For most of the year 2015, and the first h half of 2016, Jimi and I were in an Edgar Cayce discussion group that met weekly at Drude’s retreat. One of the participants had taken the 10-day Vipassana meditation course at 29 Palms and had spoken glowingly about it.
Jimi and I took the course in August of 2016. 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.
We spent almost the first half of our meditating time focusing exclusively on our breath. Inhale exhale What is the sensation at the upper lip? On and on… Eventually, we got to the place where we were instructed to slowly scan our bodies with our awareness, looking for sensations, similar to what is generally known as Mindfulness Meditation. At the retreat, we were instructed not to use any mantras (mentally repeating a word or phrase while meditating) or visualizations, for the duration of the 10-days.
I sat on a mat in a cross-legged position, and meditated on bodily sensations. We were encouraged not to fall into a trance state, and I think that maintaining the waking state while meditating is more beneficial, still any kind of meditation is better than none.
There wasn’t much discussion of posture in the video presentations I watched at the Vipassana retreat, which were of talks given by S. N. Goenka, recorded at Vipassana workshops he had conducted prior to his passing in 2013. Goenka delivered his discourses seated in a chair with his wife also seated in a chair to his left. I never heard her speak. A row of experienced mediators were seated on meditation cushions inn the front row. You were free to see how they were sitting and emulate them if desired. I did not see anyone with their feet placed on their thighs. Most sat with their knees out to the sides and their ankles crossed in the center. I found that if I sat with one ankle over the other for any length of time the one on the bottom would go numb and then tingle in pain, so I placed one heel directly in front of my crotch and the other heal in front of the first ankle. I didn’t see anyone with their palms turned up on the knees. Hands were either relaxed in the lap or placed on the thighs or knees, palms down. Those who preferred sat in chairs. Some people’s knees were up off the mat a little, but I found that I stayed more comfortable during the one to two hour meditation sessions while resting my knees against the mat. A buckwheat hull meditation pillow under the pelvis helped accommodate this.
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 were slices of watermelon which I, of coarse, enjoyed.
The meditation instruction consisted of audios and videos of S. N. Goenka (1924-2013). His talks were shown on two video displays, one on each side of the meditation hall, every evening. There was a different talk for every day of the course, recorded from a course he had directed in the English language. (There are courses conducted in other languages such as Spanish, Persian and Burmese.) 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, it does seem likely.
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 Goenka’s 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 were 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.
“Siddhartha Gotama [Buddha] gained enlightenment by discovering the root cause of craving and aversion, and by eradicating them where they arise, at the level of sensation. What he himself had done, he taught to others. He was not unique in teaching that one should come out of craving and aversion; even before him, this was taught in India. Neither is morality unique to the teaching of the Buddha, nor the development of control of one’s mind. Similarly, wisdom at the intellectual, emotional, or devotional levels also existed before the Buddha. The unique element in his teaching lies elsewhere, in his identifying physical sensation as the crucial point at which craving and aversion begin, and at which they must be eliminated. Unless one deals with sensations, one will be working only at a superficial level of the mind, while in the depths the old habit of reaction will continue. By learning to be aware of all the sensations within oneself and to remain equanimous towards them, one stops reactions where they start: one comes out of misery.” Day Six, The Discourses of S.N. Goenka.
Stretched out on my bed during the break I could not figure out how to handle anger on the inside. Later, I learned from his book that the instant my nostrils pick up the smell of hand sanitizer is when I need to work on equanimity.
Goenkaji 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.”
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 so I could look it up later.
“There are ten good mental qualities—pāramī—that one must perfect to reach the final goal…
“The first pāramī is nekkhamma—renunciation…. In a course like this, one has the opportunity to do so, [to develop this quality] since here one lives on the charity of others. Accepting whatever is offered as food, accommodation, or other facilities, one gradually develops the quality of renunciation….
“The next pāramī is sīla—morality. One tries to develop this pāramī by following the five precepts at all times, both during a course and in daily life. [“The Five Precepts: I undertake the rule of training to abstain from killing living creatures. I undertake the rule of training to abstain from taking what is not given. I undertake the rule of training to abstain from sexual misconduct. I undertake the rule of training to abstain from wrong speech. I undertake the rule of training to abstain from intoxicants, which are causes of intemperate behavior.” From Day Two Discourse in The Discourse Summaries of S.N. Goenka]….
“Another pāramī is viriya—effort. In daily life one makes efforts, for example to earn one’s livelihood. Here, however, the effort is to purify the mind by remaining aware and equanimous. This is right effort, which leads to liberation.
“Another pāramī is paññā—wisdom…. The real pāramī of wisdom is the understanding that develops within oneself, by one’s own experience in meditation. One realizes directly by self-observation the facts of impermanence, suffering, and egolessness. By this direct experience of reality one comes out of suffering.
“Another pāramī is khanti—tolerance. At a course like this, working and living together in a group, one may find oneself becoming disturbed and irritated by the actions of another person. But soon one realizes that the person causing a disturbance is ignorant of what he is doing, or a sick person. The irritation goes away, and one feels only love and compassion for that person. One has started developing the quality of tolerance.
“Another pāramī is sacca—truth. By practicing sīla one undertakes to maintain truthfulness at the vocal level. However, sacca must also be practiced in a deeper sense. Every step on the path must be a step with truth, from gross, apparent truth, to subtler truths, to ultimate truth. There is no room for imagination. One must always remain with the reality that one actually experiences at the present moment.
“Another pāramī is adhiṭṭhāna—strong determination. When one starts a Vipassana course, one makes a determination to remain for the entire period of the course. One resolves to follow the precepts, the rule of silence, all the discipline of the course. After the introduction of the technique of Vipassana itself, one makes a strong determination to meditate for the entire hour during each group sitting without opening eyes, hands or legs. At a later stage on the path, this pāramī will be very important; when coming close to the final goal, one must be ready to sit without break until reaching liberation. For this purpose it is necessary to develop strong determination.
“Another pāramī is mettā—pure, selfless love. In the past one tried to feel love and goodwill for others, but this was only at the conscious level of the mind. At the unconscious level the old tensions continued. When the entire mind is purified, then from the depths one can wish for the happiness of others. This is real love, which helps others and helps oneself as well.
“Yet another pāramī is upekkhā—equanimity. One learns to keep the balance of the mind not only when experiencing gross, unpleasant sensations or blind areas in the body, but also in the face of subtle, pleasant, sensations. In every situation one understands that the experience of that moment is impermanent, bound to pass away. With this understanding one remains detached, equanimous.
“The last pāramī is dāna—charity, donation. For a lay person, this is the first essential step of Dhamma. A lay person has the responsibility of earning money by right livelihood, for the support of oneself and of any dependents. But if one generates attachment to the money that one earns, then one develops ego. For this reason, a portion of what one earns must be given for the good of others. ” From Day Nine Discourse in The Discourse Summaries of S.N. Goenka.
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, “Samsara,” instead! “Samsara,” refers to the birth and death wheel, and is a word I don’t think Goenka had even used.
“Something unwanted happens, and one generates a sankhāra [impurity in the subconscious mind] of aversion. As the sankhāra arises in the mind, it is accompanied by an unpleasant physical sensation. Next moment, because of the old habit of reaction, one again generates aversion, which is actually directed towards the unpleasant bodily sensation. The external stimulus of the anger is secondary; the reaction is in fact to the sensation within oneself. The unpleasant sensation causes one to react with aversion, which generates another unpleasant sensation, which again causes one to react. In this way, the process of multiplication begins. If one does not react to the sensation but instead smiles. and understands its impermanent nature, then one does not generate a new sankhāra, and the sankhāra that has already arisen will pass away without multiplying. Next moment, another sankhāra of the same type will arise from the depths of the mind; one remains equanimous, and it will pass away. Next moment another arises; one remains equanimous, and it passes away.” The process of eradication has started. S. N. Goenka, The Discourse Summaries, The Eighth Day.
“…[T]he word saṅkhārā means not only mental reactions, but also the results of these reactions. Every mental reaction is a seed which gives a fruit, and everything that one experiences in life is a fruit, a result of one’s own actions, that is, one’s saṅkhārā, past or present. Hence the meaning is, ‘Everything that arises, that becomes composed, will pass away, will disintegrate.’ Merely accepting this reality emotionally, or out of devotion, or intellectually, will not purify the mind. It must be accepted at the actual level, by experiencing the process of arising and passing away within oneself. If one experiences impermanence directly by observing one’s own physical sensations, then the understanding that develops is real wisdom, one’s own wisdom. And with this wisdom one becomes freed from misery. Even if pain remains, one no longer suffers from it. Instead one can smile at it, because one can observe it.
“The old mental habit is to seek to push away painful sensations and to pull in pleasurable ones. So long as one is involved in the game of pain-and-pleasure, push-and-pull, the mind remains agitated, and one’s misery increases. But once one learns to observe objectively without identifying with the sensations, then the process of purification starts, and the old habit of blind reaction and of multiplying one’s misery is gradually weakened and broken. One must learn how to just observe.
“This does not mean that by practicing Vipassana one becomes a ‘vegetable,’ passively allowing others to do one harm. Rather, one learns how to act instead of to react. Previously one lived a life of reaction, and reaction is always negative. Now you are learning how to live properly, to live a healthy life of real action. Whenever a difficult situation arises in life, one who has learned to observe sensations will not fall into blind reaction. Instead he will wait a few moments, remaining aware of sensations and also equanimous, and then will make a decision and choose a course of action. Such an action is certain to be positive, because it proceeds from a balanced mind; it will be a creative action, helpful to oneself and others.
“Gradually, as one learns to observe the phenomenon of mind and matter within, one comes out of reactions, because one comes out of ignorance. The habit pattern of reaction is based on ignorance. Someone who has never observed reality within does not know what is happening deep inside, does not know how he reacts with craving or aversion, generating tensions which make him miserable.” From Day Six of The Discourse Summaries of S.N. Goenka.
“Very deep lying impurities—saṅkhārā—buried in the unconscious now start appearing at the surface level of the mind. This is not a regression; it is a progress, for unless they come to the surface, the impurities cannot be eradicated. They arise, one observes equanimously, and they pass away one after another.” From Day Ten in The Discourse Summaries of S.N. Goenka.
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.