I first learned about Vipassana from the monk I met in Burma whom I've written so many articles about. That's when my interest was initially piqued. When a respected friend told me that a 10 day Vipassana silent meditation retreat was one of the most impactful things he's ever done, I decided I'd give it a try myself. In a whirlwind of preparation for my coming move to Austin I completely forgot to look into the expedition I was about to undertake. I never even asked my friend about his experience, let alone did any googling or even reading of the material available on the Vipassana website. Once again I found myself setting off on a journey I knew too-little about.
Day 0 — I arrive at the Illinois Vipassana Center
4pm: I'm greeted by a man with the hair of a ghostbuster post-ghostbusting, and the countenance of a movementarian. He hands me some paperwork and I sit on the men's side of the dining hall to fill it out.
6pm: Noble Silence begins. We're forbidden to communicate with each other for the next ten days, verbally or otherwise.
7pm: I sit at my assigned place in the Dhamma Meditation Hall alongside the rest of the men and women — we number two dozen of each gender. A deep Indian voice comes on the speakers instructing us to concentrate on the sensations around our nostrils. The voice has the slow mumble of a sad drunk or a dying wizard.
9:30pm: Day zero is finished. Lights out.
Day 1 — It Begins
4am: Three gongs. The sun's not awake yet and I don't understand why for that matter I should be either.
4:30am: My mind is filled with useless scraps of media. Katy Perry songs. Adam Sandler's comedy album. Is that Nicolas Cage's skull?
5pm: We've gathered in the dinning hall and are just starting to realize that no dinner is coming. Tea and some apples, oranges, and bananas. For the rest of the course this will be our sustenance, along with a breakfast of oatmeal and stewed prunes, and a lunch which changes daily.
9pm: I find a clarity of mind that I've never had before; a level of concentration I've never experienced. A Hunter S. Thompson quote comes to mind: "The first hour is all waiting, then about halfway through the second hour you start cursing the creep who burned you, because nothing is happening ... and then ZANG! Fiendish intensity, strange glow and vibrations." I go to my room to do some light stretching before bed. The carpet pattern has become 3-dimensional and I can't seem to flatten it out. The grains on my wooden door oscillate in and out with my pulse. Residuals from my last trip?
Day 2 — I give in
I suspect I got enough talking done in my sleep last night to make up for the silence of yesterday.
11am: This place is designed to help you avoid temptation. You check your electronics, reading, and writing material at registration. When drugs and alcohol aren't around I don't even think of them, and I know I can go ten days without the touch of a woman, but ever since I can remember I've chased the dark horse. It lurks down every alley in my mind, and grazes in the open pasture of my heart. My blood runs thick with chocolate. Give me fulcrum and a long enough bar of chocolate and I'll move the stars. There in the dining hall next to the teas is a container of hot chocolate mix, or at least the highly-processed freebase derivative of the pure stuff that rich people drink in their ski chalets. A super addictive street-sweet designed by Corporate America to keep poor people down. Obesity and quick-fixes; you have them hooked. It's like a beer tap at and AA meeting for me. I'm losing it. I make myself a cup.
9pm: As I leave the meditation hall I see a violently crescent moon lurking off the half-painted scarlet horizon, a planet or bright star studded in its ear. I want to signal to my course-mates, but I hold Noble Silence. Still, people see me looking at it and it draws their gaze.
10pm: I've stayed up too late looking at the moon — partially because it's beautiful, and partially because I'm afraid I'm going to miss the stars in the bright city of Austin.
Day 3 — I experiment with caffeine
6:30am: The last couple days my concentration has been getting worse so I figure I'll give the caffeinated teas a try. I don't generally have caffeine. Not through some objection, I just don't tend to drink products that have caffeine in them. For this reason I can and do use caffeine as a recreational drug.
7am: The caffeine doesn't have the mental effects I was hoping for, it just has me running to the bathroom more often.
12pm: We're informed that the real Vipassana training starts tomorrow. During the break period I notice far more people milling about the course grounds. Downcast eyes like dejected mental patients, each walking down a different road than the one I see before them. Maybe it's the good weather, or anxiety for the coming practice, or maybe their going stir crazy. I guess there's a bit of all that brewing inside me too.
2pm: During group meditation I hear people getting called up to the front and questioned. "Can you feel a sensation on your nostrils? If your mind wanders can you bring it back within 5 minutes?" Everyone answers yes to both, but I only answer yes to the former. I guess I'll just have to wait out the rest of the course.
Day 4 — Start of Vipassana
My sleeping is getting worse; more restless and I'm waking up wondering if I missed the morning gong and going out into the hall of the dorm to check the clock.
10am: I reach a depth I've never reached before — and never reach again. A third of my body feels like it's surrounded in some sort of aura. During the first 45 seconds of break everything seems a bit more out of focus, or is it more in focus?
2pm: I'm craving macaroni and cheese real bad. You're not supposed to crave anything here: the whole experience is designed to help you fight craving and aversion.
Day 5 — Another one bites the dust
6:30pm: I'm walking back to my room when I notice the handsome Syrian-looking guy leaving. I want to stop him and speak to him and tell him that he's doing the right thing and that I'll join him soon, but I hold Noble Silence and pretend I don't see him.
He wasn't the first from the men's side to go, and he won't be the last. All told we lose a quarter of our numbers, including one on day 9. It's sad to see them go. I wanted to talk to them at the end.
8pm: We've shifted our focus to encompass the entire body, part-by-part, piece-by-piece
Day 6 — Macaroni and Cheese day
11:30am: Lunch is homemade macaroni and cheese. Lunch is the only meal that changes, and they've all been fantastic. It's as if they've been reading my mind. It seems like lunch is the one opportunity here designed to help you fight craving, and not just misery.
7pm: The nightly discourses — our only daily respite from eating and meditation — are starting to lose me. The metaphors are becoming more inapt, and the theory more "out there". There's been a lot of things I've agreed with throughout the discourses, but they were all conclusions I'd already come to. I wonder how miserable the people who start learning Vipassana must be. The technique doesn't feel like it's right for me.
Day 7 — Determined sitting starts
8am: The first of what becomes thrice daily "determined sittings" begins. The determined sittings are group meditations where you're not supposed to move even the slightest. Previously during group meditations you could reposition as necessary, and during other meditation periods you could go back to your "meditation cell" (room) if you prefer.
9am: Determined sitting is over. I go back to my room to continue meditating because my body can't seem to handle being in any sitting position on the ground for more than 20min straight. Increasingly my knees are starting to hurt more frequently and in more positions when I'm not meditating, and every time I adjust my arms or legs there's loud popping sounds. I go back to my room so I can meditate in a chair, and to prevent disturbing others when I move. It reminds me of the rooms I stayed in when traveling, and that's not appealing, but I chalk it up to this grand exercise in equanimity.
Day 8 — I up my game
4:30am: Every day is getting harder. I suspect they're going to throw something new and challenging at us tomorrow, so in anticipation I decide to sit all 11 hours of daily meditation in the Dhamma Hall, and with as strong determination as possible.
7pm: The course is wearing me down. The instructor talks about how you have to have faith and devotion in order to make this work. I have faith that the technique will do what it says it will, but no devotion. I'm not sure that it's right for me or that I'll keep with it. Somehow I continue to push through. This place is like a prison, except prisoners have more freedom. They can talk, they can exercise, they can take their mind off where they are and what they're doing.
9:30pm: My body is in bad shape and my mind hasn't gotten any less restless. I'm too tired and crazy to sleep.
Day 9 — I'm burnt out
4:30am: I check the schedule. Nothing new, no surprises came.
6pm: You know I was joking about waiting it out earlier... I haven't regained my concentration from day 1, or my presence from day 4. In fact, it's been all downhill since day 4 for me. I continue to wonder if I should've left with the guy on day 5.
9pm: Apart from the gradual increased restlessness, I'm afraid I overdid it yesterday. I think today at least, if not the last five days, might have actually been detrimental.
Day 10 — Noble chatter begins
10am: We're freed from the bondage of silence. Some people open up quickly, others take some time. Soon we all seem back to normal. Strong personalities, garrulousness, swear words. Did these last 10 days have any effect on anyone? I didn't know any of these people beforehand, but I conjured up stories for each of them in my mind. We all did. We weren't supposed to of course. We were supposed to pretend that no one else was there the whole time, that you didn't see someone put four scoops of brown sugar into a cup and then pour white sugar on top of it before adding water to it to have as his only breakfast every day. But we all did.
11pm: I'm up way past bedtime talking to my roommate. I really like him; I have the whole time. I've wanted to talk to him, and now that I am it seems more fruitful then the last ten days combine.
Day 11 — Revelations
4am: Wake up gongs as usual.
4:45am: A special, final day meditation begins.
7am: It's over. After some cleanup we're free to go.
Was the experience good? On the whole.....probably. It certainly wasn't enjoyable, but suspect I got at least a little good out of it. At the very least I renewed my confidence in my willpower. Another brick of experience in the ever growing tower of my life I suppose. Will I continue with Vipassana? No. I will keep on meditating every morning as I've been doing for the last 7 years, because I do believe there are lots of benefits to it (and modern science seems to agree). I will incorporate things from the teachings into my life and my meditation technique, but I don't intend to walk any further down this path.
I don't think Vipassana is the only road to happiness, and I'm not sure it's actually a road to happiness at all. They talk about it as if happiness is just a freedom from misery. To me Vipassana is just a numbing—you sacrifice the joy with the pain. I believe that I can affect my own happiness and direct my life. I believe I can have more, higher highs, and fewer, shallower lows by having meaning and purpose and a strong sense of community in my life, and by doing good for others. I can structure my life to be happy: spend my money on experiences more than things, cut down my commute to work, consolidate unpleasant experiences and spread out good ones, don't stress myself out with unnecessary options, keep a gratitude journal etc. I'll take the bad with the good because I believe I can create more good.
I don't believe that you need Vipassana to be aware of yourself throughout your daily life, or that you need to completely lose a sense of self to be selfless. The theories of Vipassana and other Buddhist beliefs make sense, in a way, but I don't think they're right. They're like a good paradox where everything reasons out within a confined set of logic, but your outside experience tells you that it's still wrong. Yes, the "self" is hard to pin down. If I lose my arms and legs is my sense of self necessarily diminished? If you cut me into pieces, which piece would be "me"? The brain? But then every atom in my brain will be different next year, but hopefully I'll still be here. Sure, only the present exists: the future hasn't happened yet and hence doesn't exist, and the past is gone and doesn't exist anymore. What does it all matter since everything's impermanent? I will die and my legacy will fade, and so will America. Humans, throughout the galaxy, will die. The universe will end. But we know inherently that we can't look at things this way. That it's convenient to have a sense of self, and necessary to imagine a future and remember a past, and to try, even if it all amounts to nothing in the end.
I do live in the moment...at times. When I'm actively engaged in something, I'm present; I'm not thinking of the future or dwelling on the past. But when I'm doing something rote and mechanical, my mind wanders, and that's a good thing. That's how we make advancements. That's how we survive. Vipassana seems like the extreme middle path to me, and I prefer to take the middle middle path. Live in the present when it makes sense, and the past and future when that makes sense too. Have cravings and aversions, so long as they don't control you—which is one thing that struck me as funny: anyone who has the self-control to keep with Vipassana probably doesn't have self-control issues where cravings become dependencies and addictions, and aversions become true miseries. And meditate, just not all the time.
I don't condemn Vipassana. On the whole I think it's good. Anyone who truly follows its precepts is bound to be a good person. Nothing is for everyone, and like public school I think this was designed to help the masses, but not necessarily me. Sometimes an experience is just what you needed, just when you needed it; this wasn't one of those times.Soundtrack: We All Have Cell Phones (Weird Al in concert)