Friday, August 03, 2007


Someone may ask me what Vipassana was like. This is the best i can do for now:

Upon wake-up time, 4AM, the sky was dark, the air cool and clear. The twilight that remained until after bedtime had long passed and for the first time since the previous morning you saw true night. In the darkness there was a lack of vision, one that does not come at night, when the ideas are fresh. The air was cool, even cold, and the bite against your half-awake lips and cheeks was refreshing, sharp and simple. The skies clear overnight, showing you the stars in the morning, and the moon, which progressed from half to full as you did, peaking in size and clarity, quality and self-actualization around day 8, leaving no place to go but down in the last two days which, in itself, is also an important part of the process. To end on fullness would provide an inaccurate sense of reality, of how things really work.
Coming out of the morning sittings the dawn light had filled the camp. Clouds had yet to roll in, making for unimpressive sunrises. You could anticipate the moment where the sun would finally become individually visible over the high east ridge, and then it would come, shining direct rays on certain spots, by the bathrooms, on the backside of the dorms, a spot or two down by the meditation hall, but otherwise providing no sense of spirit in and of itself.
At this time of day, with the air still cool, the rays were beneficial, and could be used to shed the feeling of it not being right. The tall mountain grasses, paintbrushes for heads, would wake up with this light, and the spruce trees and the benches would offer more comforts, a spot for tea and rice cakes.
By the morning group sitting, the light was still low but less noticeably. The clouds at this time of day, small, wispy and low in numbers, were not white, and the sunrays were still yellow, but your thoughts were otherwise occupied. It wasn't until after the third morning sitting, just prior to lunch, that you would once again notice the world outside; the mind would stay in the meditation hall during your breaks. Even, in a moment of highness, of self, when you would feel and see the world around, the big spruce by the creek just outside the course boundaries, or the two-dimensional nature of the bushes that the benches faced, even then your mind was not fully outside.
After the third morning sitting, we would file out on by ourself, at our own pace and of our own volition. A moment of high, coming down from what was usually a good sitting, clarity and confusion combining with the knowledge that our one hot-cooked meal was not far away and that we had made it through another section of another day. The sun had managed to heat things up, and socks were no longer necessary. With a two-hour break ahead, the acts of stripping off your socks and actively strapping your sandals was well-worth the effort, and a feeling of long-termed-ness accompanied the act.
By lunch the sun had begun to heat the camp, but not so much that you weren't sure whether you needed a layer beyond your t-shirt and loose-fitting pants. The dining hall and meditation hall remained cool into these hours, not picking up steam until the mid-afternoon. On the gravel roads, however, pacing at this hour had an added element to the mental game that it already was.
Walking was an action in and of itself, one of the few separate actions that one could pursue. If you were walking out of excitement and clarity, your mind would smile at itself and your eyes would pick up on exciting tidbits of life. A rock to you would seem perfect, or funny, and it would walk with you for some time. It would provide you a way to stretch your back, or in your hand it would find a way to help you set a rhythm to your steps. The rocks were there the entire time, and if you set one down somewhere before lunch, it would be in the same place come the afternoon break. The stability was comforting. Several others picked up on these characteristics of these palm-sized rocks, and seeing another find the same essence there was reassuring to the self, and bordered on interaction, which was not wrong but was not right. If you set a group of rocks, each near-perfect in their own shape and way, on a concrete tablet, and a day later found that someone else had added to the collection, there was a sense of sharing, of interacting. Perhaps he had different goals, different reasons for choosing those clearly different rocks, reasons that could not be understood fully by another, but an understanding of a different kind was there.
The clouds that had rolled in harmlessly during the morning, puffy and white, amiable, began to change towards the end of the first afternoon sitting. A cloud above the ridge to the west that seemed to carry the same characteristics as its morningtime cousins also seemed to have a different essence, a different goal. The heat had begun to set in and the mind was affected. The early rumblings of thunder in the distance became an oasis in the mind. The heat was not intense yet, and would remain unable to harm until many hours later into the afternoon, but it was known that good storm would be a preemptive strike against the heat, which before the storm rolled in would remain the central reason for the desire.
When the storm came, it came hard. The lightning and its closeness, the strength of the thunder and directness with which it followed its causing bolt more often than not preceded the rain. There would be drops on the metal roof of the meditation hall, and one would perk up in one's seat, excitedly anticipating. From inside you could not see the flashes and would have no warning of the thunder. If you were outside, however, you may have thought that knowing the cause-effect of these two forces may prepare you for the noise, the blast that was often shockingly loud, shockingly close, even if the rain had barely begun to fall or if the last bolt seemed to strike down miles away. Even these steps of preparation would not prepare you for them, and you would jump. Outside these jumps were funny but scary. Inside, in a sitting, even a cough or loud sniffle could make your mind flicker in an obtrusive way, yet the thunder and all its comparative force could not inflict much more than the slightest noise. The outside world was all one slice of the mind, it all came in through the same door, and, whether it be big or small, loud or quiet, it could only have so strong an effect on the mind.
When the thunderstorms manifested themselves in their fullest form, vivid bolts of lightning, crashing thunder, sheets of rain, the effect was heaviest. Inside the hall the storm outside would provide a sense of depth and intensity, a sense that we were doing something meaningful. Outside the hall, standing in the doorway of our camp-style dorm room, getting sprayed with mist, water in a drainage ditch rushing by, it was entertainment, a distraction, something to see, to feel, to relate to. The storms would come just at the right time of day, the time when nothing else seemed to be going right. The post-lunch heaviness and the body buzz that accompanied this all-too-comforting act of indulging oneself in the physical had subsided. A gluttonous lunch was the one chance of the day to feel something familiar, and we took advantage, not caring that it would ruin our first afternoon sitting, simply because it felt too good. But with that feeling gone, and the hours of meditation that lay ahead between now and the next familiar act, a lull had set in. A lull in the body and a lull in the mind, which came in form of a cloudy head, unclear thoughts, confusion, a sense that this was somehow just not working out. And when the storms came in you understood them, their anger and frustration, and they took actions when you were not allowed to. You not only respected them for that, you were grateful to them for showing you that, although you were in a world in which you could not, it was still possible to do so, with force and honesty, with no regard for silence or composure. The storms released all that you could not.
By late afternoon, during the snacks of fruit and tea, the storms had usually subsided and a sense that the day was mostly over came across the camp. If sunlight shone, it shone through the remaining clouds, still dark yet somehow benevolent, satisfied with what they had accomplished they seemed only to want to stick around. We welcomed them and, now with the cooler temperatures, also welcomed the sun to shine between them. All was well now. We had gotten through the harder parts of the day; the heat, with nothing seemed to go right and the thoughts would weigh down on your shoulders like the beating sun; the storms when it finally came out and did what had to be done, said what had to be said; and the interval in between where the mind did not understand how any of this was going to work itself out. Now it was simple, and clear, and calm, and easy. How had we not seen this before?
The camp was on a slope, built on the western foothills of the Rockies. Snow-capped mountains were a distant sight if barely that, and the rolling ridges of the dry countryside were green because of pine trees and brush. Facing east there was a river in the small but sharply cut valley below. Only 30 feet down and 20 feet away, the river was barely visible from only a couple different spots on the edge of the course boundaries. They did not provide us that luxury. The sound was there, that they could not take away, and the rushing water made us wish we could sit by its side. The truths that a river can teach were familiar to us, and this river fell quickly, passed over rocks loudly, and we knew that to sit on its bank would provide respite from the mind, but we could not.
On the other side of the camp, the west side, the big spruce that stood tall 25 feet from the posted boundary line was visible trunk-to-top from the trailhead that lead to it, the point near the meditation hall benches where we gathered in our highs and in our confusion. On the first day, before the rules came into effect, I had explored this area, the spruce tree, and found that beneath it, like many large trees, there was a clear space that the tree had claimed for itself, no bushes, no brush, not even any low-hanging limbs. It was for sitting, said the spruce tree. It was not for us, said the regulations. Perhaps it would've been better not to know it was there.
Alongside the big spruce was a stream, and a small footbridge, maybe 12 feet across, that led to a stone bench set between two trees on a minor uprising in the ground. It was shady and cool back there, and upon seeing it on the first day I considered that this may be my place, to steal away and be alone, and that no one else would know about it or our affair. This did not come to pass. It felt oppressive, the rules that kept us from seeing the river or the stream, and it seemed purposeful that they would keep from us these gifts, these potential external sources. It was sad at the time.
The slope of the foothill that the camp lay aimed west. We would gather there before and after our evening sittings to watch the sun play in the clouds and the green ridges behind it, two small rock faces exposed on the otherwise vast expanse of earth and trees. At times we stood as trees, all facing westward, and shared all that we could not share otherwise: a moment when each persons' head is, to some extent, focused on the same simple thing in the same clear way. By comparison it made the dhamma talks seems complex, yet at the same time it gave them a simple clarity, a sense of truth that manifests itself naturally on a continual basis in innumerable ways, if only we had the time, energy and mental space to see it. At these moments, as the sun dropped behind the western ridge and the clouds remained dappled with pink and purple light, our purpose was clear, our reason for being there obvious, and our sense that we could carry this with us beaming.
Directly prior to the last sitting of the day the light had become minimal. Only a few clouds had subtle pastel colorings. A bunny rabbit roamed the grounds nightly and seemed unfettered by our presence. When deer were around, they also did not move quickly as we approached. The moon rose on the east and somehow, at this time, as twilight dwindled, with the moon there remained very few yet somehow sharp strokes of pink and orange. Even with a sky full of clouds, a grayish white above and only light color to the west, these high puffs to the east maintained brightness. There was variation up there, high above our heads, so high above that we could not tell that these clouds were not all at the same altitude. What seemed to us like a two-dimensional mass of clouds was now clearly something very different. The thick clouds directly above us must be lower, otherwise how could the rays of light bypass them and shine on the eastern clouds. There was a depth to the sky that our vision could not have otherwise understood. To know that there were truths that our senses could not understand, a physical fact that our eyes could not see, seemed to open up a world of possibilities. A number of facts that portrayed themselves as truths faded away. Reality set in, and the new-found ignorance of the reality was liberating.
The last sitting of the day ended and we would be told to take rest. The words "good night" echoed in our minds, the only other place they were allowed, as we gently moved up the hill towards the dorms. The moon shone firmly, sharply, despite the last phases of twilight that hung on, and the earth smelled of calm. In bed we found comfort, simplicity and the feeling of having made it through another day felt like an accomplishment. We slept well, generally, and cool mountain air moved freely through our rooms, the doors left wide open. We would smile at ourselves, at the comfort of our sleeping bags, the freedom of allowing oneself the luxury of thinking about whatever one's mind chooses to think about.