Saturday, November 26, 2011

10 Days in Noble Silence (Part 1)

I sensed I was out of my depth when someone said "you've never done a meditation program before? And you're here? That's like wandering lost up the back of Mount Olympus and stumbling upon the gods. You're brave..."

Brave? I'll tell you what bravery is. Bravery is using some of the public toilets in Southeast Asia. I have been to toilets where I left still wondering how they were suggesting I should have made a "transaction". Talk about your Gross Sensations... Those would have been good times to have achieved Detachment.
Take this bathroom for example. It feels like something is missing.
Everyone warned us the 10-day Vipassana meditation program in Kathmandu would be very challenging, "but don't worry, it is challenging for everyone, and it is very rewarding." Along with a strict schedule of meditation that starts at 4:30 am, a key element of the program is "Noble Silence", meaning no expression with any part of your body, no speaking, no reading or writing, no hand gestures, no eye contact. The idea is to cultivate the feeling that this is a personal, individual journey. Students are allowed no technology, no wallet, no mobile phone, no medicines, just their clothes, toothbrush and a blanket. The travel blog "A Little Adrift" has a hilarious account of a 10 day retreat at a smaller center Pokhara (our Kathmandu program had about 150 students, most of whom are from Nepal).

The entrance sign to the Nepal Vipassana Meditation Center

The only sound is from the recorded audio and video of the teacher, S. N. Goenka, guiding through the meditation and giving evening lectures. Goenka's bullfrog barritone sounded like he was sermoning from the bottom of a bowl of mashed potatoes. "Sermoning" is not quite the right word though as it is a non-sectarian, non-religious "practical" meditation boot camp. Basically, you are there to do nothing else but learn the technique through experience. "Boot camp" is the right phrase to describe it though, down to where they ladle food on to your metal plates after you are let out of your "cells" at night.

On the surface, it doesn't sound that hard. Sit for fifteen hours a day in a cold dark room in silence, perfectly still, eyes closed, concentrating on your breath passing through your nostrils? I have known government employees with less stimulating jobs than that.

My roommate from Spain and me. I'm wearing four shirts and all the socks I own. 

It is extraordinarily hard to concentrate on your breath for long periods of time. Most people cannot make it past about twenty breaths before their minds start to wander. Really, try it.

Maybe the distration comes as some pain ("Day 4: Hangnail... My aura has been shattered"). Maybe it is a song stuck in your head. In my case the songs were  "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" by Katy Perry (the saxaphone solo is really quite shrill) and "Don't Stop [Thinking About Tomorrow]", which is unfortunate considering the message of the meditation is "to be in the moment".

Someone we met who had done the course said her brain would overflow with ideas. "Oh yeah, I've written novels in my head, started businesses..." My business idea was "Soup cart for dogs and their owners" ('Cause dogs love soup! And owners love their dogs!). It is called "Slurp 'n' Slurp"... I can just hear it- "I'll have the Heirloom Tomato Soup and Barkley here will have the Organic French Onion with Garlic biscuit because you're a good boy! Yes you are, Barkles! So good!"
The dog that lived outside the center's gate. She's a good girl, yes she is!
I also do not recommend making up trivia questions for yourself, because you will never be able to know the answer. I thought for hours about "What is American TV Comedy show Parks and Recreation character Tom Haveford's startup company called?" I was really sure it was "Pawnee 350". Now, "what year was Madonna's hit single Into the Groove released?" The list of things to Wikipedia when you are done can grow very long. For example, a cardinal rule in meditation was to never point your feet at the teacher... Is there a list of famous foot-pointing incidents in Buddhist history? e.g., "492 B.C. The Great Schism begins with the mass foot-pointing outrage of Devadatta and his disciples against Gautama."

While I was looking forward to all the good ideas I would come up with, I was worried about coming to a gate where I would have to leave all my old beliefs and ideas behind? Would I stand at the spiritual bungee jumping platform and refuse to let go of the hand rail? Would I sever all ties to the past and allow my ego to be annihilated? At that exact moment of enlightenment my business cards (also in storage) would spontaneously burst into flame.

Well, when strolling through the garden on Day Two, I thought of a joke that made me do a mental spit-take and sputter to myself for a second out of Noble Silence. It was easily the funnest joke I had come up with in months. Holding back laughing became like stifiling a sneeze. I imagined anyone seeing me convulsing behind a bush must have thought I was having premature catharsis ("Day Two, already? Go easy there, Cowboy!"). Realize that I am not a person that laughs out loud easily. My brother and I practiced funny guy/straight guy routines as kids. I somehow got stuck on straight guy. It comes up during therapy.

What was I going to do? I had to get it out somehow. But what about Noble Silence?

[Continued tomorrow in part 2]


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