I disappeared for ten days to attend a meditation retreat in the upper reaches of Kyoto prefecture.
So how was it? What was it like? What did you do?
Even as I was perpetually writing this blog post in my head for ten days, I’m not sure how to begin to answer those questions. Was it mind-boggling? Was it hard? Did you find enlightenment or answers or inner peace?
Well, yeah. Kind of!
Basic ground rules were things like total segregation of the sexes – so I lived, ate, and meditated only with the women in the women’s half of the center, walked in the women’s garden, and saw the men only in their side of the meditation hall and from across the driveway that separated our garden from theirs. Noble silence – that is, not talking, nor communicating with gestures – with the other mediators (you can talk to the staff if you need anything or to the teachers if you have a question, naturally). No lying, stealing, or killing (this includes eating meat, incidentally, so all the food provided was vegetarian).
For me, this was no big deal, and was actually kind of a plus. I rather like simple, healthy food – rich and/or highly processed stuff sort of overwhelms me anyway. The eating situation is kind of like being a kid again; there is what there is, and if you don’t like it, that’s just too bad. I think in itself this is a humbling technique. Also, we had fruit for dinner (not dinner.. teatime.. but it was at 5pm and was the last ‘meal’ of the day) which was sort of delightful. I’ve heard that it’s healthier for you not to eat after 6pm; I think I might’ve lost a little bit of weight!
Our days started at an hour I still consider pretty nuts.. but there and then it seems just like part of the lifestyle of the center, however temporary, you kind of get used to it.
Every morning, we’d be woken by the bell at 4am, chiming and chiming again to rouse us from sleep. From 4:30 to 6:30, we were to meditate either in the meditation hall upstairs or in our own rooms. 6:30 was breakfast, and a break until 8, when we would have an hour long group sitting session, meaning everyone would meditate together for an hour. At 9, we would get our morning instructions, and then meditate until 11 which was lunchtime.
At 1, we would begin to meditate on our own again, and then at 2:30 we’d start the afternoon group sitting. At 3:30, we would receive afternoon instructions and meditate until 5, which was tea time. During tea time, new students (me!) could have fruit, while old students (who had undertaken not to eat after noon) could have only tea or coffee or water.
At 6, we’d gather for the third and final group sitting of the day, followed at 7 by the discourse, for English speakers a video (for non-English, audio only) in which the teacher (S.N. Goenka, in India) would explain particulars, answer questions I was considering asking at question time, and in general provide a context for what we were practicing. After this, we’d return to the hall, meditate for a little while (the Japanese discourse usually took a bit longer than the English one, so I would have a break to brush teeth and otherwise prepare for bed) until 9, and then that was question time, or else bedtime if you had no questions. Lights out was 9:30, which seems early but ISN’T if you get up at FOUR.
If you’ve been counting, that’s about ten hours of meditation each day. You’re doing it constantly, like it’s your job, and for these ten days it basically is. During breaks, I was mostly walking in the garden, stretching, or napping. I started showering at 4 in an effort to be more awake for the 4:30 - 6:30 time slot.
And while it seems like being unplugged and not speaking would be difficult, I actually did not have so much trouble with that, personally. Occasionally I would wish to tell someone something, and more often I would think of some question I wanted to ask someone regarding my future travels or plans. In my usual life, when thoughts like that come up, I either make a note or address it immediately (send an email, etc.), but during the course I had no pen, I had no notepad, I had no email. So things had to wait.
How I felt about the meditation changed from day to day. Some days I felt great, I was feeling it, everything was going just as I wanted it to – I was alert, engaged, attentive, focused. Other days I sucked at meditation. I couldn’t stay awake, I couldn’t stop daydreaming or narrating or spinning my wheels, I couldn’t feel anything on my body. Sometimes I couldn’t have removed the serene smile from my face with a prybar, other times tears would be streaming down my face for no pinpoint-able reason.
And when I went to the assistant teacher at afternoon question time about day seven to say “Why can’t I get it to work today if I could do it yesterday?” The answer was this isn’t about getting it to work, this is about facing reality.
This isn’t about getting it to work. Contrary to my previous ideas on what meditation must be, what it must be for (sharper vision, clarity, quieting the mental noise, becoming more centered), this course is different. All those things are ancillary benefits and almost prerequisites to the real core of what Vipassana is supposed to be about, and what it’s really supposed to do for you.
Although it’s not religious or sectarian, the philosophy behind the technique is deeply grounded in Buddhist thinking. As we learned in high school lit and history classes, the basic tenets of Buddhism hold that life is suffering because of human desire – specifically in craving and aversion – which stands between humans and their freedom.
But how not to feel and act with craving for the wonderful things in life? How not to feel and act with aversion for life’s pains? “You have to go to the root level of these things,” they said. I pictured each person carrying varying sizes of mountains of personal baggage, I imagined the kind of time it would take to peel all those layers back (some much longer than others) to get to the ‘root level’ underneath it all. How could any person uncover or even hope to glimpse this so-called root simply and within the span of ten days?
The simplicity of the answer to that still makes me laugh a little – I am seeing this root as buried beneath the issues of a person (therefore inaccessible without removal of said issues), but it becomes clearer to me that it can be accessed fairly simply because it is the first level of understanding, the most basic level of reaction in a person’s experience – the sensations of the body.
So what the technique teaches is, to become aware of sensations on the body, both pleasant and unpleasant, and to not react to them. To feel an itch, to observe it, to not seek its immediate undoing but rather “Let me see how long it lasts.. well, because no itch is eternal.”
And by so doing, to understand at the level of physical experience that which everyone already knows intellectually, that nothing lasts forever. That every feeling which arises also passes away, that every thing which lives also dies, that every object crafted or built must eventually, eventually decay and fall away. And if nothing is permanent, then why get so upset, why get so attached?
It makes sense; we all know that this is naturally so. Build something out of stone and it will last longer, but even that is not forever. Everything good needs replacing. Change is all there is. We know it, we know it. So why do we still get all bent out of shape?
The message behind the meditation is there is this huge gap between knowing something intellectually and understanding it in a way that really sinks in and applies to your life. This gap is the difference between hearing about something, reading about it, knowing about it, thinking about it .. and experiencing it for yourself.
The endgame being something like, being able to enjoy good things without reacting to them with clinging and craving, and to endure the unpleasant things without panic and aversion, to maintain equanimity at all times with the understanding that this too shall pass.
I can say that personally in my own life, I recognize a heck of a lot of examples of particularly clinging-reaction behavior. I have always been loath to let a good thing go (and my life has been above-averagely full of good things, so while it’s ironic to think that these good things could cause me suffering, well there you are). But as I look ahead to the changes that are coming (goodness, is it four days left in Japan now?), the unknowns that characterize the road ahead, I feel really okay about it. People ask how I am doing and I say good, and I really mean that. Maybe this was supremely well-timed.
During the course, various people would pop into mind, people I thought should look into it, people I thought should try it. I wanted to say, this is for everyone, and it is! But it’s also not for everyone. I don’t know. It’s hard. It’s a little out there compared to the normal everyday life of myself and most of the people I am close to. I loved it, but I also hated it; I wanted to run away, I wanted it to be over. I hesitate to recommend something that was painful to do.
And when I say painful, I kind of mean physically. Sam has been trying to work with me on the muscles of my core, how to properly distribute the work of holding the body up. My back pretty much hated me most of the time I was there; I fell asleep lying on a golf ball (self-massage, trigger point style) more than once during lunch breaks. During the sittings of ‘strong determination’ (about the second half of the course, the one-hour group sittings become attempts to sit for the entire hour without changing your position) I understood the poetic description ‘singing with pain.’ Hips, knees, feet, legs all in rebellion, back and shoulders going on strike. Parts of you falling asleep, or worse yet, coming awake. I want to tell people, it’s so great, but I also don’t want them to think that’s all it is. It is great, but at times it also sucks. It’s like medicine, it’s like exercise: you don’t always do it because it’s enjoyable in the moment. You do it because it does something for you.
Basically, to really understand it, you have to do it yourself! That was another message that was emphasized there… no one can give you this understanding, you have to find out for yourself. And you shouldn’t just take someone’s word for it, you should pass your own judgment based on your own experience!
Look at this website, see where the centers are, read all the things, and decide for yourself!
If my sojourns to temples is something like Buddhism light, this stuff is Buddhism pure – kind of at that depth of level where religion isn’t really religion because you’ve stripped it of all the rituals and rules and what’s left is just help for self, help for others, and love.