“Wherever you go, there you are.”
I don’t know where that quote originated, but I do know it’s the title of a book on meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s also very true about almost everything in life, a fact that really hit home for me while I just so happened to be taking a ten-day silent meditation course. See how everything connects?
Seven years ago, when I was preparing to join the Peace Corps, I corresponded with a volunteer who had been in Mongolia for a few years already by that point to glean any wisdom he might have. One of his suggestions was that I take a ten-day vipassana meditation course before leaving. He had done it and found it to be very beneficial. Considering I was a grad student at the time and had only a few days between leaving grad school and flying to Mongolia (and that there are only about twenty centers in the States, none of which were very close to Montana), a ten-day course was out of the question. But it remained in the back of my mind. Who knows? Maybe if only I took that course, my life would be so much better. It’s haunted me these seven years, and I’ve finally found myself in a living situation and location that would allow me to take ten days to get off the grid only a couple of hours out of the city and not speak to anyone. I took advantage of it. And I survived to tell the tale.
Here’s how the course it set up: you agree to the Code of Discipline, which means no speaking, no yoga, no meals after noon (except fruit and tea), no killing, no makeup, no quitting. There were a few people who left in the first couple of days (my roommate included, which made my stay just a little bit more palatable), but for the most part, you are asked to trust the teachers and work hard till the end. Men and women are kept separate the entire time, with separate walking paths, separate entrances into the buildings, signs around the grounds to remind you not to desegregate the genders, sheets hung up in the dining hall to remove any distractions while eating, and separate sides of the meditation hall for each gender to sit. For everyone, regardless of gender, the wake-up bell goes off at 4am, and you go to bed at the earliest at 9:30pm. For some reason, I thought this would be fine. Only after I felt the confused circadian effects of sitting all day in dark spaces with my eyes closed combined with trying to find restful sleep at night with my head next to a wall with clanging pipes in it did I realize that it was not.
The first night felt like an omen. It was sprinkling rain and then just turned overcast, but by the time our ‘light dinner’ was done, it was raining hard. We were told that dinner and meditation times would be marked with the ring of a bell, and as we were walking through what felt like the forest between our dorm and the meditation and dining halls, we heard a sound. We hadn’t previously heard the bell to realize that it did, in fact, sound like a bell and not a siren, so we can be forgiven for thinking that perhaps this siren-like sound was just the dinner bell. It was actually a tornado siren, and the tornado warning lasted throughout our entire first meditation introduction that night. To get back to our dorms, we had to run in lashing, sideways rain and step in what felt like knee-deep puddles. I had only brought one pair of shoes, and, due to my forgetting to pack any kind of pajamas and resorting to one of the three pairs of pants and one of the shirts I brought to become substitute PJs, I was out two pairs of pants. This left me with exactly one pair of pants and no pairs of shoes. I was off to a good start.
By this time, the code of ‘noble silence’ was in place, so we couldn’t even commiserate or ask each other questions like, did your clothes also produce gallons of water when you got back?, or, is your shower as cold as mine?, or, is it just my shoes that smell so bad? We had to suffer alone together. Luckily for me, there were cubbies in the dorm hall with left-behind shoes from former students, so I nabbed a pair of knock-off Crocs to wear for the rest of the time. I’ve never worn Crocs in my life, but I can now see their utility.
The first full day was torture. Not the silence– I liked the silence and kind of wish all vacations had an option for a similar vow of silence. Nor was it the landscape– walking past the willows and cattails and bunnies and butterflies had a meliorative effect on me. Even the food tasted good! No, the torture was the lack of productivity and the pain. So much pain. I made myself sit for all ten and a half hours of meditation the schedule called for, and it hurt so much that I wanted to run screaming from the place. I hated it. I can’t stay here. I have to get out. This is terrible. What am I doing here?!? I didn’t see how I would come to appreciate any of it or even get used to it. If I had to summarize my thoughts that day, it’d probably be something like: I’ve made a huge mistake.
However. I also knew that I would always wonder What if? if I didn’t stick it out, so I made a game plan: shower on days 3, 6, and 9; shave legs on days 5 and 9; break up the ten days into segments, knowing days 4, 5, and 6 will be the hardest (and hoping that this knowledge will make them bearable); allow myself anything I needed to make it (naps, always choosing my room when given the option of the meditation hall or my room for meditations, doing yoga in the morning when I got up instead of the first meditation, letting my mind wander when it wanted). I would do this thing because I said I would. It just wouldn’t be as easy as I’d hoped.
The meditations themselves began with chanting by our teacher, S. N. Goenka, who died a few years ago yet continues to teach vipassana meditation to thousands around the world through his recorded meditations and video discourses (which we would watch every evening before retiring for the night). His voice was so calm and gentle, and his face was so kind (here's a clip if you want to see for yourself). I loved listening to him, even if I didn’t understand his chanting or agree with everything he said (like the part about reincarnation). When he spoke of equanimity and staying with the sensations of the moment as it is, not as we want it to be, I was with him all the way. Awareness and equanimity; this will also change; no clinging or aversion; all is impermanent. This was the good stuff. It just became a little difficult to keep in mind when my back was threatening never to work again by the 12348979th hour of sitting in the same position.
We were told not to open our eyes during the meditation hours and not to adjust our positions. If we absolutely had to adjust, we were asked to do so slowly and quietly. I opened my eyes a lot. I tried to keep them shut, but I had to check the time on my watch every five minutes, just to make sure time was still moving. And I liked looking at people, like our assistant teachers when they would whisper to each other or to their assistants when we were all supposed to be silent. (The female assistant teacher would whisper to the female teacher’s assistant to whisper to one of us students something, and the chain of reactions was comical to me. My favorite was their obsession with a 75-year-old student who breathed too loudly for their liking, so they were constantly shuffling over to tell her to breathe more quietly until they developed a system where they would just shuffle over and touch her somewhere as a signal that she needed to breathe quietly. I have no idea how she remained so nonplussed about the whole thing. I told myself every day that if she could make it, I could, too.)
Without being allowed to read at all during the course, I was hoping that my mind would fall back on books I’ve already read, so I was disappointed when my mind mostly went through reels of movie and TV show clips instead. The songs that ran through my head would also make a strange mix-tape (like the theme song to Sesame Street followed by Rihanna followed by Christmas carols). With all of that playing in the background, my mind did a lot of planning: what I was going to wear when I got back to work, a lesson on anger to do with the girls I volunteer with, which yoga plans I would do in the following weeks, how phone conversations with my siblings, my parents, and my best friend from childhood would go, what I would write in a blog post about the course (which is definitely not the one I'm now writing). I was supposed to be focusing on the sensations of my body, but that just gets so boring after a few hours (or minutes). Planning helped the hours pass with just a little less despair.
One day in the middle of my time there– around days five and six– my stomach started feeling weird. I skipped dinner (as in, the serving of fruit they provided) the first night it happened, and the next day, because I didn’t think skipping would be a good idea two days in a row, I told myself I would go to the dining hall, if only to eat a banana. But I fell asleep in my room before dinner and woke up ten minutes after it had already started. I was never late to anything, and I wasn’t really ready to wake up, so I was really disoriented: what time is dinner again? Am I supposed to be there right now? Why didn’t I hear anyone? I forced myself to get up, and as I left the dorm building, I noticed that the sky looked stormy. I decided against bringing an umbrella and regretted it halfway to the dining hall when I heard thunder and felt the rain start to sprinkle. I passed an older Russian woman running with her arms spread out, like she wanted to get wet or something (why?), and I soon started to run as well to try to beat the rain. Right as I was getting to the dining hall, HUGE drops of rain started falling. They were spread out from each other, and I thought their size and the sound of thunder meant a big storm was about to hit. I yanked open the dining hall door and rushed in, breathing hard and splattered from the water bombs. I stood there looking at all the other women sitting silently at the tables, and they looked silently and blankly back at me. The rain!, I wanted to warn them through our silence, but when I looked out the window where some of the women were already looking, there was no rain. It had stopped. There was hardly any sign it had fallen at all. The only rain that fell fell right on me, right as I was coming into the dining hall. I tried to act normal and nonchalant, but I ate too quickly and left before anyone else. I was dry the whole walk back to the dorm and, as it just so happens, the entire rest of the ten days. I still wonder if that whole sequence was just a dream.
On Day 10, the course allows the students to speak with each other so that our entrance back into the real world is less of a shock to our systems. Of course, the question everyone asked each other (and the question I most dreaded) was, ‘So how was the course for you?’ I didn't think I'd be able to answer honestly (‘It was terrible.’), so I tried to dodge that question. Somehow one such conversation began with swapping background info about ourselves, and when asked how the Peace Corps and foster parenting were for me, I answered, ‘They were like this week.’ I think they understood what I meant.
That’s what I think is the sad thing about my doing this, though: just how much it resembled other experiences in my life, where I found myself in situations I wanted to be in until I got in them and realized just how much I wanted out of them. Waiting for this course to end felt like waiting for all of those other things to end– the feeling wasn't new to me. I told myself by Day 2 that I shouldn't do this anymore, sign up for things that I pressure myself into for reasons other than actually wanting to do them. Moreover, during that waiting time, I realized that I wasn't changed– I wasn't any more ‘enlightened’; my life wouldn't take a previously unforeseen path just because I finally took the course; I was, however unfortunately, still me. My thoughts, my moods, my crankiness, my fatigue, they were all still there. Wherever I go, there I am. Which usually means, just because the scenery changes, I don't magically become a different (read: better) person.
But here's the good part: I realized just how much I like my life, because I am finally in an unforced situation, doing things I actually want to do. I like the people in my life. I like where I live and what I do. Goenka (and Seneca) would say that I shouldn't cling to these things, as they can just as quickly be taken from me, just as easily upset a ‘balanced mind’, and I know. I get it. But I am grateful for them all the same– there haven't been many phases of my life where I've felt so wholeheartedly content for such a sustained amount of time. That's a big deal.
The morning we were released, I hitched a ride with a fellow student who was leaving as early as we were allowed. I couldn't handle waiting longer than that. When I got home, the joy I felt on entering my apartment was unmatched: I felt so happy being there, unpacking and cleaning and existing in this place where I can sleep and talk on my own schedule. After I showered (in hot water!), I spoke to each of my family members, feeling like I had been kept as a prisoner somewhere with no ability to contact them. I just missed them all so much while I was away. I missed my life.
Now that I’ve been back for a couple weeks, I have returned fully to the world of electronics and sundry distractions. It feels good. The meditation course is behind me and has become just another experience to tell others about. I try to remain equanimous and accept the impermanence of every moment, but I'm not very good at it. And I might visit YouTube every now and then to catch a glimpse of Grandpa Goenka. But would I recommend this course to others? Probably not. Would I do it again? No. Am I glad I did it once? Yes. Because you know what? At least now I won’t be haunted by the ghost of vipassana.