Tuesday, May 28, 2013

10 Days Alone with the Mind

by Michael S. Russo
I’ve been practicing various forms of Buddhist meditation now for about 7 years, but I’ve always thought that Vipassana (aka Insight or Mindfulness Meditation) made the most intellectual sense to me. About five years ago I picked up a copy of The Artof Living by William Hart, which described the Vipassana technique taught by Burmese meditation teacher S. N. Goenka.  That led me to some of Goenka’s own discourses, which I found extremely compelling.  I later discovered that Goenka founded about two hundred centers for the teaching of Vipassana all around the world, and that one of the largest of these centers in the U.S.—the Vipassana Meditation Center—was located only a few hours away in Shelburn, Massachusetts.
For three years, I’ve been trying to find the 12 days needed to do one of the retreats offered by this Center, but my work schedule always got in the way.  Then one of my colleagues, Janet, happened to tell me that she had a wonderful Buddhist retreat experience at—you guessed it—the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburn, Massachusetts.   I promised her that I would commit myself to doing a Vipassana retreat the first chance I got.
This semester I was on sabbatical, so it seemed like the ideal time to do the retreat thing, if ever I  was going to.  I certainly experienced some degree of trepidation at the thought of having to meditate continuously for 10 straight days (the hour and a half I spend at my local zendo once a week is normally more than challenging enough for me), but I signed up online for the first available course that they had, which happed to be May 1-12.
What impressed me most about the ethos of the Vipassana Centers started by Goenka is that the programs they offer are completely free.   Donations from senior students pay for the retreats of newbies like me.   Those same senior students volunteer to act as servers for those on retreat, providing meals and keeping everything running smoothly.   The goal is to allow anyone who is interested to experience intense meditative practice without having to worry at all about mundane concerns.   It is a testament to the sincerity and idealism of Goenka and his teachers that they are willing to offer the dharma for free when so many other places are charging abundantly for similar experiences.
I arrive at The Vipassana Meditation Center at about 2pm on May 1st, after a leisurely drive from New York.  The place was attractively situated amidst rolling wooded hills and was extremely well maintained.  I was shown to my room, which thankfully was a single, and I couldn’t have been happier with it.  The main house, the dining room, the dormitories and the meditation hall exuded a kind of orderly tranquility that certainly is conducive to meditative practice.    The sexes are strictly separated, so I can only speak about the men’s facilities, but I’m assuming that the female quarters are similar to those of the men. 

One thing that was evident to me immediately was that this was a place that was in serious expansion mode.  Hundreds of meditators come each month to do the ten day meditation course that I was there for.   Apparently, enough of these meditators liked what they experienced enough to provide millions of dollars to upgrade the facilities.  While I was there, the Center was building a teachers’ house, a second women’s dormitory and finishing work on their new pagoda.  Again, this growth appears to be a testament to the positive benefits that participants have experienced through the meditation technique practiced at the Center. 
Before embarking on ten days of “noble silence,” I had the opportunity to chat with some of my fellow male meditators.  I was struck by the fact that almost two-thirds of the men that were present seemed to be in their mid-twenties (the rest averaged in age from about 30-70).  The ones I chatted with seemed bright, enthusiastic, and sincere.  Some had done numerous Vipassana retreats before this one; others were coming for their first experience, inspired by the benefits reported by trusted friends and family members.   
After chatting for about an hour, we were asked to proceed to the meditation hall, where our retreat would officially begin and all conversation and contact with one another would end.  Two preliminary requirements had to be gotten out of the way, before the course could begin.  First, we all had to agree to stay for the full ten day period of the course and to strictly abide by the code of discipline (sila) that is at the heart of all Buddhist practice.  This included:

1.       abstaining from killing any being
2.       abstaining from stealing
3.       abstaining from all sexual activity
4.       abstaining from telling lies
5.       abstaining from all intoxicants

These rules actually make considerable sense if one considers that the goal of a Vipassana retreat like this one is to purify the mind, and one’s mind can hardly be purified if one is going around stealing or lying.  In fact, it’s fairly easy to keep all these rules while on the retreat,  though admittedly some would be rather hard to put into strict practice in one’s normal life.
Participants also have to agree to follow the Vipassana method taught by Goenka and refrain from any other form of worship or spiritual practice during the ten days of the course.   Finally, each individual also has to agree to abide by the fairly strict schedule set up by the Center, which includes about 9 hours of group and individual meditation per day:

4:00 am                        Morning wake-up bell 
4:30-6:30 am              Meditate in the hall or in your room 
6:30-8:00 am              Breakfast break 
8:00-9:00 am              Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am            Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions 
11:00-12:00 noon      Lunch break 
12noon-1:00 pm        Rest and interviews with the teacher 
1:00-2:30 pm              Meditate in the hall or in your room 
2:30-3:30 pm              Group meditation in the hall 
3:30-5:00 pm              Meditate in the hall or in your own room
5:00-6:00 pm              Tea break 
6:00-7:00 pm              Group meditation in the hall 
7:00-8:15 pm              Teacher's Discourse in the hall 
8:15-9:00 pm              Group meditation in the hall 
9:00-9:30 pm              Question time in the hall 
        9:30 pm               Retire to your own room; Lights out 

Each person attending the course probably would find some difficulties with different aspects of the schedule. Certainly, the amount of continuous meditation required would discourage all but the most determined individuals from even attempting the course. Waking up at 4am is also no great pleasure. One also has to contend with the having no real meal after 12:00 noon (new students get a tea break at 5pm, where they can eat some fruit, but senior students can only have water after their noon lunch). I personally didn’t find abstaining from real meals at night too difficult, but I know that for some of my fellow meditators this sort of abstinence may have been a bit challenging.

The meditation schedule itself varied very little during the course of the ten days. At exactly 4am the gongs chimed to wake us up and we were expected to be meditating by 4:30 sharp either in the meditation hall or in our rooms. There were three formal group sittings each day that lasted about an hour. Each sitting began and ended with an audio chant from Goenka and instructions on how to proceed. Hearing Goenka’s voice for the first time reminded me a bit of Bella Lugosi and I had to refrain from chuckling at the thought of that. I personally found all the chanting and the repetitious instruction a bit tedious at times, but I know that many of my fellow meditators got much more out of these than I did.

 At the end of the evening, we were able to relax (a bit anyway), while watching a video of Goenka’s daily dharma talk. Unlike the audio instructions, these dharma talks are actually very inspiring and I could understand why so many people feel that no one else could teach the method of Vipassanaa quite like Goenka. Although he looked a bit like an older Jonathan Winters, Goenka’s teaching method is actually quite good. At the end of each talk, I felt I understood exactly why I was doing what I was doing each day and how it fit in with the teaching of the Buddha.

For the first four days, meditation practice basically focused on what Buddhists call samadhi—attempting to achieve some degree of mental concentration. For the first three days all we did was focus on the experience of air flowing in and out of the nostrils (or “no-strils,” in Goenka’s audio instructions). On the fourth day, there was a liberation of sorts, when we actually started the practice of Vipassana per se by moving from the rings of the nostrils to the area between the nostrils and the upper lip. The idea was to focus on a very small area of the body and try to detect as much sensation as possible in that area.

 By day two I thought I would go out of my mind from all the meditation I was doing and the thought that I still had eight days to go. My knees were also killing me from sitting on a cushion in the half-lotus position for far longer than my body was used to. I was determined, however, to tough it out, no matter how crazy the monkey mind got or no matter how severe the pain in my knees was. But by day four, I knew that there was no possible way that I was going to be able to remain absolutely still and not shift my position on the cushion at all during the formal meditation sessions. This would be required beginning on day five. So I asked the assistant teacher if I could move to a chair, and he agreed.

The practice of Vipassana itself was actually quite interesting. Beginning on day five we began to scan our bodies “from head to toe; from toe to head.” The idea was to become aware of sensation in every part of the body. At first I was a bit dubious about this practice, because I could only feel sensation in about half of my body parts. But by day seven I was feeling sensation in every part of my body (although my ears, surprisingly, were trouble throughout the ten days of the course).  
It might seem somewhat ridiculous to spend so much time searching for sensations in the body, but this is the heart of the practice of Vipassana or mindfulness practice. As one becomes aware of sensation, one also becomes aware of the most important insights attained by the Buddha:
  • Dukka (suffering): that attachment to pleasant sensations in the body or aversion to unpleasant sensations is the cause of all of our misery in life. If we can just treat all these sensations with equanimity, liberation from suffering occurs naturally.
  • Anicca (impermanence): sensations arise and fall away. There is nothing permanent about any sensation, so there’s no use clinging to them as “mine” or “belonging to me”. This leads one to understand the basic impermanence of everything in reality, including oneself. 
  • Annata (no self): there is no permanently enduring, independent self. This realization is the highest wisdom a Buddhist can achieve and is the key to ultimate liberation.
I have to confess that there were times I thought that I would go crazy with all the meditation we had to do. As Goenka predicted in his video dharma talks, days two and six were particularly difficult for me. By the end of day two, and after 18 hours of meditation on the breath, it began to dawn on me that I still had eight full days to go (believe me, that realization was not a happy prospect for me, especially given the pain that I was experiencing in my knees each time I sat on the cushion to meditate). But there were also moments of peacefulness and serenity that I’ve never experienced before in my life that enabled me to deal with the arduousness of the experience. 
On days 9 and 10, while I was sitting in my 3 x 4 foot meditation cell in the new pagoda, I even experienced jhana states that I couldn’t even imagine while doing my less intensive zen practice. My normal practice is one of dealing with the aversion that the meditation produces in me; the idea that meditation could also produce extremely pleasurable states was certainly not part of my own reality as a meditator. Of course, once I experienced the total absorptive quality of these states, it was almost impossible for me to treat then with the equanimity that was expected. But that, I suppose, was a good lesson for me too.
Although I was relieved on day 10 when “noble silence” ended and I could converse during certain periods with my fellow meditators, there was definitely a part of me that misses the focused atmosphere that continuous silence produces. Some of the younger guys—the meditation hot shots, who unlike me, had absolutely no trouble sitting on a cushion for hour upon hour without moving—couldn’t wait to talk with one another about their experiences on the retreat . Surprisingly, I think that I would have been perfectly content to have continued the silent atmosphere that pervaded the Center for the previous nine days. It was certainly interesting, however, to hear the personal stories of my fellow meditators, all of whom struck me as even more sincere and intelligent than I had initially thought. That there were so many young people who were willing to put aside their normal lives to practice intensive meditation for so long a period also gave me hope for the future of our species. 
As for what I got out of my own Vipassana experience, that’s difficult to say at this point. I certainly think that the retreat pushed my own meditative practice into a more focused and serious direction than had been the case before. Several people told me that I seemed much calmer after the retreat. If that was indeed the case, it was a transient effect and didn’t last all that long.  
In the end, however, I was just happy to know that I could make it through an experience like this without going completely insane. Being totally alone with one’s mind is an experience that most 21st century people try to avoid at all costs. I may not have made friends with my own” monkey mind”, but, after 10 days alone with the old fellow, it was certainly nice to know that the two of us can get along well together under the right circumstances. And that insight alone made ten days of pain and suffering well worth it for me.

Dr. Michael S. Russo is a Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at Molloy College in New York, the manager of The Sophia Project, an online repository of educational resources in Philosophy, and the author of That's Right: An Introduction to Ethical Theory.  He can be reached at mrusso@molloy.edu.