I have long thought that the central tenets of Buddhism were basically correct. Life is fundamentally characterized by suffering: check. Suffering is caused by craving what we want, attachment to what we have, and aversion to what we hate, because we can never get everything we want, keep everything we have, or avoid everything we hate: sure. Suffering can only be eliminated by extinguishing our cravings, attachments, and aversions: seems reasonable. Extinguishing these cravings, attachments, and aversions requires following an eightfold path centered around a particular type of meditation: this has always been the sticking point for me. I certainly hoped it wasn't true, because I have never been able to meditate. I've bought books, I've studied web sites, I've had friends coach me, and I've never gotten anywhere. Sometimes I run out of patience long, long before I'm supposed to. More often I just fall asleep.
Many years ago I learned about these courses in vipassana meditation, and from time to time I would consider signing up for one. A friend of mine back in Massachusetts actually did put in the full ten days and gave the experience a positive writeup, which strengthened my determination that one day I would actually do this. But lots of things are easy to decide to do "one day." It often takes a push to get from "one day" to "now," and in my case I got two big shoves. The first was that my love life became very rocky. (I'm not going to go into too much detail about this, because it would compromise someone else's privacy.) As for the second…
…well, in the past I have somewhat glibly referred to myself as anhedonic. For instance, years ago I wrote about how most people seem to like a huge range of music, while at any given time I tend to only like about four bands — really, I only like a tiny fraction of most types of entertainment. Most people seem to like roller coasters or skiing or jumping out of airplanes or various other means of having their bodies flung about, but I get no rush out of that sort of thing. And I've almost never gotten any physical pleasure out of sex. I'm old enough that, even having sex as infrequently as I do, I've had a few hundred sexual encounters. Most of them have been emotionally rewarding, offered a sense of closeness, provided audiovisual thrills. But only three have been physically pleasurable: one in 2000, one in 2008, and one in 2011. Still, I could always at least get myself off… until December 24th of last year, when I abruptly became clinically anhedonic. From the outside, my sexual function seems exactly the same as before, but in an instant the pleasure that used to accompany it entirely vanished, as though at the flip of a switch. I spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars getting various tests done, which seemed to rule out a hormonal cause. My doctor speculated that neurotransmitters were to blame — that my brain was just no longer producing even the limited amount of dopamine it had before ("Sometimes you just run out," he said) and that the solution was to go on antidepressants even though I wasn't depressed. But as a lifelong straightedger, I was reluctant to resort to pills before trying other options. The web site for the meditation courses said that while it shouldn't be the reason you sign up, "as a by-product of mental purification, many psychosomatic diseases are eradicated," and in fact the founder had originally taken up vipassana meditation in hopes of curing his crippling migraine headaches. So I figured that since my primary motivation was to try to start practicing the philosophy I purported to believe in, and my secondary motivation was to get a handle on the destructive thought patterns that had turned the past several months into a perpetual crisis, it might be okay if I took a course with the tertiary hope that I might actually be able to feel one of my orgasms in 2013.
The site cautioned that applicants should have no illusions about how difficult the course was going to be. The number one rule was that the course ran for ten full days plus portions of two other days, and that leaving the grounds of the meditation center during that time, or having any contact of any kind with the outside world, was strictly forbidden. Students also had to adhere to the following codes of conduct:
No killing. The chief manifestation of this rule was that all meals would be vegetarian. I'm already a vegetarian, so no worries there.
No stealing. Easy enough to follow, especially since the "no contact with the outside world" rule meant that I wouldn't have access to the torrent sites.
No intoxicants. Again, I'm a lifelong straightedger. If I could go 39+ years without having a beer I figured that an extra ten days were unlikely to be a problem.
No talking. More than that, the code of silence required no communication of any kind with fellow students, neither by speech nor by gesture nor even by eye contact. Students could talk to the teachers (but only about meditation) or to the course manager (but only about logistical problems). But, again, there have been years of my life when I never really talked to anyone, so ten days of being barred from small talk with a bunch of strangers hardly seemed like a deal-breaker.
No sexual activity of any kind. Ha ha ha. If I got anything out of sexual activity I probably wouldn't have been signing up, so. (That said, the center was segregated by sex, with men and women only coming in proximity to one another during the sessions in the meditation hall. Does taking advantage of the breaks to take a surreptitious 0.2-second glance at a female face count as "sexual activity"? If so, guilty.)
Further rules included no physical exercise (no problem!), no meals after noon (again, no problem — I generally only eat once a day anyway), and no reading or writing materials (this was excruciating). Confirming that I was willing to follow these rules, I sent in my application. One question on the application asked about medical conditions, and my disclosure of my anhedonia raised a red flag — I wound up having a bit of back-and-forth with someone at the center before my application was approved. But it was, and on the afternoon of March 6 I made the four-hour drive to the California Vipassana Center in the town of North Fork in the Sierra foothills.
I arrived around three o'clock, parked my car, and checked in. The check-in staff had me surrender my wallet (the idea being that no wallets = no temptation to steal wallets) and then gave me directions to my accommodations. The men's side of the CVC has four residences, three of which are spartan but respectable dormitory blocks. I was put in the fourth, a dilapidated single-wide trailer. The trailer contained four single rooms (basically closets with curtains), one barracks area with two sets of bunk beds, one large double room about the size of my dorm rooms back in Unit 3, and one small double room, which is where I was put. The room had burnt orange shag carpeting, cracked wood paneling, and two wooden racks to serve as beds, each topped with a thin rectangle of green foam. My roommate was a fauxhawked Australian who had smuggled in a cell phone and spent a fair amount of time texting. My other roommates were the ants we were not allowed to kill. (At least they were regular black ants and not the Argentine ants that had plagued me back home until I discovered the magic of talc.) So I took one of the wheelbarrows available in the parking lot, loaded my suitcase and bedding into it, lugged my stuff up the hill to the trailer, and then after returning the wheelbarrow went back to the men's dining hall for dinner and orientation. The dining hall was one of the newer structures, but pretty depressing just by dint of being a cafeteria. Dinner was vegetable soup, herb bread, and salad, all of which were pretty good. At orientation we were given one last chance to back out, since once we reaffirmed that we were committed to the course, we were locked in until March 17. Then it was off to the meditation hall. There we received our mat numbers (I was D6) and claimed any cushions or other apparatus we wanted from a huge pile (I took a big sofa cushion with multicolored squares). We formally requested to be taught to meditate, and were sent back to our rooms to "take rest." (Every night's recorded lesson ended with the teacher intoning, "Take rest. Take rest, take rest.")
The first bell was at 5 a.m. — every subsequent day it came at 4 a.m., but we were given an extra hour to sleep on Day One owing to the fact that we had set our clocks ahead for Daylight Saving Time already (rather than doing so on March 10 with the rest of the country, as that date fell in the middle of the course). The early morning meditation session began half an hour later, and could be done either in the hall or in your own room. I bundled up, grabbed my flashlight (since it was still 4:30 a.m. everywhere else in the Pacific Time Zone), and trudged up the hill to the meditation hall. This would be the only time I left my room for the early morning session.
Day One introduced anapana meditation, which was the main type I had encountered before. The idea is to focus your mind on your breath. Don't try to change it in any way; just observe it. Be fully aware of what your breath is doing without even trying to verbalize your observations to yourself. Don't think about anything else. When you notice that your mind has wandered away, as it very quickly will, calmly dismiss your train of thought and re-dedicate your attention to your breath.
As had happened every time I had tried this before, I couldn't actually turn off my thoughts even for a moment. I would think, "Focus on my breath — don't think about anything else — except thinking 'don't think about anything else' is itself a thought, so don't think that — okay, there, I think I observed that breath without thinking about it — except I'm thinking about it now, so I guess I can no longer say that — though I'm not supposed to be saying anything — has it been an hour yet? No, it's been six seconds." The difference this time was that at home, I tended to give up after five minutes of that. At the meditation camp, I had to sit there for a full hour. As a result, my mind really started to wander. I would think, "Wow, my back really hurts. I can see why people have already started to move to the very back of the hall. It must be a relief to lean your back against the wall. Wasn't there a John Entwistle solo album called Smash Your Head Against the Wall? He died in 2002 at age 57 of a cocaine overdose. Kind of a weird age for it. Let's see, Keith Moon died in 1978, Entwistle in 2002… I guess the next year in that sequence is 2026. Will Roger Daltrey or Pete Townshend go next? Hey, wait a minute — I'm supposed to be meditating!" I started to go up to five minutes lost in thought and genuinely forgetting that I was supposed to be paying attention to my breath. When I did remember, my thoughts would whirl away in an instant. I was reassured during the videotaped discourse that evening when the teacher said that, yes, at this point we shouldn't expect to be able to focus on our breathing for more than a second or two, or maybe five if we were particularly adept. The knowing chuckles from the audience were even more reassuring. I still couldn't meditate, but it was only the first day, and apparently a lot of people were in the same boat.
All in all, Day One wasn't too bad. The novelty made everything more tolerable than it would later become. Take breakfast. The breakfast options were: gloppy oatmeal; stewed prunes; corn flakes; raisin bran; Cheerios; granola; apples; bananas; oranges; and toast with butter, peanut butter, and/or raspberry jam. This seemed perfectly fine to me on Day One. What I didn't know then was that these would be the breakfast options every day, except once (or was it twice?) that we also had soup (and man oh man did I ever make a beeline for that soup). On Day One I had granola with milk, and later regretted it — I hadn't brought my lactase pills, thinking that they would violate the ban on medication. In the future I used "rice milk" and was sad. Lunch had more variety from day to day; there was always the same salad, but there was a different theme each day. (Day One was Italian, which meant penne with a tomato/lentil/carrot sauce.) There was no dinner, but we did get to have some fruit at 5 p.m. if we wanted. On Day One I got a banana because I figured it'd be another 13½ hours before I got a chance to eat again and I might get hungry if I didn't eat something now. Later I would learn that making it to breakfast without going crazy from hunger was actually pretty easy. But I still generally got a banana just because it was something to do.
On Day One our task had been to note the characteristics of our breath: Deep or shallow? Left nostril, right nostril, or both? (For me it was almost always left.) Now we were to try to pay attention to where exactly we felt the touch of the breath — at exactly what spots on the inner walls or rims of the nostrils did we feel the air moving as we inhaled and exhaled?
We had actually received this instruction the night before, and I suppose I should take a moment to talk about the daily schedule, since Days Two, Three, and Five to Nine were all the same. The first bell was at 4 a.m., and by "bell" I mean someone literally rang a bell with a mallet. At 4:30 you were supposed to start meditating, either in the hall or in your room, for two hours. Breakfast was at 6:30, and as noted, was always the same. I always ate quickly and then got back to the trailer by seven so I could claim the bathroom and take a shower. At eight o'clock everyone had to assemble in the hall for the first mandatory hour of group meditation. There would then be a five-minute break, followed by new instructions for each of the different groups ("old students" who had taken a course before vs. "new students" like me who hadn't, and also male students vs. female students). Sometimes we would be allowed to return to our rooms at 9:30 or so, but at other times we would have to stick around and answer questions about how we were doing, and wouldn't be released until ten. Lunch was at eleven. If you had signed up for a five-minute interview with a teacher (there were two male teachers for the male students and one female teacher for the female students) you went up to the hall at noon; otherwise you were free until one, at which point you were supposed to meditate either in the hall or in your room until 2:30, at which point the second mandatory group meditation hour was held. 3:30 to 5:00 was another "in the hall or in your room" period, followed by the fruit break, which lasted until six. The third mandatory group meditation hour lasted from six to seven, after which the course managers turned on the TVs and we watched (at the wrong aspect ratio! ngaaaaa!!) a video from 1991 of the founder, S.N. Goenka, delivering a 75-minute lecture about the theory behind what we were practicing. Though Goenka warned us that we were not to take these lectures as a mere intellectual entertainment, the fact is that they were quite entertaining on top of being wise — Goenka is an engaging speaker with a good sense of humor. From 8:15 to 9:00 we would have our final period of mandatory group meditation in the hall, after which we would told to "take rest" and return to our quarters to sleep until 4 a.m.
The mandatory group meditation sessions were accompanied by an audio program in which Goenka would chant (using a lot of vocal fry — everyone was pretty startled the first couple of times) for a few minutes and then deliver instructions. The 8:15 program usually instructed us to do something different from what we'd been doing up to that point, which brings me back to where I started. So. I was able to sense where the air was coming in contact with my nostrils pretty easily. I still couldn't focus on it, and again my thoughts would whirl away whenever I tried; this time they generally went not to random trains of thought but to my relationship problems, and it would be quite a while before I could drag them back — ten minutes or so, I would guess. And when I say "drag them back" all I mean is that I would think, "Oh, wait, I'm supposed to be focusing on my breath" and then would be aware of one or two breaths before going back to dwelling on the issues that had brought me here. And in fact I hit a low point shortly before five, after I had given up on that afternoon's solo meditation session in my room, as I listened to the rain pissing down outside, and looked at the cracked paneling of my crappy, ant-infested trailer, and thought about all the terrible decisions I had made in my life that had led to my winding up in such a horrible place. I tried to keep myself from sobbing but I suspect that Fauxhawk Guy three feet away was still probably perturbed by my wheezing.
Day Two was when we had our first casualty: during one of the group meditation sessions, an older guy (who had been given a chair rather than a mat) started groaning and then, thunk!, toppled to the ground. One of the students, another older guy, announced that he was a doctor, and he and the course manager attended to the victim, who was responsive but clearly experiencing heart problems. I later learned that he had been hospitalized for a day but been cleared to return, though he chose to stay home and rest. I would also later learn that about half a dozen people silently dropped out at various points in the course, including one who, rumor had it, had attempted to steal someone else's car in making his getaway, but had been apprehended. Gosh.
On Day Three we were supposed to focus on the sensations we felt in our nostrils as we breathed: the subtler the better, we were told. Again, this was pretty easy. I could feel tight areas in a couple of places in the left nostril and a very subtle tingling at the outer rim of the right one. It was interesting how, when I initially focused on these sensations, they didn't seem confined to my body — I seriously thought that the feeling in my left nostril was actually located two mats over to my left. But I couldn't sustain that focus. In fact, Day Three was when I really started to hallucinate. I would think, "Okay, focus on breath… on breath… on those giant ants walking toward me… they can't reach me, though, because they're going to topple off a ledge before they get to me… yep, there they go, legs flailing… but now that the ants are gone, what do I — wait, there are no ants! I'm supposed to be paying attention to my breath! Focus on breath! On breath! On this circuit board I'm putting together! Yeah, this chip gets slotted in here, and this one here, and wait this isn't real either!" As noted, I had frequently found in previous attempts to meditate that when I felt as though the quality of my consciousness was changing, it actually just meant that I was going to sleep. I assumed the same was true here, that I was just slipping into an REM phase rather than becoming more fully aware of my actual reality (sitting in a meditation hall breathing). On Day One I had asked one of the teachers what to do about constantly dozing off, and he replied that this was a pretty standard way the mind resisted meditation, and that I should just be patient and return my thoughts to my breath every time I caught myself sleeping. (On Day Ten we were finally allowed to read, but only materials supplied by the center, and I read a book chapter that addressed the issue of "middha" or drowsiness, one of the five main obstacles to meditation along with things like agitation and self-doubt. It suggested that a good remedy was to ponder the inevitability of death.)
Outside the meditation sessions, Day Three was a tough day for me. I thought about how irremediable my relationship problems were and just wept and wept. Again, the site had cautioned that those "undergoing emotional upheaval" should not attend a course until things had calmed down, but I hadn't thought that my problems qualified as "upheaval" exactly. But having days go by with no distractions, with nothing to do except obsess, made it clear that I had in fact signed up for this at exactly the wrong moment of my life. And I had more than a week left to go.
Footnote: I had shaved my head before coming to the center, since I didn't know what kind of shower access I would have and the idea of going multiple days without washing my hair sounded intolerable if it were more than a couple of millimeters long. There were a lot of other guys (and one woman) who'd shaved their heads as well. The guys who hadn't tended to look like Sideshow Bob by midway through the course. Most of the guys also let their facial scruff grow out. I thought about doing the same, and if I hadn't briefly grown a beard in 2010-2011, I probably would have. Instead, on Day Three I gave my face a thorough shave. Why? Because it was something to do.
A sign alerted us that this was Vipassana Day and that therefore the schedule would be a little different. For one thing, we would have a two-hour sit from three to five, during which we would not be permitted to move. I had been very relieved upon receiving the instructions on Day One that during anapana meditation we could change our posture whenever necessary. And in fact one of my first clues that I was much worse than the rest of the class at this was that I squirmed about a hundred times more than anyone else. I couldn't imagine how I would make it through an adhitthana sitting with no movement allowed. Fortunately, it was around this time that I decided to try one of the "zen benches" that we'd been told about on Day Zero. I'd been dubious about the idea that kneeling, with a tiny sloped bench supporting your butt, would be more comfortable than sitting cross-legged, but for me it turned out to be a lifesaver. The bench got me through the two-hour sitting and through most of the one-hour adhittana sittings thereafter.
I continued to hallucinate during the meditation sessions, however. In the morning we were told to focus on the sensations directly below our nostrils and observe them very closely, and I thought I was doing a good job. "Focus on the sensation… not on random visions, but on the actual sensation of this area… take careful note of that sensation… okay, so what I am actually sensing right near my nose is a small dragonfly, and it is about yea long and its tail curves like so and it's a brilliant sapphire blue and fuck that's not real either." I decided I should sign up for an interview, but there were no interviews on Day Four. Instead we went straight to vipassana meditation. We had been told on Day One that we were supposed to be sharpening our minds with anapana, and that it was entirely normal to fail utterly. (Whew.) We had been told on Day Two that we were supposed to be sharpening our minds with anapana, and that it was entirely normal to fail utterly. (Whew.) We had been told on Day Three that we were supposed to be sharpening our minds with anapana, and that by now we should have succeeded. (Ulp.) We were told on Day Four that we were about to begin a process of psychic surgery, which could not be done without the sharpness provided by the anapana meditation of the first three days. Since my mind had acquired no sharpness — I still couldn't focus on my breath for more than a second without my mind wandering or immediately dropping into a hallucinatory state — it looked like I was about to start doing my psychic surgery with a butter knife or possibly a spoon. But I followed the instructions: focus your attention at the top of the head, and try to pick up whatever sensations you feel there. Then move down to the rest of the scalp, then to the face, then to the neck, then to the right shoulder, etc., etc., eventually winding up at the toes. Note any sensation: itching, heat, perspiration, pain, even just the touch of your clothes or the touch of the air. And do not move. Don't react in any way. Don't wish for the sensations to be anything other than what they are. Simply observe the sensations with equanimity. So I gave it a go, and the first time through, I think I did okay. I picked up itches and tightnesses and subtle tinglings and things. And then I had a really intense experience of being smacked on the left side of my forehead with a painting of an apple and a bunch of purple grapes. It was very good painting with vivid colors, and I spent a lot of time examining the brush strokes and looking at the deep green leaves on the grape vine and it took quite some time before it occurred to me that that wasn't real either — that all I was really feeling was a pinprick sensation just below the middle of my left eyebrow. Urgh.
Outside the meditation hall, things were a little better. The sun finally came out, and I went on the walking trail for the first time; it wasn't very long, but gadzooks was walking through the Sierra foothills an improvement over sitting in the trailer. It was around this point that I started counting not by days, but by hours. I had my usual afternoon banana, and thought, 97 hours down, 158 hours to go…
The morning group session was terrible. "Start at the top of the head," the teacher intoned. But I couldn't feel where my head was. I felt like a puddle. By this point our focus was supposed to be like a laser. The day before mine had been more like a flashlight. Today it was more like an overcast sky. I was conscious but could not focus on anything.
I signed up for one of the noon interviews. I explained to the teacher that I hadn't made any progress at all in being able to focus on my breath, and that in fact I'd gotten worse with each day: on Day One my mind would wander for five minutes, on Day Two it did so for ten, on Day Three twenty… and I'd gone from pretty standard mental meandering to personal problems to vivid hallucinations. The teacher replied that it didn't sound like I was doing anything wrong, and that this was just the form that meditation took for me. He added that if at any point I couldn't summon enough focus to do the vipassana meditation, I should switch to anapana in order to regain that focus.
When I returned to the trailer, I discovered that Fauxhawk Guy had moved out! I still saw him around, so I guess that he had asked the course manager whether anyone had moved out so he could get his own room. This turned out to be a great boon, in that I now had the little room to myself, which significantly improved my quality of life. Just having a place to put my used laundry other than my own bed was a plus. I took advantage of the solitude to run an experiment during the next solo meditation session. I had a travel clock, and I set out to find out exactly how long I could sustain anapana meditation. I would start at a designated time, and try to focus on my breath. If my mind wandered, I would calmly tell myself to dismiss my train of thought and get back to my breath. When I finally couldn't do that anymore — when my mind shouted "NO" when I told it to return to my breath, when my eyes sprang open of their own accord, when I literally forgot that I was supposed to be meditating — I would look at the clock and see how long I'd been able to do the anapana. As it turned out, the answer was nearly always the same: eight minutes.
It occurred to me that maybe I had a serious attention deficit. I'd never thought I had, since after nearly twenty years as a test prep tutor I tended to associate attention deficits with "needs extra time on tests," and I'd certainly never needed any extra time. I could get through a four-hour SAT with a perfect score in an hour. But on the flip side, I certainly did need extra time to do my screenwriting work. I regularly spent hours spinning my wheels over a simple one-page scene that my boss could crank out in five minutes. And let's not even talk about the many "second novels" I have started and backburnered over the past fifteen years. Would I have half a dozen titles in my bibliography if I had just gone to meditation camp in 1998 and discovered that I needed to be put on Ritalin?
For that matter — in 2003 I published a piece of interactive fiction called Narcolepsy. Did I have the same affliction as the protagonist? I don't randomly fall asleep, but on the other hand, I can't stay awake on an airplane. I wedge myself into 27F, buckle my seatbelt, and in moments I'm out for the count, even if I'm coming off a full night's sleep. And meditation was proving to be the same way: I'd take my place on D6, close my eyes, and boom, dreamland. The same thing happened during my anapana trials in my room. I was sitting upright in my bed, trying to focus on my breath, and I felt four other people come in and sit beside me, two on my left, two on my right… we were looking out at a rural road, and I noticed an abandoned drive-in off to one side… and, again, it didn't feel like I was dreaming. I thought I was awake. I thought I had my eyes open! But eventually doubt crept in, and I opened my eyes, and I was alone… and eight minutes had passed.
Inception day. I was in the meditation hall, trying and failing to meditate, when a guy wearing a red sweatshirt and carrying a huge double-ended mallet walked over to my mat and crouched down next to me and started giving me encouragement in the style of a football coach. "Focus!" he barked. "Don't let your mind wander! Focus on the field of cats!" In front of me was an open window, and through it, I could see a grassy hillside, with seven or eight longhaired cats lounging on it. And I tried to focus, and I realized it wasn't real, and neither was the guy. I opened my eyes, and sure enough, he wasn't there. I was in an office building, and through the window in front of me I could see not a grassy hillside but just a gravel parking lot with trucks slowly pulling into the parking spaces. I watched the trucks for a while, and suddenly realized that they weren't real either, and neither was the office, and that I'd just had a hallucination nested within a second hallucination.
We had reached the part in the course that the grand design was now clear. The gist of it was this. It is one thing to intellectually apprehend that the causes of suffering are craving, attachment, and aversion. But intellectual understanding does nothing to help you escape these fetters. Your understanding must be experiential if you're ever going to free yourself from your suffering. Realize that what you really crave is not that mansion at the end of Devon Way, or the multi-platinum dubstep album and the special Grammy Award for Distinguished Achievement in Sick Drops, or the threesome with Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy, nor even the abstractions of wealth and fame and love. What you really crave are the bodily sensations those stimuli produce. So to eliminate those cravings on the macroscopic level, you must first eliminate them on the microscopic level. Start by sharpening your mind with anapana meditation. Once your mind is sharp, turn to vipassana meditation — use that sharpened consciousness to become aware of the sensations that every part of the body feels at all times. Then, do nothing. Don't react. Just observe. If you're feeling "gross, solidified sensations" such as itching or pain, don't form an aversion to them and wish them to go away. If you're feeling subtle, pleasant tingling sensations throughout the body, don't form an attachment to them and wish them to stay. Just be aware that they are there, and observe with equanimity. And (the teachers concluded) you will find that only when you can remain tranquil about these bodily sensations will you truly be able to bear what causes them: being denied what you want, separated from what you love, forced to accept what you hate.
In the discourses, Goenka talked about how many people think Buddhism is a pessimistic philosophy: that life is primarily characterized by suffering? That every joy sets up a sorrow to come, that every loved one is a future lost one? And it would be pessimistic, he said, if not for the fact that there is a way out, one which thousands of people had successfully taken. But to me that seemed like someone saying, "There is a way out — just climb up this thousand-foot brick wall!", followed by thousands of people doing crazy parkour moves to climb up it while I fall down over and over and over after ascending eight inches.
Indian food for lunch. The sambar in particular was quite good. But afterward I had to go to the meditation hall, since I had more or less been summoned to the principal's office.
The morning group session had been particularly miserable for me. I could feel my attention being forcibly ripped away from me by every sound around me. I had no idea what was going on inside my own body because my world consisted entirely of the breathing of the stocky weightlifter who sat behind me. It sounded like the snoring of the dragon in the Intellivision's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. By the end I was just autistically rocking back and forth. At the noon interview the teachers said that I had seemed pretty agitated and asked me what was up. I told them about how I was still unable to focus enough to do vipassana. They said that in that case I should go back and do anapana. I replied that I was still unable to focus enough to do anapana either. They said, echoing the audio instructions, that the key was that when my effort gave out, I should not give in to discouragement, depression, or defeat, but instead to just go back and try again. I protested that, okay, there's effort — in this case, the ability to stay focused on your breath — but then there's meta-effort, the ability to keep going back and making an effort, and that I had not only run out of effort points but meta-effort points as well. I would later make this analogy to the course manager: last year I spent six months trying to run. At first I could go a couple hundred yards at most, but I went out twice a day. When I got to 400 yards I went out once a day. When I got to half a mile I went out twice a week, and eventually I was for the first time in my life able to run a mile, but I could only summon the impetus to do it once a week. And then running even once a week was more than I could stand and I just quit. So the solution to "I can't run very far" isn't "just keep doing it until you can," because soon "I can't run very often" becomes an even bigger problem.
The teacher said that I might as well try to make the most out of the remaining three days — "91 hours and 26 minutes," I thought in reply — because there would never be a better time or a better place. I thought that was exactly wrong. Virtually any other time would have been better, as I have never in my adult life been quite as fucked up on as many axes as I am right now. As for the right place, well, I figured I would never get any meta-effort points back without a chance to recharge, and the center deliberately offered no opportunities to do so.
At one point the course manager took me aside and said that while the code of silence was in effect and he shouldn't really be talking to me, he just wanted me to know that he was sorry for what I was going through and that he wished me well. Later I found a pamphlet with instructions for servers at the center that said that it was important to be particularly compassionate to the biggest fuckups among the students. Yay?
Those autistic people apparently know a thing or two. Not only did the rocking help, but it turned out that hitting yourself in the head can be surprisingly soothing! No, I didn't do it very hard, but I found that rhythmically knocking my head against the wall (high five to John Entwistle) or rhythmically knocking my knuckles against my head made the solo hours somewhat tolerable.
I felt like the audio recordings were taunting me. The teacher always said to begin "with a calllllm and quiet miiiiind… with a balanced and equanimous miiiiind…" My mind is never calm or quiet, let alone balanced and equanimous. The soundtrack of my mind is "Oh no! What now? What do I do?! Oh no! What now?! What do I do?!?" I was hoping that meditation might help me turn that off. But apparently turning that off by other means is a prerequisite to successful meditation.
I thought about suicide a lot. I wasn't actually suicidal — I didn't want to kill myself. But I did imagine it. Repeatedly.
Matt Groening once did a Life in Hell cartoon listing many symptoms of something (being in grad school too long, maybe?). One of the listings was "urge to bite self." I thought that was amusing. It turns out that is actually a thing! It was pretty soothing to put my wrist in my mouth and bite down. Not very hard, but enough to satisfy the urge.
On the audio recording, the teacher exclaimed that human life was so precious, because animals can't meditate and therefore have no opportunity to free themselves from suffering. So apparently I'm subhuman.
On Day Ten we were finally allowed to break our silence and talk to the other students. You can probably guess what happened next: everyone else gathered into cliques and chatted away like lifelong friends, while I sat alone in the information area and flipped through the books. Eventually a few people did talk to me. The conversations were pretty similar. "You felt like you were the fuckup? No, man, I was the fuckup! I could barely meditate at all! …wait a minute, those were your experiences? Sorry, dude, maybe you were the fuckup after all."
The course manager strongly suggested I have one last interview with the teachers. I said that I felt like I was caught in a Catch-22. The main goal of meditation, as it was explained to us, was to develop equanimity. How do you develop equanimity? You pay close enough attention to your bodily sensations that you can recognize that they are just wavelets of energy, neither to be desired nor despised. How do you pay attention that closely? You sharpen your senses by concentrating on your breath. What if you can't concentrate on your breath long enough to sharpen your senses? You try again and again and again. What if you're too frustrated by endless failure? You develop equanimity about it. But…!
The best answer the teacher could come up with was to say that there must be some seed of optimism inside me or I wouldn't have taken the course. People don't just casually cut themselves off from the outside world for nearly two weeks and put in seventeen-hour day after seventeen-hour day doing virtually nothing but meditating — they must have some significant expectation that it will pay off. Grow that seed of optimism, the teacher told me. The problem is that it wasn't actually a seed of optimism. It was a seed of desperation, and it's already growing plenty fast.