it’s the people who try hard to forget who go the farthest later to remember.
Vipassana is taught in 10-day courses. It’s a meditation technique said to be based on the teachings of the Buddha. Like most world religions all the structure, rules, and documentation were made up by men hundreds of years after a historic figure existed. The doctrines of the belief system are then attributed to the object of adoration by way of the founder of the religion’s divine inspiration.
No judgment on that quirky fact about world religions, just want to let you know that you’re reading a completely secular take on meditation.
Vipassana courses are free of charge, but require agreement to a code of discipline. You’re given 3 opportunities to confirm your commitment before you surrender all belongings that aren’t clothes, toiletries, and a flashlight. You can’t read, write, sing, or exercise. The only permitted activities are meditation, walking around designated areas of the retreat center, and eating breakfast and lunch. There’s no evening meal.
After the introductory sit on the evening of your arrival (referred to as Day 0) “Noble Silence” begins. This means you can’t communicate in any way with those around you. No talking. No eye contact. No written messages or drawing pictures or making sounds. You’re told to behave as if you’re “the only person here.”
The first day of a 10-day Vipassana course is difficult, but it’s not complicated. Everyday is virtually the same and a large schedule is posted. It looks more or less like this, only without the commentary:
Someone walks through the dormitories ringing a gong for about 5 minutes. It’s a slow, resonating sound, not unpleasant and quickly familiar. It’s used to call people to the hall and to signal the beginning and ending of meals. You hear is so much during the course that the first day back in the world I missed it. In the morning you have 30 minutes to use the bathroom, brush your teeth, and get ready for the first sit of the day.
The gong comes round again. You begin meditation. Either in the Meditation Hall or your “cell” (your room). Most new students go to the Hall because they don’t really know what they’re doing yet.
Two more rounds of gonging, before and after breakfast. The food is simple and vegetarian. One bit of advice given is to eat sparingly, only what you need and never until you feel full. My first course I took that advice and never had to experience trying to meditate with too much food in my belly. You can hear the results of others ignoring this advice in a silent meditation hall.
you can either collapse in your bed or walk around a small yard about the size of half a football field.
After the first Group Meditation of the day you go in small groups from your assigned spot in the Hall to sit with the teacher. Here you’re asked in a whisper, yes or no questions about how you’re doing with the technique. You’re not to break Nobel Silence with anyone else around you. You then meditate with the teacher for about ten minutes before you’re dismissed to continue meditating in your place in the Hall or your cell.
During Rest periods you are asked not to meditate. You may walk around or lay in bed. You may also meet privately with the teacher with brief questions if you signed up beforehand.
Tea for New Students Only. The New Students are also offered fruit to eat. There’s no dinner for anyone. Old Students are allowed only lemon water. Everyone takes Rest.
A recorded message from Satya Narayan Goenka, the head of the whole practice, with instruction and reflection on what you have done that day.
Although it’s not complicated Vipassana Meditation is mentally, emotionally, and physically the most demanding thing I’ve done.
First you find a comfortable position in which to sit. You can sit cross legged, you can kneel, you can do anything but point your feet at the teacher. Once meditation begins though you don’t move. The pain is certain, but the technique is meant to turn you into an observer. So you’re asked to observe the sensations of pain, but not react to them. If it becomes unbearable you can move, but as slowly and slightly as possible.
Next you learn Anapana, or the observation of breath. The first full 3 days your sole focus during meditation is to observe your own breath. How simple does that sound? Aren’t we always aware of our breath? I thought so, but it must be your natural breath. Meaning it can’t be influenced in any way by your thinking about it.
“This is not a breathing exercise”
you’re told during initial instruction,
“You’re not to control your breath in any way. You’re only here for these 10 days to observe.”
As it turns out the observation of your breath is simple, but only after you have a quiet mind.
Oh. Is that all?
My mind most days (after 3 of these courses) is still anything but quiet. You worry about money, health, future, traffic, you stress about everything. And during a sit you can’t think about a pleasant memory from your past, your favorite activity, your favorite person, your anything. Your full awareness has to be completely focused on what your breath is doing. You’re only supposed to focus on the flow of breath entering and leaving your nostrils. So none of that relaxing in through your nose out through you mouth controlled breathing.
Why is it hard? Well, while you’re sitting there in unmoving increments of one hour, learning to observe your breath and push all other thoughts out of your head, you’re just becoming aware of how much pain your body can produce elsewhere. You aren’t supposed to ignore it exactly, but to accept that the pain (like pleasure) is a transient experience and that the point of that present moment is to observe your breath. You’re told this like it’s the simplest thing in the world to forget that your right calf is a festival of tingling, hot, stabbing pain and just quietly focus all your attention on your nostrils.
You just can’t believe that sitting can produce that much agony. You see so many people sitting in mediation looking totally blissed out. Ha! Maybe for ten minutes at the end of a yoga class. Vipassana is not like that.
If you want to get an idea of what it’s like find yourself a hard flat surface, put down padding no thicker than a yoga mat and sit on it for as long as it’s comfortable. Then sit on it some more. Be completely still. It will probably take a much shorter time than you expected for it to start hurting. Keep going. It won’t take an hour to become unbearable.
Now imagine doing that 12 hours a day.
I knew I was in serious trouble before lunch. There are the breaks, but by the end of the first day you realize you’re never going to get enough of a break for any kind of self-repair to happen. It’s like being cold and wet, but outdoors and knowing there’s no way you’re going to be warm until you’re dry and that can’t happen outside in the rain. You also realize that for the next 9 days you’re going to potentially feel 9 times the pain you’re currently experiencing.
You’ll want to leave. You won’t know why the hell you’re there (I thought meditating all day would be relaxing). You’ll want to smack the blissful benevolent smile from the teacher’s face.
As bad as I make it sound it was one of the best experiences of my life.
The whole experience. Hopefully I’ll be able to describe well enough to not make Vipassana seem completely crazy.
During meditation your eyes are to remain closed to avoid any break in concentration of your physical person. If during your practice you experience any images (and most everyone will. it’s kinda like dreaming while you’re awake) you are to ignore them and refocus yourself on what is physically happening in your personal reality. Your physical reality. This was something that was hard to do.
After the teacher is sure everyone has been able to observe their breath at least some of the time there are new elements introduced.
First you are asked to feel the touch of the breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils. What part of what nostril is most inhaling and what part most exhaling. You basically spend the first 36 hours of meditation bouncing back and forth between intense physical pain and living in the awareness of your nostrils.
It’s weird, but when you do have moments of being completely aware of your breath, and its touch, the pain is still everywhere, but you’re objective about it.
You are suddenly observing your pain and seeing it in the same way that you are able to see your breath. If this sort of thing comes at all on the second day for a new student it’s probably five of the most glorious minutes you’ve known. You’re so excited you break concentration and that’s your five minutes of zen for the day. Back to fire and pins and needles.
You are told to neither crave the positive feelings nor have aversion to the negative ones. Because they are both temporary and both craving and aversion take you away from the present moment. The idea being is that in the practice (and you realize later in this very Ralph Macchio washing cars in The Karate Kid kind of way that this truth applies to your life) you are not only experiencing present pain when you are feeling aversion, but the self-pitying memory of all your past pain and the fear of your potential future pain. You’re amplifying your own pain.
Which would almost be worth it if you could do the same with pleasure. But no. When you crave pleasure you have almost the same baggage as with pain- you want to feel more pleasure and you want to escape all past and future pain.
After you are able to feel where your breath is entering and exiting your nose you are told to focus your sharpened attention on the triangular area from the top of your lip to the apex of the nose. And to objectively observe everything you feel in that area. It’s sort of funny too because there’s this calm voice with a heavy accent (the recordings are by the head teacher from Burma, or what was formally Burma and is now the Union of Myanmar) listing the same possibilities over and over for about ten minutes
“tingling, itching, heat, moisture, a feeling you cannot describe. And you should not describe it. Just be aware of it”
I don’t know, at moments everything is so hilarious. It’s like going to the ER with an ax sticking out of your chest and the doctor being all smiles and talking to you in baby talk,
“You got a little ax coming out of your chest there do you? I bet that hurts.”
“Yeah, it really does.”
“Look at you! Are those new shoes? They look really pretty with your outfit.”
“How do your feet feel in those shoes.”
“Better than my chest, because you may have noticed there’s an ax in it.”
“I love the smell of new leather. Don’t you? Those are really great shoes!”
The last part (of the first part) of the technique is to narrow the size of the triangle to just be from your upper lip to your nostrils. Not even your whole nostrils, just the bottom part and the breath passing back and forth. Three days, I kept thinking. Three of the longest days I’ve ever known and the totality of my every waking moment is my nose and pain.
By the evening of the third day the discourse springs on you that EVERYTHING you’ve been through to this point has been prep-work, that you will not learn the actual Vipassana technique until the following day.
Do what now?
I had an alright third day. It was still a festival of pain, but I was holding up. I was adjusting. Or thought I was. I’d even seen a little progress, but in other areas.
The “free” time that seemed so little at first became amazing. 45 minutes of not being in physical pain was dizzying. Even if I could barely walk. And meals, ah meals. Food became something like your breath. You were so aware of every bite and every bite was a little bit of hope.
I felt very in tune with exactly how much food I needed.
I prep-cooked once in a kitchen where we portioned out 10 oz. hamburgers. When I started I had to use a scale. I never stopped having the scale in front of me because the kitchen manager would get pissed if he thought you were not being exact. But after months of doing it I got used to how much was 10 oz. I would prep dozens of burgers and grab exactly enough over and over.
That’s how eating was on the third day. I could tell when I was eating the bite that was the last one required for my body to do what it needed to do and that the next one if I took it would be too much, would be out of craving and perhaps even ‘damaging’ to my happiness. Maybe that next bite I would no longer be eating in the present moment and would instead be looking to food for comfort and escape.
I remember thinking that whole day (the feeling continued through lunch and for pretty much the rest of the course) that if the rest of the next 7 days was just more seemingly fruitless agony it would be worth it to be in tune with my eating.
I’m not an overweight person, but I am a comfort eater. My weight fluctuates over long periods by about 20 or more pounds. I get to the breaking point on my pants and then dial it back. In the process of regaining my fitness and eating habits I often get too disciplined and my family starts telling me to eat a sandwich. I’m currently at a pants’ breaking point. But anyway.
On Day 3 the first physical part of Vipassana happened for me. it was tiny, but nice to realize food no longer tempted me (I never had dessert on the course, even though it looked amazing and was all baked on premises). As a result my portions got smaller and smaller. I was amazed that every morning I would spoon myself smaller portions and would still feel this new awareness of “the last bite” before the bowl was empty. And I wouldn’t say it was bliss to have toast with peanut butter, honey, and banana, but it was definitely the most peaceful toast I’d ever had. Grateful Toast.
It’s the same exact food, just different motivations. And awareness. If I need it to live my life it’s good. if I need it to momentarily escape my troubles it will only contribute to my misery.
That was five years ago. I feel like that weight swing is something I’ll deal with until I’m pretty much on the border of nirvana. But at least on that first course I felt like although I was failing miserably at meditation, at least I wasn’t eating too much.
I lost 9 pounds.
This was my worst day. Maybe ever. By the end of the day I was ready to leave. I even asked to leave. Was told I could leave, but asked if I would first talk to the teacher about why I wanted to go.
The Vipassana technique is as simple as the breathing. The whole thing is simply this-
Beginning at the top of your head observe sensation, moving down and through every part of your body until you get to your feet. You aren’t supposed to linger anywhere, just observe. So for the first time you’re allowed to observe your pain directly, but to remain objective about what you find there.
The technique was taught after a special schedule of group meditation from 2PM to 3PM and meant from 3PM to 5PM you were required to sit for 2 hours without even a five minute break. You were also asked to observe “intense determination” to not move.
When I read the instruction “intense determination” I just about flipped out. I had been assuming “intense determination” from the get go. So even when I was alone in my quarters I would not be on my bed or in my chair, but on the hard floor pushing through as long as I could.
I knew from my training for and running marathons years earlier at least some of what I was experiencing. After 4 days I was experiencing intense Lactic Acidosis. My muscles were all creamed and they were just steadily getting destroyed further, leaching lactic acid as they tried to keep their head above water.
If any of you race or work out to any extremes you might know that over the top point. You start sweating profusely, you breathe heavily, you smell faintly of something like ammonia. When you go to the bathroom later it suds up like you’ve been drinking soap. It’s weird.
Before Day 4 of Vipassana I had only experienced that insane crash feeling in the last miles of a marathon. I knew I’d be fine- IF I STOPPED. but I also knew it was DAY FOUR of TEN.
The long short of my discussion with the assistant teacher was that I stayed. and I wasn’t so hard on myself physically after that. He actually laughed (when didn’t he laugh though) and said that the point was to stay still as long as you could and to let all those toxins flow. I thought it was a little crazy, but as with a marathon if you feel bad on the 8th mile it’s harder to go home a quitter than to march on into near-certain agony.
To anyone remotely considering sitting a course.
Everything you currently employ to “withstand” tough experiences will come out and want to prove itself. I thought I was pretty tough before this. By Day Four of my first course I felt like a fool.
I think the longer you make it at Vipassana with those gimmicks you already have to distract yourself from feeling crappy, the shorter time you will have to learn to use new tools. Maybe your tricks are better than mine. Mine didn’t stand a chance. It was like squirming in quicksand and not listening to anyone’s advice until my nose was level with the ground.
Day Four. There was truly nothing left of me. I could conjure any miserable experience I’d ever had: heartbreak, death, illness. And I would have picked those over how I felt then. I was stripped bare and humiliated. The fight was out of me. But that was a good thing, although at the time I didn’t care. There was no more hope. But when my hope left it took away drama and despair. And left me humor. I think because laughter lives in the now.
I have always had this fear that I will die doing something hilariously stupid. That I’ll be at the Grand Canyon, excitedly rush out of the car upon arrival, and needlessly spill over into the depths. I’m pretty sure I’ll laugh all the way down. I’ll be terrified too, and really annoyed my life is over, but it’s the grand disproportion that makes it funny.
So after I was talked into staying, despite feeling physically and emotionally as bad as I ever had, I had to figure out what was left. It was like looking for your wallet when you wanted to buy something and coming up with a piece of foreign currency. And asking the lady at the Grand Canyon gift shop if they take Pesos. You don’t walk out of there with the gift you wanted, but you do laugh. And that’s not nothing.
My experience was in two distinct parts, the first 4 days until I broke, and the rest of the course where I finally started learning something. Those days were what made Vipassana more than worth it. And why over the years I went back for seconds and thirds.
In the morning I still wanted to go home. I went there in the first place because I was pretty miserable though. So despite feeling broken and battered I really didn’t know what I would do if I left. I was on vacation and everyone expected me to come back all calm and wise.
Before I decided to sit a course I wasn’t thrilled with my job, wasn’t doing much with my BFA but writing novels I never sent to anyone (if you know the Salinger short “secret goldfish” it was a lot like that). I wasn’t thrilled with much of anything I was doing. Didn’t even know why I was doing most of it.
I wanted to go the distance to see if I could learn anything. Anything would do.
You have this idea when you’re there, especially when it’s your first course, that no one is having as tough a time as you. Everyone around you in the meditation hall seems still and calm and serene. You feel like you stand out. Like everyone, all these little buddhas around you, know that you have no business there. When everyone can finally talk at the end you’re amazed how many people felt the exact same way. Most everyone.
Some of the things you’re told not to do that I now knew from the assistant teacher were recommendations more than requirements I started to allow to be possibilities. The importance had shifted to both survival, and learning as much of the technique as I could. One of those things was that at a new student’s level of practice meditation should only be done indoors, in low light, with as few distractions as possible.
“Of course Gotama (Buddha) achieved enlightenment under a tree. But he had already done years of work on his concentration.”
The message was very walk-before-you-run.
I was going to sit in my bed with my legs extended, something that was not allowed in the Meditation Hall.
I was still in a great deal of pain- my back, my shoulders, my right leg especially- everything hurt. It was still dark outside as I walked past a bench made of an old slab of wood and two tree stumps. And I just stopped, standing. Eyes open and looking at the way these two tress came together in front of me. I could just barely make them out in the dim light. Their branches formed a pentagon and I just felt okay for the first time since I got there.
It was the first moment I was really present for completely. I let go of the idea of where I was headed in the immediate future, let go of the idea of other people beginning to wake up and walk around me. I just sort of stood there looking at those two trees. I didn’t think about how long I should stay or how long I had been there. I just stood there.
My breath awareness was established at that point, but I was always so weirded out by how little space it took up. You’re only supposed to focus on your nose, but I was aware of feeling that my breath stayed just in my lungs and went thinly up to my head. The rest of my body was tension. I knew rationally oxygen had to be getting everywhere in my body, but there was a disconnect in the feeling. I felt myself contracted and protecting myself from everything around me. And I realized I couldn’t remember anything different than that.
But that morning, still so completely crushed and hardly able to believe it, I started- I don’t want to say believing.
That morning there wasn’t anything left of me to make me feel better. I went to bed feeling like crap and woke up without much more going on. Maybe resignation. Or surrender. I didn’t have any of the fight or ideas of myself that I’d shown up with on Day Zero. All my old tricks were like looking at sticks and stones in the face of an oncoming modern army.
Nothing to me but breath. There were these trees. And a light breeze. And the sun slowly coming to life. And all I had was my breath. It was bizarre because there was comfort and I never would have thought to look for it there. I’d spent four days waiting for every part of my mind that I thought could make me feel happy to step forward and show me how great I could be. And nothing came of that. But breathing felt different now.
Like someone had given me all the water I could drink as I stumbled out of the desert.
I was breathing and it was all I wanted right then. I stood in that spot without the slightest movement. Without closing my eyes. Without thinking really about anything but how thankful I was for each breath I was taking. Like being spoon fed the best ice cream.
The sun came and the birds woke up and I knew I had to let go of it. As much as I wanted to stay in that one spot for the rest of the course. I had to go eat. And prepare for my day.
I’d started using a stool, but it was just pulverizing new parts of my body that were fresher. It gave my legs a rest, but killed my knees and ass. And the back. There’s nothing you can do for your back.
I had moments throughout the day where I could feel my pain objectively. It wasn’t as bad as everything leading up to it. You’re told that if in 10 days you experienced 2 minutes of “pure flow” it would be a start. It would be worth it. I was aware of my painful Day 5 without craving that feeling I’d known in the morning, knowing it would continue to be hard, but that reality was worth it.
I didn’t know shit about reality. Practice, practice, practice. I just kept going.
Day Six was a lot like the painful but okay with it moments of Day Five. I was trying my best not to crave that peace I felt on the morning of the fifth and accept the fact that I may not get there in the ten day course and that it may be months or longer before I felt that awesomeness sitting in meditation.
The meditation was just as hard as all the other days. As good as the experience is it is truly exhausting much of the time.
Maybe all the time.
But you know you need the practice and so you keep on practicing. It’s a lot like being a cobbler who keeps screwing up shoe repair, but keeps trying to repair the same damn shoe and doing it the tiniest bit better every ten minutes.
It’s a feature.
Six minutes in and it’s already hurting and what was I supposed to be doing? Oh yeah, top of your head, top of your head. You start over again, your life is one big run on sentence in your head and here let me try it again oh but wait I’ll just adjust this foot a little and it will feel, Nope. It will send blood to that area and it will actually hurt more and I think we’re only at eleven minutes now.
You can’t start over. You can’t ever start over or stop early and pick it up later. Day Six for me was about not suffering. NOT doing it. Patience isn’t a trait you’re born with. You carve it out of yourself. First out of spite. No. That was just how I did it. I’m going to accept this without suffering damn it! Yes. I am.
Years have passed and I have a lot more patience than before this experience. And it came from that. Patience is admired, but the key to it for me is this:
Don’t scratch your nose. No matter what you do withstand the itch. Observe the itch. That’s patience. Mine anyway. Putting the itch indefinitely on hold. Not laughing at it, laughing with it. Like a child with a finger a centimeter away from the eye of his sibling,
“I’m not touching you!”
You’re right. You’re not. But your finger is very close. So close I can feel a little heat radiating into my eye. But I’ll laugh with you. And then you stop being a bully. Because we’re laughing together.
There is a moment when you must participate, although it seems impossible that you can’t. But a sneeze will pass. It will shoot more sensation through your head than a roundhouse kick, but you don’t have to move and you don’t have to change your breathing and a sneeze will roll through you. And no one will be the wiser. But the sneezer.
I didn’t leave my cabin during the 4:30 to 6:30 time slot. In the past couple days of “going easy on myself” I’d sat in bed, or leaned against the wall to support my back, or stood even. From 4:30 to 5:30 I felt like I got a decent meditation in. Not quite as focused as in the hall, but good.
There were distractions- sounds mostly. Birds and the things that go crackle and bump in the woods. And the room with just me had less weight. A room full of meditators has this density. All psychological I’m sure, but when you meditate with a bunch of people you feel like gravity is altered somehow.
But I sat and kept still, even if it was cushioned.
The problem was that 5:30 to 6:30 slot. 9 times out of 10 I’d get really relaxed and because I wasn’t in a position of great pain I would start to nod off. And feel bad about it. And start the practice again.
The morning of the seventh I had an amazing 4:30 to 5:30 and got up to go to the bathroom. When I got back from the bathhouse I felt pretty happy with my hour and decided to not meditate. To just relax in bed and save my energy for the 8 AM group sit.
I lay down and just observed my breath for about half an hour and then drifted off into a very light sleep. I woke at the breakfast gong and felt really fresh. I ate almost nothing and had two sips of tea and walked around our yard for an hour waiting for the gong for 8 AM, but also really liking that I had time to just walk. And not think. Just breathe.
The 8 o’clock group sit was great for me. The previous days the 8 AM had been one of the more frustrating. I felt stiff as hell and all of my problematic areas still groaned, but that hour of meditation, about ten minutes into it maybe, I felt again that calm and objectivity of the morning of the fifth. I even realized in a sort of “holy crap I’m doing it” sort of way, but it didn’t get my heart rate up. I could feel the grin spreading across my face, but I was okay with it possibly just being a flash in the pan.
First 30 minutes:
Good. I may have discomfort, but I can handle it. It may distract me, but I’m able to keep returning patiently to the practice of observing the sensations from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.
The 30 to 45 minute span:
Gravity does its thing. I start to feel more aware of the pain and my practice becomes less important. Or rather, more difficult to focus on. I’m ready to stop most of the time.
The 45 to 55 minute span:
Rarely anything but grit and determination. Observations are poor outside of the awareness of the increasing pain. My feet are numb, my back feels like it’s going to explode, I’m shaking in certain stressed areas. I’m waiting, impatiently, for the chanting to begin. because when Goenka starts chanting it means I have five minutes to go.
The last five minutes:
Easier. I still hurt, but it’s suddenly more bearable because I know it’s almost over.
I had the “free flow” of observation and sensation from ten minutes in, to after the chanting. I actually didn’t come out of meditation until I heard people starting to leave for break. I felt amazing, like a low current of electricity moving through me.
My body felt like a single object made up of elastic, something, with infinite little particles swimming around in there. My left shoulder, which has been a pain for me for years, suddenly had no tension. I was still kneeling in meditation when I opened my eyes and thought that it must just be easier now. That my body had adapted and I wouldn’t feel anymore intense pain.
Then I tried to stand up and my legs were just as jacked as usual. The blood flow resumed at full kilter and stabbing needles were everywhere, but I was still grinning, and it was all good. I remember thinking it was cool that I finally had a good 8 to 9 time-slot.
I went to the bathroom and came back to wait for my consultation with the assistant teacher. When we went around and he asked us about the “free flow” I thought I’d be so excited to tell him, but instead I found I didn’t want to talk. I just shook my head ‘yes’ and waited for him to meditate with us for the ten minutes we got with him.
I went back to my cabin and sat again on my bed. Breaking more rules I kept my eyes open and looked out my window. I was only going to for a second and then return to “practice” but I could still feel the flow. And I just didn’t feel like moving. I didn’t feel like I wasn’t meditating because I was doing everything I would be doing if my eyes were closed. I was just staring at a tree outside my window.
Lunch rolled around and I thought about not going. I wasn’t hungry. When the kitchen guy came around with the gong I just watched him pass my tree and didn’t jump up to get grub. I think I sat another ten minutes or so. by the time I got to the dining hall just about everyone was already seated and eating. I had a small portion and no tea and left probably before anyone else.
There was a little patch of woods we were allowed in and I figured out a few days earlier that the course boundary signs were positioned in a way that made it look like the wooded path was a dead end. So most people just used half of it. I had the swatch of woods to myself for day seven.
From 11:30 to just before the 1PM gong I sat leaning against a tree (it was at an angle that took pressure off my back entirely) and just staring off into space.
I was almost giggly but also still aware of the pain in my back and legs and knees. it just felt different. It was definitely pain, but it was not as bad a feeling. It had an element of being interesting, observable. I kept telling myself that this was going to crash soon and I should accept it.
I don’t remember where I meditated from 1 to 2, but at the 2:30 Group meditation I was able to drop right into the free flow as soon as we started. At 3:30 when we were dismissed to return to our quarters if we liked I found that I was fine where I was. I meditated without any problems for another 45 minutes. When the pain became more pronounced I got to this point where I could have “toughed it out” like before, but instead I quietly got up and went back to my back-supporting tree.
I remember going to the last group sit at 6. The day had flown by and I still felt high. I could feel my heartbeat throughout my body. I felt like I was shaking because of it, but when I’d hold my hands up and look at them they were solid. When I looked down at my body it wasn’t moving, but it felt like all my muscle fibers were making thousands of tiny little adjustments to make me more comfortable, like memory foam.
I started feeling these bizarre sensations. My face would have this pressure that felt like someone with really fat fingers pushing on it. It didn’t hurt. It was like a massage. The heartbeat feeling came with a light sound in my ears. I hadn’t been that relaxed ever and to be also so far from sleep.
During the 7PM discourse I hugged my achey legs and watched. When it was time for our last break I skipped it again and returned to meditation.
I went to my cabin ready to sleep and was fine with the thought that tomorrow it would all be a festival of pain again. I’d had that fifth morning beginner’s nirvana all of one day. I wouldn’t have said then that it was the best day of my life, because how can you qualify stuff like that. But it was definitely the calmest day of my life.
Then things got stranger. After a day on the course I was used to falling almost immediately to sleep. That night I closed my eyes and all those inexplicable sensations continued to happen and I wasn’t trying to meditate. I was trying to sleep.
An hour passed and I kept having to open my eyes because this feeling of physical expansion came. It felt like I was one of those Pilsbury cinnamon roll tubes, and that my body was oozing out of me. I felt enormous, but light. The same points on my face had the fat-fingered pressure, my back was arching on its own, and my chest was pushing out. I had a hard time believing I wasn’t dreaming, but I heard someone get up close by and the sound of a door convinced me this was all real.
I had a concerned thought, because the sensations were so intense and akin to drugs that I thought maybe someone has slipped me something.
I decided to get up and go to the bathroom and throw some cold water on my face. I needed to sleep after all. The gong waits for no man. On my way to the bathroom I happened to run into the course manager. I told him I was worried because I couldn’t sleep, that I’d had a great day, but that now I was a little worried.
He told me it was normal and starting saying how powerful the technique was. I wanted to tell him to settle down, but he was all very matter of fact and monotone. When I asked him what I should do so I could sleep he said to return to breathing.
“You probably won’t sleep.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Don’t worry. You’ll be fresher tomorrow morning than if you had sleep.”
I didn’t believe him really for a second, but I didn’t need a follow up to ‘go back to your cabin and enjoy the sensation of being stoned out of your mind.’ Or into your mind? Or something. I felt fine with relaxing and breathing and feeling good.
I went back to my cabin and got comfortable, unrolled cinnamon buns all night.
I didn’t sleep.
I went to the a special meditation room in the pagoda. That is to say I was assigned a room. Granted one. It’s a very mysterious place to first timers. It was off limits except for the one day I was given a cell to use, but I could see the old students coming and going for the whole course.
There are rules for the pagoda. And a different kind of weight. Similar in some ways to the weight of a roomful of people meditating in the open. Only it’s a building full of meditators in tiny closets.
The door inside is like an airlock and there are two doors to get through to get to that one. There are also signs about being quiet, about facing the center of the building, about being exceptionally respectful. When you come and go there is a sound of air being moved by the door. The airlock.
I went for the 4:30 to 6:30 time. I left after an hour though and went back to my tree. I didn’t feel anything special in the pagoda. It was very quiet and very still and very cozy, but it was not my cup of tea that time. On other courses, as an old student given a room early and for the duration, I’ve had various experiences with the pagoda. But overall I prefer the hall or my room. Or a tree.
I was doing the calculations in my head and knew I’d been awake for more than a day. I expected that sweaty and dizzy feeling I usually get from lack of sleep. It didn’t come, but I also didn’t feel high anymore either. I was going to crash. Or it seemed inevitable. but I didn’t care. I was floaty enough until lunch.
I think it was the food. I didn’t eat much at breakfast, but lunch on that day I remember a large portion. And a clean plate. I had been living on a handful of food for each meal, but this one I just went for it for some reason. That brought me back to earth. Without a crash, just sort of a soft thud. Like throwing a paperback on a made bed.
Meditation was painful and there were no cinnamon rolls. I remember feeling bummed out and knowing that I had to let it go. I was antsy as hell again to leave because I was like, hey, that’s pretty damn good for my first go round, and I don’t want to have intense back pain for a couple more days. It seemed a lot like Day 6, but I accepted it.
I thought the chances of cinnamon rolls again were pretty slim. Mostly because the very strong desire for cinnamon rolls would all but keep them at bay.
I had a fantastic sit in the morning. Super cinnamon rolls. I was ten minutes early for the 8 o’clock and I sat straight through the 9 AM break. I stayed put. There was no consultation with the assistant teacher because noble silence was going to be broken the next morning.
This was our last big day of “serious work” and I sat until after ten. Well over two hours and it felt like five minutes. The rest of the day was pretty normal sixth day type stuff.
I did go one last time to ask the teacher a last question. More on this in a moment.
I’ve attended two other courses since this first one. I don’t remember my second assistant teacher. I remember my last assistant teacher because something he said to me made the spell of Vipassana break. Not in an angry or bitter way, but like a bucket of cold water with a slap in the face chaser. He said something I knew to be false, even ignorant, and that humanized the whole experience. It made any other-worldliness I’d felt up to then about the wisdom of my teachers vanish. They were still good people, and I still appreciated what they had taught me, but they were just people like me. I didn’t need to look to them for guidance on everything. They taught me a technique, that was all. They had the patience and benevolence to do it, but any wisdom came from doing the work.
My first course was also bilingual, so everything that was said was in 2 languages. It was funny because you knew an hour of meditation was over when the PA would come on and there was recorded instruction and encouragement. During my first course that period took twice as long because everything had to be then translated into Chinese by the assistant teacher. He had a nice voice. Not radio quality, but I remember it being calming.
On the ninth day of my first course I went to see him. He was the teacher who had talked me into staying when I wanted to leave on the fourth day. I wanted to know why I felt good. Why the experience that was so bad on day four had become so much better. I said it was the same body and same mind and he stopped me laughing.
He was genuinely laughing at me. I can’t remember how I felt about that, only that he was doing it. I thought maybe he was reacting to a question only a newbie could ask, a question so ridiculous that I broke his composure. Half of that was true. It was a newbie question, but I’d given him a chance to show composure under different deportments. I don’t think he could laugh in the meditation hall and expect it to go over well. Even if his heart was light and his thoughts for the students were kind. But I guess by coming to him in good spirits, and appreciative, it was okay for him to let his light heart laugh.
He stopped me and repeated my words in the negative:
“It is not the same body, not the same mind.”
“But it is really.”
“No. It is always different.”
That seemed more of an abstract idea when I heard it, but there are times when it is very literal to me. Sort of like that juicy fact that your skin is completely replaced every 30 days or something. That means the skin you’re in right now is 100 percent different than the skin you were in last month.
I don’t have much to say about the tenth day. You get to talk again. It’s pretty much over, but you stay there. They tell you it’s a shock absorber, but I never felt that way about it. Not in three courses.
My last course I remember that I had a cell in the pagoda and spent the first several hours of the “allowed-to-talk-now” time in there. Avoiding people to an extent, but really just knowing that the stillness achieved was too easily lost and that as soon as it is meditation becomes an issue of maintenance instead of proactive work.
On my first course though I remember being glad it was over, surprised to hear all the voices, but almost immediately sorry that it played out that way. The sensation of being there loses a little gravitas and gains a little something you don’t want, but is of course no less welcome.
Jokes are made.
People talk about the pain as if the mental side weren’t really the thing that tripped everyone up. The thing that makes everyone want to leave while simultaneously keeping them there. I remember saying that I wanted to leave on the fourth day to a few people and that I’d asked.
“That’s nothing. I asked to leave on the first, third, and seventh day.”
Somebody joked about never having asked to leave, but wanting desperately for someone to bring pizza.
You do learn something new though. A very short form of meditation that is meant to end your regular practice. When you are feeling the “free flow” and all that Hallmark love for yourself and others. It’s the only visualization that’s allowed. It’s called Metta, and it’s essentially sending out your positive vibes. Wishing those that you love peace and liberation from suffering. Wishing strangers. Wishing your enemies. Wishing all living beings peace.
It’s a real nice thought and you always buy it. I do anyway. I’ve been pretty convinced since all of this that no one really does anything hurtful to anyone else for any other reason than personal misery. Happy people just don’t think to be ass holes. It’s not fun. I can remember every little d-bag thing I ever did because I just didn’t have the energy or positive vibes to put the effort in. And it was never about the victim of my jerkiness. It was always me feeling like crap and wanting someone else to change it for me by working harder or driving better or whatever. Nothing is really worth getting upset about, but you do just the same.
Thanks for reading. Sadu amigos, Sadu, Sadu.
it’s the people who try hard to forget who go the farthest later to remember.
an experimental piece. Winner of the 2002 Goodman Prose Award at Brooklyn College.
An agoraphobic woman spends decades of her life expanding her already enormous home.