Dhamma Vaddhana, Twentynine Palms
My breakdown came on Day 1. I had made it through the evening of Day 0, a mere 4 hours. I think I signed up for a second 10-day Vipassana retreat because I hadn’t given myself enough time to really sit and think about what I was willingly committing myself to…again. And to be fair, when I did take the time to scan my old journals for any reference to the first retreat in 2012, I could find no record of my visit, save for a large blocked out area of my 2012 planner, immediately following the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and Valentine’s Day, and right before an intense break-up I didn’t yet know was coming.
In retrospect, perhaps I subconsciously omitted any reflections on purpose, knowing on some subatomic level that I would require it again one day and that I needed to go in with only milky recollections of those “sensational” days. Or maybe I was just feeling lazy and wasn’t in a writing upswing. Either way, there I was, pulling up to the same Vipassana Center, Dhamma Vaddhana, wedged in between Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms along the 29 Palms Highway (speedway).
And there I was on Day 1, having a full-blown, blubbering breakdown on Mat B1, a position that made me feel self-important for approximately 3.5 hours. As a new student, you are afforded a mat in one of the front 2 rows, assuming perhaps that now you possess some higher vibration to be closer to the teacher, the servers, and the speakers. Or maybe they’re just more concerned about new students having a breakdown built on preconceived ideas, like the one I was having in that exact moment.
Vipassana Meditation Hall: Photo courtesy Luke Shavak
Not a yoga mat’s length from the feet of the female assistant teacher, and also a mat’s width horizontally from the men’s side of the room (which, let’s face it, has an even more magical magnetic pull the more distance you are mandated to keep from it), I sat crying silent, hot tears that I carelessly smeared away with my new wool Free People shawl. I had been so excited to own my first real shawl (How retro! How sheik!) when I purchased it as a Christmas present for myself, but in that moment it became nothing more than a damp rag, smelling vaguely like a wet dog that’s perhaps gotten a fresh shampoo and then gotten dirty again too soon.
My knees ached in a way that felt permanent. Because when you’re facing 10 days of sitting for 12 hours a piece, everything feels impossibly permanent. And when I stretched my legs in front of me, as I’d done for 90% of the time on my first course, the Manager swooped in like a vaguely ominous gargoyle. “You’re an old student, right?” she whispered in a hushed inquiry that sounded more like a deposition. “You know you’re not supposed to have your legs pointing toward the teachers.” I looked at her with genuine surprise. This apparently very crucial guideline had escaped me entirely the first time around, perhaps because I was in the very back row as a new student, and far enough to the side that my outstretched legs pointed at the corner of the room and away from the teachers’ elevated mats. “You can stretch your legs to the side, like this” she whispered again, demonstrating a sort of side-leaning stance with her own body. I acquiesced like a good student, slightly embarrassed and ego mildly bruised, and prepared to demonstrate that I could follow the rules. I was an old student. I was a pro.
But I discovered very quickly that the side-angled position, legs curled up under me, ran a very close second to the most painful position into which I could contort my knees. Not to be thwarted, I took my legs and slowly, painstakingly stretched them almost straight into the segregator aisle to the left, still supporting myself with my arm and hand to the right. I felt like a distorted mermaid, awkwardly sunning myself on a craggy knoll, all the while wanting to leap back into the cool, free form waves. Eyes closed, I attempted to slip back into the first of approximately 30 1-hour “Sittings of Strong Determination”, designed to strengthen the mind and body simultaneously.
Another few searing minutes passed. Again, the gargoyle was at my side. I popped my eyes in wary surprise. “So, you need to face forward and keep your legs out of the aisle” she admonished quietly, nodding toward my twisted torso and awkwardly splayed legs. I looked at her with weepy defeat, and she could see it in my eyes. “Maybe try bringing your legs to the other side?” she suggested tentatively, and I glanced warily at the 6 inch space between my mat and the mat to my right, barely large enough to contain my foot. With stoic determination I silently nodded my chin in agreement that yes, somehow my muscular calves and size 10 feet could be cozily accommodated in that sliver of floor space. Inside, I was crushed. The reality of what I had signed up for versus the loftier versions I had concocted met in a violent crescendo above my head and came pouring down in a torrent of salty and searing tears. Why had I willingly done this to myself again? This was not the right time, it was 100 times harder than I remembered, I was a terrible example as an old student to the new students who sat five rows deep behind me. The level of overwhelm on Day 1 was crushing.
The sitting ended a few minutes later and for the third time in an hour, the Manager came half crawling, half loping from her mat to mine. “Are you ok?” she asked with more fear than empathetic concern, likely confused as to how her simple directions could have induced such a torrent of self pity. Right before I left for the course, I had watched GI Jane on Netflix, one of my favorite films, for some hardcore mental preparation. “I never saw a wild thing feel sorry for itself,” the Master Chief warns his new charges in no uncertain terms: “A bird will fall frozen from the bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.” All my self-pity was now reeling against my former resolve with salty aplomb. As I hobbled to the assistant teacher’s feet to state the case for my sorry knees, I felt about as a humble as the Buddha himself (Ah! Cartharsis briefly achieved!).
But humility quickly disintegrated into humiliation as I slunk to my newly assigned position in a chair against the far wall of the room. This felt wrong. The chairs were for old people with backs plagued by decades of decay and the weak-minded who couldn’t handle a little healthy cross-legged repose for a few days. Now I was among the meek, the crippled, the “special cases” who needed a chair to meditate. How un-zen like was that??
The sunsets saved me. As a born and bred New Englander who does not feel the gravitational pull of the dessert, I was completely unprepared for the moments of absolute rapture that I felt while taking in the sky as I passed from one low-slung khaki-colored building to the next. On one particular afternoon on Day 4, after the first round of actual Vipassana training (following 3 1/2 days straight of Anapana breath work (essentially observing your breath as it hits the nostrils on the inhale and the exhale…for 12 hours), I exited the Dhamma Meditation Hall to a sky that came as close to making me cry as any meteorological phenomenon ever has. It wasn’t so much the color, (though maybe I’m just more numb to the wonders of such a palette after 9 years of knock-you-to-your-knees sunsets in Santa Barbara), but the way the clouds formed an almost hurricane like pattern, with an eye from which a wicked swirl of clouds spun in uneven semi-concenric circles covering the entire visible sky, literally stopped me dead in my tracks. From the corner of my eye, I could see the other students also coming to an abrupt halt and we stood like that for what seemed like a half hour just staring in a staggered line facing West. No iPhones were present to capture the scene, no words or glances could be exchanged to acknowledge the obscene beauty. And that is almost certainly an element of what made it so powerful: Every emotion it evoked, every exclamation of its magnificence and grandeur had to be felt inside and reverberate there with steady resonance. And as those little balls of quiet energy bounced from chest to throat and palpitated softly against stomach and thighs, they grew in intensity and purity, until our bodies thrummed with the pulsation of the sunset itself.
And this is the best way I know to describe the essence of the Vipassana meditation technique. Vipassana, (a Pali word literally translating to “Inward Vision”), is a path of meditation brought to light by the Buddha, Siddartha Gautama, more than 2500 years ago in ancient India. It is not a sectarian practice, but rather a universal law aimed to relieve humans of their daily mental and physical suffering and misery. It involves three primarily stages: Silla, Samadhi, and Panye, each one a step on the path of Dhamma leading to the ultimate goal of full liberation.
By training the mind to react to bodily sensations with equanimity, the brain is being re-trained to follow the same pathway when real-world situation arise, to which the body always reacts FIRST by creating a sensation in response to a stimulus and to which the subconscious mind responds SECOND by reacting to that sensation, not to the stimulus itself. The understanding is that, if you can re-train the subconscious mind to have an equanimous reaction to all stimuli, then you can approach the world at large in a more balanced and clear way, making decisions and acting (or not acting) out of blind response, but out of very conscious and deliberate, steady choice. In doing so, you end up ultimately acting out of love and compassion, not out of anger, spite, fear, and pain or out of jealously, craving, and passion.
As relatively easy as this process is to understand at the intellectual level, the entire point of Vipassana is that it is only successful (i.e. you only reap the results) when it is applied at the experiential level (i.e. you practice Vipassana daily).
I remember one day in particular, perhaps Day 4 or 5, I chose to do the post-lunch sitting in my room as I typically opted for, having discovered that I could successfully meditate in a reclined position. I would carefully place my pillow at the opposite end of the twin bed (so my body wouldn’t get confused and equate meditating with sleeping) and position myself in the center of the comforter, first wrapping the end up and over my feet and then folding in each side over me like a burrito, myself the inert, serene filling.
I had just settled in and was enjoying my pain-free back perhaps a little too much when my neighbor to the right started in on her soft snore, followed shortly thereafter by the neighbor to my left who seemed to endlessly flush the toilet and perform other activities that involved copious amounts of pouring and utilizing water in some fashion that I could only speculate for days on end. Lacking the mental stamina for equanimity with such obtrusive background noises, I stuck in my pre-meditated earplugs and settled back into my flannel tortilla ready for serenity now, serenity now. The sounds of my own blood pressure whooshed in my ears at tympanic intervals, louder and more resolutely than all the previous offending noises combined. And I had to smile, because who could hate the sound of a heartbeat, save for Amontillado himself?
When I found myself weeping from relief on Day 10 the moment we were permitted to speak again, I reflected back on Day 1 to my crying jag that set off the retreat. Was I able to treat this tearful experience with more equanimity and less judgment than the first? Perhaps, though I certainly don’t pretend to have kept up a consistent practice since then, as the course strongly encourages. But somehow, on a cellular level, those nearly 150 hours of meditation are seared into my body and even the occasional, fleeting moments of calm and non-reaction are worth the whole messy, beautiful experience. Which is, perhaps, the entire point.