Ends of Tunnels

The fourth night of Vipassana Camp, Goenka informed us “tomorrow is Vipassana Day!” He went on to let us know that everything leading up to the next day had been preparation for the real work at hand. Fanfriggintastic. You mean to tell me that the major mental damage I have been doing is merely a precursor to the real deal. What have I signed up for?

I was awakened on Vipassana Day by the 4am bells, they roused me from a really wonderful dream and I was immediately resentful for the intrusion. I stepped out of bed firmly on the wrong foot and began my day. I trudged down to the meditation hall, resentment in tow, and settled in for the two-hour metal fistfight session.

I threw in the towel after 45 minutes and all but ran back to my plywood bed to try and recapture the dream. I was in Colorado with my friends and we were applying for river permits for the upcoming season, full of hope and dreams about trips that could be. But try as I might I could not go back in time or to sleep. So instead I embraced wholeheartedly my bad mood and let it consume me.

Finally 3pm arrived… Vipassana hour. Perhaps this new teaching, this new way of meditation could get me to a better state. I prayed for new tools to abate the craving, monkey mind. I had hope, I was willing…
Goenks’a voice boomed over the speakers. “For the next two hours do not open your eyes, your hands or your feet. Remain absolutely still.” OH … MY… GAWD! This is the path to enlightenment? Are you kidding me? I really need to start doing a bit more pre-trip research. Now I am going to have to leave and tell everyone I am a Vipassana Camp drop out – oh the humiliation.

But that Goenka is a wily fellow, he’s seen this all before and so he sprung this on us while we were already in the meditation hall, a room without escape, my emancipation would have to wait two grueling hours. I shoved some more pillows wherever I could to hold me upright and begged to the cosmos for the end to come. Two hours later and something damn near miraculous had occurred. I had not moved. I followed the instructions, focused every bit of my attention as I was told and somewhere along the way the pain abated and I began meditating.
Creakily I stood up, stretched my legs, rolled my ankles and lifted my weary body from the ground. As we left the hall and walked the path back to the residences I could not help but to let out a laugh. The stream of people in front of me, all so stiff, were walking like B-movie zombies, I half-expected them to break out in the Thriller dance right then and there. I laughed; no one else got the joke.

Day five and the euphoria of meditation was nowhere to be found. I felt like I had fully regressed to the spoiled 15 year-old who would slam doors and pout when things didn’t go exactly her way. I crave, I desire, I lust. In the meditation hall I cannot sit still, I cannot quiet my mind. Goenka’s voice is nails on a chalkboard to me. I am annoyed with my cushions, with the clips in the hair of the woman in front of me, with everyone behind me who can see me fidget. My inner-dialogue is writing War and Peace, heavy on the War, light on the Peace, and it will not shut up.
I feel ugly in a deep and visceral way. I am surrounded by all of my flaws, they are parading by me one by one. Hello vanity, hello insecurity, shallowness, selfishness, stupidity, inarticulation, nice of you all to join in the party. I am a judging, raging, unstable mess and I am too weak to fix any of it. The pain in the space along my spine, below my right shoulder blade is blinding and I can not be equanamous. Sorry Goenka but the light sensation on my right elbow is losing the battle of awareness when compared to the hot poker in my back. I can’t do this.
That night I hit my breaking point when we went to the video room to watch the evening discourse. Up until now this had been a sort of reprieve because someone besides the voice in my head was talking and perhaps more importantly because we could lean against the wall during the video and mercifully rest our aching backs. On night five each of our cushions contained a note. “Please do no lean on the walls.” I cracked.
If you attend all the sittings it adds up to eleven hours a day of cushion time, broken into one- to two-hour-long sessions. Again, this is where a little research into this practice would have served me well. I vaguely knew about the three, hour–long no moving sessions, of course I didn’t think the no moving part was so literal, but I guess somewhere I pictured a pool and peaceful jungle walks filling the hours between blissful meditation hours. Ahh there’s that active imagination that seems to be the root of all my woes…. Instead if you aren’t in the hall or eating, you are in your room with NOTHING to distract you. No books, no writing materials, nothing to clean or fold or prepare, just you.

Day six I embraced my habit of ignoring the morning wakeup bells and the first mediation of the day. This early morning sitting can be done in the meditation hall or ‘at our own place’. My own place was prone and behind closed eyelids. I woke up that day hopeful, bordering on happy. My first of the three strict meditations –the ones where we cannot flinch- went really well, it was peaceful and only mildly excruciating. We were released at 9am to practice in our residences so I resumed my prone, eyes closed meditation.

As the day wore on, I continued to feel relatively good, we aren’t talking bliss here but rather the absence of the mental trauma that had been plaguing me up till now. Goenka reminded us that three main things cause misery: craving, aversion and ignorance. I have been actively working on the education and fear parts these last few months, but craving… well that is proving to be a doosy. I craved for Colorado, friends, the new/old realty I had manifested in my mind so clearly these last several days.

Goenka says to be stronger than your thoughts. But it feels SO good to live in my cravings, to remember every minute detail of what once seemed so mundane - which cupboard the coffee mugs were in, how flannel sheets feel on a cold winter nights, how it is to not have to bring your own toilet paper to the bathroom with you.

But I get it, I see how dwelling and craving create misery, I understand the goal here. Nonetheless, I am weak and try as I might I’d say 10:45 of those eleven hours are spent with both hands reaching for the stars.

Our mind is our own worst enemy. It’s rational enough to know what is best, but rooted so deeply in old habit patterns that harm while seeming to comfort, that too often it leads us towards things that are inherently bad for us.

It went on like this for the remainder of the course, small ups, deep crushing downs. Day nine was in fact the lowest point for me. Day ten was a good day, but then again that was prisoner release day so who knows how much stock to put into that.

It will take me a few weeks to process the affects of this course fully. Ask me in a month if I would do it again and likely I will say yes, but today as I ride the bus back to Bangkok, back to a real bed, back to western toilets and plentiful TP, back to real food after noon and cold beer, I feel grateful for the opportunity, grateful to the Dhamma servers who volunteer their time so that craving weaklings like me can experience this, and grateful that through yoga I had already learned many of the lessons of Vipassana, so even if I deviate from this specific path to liberation, I have the tools to lead the kind of life I want to already.

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