- Zoë Kirsch
This room holds a silence that fills your ears with omniscience and your mind with the notion that something exists in you that’s great and good. Your eyes rest behind closed lids. You imagine lifting out of your body — first hovering, then descending, and shrinking all the while — and you station yourself like a tiny sentinel at the curve of your nostrils, that intersection where jut of cartilage meets flat plain of upper lip.
You’ve been dispatched here to observe sensations in the area. These sensations, you’re informed, might be heat. They might be cold. They might be a tickle, a prickle, an itch, a throb, an ache, a vibration. You notice that sweeps of air are cool when they enter rather than exit your nose, that watching the breath is not unlike watching the sea, and that exercising your vigilance makes you feel strong.
You’re practicing Vipassana, one of the most ancient forms of Buddhist meditation. It is “the mindful observation of whatever arises in consciousness,” in which “the sustained awareness of cognitive and sensory phenomena will lead to the realization that unnecessary suffering results when attempts are made to attach to anything within the impermanent flux of human experience.”1
There are a hundred others like you sitting in the meditation hall, and the flock is segregated into males on the left, females on the right.
The terms “male” and “female” are commonly used to describe animals. And at the moment, you feel exactly like a cow. Like livestock before it becomes a Big Mac, you’re voiceless. Bound to a Vow of Noble Silence, shepherded into a shaded compound where your restless mind might be eased into submission.
If you search the female side for the girl eight rows back, five rows to the right, you’ll find me. At present, I’m visualizing a cow staring blankly at a gun that will end her life. My leg is tingly stone, my posture a concave tragedy. And what do I want? Not emancipation from this bondage, but a tame mind, which I have been told leads to true happiness.
DAY ONE AT THE CENTER
See me doing my best impression of an ascetic, waist circled in blue fleece, floor solid beneath my butt. The woman to my right is already snoring. Her chin rests on her chest, and a gossamer thread of drool clings to her lower lip.
In five minutes, the hour will strike nine, marking the close of the first group sit of Day One. Nine more days like this will follow.
S.N. Goenka (esteemed Burmese-businessman-cum-Vipassana-lay-teacher) drones directives into my ear. I picture the snail that some say Goenka sounds like, eyestalks quivering as it suggests that I observe my natural respiration, “diligently, ardently.”
I’m uninspired by these commands because I’m busy feeling sorry for myself. Earlier this morning, I learned that the timetable — accessible online, something I had scanned before deciding to enroll in this ten-day trial — isn’t a joke. It has to be taken seriously, which means I have signed on to meditate from four-thirty in the morning until nine at night.
I can see it now: this as the beginning of the end. I picture my friends and family sobbing over my grave. “She was so young!” they’ll say. “She had so much potential!” There are a lot of ways I could go: death by boredom, maybe, or death by madness. In this wayward psychological journey, I might unleash and subsequently drown in a spring of repressed emotions. Or maybe starvation will get me. The timetable grants an hour for each meal, breakfast at six, lunch at eleven. And dinner? Oh, there are no dinners, although tea is served at five. Fruits for the new students. For the old, nothing but lemon ginger water.
That night, nine hours of meditation and five hours of surreptitious naps later, I learn my stomach has a voice all its own. It grumbles as I wait for sleep, curled into the fetal position in my sleeping bag.
I think about the evening discourse I heard a few hours ago. Goenka spoke to us out of two ancient televisions. I saw him from the back corner of the hall where I was slumped like a zombie. His face shimmered, and he said:
One very important requisite of this technique is that every step you take on this path, from the beginning until you reach the final goal, every step must be with the truth. The truth, the truth, the truth that you experience. The truth that you experience at this moment. Like this: from moment to moment, from moment to moment. Whatever truth manifests itself, within the framework of your body, the truth pertaining to this physical structure, to the mental structure, you just keep on observing, observing, observing. This is universal.
“So this is the truth, Goenkaji,” I moan. “I must be on the path because I’m observing the truth pertaining to my body’s physical structure.” The truth that I experience at this moment emanates from my unhappy belly. Loud and clear, it is saying: this Vipassana thing sucks. I want out.
DAY FIVE, SOMEHOW
Still hunkered down on the same seat. Same worn cushion. Spine bent into the letter C. C, as in craving, as in I am craving peace of mind and perpetual bliss.
My comrades in meditation have held up well, with a few exceptions. My neighbor Mountain Molly, whose ankle tattoo initially appeared to be a mark of strength, fled for home on the third day. And yesterday a British woman was seized by fits of laughter during lunch. Later that afternoon, she collapsed into tears.
During group sits, I can be found in the meditation hall with everyone else, monitoring my body’s sensations. With every tingle, twitch, and vibration that I observe, I become more convinced that all things, myself included, are impermanent. Goenka says that Siddhartha Gautama, the first Buddha, identified this concept 2500 years ago. The Buddha called it anicca. Goenka calls it a law of nature.
But despite my progress, I suspect that I’ve gone a bit crazy, like the crying Brit. By the time Mountain Molly left, I was ferociously scribbling notes onto scrap pieces of paper that I had kept hidden in my backpack (writing materials aren’t permitted on the course). Yesterday, I started furtively studying a cookbook that I forgot to hand over to the authorities (reading materials are not permitted during the course). And this morning I caught myself fantasizing about sautéing onions.
I’ve wanted to leave at least once a day. Half of the time I’m convinced that the only thing keeping me here is the warm bed and warmer meals.
But I also occasionally feel grateful to be here. This afternoon I walked through the bush, past a gurgling stream above which mossy trees reached to touch the sky, and my sensory perception was so sharp that I felt borderline euphoric. This is what it’s like to be present.
Scientists have tested meditation’s impact upon the human brain. They have found that “When Tibetan monks…enter a period of deep meditation… their parietal lobes, the region of the brain that helps define the boundaries of our bodies, become less active. They experience a sensation of infinite space…Brain scans…show that people who become expert at meditation…rewire their brains. It is possible, by shifting attention inward, to peer deep into the traffic of the unconscious, achieving an integration of conscious and unconscious processes, which some people call wisdom.”2
AGAINST ALL ODDS, DAY TEN
We come out of Noble Silence, and as we eat bowls of fruit, I learn about the people who have been my neighbors during this mind-training marathon. The woman who sat to my right and fell asleep a few times is a TV producer. The girl who lost her ample booty to the center’s strict dietary regimen is an environmentalist, and the hippie who always smiled at the ground plans on getting the Wheel of Dharma inked onto her wrist. “It’ll hurt like hell,” she tells me. “But it’ll be worth it.”
Another twenty-something leans in towards the group conspiratorially to ask if we’ll keep practicing Vipassana once we’re out of here. I’m surprised to hear just one adamant “no” among a chorus of “yeses.”
Fourteen days down the road, I will find myself surprised again, this time because I have voluntarily come back to the center to make meals as a server. When I settle into position at the front of the meditation hall alongside the other servers, my hands stinking of onion, I’ll sink my awareness into the subterranean, smilingly, for the first time.
But for now, I’m leaping into a van that’s headed for the nearest city center. “I thought we’d never make it out of there,” says the Brit, grinning madly at our driver. “Thank God.”
1. Emavardhana, Tipawadee, and Christopher D. Tori. “Changes in Self-Concept, Ego Defense Mechanisms, and Religiosity Following Seven-Day Vipassana Meditation Retreats.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36.2 (1997): 194-206. Print.
2. Brooks, David. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. New York: Random House, 2011. 345-46. Print.