Day 0- Arrival
Living in misery for months a friend said to me one day, “You have some pretty intense rage coming out and with good reason, but it sounds like you need a change. Have you looked into Vipassana?”
“It’s a course that happens all over the world all the time. It’s ten days of silence, it’s like an extreme mental detox”
“Emma, I think that’s the most polite way someone has ever told me to shut up”.
“Yeah, but it’s free so … just do it”
She was right. My heart was heavy, my shoulders had sunken in to protect what remained functional. I wasn’t sleeping and had lost 20 pounds purely from stress. I didn’t recognize myself. It seemed shit had hit the fan in such a short amount of time that things were spinning out of control with seemingly no end in sight. I needed an out. I applied for a yoga school in California and a Vipassana course in Texas; within 2 days acceptance letters came from both directions. My departure date was a week away and the whole trip would last two months. Goodbye, thankless job. See ya, summer heat. Peace out, T-town.
The drive. A playlist of happy jams. Freedom. Relief. Breath. I had always been most content when on the road, moving.
Upon my arrival, the center proved to be quite warm without a cloud in the sky. There were a few buildings: a men’s dining hall and living quarters, a similar set-up for women, and the Dhamma hall for meditation. There were people of all ages and cultures milling about, waiting for orientation to begin. About a hundred of us gathered in a high-ceilinged room with our shoes piled at the front door. Many were conversing with one another; it seemed some families had come to take the course together. (I couldn’t imagine my family joining in on such a radical activity.) I stuck to myself and no one approached me. Until, a while later, a petite Vietnamese woman came up and said, “You need to change your clothes. Are you aware of the dress code? Your shoulders need to be covered. And no yoga pants.”
Embarrassed, I responded, “Yes, ma’am, I just got here from a long drive. I’ll change right now.”
Orientation consisted of a role call, a reiteration of the rules, and an introduction to the teacher’s assistants. They went into what Vipassana actually is and what it is not: Vipassana is a method of mental purification that allows one to face tensions in a calm and balanced way. It is not an escape from the trials and tribulations of everyday life. It is not a rite or ritual based on blind faith, nor is it a rest, cure, or holiday. Vipassana was designed to retrain the brain to destroy old patterns of negative behavior, to eradicate the three causes of all unhappiness: craving, aversion, and ignorance. It’s an art of living one can use to make positive contributions to society. The aim is to reach the highest spiritual “goal” of total liberation and complete enlightenment. They ask you to put all past teachings, techniques, and chosen beliefs on hold for ten days.
We were encouraged to read the rules multiple times so we’d know exactly what we were getting ourselves into. They didn’t want us leaving before the ten days were up. Skipping out early had the potential of disrupting harmony within the community and could be detrimental to an individual’s practice and mental health.
The rules stated no intoxicants (including tobacco), absolutely no physical contact, nor eye contact, writing, reading, running, skipping, meat-eating, or whistling. All technology was strictly prohibited. Clothing had to be modest, simple, and comfortable. Fifty men and fifty women were separated and in this particular facility we were granted private rooms. The program is designed to cultivate a feeling of isolation yet support within your group.
We had to check in our phones, car keys, and wallets. Admittedly, I craved the blue light almost immediately.
Next came room assignments and dinner. My living quarters consisted of a sink, mirror, toilet, and tiny shower. There was a twin-sized bed with fresh sheets, a few shelves and hangers, an alarm clock, and a plastic lawn chair in the corner. The female teacher’s assistant came by with a small gong to sound for dinner. She was a young, slender woman about my age with long hair and a modest but clear sense of style and perfect posture. She was the only person we were to speak with (using strictly functional speech), aside from our teacher, with a given appointment. Dinner was in our respective segregated dining halls. This would be the only dinner in the duration of the course. The following days would offer a 6:30 breakfast, an 11:00 lunch, and a 5:00 tea and fruit break. Tonight’s meal consisted of Texas chili and cornbread. Just delightful. Once again I kept to myself but took notice, and eventually I gravitated toward sitting next to a group of women who looked like me. This is a typical human response to discomfort: a tendency to drift toward what we know and are used to. This was a pattern of behavior I had seen in myself in the past and wanted to adjust. But the next meal would be different.
We gathered in the Dhamma hall and got our seat assignments. People were scrambling for their props that would be necessary for their comfort while sitting still for ten hours a day for the next ten days. The large room was lined in white marble and set in a grid of zabutons. The male and female teachers were sitting onstage decked out in all white. It was cold.
I tried not to scan the men’s side of the room to see how the forbidden fruit was arranged. The low-budget recording of SN Goenka from the ‘90s boomed static over the intercom. The instructions were brief: don’t move; sit tall; close your eyes; concentrate on the breath that makes contact with the space between the nostrils and upper lip (anapana). I hadn’t sat in weeks and was never very good at it to begin with. Six months in a zen monastery the previous summer had proven that sitting still was very difficult for some and came more naturally for others. My upper back started to ache almost immediately and the urge to adjust arrived shortly after. My mind wandered to fantasies and songs on loop from the car ride earlier. The future, future, posture, breath, future, physical pain, future. Craving. Aversion. Inner giggles arrived when I came to terms with this crazy decision of putting myself into this prison, and I knew the next ten days were going to be rough. The young East Indian girl to my right fell asleep on her face almost immediately. I found her innocence slightly entertaining and wondered if she’d been forced to participate or if she was simply exhausted. Ten minutes before the end Goenka’s voice came back on and reminded us once again of what exactly we were practicing. When the recording faded out the men’s teacher spoke to the hundred of us, saying the great silence had begun and to reside to our rooms.
Lights out at 9:30; sleep came immediately. My dreams were filled with the kind of psychedelic color and excitement that comes only when one is unplugged. I was able to lucid dream for the first time in maybe a year. Branjae, our Tulsa badass superhero frontwoman, was onstage dressed in all white singing Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life,” spinning and kicking around in her flowy dress. It was exhilarating. I awoke to a bell at 4:00 the next morning with a smile; I had arrived.