Thursday, June 28, 2012


June 28, 2012 – Misery

I sit with my legs folded under each other, my right hand cradling the left, and my eyes closed. A heavy cross of pain weighs down on my shoulder blades and spine. My right foot lies tucked under my left knee and the pressure is putting the limb to sleep. My neck has stiffened up and I want to crack it. I hope the sensation across my scalp and inching down my cheek is not really a spider. I hope. An itch rises up on my shoulder. A soft breeze from the air conditioning touches my cheek, flinches down my arm. Sensations rise and fall and I feel each one like a deeply personal insult.
I want to cry. This is day four of the ten day Vipassana course and this is the first official Vipassana sit. It’s two hours long and I’m not supposed to move. I’m not supposed to break my posture. All I’m supposed to do is notice the sensations that arise and pass away over my body. Notice them but not react to them. I want to move so badly. I’m praying silently to anybody who will listen that the time is almost up, but I know it’s not. I don’t even think one hour has gone by.
Whether or not misery is truly a universal truth I’m feeling it.
I’m miserable.
This hurts. And I’m no stranger to pain. I’ve put my body through hell before when training for Judo and in weight lifting. I’ve deprived myself of food and drink to make weight for competitions. I’ve pushed my body to the limit time and again. I’ve suffered through the intense pain of rheumatoid arthritis. I’ve done ten day liquid fasts. But this is a torture. This is insanity. I thought Vipassana was supposed to free me from misery. Why would Jesse think this was good? Why in anyone’s name would she recommend this to us? Does she hate me? I might be a masochist, but this is even too much for me.
My mind bucks with protests. I should just get up and leave. This is stupid. I don’t even want to be enlightened. What the heck am I doing here? Why would anybody do this to themself? And why would they come back to do it again? If Vipassana is truly “seeing things as they really are” then I’m not sure I want to be seeing them.
But I sit.
I sit in a body shaped immobile casket of pain. I sit in the midst of my own misery.
Finally. Eventually. At last the time is up.
We’re dismissed from the Dhamma Hall and I walk out with quaking legs to the course boundary sign. The gravel drive stretches out in front of me. My muscles tense and I shift forward on my toes to run. I’ll just go. I’ll just run until I can’t run anymore. Just to get away from here. Then I give a half sob, half laugh. I’m not wearing the right shoes for that. And then what would I do? Wait for my dad and sister for six days at the end of one of these country roads? Call my mom from a pay phone to come pick me up? Give up on something? Quit before the end? No way.
I’ve committed to stay the full ten days. Damn me and my need to see things through. What am I going to do for the next six days? How am I going to last this out? What have I gotten myself into?
On Day One I learned to “watch” my breath. The melodic inflections of S. N. Goenka’s Indian accent rose and fell like a song. He instructed us through the technique via a recording. “If the breath is shallow, it is shallow. If it is deep, it is deep. Do not force it. Just observe the natural flow of the breath. Where it hits on the inside of the nostrils. Where it hits on the rim of the nostrils. Just observe. Just observe. Just observe.” Over the ten days I come to hate his voice. I detest the repetition. I abhor the creepy way he elongates words. It feels like the kind of tone one would use to brainwash the unsuspecting. I don’t want to be brainwashed.

Then on the other hand, I come to desire his voice. I wait for it. I long for it. His chanting signals the end of the sessions. His words give new aspects to the technique which help me from being bored completely out of my mind. The evening video discourses explain what Vipassana does and some of Goenka’s stories even make me laugh.

His voice creates both aversion and craving in me. The two things that Goenka tells us create misery. Cravings lead to clinging which leads to misery. Aversion leads to hate, anger, frustration, depression which all lead to misery. I see the truth in that. So I learn to become equanimous to his voice. I just listen to it and let go my aversion and release my craving. I just observe. I practice perfect equanimity. It’s harder than you’d think.
In addition to our media present teacher Goenka, the men have a male assistant teacher and the females have a female assistant teacher. They moderate the Sits and are available for interviews from 12:00 to 1:00 each day to answer questions about the technique or methods or the rationale of Vipassana. They sit on a raised platform before us. We all sit on cushions on the floor. Men on the left. Women on the right. The teachers sit like statues. I feel like a fidgety child inside and out.
What is it about us humans that makes us want to distinguish between stations? Teacher and Student. Old versus New. Server versus Meditator. Intelligent versus ignorant. Enlightened versus the miserable.

I don’t mind learning from someone. I lack so much. But I don’t want to be a disciple. Some blind follower. I don’t want to be caught up in some movement. So what am I doing here? I want what Vipassana promises – Liberation. I love my freedom. If I can be free in body and free in mind, that’s a win, right? I want to be at peace. I want to see the world in new ways. I want to be mindful. I want to be aware. I want to live life to its ultimate fullness. Those are the end results I’m hoping to gain.
Yet, I sit at the feet of these teachers and revolt in my mind. Why? Why? How? What? Then I chide my wandering thoughts and refocus on my breath.
On Day Two I learn to expand my area of focus. I watch for sensations in the triangular area from the bridge of my nose to the edge of my upper lip. All the while I still pay attention to the in and out of my breath. If I have a tickle on the side of my nose, I observe it. I don’t reach up to scratch it. I don’t wish it to go away. I just feel it. I’m learning to experience sensation without creating a craving or an aversion to it. The point of this is to develop (Goenka says it “devil-ip”) “a more stable and concentrated mind by learning to fix one’s attention on the natural reality of the ever-changing flow of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils (Introduction to Vipassana Meditation Brochure).”
On Day Three I narrow my focus to the sensations from the rim of my nostrils to the edge of my upper lip. This is all leading up to the fourth day where the hope is that I’ll have a calmer and more focused mind so that I can learn the practice of Vipassana itself: “the observation of sensations throughout the body, the experiential understanding of their changing nature and the development of a balanced mind by learning not to react to them (Introduction to Vipassana Meditation Brochure).”
Up to this point my main problem has been keeping my mind on task. When it wanders I gently bring it back to the technique. Or I bully it back. This is mental training at its most intense. I find myself being lazy, letting my imaginations run rampant through the trails of my brain. I find deadness that looks suspiciously like boredom. I see apathy and indifference. Get back to work, I tell myself sternly, use this time wisely.
And then Day Four comes. Hell. Misery. Pain. Agitation. Doubt. I leave the course boundary at the front of the property and head toward the women’s dormitory. Grasshoppers take flight up out of the tall grass like bursting corn kernels.  I use the path that winds by the small pond – I title it The Lake – and go to stand still at the overlook area, licking my wounds as I listen to the cicadas sing and the birds chime and the wind strum through the trees. I’m soul sick. Hurt. Miserable. Tired. Even the noble silence around me doesn’t seem silent enough.

A black water snake slinks through the algae at the edge of water. It’s beautiful. Smooth. Graceful. Existing in the beauty of this moment. Does it feel misery or joy?
I think back to my childhood and the times I went to my grandparents’ place in the country (only miles from where I am now) and how my grandmother told us to walk tall and noisy through the grass to scare away snakes. There’d been rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins, grass snakes. How she once killed a copperhead that my sister nearly stepped on. How she pointed out the water moccasins to us and told us to be careful around the water. How we never swam in their tank. How we carefully turned over the little boat we used to paddle around in, in case there were sleeping serpents underneath. How we’d check our shoes for scorpions. How we’d look under our bed covers for scorpions, spiders or other undesirable bedfellows. How we’d dab our socks with sulfur to keep the chiggers from eating us up. How we’d walk a wide path around fire ant hills. How sharp and violent and dangerous that world was that we mashed down to make comfortable and safe for ourselves.
When I signed up for this I agreed to observe five moral precepts for at least the minimum of the duration of the course.
       1.       to abstain from killing any being

2.       to abstain from stealing

3.       to abstain from all sexual activity

4.       to abstain from telling lies

5.       to abstain from all intoxicants

I watch this black snake with wonder. How easy it is to kill the scary things around us. To protect ourselves. To ensure our safety. Because we’re too lazy to try and relocate what we feel is a danger or a nuisance to ourselves. I don’t want to kill.
I’ll stay here, snake, I think to it (since I’ve taken a vow of noble silence), and you stay there, okay?

I’ve got a few minutes of rest before the next session and I decide to go nap in my room. With the snake on my mind I look down at the path before I step. A glimpse of white catches the corner of my eye. With perfect equanimity, I don’t react. Then I smile a small tiny smile. It’s a moth. It sits on my shoulder. It stays there for a long moment. And I almost cry. It sits on my shoulder, a comforting imperceptible touch, as if to say, “You made it through the worst. You can do this. You’re okay. ” With its message made, it flitters away.
I go back to my room, slightly salved, and rest.
During the fourth day’s evening discourse Goenka talks about misery. I realize that I had lived that two hour Vipassana session inside, in the middle of, in full acceptance of my self-made misery. Lesson learned. That’s the point. Object lesson fully experienced. I don’t want to ever go through that again. And yet, that’s how we mostly live; so consumed by our pain that we can see nothing else. So wrapped up in our anger, disappointment, hurt, grief, or hate that we can’t even notice how we create the misery for ourselves. Vipassana teaches how we can observe the unpleasant things in life without being eaten up by them. Vipassana also teaches how to observe the pleasant things in life so that we can avoid attachment which leads to clinging and disappointment. All things come. And then all things go away. That’s the nature of life. It’s impermanent. Nothing lasts forever. Neither the good nor the bad. Didn’t Hamlet say that? It’s our thinking that makes it so.

My sense of humor throws off the dirt I’d buried it with and resurrects itself miraculously. Welcome back, I think with gratefulness. I thought you’d gone for good.
My sense of humor laughs at me.

I know how to do this now. It’s not so different from how I dealt with the constant and nagging pain of rheumatoid arthritis. I lived with it for years, intense, crippling, mind-searing pain, but somehow managed not to let it incapacitate me. I did everything I could to alleviate the disease while determining to not let anything—not even RA– limit me in living my life the way I wanted to live it. There I got lucky, I found relief. In the process of healing, I reshaped my whole life. Maybe that was the beginning steps toward my own enlightenment. Whatever that might mean.
Goenka never exactly preaches hope (as the opposite of misery) in his discourses or in the systematic meditation instructions he gives during the sessions. He says the path to enlightenment, the path out of misery is a hard one. “Work out your own salvation,” is one of the ideas that accompanies the technique. We each have to find our own way from the bank of misery and across the river to the other side. It’s a life journey of serious work. But he says if you work at it then “You are bound to be successful. Bound to be successful.”

Yeah. Okay. I don’t know that I want to adopt this for the rest of my life, but I can at least see this course through. I’ll count that as success. I have no idea what I’ll get out of this entire experience. But I think I have made it through the worst.  
“You are here for ten days to give this technique a fair trial,” Goenka intones, “So use your time wisely. Work diligently. Diligently. Work ardently. Work ardently.”
I can do that. I can survive the very fires of hell if I know it’s temporary. Misery doesn’t have anything on me. Especially not the misery I’ve created for myself.


  1. It sounds like you were on an awesome adventure through your inner self. Well done and congrats on finishing what you started.

    I love hearing your stories of adventure, and I can't wait for more. Your blogging hiatus during your long voyage to Europe will leave me sad and longing for more. I can't wait to hear from you when you reach the other side of the pond.

  2. Seriously? I wonder what fruit would have developed in 10 days of silence, alone with God, and His Word. Looking for peace? Well, there you go!