Next Monday I’m leaving for a ten-day Vipassana retreat at Camp Sawtooth in Sun Valley, Idaho. Following are excerpts from the Code of Discipline that students are advised to study prior to attending the course, and my notes on those. I’ve taken some liberties with the text, bringing related parts together where it made sense to do so. (A pdf of the document can be found here.)
The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self- purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness.
I’m all for seeing things as they really are, but what if they really suck? Does “observe the changing nature of the body” mean I’ll have to sit in the half-lotus while my legs go to sleep? I want enlightenment, but I want to be perfectly comfortable and happy and feeling terrific while I’m getting it, too. I got knee pillows to go with my zafu.
Ten days is certainly a very short time in which to penetrate the deepest levels of the unconscious mind and learn how to eradicate the complexes lying there. Continuity of the practice in seclusion is the secret of this technique's success. Rules and regulations have been developed keeping this practical aspect in mind.
Can I "to penetrate the deepest levels of the unconscious mind and learn how to eradicate the complexes lying there" if I spend the whole ten days arguing with myself about why some rule should be forfeit to my comfort because I’m special and different? I don’t know how I’ll resist breaking a rule or two – sneaking off to grab a shower when everyone’s supposed to be meditating or ignoring the 4am wake-up bell because the temperature in the cabin is hovering around the freezing mark and my sleeping bag is nice and warm – so I’m going to try very, very hard to not break a single stinking rule. I’m probably already breaking a rule.
Students must declare themselves willing to comply fully and for the duration of the course with the teacher's guidance and instructions; that is, to observe the discipline and to meditate exactly as the teacher asks, without ignoring any part of the instructions, nor adding anything to them. This acceptance should be one of discrimination and understanding, not blind submission. Only with an attitude of trust can a student work diligently and thoroughly. Such confidence in the teacher and the technique is essential for success in meditation.
I’m not supposed to break any rules, but I’m not supposed to submit blindly, either. This is a trap. What if I’m so warped and rebellious and just plain bad that I’ll dissect every rule in my head and have an on-going conversation with myself about how it’s wrong and unfair and it doesn’t apply to me, and the only way for me to not break a rule is to just submit to the stupid rule? Bam! I am already breaking a rule. And what if a rule, such as attending every meditation session (ten hours a day, total) runs athwart another rule, such as "abstaining from killing any being"? What if I’m getting ready to go to the hall to meditate, and there’s a spider in the cabin, and instead of killing it, I have to navigate around the bunk beds in the tiny cabin I’m sharing with eleven other people to catch the spider and deposit it outside, in a place where no one will accidentally step on it?
A student will have to stay for the entire period of the course. The other rules should also be carefully read and considered. Only those who feel that they can honestly and scrupulously follow the discipline should apply for admission.
People with serious mental disorders have occasionally come to Vipassana courses with the unrealistic expectation that the technique will cure or alleviate their mental problems. Unstable interpersonal relationships and a history of various treatments can be additional factors which make it difficult for such people to benefit from, or even complete, a ten-day course.
An item on the application form asked that I list any medications I’m presently taking. I indicated that I take Ritalin and Celexa, but said I was entertaining the idea of discontinuing them prior to the course. They called me and said, “Please, DO NOT STOP TAKING YOUR MEDICATION.” Okay. Then can I bring coffee? No coffee. I’m weaning myself off coffee.
Dress should be simple, modest, and comfortable. Tight, transparent, revealing, or otherwise striking clothing (such as shorts, short skirts, tights and leggings, sleeveless or skimpy tops) should not be worn. Sunbathing and partial nudity are not permitted. This is important in order to minimize distraction to others.
All students must observe Noble Silence from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow student, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is prohibited. Students should cultivate the feeling that they are working in isolation. It is important that throughout the course there be no physical contact whatsoever between persons of the same or opposite sex. Take great care that your actions do not disturb anyone. Take no notice of distractions caused by others.
There will be up to 100 people attending the retreat. I’ll be sleeping in a small, unheated cabin with eleven other women, and I can’t look any of them in the eye, nor exchange a single word, nor touch one of them on the shoulder if I need to pass by. The appropriate arrangement of the face is soft features, slightly downcast eyes, with a ghost of a smile indicating harmless mild amusement. I’m good at ignoring people, so I don’t see a problem with any of this.
No outside communications is allowed before the course ends. This includes letters, phone calls and visitors. Cell phones, pagers, and other electronic devices must be deposited with the management until the course ends. No reading or writing materials should be brought to the course. Students should not distract themselves by taking notes. The restriction on reading and writing is to emphasize the strictly practical nature of this meditation.
This rule is my Waterloo. If I can’t take notes, how will I recall funny and stupid things I and others did to tell you about later? Or what if I take notes, but only in my head? Is taking notes in my head like when thinking about committing a sin means you’re committing a sin? This seems like another trap. But alright. I give. Besides, with lunch being the final meal of the day, I’ll probably forget about this other stuff and spend all my time thinking about my next “simple vegetarian meal” (note to self: don’t forget to pack the Beano).