal or frustration around not knowing. For now this feels good and right and of benefit. And so, I keep sitting.
I sit to transcend my suffering. I sit to become aware. I sit to understand impermanence. I sit to become free from attachment and aversion for the benefit of all beings.
In the beginning I thought not talking and not eating when I wanted to would be the hardest. In the end it was not reading and not listening to music that were my deepest attachments. And in case you're wondering what I listened to first on the way to the airport, it was Pearl Jam's "Alive" of course. Cuz, damnit, I did it and I'M STILL ALIVE!
I'm not in a rush to go back right away but I see the massive benefit to such an intense practice. It's hard to experience something like that when you're still "in the world". If you ever decide to go, let me know so I can pay it forward with my favorite tips, hacks and Vipassana recipes. ;)