We have a final meditation session in the morning that includes something called “Metta Bhavana“. In it we send out compassionate thoughts to all beings and although a little corny, I find myself getting a bit choked up at the end. We ask all those we have done wrong to, intentionally or unintentionally, for forgiveness and forgive all those who have done us harm. I am really feeling it, and the release is beautiful and freeing.
I share the 8am train back to Mumbai with my new friends Shumona and Dhanajay. We have some hearty laughs and great discussions ranging across many topics. I have to admit to feeling quite a high.
We finally get to end our “Noble Silence” today. After our morning group meditation we leave the Dhamma Hall and little by little, shy at first and unsure of the boundaries of our new communicative abilities, people start talking to each other. It may sound silly, but it is jubilant. Complete strangers introduce themselves to each other and there is an easy and hearty bonding between just about everyone. I meet a nice guy named Dhanajay and we bond over the incessant burping of the hall. Ian (my next door neighbor from the cell block) and I start to deconstruct our experience in detail and share a great lunch of philosophy and conjecture about the course. I reconnect with Shumona and find out about her experience and am thrilled to dicover that our couple of covert glances at each other were as much the highlight of her day as mine in the strange communication deprivation tank of days 7 and 8.
We are all on quite a high, as much from the sense of accomplishment as from the gag being removed. The experience, although one of the most difficult I have had, was entirely worth it. I feel as if I confronted a few demons and learned some valuable lessons. I didn’t “see the light” or “feel the total disintegration of self” that we were told we would eventually experience, but it didn’t really matter to me. I came in contact with something meaningful and loving, and that was enough for me. I resolve to continue to meditate each day upon my return. Perhaps the light will appear eventually, perhpas not. But even if I only manage to maintain equanimity in the face of negative feelings, that will be fine with me.
Although I have learned some valuable lessons here, I am also starting to go a little stir crazy and day 9 is from a practice perspective identical to days 8 and 7. In addition, Goenka keeps sounding like a scold on the tapes as he admonishes us to “stay equanimous, equanimous, equanimous and not generate any new sankaras of craving or aversion, not generate any new sankaras of craving or aversion, not generate any new sankaras of craving or aversion…”
OK, OK, I get it. But he is making it sound like such a moral imperative. I give this quite a bit more thought during the day and at the nighttime discourse and come to some conclusions. I’m not really sure I want to be free from ALL craving and aversion. What about the need for food? I notice more than a few of my fellow meditators seemingly ready to go live in a remote mountain cave and ignore the world and just work on their freedom from the cycle of rebirth.
For my money, what is the point of being born human if it isnt to experience a little of the joy and sorrow? Why not just kill yourself and get it over with? The more I think about it, the more I shudder at Buddhism’s supposed ideal state. I like the idea of leaning to experience the world in greater immediacy via this technique. I like the idea of moderating our worst impulses of craving and aversion. But I stop short of the extreme idea of “total liberation”, because while it may very well be possible, I don’t consider it desirable.
In the past in my contact with various religions, I always felt that Buddhism was the closest to my ideal, mostly because it was more of a philosophy of being, and less a religion. This course has shown me that while there is a great deal to be learned from this tradition, its end point leaves me cold. I strongly value the idea of experiencing the here and now, but leave me a little of my connections to love and our humanity.
I wake up resolved to go to the teacher and tell him I want to leave. I am feeling very short of breath and panicked. During the group meditation I really start to have an attack.
Then something amazing happens. I resolve (using the technique) to deconstruct the fear and loathing and just look at the bodily sensations. What does the rapid heartbeat FEEL like? What does the shortness of breath FEEL like? The more I do this, the less panicked I feel. The more the boogieman goes away. By the end of the session, I feel downright giddy with having slayed the beast. I tell Tim our teacher about it and he says that it is a very good sign, that my old “sankaras” are being eliminated. Whatever, I’m just happy.
Throughout the day I notice a greater and greater degree of equanimity with my pain, and sitting through the hourlong sessions keeps getting easier with the pain receding into the background noise of all body sensations. I am more and more able to feel both subtle and gross sensations in the same sitting.
This is the greatest lesson of this course: That our fear and aversion of the sensations is far worse that the actual sensations themselves. Just analyse and observe, calmly and objectively, and one will be set free. It really takes a lot of training to get to that point, but it is doable.
The morning actually starts out quite well. In these sessions (in my cell and in the main hall) I find I am able to start to evaluate my sensations with a little more distance and I feel that I am making progress. At lunch I catch a glimpse of my friend Shumona walking to the women’s cafeteria. We cast a subtle knowing glance at each other and I feel elated. This is the most human acknowlegment I have had here and I am floating on air.
Then I somehow lose focus in the afternoon and find myself unable to concentrate on anything.
The day turns sour with building resentments of all kinds, starting with 218 and 112. Those are the mat numbers of the two most flatulent people I have ever seen in my life. 218 is, simply put, a pig. He turns his head to the side and lets out the LOUDEST burps at least 10 times per hour. In between, and just to show us how versatile he is, he leans his whole rear-end up from his mat a few inches and farts from time to time. 112, on the other hand, seems to be practicing a different form of continuous meditation that involves marathon low level belching. Can I be the only one that is noticing this?
In addition, I am starting to feel a little trapped by my 10 day commitment, and start to think about ways to escape. Who are they to tell me I have to be here the entire 10 days? This technique isn’t working. I feel pain. I feel resentment. In particular, I am really developing a strong aversion to Goenka’s chanting, which reminds me slightly of the cantors and rabbi’s singing in the synagogue of my childhood, only mixed with raspy morning throat sounds of someone who smokes and drinks way too much. The cult of personality around this guy also weighs on me, and this is starting to seem too much like a religion, especially with all his talk about ending the cycle of rebirth (heaven by another name if you ask me, definitely a religious article of faith).
Back in my room that evening, I start to feel that my breathing is difficult and can’t seem to catch my breath. I feel trapped. This seems like early stage panic attack (and I haven’t had one of those in years. OK, Bangkok, but that was special).
In an effort to reach the “subtler” sensations (read: not painful ones emanating from various body parts) I start dividing my meditation sessions into private ones where I lay flat on my bed in my cell (room, lodging, whatever) and the group public ones where attendance is required in the Dhamma Hall.
It is working out pretty well, even though I worry a bit that I am on two separate tracks, not knowing when or if they will converge. In the private meditations in my cell, I am able more and more to feel sensations just by thinking about the part of the body in question, and start to be able to “sweep” through head to toe as Goenka indicates we should be able to. The public meditations are mostly taken up with pain management (gross as opposed to subtle sensations, they call it. Ya think?). A particularly unkind monkey wrench they throw at us today is that during the thrice-daily one-hour group sittings we must remain completely still. No changing positions. I start to wonder what sort of sadist this Goenka is.
We begin the first of these static meditations and I get into my concentration groove and easily pass the first 30 minutes or so before noticing the ever greater buzzing from my hind parts. This goes on for the next 15 minutes or so (one can’t be really sure. It feels like hours and hours.) until the real torture begins. I start sweating profusely, huffing and puffing, and going through a fairly lengthy catalogue of swear words. Finally, the chanting of Goenka comes on the tape and I know I have only to hold out for a few more minutes until the crowd of meditators (cultists) chants “sadu, sadu, sadu” (signaling their respect or adulation of the master, and more importantly, that the session is over and I can now unlock my legs). In great pain but feeling very self satisfied for making it through, I hobble over to the discourse Dhamma Hall and try to jockey with the other victims for a position up against the side wall to prop up my back.
We do get some acknowledgement from Goenka that this is a very difficult thing to do, but then he explains why it is important. We must be able to see pain as just another sensation and try not to attach value judgements to it that lead to aversion. The goal in all of this is to eliminate our cravings and aversions. He waxes poetic about equanimity, and I see that he has a point. I resolve to really examine my pain (instead of ignoring it) over the next few days.
Ok, maybe the not having any reading, writing or music with me is getting to me just a teeny bit. The one document I have (the code of conduct pamphlet) is now fully memorized and I have started to turn my attention elsewhere. The heretofore not very interesting labels on my toiletries suddenly take on an almost poetic poignancy. Of particular interest is the alcohol composition and content in my hand sanitizer. I briefly weigh the pros and cons of huffing.
In the evening DVD discourse, Goenka starts getting heavier and heavier with the religion, and farther and farther away from the rational. I am particularly bugged by his continued assertion that this is all “universal, scientific, rational” (which the technique itself most surely is), while elucidating such concepts as rebirth, nirvana, sankaras, sila, samadi and panya. And let’s not even go into “anitchew…anitchew…anitchew…” (basically a word meaning impermanence, it represents the most important characteristic of all sensations). He is starting to sound a bit haughty about it all.
I resolve to ignore the preachy parts and try to focus on mastering the technique.
I awake at 4am (as usual) to the sound of the bell. By 4:30 I am at the Dhamma Hall for the first meditation of the day. We are still to focus on the trapezoid above the upper lip, exploring all the subtle sensations. This goes on through the first two group sittings as well. We are then informed that from 3pm to 5pm will be a longer than usual group sitting that will introduce us to the technique. We are also informed dramatically that no one will be allowed to leave the hall during this time period. Vague visions of poisoned cool-aid dance in my head.
The technique is basically this: Having sharpened our awareness with the previous day’s exercises, we are to begin a head to toe mental scanning of our bodies, gradually becoming more and more aware of sensations (gross or subtle) ranging anywhere on the body. We are to practice patient observation of these sensations and note their everchanging characteristic. My problem is that I am only feeling the gross (read: pain in back, legs, butt) sensations and having trouble with the subtler ones).
Goenka expands on the principles and practice even more in the evening’s discourse, talking about how the Buddha recognized that all suffering was caused by cravings for pleasure and aversions to pain, and how he had discovered a technique (vipassana, natch) which could relieve this suffering “at the experiential level”. He keeps stressing the scientific, rational nature of this technique, before beginning to veer into the decididly less scientific realms of rebirth and compassion.
Now my legs hurt. Badly. And my nose feels a little like it might explode, and just when all my attention was focused on it, I have to switch to an even smaller area just beneath it and try to feel subtle sensations ranging across my upper lip. This takes most of the day to accomplish (that’s ten count ’em TEN hours of sitting upper lip gazing). I am in quite a bit of pain and have to switch positions every couple of minutes.
One of the odd things I am noticing about the course is that all of the training is via played cassettes of Goenka himself. Group meditations (there are three a day) start with Goenka chanting and end with Goenka chanting, and are filled with the soporific sounds of Goenka’s calm, controlled voice imploring us to “Start with a calm and attentive mind…patient and persistent…” The teachers hardly say or do anything except sit in the front of the hall and meditate along with us. In addition, the hall is set up in a slightly odd way: All of the students arranged on our assigned mats (mine is number 94 btw), and the teachers are in the front on either side of a stage. On the stage are two white mini thrones of a sort. From the nightly DVD discourses, I can tell that these are meant to be occupied by Goenka himself on the left and his (one assumes) wife on the right (who in the DVDs never seems anything but bored, vacant, or irritated with her husband’s rambling about “Dhamma”).
That night in the discourse we learn that what we have been doing for the first three days is not, in fact, vipassana meditation, but a necessary precursor to it. We needed to have calm minds and sharpened awareness. On day 4, we are told we will begin vipassana training in earnest.
What is the sound of the meditation room (or “Dhamma Hall” as they called it in Igatpuri)? Burping and farting mostly, with some coughing, sneezing and smaller helpings of unidentifiable cracking or wheezing. I am finally able to concentrate mostly on my breathing, but interrupted often by the massive amounts of flatulence in the hall.
Today I am supposed to further refine my concentration by focusing on a small triangle defined by the top of my nose and extending to the two corners of my mouth. I am supposed to notice the flow of air within the nostrils. I watch this for hours (and hours) and by about 4 in the afternoon I start to feel that the inside of my nose is all tingly and feeling a little numb. I am worried that this will interfere with my ability to feel the air inside and that I am a doing something wrong, perhaps forcing too much air back and forth and that I have caused some odd muscle twitching that will impede my progress. At least the throbbing and shooting pain in my back has now transformed to just regular pain. On the other hand, all of this cross-legged sitting is starting to do a number on my knees, the right one in particular.
On a side note, I have finally understood something that has long confused me about meditators. In the past I never understood (if the goal of meditation is a kind of tranquil calm and relaxation) why meditators would drink tea which has caffeine in it. I realize with this practice that a mind that can focus is of utmost importance, and caffeine is a big help in sharpening the mind. Mystery solved.
At that evening’s DVD discourse entitled (surprise) “Vipassana 10 Day Meditation Course: Day 2”, I am thrilled to learn that the odd feeling in my nose is exactly what they were looking for and a sign that I am becoming aware of subtler sensations. For some reason I find total elation in this and am able to think of this as the very rational, scientific, experience based technique that Goenka tells us this is. Goenka starts to explain the reason for the conditioning we are going through, with the goal being to train the mind to notice ever subtler sensations within the body. He gives us a little preview of day three telling us that we will further restrict the area of study to the trapezoid defined by the corners of the mouth up to the bottom of the nostrils. I can’t wait.