Noble Silence is lifted
We couldn’t start talking right away on day 10. Instead, the day started at 445 am with a required group meditation and chanting, after which noble silence was lifted.
It was a weird morning. I had mixed feelings about starting to talk. On the one hand, starting to talk meant i was going to be going home soon to the people I loved, to books and writing and whatever life was going to look like now that all my adventures were done. But on the other hand, I had really, overall, enjoyed the silence, how it had affected my mind and the space it had created around me in which I was free to change and think and just be.
What do I say?
I was also unprepared for what I would say. Over the last nine days, I’d realized my urges to speak were often just to fill silence (“so how’s it going for you?”) or to talk about something obvious (“hot day, huh?”) or to bounce my opinions off other people (“what’d you think of _____?”). All normal human ways to communicate, but those last nine days, I’d discovered that sometimes not speaking was better. Sometimes it didn’t matter what someone else thought. Sometimes I didn’t need to fill the silence.
So when noble silence was lifted, I ran off to the pagoda for a little more meditation instead of jumping right into the fray. And after that, I snuck back to my room so as to sidestep the sounds of conversation and the risk of getting pulled into one.
And in my room I found April! Awesome April! With April, I felt calm and at ease and we basically spent the rest of the day, except when we were meditating, talking about life, meditation, the last ten days, everything. We made plans to come back and volunteer at the center, to visit each other, we shared challenges we knew we were going to face when we got home, and how to handle them.
The experience would have worked without April, but having her at the end to talk to and feel at home with was a joy, and I was really thankful for it.
As I started to talk to other people at the course, I realized that everyone had a pretty different take on almost every aspect of the course: one girl said she had received no benefit whatsoever from the meditation. Some people thought every word out of goenka’s mouth was gold. Some (me) were getting turned off with the more spiritual and repetitive side of the discourses. Some people revealed they hated the pagoda. Others couldn’t wait to eat meat. Some had had surprising, tearful revelations. Others were surprised they hadn’t.
It was overwhelming, the different ways those ten days affected everyone. It was especially this day that I was so thankful for the silence we’d been forced into, for the ability those last nine days to only worry about what WE were thinking and experiencing for ourselves. What a gift.
Selling me vipassana, past lives, and things I don’t believe in
The discourses by day 7 had started to frustrate me and by day 10, I was over them. Day 7 had felt like an advertisement for vipassana, talking about all these old stories of people who were helped way back when about vipassana. The drunk whose alcoholism was cured. The woman who’d lost her entire family who found piece. The many people whose lives had seen profound changes because of vipassana. The thing was, I didn’t doubt these benefits. But it just felt too preachy, especially for a technique in which you’re supposed to only depend on or believe in what you experience. It’s great that it’s helped other people — one of the reasons I did the course was because I felt it could help me. But I was annoyed by the discourses that seemed to be trying to sell me on it with highly charged stories meant to make me think that vipassana was the true and only way to be totally happy. “Back off!” I wanted to yell at the TV.
I was also tired of the talk of karma. I’ve always thought of karma as something that happens in this life. So, you act like a dick to everyone and karma was probably going to bite you one day. But in the discourses, goenka talked about karma from past lives: “this man was poor because off bad karma from his past life.” “This woman was rich because of great karma from previous lives.” Screw that. Maybe maybe maybe there are past and future lives, other dimensions in which we live infinite versions of our lives. But to me, what we get in this life is a combination of luck (where were you born, to who, in what health, and what happens to you) and character (how you treat others, how hard you work, what you spend your time on).
What we deserve
The biggest issues, though, came during the discourse on day 10. The first issue was in how goenka talked about how we might handle the philosophies or ideas he shared over the last ten days that we didn’t buy into – karma, past lives, sankharas, etc. His (good) advice was that it didn’t matter if we didn’t believe it. If we don’t believe it, fine, “take it out,” and just focus on whether vipassana creates positive change in your life. That, I was good with. But then he went on…
He compared this to a mother making her child a delicious sweet pudding with cardamom seeds (which are black). The child sees the black seeds and says that he won’t eat the whole pudding because there are black rocks in it. The mom tells the child they are cardamom seeds, but he still doesn’t want to eat it. She says to just eat around them, it’s still tasty. The child says no. She picks out all the cardamom seeds so that the pudding has no more black spots. But the child still says no and pushes the bowl away. The child still won’t eat any of it, because the cardamom seeds touched the pudding. The mom smiles and shakes her head knowing one day the child will understand the pudding and the seeds are tasty.
I didn’t love that in this story, I was the child, foolishly throwing out tasty morsels of knowledge (karma, past lives, etc) because I was too immature to see their tastiness, while mother goenka sakes his head with pity, knowing he is right, knowing I’ll come around eventually, when i grew up.
The last thing to turn me off was the biggest. In his last discourse goenka talked about how he’d received letters from all over the world from people who had attended his vipassana courses and gone home only to have amazing events take place in their lives. Raises. Promotions. More money. Better relationships. “Don’t expect this to happen for you, but it might!” While I believe that vipassana and the meditation practice can improve our outlooks and improve our lives, I though that to even suggest that something like getting a raise could be related to having attended this course was just mean. Like those who go home and don’t get a raise or who instead get sick or lose money or experience the death of a loved one — like those people didn’t meditate hard enough or try hard enough.
No, I don’t think so.
I believe life is wonderfully, and sometimes unbearably, random, that pain and suffering are just as likely as joy and harmony. I firmly believe that bad and good things happen to good people and bad and good things happen to bad people. I don’t believe that wonderful things happen in mine or anyone’s life because we deserve them (or because of karma) and I don’t believe that horrible things happen in mine or anyone’s life because we deserve them. I think things just happen. And we do our very best.
Nevertheless, meditation was still working for me. I felt calmer, more stable, more able to listen to others, to focus, to move with intention. I planned to continue doing it at home. I was happy I’d done the course.
So, just like goenka said (which yea, annoyed me as i decided it), I decided I would ignore the parts of the course I hadn’t liked. I’d take them out.
Last meditation post, on how the two weeks post retreat have gone, coming soon.