When I signed up for a meditation course at the Illinois Vipassana Meditation Center, I was hardly expecting a peaceful, relaxing vacation. It would be meditation all day, every day, for 10 days; I was accustomed to half an hour a day, max. But I assumed that if people who’d never meditated before were welcome, I should have no problem.
I’d heard that the course was life-changing, that vipassana meditation was capable of alleviating all addictions and anxieties. It’s even reformed hardened criminals, as documented in the film Doing Time, Doing Vipassana,in which inmates and guards in India’s prisons who take the course are shown at the end hugging one another and sobbing with joy. After procrastinating for three years, I finally decided to take the course last winter, when I was in the grip of chronic insomnia and feeling desperate.
The center in Pecatonica, Ill., west of Rockford, is one of only four outside California that presents vipassana courses as taught by Satya N. Goenka. An Indian teacher raised in Burma (now Myanmar), Goenka has been a main force in spreading vipassana around the world. Vipassanais a form of Buddhist meditation practiced mostly in Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, but Goenka’s nonreligious courses may be taken by people of all beliefs. The Illinois center opened in January 2004, offering the course to 20 students a month. Last fall a dormitory and dining hall were added to accommodate 50 students, thanks to a generous donation from a veteran student. The courses are free of charge, and donations are entirely voluntary; in fact, they are not accepted until the course is completed. I had nothing to lose but 10 days of my time.
A day or two before departing, I studied the meditation schedule posted on the center’s Web site. Somehow I had overlooked the fact that the morning wakeup call was at 4 a.m. The first meditation session was scheduled for 4:30 to 6:30. Two hours straight! Breakfast followed, and then there were two more sessions before lunch at 11 — one for an hour and the other for an hour and a half. My anticipation was changing from wondering whether it would be a transformative experience to whether I’d be able to survive the ordeal at all.
Still, my spirits were high as I drove north from Springfield on a sunny, warm afternoon in January. A thin layer of fog suddenly appeared in the late afternoon about 30 miles from Rockford. By the time I reached the center, my car was enveloped in darkness and mist and a light rain was falling. After registering, I proceeded to unload my car about 50 yards from the dorm in a downpour accompanied by rather alarming crescendos of lightning and thunder. I could’ve taken the bizarre weather as a bad sign, but for some reason it seemed to herald something powerful.
The next day was the longest of my life. My back had had enough meditating by lunchtime, and, judging from the sounds of rustling, pillow-plumping, and sighing that punctured my concentration about 15 minutes into each session, many of the other students felt the same way. There was a merciful hour’s break after lunch but then two more meditation sessions and two more after dinner. Fortunately, every other session or so, we were allowed to meditate in our rooms if we wished and to lie down on our beds for up to five minutes if our backs needed a rest. This was a bit of indulgence for novice meditators; although we were told not to fall asleep and to leave our doors open to allow the house manager to check on us, I fell asleep several times with no repercussions.
Despite my discomfort, I felt rejuvenated by the first technique we were taught, which involved focusing on the breath as it enters and exits the nostrils. I had meditated on my breath in the past, but this teaching was more specifically focused on sensing the breath as it passes through the nostrils and onto the upper lip. This slight shift generated a wonderful feeling of aliveness, as if restoring something I’d lost during years of intense mental activity.
An assistant teacher sat at the front of the room meditating with us, looking ethereal wrapped in a white blanket. She answered questions during breaks and played instructions from Goenka on audiotape. As he narrowed our attention to a smaller and smaller area of skin, part of me continued to luxuriate in it, but my mind was becoming bored. It was running out of things to think about, which was the design of the course, the reason for the long list of rules that might strike an American mind as harsh, even puritanical.
We had all taken a vow of silence, which meant no talking to other students, not even gestures or glances. This would deprive the mind of the interactions with other people that fuel our thoughts. Settling the mind to as little activity as possible allows something else to come through. Anyone who’s tried to stop his or her thoughts knows how difficult it is to achieve for very long. The egotistical mind, like the computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, hates to relinquish control, is always striving to return — not realizing that the ship’s well-being is better served by letting go.
Men and women were segregated in the dorm and dining hall to prevent the musings about the opposite sex that often arise without our realizing it. All sexual activity was prohibited, of course, in addition to the consumption of alcohol and other intoxicants. We were fed vegetarian meals prepared by volunteers to help us conform to our vow to avoid killing anything during the course. Any distraction from the work of meditation was banned, including radios, TVs, computers, and other electronic devices, even in our dorm rooms. That was easy for me, but not being allowed reading material was a real hardship I’d never experienced before.
We had come from all over the Midwest, some from as far south as Tennessee and North Carolina, to a small patch of land in the northernmost reaches of Illinois to voluntarily circumscribe our lives to the bare minimum — as few material possessions as possible, as little activity as possible. The cold, snowy weather further constrained our movements during break times to a walking path of about 100 yards from the dorm to the dining hall and meditation hall. This place with its heavy snows, foggy air, and capricious weather was pristinely beautiful, but it was unlike the Illinois I was used to; it seemed more like Scandinavia.
I was in the middle of nowhere, on an alien planet where people didn’t speak or interact. Barred even from making eye contact, I furtively watched the other students at mealtime, forming opinions and judgments about them on scant evidence. Their faces were eerily expressionless as they went about getting their food. I was seeing what they really look like, at home alone without their social masks.
By the end of the first day, having replayed recent events of my life ad nauseam, my mind was becoming desperate for more grist for its mill. At some point I became amused by its attempts to come up with something — anything — to think about. It all seemed like folderol. In this larkish mood, I wanted to burst out laughing at everything, from the odd noises people made during meditation to the silly little pillow I brought to meditate on.
I was able to release my pent-up laughter with the other students at night during the discourses Goenka gave on videotape, in which he put the day’s work into perspective and provided inspiration to continue to the end. He was quite funny in characterizing the human ego and what goes through people’s minds on each day of the course. Most want to quit at some point, which is why students must agree to complete all 10 days before taking the course. Goenka himself, who was a successful businessman when he took his first course in 1956, wanted to quit on the first day.
Overcoming aversion to hardship and deprivation — and negative experiences in general — is one of the goals of the meditation. Goenka explained that the effort to hold on to pleasurable experiences and avoid the unpleasant are the source of human misery. The cravings and aversions we develop through our life become rooted deep in our unconscious. When we can’t have what we crave, we become angry and obsessed with getting it. By the same token, when we are confronted with something we don’t want, we react blindly to stop it or get away from it.
I knew that the cause of my insomnia was anxiety about things going wrong, about unpleasant experiences coming my way. It had gotten to the point that the fear of insomnia alone could bring it on. If the possibility of not sleeping occurred to me the night before an important event, I’d worry that I wouldn’t be able to function the next day without sleep. Overnight travel had become a reliable trigger of the dreaded ceiling stare, and my trip to Pecatonica was no exception.
As luck would have it, I was paired in the dorm with a noisy roommate who had a strange disregard for the rules, staying up past the lights-out time of 9:30 p.m., showering or washing clothes until 10. Although we had separate sleeping compartments with doors for privacy, we shared a bathroom. I would fall asleep soon after 9:30, only to be wakened by loudly closing doors when she finished in the bathroom. I lay for hours, unable to get back to sleep, stewing over her inconsiderateness.
After two nights of disturbances, as well as my roommate’s puttering about during meditation sessions in our room, I told the house manager, Ginger, about it. She thanked me for coming forward, noting that the rules are important for fostering meditation. My roommate reformed her ways for a few days, but, by the sixth night, she was pushing 10 again. Awakened after about 15 minutes of sleep, I nonetheless remained calm, inspired by Goenka’s message that night about the necessity of facing up to our mental negativity if we are ever to cleanse ourselves of it.
Vipassanameditation, he said, shines a light on the demons hiding in the dark recesses of our unconscious as a result of cravings and aversions that have become deeply rooted; once they are faced calmly, without fear or distress, they lose their power and slink away. Goenka likened the unconscious to a dangerous wild animal that must be tamed with meditation. Even if a person studies holy writings and leads a moral life, the untamed unconscious can erupt in a volcano of suppressed emotion.
I lay in bed meditating using the technique we had begun learning only the day before. The first technique, called anapana, was for the purpose of settling the mind to equanimity — “equanimous mind,” as Goenka put it. We were to revert to anapana whenever we were perturbed or emotionally upset, but after the third day, we focused on vipassana, the core technique of the course. It required a painstaking inventory of the body, seeking the subtlest of sensations.
It was so difficult at first that I wanted to quit and run away, but by the next day I was sensing what I took to be the subtle vibrations that Goenka described as occurring constantly throughout the body. Vipassanameditation is simply a tool for sharpening the mind to detect them, he told us. In a discourse that touched on subatomic physics, he explained that the subtle vibrations are a link between body and mind and therefore the key to reforming the mind.
What I sensed was similar to tingling, but more rarefied, perhaps electrical in nature. The vibrations were inexplicably comforting; Goenka warned that even they could become addictive. He stressed just observing everything calmly as it is, without trying to force the subtle vibrations or to avoid the unpleasant sensations.
As I lay meditating after being wakened, I was amazed at how relaxed I felt. After an hour or so, however, frustration seeped in, and I soon gave in to my anxiety. “Why me?” I asked. “Why, out of 25 women, do I get stuck with the loud, nutty one?”
I slept only two or three hours that night. The next morning I told Ginger that the problem persisted, and asked whether another room was available, in view of my insomnia. She said that she would check into it and suggested consulting the assistant teacher for help with the insomnia, which I did that day after lunch. As I sat in the waiting room with the muted sounds of another student talking to the teacher in the background, my roommate walked in and sat down. I could not believe my bad luck. Was she the personification of my demon insomnia out to torment me?
When it came my turn, I alluded vaguely to “my roommate situation,” as having inflamed my insomnia, which was the reason I’d taken the course in the first place. “Isn’t it strange,” the teacher responded, with a sympathetic smile, “how we’re given what we need to deal with?” I nodded laughing: Something similar had occurred to me earlier that morning. After I described my insomnia, she gave me a meditation tip from her own experience with sleeplessness. That night I thought I saw my roommate glare at me as we passed in the meditation hall, but it was all worth it when she went to bed at 9:30 and I was able to sleep soundly.
Over the next few days, while practicing yoga after lunch in my room, I looked out on the snowy gray landscape at women trudging back and forth on the path to the dining hall, and I let the gloomy feelings that come with winter rise to the surface. I’ve always found Illinois winters particularly depressing, with their gray skies and bone-chilling cold. Perhaps it’s the impulse to avoid wintertime bleakness and death that fuels the holiday shopping and drinking binges.
The gray Midwest doeshave the highest rate of alcoholism and drug addiction in the country, according to the most recent U.S. government figures. Coming from a long line of Irish drinkers, I know that escape from negative feelings is a prime motivation for alcoholics. They drink to alleviate anxiety in one form or another. The alcohol allows them to experience more than they would sober; indeed, in light of Goenka’s teachings, the unconscious may drive a person to drink if its desire for experience is repressed. As the addiction progresses, the anxiety looms larger in their sober lives, and they limit their lives more and more to familiar experiences. After a while the only place they feel happy and safe is under the influence. That might explain at least in part the Midwestern predilection for security and staying put.
Vipassanareconditions the mind to embrace new experiences instead of resisting them. The direct experience of fluctuating sensations leads to the realization that life is suffused with change. Indeed, it is the reason life is so wondrous. Change makes it possible to shed the dark aspects of the personality that cause suffering, to transform criminals into compassionate human beings. When the demons depart, long-buried love and compassion rise in their place, Goenka told us, and the desire to serve others becomes strong.
The success of the vipassana prison program in India over the last 10 years has encouraged prisons in Taiwan, Alabama, Seattle, and San Francisco to try it. A 2003 study of the Seattle facility found that only 56 percent of prisoners who took the vipassanacourse returned to jail, compared with 75 percent for the rest of the prison population. The effectiveness of the prison courses may be partly due to the fact that untreated addictions are a major cause of recidivism.
On the 10th day, the silence was broken at 10 a.m., the chattering began, faces lit up, and I was surprised at how wrong my impressions of my fellow students had been. Soon after I introduced myself, my roommate apologized for disturbing me and explained that she is by nature a noisy person who is discomfited by quiet. It all seemed terribly petty by this point. She’d emigrated from Moscow in the 1980s and had only taken the course to accompany her son, a veteran of numerous 10-day courses. We ended up laughing together and exchanging e-mail addresses.
The next morning we had one last 4:30 session in the meditation hall before leaving. As I walked down the path in the dark on freshly fallen snow glittering exquisitely beneath the lights, I inhaled the pristine cold, the purity of winter, from which all things rise again. I was reminded of Christmas — not the commercial holiday of recent years but the Christmases of my youth, when I felt the true spirit of the season.
I returned home with renewed energy and excitement about life. As I continued practicing the meditation, I became aware that my anxiety was stoked when I tried to cram too much into each day, leaving my body knotted in tension. It has taken an incredible amount of effort, with countless backslidings, to slow down and experience life fully, but when I do, it’s magic — like seeing the eternity in each moment. That, for me, is the best Christmas present ever.
As for insomnia, the struggle continues off and on, with decidedly less anxiety and hopelessness. The vipassana course is only the beginning of the road to recovery and must be supplemented at home with daily meditation for an hour in the morning and at night — which is a breeze after 10 full days of it. Having experienced the power of a calm mind, I can envision a time when my demon insomnia will jump ship to seek out more turbulent seas.
For more information on the Illinois Vipassana Meditation Center in Pecatonica, visit www.pakasa.dhamma.org.