Monday, January 5, 2015

Meditation School Drop-out

I went on a 10-day Vipassana meditation course over my winter break. I used to refer to it as a retreat but it was nothing of the sort. It was work. Why go, you ask? Many reasons but mostly the timing was right. I've been wanting to do this for several years and since the course coincided with my winter break, why not. 2014 wasn't the best of years what with my dad dying and all. Seemed like a good way to clear my head.

The basic premise of the course is to learn the technique of Vipassana meditation and to practice sufficiently so that you can incorporate it into your daily life. During the course you must observe noble silence. This means: no talking, no non-verbal communication of any kind including eye contact, no reading, and no writing.

Men and women are segregated and we took a vow of celibacy for the 10 days. You could talk with the course managers if there were problems with your accommodations, you needed aspirin, etc. You could also sign up to speak with the teachers during lunch break but only to discuss questions about the technique we were learning. All of this was meant to help you focus on the meditation and to eliminate distractions. Noble silence was important to help you have your own experience so you didn't feel the social pressure of wondering why your experience wasn't measuring up to the person next to you.

Main Meditation Hall

In addition to the celibacy and noble silence vows we promised to not kill anything, to not steal and to not lie. Of course since we weren't talking, not lying was easy. And I never felt the urge to smother my snoring bunk-mates. I did see an old grungy pen on the ground one day and desperately wanted to pick it up to see if it still worked. I restrained myself.

Our daily schedule was rigorous in that there were 9 1/2 hours of meditation per day if you followed the schedule strictly. It wasn't rigorous in that it felt like there was a lot of down-time, especially if you weren't meditation 9 1/2 hours a day. We were restricted on the grounds as to where we could go. I was bored a lot. This was the schedule:

4:00 a.m. ————————- Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 a.m. —————- Meditate in Hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 a.m. —————- Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 a.m. —————- Group meditation in Hall
9:00-11:00 a.m. ————— Meditate in Hall or in your room according to teacher’s instruction
11:00 - 1:00pm —————- Lunch break, rest, meet with teachers
1:00-2:30 p.m. —————– Meditate in Hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 p.m. —————– Group meditation in Hall
3:30-5:00 p.m. —————– Meditate in Hall or in your room according to teacher’s instruction
5:00-6:00 p.m. —————– Tea break
6:00-7:00 p.m. —————– Group meditation in Hall
7:00-8:15 p.m. ——————Teacher’s Discourse in Hall
8:15-9:00 p.m. —————— Group meditation in Hall
9:00-9:30 p.m. —————– Q&A with teachers in Hall, return to your room, lights out at 9:30

I typically slept in to 6:15am and was in bed by 9:15. I went to the 4:30am sitting twice. My sleeping accommodations was a cabin like this:

There were 6 bunk beds and in my cabin, 9 people total. I think the no talking helped a lot in terms of everyone getting a long. In the cabin there were no arguments of petty things. No question as to when the lights were turned off at night, no drama about someone taking up too much space, or snoring or whatever. You just dealt with what was and it was all fine.

I enjoyed the no talking. It made being around that many people easier. No need for chit-chat or pretending that you're interested. You didn't have to worry was someone going to think you were rude because you didn't make eye contact and say good morning. It was great! Being disconnected from technology was also a good thing. I didn't miss my phone at all.

The most difficult things were the monotony of the days, and being around that number of people all day. There was approximately 280 people there and you were around them all the time. In the meditation hall, men and women were there together. Men on one side, women on the other. During non-meditation times the genders were separated. Being the introvert that I am, merely being in the presence of that many people was difficult. Going into it I had thought it'd be okay because of the noble silence rule. However, I quickly realized that I need a time of day where I don't see anyone. I need my own space and that means no one else in the room with me.

The Bath House

Oh, the food was delicious. Two meals a day with tea and fruit in the evening. It was a vegetarian menu and yummy! The only down-side was there wasn't enough protein. I could tell I was lacking in protein almost immediately.

So let's get to it. Following is a daily accounting of the course. I couldn't write anything while there, so each day I would recite my notes in my head to make sure I remembered everything.

Day 1:
I made it to the 4:30am session! I spent the rest of the day chasing naps. 15 minutes here, 40 minutes there.

Everyone follows the rules. It's interesting how aware of each other we were without talking. It's amazing what can happen when a group of people decide they're going to do something. No one had to stand at the door and shout for everyone to finish up their break and come back to the mediation hall. People just did. No one announced it was time to meditate, you just did. You knew what the expectations were and you did it. No had to say, "excuse me". People paid attention and moved out of your way. It was great.

The boredom sets in. I discovered there are 550 steps between my cabin and the meditation hall. At a minimum I made 6-7 trips a day between cabin and hall. Somedays I made 12 trips. Those were the days I was avoiding meditation the most. Obviously.

Meditating is hard. I didn't have much success today. In fact, I discovered how easy it is to NOT meditate. Day-dreaming is easy.

I did math problems in my head. That burned some time. A good portion of the day, really.

"If you work diligently you are bound to be successful. Bound to be successful." -- this is what we heard throughout the week on the audio and video recordings of the main teacher, S.N. Goenka.

Day 2 -- "Get out of my elfin' way!"

My bunk mate asked for earplugs. We were in a cabin full of snorers and she saw my bag of earplugs sitting out. She broke noble silence and asked for a pair. I gladly gave them.

It was on this day that I realized that being around this many people with no break was too much for me. I went to the restroom a lot just so that I could be surrounded by four walls and not have to see anyone else.

"Work diligently. Patiently and persistently." -- S.N. Goenka

Day 3-- More meditating.

Aside from the group sits I wasn't making it through many of the meditating sessions. And I was bored.

I slept for 2 1/2 hours after lunch. I was coming off a cold and hadn't been sleeping well so I guess it wasn't too much of a surprise that I needed a good, long nap.

I had settled into a daily routine. I took my shower during the lunch break. The sun was typically out at that time so it was nice to sit outside for a bit. I always felt like I was in a Pantene commercial what with my freshly washed hair in the warm sun and a slight breeze blowing through my locks.

I was bored.

During the meditations I tended to sit and watch the teachers. Sometimes they were meditating but they also watched us quite a bit. I don't know why.

I was beginning to regret the "no stealing" vow. Several people had brought meditation chairs that sat on the floor but had back rests. I coveted them. Highly.

Day 4 -- "I'm not paying them one damn cent!'

I wanted to leave today. Bad. I had fantasies of standing up in the middle of the group sit and yelling, "Who's up for a cocktail? First round's on me!" I would've loved to see how many people came with me.

I was starting to feel the affects of no protein. I wasn't craving anything specific, I just knew that I needed some meat based protein. Would've it have been difficult to boil up some eggs to have at breakfast? But then again someone was feeding me for free. Phooey.

My teeth have never experienced such excellent oral hygiene. I brushed 3-4 times a day. For a full two minutes each time. It was a way to pass the time. Despite the rigorous meditating schedule I had a lot of down time. If I didn't meditate for the full sessions then I had loads of extra time on my hands. I decided that for the next few days  I was going to have to make a concentrated effort to attend more of the meditation sessions. If for no other reason than to not be in my cabin so much. My bunk bed wasn't tall enough for me to sit up in, so I couldn't meditate in there unless I was lying down. And of course then I would just go to sleep.

After four days of this I can see how people who are institutionalized grow accustomed to the routine and might find it hard to leave. Not that I wanted to stay but in many respects life was easy. Nothing to be responsible for except showing up on time. Food was available at set times. Not even any keys to carry and worry about misplacing. Life was simple.

"Work diligently. Patiently and persistently."

Day 5 -- Someone farted.

There was a burrito bar for lunch with a heavy dose of black beans. I don't know what the cooks were thinking serving black beans to 300 people who were going to be meditating in the same room together all afternoon. So, it happened. During the 2:30 group sit some guy farted. It was huge. A lady two rows up from me got the giggles. She couldn't stop. Her whole body was shaking. Then some guy across the room started laughing.

"Here we go", I thought. "Everyone is going to lose it." I was curious and more than just a little excited about the prospect of some frivolity.

One of the teachers sternly announced into the microphone, "Work seriously! Leave the hall if you cannot control your mind!"

The laughing ceased.

I tried the 4:30am session again today. It went well but again spent the day chasing naps and never felt alert at any of the group sits.

I started making up stories about people. There was "Tinkerbell". She drove me nuts. She looked to be all of 16 and my story for her was that she was from Danville (for you non-bayareans, Danville is as white as can be, very well-to do and no speech pathologist wants to work there due to over involved parents wondering why you haven't fixed their kid). I imagined that Tinkerbell had wanted to go to Burning Man this year but Daddy wouldn't let her so they agreed on a meditation retreat. She carried a backpack with her everywhere at the retreat. I have no idea since aside from a water bottle there was nothing you needed.

And then there was Tiny Dancer. My seat in the Meditation Hall was on the aisle, across from the men. There was this one guy that every time he walked to his seat he'd get a little running start and then slide on his stocking fee to this row. He'd then shake out each leg like a dog after peeing before sitting on his cushion.

"Work diligently."

Day 6 -- Sweet elixir of life!

A jar of Folgers was added to our morning line-up of beverages! I had a serious dilemma of what to do. Here I'd been caffeine-free for 10 days. I was a bit worried about what might happen if I drank it. Would I become too excitable and have to be told to leave the hall?

I drank the Folgers. What a disappointment. The hot water offered to us for tea was never hot enough for my liking. So by the time I added some milk the coffee was luke-warm at best and of course Folgers coffee just isn't that great to begin with. No frivolity ensued as a byproduct of having the caffeine.

It was this day that I also discovered that if I wore earplugs during the meditation settings I was blissfully unaware of all the annoying sounds. I didn't have to hear every little pillow rustle, knuckle crack, and throat clearing. Ecstasy.

Day 7 -- "I want to leave."


I had more fantasies of shouting in the middle of the group sits.  After today only three more days. I can do this. Evening was the most difficult for me to get through. I was quite bored with the discourse. I  don't know if was my general state of mind, but I did not find S. N. Goenka to be amusing. Everyone else laughed and laughed at his little jokes. I kept thinking that because we'd been sequestered for so long people were desperate for any sort of joke, no matter how small. I thought his teachings were very Psychology and Spirituality 101.  Nothing we haven't heard before. And he talked about things in such an esoteric way it meant nothing. What he took an hour to say could've been said in 15 minutes. I learned far more from the meditation class I took in Fairbanks.

And the teachers. What the heck? All they did was sit up there and whisper with the course managers. I was expecting instruction and discourse from them as well. During the lunch break you had the opportunity ask the teachers questions about the technique but honestly I don't know what I would've asked. The nuts and bolts of what you're supposed to do are straightforward and simple. I understood completing what I should do. It was a matter of continued practice and doing it. I wish they'd had a time when they had shared what others were asking.

I cracked myself up a lot this day. I was hilarious! Too bad you all missed it.

"Continue to observe silence. Noble silence."

Day 8 -- Stillness
Today, I practiced being still. Not letting my thoughts wander and working hard. It helped. Some might argue (which would be me since I was the only person talking to myself) that actually going to the meditation sessions for the full length of time would help to progress one's work.

Oh, and apparently some people think that loud, vocal yawning does not apply to noble silence. I wanted to punch someone in the face.

I had thought that once I got to the final countdown of days it would feel easy or that I would have the determination to stay. Only three days of work and three nights. It was the thought of having to slog through those hours of 6-9 in the evening that made me miserable.  I wasn't feeling optimistic. I got through the day okay. The morning mediation session went well and I had high hopes for the afternoon session. It didn't go as well. I thought the meditation hall could benefit from a Flash Mob.

We were told today that on Day 10 we'd be able to break noble silence and talk with each other as a way to ease back into regular life. I actually thought this was a terrible idea. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I didn't want to listen to the chatter at meal times. I was perfectly happy being quiet.

In the middle of the evening meditation the power went out. There was a loud pop to which a bunch of people broke noble silence and screamed. I crossed my fingers there weren't back up generators and we'd all have to go home. No such luck. Sigh.

I trudged back to my cabin, donned ear plugs, breathe-right strip, mouth guard and eye mask (Let me tell you, I'm a treasure). I had barely laid down when I heard two cabin-mates breaking noble silence! Gasp! The horror! I took out my ear plugs and listened. They were talking about how one of the women had left. Sure enough her bunk was empty. Even the mattress! The gal who had been in the top bunk was moving to another empty spot. I didn't understand why. Then a third woman asked what was going on. Apparently the one gal had left because she had lice.

Yes, lice.

"That's it", I thought. "I'm out!" Tomorrow morning I was getting out. I was not going to stay in a lice-infested cabin. And, I knew my mom wasn't working the next day so it worked out perfectly that she could come get me. Excellent.

Day 9 -- Bustin' out.

The next morning after breakfast I spoke to one of the course managers and a teacher. They explained what precautions they were taking to prevent further lice spread. I told them I was sure they were doing what was necessary but I was ready to leave and can I call my mom. Called my mom and I was a bit nervous when she didn't answer but she called right back and we made arrangements for her to come get me. It was interesting once it was known I was leaving the course managers never left me alone. I was secluded and escorted everywhere. I suppose so as to not cause undue distractions to chance that I might speak to another student.

I'm still mulling over the experience. I don't regret going. It had been something I wanted to do for awhile and so I did it. I would do something similar again but not for 10 days. Maybe 3-5. It does take a few days to disconnect from regular life and let your mind settle. But 10 days is a long time. I was a little disappointed that I didn't enjoy it more. When I took the 8-week mediation class in Fairbanks, I loved it. Granted we were only meditating for 30-40 minutes at the most but I was always able to settle into it and always finished feeling clear-headed and relaxed. I learned a lot from that teacher. Vipassana is but one technique of meditation and is certainly not for everyone.

Vipassana means to see things as they are. That's the intention of practicing this technique -- to develop equanimity which is a balanced and even mind. Some of that has definitely rubbed off on me. It's easier for me to not be overly attached to things that I want to happened or to over react to things that aren't going well. There's wisdom in learning accept things as they are and to not drive yourself crazy wishing they were different. If Vipassana for me for the long-term? I'm not sure. I may need to discuss it over cocktails.