I took the ten-day Vipassana meditation course at the Southern California Vipassana Center in 29 Palms. I, and about 59 other people, meditated daily for up to 12 hours. I spent about two thirds of that time in my room lying or sitting on the bed and the other third in the meditation hall on cushions on the floor. Sometimes I used a back support.
Early in the course, during one of the hours of meditation in the hall, my hurt, angry heart melted in a flow of tears that lasted the entire hour.
I enjoyed wholesome meals daily. I ate fruit for breakfast, usually oranges, apples and bananas. Once there was peaches. Other participants enjoyed oatmeal, bread, or granola with the fruit. I generally had a small serving of sunflower seeds with mine. I also had a cup of herbal tea with honey which I drank before starting to eat. There was also caffeine tea and instant coffee available, sugar, milk, yogurt and rice milk. Lunch was a variety of vegetable starches: beans, potatoes, both brown and white rice, salad and dressings. Cheese was available for the non-vegans. The bread and pasta served appeared to be mostly whole grain. There was also some kind of steamed vegetable. There was a gourmet main dish. Usually it was marked whether vegan or dairy. None of the menu choices contained meat or fish. Glutin-free or not was not always labeled, but after a brief and mild flare-up of my celiac condition, I limited myself to a small portion of the main dish, unless I could see wheat noodles or pasta in it, in which case I was content with just the salad, vegetable and brown rice, which, along with the white, was available every day. A raw fooder would find lettuce, raw shredded carrot and beet, chopped cucumber, celery, sunflower seeds and sunflower seed dressing.There were chop sticks available which, in my group, hardly anyone used. The lettuce was cut in long strips. Not sure how one would eat it without using chop sticks, but I was too busy eating to watch what others were doing. They did make a lot of clattering with their spoons and forks against their plates, except on the last day when we were at last allowed to talk, then all you could hear was the roar of many conversations going on at once. We did not communicate with one another for the first nine days of the course. We were like loners in the lunchroom and outside queuing up and serving ourselves, then sitting down and eating without communicating. The third meal was just tea, fruit and milk. There were cakes and cookies but I deserted most of the dessert except when there was slices of watermelon which I, of coarse, ate first.
The meditation instruction consisted of audios and videos of S. N. Goenka (1924-2013). A different one of his talks was shown on two video displays, one on each side of the meditation hall, every evening. On the women’s side of the hall, a woman teacher called us up once every few days to find out if we were successfully applying the teaching. It was the same on the men’s side, only the teacher was a man.
The indoor spaces are all air conditioned. The meditation hall is kept quite cool. I enjoyed having a bathroom and shower in my single occupant room, a short walk from both the meditation hall and the dining hall. Some of the rooms do share plumbing though. I arrived at registration early (and I’m an elder). Even though it was quite hot outside in the California desert during August, I rarely used the air conditioner in the room. It seemed to remain comfortable with just the ceiling fan. (The room also contains a heater which I had no reason to use).
“Last night I had the strangest dream,” by Woody Guthrie was the last song I sang before leaving for the Vipassana retreat. It was going through my head while I was there and still is. The words, “…I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war… And when the paper was all signed and a million copies made…,” came to mind when I signed the agreement not to kill, not to steal, not to lie, not to commit sexual misconduct, and not to use intoxicants. I wondered if the first million people have signed that agreement yet. With Vipassana Centers all over the world that have been training 60 people every two weeks for decades, could the number of people that have signed that agreement have reached a million contemporary human beings on this planet right now?
Participants are not allowed to have any form of tobacco, drugs other than prescription, or alcohol during the 11 days we are at the center. Our cell phones were kept for us by an assistant teacher, and returned as we were leaving. What a nice break it was to be completely away from drinking and smoking!
There is a schedule of rest periods during which we can walk a little walking path, one for woman and another for men. The women’s trail was pretty popular during the time I liked to go, early in the morning while it was still cool .
I was trying to sit in the semi-lotus for an hour. After about a half hour my right knee started hurting. I didn’t try to push the pain away, I just paid attention to it. I remembered an old injury I had sustained in that knee. I could not get up the steps to the apartment where I was living with my two teens in the summer of 2003 without both hands on the rail, dragging my right leg up one step at a time behind my left, for several days, within a few weeks of our move from the family home.
I want to forgive the people that committed atrocities against me. I have no power over their karma,. I can only stop the anger that surges up within me whenever I consider them or what I experienced at their hands. The body remembers even if the mind forgets.
You have an aversion to being humiliated, so you become angry when you realize how badly you have been humiliated. As you watch the breath in meditation you are affirming your intrinsic nobility and humiliation loses its power over you. I have been trying to find the root of my neuroses remembering all the pain that happened. I felt a shift. I am remembering the good things. I am remembering the joy. I am remembering the love. I am expecting good things.
The hour goes by very slowly when there is pain. At first my back hurt, then that seemed to subside as I found my balanced position, then it was the hips and knees, especially the right knee. Now I can meditate longer without pain. Continuing for a little while against the pain lengthens the span of time that I can sit comfortably practicing mindfulness meditation.
The person sitting directly behind me laughed loudly at one of S N Goenka’s jokes during the discourse. Not the first time this had happened. I was trying very hard to decipher his thick accent and derive meaning from his words. The sudden, loud ejaculations directly behind me at what seemed like random times were unnerving, and at one point had me completely unglued. Her laugh was pleasant. Our little meditation mats were close together. I was turned a little to the side to face the TV. Her peals of laughter went right in my ear. Goenkaji was talking about the importance of both awareness and equanimity. I wanted to talk to the assistant teacher, which I felt was a better option than yelling out loud, “Could you put a lid on it? My ear is right here!” I realized I needed to calm down first. Then I realized I had lost my equanimity and this was exactly what Goenkaji was talking about! I chuckled silently, realizing that this had come up to help illustrate the principle I was learning. My anger was gone. Seeing the humor in the situation, I approached the assistant teacher when the break was called. I said, “The person behind me is laughing loudly. I lost my equanimity. I am craving for her to be more considerate.”
Then the very next day it was another close neighbor, this time the person in front of me, who was bothering me. I thought, I am so glad this course is almost over because I wouldn’t be able to stand it if it was going on much longer! There it was, something to be grateful for, an affirmation to the impermanence of my current frustration. I felt my mood shift from tense and angry to happy and relaxed. But I wasn’t skilled enough to keep it. Soon the anger crept over me again.
The wretched smell of hand sanitizer had been plaguing my nostrils throughout the day. When the lady sat down in front of me reeking of cheap perfume I hoped it would waft away as the day progressed. But every time she sat down quietly in front of me, at the beginning of every session, I could smell her arrival between closed eyes. After one of the breaks she entered the foyer to the meditation hall right after me. She stopped at a dispenser of hand sanitizer which was there on the shelf and infused both her hands and my air with the alcohols in that bottle. By evening I was ready to shove the entire bottle up her nose!
Goenkaji had been discussing anger. He was explaining how to manage anger. He said you don’t just suppress it because that drives it down into the subconscious where it erupts later. The methods of anger management based on distraction don’t work. What you do is you somehow become totally aware of the anger but you don’t act on it. I wish I understood the details better.
There I was, looking at my anger from the inside while stretched out on my bed during the short break after the discourse. I miss a lot of Goenkaji’s words. He kept saying, “equanimity,” earlier in the week with the accent on the second syllable. It flew by me the first twenty or thirty times in a Sanskrit-sounding salad of syllables that to me was completely unintelligible. The next day the teacher asked me was I developing eQUAnimity, also placing the accent on the second syllable, and I said, “Am I developing what?” She repeated it a little slower and I finally got it. “Yes, my emotions are getting calmer.” So I don’t know just exactly how you manage anger from the inside, probably because of the substantial number of words still unrecognizable to me in the speech of these subcontinental Indian and Burmese Buddhists. Do you fantasize about what you would like to do and then just don’t do it, like you don’t move your legs during the hour of strong determination?
Goenkaji kept saying “Parami,” a foreign word that I had not heard defined. During the question and answer period at the end of the long day, I had asked the teacher, “Why does Goenka say these things are part of him?” She didn’t understand my question. “He said, ‘There’s ten parts of me. The first part of me is this..'”
She said,”Oh no, that’s ‘Parami,'” and she spelled it and explained it. I was not able to hang on to the meaning, but memorized the spelling thinking I could look it up later. (And I still will, but right now I want to focus on getting this blog post ready).
Another word Goenkaji kept repeating, which I didn’t understand, was, “Sankara.” For awhile I thought he was talking about his son named Kara. So I asked the teacher about it, but got the word wrong! I asked her about, “Sansara,” instead! “Samsara,” refers to the birth and death wheel, and is a word I don’t think Goenka had even used, but I still don’t know what, “Sankara,” is.
I have already mentioned how the Indian subcontinental pronunciation of “equanimity,” with the accent on a different syllable than I am used to, threw me for a loop for quite awhile. Another word Goenkaji kept repeating was “equanimous.'” I don’t believe I ever actually heard that word before and it required a substantial number of repetitions for me to start recognizing it.
It was time to return to the hall. It was supposed to have been a five-minute break but I had taken ten. I got up, walked outside and up the gentle slope to the meditation hall. The assistant teacher was taking off her sandals while I entered the foyer. I hit the bottle of hand sanitizer violently with the karate blade of my left hand. It hit the wall behind the shelf then came to rest on its side. I walked into the hall and sat down in my place. I had performed an action that was only symbolic of what my anger had wanted to do. No real harm was caused. The plastic bottle did not break when I struck it. It did not damage the wall. The noise from striking the bottle was mainly heard by me as both foyer doors were closed.
After another meditation session the next day, I was behind the lady who appeared to be overusing the hand sanitizer as we left the hall. She took some hand sanitizer while in the foyer. Then as she was walking toward a residence, I saw her cup her hand over her nose like she was huffing. My God what a sad addiction! I had wanted to dump out the hand sanitizer bottle over the woman’s head in a rage because she had exposed me, to what was to me an unpleasant odor, and what I feared were toxic fumes, all day while I was meditating in my assigned place right behind her. When the anger is not controlling me it is easy to see that I didn’t actually want the consequences that would have resulted from striking her physically with the bottle. I didn’t really want to hurt her. When I observed her, apparently, huffing the fumes from her hand I was filled with grief and compassion. I was shocked and saddened to see someone caught in an addiction to a toxic substance. I had wanted to rub it into her hair and shove it up her nose yelling, “Is this enough hand sanitizer for you?” But when I saw her doing that to herself I found I could forgive her for exposing me to those unpleasant and toxic fumes, because I realized she was hurting herself even more. What a sad craving. I pray that she be enabled to overcome her substance abuse issues!
I hope I have learned something about equanimity during those 10 days. Does that mean I can now be more conveniently robbed? I don’t think so. There is something to observing the anger on the inside. I was not doing it correctly when I took my rage out on the hand sanitizer dispenser. But I will learn. A woman arrived at the center on my group’s last full day with a book display. I told her about the difficulty I was having understanding Goenka. She recommended I get a book called, The Discourse Summaries of S. N. Goenka, and that I can order it online at http://www.pariyatti.org.
S N Goenka was born in Burma to a family successful in business. He made his own successful career in the family tradition, was married for over 60 years, and raised a large family. He had been plagued by migraine headaches and sought relief from various physicians without success until he took a ten-day course in Vipassana meditation, which was still being taught in Burma from the time Buddhism first arrived to that area, even though the protocol had died out in other areas, including India. After retiring, Goenka began conducting the 10-day sessions himself, and the demand grew. Vipassana centers sprung up in India and other places with classes being conducted by Goenka and others who had studied with him. Centers were built and established in Europe and America and throughout the globe. Vipassana means as it is. The website to sign up for the free introductory ten-day course is http://www.dhamma.org.
My husband and I arrived at the Southern California Vipassana campus together the day before the first full day of the course, then we went our separate ways for the next 9 days. On the 10th day we were allowed to converse with each other, which we did briefly. Then on the 11th day we departed together.
The first evening and the first full day in the hall I guiltily took a few glances into the men’s area without seeing my husband. The women were on the right half of the meditation hall and the men were on the left. A few sat in chairs along the side wall. I did not think that I should allow myself just to gawk at the men until I had picked him out of the crowd. I was sitting near the front and, as I found out the second day, he was sitting near the back. That made it easier for him to see me as he did not have to twist around like I did in order to see him. It was a little bit unsettling emotionally not to see him in that crowd of men in the few furtive glances I allowed myself. During the second full day I caught sight of him as he was walking toward the door on the men’s side of the hall. Ah, how my heart was relieved!
The accommodations during the course were adequate and comfortable. The meals were satisfying and healthy. The instruction was enlightening and entertaining. We supplied our own sheets and towels and deep cleaned our rooms before we left, but a remarkable value in food, lodging and instruction had been received. My husband and I walked away from the center having paid nothing, nor even having made any promises to pay anything in the future. No one tried to guilt us into making a contribution to the expenses of the program, other than a brief and informative presentation given during the last course day, about the work there and the opportunities for various forms of contribution, with more emphasis, I thought, being placed on service opportunities than financial contribution opportunities.
Never was any suggestion made to me that I should change my religion. On the contrary, the literature and web sites about the program clearly indicate that Vipassana meditation is a technique that will benefit anyone regardless of religion or no religion. S N Goenka repeated this several times during his discourses. There is no prescribed ritual, no dogma. Each student is free to use the technique if it has been demonstrated to his or her satisfaction that it is beneficial to him or her.