Day 4 – Further Insults
I wind my blue cashmere-and-silk scarf around my neck and go to the morning meditation. For the retreat, I’ve given up makeup, perfume and cute outfits. The scarf has become my comfort object. It’s not a “bodily adornment” if I cover my mouth with it every time I cough.
My buckwheat hull-filled zafu is like a rock under my bruised tush. My neck is still giving me grief, and my back is a symphony of twinges and twangs. It occurs to me that repeatedly eliciting a vow not to leave before the ten days are up should have been a clue that they planned to torture us. I want to leave every day, and every day I talk myself out of it: I gave my word. It will upset other students. This may be a waste of time, but given the countless other days I’ve wasted, what’s ten more? Stretching after every session helps with the muscle aches. I’m going to be very limber by the time I go home, with much-improved posture.
At breakfast, I discovered hidden amongst the green and herbal teas, the Pero, Postum and Inka, a jar of actual instant coffee. It tastes like dust from a Mayan burial chamber, but with a little brown sugar and a lot of milk, it’s drinkable. Ah, caffeine!
During morning instruction, Goenka lovingly imparts the Vipassana technique. Three days of focusing on the little patch of skin below my nose has sharpened my awareness to the point where I can feel thousands of sensations every second, and now we’re to apply that awareness to the whole body, remaining detached, not identifying with the arising and passing away of each sensation. Equanimity of mind. Liberation within the framework of the body. This makes perfect sense to me.
Goenka goes on. He repeats every instruction two, three, four times. Every day, the same instructions. On and on. Who needs to take notes? I’m listening, trying to do as he says, going over my skin inch by inch, being aware of heat, cold, pressure, numbness, tingling, pain, etc., etc., etc. It’s not easy for me to divide my attention, listening and following directions, but I’m trying, I’m doing it, I get it, I’m there, and still he goes on, repeating anicca, anicca, anicca, over and over, until…
MURDEROUS RAGE. Shut up shut up shut the fuck up can’t you ever stop your braying you tiresome old donkey!
I go back to my cabin to continue practicing. It’s a good thing I can’t talk, because I’d be screaming curses right now. It takes me a long time to calm down.
Goenka as a donkey makes me think of Nasreddin Hodja, which makes me think of Gregor Samsa, which makes me smile.
Day 5 – In Which My Right Leg Achieves Liberation
More torture. Today we have to sit through each hour of group meditation without moving. I settle onto my zafu rock, prop my knees up with pillows, and resolve to hold this position until the hour is over. Goenka chants us into the meditation, and then in the quiet, I scan my body for sensations. After 40 minutes, my right hip is throbbing. The pain radiates over my right buttocks and down my right leg. I do not move. I focus on the pain. I do not identify with the pain. I pay attention to the variety of sensations within the excruciating, throbbing pain in my right hip and leg – anicca, anicca, anicca. Sensations are impermanent. They rise and fall, form and dissolve. They become like musical notes – the music of the body – and I can listen without shrinking away, without suffering. Equanimity.
When Goenka starts chanting at the end of the hour, my concentration is destroyed, and the pain is just pain again, not music – but I did it! I sat through the whole hour, in pain, without suffering. I am very proud of myself. I’ve learned a new skill, and what a variety of uses it will have! I’m impervious. I’m unshakeable. I’m a ninja.
After lunch, I stretch myself out on a rock and feel the sun lift the last traces of my cold up and out of my body. In an act of liberation, I remove my scarf and leave it behind in the cabin with my other clothes. I skip my afternoon cold medicine.
Afternoon meditation in the hall. I practice the technique, and feel the right side of my head acrawl with bugs – hundreds of them. Either the bugs are in my imagination or they’re not. Both of these possibilities amuse me. I begin to think of them as Schrödinger's Lice.
In the cabin, I sit on my bunk meditating and Debi approaches me with a tube of ointment held out before her. She points to it, points to her knee, and hands me the tube. “Thanks!” I say.
Oops. So much for Noble Silence. I put the ointment, a homeopathic liniment, on my knees even though my knees don’t hurt, because it seems rude not to, and because I can’t bring myself to pull down my pants and apply it my aching butt. When she’s back on her cushion, I go ahead and put it on my butt. The pain goes away almost immediately. I walk over and hand the tube back to her, bowing in thanks. I turn to go back to my corner of the cabin and strike one of the bed frames hard with my knee. Debi and I burst out laughing.
Some time later, I come into the cabin and the look on Debi’s face is so pained that I ask if she’s alright. It’s the diet, she says. It’s giving her tummy trouble. I empathize. I tell her not to be shy, to just let one rip if she needs to. She does.
We compare miseries. I’m feeling regret over some events in my life. She’s thinking about her relationship with her sisters. “I’m glad you’re my roommate,” she says. “I liked you right away.”
At the evening meditation in the hall, my cold symptoms return. I’m not wearing the scarf, so I sneeze in my hair.
Day 6 – Purification
Today is much like yesterday – waking after four hours sleep, tanning on a rock in the sun, practicing the technique for an hour at a time without moving, right hip throbbing – except with more chat and more tears.
I’ve decided that Guatama Buddha was more of a scientist than a spiritual leader. There’s nothing remotely spiritual about this practice. It’s entirely material, reality-based, practical. Everytime Goenka says “mind-and-body”, I want to correct him: It’s body-and-body. Only body. Nothing but body. He mentions sankharas a lot. These are the formations in the mind that arise from craving and aversion. Habit patterns. It’s these that we seek to overcome, to dissolve. Goenka would not have heard of neuroplasticity when he recorded these teachings 19 years ago, but that’s what we’re working with: the malleable nature of the brain and its responses, the music of the body. This excites me a great deal, and not just for its implications in pain management. To overcome habitual reactions of craving, aversion, suffering – dukka, dukka, dukka – seems to me a very rational path to liberation.
“I wonder,” Debi says, “if my body is taking this purification thing too far. I just lost one of my genital piercings down the plumbing.” Like Abe, Debi is a former Mormon from Ogden. She’s also a massage therapist. She went to the same school that Abe’s going to later this month. I decide I should introduce them. For days I’ve been fantasizing about the massage I’ll get when I get home. Hmm. Debi’s a massage therapist. But then I remember we’re prohibited from physical contact with other students, and there’s that Seinfeld episode. I offer to share my Beano with her.
I can’t stop thinking about my friend Leslie. She’d been a Vipassana meditator for fourteen years when I met her over a decade ago. She might be the wisest person I’ve ever known. She was an unfailingly kind and good friend to me, and I haven’t talked to her in three years, because of my own carelessness with friendship. I don’t normally feel this – or much of anything, really – but all I can do at the moment is feel. I have some tears over losing Leslie, and over other things that I’ve lost through similar defects of character. I’ll write Leslie a letter when I get home. Maybe she’ll forgive me.
I realize some things about my body, such as I tend to rest most of my weight on my right hip, which engenders the throbbing, and I have a subroutine running in my head that makes a musical loop out of ambient noise. In the past few days, I’ve heard electronic groove, 70’s pop, ragtime jazz, Indian, and house music. It’s entertaining, but I can’t make it stop.
I decide I’m glad of the sheets that keep the men and the women from seeing very much of each other. In the meditation hall there are no sheets, but we have to be disciplined, which precludes gawking. This spares me the trouble of preening and wondering if any of them are looking at me. It’s a kind of liberation.
(To be continued...)