(“Meditation blue jeans: Part I” describes my path to the 10-day Vipassana silent meditation course. Part II continues below.)
We students trickled into the Dhamma Java meditation complex early noon of registration, the mood positively anticipative. Upon checking in we began to divest ourselves of the technological accoutrements which master our time. Handing over 3 computers, 3 mobile phones, 15 pens and pencils, 1 waterproof camera, a mess of cords, and my beloved travel guitar, I would like to say I felt unburdened. But that’s not true. I was checking emails up until the last moment.
We were shown our rooms: small cells with a simple twin bed and a yard of white tile floor off each end. Back in the dining hall, I got to know the 43-year old British divemaster living in Bali, the 76-year old Indonesian quail farmer, the 28-year old buena onda Argentinean backpacker. We each had our own paths to this moment, and no one quite knew what lay ahead. After the official welcome, we waited like toys in the claw game to be called one by one up the staircase to the Dhamma Hall. Then guided to our respective matrixed meditation pads, genders arranged like a middle school dance.
The first-time students were asked to accept five precepts: no killing, stealing, sexing, lying, or intoxicating. Also, no reading or writing and “Noble Silence” is to be observed. No problem. The “old students” (some repeating up to 15 times!) were asked to also accept no self-decoration, no sleeping on cozy beds, and no eating after noon. The Malaysian couple who radiated peace while they presided as head teachers began a CD of S.N. Goenka, who popularized this technique across the world. His calming voice wafted through the hall and asked us to observe our respiration. This was the first step of a journey that would, within a week and a half, have us recognizing subtle vibrations over our bodies and penetrating our focused awareness even through internal organs.
The Vipassana experience can perhaps best be explained by describing a day in the life and sharing tidbits about each activity.
4:00am: Wakeup. The gooooooonnnnnnnggggggggg rings through the complex. You feel a little sleepy because it is still dark, but generally well rested as you went to bed at 9pm the night before.
4:10am: Shower. Cold shower for me. You can upwardly splash yourself from a bucket of hot water, but it gets annoying. The faucets all run cold, but that’s perfect. Cold, you remind yourself, is just a sensation. It helps strengthen your equanimity. I still take cold showers. Like James Bond.
4:30am: Meditate. It is quite early, but you are not really tempted to fall asleep due to the cold shower. Very peaceful way to start your day. Two hours fly by.
6:30am: Breakfast. There is little as beautiful as gliding out of the Dhamma Hall to the sight of day breaking over camp. The whitewashed grey brick path is softly glowing, the trees wait patiently in place, and the red Spanish tile roofs oxygenated. You stroll to the dining hall to enjoy some combination of rice, noodles, vegetables, tofu, tempeh, and Indonesian hot sauce.
8:00am: Meditate. The first hour is a Sitting of Strong Determination. You do not open your crossed legs, hands, eyes, or move at all for a solid 60 minutes. This is very hard to do. More on this below.
11:00am: Lunch. They say not to overeat, fill your stomach only 3/4 to focus your mind. This was easy to do on days 4-7, when for some reason the food got really bad. We asked afterwards if it was a test of our fortitude. It wasn’t: the lady who cooks just got sick and the ones left were not very good in the kitchen. Simple explanations.
12:00pm: Free. You can get a 5-minute private audience with the teacher where you may ask questions about your meditation. I was full of questions. My teacher was full of patience. After question time I would often walk laps around the short track to try to teach myself meditation on the move.
1:00pm: Meditate. There is a Sitting of Strong Determination from 2:30-3:30pm. The rest of the time you may meditate from your room. I did this a few times and alternated between my best free flows of energy and accidently falling asleep.
5:00pm: Tea. New students are offered a piece of fruit and crackers. Old students just tea. From day 6 onwards I decided on my own to take up the old student practice. This alarmed the dhamma sevaks (“course assistants”); they made me ask the teacher permission. Somehow even at meditation camp I manage to get myself into trouble.
6:00pm: Meditate. The evening Sittings of Strong Determination were my favorite. These sessions were lent a nearly mystical air with the Dhamma Hall lights set on low smolder, the occasional bleats of distant goats, and the hum of a thousand crickets outside in sync with the vibrations coursing throughout your body.
7:00pm: Discourse. You break off by languages to watch a Goenka video about theory behind that day’s activity and what you should practice the next day. Very helpful and the man can be pretty funny from time to time.
8:30pm: Meditate. This is when I would have my best thoughts. Desperately wanted a pen around day 4 to write them down, but by the time I found one I’d thought better of it.
9:00pm: Sleep. From day 1, mimicking the practice of the old students, I shunned the “cozy bed” for the cold tile floor. Not comfortable. When asking the teacher about this the next day it was clear I had misinterpreted: cozy beds just means ones which are tall, wide, and fluffy. The simple twin beds we had were OK. After my night sleeping on the floor though it did feel quite cozy.
The Sittings of Strong Determination were by far the most challenging and valuable elements of the course for me. I had known from Manish’s book that at some point we would have to meditate without moving a muscle for an hour straight, but I thought it was a “final exam” at the end. It was announced on the morning of day 4 that we would be doing this three times daily, effective immediately. The pain starts to set in around the 40 minute mark. My sankaras (“impurities”) were concentrated in my right knee and hip. The first session I made it through by sheet grit and ego, focusing on platitudes about pain being weakness leaving the body. Over time this evolved. Next it was perceiving pain as my friend. Then ignoring pain. Then acknowledging it but robbing it of inflicting mental pain. Finally, simply observing it, recognizing its impermanence, and moving on. This was not linear: sometimes I would have a regression session. For the next sitting I would ditch my pajama pants for blue jeans and for some reason would always get back on track. When a session went well, my ears no longer strained to hear the labored sigh of the fellow two rows ahead signifying roughly 45 minutes, the burp from the lady in the front row marking about 10 minutes left, or the subtle click of the CD play button to start the 5 minutes of chants leading to the end. This is where I believe the real education and therapy was taking place.