It’s been nearly three days since I’ve used my vocal chords or read anything but the ingredients on a shampoo bottle. I feel lost without the Internet and wonder how many text messages have accumulated on my iPhone, which I voluntarily surrendered a few days ago. Flossing and brushing have become entertainment. I turn my observation of ants into an existential character study whereby I contemplate each one’s purpose and motivation, assigning whole histories to these little creatures. I try naming a few but find it difficult to look away and differentiate Romeo from Juliet when my gaze returns.
On this day I’m viscerally angry and impatient. My car is parked 100 yards away. My keys are stuffed somewhere in my duffel. A single stern demand for my phone would release me from this weird little prison—a place where gongs first bellow at 4 a.m. then incessantly thereafter. This place has required me to spend copious amounts of time seated with eyes shut observing the air flowing in and out of my nostrils. I’ve observed that air goes in cold and comes out warm. I’ve made peace with the fact that it always exits one nostril with a stronger force than the other. This distorts my sense of balance, but I’m instructed to merely observe and not interfere.
For the last three days I’ve watched in silence as the other 40 men around me suffer the same excruciating fate. I’ve created stories and backgrounds for a few of these nameless individuals based on their body language, the way they eat, the clothes they wear. I’ve achieved insane boredom from the isolated life I’ve subjected myself to, all while being aware that I am expected to endure this monastic hellhole for another seven days. Covert exit is tempting. But leaving is not an option; I’d only flog myself with disappointment if I quit.
On this sprawl of farmland (akin to a commune) adjacent to a potholed country road in Kaufman, Texas, I’m learning the ancient practice of Vipassana meditation as first taught by Guatama Buddha. I’m not being asked to convert to Buddhism. In fact, I’m being discouraged from applying these teachings as religious rite or ritual—Mr. Buddha never intended his teachings to be adopted as religion. Instead, I’m supposed to observe my breath as it flows in and out of my nostrils, keep my attention firmly focused on this small area of my body, and pay no mind to any other sensation.
But sensations are hard things to ignore. I’m presuming a purpose for this breathing exercise, but that hasn’t revealed itself and my mind conjures thoughts of everything at once—my house, salacious fantasies, zombie apocalypses. I discover that when forced into total solitude my monkey brain is surprisingly violent.
Purpose reveals itself a little more each day. The monotony doesn’t change, but the experience snowballs. On day four of this 10-day seminar, the full Vipassana technique is taught. I’m to extend my observation beyond my breath and, in an orderly fashion, scan my body piece by piece for sensations, neither acting nor reacting to any.
My left hip radiates pain, and I want to adjust my posture. But doing so would be reacting. Impatiently, I break character and open my eyes to ascertain how much longer I’m supposed to sit through this. A half hour remains in this session. I experience gnawing pangs. Aversion is all I can concentrate on, and I’m craving freedom from this posture and mental straitjacket. But I’m to understand that these sensations will pass just as they arose. Impermanence is the law of nature; change is inevitable.
Vipassana meditation is observation of this law of nature. The practice teaches that through objective observation, equanimity strengthens and personal cravings are neutralized. Old habits die, miseries dissipate, and destructive patterns fade with continued practice—or so I’m told. At this point, I’ve been participating for several days and, in my truest old habit form, I want the hell out of this place.
This 10-day experience tested my patience and my willpower to unprecedented degrees. Granted, I’ve never dealt well with discomfort. I’m a recovering “jumper in-er,” that guy who embarks on new endeavors with great gusto only to bail when things get tough. The self-preserver in me craves the road of least resistance, yet I’ve long known that that road leads nowhere interesting. But familiarity tempts us to remain.
Awareness of impermanence can be empowering if you’re willing to embrace uncertainty. Everything in our experience—past, present, and future—materializes out of uncertainty. Still, my ego resisted the entire way. It cried bull a number of times. But through pain and grinding impatience I ultimately reached a point where I could sit through these discomforts. I touched on my own equanimity, found purpose in sitting through misery, and felt joy upon completing the first session where I remained perfectly still with eyes shut.
I’ve no doubt that every person could gain from such an experience—if not Vipassana practice, then something equally self-sustaining. It’s exercise, and the muscle you’re working on is your subconscious mind. It’s not easy, but, as the old saying goes, nothing worth doing ever is.
For info about Vipassana centers across the US and around the world, click here.