Sometimes Equanimous Observations During 10 Days of Silence or Notes From a Midlife Crisis
This wasn’t planned. I’m a reader, not a writer. A critic, not a creator.
OK, I know how to write. I wrote a dissertation. I write a lot of emails to friends. I’m a master of writing acerbic histrionic yet somehow witty and charming complaints to customer service departments. But I never write for pleasure. Never for an audience. This feels different. Others might enjoy taking this ride with me. Or maybe the silence has already done a number on me?
Writing is forbidden where I am. But I see my nephew Kevin’s boarding pass on the bed of my partitioned room and something is scribbled on it. Kevin is attending a 10 day vipassana meditation course with me. He’s only 19 and is the youngest participant in the course. I wanted to do this alone but Kevin convinced me that he could do it and is such a pleasant kid that I couldn’t say no. It’s the night of day two of the course. I begin to read his scribbles. He’ll stay if I don’t want to leave but if I’m ready to go, tap him twice on the back at breakfast tomorrow morning and that will be the sign for us to get the hell out of here. We can take a Lyft to the airport an hour away or we can rent a car and drive it nine hours to St. Louis, our next destination. Anything. He’ll cover half of the extra transportation costs. I didn’t bring writing material because I wanted to follow every rule of the course to a T. But I find a pen someone else had left in my room and reply. And once I start writing, I can’t stop. I respond to Kevin, make a few quick notes about what has happened so far, and for the rest of the course, run back to my room to write observations.
In honor of my 40th birthday, I was determined to complete a 10 day vipassana meditation course. I heard about the course years ago but didn’t think it would ever be feasible. Ten days completely off the grid is a lot for someone with young kids and a job. Little by little, I built myself up to believe that I could attend the course without causing unnecessary harm to my family or to myself.
If you believe the story, the course is exactly the same as what was taught by the Buddha 2500 years ago. The teaching method spread from India to neighboring countries but eventually only prevailed in its pure form in a small community in Burma. A successful Burmese businessman of Indian descent, S.N. Goenka, completed the course in the 1970s, and found it to be so inspirational that he dedicated his life to teaching the ancient technique around the world.
The course is intense- 10 straight days of waking up at 4am, 9.5 hours of meditation, breaks for breakfast, lunch, and tea/fruit, and a nightly one hour discourse. No talking, no eye contact with fellow students, no phones, no reading, no writing, and no music. No contact with the outside world whatsoever. No distractions of any kind. Nothing but meditation and self-reflection.
Goenka passed away in 2013, but still leads the courses via video and audio recordings, accompanied by a live assistant teacher, at over 100 centers worldwide. The teaching is very basic and the student is required to do the lion’s share of work himself. While the assistant teacher is experienced and knowledgeable, the answer to almost every question is some variation of “keep working, keep equanimity.”
My family did not think this was a great idea.
Wife: Who gave you this ridiculous idea? You’re having a midlife crisis. If you want to help everyone, let me throw your phone in a drawer for 10 days, lock it, and we’ll all come out better.
Parents: This sounds like jail. You’re already a good person. Don’t be so hard on yourself. How about you choose a nice weekend retreat anywhere you want and it’ll be our gift for your birthday?
I was undeterred. The course made so much sense to me. Rational, reasonable, and universal. Accepting of people from any belief system or no belief system at all. I studied and agreed with a lot of Buddhist theory but a mere intellectual understanding was not enough to make a profound change in my life. Agreeing with a theory and not practicing it in real life made me feel like a hypocrite. I wanted something practical. Something experiential. Something I could apply. I felt ready for the challenge.
We arrive to the center, check in, eat dinner, and agree to adhere to the course schedule and rules. The entire course, including food and lodging, is free of cost. For the next ten days, we have renounced our belongings and will live humbly from the charity of others, like monks. When the course ends, we can give a donation to cover the cost for future students if we so desire. There is no pressure to give. Real charity is giving without expecting to receive anything in return. Better than giving a monetary donation is a donation of our own service. The teachers, course managers, kitchen staff, and cleaning crew are all previous students providing their services and time free of charge.
We take our vow of noble silence, briefly meditate, and go to bed at 9pm.
All day we focus on the breath, and nothing but the breath, as it leaves and enters the nose. It sounds simple but it’s terribly difficult. The mind races immediately. Try it and see how long you can last before you think of something else and become distracted. Then imagine doing it all day. Boring is an understatement.
By the afternoon, I begin to wonder why I put myself through this. Why did I completely remove myself from my family for this length of time? Do I really need this torture? Is there a point to it all?
4:00pm. Dinner. One apple, one orange, one banana, and a cup of tea. This will be my dinner for the next 10 days. And it’s a luxury because anyone who has already finished does not eat at tea time.
We spend the day focusing on the breath with awareness on the nostrils and the triangle area, from the nostrils down to the upper lip.
This is endless drudgery and tedium. I feel guilty.
At lunch, a winged bug lands on my shirt and stares at me. I stare back, indicating that I would like him to leave my shirt. We have taken a vow to kill nothing during the course and I am serious about keeping it. Since he won’t move, I get up and try to place him on the wall with my shirt. The bug does not want to leave my shirt and starts crawling closer to my neck and down my shirt. I take off my shirt and shake it. I stand in the lunchroom topless and no one reacts due to noble silence. The bug crawls on the floor for a moment and dies. Sorry Buddha. Sorry Goenka. Sorry bug.
I go back to my room after the nightly discourse and the note mentioned in the introduction is on my bed. I write my reply on the boarding pass and leave it on Kevin’s bed: I’m not having fun but trying to stay patient and trust the process.
We sleep in one big room, partitioned into ten tiny “rooms” by curtains. Each room has a bed, a chair, and a drawer. The guy whose head is six inches from my head looks like The Dude Lebowski but ripped and with longer hair. Back when we were allowed to talk, I had a brief conversation with The Dude. He told me that he recently moved back to the mainland after living for 15 years in Hawaii when he realized that it was an island. He has no idea what he’s going to do now but he “has a plan.” The Dude is a spazz. He’s loud. He can’t sit still. He jumps up at any second and sprints down the hall. He munches on contraband food all night.
There is an old, completely bald, Bavarian guy who is possibly insane, a few cells away. His eyes look like they are on fire. Two times tonight he yells OH GOD OH GOD, jumps out of his bed, and runs into the bathroom. So much for noble silence.
It must be said that not everyone here is deranged. There is a mathematics professor from the University of Chicago and several graduate students. We are mostly fully functioning members of society. This is not One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Today we focus on the touch of the air as it goes in and out of the nostrils and eventually, any sensation felt in the nose or below the nose on the upper lip. My concentration is getting much better. My head is quiet and my mind feels sharp. When I’m outside, I am aware of an entire world I’ve never noticed before.
I can feel the hairs bristle in my nose as I breathe. It’s gross. But cool. And gross.
I ask the teacher if I can send just one message to my family. He asks me what is going on. I tell him that this is a long time away from my wife and kids with no communication and it will make me feel less uneasy if I can tell them I’m fine. He says yes. The course manager can send it. No replies allowed.
The course manager is an older, bald, bearded Indian gentlemen with an infectious smile. He is our only point of communication. His job is to try and make sure we are completely without distractions and he takes it very seriously. Everything is yes sah!(sir) I tell him that the repellent is running low. Yes sah! I will get you the STRONGEST one I can find, sah! He calls me King David. I like him and he likes me. We chat too much considering that I am supposed be in noble silence.
I write a message for the course manager to send.
Read it to me, sah. I don’t want to make any mistakes. Your handwriting is terrible.
I read the message to him.
Very good thing you read it to me, sah. You wrote I feel fine and I would have typed I feel fire.
I begin to enjoy the course. Everything is so methodical and organized.
I walk around outside a lot during breaks and there are tons of bugs. All of a sudden, the side of my lip begins swelling, and it feels like a golf ball is growing there. I go inside the bathroom, take a look in the mirror, and see a bite. I find the course manager and ask him if there is Benadryl, in case it gets worse. He tells me that he’d need to ask the teacher. I tell him to hold off for now. If it gets worse, I’ll let him know.
The course manager finds me.
Your wife responded, sah. She was very pleased. Here, take this, sah. He shows me a tube of ointment.
What is that?
Just put it on the bite, sah. It’s very good. Made in Russia!
I reach for him to squeeze some on my finger and he refuses. You do it, sah. It’s made in Russia. I don’t want to be involved.
The medicine works. The swelling goes down. I ask the course manager what it was.
It was just Russian toothpaste, sah. It was all in your mind.
No sah. I’m just joking you.
The 4am bell wakes me up and I laugh about an insane dream from the night before involving Trump and Putin. It was serious business at the time but now, not so much. When I walk back in to my cell after showering, it’s still pitch dark, and I hear my other neighbor, not The Dude, say “one more.” I previously overheard this fellow tell the teacher that he has PTSD. I wonder if the poor guy is having a war flashback. If my dreams are berserk, what must his be like? He says louder “one more” again and I realize that he is breaking noble silence to tell me that I am in his room and need to go one more room down to mine.
There are course boundary signs all over our camp but I find a sideways route deeper into the woods without directly passing a boundary sign. There is a pleasant spot with an open view of a river and a running/biking trail. I spot people exercising and smilingly walking their dogs. It’s the closest I’ll (hopefully) ever come to feeling like a prisoner. Later, I see a group tubing down the river laughing and carrying on. I spot a tube in the middle of the group that’s sole purpose is to carry beers. This is torture.
A classmate has serious reflux issues and makes disgusting gulps and belches during every meditation session. It’s driving me insane.
I see The Dude whack his head into a tree and laugh to myself for long periods multiple times throughout the day. My sophisticated sense of humor is unchanged so far.
We learn about vipassana meditation for the first time in the afternoon. The past three days have been spent on anapana (breath) meditation to sharpen our minds to be able to properly practice vipassana. Breathing is a natural vehicle to use because it’s done consciously and unconsciously. We use it as a bridge to be able to observe our body’s unconscious sensations. Now, instead of just observing the breath, we diligently scan the body from head to toe in a set order and do not move to a new area until observing a sensation of any kind- pulsing, pain, heat, tickling, etc. If there is pain or any other sensation outside of the area being scanned, it must be observed with equanimity. Easier said than done.
We are told that our insides are filled with impurities called sankaras. Sankaras are created from anger, hatred, anxiety, cravings, aversions, and other impure thoughts and actions. They multiply inside us and get tied up in knots, producing pain and other maladies. Vipassana meditators believe that, by calmly observing and becoming aware of unconscious sensations throughout our body and not reacting to them, we rid the body of impurities and the mind and body become more pure. By breaking the habit of blind reaction at the unconscious deepest level through calm observation, we learn to not react at the conscious physical level.
We’re supposed to be able to sit for one hour without moving in any way and I’m not even close. I have to change positions and scratch constantly.
Chips and salsa at lunch today. Fun! The reflux gulper serves himself a big plate. Not fun.
I got over the hump and am already able to sit for an hour totally still. I calmly observe substantial back and knee pain and total numbness in my ass and it all passes away before my eyes. I feel like I’m in The Matrix.
I have tamed my mind. I can observe without reacting. My focus is sharp.
I have a lot of energy from successful meditation and can’t sleep. The food is definitely not sitting well with one of my neighbors but it’s impossible to be sure which one is the culprit. I knew that an all vegetarian diet might cause problems but I did not plan on marinating in another man’s stench all night.
Today we are body scanning all day from head to toe, toe to head, repeat, repeat.
At breakfast, I stare out the window. An enormous deerlike animal, possibly a deer, walks right through the small patch of grass next to the dorm. The Bavarian madman is the only person outside and he is freaking out, gyrating his body, and flailing his arms without saying anything.
I would like to stuff the gulper in a closet during lunch and lock the door. Or at the least help select his lunch. He eats everything. Perhaps vipassana will eventually cure his grave gastrointestinal condition. Can’t happen too soon.
I’ve been washing my clothes every day by hand after lunch. Gives me something to do. I fill up a bucket with soap, wash my clothes, ring it out, and hang them on a clothes line. It might be the best part of my day so I take it all slow to make the enjoyment last. Of note: I rarely do laundry at home even though I have state of the art machines.
The men and women are separated and we generally don’t see each other. The dorms, eating areas, and walking space are all separated. The meditation hall is divided but we can slightly see each other inside and we can see one of the women’s dorms near the hall entrance.
There is an elderly Chinese lady who has caught my eye. I know she is Chinese because she has an interpreter and listens to separate recordings. Given her age, maybe 70, I initially pitied her and thought she was in for a rough journey. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Everyone else seems to be in a constant state of either misery or deep serious thought. She has a permanent smile at all times that only a plastic surgeon could remove. I’ve seen her doing some light gardening- picking herbs, weeding, watering the grass and trees with a hose she somehow obtained. This course is a joke for her. A walk in the park. I think she’s reached nirvana. She’s the MVP.
Today we perform body scans all day, this time scanning two similar areas simultaneously.
I have a massive headache that started last night and can’t perform the “calmly observe the pain pass away” trick successfully. I have a lot of sankaras or perhaps I just have a regular headache and would be better off taking two ibuprofen.
The first required morning sit was terrible. The headache is making me nauseated. I ask the teacher if I should take ibuprofen or try to work through it. He tells me to take it as big sankaras passing up and work through it. We aren’t supposed to think this way but I do the math: big sankaras = big impurities = big shitbag of a person. The elderly Chinese lady must be a saint. Or maybe I just need to get a hold of the Mandarin recordings. They seem to work better.
Goenka tells us we shouldn’t compare ourselves with others in the class or even ourselves with our own previous experiences. Whoops. He’s right.
I notice that the gulper has signed up to meet with the teacher at noon. I hope help is on the way. I feel like I’ve spent the past seven days living in his GI tract.
I’ve been with a pounding headache for what seems like forever with no distraction. To add insult to injury, I smash my pounding head into the shower nozzle after lunch. I guess I shouldn’t have laughed at The Dude. You know what they say about karma.
The Dude is clearly starting to lose it. I’ve seen him twice now in the bathroom, walking to and from the mirror, getting close to it, nonverbally threatening the mirror or his reflection. His expression says “you talking to me? You talking to me!?” It makes no difference when someone else is in the bathroom and he does it for at least a half hour at a time.
Today we are supposed to body scan all day in broad sweeps.
I wake up with the same horrible headache. Maybe worse. This is one hell of a sankara. We’re taught not to get discouraged and to keep equanimity at all times because everything eventually passes away regardless of how much we want or don’t want it to happen. I know this to be true but I’ve regressed. I don’t want to meditate because, when I do, I can barely take more than a couple minutes at a time and it makes the pain worse. My throbbing head feels like it weighs a thousand pounds and my left eyeball might pulse out of its socket.
Two days ago, I was Tom Cruise. I had gone clear. I had dragon energy. I would never feel pain again. Pain was for the dumb and lazy. When I got my phone back, I planned to immediately bark at Siri to block off two hours daily on my schedule to meditate for the rest of my life. Now I never want to close my eyes again. I just want to go home and stare at my phone while drinking beer. That is, if I’m allowed to mix it with my morphine drip.
My head is clearer now but I’m afraid to body scan so I just observe my breath, focus on writing my observations, and try to stay sane. I think I have been concussed by a sankara.
One classmate has been positively giddy the past two days. At this rate, he will be levitating by the afternoon or a padded van will pick him up by nightfall.
The old Bavarian madman is so much calmer. This course might have saved his life.
Kevin runs out of the lunchroom coughing. He looks unwell. He comes back inside when the coughing fit is over and briefly breaks noble silence to mutter under his breath: bug. I presume the bug died. Murderer.
There are multiple woodchucks on the property. I think they’re woodchucks. I have spotted a fox, chipmunks, rabbits, and squirrels as well, but one particular woodchuck is my friend and I play with him every day. By playing, I mean following him around, smiling at him while he looks back at me untrustingly, considering escape routes or if he’ll need to bum rush me. Today, I see a second woodchuck and my woodchuck friend is following her around. She’s big. I think she’s pregnant. Or maybe she is big-boned. I’m not judging. Anyway, he is trying to mount her and she isn’t having any of it.
I go back to the dorm and it smells like a sewer. The Dude groans and then runs down the hall into the bathroom. It’s raining but I can’t stay here or else I will asphyxiate, so I grab an umbrella and go for a walk.
Fifteen minutes later, the rain has stopped, and I go back inside to return the umbrella. I look down the hall and notice that The Dude must have spazzed and thrown some of his belongings outside of his cell against the wall, perhaps the sheets he just defecated on. I look closer and realize that the mass isn’t his stuff, it’s THE DUDE himself. He’s huddled with his head hanging out of the window. If not for the noble silence, I would kindly and compassionately ask The Dude to hang his other end out the window.
I feel better and am able to progress with meditation again.
We will break noble silence tomorrow after morning meditation. Still no contact with the outside world until the following day but we can talk among ourselves as a way to gradually transition back into regular life.
Fatigue and the desire to go home are making it difficult to concentrate during meditation.
The gulper is still gulping but I am able to observe the gulps with more equanimity.
We meditate in the morning and then noble silence is broken. Everyone is eager to talk. Everyone is awfully nice. Everyone passed through many difficult times. Everyone is happy to have finished.
I am finally able to ask the old Bavarian where he is from. If not Germany, then maybe Austria or Switzerland. Either way, I have felt so cultured and worldly to have been able to pinpoint his land of origin without speaking to him. I ask him where is from. The old man answers me: Maui. Must be beautiful, I reply. Where were you born? Wisconsin. Good call by me. He casually mentions a stint in prison so I might not have been off about everything.
We all eat lunch. The Dude apologizes to me profusely. Many many times. He can’t sit still. He can’t sleep. He freaks out easily. The food was tearing him apart. He thought he might need to see a doctor. You don’t say.
The course manager tell us that every course needs at least one unbearable student. It allows for growth. Being placed next to The Dude was some sort of test. I happen to like The Dude. He’s a friendly guy. No one squeegeed the shower with more passion than The Dude. He’s a superhero, really. I just wish I didn’t have to experience his super powers so intimately.
I agree with a lot of what was taught here. Be your own master. Placing blame on others and on situations is futile. Only you control what is inside you. No one can save you. Save yourself. Real learning comes from experiential learning. No one can learn for you. No one can do your own work. Act, not react. Focus on the present. Be aware and live with equanimity. Negativity and positivity are both contagious. Be positive. Don’t let negative people infect you. Infect them with positivity. Treat everyone with kindness and compassion, even the assholes. Most importantly the assholes. They are the most miserable and therefore need compassion the most. When an asshole harms someone, he harms himself as well. He is the first vicitim. If you harm him with anger, you will harm yourself too. Treat the asshole with compassion and you will be free of harm. There are times for strong action but the action must be done with compassion even when causing harm.
The mind pain connection is real but I still have questions. If we can train our minds to the level of being about to burn ourselves to death without flinching, as Vietnamese monks have done, might we ignore important pains that are indications of serious curable disease before it’s too late? Might we make injuries worse that should have been rested? The teacher told me to keep viewing pain equanimously and if it doesn’t go away over a long period, it could be a problem. But where do we draw the line? How long is too long?
Goenka, via the Buddha, taught us to have no attachments because all matter is ephemeral. We will witness everyone and everything we love die or we will die first and it all leads to misery. It’s the ultimate truth. But should humans live without attachment? Isn’t part of being a human to love and lose even if it leads to misery? Keeping our attachments in check, with equanimity, seems most reasonable. Eradicating attachment altogether feels unreasonable to me. It wouldn’t be bliss or nirvana or liberation. You would be a robot. Some intelligent people think we will get overtaken by robots in the future and it’s precisely because we’re different from robots.
The vipassana meditators I’ve met all seem to be kind, friendly, and down to earth, not robots. In fact, a ride board was set up before the course and on it, there were approximately 15 generous people offering rides to the center and one selfish outlier asking for a ride. That was me.
I plan to meditate regularly and I am convinced that an exercise capable of sharpening, resting, and giving you more control over your mind through awareness is worthwhile. Even if it’s all nonsense, quietly self-reflecting unplugged a couple times a today can’t be harmful. I’m grateful for what I experienced and learned and pleased to achieve my goal.
No, I didn’t just take the course for you. Didn’t you learn anything? If you’ve been inspired, please don’t sign up for a course unless you’re very serious. I researched the the course extensively, pleaded with my family not to disown me upon my return, and invested considerable time and energy into logistics. I was already emotionally sturdy. I truly wanted to go. Yet, it was still a difficult journey. Even with a self-selecting group, there were five students who left early. You don’t have to be a Navy SEAL to complete the course but it’s tough. You’d end up wanting to kill someone who pressured you into going or yourself if you didn’t really want to go. Courses fill up quickly so space is precious. These people are offering a legitimate service. If you leave early, you’ve taken the place of someone else who could have been helped. And don’t go to cure a specific problem or start a specific project. Just try to enjoy the ride.
May the gulper be gastro-intestinally purified. May the not Bavarian not madman stay not mad. May The Dude’s ultimate plan come to fruition. If you’ve made it this far (and even if you haven’t), may you be happy. May you be peaceful.