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.


rob b said...

hello. i realize you wrote this almost three years ago... but i am packing for a 10 day sit at pakasa and i am desperately combing the internet, wondering if the dorm rooms are warm or if they are cold. this would dictate what grade of sleeping bag i bring... thinner, of course, being much much easier to fly with but thicker would be warmer.

thanks and, if you see this before tomorrow, please let me know.


Laird Schaub said...

Dear Rob,

I found the Pakasa dorms room to be surprisingly warm and cozy—even in the dead of winter.

Enjoy your sit!


rob b said...

thanks so much!

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