I felt thin and denuded as India’s dry February landscape. On an amazing trip through Asia and still feeling sorry for myself. Things were getting to me. The bleak multitude of human shapes like empty sacks in the dust and swerving headlights, the stink of urine and car exhaust. Given the smorgasbord of human misery that bedecks much of the Indian landscape, the sad beseeching, scamming, hassling and overcharging are almost inevitably going to induce half-heart protecting paralysis in the privileged victim of such exposure. Yes, there had been amazing experiences on the way and the whole scene had blown my mind. Indian people could be very warm and funny. The smiles of those living in wretched conditions were humbling. Coming from Nepal our first proper stop was Bodhgaya. It was in that place that Gautama Buddha found complete enlightenment sitting beneath a boddhi tree some 2,500 years ago. A tree directly descended from the original still grows on the spot, now surrounded by a great complex of kaleidescopic temples. Also, quite nearby, we sat in the very cave where he meditated for a period before that propitious night. Our journey then took us west across the Ganges plain to mystic Varanassi, the erotic temples of Kajuraho, Agra with the Taj Mahal and food poisoning and heaving Delhi. We sojourned with Tibetans in Dharamasala and hit the beaches in Goa for extended Christmas (beach parties were banned but the bar parties were bouncy). Then Kerala, where the warm waters of the Arabian Sea roll onto endless palm fringed sand, backed by lagoons and canals. Now I had one more thing to do before leaving for Iran.
Many people come to India to “find themselves”, as if they got left behind there in some previous existence. Terrence McKenna described his spiritual search on the subcontinent as “a shell game” preferring the flamboyant visions of the Amazonian variety. Bhagwan Dass, guru to Ram Dass, on the other hand, recounts in his fascinating book “It’s here now, are you?”, how, arriving as a young, naïve American, he was confronted be a series of miraculous events almost from the very start. For me, travelling this land of over a billion souls in 2011, it was hard to imagine such tales of lore as being relevant. Still, spirituality is a prominent part of Indian life and I wanted to experience something. I therefore had a plan to take a ten day Vipassana meditation course at the end of my trip. This is a form popular with travelers but actually I didn’t know very much about it. Still, I was hoping it might help me shake out my mutable allotment of long term confusion that seemed impervious to the changing years. Old habits of body-mind were limiting my life.
In Kerala I visited the incongruously pink, high-rise ashram of Amma, the world famous “hugging mother”. There, next to the peaceful backwaters, this woman leads a worldwide charitable organization of very real social work, disaster relief and self-empowerment projects all based around spiritual devotion to the female divinity, of which she is an incarnation. She spends much of her time on tour, hugging people, thousands in a day sometimes, but luckily when I visited she was in the house. I had met her before. My friend is a great devotee and when she came to Tokyo in 2007 I lined up and received darshan, a hug and some whispers in the ear. It was….cool. Amma got started as a child performing precocious devotions and aiding some of her poverty stricken neighbours. Though she shared the Hindu notion that their suffering proceeded from some past life wrongdoing, she could not share the common, convenient and objectionable attitude that they should therefore be left to their own devices and misery. She soon attracted followers all of whom were “her children”. Now over 2000 of her white-clad children live in the ashram complex. Too me, it was pretty culty but there was no question of hassle to donate money or “convert”. Just cheap accommodation, decent people and novel activities. Still, I felt out of place. I wasn’t in love with Amma, and had no white clothing to wear. Selfless service is the motto but I ended up staying just one day and didn’t do any.
Ashram activities are essentially devotional. There is not much strict meditation. Soon after I arrived we were called to the beach. Amma came and surrounded by her close followers, gave us some discourse. There was humour and playfulness. A couple of court jesters. Emphasis was placed on the vital relationship with a guru (teacher) in spiritual development, without which the straying individual stood little chance. Subsequently, new and leaving devotees were herded into a line by a capricious retainer to receive darshan. As we approached the crowd around Amma, our faces were briskly wiped and we were asked our mother tongue. Coming before the lady herself, a hand grabbed me from behind, and face-planted me on her shoulder while she mumbled something I didn’t understand. Then the unseen hand jerked me aside and away. I didn’t really get much out of that experience. In the evening she came from her chambers all beaming smiles and dripping shakti as usual. In the main hall which is bedecked with a vast chandalier, she would sing bhajans with her band onstage. It was impossible to stand anywhere since everyone was ardent to have a view of Amma and I was always blocking a line of sight. The music was pretty good and she kept going off, pulling something from left and behind and entering into the same endearingly ecstatic cackling. Four very big screens were placed around the enormous hall, to display her kindly visage, and now they provided the song lyrics which were generally along the lines of, say, I am nothing but a wretched soul, oh great divine mother, bless me with refuge at thy holy feet. Pictures of Amma’s feet are available in the ashram shop for those who want to take refuge at home. Amma’s organization is by all accounts extremely effective. They led the way in response to the 2004 tsunami, for example, immediately providing crucial food and shelter while more bureaucratically encumbered NGOs stumbled; after all the whole thing is run on her command. Apparently, she has a project to address the awful plastic refuse problem in India. Nice one. She might be the sweetest, most benevolent dictator in the world. I have often thought a really good king or queen would be preferable to our current system of nominal democracy. But then eventually some bastard nephew takes over.
It took two weeks to travel back north. The vipassana course would take place in Pune, a city of three million located 150km from Mumbai. Pune is relatively modern and wealthy, epitomising the new India in which one third of the population has experienced rising living standards while the rest stagnate. Many educated, professional locals would come to my hotel restaurant. During my trip I found this class of Indians quite affable, ironically humourous, superficially somewhat British. Walking across town was a different story. Perhaps because many people come here to find work and fail, there were numerous families on the street and people living in corrugated metal and cardboard shacks under the railway tracks. Children were receiving handouts in the form of bowls of white rice. It struck me as irrational that people who receive much of their nutrition from rice have to eat grains from which most of the nutritional value has been removed. I would wager that if brown rice was generally consumed in India public health improve greatly. Above all of this loomed billboards for luxury products exalting greed and narcissism to an extreme degree. I wonder what the poor of Pune make of these messages on their street. Perhaps it drives them crazy out of unfullfillable want or perhaps it drives them to join the Maoist Naxalites.
And then there is Osho’s Ashram. It is located in a grand, leafy enclave in the most exclusive part of Pune. I went up to have a peek. Osho is better known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and most people know him because he advocated free sex and had 93 gold Rolls Royces. His devoted followers, many of whom were loaded, just wouldn’t stop buying them for him. He called himself Zorba the Buddha and said he would choose to be Zorba first because Zorba had more freedom. At the Ashram one can enjoy (very) dynamic meditation, a game of “zennis” or just relaxing by the olympic size swimming pool. It’s “paradise” and it’s not cheap. Osho was originally a professor of philosophy and made his reputation by confronting and outraging Indian conformists. He founded the Pune Ashram in 1974 and started attracting legions of western devotees. He was a great speaker and for years gave daily spontaneous discources which ranged all over the spiritual map and were filled with humour and paradox. I think I would have liked him. He was more or less run out of India by the establishment and founded a new commune in Oregon. Here things went sadly awry. Relations with the neighbours became dangerously bad and culminated in the bugging of public officials and a salmonella attack by his staff, apparently commited without the guru’s knowledge. He was busy becoming a paranoic and fostering a nitrous oxide addiction. Eventually the U.S. authorities kicked him out for immigration fraud and with his entourage he bounced around 21 countries, refused asylum everywhere, until he eventually landed back in Pune where he died in 1990. The funniest thing about Osho is that many respected figures, in reassessing the man’s legacy after his death, conclude that he was one of the better oriental philosophers of the 20th century and did us all a big favour by breaking down the empty mores and barriers innate in most orthodox religion. Unfortunately, his organization spares exactly zero of its considerable wealth to relieve the misfortunes of the poor of Pune.
I was surprised to find the Vipassana centre located on the periphery of the urban area. I was rather concerned for noise. I was also concerned for my body. I had a history of two ligament injuries and a cartilidge operation on my knees. I also had a damaged sacral vertebra that had caused periodic seizure of my musculature for three years and had only resolved under the influence of the continuous movement of travel. Sedentary life was not for me and now I planned to sit cross-legged, ten hours a day for ten days. I would take refuge in the triple gem (Buddha (his essence, not his person), Dharma (natural, universal law) and sangha (spiritual community). There was a vow of no killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct or intoxicants. Luckily I had already quit smoking. We would enter into “Noble Silence” and not talk, except rarely to our teacher, until the last day. Eye contact was discouraged and surprisingly we all followed the rule. In the notes I had printed Vipassana was defined as a technique to eradicate suffering, an art of living and a method of mental purification. It was not a ritual, an entertainment, a holiday or an escape. The general purpose as I understood it was to reduce the mind’s “craving and aversion” reactions and increase wisdom. Though based on teachings of the Buddha, it was billed as decidedly non-sectarian. A very interesting aspect of Vipassana is the assertion that it is the original technique taught by the Buddha and widely distributed during the next 500 years. It was subsequently diluted and buried under masses of ritualistic religion. Only in Burma did it survive into modern times in its pure form through a precious lineage of teachers. The guruji of Vipassana is S.N. Goenka. Mr. Goenka learned the technique from his guru Sayagi U Ba Khin; a strict disciplinarian who, after learning Vipassana, became one of Burma’s top civil servants, running multiple departments simultaneously and scourging out corruption. Mr. Ba Khin had in turn learned it from a holy farmer. Goenka came to India in 1969 with nothing. There are now 40 centers in India, many more worldwide and (like Ammaji) he has talked at the United Nations. He could not teach us in person but he seemed pretty close. All his courses are run on a donation only basis. There is no coercion and no reward. Males and females were segregated throughout the course, only seeing (and ignoring) each other during meditation. One last requirement of the course was the surrender of all communication devices, reading and writing materials. This I did, barring one pen which ended up being used keenly during breaks to record all the details of my experience. These notes follow in more or less raw form. You can spot the pop songs in the chapter titles for fun.
Day 0. COMING IN FROM THE COLD.
Itinerant bed bugs followed me from Mumbai. I spent last night being woken by intense itching and executing the little buggers. I am tired on arrival. If any more turn up I could be in serious trouble. The staff lost my name on the student list. Previously they requested that I print out their acceptance letter and sign the 10-page code of conduct. I couldn’t get these to print correctly and emailed the office about it. After some trial and error and more emailing I succeeded. But now nobody collects the papers. I am irritated in the heat. The officious welcome lady won’t believe my passport was issued in Katmandu. She is annoyed that I am wearing below the knee shorts. Have I not read the code of conduct? Yes, it was about revealing clothing. It didn’t occur… They take my stuff for deposit. I meet a few other students briefly; uncertain smiles all round. An Israeli called Moti, and a Brazilian called Diogo and an English gay electro rap artist called Bri who waxes loud and lyrical during processing about smoking joints the day before (a big no no for the two previous weeks). Most of the students are Indian. Half men, half women.
We catch first sight of the slender new moon in the west; quite auspicious for starting such an undertaking. Noble silence begins at 7pm and we enter the Damma (Dharma) Hall which will be used for the ten and a half hours of meditation scheduled each day. The hall is airy and white, completely unadorned, each wall lined with two rows of slatted, draped windows. High above us is a low-angled, buttressed roof. It is like a medium sized Presbyterian Church to seat a couple of hundred but there are no pews. We are maybe seventy, arranged in rows on large blue cushions with a smaller bum cushion on each. Girls on the right, boys on the left. Our teacher, Mr Manik Chikate sits up front. Mostly he operates the tape and repeats simple instructions but apparently he has years of training. I call him Teach. We listen to some pleasant, taped induction talk and chanting from Mr. Goenka. His baritone voice is resonant but trails off into croaky, abrasive gravel on the phrase-ending low notes. We try a little meditation. I can’t stop vaguely thinking. In my room I make a few initial notes, ironically, scribbling them on the back of my uncollected code of conduct. I crash out at 9.30 on a thin mat with one wool blanket and a mosquito net. At least I have the room to myself. And the en suite toilet with bucket shower is refreshing.
Day 1. BREATHE.
I am woken by a hand-bell outside my door at 4am and fall right out of bed. It hurts. We enter the hall. In the emptiness of predawn, the rumble of a distant express train phases through miles of air. We attempt to meditate for two hours, observing the breath. The idea is to feel the air on your nostrils and upper lip. After one hour of mild delirium my back is sore. I fidget and shift. This makes things worse. I feel far behind my eyes. When I straighten my back I can’t breathe properly but I sense my head moves into a better space. Goenka chants in Pali, the old language of the Buddha’s time. Luckily the time passes fast. There is an OK breakfast which is and will continue to be some savoury cooked cereal and a piece of fruit and masala tea. Some warm water is available only in the morning but I think it’s too chilly to bathe. It’s dawn now. The rest of the morning is a little less uncomfortable but quite unsuccessful. Bri is hunched before me, back slowly collapsing. Music keeps going around and around in my brain. Dumb stuff. Disco classics. Baby Give it Up by KC & the Sunshine Band. Later the maelstrom of lyrics from Ian Dury’s Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3) come at me like a lunatic babbling: “days when I ain’t spotty, curing smallpox, wearing yellow socks!”, for such are the reasons. Lunch is at 11am. Across the way I see Bri, bags packed and slung, marching for the exit. He isn’t seen again. Better this than half way through the course. It could be “quite dangerous” to quit later. After all we are performing “psychic surgery”. Lunch is Thali style; some pulse based savouries, rice, chapattis, a little salad. It’s worth going to India just to enjoy good quality, cheap Thali lunches. Lying on my bed brings rapid, delirious dreams; something sad about my mum who passed on three years ago.
Back in the hall I try an extra pillow under me. This helps a lot. I can get the back straight but there is a lot of pressure on my legs. Lack of sleep has my head feeling like yesterday’s spaghetti carbonara. Even barring the pain I feel like I am fighting a losing battle. Teach’s advice is to ignore all parts of the body not being microscopically caressed with breath which is like ignoring the elephant sitting on the mouse. I fail. Outside hordes of crows caw in cacophony and hawks utter shrill vibrato shrieks. Now after a 12 hour day shift, we have a snack (puffed rice and a few nuts) and a cup of tea. That’s it for food. I take solace by lying outside on the grass beneath a great, shady, triple-trunked tree which is home to a dozen green, fan-tailed parakeets. The place is a menagerie of birds. There are loads of the large hawks (buzzards?) and various flocks of small birds. In the evening a pair of grey hornbills comes through. I do also enjoy the various hypnagogic shapes and shades that come to me during meditation; featureless, wandering humanoids.
Day 2. WORLD OF PAIN.
Morning meditation is better. It has the texture of chicken soup. I fall asleep again during break and dream of my sweet, old cat Loofah. She mews to me and wakes me up just in time. I miss her too. During the next part I keep thinking of a girl I met and getting horny. As Mr. Goenke said during last nights video discourse, is it not amazing that our brains cannot do such a simple thing as observing our own breath! From there complete failure ensues as an endless stream of disconnected Dadaesque imagery. Mr. Goenka advises us to not be disappointed but return “smilingly” to the breath. I like that word “smilingly”. Instead though I think gloomily about my mum some more; how I couldn’t say goodbye and about my dad’s ignoble passing a year and a half later. This whole exercise seems more about overcoming pain than anything else. My upper back is in total spasm but I am almost stoic. Take me to Abu Graib, I will ride it out the waves of pain like a Malibu surfer. No, it’s making me dizzy, syrup-headed, stifling me. My osteopath identified physical degeneration of my spine! I can’t just ignore it! We go outside after an interminable period. Of my non-Indian colleagues, one is twisting around holding his back, Diogo is going through facial contortions from knee pain, Moti was hanging with it, sitting straight, but he said to Teach he was really struggling. Then there is the sad-eyed, hirsute Russian. He looks like Rasputin; older, but with a pretty, spiritually bedecked, young girlfriend on the other side. He is built like a plough horse and never falters inside, never strays outside, eats facing the wall after saying grace with a kiss to his crucifix, always in his zone, apparently at one with his suffering. I am inspired.
There are a couple of funny rules in play. One is no stretching your legs towards the front of the Damma hall where Teach sits. You can’t turn around either. This also applies to Damma hall 2, where Teach is replaced by a TV. When we sit individually before Teach we must sit on a special mat which is turned up one way for boys and flipped over for girls. Perhaps they are concerned about pheromone contamination. Several times a day, Teach turns on the tape and Goenke supplicates us to remain calm, attentive, all awareness on the nostril area. Sometimes feel the breath in the left nostril, sometimes feel the breath in the right nostril, sometimes in both nostrils simultaneously. Observe…what an exciting prospect! He says keep awareness with the respiration but I think he says desperation!
It is unfortunate that I have a phonographic memory. Endlessly looped songs today include Starship, We Built This City on Rock and Roll which I detest and Alphaville’s equally lamentable one hit wonder Big in Japan. Saints preserve us! In the afternoon I am stir crazy from struggling with the discomfort and can hardly breathe at all, let alone meditate on it. Taking Moti’s lead I add a third bum pillow, my crossed legs angling down a lot. This helps and I make a few minutes of concentrated effort. I try to meditate through the pain since there is no escape. It’s stressful. I wonder why Teach sits up there on his big white chair with a nice back rest and uses a separate entrance. He is no Osho, and doesn’t wear a crown like Amma sometimes does, but this is where it all starts. Vertical stratification that leads to an unaccountable elite! When I become a notable guru (soon after this course I would imagine) I will do exactly as my students. It will be self-evident how evolved I am from my shakti, my spiritual power. No need for empty trappings. If anyone disrepects me I will just gently kick their spiritual ass! Oh, whats the point, this is driving me crazy. I’m sinking in a grave.
Students pile the puffed corn lunch high on their metal plates. I don’t understand why they serve masala chai twice a day with this absolute prohibition of intoxicants. Have they not read the Book of Mormon? Well, Goenka specifically mentioned coffee as bad but one and a half cups of sweet chai and I am buzzed all to hell! Funnily enough, it helps. I really transfer my awareness to “the triangular space formed by nose and upper lip” to witness any sensation that may arise. I can feel the consciousness shift from behind my eyes actually to the zone in question. It is almost like salvia, where the seat of your awareness may shift to your heart or a houseplant. I successfully witness an itch arise and completely pass away without scratching it.
Another Goenke video discourse in the evening. It starts framing both Mr. Goenke and the presumed Mrs. Goenke, who sits like a wooden bookend for a very big book. Sensibly it shifts later to frame only our guruji. His discourse concerns the apparently simplistic, though “universal and eternal” moral precepts associated with Vipassana and a Hinayana Buddhist sounding philosophy of personal responsibility. No intercession here. The precepts are basically presented as an echo of the Golden Rule, better called the Golden Rule of Thumb, I think, but I can certainly live with it. It’s vague enough. Do unto others as you would have them do to unto you. What if you are a masochist? Like most Vipassana students must be. Anyone could bang the precepts full of dents. Watch. Don’t kill. Plants? Don’t steal. But property is theft especially inside rich imperial countries. Anyway it might help the owners over-attachment, considered a great spiritual impediment in Buddhism. Don’t lie. Like anyone really knows the truth. No intoxicants. Except sugary tea. Anyway it is victimless so the Golden Rule does not apply. It doesn’t fit. Nor does no sexual misconduct. Such as what? I was well aroused in the hall, sorry. Killing usually stems from dreadful anger and hatred but sexual passion? Sure, there is craving but what can happen? People have a blissful moment, perhaps oblivion, and over-population might be increased. It is pretty clear that all forms of moral repression do not work. The shadow grows stronger and forces its way up elsewhere. We are not Buddhas yet and until such time as we make major progress we ought to be developing better safety valves (currently we have war, WWF wresting and pornography). Mr. Goenka is concerned about the wild monkey mind evident from our inability to meditate; terribly dark and dangerous to ourselves and society and in need of taming and training. Probably so, but as an artist (monkey mind inspire me) and anti-fascist (horribly mistrained monkey mind potential) I have to take significant exception. Though he does distinguish moral and amoral mind control (Samadhi) I would maintain that there is nothing more dangerous than civilization with its warfare and annihilation of nature carried out by well trained monkeys.
Day 3. NEW SENSATION.
Another rough, foggy-headed morning. I really appreciate the beauty of the dawn. There is a large, old temple next door with some tall sculpted stupas. The grounds are becoming very familiar. Later, I am so out of it I almost topple off my tower of cushions so I take an illicit guarana capsule (my last one) and an aspirin. Later we receive a new instructional nuance, which is to observe any discernable, real sensation that may arise in the nose area including but not limited to itching, scratching, heat, cold, throbbing, vibrating, tickling, prickling, pulsing, moisture, dryness, expansion, contraction, pressure and, of course, pain. Meeting with Teach he inquires if I can feel any of these. I say I can feel a variety, especially with a runny nose. I don’t mention the small spike being driven between my shoulder blades. There is no point. He would say be equanimous to all sensations. Though I feel some improvement (my head contains just a light vegetarian broth) I have no mind control. My will to obtain it has the integrity of a moth wing. I can’t commit to much in my life and I can’t commit my attention now. Luckily, even a passingly successful stilling of the mind is enough to bring out a light, refined, sensitive feeling that keeps me in the ring; perhaps a hint of the subtle levels of mind-body that Goenke describes. Trying to meditate on my back in my room I quickly enter dada-delirium until the crows abruptly wake me cackling crackiraq! crackiraq! Must be CIA crows.
The afternoon does not start well and I end it sitting on my haunches in distress. Before the one hour can’t-leave-the-hall sitting I tell Teach that I am getting so sleepy that things are impossible. He suggests I might open my eyes slightly but stay very steady. However the hour is really bad and I end up freaking out and having a vision of killing and consuming a little bird. I am now totally frustrated but commit to give it one more shot. I see a retreat, a downward spiral and it scares me. The next session I resolve that I will not struggle no matter what. I manage it somehow. At first unpleasantness builds and builds but then something switches. The more it hurts the more I am resolved. I cannot succumb or I will lose the whole game. I hold steady. Somehow I am slowly absorbed in a kind of numbness, a trance, and though I can still feel the pain it has distance. I can also focus well on the tiny breath sensations and each time I get close to them they seem to be availing me more protection. My mind is still burbling, already collecting advances for writing about this experience (I am a man who loves to shout what he’s found) but it does not disrupt the overall process, as if the thoughts have lost their mass. Amazing. I think maybe they should have explained to us that this was possible. I continue floating in this vertically contracted space (my spine is collapsed) for about an hour, until teatime, but only just. The pain keeps coming back to ensnare me every time absorption wanes. Nonetheless, I am bloody happy. Outside I move very slowly, like the Russian guy, and try to remember to be equanimous.
The phenomenon does not repeat itself in the evening but the pain feels somehow more manageable. I get the feeling again that I am examining the breath zone as if projected on a screen which is my field of view and that my awareness, located around my eyes, needs to move to my nose. There the hold of attention on is much stronger and I don’t keep drifting into sexual fantasy and other unbidden visualizations. G.’s evening discourse runs through his definitions of wisdom (conventional, intellectual and experiential – happily, only the third really counts) and impermanence (it’s all vibrations, man) and some funny stuff regarding disintegration of the body. A man thinks his woman has gorgeous hair. Long and dark, what a wonderful thing. Then he finds one long strand in his pudding. “Hey, woman! What is this in the pudding?!” “You said it was beautiful!,” she says, “Eat it!” Mr Goenke thinks this is very funny. One thing he says strikes me as exemplary pessimism. He says many students experience wonderful sensual feelings during Vipassana but then they cannot repeat the sensation and craving becomes suffering. Of course. Very Buddhist; all is suffering. But surely the converse also holds. The end of pain is pleasure, so all is pleasure! Goenka claims Vipassana is non-dogmatic. It is certainly not very dogmatic, with emphasis on personal experience (he says don’t take it from me!) but I would say dogma begins as soon as you make a statement. He makes lots of them very emphatically. Maybe it’s just his style. The preparation period is complete and tomorrow we start actual Vipassana, whatever that is.
Day 4. BRAIN SALAD SURGERY.
I wake to the old guys on my block coughing up phlegm as usual. It sounds as if the are disemboweling. Ayurvedic practice. Various students including me are very noisy in morning session. One has his finger so deep in his ear that it squeaks. Another is actually mumbling away to himself. Coughing, sniffing. So many psychosomatic ailments. People hyperventilate searching for the elusive breath sensation as if they will do something with it when they find it. During our tasty breakfast I complain to one of the assistant teachers and the mumbler is moved. Later I find out he has done several courses before! Anyway, it is testing my equanimity. It must be because I found a bed bug last night. I put the little sentient being out the window. No more, please!
I have a pretty effective half hour after the mumble guy is moved but spend much of the next one travelling in Africa when I should be on my upper lip. It’s like Rumi (the 12th century Persian mystic poet) said: I can’t find my mouth. I’ve lost the way to my mouth! I take a long break. Still, my head feels OK; like lassi – sweet but opaque. At 3pm we have the billed Vipassana session. I smile wryly when Teach says we must sit for two immobile hours. After some taped Pali droning Mr. Goenka’s voice warns us that we have volounteered for this course because we want to see the Nirvanic fields inside our bodies (Really? Cool…). He tells us we cannot move at all during the next sitting. Not a finger (Oh crap, I must repeat yesterdays effort). We assume position. First instruction is given in Hindi for a few minutes, then English. We must now focus on a one inch patch at the top of the head (which I take to be the crown chakra) and again observe any real sensations. He repeats the interminable sensation list: “Itchy, prickly, pressure…” Five minutes in and I realise my legs are very badly positioned for the long haul. Eyes still closed, I shift and a warning bell tinkles. Nice. Now, Mr. Goenke on tape continues, move your attention to your whole scalp, piece by piece. Remain attentive. Perfectly equanimous. The list again. Then Hindi. (I see, we are doing the old body check routine; a familiar relaxation technique). He continues to recite at a snail’s place. I can’t focus while the instructions drone on. Everything is repeated, bilingually, for the face, the neck – Goenka’s instructional style is nothing if not pedantic – the chest, abdomen, shoulders, left arm down to the finger tips, … Something is really wrong with my legs. My knees are agony. Right arm, upper back…remain equanimous… (Oh right, with no blood in my legs. The cells are dying. I won’t be able to walk!) Lower back… I am getting really distressed (Help!) Observe all sensations objectively… A shadow crosses my mind. A kind of transfiguration into darkness. (Yes, pain! This is Abu Graib! Some special rendition project run by the crows!) Now move your attention to the lower body… (Goenka! You sadist! We have to suffer this madness every day for a week!). Start at the top of the left thigh… (Oh I saw that coming. Miss out the buttocks and groin. You moralistic prude!) Then the knee… (Well, I got an itch in my arse and pressure in my scrotum! Hows that?!) My legs are virtually screaming and I want to also. Or cry. Or sod it all and stretch out my bloody legs! …and down to the toes… remain perfectly equanimous… (aaargh! What do you think I am? A sundancer?! OK, I bloody well am then). Mentally gritting my teeth I hyperfocus and somehow don’t visibly freak out. My mind is flipping around like a fish on a hot rock. Then quite suddenly, I emerge from the storm. I feel my legs closely. Throbbing!! That is all. Just a sensation (Goenka, you sly old…) I can just observe it. I am not possessed by it. Wow! The aversion reaction has short circuited. Goenka drones on in Hindi. I stop mentally verbalizing and just sit. Kind of like Buddha. …and the left leg down to the toes. I am almost equanimous! The tape clicks off. It has been ninety minutes. Teach says we may now take a five minute rest. Oh… my…god…
This is Vipassana; cyclic observation, scanning of the whole body. It is only through the body’s sensations, so it goes, that we can access the very deepest levels of the mind. The so-called unconscious, which isn’t, because it is always aware of the sensations. This was Gautama Buddha’s big discovery. The technique allows liberation of the accumulated complexes in the deep mind. These binding, misery inducing structures, called sankaras in Pali, multiply exponentially whenever we engage in craving or aversion to bodily sensation. Equanimity allows automatic and permanent release of accumulated sankaras. For this reason no visualization or mantra vocalizations are permitted in Vipassana as these are deemed to ultimately block the natural vibrations of the body, which is the real path to liberation. After the first Vipassana session, as if to prove my point about theoretical pessimism, I start chuckling away to myself in response to the end of the suffering and my colleague’s groans of relief and my inability to walk. I am quite elated, trying not to make sankaras of craving.
Outside again, nature has us surrounded. There is the wooded temple area, a wide brushy waste ground in the back, forest beyond the ladies’ side and a quiet backstreet on the front. I guess that explains the birdlife. So many buzzards circle in the summer (!) sky, it is like a circus. Every day has had perfect weather – cloudless, light breeze, pleasantly hot in the afternoon. The lime-green parakeets squawk and carouse and flit from tree to tree displaying their rather spectacular tails; a splayed fan and two long trailing feathers. I walk around and around to bring relief to my knees. The next session is also hard but not quite so strict. Noble Silence is tested at teatime. If we were to talk everyone would be full of indignant exclamations, cries of shock and relief, humour at the absurdity of our situation.
Evening brings another discourse. We laugh as Mr. Goenka describes normal student reactions to this day. I came for divine bliss and all I get is torture! Again he talks about pulling out the deepest roots of our “defilements”. I find that a very loaded term. Hardly equanimous. These defilements exist at the very core, square one, binding us to our being as it were. That rather tars all of existence with a polluted brush. Should we not just note our psychic make up without such critique and colouring. Does this kind of judgment not beg contradiction. I am trying to get to the bottom of this guy. It all sounds way too much like original sin for my liking. That stuff makes me crazy. It is crazy. I like Matthew Fox’s reformulation; original blessing. Surely we must be blessed to exist. Look at all the utterly beautiful, incomprehensibly complex systems that are required for us to live. I don’t care if they are made by a “blind watchmaker” or what. Goenka then makes another tall claim: with one exception every practitioner he knows who has passed on “died smiling”. They knew death is just another temporary sensation and, since they had been practicing the Dharma, a promotion! I don’t know. After all this meditating my mind is reacting to intellectual stimuli like a cross between a jack-in-a-box and a can of worms. Squiggly little devils, I better calm down before bed.
DAY 5. THE WORM CANNERY.
Adhitthana Day. I didn’t sleep great. There is too much early morning fidgeting. I quickly take a break to walk beneath the little jewel of Venus in the emerging dawn. The path circles the lawn, the two big trees at each end. For me it is like walking a temple Kora circuit in Tibet, where I picked up a personal habit of always circuiting three times. After three I touch the tree and hold the energy. It’s very edifying. For some reason most of the other meditators want to walk the “wrong” way. You have to go clockwise on a Kora, unless you are of the old Bon sect. So sometimes I have to go against the flow and try to avoid being distracted by facing them, but this morning I am alone. I rejoin the hall for the second hour and get some quality time in.
After breakfast a new, high speed Goenka chant comes on which benefits my meditation about as much as listening to a new release from The Fratellis. Despite this I feel a great sense of well-being now – that sweet, fresh aliveness of childhood that I miss like a lost soul mate. It is great not to have to say, do or prove anything for a change. Making journal notes is my only form of communication and my main source of distraction now, but I find the project irresistible. I wish I had a better memory. Meditation seems like a super-effective tool to improve it. The only problem is, even in a course like this, people just do not do it. Or rather, the mind does something else. What a strange, stubborn entanglement. But I am getting the hang of focusing on the pain so that it is not an outside force. I am creating it. Indeed, it is me.
Today and every day from now we will do three one hour Adhitthana or “strong determination” sittings during which it is heavily frowned upon to move in any way. There is a notice on the wall agreeably explaining that the purpose is not self-torture. If it is absolutely essential you may move, but always try to do better next time. I get through the first Adhitthana without budging at all! I am so relieved to hear the tape hiss before the ending five-minute chant. I am pretty proud of myself. Next sitting begins reiterating the instructions from yesterday, which had me traumatized. I cannot meditate during this. They are the wrong speed to follow along and incomplete. It is like waiting for a bus. So, more equanimity practice. Unfortunately my back collapses, my knees ache and then I am properly pissed off. Stupid guru. Now I can’t sit. Krishnamurti said that discipline is a false value and I find that the perfect rationale to go out and lie in the sun again. It is actually obvious to me that I am, in reality, creating my own pain and “inability” through my reaction to things. This is always true. There is no way around it so I let go my blaming tensions. Back inside I find this understanding has caused the worms to go back in the can of their own volition. Without the need for discipline I can sit very well, very calmly, not thinking, and soon, after George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord (which he ripped off The Ronnettes) has faded out gently, I am in a pretty deep meditation. My Sweet Lord synchronises perfectly with slow, full breathing so I have to take really tiny breaths to get him off the air. Tiny breaths come with deep relaxation. They don’t disturb my ribcage which helps me sit with backache and a constricted chest without being overcome by claustrophobia. It is like staying below the trouble radar.
I am called up as usual, daily, to check in with Teach. He has such a sweet smile. I am happy to look up to him. He asks if I can make a complete passage, head to foot. Yes, no problem. What sensations can I feel? Many different ones, but still mostly pain. I am about to add about the numbed-out tingle, that I think are the desirable, “subtle” sensations but he interjects: remember the law of impermanence. All sensations have the same quality; they arise and they pass away. There is no getting around that one either, I guess. He moves quickly to the Russian who, problematically, does not seem to understand “equanimity”. Come to think of it, I don’t know exactly what it means either! It’s like having no preference right? All things equal. Unperturbed. (Cambridge online dictionary: calm and self-controlled, especially after a shock).
The afternoon is hard because we have a ninety minute free sit then almost straight to the Adhitthana. I enjoy the free sit but then my back goes out in the Adhitthana and I start stressing. At peak discomfort my inner DJ inexplicably slaps on The Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Suck My Kiss as if as an act of sabotage. Even I think this highly inappropriate. I survive by visualizing smashing an LP copy of Blood Sugar Sex Magic over Anthony Keidis’ head, which somehow gets the thing silenced! Impetuously, at tea time I have two cups of chai. I know there is too much caffeine and sugar in my system before we enter the Dhamma hall. Sitting, I feel like a bull in a Ming vase. But half way through the hour the levels fall and I find I am very solid, back dead straight, completing many passes rigourously. Internal dialogue continues but ineffectually and by the end the pain has transmuted into unqualified sensation. Afterwards, both back and knees feel great. Absolutely unfazed. How strange. Like mind over matter. I’m blissed out.
In the evening discourse Mr. G., rather hilariously, nails all the thoughts and feelings that go with the first motionless Adhitthana sittings. The struggles multiplying suffering, minutes becoming hours. Desperate to check the clock. Maybe the assistants have forgotten the time. Ha! That is exactly what I thought this afternoon. Then he gives an interesting explanation of how the links of craving and aversion lead to the rearising of our consciousness in the next life. He also discusses the law of impermanence and the Buddhist Noble Truths; that all is suffering and how to escape. Every discourse ends the same; Mr.Goenka goes into deep, blissed-out reverie and wishes that we all find the precious Dharma, true peace, true happiness. A little chant and finally he says Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam approximately meaning “may all beings find happiness” and we all slowly say Saddhu, Saddhu, Saddhu as an accord.
Last sitting we learn to pass head to toe then reverse it and start making cycles. Another exciting development. It is emphasized again that through equanimity we are bringing sankaras to the surface and letting them go (to slither off and die in the corner). This is purification of the mind. Journal writing is interfering by stimulating my thinking, but it does provide a good motivation. I want to apply myself so that I get an interesting story and will look good to my readers, few as they may be. After all I would never bullshit them (you). Lying on the grass yesterday a tiny ant dug its mandibles painfully into the web of my left pinkie. I brushed it off automatically, killing it and something must have remained embedded because half my hand is becoming badly swollen and itchy. I hope I won’t have to go to the doctor. See what happens when you break sacred precepts. There is a perfect half moon tonight. Before sleep the flashing line drawings in my minds eye that I have seen before have developed into full colour plates, each one a completely realised abstract or stylized representation; plants, geometries, things you might see on a tile design. They come at amazing speed; four or five a second. After I finally get to sleep I have mad, vivid sexual and violent dreams that wake me repeatedly.
DAY 6. HYPERBOLIC EQUILIBRIUM.
At dawn I watched dozens of bats flying home to their roost. In the evenings one or two will come swooping between the trees at head height. My mind keeps coming at this Hinayana Buddhist interpretation of existence. I have always thought Buddhism relatively “scientific”; that is to say rigourous in its’ metaphysical investigations. Also it seems fairly uncontaminated by the political distortions of history. To me though, its’ conclusions are just intuitively weird (don’t get me started about Christianity’s). Whatever the reason that all the universe and life and mind exist, the best course of action is to remove yourself, like the whole escapade is a mistake. Surely since we are here we should find solutions and evolutions here too, such that we would want, given the choice, to return. Enjoy the ride! Thanks, wouldn’t miss it for the world. And in we go, sealed with a kiss. A basic reason I like Buddhism is the proscription that negative emotions like hate are the problem here on Earth. I believe that no moral formulation is absolute, no religious law universally applicable. Religions that claim divine wisdom and then hate transgressors against their dogma, stoning or burning people to death (slowly, as was customary) are clearly missing the point and being massively eaten by shadow. I hate that! (joke). We are caught in a web of illusion that causes people to do more or less stupid things. Jesus knew all this but Christians proceeded to victimize globally. We never get around it.
The chanters in the temple, outside my window, over the high fence, show great endurance in keeping up their evocative mantras for hours. I am taking a break but morning Adhitthana was great. I can keep my back straight, arching the sacrum gently to create a tower (of power) and perch on it the whole session. All my life I could never sit like that for even five minutes. Unfortuately, the tower of power notion comes partly from one of Frank Zappa’s more ridiculous songs, Bobby Brown, which concerns a vain college students degeneration into S & M freakdom – I can take about an hour on the tower of power, as long as I gets a little golden shower etc. I had to nip that one in the bud. So I’m resting on my bed, not the ant infested grass. An hour long sit is perfect now and gently extending my head up, I seem to reach a spot of calm, easy clarity above the water line of psychic babble. I’m in equilibrium there. Not quite full equanimity because towards the end I still want the session to finish, mainly on account of leg pain, sometimes just boredom. I find that when scanning, my mind is sometimes defining, kind of drawing, the body part. What is better is to very gently place my attention at that place, like a featherfall. Then, a soft “light” turns on, and I can sense everything easily. I can feel the subtlest sensation, often a sort of cellular tingling. Any acquisitiveness or inquisitiveness seems to short circuit the passive awareness. If I can relax totally, breathing tiny mouse breaths to the stomach, I seem to be going into the subtler levels of consciousness where interesting things happen, like transcendence of physical trauma. The antihistamines I took at 4am catch up with me after lunch and I waste the early afternoon. During Adhitthana Bobby Brown comes back to get me and has to be beaten down with a mental mallet as I squirm, hoping nobody notices. Finally, in the last fifteen minutes Zappa’s little Frankenstein is laid to waste by intentional introduction of My Sweet Lord and I do some work while the latter continues to play gently away into nothing. I am depressed to go backwards but take an aspirin and knock off the deep business until teatime, which again seems to fix all the muscular problems like magic.
The Dharma is naturally arising wisdom from understanding the law of impermanence. But it is permanent and universal. Well, I think we can say that I don’t understand it. I guess these sacred things, Dharma, Buddhahood, Vipassana are set apart from all else because solely they are transcendent to temporal concerns, the illusion of Maya, the impermanence of sensation. It is as if they are proposed to sprout fully formed from the flower bed that is the intersection of the temporal and the infinite. This may be so but it sounds quite sticky philosophically and politically, that assumption of authority. One would think that as soon as one talks about them or just thinks of them, they stop being exceptional and become a transient sensation or limited concept or dogma. Best just to experience them in whatever altered state of consciousness they actually manifest as they are and then shut up. Of course, this is a little difficult for teaching and discourse and personally I think that is why “Dharma talk” can be fun – speaking of the unspeakable.
In tonight’s discourse G first announces that Vipassana contains not a trace of pessimism, contrary to what I had been thinking. It is just fully understanding that all is miserable suffering but that Vipassana is the way out, and striving onward as an optimistic realist. He goes through some Buddhist pseudoscience involving the interaction of indivisible “subatomic particles” called kalapas with the four elements, and then notes the five big enemies if Vipassana practitioners. These are: craving, aversion, drowsiness, hesitancy (ie not getting down to the work) and doubt (of self, teacher or technique). Sounds like me all over.
DAY 7. HURTS SO GOOD.
I meditate deeply in the early morning but again the half hour of chanting does my head in a bit. I am almost used to the monotonous, slightly exotic melodies with half-note glissandos, strangely variable phrasing and slight overtones reminiscent of Tuvan throat singing and occasionally I even find Mr. Goenka’s sonorous voice comforting but I wonder if we would not do better without it. Things would be more non-sectarian. During Adhitthana the guy next to me keeps clicking his knuckles (come on!) but I soldier through causing myself only a little suffering being pissed off. We are two loose groups now. Those who can take refuge in the meditation and those who have not found the trick and seem increasingly restless. Those in the first group indulge their aches and outside they walk very slowly like “a bird has alighted on their shoulder and they dare not move lest it fly away” (approximate Rumi). These times I sometimes feel like I am on tranquilisers. The other camp walks very fast to shake it off or stretches fretfully. At lunch standing in line I find myself hamming it up just a little, so others might think: hmm, he had a deep one. Teach seems content with my levels of equanimity, if I can make it through one hour dead still, even though I am still craving the bell.
Afternoon Adhitthana too much for me so I take aspirin and some time out. I have a headache and feel tense after visualizing an obese boy with a black mask sucking rudely on a dozen straws. Returning to the hall I try, as per instructions, to pause a minute on the painful places and this brings back well-being. It feels like self-care. Outside in the lovely evening I feel great gratitude for this opportunity. Light, compassionate happiness. After tea I get really deep and start to actually enjoy the pain, breathing into it and gently reveling in my immunity. I am almost tune free. Afterwards I can barely get up but it does not bother me.
Despite this I still want to know, playfully perhaps, why we can’t take life on its own terms and consider all of it sacred. If practitioners die smiling, why is the path to escape from existence so exalted? Admittedly, I am a lucky bugger, at least at this phase of my life, and others contend with lots more suffering than I. Circumstance breeds philosophy. To a Taoist all is everchanging flow of Yin and Yang. So the wise man acts in accordance with this flow, the Tao, which comes before mentation. Apparently, to Mr. Goenka and Gautama Buddha, this impermanence makes things valueless. There seems to be some fundamental choice here. To be or not to be. But whatever the evaluation, I could do without the talk of “defilements”. Tonights discourse covers the qualities we need to continue practice in the future, how we can do Vipassana in lieu of sleep (so no time is lost overall) and the real meaning of Dharma. It throws up points I like again: personal responsibility and authenticity (exposing the empty facades of religion – Osho would be proud – and the importance of the real volition behind an act). It was humourous and well presented. Mr. G. can really talk sometimes.
Day 8. CROSSEYED AND PAINLESS.
Each night I feel like I wake to the bell as soon as I have dropped off, then I remember all the crazy dreams that gave form to those six hours. With considerable equanimity I let go the mucous hackers, I let go the discomfort and the drowsiness, let go The Smashing Pumpkins and Dave Matthews Band and, nestling inside my ethereal body I let flow the Vipassana, right through until breakfast. That’s a first. I even enjoy the chanting. It must be the power of positive association. I am confronted by just that one rather immovable object. It feels like a tight, heavy, metal band attached to me just below the armpits and at my solar plexus. I spend time pausing there with equanimous vibes, being still, breathing as deeply as gentleness permits. After breakfast this continues. I can make the Vipassana rounds quite smoothly and quickly. Sitting comfortably on top of the tower of power, I visualise ejecting negative energy from the dark places out of my crown chakra. Things start to feel better and the rest of my body is quite cockooned in minutely pixilated subtle sensations, but I don’t react and just continue it all morning. I get the feeling that equanimity is like a healing beam. This absence of mind creates a space where the negative energy can escape. It’s very subtle and amazing. If my posture subsides I very slowly pull back up, stretching the neck towards heaven, which really brings it on full power as I continue to remove black stuff out the top. I feel like there is a string pulling my crown chakra up towards heaven, as I was taught in Tai Chi. I quit a little early for lunch feeling very quietly awesome. After sitting all morning, my back is only unobtrusively sore and I feel no stiffness. I find a white feather behind the big tree and take it to my room where I get sleepy and incredibly horny. I remain equanimous about that too.
The afternoon continues in the same vain. I sit no bother for three more hours. I am in a trance. Moving my body hardly occurs to me. Unfortunately, the metal band is still there. I feel it when I am doing the Vipassana because my back is completely erect, expanding my chest against it. Late in the afternoon, for some reason maybe not so inappropriate, Dear God by XTC comes on my playlist. It’s a tuneful, ironic ditty in which an apparently atheist child writes a letter to our omnipresent creator deploring him for the state of the world and the human condition and wondering why the hell he doesn’t do something about it, or what the hell he was thinking of in the first place, and concluding that his inability or disinterest is firm evidence of his absence. Mr. Goenka is inconclusive. “Great God Almighty, if he exists…” was his aside. Half of the other students seem to still be in the what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here place. And what are they doing here? I guess the older guys are preparing themselves for the vicissitudes of age and the great beyond. There are middle aged business types perhaps looking for stress reduction. Funnily, in a way I most admire the few young Indian guys who have the insight and fortitude to go through this when they should be out there banging beaver, as Jack Nicholson had it in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
It is much easier to sweep places in your body with lots of nerve endings like your face and fingers. It is almost like you can see with your skin. My knees are blind, especially after an hour of sitting. I sit strong in the evening too. There is little pain now though I still go crosseyed from the intensity of disembodied sensation when it suddenly tries to embody itself. Sometimes it is pleasure. I am practicing very diligently, the way the technique wants me to, as Mr. Goenka put it. Is Vipassana conscious? He said equanimity and awareness must be two equal wings. I understand. They allow each other to develop. The gentler and more disinterested the mind, the more one can observe and the cyclic observation trains the mind to not react to stimuli. There is a kind of pulling yourself up by your bootlaces process. Watching the video, however I start to feel jaded from tales of the Buddha. Something in me is defiantly craving normality.
Day 9. NEVER MIND.
Three mornings in a row I have woken one or two minutes before the wake up bell. I am getting well trained. Sitting at 4.30am I feel unsettled, maybe a little bored of sitting. Well, who would not be. Soon, a tune enters my head. Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life from The Meaning of Life movie. With the inane whistling as the hook, it won’t stop. I identify with the Pythons a lot. Man, were there some golden moments from that lot. To have brought so much insanely liberating humour into people’s “miserable” lives. What a coup. I want to honour them! It feels like an act of defiance. My mind is again rolling against some of the things I have been hearing – rejection of the world and human nature, the senses, beauty, art, love, sex; everything a cultivated, compassionate person might like when liking anything is deemed a waste of time. I don’t want it to be true. I love the world too much. Nature. The utter miracle of the natural world. It’s so impossibly, harrowingly beautiful. I think I would die to save it. Her. Our planet. I couldn’t say that for anything else. But now I should cast all that aside as illusion. It is a very hard sell. The whistling goes on until breakfast.
Everything is transient phenomena including the subtle energies but students cling to the pleasure they bring and get stuck. G. says some students keep coming, course after course, maybe doing a thirty day Vipassana marathon, because they want the pleasures. They are just “playing games with sensation”. I don’t know but maybe I would be one of those. My rebellion is really a desire to cling to craving as a lifestyle. I don’t know about these sankaras. There is something to it but also we are fundamentally free. Life is a gift. A long time ago, in St. Andrews, when my friends and I were very, very off our faces – the first time I’d ever been so off my face in fact – a little mantra came to us that explained everything. It was this: “everything exists all the time for the sake of everything else”. Sounds dumb? At that moment, it seemed as if every atom in the universe had taken a Boddhisatva vow to give love to every other atom until all together returned to the source of joy. The upshot was that in a certain sense, everything in life is free, given free, something so beautiful you just cry with joy. The only problem is, when we forget. We go so far away. That’s a pretty worthy illusion in my view. Or maybe that’s really the Dharma.
The whole morning session is a pathetic effort. More Reasons to Be Cheerful: “Cheddar cheese and pickle, a little slap and tickle…” and D.I.S.C.O. which is by Ottawan as it turns out. We are quite literally back to day one. A rejoinder from Mr. Neil Young : “Heyhey, Cripple creek ferry, Butting through the overhanging trees, Make way for the cripple creek ferry, The water’s goin’ down, it’s a mighty tight squeee-eeeze.” Thanks Neil. Like I didn’t know it. Maybe these difficulties are because I actually did effective work yesterday and released sankaras are messing with me. My back gets bad. I have got used to enjoyable sitting and, panicky, I request a back rest in the afternoon. I use it for an hour and discard it – can’t stay awake. We then receive our last significant new instruction which will eventually lead to complete dissolution of physicality into the subtle energies. But now I feel quite morose; going over my failures and weaknesses. Paranoid thoughts of the compound miseries that will be produced by the sankaras of my sinful self-indulgent lifestyle. I feel like an octopus that wants to crawl back into its hole. Can’t relax and my solar plexus is really quite painful. I keep reaching for breath. OK, screw this. This is a crap ending to the story. I take an aspirin so the pain keeps me awake but does not knock me back and get ready for Adhitthana.
Fear is a motivator for me again. I get the work going which calms me so I can creep stretch onto the tower of power. My mind sharpens. Sensitivity comes back. Still mouse breathing below my chest, at some point I gently but fully fill my chest with air and with a crack, twang, something big gives and I can breathe much more easily. Now I flow scan like a moving torch, gently pausing on the heavy parts. I can feel subtle vibrations within the painful areas. Now I try to apply the new instructions. Whole body scans, like passing an energy ring around the body, tip to toe. I continue for the whole afternoon. It is like a liquid ring of awareness passing around me. Sometimes, at the trouble spots it gets sticky and hung up. For some reason I also visualise a ring of barbed wire, like I am roto-tilling my flesh. This is a little weird but not unpleasant. I move on to the internal scanning, trying to sense my organs. I feel like I am giving myself an MRI. I am very equanimous. Craving and aversion sankaras are crawling off all over the place.
Well, thank goodness. I was feeling like a loser. So much better to get a grip on myself and be a wi…eh, never mind! Vipassana is all about equanimity. That is its power. No thing. Really though, we are in this cushy prison for ten days; there is no point in messing around wasting time. Leave that for outside. Give the method a fair shake as G. says. It should have immediate benefits and maybe even “establish me in the Dharma”; a precious boon. We hear another nice, feel good discourse which all comes down again to recognizing your reactions to things as the real source of your suffering. There’s no getting around it.
Day 10. THE LOVE SHACK.
The old guy behind me must have emphysema. What’s new? I have the runs. My morning performance is mediocre. No matter. We will now learn selfless love meditation called Metta. A salve to our psychic surgery. It is basically just visualization and listening to G. expound the joy of goodwill to all which is a lovely feeling I have enjoyed during this course. Sadly rare for me in my own estimation. Then the fun starts – the end of Noble Silence!
We congratulate each other warmly outside and say how we secretly inspired each other. I learn more about the guys I have pretended to studiously ignore all this time and I find I am sitting with an Iranian, an Iraqi kurd, and an Israeli. That is a lovely moment. We watch a video on the many fancy Vipassana centres around the world. Ours is relatively plain but it holds a soft spot in my heart. The afternoon becomes quite cloudy. It has been pure blue sky until today. We do two more sittings during scheduled Adhitthana and continue to chat. One of the younger Indian guys, a tall, handsome bloke, turns out to be a TV actor. He is here to get in character to play Gautama Buddha! Awesome, if perhaps confusing. We get our belongings back and give our donations as we each deem suitable. No pressure at all. This keeps the Dharma pure, G says, and it seems to be working. We hear about the amazing lineage of Vipassana in the last discourse, and the power of purity of focus on the body’s natural vibration. It wouldn’t convince a Tantric Tibetan Buddhist of his error perhaps. They claim to achieve Nirvana in one lifetime. Vajra Diamond path. Lucy in the Sky. That is not Vipassana. Slow but steady wins the race says Mr. Goenka, and nobody will convince him otherwise either. He is more than content with his “lesser vehicle”. Perhaps it is just a matter of taste.
Day 11. ALL THINGS MUST PASS.
We are up early even on the last morning. It is worth it to see the very nearly full moon. We practice some Metta, eat breakfast and hit the road with fond farewells. I guess I passed Vipassana kindergarten. Not bad for a dillitente. I am very glad I was able to experience Vipassana. It was a uniquely valuable time for me. Thank you Mr. G., I am sure this experience will serve me well on many long distance bus journeys. If I keep it up I may even die smiling. You don’t mind if I call you Mr. G. do you?
May those of us who seek refuge in the Dharma find it,
And may the rest of us give it ‘nuff respect,
while we are goofing off.
BHAVATU SABBA MANGALAM