The first time I heard the word Vipassana it put the hook in me.
Vipassana is the Pali word for ‘seeing things as they truly are.’ Pali was the language spoken at the time of Buddha. Technically, it describes the consistent practice of observing sensation in a systematic manner throughout the body, without attaching any positive or negative value charge to any one sensation. The practice of observing without reacting allows, in theory, for an experiential understanding that all fluctuations of mind and matter are transitory. As such, one comes to understand that craving of pleasant sensations and aversion to unpleasant sensations are futile reactions which serve only to more deeply engrain the habit patterns of the mind that give rise to unhappiness and suffering. This understanding leads to a more equanimous state of being, which in theory leads to a happier, and necessarily less harmful, life.
For over a decade I attended at least one 10-day meditation course, as taught by the late S.N. Goenka, every year. I meditated most days throughout most years. Through thousands of hours of Vipassana practice I learned that correct knowledge is based on direct perception. Illusory knowledge is based in a distortion of reality caused by erroneous perception. Just as Goenka said I would.
This is what is wrong with us as a species: everyone is running around squawking at each other, asserting their beliefs are facts when in truth most people have zero direct experience with the fundamental principles on which they’ve established the framework of their lives. Book learning is not direct experience. Teachings from other people will not constitute direct experience. The assertions of a scientific community rife with industrial conflicts of interest does not amount to direct experience. Reality, in essence, is a very personal thing. And because we’ve had so much bullshit layered into our minds, it takes some perseverance to get to it.
Once, while Goenkaji was still alive, I attended a course at the meditation centre in Igatpuri, India. I flew into the insanity that is Mumbai, dodged numerous bribe attempts by Indian officials, and was driven over bumpy roads to Dhamma Giri in a rusty land Cruiser by a man who I’m still convinced had active tuberculosis. I arrived past midnight and was nonetheless struck by the ornate Myanmar Gate at the entrance.
There was an arduous span of time spent with the security guards at the gate, and numerous late-night phone calls I couldn’t follow because I don’t speak Hindi. I was tired, my mind drifting. The course, which cost nothing, including room and board, and was run entirely on the donations of old students, and they had trouble finding my name. Finally I was told to follow a guard who would escort me to my bunk. I struggled to keep up with him along the path.
I heard the tinkling of wind chimes to my right. I followed the sound with a sleepy gaze and was struck into wakefulness by the immensity, the immediacy and sincerity of the building that stood there in almost perfect silence. I’m normally not a fan of any spiritually-based infrastructure, but the golden pagoda at Dhamma Giri was somehow different. A soft yellow light promulgated through the spires at the top and each archway. From the base, constant rows of tiny, honeycombed windows were stacked upon each other, the lowest row right in front of me, each subsequent row raised a level then set back, each window framed by a rococo vault, like the petals of an enormous lotus. There were hundreds of them, and this was just on the side of the pagoda that I could see. What are they?
We passed a green sign: Entrance to Pagoda Cells.
“Meditation cells,” I whispered. The enormity of what I was looking at, and the mystical sound of the phrase “meditation cells” as I whispered it to myself a second time, gave me a sangfroid that made me think I’d misplaced something precious, and was about to be made for accountable it.
The guard stopped at a tiled hut with faucets labeled “Drinking Water Station.” Another sign said, “Drinking water: do not touch the glass to your lips. Be Happy!” I took the steel cup chained to the faucet and drunk as the sign advised, pouring the cool water into my mouth, wondering about parasites, amoebic dysentery, giardiasis, or the possibility of gastroenteritis.
On the first rows of dorms we came across I spotted a moth the size of a small beaver clinging to a screen door, and I prayed I didn’t have to be the one to disturb it. We crossed the concrete path to another bunker of rooms and he motioned to one labelled J-13. I stepped onto the miniature porch and opened the feather-light screen door, nodding goodnight to my guide. Inside was a room barely bigger than the small bed it contained. Above the bed was a shelf. The space next to the bed just large enough to access another door, which opened into the coffin sized washroom which pulsed keen wafts of mothballs into the atmosphere.
I let down the bug net over the bed before coiling myself in the cotton sleeping bag liner provided. I wrapped my t-shirt around the stained, damp pillow and as soon as I laid my head down I was pulled instantly, almost against my will, into a feverish sleep.
In the morning I awoke in the dark to a chill in the air and the sound of a gong being struck repeatedly by someone walking through the compound. The answer to my question about water safety seemed to be answered by several bouts of explosive diarrhea. I washed and dressed quickly and in cotton drawstring pants, and a t-shirt, and somehow I found my way to the appropriate meditation space, which was called a “Dhamma Hall.”
It wasn’t time to enter the meditation hall yet, however. In the evening there was some kind of orientation offered in five different languages, where I would have to confirm that yes, I was ready and willing to stay on the premises for the full ten days’ course and I would not leave early.
I had time and space to myself in the lush silence of the place, and found a space on a bench with an exquisite view of the grand pagoda circumscribed by the petals of individual meditation cells. In the distance I could hear a waterfall from a river swollen by recent rains, and there was a heavy fragrance to the air. The previous night’s India had been noise, bodies, corruption, diesel and dust. That morning’s India was an India of lush vegetation, banana trees, papaya, durian. I concentrated on a point in the forest rising above the mist, and for a moment had the sense I was sitting on the edge of a giant bowl of clouds. In the distance, somewhere below the canopy of jungle, between the mountains and me, were rivers and streams and lakes that dated back to the last glaciation. Everywhere in that moment the air was clean and crisp. India was abruptly a place of ancient magic.
The gardens were fragrant, damp from the mist. All the facilities were clean and practical. A large gong hung somewhere near the main dining hall, but apart from that and the shape of the grand pagoda, I saw no statues, no art, nothing carrying any religious or sectarian significance. There were dozens of volunteers living on site for the duration of the course, cooking our meals and cleaning up after us.
In the evening, after a generous helping of lentil soup and naan bread, the course started. I grabbed several pillows from the stack of meditation cushions and sat in the silence of Dhamma Hall for the first time. We all sat, men separated from women, and everyone in a state of noble silence, even avoiding all eye contact.
There was chanting. The voice that chanted floated round the hall like the low, slow flight of a hundred sun-drunk bumblebees. I had the firm sense that we were not meant to look around, but I couldn’t help myself. The assistant teachers sat at the front of the hall with the volunteers, or Dhamma workers. The recording of Goenka’s voice asked us to take refuge in Tripe Gem: the Buddha, the Enlightened One; the Dhamma, his teaching; and the Sangha, the community of meditators.
Goenka’s chanting, his instructions, and the nightly discourses were all previously recorded, while any questions about the technique would be handled by two of his assistant teachers. With nearly a hundred meditation centres on the planet, Goenka couldn’t be a physical reality, even when he was still alive. Thus were the teachings of Buddha disseminated in the Information Age.
During the few hours before dinner I’d avoided conversation with any of the other students, preferring to keep to myself. But when the noble silence started, and there were no more opportunities for talking, not even gestures or eye contact, for ten whole days, I considered I I should have perhaps said something when I still had the opportunity. Perhaps I could have asked question or two, because the moment Noble Silence commenced, thoughts swarmed me like gnats.
When Goenka’s disembodied voice finished with its chanting, he informed us that the New Students were to follow five precepts, while the experienced, or what he called Old Students, were to follow eight precepts.
The first time I’d followed one of these courses, it crossed my mind numerous times that I’d voluntarily signed on for an elaborate brain wash. Eventually, the technique itself taught me everything I needed to know to have a better understanding of it.
I agreed to abstain from killing any living creature (which explained the vegetarian meals), to abstain from stealing (though there was nothing to steal for miles), to abstain from all sexual activity (hence the segregation of men and women, which helped heterosexuals, at least, from temptation), to abstain from telling lies (hence the vow of noble silence because most of us are incapable of not lying, or at least embellishing, while talking), and finally, to abstain from all intoxicants. The extra three precepts for us Old Students included refraining from eating after noon, from wearing jewellery or adorning the body, and agreeing to not sleep on luxurious or lofty beds—which wouldn’t be a problem, considering my simple living quarters.
After agreeing to all these precepts, I snuck another good look around. Even in the Dhamma Hall, there was no religious paraphernalia anywhere – no statues, no icons, no paintings, no candles or offerings. No prayers. Just a large hall of meditators sitting like so many statues of Buddha.
For a split second I experienced a total body absorption into a state of alarm. I couldn’t logically piece together the chain of events which had led me to where I was – none of it seemed possible. I felt that there was a mass in my brain somewhere, a mental muscle, a series of connected tissues tensing in my mind to keep my thoughts tight and narrow and quick. This muscle had been tensed and unable to relax for a very long time.
Am I in shock?
I considered what Goenka’s ghost was saying: that my sensations were merely reactions, aversions to the unknown. All the fruitless years of craving, brought on by the void of Future, yawning endlessly in front of the cavernous cipher of my past.
Goenka explained how since action stems from the depths of the subconscious, we must somehow learn to really penetrate, communicate with and practice in these deep subconscious regions. This awareness of sensation, and the need for equanimity in the face of whatever arose would train or retrain the realm of the preverbal actions that constituted my entire consciousness on a moment-to-moment basis. From what I was given to understand, this was the root level of conditioning, and thus the root of suffering. It was also the root of action (karma), which embodied the process of how we perceive, experience, and learn what happens from moment to moment, even while we slept.
During the closing chanting for the day, Goenka bid us happiness, and when he did – for one sweet, brief millisecond, the knot in my mind relaxed.
But then, next morning, rising pre-dawn, I was taken aback by the heavy demands of the schedule. The course, I remembered, was intended for intense, ass-breaking work, and not at all for relaxation. Every time I leave a Vipassana course I forget how hard it really is.
We were instructed to observe our breath, nothing else. We were to observe our bare breath, not to try and change it, influence it, or control it. We were to do this while sitting motionless for a period of one hour, at least ten times per day. Plumbing the depths for that place of stillness is rarely, if ever, a pretty process.
At breakfast I was reminded that no contact and no communication notwithstanding, there was zero sense of personal space because personal space did not exist in India. The India of breakfast was an India of queue-jumpers.
The food was healthy and fresh. All the Dhamma volunteers worked silently, and earnestly to provide us with two meals each day. And yet this centre, in fact all of the Vipassana centres worldwide, were run solely on a donation basis. But donations didn’t come from canvassing or corporations, they were only accepted from students who had already completed a ten day course.
I remembered the bolts of doubt which flashed through my mind during my first Vipassana course: Goenka must be gathering intelligence on behalf of some government agency. How else could he really fund so many meditation centres?
But during the first evening discourse, when we got to see a video of Goenka talking about what we’d experience on the first day, I was instantly disarmed. Here, finally, was the face behind the voice. He was a squat man with tiny eyes and a pudgy, smiling face. He had the big belly of a happy Buddha and grey hair. He wore a simple collared shirt and sat cross-legged. He didn’t look like a guru. He didn’t look like a freak. He looked like a businessman, or like someone’s jovial grandfather.
In the video he spoke to a group that we couldn’t see from the camera angle, but as he talked to this group about their wild minds, their untamed minds, and the difficulties associated with sitting for long periods at a stretch – all of this might as well have been intended specifically for me because it captured what I had been experiencing all day. I left the Dhamma Hall after the discourse with fresh hope and a renewed sense that I have come to the right place, once I realized I hadn’t thought of my predicament once in over an hour.
My nightmares became more complex; in one, an unlikely heroine, heroin-chic, pressed her finger to her lips. Her other arm was no arm at all but one massive black wing. She stepped towards me, treading lightly over the placenta of my birth, pointing at the crest of a fish-lens sky, I awoke mid-roar from another dream, somehow on hands and knees on the floor making the sounds of a bear. The tiny cabin of J-13 was destroyed, the mattress, linen, and what little gear I had been tossed – presumably by me, as the door was bolted from inside – all over the place. Like pus coming out of an infected wound, rage and terror bubbled to the surface every night, to be skimmed off the surface of consciousness through barely-remembered dreams.
The process went on, one minute, one hour, one day, after the next. Self cannot dissolve self; tiny pinpricks of awareness were gifted to me at each moment of release. During Annapanna meditation I had to continuously return to my breath, and I was truly bewildered by what an untamed beast by mind could be. People I’d known stormed my memories, turning mover every emotional cupboard.
Between sittings, as I stretched my legs walking around the pagoda and gardens, I spent time composing and rehearsing a speech, a carefully crafted homily designed to resonate with all beings, and to gently but firmly inseminate their consciousness with the virtues and wonders of the meditation technique I was learning.
I delivered the speech to myself over and over again, watching each word crystallize in the humid air. I delivered this speech in my sleep and awoke sweating with exhilarating genius of it. My gestures to accompany this speech were equally wild, and equally in vain, because when I awoke on the third day I would never give that speech another thought again, since it had been crafted by my ego and I understood how insanely futile it was writing sermons to myself.
For three whole days I learned to observe nothing but my own bare breath. Goenka explained how to do this. I sat until I thought my bones would shatter, but eventually I could stay with my breath longer, for at least a minute or so, before my mind started to wander. On days one and two my body was almost always in excruciating pain from the extended hours of sitting, but on day three it happened several times that I seemed I’d just started to observe my breathing before the hour was suddenly, miraculously, up. Time was no longer what it usually seemed to be.
When all I ever wanted was a sense of peace, I’d instead reached out for oblivion, for distraction, ruled by the same anxious, fractious shards of thought shrapnel. Fear was the detonator. I became—in my own life and marriage and career—more the empty husk, lighter than ash, tethered to no place.
On the fourth day we took our first steps into Vipassana, or what Goenka’s voice referred to the field of wisdom, and from then until the end of the course we would be observing the sensations that we could feel on our body. It was for this reason we had been sharpening awareness with Annapanna for three days.
And so it went, and on day five I experienced what Goenka called storms, moments I wanted to scream in agony, or frustration, perhaps loneliness. I thought of my children, and couldn’t choke back my grief. There were moments I wanted to fly out of the Dhamma Hall cussing in rage, to flee from silence and tranquility where I’d become prey to my own thoughts and truths.
And yet, these storms were counter-weighted by moments of peace and contentment like nothing I’d ever experienced in my life – a state of quiet joy in which I wanted for nothing but to share this with other humans. A loner almost my entire life, I was thirsty for community.
The Buddha, Goenka further explained, did not teach sectarianism. He did not teach an advanced method of intellectualization. The Buddha did not discuss philosophy or theology; rather, he was a practical scientist who set out detailed instructions on how to experience the truth directly.
I awoke on day six, still buzzing from my dream, painfully aware that any knowledge I had of myself was superficial, at best. I’d began to form a militant suspicion of desire.
I’d never expected all this work. Every day was drudgery. I toiled within myself. Storms raged and fell, suns rose and set within me. Day six started as a blissful day, after my first sit on a beautiful beach and turned rapidly, without notice, into white squalls.
Meditating all day sometimes seemed like trudging through a desert. I began to look forward to Goenka’s nightly discourses in the same way as a parched man would look forward to a glass of water. I forgot the sound of my own voice.
I began to worry a tiny bit about the attraction I felt to everything that came out of Goenka’s mouth, and that I might have already become part of a cult. Was it possible that everything he said could make so much sense? I looked to what was expected of me. Nobody was asking anything of me other than to live clean, watch my breath, and observe my sensations objectively without reacting to them. If this was a cult, it was a highly ineffective one.
I awoke in the dark of early morning on day seven, but wasn’t fully conscious and was still acting out my dream, wherein I was the Immigration Officer responsible for letting Indian nationals onto a train that would somehow bring them to Canada.
One slim fellow with deep black eyes presented a passport that was newly issued, had no visa, and contained travel stamps to various other countries which appeared fraudulent. I called him on it immediately and said I would have him collected by the local police. I said this aloud, sitting up on my sweat-soaked bed in J-13. I patted the mattress, lifted it up, looked around everywhere for this guy’s passport, which had somehow been misplaced. What was my water bottle doing here?
Then, it was revealed that this man had actually been hired by me, or a part of me that I wasn’t aware of, to investigate fraud with the police. The plan seemed vaguely familiar to me so I couldn’t discount it, nor could I remember doing it. I had to be careful. I eyed the man suspiciously.
I lay in bed, half-awake, for at least an hour wondering what the fuck I was going to do with this guy and his missing passport before I grasped that they didn’t actually exist in 3-dimensional reality.
“Good god,” I said aloud. “I’m delirious.”
During the first group sitting of day seven, it occurred to me that my body, the entire body, contained the mind. In a way, I’d been learning this my whole life. I understood implicitly that every part of me had mind, not just the heavy pumpkin I carry around on my shoulders. As I went deeper, I came to see that my whole life had revolved around sensations – running after the pleasant ones while trying earnestly to avoid the unpleasant ones.
That very night Goenka explained that an addict takes a drug because he wishes to experience the sensation which brings him most pleasure. I couldn’t deny that as soon as any desire was fulfilled, I would generate another one that needed satisfying.
I went deeper still, and glimpsed for one, brief, lucid moment, the layers of ego, like an endless stack of mille-feuilles, a thick curtain sticky with self that kept me from seeing each moment, in which resided the timeless confluence of Source Energy and the spark that lay within. I had no ideaat the timethat I would very soon have to eventually renounce even this meditation, the very practice, which had led me to these insights.
There was no way to discern how long I was standing in front of the bulletin board staring at the daily schedule which I already knew by heart, but it must have been a long time because I had pins and needles in my feet. As soon as I became consciously aware of this sensation, I was literally blown backwards against the wall by an electric sense of foreboding.
I skipped my next meditation and lay on my back, staring up at the spider on the ceiling of J-13, coming to the conclusion that it must be another storm, that my mind was laying tricks, trying to get me to leave my practice before the ten days were up.
As I observed, thoughts were becoming clearer to me. Then I remembered my purpose was not to think, but to observe. All of my thoughts were misleading – the way out of the jungle was through observation of sensations. My thoughts could never bring me peace or enlightenment – only awareness of sensations could – as long as that awareness is devoid of reaction – completely equanimous.
We were not supposed to open our hands or change our posture, but I made one slight adjustment and moved my hands from my lap to my knees, in a kind of physical commitment to higher mental vigilance, for better concentration.
I was sweating and drowsy. But I knew that this moment would change. Just as every moment preceding. The insight was simple, but untouchable until I experienced it myself: everything was and is constantly changing.
Good God it must have been frightening for the Buddha! Doing this all on his own, in the darkness of jungle forest with the monsoon rains and the frogs and bugs and snakes – he couldn’t have been automatically accustomed to it.
All these years I’d been waiting and expecting to learn who I was, waiting to learn who I was supposed to be. What if all my suffering was the result of concentrating on my suffering?
But here it is: it has happened. I had happened.
I’d happened without me planning or realizing it. I was already that person, that person I’d been waiting to define and sculpt and finally move into. I’d always been him, and he’d always been right here, changing. And to think of all the time I’d burned, all this energy I’d wasted trying to sculpt meaning from the clay of my experiences. I’d been exactly who I was.
And then at a certain point I realized that who I was, and how I perceived myself, needed to be wiped away.
Not only that, but I was the one who had to willingly go inside and do the job, solo.
On my meditation cushion, I had to come back to Annapanna because of my elevated heart rate. There was so much information pouring in.
Vipassana meant seeing things for what they really are, and for the first time I understood the meaning of humility: seeing things for what they were – not as I wanted them to be, nor as I feared them to be.
Our so-called elites – The Control System – had known for know a very long time how powerful human emotion and human intent is in the creation of our shared reality. Quantum mechanics and string theory had barely touched on the process of manifestation but were slowly, painstakingly, illuminating to the left-brain what the yogis and shamans had known for ages. But the Control System knew about it and had exploited it so thoroughly that most of our species was locked into a pattern of unconscious acquiescence. We were herded by our own fear into fields of ignorant submission.
I observed new sensations in my skin, my jaw and cheeks and as if my entire face was going to be magnetically ripped away from my skull. With these sensations came the stark understanding of what we’d lost – or forfeited – as a species.
I thought of the media I’d been bombarded by my entire life, and the staggering manipulation of a reality that we couldn’t’ seem to stop swallowing long enough to catch a breath. They were throat-fucking us with their lies! I was appalled by any and all talk of the economy, electrons, politics, Hollywood, the environment – people quoting people quoting people who’d been told what to say.
I raged internally, fighting wars inside my own skull, sweating bullets.
I’d never considered that I wasn’t still sitting in Zen-like quietude until I managed, with some difficulty, to notice that I was in gyrations, spasmodically twitching on the floor of the meditation hall.
That night I slept more soundly than I had all course, and I woke up long after the gong on day nine, so long it was light out and warm, and I’d slept right through breakfast.
In that tiny, fragile room called J-13 I felt a presence.
Nothing new – a presence like an old friend whom I’d forgotten, suddenly lying in the space next to me.
What I experienced there, in the morning quiet of a day like any sunny Sunday, lying in stale sheets, on the cusp of understanding with the cheap drapes open, was my own life’s telling truth.
I closed my eyes and knew how the exposed current at the base of the waterfall drank the earth, swirling itself all the way to the ocean, spinning sea-borne thoughts into spoondrift, spraying the salt-fed anchors, atomizing the wreckage of our so-called lives, doubt dying again and again, impaled upon so many glittering knives of light.
From my bunk in J-13 I could even smell it, and I shuddered, for a moment shunning - fearing indifference to – the grievous beauty of frisson.
(To be continued.)
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