Thursday, January 29, 2009

Putting the Shovel Down

There's a great aphorism about the first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole you'd rather not be in: stop digging.

And while this advice makes eminent sense, it's not so easily done in the moment. Let me give you an example. Yesterday morning I was lying in bed with my wife, Ma'ikwe, engaged in one of our favorite pastimes—no, not sex, though that was a good guess—discussing interpersonal dynamics. In particular, I gave a reflection about a thing that came out in the form, "I may be stupid about X, but my view is Y." [For purposes of this topic, it makes no difference what values are assigned X and Y.]

Things immediately went downhill from there.

By way of background, Ma'ikwe has a standing issue with a tendency I have—it hurts to admit this—to make an exaggerated, self-deprecating statement for the purpose of putting the other person off stride ("No, no, that's not what I said!") and gaining a tempo in the conversation. She's asked me expressly to stop trotting out this verbal ploy. While it's embarrassing to be caught at it, I think she's right and I'm trying to comply. In general, the thing she doesn't like manifests in my saying something in the form, "Maybe I'm just stupid, but… "

Now if you're keeping score at home, you can see that this is perilously close to what I think I actually said yesterday morning—though not exactly the same. While Ma'ikwe is accurate in claiming that I offer up the hyperbolic and insincere straw man of my general stupidity (insincere because she knows I don't think of myself as stupid and no one is claiming that I am), in this instance I was saying that I may be stupid—that is, not very smart—about X. And I meant that as a serious assessment. While I had an opinion (in this case, Y), I was unsure of my footing and wanted to admit it. To Ma'ikwe this sounded like the same old bullshit, and I was loathe to put my manure fork down.

For the next 15 minutes or so, we engaged in what I call "going around the mulberry bush," where we each diligently attempted to point why we were reasoned in our statements and the other was missing the boat. This accomplished exactly nothing, and boy was it familiar.

Finally, I put the shovel down. That is, I ceased trying to explain myself. While Ma'ikwe and I disagreed about what happened (and who held the moral high ground), there was no "winner." We both felt raw, frustrated, and misheard. This is all the more ambarrassing in that, as a process consultant, I know that the right thing to do in such moments is to focus first on accurately understanding the other person (to their satisfaction) before asking for the same thing in return. Unfortunately, my repitlian brain was only interested in the vigorous application of the shovel (I'd either dig my way out of trouble, or brain her in the process). Even though I know it doesn't work (when was the last time you heard someone say, "Oh my goodness, now that you've said it for the fifth time, and with a condescending tone, I see your point"?), I still do it.
Luckily, Ma'ikwe loves me anyway—though it's something of a mystery why.

Sigh. Why is enlightenment so damn hard?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Do You Speak PSL?

As near as I can tell, all specialties have their own lingo. Partly it helps—for aficionados, special terms come with precise meanings that provide shortcuts to clarity—and partly it confuses (widening the gulf between veterans and novices). In some cases there's even the suspicion that those with less secure egos rely on arcane argot with intent to make their specialty less accessible (and thereby, it is hoped, keep the competition suppressed).

My field, cooperative group dynamics, is no less guilty of this kind of shenanigans. As both a teacher and a practitioner, I regularly use terms like:
• Around the curve
• Beauty contest
• Contact statement
• Cross-town bus
• Dogpile
• Ghost
• Groping
• Hair ball
• Land
• Off-roading
• Poisoned fruit
• Queen
• Shepherd
• Sniper
• Stack
• Strike
• Unpack
• Threshing
• Train wreck
• Weaving

(And that doesn't count the acronyms or abbreviations!)

While it may be amusing to contemplate how many people off the street could suss out the meanings of the above terms in a conversation about group dynamics, I actually want to focus this blog on the meta level. Beyond vocabulary, Process itself is a language. I used to tell people that English was the only language that I was fluent in, but now I have a different answer.

As a language, Process is a way of discussing what's happening in human interactions. What's more, it's my view that understanding this and nurturing it are keys to developing healthy communities.

My community, Sandhill Farm, will be celebrating its 35th birthday in May. Over the years we've become better and better at evaluating prospective members—to the point where we're rarely surpised these days by what happens after someone joins. Because how we do things tends to be as important as what we do, one of the important tests for us is how well the new person speaks PSL, or Process as a Second Language. Solid group members tend to be fluent in it.

Here is a basic set of questions we might pose when assessing a prospective for competency in PSL (I'm not saying we use a check list; I'm just tryng to give you a feel of what we'd like to know about the new person):
o How well can you articulate what you're thinking?
o How well can you articulate what is happening to you emotionally?
o How comfortable are you sharing emotionally with others?
o How do you respond in the presence of emotional upset and conflict?
o How completely and accurately do you hear what others say?
o How easily can you shift perspectives to see issues from other viewpoints?
o How easily can you see ways to bridge different positions?
o Are you able to show others that you "get" them?
o How well can you read non-verbal cues?
o Can you readily distinguish between Process comments and Content comments?
o In a meeting, how easily can you track where we are in the conversation?
o How adept are you at approaching people in ways that put them at ease?
o How well do you understand the distribution of power in cooperative groups?
o Do you have a healthy model of leadership in a cooperative group?
o How open are you to receiving critical feedback?
o Can you distinguish between projection and what's actually happening in the moment?
o How well do you understand your own blind spots and emotional triggers?
o Are you more intersted in understanding than being understood?
o How interested are you in getting better at the above?

Community living tends to change the way one looks at life (in such a way that it's often easier to have certain kinds of meaningful conversations within minutes of meeting a complete stranger than it will ever be with your family of origin, if the stranger also lives in community and your family does not). In learning to speak PSL, a person necessarily starts to think in terms of "we" instead of "I," and that makes all the difference.

Process is a language aimed at strengthening connections and regularly evlauativing the impact that words and actions might have on one's relationships. While Process virtuosity doesn't guarantee successful relationships (after all, it takes two to tango and your feet are the only ones you can hope to control), it does enhance your chances.

• • •
I started putting myself forward as a teacher of group dynamcis more than two decades ago, and now I regularly attend conferences and offer workshops on a variety of topics related to group dynamics. Nowadays I aspire to pioneer one or two new workshops each year that I can add to my workshop menu—which stood at a dozen topics New Year's Day. This year I propose to reach a baker's dozen by debuting Do You Speak PSL?

Now all I have to do is sell this idea to some conference program director.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Surfeit of Susans

Have you ever noticed how one or two names seem to clump in your life? Well, for me, it's Susans. While I didn't pick up on this for quite a while, lately it's become increasingly obvious. Granted, Susan is not a rare name, yet I attract Susans at a rate that far exceeds my associations with, say, Marys or Carols or Nancys. While I doubt I'll be able to discern the cosmic portent of this pattern—any better than I can interpret chicken entrails—it's certainly a curiosity.

The most obvious place this has manifested is among my history with lovers. Though no other name shows up on my life list twice, I've gotten together (what a nice euphemism) three times with Susans. While the first of that trio was back in the '70s (Susan Dean), the most recent two were back to back—Susan Lloyd (2000-2004) & Susan Patrice (2004), marking the point where my Susan-density was finally sufficient to pierce the veil of my obliviousness. (Though I wasn't consciously selecting amorously for Susans, it did offer the serendipitous benefit of making it less likely to call out the wrong name in the heat of the moment.)

While I've married a Ma'ikwe (the only one of those I know), Susans continue to abound in my life.
For example, my wife's last name is Ludwig. Back in 2004-2007 I conducted an eight-part facilitation training in the Rocky Mountain States. Amazingly, there was another Ludwig in the class. Her first name was Susan. (Now you might think, given the theme of this blog, that this suggests that I married the wrong Ludwig. Don't go there.)

Over at nearby Dancing Rabbit there is long-term member Susan Brown. For a time, she did proofreading for Communities magazine, for which I serve as Publisher and author a regular column. For a number of years, Susan Wright also lived at DR. She
handled FIC accounting and worked with me in the Fellowship's Missouri Office circa 2002-06.

Back in 2004, one of Sandhill's all-time favorite interns was Susie Phelps (and you can probably guess what name appears on her birth certificate). In 2007 we had a new member named Betsy who joined in the spring… and then left in the fall with her lover, (you guessed it) Sue. Sue liked Sandhill well enough, yet felt called to live nearer her mother in Holden, Missouri. while the couple moved down there and bought a house, they remain in Sandhill's outer orbit of friends.

Last fall, I agreed to work with a Prescott College student as a Mentor (in university argot, this is an official variety of adjunct faculty, who works with students one on one, often at a distance) for student-designed courses on "Group Dynamics: Facilitation, Conflict Resolution and Decision Making Processes" & "Intentional Communities: History, Philosophy, & Organizational Structures." Right up my alley. That student's name is Frank. How did I know this was the right thing to do? I had a sign. You see, her last name is Frank; her first name is Susan.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Dinner for Two

Just as Mother Nature slows down for winter, so do we Sandhill Farmers. And January is about the slowest time of all. The Christmas/Solstice/Hanukkah whirlwind is behind us, and Candlemas/Birgit/Ground Hog Day is still ahead. January is our coldest month, and it was only a few days ago that we were arising each morning with negative numbers on the thermometer—and that's in Fahrenheit. In those gelid conditions one's motivation barely extends beyond drinking coffee, accomplishing basic chores, and curling up on the couch to read a book near the wood stove.

This all stands in sharp contrast with our rhythms the rest of the year. During the growing season our population is markedly higher, and Sandhill typically has about 10-12 people at the dinner table. There are the six adults members, Renay (our 12-year-old), perhaps three interns, and possibly a guest or two. In fact, we rarely have the exact same configuration for dinner two nights running. In winter however, all that changes. There are no interns and few visitors. Mostly just the members, and often one or two are away on travels during the agricultural dormancy.

Twice this past week, it was only two of us who showed up in response to the dinner bell. Apple is visiting friends at Twin Oaks for the winter, Stan is doing a Vipassana retreat (at the same Illinois center I was at two weeks ago), Gigi and Renay were at some school function (I used to think that I was a pretty heavily scheduled fellow until I examined Renay's lineup of extracurricular activities—it makes my head spin), and Michael was sick in bed with pleurisy. That left just Käthe and me.

While eating dinner at home with only one other adult is a perfectly normal and unremarkable occurrence for most of America, it is damn unusual for me. Over the last 30 years of intentional community living, I doubt I've eaten dinner at home with only one other adult fewer than 30 times. So twice in one week was noteworthy (even blog-worthy).

With Apple away until spring, Stan meditating in Illinois, and Michael holed up in bed, there is considerable amount of routine for the rest of us to cover. Käthe feeds the chickens and collects the eggs, Gigi roasts coffee and keeps the greenhouse above freezing (which sometimes means getting up and stoking the wood stove at 2 am), I cut wood and handle shipping, and we all take turns cooking and cleaning. It is the only time of the year when, briefly, we have more computers than people seeking to use them. Thus, everyone can surf to their hearts content—so long as one's fingers stay warm enough to accurately execute the keystrokes.

And apparently we're not the only ones with a softer schedule right now. I called up our dentist this morning to make an appointment to get my teeth cleaned, hoping for an opening before the vernal equinox. Imagine my shock when I was offered tomorrow morning! I don't know whether the flu and other respiratory challenges have knocked out more folks than just Michael, or whether northeast Missouri is temporarily de-populating to attend tomorrow's inauguration of the first non-southern Democratic President since Kennedy back in 1961. Regardless, I was pleased with the prompt dental accommodation… and I'm glad I'll be at home tomorrow afternoon, where I'll be crafting handmade pasta for dinner and keeping the house warm—rather than in DC, where I'd be trying to not get too hot about crowds, traffic, and snooty politicians.

My only trip this week will be to Kirskville (35 miles away) to play duplicate bridge Wed evening. That night, I realize, it may only be Gigi and Käthe for dinner. It's almost an epidemic.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sitting out the Old; Sitting in the New, Part V

In this final installment to my five-part series of reflections and observations about my recent 10-day Vipassana retreat, I'll focus on the unexpected inspirations I derived from the experience as it relates to my career as a consensus and facilitation trainer. While it is hardly an exact mapping, there is an eerie extent to which a number of Vipassana tenets translate easily into secular qualities that I believe are integral to developing a deep understanding of consensus and to becoming truly gifted at meeting facilitation.

Think of them as the Ten Commendments. Let me walk you through them, mainly from the perspective of a meeting facilitator (though almost everything offered has a useful corollary for consensus meeting participants).

[In all cases below, I've first labeled a quality in Pali (as in "wants a cracker")—the now defunct language of
ancient India that was spoken by Buddha 2500 years ago—followed by its English equivalent.]

1. Sila (SHEE-luh): Morality
Facilitators need to be scrupulous about acting from a place of neutrality on the topics being discussed. They need to constantly sweep themselves for signs that they're getting hooked. If it happens (and it will on occasion, even to the best facilitators) the moral thing to do is self-disclose. In the extreme, you should step down.

Facilitators also have an obligation to name what they see and feel is going on, and not skate around tough dynamics.

They are expected to make the meeting safe enough for each participant to be able to speak their truth on the topics at hand.

Although I had not given it much thought before the Vipassana retreat, I now see the bebefit to articulating a Facilitator's Code of Conduct. (It's always exciting for me to get new insight into how to better frame what constitutes good group dynamics.)

2. Samadhi (suh-MAH-dee): Mental focus
To be good at meetings—whether as a facilitator or as a participant—it is important to develop the capacity to focus on what is happening in the present moment. At a minimum, that means tracking accurately what people are saying. But it's more than that. It's also picking up on the non-verbal cues and the energetic dynamics.

Forutnately, training the mind to stay focused is a learnable skill. Unfortunately, not many practice this skill, and the average attention span of group members is a matter of seconds, not minutes. Space out is at near-epidemic proportions. Still, a lifetime of monkey mind (where one's attention shifts constantly to whatever object is most bright or noisy) can nonetheless be turned around if there's the will to work on it.

Then, after one can consistently maintain focus and rarely misses what's happening in the moment, the next challenge is scanning current statements to see how they link to prior ones—which you'll be able to access because you've also been simultaneously developing your capacity to recall what's been said previously on this topic. It's amazing what you can learn to do.

3. Pañña (PON-yuh): Wisdom
As this is taught in the Vipassana course, it has a lot to do with expanding one's perspective beyond whatever pops into your mind. In that sense, wisdom is seen as aggregating perspectives and then discerning the best course of action taking them all into account. It's being curous about and open to the perspectievs that others have and it's also about "body knowing," or intuition. Much of the Vipassana practicve is about increasing awareness of body sensations, and in my view this is excellent advice to facilitators.

If I could only teach a person who walked in off the street to do one thing differently, I suspect nothing would make as profound a difference in their innate ability to facilitate than if they developed a heightened sense of what was happening in their body whenever things got heavy or confusing and they knew what those body sensations meant and were willing to act on that information.

The idea here is that our bodies are much smarter than most of us know in our heads, and if we could only figure out how to pay better attention to what our bodies are trying to tell us, we'd not only make better decisions, we'd also probably have fewer heart attacks and nervous breakdowns.

4. Sati (SAH-tee): Awareness
Pay attention (with the enhanced ability to focus you developed above) to what is happening right now. Don't drift off into memories, or start future tripping. Ram Dass wasn't kidding when he admonished, "Be here now."

It is important to understand that when you combine an ability to focus (samadhi) with present awareness (sati), you are not trying to control events; you are simply trying to accurately and fully be alive to what is happening. Some shy away from this much engagement with reality, either because it is so painful to be fully aware of all the misery in the world, or because current events tend to trigger strong reactions in yourself and you'd rather not ride that roller coaster. The trick here is combining awareness with non-reactiveness (see upekkha below).

5. Adhitthana (ah-dee-TAH-nuh): Strong determination
This is where Vipassana teaching evokes the high school football coach ("When the going gets tough… "). A good facilitator will need to weather some rocky shoals from time to time without letting the group down. Hnaging in there helps develop stamina so that the next time won't be quite as daunting.

The analogy for me as a facilitation teacher is explaining—and demonstrating—the power of seeing the glass half full. For the most part, we'll get the experience we expect, and if we expect to be overwhelmed by a challenge (whether it's sitting without moving for 60 minutes in a Vipassana meditation, or listening for 60 minutes to an animated inconclusive discussion about whether to change the groups' name from the Armchair Liberals to the Pontificating Mugwumps), then you're 90% of the way toward manifesting that reality.

If you expect to get through hard times, then you're much more likely to have that experience.

6. Viriya (VEER-yuh): Effort; persistence
Linked closely with adhitthana, it takes work to become good at anything. Leaving aide the occasional Einstein, Mozart, and Picasso (who apparently could manifest excellence with almost no effort), you have to consistenty exert yourself in order to advance on the path to liberation (Vipassana) or accomplishment (facilitation). It won't arrive in the mail, you can't get an injection of it, and it won't be assimilated osmotically in your sleep. You have to practice your craft to get good at it.

Further, it won't just be a ever-spiraling upward path of progress. There will be set backs. When the horse bucks you off, you have to have sufficient gumption to dust yourself off and get back on.

7. Khanti (CON-tee): Patience; tolerance
There are two sides to this coin: patience with others and with yourself. To be a good facilitator you'll need both. Sometimes the group won't respond well to your brilliancy; or a participant will not feel accurately held by you, even though you haven't a clue what you're missing when you try to give back to them what you heard. Or, you might g
et down on yourself when you realize that you blew it. While it's fine to aim high (adhitthana), and it's excellent to be fully aware of those times when you fail to cross that bar (sati), beating yourself up about it is not helpful You're just resupplying yourself with a fresh source of misery (sankhara). Who needs it?

8. Upekkha (OO-peh-kuh): Equanimity
This virtue, when coupled with sati, is central to success in Vipassana. The ideal here is to be completely aware, yet unreactive—which is not the same as uncaring. This is about centeredness, and it's a key quality in a good facilitator as well. If you're tense, self-judging, worried about how you're being perceived, or stewing about what happened 30 minutes ago (or about what's likely to come up 30 minutes later), then you're probably facing a double whammy:

First, you're almost certain to have compromised awareness (sati) and will thus be susceptible to missing input about what's happening currently. Second, when you're nervous, anxious, or otherwise perturbed you're much less likely to be clean in your facilitative choices. You'll start steering things instead of simply reading what's in the room and what's possible with the topic at hand.

There is a tendency to shut down receptors in order to achieve or maintain equanimity. If a person feels swamped with more information than they can process (TMI), it's destabilizing. In that dynamic it's understandable that a person would learn to close off sensory inputs as a coping mechanism. However, a good facilitator has to learn to remain open in that moment, letting the swirl of information flow through them and around them, remaining steady no matter how turbulent the flow. Like a boulder in a mountain streambed.

9. Dana (DAH-nuh): Generosity
While this also relates to donations (and is the business model for how Vipassana Centers operate), I'm focusing here on the sense of dana as giving without expectation of return. A good facilitator needs to serve out of a desire to help, rather than be motivated by the opportunity to look good (or even be a hero), or by the chance for a big payday. The mantra I offer trainees is: "It's not about you. It's about what most helps the group in this moment."

You are striving to be as selfless as possible when you're up front at a meeting. If you get irritated that the group is not sufficiently appreciating all the hard work you did preparing a particular format, you are losing both upekkha and dana. After all, it's their group and their meeting. They don't owe you a favorable response. And it certainly isn't in their interest (or yours) to condition them to give you false praise.

10. Metta (MET-uh): Loving kindness
The last piece of instruction offered during the 10-day Vipassana retreat was how to end a sitting by spending the final 5-10 minutes expanding focus beyond oneself to include the rest of the world's life forms, wishing happiness to all. Kind of a White Light exercise (which is different than what the Beach Boys sang about: "I'm feelin' those good vibrations, they're givin' me excitations... "). Where the Beach Boys were crooning about come-on energy, metta is about connection energy. It is about agape and the Gaia Hypothesis.

A good facilitator wants to cultivate a state in which s/he can genuinely care about everyone in the room, no matter how troubled they are, how provocative or c
onfusing their style of presentation, or how triggering their personality type is for you personally. You need to love them all, and to constantly be offering your guidance from a place of love and well-meaning—even more so when your offerings aren't received that way and your motivation is questioned. (Hint: as a facilitator it is unwise to fight for your perspective or good intent if either is called into question. If you do, you'll be risking the outcome of the entire meeting in your effort to win the point, and it's a poor bargain. Better to back away gracefully whenever the group balks at your suggestions or style.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sitting out the Old; Sitting in the New, Part IV

In this fourth installment of Laird's New Year's Revolutions, I'll focus on the turnings in my mind about gender dynamics at the 10-day Vipassana retreat.

First of all, the Vipassana philosophy is not gender specific. The advice or techniques offered men and women are the same. That said, over the years—centuries, really—Vipassana practitioners have evolved definite ideas about the best way to structure introductory courses (having only experienced the introductory course, I don't have a clue if or how course structures change as one advances along the path). My comments in this blog will pertain to the structure, not the philosophy.

As I wrote in my previous blog, one of the core tenets of Vipassana philosophy is sila, or correct moral conduct. In everyday life this includes proscriptions against sexual abuse or misconduct. During the 10-day reatreat, the request is much stricter: retreatants are asked to abstain from all sexual activity. Of course, given that we're also expected to not touch, look at, or communicate in any way with other meditators (excepting with the assitant teacher or with the course manager assigned to our gender—there is a female manger for the women and a male manager for the men—with whom we are allowed to ask questions about our meditation practice during certain times of the day), it's pretty difficult to imagine interactive sex as a possibility. Implied, though not expressly stated, is that masturbation is also a no-no during the course.

As I can see the point of asking meditators to set aside sexual activity for the purpose of focusing on concentrating the mind (samadhi), heightening awareness of full body sensations (not just those in the loins), and noticing how cravings and aversions plague one's thoughts and frustrate attempts to reach and maintain an equanimous state, I'm not objecting to this expectation of course celibacy. Rather, I'm commenting about the lengths to which course managers go to keep the genders separated, and wondering what the point of it is.

In addition to sexual abstinence, meditators are also asked to forego all intoxicants during the retreat, to not talk with fellow meditators, to refrain from bringing food into the bedrooms, and to neither read nor write. With all of these restrictions, the basic approach is to lay out the boundaries of acceptable behavior during the course, and then to trust that consenting adults—after all, no one is forced to attend a Vipassana retreat—will abide by them. To my knowledge, no is checking up on you.

Interestingly, when it comes to gender separation—unlike with all of the other strictures—the Vipassana folks do not simply rely on people having read the Code of Discipline and behaving appropriately. In fact, they go to great lengths to permit both genders to attend courses, and then keep them scrupulously separated. It's goofy. If mixing genders is so dangerous, why don't they alternate courses by gender, with all men at one sitting, followed by all women at the next?

As near as I can piece it together, they do it this way for two reasons. First, I suspect they fear (and may have had some actual trouble with in the past) meditators' capacity to resist sexual temptation if men and women are allowed more into each other's proximity. And this can be something far less blatant than groping in the cloak room or unauthorized bedroom visitors after lights out; it may not be anything more than heightened sexual tensions (Luke, I can feel a distrubance in the Force.) Thus, this policy may simply be in loco parentis, where the Vipassana managers are protecting meditators from the temptation that history has proven is the hardest to resist (certainly sex was on my mind during the retreat—see my previous blog for a mea culpa on this). Still, it seemed to me they were treating us more like over-hormoned teenagers on court-ordered silent penance than consenting adults pursuing spiritual development.

Second, there may be a vibrational explanation. On the one hand, it may be best to have roughly equal numbers of men and women in the Dhamma Hall during meditation hours (all men=too much yang; all women=too much yin). On the other, mixing genders unnecessarily (or even gender-identified objects; see more on this below) may trigger subtle vibrational disturbances that undercut the equanimity and centeredness we'll are striving for. To be clear, nobody told me this; I'm just guessing.

To give you an idea how ridiculous this got (in my assessment, when we'd come to breakfast every morning the containers of dry cereal were marked Male Granola and Male Raisin Bran. When I first saw this, for a fleeting moment I wondered if that meant these were the batches that were laced with testosterone. Upon reflection, I realized that wasn't likely, but they were going to a fair amount of effort to make sure that the container of granola we got was the same one each morning. What bad thing, I wondered, would occur if on Day Three the men were served granola from the container that had been offered the women on Day Two? There were, apparently, spiritual matters at work here that were far more subtle than this neophyte could grok.

Better yet, one of the morning choices was Male Cheerios. Now really. How could anyone take a look at Cheerios and label them "male" with a straght face? It boggles the mind.

For the duration of the retreat, the women had a route for traveling between the dormitory, dining hall, and the Dhamma Hal, and it was completely separate from the route assigned to the men. While I suspect that the isolation of pathways by gender helps reduce the temptation to ogle during the lightly clad days of summer, in January everyone was wearing so much down that you couldn't tell which way was up—much less what plumbing anyone was sporting in their underwear.

On Day Ten, after the silence had been broken and the men and women were once again allowed to sit within sight of each other—and even talk together in the Dining Hall, I was chided by the facility manager that it was still inappropriate to approach the Dining Hall by a shortcut from the dormitory that crossed a path that had been reserved solely for women while the silence was in force. Huh? How could it be OK to commingle sexes for the purpose of organizing the post-retreat clean-up and to make a unified pitch for donations to support Vipassana operations, and at the same time unaccpetable to walk across the parking lot to approach the Dining Hall? There were distinctions here I simply wasn't getting.

On get-away day, after the retreat ended, I lingered to help clean up and make sure all the dorm rooms were ready for the next retreat. (Naturally, my partner, James, was another man, and we were working solely on the male side; two women were our counterparts on the distaff side.) When James and I found a bed that needed the bottom sheet changed, we were admonished to be careful about using "male" sheets for that purpose—even though the mattresses and sheets on the female side of the dorm were exactly the same. On the other hand, it was OK for the men and women to use the same floor mop, and we could refill the spray bottles of cleanser for each suite of rooms from the same master container.

While most of these distinctions were simpy nutty and not really harmful, on a more serious level I wondered about the heterosexual assumption that underlay all these gender-based restrictions. When you take into account that about 10% of the population is gay, the carefully-constructed sexual firewalls of the Vipassana Center are not just ineffective, they were downright incendiary. By insisting that men only hang out in close proximity with other men and the same for women, they've
institutionalized homosexual temptation. Noticeably, this was not mentioned at all, either by the instructors or in the literature.

Perhaps the Vipassana folks have discovered that gays are simply more mature than straights and don't need the plethora of training wheels to keep them on the path of sila. However, I doubt it. I suspect that the truth here is that the Vipassana leaders, for all their noble commitment to seeing things as they truly are (the literal meaning of "Vipassana") are simply in denial about homosexuality and have not adjusted their carefully wrought course structures to take into account contemporary LBGT reality.

For my money, the answer here is simple enough. Stop making gender such a big deal, make no attmept to sort people by sexual orientation (it's not the Vipassana folks' business anyway and is irrelevent to the philosophy and practice), continue to ask meditators to forebear from sexual activity during the retreat, and trust that students will behave. If they don't, then deal with that.

If you want people to behave like adults, then treat them that way.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Sitting out the Old; Sitting in the New, Part III

In this third installment of How I Spent My Christmas Vacation, I'm going to describe Vipassana philosophy and how it's touched me. It was a profound experience—of the kind where the discoveries and resultant changes are likely to continue to unfold for weeks and months to come.

The essential claim is that S.N. Goenka's teachings are the result of a direct, unbroken connection with the teachings of Gotama—aka Buddha—from 2500 years ago. As the story goes, Gotama's teachings were widely popular at the time of his life (he actively taught from his enlightenment at age 35 until his death at 80), especially in northern India, where he spent most of his life. For perhaps 300 years following his death, his teachings remained popular and emissaries were sent to spread his spiritual practices to other parts of the world. In particular, two monks were sent to the country that is now Burma, or Myanmar.

While the teaching got diluted (and perhaps polluted) with other spiritual practices over time, the claim is that in Burma they remained pure. Though they were apparently never that popular in Burma, there was a continuous line of adept practitioners safeguarding the method and the teachings. In the middle of the 20th Century, a civil servant named U Ba Khin (1899-1971) was exposed to Vipassana for the first time at age 38. He took to it immediately and quickly advanced in proficiency, eventually becoming noteworthy as the only advanced practitioner who spoke fluent English. He established the International Meditation Centre in Rangoon in 1952. His career as a government official continued until 1967 and it was only the last four years of his life that were devoted exlcusively to teaching Viapssana meditation. He was Goenka's mentor, and the person who encouraged Goenka to spread Vipassana to other countries.

Goenka first met U Ba Khin in 1954 (at age 30), hoping that Viapssana might offer him relief from crippling migraine headaches—after allopathic medicine proved ineffective in treating them, excepting through opiates that were debilitating and addictive. As Goenka tells the story, U Ba Khin refused to teach him Vipassana if his goal was merely to conquer migraines. In Vipassana, the goal is to vanquish all misery, not just headaches. Goenka agreed, and that started him on the path to becoming the Princpal Teacher after U Ba Khin passed away.

With U Ba Khin's blessing, Goenka reestablished a Vipassana center in
India, its birthplace, in 1969. It thrived and from there he spread it worldwide, notably assisted by a 128-day worldwide promotional tour he conducted across Europe and North America in 2002 (at age 78). Today there are five meditation centers in the US (two in California, one in Texas, one in Massachusetts, and the one I sat at last week in Pecatonica IL) plus an additional three in Canada. Interest in Vipassana is clearly on the rise worldwide, in no small part do to Goenka's tireless proselytizing.

The course I took is anchored by a set of 70-minute videotaped Goenka discourses that are offered every evening of the 10-day course. These were recorded in 1991, and it is highly impressive how fluently he communicates in English (even to his facility with colloquial humor), all the more so when one realizes that English cannot be better than his third language (and may be his fifth or sixth, given that he established successful commercial centers in Japan and Germany in his career as a post-Word War II businessman before being introduced to Vipassana). He's a tour de force, and a compelling personality.

Today there are approximately 800 assistant teachers around the world, all of whom, I believe, have a personal connection with Goenka. Every official 10-day Vipassana retreat must be overseen by having either Goenka or an assistant teacher in attendance.

The main idea of Vipassana is that each individual—regardless of upbringing or situation in life—can take control of their own happiness and end misery by understanding how we each ignorantly create cravings and aversions in response to sensations. By focusing the mind and becoming more aware of sensations in the body (this includes thoughts as well as the other five senses of sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch), we can become better attuned to how we respond on the biochemical level to stimulation and understand that we have choice in whether we subsequently create a craving or an aversion (called a sankhara in Pali—the language of Buddha). To be clear, a sankhara is a bad thing (leading to misery) and yet we can also rationally want a thing and work actively towards its manifestation without having our happiness and equanimity inextricably linked to whether we get our wish—after all, what happens outside our bodies is not much in our control.

Also basic to Vipassana teachings (and Buddhism in general) is the concept of anicca (uh-NEECH-uh), which is the Law of Impermanence. The basic idea is that everything changes; nothing lasts. To be sure, some things change more quickly than others, but everything changes. Thus, something you dislike (or something you crave) will pass away—just like everything else—so why get attached? In fact, the dynamic of attachment is analogous to planting a seed, which will sprout in the future and lead to a thing last longer, because of the bitter fruit that will be borne. Because each sankhara is capable of multiplying into hundreds of new sankhara through this method of propagation, it is all the more imperative that you are careful what you plant.

The state you are encouraged to reach is a combination of high awareness and high equanimity, where you notice as much as possible what is happening and are as unreactive as possible. (Some people seek equanimity by walling themselves off from the mundane world; this is not Buddha's teaching.) Caution: "unreactive" does not mean passive, nor does it mean passionless. It means centeredness. While high passion is often linked with a high degree of attachment, it need not be that way. Being a passionate Buddhist—which I am now inspired to—is highly appealing to me.

[While my knee jerk thought here was to ask readers to wish me luck in this endeavor, my advancement toward this goal will have nothing whatever to do with luck—I will succeed directly in proprotion to my willingness to consciously work at it. That too, is part of the teaching.]

Vipassana [vi-POSH-uh-nuh] translates to "seeing things as they really are." The idea being that we can objectively sense and know what's happening in our bodies and that this is the way we should be engaging with reality. The foundation of the practice is comprised of three basic building blocks:

1. Moral conduct, or sila (SHEE-luh). While there are a handful of precepts that Vipassanists delineate, it essentially matches up with the code for right livelihood that all main religions perscribe, such as adhering to the Thou Shalt Nots of Christianity, or eschewing the Seven Deadly Sins. While there's nuance around whether meat-eating can ever been seen as moral (Vipassana doctrine says no, but I demur), let's leave that aside. We can all agree that it's a dubious moral practice to kill, steal, lie, or screw your neighbor (in any sense). The main path here is well described.

2. Mental focus, or samadhi (suh-MAH-dee). In order to be fully aware of body sensations—and not just on the gross level, like a leg cramp; we're talking about subtlties even down to the molecular level (though I question my ever achieving that kind of depth in my practice)—it is necessary to train the mind to pay attention, and not be distracted. It was highly humbling to me, as a professional facilitator with a reputation for (and no small amount of pride in) his ability to accurately track mutliple meeting threads simulataneously, how susceptible I was to "monkey mind." When asked to focus on my breathing for 60 minutes straight, at first I doubt I could do it for two minutes wihthout my attention jumping to something else. Forutnately, as the week progressed, I got better.

3. Encompassing as many perspectives as possible, or pañña (PON-yuh). The idea here is not relying solely on how you see things with your head. Consider both the perspectives of others and what your body tells you. This expressly includes the wisdom of insight and the information that is embedded in your bodily sensations. You just need ot tune into it and to understand what your body is telling you. Mostly, I think, it's opening up your intuitive "ears" and not letting your brain get in the way. (Pañña is a great help in consensus, by the way—but more about that in a future blog.)

While Vipassana offers assistance in future lives as well as this one, you don't need to buy the concept of reincarnation to benefit. In fact, if you are not achieveing positive results right away, according to Goenka, you're not doing it right. It is key to Vipassana teaching that the method be accessible, relatively straight forward to understand (not esoteric), and of immediate application. That does not mean that it is simple to achieve profound results or, ultimately, total liberation and release from misery. However, it is not that hard to describe the path, or at least the first sections of it. (As Goenka reminded us in one of his discourses toward the end of the 10 days, this is just Vipassana "kindergarten," yet enough to give us a sound beginning and tools robust enough to effect an immediate diminishment of misery.)

Finally, Vipassana is non-sectarian and not meant to be at odds with any other religion. People from anywhere and any persuasion are welcome to learn it and there is no request for allegiance other than to follow sila. The rest is up to you.

Dhamma (DOM-uh) is the Way, or the practice. Each person's dhamma is unqiue, and no one esle can practice dhamma on your behalf.

The course starts with students being asked to simply focus on their breathing for three days. This is called anapana. Breathing was chosen by the Buddha as a starting point because it is universal, an excellent example of impermamence, realtively easy to notice sensations with, and tends to be a simple way to showcase how poor most of us are at focusing our mind.

On Day Four we were introduced to Vipassana, which involves switching focus from breathing to noticing sensations all over the body.

It was impressive to notice a itch, to not scratch it reflexively, and then to notice it go away on its own. It worked every time.

For the 10 days of the introductory course, students are asked to live in silence and that extends to not touching or looking anyone else in the face. We were asked to not bring reading material (we were only allowed a copy of an 8-page introduction to the meditation technique and the code of discipline) nor any writing equipment. For the duration we were expected to simply be with ourselves (and all the sankharas we'd created in a lifetime of ignorance).

For me, the hardest part was not the silence; it was not being able to write, or even make notes. I had a craving for writing, and I was my choice: I could either use the time to lament the limitations of the retreat, or to reflect on my attachment to writing—now exposed as one of my sankharas. I benefited greatly from an old student (a repeat retreatant) pointing this out to me the last day (when talking was once again permitted).

On the form we filled out at the outset, we were asked what addictions we had. While I owned that on average I consumed one alcoholic drink per day (some days none, and some days more), I don't consider myself to be addicted to alcohol. Would it be one of my cravings? It turned out I didn't miss alcohol at all (which doesn't prove that I never abuse it; only that it's not a fixation). One the other hand, I thought about sex all the time!

No Sex Please, We're Monkish
We had agreed, for the duration of the reteat, to abstain from all sexual activity. While this made sense to me, and I didn't dwell on it for the first couple days, that gradually changed. While I noticed some aversions creeping into my consciousness as the course went on (mainly stories about dynamics with someone that I felt raw about) and they provided excellent sankhara fodder for me to chew on (it was now uncomfortably clear how I had been carefully nurturing my own misery), the biggest distraction for me throughout the sit was my tendency to fantasize about sex. This, of course, was a craving.

On the one hand, the centerpiece of my imaginings was some rather creative (and occasionally acrobatic) lovemaking with my wife, so I didn't think I was breaking sila. Still, it was undisciplined, and defiitely a craving. After going through a gauntlet of guilt (we were supposed to set sex aside for the retreat) and titillation, I noticed that frustration predominated in the end. Ah, the essence of craving.

After watching this melodrama continue for a few days I tried working it the other way, and imagined never having sex with Ma'ikwe again. (Maybe she'd lose interest in me; maybe sex would become too painful for her; maybe she'd get hit by a truck.) That was interesting. While sad, it was not crushing. I saw that I could live through it. That helped me find something approximating equanimity. After all, sex with Ma'ikwe, however wonderful, would ultimately be subject to annica like everything else. It would pass.

Then there was another level. For the past 20 years I've wrestled with occasional impotence (unreliable erections)
. All indications are that this is psychological rather than biochemical, and I'm convinced that the issue is more in my head than my penis. What's more, it's in me rather than in my partner. While I've made some modest progress on this by noticing more closely when the symptoms occur (impotence is more likely when I'm under stress or feeling less emotionally connected with my partner; it's less likely to occur when I'm tired; erections are more reliable in the morning, less so at night), I suddenly had an insight about my impotence as I wrestled with commingling sex, equanimity, and passion.

I realized in a flash that I tend to be anxious about erections
whenever making love (never mind whether that was true when the impotence first surfaced 20 years ago; it's true now), and anxiety is not equanimity. I wondered whether my new-found understanding of passionate equanimity (a retreat insight that was only hours old) could guide me toward being both fully passionate (clearly a superior way to make love) and fully equanimous at the same time. While I didn't know how hard it would be to live in this double state, my 25-watt light bulb was that I felt sure that those double doors would lead to reliable erections.

Given that I'm convinced that my impotence is psychosomatic, it means there's a disjunct between my head and my body. Vipassana is perfectly geared toward helping with that, as body/mind integration is central to the practice. So even if my above insight is wrong, I've still got new tools for noticing what's happening when my erection goes south. I've now discussed all this with Ma'ikwe and it's piqued her interest as well—both as someone who is vibrantly sexual and as the daughter of a biologist with latent scientific instincts. At the very least, it will be interesting field research. I'll let you know what comes up (so to speak).

Post Retreat
Upon arriving home, I noticed right away how much calmer I felt, and how I could listen to the disjointed ramblings of Ma'ikwe's 11-year-old son, Jibran, with equanimity. Instead of tuning him out, I just noticed what was happening and didn't react.
That was different.

Goenka urged students to continue meditating twice a day for an hour, plus five minutes each day when we first get up and when we go to bed. On top of that, we're to look for an opportunity to meditate one hour per week with other practitioners in the area and attend at least one 10-day retreat per year. I'm unsure how much of that I'll embrace. The claim is that we'l get all those hours back in increased vibrancy and efficiency, and it may be true. I'll watch for that.

So far, I've continued my yoga practice [see my blog of Oct 12, 2008], which Goenka says is highly compatible with Vipassana meditation, and I'm looking forward to discussing my experience with the four others at nearby Dancing Rabbit and Red Earth who have atken the Vipassana course. We'll see where that leads and how much my ability to see and control my own misery depends on ongoing meditation.

Taken all together, I unhesitantly recommend that everyone take this 10-day introductory retreat and tasting Viapssana for themselves. It could change your life.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Sitting out the Old; Sitting in the New, Part II

Continuing my reflections of my recent 10-day Vipassana retreat, today I'm going to describe my experience of the Dhamma Hall—where students did the bulk of their meditating, anywhere from 60-120 hours, always in silence. This building was converted from the farm family residence.

Buckingham's Palace
I'd always enter the Dhamma Hall via the men's entrance, deposit my shoes in an enclosed unheated porch, place my coat on a rack just inside the building, and then enter what used to be the kitchen. This was the men's break room, where we'd stretch before entering the meditation area, get a glass of water, or borrow a cushion to adjust our sitting comfort. It was not a large space, and there was always a tricky choreography around negotiating your way through the area without using words or touching any of the other 20-25 men on this retreat.

Inside the meditation chamber, we were each assigned a space. It was marked by a 30"x30" blue cushion that was about 3 inches thick. We were expected to meditate on that same spot for the duration.

Although the retreat is done in silence (excepting a portion of the last day), and students are requested not to touch or make eye contact with one another. As there were 50 of us packed into the same room together day after day, it was only natural that one would start to notice the patterns and habits of neighboring meditators. Everyone tended to have the a characteristic ritual about preparing their space, whether it was how they tucked their legs under a meditation stool, which foot was on top in the half lotus, or how they postioned their blankets. It was like watching a dog circle ritually before sitting down on a favorite spot.

[On the final day, when we were allowed to talk again, I learned one man had assigned everyone else a name. He just made up a story about everyone. My
appellation turned out to be "Buckingham," though I never learned what had inspired that choice.]

The meditation room was well heated and I never used the blanket I brought with me as a wrap, though others regularly swaddled up for sessions, covering either legs, torsos, or both. I tend to run warm (which Ma'ikwe considers an appreciable asset on winter nights), and occasionally I'd meditate in only a long-sleeved cotton shirt and cotton pants. As someone unused to meditation I found it took effort to sit still for 60 minutes at a go, and it was not uncommon to be sweating by the time that Goenka's chanting signaled the end of a session.

One of my personal satisfactions in doing the sitting was finding out that my 59-year-old kneees could still bend like that. While the first few days were painful and there was consirable hobbling whenever I'd arise from sitting, by Day 5 I was able to sit for 60 minutes without unfolding my legs for relief. While I believe the ideal is to not even twitch, that level of accomplishment will have to await another lifetime. I was thankful enough with where I got to, and appreciated the extended attention I was able to give to my body and the attempt to integrate it with my mind (it really would be nice of those two got along better).

For me, sitting proved to be exothermic, and I needed to be careful not to overdress. In contrast, Ma'ikwe told me that when she was sitting—in the same room at the same time, mind you—she was wearing almost every article of clothing she'd brought with her, including an insulated hat. The range in people's metabolisms amazes me.

Alimentary, My Dear
We were asked to keep our eyes closed during meditation, the better to focus our attention on body sensations (and not be distracted by visual inputs). Because it was winter and people were largely bundled up, there was almost no smell to the meditation hall. I have to think this a completely different experience in July, when temperatures can drift into the 90s and your nose will likely be altogether sufficient to detect if someone is occupying the cushion next to you.

While sitting in the hall, the distractions outside my own body (and sometimes inside) were mainly auditory. In particular, digestive (burping, swallowing, stomach gurgling, and the occasional fart) and respiratory (coughing, sniffling, and sneezing). Swallowing was
especially interesting. It reminded me of attending a St Louis Cardinal baseball game one September night in 1998, when Mark McGwire was in the process of breaking the all-time single season home run record. Every time he came to the plate, you could watch the stands and there was never a single moment when there was not a camera flash going off, popping randomly around the stadium. When I was younger and they still allowed smoking indoors, I recall the same phenomenon at a hocky game, watching matches being struck to light cigarettes around the arena. All during a sit, the silence would be punctuated by the sound of people randomly swallowing.

We were expected to be in the Dhamma Hall three times a day—8-9 am, 2:30-3:30 pm, and 6-9 pm. Other times we were given the option to sit in the hall or in our rooms. During the mandatory sits, we'd start and end each session by listening to an audio tape of S.N. Goenka chanting inspirational verses in Pali, the now-defunct Indian language spoken by Buddha 2500 years ago. Invariably, the final chant would conclude with Goenka saying Bhavatu, Sabba, Mangalam three times, after which students were encouraged (though not required) to respond with Sadhu three times. The former translates to "May all beings be happy"; the latter to "Well said; we agree" (I reckon it's the Pali equivalent of "Cool" today).

While Goenka and the literature make a strong claim that
Vipassana is not sectarian and contains no rites or ritual, the chanting sure seemed like a ritual to me. Though participating is not required, all the sits and the evening discourses (70-minute videotaped lectures that Goenka did without reference to a single note in 1991, before a live audience) ended with the same chanted admonition. While I enjoyed the chanting, and accept Goenka's claim that it is not required in order to become proficient at Viapssana, it was nonetheless a ritual.

Given that the chants were done in Pali, it was unlikely that anyone in the audience had a clue about what was being said (excepting perhaps the assistant teacher). Thus, what we had, essentially, was Goenka's good vibes. While it seemed weird at first, I soon grew to enjoy the chanting, and its rhythmic encouragement.
Goenka has a deep resonant voice (the kind that suggests a past life connection with Louis Armstrong) and when he's chanting he draws out his phrases like he's poling a jon boat across shallow underground waters. Whenever he ends a phrase he'll elongate the final notes and beach his verse on a bed of gravel. There's nothing I've ever heard that's like it.

Goenka on videotape is sparkly and you can feel his love and playfulness, as well as his devotion and serious spiritual intent. It was hard for me however, to stitch together his videotape presence with the somber, almost funereal quality of the chanting. How do you make the choice to chant "May all beings be happy" lugubriously? Even weirder was the wraith-like quality of the ending response from students: the triple sadhu would invariably come across as as offering from the Undead. Wouldn't you think there could be a bit more animation, what with all the Good News about vanquishing misery?

• • •
In my next blog, I'll offer my impressions of Vipassana philosophy.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Sitting out the Old; Sitting in the New, Part I

I'm just back home from a 10-day silent retreat at Dhamma Pakasa, the Vipassana meditation center in Pecatonica IL (just west of Rockford, about two hours west of Chicago) with my wife, Ma'ikwe. It was quite a trip, and I was deeply touched by the experience.

I'm going to devote my next handful of blogs to describing my impressions, and this first one will give an overview of the facility and the daily routine.

3-D Living
Northern Illinois is prime farm country. Flat land with good black dirt. Dhamma Pakasa is located on property that was a working farm only five years ago, and there are still vestigial silos and outbuildings in evidence. You can tell though that the farm days are numbered in the immediate vicinity of the center. When the wind blows from the East, you can hear how close Rockford is and there's never as money in agriculture as there is in subdivisions. The access road to the facility is already an odd mix of farms and stylish homes. One night the neighbor to the south could be heard combining corn in the night. I wonder how many more years it will be before the sound of working tactors is just a memory on this land.

The old farmhouse has been conveted into the primary meditation space (the "Dhamma Hall"), a 5-car garage has been conveted into the Dining Hall, and a spanking new residence (with men on the north end, women on the south, and a utlity section separating the two as an off-limits, ungendered zone).

While the Dhamma Hall was all makeshift, the dormitory was built for the purpose. Tightly constructed, I was especially appreciatve of the radiant floor heating—a godsend when trying to maintain focus while sitting still for 90-minute stretches in January. Each participant had a small (less than 7x10) room which contained a bed, a chair, a window (which we were admonished not to open), and an overhead light. The dorm was laid out in a series of suites, each with two rooms, a shared bathroom, and an anteroom with a sink and a coat rack. For 10 days, this was our home.

It was an intersting exercise, working out the rhythms of sharing a single bathroom with my suitemate without using words or even eye contact. Yet we managed.

The set-up of the course is that students all arrive the afternoon of Day Zero. As the facility could handle 40 at a time, capacity was 20 men and 20 women. We started with a full complement (all but two of the women completed the course) and after everyone was settled into their quarters, cars were parked, and cell phones were turned in, we convened in the Dining Hall, where we were segregated by gender and offered a light supper. After a logistical orientation for everyone, we were asked to enter into silence and were led to the meditation hall—the men by one path and the women by another. There we were introduced to the teacher leading our course: Leslie Jennings. (While she immediately struck me as the reincarnation of Julia Child, her voice and manner were more like Glinda, the good witch, and I had no doubt but that if I ever got a peek under her mediation garb I'd find ruby slippers. Leslie was kindly, enthusiastic, and easy to like.)

From then until Day 10, the men and women were kept apart at all times, excepting when we were jointly in the Dhamma Hall (boys to the west and girls to the east). Meditators—even those of the same sex—were expected to not touch each other or even to make eye contact for the duration. This was to be a solitary experience, to the extent possible. (While I'd generally risk a brief glance at the women's side whenever I'd enter the meditation space, to see if I could catch a glimpse of Ma'ikwe, I didn't locate her until Day Five.)

For 10 days our daily routine was reduced to traveling a cicuit among three places: the Dormitory, the Dhamma Hall, and the Dining Hall: the three D's. While the women had a much more direct path between the Dhamma Hall and the Dining Hall, the men had a shorter path between the dorm and the Dhamma Hall. Best of all, the men's path bordered a pond and we accessed the Dhamma Hall by crossing a wooden bridge that spanned a narrows. Despite temperatures that occasionally dipped as low as zero, the water in the pond never froze. It was fed by artesian springs and was a favored hangout spot for a pair of resident mallards. Twice I saw a muskrat plowing the surface, and there was a flock of Canada geese that would occasionally grace us with a visit. The water was a wonderful touchstone to and from meditating.

The pond was lined with flagstones and was a great meditative adjunct to the Dhamma Hall. Though winter temperatures discouraged lingering pond-side, it was nonetheless soothing just to travel by water every few hours—and the women didn't get that opportunity. While the pond seemed a perfect spot for koi, I never spotted any fish. Upon refletion though, I realized that there wasn't anything coy about Dhamma Pakasa.
Logisticsally, the variables had been pared down for a monastic experience and everything was fairly straight forward.

The Dining Hall was a utilitarian facility. Nothing fancy, and neither were the meals. It was wholesome, vegetarian cuisine that was prepared by a volunteer staff. While the food wasn't that exciting, it wasn't meant to be. The highlight of each day was supposed to be the meditation practice; not the meals. I learned later that the noon-time menu for every 10-day Vipassana retreat in the US is identical. Breakfasts were the same every day (oatmeal, stewed fruit, dry cereal, and choice of fresh fruit and a variet of hot drinks). Supper was only hot drinks and fresh fruit.

It could a long time between the protein of the 11 am meal and breakfast the next day, yet if you packed in too much at lunch, it could be awfully difficult to resist that postprandial nap when sitting quiety in a warm room while attempting to meditate.

In my next blog I'll look at the Dhamma Hall experience, where the main teaching and practice occurred. Later I'll share my impressions of S.N. Goenka, our teacher (via video and audio tapes) and of the Vipassana philosophy. Last I'll offer some thoughts about the pros and cons of gender segregation, and the ways in which Vipassana maps surprisingly well onto the art of facilitation.