Snow and fallen fir boughs from a winter storm the week before still covered the forest floor when I turned into the Northern California Vipassana Center, on a quiet bend in a mountain road in Lake County.
I parked and checked email on my iPhone a final time before turning the phone off and locking it with my wallet and other valuables in the glove compartment. I grabbed a bag with everything I would need for the next ten days – warm clothes and bedding, an alarm clock – and nothing that wasn’t allowed – phone, computer, reading and writing materials – and locked the car behind me.
In the warm, well-lit dining hall I filled in a long registration form. I was “nervous and excited for the course,” I reported to the teachers. “I am very new to meditation.”
I have tried to meditate countless times as part of my yoga practice but I never felt that I came close to actually doing it. I didn’t know what meditation was supposed to feel like or produce in me. For the ancient yogis, the entire point of the physical yoga asana practice and pranayama breath control was to condition their minds and bodies for meditation. I had been practicing yoga for over a year with increasing dedication, so I was eager to get a glimpse of what this next step might look and feel like. I was also more than a little nervous. During my previous, brief meditation sessions, after the teacher had asked us to “clear our minds” or some other impossible task, I had usually given up and been left with a sense of defeat and mind-numbing boredom for the next twenty minutes while everyone in class around me seemed to be achieving nirvana. The time when I thought I had come closest to meditating, during my yoga training in Costa Rica, I now realize I was actually just falling asleep.
Vipassana meditation is said to be the form of meditation taught by Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, 2,500 years ago. Over the years the technique was lost or forgotten in most places but was preserved through a long line of teachers in Burma. S.N. Goenka (Goenka-ji), the head teacher and founder of the Vipassana Organization, came across the technique during long efforts to cure his migraine headaches. He discovered a gift as a teacher of the technique and over the years has taught many thousands of students at Vipassana Centers in India and throughout the world. Although the technique has its roots in Buddhist practice, it is insistently non-religious and non-sectarian. People of all religions or no religion are welcome to learn and practice Vipassana without any need to convert or call themselves Buddhists, which was another important selling point for me.
The worldwide Vipassana organization is almost as interesting to me as the technique itself. Each Vipassana Center is run as a financially free-standing, non-profit organization. Not only are all of the courses free – including room and board – but you are not allowed to make a donation to the organization until you have completed a ten day course. They say that the organization is financed entirely through these donations, which is to me a powerful testament to the utility of the technique.
My assigned bed was in a modern looking cabin near the road. The grounds had the look and feel of a fancy summer camp in the off-season, albeit a summer camp where all of the sports, Indian crafts, and campfire sing-alongs have been replaced by sitting inside in complete silence and stillness all day and then going to bed without dinner.
When I arrived at my cabin one of my two roommates, Eidan from Isreal, was already there. We were still allowed to talk at this point, so we did. Eidan is about my age and had been traveling the world for years it seemed. We played the old “I was in Bali in November and Rishikesh in December” game and realized we had many overlapping adventures. But with stops in Jamaica, Cuba, and Iceland coming up, I think Eidan has me beat.
While I was making my bed our other roommate arrived. We had less time to talk before the dinner bell rang but he introduced himself as Jason from San Jose and said he was there to learn more about meditation in the hope of leading his meditation group back home, “We’re called Dharma Punx.” Jason and I would have the next ten days of living together in silence to try to discern some other details of each other’s lives, but as the dinner bell rang all I had to go on was this brief introduction, Jason’s firm handshake, gym-built body, tattoo covered arm, and the Mercedes key on his bedside table.
After a tasty vegetarian curry meal (all of the food would be vegetarian and, to my surprise, delicious and plentiful, with the exception of “dinner,” which was limited to fruit and tea) we gathered in the meditation hall for the first time. There were about forty people on the course, half men and half women, mostly first time students. From this point on, there would be complete separation of the sexes, including in the meditation hall, where the men sat to the left of a wide aisle and the women to the right. This separation was intended to remove one more big distraction from our lives for the next ten days. Unfortunately, they are going to need to try harder on this one. It didn’t take me long to spot a beautiful women with long blond dreadlocks across the aisle and get distracted enough.
Entering the hall, we were assigned a seat, a square cushion on the ground, and offered other cushions and wooden props to make ourselves as comfortable as possible. We would be sitting there for a long, long time in the coming days. The assistant teachers played an audio recording by the meditation teacher, S.N. Goenka. These audio recordings and nightly video “discourses” would be the primary mode of instruction throughout the course. I don’t remember exactly what Goenka-ji said in that first recording, though I am sure it was characteristically gentle, humorous and encouraging. We were asked to observe five precepts, known as Sila during the next 10 days. These Sila roughly correspond to the Yogic Yama and the rules of morality that seem to be universal to most religions: to abstain from killing any being, from stealing, from sexual misconduct, from lying, and from all intoxicants.
Before leaving the hall that first night we were told that our “noble silence” was to begin immediately. For the next ten days we should have no communication whatsoever, no talking, no gestures, no notes, and no eye contact with our fellow mediators. We were not to leave the grounds of the meditation center.
The first three days were hard. There were only four things to do: lie or sleep in bed, eat at the specified times, walk on the specified path, or meditate. Time was set aside for meditation from 4:30-6:30am; 8:00-11:00am; and 1:00-5:00pm. Any guess what we did from 6:00-7:00pm and 8:30-9:00pm? Yeah, we meditated.
To be more specific, for the first three days, we were asked to focus on our breath and on any sensations we could feel on the “limited area” of our nose – inside our nasal passages, the rims of our nostrils and upper lips. For 11 hours each day we sat, focusing on our noses.
I can’t even begin to describe what went through my mind during those first three days. When we weren’t in the meditation hall or meditating in our rooms, I mostly walked. There was a short but lovely walking trail, a figure-8 loop on a hillside of Douglas Fir and one many-branched, moss covered deciduous that I came to think of as our mossy Bodhi tree. I circled that path like the slow-moving hands of an old clock. As the snow melted all around, my mind circled with me. Tick, tick.
It was surprisingly easy to share a living space with two strangers without any communication – easier in some ways than if we had to make space not only for each others bodies but for our personalities and egos. We maintained the noble silence well, with the exception of a couple of night-farting duals which definitely broke our vows of silence and might have violated our promise to abstain from harming other beings. Even with the farting and a little snoring during the first nights Eidan and Jason couldn’t have been better roommates and although we were supposed to be in this alone I found myself taking valuable support from them, especially Jason. One of the hardest things for me was not being able to exercise. We weren’t supposed to run or do yoga. I could sense that this was hard for Jason, too, and I did catch him once shoulder-pressing a log near the walking paths in the woods (shortly before, or maybe after, he walked in on me doing crunches in our room.) It might seem like a small thing, but sensing someone else struggling alongside you can be a great support.
Coming into this experience, I think many people are afraid of the time they will have by themselves, in their own heads. Those of you who know me well probably won’t be surprised that this wasn’t that hard for me. I enjoy my alone time and I’ve had a lot of it in the past year – time to reflect and get to know myself. Although this period of silence allowed an especially intense and prolonged journey inward, I was pleasantly surprised to find my mental attic in relatively good order. I had plenty to think about but, for better or worse, nothing new surfaced during these many hours alone in my mind.
Strangely, I did begin to fixate on my iPhone. I think I somehow came to think of my phone as the one viable portal to the outside world and fantasized about liberating it from my glove compartment, checking my email, reading the news, and of course, listening to my music. My friend Jessica had recently given me a wonderful album by Beach House, which I had listened to just enough to get it stuck in my head but not so clearly that I could satisfy the urge by humming along. Jessica had also recently blessed and cursed me with an introduction to the Honey Badger, whom I tried to channel during the hardest moments. “Honey Badger don’t give a shit,” I repeated like a mantra. Unfortunately, Vipassana doesn’t allow mantras or Honey Badgers.
Even with the Honey Badger to keep me company, by the end of the third day I was beginning to get very bored. You can only circle a short path in the woods (193 paces) for so long (107 seconds per circuit). I tried to follow the instructions for meditation, focusing on my breath and the sensations around my nose, but my mind wandered often and sometimes far from my nose.
At the end of the third day, Goenka-ji announced in his nightly video discourse that the next day would be a special day – Vipassana Day. I wondered, was Vipassana Day the day we all piled in the back of pick-up trucks and rolled down the mountain to the nearest log-sided roadhouse with a glowing Budweiser sign in the window to play drinking games and talk to girls? (The “silent pick-up,” an old favorite from my Brown rugby days, would seem most appropriate for this crew.) That was the kind of special day I was ready for.
Short of that, I didn’t know what I would do. The boredom was really kicking in and I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere with the meditation. So, I’m afraid I’m going to leave you with another cliffhanger. Or we could make it a choose-your-own-adventure. Would I:
a) Leap from my meditation perch, punch my farting room-mate in the face, ask the hot blond for her phone number, steal the fastest car in the parking lot and head for the nearest road house to have a stiff drink while I fondle every app on my iPhone.
b) Achieve full enlightenment, move to Lhasa to herd a flock of well-dressed goats and eventually negotiate Tibet’s freedom from China.
c) Amputate my nose with a dull multi-tool and run screaming through the woods in search of medical evacuation. (The “127 Hours” version.)
d) Struggle with the wild animal that is my mind and slowly begin to recognize the outlines of Dhamma, the law of nature and the way to liberation.