Buster Benson I need more goals.
I went to this retreat with pretty much no background information. I was recommended it by a friend I trust, and that along with the rather extreme conditions of the course, and the hope for a 10-day adventure into madness, was enough for me to sign up. I did a cursory glance of the dhamma.org website and other informational sites but found very little about the actual contents of the course. In case you’re curious about what I experienced at this particular center (in Onalaska, Washington), here are the details:
The setting: Small plot of land between Portland and Seattle with dorms to fit about 80 people, a small dining area, a walking area for boys, a walking area for girls, and a meditation hall. Men and women were kept segregated at all times, though in the meditation hall everyone sat in one room, boys on the left, girls on the right (with separated entrances and exits). In our course, there were about 20 boys and 40 girls at the start… about about 5 or 6 left at some point. And old students would come and go for a few days here and there throughout the course. Lodging, food, and other simple needs are provided for free based on the donations of students who have taken the course. Breakfast was always oatmeal, boiled figs/apricots/raisins, and toast. Lunch was a simple vegetarian meal like pasta, rice and tofu, rice and soup, with fruit. Tea was tea.
The rules: Noble silence from 8pm two Wednesdays ago until around 10am yesterday (Sunday) morning. About 10.5 days in total. Noble silence means complete lack of communication, either through voice, eye contact, gestures, or any other kind of signaling. I didn’t notice anyone deliberately breaking the noble silence (though there were a few accidental words exchanged, like for example when I reached for the hand soap in the bathroom at the same time that someone else did). I hear that the level of silence varies by course. In addition to silence, you have to stay within the course boundaries (signs everywhere), you have to follow the Time Table (posted almost everywhere), obey the five precepts (no killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct (or, in this case, sex of any kind), or intoxicants), and all other posted rules. You also can’t practice any religious rites or rituals, including yoga, prayer, chanting, anything with beads, etc. Also, you give them all of your personal items: cellphone, wallet, keys, books, writing materials, medication, electronical items. You’ve got nothing for 10 days except for yourself, your own crazy head, and Goenka’s hypnotic voice; no other distractions.
The schedule: Two gongs were rung by the servers to announce important times during the day. The daily schedule was pretty much always the same:
4am: Wake up gong
4:30 – 6:30: Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30 – 8: Breakfast and rest
8 – 9: Group meditation in the hall
9 – 11: Morning instructions (which will tell you to meditate in the hall, or have the option to go back to your rooms to meditate if you like)
11 – 12: Lunch
12 – 1: Rest
1 – 2:30: Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30 – 3:30: Group meditation in the hall
3:30 – 5: Meditate in the hall or in your room
5 – 6: Tea
6 – 7: Group meditation in the hall
7 – 8:30: Video discourse in the meditation hall
8:30 – 9: Group meditation
9 – 10: Rest
10pm: Lights out
The meditation:Hm… lots of meditation you may notice. Yes, it adds up to 10 hours of meditation a day. The surprise for me is that this is a very unique form of meditation. Omms, visualization, and any other forms of mental distraction are discouraged. They spend the first 3 days teaching you a meditation that involves becoming aware of your breath, and the next 7 days delving into the particular kind of meditation that the course is named for. It’s not just sitting there and trying not to think of anything, which was sort of my expectation. Being peaceful and reflective, etc… totally not the case. It also has to be done sitting down (I was hoping to be able to walk around while meditating. “Nothing doing,” as Goenka would say.)
Vipassana meditation is all about conducting a progressively “piercing and penetrating” search of your own body, “part by part, piece by piece,” for sensation, pleasant and unpleasant. Starting first just below the nose, waiting for sensations of any kind (tingling, heat, itching sensations, pulsing, you’d be surprised how many different things you can feel), you sharpen the mind until you could feel sensation all along the skin all over your body, and finally inside the body as well. All these years I’ve been in this body and I never considered that simply putting your attention onto your skin for a long enough period of time will hyper sensitize it and bring to your conscious mind all of the feelings that are occuring there. Just as if you close your eyes and listen closely you’ll begin to hear all kinds of new sounds, each of our senses seems to have this ability to be strengthened and focused if exercised. It’s accompanied by chanting by S.N.Goenka (the course’s creator, and the person who has “returned” this meditation practice to India in the last 40 years with a bit of prophetic posing to make it seem more meaningful), and periodic instructions in his caaaaaalm and sooooothing voice. The teachers of the course actually did very little other than press play on the CD or DVD player, and answer questions twice a day if anyone had them. All of the instruction comes from audio and video tape… weird at first, but you learn that it is because this Goenka guy has a very charismatic and powerful presence (even though his singing got old real quick).
You get to experience first hand a personality that cult leaders are made of. Though I went back and forth on the verdict of whether or not Goenka was a cult leader himself, I couldn’t really find any ill will in his grand vision. A cult leader’s got to have some kind of evil scheme right? Make money, slaves, or political change occur? His vices may be a very clever form of ego that manages to wiggle its way through all of the anti-ego talk of Buddhism, and a desire to affect history… to be a part of the history of Buddha and his teachings.
Cult or not, this is definitely not idle meditation. It’s not relaxing at all. It’s not a method to erase yourself of thoughts. In their words, it’s a “deep surgical operation on the deepest levels of the mind”. It feels a lot like being hypnotized and getting beaten up at the same time. It feels like you could convince yourself that you were a dog if you really wanted to. At least it did for me. You walk out of there like a zombie, covered in tingling and soreness, and just want to lay in the sunny grass until the next gong rings. If they handed me an AK-47 and a picture of the Dalai Lama, who knows what might have happened. Instead, I watched ants on an ant hill pretty much non-stop during rest breaks.
After the 4th day, for three hours a day, during the group meditations, there is something called “Aditthana”, or Sittings of Strong Determination. During these three one hour sittings, you’re asked not to open your eyes, move your hands, or change your sitting position. This is what they say Buddha did for seven days under the Bo tree before attaining enlightenment. The numbness of sitting and having soreness first overwhelm you and then diminish away just adds to the intense nature of the meditation. By the end, sitting on my ass for an hour and a half without moving wasn’t difficult at all.
It was an incredibly surreal 10 days. Both in the sense of learning about myself and my mind, as well as adapting to the culture of silent community living and the weird meditation practice itself. My mood went soaringly high during certain days (days 2, 5, and 9 to be precise), and abysmally low during others (days 3, 7, and 8). Goenka warns early on that people are often tempted to leave on days 2 and 6… and later congratulates you on not having a weak will on days 3 and 7 (if you’re there). The inability to share or compare notes with anyone else during this time was an interesting constraint… it forced me to resolve these issues on my own without consulting the consensus. I think that this helped me both to avoid becoming too negative or too positive. It allowed my mood to swing up and down even higher as I didn’t have to remain consistent to anyone. I went from being determined to leave (putting on my running shoes and trying to avoid gun fire as I ran to the freeway), to deciding to stay, at least twice.
That’s an admittedly poor summary of the actual details of the course. Day 10 is different in that Noble Silence is broken and you can talk to others. People you’ve been in very close quarters with, and yet know nothing about (including their names), are suddenly close confidants whispering cons and talking loudly about pros. Nobody at my course had a completely positive review, nor a completely negative review. Each person seemed to be able to take something out of the course, and toss out the parts that didn’t work for them (which Goenka encourages one to do on the final discourse). I was expecting a sell on donating to the center, but other than a donation table almost nothing was mentioned about it.
I’ll review the actual contents of the meditation philosophy and practice in another post. If anyone has any questions about what this course is about, feel free to ask.