Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Buddha Camp

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.
This describes nearly my entire wardrobe, but the real dilemma here is underwear. I hate underwear. Underwear ruins the whole experience of wearing clothes. I’m devoting a lot of thought to the problem of how to get around wearing underwear and also avoid distracting my fellow cabin mates by flashing them while I’m changing into my pajamas. And speaking of discomfort, I should note here that I’ll be having a migraine, PMS, and all the rest while I’m at the retreat. I’ll also get to try out my Diva Cup for the first time, the instructions for which include the phrase, “Do not panic”. Maybe I should run the Diva Cup past the management?

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).


august said...

Don't get me wrong -- I'm chronically agnostic -- but I think a certain leap of faith is useful at times. Getting married is one such moment. Perhaps your retreat is another. I mean, you want to appeal to the best part of yourself to finally, you know, function, or even win out over everything else (which for most of us is the vast majority), and there is some hope that success will lead to further success. So you do it and hope for the best, even though there's really no telling in advance whether the best part of yourself is going to win, or really even if you have correctly chosen the activity/event that will bring out the part of you that wants cultivation. You just do it, and even if you fail miserably, you find something out.

On the other hand: when I joined Facebook, I asked "how do I get rid of all this shit?" A buddy wrote back: "That's Zen practice, man!" He had a point, but it turned out there was a button I could push to get rid of anything Farmville-related, and that helped much more.

august said...

I'm not sure my first paragraph made sense. I meant that there's this hope that putting ourselves into a situation where only the best part of ourselves can allow success will in fact spur that best part of ourselves into action. But you never know:

1. If you really have a best part
2. If the best part of you is really up for it
3. If you are really in a situation that will bring out the best part of you. Tossing people into rivers can teach them to swim, but it can also teach them to hold onto logs.

All of this is a riff on a line in Before Sunset about marriage being a call to the best part of Ethan Hawke's character, but he felt like he wound up running a nursery with somebody he used to date. So here's my inspirational slogan: "Buddha Camp: Possibly Better than Uma and Ethan's Marriage!"

Dawn Coyote said...

That's interesting, august, and sort of vexing, too, because it reminds me of the failure of my first marriage, which came as a result, I believe, of idealism on my and my ex-husband's part, and that makes me question whether my idealism is at play here, going on this retreat.

But I don't really believe in marriage the same way anymore, and I don't really believe in enlightenment, either. The difference between my first and second marriage is that the first time around, I was using the relationship to become someone else, and this time, I'm already who I am, TK is already who he is, and we have lots of fun together. This happens to work out so that we're better together, but that's not what we were looking for when we came in.

I've been on three-day retreats before, and done half-days of silence on those retreats, and it's amazing to observe my own mind under those conditions - how much drama I can generate all in my own little head, and how I project it onto others. It provides something like a paradigm shift in my perception of myself/the rest of the world. It's not particularly pleasant, but it is useful.

Is that enlightenment? I guess it's somewhere on the path to enlightenment (whatever that is). The other benefit I anticipate is what comes from the discipline of training the mind to focus. Neuroplasticity, baby!

I do hope it will change me, that it will bring out something better than me, and yet teachers caution against this, because of the idealism, I suspect. The way it works seems to be that the more one is able to see and accept things (including oneself) as they are, the more one is able to change for the better. That's how my marriage to TK works, too, so I guess I agree with you, sort of.

Dawn Coyote said...

Did that make sense? The gist of what I'm trying to say is, the goal of a retreat like this is very mundane: to see things as they are, to accept the world and oneself exactly for what it is, with potential for improvement flowing from that, but not sought.

august said...

I think we are saying similar things. To the extent we diverge, I think it's probably on the question of enlightenment. Unlike faith and grace, I don't really trust the idea of enlightenment.

I don't think "seeing things as they are" is particularly mundane. In my case, it would require dismantling, or at least noticing, a number of filters I have constructed from scar tissue, self-regard, and willful ignorance. Setting out on that process would for me seem like a leap, in that I would never be sure I was coming to see things as they are or simply cultivating a new set of illusions, or both. You don't really know until you get there, and even then I think I couldn't be sure.

Similar with marriage, especially with kids, but even just being married. Of course I love hanging out with mrs. august, and I don't think I think getting married involves idealism, exactly. I just think that it means trusting you will be able to handle certain situations (most recently, kid's temper-tantrum about -- what exactly? It was hard to understand her, maybe a truck, maybe straws, probably just missing mommy -- alongside my own growing annoyance and mrs. august also getting annoyed so we both get a bit short with each other etc.) It's possible that something will come up that will simply send me into a mood, so that I don't get out of bed in the morning, or fail to pick kid up from school, or come to feel a kind of indifference about the whole enterprise. I don't think that's likely, but it's possible. I think I have to know that it's possible, and have a certain amount of faith that I can handle it. I don't want to presume, but is it safe to say, regarding your current marriage, that you know yourself better, and are thus in a better position to be stretched in new directions?

I just think things are chancy, that they will change, and that I can't make any guarantees that it will all work out. I just kind of muddle my way through, and try to realize that everybody else is muddling along as well. The practices you describe for Buddha camp seem similar in that regard.

Dawn Coyote said...

"[I]t would require dismantling, or at least noticing, a number of filters I have constructed from scar tissue, self-regard, and willful ignorance."

That's it, exactly. And the muddling along. That may be as far as I'll ever get with my own practice, and when I've really worked with it, I've experienced a freedom, and a sort of roominess in my life, that I've never encountered otherwise.

If all I get out of this is equanimity, it's more than enough to make such a leap worthwhile.

Borrowing from Joko Beck, the heart of dharma practice is to work with your life as it is, not chase after a life you don't have. I think that's the key to my happy marriage - I accept myself and him. He accepts me. We don't need the other to change. That's something that came with maturity, for me, and lots of my own disappointments and failures, but it's not just knowing myself better. It's acceptance of who and what I am, of what my life is, of what it isn't.

These were hard lessons for me. Buddhist practice is really hard, honestly. It's brutal. It's ugly. It's heartbreaking. And it's the only thing that's ever given me peace.

I don't think it's like this for everyone. Probably just for those of us who really need it. TK, for instance, is a better Buddhist than I'll ever be, without any practice at all.

This conversation reminded me of this:

It is a repose in the light, neither fever nor langour, on the bed or on the meadow.
It is the friend neither violent nor weak. The friend.
It is the beloved neither tormenting nor tormented. The beloved.
Air and the world not sought. Life.
- Was it really this?
- And the dream grew cold.

Bob Marley said...

Ya don't forget the beno!

No beno for me, they never said my ass can't break the silence!

Foul may be the wind that blows away but its ok.