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Confessions of a Vipassana drop-out

by Amy Levinson

So much life review is exhausting. I know now why we wait until the moment of death for our entire life to flash before our eyes in one second or less. It takes way less time. Kinda like waiting in line behind a person writing a check to the cashier, instead of using their damn debit card. Use the damn debit card lady and get outta my way. Umm, obviously Vipassana meditation did not help me obtain the expected results of staying calm!

They say that the future is imagined so don't even bother with that. The river that flows along the banks is not the same river that flowed one second ago, and won't be the same the next time you look.

The only truth is change.

When forced to sit in unnatural positions for long periods of time, even though admonished not to think, it's natural that unruly brain cells fire off hither and thither. Here I am at a Vipassana 10-day silent meditation, the latest and greatest rage of soul-seekers worldwide. Funny, it being one of the most ancient teachings of the Buddha, but you know, everything old comes around. Retro is where it's at. Even bell-bottoms, conveniently rebranded as "flares," that bane of the 1970s. Say it ain't so.

Tens of thousands of spiritually bankrupt sad-eyed people have been through Vipassana, taught worldwide at over 300 official centers and non-centers alike. If you count any type of spiritual seeker, or hip 20-something-year-old amongst your acquaintances, or even high-powered business professionals whose companies are forced to "rest-cure" these A-type personalities every so often before their hearts explode from the stress of working modern day capitalism, then you probably know someone who has taken Vipassana.

I remembered every single significant relationship from birth through present in glorious detail. It came to me like a string of pictures on my Droid 3 phone gallery. In Buddha's day maybe it came like a parchment scroll or writing in the sand of the earth. I remember each of my kids' three births. I thought to myself, as I was told over and over to remain calm, that Vipassana was obviously invented by a male. I was perfectly calm through more hours of childbirth than are included in the 10-day meditation course. A big bonus was I got fat, wet, squealy babies at the end; at the conclusion of Vipassana I got a sour stomach from too much boiled banana squash and a nasty taste in my mouth from it being closed for seven days of silence. Speaking of which--what do Buddhism and Zombies have in common...?

Being at a Vipassana meditation course is like incarceration in some post-modern old school zombie camp. It's confusing like that. On the one hand, I imagine what Buddhist monks and all ascetic types over the centuries were like, eyes turned inwards, looking soulless while trying to understand "soul." Students at this course come from different walks of life, lots of Earth-ship is leaving on 12-12-12 types and indigo children with pink dreads and brand new hippie shawls purchased at Hemp Fest. I knew I was in trouble the minute I saw the crumbly, non-yeast ginger tofu cookies and the averted dead eyes.

The moment when I saw my flow of consciousness - or my soul if you like - come to me, it looked distinctly like one of those tubes at the bank drive-up teller window. It was yellow and it shot down from my brain past my heart and deep into my belly. Unfortunately, dollar bills did not present themselves.

It had been a long strange trip to this point, four months on a journey using couchsurfing.net, staying at bizarre hostels in west Texas shaped like mushrooms, journeys into desert moonscapes in 105 degree weather to find water. Meeting activists in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward who showed us the incongruity of Brad Pitt's "Make it Right" million dollar homes-- given to Katrina victims with no instructions on how to operate the solar panels and every other fancy-ass gadget, and finally landing at the folks' home in a retirement suburb of Orlando, Florida.

I feel far away from my northwest home in Olympia, Washington, Time Magazine's "hippest city in the west," and the land of a million radical combat boot-wearing anarchists and rebels.

Dreaming up a way to make my current romantic relationship work, and in line with my belief in anarchism and non-hierarchical relationships, I insisted that a try at ethical non-monogamy might be the way to go. Hell, four divorces and one has to start thinking about doing something different. As I near 50, with a severe case of empty nest, skin dragging down, hot-flash future tripping, forced liberation syndrome from my roost, depression creeped insidiously in, like being slowly smothered in a wet sheepskin blanket, covering everything but my nose peeking out.

I created places on Facebook like "Dark and Gloomy" so I could check myself into it on my profile. I posted notes to myself on my profile such as "jealousy is really just a fear of abandonment"... Buck up Amy, get with the program of life! But what is life when one's identity is so radically altered--no kids, no protests to burn shit down, no Seattle political folksingers telling me why we should keep up the struggle, and one endless summer with sun like I haven't seen since I was a child in California. Maybe that is because I left the overcast Northwest in April to head south and that giant orb in the sky cursed me for months. Whoever heard of someone getting reverse seasonal depression? Only a Northwesterner could come up with that particular malady.

Come a few months later, Orlando. Just me and my two wiener dogs, and oh do I feel like a downtrodden old lady mess, a crazy dog lady, carrying a collapsible water bowl and a fanny pack with dog-doo bags--just what has my life come to? The handsome boyfriend, back in the Northwest, pursuing flirtatious fancies with my full permission, me saying to myself in an obsessive thought pattern...why...why...why, just what have I done. Who am I to become? Shall I drive my car into a tree? No, better not, it took me a damn long time to collect all my hip bumper stickers. Thou shalt not destroy such great sentiments--which brings us to Vipassana.

What better than to take refuge away from the constant battering to the brain from droids, pads, kindles, laptops, netbooks, fourteen million ringing buzzers than to go to a 10-day silent meditation course. Better yet, it's free. How noble - they feed you, house you, rebirth you and throw your observant ass back into the world as a perfectly calm person with no suffering. Hmm, now that sounds pretty good, but I had to ask my Facebook friends, because really, I had a couple hundred extra bucks and could just swing a plane ride to the Mexican Riviera to visit and swim in Dos Ojos Cenotes and hang on the white sand beaches of Tulum.

So, I asked my dear Facebook friends, those people who we know and love, those phantoms who we don't know at all but become dear to us cuz they check a "like" button on whatever witty thing we say. That's just so grand to have a fan or two. People "like" me... but there must be more to life, or else why do I feel like putting my head under a pillow all day long?

On my profile I asked "Vipassana or Cenotes?" You know, only one person voted Cenotes. Man, I shoulda listened.

I had heard from a spiritual teacher recently that gut instinct reaction is the right choice, your first intuition is your "emotional guidance" and mine chanted "silent meditation." I declare to you all right here and now, do not let me listen to my gut. Ever. Again. Tie me up... no better not, I might like that too much, just talk me out of it. One friend posted that he loved it, another said it was great, "no pesky chit chat."

Wow, I thought, that's just the thing! Lately I had been calling chit-chat "shit-shat," so it just dinged in my head-- Yes, that's it (unlike the Buddhist gong in my ear starting at 4 am, way worse than ANY cell phone ringing... but you will have to wait for that story).

This is how I found myself in Jesup, Georgia at the Southeast Vipassana Center, ready to fully commit to 10 days, (in capital letters and underlined in the brochure) and eager to practice "Noble Silence," where you don't talk, look at, gesture or generally recognize that anyone else exists. Great, no more telling my brain to shut up repeatedly, no more nasty interpersonal communications by endless obsessive text, Facebook, chat, landline, cellphone, or Burger King drive-up speaker. Yay.

Four a.m. wake up to meditate, with a couple hours' break throughout the day, bed down at 9. Fabulous. Oh wait, hmm, the teacher, S.N. Goenka, a prominent Indian businessman and addressee at both the U.N and the World Economic Forum, and the main proponent of Vipassana worldwide, would not actually be there. What's this, an audio-video, flat screen, plasma set up wired in at the meditation hall, or "Dhamma (meaning The Universal Law of Nature) Hall"? Drats, everything else was looking so voluntary-simplicity around here, so very plain and natural, cell phones turned in to management, no reading or writing implements, nothing but me, and hours upon hours of silent meditation, along with Mr. Goenka's wonderful heavily-accented audios and videos. Sigh.

During the first three days, we were taught "anapana" meditation for anywhere from 5-10 hours a day, during which audio incantations would be played throughout meditation. Goenka's incredibly low, soothing, hypnotic voice whispering over and over - "Feel the nose-tril, feel each nose-tril, each sensation in each nose-tril." Ok, yeah, it was the accent. It was indeed adorable, but really...my "nosetril"? I am being indoctrinated into a nose-mind scam. What exactly am I doing here? Is this the way out of menopausal urges for self-destruction?

After about three full days of this, I started feeling each nasal hair, and, do I dare say it, each booger. Since one is not supposed to move for each hour-long meditation, I spent a minimum of 15 hours silently and unmovingly meditating on how great a Kleenex would feel, how wonderful, an aloe-infused Kleenex, even a piece of toilet paper, yes, cheap gas station toilet paper. Whoops, back to the nose-tril.

Moving onto the actual technique of Vipassana meditation at a snail's pace, Goenka has now implanted into the brain a new word, to the order of saying this word at least 500 times by day five. I must remain "equanimous." It's the way, it's the core, the base of being a Buddhist and gaining insight. Plus, it's the only thing that I have heard in days and days. With all this damn Noble Silence I am hanging onto this word like a born again hangs onto Jesus. Remain Calm. After five days of hearing over and over to remain "perfectly equanimous," (which really is not a word according to Microsoft anyways - it's equanimity) for 12 hours a day, I heard a fellow meditator approach the assistant teacher at break and whisper, "What does that word mean?" The problem is, equanimous in an Indian accent sounds exactly like Equine-inimess. I spent seven days pondering what a good horse would do. I just could not delete it from my wiped-clean hard drive of a brain, every time he said it I heard, saw, felt, smelled Horse. How awkward.

We learned about stuff there alright. A noble truth in Vipassana is to "observe the misery." When one observes it, rather than doing something about it, one becomes noble. Call me codependent, call me a community grassroots activist, but I am quite happy to wrestle with the misery, pounce on it, pound it with all I got if it helps others out of their misery. My "observing" the existential inherent misery of our measly existence as a species is not going to make me feel good or help others. I imagine in Buddha's times, back in da day, one was indeed noble by even seeing and acknowledging the misery all around. So much of life was indeed misery that it must have gone unnoticed as a status quo truth of life. In the here and now, or as they say in Vipassana, in the present moment of my reality, things can and should be done. As the IWW union states as their motto, "Direct action gets the goods."

The problem of our existence has to do with our capacity to develop cravings and aversion according to the teaching. The solution is to become not ignorant... or aware. This is done in Vipassana by minute, endless observation of the body and each physical sensation, which creates an awareness of the mind-matter connection. If you understand that your body will urge you to cling to things which cause pleasant sensations, and run from things that cause unpleasant sensations, then you can reroute and stop all the forthcoming negative mental actions which occur--because you have no attachments anymore to anything. You're done. This is the universal law of nature according to Goenka.

By the sixth fevered day of hearing about how I need to destroy all cravings, particularly annoying thoughts started intruding on my nasal meditations. Thoughts of getting my nose pierced with a real diamond (conflict-free I might add). Thoughts of getting a giant yellow lotus tramp stamp tattoo, anything but this torture. A thousand needles on the ass would feel awesome compared to sitting in such a stone silent posture. This is what I assume Lot's wife felt like when she got turned to salt. I cannot move, I cannot move... Someone get a deer to lick me so I can feel a part of things again.

Right before I left for Vipassana, I confessed to my stepsister I felt I had no faith. Promptly and happily she invited me to come to her church, her pastor had just given a sermon on shopping addiction. That would probably have been pretty useful. By the fourth day of wearing my 78-year-old father's 78-year-old sweat pants sitting on a floor with 62 other modestly-clothed silent non-partners, a teeny ringing in the back of one ear, possibly from that most primitive part of the brain. It started chanting, "Find a Ross Store, Find a Ross store NOW." Annoying, to say the least.

Speaking of annoying, they fooled us the first night at the course. I guess I misread the web page when it said meals were provided for; dinner that evening was a delicious pile of curry and brown rice. I'm thinking, this might be good, this could really, really work. Good food, no cell phones, peace and quiet and voilà, a better Amy will be had in no time at all. Little did I realize that dinner was not included in the ticket....like any good Buddhist knows. Heck, what do I know, being a good Jewish girl, food is the mitzvah of life, a noble thing in and of itself, and a dangerous moral weapon in the hands of any Jewish gramma.

Okay, that's alright, if I get all sorts of yummy curry tummy before noon, I can make it, I reasoned. It's all good...ahh, peace and quiet. Well, let me tell you, there's nothing like a room full of 70 hungry meditators. This is not what I call quiet. Visceral rumblings, squeals of gastric frustration punctuated my inner mantra of joyless joy.

Awesome, the lunch gong. But wait, on the "female condiment table" (I wondered what the male condiments were, naughty me), came an assortment of stuff I haven't seen since I was an idealistic young raw foods vegan in the 1970s. Oh look, there's Bragg's liquid amino acids! How does this compare to ketchup, oh never mind, it has 16 amino acids and is "great on salads," so they say. This is a good thing cuz that was my diet for 7 days. So very organic, they left the dirt on, which I have nothing against, if it was only a freakin' potato. My body is yelling: "Carbs, carbs, give me carbs or give me death." But no, it's liquid amino acids for me, boiled banana squash and brewer's yeast with a wee bit of flax seed. Fortunately, I learned immediately that mixing a banana, at the promptly regulated 5 p.m. banana break, with raw sugar and honey reminds one of a candy coated... well, never mind, we are not supposed to be thinking of that.

But I did. The technique of Vipassana meditation, a 2,500-year-old practice is all about recognizing body sensations (if you can tune out your own stomach howling "feed me"). After three days of meditating on the tip of my nose and the Kleenex that I was craving, we moved onto body scans of one's entire body, starting with each individual part, like shining a flashlight per every square epidermal inch and feeling the sensations. I had no problem with this. I got a distinct buzzing every time my mind moved over each part, so much so that by the time I was down at my private parts, well I admit to getting a bit turned on. This cannot be so!! I am sooo stuck in this damn body. Ahh, what would Buddha think, what would he do. Did he ever get an erection after he became enlightened? This must stop immediately, back to hours on the nose, much safer.

I remembered things I had not thought of, I saw my childhood in flashing images, I went all the way back to my nursery. I distinctly saw a wall decoration of orange and blue balloons, then darkness descended and I felt inchoate fury and rage. I observed this in my body as fear in the pit of my stomach. Why did she leave, who are these people wiping my butt with a cold wet thing? Diaper wipe warmers did not exist in the 1960s, damn them - this obviously caused me a life-long complex, along with my mother's immediate hospitalization for what is now known as post-partum depression.

I went back and into my mother's womb. It looked just like a deli-wrap sandwich viewed through sun-darkened tinted transitions lenses, gloomy and with distinct wrapped layers... or maybe I was just hungry and hallucinating. It felt good.

That is what the mediation is about, observing the "aversion,"the fear and hatred of the unpleasant and observing the "craving," the clinging and compulsion for the pleasant. Becoming experientially aware that all this craving and aversion is about attachment to things. Misery is always present when one has attachments. That is because they are never real, they are in the past, which doesn't exist, or in the future which is also not around today. Man, someone make this planet stop spinning so fast. After this I need a giant yellow bumper sticker affixed to my forehead that says REMAIN CALM. Perfect equanimity, just like the horses do.

I was told by a friend I could ask for a chair, but when I asked I was told that I would be brought to the "teacher." Ruh-roh, my bad. I kneeled before a very pale, very vegan (muscle atrophy), very alien-looking fellow and he told me that I would get a lot more out of this if I could sit on the floor. Yeah, okay fine, I'm a menopausally-induced sucker for punishment at this stage. Beat me, hit me, at least I will be distracted from my pity party.

This is the very moment when I assume I got on the bad girl radar (thats "Buddh-ar" to you). Those damn Buddhists would follow me around; every time we were sent to our rooms to meditate, the manager would come in, just when I was settled into some deep non-thinking and bang a gong in my ear. This is not nice. Is there a sect of sadist Buddhists. Saddhists?

No, this cannot be. She caught me going pee-pee and told me I needed to get back to meditating on my bed. Oh, at least I heard someone speak, how nice after days of silence. Perhaps I shall misbehave some more and go poop. Would I get a double gong? Sexxy.

On the seventh day, she came in three times to bang the gong in my face, after eyeballing me like she knew I was actually there, which is against the damn rules. Eight silent women and one bathroom has its own set of horrors, but we were strictly told meditation time is just that - this is not a holiday. Silence, modesty and no unnatural chemicals prevail in the Code of Discipline handed to us upon our arrival. My non-roommates had showered during meditation time, spraying lemon verbena body scent all over themselves. I am sure one may have even snuck in lavender body wash, damn their eternal souls. Generally being bad little Buddhists, but no, this manager came up to me all curled up in nice non-thoughts of yin/yang and banged that damn gong in my ear one too many times. I'm done. I'm gone. Take that last piece of moldy tempeh and shove it up yours. I didn't eat it anyway.

I need to leave right now before I actually slap a Buddhist with all that regurgitated baby rage this damn meditation has brought forth. When brought before the teacher, the only thing I had to say after seven days of complete silence was "I am hostile." Seeing the teacher cringe, I felt bad. I think he may have thought I had fashioned a shiv out of a recyclable bottle of natural cleaner spray.

Five pounds lighter and way, way happier, over my depression and hitting the Georgia back roads, no one told me I should think twice about driving in the Bible Belt boondocks with a bumper sticker that states "Jesus Christ, the beloved socialist hippie," but hell, I am free. Free to go to Ross, free to tell my man what I really think and how much I am attached to him. Free to crave and avert--the holy duo of life. Something they seemed to neglect in their silent calculations, our deep attachments are responsible for items such as the ongoing survival of our species, passion and love and all the great classical poetry and classic rock songs these emotions engender, and our innate and instinctual need to keep our children safe. Small things, but essential for everything in life.

Freedom. I turn on the Sirius XM Grateful Dead channel and on blares "I need a Miracle every day"... the particular verse being "too much of everything is just enough." Oh how I can relate. Give me life and joy, depression, sadness, happiness, and let me participate in it, not observe it, cuz that is the stuff of the miracle of our existence. It certainly has nothing to do with my nose.

Attachment is misery, so they say. They chant it and make light of it... isn't this chant enchanting? Har har. Anything is amusing after sitting in weird postures for eight hours or more a day. Why exactly did the Buddha have no attachments? He left them. He walked right out on his wife and kids to hit the open path. I mean, how the hell did they feel about it? Did anyone ever ask?

If not forming attachments is the natural law of the universe... or the universal law of nature (I am just soo confused, just please say one thing, not two different things to my simple, stripped-down neurotransmitters), then tell that to my two wiener dogs - whom upon my arrival went nuts, licking every inch of my face and curling up, one spooning my butt, one spooning my stomach...in the perfect yin-yang formation hallucinated from my seven days as a Buddhist zombie.