OPTIMISM, REALISM, WORKISM
Ten Days in the Life of a Vipassana Boy
A long time ago in India there was a woman with three sons. One day she gave her first son 20 rupees and sent him to the market to buy some cooking oil. On the way home he tripped, fell and dropped the bottle of oil, spilling half out onto the dirt path. He ran home crying, “Boo-hoo Mummy, I fell and look, I lost half of the cooking oil. Isn’t that terrible!” The Pessimist.
Next time she sent her second son, again with a 20-rupee note to fill her oil bottle, and what do you know? On the way home he tripped and dropped the bottle spilling half of the oil out onto the dirt path. Excitedly he picked up the bottle and ran home. “Mummy, look! I fell and spilled some of the oil, but I managed to save half of it. Isn’t that great! The Optimist.
Now it is the third son’s turn to go to the market with 20 rupees to fill the oil bottle, and as a result of very shoddy path maintenance he also tripped and spilled half the oil on the way home. “Mummy, look! I fell and spilled some of the oil, but I managed to save half of it, isn’t that great! Of course, I realize you need a full bottle, so I’m going to work doing odd jobs until I earn ten rupees to refill it.”
The Vipassana Boy.
“Optimism, realism, workism,” so goes one definition of Vipassana meditation as told by charismatic guru in (video) residence, S.N. Goenka, at the Vipassana Meditation Centre in Blackheath, NSW.
“Vipassana,” which means “to see things as they really are,” is one of the world’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was taught in India more than 2500 years ago as a universal remedy for universal ills and an art of living. I’m going to learn in it in the Blackheath Mountains, just outside of Sydney, Australia. It is a notoriously challenging course, famed for being ten days long and for no one being allowed to speak. At all. For ten days. Ten.
Day Zero, Train
Here we go. On the train to Blackheath. Nervous. Hopeful. Enthusiastic. Scared shitless.
What the hell am I doing going to some Vipassana place for 10 days – no speaking, no communication, no phone, email – no nothing? Maybe that is the whole point, no-thing-ness.
What am I hoping for? Peace. Some tools I can use for the rest of my life to create calmness, positivity, a right point of view, and a sense of understanding about what this life is about and who I really am. Is this expecting too much?
One thing I know for sure, ten days of relaxation, good vegetarian food and mountain air can only be good, but I cannot help thinking of all the other great offers of how and who to spend the Easter break with: Chasing sheep on motorbikes down south, wine tasting in the Hunter, chilling in Byron, surfing in Crescent Head and more. If you ever find yourself without holiday plans, just tell all your friends you’re going on a 10-day meditation retreat and you’ll be amazed at the counteroffers you get. Don’t my friends want me to find inner peace?
Something about the timing of this seems right though. It’s a full moon tonight – a fresh start, and there was a fall rain today, perhaps to wash away the sediment of a past life. I’m ready to be new, or at least renewed.
Will I be that different on the other side of this experiment? Will it really feel like I’m tripping on drugs when I get out as I’ve been told? Or will I simply feel like a confident warrior, ready and prepared to face whatever comes my way with strength and acceptance?
A lot of what this course seems destined to teach sounds similar to what I’ve recently read in “A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle – which could only be good. I’ve got a few more pages to read before I finish it, but I have been thinking about thinking about that book, and all the other things I might ponder during my ten days of interment: relationships, work, career, goals, vision for the future etc. I also wonder if what I’ve been told about not thinking for ten days is really true. That seems like such a waste…but what do I know? I’m willing to be wrong, and enlightened.
I’ve decided to smuggle in a few “illegal” items; a pack of Juicy Fruit gum and some Ferrero Rochers. Small rewards to look forward to and enjoy on or around Days 3 and 6, which I have been told are the hardest. I also have a notebook and pen. I haven’t decided whether or not to try and write my feelings about each of the ten days. No reading or writing materials are allowed, but I think I might, depending on the setting and situation when I arrive. We shall see. Perhaps this will be my last entry until Day 11.
Day 11 would be a good name for a band.
Anyway, let it be known that I entered into this with my eyes open, of somewhat sound mind and body. I will not give up. I will last the whole ten days. I sound like a survivor TV show nerd! At least the only person who can kick me off this show is me. If this is to be my last entry, then here are some questions for myself to answer when I get out. (See sidebar)
Day Zero, (Hiding in the Men’s Toilets)
This place is gorgeous, very peaceful (not the toilets per say, but the grounds). I feel guilty breaking the rules already by hiding out and writing this, but my journalistic spirit won’t let me not document this unique experience.
There are very nice people are here, and of course, some “granolas” too, as I sort of expected. We can talk for now and there seems to be more optimism and enthusiasm than fear and trepidation. There are some old students, but mostly we are a group of first timers. We can all do this, and silly as it sounds, we are all ready for this thing to start. No more chit chat. Let’s get (not) busy.
A chime will sound soon summoning us all to our first meeting where I hope all will be explained. This is to be followed by our first one-hour meditation session. One hour! I have never even meditated before… I’m scared.
Day 1, 5:30pm
The trains passing by sound like God shaking the Earth, or at least the Meditation Hall, and when the innocent conductors blare their horn it sounds like a sweet invitation. Hoo-hooo. Come with meeeee!
I have devised a sophisticated system for sneaking pen and paper into the men’s toilets. I stuff them down my pants. The fact that we are all observing Noble Silence means nobody is really looking at each other anyhow, but I still don’t want to get caught, so here I sit, broken hearted, came to write, but only… you get the picture.
So, it’s 5:30pm on Day One and already I don’t want to meditate anymore. Over it. A little bored, a little sore, but mostly disappointed. All the divine instruction we’ve received – from a recorded voice – so far has been “breathe through your nose paying special attention to the area just inside and outside the nostrils.”
I don’t know who is speaking, but his voice reminds me of the last few drops of a cold drink in a paper cup slurped through a straw. Day 3 is supposed to the hardest, but I could leave right now. At least the food is quite delicious, either that or sitting with your eyes closed for most of the day makes you notice and appreciate things more than when they are open.
I’ve already invented a few games: “balance the tea bag” (on the rim of your teacup) for example. And on my walks around the grounds I’ve drawn pictures in the dirt, scribbled notes to other meditators, like “sore?” I’m not the only one, someone has started an anonymous game of Tic-Tac-Toe on one of the dirt paths. I’ve also started placing rocks and pinecones in weird places and seeing if they’re still there later. Fun.
I’ve even named a few of the Koi in the goldfish pond. There’s Monsieur Fishlips (biggest lips of them all and a French looking moustache to boot), Monsieur Fishlips Junior (second biggest lips) and Spackle (he looks like someone splashed his spots onto him with a paintbrush). They are my new friends along with heaps of little black lizards that scurry about and I break Noble Silence to chat with them all.
I’m noticing all sorts of things when my eyes are open, but when they’re shut… I’m not sure. I’m able for the most part to concentrate on my breath without wandering off, but still I think about work, sex, and travelling among other distractions.
I know writing this is against the rules, but for now it’s keeping me sane – I think. Or maybe I’m thinking too much. One classic moment today was some guy ripping a long, loud fart in the middle of a group meditation in the Hall. Nobody laughed, on the outside anyway. Haha… cracked me up. I am still sane… really. Maybe.
Day 2, 6:30am
Ok. So I am kind of looking forward to today. Sure there are still little WTF am I doing here moments, but having made it through one day, one more seems possible. Just going to take it one day at a time. Sounds like a 12-step program.
I’m feeling OK despite no supper. (A three-quarters full stomach apparently is optimal for meditating). I did 2 hours of “horizontal meditating” (a.k.a sleeping) this morning after the 4:00am wake-up chime – so I feel rested, but guilty too. Am I not working hard enough? Perhaps, but 4:00am is an early start in anyone’s book, and I see no sense rushing into this. I have 9 more days.
Last night we finally got to match a face to the gravely voice. His name is S.N. Goenka, and he is great. A charming, chubby Buddha of a man dressed all in white. I think his nightly video discourses will keep me here for the duration. He’s right on par with “The New Earth.” So I am embracing this, letting it happen. They should show him to everyone on Day 1. He sets such a good tone and it would keep everyone from wondering what the hell they’re supposed to be doing the whole first day.
Also, the staff should wear hats, or the same T-shirt, or badges, or something so they are easily recognizable. I was quite annoyed earlier having my Noble Silence broken by an Assistant Teacher (who I incorrectly assumed was another rule breaking student like myself) telling me to move from where I was sitting under a tree, to the Meditation Hall. See, I’ve broken two rules already: No meditating outside (we might confuse a breeze for our breath on our nostril area), and, don’t miss the group meditations (I was meditating, just by myself, horizontally).
I’m starting to feel like one of Pavlov’s dogs reacting to a bell, or in this case a gong-like chime. I don’t know what time it is anymore – my Timex took a licking and stopped – but the food here is great, so when I hear that chime, I’m up.
My building, “B” which I share with 3 other guys is great – right next to the Dining Hall which means they won’t be out of cheese when I get there, and furthest from the Meditation Hall – the legs need all the exercise and stretching they can get – plus the walk is pretty. I heard kangaroos hopping around last night on the way back to go to bed.
I’m feeling quite monk-like. Without actually planning it I packed an orange hooded sweatshirt and an orange blanket, which I take with me to keep cosy in the Mediation Hall. If you’ve ever seen a real live monk, you know they love orange. Me too. Last night in my dreams someone asked me if I’d always had my head shaved, or did I shave it just for this? (The answer is neither).
I named two more Koi today: Canvasse (all white like a canvas) and Eelio (he’s dark, swims deep below the surface like an eel, and has an eerie spot of orange under one eye.
My thoughts continue to wander while meditating. Goenka says this is ok, that we have “silly minds.” My silly mind thinks about sex, work and all sorts of other things that seemed so important when I thought them that I vowed to make a list, but now that I’m inside bathroom stall number 4 scribbling away on my folded sheets of notebook paper they don’t seem that important at all.
By the way, I don’t feel too bad about my “illegal” writing. I saw a guy checking his text messages on a mobile phone yesterday.
Day 3, Morning Tea Break
I’m irritated. IRRITATED. I was when I went to sleep last night and I am again this morning. Last nights discourse from Goenka was good, but as soon as he told us to concentrate only on sensations in the nostril area and ignore sensations anywhere else on the body I immediately got itchy everywhere. I couldn’t sit still at all. And I got busted again this morning for horizontally meditating.
I was having crazy dreams about commercial airplanes with nuclear warheads for nosecones, strange laughing animals, and sex with old clients… weirdness. Thank goodness one of the Assistant Teachers came and woke me up.
Goenka’s discourse last night was great, but when he finishes people say “saadhu, saddhu, saddhu” (translation: well said, we agree…) and then bow. I’m like; it’s a fucking video! You can’t show respect to a video! You can’t talk to a video! It’s like those people who applaud at the end of a good film – I hate those people.
I need to give this more of a chance. I will. I really will. I’ll concentrate. Seven more days. Ooh… I just concentrated on my nostril area and pulled out a nice booger.
The townies could have so much fun if they only knew what was going on in here. They could park outside the gate and yell over the walls, “Hey come on! We got beer, tunes, girls… the car is warm!” I’d be over the fence in thirty seconds.
I keep getting distracted in the Meditation Hall by this girl who sits up in the front, I call her the “snowboarder chick.” I don’t even know if she even boards, or if she’s cute, since I’m not supposed to be looking. What’s the point of segregating men and women if you’re just going to put us all in the same Meditation Hall together? Like that’s not distracting.
Also, I’m not sure, but I think the Teacher might be a phoney. He doesn’t seem to do much except sit in front of the room and push buttons. One button to play audio, another to play videos. That and adjust the lighting and aircon. And when he does speak, “Take rest, take rest,” he totally bites Goenka’s repetitive style. Which works for short, cute, pudgy, brown and Burmese Goenka, but not so much for a tall skinny white dude.
Day 3, After Lunch
Just came from my first interview with the Teacher. Usually people go and wait after lunch to meet with him and ask any questions they might have, but I was summoned. I thought I might be in trouble: Illegal gum? Writing in the toilets? Ogling snowboarder chick? Nope. He just wanted to know if I was breathing ok and if I was noticing any sensations while concentrating on my breath. I told him I was in fact, getting sensations, and I’m OK now, but earlier I was completely losing my mind. He offered me a few tips and I decided he’s cool and sincere and I’m sorry I doubted him.
Losing my mind? I don’t know what got into me, but on the way to the Meditation Hall, I was like, fuck this shit, let’s party, let’s take drugs, let’s drink tequila, let’s make porno movies… blarrrrrgh! It was like the devil got ahold of me. I could not still. It was like my mind was against me. Maybe I just needed to eat. I’m feeling better now.
I think the hard part of Day 3 is behind me. I might reward myself with some contraband Ferrero Rochers. One consistently good thing is Goenka’s discourses. He’s cool. Last night he told us Dharma is: “Absence of sin, pious living and continuous purification of the mind. This is not negotiable; it is a universal truth, a non-sectarian, natural fact. Be good and you create your own heaven. Be bad and you create your own hell. Simple as that.”
So what’s all this “sensational” breathing about then? I still don’t know, but I thought of a good t-shirt for the centre: Who Nose?
Proof: Girls do fart. Massive ripper last session from the right side of the room. Some guy on my left started cracking up a few minutes later – it had to be related.
It’s getting cold here and my pen is freezing up. I hope I can read my notes later. I should be in the Meditation Hall now, but I had to leave. There was too much coughing, sneezing, scratching, burping, shifting and joint popping going on. It was a bodily orchestra in there and I couldn’t concentrate.
The meditation is getting easier. What the Teacher said about softening my breathing seems to be helping. I thought breathing harder would be better, more noticeable, but soft and subtle is the way to go. I can feel the air moving in and out and over my top lip. Also I got a kneeling stool, which helps with the sitting for so long, although I’m considering sitting in the back with the “Sniffer” (some old guy who huffs and puffs a lot) and leaning against the wall.
Seven more days. I got really annoyed today at lunch when they ran out of the eggplant and cheese casserole – gave the last serve to the guy in front of me. Stuff like that matters when you basically only get one real substantial meal a day.
Day 3, Afternoon
You would not believe some of the shit I’m seeing when my eyes are closed; flying peppermills, miniature monkeys, talking matchsticks, Monsieur Fishlips, dancing thumbtacks… if you want to save money on hallucinogenic drugs, just stare at the back of your eyelids for 3 days straight. And Goenka keeps telling us not to visualize, just concentrate on our breath, but it’s hard. Almost as hard as sitting on your arse all the time. I’ve got a headache and an arseache.
The vegetarian food must be kicking in because the Fartathon is on! So far it’s Women 3, Men 1. Some lady tried to camouflage hers with a cough, but I heard.
I think the “Stoner” bailed. He’s a guy I met at the start who came here to try and quit smoking pot. I think this is hard enough without an addiction problem, no wonder he split. Too bad though, I was really pulling for him. Sending him good vibes, but he didn’t even last two days I don’t think. I wonder what they do if you tell them you want to bail. Do they try and talk you out of it?
I’m already visualizing my meals on Day 11: scrambled eggs for brekky and sushi for dinner. That’s not helping things. Don’t visualize!
Day 3, 7:00pm
I’m starting to lose it. I want to go home to my bed. I want too wake up and go surfing in the morning.
QUESTIONS I ASKED MYSELF AT THE END
How do you feel different?
I feel real love and compassion for others – and for strangers for possibly the first time in ages. And better yet, I know why I’ve felt and acted the way I have, when I’ve acted negatively towards others, and am in a space to try and change that behaviour.
What did you learn that you didn’t already know?
I learned where some of my current negative behaviour patterns come from, and of course, the Vipassana meditation technique.
What were three highlights?
The food, Day 9 and Goenka’s discourses.
What was the hardest thing?
Every day was hard, some were different, some were good, but all were hard. If I had to pick one thing it would be never knowing what was next.
What advice would you give someone who is considering a course?
If you are considering it, you should go. Commit to the ten days and trust that it will all make sense in the end, no matter how stupid, painful or difficult it seems. Bring a favourite blanket and pillow, water bottle and heaps of faith. And remember, things change on Day 4. You can make it.
Would you go again?
Too soon to say. Right now, no, but I can see myself going back in the distant future for a 3-day refresher and to volunteer.
How will this experience help you in the future?
It gave me a tool that I can use, not only to create an hour or two of calming peace every day, but also to peel away my own layers of misery, frustration and anxiety.
Day 4, 4:30am
Gong! Gong! Gong! Has it occurred to anyone here that it may be possible to over meditate? I’m awake, sitting in bed upright waiting for the weaselly Assistant Teacher to come in and bust me for horizontally meditating. I brought my shoes inside the room – we’re supposed to remove them and leave them outside, but shoes outside are a sure sign that someone is inside. I’m learning.
Last nights discourse was fantastic, again. The highlights of this journey so far are lunch and Goenka. He tells great stories and uses great analogies. He told us that today the “real” work will begin. Great. OK, seriously, great. I’m up for it.
Last night I dreamt that I was a male escort and my friend Anna hired me so she could perform oral sex on me. I then gave her a bill for $1000, which she didn’t believe she should have to pay.
Day 4, 7:00am
I’ve started nicknaming more of my fellow meditators. There’s Fargut (a short, round Indian guy), Alfred (a freckled faced redhead right off a MAD Magazine cover who never stops grinning), Yeller (he always wears a yellow sweatshirt) who I consider my bro. Don’t know why, but I feel good when I see he’s still here, like we’re in it together or something. His friend was the Stoner who bailed, so I’m pulling for him now.
Who else? There’s Manny Ken (a tall skinny good looking guy who told me he and his girlfriend are into fashion), Me Two (a guy who looks like I feel and I think people would say we look like we could be brothers), Noward (he looks remarkably like a Howard I know, right down to the authentic Fu Manchu moustache) and the Grizzler (for how he looks, and how he looks at you).
Actually the Grizzler is interesting, he’s got a white ponytail and beard and is probably the oldest guy here. He looks like he’s done this 100 times. He always sits in the same spot at meals and I think he should know better than to eyeball you, but he’s always last to look away. I wonder what his story is.
Anyway, I might lay off the writing for a while and just go deep into my skull.
Oh yeah, the veggie food must not be agreeing with some folks because I noticed a “laxative tea” at breakfast this morning. Also some sort of stuff you could sprinkle on your porridge to help um, loosen things up. No problems there for me, I’m crapping right now!
The electric light in the bathroom is on a timer, so stall number one rules for writing as it has windows and natural light, the rest are dark when the switch times out even during the day. Wow, gotta go now, sounds like the laxative tea is working next door.
Day 4, 9:00am
One of the guys in my room has a phone! Either that or a diabetes blood checking thingy, or maybe it was an alarm clock. But I’m pretty sure I busted him sending a text message.
Anyway, part of the reason I’m here is to find some inner peace and be more present and aware, but also to get some clarity about my relationships with women and my so-called commitment issues. So why do I keep craning for a better look at the snowboarder chick?
Last night Goenka spoke about beauty. “What is beauty? Is it skin deep? Let’s cut some skin then and see… not so beautiful. Lovely blonde hair? Beautiful on the head, but in your food? Not so beautiful.”
Real beauty lies within us all. I know we all know that, so why do we adhere to society’s definition of beauty so rigidly? Whose fault is it that women want big breasts and skinny waists? And men want more hair on their heads and less on their chests? Advertising maybe?
Today is “Vipassana Day.” I don’t know what that means exactly other than many hours sitting on my bony arse in the Meditation Hall. If I didn’t have these notes to sneak off and write, I’d surely have gone insane by now. My billions of subatomic particles, or “bubbles” as Goenka calls them are ready for action. Bring it on.
Day 4, After Lunch
There’s definitely less people here. I can’t tell exactly who is gone other than the Stoner. I asked Monsieur Fishlips, but he didn’t know either.
Lunch is the only time I feel free, or allowed to think. All the rest of the time it’s “don’t think, don’t visualize, keep your eyes closed, concentrate on the triangular area around your nose.”
Don’t think? Thinking is who I am and what makes me good at what I do. I’m a good writer because I think. I think creatively and constantly. Slow down, sure, but “don’t” don’t make sense.
Is this a cult? What if it is? It’s got some of the telltale signs: it’s free to come here, but they make you commit to the 10 days and they keep your valuables, mobile phones and car keys hostage. The constant promise of revelations to come, a (video) deity who preaches nightly in a church-like Meditation Hall, and flocks of sheep who bow and chant to him, And of course, the chance to give them money when it’s all over. I wonder how many Rolls Royce’s Goenka has?
On a positive note, the grounds here are beautiful and I’m enjoying the cold nights, brisk mornings and sunny afternoons. There is a particular red maple, I think it’s a Japanese maple that looks glorious in the sunlight as the rays pass through its leaves. I visit it a few times a day now.
I don’t actually feel in a rush to go home anymore. I wouldn’t mind a break from sitting cross-legged or on my knees all day, but I’m getting used to the routine.
Noble Silence is pretty great too. It’s amazing how you get used to it and adapt. I’m getting pretty good at identifying people simply by the sound of their footsteps. I thought I would miss music terribly, and it’s been a long time since rock n’ roll, but I don’t miss it like I thought I would.
On Day 2 when I felt like partying my face off and jumping in a car with some teenaged locals? Crank it up dude! Now, silence is golden and it’s annoying when chatty teachers, or visitors to the centre who don’t know any better break it. I find myself moving away from talkers – and this is Day 4! Imagine after 10 days. Reacclimating will be tough.
Right now I have to gear up for 3 hours of continuous “work.” Three hours. How am going to sit still?
Day 4, Post “Vipassana”
Well that was a disappointment. I came here hoping to find some clarity, and more specifically, some tools that I could use to develop inner peace in my life… to nurture a more soulful existence for myself. So far I’ve had four days of “breathe through your nose paying particular attention to the nostril area.”
Today was supposed to be the big revelation, we’ve all been looking forward to Day 4 when “Vipassana will be given” like it’s the answer to everything. Maybe it is and I’m just too jaded to see it, but you want to know what it’s all about? Basically, instead of concentrating on the triangular area around the nose, you pay attention to the whole body starting form the top of the head and moving down. Face, neck, chest back of the head, back of the neck, back, lower back, arms down to the fingertips, then hips, thighs, legs to the toes. And all you do is keep moving up and down repeatedly observing any sensations; tingling, bubbling, itching (yes!), soreness etc. We are reminded that sensations indicate change and that change is constant. That’s it. It was almost word-for-word identical to a relaxation therapy tape my high-school guidance counsellor gave me in 7th grade.
The whole change thing is a great point, and I like the example Goenka uses in his storytelling. One example he gives is about the constant change in a light bulb. Light is constantly flowing, it’s not just on and off, otherwise his electricity bill would be much lower. Another example was how a man who dips his toe in a river three times, dips his toe into three different rivers, but not only that, three different men do the dipping! Very cool.
So I get it, I like it even, but c’mon! I’m sore and need a massage more than I need any more delicious vegetarian food or cool Blue Mountain air. I’m seriously thinking about bailing out. I’m starting to make a Plan B: Byron, Royal National Park… hmm… I need to meditate on this. I will stay through tonight’s discourse and decide in the morning. Maybe I’ll have a chat with the Teacher (I call him the Weasel) about how I’m feeling and see what he has to say.
Goenka is a great orator and teacher. He may speak painfully slowly, but I believe everything he says to be right, to be true and to be good. The great news is if you can’t understand some of what he says due to his cute accent, you can always learn his teaching in books like New Earth or the Art of Happiness or any number of others like them.
I think the people who volunteer here are great and believe in what they are doing. They provide an important and valuable opportunity for people to hear a message that needs to be universally heard. I just feel like I have heard it already. And judging by the moods and body language at tea just now, I’d say a lot of others are frustrated too.
We lost a roommate this morning. The numbers are dwindling. It’s like some spiritual survivor game show. Who will be enlightened? Who will toil in their own personal hell for eternity? Stay tuned! Maybe I’ll give this all one more day.
From discourse: “Bhaavatu, Sabba, Mangalam.” Mind matters most. Mental, vocal and physical – as are the actions, so will be the results.
Part of the genius of this place, and I would imagine, its success, is in the scheduling. Just when you cannot take it anymore, can’t meditate for one more second, they give you a delicious, healthy lunch and an hour and half off to sit in the sun or go for a walk. Then in the afternoon when you’re about to lose it again, you get to relax and watch a video of Goenka. And he’s still great. I’d pay handsomely to go hear him speak somewhere, but I’m still trying to decide if ten days of kneeling is too high a price.
Incidentally, it isn’t not talking that’s doing my head in. I love that. It’s mainly the kneeling and being forced to meditate on a schedule. Someone else’s long, repetitive schedule.
The horniness has passed. I must have pushed through some sort of testosterone barrier. Whew! I noticed a guy next to me cupping his balls while he meditates. Get a shawl dude!
Tomorrow is Day 5. I vow to give it my best shot. All that Goenka promises does sound good. Be aware of the constant change in your body and the Universe, be sensitive…“Do only good – and only good will come – it will follow you like a shadow.” Nice imagery for sweet dreams tonight.
Day 5, 6:30am
I have a massive headache. Slept like crap, weird dreams last night about fat, rich politicians hiring boys off the street to have sex with in their high offices. Wrong. Not pleasant. Not peaceful.
Everyone in the cabin has adopted my unique Horizontal Meditation technique. I think we are all exhausted, sore and confused. I know it’s going to feel weird when we all walk out of here, but will we really be enlightened? Really?
The sound of passing trains and trucks zooming by on the highway continues to beckon. I think today might be Easter. I feel like I’m on a hunt for well-hidden eggs. I do know where to find some porridge, toast and tea, however. No sense rushing off, there will be plenty, its lunch you need to be early for.
I’m trying to remain hopeful and optimistic, but it has occurred to me that there may be two Goenkas: The Good Goenka who gives great speeches and is cute, charming, sage and funny. And the Evil Goenka who is never seen, only heard who asks you to spend most of your day on your knees, eyes closed, working diligently, ardently observing sensations endlessly… any sensations at all.
Why is it that the longer you stay, the harder it becomes to leave?
One cool thing is “brotherhood” has manifested itself in the toilets, not in a gay way, but with the automated light switch timers. If you’re in the toilet or shower and the timer turns the lights off, someone always turns the light back on for you. It’s the little things. I hope this consideration continues afterward back in the land of normal on/off switches.
In other news, the recycled toilet paper is making my bum bleed, and the Fartathon remains scoreless since Day three at Men: 1, Women: 2.
Day 5, Post Breakfast
I’m not sure who is missing, but it feels as a group we are diminished. There is an aura of unshaven vagrancy rising. Some of the men looked beaten, haggard, others downright angry. None of the energy that was here on day zero is president. Only two, as far as I can tell, look like they are enjoying themselves; Manny Ken continues to smile and hold doors open for people (is that a breach of noble silence?) and clean up after others. Did I mention that he’s wearing a beret and actually pulling it off? My money is on him or Alf Red – who continues to smile beatifically throughout the day. Old Yellow is still with me, but I decided that if he bails I’m right behind him. I wonder what he’s thinking. I wonder what any of these guys are thinking. Surely thoughts of pizza and beer prevail?
My legs have lost all strength. Maybe that’s why you meditate so much here, your legs are so weak, you can’t walk out. And it’s a twenty minute walk to the train station, but if you last till day ten you get a free ride. Hmmm. Clever Goenke.
Today is the day I will really “try.” Despite all my conspiracy thinking, I do see positivity in what is happening here and already I do feel as if I’ve been “reset.” If I left tomorrow at least I’d be past the halfway mark right? I wonder if any massage places will be open the day after Easter.
Maybe all that optimism and positive energy I felt on day zero was just a frantic and out-of-control mind. Maybe now we are all still optimistic and positive, but our minds are less crazy. More calm. Peaceful. Just a thought. Still, a lot of the men here look pretty rough, and angry.
First Intense Sitting
That was intense. Something clicked. I had a really good meditation session, I didn’t move and I didn’t scratch. Those of you who know me, will understand what an amazing feat that is. I wonder if Vipassna can cure my “scratchiness?” Is my habitual itching a result of an un-calm mind? Probably!
I was in there, inside the meditation hall, practicing the head to toe sensation observation and even though we’re not supposed to visualize, I found it helpful to imagine each of my cells deep and topical, moving along happily doing their jobs.
Every time I observed my face it made me smile, how cool is that? Maybe there is something to all this, I just wish all the meditation sessions weren’t so long, so painful – couldn’t they teach all this in three days? Actually, I think they do. This is what I get for jumping into the ten-dayer without any previous preparation or meditation practice. Anyway my cells told me they needed water, so I’m off to get a drink now and then it’s back for more knee time. Arghhh!
Sensation-al! I get it! Or, at least I get something. From head to toe: itching, hat pressure, hair is moving, beard growing, blood rushing, shirt collar rubbing, cold, heat, pain, muscles stretch – I felt all of it. And the amazing part is not scratching at the many issues, but just observing them and moving on. I don’t yet understand what this means, but I did leave the meditation hall early and for the first time in five days I feel good. Not counting yesterday afternoon when I decided to bail. I’m glad I stayed.
Still, spending all this time meditating, doesn’t exactly make you want to do it all the time. But I can definitely see benefits at this point of taking an hour each day to purify and calm the mind, to learn and remind myself to observe first, then react. I wonder what the next five days have in store, and if I can last.
Fartathon: Men: 2, Women: 3
Oh man! I feel like crap. I ate way too much at launch. They had two of my favourite things: cheese n’ taters. Okay, so the taters (mashed) were part of some sort of vegetarian shepherds pie with way too many carrots, but I just took out all the carrots and made my own cheese n tater casserole. Two bowls later and I’m aching – sensations in my belly – too much sensation! Maybe I’ll be competing in the Fartathon at last. An old girlfriend used to tell me that too much cheese clogs you up. But what do I care? There’s plenty of laxative tea, and I’m getting used to sitting on my ass anyhow.
I miss reading. I want to go for surf, or snowboarding – all this cold mountain air is making me want to plan a snowboard trip. I can’t believe there are five more days. I’m scared now of day number seven because it’s so close that once I get through it, I’ll have to stay. Day six, I can bail on, but seven, that’s too close to the finish line. That said, I’m reminded of something my good friend Tim always says: “If you don’t like where you’re at, fuckin’ leave.” The thing is, I’m sort of liking it now.
What’s happening to me? Am I turning into a vegetarian hippy weirdo? Does this mean I have to stop wanting an iPod? Or loving my new car? How does one integrate all the soulfulness and rightness of mind, body, and action into everyday life without compromising? In the end I suppose we just have to do our best, and that, in and of itself is better than the norm.
Two Sessions Later
I’m getting it. I can sit the whole hour now without moving, just observing myself from head to tail. Change is constant. Sensations, like an itch, come to go away. Scratching then really is a sign of a reactive mind, not a calm observational mind. Not that a scratchy monkey mind like mine can’t be extremely observant. I do sense a presentness that is quite peaceful. I’m going to try giving up reactive scratching; of course I’ll still permit myself pleasurable scratching from time to time.
Yeah right, I just itched my arm without even thinking about it. I guess I’ve got more diligent work to do, It’s just so tedious.
The kaleidoscope of nonsense I see when I close my eyes continues to be absurd. Sometimes I break the rules and just watch the show: dancing wiener birds, Japanese snowflakes, singing and dancing choreographed fish, flying skeletons, swirls radiating from Golden tuning forks, maple leaves cascading down, Wolf weasels, umbrella wielding Karate Masters, space invaders, intricate wood veneer inlays on ships wheels, giant dolphin fish crashing through Venetian blinds, wise owls with button eyes, twirling broccoli, jellyfish that turn into scrub brushes pulsing past, shouting cactuses, and more. You can see why it’s hard to push those visuals away and observe the body from head to tell, the show behind my eyelids is pretty good!
One thing I forgot to mention earlier, after breakfast today I was tossing twigs into the goldfish pond and Monsiuer Fishlips ate one. A whole 2 inches of a twig! He just yanked it away from some other dumb fish was trying to eat it, and gulped it down. I guess you don’t get to be the biggest fish in the pond by only eating algae now do you?
Day Five, After Tea
I just came back from a walk (someone found my hanging tea mug) and a chat with the gang at the fishpond. I haven’t laughed out loud for so long! Those fish crack me up. I met Mademoiselle Fishlips (finally) and Junior was trying to convince me he could eat a twig too, just maybe not as big. Spackles said he was going to try and grow some legs, and if he does I better watch out because he’ll come out and find out for himself what’s really in that tea cup. I told him it was just tea and even offered him some, but he “wasn’t falling for it.” Crazy Spackles.
Anyway, it’s still only day five! For fucks sake this shit drags on and on and on. One change I’ve noticed is, it’s become easier now to meditate in the hall – rather than in my room – in spite of the Fartathon and all the distracting coughs, sniffs, sneezes and shuffling. This moving around stuff is not cool anymore now that we are in “sitting with strong intent” mode, in other words, no moving. Still, I find that I can just zone out, or in, as the case may be, and the hour doesn’t seem quite as long as it used to. But seriously, Five. More. Days. I don’t know man.
Deep Thought: Is farting out loud a breach of noble silence? If not, it ought to be, then again maybe the reason farts are audible is to give people in the room a chance to run. The gong is a gonging. Time to go meditate. Again.
Nobody tells you, (or, nobody told me), that day five would be transformational. Everyone I spoke to about Vipassna before coming said days three and six would be hard, and they’re right. Every day here is hard. But yesterday by the end of the day and during the discourse, it all fell into place for me. It all started to make sense, so why don’t they tell you beforehand: “look, it’s going to suck at first, it’s going to be tedious and boring, but it will make sense in the end and probably be worth it. Oh, and wait till you see what happens on day five.” At least the Stoner might’ve had a chance.
Last night’s discourse wasn’t, ironically, Goenke’s best. Too much gibbering in his native tongue, I got lost several times, but some of the main topics were great. The first Noble Truth is there is suffering and to accept it. From there the goal is to observe it with equanimity (Vipassana is equanimous awareness). When we really observe our pain, it is halved.
The kneeling while meditating hurts again. It’s impossible to sit still, and for the first four days we were allowed to move around. On the fifth day we were asked not to move, and just observe the sensation of pain. Amazingly, for me I didn’t need to move or adjust my legs during the “sitting with strong intent session.” You just sit there observing the pain, yes, it exists. Fine, but when you start moving and moaning you double it. From there we go deeper to find the root of the pain and/or suffering. All pain and misery comes from attachment to “I” or “mine” or an association with things we don’t want, or disassociation with things we do (like my Porsche 911 that I don’t own, for example).
Goenke gave a long-winded explanation about why this is silly, but in the end what it came down to is “you can’t take it with you.” So that’s the simple lesson so far. Let go – all misery starts from within. I’m reminded of something I read in Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth” about there not being “good” or “bad,” but it is our reaction to things that makes them so. I wonder what he and Goenke would say about war, or hate crimes or any of the many other things that we can all pretty easily agree on as being “bad.”
So yesterday was really great, but last night was miserable. Maybe it was all the cheese and taters, but I could not sleep. I felt as if my ego and body were rebelling against me, like they were trying to show me they still had power over me. I tossed and turned and itched and scratched nonstop. I think one of the two remaining roommates is mad at me for it to. Well fuck you ego and body. If I can last four more days I’ll master you. Mind over matter! But first, here’s today’s crazy visual: beaver birds with hatchet beaks they used to chop down trees like beavers, only higher up so they can build huge nests. Yes, I know it’s crazy. No, I don’t know where comes from.
Day Six, Pre Lunch
Things are looking up. I befriended the “Weasel” (that’s a term of affection now) after explaining that I needed to horizontally meditate this morning after last night. He said it was pretty normal to spin out on the sixth night. I also spoke to Patrick again, and he’s pretty cool. Very soulful, and you can tell he believes in this technique, even if he does always fall asleep during the discourses.
Last night I was a bit angry that the Weasel asked me to sit upright during the discourse – I was reclined a bit on two questions. It’s the only time in the meditation hall where we are allowed to relax, and meanwhile the teacher was snoozing! It’s a respect thing? Seriously… it’s a VIDEO!
Anyway, it’s okay now, I’m feeling more at peace here and within. I feel like I’m vibrating differently, and that can only be good. Also I had some thoughts and possible clarity about my issues with women. I think it has to do with being picked on as a kid by boys – the girls always liked me. No matter how many times we moved or I was the new kid, I could always get the prettiest or most popular girl to go out with me and in some way that validated me as a person. And to a certain degree back then it did. Nobody picks on me anymore, but I’m still repeating the same pattern from back then. Hopping from one girl to the next, whether for months or for years, hopping nonetheless. I could be on to something here. Anyway if that is the root of my relationships issues, then at least I’ve identified it and can move forward from here. Four more days and my pen is dying, damn. At least I also know the writing (which is not allowed) isn’t getting in the way of my growth.
Day Six, Later
Well, it’s official. I’m bored shitless. Hey! Maybe I could go meditate! Haha. It’s fucking Groundhog Day. I named to more fish: Dottie (She’s pink with a light spot on her forehead) and Untitled (white with a splat of black on her back, like one of those modern art paintings you could have done, but didn’t).
The numbers continue to dwindle, but my all-star cast is still holding strong. Unusually, there seems to be no stereotypical type of meditator. This is a very multicultural group here, from early 20s to the Grizzler, some obviously business type people uncomfortable without a suit and tie, some creative types, some who look like they were forced to come here by wives, girlfriends or judges, and some plain old nice seeming folk – and I guess they all have to be pretty nice to be here in the first place.
This afternoon I’m looking forward to… you guessed it, meditation, followed by hopefully a good discourse, this time with less Pali even though they did post a “commonly used Pali words” notice today on the board, and then some good Z’s. Tomorrow is Day seven.
Day Six, Post Evening Meditation
No I. No me. No mine – No way. This is ridiculously hard. Impossible. I thought I could do it, but the train beckons. Maybe I just need some sleep, of course I do. If I hear the gong I’m boycotting it. Keep ringing it if you want, I’m sitting this one out. End of story.
Day Six, Continued
Okay, so I feel a little better now. My legs still ache, but I went for a walk and found a cool spot with a giant log to lounge on. While I was there I started building an ant meditation centre out of twigs, leaves and rocks – it was beautiful. I was imagining what it must be like to an enlightened ant when I got spotted. Not by the Weasel, but by another meditator also playing hooky. Right on brother, this is our time. I keep forgetting that.
“Gruber,” (the hungry, first in line for lunch every day, clodhopper) is losing it. He started wrapping his head with a blue polar fleece blanket, like a Jedi, but singing and humming while clod hopping around. Also, another new co-meditator nickname today “Stinky.” Jesus dude, we’ve all been eating the same food for six days and nobody else’s ass is wrecking the bathroom like yours. Stinky looks like the kind of guy who thinks Mac Donald’s is a food group. And it wouldn’t surprise me if he was sneaking out at night and hitching a ride to Blackheath Centre for a Big Mac.
Monsieur Jr. is still trying to convince me he is just as much of a man (fish) as Senior, but I keep telling him to eat a twig and prove it.
Two more sessions tonight, and if I can sleep (please God, or Buddha) then I will have successfully made it to day seven. Lucky seven. A good day to bail?
I came here to find peace, but I think I might instead be losing my mind! I’m definitely losing weight. I heard that on average most people lose about 6 kg here due to the healthy vegetarian and infrequent meals. Stinky might be the exception.
Tonight was a beautiful sunset. On my way over to the deck to watch it with yet another cup of tea, I caught a whiff of someone’s barbecue from across the train tracks. Oh boy did it smell good. I could get on that next train so easily. Luckily the smell of shampoo and mosquito repellent from the female side of the camp saved me. I will make it to Day Seven.
Tonight’s discourse was all about addiction to craving, attachment and aversion. I also finally figured out the words that Goenke says at the end of every discourse: “Bhavaatu Sabba Mangalam.” No idea what that means. Yet.
It rained last night. A beautiful mighty rain that clinked heavily and melodically on the corrugated tin roof. Time will only tell if it washed away any of the current monotony and agony that is Vipassna.
It occurred to me that this is quite like an extreme sport, in fact I used to joke about it before I came, saying that if you’re willing to take the body to extremes by jumping out of airplanes and off bridges, why not the mind? It is gruelling work and I keep waiting for the secret, the real technique to be revealed. It can’t only be about impartial observation. Surely. But it is extreme.
I contemplated at breakfast this morning what I would be going back to:
Working as a freelance Writer and advertising Creative Director, Director of a fledgling innovations company, Executive Director of a non-profit organization I founded and a long list of other little “projects.” Clearly I’m addicted to doing as Goenke would say, And he’d be right. My to-do list is as long as this article. No wonder as un-fun as three more days of kneeling inside my head sound, that I haven’t gotten on that train. And don’t get me started on the on inevitable backlog of e-mails and voice mails. I can’t imagine having to listen to other people talk! I might never leave, Nope. Maybe I’ll just get a hold of some kneepads and stay a bit longer.
I spoke with the fish this morning after breakfast. Canvasse told me they were all stoked about the rain, they needed to freshen up the pond a bit and it knocked some good snacks down out of the trees which they needed since I wasn’t feeding them. I hope they got something better than a twig.
Day 7, Post-Walk
I was laying in bed, waiting for the inevitable gong, and feeling miserable when a voice inside my head started repeating like an incessant child that knows no other phrase: “Don’t be miserable. Go for a walk.” Was this the voice of the real me? Buddha? Goenke? I tried to ignore it, but it was persistent, so, quietly, not wishing to awaken my to snoozing bunk mates, I snuck out.
I found some new paths I hadn’t been on before (there is a metaphor in there somewhere) and it cheered me up. My advice to anyone who attempts this is: go for walks. It’s the best and only exercise you’re allowed anyway. So I decided to circle back and see if last night’s stormy weather destroyed the ant meditation centre fully anticipating it would need rebuilding, but to my surprise it was fine! Get to it, you pesky picnic invaders. Poor little ants, they have three times as many knees as us you know.
Day 7, Lunch
There is a little Indian man who has been sitting next to me in the meditation hall (we now have assigned matts) who snores every session, every time, every day. As a result, I have nicknamed him “Snuzar.” I didn’t find his snoring particularly annoying until Day 5. Today I considered leaning over and coughing loudly in his year, which is a lot friendlier than yesterday’s thought which was to tap him on the forehead with a stick and when he opened his eyes, spray him in the face with pepper mace. I’m sorry if that’s mean, but imagining him running out of the meditation hall rubbing his eyes jabbering in an Indian accent still sort of cracks me up.
What I chose to do instead was observe. Observe, observe, and observe, in search of where the animosity was coming from. What do I care if he snores? Is it because I feel like I am working hard at this and he’s taking a nap right next to me? I felt how the one guy you always see working out of a road crew of six must feel. Is his nap going to negatively affect my experience? No. So I let it go, I let the wheel of Dharma roll, and guess what? Just when I had worked through all this, he coughed himself awake, got up and walked out of the MH. “Sensations come, to go away.”
Day 7, Post Lunch
I was correct about The Gruber. He’s gone, packed his bags and left before lunch. I asked the Weasel how many people have dropped out and he said two, but I know for sure there were at least three; Stoner, the annoying guy from my cabin, and now the Gruber.
Tomorrow is Day 8. I’m in the home stretch and feeling okay about things. I’m feeling like I’m learning and uncovering some truths about me and my habits and my patterns, but still not sure yet how to apply it out there in the “real” world.
More visuals: spilled pools of India ink on green tree leaves, sesame seed covered Tyrannosaurus Rex’s with soft pink toothless mouths.
Day 7, Evening Discourse
Fartathon: Men +1, Women +2
Day 8, 5:30am
I just got busted AGAIN by the Weasel for meditating horizontally. He asked me if I was meditating – I replied, “always.” This got a chuckle, but really I was having this wonderful dream:
I dreamt I was in a big office-building lobby in San Francisco with polished marble floors, floor to ceiling mirrored walls and escalators going up and down all around me. As I was leaving the building I noticed two college fraternity boys wearing cowhide prayer shawls and cowboy boots chasing a giant angora goat around the lobby. They were laughing hard as they tried to catch it.
I also thought it was hilarious, and was joining in, laughing with the growing crowd of business people. But then I realized that the goat was terrified and I watched as it made a run for it – full speed right into a mirrored wall knocking itself literally backwards and temporarily unconscious.
Nobody knew what to do. The two frat guys continued to laugh nervously, someone called the cops on their mobile phone, there was lots of murmuring. I walked over to the goat just as it was coming out of its daze. Everyone was yelling not to go near it: “It could have rabies, it’s a wild goat, wait for the cops, wait for the SPCA!”
Just as I got to her she bolted for a door that was being held open by a security guard and ran out onto the busy city street. This was clearly more terrifying than the lobby and the goat stopped, confused about what to do. I ran outside and got to her as the police arrived. I walked up to the goat and spoke to it calmly offering my hand for it to sniff as you would to an unknown dog.
That’s when she bit down on my hand, locking it in her maw with razor sharp goat teeth and wouldn’t let go. Someone yelled for the police to shoot it, but I said “No. Love is the answer.” I continued to pet Sandy (that was the goats name) with my free hand and calmly told her that everything would be OK and that problems only come to go away.
Just then a bus started backing up – beep, beep, beep – scaring Sandy even more. My hand was being crushed, but still I spoke kindly to her as the crowd began pounding on the sides of the bus. At last Sandy reluctantly let go of my hand and I sat down with her on the sidewalk petting her as she nuzzled herself under my arm. A newspaper reporter started asking me who I was and how did I know the wild goat wasn’t going to bite my hand off? Did I raise goats? Was I a goat herder?
I considered telling them that I was sort of a goat myself (Chinese birth year), but I didn’t want to reveal my age, so instead I told the reporter, “love is the answer.” A man from the SPCA gave Sandy something to knock her out and then put her in his van. As they set off towards whatever farm the frat boys had kidnapped her from, I took off down the street.
That’s when the Weasel woke me up. Damn.
Last night during his discourse Goenke continued to extol the benefits of observation, equanimity and awareness, and encouraged us for the next two days to meditate “always” from wake to sleep, remaining aware as much as possible at all times. Just when I thought I couldn’t meditate anymore! Isn’t 10 hours a day enough?
He also spoke about faith or devotion, and how important it is, but only on the condition that it is not given blindly. The Universal, non-sectarian truth of nature tells us that faith in gods who promise good things later if we behave one way, and bad things if we don’t isn’t a compassionate, giving God. Even if you don’t believe in heaven or hell, or past or future lives, you must believe in the present life – and these teachings give us tools we can use now to liberate us from our misery.
He also mentioned his theory that God did not create man in his image, but that man created God in his. I happen to agree. He says, if someone comes to me and says they are devoted to our Lord Jesus Christ, he says, “great, Jesus was a noble man – he died tortured, ridiculed and abused and yet had nothing but compassion, love and forgiveness for his tormentors, saying “forgive them, they know not what they do.”
If they say yes, but I believe in Him because he was the son of God. Again he says “great, what is God? God is love, God is purity, God is compassion – Jesus was a product of all these things. Of course he is the Son of God.” I personally have no problem with this, it’s only when people say “Oh Jesus please bring me a new car, or get me a raise, or forgive me my sins that I have a problem” God can’t do that, only you can do that. Great stuff.
And by the way, anybody can be a Buddha according to Goenke. And apparently there are lots of them among us right now, not just that one guy’s face you always see carved out of stone in gardens and gift shops. Buddha means “enlightened one” and there are Buddhas all around us, thanks to Vipassna.
It’s freezing cold here today. It’s been getting progressively colder since I began and as a result, my ballpoint pen often refuses to write, very frustrating for an illegal note taker who needs to write quickly and on the sly. But not as frustrating as the misleading “Day 8” sign on the memo board. Day 8 out of 10 would imply only two more days, but really, there are three. All of today, all of Day 9 and all of Day 10. We leave on Day 11, so that’s three more days, not two.
It may seem like a small technicality, but our daily quota of meditation time has just risen from ten, to seventeen hours and I’m not sure I want to meditate for another minute. I’m not opposed to it and I’m definitely getting value from it and all the good messages from Goenke are sinking in (just look at how I saved Sandy), but I’m sore, I’m tired, I’m jonesing for a surf, a hug, a friend, and maybe a nice glass of red. If that’s creating my own misery, so be it. It will pass.
One good thing I realized today at breakfast was that we are all in this together, suffering equally, both in this Centre and in the real world. A brotherhood if you will, even Stinky and Snuzar. A good reminder to treat my fellow man with compassion even when they cut in front of you on the drive to work. Especially when they cut in front of you on the drive to work.
Day 8, Post Lunch
Oh what a glorious lunch! The best meal so far – a divine macaroni pie with cheese, zucchini and marinara sauce. The agonies of the cheese n tater debacle long forgotten, I helped myself to seconds, and then thirds, A decision that quickly renders me unconscious, or rather, puts me into a “meditative state.”
Now that the end is in sight – I think I can, I think I can, I think I can – I’m more determined to make this experience work for me. I’m no longer content to just weather the ten days so I can say I did it. I can feel change, positive change, occurring within and I vow to do my best to make the most of the remaining time. Within reason of course.
Me 2 is starting to lose it. He could be next to go.
Seventh Night Discourse
Goenke talks about how Buddha went and looked at all his past lives for clues, so I decided to explore my own past lives in last night’s final meditation session. I’m not going to tell you how far back I went, or what I saw, but suffice to say, I didn’t like it and I decided not to go back any further.
Noble Silence has its own peculiar hilarity. Like when you spill the soy milk and need a rag to clean up with. How do you communicate this to someone in the kitchen without looking at them or speaking? You can’t just say, “Hey, you got a rag?” Or the endless “after you’s” in doorways, or deciding which side of a walking path to pass each other on. It also has its advantages, besides the previously stated, which include things like not being able to say “dude, that’s a lot of cheese.” Wait, maybe that’s a disadvantage, but you get my drift.
One of the main takeaways from this experience thus far is that change is inevitable and constant and there is no grander way to see that for yourself than from the deck of the dining hall. The deck area overlooks the Blackheath Mountains and the gorgeous valley below and the view was never the same once. Perfect clouds one day, clear the next, foggy after that, blue, then pink, then hazy. Every day the sky was different and every day it was spectacular. Change is the universal law of nature, and all anyone has to do to see it is, as Goenke says, “just observe.”
I went for another walk to see if the ant meditation centre was still standing and all the ants came out and started bitching “Take it down our knees hurt! We don’t need to find peace we need to find picnics!”
I woke up at 4:30 AM, did my meditation, then took a shower and went to breakfast feeling great, really great. Maybe it’s because it’s Day 9, but also because I think some of this technique is working. I can’t articulate how yet, but I was feeling good. The first meditation after breakfast was fine, but the second, from which I have just returned, completely annoyed me.
Out of nowhere I got really agitated and considered walking out of the hall several times. Goenke would not shut up. Usually he just chants in Pali for a while and then says a few words about observing sensations from top of the head to tip of the toe with equanimity. Today he just blathered on and on and on and on. Repeating himself over and over. I don’t know why I’m so annoyed. Is it my own Sankharras? The cold? The monotony of this place? The loneliness? I started thinking excitedly about all the things I’m looking forward to when I get back. Maybe that’s part of it, Now that the end is near I’ve become inpatient. Deep breaths.
Last night’s discourse was again enlightening and entertaining. Goenke’s jolly style and fabulous accent, along with the fact that he’s been doing this for over 30 years, make him a fabulous presenter, most times. His use of analogy, examples and storytelling makes things clearer and always gets a few laughs. “Buddha scandal story – Dharma works” (wings of a feather analogy for awareness, equanimity)
I was sitting on a bench leaning against a tree, wondering whether or not to stay when a heavy breeze caught the top of the tree I was leaning against in its grasp causing it to bend and sway. I looked upwards in the tree seems to be swaying to me “go with the flow of nature, look at me. I am doing great and I’ve been here my whole life.”
Beautiful chirping yellow and grey finches have arrived. My girlfriend would love them, they’re just like the birds in her favourite painting by Kathryn Del Barton.
For some reason I’m cracking up imagining this centre listed in some obscure German backpacking guide book: “for a great deal on accommodation and delicious vegetarian food, you can’t beat the Blackheath Meditation Centre – it’s free.” But if you’re a backpacker reading this, it’s the wrong reason to come to matter how budget conscious you are. Come, but not for money reasons. Or the food.
That said, the food is great, and some extraordinary organic teas are pretty good too; lemon grass, red Sage, chamomile, peppermint, and of course the good old Australian Dilmah and Tetley’s. Surely a Goenke cookbook is in the works – recipes for the body and mind, or the liberators guide to cooking and living well” I don’t know, but if they want help writing it, I’m available to help.
Surveying the cafeteria today at lunch I was surprised at how sad the men look. They are carrying so much weight on their faces. Has the technique brought it all up for them? Are they sad it’s almost over? Are they feeling how I was at the beginning? All I can say is, after some food I feel great again. My life is great and I have so much to be thankful for and appreciate, and so much more to look forward to when whatever it is I have now, goes away. The sensation of happiness will come again, and go. And come, and go. Such is the law of Dharma.
A breakthrough! A revelation! An observation! In the last meditation session, I chose to take a closer look at some of the sensations I was feeling and I was amazed by the result. I figured out where so much of my happiness comes from which was truly an enlightening moment.
My parents always said I was a happy baby, and I don’t remember ever being unhappy until I started school. Kids can be so cruel and I was an easy target. I was a San Francisco transplant, a product of talent rich, cash poor Ivy League educated, hippie, creative, peace-loving parents who moved to a redneck town in New Hampshire.
I was new, I was different, and those differences were easy to prey on: they have their hair cut at a barber, mom cut mine. They had superhero lunchboxes which matching thermoses, I had a brown paper bag. They had Adidas, I had K-mart. They had Levi’s, I had ToughSkins. They watched the 6-Million Dollar Man, we didn’t have a TV. They had full Cub Scout uniforms, I had only the shirt. They had parents who picked them up in normal cars, mine drove a station wagon with bananas and flowers painted on it.
My parents must’ve tried to teach me to be grateful for what I had, and to celebrate my differences, but it was hard in that backwoods of rural town and I resented everyone there for it. A resentment I realize now, I have been carrying around for over three decades.
Today I looked around at the people here and realized, these aren’t those people, especially the people here. In fact none of the people in my life now are those people. And if you are one of those people reading this, when you get your truck running drive it to your nearest meditation centre and for God’s sake, come out of your misery.
Those people are probably still in the same town drinking Budweiser, living in trailers, and dreaming of owning a Harley one day.
A weight has been lifted, tension gone, I’m amazed at how I’ve been carrying that resentment around for so long and am grateful to everyone here that I can share this newfound understanding, clarity and compassion with. On Day 11, not now of course. And I can celebrate my special differences with positivity, and see all the good in my childhood and even perhaps forgive those damn rednecks. But I might have to meditate on that some more first.
Day Nine, 4:30 PM
I don’t know what is going on, but Goenke is seriously starting to do my head in. Do they have the same tape on auto loop, over and over and over and over – the same thing? Pretty soon I’m going to be able to teach this course. All day I’ve been feeling great, then a few meditation sessions in I start to lose it. I had to walk out of the last session before Goenke was done… “from the top of the head to the tip of the toes…” Arghhhh!
I went for a walk and saw some paragliders floating off at distant cliff face and wished I was with them. What a view of Valley they must have. But then the finches came to keep me company. I kept looking for pink ones, like in my girlfriends painting, but only yellow so far. I realize their sudden appearance is probably due to their being newborns. Is this their time of year? They all appear to be testing their wings – short little hops and tentative acrobatics, and testing their own weight too: this branch will hold me, this reed wont, this tree wiggles, this branch doesn’t. I’m not sure if they are new to flight or just showing off, either way the purr of their beating wings calms me. I resolve again to take it easy, stay one more day, and take a closer look at where my irritation comes from.
Here’s what I came up with: feeling like a captive, not being control of my time, and essentially being told what to do, what to eat, went to rest, went to work, went to sleep etc. for nine days in a row. It’s a lot to ask of people. A self-confident and independent person like myself. Anyway, it’s almost over. Tomorrow we can talk! Noble chat as it were, amongst ourselves, I look forward to hearing other people’s reactions about their experience.
Day Nine, Evening Discourse
Tonight’s discourse finally gave us a bit of an explanation about why we’ve been living like monks, and why this course is free. Basically it comes down to the fact that the body changes when emotions arise. For example, we can’t see anger, only the object of our anger – which continues to make us angry. By focusing on the changes in the body such as faster breathing and sensations such as heat, sweating, tensing muscles, clenching teeth etc. and observing only these changes impartially we become more attuned to our reaction to things, and as such are better equipped to deal. So our anger only lasts perhaps four hours, instead of eight. And with continued practice the theory is that we won’t get angry at all. We all create our own misery, our own anger and our own happiness too, and it’s up to us to get rid of the former, and appreciate the latter while it lasts, because happiness, like anger or irritation also comes to go away.
Yay! Yay! Yay! It’s Day 10! I woke up excited to greet my bunk mates for the past ten nights by name, but no such luck. We have been told to maintain Noble Silence until after “special instructions” are given at 9:45 AM. So it looks like it could be another long day of meditation until 10 PM tonight. And yes just like every other day we woke up at 4:30 this morning. When Noble Chatter erupts, I’m especially looking forward to talking with Old Yeller, Manny Ken, apologising to my roomies for my fitful night six, thanking the staff for all their great work, guidance, support and food… and finding out what exactly the Grizzler’s story is.
It’s “Metta” day, which could be Pali for “10,” but I like to think of it as a day where everything is good and nothing is the metta. (Sorry). Anyway, I’m glad I came, and glad it will soon be over. A sentiment I’m confident is shared by most, if not all of us still here.
Day 10 Discourse
When it ends, I say “saadhu” three times and bow. Now I can see, clearly even the image of this man deserves respect.
I bow deep.
There is a part of me that still finds it somewhat disappointing to take a ten-day course (12 if you count travel days) taught primarily by a teacher who is only seen for an hour a day on a flickering video screen. I know this is fast becoming the norm at colleges and universities worldwide (watch your back Professor, Video U is coming) and the format does allow for Goenke to spread his message in more places at the same time which can only be good, but still a bit more personal support and encouragement along the way would have helped.
Do I feel enlightened? Well, I do feel lighter in more ways than the 6 kg I probably lost. Besides, even if I’m a long way from Buddhahood, at least I’m on the right path.
Looking back, I see now that I entered into this with scepticism, trepidation and fear, rather than hope, optimism and confidence. I was always committed to the ten days, but I was willing to look for reasons to go right up until the end. I’m glad I didn’t find any.
It was a full moon when I arrived here in Blackheath, and every night before sleep I have looked skyward to watch it wane and change its position in the star scape. But I know it will be full again. It’s the law of nature. It comes to go away. But for now, from where I’m standing, my mind is at peace and the moon is definitely half-full.
Now, where’s the nearest sushi joint?