My Journey Out Of Vipassana

(continued from previous post)

When I found myself in Thailand at what would become my last Vipassana course, I already had more than a dozen under my belt. But there was something different this time. Not with the teachings or the technique. There was something different with me.

 I was, I suppose, ready to release the last fragments of denial sticking to what I already knew: the most obvious thing about this technique of Vipassana – the precise thing I needed to salvage my own life – was that not giving in to craving or aversion meant they were already heartily present.

It had taught me how to effectively ignore something that existed. But wasn't there already enough denial on planet Earth?

As much as I appreciated Goenka for carrying the torch, for making sure people in the age of duplicitous information could learn the same technique taught by Gautamata Buddha in all of its objective, non-sectarian simplicity; and as much as I loved Goenka for being such a loveable, happy goofball, this sharp shard of knowledge – one edge experiential, the other intuitive – cut through the clutter in my mind and induced a crystallization of consciousness. The exact awareness I needed, and feared, entered me like a knife: I could never fully subscribe to what was being taught, because the teaching – with apologies to Buddha – was based on flawed imprints.

copyright John-James Ford, all rights reserved

copyright John-James Ford, all rights reserved

“Wait just one second,” I said to myself, surprised at the sound of my own voice. Was this, perhaps, just one of the five enemies Buddha had talked about? Doubt? Doubt about the technique, myself, or my teacher?


I’ve never admired how so many so-called spiritual paths invest so much capital in trying to head doubt off at the pass. In Islam doubt is called a disease of the heart that adds uncleanness to the doubter's uncleanness and they die while they are unbelievers. The Christians have the cautionary tale of Thomas to demonstrate to children the danger – and shame – inherent in doubt. As it turns out, Thomas had good reason to arch an eyebrow at the stigmata. 

Doubt was the fuel I needed for further expansion of my perception, and it was only at that very moment I caught a glimpse of the human energetic grid, and how the work we do—seemingly on our own—can be of benefit to the entire species.

I could also no longer square with a spiritual path that viewed sexual congress as immoral. 

I was in a jam that I couldn’t think myself through. The only place my thoughts could lead me was into a corner for which I possessed no light.

Vipassana courses are generally ten days in duration. The morning of day nine at my final Vipassana course in Thailand, I spent nearly five hours on my meditation cushion trying to feel my way through the conflict arising within. I invited my own voice – the voice that had been hushed by education, training, social assimilation – to speak, assuring it that I would finally be able to listen.

Holy fuck, I thought. I’m going to have to walk away from this practice. After a decade of practice, that reality seemed harsh and depressing. I hadn't yet left and yet was instantly grieving over this cold hard fact of my departure, a fact that had only moments ago been a nebulous cloud of doubt.

copyright John-James Ford, all rights reserved

copyright John-James Ford, all rights reserved

Of course, I knew this could be another storm. Without books, journals, TV, movies, extra food, internet —even contact with other humans— there was no way for the mind to hide from itself and its own impurities. Without the aid of some distraction or substance to ground the mind, muffle it, or numb it into oblivion, the backed up noise and the emotions beneath it which begin to surface can be uncontrollable. It can be too much. Enlightened addicts can attest to the fact that during the active addiction we fear our feelings so much we will sometimes kill ourselves to avoid experiencing them.

Despite what I knew about these psychic storms and their impact on the mind, I also knew that my situation this time was different.

I had to leave.

The drill sergeant formerly in command of the parade square in my mind would have barked at me to soldier on through doubt and discomfort. I had already pushed through so many ten-day courses, and here I was halfway through day nine. 

But my former self had burnt to a husk under the flash of my latest insight, and I just couldn’t stomach being inauthentic anymore. 

I found the course manager, an odorific trim brown man with a pedantic smile, and informed him with sigh language that I needed to break noble silence and speak with him.

“What is it?” he whispered, after walking me around the pagoda, a token gesture to get us out of earshot of the other meditators.

“I’m leaving,” I said.

He gave me the smile he used to show people he pitied them their ignorance.

“So,” I continued, “I’ll need my passport.”

“You agreed to stay for 10 days,” he shrugged.

“I’m not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent,” I said, I hoping I was quoting Gandhi correctly. “In my pursuit after truth I’ve discarded many ideas.”

“I can’t just let you go,” he said.

“Of course you can’t,” I said. “Please relay my message to one of the assistant teachers, and make it clear that I’m not asking permission to leave. I’m informing you both as a courtesy and in the interests of getting my passport back.”

He made his lips thin and straight. There was no way to tell what his expression was meant to convey, but his eyes were dark with judgment, like a schoolmaster, or a priest. He clearly considered me rude, and I was surprised that I didn’t give a toss what he thought.

Previously, in the life I’d just left a few paltry moments ago, I’d had the repugnant habit of subsuming my own true desires for the sake of demonstrating how accommodating I could be.  Now I knew that repressing my will was no good for anybody. It was akin to a pilot paying no attention to his plane’s guidance system.

No wonder we humans are always crashing into each other.

copyright John-James Ford, all rights reserved

copyright John-James Ford, all rights reserved

Many would call it selfish. But what is selfish really—doing what comes natural to us, or someone expecting us to do what conforms to their version of reality? We’ve been well trained to confuse self-annihilation with service to others, and we’ve learned to beat our own wills into submission until they are two terrified to make a peep. The proof of this is reflected in how society treats not only our women, but The Feminine in general.

“This is difficult path when we let ego get in the way,” the course manager said.

“Without ego, we wouldn’t be able to differentiate ourselves from anything else,” I said. “Just pass along the message, please.”

I understood that expressing myself authentically was not only necessary for my own health, but for the health of the planet. Most people would proclaim that I would only be harming others if I were to do as I pleased, but harming others is much different than disappointing others’ unreasonable expectations of us.

Becoming whole – becoming authentic – meant, in part, taking responsibility for not being a victim or caretaker. It also meant not driving myself to a place where I would have to fragment even more than I already had.

Not twenty minutes after informing the course manager of my intentions he arrived just as I was putting on my jeans and packing the few pieces of clothing I had.

“Teacher wants to speak with you,” he said, outside the door. “She is waiting in Dhamma Hall.”

He walked away. I threw my toothbrush in my pack and followed him apace, leaving nothing behind in the cabin where I’d dreamed so many severe dreams. As I walked I felt the sun on my face and was grateful. My feelings truly were the ultimate guidance system, far outstripping cold reason in effectiveness when choosing the next right action to take.

I was surprised that it was the female assistant teacher who was meeting with me – she was Japanese, visiting Thailand from her native Tokyo.

I approached the teacher and brought my hands together and bowed, then sat cross-legged at her feet as was the custom.

“So,” she said, smiling.

We both waited a beat. In the cool darkness of the meditation hall, her black eyes were gleaming. Even with the outside light dimmed by so much gauzy cotton over the few small windows that existed, her skin seemed radiant.

“Yes,” I said, smiling back.

“You have been cold these past days?” she asked after a pause, in a faint Japanese accent. Her entire demeanour was matronly, yet there was a definite masculine energy about her. She was an undeniably beautiful human being. By ‘cold’ she was referring to the temperature dropping below 21 degrees Celsius at night.

“Umm, not really. I’m from Canada. Last night here was still t-shirt weather back home.”

She smiled again. Not a talkative one. I wondered if this was an intentional teaching style, or if it just came naturally.

“So, I am leaving,” I said finally.

“Tell me,” she said.

I drew a breath, not knowing where to start, launched somewhere in the middle of what I thought needed to be said, all the while becoming more acutely aware of how limiting words can be.

copyright John-James Ford, all rights reserved

copyright John-James Ford, all rights reserved

“The teaching is always talking about cause and effect, cause and effect. I understand that it works – I can see that clearing the sankaras makes life less of an up and down journey. Goenka keeps telling us to ‘remain equanimous, remain equanimous.’ But nobody is equanimous until they get there. Right? It’s simple to see when you look at. All of this stuff arising and passing, and we are trained to focus on the sensations, the physical sensations only, and notice that they do not linger forever. That’s it, in a nutshell. But the root cause of these so called defilements is what? It’s emotion. Unresolved feelings of fear, anger, grief, Underneath that, very rarely pierced layers of terror, rage, sorrow. And so, with this technique we leave these emotions unresolved, and say we have cut them out at the roots. But what we have cut off is part of ourselves. Our own will, our intuition, this massive engine of creativity and vulnerability and receptivity. This practice is for the enlightenment of the mind, but it leaves the will and the body behind as collateral damage. That, to me, is denial. Denial of a fundamental part of myself, which has been a fundamental denial in our society, and the reflection of that denied rage, terror, and grief is going to keep coming around and keep coming around in this world and we won’t recognize it for what it is if we have to cut it out of ourselves. It is the Feminine, which is so much needed for balance in all of us right now, to have any hope of finding balance on this planet. I know I signed up for ten days, but I feel—“

“No, that doesn’t matter. Of course, you need to leave. This is not your path. You need to go and find your path. And you need to be happy. You need to be happy and walk your path.”

Her words were so unexpected they shocked me. I had braced myself internally for a battle. But the tone of her voice was so gentle and caring and fundamentally understanding, it momentarily stunned me.


“You are on a different path now. It’s good,”

To be heard! 

To be listened to and witnessed in all authenticity and truth is a greater gift than I could have imagined in my new state of awareness. I’d walked away from so many paradigms, and was sticky with guilt about it, but when I felt this woman’s understanding vibrating through me, I was moved to tears. I was joyful, free, liberated from yet another bundle of my denials and fears.

“Don’t be sad,” she said. She looked affected. Calm, but affected. And then I wondered if Vipassana itself was the source of the masculine energy driving her calm and poise. Did she miss the messy feeling bits of her she had so carefully, patiently and persistently excised through insight meditation?

What I had wanted to shout in the meditation hall was: Where is the JOY? Where is the laughter? Where is goddamn spontaneity?

Our eyes met and I was crying while laughing, and I told her: “But that’s just what I’m saying – it’s okay to be sad. How can I really know happiness otherwise? It is crucial that I feel this!”

“Be happy,” she said. Her smile had faded.

“Yes,” I said. “I am.” I looked down for a moment, and wiped my eyes, thinking that in another life she could have been my mother, or I her father.

A few hours later I was in a dusty van destined to the train station with enough light left in the day to find my way. And my gut, my will, which after so many years of taking commands from my own determined focus, like an abused child, sensed a bit of receptivity. We were building trust, I thought. It was like two parts of me were circling around the kitchen table in a formerly abusive home, testing each other out. Was it safe? Was he for real this time? Or was I just going to get beat down and shut out again?

After however many lifetimes of this game, it was not exactly easy to freewheel.

“I’m listening,” I said to myself. When I felt something shift, I added: “What’s next?”


Dear Friend: If you like the work I am doing and wish to support it, please consider leaving a tip.