It has been several months since my last post, sometime mid-summer after leaving Malaysia and traveling to Thailand and Laos. Since that time of course many things have happened in life and in the world. While taking a short break in Austin, Texas immediately after returning from my trip to Asia I was unable to return home at my planned destination time. The area where I was born and still call home experienced some of the worst flooding on recorded history, blocking roads and causing severe damage to nearly 150,000 homes. In my personal life I spontaneously went two months without a drop of alcohol, and sold my Jeep now going on six months without owning a motor vehicle. In world news a reality TV celebrity, real estate tycoon, and climate change denier was elected President of the United States of America (this is not going to be a political post, just the facts).
I have been searching for something significant to inspire me to write. So it will be music to some ears this post again not political or even about travel. That inspirational something actually went down in of all places, Kaufman, Texas.
A few months after returning home from my three month stint in Asia, I was having dinner with close friends of mine when one began to talk about something called the Happiness Project. A friend of a friend of a friend of hers in Germany had contacted her about becoming part of a beta test group for a start-up business in which she would go three months without meat, alcohol, limited caffeine, and sugar with the exception of a dozen or so cheat days called “jokers”. The program also consisted of among other things suggested and mandatory readings, weekly themes, surveys, exercise, yoga, and sharing pictures with 3o other chaps across the globe. They were also looking for more volunteers and of course I was totally down. This post in not about the Happiness Project, I hope to post about it soon in a future blog once I have finished the program. This post is actually about the meditation, specifically something called Vipassana meditation which was the specific type required by the HP.
Forty-five days into the program, we had our mid-term skype interviews with the founders of the program. I explained that for the most part things were going well but I was not particularly satisfied with the three days a week and ten minutes a day mediation sessions. We were given a short video about the technique and I felt like I was following the instructions. However, I was having much more trouble focusing than when using the guided mediations that I had been experimenting with for a few years now on youtube and various phone apps. This led to a recommendation for a 10-day mediation course in Texas only about six hours from home. One of the Happiness Workout founders mentioned he had been through the course in Europe 14 times. Again….I’m down.
Only a few days later I went to the website and with not much research I signed up for a the first course available. The timing was perfect…well sort of. As a looked over my calendar I realized that I had a Sports Medicine conference to attend in Dallas the weekend before. The conference ended on Sunday and the meditation course started on Wednesday which gave me two days to kill in Dallas. I would only be about about 20 minutes from the course site. Perfect. On the other hand, this also happened to be the week prior to Mardi Gras weekend. In south Louisiana, all state employees such as myself and many others have a long five day weekend to celebrate this tradition. A 10-day course meant that I would not be missing much work but also skipping Mardi Gras, one of my favorite holidays of the year. I cherish these 5 full days to spend with some of my closest friends in New Orleans and some years at home in the Lafayette area. But something in my gut said this was the right thing to do. I stuck with my plan with hesitation or reservation. Was it the right decision? That would and still remains to me seen.
You see one of the things that attracted me to the retreat in Kaufman was that on the first day they take your phone from you. You are also not allowed to have laptops or any other electronics. I actually loved this idea on top of learning about one of the most popular forms of meditation. Also, I knew that we would be on a schedule of about 10 hours of mediation per day. Sounds tough, but I can do this. One thing I missed was the part about something called noble silence. While having dinner with my parents a few nights before leaving for Dallas, it came up in conversation that we were not allowed to talk for the entire retreat. My parents had already done more research than I had. What did I sign up for? Whatever, I got this.
Wednesday was now here and I had the retreat hired shuttle van pick me up in downtown Dallas right near the famous location of the Kennedy assassination. Side note, I highly recommend the museum which is located on the exact floor where the sniper was set up. Give yourself around three hours, after two and a half hours I didn’t get to finish.
A thirty minute ride to the farm town of Kaufman, Texas. If there is one word that I could use to describe this entire experience for me it would be “unprepared”. Later I would find out that I was less uniformed than many of my other fellow students. Upon checking in at the desk, further instructions were given that you were not only required to give up your laptop and phone, but no reading material or writing material were allowed either. No pens, pencils, or paper. The idea was to allow yourself to focus as much as possible on the technique. Understood. After all we would be mediating 10 hours a day starting at 4:30 a.m. so what time would we have to do any of this anyway? From the get go we were designated by our color-coded application forms as “new students” and “old students”. An “old student” was anyone that had completed the 10-day course at any time in the past at any of the centers throughout the world.
After our initial orientation and being fed a delicious vegetarian welcome meal, we were instructed to return to our dorm rooms for a an hour or so and then report later that night to the Dhamma Meditation Hall for further instructions. This particular course was also designated as a “dual language course”. The other language…Vietnamese. Although nearly 75% of the male students were American, this added another twist to the overall experience. Also, the noble silence rule did not officially take effect until after our first meditation session. So, during the dinner time we had the opportunity to meet a few of the new and old students.
I only really was able to talk to two. The first was Pedro from California. Pedro was twenty-something with obvious hispanic features to his look but no accent whatsoever. He explained that he had been hitchhiking across the states and this was one of his stops. When he found out where I was from and that I owned a hostel he also talked about how he stayed in Lafayette at one of my favorite hangouts, The Blue Moon Saloon (which also doubles as a hostel) and was fortunate enough to catch there annual Bluesberry Festival while he was there. The other gentleman was San Diego, hailing from right down the road in Austin, Texas. San Diego was very vocal about the fact that his purpose for attending the course was that he had just had some relationship problems and alcohol had been a big part of it. He also explained that he had done some yoga but never actually meditated before. We were about to start meditating for 10 hours a day for 10 consecutive days! Maybe I wasn’t so unprepared after all. Regardless, I knew that this guy and I were going to get along. Well, except for that fact that we would not be allowed to speak again until the last full day of the course.
And so the meditations began. Every morning the bell rang through the halls at 4 a.m. sharp. First meditation session at 4:30. I have attached a picture of our daily schedule regimen at the bottom of this post. We were each assigned large blue pillows labeled with a number and a letter such as 4C which would be our designated meditation spots for the duration of the course. The large, dimly lit meditation hall had high ceilings and blank walls which reminded me of the banquet halls in hotels or convention centers that were used for the many business conventions that I have attended in the past. Women and men were split apart in the very center by designated blue lines which ran right down the center of the hall. About fifty men and fifty women, old students in the front, new students in the back, and the husband and wife teacher duo on the stage overlooking their new disciples for the upcoming week and a half.
As Days One and Two passed it quickly reminded me of a cross between summer camp, the military, and minimum security prison. Although I admit I have never experienced the latter two myself, the regimen of waking up well before the crack of dawn, eating three meals a day at the same time and in the same location, lots of rules, break times, dormitories, and lights out at the conclusion of each day gave the place that feel. The rigid routine was kept fairly regular for the entire course with the exception of a few surprises here and there.
All students were given two opportunities per day to speak and ask questions of the head teacher. By morning Day Three, it was my time to start asking questions. By the ends of the days I was having significant issues with physical pain. I consider myself an avid yogi, however, my distance running habit and my genetics predispose me to having tight hamstrings and therefore a tight low back. Most of my meditation sessions at home were 10-30 minutes in length. The magic time period for Vipassana sessions was a grueling sixty minutes. After three and four of these sessions per day it was beginning to take a toll on me physically. Also, a key ingredient to the technique which was loosely delivered to us was that you keep your eyes closed for the duration of the sessions and stay sitting in an upright position. Another factor to the equation was that I was placed on the fourth of about ten rows which put me directly behind the old students. This meant that when my eyes did open, which they did quiet frequently in the first few days, all I would see were these perfect Buddha statue postures of the far more experienced than I. What has happening behind me? All I had was my sense of sound to answer that.
Days Four and Five were turning points. In one of the mid day sessions our instructions changed. Not only were we instructed the prior day to change up our breathing to body scanning, but we were basically also challenged in mid-session to follow three new precepts. For the duration of the one hour session we were instructed that we must now 1) keep our eyes closed without a blink 2) keep our hands clasped and 3) keep our legs in a folded position. Sounds easy enough but I can assure you that the 25-ish new students would argue differently. At one point about forty-five minutes into the session one of the new students broke down in tears. Then, an exclamation of “the pain” from the same student. I kept my eyes closed and head forward to finish the challenge. Questions started to race through my head as I held to the three new instructions. Was it one of my new friends, San Diego or Pancho? I wouldn’t know this until maybe the last day because of the noble silence. Was it the guy who met with the head instructor during the evening question and answer session right before me who pleaded to leave the course only half-way through? Was Day Five the typical tipping point where the new students all begin to crack? Was I going to be next?
On Day Six I started to think that my last question was being answered. Listening to some of the students during question time, small group meditations, and in the instructional videos at the end of each day, there were mentions of sensations such as bodily euphoria, electrical currents, out of body experiences, and floating. Again, we were not allowed to confirm specifics due to the noble silence rule. For me though, something changed. On one of the mid-day sessions not only was able to follow all three of the new precepts for the full hour but I began to get full body chills and hallucinate for most of the hour. Rainbows, cartoon animals, flowers, waterfalls, kaleidoscope colors, the whole nine yards. I am quite sure that this actually got me through the physical pain I was now having in my legs and knees during the last 15 minutes of the sessions as opposed to the back pain on the first days. This created more questions that I would not be able to confirm for four more days. You see although we were given two chances each day to ask questions to the head instructor, he was very nonchalant and rushed with his answers. He definitely gave off the vibe as a guy that had been doing these retreats for decades and heard these questions hundreds of times over. You really only felt like you were going be able to confirm these experiences by discussing with the other students on the last day when the noble silence was lifted.
The only exception to that was the evening discourses. These discourses were one hour video lectures that we watched every evening just before bed time. The lectures were given but none other than S.N. Goenka, the founder of these Dhamma meditation centers around the world. On the discourse following the day of my first hallucinations, Goenka explained in depth about the fact that different students would experience different types of pleasurable sensation responses. Unfortunately, we were specifically instructed not to develop an attachment to these sensations. This in fact would be creating new cravings and defeating the purpose of the meditation. We were also informed that these sensations would not be a regular occurance which would also feed into the creation of these new cravings. This turned out to be very true as I did not have these vibration and hallucination experiences for the following few days after.
Day 7 and 8 were pretty routine except for the end of Day 7 when we were assigned to our own personal Pagoda space. After one of small group mediation sessions with the head instructor, when we returned to our seats we found a small piece of paper on how to use the Pagoda and your room assignment. It was interesting to see the smiles on some of the students faces as if they were a five year old that had just received a surprise birthday or Christmas present. I’ll admit I was one of those students. You see the Pagoda was the very large and mysterious building on the campus located directly behind the meditation hall. What made it mysterious was that on the front door was posted from the first day that no one was allowed inside the hall unless you had permission from the instructor. There was also a list of rules about how to use this new mediation space.
As soon as the group session let out, almost every male student walked swiftly over to find out what was in store. To be honest for me it was a bit of a let down initially. The inside of the Pagoda was over a hundred very small rooms (about 100 square feet). The walls were blank and no windows. There were two light switches, one at normal height and one near the floor. One of the many rules was that we were not allowed to take our blankets and cushions from the main mediation hall. This made it very difficult for me at least to sit for an extended period of time. On the flip side, when you sat down to assume your mediation position and turned off the light it created pure blackness and silence. An excellent and new experience for our non-intensive meditation sessions which in the past we were allowed to choose between the mediation hall or our dorm room. Also, I realized that the room was large enough for me to lie down. The lying down and the room darkness inspired a brief period of hallucinations and body vibrations that I had not experienced for a few days.
Another very significant and recurring theme that ran through my head throughout the course and all the way to the very last mediation session was this. I would periodically go through these moments where I had the feeling as if this was the greatest and most significant things I had done in my life. A rush would come over my mind and body and I was ready to get out and conquer my lifetime goals and the world along with it. Also, I was very eager to get back home and tell all of my friends about my amazing experience and that they should sign up for the next course available. The strange part was that only a few hours later, particularly during some of the meditation sessions, my thought process would do a total 180. The is all a bunch of crap. A waste of my precious time. I could be at Mardi Gras. Scam. Look at these instructors and old students, they really don’t have it figure out. I would literally fluctuate through these hours of elation and depression throughout most of the course. It was the strangest thing and like nothing I have ever experienced.
Were other students experiencing this dilemma? That was partially answered for me on day nine. We were given a one hour break each day after lunch in which were encouraged to do our daily exercise. I spent most of the hour each day walking briskly around the wooded path and meditation center. Two of the new students sat down on bench and out of nowhere just struck up a conversation. Only a handful of other students were in the area to witness this spectacle. Nine days and not so much a peep out of any of the 40 plus students, new or old. Only one day left before noble silence was lifted. They were literally just like, screw it. As I continued down the path, another student decided he was going to climb up into one of the trees. Not just any tree, the tallest tree in our small wooded area in the back of the center grounds. Thirty feet up in the air, he stood and leaned his back resting in the sunlight of that clear and sunny day. Was this the next tipping point for some? I knew at least one of the students had left but would there be more with only one full day left in the course?
Finally Day 10 had arrived.
Noble silence was not lifted until after a mandatory two hour meditation session and breakfast. We were instructed to report to the male dining hall at 10 a.m. sharp. This was for me by far the most rewarding and interesting parts of the course. WE WERE ALLOWED TO SPEAK. It was also interesting to note that the females were included in this pre-lunch meeting. Most interesting was the fact that there was virtually no interaction between the males and the females. Because the two had been separated for the entire course, there was much more interest in communicating with these new friends that you had lived with for nine days but were not allowed to speak to or even have eye contact.
One of the first to approach me was Jessie out of New Orleans. Jessie made a point to approach me immediately after our vow of silence had been lifted. His intention was to apologize. You see on Day Four, right after lunch when I was exited the dining hall, Jessie walked straight up to me and made eye contact. I was startled to say the least. What was this guy thinking? He then waved his right hand over his shoulder as if to summon me to follow him into the dormitory. Another interesting thing to note was that Jessie was by far the most feminine, at least to my observation, of the 40 plus males participants. Was this guy hitting on me at a mediation retreat? Needless to say after being startled I immediately began marching in the opposite direction. The interaction definitely caused some awkwardness for the remainder of the course each time we crossed paths.
Jessie apologetically explained that he had overheard me talking about my physical pain to the head teacher during one of the evening public forums. He then explained that he merely wanted to give me some advice on how to sit in a more comfortable position. He was also one of the students that I had overheard on Day 3 telling the teacher that he was experiencing overwhelming full body sensations throughout his meditation sessions. Another interesting thing about this initial interaction was that we had not spoken in nine full days with the exception of our few minutes with the teacher. This was awkward and hilarious at the same time. If you ever inhaled helium balloons as a child, and then tried to speak in the high pitch voice immediately after. That was the sensation I can most closely relate it to, without the high pitched voice.
What followed would be one of the most cherished memorable experiences of my life. The deep conversation among these highly intelligent but compassionate and like-minded gentleman hailing from all parts of the globe was a priceless experience. The fact that these mediation retreats are funded solely on donations adds a bit of irony to my previous statement. For the next day and half we talked in groups of usually seven or eight. Conversations ranged from regulations on flying drones to why the guy decided to climb up a tree three quarters of the way through the course. One of the guys that I spent most of my time talking with was an experience author and blogger. I highly recommend checking out his take on the experience here http://www.
Other questions would finally be answered and confirmed. It was my new friend San Diego who had burst out in tears on Day 3. Not one but three of our fellow male meditators had left the course before the end. The two gentleman that struck up a conversation on Day 9 had met right before the course prior to our vow of noble silence. Ironically, they had both just finished their four year duty in the United Sates Air Force. This rare coincidence obviously had created a bond between the two. The tree climber, well, he just likes to climb trees.
In closing, I would like to say that this was by far one of the most difficult, but also inspiring experiences of my lifetime. As for the long-term benefits I think that it remains to be seen. In only the few days of writing this now being back home I have had several comments made to me that I seem to be more grounded and relaxed, even from those that have no idea I attended the course. One of the perks is that now that I have completed the full 10-day courses I am no longer considered a “new student.” This means that I can return to the center for periods of less than ten days to either attend as an “old student” or a “.server”. As a server, you are allowed to talk to the other servers and learn to cook the amazing all vegetarian meals that were served to us every day.
I definitely feel as though I left the center with a gift and on of the best kinds of gifts which are the intangible ones. As the course approached its end I thought that after nearly 100 hours of mediation in 10 days that the last thing I would want to do is more meditation. I was wrong. I spontaneously sat for forty-five minutes on the short flight home from Dallas to Lafayette. Interestingly enough I fell into deep mediation, with some mild hallucinations and pleasurable full body sensations. As I continued to scan my body and not attach to these sensations I truly feel like I was beginning to see the value in this new gift.
Will I return to Kaufman someday? My intuition at this point says, probably so….
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