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.

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