In June 2000 I arrived at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal on a wing and a few thousand prayers. Life had made no sense in Nashville since Nov. 9, when I watched my dad take a fatal fall down the stairs at a restaurant in Hillsboro Village. In the months afterward I couldn’t face Dad’s death and instead mooned over my old girlfriend, who had had dumped me that September. The day after Dad fell, I found out she was in love with someone else.
Prozac had been my mood cavalry before, but I couldn’t go there this time. Problem was, I wasn’t going anywhere else. Worse than the desire not to live is to live without desire. I surfed the Web and sleepwalked through my days.
I learned about Kopan monastery, one of the largest in Nepal, at a Buddhist gathering near Monterey, Tenn., the Saturday after Dad fell. It was there that I met Rain, a former Peace Corps volunteer fresh from several mind-expanding months of teachings and meditation at Kopan. At 28, she was a wise old soul with luminous blue eyes and a sublime way about herthe picture of composure.
I wanted what she had. Soon as I got home, I jumped on the Internet and looked up the monastery. The site was circa 1997, had a host of grammar and spelling errors, and radiated love. Seven months later, I was there.
The birthplace of the Buddha 2,500 years ago, Nepal is sandwiched between China and India and is about the size of Illinois. With an average per capita annual income of less than $250 a year, it is as Third World as it gets. Squalor notwithstanding, it is endowed with an impossibly rich spiritual aura rivaled by few other places in the world. In its majestic mountains and lush valleys live a host of yogis, holy men, beatific nuns, priests, monks, oracles and enlightened Tibetan Buddhistsamong a devout and predominantly Hindu people.
At Kopan, which sits up on a hill where the king’s astrologer once lived, I was as close as I’d ever been to heaven. The 300 monks at the monastery were a kind, humble and for the most part friendly bunch. The low monotone of chanting in the temple was my 5:30 wakeup call. From the hill of the monastery I could breathe in an inspiring view of the green valley of shacks and rice fields surrounded by the Himalayas.
The 40 fellow students, men and women from all corners of the world, were adventurers and seekers mostly in their ’20s and early ’30s. Every day we sat on cushions in the beautiful temple for teachings and guided meditations by Ani Karin, a Swedish nun, and Geshe Tashi, a hilarious and demonstrative Tibetan with a doctorate in Buddhism. They taught the lam-rim, or gradual path to enlightenment, a method specific to the school of Tibetan Buddhism to which Kopan belongs.
Boiled down to the basics, the course is a method of achieving true happiness and helping others do the same. The causes of our emotional suffering are enumerated in great detail, as are the steps to happiness and enlightenment. Central to the teaching is the Buddhist law of cause and effect, or karmahow given actions lead to certain consequences. The belief is that if you look selfishly after No. 1, you can expect darkness somewhere in your future. Acting on the behalf of others, however, gives you sunnier prospects.
As the course progressed, I tried to put the teachings into practice by helping others in any way I could. Though far from a saint, I was able to help some nuns who needed assistance. I got a passing grade on patience too. The proof was in the pudding: I felt better. And if my own feelings about the process weren’t enough validation, I only had to look at the sublime countenances of the monks as they walked the walk. I was so psyched that I extended my stay.
Ten days after the course ended, I started a 12-day personal retreat, or silent period of study and meditation. I made up my own schedule. I meditated for five hours, read for three, then planned, reflected and wrote for another couple. The rest of the time I spent walking, eating and exercising. Though I ate at the dining room and strolled the grounds, nobody talked to mein acknowledgment of the fact that I was wearing a yellow ribbon, meaning that I didn’t wish to speak.
There were minor struggles with staying silent and occasional wrestling with frustration, but the bear was a life review. I had a really hard time looking at past actions that I had previously excused, ignored or rationalized away. There was lots of bad karma to contend with.
Buddhist thinking is that while you can’t ever erase what you’ve done, you can greatly reduce the consequences. Feeling lower than a snake, I had the regret part down, and I followed that up with a host of letters, owning up and asking for forgiveness. I also vowed to try to end all manner of bad habits. The past, as best I could, was taken care of.
What I couldn’t handle was the future. For sure my new attitude would take me much further than I’d been, but only so long as I was aware of what the hell I was doing. That was the part that scared me. As I’d learned in the course, one often plummets without knowing they’re on a cliff, and I could see situation after situation where I had zigged without even knowing I should or could have zagged. Lots of that kind of stuff comes from the unconscious, whose dark reaches I still couldn’t light in spite of my recent discoveries. I needed more insight; otherwise I’d be a victim of the famous “monkey mind” that plagues the unenlightened.
There was a solution: a technique that clears away one’s inner darkness called Vipassana, an ancient method of self-awareness and mind control. I’d heard about it from some pals at Kopan, but had gotten the yips when I heard how hard the course was. Vipassana can be taught in varying ways, but this particular form is the Outward Bound of the Mind10 hours of sitting a day, for 10 days, under a strict regimen called Noble Silence. My routine on my retreat paled in comparison. You can’t even gesture at someone, much less talk. Sit on the pillow, eat, rest, sleepthat’s it.
I thought I could go nuts. However, the brochure was very convincing about the technique as “an art of living which frees the individual from all the negativities of mind” and creates a positive basis for viewing life and helping others. The whole deal is free; you can only make a donation if you finish the course. I began polling fellow travelers at the monastery who’d taken it. Almost every single one said it was the best thing they’d ever done in their life.
Ten days later, on Aug. 1, I was in a gaily painted Nepali bus headed for the Nepal Vipassana Centre in Boudhanilkantha, a pinpoint in the foothills of the Himalayas in clear view of Kopan. Forty-five minutes out of Kathmandu, we were a thousand feet higher in elevation, getting off in front of a walled compound.
My dormitory was an eight-bed floor. A good Tibetan friend, Dhondup, was next to me. Nick, a 28-year-old Aussie, was one over. Except for the meditation hall, the complex itself was Late Concrete Box, but tons of plants and greenery gave the place a surprisingly lush and pleasant air. The volunteers, though serious, seemed dedicated to our success.
After taking all of this in, I entered a stark white room with the rest of the men to hear the welcome speech. There were 150 of us, mostly Nepalis under 30. An equal number of women, all modestly decked in dark cloth wraps over their bodies and heads, came in and sat on the other side.
The Authority Figure then walked in and sat at a table before us. Like the rest of the staff I’d seen, he was a Nepali, though a rare enforcer type. After rolling his sleeves over his burly arms, he sternly laid down the List of No’s: no killing, stealing or taking of intoxicants. Beginning the next morning we were not to speak to anyone except the teacher, and then only to ask him questions about the technique.
“This is your last chance to leave before you begin,” he said.
At 4 a.m. the next morning, a gong in the yard rang for three minutes. The meditation hall snugly fit 30 rows of cushions 10 deep. In the front were two 6-foot-tall meditation chairs. I was on the left side with all the men.
At 4:30 the gong rang again. A man known as the Assistant Teacher emerged from a side door in the back and sat cross-legged on the left chair. Tall, serene, white-robed with a matching turban and beard, he put a tape in the deck next to him. Over the loudspeakers, a low voice gave instructions first in Nepali and then in English. “With your eyes closed you are to focus on a triangle from the top of the nose to the top of the lips. Watch for any sensation. Do not think of symbols, gods, other people or anything else. If your thoughts stray, you are to return your focus as quickly as possible. And a good effort should be made not to move.” We were to do this “calmly, quietly, patiently and persistently. You are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.”
The A.T. then turned and stopped the tape. My watch said 4:40: one hour and 50 minutes until break. I wondered if I would live that long. As the shuffling stopped, I took a Geronimo breath and shut my eyes. For a few seconds I only noticed my breathing. Then came the doubts and questions that continuously broke through the thin wall that was my concentration. “Surely this is wrong,” I thought. “Others must be doing better.” Twenty minutes into the sit my shins felt brittle. Then my knees began to complainloudlyand my feet fell sleep.
I began to wonder if I could make it.
Before the gong that ended the first sit, I had to change my position four times. Immediately the pain came right back. I frantically rearranged pillows, leaned forward, crossed and uncrossed my legs. My morale sunk lower when I peeked a couple of times and saw 149 Buddhas sitting stonily around me.
There were two more sits in the morning, both of them just as bleak. During siesta I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling while my neighbors slept. With nothing to read or do, it was the least I’d ever done in my life. In the afternoon there were three more sits totaling four-and-a-half hours. “Dinner” of cereal and tea was followed by one last one-hour sit.
By day’s end my head was bowed. I had broken the pose less during the shorter sits, but I fidgeted throughout the two-hour epic in the afternoon. It was the smallest consolation that I had been able to notice a little tingling around the nose, but most of my attention was on the fire below, which seemed undousable.
As our only instruction, a nightly video followed the last sit. It began unceremoniously with the simple title “Day One.” A sober-faced man appeared on a high seat similar to the one in the Dharma Hall. I guessed by his dark coloring, Nehru-type dress and crisp English accent he was from India. Next to him in a similar seat was a woman who stared straight ahead.
“The First Day is over,” he began. It was the same voice I had heard throughout the day on the tapes in the hall: Goenkaji, or Goenke, as he is affectionately known, is an ex-Burmese businessman who has spread this technique throughout Nepal, India and ever westward. “You are in prison,” he said with a smile. I giggled. Then came some background: Vipassana was used and taught by the Buddha, the Indian prince who 2,500 years ago meditated his way into permanent bliss. He explained we were focusing on the triangle to develop a “single-pointed mind,” a prerequisite for practicing Vipassana.
The man talked for an hour and a half without letup. Early on he mentioned how he had wanted to “run away” himself. I giggled again. He too had much hesitation, but had finally come to Vipassana in desperation once no doctor could cure his migraines. (It worked.) Over and over, he asserted that we could be doctors of our misery and perform deep surgery to excise the rot of negative emotions which cloud our judgment and rip apart our innate serenity. And he didn’t beat around the bush about the initial pain that would result from the “incision.” He said the mind in a sense was suppurating from continual agitation of fear, worry, etc., and would first have to be opened and examined before it could heal.
Yet the results would be well worth a few days’ discomfort: no less than the truth of the entire field of mind and matter, a truth we could gain by observing the sensations in our bodies.
After my second sleepless night, I did a tad better concentrating the next morning. However, as soon as I dared to get a little pleased, my legs began fluttering so hard I felt I’d fly away. I attempted to gut it out by holding on, but the shaking only stopped when I broke the pose. This went on the whole two hours.
Strong doubts worked against the little resolve and confidence I had built up. I decided to avail myself of the Assistant Teacher during siesta. Bowing before him, I then sat at his feet. He was cool as a lotus blossom.
“My legs are killing me,” I said. “They’re shaking like crazy.”
“It will go away. The pain is because you hurt someone.”
That he wasn’t worried backed my four-alarm anxiety down a bell. On top of that, his last comment made perfect sense to me. Living in the Bible Belt, I’d already learned that you reap what you sow.
I relaxed a little into the sits that afternoon and actually made it through an hour sit without moving. The pain was still there, but I focused better and noticed a little tingling moving around my nose. Perhaps this was good.
While the pain didn’t feel so good, I lapped up the silence from the get-go. It kept the dialogue in my mind to a minimum and on point. As long as I was silent, there was no way to worry about what anybody had saidor what I said too. It felt good to stop that tape.
On the heels of my modest progress, I removed my two knee pillows the next morning and let caution to the wind. Mistake. Back went the pillows for a couple of more sits, then came the decision to screw it all. At that low point, I realized that worrying was part of the pain, so I dumped the pillows and committed.
After three straight sleepless nights, I told the swami of my insomnia. “Good,” he said. “With the whole night to practice, you will be twice the meditator that everyone else is!” I laughed. Swami made it very difficult to take myself seriously.
Day Four we were directed to scan our bodies from head to toe and back again. “In your bodies you will notice the fundamental principle of life: change,” Goenke told us. It was true; over most of my body was the same tingling and movement I had discovered around my nose. Elsewhere I still had pain and numbness, but I was told they would disappear if I was patient.
Over the next four days I quit worrying about anything but the course and dug in. Then came another big reason for the Noble Silence, conveyed to me by a realization: What had I ever learned with my mouth open? I had no desire to speak to anyone, except my bald roommate, who boisterously went through his morning ritual 30 minutes before our wakeup time. Speaking was verboten, but by then, saying anything to him just would have shaken up the snow scene in my settling mind.
My sits became more stable, my thoughts rarely strayed. Day Five I decided to camp out in the war zone in my shin. By this time, I no longer cared so much about the pain. It became something to watchan event, more or less. I would observe it until something broke, either me or the pain. I began counting about a number a second. After 500 or so, I noticed subtle changes taking place, like the fact that one part of my body was warmer, then it wasn’t. At 3,500 the pain started to break up, then it went away. The former war zone was as peaceful as the rest of my body.
The trick was to be calm enough to connect with the shimmering reality of what truly is. The next couple of days, I methodically got rid of all the shin pain and woke both of my feet up for good. I counted to my heartbeat, which rang like a gong even though I was dead still. I was zeroed in.
On the seventh night a wave of terror slapped me. No matter how much of a Buddha I felt like in the hall, the early-rising bald guy was still getting under my skin. “Is this working?” I wondered. The next day I asked the teacher, who recognized me by now.
“He’s not making you angry. He’s a condition to activate the anger that’s already in you.”
That was the last time I ever blamed anyone for anything.
After that I achieved a whole new level of focus. I sat into and through breaks. New pains came and went like scenes in a movie. For the most part I was feeling great. I had never been more sure, calm or aware.
To ease the transition back into the real world, the law of silence was dropped after our morning sits on the 10th day. Trading war stories, I learned that most had been through their own private struggles as well, that their pains had largely left just like mine.
It turned out you could quit after all, but only six had dropped out of the course. Quitting was never announced as an option, presumably for the students’ own good in assuming there was no way out.
The next morning Goenkaji appeared before us for the last time. There was a broad smile on his face. “The course is finished,” he began. “Now you have a wonderful tool for the rest of your life. For many of you, this is just a start. Once you get back in the world, you may find yourself in the same patterns that drove you to misery. But if you do even a little better once out of every 10 times, what a miracle this course has been!”
One out of 10. I thought I could bat that well.
He then went on to exhort us to stick with the practice two hours a day. If we did, we could slowly and deliberately change our lives and be in the Now. I could be happy, I thought.
An hour later I was on the bus back to Kathmandu on the road to a new beginning. That was Aug. 12, 2000.
The first month back was all afterglow. Everybody told me how calm I looked, and I dared even to bask a little. But what tranquillity I brought back with me was gone by the first November chill. Staring into the holiday season and the first anniversary of Dad’s death, my spirits sank. As opposed to being better than before, things actually got worse. For the first time in my life, my neck and back complained loudly, plus my left ear started to crackle at alarmingly low-volume noises. I got scared as hell and wondered whether my body was going to hold up.
Bad memories and regrets flooded in. It got so I couldn’t stand to look at myself, but I had to. Such was my state that it became nigh impossible to make the simplest decision. I did my Vipassana an hour a day. What grounding I had, it gave me.
Summertime, I was back in the mountainsthe Catskills. I was there for a 30-day retreat under the guidance of Khenpo Tsewang, one of the teachers of my local group and a very high lama (priest). Instead of continuing with Vipassana, he had me do mantras that purify karma and make one more compassionate. In some ways, it was even more difficult than Vipassana, but after doing 100,000 of one and 10,000 of another, I finished lighter and more focused.
A point the lama repeatedly stressed was to relax “no matter what,” the idea being that you’re happiest and kindest while calm. Moreover, the practice of relaxing prepares one for a smooth and peaceful death. When I got back to Nashville, I happened on the St. Thomas Stress Reduction Program, a six-week course aimed exactly at teaching people how to keep cool. It was the perfect combination of Eastern practice with Western scientific support. Among other things, I learned to chill out in just three minutes by focusing on the breath.
Though this helped a lot, I still couldn’t help being my own whipping boy. Then in early December I got a Christmas gift from a dream I had: the realization that looking at myself without compassion is merciless, that I’d never be able to love others without loving myself. It’s all about grace. In practice this has been hard to do, but not impossible. When I catch how I feel after making a mistake, I try to forgive myself and sometimes even manage to laugh at myself. I do the same for others. Now I’m feeling better than I have since the day Dad died.
For more information on Goenke Vipassana courses offered here and abroad, visit www.vri.dhamma.org. For Kopan Monastery, visit www.kopanmonastery.com and for Tibetan Buddhism in Nashville, www.nashvilletibetbuddhism.com
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