Does anyone else realize how brilliant Mazzy Star's album "So Tonight That I May See" is? That is just an aside for those wanting an aside...
I returned home this afternoon via a Greyhound Bus from Shelburne, Massachusetts a somewhat delirious and detached person: I spent the last 10 days of my life in my first Vipassana Meditation retreat. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect, and I think that I was both pleasantly- and unpleasantly- surprised.
For those unfamiliar with the practice, Vipassana is a meditation technique which had been preserved in Burma from the time of Buddha, and returned to India- and then introduced to the western world- by a man named S.N. Goenka. There are now centers globally, and the operations of each are based solely on donations without any advertising campaign besides word-of-mouth. Appropriately, a girl I went out with this fall told me about it.
And so, two weeks ago I consulted the website and packed accordingly. It was fairly easy since a student is not allowed anything besides his or her mind. What do I mean, you ask? Besides forbidding the obvious- cell phone, iPods, computers, television, etc.- you are allowed no reading or writing materials, no religious objects, no additional food or drink, and are not permitted to practice any other techniques during the course (yoga, alternate prayers and rites, visualizations, counting rosary beads, etc.). I showed up with nothing except for a couple pairs of sweatpants and tee-shirts, then packed blankets, soap, shampoo, lotion, and deodorant. Upon arrival, I checked-in a pack of Orbitz cinnamon gum and some almonds I had brought on the bus as valuables!
Besides this, a student is to have no vocal- or eye-contact with anyone and signs a waiver declaring his or her concordance with that and other regulations. I was assigned a room with two other students, one of whom was an unfortunately naive herb who seemed most impressed by the fact that Rivers Cuomo of Weezer was on the course. He thankfully stopped talking like the rest of us, and we began our schedule the following morning:
4:00 AM: Awaken
4:30-6:30: Meditate privately
8:00-9:00: Group Meditation
9:00-11:00: Continue Meditating on your own
12:00- 1:00: Rest and interviews with the teacher (if desired)
1:00-2:30: Continue to meditate on your own
2:30-3:30: Group Meditation
3:30-5:00: Continue to meditate on your own
5:00-6:00: Tea break
6:00-7:00: Group Meditation
8:15-9:00: Group Meditation
9:00-9:30: Optional Question time in the hall
9:30 PM: Retire
If you do the math, you meditate about 12 hours a day, eat two meals [old students take only tea at Tea Break while new students can have a little fruit] and have the opportunity to either walk around in a designated area with signs to demarcate boundaries, meditate, or sleep during your breaks. That is all.
For the first 3 and a half days, we focused entirely on our breath, remaining aware of it passing "out of the left nostril, the right nostril, or perhaps simultaneously out of both the nostrils." All of our instruction was delivered on CD in a somewhat strained dead-pan from Goenka himself. There was an assistant teacher who was in charge of pressing play, stop, etc., and of course she herself would sit the meditations and answer questions posed privately in the quietest voice possible. She would ask all the male students or female students to remain after the mandatory group sittings in the hall to insure we were all understanding the instructions. On the second day, I was bored senseless.
Yet, each of the discourses (video presentations of Goenka broadcast on two screens at the front of the hall) addressed the frustrations I was experiencing day-to-day, reassuring me that my issues seemed to be universal impediments to the goal of remaining "on the path of Dhamma." They did little for the obsessed Weezer fan who became too overwhelmed and frustrated with the poor choice for his scholastic winter break, and he left the course on the beginning of the fifth day (students abandoning prior to course completion is common). The remaining roommate and I returned to our room that evening, shrugged our shoulders, and fell asleep.
The practice of Vipassana itself was intense. It relies on the kind of concept that you'd never really think of yourself but, when hearing it articulated, seems plainly obvious: it is our bodily sensations which create cravings or aversions to objects outside of ourselves and, if we are able to observe their transient nature of arising and passing while maintaining equanimity, we will no longer develop conditioned responses and thus end our cycle of being "miserable." So, in these terms, when I think of someone I want to sleep with, it's not so much the specific girl I want, but the sensations of sex I experience just thinking about it. Or, if I want to buy a Ferrari to make myself happy, the Ferrari is of no consequence: it is really the excitement of acquiring an expensive object to call "mine."
Ok. I assume everyone reading this has even a vague and basic concept of Buddhism and what it entails, right? Good. Moving on...
Bodily sensations conveniently correlate with human nature's cravings but, when observed to serve a more practical function (God forbid you want to fuck the whole morality part of Dhamma and continue drinking and having sex), they also impact our reactions to others. When our girlfriends invent these delusional fantasies and insist we want to sleep with every female who sends us a text message, or cry and want to prohibit us from attending another girl's party without a chaperone she herself designates (just a hypothetical example, I swear!), we may want to scream that they are insecure, jealous lunatics who should get the hell out of our lives immediately but leave their cat behind. Yet, that would only be reacting to the uncomfortable sensations within us; therefore, we remain aware of our respiration, and eventually cultivate compassion and infinite love- after we leave them.
If I weren't drunk, I wouldn't be being so sarcastic. But, airing dirty laundry aside, you can see the truth: if we meditate using this recommended technique- passively observing sensations as they arise and pass- these notions of impermanence are now comprehended on an experiential level, and our unconscious mind's old stock of Sankaras (conditioned responses) become feebler and eventually die.
In the sittings, Sankaras manifest as pains, and dealing with them becomes very difficult to say the least. Meanwhile, since we are now focusing our full attention on sensations which were normally only attended by our unconscious, that sub-level of our mind rises to the surface and irrevocably changes our perception of reality. At moments, I experienced states similar to those during the onset of acid. This was fine, but imagine when the trip starts to go badly, and you can't communicate that with anyone! You are alone in your head, circling outside in sweatpants slowly soaking up the mud and gravel and, feeling the cold of new england's winter through the soles of your sneakers, you can't even call home to make sure your one remaining parent is still alive. All these fantasies swirl, and you follow their now-strong sensations round-and-round in your chest, watching as they wrap around your sore spine and escape in your breath like exhaust.
One night I had a full-blown panic attack. I lay in bed, my heartbeat reverberating upwards into my cheeks, and I saw imagery from thoughts which weren't mine. Getting ready for her bedtime, a little girl took out her eyes in front of a mirror then sawed off her lower jaw with dental floss before going to her parents' room to say goodnight- over and over again. Then my mom's skull with darkened black eyes, then an imaginary halloween, her wearing face paint of a skull yet dead anyway. Then my father hugging an image of her evaporating in wispy ash before he himself turned to dust. All I felt was my heart all over my body, pounding maniacally and futilely as if it were wounded, bleeding rather than distributing blood.
I went into the light of the hall, convinced of ghosts in my room. I concentrated on the floor's colored diamond tiles, then thought of knocking on the course manager's door and inquiring just what in the fuck was going on. I managed to slip back in bed and fall asleep to bizarre dreams before waking up to my roommate's sleep-talk in a different language... Then I immediately hallucinated an entire sequence of what I believed were blurred satanic symbols in black crayon, one of which was a bird with eyes on its wings. And, in early morning, I sat upright in bed during a paranoid episode where whom I thought was the course manager entered my bathroom and put poison on my fucking toothbrush! God, I wish I were joking... I said his name out loud three times accusingly from my bed before my entirely confused roommate exited the room with his hands up in the air, refusing to break the code of silence.
Then, things changed. The next day was positive. And up and down my moods continued, arising and passing. I was having no trouble not talking to anyone; I felt I could do this for the rest of my life. Then on the seventh day, thinking of Brooklyn in summer, thinking of my friends and family, feeling so happy and lucky walking around in the sun and listening to ice melt. Then, I was so fucking bored again, my knees hurting and my heart racing, kneeling in deafening silence amongst strangers draped in blankets and shawls, hearing chanting from speakers and the vegetarian food digesting in stomachs all around me. Then a smile, a stifled laugh, a pain in my ribs, my thoughts coming in between breaths and sensations. Remembering the little frame of the Weezer singer in the front row, getting "Buddy Holly" in my head as I passed imaginary objects through my body to feel their sensations. I wasn't supposed to be visualizing anything- I was breaking the rules. "Why all these homies dissing my girl? Why do they gotta front?" I felt the backs of my eyeballs, each toe...
In the end, it was a technique: a technique one can use to focus the mind and remain a little more positive. But, with Goenka's repetitive and puritanical ramblings, it was presented as a hypocritical philosophy that- while rightfully eschewing negative aspects of religion and the ensuing blind faith of its devotees- propagated an identical discourse by outlining very specific precepts one is to follow and then delineating a course of action for you to experience "real happiness, real peace." I didn't enjoy bowing to a television set, nor did I enjoy hearing that if I first ignored aspects of Sila (moral precepts) and LATER REALIZED THEY WERE RIGHT, I'd get back on "correct" path of Dhamma. And so, out of its initial premise of being non-sectarian, Goenka praised specific interpretations of Siddharta's teachings, and he declared those to be the "pure" Buddhism... God, this sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it?
Though now I am home. I've been up 24 hours, ignoring sleep on the bus to Port Authority this morning to talk and then guiltily watch "Hitched" with Wil Smith and Eva Mendez. The subway ride back was difficult since the everyday noises all around me were now strangely foreign, but after some sake with dinner, my code of Sila was broken, and I re-entered the world I remembered with my eyes opened a little wider than before.