“Start again. Start again. Start again with a calm mind, an alert mind, a vigilant mind, a balanced and eqanimous mind. Be patient, be persistent and consistent. You are bound to succeed, you are bound to succeed”. I can’t tell you how many times I heard S. N. Goenka’s recorded voice say this for days. His refrain could apply to any endeavor, but he was encouraging our meditation practice at the California Vipassana Center, a Buddhist monastery, in North Fork at the edge of Yosemite National Park. I attended a 10-day retreat together with about 100 other men and women, although the sexes lived and ate separately. We saw each other only in the dim light of the main meditation hall. The idea was to minimize distractions, not only from the other gender, but also from talking to anyone, reading, writing or any media.
Our dormitories were small, modern barracks, each with about twelve rooms/cells and bathrooms that we took turns keeping clean. The heating and hot water systems worked well. The rooms were about 10’x 6’ with a simple wood bed that had a base made of slats that I felt through the mattress and my sleeping bag. The plain food we got was, I am sure, intentionally cooked not to provoke the taste buds. Breakfast at 6:30 am consisted of a choice of cereals, breads and condiments and, thankfully, caffeinated coffee and tea; lunch at 11:30 am was a hot dish with rice or pasta and a salad; and tea at 5 pm was fruit (banana, apple) with tea and coffee. In one of his talks, Goenka suggested that we eat an amount that made us feel three-quarters full. No problem. The food was tasteless enough that I stopped eating after the initial pangs of hunger were quelled. We all dropped a few pounds.
The schedule called for rising at 4 am, starting meditation at 4:30 am and continuing until 9 pm. There were breaks for breakfast, lunch and tea of course, but also 3.5 hours of compulsory meditation in one hour segments, 7 hours of voluntary meditation and a sermon (Dhamma Talk) for 1.5 hours. Basically, we lived like monks in a monastery.
Why would I, who likes sweaty sports, good food and wine and enjoys the media want to subject myself to such a demanding regimen to learn meditation? The answer starts with my last piece on “An Aging Athlete’s Challenges”. In it I said I was shifting from high body impact and jerky sports like running and tennis to lower impact sports like biking and swimming to avoid injuries and long recovery times. Observing even older athletes, I noticed that even these sports have a limited time remaining for me, maybe a few years.
In preparation for a later stage of my life, two years ago I started to practice Yoga, which I do twice a week, and meditation, which I practice sporadically. Yoga maintains strength and flexibility in the body and meditation provides some of the calm and improved concentration that endorphins generated by sweaty exercises do. Some traditions in India combine yoga and meditation, but not where I live. Here Yoga is strictly calisthenics and is practiced separately from meditation.
Could it be that I am intuitively reconnecting with my Indian cultural heritage? Possibly. Could it be that my ancestors were on to something? Probably. Or, they were prescient in knowing that South Asians would be totally uncompetitive in every Olympic sport so they designed unique physical and mental exercises to remain renowned.
I’ve been more successful with Yoga than with meditation probably because I attend classes with a teacher and other participants. I tried to learn meditation by going to our local Buddhist complex called Spirit Rock. It was helpful, but felt a little too much like a congregation of believers for my taste, with everyone looking wide-eyed and mindful. I then tried a video course purchased online from the Great Courses and that suited me better. I felt I needed more instruction, however.
I first heard of Vipassana in Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal in 2004. I was on assignment in Kathmandu and took a Sunday trip to visit Lumbini, which has become a Buddhist Theme Park with suptas and monasteries built by many countries and organizations. As it was raining, and I had arranged a car, I offered a lady on the flight a ride. She turned out to be a new Russian millionaire from the privatization of the company she worked at. With flats in Moscow and Geneva and an Olive farm in Turkey, and no necessity to work for a living, she had sought solace and direction in a Vipassana course in Bombay and had become a devotee. Although we lived in the same hotel, I never saw her again, but she left me a pamphlet about Vipassana when she departed a couple of days later. I read it and decided the regimen was too much for me.
This year, however, by chance I met three, more balanced people who had attended the course and benefited from it. As daunting as it sounded, I thought I would give it a try, especially as my concentration has weakened probably because I have no necessity to focus on work and have not been able to commit to any other project.
Vipassana is apparently the meditation technique used by Siddharath Gautama to become a Buddha. Over the centuries, it had been compromised in India, but kept pristine in Myanmar. S. N. Goenka, formerly a successful businessman, was born in Myanmar and learned meditation from a master whose monastery had kept the tradition alive. He has publicized the technique all over the world and established centers for its practice financed entirely by donations—students are not charged any fees. He teaches the course through recorded audio instructions and video sermons. Two Assistant Teachers (a man and a women) sit in the meditation hall to play the recordings, monitor the proceedings and answer student’s questions.
The idea is to become “aware” of one’s sensations and respond mindfully rather than react to stimuli, which is what we generally do. We have learned to “react” to sounds, taste, words, emotions, etc. and seek to repeat the sensations that please us and avoid those that we don’t like. Years of such behavior have made us “attached” to these reactions, craving those we like and being averse to those we don’t. But when we become objectively aware of our sensations, we learn that they are “impermanent”, constantly changing and passing, eliminating any reason for an attachment. Vipassana, which means awareness, helps us to viscerally understand, in our bodies, the impermanence of sensations. With that awareness we can respond mindfully and with compassion to our sensations rather than react to them.
To learn the technique, we spent three and half days observing and feeling our breath in the nose and above the upper lip, a practice called Anapana, to concentrate the mind to feel sensations at a specific point in the body. With that ability, we started Vipassana—scanning our body from the top of the head to the tip of the toes, observing the sensations come and go, becoming aware of their impermanence. The scan feels like electricity passing through the body, exuding a tingling sensation, guided by the mind’s eye that is able to focus on the nail of a specific toe. At times, the entire body would “light up” with the free flow of sensations. For me, learning this technique took a lot of concentration, I can tell you.
At some stage, the Assistant Teacher, when he thought we had made sufficient progress, assigned us an individual meditation cell in a separate building. For me, being a slouch, this happened on the seventh day. Although I found it easier to meditate in the main hall with many others, I used the cell to practice for being by myself at home.
After a couple of days with little sleep and rising at 4 am, I was exhausted and wondered if I could complete the course. Then I heard a Yoda-like voice say to me “Try too hard, don’t. Come, it will”. I didn’t and it did, a little and fleetingly. My first step was to eliminate the 4:30 am-6:30 am voluntary sitting and get some sleep instead. That helped. I also started to walk around a one-third mile path a lot, maybe 12-15 times a day, between sittings and that helped me to sit still during meditation. I fell into a routine, although never a groove, of about 3 voluntary hours added to the 3.5 compulsory hours of meditation. That is still a lot of sitting still and concentrating. I felt exhausted by the time the sermon started at 7:15 pm.
The sermons went much deeper in explaining Vipassana and Buddhist philosophy. I was too exhausted to assimilate much, but Goenka is a good speaker and very funny too, which helped. In any case, there is no chance of my pursuing or achieving “liberation” like the Buddha in myriad lifetimes. I am content to wade in the shallows of his philosophy and have great difficulty with some of its simplest tenets such as right view, intentions, speech, actions and effort.
My routine worked well for the first six days when the weather was fine, but it started to rain on the seventh day and continued through the tenth. The seventh day was the hardest for me because I could not walk off the stress and monotony of sitting for hours. I had to find way of relieving myself and the only option available was to continue walking in the rain with an umbrella, dodging the slosh as much as possible.
The campus was spread over about 100 acres at an altitude of about 3,000 ft part way up a mountain that peaked a few hundred feet above to the East. The air was thin, clear and crisp, the mornings and evenings were cold and the days warm. At high altitudes I feel both the cold and warmth more than the temperature suggests. But I also feel at home probably because of the 9 years I spent at 7,500 ft in my youth.
The walking path was around a forest of California Oak and other deciduous trees with some Pines shooting higher. On each round, I could feel hot where it was not shaded, cold in the shade and hot and cold where tree shadows partially covered the path. The tree leaves had turned a dirty yellow, almost khaki, or a dirty brown. The sky was a clear blue with an occasional streak of jet exhaust high up as there was no airport nearby. At dusk, the hillside became reddish-brown and the few clouds and jet stream became golden. On clear nights, the moon and stars shone bright and felt close enough to reach out and grab Orion by its belt.
The 50 men were spread between the ages of 30-70, but the largest segment was in the 30s. The full American ethnic spectrum was represented, although, expectedly, there were more South Asians. After the first evening’s dinner, we were not allowed to talk to each other and also asked to not make eye contact. Inevitably, there was eye contact in the line at the buffet style meals, where sign language often said “You go” and the reply came “No, you go ahead”. We broke silence on the tenth day after the morning session. All of us were eager to talk to lubricate our hoarse voices, to get to know each other and share our experiences.
On the first day, before the course began, I had shared a table with three young men. On the tenth day, I took walks with two of them and then all of us sat together at tea-time and reviewed humorously our struggles through the days. Each of felt we made it through the course by the skin of our teeth. There were many times we craved to hear Goenka’s voice say “Anicca…” and start his chant in Pali or Sanskrit to signal the end of the meditation session.
For me, the retreat was the most difficult thing I have done. It required a huge amount of emotional and mental stamina. It was definitely more difficult than running a marathon mainly because I had not trained for it in the way that I do for a marathon. At graduation, we became “Old Students”. This status gave us the privilege of coming to the center for shorter stays, but as experienced meditators, we will have to do without the last meal—no food after Noon. The next challenge is to maintain the practice at home, which is no easy task. My local Buddhist complex (Spirit Rock) is derisively referred to as Meditation-Lite or the Upper Middle Way.
Early on the eleventh morning, I packed and loaded my new Infiniti Convertible. In the car, I pushed the button that folded the hard-top into the trunk and told the navigation lady to take me home. When I got to the freeway, I pressed the engine’s 350 horses to accelerate in a jiffy to 75 mph, put the car on cruise control and turned on a Sinatra album and listened to him belt out “That’s Life” through the Bose surround sound system. Did I learn non-attachment or what?