“Where are the goddamn bananas?
It’s Day Nine and apparently we are now out of bananas. My breakfast for the last eight days has been oatmeal with raisins and bananas and a cup of black tea. This, followed by a light vegetarian lunch, and a couple of pieces of fruit for dinner, was all I ate each day for 10 days at a Vipassana meditation retreat center 30 minutes outside of Yosemite.
In early February 2012, four months into our relationship, my partner David and I went on a silent meditation retreat. As with all things both scary and hard, yet ultimately beautiful and maybe even life-changing, it’s often better NOT to know exactly what you are getting into ahead of time. And so it was with my journey into the interior spaces of my mind and body.
OK, so my reaction to the banana shortage was not a good example of how (or whether) I’d internalized what we had been learning those past nine days about the true nature of the universe: that change is the only constant, there is no “I,” and reacting to sensations with either aversion or craving is not only pointless, it will keep you suffering. But in my defense, a regimen of speaking to no one, no eating past noon, no outside reading material, and 11 hours a day of meditation (beginning at 4:30 a.m.) is not as fun as it sounds.
I had wanted to get into meditation for years, but could never seem to hack it. All of the times I tried, I either got bored or distracted by the numbness in my lower extremities due to my lousy attempt at the lotus position. I typically lasted 15 minutes. When David mentioned the 10-day Vipassana meditation course, and how life-changing it was for him, I thought, “This might just be what I need.” I noticed later that he never really gave me any details about the course itself, a fact I would repeatedly laugh and curse over in the days ahead.
Day One: We arrive at the Center on a Wednesday afternoon and it is beautiful, quiet, and serene, with live oaks, rocky outcrops, and lighted paths along a pond to and from the dining hall, meditation hall, and residences. I would come to know the path, a full loop that took about 15 minutes to walk, very well. I said goodbye a little too quickly to David, again not fully realizing how difficult it was going to be spending 10 days without speaking to him, touching him, or even making eye contact.
The Center has strict rules to create the most conducive environment for intensive introspection with few distractions. And this is absolutely necessary, as the mind itself already provides more than enough distractions on its own. For nine out of the ten days we were to practice “Noble Silence,” which means “silence of body, speech, and mind,” in which no communication—verbal or non-verbal—is had with any other meditators at the Center. Other rules included no alcohol or drugs, and no eating after noon. For new students, an exception was made in which we could have fruit during the 5:00 pm tea break. I grew a great fondness for my Darjeeling black tea with honey and soymilk. And I found that I was rarely hungry, even though I only took a normal-sized portion of food at lunch, and only a half of a banana and an apple for “dinner.” Granted, it doesn’t require too many calories to sit in a dark cubical for 11 hours a day, with the occasional stroll around the pond thrown in, but I had an epiphany about how little I really need to eat.
As a participant I had to agree to five major precepts. They were:
- Abstain from killing any being
- Abstain from stealing
- Abstain from all sexual activity
- Abstain from telling lies
- Abstain from all intoxicants
I like how the word abstain is used for all of these, as if killing and stealing might be OK in other contexts, or later on after we leave.
Also, we were not allowed to bring any reading or writing material into the course, nor could we have cell phones or any contact with the outside world. And we had to stay within the confines of the Center. The parking lot, where my iPhone sat locked in my Prius, was completely off limits. I had no problem following any of these rules except one: I smuggled a tiny writing pad in along with a pen. Then I had to lie about it when the registrar asked me point blank if I had any writing material with me. (Weird, why did she choose to ask about that? Obviously she could peer through to my soul.) Already I had broken two rules and the course had barely started.
Then there was the admonition, which I (for one) took to heart, of “inappropriate clothing,” including shorts, sleeveless or low-cut tops, tank tops, transparent, tight, or otherwise “revealing” clothing. The rules for “modest dress,” as outlined in the Code of Discipline booklet, indicate that clothes should be “simple, modest, and comfortable.” So being a good student, I brought only sweat pants, avoided my much more flattering form-fitted sweaters, and instead brought my old boxy Patagonia fleece….and left my hair dryer at home. So each morning when I dragged my frumpy, flat-headed, pale, puffy-eyed self into the meditation hall, it was extra annoying to confront the several willowy gypsy girls with perfect hair and pretty swaying skirts and leggings, shawls, and not particularly loose-fitting tops. Umm, might we level the playing field here, just a little? Looking back, I see that being one of the few “frump girls” was probably another lesson in letting go of ego. I failed.
On Day Two I am still hiding my pen and notepad in the top dresser drawer underneath my socks and underwear like it’s some kind of contraband. Day Two feels good to me. I am taking things slow–minute by minute. This course is like training for long-distance running. I tell myself to start slow and build. Don’t be impatient with slow progress. Any progress is good. This is long-distance meditation.
I find that the morning meditation–from 4:30 to 6:30–is some of the hardest for me. Sans caffeine, my body and mind feel tired and I keep falling asleep. But then I find that meditation at other times of the day is nearly as difficult. The best time seems to be in the meditation hall. Something about the 100 other people in close proximity, sitting like stone statues inside their shawls and blankets, keeps you honest. The other great thing about group meditation is that it follows breakfast, lunch, and most importantly afternoon tea, which gives me the familiar strength of a caffeinated mind and body. After downing my sweetened black tea I would march into the meditation hall, cushion under my arm, and swing open the door ready to kick some meditation ass!
…Which is weird. It’s like rushing through the airport, lining up at the Southwest gate, and racing for a choice seat on a cramped plane, followed by hours of just sitting there. But unlike the airport, the atmosphere of the meditation hall is dark, quiet, and soothing. It resembles a giant six-grade sleepover. Surrounding the meditation mats that were initially arranged in organized rows equidistant from one another were now mountains of blankets, cushions, and pillows of all colors and shapes in everyone’s quest for comfort.
I tip toe to my spot, on the upper middle, left-hand side, one row back from the front and one row in from the edge (which was really just a wide aisle down the middle of the room separating us from the guys). As quietly as possible I kneel down and place my meditation stool under my rump, with my legs folded underneath, and arrange my blanket over my lap. Staving off the cold was a constant need. Even the slightest finger of winter air under the blanket was an added distraction I didn’t need. After securing my blanket I did a physical check. “How do my legs feel? My ankles? Is the stool cutting off circulation in my thighs?” After more adjustments, I finally remove my glasses, close my eyes, and wait. Eventually the deep, rumbling voice of Goenka, our teacher, comes over the speakers. He beginnings with chanting, and then after a brief pause, gives us our instructions in English. There’s lots of repetition, and it at times gets monotonous, but for me, being a newbie, I was attentive.
Finally the instructions are over and it’s just me. Me and 100 other people in a dark room, eyes closed, focusing inward. Focusing on breath. From my prior attempts at meditation, I knew it was pretty hard, so I kept my expectations low. Each time my mind wandered, I brought it back. It wandered. I brought it back. I focused on the flow of air in and out of my nostrils. There was that point, somewhere along the way, when I could no longer feel or sense where my face ended and the air around me began. My head felt like a balloon, gently swelling out and getting bigger and bigger, as if filling the room. It was like the scene in I Heart Huckabees where Dustin Hoffman is showing Jason Schwartzman how there is no separation between anything, and their faces begin to disintegrate into smaller and smaller boxes floating around the screen.
Day Three is turning into my crap day. I can’t get comfortable either on my stool or sitting cross-legged. My mind is hopelessly wandering. I am fidgety and distracted. Then I worry if this is all worth it. Am I getting out of it what I am supposed to? Will I emerge from this 10-day workless, money-earningless, boyfriendless purgatory with a life-changing spirit and strength? Does the fact that I broke the rules and am writing about my experience, during my experience, and therefore perhaps not getting the full experience, mean that I won’t attain enlightenment when my days here are up? Probably. I’m pretty sure there’s a disclaimer to that effect somewhere in the literature.
Day Four is Vipassana Day. I didn’t realize this, but the meditation we were practicing the preceding four days, called Anapana, was not actually the meditation we came here to do. It was all prep work. The next six days will be spent practicing Vipassana, an ancient meditation technique involving mastery over the mind. Specifically the idea is to quiet the mind such that you are able to concentrate on sensations across and within your body, everything from the breeze brushing a hair across your nose to the way your legs are falling asleep as you sit in a half-lotus. But ultimately you move beyond these “gross” sensations to the finer ones. And these finer sensations – sort of like pulsations or little vibrations that occur everywhere inside and outside of your body – these are simply molecules. The molecules that make up all of us, the air around us, and everything we think of as separate from ourselves. Once you actually feel these molecules moving around, doing their thing, you realize that no, we are not separate. We are simply one part of the whole. Every molecule is like every other molecule, whether it’s what I think of normally as “part” of my body or not. And this realization is what can also be called Enlightenment. As Goenka says, it must be felt…experienced…to be fully understood. We can intellectualize it forever, but it won’t be real for us until we experience it. And if you don’t get it, you continue to live in misery, dissatisfied with life and life’s disappointments.
There are ways to “get” this experience other than meditation, though I am not sure I’d recommend them. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, experienced a massive stroke in her late 30s, which essentially shut off the left half of her brain—the intellectual half. The half that’s in charge of language, judging, ordering things. The half that tells me these incomplete sentences are bad. The half that tells us we are separate from everything else. This sense of separation, while being an important part of getting around in the world, is also an illusion. While the stroke was occurring, Taylor reports in her fascinating book, My Stroke of Insight: “…I had lost touch with much of the physical three-dimensional reality that surrounds me. My body was propped against the shower wall and I found it odd that I was aware that I could no longer clearly discern the physical boundaries of where I began and where I ended. I sensed the composition of my being as that of a fluid rather than that of a solid.” She goes on to note that “those little voices, that brain chatter that customarily kept me abreast of myself in relation to the world outside of me, were delightfully silent. And in their absence, my memories of the past and my dreams of the future evaporated.” In other words, she was experiencing being in the now.
So Day Four is when the meditation hall becomes extremely quiet. We are now to practice the code of “Strong Determination.” That means that, for the three mandatory hour-long group meditations, you are to hold your poster—without moving anything—for the entire hour. Prior to today, the hall, though quiet in relation to most places, was still an echo-chamber of endless rounds of sneezing, nose-blowing, coughing, throat-clearing, rustling, sighing, and sometimes snoring. It was winter and many people around me had a cold or worse. But today! Miraculous what a little mind control can do. Nothing! No movement. No sound. Barely even a sneeze. I felt a few crop up myself and realized that if I focused, I could make each one go away.
One thing I could not seem to control, however, was the overwhelming urge to swallow, over and over again. Because it was so quiet, I know my nearest neighbors could hear my dry, gulping swallows. Then, it seemed, they began swallowing too! I could faintly hear other people gulping saliva beyond them. I think I was responsible for a chain reaction of sympathetic swallowing that may have gone the length of the room.
Day Six: I am starting to get a feel for this monastic life. I have felt very little desire to know what is going on in the “outside” world. The gong’s chime awakens us, calls us to meals, and most importantly to the meditation hall, into which we quietly file, each of us crossing the foot paths, heads slightly bowed, steps soft, in silent introspection. It reminds me of a drawing on an old 1940s copy of Jane Eyre that my mom had, that I used to look at as a kid. It was of all the girls of the orphanage, all identical, all in a line. Walking. Silent.
The Soundtrack: The Center is blissfully quiet, except for some light construction noise during the week as they continue work on the new Pagoda, and unfortunately since we’re in southern California, there are way too many jet planes, though they are high in the sky. The relative quiet lends itself to a running soundtrack of songs I can’t shake loose. Among them:
Mind Games – John Lennon
Minute By Minute – the Doobie Brothers
Two songs off k.d. lang’s new album I recently bought: Heaven and The Water’s Edge
Let the Sunshine In from the musical Hair
Stay – Alison Krauss
Just When I Needed You Most –1970s one-hit wonder Randy Vanwarmer (I have no idea why)
Don’t Worry, Be Happy – Bobby McFerrin
Good Vibrations – the Beach Boys
Storm Comin’ – The Wailin Jennys
Madman Across the Water – Elton John and Bernie Taupin
I, Me, Mine – the Beatles
Day Seven: Sitting in the meditation stool is becoming my personal torture chamber. My legs, bent underneath it, begin pulsating in anger, then give way to numbness after 30 minutes, only half way through the sometimes agonizing hour-long group meditations. The muscles in my lower back groan with a dull, penetrating ache. We are learning to “just observe” these things, and not react to them. I’d like to observe a Laz-e-boy recliner right now. I think about the lucky bastards that bailed on the middle of the room and have lined themselves up along the precious little wall space in the back. I fantasize about relaxing my shoulder blades into a pillow propped against a blessedly solid surface. Then I think, “buck up Tempra and quit your whining!”
I somehow thought getting past Day Six and over the hump would be a milestone, and would feel good. But today is proving a bit tough. My old impatience has returned. Now on my third day of practicing Vipassana meditation, I want, of course, Results! Success! Nirvana! Oh yes, it’s completely appropriate to think that a Westerner who’s never meditated in her 38 years is going to “get” an experience within six days. It is said to take at least 30 days of continuous, all-day practice in India. So, I try to settle down. I try to calm my mind. I start to repeat, “patience and persistence…patience and persistence,” until I realize I am using it as a mantra (another no no in this practice). Damn, a mantra would be nice. It’s hard to be alone, and cold, with nothing but your spasming mind (and back) to keep you company.
Days Eight and Nine: I become somewhat consumed with the desire for the retreat to end. I’ve hit a wall and I am done. Being without David is a near constant agony. There are moments where I let it go, somewhat, but for most of those last couple days, the experiment is over.
Day Ten: Finally we are allowed to break our silence, to mingle, and I find David outside the dining hall, reading boards full of information and literature about this practice. We cannot have physical contact, but being near him is ecstasy. We talk nonstop for two hours until it’s time for lunch. The dining hall is filled with laughter and talking, and it’s nice to be able to commune a little. We made it! The drive home, though it’s more than a four-hour drive back, feels like about 45 minutes as David and I can’t get enough sharing and talking. In some ways, this process was like a spiritual honeymoon for us, a stepping off into the world and our new life together, on the right foot.
Epilogue: On Patience and Practice
Did anyone, anywhere, ever get good at something without practice? Lots of it?
I am beginning to wonder if this is not at the root of many of my problems. It’s been two years since the meditation retreat. I had returned fully intent on keeping up the practice for an hour twice a day…or at least once a day…or at least 15 to 30 minutes here and there. I now have to admit to my sorry ass that I have meditated…exactly four times…in two years.
I have some difficulty keeping a practice of anything other than work, tennis, my daily to do list, and my coffee habit. These aren’t bad things to make a practice of. But there are so many others I keep saying I’ll work into my daily routine: creative writing, yoga, cardio, gardening, even reading…and of course, meditation.
In the meantime, in September of last year, S. N. Goenka, the main proponent and teacher of Vipassana meditation, who’s voice and image on video had taught me during the 10-day retreat, died at age 89 in Mumbai. This discovery gave me the opportunity to read more about Goenka, and his life. He was a successful businessman in Burma until he sought relief for serial migraines. Nothing seemed to help until he began studying Vipassana meditation. He eventually gave up his business and became a student, then teacher, of Vipassana, which is now practiced around the world.
His life, teachings, and my experience at the retreat continue to inspire me. David and I are currently on another adventure: a 60-day challenge of daily exercise and limited carbohydrate eating. After Day 20, I am feeling great, have lost weight, and realize that, indeed, I can make a practice of anything with just a little encouragement, patience, and a “strong determination.” What practice are you inspired to do?