August 1, 2010
I am out of Vipassana. It has been a week now. Exactly, since the end of Vipassana. There is so much to say. So many things I thought of as I sat, my mouth silent and my mind all a-chatter, things that became clear, things that I thought were clear that perhaps are not. So much. But one must begin somewhere, so here’s a beginning. One cannot understand Vipassana really without sitting a ten day course. Jonathan, my significant other, sat for ten days in Illinois – he came back with all sorts of stories and thoughts. His analogy: it is like a long, cold barren climb up a steep mountain and once you have begun, there is no choice but to keep going up (he has wonderful reflections about Vipassana as well as our travels, and I encourage anyone who’s interested to check out his blog: http://illwindblog.blogspot.com).
For me, it was not quite like this, but it was difficult, certainly. Even having not actually run a marathon, that is what it seems I might compare it to – long, long, and long as well as difficult and something that you do alone surrounded by people. The Vipassana center I attended is located about 45 minutes outside of Kathmandu on the edge of Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Forest. A complex on a hill overlooking the valley to the west with the forested hill rising up above it to the east. The grounds themselves are well-developed with separate dormitories and dining facilities for men and women, a large meditation hall in the center, a beautiful temple at the top, fruit trees, and flowers lining the paved paths that wind from building to building.
I went to this place along with about 130 other men and women to meditate in silence for ten days, following a strict code of conduct (no killing: this includes as much as possible mosquitoes, ants, etc; no lying: thus it helps to be silent; no stealing; no partaking of intoxicating substances: apparently caffeine was not counted among these as we had black tea twice a day; and no engaging in sexual misconduct: in the context of the course this means no sexual activity at all) and a rigorous daily schedule.
These ten days I tried as much as possible to keep to myself. Of course, there was supposed to be no talking, but there is also no reading or writing, and there is supposed to be no contact between meditators – no looking each other in the eye or exchanging a smile or a gesture. Seclusion. Though we got to know each other in the close quarters of the hall – the stillness of Sabina in front of me (a German woman who has done a great deal of meditation over the course of the last year), the grace and poise of Judith (the beautiful Spanish woman who sat beside me), the occasional fidgeting of Sasha so bubbly behind me, and the determination of Australian Barbara who sat so still for hours, through our breaks, even. We passed each other in the toilet, in our residence, in the dining hall, feeling each others’ presence and knowing that we were all in it separately and yet experiencing some of the same struggles. Though I could not interact with them, I felt their presence and their solidarity, and I think this kept me from being lonely.
The pleasures of Vipassana are few and simple; for me – milk tea with sugar, greens with lunch, the intoxicating smell of blooming dhatura flowers beside the paved path to the meditation hall, the salty roasted peanuts that we got with fruit and puffed rice as our evening snack/meal, a glimpse of my significant other Jon who was serving (working) for the 10 day course, the sun breaking through the clouds, the waxing moon on the western horizon, toilet paper, Goenke ji (the guru who teaches Vipassana around the world) naming exactly the challenges that I had faced during the day in his video-discourse in the evening, a morning nap, cool water, the meow of a beautiful gray kitten. Simple pleasures.
And then of course, the sitting, learning the technique of Vipassana, feeling myself getting stronger, my mind sharper as I became aware of my body’s subtle sensations. It is no easy task, but it leaves one feeling cleansed, scrubbed perhaps, as with a stone or harsh brush so that the skin is a little bit red and raw at the end but squeaky clean, lighter and brighter with the dirt washed away. I thought I would be lonely. I thought I would have trouble not talking, but it turns out that my mind has plenty of fodder for itself without needing outside conversation. Honestly, the thing I missed most was touch – a hug, the warmth of a kitten in my lap, a hand on my shoulder.
I left feeling lighter, feeling vastly more sensitive and aware. I found Kathmandu to be fast and overwhelming at first, found that meditating in Kathmandu felt like a relief after a day of the noisy, busy, smoggy atmosphere outside. I am ever grateful that I have sat this first course, and I know it is only a matter of time before I sit or serve again. I have left much out of this email: my rarely ceasing thoughts and concerns about the future that I struggled to let go of (this is a continual struggle for me, and it will take regular practice to begin practicing equanimity in relationship to the future), my questions regarding my own path and how to be honest about my religious inclinations, questions about my call and how to integrate my experience of impermanence and the need for equanimity and determined self-development for spiritual growth, my understanding of Jesus as a teacher and guide, whose stories I love and whose import I think is found in his life and his actions. There are so many things. I have also said very little about what Vipassana actually teaches – the theory, the method, the words of SN Goenke recorded for us, “start again, start again. Start with a calm and collected mind…” His teachings about impermanence and equanimity (equanimity is NOT a virtue that I have in plenty – something I struggle with a great deal, in fact); and his teachings about the nature of craving and aversion and their relationship to our sensations. To learn more about this, check out Vipassana’s website: www.dhamma.org. There’s lots of information there.
As I said before, one cannot actually understand Vipassana without sitting it, but to get a little bit of a taste, here’s what each of my ten days looked like (and you better believe we kept a TIGHT shift!):
4:00 am wakeup
4:30 – 6:30 am meditate in the meditation hall (for me this meant trying for two hours not to fall asleep, until day 5 when I told one of the teachers that I was having lots of trouble in the morning, and he suggested that I meditate for thirty or forty minutes then get up and stretch my legs for 5-10 minutes before sitting back down again)
6:30-8:00 am breakfast (a simple meal of porridge, usually, and my indulgence in black tea with milk and sugar). I tended to get back to my room by 7:00 and then nap for the next hour.
8:00 – 9:00 am group sitting in the hall (this meant an hour of continuous sitting in the meditation hall with everyone there; by the fifth or sixth day you were supposed to sit the entire hour without changing position. This was my best hour of meditation during the day)
9:15-11:00 am sitting in the hall (more meditation. This time also tended to be pretty focused for me. I often felt good about my concentration during these hours)
11:00 am – 1:00 pm lunch and break (lunch was a full meal of daal bhaat (rice, lentils and vegetables – on day 7, we were also given a sweet at lunch. A real luxury – it tasted like vanilla icecream in candied form! I would usually finish lunch by 11:30 or so and again go take a nap until 1:00)
1:00 – 2:15 pm meditation in the meditation hall
2:30 – 3:30 pm group meditation in the meditation hall (another hour of everyone trying to sit perfectly still – a pretty good time for me usually)
3:30 – 5:00 pm meditation in the meditation hall (this tended to be a difficult time for me. Unlike early in the morning, I would not fall asleep, but my mind tended to wander – wander to thinking about the future, my MDiv back in the United States, friends at home, my parents in the process of moving to London, my partner who was serving (working) at the Vipassana Center for these ten days. I wrote letters in my head, repeatedly had conversations in my head with various people, worried, shifted positions, found myself being bitten by mosquitoes and attempted to maintain some of the equanimity that SN Goenke teaches for those who practice Vipassana)
5:00 pm evening snack (this was the best time of the day – I would be tired and there would be fruit, usually a couple of small bananas, sweet milky tea and puffed rice with salty peanuts awaiting. The tea was one of my few comforts during Vipassana – that and toilet paper and naps. Smile. Amazing how much small things can feel luxurious!)
6:00 – 7:00 pm group meditation in the hall
7:00 – 8:30 pm Evening Discourse – this was a video each evening of SN Goenke discussing the Vipassana technique and explaining why we were practicing as we practiced, giving examples of things going well and poorly for people and telling stories to illustrate the importance of practicing the technique correctly. The first few days, this was the time when I felt human – I had another person talking to me, and, though we weren’t supposed to look at each other, the other meditators and I could laugh aloud at Goenke ji’s good-humored explanation of the technique, recognize the common struggles that we ourselves were facing and feel good that we had gotten through another day of silence, another day of hard work, another day of running this ten day marathon.
8:30-9:00 instruction in the meditation hall
Ah and then of course lots of crazy dreams. Smile. The most vivid being living with a group of people up in an attic infested with mice. Yikes! Well, that initial problem was solved by the arrival of some really ravenous mice-eating RATS. Anyone into dream interpretation? What do you think?
Anyway, I’m in Darjeeling now, and it’s beautiful – a charming cool hill station out of the heat of the Indian summer. More soon. And more about Vipassana as well, I hope.
Much love and peace to all of you,