Welcome to Vipassana.
Bring your attention to the breath. Then, focus on bodily sensation.
Try to avoid thinking, or focusing on thoughts.
Focus between thoughts, between molecules,
behind the movie screen.
Do not personalize this.
See you in 10 days.
It was autumn of 2005 up in Kelseyville, California. I parked my ’85 Volvo with the other cars in a sandy volleyball court. At the edge of the parking lot were two women seated at a plastic table with clipboards. The trail beyond led across a small creek ford. The 101 highway was a few miles behind us, equally as surrounded by the evergreen and deciduous forests, capped with incoming cloud cover. Mine and my friend’s names were checked off of the list by a brunette in a bandana with wide-gaged earlobes. Her comrade, a bundled up blonde in a black hoodie gave me a small guidebook and reiterated the precepts of Right Action: “You must abstain from killing of any kind. No stealing. Suspend all sexual activity. Do not tell lies or take any intoxicants. You must maintain Noble Silence beginning after orientation until the course concludes.” Her eye contact was warm but curt. Tomorrow would begin the 10-day introduction to Vipassana meditation, by N.S. Goenka. I was 19 years old.
We forded the creek toward the campsite and parted ways from there. After setting up the tent, I discovered it had a gaping hole in it from years of childhood trips; maybe it wouldn’t be a problem? We were given orientation in the main dining area before being released to shower and turn in. Eye contact was also forbidden, much like in a crowded New York City subway, except we were alone together, maybe 60 people, in the middle of Northern California at a summer camp for kids. As a child I’d thrived in places like this.
When I was in school, I was described as a procrastinator. I like to think of meditation as a scrupulous form of procrastination. In school, I resented being told to face my tasks, and to my recollection, no one was prodding me to see the value in trying. The experience had been alienating. Now felt like an apt moment to make an investment, having finished high school a year prior. Going to meditate was the first time in my life that I was making a concerted effort to get to know myself without a mirror, a report card, or the scene at home.
In the meditation hall, men and women were divided. At the front were a large tapestry and a boxy television monitor on a roll-away, two assistant volunteers in their 20s, and an old man. Every day we received a message from N.S. Goenka via the monitor, instructing us in Vipassana. We would sit for hours on stools that turned the ass into a mixture of rubber cement and corn starch. I breathed in, and out, with the pace of a child about to go into a tantrum. My right shoulder would rise defensively as if to support a single-strap backpack loaded with textbooks; I would actively lower it, only to have it automatically elevate once more. A friend once told me this was a psychic scar, but I wondered if I were perpetually raising my hackles at something.
The sessions were between two and three hours each between 4am and 9pm, accumulating to 10-12 hours a day, but the average for me was nine. The lost hour was usually in awkward investigations with reality, trying to see if I could see things differently yet. I’d find myself standing by the side of the trail that led between the meditation hall and my tent, staring across the ford towards the parking lot masked by willow trees.
After the rains came, I was moved from my tent to a camper’s hut with two other men. The three of us shared the lodging, sleeping in three of the twelve parallel stacked wooden bunks. The open dim floor was worn from many summer chapters of adolescent campers. One of the two men, who bore an unsettling similarity to the anglicized Jesus Christ, I would later learn was known professionally as “DJ Jesus Christ”, and “DJ JC” for short. Our second roommate was an exceedingly orderly man in his early 30s with a tightly packed internal-frame backpack designed for long expeditions. Every morning at 4am when the wake-up call of the brass chime came floating out of the night tapped by a course volunteer, his wrist watch would simultaneously emit a screeching second reminder to wake up. He would jerk up, fully alert, and begin making his bed with precision and haste. I wondered what his psychic scars were like, if he’d been beaten as a child; would I have been like that if my parents had put my feet to the fire? It was sentimental projection. I did not know this man. Me and Jesus got up about the same speed and with the same blinkered enthusiasm.
An easy rhythm set in. People walked in quiet refrain along damp trails underneath the misty oaks, cozy in fleece camp clothes. The moisture breached my sweats and gave me a shudder as I saw my friend from the drive up stacking rocks by the trail. I watched him create a jagged tower of smaller and smaller stones, like a pile of baby turtles. Later on I added a pile of my own up the trail.
People would periodically fart loudly in the meditation hall. Don’t laugh, I would inwardly say. Don’t speak inwardly! I would then retort. And then I would compliment myself on not doing these things, and then I would reprimand myself for complimenting myself. And eventually, I would let it go. Meditating reminded me of any interrogation scene from chintzy action dramas, where two cops beat a powerless, bound man, reassuring him that this can go easy – or we can do it the other way. The temptation to indulge in my imaginings was fierce.
Focusing only on breath and sensation, while not focusing on thought, was like trying to walk in a straight path directly through a shifting crowd of strangers who don’t see you. A constant pattern of falling into memory, becoming entangled in thoughts and analysis, then dragging my attention back to the breath repeated infinitely. The clamor of heightened sensitivities brought on by the ability to focus and detach, or “depersonalize,” my thoughts as mine gave me an understanding not unlike Charles Manson, when he claimed prison bars were an intervention around his reality, but they did not imprison him – in his mind, he was free.
Goenkaji (the “ji” being an exalting addition for in-members to call him) would appear in his video broadcast with exactly the right thing to say. The dogma he asserted felt pernicious to me. I repeatedly attempted to lower my hackles. The video intoned ideas for dealing with our not-doing. For the ideologically-paranoid like myself, he advised we accept what we liked of the practice and discard the “sand from the oatmeal”.
All normal social behavior was restricted. There were no accolades for the perception of progress. Good behavior was to ignore everything that hindered the practice. I began to feel I was going through withdrawals from the past 19 years of steadily injected social programming, and feared I would be as amoral as Manson if I couldn’t find an original source of goodness in my character beyond the software of identity. If the exorcism was a success, the reboot achieved, would I still be myself? The prospect both terrified and tempted me.
On day six, I contacted management, so to speak. The volunteer’s name was Ethan, a late 20s mathematics major who I recognized from the junior college where we both studied. He had curly dark hair and wore a puffy down jacket. I met him by the kitchen and asked to speak to the assistant instructor. Only in select situations were we allowed to speak. Ethan seemed taken aback. His disposition was warm and respectfully servile, with the sadness of a shy man or a recovering introvert. He led me along the fire road at the edge of the camp in shared silence. His dark brown eyes were cast down or hawklike to the proverbial horizon obscured by the deep forest green. He offered no conversation as we walked. Our feet squished the damp foliage while mist condensed onto leaves and dripped to the forest floor. He led me to the assistant teacher, the older man responsible for sitting motionlessly while a volunteer pressed play on the VHS recordings of Goenkaji. I met him in his private cottage at edge of the compound where the slopes became steepest. For the first time since I’d arrived, I didn’t feel alone. The relief was shaded, knowing I was surely going to finish the ten days.
The man’s eyes were blue as the sky beyond the afternoon rainclouds. His beard was pure white like his hair. From a cross-legged stillness, he smiled with several concealed facial twitches, “What seems to be the problem?” he asked.
He did not come across as the New Age type, more like a grandfather. A few terrified sentences escaped my lips, but they felt unimportant, and I trailed off. Then reestablishing eye contact, I blurted out, “…I hate myself – so much.” He gazed at me with pitiless solemnity.
After a beat, he responded, “You have no idea how lucky you are to be doing this at your age.” He then broke eye contact, gazing softly downward into a pool of jackknifed memory.
He smiled more easily, and lifted his attention towards me. “You’ll be fine. Just stick with it.” And there is something vastly impressive about someone who can say that to your face without a shred of doubt; even if you don’t believe it, which I didn’t, it made you want to.
I squeezed the rock in my fist. I had more awareness of my will power than I’d ever known. I wondered if I could see it, measure it. I threw the rock as far as I could across the creek towards the forest. It disappeared into sounds of rustling foliage. I did this repeatedly one afternoon as other hunched men sifted by, some stopping to join the rebellion. It felt incorrect to hurl rocks as a social activity. I left for the dining hall. Along the path, there were more stacks of stones like miserable idols. Was my friend sending me a message? I stacked a pile for him, and to occupy the miserable idleness of my hands.
For the last three days of silence I had a trio of Aerosmith, Elton John, and Big Band Jazz ensembles playing endlessly in my head. While leaving the meditation hall, I heard heavy drumming as I imagined dashing for the car, turning over the engine and running back to the paradise of distractions, and littler problems of the world. It was vividly cinematic; I tried to ignore this. It reminded me of Nikola Tesla reading peacefully next to an active tesla coil, appearing to barely notice the blaring electrical storm he’d invented. I also tried to ignore this. The silence was overwhelmingly deadpan.
I burned for familiar contexts. Every person who had made me feel like myself came to mind, and there was nothing to do about it. I could sense every inch of skin. My attention passed over the skin like benign waves of subtle euphoria. Enjoying the feeling was incorrect. To reject the thoughts was wrong. To personalize emotions they brought up was wrong. To hate that they came up was wrong. To despair that you reacted to them was wrong. Yet the idea of meditation had always struck me as a problem-free. They almost insisted that nothing is ever wrong – but don’t be proud of seeing it: that’s wrong, too.
To even glance at my running narrative encouraged their details, yet to run fearfully from it (as you would any obstacle to enlightenment) would only make it louder. I took refuge in observing of my bodily sensations, playing stupid games with my attention, running the focus over the surface of my skin like fingers trailing water. In deeper relaxation, my right eyelid would lift open like a broken doll.
The imagination that had bunkered me from compulsory education fired flaming pianos from trebuchets in self-amusement. I became a freelance self-distractor, inhaling, actively lowering my shoulder, exhaling, closing my eye again, breathing for freedom. The density of my consciousness went from a cotton wad on the surface to a lead ball descending miles into the ocean. It all started falling away. An endlessly peaceful, primordial silence began to appear beyond the static.
The blank expanse in my vision heightened the other senses on my body. My mind dove into the memory of getting head by an ex-girlfriend, at once causing me to become aroused from my painful meditation bench. The sound of my own heartbeat puffed like a goldfish circling a plastic castle and a strip of kelp from a neon pit of rubble. My mind was glass shards of silver sparks on the surface of the sea. Every word I inwardly heard was a form of escapism, an act of defiance. To say I missed my friends was to witness Ariel Herman, an idea, admitting he was lonely. Gazing into the shadows, my life of sensations began to seem like they belonged someone else.
Like an unobserved particle, I had no absolute location in reality. It was kind of like being 15 years old in a mosh pit as a great homunculus in a spiked leather jacket hurls you at a 90s gutter-grunge lesbian in a boy’s undershirt. The meditation hall became eerily silent. Black shadows gazed back between memories. As my fear of this darkness abated, I felt no cowardice to disprove of, and though ashamed and alone, I started to soften my place there.
I had never been so bored and exhausted and exhilarated. I stopped being angry with anger, curling my index fingers down and placing them against the thumbs. My rebellion was useless to me now.
Noble Silence ended, and as we left the meditation hall, the silence was instantly hilarious. All the men (still separated from the women) began laughing and gasping like the hissing of so many pressure cookers. It was truly ecstatic. At dinner that night we all spoke about our experiences. We’d been advised to not speak to members of the opposite sex, but I sought the few I’d distracted myself with for the past ten days. It was pure ecstasy to experience reciprocity again. I was giddy inside, and yet as sturdy as the iron ball left over from a supernova. If any insecurity was there, it absolutely didn’t matter. Who are you? was all I wanted to get from everyone.
When the prohibition of silence fell on the tenth day, DJ JC would be the first human on the planet that made me miss our vows of Noble Silence. The historical Jesus was considered a master of the heart, and not the mind (that was the Buddha). To me, DJ JC had drauk of the Kool-aid, punched the ticket, doubled the dose, and opened his mind so broadly that it had fallen out. I really liked the idea of Jesus, then, at length, he told me of his truth, and it hurt. As I drifted to sleep that final evening, Jesus spoke to me from the darkness, waiting intermittently for me to respond with “hmm” and “uh huh” before continuing his lament of social injustice and depictions of a not-far-off utopia. He pontificated in New Age musings: the foundations of which would save our humanity. The impartialness I had been fostering during those ten days began to backslide into narcissistic judgmental thoughts before I could fall asleep. The platitudes Jesus offered were full sheets in a doldrum, but I didn’t have the character to contradict him, nor did I have an ulterior plan to save the world. Where his convictions were total, I became unimpeachably cynical. Although his ideas were truncated and grating, I liked him, but I couldn’t tell why.
As I finally drifted to sleep, I became worried for the man with the digital watch. Even after we were allowed to speak he’d offered no conversation nor did he reach to join one. When engaged, he made a giddy squawk of a reply, then turned away quickly. That evening he had reorganized his belongings with his back to us, itemizing the tightly rolled clothes into new neat rows on the bed.
I am in a mom and pop general store somewhere in Mendocino County just off the 101. I’m very slowly chewing single pieces of popcorn and doing a slow investigation of a building inhabited by violently-colored products. The butter and salt are acridly satisfying, the walls of the red and white wax paper bag make a cutting noise against my fingers. My carpool and I left the volleyball court less than an hour ago.
The old woman behind the counter asks if I’d like anything besides the popcorn. It takes me a moment to recognize verbs. “No, this will be all. Thank you.”
She takes my money, and I become filled with doubt. I can’t believe how little this woman gets it. I don’t even know why I think it. Did it occur to me, or did I realize it? I don’t think I thought it — it was just there — was it me? Or mine?
“Alright, that’ll be… $1.08.”
I take my change and leave, my bare feet swiping absently on the worn wooden floor.
I step outside onto the porch into the afternoon sunlight, squinting at the world returning. The highway is drying out and the tips of the redwoods steam in the sun’s rays. The colors out here are superior, sacred, I think. The physical world and the non-physical within feel like divorced parents sharing custody of my innermost self, each tugging on a different ear, and talking shit about the other one. But as the doubt of it all comes crashing in, I feel a reassurance that this roadside store is as true as the void I was just brined in. I sit in the passenger seat as my friend drives southward home. The view unfolds like an unending painting.
“How was it for you, man?” asks my friend.
It was great. “It was great…”
“…Do you think you’ll keep the practice?”
I should try to. “Yeah. I wanna try to.” Will he? “How about you?”
“Eh… Maybe. Kind of intense if ya know what I mean.”
Yup. “Either way, I’m happy we did this.”
Names in this article have been changed. This piece originally appeared in the 2014 spring edition of CU’s Journal TwentyTwenty, Boulder, Colorado.