This month's article is a long one, and I'm not really sure how many of you will want to endure it. It's a description of my experience during a 10-day Vipassana Course that I took in August 2014. For those of you that aren't familiar with it, it's a ten-day silent meditation course. It was an incredible experience and quite difficult for me to summarize it without going into the depths and importance of some of the insights that I had during those days.
For those that want the highlights, the themes of the days were as such:
Day 0 Carpool
Day 1 Frustration
Day 2 Anger
Day 3 Distractions
Day 4 Sacral Chakra: Creativity and Sexuality
Day 5 I'M NOT ENLIGHTENED!
Day 6 Energy of an 8 year old boy
Day 7 Death
Day 8 Re-birthing Ideas
Day 9 Visitation
Day 10 Scorpio
If you want to take a journey through my experience, I invite you to continue reading the detailed account below.
Day 0 Carpool
I pick up another participant that wanted to carpool to the Vipassana Center (called Dhamma Vaddhana) in Twentynine Palms near Joshua Tree. We get to know each other on the two-and-a-half hour road trip just in time to spend the next 10 days not talking to each other… or anyone else.
When we arrive, we unload the car and I apologize to it for making it stay parked in the desert heat for the next ten days. We check-in to the center and turn in our keys, cell phones, and any other devices/valuables to be locked up during our stay. I happily turn them over and look forward to diving into this meditation course.
The staff makes sure that everyone knows where their rooms are located and that dinner is at 5pm. They also tell us that there is a presentation in the meditation hall promptly at 7pm.
Between check-in and the presentation everyone is talking to each other as we all prepare to bite our tongues for the next week and a half. During the presentation we are asked to follow 5 precepts during our stay:
- Abstain from killing any being.
- Abstain from stealing.
- Abstain from all sexual activity.
- Abstain from telling lies.
- Abstain from all intoxicants.
We are then taught our first meditation technique which we practice for a few minutes, and then enter into Noble Silence for the next 10 days. Afterwards, we all walk under the star-filled sky in silent straight rows to our cabins for the night around 9pm.
Day 1 Frustration
A staff member wakes everyone up at 4am by walking around the campus ringing a beautifully toned bell. The first meditation of each day is from 4:30-6:30am before breakfast.
After our morning break I excitedly headed back to the mediation room for our next group meditation with the expectation of learning a new technique to build our practice, however if you know anything about expectations, you know that they have a strong possibility of leading to disappointment. And this expectation that I had most certainly landed on the side of disappointment.
We were to do the same meditation for this next sit, and every sit that day. Every time we went back to that room we had to do the same meditation, and I was getting frustrated.
I mean, come on. I had been meditating for 7 years by this point and I was ready to go deeper. But nooo, I had to do the same meditation… with the same structure… all day… for 10 hours. I didn’t need a full day to master this technique. I learned it years ago. Why were they holding me back? I was ready for the next technique. Come on, let’s get going.
Finally at the end of the day we get a new technique during the evening lecture, but I knew I would have to do that same meditation all day tomorrow without moving on to something bigger and better. Frustrating!
Day 2 Anger
Are you kidding me? Of course I can’t focus. They're not giving me the right tools to bring my mind into a meditative state. What are they doing? I could probably teach this course better than them.
I’m unable to hold my attention focused for longer than a couple of minutes during any of the sits throughout this day. My frustration with the pace and structure of the course that started on the first day has now developed into full blown anger. I was angry at the teachers. I was angry at the design of the program. I was angry at myself for not being able to focus. I was angry at myself for being angry. Grrr. Grrr. Grrr. By the time I went to bed that night, I was mentally exhausted.
Day 3 Distractions
Great, as if it wasn’t bad enough that I couldn’t focus during the meditations thus far, now you’re going to add distracting sexual thoughts into the mix. This is torture!
As determined as I was to being focused during the meditations I can’t prevent the damned sexual fantasies from appearing in my mind, and it doesn’t help that one of the moral precepts I agreed to was to abstain from all sexual activity.
Day 4 Sacral Chakra: Creativity and Sexuality
The sexual fantasies are beginning to get both more elaborate and more disturbing, and I wish I could get them to stop. I can’t focus at all. I thought I was a good meditator but this is frustrating. I can’t control my thoughts let alone try to ignore them and focus single-pointedly on my breath. This is going to be a long week if I already sunk this low in just the first few days.
The only positive to come out of the meditations thus far is that every once in a while in between the perverted thoughts that kept popping into my mind, there was a sense of peace, and in that peace an insightful idea would come to mind like how I could develop the Breathing Among the Books meditation club at the high school this year. Even though technically this would be labeled a distraction, I wasn’t as bothered about following these thoughts as I was about having to ignore the other disturbing thoughts that continued to show up.
Day 5 I’M NOT ENLIGHTENED!
Gosh, this is a shitty day, and not just because of my trips to the bathroom in between each meditation session. The distractions and fantasies have gotten to the point where I have no control over my mind anymore. It is showing me things I don’t want to see, but I can’t help it. They just show up whether I like it or not, and I can’t ignore them or turn them off. I’m stuck with them…all day long.
After the evening lecture and meditation I stand outside of my room watching beautiful display of mother nature’s handiwork. Off in the distance is an incredible lightning storm that is lighting up the sky with bright flashed of light that paint the clouds with an assortment of pastel colors, and this show is the best thing I experienced all day. It is bringing me back to my senses, and helping me shake off the frustration of the past four days. I am starting to get back to a level of peaceful acceptance with how I’m handling my experience so far. And then…
An ant had crawled in between my toes and bit me. I jumped up, shook my foot to get rid of the ant, and reached down to brush it off. I then went to rub the spot where I was bitten, and as I dragged my finger between my toes I felt a small something being rolled into a ball between the skin of my foot and finger. That something turned out to be the ant that bit me. It was still there when I thought I shook it off already.
Great, I just broke the first moral precept I agreed to follow: Abstain from killing any being. I just killed an ant. Well, so much for reaching enlightenment. If I can’t keep the five precepts of the basic moral code, how will I ever be able to attain nirvana.
My mind spiraled into creating a logical argument to reveal a truth to myself that I had not seen nor accepted before.
During the meditations of the day I was instructed to be aware of any and all sensations, pleasant or unpleasant, in and on my body without reacting to them. I was to use this technique to gain control of myself and break any automatic patterns and reactions to external and internal stimuli perceived through my senses. This was to be a path to the liberation from suffering and, ultimately, enlightenment.
But I failed. I reacted. And because of that reaction a death occurred. I killed a living being.
An enlightened being would not have reacted, and therefore a death would not have occurred.
There was only one logical conclusion that could be drawn from those statements.
I AM NOT ENLIGHTENED!
This thought ran through my entire being as a great truth that I was awakened to see.
I AM NOT ENLIGHTENED, AND I’M NOT MEANT TO BE ENLIGHTENED!
I felt this insight through every part of me as if it was the deepest truth of my existence. I am not meant to be enlightened in this life, and I didn’t have to strive to get there. I realized that I was putting all of this pressure on myself to be some great guru and reach an elevated spiritual state, but I didn’t have to. I wasn’t meant to be enlightened this time around. I was meant to enjoy all of life’s pleasures while being in a physical form. I have the opportunity to experience life through the senses with no end goal of reaching enlightenment. I simply get to live and enjoy living.
The pressure was relieved. The mental torture that I was creating for myself was gone. I was free from suffering by realizing the simple fact that I’m not enlightened and I’m not meant to be in this lifetime. I can continue my spiritual pursuits but there is no longer any pressure of reaching a specific goal. I get to experience life in all its sensual delights.
The path I am on now and in this life is to simply experience life, to live. Period. End of story. Live. And enjoy the experience. Share these experiences with others. Help them see the joy of experiencing life in this physical form and living through the senses that we have. If future lives exist, then maybe in one of the future lifetimes I can reach enlightenment and renounce everything. But not now.
Live. Live now. Live in this life. Live this life. Experience and share.
This great insight opened the floodgates of joy and filled my body, my soul, my mind. The insights started coming and wouldn’t let me sleep. Everything started making sense. The design of the curriculum for this meditation course made sense, and I was no longer mad about it. I didn’t care about the frustration of not being able to focus my mind during the meditations because I didn’t have to perfect it. All I needed to do was do my best, and if I didn’t purify my mind, oh well, at least I learned something about myself in the process. I couldn’t wait to get back out to the world and enjoy living with other people again.
The insights and wisdom keep me up late and I couldn’t fall asleep until after 10:30pm or so. They wake me up around quarter after three in the morning, and I toss and turn unable to go back to sleep before the morning bells rang for the first meditation at 4:30am.
Day 6 Energy of an 8 year old
The meditation sessions started getting easier. The breakthrough from the previous night took all the pressure off to attempt to attain perfection. Sure I was still getting distracted, but now the thoughts aren’t as dark as they were over the past few days. I am even starting to hear music coming through in the silence between thoughts. Perhaps there is a song emerging.
Another thing that is helping is the fact that I finally figured out the perfect meditation cushion and support set up to keep my legs from going numb during the 1-2 hour meditation sessions throughout the day. At the sound of the bell signifying the conclusion of each sit I find myself springing up from the cushion and walking around the campus with a bounce in my step and a smile on my face. I had been through the ringer, and now I am starting to connect to the light within.
I have an exuberant amount of energy today, and a sense of bliss that goes along with it. When I contemplate what kind of energy I am experiencing, the thought that comes to mind is that it is the energy of an 8 year old boy.
Day 7 Death
The melody that had come to me yesterday that sounded like the beginning of a song was hiding from me this morning. With no way to capture my thoughts (writing and cell phones are prohibited during the course) I am afraid that I lost it forever. A melody came to mind, but I feel that it isn’t exactly the same as the one I heard yesterday. And that is frustrating.
Eventually after breakfast I stumble upon the original melody, and now with the second melody I heard early, parts of the song are starting to come together. As I rest in my room during the morning break, I hear the song composing itself in the orchestral hall of my mind. I hear an island-y dance rhythm with a horn section playing the main melody as if a caribbean band is hosting a party on the beach. The second melody that I hear is to be sung, and eventually I gravitate to some of the Sanskrit words we sing at the Kirtans I’ve been playing. The song is becoming a chant whose energy is conveying a celebration of life, and when the words that fit the rhythms perfectly also match the energy of the music, I am moved to tears as I observe this all coming together in my mind. I feel the energy of the music and the words and it is beautiful. I want to share that energy with the world, and I see crowds of people dancing and singing along with it. I have never to this point in my life been happy with a song that I had written, and I am more than happy. I am moved to tears. It is pure joy running through me, and it is powerful.
It is so powerful that I stuff my pockets with tissues before I head over to our first mandatory group sit of the day. See, each day there are 3 one-hour meditations that everyone has to attend in the meditation hall and for these sessions we are to practice intently. That means we are to remain still and not move for the entire hour. Hold our posture and make no adjustments. I get comfortable on my cushions and prepare for what would be the deepest meditation to date.
As I start the meditation, I connect with my body, and I am in awe of being able to connect with my physical form and with being alive. Then the thought comes to me that I’ve been at this center for a week with no contact with the outside world, and during this time my younger brother was scheduled to return to the states from his deployment to the Middle East and northern Africa. My thoughts begin to wonder.
What if something happened to him? What if his plane was shot down and he didn’t make it home? What if he died? If he died, the funeral would have happened by this time already, and I would have missed it. Would I be okay with that? Can I be okay with missing my brother’s funeral for this meditation course?
Would I have any regrets in my choice of participating in the meditation course? What if I die while I’m here? No one I know has had contact with me for a week, and the time leading up to my death would remain a mystery to my family and friends. All they would know is that they lost contact with me for a week and the next they would hear is that I was dead. Would I be okay with that? Could I be okay with being the cause of such grief and suffering for my mom? She has already been through so much recently, and I don’t want to cause her more pain.
As my mind ponders all of these thoughts, tears stream down my face and my nose starts to run. But, I was committed to not moving for this meditation for I was instructed to work diligently. I let the tears fall and the snot run down my face. I imagine that I look like a hot mess, but since everyone’s eyes are supposed to be closed I don’t care what I look like.
No matter if I live or die life will go on. People have died in my life and somehow I figured out how to move on. We all do. We don’t have much of a choice. We will move on, and my family and friends will continue to live their lives whether I’m alive or dead.
I thought I got to a point when I was okay with dying and was willing to accept it. And then… I imagined death standing at the door to the meditation room and telling me it was my time to go. Just when I thought I was okay with dying, now I am confronting myself with this thought experiment. I had to examine my life and confront my attachment to it.
In my simplistic understanding and interpretation of Buddhist philosophy our human suffering comes from our clinging to our desires and attachments to people, places, things, and ideas. I was currently being confronted to my attachment to my human life.
Could I let go of this ultimate attachment? Could I let go of my life, simply walk away, and accept death?
By the end of the meditation I come to realize that I can accept death right now in this moment. In looking at my life from the perspective of an undying and ever-living soul, I can accept a human death because I’ve learned a great deal in this lifetime and can be proud of the growth I’ve made. This of course assumes that there is something after death, an afterlife, where I, as a soul, can continue in a different dimension or plane of existence.
But also, I am able to accept that even if there is nothing else after I die and that when I die everything fades to black and it’s all over, I am okay with accepting death’s invitation at the door.
As soon as the meditation ends I quickly grab the tissues from my pockets and clean my face before anyone sees the mess that I had become. It was a deep meditation and ultimately one that led me to a deep freedom from the attachment to this life and this identity of Brian. I am more than this identity and will continue on if in fact there is something more than this plane of existence, and if this is all there is, I’m okay if my life’s journey is to end.
Day 8 Re-birthing Ideas
After day seven’s death meditation, the bliss of being alive and the abundant energy that accompanied it returned. Being able to enjoy the most basic notion of simply being alive is one concept that will be able to center me and bring everything back into perspective in the future.
The ideas that are coming to mind in the meditations now are expanding upon ideas that were starting to appear earlier in the week. The idea of the meditation club is turning into an entire curriculum for an intervention class for high school students. The orchestration and arrangement of the Kirtan chant is complete in my head, and I can recall all of the parts for each instrument at any time without ever having written it down or recorded it. Th ideas of exploring spiritual paths and sharing them with others is evolving into the notion of creating a podcast or a blog titled “Spiritual Ramblings” which would give me the space to ramble on about spiritual practices and concepts. I even thought of using Ramblin’ Man by The Allman Brothers Band as an intro theme song as the words had taken on a new meaning for me.
“Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man
Tryin’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best I can.
And when it’s time for leavin’
I hope you’ll understand
That I was born a ramblin’ man.”
I jump up with great vigor after each meditation and walk about campus with almost a skip in my step and a silly grin on my face, but I can see that not everyone else is in the same place as me. There are still many people in the suffering stage of their journey.
Day 9 Visitation
More workshop ideas are coming to mind throughout the day. The Kirtan chant plays in my mind constantly reminding me to celebrate being alive, and I continue to bounce to and fro all over campus.
The last meditation of the evening is the memorable one on this day. I go into deep meditation and although images and visualizations are said to be distractions, they keep moving into the line of sight of my mind’s eye. I give in and decide to see what is there. (Looking back at my notes about the experience I read that I had seen an angel in the meditation, but I don’t recall that happening.) At some point a vision of my step dad who had died 8 months earlier appears to me. He lets me know that he is at peace and wants to pass on a message to my mom.
The experience in that meditation is lovely, yet if you know me, then you now I’m a skeptic of these experiences. I could look at it as a visitation from the soul of my step dad or as an image conjured up from my own imagination which I could write off as nothing significant.
As I go back and forth on how to interpret it while walking back to my room, I decide to look up at the sky for a nudge in either direction. I had been looking up at the sky each night because out near Joshua Tree in Twentynine Palms, the sky is so clear that you can see hundreds, if not thousands, of stars including the edge of the Milky Way, and as I look up on this night I see a satellite moving slowly across the sky and subtly disappearing. This is all the validation I need to accept the experience I had as a visit from my step dad Bob and decide to pass along the message to my mom when I speak to her next.
Day 10 Scorpio
After the morning meditation, the restriction of Noble Silence is lifted and the Noble Chatter begins. We are allowed to talk to each other everywhere on campus except in and around the meditation hall. We talk throughout the day in between meditation sessions, and many of us stay up late into the night chatting away. We have a lot to say after not talking for 10 days.
The most memorable experience of our last night together was when a few of us were standing in a circle observing the night sky, and one guy was showing us the constellation Scorpio by pointing out Antares, the reddish star in its heart, and building the constellation out from there. While most of us were enthralled by Scorpio in the sky, someone pointed out a very carefully camouflaged scorpion that was standing in the middle of our circle. It was not easy to see, but maybe because we had cleared our mind's eye through the 10 days of dedicated meditation, we could see something beautiful that was right in front of us that previously would have been hidden from our unfocused sight.