Running Away from Inner Peace
Exactly one year ago, I spent 33 hours focusing solely on the space between my nostrils and my upper lip. I was supposed to spend ten days contemplating this small stretch of skin, but left the meditation retreat after having a nightmarish hallucination on Day One and deciding that there are better uses of my brainpower.
Free of charge and dependent upon donations and volunteer support, Vipassana courses last ten long, snot-focused days, which proponents claim is the minimum amount of time needed to purify the mind. The requirement of Noble Silence — no speaking, eye contact, reading, writing, or any other form of communication with fellow shawl-draped meditators — is punctured only by Pali incantations, chanted by a recorded voice at the beginning of each meditation session. This intense silence creates an experience of radical isolation: solitary confinement of the heart and mind.
However, the meditative technique is far simpler than the ten-day induction suggests: without trying to control the breath, focus on the sensation as it moves in and out of the nostrils.
Of course, it’s normal for the inexperienced mind to wander. Teachers instruct that when you realize your mind has drifted, don’t judge or feel disappointed, just bring it back to the breath, back to the present.
Around 6:00 am on Day One, after two hours of attempted meditation in which my mind stumbled across Abby Road as various Beatles songs played as background music in my head and I brainstormed a long list of potential names for a future cat, I finally found myself getting into the groove. My body began to feel like a vortex, energy spinning out from my heart, when the captain said, “Flight attendants, prepare for take-off,” and off I flew. The plane crashed and a horrible nightmare ensued, my body paralyzed as I tried to move but couldn’t, unable to open my lips in my repeated attempt to scream for help.
Utterly terrified and concerned that nine and a half more days of moustache meditation would land me in the psych ward, I asked the teacher about my hallucination. “When this happens,” she said, “just focus right here,” pointing to that part of one’s face most commonly associated with Hitler. She explained that these are bad memories and experiences, caught in the web of my psyche, and the only way to release myself from their suffocating grasp is to allow them to rise to the surface.
That makes sense, I thought, before realizing the dubious scientific validity of this method and the anachronistic peculiarity of applying a distinctly Freudian explanation of psychological development to an ancient spiritual tradition. But her response prompted me to ask a deeper question: do I want to release all of my inner demons? What might I lose by engaging in this emotional bleaching?
As I have increased the frequency and depth of my meditation practice over the past several years, I’ve noticed a serious decline in my ambition. Yes, meditation has helped heal insecurities, alleviate pain, and soothe anger. But these so-called “negative” emotions can also serve as profound fuel. The most ambitious people I know are also the most insecure, the most afraid. Many of my closest friends are people whom I encountered when I was absolutely heartbroken; we would never have connected so deeply if one of us hadn’t been desperate for a shoulder to lean on. Martin Luther King Jr. must have been a profoundly angry individual. There’s a lot to be said for not accepting things as they are, both in one’s personal life and also in the public sphere.
According to the website, Vipassana has been passed down from teacher to student for 2,500 years: a direct lineage tracing back to the Buddha. Perhaps this is the very meditation that led Buddha to reach Enlightenment, or perhaps 2,500 years of playing Telephone has produced some evolutionary mutations. Nonetheless, its main objective is grounded in Buddhist philosophy: attachment is the root of all suffering. Desire begets misery, and one must break free from the cycle of attachment in order to achieve freedom from craving, freedom from suffering.
Like many other spiritually curious individuals, this idea has pulled at me over the years. After all, who doesn’t want to minimize suffering? But as I felt the air flow in and out of my nostrils, trying in vain to erase the scars that add color to my pallid skin, I realized that freedom from attachment is in direct opposition to my life goals.
I want to feel. Strongly. Hunger is fuel. Desire makes me feel alive. Love and community have always been the most healing and meaningful forces in my life. Connecting with other beings is the meat and potatoes of my existence. I don’t want to isolate myself, not even for ten days, regardless of what inner peace that may bring. I’m fortunate to have experienced a goldilocks amount of pain in my life: enough to fuel my fire, but not enough to suffocate it. I don’t want to let go of that pain, because it deepens my connection to other humans and increases my capacity for empathy.
It takes courage to remain at a Vipassana course for ten silent days. For me, it took courage to leave. In fairness to the Vipassana folks, I should mention that they were respectful of my decision to leave early; nobody forced Kool-Aid down my throat. Despite the radical disconnect between my own aspirations and those promised by Vipassana, those 33 hours spent wondering if I should wax served as an important reminder that the most spiritually invigorating experiences are often found in simple, daily human connections.