Day 0 - The Last Supper
I wake up sniffling and coughing at 6am. After getting a flu shot and taking Vitamin C crystals for weeks to make sure I’d be healthy for the retreat, I have come down with a cold. The website asks students to stay away if they have the flu, but says nothing about a cold. Still, how unpleasant will it be to sit through ten hours a day of meditation and sleep in an unheated cabin when I’m sick, not to mention the certainty of passing the virus on to others? I consider canceling, but I’ve been preparing for this for two months and I don’t want to back out now. Kirt goes to the drugstore and brings home several boxes of cold medicine. I’m going.
I pick up Abe at his house in Ogden, an hour away. He’s tall, blond, good-looking, and very young. It’s his second time on this retreat. He asks me what made me decide to do it, and I tell him it’s my 46th birthday present to myself. “Me, too! When’s your birthday?” The 30th. “Mine’s the 29th.” He’ll be 21.
Abe is a talker. He confides that he’s been diagnosed with ADHD, Tourette’s, and Bipolar Disorder, and that he was taken from his home and put into foster care at the age of 12 when his younger sister made allegations that he’d sexually abused her, which he denies. He was in foster care for five years, but is now back with his family. He’s an ex-Mormon, but his family is still involved in the church. He dislikes porn and sluts (like his sister), and he tells me in all seriousness that the Obama administration is paying people to kill off elderly citizens. He wants to marry an Asian woman, because he believes them to be more loyal than American women. He’s starting school to be a massage therapist in October. Despite the prohibition against “bodily adornment” for old students, he’s wearing a do-rag with a skull on it. I assume he’ll take it off once we get to the retreat. Other prohibitions for old students: no food after the 11am meal, and no sleeping in “high or luxurious beds.”
Four hours later, we arrive at Camp Sawtooth and check in. Megan, the women’s liaison, will be the only person to whom I can speak freely for the next ten days. She directs me to a cabin called “Juniper”, in which I’ve already been assigned a bed. I’ll be sharing it with three other women – eight less than I anticipated. I’m given a form to fill out which asks me, among other things, to declare any non-prescription medications that I’ve brought with me. I tell Megan about my cold medication. She says she’ll have to check with the assistant teacher to see whether that’s permitted. I explain that I’ve brought hand sanitizer, and plan to be very careful with my germs, but I’ll go home if I must.
I keep filling out the form. It asks about the general state of my family life. “Sublimely happy,” I write. It says, “Please do not begin this retreat if you cannot commit to staying the full ten days. Can you commit to staying the full ten days?” I check the box for “yes.” I sign and hand in the form.
We’re instructed to finish unpacking, and to move our cars to the long-term parking lot further away from the camp. I unload my backpack, sleeping bag, and the bag containing my zafu and pillows. I chill out in the cabin until 5pm, when we’re to return to the dining hall for orientation.
The orientation consists of a review of the rules: No cell phones or mp3 players. No reading or writing materials. No tobacco products. No food. No talking to or making eye-contact with other students once Noble Silence takes effect. No leaving. The men and women will walk on separate paths, and sleeping and eating areas will be separated by sheets hung so that we cannot view each other. We’re to stay inside the designated areas of the camp, and not venture beyond the pink ribbons that have been strung along paths and behind cabins. Megan asks us to turn in any personal items or contraband, or to put them in our cars for the duration of the retreat. She invites us to turn in our car keys. I decline to turn in my keys, and I return to my car to stow my writing materials and my e-cigarettes. I sit in the car smoking. Leaving these behind is going to be hard, but I have a supply of nicotine patches. It’s the pen and notebook I’m really struggling with.
The last dinner we’ll eat for ten days consists of vegetarian soup and salad. Because I’m constantly wiping my runny nose, I’m using the hand sanitizer often, but I forget to use it before I pick up the soup ladle to serve myself. I sit eating my soup and imagine my cold germs spreading to every woman in line behind me.
When dinner is over, we’re allowed to talk to our fellow students (of the same gender only), and discuss cabin logistics. Afterwards, we’ll go to the meditation hall for the first sit, and Noble Silence will thereafter take affect for the duration of the retreat. I meet two of my cabin mates, Debi and Jen. The third has not appeared. I explain that I have a cold, that I considered staying home, but that someone was depending on me for a ride, so I came. I promise to be very careful with my germs. They confess that they snore. I have earplugs. We work out that I have the only alarm clock between us, so I’ll be responsible for the 4am wake-up. They seem nice enough, but I fear they will not like me.
In the bathroom before the meditation, a woman abruptly sticks out her hand and introduces herself to me. “She’s terrified,” I think. Perhaps I’m projecting.
At the meditation session, more rules. Or rather, the same rules over again. We’re asked to repeat the vows of refuge, and some other stuff I don’t remember. And NO LEAVING!
It’s 9pm. Bedtime. I toss and turn for an hour and a half, and then, against the rules, I take the single half of a sleeping pill I’d brought with me.
Day 1 – Lifeboat
I wake up at 7am. My alarm didn’t go off. Jen and Debi and I pull on our clothes and make a frenzied dash down the forest trail to the dining hall. Breakfast was scheduled for 6:30am, and we’d been instructed not to be late. I have oatmeal with stewed prunes and fresh fruit, and green tea. If my cabin mates didn’t dislike me before, they surely do now.
8am in the meditation hall. I sit cross-legged on my cushion in my assigned space at the back. The recorded voice of the teacher, Goenka, directs us to focus on the breath, being aware of the sensations in the nostrils. I look across the room for Abe. He’s wearing his do-rag. I focus on my breath, the sensation of air moving in my nostrils, but my coughing every few minutes distracts me. And everyone else, too, I’m sure. After the formal meditation is over, we can stay in the hall or go back to our cabins to meditate for another two hours, keeping our attention on the breath. We’re allowed to shift positions as needed, the teacher says, and to lie down during meditation in our cabins, but only for five minutes, so as not to drift off to sleep.
9am, back at the cabin. I lie down. After ten minutes, I’m dozing. I dream that I’m on a lifeboat. Attached to the bow is a long, thin bungee cord. There is a pen tied to the end of it. I find a notebook under one of the benches. I wake up and climb back out of my bunk to sit on my cushion. Jen is across the cabin, sniffling, sniffling, sniffling. She’s caught my cold. They’ll all hate me. I want to leave.
11am, lunch. Lentil soup and salad, steamed vegetables and rice. I put tamari dressing on everything. After washing my dishes in the pans at the back of the hall, I approach Megan, explaining that Jen has caught my cold, and I would like to share my cold medicine with her, but don’t know how to do this if I can’t talk to her. Jen, she says, has left the retreat. She did not seem to have a cold. I mention waking up late. “A lot of people did,” says Megan. The person ringing the morning wake-up gong didn’t come to the doors of the cabins, as he was supposed to. Later, I’ll learn that this was Abe. It comes to me that Jen was not sniffling because she’d caught my cold, but because she was crying. What a relief!
Back in the cabin, I look at my high bunk and decide it might also be luxurious. I pull a mattress off an unused bunk and place it atop mine. This gives me eight inches of foam. I try to meditate from 1 to 2:30pm as I’m supposed to, but this contemplative environment seems to have opened the floodgates, and my mind whirls with memories, memories, memories, ideas, plans, memories.
2:30 pm, meditation hall. “The mind is a wild animal,” says Goenka. He chants for several minutes at the beginning and end of each meditation. He has an awful voice, like a chorus of frogs. My mind is a terrified moose, careening along the highway, dodging cars.
3:30 to 5pm, meditation in the hall or in the cabin. I opt for the cabin, so my coughing will not distract others, who all, I’m sure, hate me.
5pm, snack break. Fresh fruit and ten. I have a banana, half a peach, an orange. I will come to regret this.
6pm, meditation in the hall, followed by the evening discourse from 7 to 8:15, and then meditation again until 9. I have several knots in my back from sitting in meditation posture for so long. I adjust my posture, only to have new knots form. My insides spasm and rumble. The diet does not agree with me. There is a video recording of Goenka from 1991. He’s gray-haired, with plump, droopy cheeks that merge into jowls, a rubbery bottom lip that juts out beyond his thin top lip, baggy eyes and a baggy neck. He has a lilting Indian accent. I dislike him. In fact, I dislike everyone.
In the bathroom, preparing for bed, one of the other women is washing her face. She has terrible acne. Before I can stop myself, I think, “Pizzaface! Haha! Pizzaface, pizzaface, pizzaface!”
I’m as appalled as you are.
Day 2 – Desperation
Debi has acquired an alarm. It goes off at 3am. I jump out of bed, turn on the lights, start dressing, and then look at the wall clock. I turn off the lights, go back to bed, and commence coughing for an hour.
At the 8am meditation, Goenka says, “Begin with attention on your respiration,” but what I hear is, “Welcome to your desperation.”
I’m tired. I sit on my cushion, but I keep falling asleep and tilting over until my inner ear wakes me and I jerk upright. I have a succession of short dreams. In one, I’m on a train traveling through farmland. From behind an oak tree, Gladys Knight and three Pips emerge, singing “Midnight Train to Georgia.” In another, a girl crawls toward me along the floor, around the other meditators. She pushes a stainless steel bowl at me. It’s filled with pages of notes and crude pencil drawings.
After lunch, I march back and forth along the path between my cabin and the dining hall until I’m sweating. 235 steps. I meditate in my cabin when I allowed to, but when I go to the meditation hall, the warmth makes me cough and cough. Several others are coughing and sniffling now, too. I’m Typhoid Mary. I leave my cold medicine and ibuprophen on one of the bunks near Debi’s with a note inviting her to use it if (when) she catches my cold.
3:30pm Meditation is impossible. My mind is a hamster on a wheel – spinning and spinning, going nowhere. I recall things that Abe said on the drive down, and plan how I’ll rebut them on the drive back: “Obama is not paying people to kill the elderly,” “Women should not be referred to as sluts.” I think about how I will argue with this poor, deluded boy. I wonder if Abe is dangerous. Is it even safe to be in the car with him? What if he has a knife? I become very afraid.
My neck, which I strained last week lifting weights, sings with pain. My shoulder aches. My guts are churning. I’m bloated with gas. Despite all my preparation, all my careful planning to avoid discomfort, I’m in misery. I want to be at home, sitting on the couch with Kirt, watching a movie and eating popcorn, with Sweet Pea purring in my lap. Instead, I sit on the toilet and try unsuccessfully to not make noise.
I forgo the fruit at 5pm, have a small glass of milk and tea, instead.
6pm in the meditation hall, I feel something crawling in my hair. A bug. Two or three bugs. On my way to bed, I brush my hair vigorously. I find a bug. Lice? I consider setting my hair on fire. I run outside in my pajamas to find Megan, telling her that I got lice from the mattress in my cabin. She asks me what it looked like, and I describe it: black, shiny shell, half a centimeter long, teardrop shaped. She says it sounds like a deer tick. I ask if she knows what lice look like. She does not. Neither do I. She takes me into the bathroom and sits me down on a bench, going through my hair layer by layer. She finds nothing. I guess we’ll know in a day or two, I say. I go to bed.
Day 3 – In the Belly of the Whale
TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY!!! Debi’s alarm goes off at 3:30. Jesusfuck. My ass hurts. For breakfast, I leave off the fresh fruit and the prunes, try peanut butter and yogurt and brown sugar on my oatmeal instead. No gas, but I react to the peanut butter. I’ll switch to tahini tomorrow.
As soon as I can manage it, I take a hot shower and blow-dry my hair, almost burning my scalp a few times in my zeal to discourage the bugs. I wonder what will happen if I really do have lice. We’ve taken vows to follow the Five Precepts for the duration of the retreat, which include not killing any being. Megan said that people going to and from camp can bring things for the students, if necessary, but how will they justify killing the bugs? Because others will catch them? I don’t plan on shaving my head as part of my practice here. Will I have to leave in order to avoid breaking the first precept? I decide that I’ll enjoy presenting the organizers with this conundrum. I become philosophical about the bugs. They’re just bugs, after all. I picked up worms when I traveled in the Middle East, and had legions of bedbugs feasting on me almost every night – in a hotel room in Cairo I counted 19 bites on my face, alone. I survived. I can live with lice for a while, if I have to.
In the meditation hall, I notice that the woman next to me exhales vigorously and noisily every so often. Right after I have a coughing fit? It seems like it. She sounds like a whale expelling air through her blowhole. She’s doing it to shame me, I’m certain of it. Bitch.
At 5pm, I have milk instead of fruit again. This, plus avoiding cruciferous vegetables and taking Beano before I eat my lentils and rice seems to have solved my GI distress. Everything about this retreat seems designed to make us suffer. Including the food, including Goenka’s hideous chanting. They want us to be as miserable as we can possibly be, with no escape, no comfort, no relief.
In his talk, Goenka makes a joke about torturing us. Everyone laughs. Tomorrow, he says, we’ll learn the Vipassana technique – the key to our liberation. I can’t wait. Meditating on my breath and the sensations on the patch of skin between my nose and top lip for the past three days is about as much fun as staring for hours at a black spot on a wall. Today, Goenka reminds me of Yoda. He has a voice like Yoda, espouses wisdom like Yoda, in a vernacular not unlike Yoda’s. I decide that Yoda was modeled on Goenka. This makes me like him better. Now imagine Yoda intoning at the low end of his range, in language that sounds like gibberish, and you have a sense of what the chanting is like.
(To be continued... )