After my application for the retreat was accepted, I started having doubts. Ten days without speaking to others I didn’t see as a problem for me. I like silence. We were also forbidden any reading or writing materials—I’d heard about this before with Zen practice. Also no cell phones, or food we brought in ourselves. No problem, I thought. But eleven hours of daily meditation? With my old back and sciatica-ridden right leg?
I found out that students could work independently much of the time, in their own quarters if they like, where they could stretch out on the bed for five minutes if necessary. This was clearly not the kind of situation where you had to be sitting in the meditation hall the whole time and a monk would come around and whack you with a stick if you weren’t sitting up straight. (When a Japanese monk did that to a friend of mine, she jumped up and yelled at him.)
For four and a half years I’d taken a weekly meditation class from Do Gong Sunim, aka John Barazzuol. I got this response: “Throw away your apprehension and embrace and enjoy the 10-day Vipassana retreat! This is a wonderful, precious gift that you have given yourself. I will be your cheerleader. I’ll cheer for you to go. Do it. Go for it.
“Now I must admit that I am very prejudiced in favor of the Vipassansa meditation, which comes from the Theravadan Buddhist tradition in which I received my first, high ordination as a Buddhist monk. Also, in various times in my life as a lay person, I have taken a few of the Vipassana retreats run by the teachers under Goenka. I love Goenka’s style and approach. He trains his teachers to run a very tight ship as far as discipline and rules and regulations go. Initially, it all sounds like a bit too much to put up with—but just accept and go with it and you will find yourself in a wonderful meditation environment. The Rules function to minimize distractions and help you maintain a focused mind. I also like Goenka’s meditation technique—The Technique—and have made good use of it in my life even though it is no longer my main meditation practice. Also I found the Goenka retreat environments very helpful in attaining an inner stillness. If after taking the course, you are not happy with the results or whatever happened, and you want to blame me for recommending it, then I would say with great delight, “Do it again!
“I close with this observation: after many meditation retreats, participants would often share all the suffering from the hell realms that they passed through; and they were not at all happy with me sounding like a bliss ninny. But I also experienced the same suffering as they. I embrace the suffering and I enjoy the bliss. I embrace my darkness to get to my lightness. Now I am in no way suggesting you program yourself to go to this retreat expecting to suffer or to be blissed out. Just go and accept whatever the universe has to offer you.
“I would be delighted to know how it all goes for you.”
A few weeks later I was with the Vipassana group on a public bus for Sico Farm in Dasmariñas, Cavite, where Dhamma Phala is located. My head was full of images from approximately two decades before, when Dogong and Mujin and Chikwan Sunim—all monks and nuns from English-speaking countries—took our meditation class to Sudok Temple, a few hours from Seoul, for three or four weekends of meditation. We sat for eight hours a day in the meditation hall, mostly facing the walls, while the old clock creaked and banged its way through the hour. We also slept in the hall—men in the hall, women on the porch. I made us coffee in the morning, we gave each other backrubs, and between meals we pigged out on junk food. At the Vipassana retreat there would be no backrubs because we weren’t allowed to touch each other for the duration of the course.
Images from Sudok Temple were with me the first couple of days at the center. Sudok-sa was a traditional Buddhist temple with buildings with curved tiled roofs and enormous Buddha statues, all financed by the same Chogye Order which paid my university salary. In contrast, the Vipassana Society is supported entirely by donations from former students—no religious affiliations, no corporate grants, no commercial exploitation of the method. Teaching, food and lodging are free to participants. The staff is unpaid. The rules include putting aside all religious objects and practices until the end of the course. At Dhamma Phala, the land is owned by a former student. The buildings are metal prefabricated constructions which can be taken apart and moved when the society buys its own land.
During the retreat, when the bell struck repeatedly at four in the morning and I had to struggle into my clothes, wash up a bit and head up the gentle rise from the women’s quarters to the meditation hall, in my head I was also hearing the temple bell and the wooden drum, loud enough to waken the dead, and the monk strolling around the courtyard, beating the wooden mokt’ak to summon everyone to the temple. Then I would slide the paper door to one side. It was hard to imagine anything more exotic—the hour, the silhouettes of the temple buildings in the dark courtyard. Inside the temple, the cosmic patterns painted everywhere, the shaven-headed monks in their robes, the rich light falling on the Buddhas and the paintings, the sound of the brass gong. While the cold wind blew through big cracks in the walls, our group stood behind the monks and participated in the bowing and chanting. Then we went back to the hall to begin meditation on the overheated floor.
It was strange not putting palms together and bowing when I entered the Vipassana center’s meditation hall, a plain white building with cushions in royal blue on the men’s side and powder blue on the women’s side, a seat for the teacher in front and recording equipment to play audio and videotapes. As soon as I sat down the first time, I felt I had come home.
Meditation began when the teacher put on an audiotape of Goenka’s chanting in Pali, followed by Goenka’s instructions. For the first three days, we were to concentrate on the breath coming in and out of the nostrils, first on the inner wall and then on the bit of skin outside and below the nostrils. This was practice for sharpening the mind to our physical sensations. As he explained in the videotaped lectures, the idea is that by observing our physical sensations and reacting to them with equanimity, we can train the mind to avoid making immediate positive reactions, which lead to craving, or negative reactions, which lead to aversion.
This made sense to me. I know about hair-trigger reactions’ becoming a habit. I’ll also never forget sitting for three days at Sudok-sa trying to follow my breath but listening to my thoughts making one judgment after the other, mostly that something was bad. It was frustrating and humbling, and it taught me something about thinking always in dualities. I knew also from experience that examining a thought or feeling dispassionately without feeding it any emotional energy can take away its power. However, I’d just finished rereading Goldstein and Kornfield’s Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation, taken copious notes and loved it. I had Goldstein’s The Experience of Insight not yet finished. I was not at all sure I was willing to follow Goenka’s insistence that one use this technique only, forsaking all others. I also had Dogong Sunim in my head cheering me on.
My concentration was poor. I knew better than to be too hard on myself for this. Many times I’d heard Dogong laughing at his own lack of concentration in the early days. But I berated myself anyway. When my practice, such as it was, was only to follow the breath, if the mind wandered off to make a banana cream pie I could pull it back and begin again with an in-breath. But now, when using the mind to scan the body for physical sensations, I’d come back to what I was supposed to be doing and realize I didn’t know exactly where on the body I’d been when my mind wandered off. It was really frustrating to tell myself time after time, “Okay now, start over at the top of the head.” The teacher, who was there to answer students’ questions as well as to play the tapes, suggested that I combine concentration on the body with concentration on inhaling and exhaling. That helped.
I’m a writer. Much about this experience my mind wanted to mull over. Since I was unable to write anything down, it insisted on remembering by repeating again and again—even editing sentences or finding the right words. Sometime in the second or third day I realized I’d come up with a post for this website, a blog for another, and the contours of the first chapter of a novel—a misdeed of some sort in a setting of Noble Silence where the participants weren’t allowed to communicate with each other. The first chapter would end in the washroom with the protagonist secretly scrubbing dried blood from a black silk shirt. It was ridiculous.
I was also hungry most of the time. I hadn’t even thought about food as a problem. It had been at Sudok-sa, but only because we had to serve the monks at some of the meals. They would sit on cushions at low tables, and we would scurry in carrying the food. I had fears of dropping the soup and watching it spread out over the linseed-oil-papered floor. After we sat down, each meal was regulated by the sound of the mokt’ak. You untied your set of bowls, lifted out each one and set it on the placemat in the proper order, served or got served, gobbled up your food as rapidly as possible while wasting not one grain of rice, rinsed the bowls with water, scrubbed them with a pickle, poured the dregs in a bucket for the “hungry ghost,” ate the pickle, tied up your set again and stood in line to put the bowls back on the shelf. Here at this retreat there was no ritual, no need for speed. But there were only two meals a day, breakfast at 6:30, when I was famished, and lunch at 11:00, before I’d gotten hungry again. Between 11:30 and the following breakfast, there was a small piece of fruit and a cup of tea at 5:00. In the meditation hall I would sit on my cushion and think of cooking. I came up with recipes for peanut butter cheesecakes, chocolate-coconut cakes, peanut butter banana cakes. This was exactly the kind of craving the technique was meant to be working against.
Still, somehow it worked. The woman I sat behind wore a tee-shirt which said on the back “Ang galing mo!” or “Good for you.” It seemed she was also cheering me on. I was learning “the technique.” When Goenka introduced it to us with a guided meditation, I was amazed at how much physical sensation I could feel in my face. Sometimes I felt really good vibes on my body and told myself not to get attached to the feeling. When I felt a pain in my back or in my right leg, I warned myself against developing aversion—and when it got really bad I moved the leg a bit. My cushions were set against the wall, so I could lean back, and that helped. I seemed to be holding up as well as the other students, almost all of them half or a third of my age. Once during the group meditations, when we had to sit motionless for an hour, I felt the sweat running down into my ear, tickling unbearably inside my ear, and tried hard to maintain equanimity.
By the end of the seventh day, when Goenka informed us that we were now ready for surgery and that we should cut out those unwanted miseries we had brought with us, I thought, “How does he know?” I also felt he was right, and I did some work on the worry and resentment I’d brought with me, but not without remembering Goldstein and Kornfield’s saying, “You can learn a lot from anger.” Why should one take only one approach?
Part of what sold me on this particular center was the people. True, we maintained silence and avoided even nonverbal communication, but it was clear that, except for the three who left early, everyone on the women’s side was following the rules, working on the meditation, maybe also feeling she was having a life-altering experience. I felt less isolated in this overwhelmingly Catholic country with these people who were doing Vipassana during Holy Week.
On the last day we were allowed to talk with each other. I got my camera back and took some photos. Noble Silence was now followed by Noble Chatter. In a flood of pent-up thought and emotion we shared with each other what we’d been through for the past nine days. One woman said that after great agony she’d crawled over to the teacher, a native speaker of German. Referring to herself as ‘this humble person,’ she begged to be given her old seat where she could lean against the wall. In the laughter which followed, I said, “In German people haven’t used language like ‘this humble person’ for two hundred years.” Another woman was empowered to overcome her 30-year-old fear of cats by petting the scrawny adolescent male who would wander through the woman’s dining hall. I seemed to have finally gotten what I need to maintain a steady meditation practice, and I was glad to hear about the regular sittings where people who have finished their first 10-day course can practice together.
On the way home, one of the women told me she’d actually signed up for the retreat in order to lose weight, and later she sent a text that she’d lost ten pounds. I discovered I’d lost six and a half of the fifteen pounds I’ve been wanting to take off for years—and that’s without exercise. I’ve also discovered I don’t need as much food as my mind tells me I do. I’m sleeping better. I feel curiously empowered. My concentration while meditating has improved. I have the sense that my focus has sharpened, even though I’m not sure what that means.
A reader writes:
Thank you for sharing your website. I can relate with your former meditation teacher. “There is no certain way—each of us must make his own way, and when he does that, that way will express the universal way.” I’ve been making my own way, too, and our 10-day Vipassana course was one of those ways. I went to the course with an unformed, “unworded” question in my heart. I didn’t ask the teacher, some part of me knowing that it will be answered in time. I waited and I listened to my heart, my guts, my bones (despite the unexpected pain that sprang from wherever I’ve unconsciously buried it). And on the last minute of the last hour of the last day, during metta [loving-kindness] meditation, I heard the answer. Like what a friend of mine told me, the answers to our questions are really simple and just under our noses. (It really does start and end with the breath.)
A reader writes:
Your Vipassana retreat sounds quite amazing. On the one hand, I admire and envy your… What? Tenacity? Commitment? On the other hand, it seems an extreme measure to shed a few pounds. Honestly, it must be great to be in that place where you are willing to make the sacrifice in order to achieve something more. Good for you. I, certainly, am nowhere near there.
A reader writes:
Very interesting. Glad you did it even though it makes me feel guilty that I don’t put the effort into searching out activites that will improve me! Maybe someday!
A reader writes:
Carol. Good for you! I enjoyed your article and the one your teacher wrote.
A reader writes:
Enjoyed your recent posts, Carol. Great to know you’ve been sitting in the shade of the ‘big oak’ all this time. (Wasn’t that how you once described talking with Do-gong Sunim?) Hope you can hear me cheering you on from the emerald isle.
A reader writes:
Thank you for sharing this beautiful post. It is good to be reminded and walked through the technique all over again. In no attempt to
overrate the experience, I would sum it up as “life changing.” Coming from a quality-oriented environment where there are documented standards and procedures in order to operate, this has been such a liberating experience. I realized there are no standards on how to live one’s life, but there are techniques we can work on to have inner peace. Everyday I still try to meditate, though not as religiously as we would during the course. I would still do it for 10 more days, given the chance. I also like what I read regarding “embracing one’s darkness to get into lightness”. Thank you for documenting this Carol and sharing your metta here. Hope to see you again some time.