On Day 10 following the group sit, the noble silence is broken. Although we still have several group sits remaining, we’re released from the rigidity of the schedule and can socialize. It’s like we’ve served our time and been promised a new chance at life. There’s a joy in the air. A bubbling vibrancy that undercurrents the conversations we’re now allowed to have. I’m glad to be able to look people in the eye and say “thank you” when they hold the door open for me, but I’m not quite ready to completely break my silence.
I take myself back to my room and while the thoughts are still undiluted I jot them down in the notebook I’ve kept in my bag but not touched until now.
Pen in hand, I watch a cardinal flit from branch to branch in the tree just outside my window. Am I enlightened? The teacher, Goenka, said that wouldn’t be very likely over a ten day course (“The path to enlightenment is a long one.”). I scan my thoughts, my sensations, my heart for the telltale signs. No, I conclude, I’m not. Well, if not enlightenment, what do I take out of this with me? What have I learned? Would I do it again? Would I recommend this to others? How have I changed?
I don’t feel that different. I didn’t have any epiphanies. No raptures. No supernatural shifts.
What I feel now is the endorphin thrill of completion. The way I felt the day I graduated college. The way I felt after making it through an especially grueling Judo workout, or after a tournament. The way I felt after climbing Machu Picchu Mountain back in January. I had wanted to quit so many times on that trail, but had kept going step by step. I’d wanted to cry and rejoice when I reached the top. I’d pushed myself hard and it had paid off in a reward. Here I feel the same, I’d pushed myself into something that was at times unbearable, but I’d borne it. I’d felt like I was in hell, but I’d walked through it. As if I were in prison, but not ruled over. Out of my mind crazy, but still sane. I’d stuck it out. And now at the end, there’s a release, a full out bliss in knowing I made it to the other side.
I haven’t been enlightened, but maybe I’m just a little more illuminated than before. Although I still have questions. Always questions.
What is this sense of power that comes with succeeding at something so hard?
Is there really something in Vipassana that leads one to enlightenment? Is the technique worth the effort to get there?
Why is the path to all goods things through a sea of pain?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. Maybe they’re the wrong ones to ask. Some of these questions aren’t new to me and I know I’ll continue to sort them out as time, as life takes me along.
After clean up and goodbyes, Jesse, Dad, and I head home. Their experiences were not without reward and we exchange tales of our triumphs and despairs. A vapor of elation fills the car. The chatter spills out our lips caulking the silent space of the previous ten days and continues when we’re at the house and retelling everything to my mom and my youngest brother Phinehas.
Later, almost reluctant to reimmerse myself into the busy world I power on my computer and check online. Splattered everywhere are pictures of the out of control fires near Colorado Springs. I stare in disbelief at the images of angry flames devouring the mountains I lived nearby for nearly a decade. At this point there is zero containment and the fire is edging in towards the town. My friends post updates about the smoke and the haze and the pre evacuation notices they’re under. Fear, grief, disbelief, all these emotions assault me. I text a few friends to make sure they’re safe. I call a few others. Posts notes for more. Tears come from somewhere deep inside me when the fires lick down to eat up The Flying W Ranch and run through the Garden of the Gods. My heart breaks when something like 350 houses are reduced to ashes.
I know about stuff. How easy it can be to be rid of it. How excruciatingly hard it can be to lose it, to give it up, to say goodbye.
The part of my heart I left behind me in Colorado feels the heat of fire and the pain turns into grief where I am.
I know, I think, I know this is how life works. Things are born, things die. Things are intense, and then they’re weak. Things rise and fall. Nothing lasts forever.
I even know that fire is one of nature’s methods of restarting; a surefire phoenix from the flames kind of rebirth for forests and fields. But not for homes. Not for jobs. Not for families.
Life is fragile. It’s impermanent. It’s beautiful and tragic. Heart wrenching and joyful. It’s brief and grueling and surprising.
Maybe that’s what Vipassana handed out to me, the ability to feel without being overwhelmed.
All things rise and fall. Nothing lasts forever. The nature of existence is impermanence.
The question is: what will I do with my own body of impermanence? How will I live my life?
That, amid all my other questions, is maybe the best one. And only time will tell how it’s answered.