I barely remember the second semester, freshman year, of college. It was as if I'd been struck in the head and most of that time period is gone in an amnesia haze. There's a few things that are clear, but I slept-walked through much of those months and somehow I managed to go to class and not fail out. My friend Sarah slipped a card underneath my dorm door one day. I think have that card somewhere still. It said something about how life can sometimes make you feel like a few elephants sat on your head. It was warm and compassionate, but also very funny, and it lightened an otherwise dark time for me and it was not the first time Sarah would be an angel to me.
When I lost my voice in November this past year, I felt like the sky was falling. I wrote about that before, but while I was in a dark place, someone told me about a Vipassana Meditation course. 10 days of silence to learn this technique. And because I'd been rendered silent, somehow this struck me as not only a good idea, but a necessary one, and I decided to sign up for the next available course, and give it to myself as a birthday present.
At the tail end of February, I found myself driving 9 hours to Jessup, Georgia to the Southeast Vipassana Center for a 10 day course. I had been excited, but as the days grew closer, I became anxious and then afraid. White-knuckled driving, not knowing what an entire day would feel like without sound, not to mention more than a week. No reading. No writing (no writing?), no talking? Terrifying.
I played Darrell Scott's song "Colorado" over and over and over again as I drove the windy backroads to the Center. "Colorado I need healing from this sorrow I've been feeling..." Felt like it was the appropriate last piece of music to hear before I turned the sound off.
I arrived to this lovely place, clean and very well-kept, a small pond lined with benches and willow trees, walking trails through woods, dorms and a cozy dining room. The registration hours were not silent, but I felt hesitant to talk to anyone, warming myself up to go inward. The place is run on volunteer efforts. It does not cost to do this course. You donate after you complete or you offer service of your own. It's incredible and it's worldwide. I found my dorm room, which I was to share with 2 other women, connected to other rooms and other women. Clean and sparse. I set my bed up with my linens and pillow, unpacked my suitcase and joined the other women at dinner, our last chance to talk before the course began. There was buzzing of conversation, introductions, a few women who had done this course before who were giving glimpses of what was to come, a bit of advice. I can't remember talking to many. I told a few people who had asked where I was from or what I did that I was a 'writer from Nashville'. Otherwise, I was quiet, trying to concentrate on breathing and not give into a last-minute panicked ditching of this crazy idea. The only thing that kept me there was that my fear of being deemed a quitter is greater than my fear of actually doing something terrifying. Leap...
As we passed through the meditation hall for the first time that night, being shown to our assigned mat/seat, I knew the Noble Silence had begun and a grief welled up inside of me. Like so much of what I experienced that week, it completely took me by surprise, my fear, my sorrow, my anxiety. My breath became shallow and I checked around at the others' faces to see if anyone else was feeling my anxiety. Everyone looked so calm and I felt more alone than I've ever felt. Passing through that door we were asked to accept the five precepts of the dhamma:
Abstain from telling lies
Abstain from stealing from others
Abstain from killing
Abstain from sexual misconduct
Abstain from taking intoxicants.
Part of this was Noble Silence (meant to help us with the first precept). So much more than not talking to anyone, it encompasses not being in communication with anyone at all -- no gestures, side looks, etc. To stay completely within yourself for 9.5 days (we broke Silence halfway through the last day). I was more anxious about the No Writing rule (they ask you to not bring anything to write with -- writing and/or reading takes away from the practice of really going deeply within and investigating a new kind of silence). But I didn't really miss not writing or reading. Never even thought about it after the first day. However, I have never felt so lonely and alone as I did on that first day. I can honestly say that Day 1 of this course was one of the longest days of my life. I did not think I could make it. I kept in my head that I'd run 2 marathons and survived a pretty harrowing trip to Cambodia years ago. I kept saying to myself "If I can do THAT, I can do THIS." But I will admit that the first 7 days were like mile 18 of the marathon -- never ending, painful, and very very tough. I thought to myself many times "why the HELL am I here? I am never going to make it." But on the other side of it, it was one of the most important experiences of my life so far and very very worth the challenge. The world would be a better place is everyone did one of these courses.
This is what a day in Vipassana looks like. The morning gong rings at 4am. By 4:30 we start our meditation in the hall until 6:30. The gong rings, and we'd walk silently to breakfast. 8am -9am is a mandatory group one hour sit in the hall. 9-11am is a meditation either in the hall or in our rooms. 11am is lunch (the last meal of the day). 12pm-1pm we can interview with our assistant teacher for 5 minutes if we wish to request clarification of any of the points of the technique (I was there everyday). 1-5pm: more meditation. 5pm is a tea break with fruit. 6-7pm meditation. 7-8:30 is the evening discourse given by the guru Goenke (via videotape). And the last sit of the day ends at 9pm and then we are in bed. 11 days of this. Basically, there are 3 mandatory one-hour sits in the hall. The other meditations you could choose to sit in the hall or do your practice in your room. I chose to always stay in the hall as the one time I tried to meditate in my dorm room, I just fell asleep. Before this course, I was unable to sit for even a 15 minute meditation on my own. Now an hour flies by....
So what happens? Men and women are segregated so we had no contact with the men the whole time. There were about 25 women. All different ages and ethnicities. I got to know the backs of their heads from meditation. Or the rhythm of their walks from our walking path. I made up stories about them, some of which ended up being very accurate. One woman, Jenny, I felt very bonded to, even though we didn't speak nor look at each other for 10 days. There was something about her presence that calmed me and I felt like we were friends. I'd see her in her army jacket over her patchwork skirt and I felt like I was going to be ok. I felt deeply compassionate for my roommate, a young punkish girl of about 20 who reminded me of Oliver Twist. Our job in the course is to learn Vipassana: a technique taught by Goenka in the ancient tradition of the Buddha, to meditate by observing your breath and 'scanning' for sensations as they arise on various parts of the body. This is a technique to develop a physical understanding of the present moment, of the truth of Impermanence (everything changes) and to bring a balanced mind to this understanding (Equanimity). And that it would eradicate suffering and bring about liberation. It's not just a kind of 'om shanti'ing' your way to calm and peace and enlightenment. It's an extremely concentrated process, demanding the most exacting of attention and awareness. It is hard work, I won't lie. I fought it for 7 days. My mind does not slow down. My mind chatter does not shut up. I went there to try something completely foreign, to try something different. I'm always up for an adventure and this would be another one. I'm not very religious, and have been searching to find some relationship to spirit that was far away from the Catholic God I had to fire a few years ago. I was not lost. I was not bereft. I didn't feel broken. I went there to add more to my life, in essence, by paring down.
I brought with me years and years of 'monkey mind' -- the spinning chatter of that voice in my head. I brought with me people I had wronged. People who had wronged me. Heartbreak and sorrow. I brought people who I didn't want to come with me. Does this make sense? I fought these people in my mind like demons as I tried so hard to stay with my breath and the sensations in my body. And then my mind would drift to anguish or anger, sometimes joy, to lists of what I would do when I returned home, to conversations I should have had, that I would have. And I would try to bring a friendly and gentle touch to bringing my mind back to my breath. I fought this every minute of every sit for those 7 days. My back ached. My legs fell asleep. I thought "what the hell am I doing here?" I was bored. I was restless. I was in physical pain. I was angry at my own restless self, then I'd try to give myself a break and try again. And I'd get frustrated again. I would get up off my mat and go for a walk in the woods and find myself crying uncontrollably there. A cardinal would appear (of course...). And I'd feel somehow graced by something other than myself. I began talking to my grandmother (gone years ago...). I talked out loud a few times just to hear the sound of my voice. It cracked. I heard my own lyrics come back to me, in phrases that seemed like messages from my younger self or a future self. I lost my appetite. I barely slept.
Then on day 7 my tooth cracked and fell out. And without any drama, I was able to walk through the next few hours of figuring out if I had to leave or not (I was able to speak to our course manager, a volunteer who was extraordinarily calming and helpful). If I left to see a dentist, I wouldn't be able to return to the course. I'd have to start over. And believe me, this was not a time I wanted to leave. So, after she had a conversation with a dentist friend of mine on my behalf, it was determined I could stay and deal with it when I got home (I wasn't in pain, the root wasn't exposed). As my teacher told me, "this is a storm and this is part of the practice." And something else broke that day. As the panic rose both from a real fear of pain and also from a fear of failing, I used the technique and it did change. Impermanence. I watched as things changed. And I was able to get balance. And blissfully and gratefully I thought "It worked!" I almost danced...
From then on, something else happened. The practice opened up a deep reservoir of strength in me. A calming balance. I was able to see my past choices and mistakes as part of this great river of being that was necessary for my own path, so far. I saw where I had a part in the wrongs I perceived others' did TO me. And I clearly saw where I had wronged. And why. My music came to me, the new songs, and a vision of the next record followed me on the walking path one afternoon. I thought "I wish I could write this down" but then I also felt this deep sense of letting go -- I'd remember if it was important and if it wasn't, then it wasn't... Not having the ability to record every thought on paper or guitar was actually a blessing. I slowed down. I felt grief over things I'd been grieving but instead of get choked up in it, tangled in a knot, I let the tears fall and thought "this, too, will change" and then watched the grief make space for a calm. By Day 9, I can honestly say I have never felt so at peace, so ok with my world, my body, my life as I did those last days. The last few meditation sits were the most profound experiences I have ever had. Deeply profound. In and out of my body at the same time.
The last day is a day of Metta -- love, and we broke Noble Silence and are taught another kind of meditation, "loving kindness" and it was a magical day. I found Jenny and we both had the same feeling about each other, like we were sisters. We laughed and told each other about our lives. Feeling so alone and so much like everyone else was having these amazing enlightened experiences, I found it incredible that everyone was grieving and crying and hurting and freaking out just like I was. And that we all got to the place where we were able to let it go. Had we been talking to each other through the whole week, I doubt I would have found the reservoir of self-reliance I found. Now I see why Noble Silence was absolutely essential to the course. The 10th day was such a day of light and healing and deep, deep bonds with these women who I had not spoken with at all. Turns out, a few of them were curious during the whole experience "what was the writer going through?" One woman, who sat behind me in the meditation hall told me that I was her angel. She said that I seemed so strong and calm, my back was such a presence of grace and strength. I admitted to her that I was falling apart and how the hell could she have gotten grace and strength out of that and she just smiled with tears in her eyes and said, "You and your back got me through this." I felt the same way about Jenny. And my Oliver Twist-like roommate, who was there each and every sit, straight and determined, coughing from a bronchial infection, but never complaining. The night of the 10th day, we stayed up till 2am talking and sharing our lives. It was deep.
I was looking forward to the 9 hour drive home alone, where I could call friends and babble about the experience, but a 23 year old boy needed a ride to Nashville and he joined me. Turns out it was a blessing. He had done 3 Vipassana courses in his young life and his insight into the after-effects of this course were really necessary. I asked him a thousand questions before dropping him off in East Nashville.
I have been meaning to write this blog now for over a month, but my need to write has shifted a bit since then. I turned on my computer that first night and the Facebook home page came up and I felt bombarded with reality and had a bit of a freak out. Life. Reality. Gossip. Professional envy. The world spun too fast around me and I had to turn the computer off. That first week home I was up every morning at 6am to meditate for an hour. I felt changed. I came back to my same life, but I felt I had changed. That was my goal: to not change the circumstances surrounding me that were challenging, but to be able to change myself within them. I was able to do that as long as I stuck with my morning sit. The continuing practice is to do a one-hour sit twice a day (morning and evening). I have not yet been able to do the evening sits. And I haven't been able to keep up the practice every day, especially on the road, but when I miss a sit, I can feel how much I wish I had done one. It is a magical centering for me. I utilize Vipassana when I feel conflict or anxiety, or just when I'm driving these long drives. The meals there were vegan and without coffee or alcohol, two of my 'vices'. On the long drive home back to Nashville I stopped by a coffeeshop, eager to get a cup, as it had been 11 days. I took a few sips and felt it course through me like a poison. I threw the cup out. A few weeks later, I tried coffee again and again, felt it through me like molasses. I just felt off. Since then, I have not had a cup of coffee. I've become a tea drinker, something I never thought I'd be. I have gone back to eating meat, but I definitely feel it disrupt my digestion. And wine, I've gone back to, but again, I'm more aware of it's effects and I'm cautious. The course made me very aware of my body, my soul, and how I walk through this world. It wasn't like a magic cult where everything changes and all of a sudden you reach enlightenment. I'm not walking around in a white robe with a pacifist smile on my face. I just feel like I gained some new tools when life throws an elephant or two on my head.
A few nights ago, here in New Jersey, visiting my brother and his family, I was walking back to his house after we were having dinner with his neighbors. I had my guitar on my back and my niece and nephew, 3 year old twins, were in front of me, when I heard a crack from the sky. A branch had broken off a tree, about 50 feet above my head, and I felt a sharp pain and then heard a loud crash. It fell on my head then bounced to the garbage cans, crashing and breaking. I was stunned, my knees buckled a bit, and I sunk to the driveway for a moment, before realizing what had happened. My sister-in-law came running to find out if I was ok. I was, but I was stunned and a bit shaken. I was ok. No real damage. But I thought how fortuitous that the branch struck me rather than the 3 year olds, who were literally inches in front of me.
I don't believe that there's a cosmic reason for everything. I believe in some amount of chaos and planetary indifference to our little journeys. But I like to indulge sometimes in symbolic games. To attach meaning to chaos. It makes for a more interesting, poetic narrative to the random. More agnostic than atheist. Someone said to me, "Religion is for people who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there." I like that. It has been a hard year for me. Those who are close to me know this. I've been walking through a year of elephants right and left, trying to hold onto the path, accept the elephants, sometimes bring understanding and compassion to them. But I'm also trying to step out of the way and allow the elephants to splat on the ground and then step over them sometimes. It is so hard to know when to take the punch and when to turn your back. I'm learning. Slowly, it seems, but I'm accepting that this is my journey. Others may take it a different way. This is, I guess, why I write. To make sense of the senseless. To make admission of the confusion and the failings so that others may reach out their own flaws and we can all see that in the end, through the joy and the sorrows, we really are all made of the same stuff. To accept the What Is rather than crave the What We Wish It Really Would Be. That's the hard stuff for me. Because I live in the "I Wish It Were...." That's where suffering comes from. Goenka lectured that the Buddha taught that suffering comes from craving and aversion. Enlightenment comes from acceptance. Funny how therapy and recovery and meditation and conversations swirling around me all say the same thing. Acceptance of the What Is. I craved an outcome that clearly isn't mine to have. In many things. Don't we all? I am greatly blessed to have a way of making a living (meager though it may be) through doing and creating something I am passionate about. But there are sacrifices to every choice and it can be a dark place to sit in the "What I Don't Have" for too long. We all do that. I wish things were different. I wish to stand on a tall mountain and defend myself, to demand what I want, to get what I want, to rail against the unfair. Also wish to sit quietly, for an hour or two every day, and listen to the nothingness tell me that what it is right now is exactly what it should be. Maybe sometimes we need a knock on the head from some elephants to remind us of that....