When this whole thing started, I kept thinking of it as Zombie Meditation Camp. Everyone wakes quietly at 4am, while it’s still basically night out, and gets ready in their own way. Some shower, some stay in bed till the last second, some brush teeth, but the wake up call is obviously not easy for most of us. Then the hooded zombies silently, and in single file, shuffle our way to the meditation hall. In this darkened hall, we all have 24″ square cloth-covered foam meditation cushions arranged neatly in about 12 rows front to back with 3 per row on the left for the men, and 4 on the right for the women. Our names are printed on pieces of paper where our assigned position will be for the next 10 days. We receive recorded instructions through a speaker system by the creator of this particular course, S.N. Goenka. Most meditation sessions begin with a recording of Goenka chanting the words of Buddha in the old language of India. He has a very low, resonant voice, and again, it’s more chanting than it is singing, so at times the sounds are unfamiliar, (“aaaaahhh, at the back of the throat”), and some of them almost very guttural. I begin to hear words that sound like english words pop out of the chanting…. “naked,” “Johnny say a hey hey,” some Japanese words, “manko (vagina),” “ato wa (next),” “anata (you)”, and a couple of things sound like Ewok speak: “Gu Du Gu Du,” “wally wally, jup jup”.
The first meditation technique we learn is Anapana. Which is basically watching the respiration, as it is, naturally. You are not to control the breathing, and it is made very clear that this is not a breathing technique or exercise. We are to observe the breath as it is happening, by focusing on the sensation of air moving in and out of the nostril or nostrils. It’s a very subtle sensation, and difficult to even notice at times, but this is to tune our minds. And we do this for hours and hours and hours. The entire first day is this technique, and we meditate for a little over 10 hours every day. Occasionally there will be more instructions to help us, but basically it’s the same thing. And that first day everyone is uncomfortable, butts hurt, knees hurt, hips hurt, backs hurt. People are sneezing, coughing, some are snoring briefly. It’s a pretty restless meditation hall.
The first couple days are kind of a blur. In fact the whole thing has somewhat run together in my mind. So much happened, and there was a lot of time where I was simply trying to get myself to meditate, and a lot of time with not too much success. But Goenka encouraged us to think of our mind as a wild animal. When that animal is untamed, it’s power can be very destructive, and harmful. But when it’s tamed, it provides great benefit to it’s master, and to those who residually benefit (potentially all of mankind). A trainer who trains a wild animal isn’t going to do it in a day or two days, or even three days. The trainer also isn’t going to get frustrated, he’s going to work with that animal day after day, patiently, and persistently… patiently and persistently. Goenka has a very nice way of repeating certain things which are important to keep in mind. I found it a bit odd at first, but soon found it to be very helpful.
So patiently, I persisted. And I began having some nice meditations. My mind began to quiet, and I could focus for longer and longer. It seemed like my progress was very up and down, like a sawtoothed wave form, but that the overall trajectory was upward bound. I would have one “good” meditation, and that would usually be followed by a not so good session where I was working very hard, and it really felt like a struggle. Sometimes the struggle was to simply stay focused, sometimes it was to keep distracting thoughts out of my mind (like a favorite song), and sometimes it was to keep myself awake. But a lot of the time it was dealing with the discomfort, and the pain of sitting for such long periods of time. Everyone is encouraged to sit on the floor, unless you have some medical condition where this is undoable. So some of the older folks had chairs, but most of us had our cushions, all piled up in different formations. Some had more cushions, some had less. Several of us brought our own round buckwheat cushions for our butts, and it took me a while to experiment with adding different things before I really got something that was workable for me. Early on, at one of the question sessions with the teacher, I asked about my knees. I was having trouble sitting for the entire time, and knew that when we started Vipassana on the 4th day, that we would have three sittings of “Great Determination” where we were to try (with great determination) to not move our legs, eyes, or hands if at all possible. If our posture began to sag, we could straighten up, but that was really all the movement we should be doing. I asked the teacher about my knees. He said that it was normal, and was actually a sign that the purification had started. It usually starts in the areas that are weak such as the knees, hips and back. All of which were weak areas for me. But I was concerned about actually damaging my knees. I couldn’t handle it if I blew my knees out because I stubbornly sat with “Great Determination” in one pose for a bunch of one hour sessions, and couldn’t play drums any more. But he very clearly stated, “No. You will not damage your knees by sitting for 1 hour.” OK. It’s a form of purification. This technique is a way of purifying the body-mind. So I’ll trust the process and work through the pain.
I have been familiar with getting through pain in different ways already. For example, because of how much drumming I have done at different periods in my life, I’ve had to ice different parts of my body, and that’s definitely breaking through a pain barrier. Your body says, “oh, that’s cold…. Hey, that’s pretty cold, I’m not sure if I’m OK with that… No really, this isn’t funny, we need to get out of here. HEY!!! You gotta get that damn cold stuff off of me NOW!!! AAAAAAHHHHHH THIS IS TOO COLD!!! I’M GONNA DIE HERE!!!” But I would breathe through it, and eventually the cold would go away, and it would feel fine. And the icing helped a lot. The body goes to work to prevent hypothermia, and rushes large amounts of blood to the area, in turn helping muscles recover faster. I’ve also gone to Dr. Sue, a little Chinese lady in Orlando who I would get Reflexology (Chinese foot massage) from. At times it was so painful I wanted to cry. But when she was done, I would feel a flood of fresh new energy flow through the leg that she had just worked on. So I was willing to trust the process here, and deal with the pain of my knees.
The first three days were pretty much the same Anapana meditation technique. They expanded it a bit, but it was pretty much the same thing. On the third night’s discourse, we learned that we would be doing the actual Vipassana the next day, which was very exciting. Maher had mentioned that Vipassana was the practice of seeing things as they are, and that we would be watching our own thoughts- which I’ve kind of tried, but never had too much success with. I would always just get carried away with the thoughts, and forget that there was an “I” that was watching them. But it turns out that this type of Vipassana is actually much different. It is observation, but it’s the observation of the sensations on the body, as they are. You’re not watching thoughts, or images, and visualizing is strongly discouraged. You should be focused on what’s actually happening, and the sensations that are actually there. This is taught as a scientific process of observation. The same way a scientist would observe some chemicals reacting in his lab, he’s simply watching to see what happens. So in that way we just watched. We learned how to scan our entire bodies from head to toe in a slow and progressive manner, piece by piece, part by part, tuning in to the sensations of the body. Whether they be very subtle, and hardly noticeable, like the light tingly sensation on your cheek, or intense sensations, like the pain of tense muscles. Just observing. Observing with a calm and equanimous mind, and with the wisdom of Anicce: The truth that everything in the Universe is arising and passing away. Because when you get down to the sub-atomic particle, or wave-let level, that’s really what’s happening. It’s all the stuff I’ve been studying for years. Watching movies like “What the Bleep do we Know?”, and their spin offs. Reading books and listening to interviews by Eckharte Tolle, and studies of the new Quantum Physics where scientists are seeing how much affect our observation of objects has on them. This is all stuff that Buddha realized, and observed himself, through a supremely attuned mind. He had sharpened his powers of observation to the point to where he could observe the sub-atomic structures in his own body. He could view the Universe within- the Kingdom of Heaven within. He observed how at the sub-atomic level, where it is just wavelets, each little wavelet arises, and passes away trillions of times in the time it takes us to blink an eye. Now science is to the point where through complicated instruments, scientists are able to observe the same things. I’ve always believed that the mind has power over matter, and had some small examples of it in my life. I was about to experience it in a whole new way.
On the fourth day, we had some more Anapana meditations, and for the last official Anapana I had a “cool” meditation experience. We were told again and again not to get attached to any particular experiences we have as meditators, because that’s not what we’re after, and it can actually be a big distraction for people trying to master this technique. They keep going for the “cool” experiences that they had, and it stifles their progress. The experience I had, I guess I would call “expansive.” I’ve experienced tastes of it before in my meditation that I’ve done on my own, but this was by far the deepest. Perhaps I was just particularly focused going into this session. At some point in focusing on my respiration, I began to feel the space around me. This is pretty tough to describe, but I’ll try my best. It’s as if I can feel beyond the borders of my body. I’m still fairly aware of my body, but the dimensional relationship to it can change. This particular time, I sort of had the sensation of sinking, and after a while it felt like my hands were at the same level as my ears. Which sounds weird, but it actually feels pretty good. It only happens when I’m extremely relaxed. So I just observed this sensation, enjoyed it, and tried not to get too attached to wanting to duplicate it. But I have to admit, a bit during that meditation, and more so after, I felt like, “cooooool! I’m turning into a bad ass meditator!” Not exactly the point of this course, but it was fun. So I gave myself a little pep-talk (lots of those over the course) before the next session. “Alright, that last one was pretty cool, and feel really good. I’m not going to expect that, and who knows, I might be in for a lot of pain on this next one.” I had no idea.
The very next session was our time to learn the real Vipassana. I had been sitting longer, so decided that I would maintain one position for this entire next session. Let the purification begin! We were told that we would be sitting in “great determination” for the Vipassana stuff anyway. I can’t remember if I didn’t realize it, or just didn’t care, but this session was two hours long. So we sat down, and Goenka’s booming voice comes over the speakers. For probably the first hour, he is explaining the technique, interlaced with stories to illustrate points. Then the technique starts. He has us start in Anapana, as we have been doing, to focus our minds, and we’re tuning into the sensations on our upper lip. Then we move to the top of our heads, a spot the size of a quarter. At first it’s tough to tune into, but after a bit I begin feeling a tingling in a spot on the top of my head. Now move it to spread out across your entire scalp. OK- I’m getting it- it’s slow, but I’m getting it. We progressively move across the face, piece by piece, part by part- then move to the right shoulder and slowly start feeling our arm. The sensations we’re tuning into are just any sensation that is there. It could be tingling, it could be itchy, could be warm or cold, vibrating, tickly, prickly, pulsing, throbbing, pain, any natural sensation that’s there. And as we do this the pain in my knees and I.T. bands in my legs is intensifying. I’m able to follow along with the instructions, but the pain is constantly building in my legs. In my mind, I had kind of thought of the purification as being like a white hot heat that would burn away my pain. So I sat there with that pain, and let it burn me. And it boiled and boiled. It was if I was turning my whole body into a pressure cooker. My breathing became very intense, as the experience was very intense, and I was sure that this was my purification. We were told to move the sensations quicker through the body and I was able to do that, and in fact all of the sensations, not just the pain, were becoming extremely intense. My whole body was vibrating and boiling up. I felt like crying. Then finally, just as the pain was about to become too much to bear, it was over. I actually keeled over and wept. The sobbing was uncontrollable. Ironically, I was kind of congratulating myself for toughing it out, that I had made it, and half way expected that I would be congratulated for ‘breaking through.’ But after I was able to pull my legs around and finally stand up, shaking and wobbly, one of the senior teachers came over with a very concerned look, and simply asked, “are you OK?” “yes.” “get some water.”
Hmmm. Perhaps that’s not what we were going for.
I would later learn that yes, we are to be there with our pain, but the most important thing is the “equanimity of mind.” In other words, we need to keep our mind calm, peaceful, and non-reactive, even when the pain starts to build. If at any time, the pain becomes so much that we lose focus on keeping our mind calm, then we need to take a step back. Regain our equanimity, and approach again. Once I grasped the importance of keeping “an equanimous mind- an equanimous mind…” that’s when some pretty amazing things started to happen. I would get little bits of insight here and there. I knew before the retreat that I wouldn’t be wearing my contacts the entire time. I just can’t sit with my eyes closed for that long with contacts in. No contacts meant that I could actually just walk around in my ‘watercolor world’: the world as I see it without glasses or contacts on. My vision is very near sighted. So things don’t come into focus until they’re about 2 inches from my eyeball. But this also means that I have ‘small world’ vision too. I can look at things at 2″, and see little details that most people can’t see. It’s pretty cool in a lot of ways. Not something that I have the opportunity to do very often, so I was enjoying seeing the world as a fuzzy-blurry wonder land. This also helped with the ‘noble silence’. I can’t see other people’s faces, so it’s easy to not interact that way. — back to my insights — On one break I laid down in the grass, and looked to one side where I spotted (at 2″) a pretty little flower. So I just observed it. It’s just an object- and it too is rising and passing away. It’s here now, but at some point this little thing won’t be here. The transient nature of the Universe. I also noticed little bugs and spiders that survive mostly under the top layer of grass, mostly unseen to our eyes. But they’re part of the whole thing. Doing their part in the whole big picture. Then in one meditation I remembered Taiyo (my son) around the time when he was 2. Yuki had gone into a bank, and I stayed outside with Taiyo. (This is all going somewhere, I promise) We were by a tree that dropped little seed pod things on the ground. I picked one up, and opened it up for Taiyo, so he could see what was inside. That became his obsession for a little while. Any time he would find a little pod, or seed, he would bring it to me, and say, “open, open.” So we’d open it up, and see what was inside. During meditations I had also been experiencing a lot of pain in my back. I’ve had this knot in the middle of my back for years now from drumming, and in spite of yoga every day, I’ve never been able to get it to loosen up. So I asked my teacher about it, told him I was sitting equanimously with it, but that it wasn’t moving. He told me that sometimes things don’t move as quickly as we want, and to be patient. Then he also mentioned how I might try dividing it, and see if it has a center. OK, patience. So I tried to be a little more patient (and not have the need to remove any pain), and just sat there with the pain. I gave up trying to get rid of it, and just looked at it. Observed it. Went back to the body scanning, and looked at it again. All of a sudden, while observing that big knot, i feel the very tip of the iceberg just melt away, and even though it was just a small part of this rather large and complex knot, it was an amazing relief. At that very moment, I knew that the pain, the sensation I had in that knot, was also just a thing. And I saw a vision of the flower I had observed in the field. Just a thing, and all things are transient. The all come and they all go. I shed some more tears, but this time they were the good kind.
Then in another session my back was talking to me again. Really talking to me. So I brought my attention to it. Observed it. Sensation. A lot of sensation, intense sensation, but just sensation. This time, it seemed as if it had a bunch of points, almost like how you’d see points if you poked your fingers into the back side of a stretched out balloon. So I “looked” at them, and tried to focus on one of them. It took a while, but I finally honed in on one point. I tried to just observe it, to just see it as an object, not “my” pain, but just a sensation. But it was being a bit stubborn, and not moving. Then I remembered Taiyo, “open, open,” and my teacher telling me to divide the pain, find the center. So I imagined this point to be like a little dry seed pod (which is against the teaching, and the purity of the technique, but it’s what made sense to me at the time), and I opened it, asking, “where’s the center of this?” To my amazement, as soon as I did, that point completely disappeared. The crazy part is that it was as if it was attached to a vine, and the vine immediately led me to the next one. “Open, open,” and it did, which led me to another, and another, and another. I probably cleared out at least 20 of these points before the points that were left were too tough to hone in on, and the meditation was coming to a close. At the time I felt like I must have almost obliterated that entire knot. I would later learn that I had done a great job clearing most of the top layer of it, but that there’s a lot left under there. I think I had one more day where that knot became the focus, and I might have cleared another 15 or so points. Less than the first time, but still quite a lot. And to witness that happening as I observed was a huge revelation to me. I was dissolving layers of old muscle knots with my mind. This is what I’ve been looking for.
This technique let’s you change the reactionary patterns of the mind at the root level. It’s not the things that happen in your life, but the way you react to them.
I’ve had physical discomforts for years. I first started having back problems when I was 19. 19 years old! That’s old man stuff! Being in better shape all along would have helped, I’m never going to deny that, but it’s always been difficult for me to get in shape. It always felt like there was a barrier there that would keep me from getting beyond a certain point. At one point, right around the time Yuki and I got married, I was lifting weights, and got myself up to 190 lbs, of mostly muscle, which was a huge accomplishment for me, but I still didn’t feel great, and certainly didn’t have more energy, nor did all this muscle help my drumming. If anything I was stiffer, and more rigid when I played, which was not good for drumming at all.
It’s also interesting the timing of all this, because I just re-bought the book, “Effortless Mastery” by Kenny Werner. And it literally felt like the first part of the book was written about me, and how I learned music through the school system. Because of that, there was no discovery on the instrument- it was taught to us on a very intellectual level. Counting out rhythms, and reading notes from a page. I always had a good intellect, so I could grasp it, but that combined with a constant ‘pressure’ to perform- lessons and assignments for teachers, concerts at school, let alone drum corps where a very high level of precision is required coupled with the pressure to perform in competitions(I started that at the age of 13), auditions, performances, and later, college juries, assignments, senior recital, then auditions for jobs, playing as my means of paying the bills, etc, that’s a lot of pressure. I enjoyed music because of the social aspect, and I liked playing music, but all the while was developing this underlying tension. Now, almost 30 years into playing the drums, all those years of tension are starting to take their toll. So it’s time to pull the plug on the root cause: my reaction to those situations. And that’s why this technique is so powerful- I get to go deep into my subconscious mind, and start pulling up the roots of those tensions. In just 10 days, I was able to establish myself in this technique, and now plan on doing the recommended 2 hrs per day to continue the work. It’s a life saver for me.
Throughout the rest of the 10 days, I had many more amazing experiences of releasing old pain patterns. It was as if certain muscles were held in place by plaster casts, and no amount of stretching would break them free. One time while observing my left I. T. band (a tendon on the outside of the quadriceps running from the knee to the hip that has many small muscles attached to it), and surrounding muscles, the old holding pattern and inflammation set free, and it felt as if the pain turned to liquid, and slowly drained out my knee. Incredible. I’ve had some deep rooted soreness in my right hip ever since I broke it flying off a mountain while snowboarding, and hit two trees on the way down, also breaking my arm and 4 ribs, which punctured my lung… but that’s another story. This tension/pain/sensation in my hip became the focus of many of my meditations while there, until one time while just sitting with it, scanning my body, observing the ‘sensation,’ scanning my body… suddenly that foot gets ice cold, and I feel the pain of my hip draining out through that foot. Another crazy experience…
So now I have this little plant. My practice as a vipassana meditator has taken roots, but it’s still a fragile little sapling, and I must protect it. Due to travel, and simply being exhausted, I missed a couple of days. But I’m committed now to get my 1 hr in the morning and 1 hr in the evening whenever possible. It’s a large commitment of time, but seeing as it has provided the most immediate and most concrete results I’ve ever experienced, I’m hooked. I know now that I can heal my body/mind, and create a life where I’ll easily have my health and vitality well into my old age. I’ve found a path. This doesn’t mean that I’ve got everything figured out, or that I think I’m super awesome for having done this one little course. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’m humbled to see how far I have to go on the path, and I hope to become more loving, compassionate, honest (with myself and others), grateful as a result of walking this path.
I would recommend this to anyone who’s interested in it and would like to try and see how they fare at doing the work. But I would not recommend this to everyone. Goenka will be the first to tell you, if this path doesn’t work for you, don’t take it. Find something else that works for you. It’s based on the laws of nature, and is not associated with any religion, or sect. People of all religions practice vipassana. You can believe in God, or not, it doesn’t matter. It still works the same, and is available to anyone who is willing to do the work.
Of all the people at the one course that I took, everyone had different results. Some seemed like they were glad they did it, but didn’t seem very interested in continuing, some had a lot of trouble, but felt like they would like to try again and perhaps try practicing more in the mean time, some people left before the course was over. It’s not for everybody, but it definitely works for me.
So I feel good- I feel like I’m still working on getting rooted in the practice in “real” life- (even though I’m really on a little vacation before going back to work), and I feel like I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, but at least I have a practice now, and can continue moving in a good direction.
If you read this entire thing, I’m amazed, cuz it’s pretty damn long!! At least I hope it was entertaining, if not inspiring. I could never communicate everything that happened in that 10 days, but it was a powerful and moving experience for me, and I wanted to share what I could.
with Peace and Love,
May all beings be happy-