June 29, 2012 – A 4 x 6 Cell
I find it funny that I spend the last week of my Jesus year at a Vipassana meditation center under a vow of silence. When I planned this trip I knew it’d catch me on my birthday, and I thought, “Why the heck not? Last year I spent my birthday in Winter. This year I’ll spend it in Silence.” After the year’s worth of noise absorption in Lima, a week and a half of silence sounds like the perfect present. I have just a little twinge of attention-desiring regret when I think that I won’t know who’s out there wishing me a happy birthday on the actual day, but it’s not strong enough to prevent me from heading into this craziness.
And the silence is fantastic. For the first time in (perhaps) my memory the nights are completely quiet. At least from human noise. For ten entire glorious days I don’t hear a single car alarm. I don’t hear any phones ringing, any screaming kids, any honking horns, no blasting music, no angry neighbors, no slamming doors, no screeching tires, not a single whistle or yell, no sirens, not even the streaming sounds of some television show or sports game filtering in through thin walls. Only once do I hear a dog barking in the distance, and it stops after a reasonable amount of canine protest. I sleep without ear plugs, straining my hearing out of habit to listen for anything, to distinguish sounds – but no, it’s beautifully still.
The silence nearly makes me cry from joy.
This isn’t to say there is no sound. The cicadas play their symphonies all day and into the night. Crickets violin their legs into music. Songbirds sing. Frogs chirrup. The wind plays the leaves like guitar strings. Grasshoppers pop out of the grass with startled, noisy eruptions. Tall grass rubs shoulders with weeds with a shifting percussion. And throughout the day, the hours are marked off by the chiming of the gong.
I’ve made it past Day 5 and Day 6. After the horror of Day 4, the exercises feel diminished in suffering and I seem to have learned how to observe misery instead of staying inside it. For the most part. This is not to say that it’s easy. Not at all. There are times during the hour long Strong Determination Sits (where the goal is to not change posture) when I think I can’t sit still for another second--praying for the teacher’s voice to startle me with his wrap-up chanting, demanding of him in my head to end it, convinced that the time is over, it has to be with my foot numb or tingling, my back arced into a bow to relieve the pressure from my shoulders, or my head bent over--but somehow I do. In some sessions, half an hour or forty-five minutes in, I get bored. Over the course of the time, I plan entire Judo training sessions for the kids’ class at my old dojo (with long inspirational and/or chastising speeches included). Worry through the itinerary of my upcoming summer trip, calculate expenses, practice the five phrases of Swedish I’ve learned and plan outfits. I also relive my entire childhood, teen years and adult life to date. Anything to keep from the task of observing the sensations that are moving, shifting, twitching over my skin, anything to take my mind off the discomfort or the boredom of physical inertia.
A few times, I jolt upright, startled awake by the forward inclining motion of a swiftly onset nap.
The Vipassana Center is well maintained, both the grounds and the course. It’s run by a volunteer staff made up of previous students. Somehow it’s a flawless system that runs better than many well-oiled machines I’ve met. I’m one of about 100 new students and 20 volunteers. The servers serve us a buffet styled breakfast and lunch of vegetarian food every day. There are always at least two main dish options to choose from and then salad, soups, breads, vegetables and fruits. Two of the lady servers are cooks; one a specialist in Indian food and the other in Thai food. I find out later that Jesse was asked to be the kitchen manager when she arrived. She does a phenomenal job, and I think I should get her to manage all the kitchens I encounter for the rest of my life. I could eat this way every day. I find that as the week goes by I’m eating less, craving less, and losing the slight rotundity I’d acquired from being off my usual workout schedule.
Dinner is fruit and tea.
It’s good eating.
On my birthday eve the food is fantastic. There’s curry and a mung bean soup that’s to die for, pita bread, plenty of dark green salad stuff and a sunflower dressing that I want the recipe for. All day I remind myself that my birthday is impending and that today is my last day to be 33. I like birthdays.
At the beginning of the final session in the main Dhamma hall I find a piece of paper on my meditation cushion that tells me I can use room 27 in the pagoda from Day 7 to Day 10 during the personal meditation times if I so desire.
Just in time for my birthday, I think.
The lights go out at 9:30 and I curl up into the silence and bid my thirty-third year a fond adieu.
At 4:00 in the morning on June 20th I’m woken by the gong’s low vibrations.
Happy birthday I grumble to myself in my mind.
It’s my birthday!
I put my shoes on by the back door, turn on my feeble flashlight and trek over the tall grass to the pagoda, trying to avoid walking into spider webs as I go. At the building, my shoes stay outside and I go in. The place is quiet as a tomb. I tiptoe up the carpeted stairs and creep into my little room. There’s a single blue cushion on the floor. I add an extra one and sit cross legged. There’s a light switch at standing level by the door and one at sitting level by my cushion. I flip the light off and meditate in the darkness in the complete and utter and most glorious silence I’ve ever known. The only thing that breaks the silence is the sound of the blood rushing through my ears and the occasional rumble of my belly.
It’s like the silence I’ve dreamed of all my life.
Half an hour later, when Goenka’s voice breaks over the speakers in his raspy chant, I flee the building thinking that the half hour of silence and the solitude of my own cell were the best birthday presents I could have gotten.
I’m so weird, I think.
The little orange tree spiders that live up among the leaves, are sitting patiently in their webs waiting for their meals to arrive. Once a bug gets caught, they wrap it up, undo their webs and ascend back into the shade of the tree. I’m fascinated by them.
The first time I saw one of the spiders undoing her web I thought maybe she’d just dropped a stitch and wanted to start her web all over. I got caught up in the Spider Show the first morning I went over to The Lake and felt a bit of disappointment when the next day there was no big spider activity, but it turns out there is so much more to watch.
Just observe. Just observe. Just observe. The words echo through my head in Goenka’s Indian accent. Down there, it’s not just a Spider Show it’s the Lake Show! I watched it every day.
So I observe. Today I’ve arrived early enough to see five separate little orange spiders waiting on their webs. I love them with all my heart.
To try and seem like I’m keeping up with the full two hour meditation session on Day 7’s schedule, I head back to my room and sit against the wall with my eyes closed and try to focus on a body sweep. I’m poised and ready to move though.
I’m out the door before the breakfast gong stops and one of the first in line. My dad and I reach our dining room doors at the same time. We almost make eye contact and I think he’s about to mouth Happy Birthday, but I look away. Under the code of discipline we’re not supposed to even acknowledge each other by nods, waves, words or eye contact. The goal of the course is to live the ten days as if you were alone. That’s supposed to maximize the effects of “mental refinement through self-observation” (Introduction to Vipassana Meditation Brochure). I want to keep the rules, but I also want that special attention.
On the chalkboard outside the dining area, in a small corner underneath the morning menu, are the letters HB –ros. I stare at it and think, I wonder what that is. Later on, when my brain returns (and then reaffirmed after I talk to Jesse) I realize it’s a birthday card from Jesse to me using my nickname. We call each other Gildenstern and Rosencrantz and abbreviate our names to G and Ros when we sign off on things.
At lunchtime, like a birthday miracle, my dad and I arrive at our segregated doors at the same time again. This time I don’t look away. He gives me a tiny birthday hand wave and I give him a smile. It’s a perfect day.
With the lunch fare, there’s carrot cake and I make a great mental fuss about it being my birthday cake. Remember I said I like birthdays. Jesse tells me later that she and one of the other girls set aside one of the pieces and carved a tomato into a flower decoration. But I didn’t see it in time, not thinking I was in the mood for dessert until most people had visited the dessert table, and someone absconded with my official birthday cake. But in reality, learning about it afterward was just about as special as having seen it and eaten it.
Sometimes it really is the thought that counts.
The rest of the day goes on by. I see a gorgeous sunset and realize it’s also the summer solstice. Not much later, as I put my head to my pillow I think this is probably the only birthday so far that I’ve been up before sunrise and gone to bed this early. And also, that I might be one of the only people who is thrilled ecstatic with getting her own personal 6x4 cell as a present.
You’re a strange one, I tell myself.
Who knows where I’ll go, what I’ll do when I turn 35.
*Credit for the word “rotundity” goes to my youngest brother Phinehas who came home while I was in the middle of writing this blog and gave his valuable vocabularic insight when I couldn’t think past “pudgy”.