Tuesday, June 2, 2015

"The class is Pain 101. Your instructor is Casey Jones."

It’s probably better I waited a fews day after I got back to start writing this. I needed to let the real world materialize in my life again before I could hit this with a bit of objectivity. 

I recently returned from a ten-day meditation course. It’s about an hour from where I live in the city, up in the mountains on the outskirts of Taichung. I spent 10-12 hours a day meditating and learning the practice of Vipassana. 

It was a bizarre and significant experience. 

Let me tell you about it. 

The rules are as follows: 

No murder parties               Don’t kill anything. ( mosquitoes. ants. spiders. flies. no killing                                    whatsoever)

No bullshit parties               No lying. 

No sexy parties                   No sex.  (including solo sexy parties. you know what I mean.) 

No gimme-gimme parties   No stealing. 

No regular parties               No intoxicants. (coffee is allowed. But there was no coffee. so I                               had a few early morning grumpy parties)

My drive there was a nightmare. I drove my beat up scooter through a torrential downpour and quickly discovered my newly purchased “rain jacket” was indeed not waterproof. I was soaked 10 minutes in my hour+ commute. I kept thinking “I should really take my phone out of my pocket and put it some place safe.” But I figured my newly purchased hiking pants were water proof as well, so even though my legs were soaked, I thought it best to just keep on keeping on. About 30 minutes later I stopped to check google maps and discovered my phone was broken. I did the prudent thing of chastising myself for being an idiot for a solid ten minutes, and then set forth strong determination to continue on my journey. I will mediate. Damn it, I must meditate! 

After driving along cluelessly for another 20 minutes, I realized that strong determination doesn’t mean dick if I got no clue where I’m going. 

“Figure it out, Jay. What’s the plan? Driving pointlessly is not a plan.” 

I often internally talk to myself as if I’m not a single entity. Descartes would be pleased. 

I stopped at a Family Mart. I instantly soaked the surrounding area as I tried to make a deal with the clerk, using my questionable Mandarin, to use her cellphone so I could find out where the hell I was going. She quickly left and the manager came out and, in so many words, hinted that she wanted me to continue on my way. 

I drive around for a while and stopped at a 7/11. I had a new plan of attack. 
Offer the clerk money.

 Everybody loves money! 

The young girl clerking laughed nervously and continually shot confused looks at the younger dude clerk beside her as I stuck out a fistful of wet cash and asked to use her phone. She told me she didn't have one.


 I asked the boy if he did. 

He smiled and said nothing. 

I sat and contemplated my options. 

Turn around and give up?

Fuck that. 

Try and find it from memory?

Not a chance. 

Go home, look up the address and route, and try again? 

I only have an hour before sign in time is over. No way I’ll make it. 

I must have looked pathetic. A lonely foreigner soaked to his bones sitting with head in hands at an empty booth in a 7/11 in the boondocks of Taiwan. 
Turns out that was a pretty good plan itself. The young girl took pity on me. She walked over, offering me a cellphone lying in the palms of her outstretched hands. It was like being bestowed a mystical object with which I could complete my quest. A tablet of runes, which I could present to the ancient doors that barred my entrance. 

Maybe I’m a nerd… 

I found the address using Google maps on her phone and showed her the place I wanted to go. 

“Can you tell me how to get there? Which way do I turn on 128?”

She told me to 等一下 (wait a minute) and went and made a phone call. When she came back in, she went directly behind the counter and started attending to the line of impatient looking customers that had started to accumulate.

I sat. Confused and cold. 

Soon, a man walked in and barked out something indecipherable (to me) in Mandarin. The girl pointed at me. The man motioned me to follow him.  I did. 

We stood outside looking at his car in the downpour. The girl had called me a cab. I still had my scooter.

What to do? 

30 more minutes of following a cab on my scooter in the freezing rain, (less agitated, but shivering and chattering) and I arrived at the spot. 

I quickly found my room, toweled off, changed, and completed the sign-in application and listened to a brief session on the rules.

In order to help the students avoid lying, a practice called “Nobel Silence” is enforced. 

No speaking. 

More so, no communication of any kind is allowed. No hand gestures. No mild grunts. You're not even allowed to make eye contact. 

What on earth was I doing here? 

A few small groups of men (sexes were immediately separated) had formed and I heard English and Chinese being spoken. I thought it best not to get friendly or learn any names before I started the course. Don’t need any more temptation to talk. 

We were summoned into the main hall, given a brief talk (via stereo system) and mediated for a few hours before we retired to bed at 9:00 PM. 

9:00 PM seems a touch early. 

Oh, we have to get up at 4:00 AM every morning. 

9:00 PM seems a little late. 

Bells tolled, signaling bedtime. 

I developed a strange conditioning to those bells. (more on that later.) 

Halfway through the next day and I thought I was going to loose my mind. Tired. Confused. Sore from sitting. Stuck in a room with a bunch of strangers remaining silent for hours.

I can’t do this.

 A strange wave of fear and panic slowing started washing over me like the tide coming in. How could sitting in a room meditating cause anxiety? 

I don’t know, but it sure as hell did. 

I went to bed, uncertain if I could complete what I started. 

Day 2 was worse. A giant piece of paper on the men’s side bulletin board largely displayed the words “TODAY IS DAY 2” 

8 more days. Fuck. I don’t know if I can do this. 

The bell tolled. We walked like zombies to our rooms. 

That bell. It was like John Donne’s proverbial bell, clanging solemnly into the silence. No questions needed, John.
I knew exactly for whom it was tolling. 

Halfway through day 3 and I was feeling ok. Difficult or not, I’m sticking with this. How could I face my buddies with the knowledge that I couldn’t hack a 10-day meditation course? Hell, Wolverine wouldn’t bail. Wolverine kicks ass and meditates all damn day!

 “Be like Wolverine, Jay.”

That’s been a mantra of mine since I was 11.

The technique of the first 3 days was called Anapana. You focus exclusively on your breathing. You don’t try to change or control it; you just watch it as it enters and exits and you bring your mind back when it wonders. Let me tell you guys, my mind wanders. A lot. Usually to negative places. 

Halfway through day 3, I can’t focus on my breath, so I decide to nickname all the guys I’m with. Those names are a lot of useless information to share. No point point in telling you.

Here are their nicknames. 

Doc                                                    The Blacksmith                                Tim Tim
Dudley Moops                                   Johnny Nunchucks                          Tom Tom
Sinead                                               Gramps                                             Monk
Chipmunk                                          Ninja Aladdin                                    Mr. Williamson 
Sanjuro                                              Douglas Peterson                             Pappy 

Day 4 we begin the actual practice of Vipassana. 

You take the focus that you’ve gathered from the 3 days previous and use that acute attention to feel sensation in your body. Start at your head, go to your toes, make your way back up, and repeat for 10-12 hours. 

Every night ended in a video discourse from the (now deceased) original teacher. He ensured this had nothing to do with practicing a religion and was solely a technique to eradicate suffering in day-to-day life. (My attention was scattered holes from a shotgun blast. I tried my best to listen.) By looking in you become aware of yourself. By sustaining that look, you can achieve understanding of yourself. Using that understanding, you can learn to tame your mind. Doing so allows you to operate free from detrimental thinking patterns and needless suffering. This was Siddhartha Gautama’s original practice.

So they said.

Day 5. More of the same. Wake up, mediate 2 hours, eat, mediate 3 hours, eat, meditate 5 hours, tea, meditate 1 hour, video discourse, meditate 1 hour, sleep.

I’m a creature of habit. I was hitting my stride. I was feeling better. I could definitely do this. 

Day 6 we found out that three times a day we had to start sitting for an hour without moving whatsoever. 

I can’t do this. 

Days 7. Turns out I can.

All it takes it a little extreme discomfort 3 times a day.

Not to worry though. Each session is proceeded by a message from the O.G.

“Accept your state. Treat pleasure and pain as the same and don’t prefer either. Establish EQUANIMITY." (a word repeated endlessly during the course) 

Oh, that’s all I have to do? Cool, Wait, this hurts like fuck. What’s that? Be equanimous? Right. Sorry. I forgot. Hey, now my back is really.. Huh? Right. Equanimous. Got it. Thanks. 

[SIDEBAR: The conditions in the main meditation hall where a clear-cut demonstration of the difference between men and women. 45 women on their side of the room, and besides the occasional stifled cough, or shift to find comfort (hey! be equanimous, you!), the woman’s side remained mostly quiet and dignified.

Then there were the men. 15 salty dogs. Together blaring a chorus of unmitigated bodily function. Burps, coughs, throat clearing, sighing, grunting, it assaulted the room in a barrage of bold remorselessness. And the farting. Good god, the farting. A cacophony of flatulence spattered the quiet. 

These shameless men were singing a song of organic inconsideration. I quickly joined the band.]

Back to the story.

Day 8 was the game changer. I sat, midday, in the hall, and a warm sense of pink and blue washed over me and my whole body vibrated in unison. For a few seconds, my mind went quiet. Complete silence. I opened my eyes and the world materialized slowly and I felt still and wonderful. I wanted this. Dear god, this was it. The teachers voice internally interrupted the silence in my mind. “Don’t seek pleasure. Don’t crave comfort. Don’t avoid suffering. Except it all with equanimity.”  

I felt guilty for wanting it to continue and the self-chastising began anew. I realized that this was the other end of the spectrum. Don’t give hate or misery power either. Stay even. Consider Buddha’s “middle-path.” 

I went the rest of the day without any remarkable happenings. 

Day 9. Tomorrow was my last day. I know this because the big sign declared TODAY IS DAY 9. 

I felt ok. Fuck it, I felt great. When the bell rang, it was now like it was signaling recess. I didn't waste time stretching or meandering. I made a beeline to the hall. Not with alacrity, but with a sense of duty. This was the path I was now walking. 

Day 10 arrived and we were allowed to speak. I asked the nearest Westerner (ten days without using Mandarin made me a little weary of trying to use it.) how he felt and we quickly fell into a long discussion about what had happened and how we felt. I had to say, I felt probably the best I ever had in my entire life. Not full of joy and bursting with happiness. Just even and accepting. Everything that was happening was what was currently happening. No other way it needed to be. That’s the best I can describe it.  I drank the cool-aid.

I finished my conversation with Doc and went to find Johnny Nunchucks. He had been my roommate for 10 days of no communication, time to say hi. Time to attempt mandarin. A brief stint into our conversation and Woodchuck basically ran at me. 

你知道什麼功夫     ”What kung fu do you know?”

I laughed a little. He had apparently been impressed with my daily stretch routine. 

I wanted to say “YouTube-Fu”, but I figured the joke would be lost. I told him Muay Thai. 

I’ve only been practicing it once a week for four months, but hey, not lying, right? 

We all exchanged numbers and I was on my way. 

On the drive home, the weather was close to perfect and the sun shone as I drove down the mountain. Everything felt ok. 

I found it an apropos metaphor for what I had just experienced. Rain, anxiety, uncertainty on the way up. Sun, calm, equanimity on the way down. 


I drove back into Taichung with elation. Everybody had to hear about this. Everybody needed to try this.

How could I explain it to my friends and family without sounding like a brainwashed lunatic cult member? 

I put together the following metaphor.

 It’s the best I can do to sum it up. 

Take it or leave it.

 For as long as I can remember, my mind has been like a broken record player. The counterweight malfunctioned long ago, and the same track has been repeating and repeating. The name of that track is Useless Negative Bullshit. It plays behind everything I think. I can turn the volume up and down with some help and effort, but I can never turn it off. With what I had just experienced, what I had just learned, I was able to lift that needle, if only for a few seconds or minutes, and experience complete silence for the first time. Don’t get me wrong, when the needle drops again (and it always drops again) the song continues playing. But those few instances proved to be invaluable, and a possible indication of what may come if I continue this practice. 

I’ve been back a few days, and although the initial honeymoon is over and the daily grind is back in play, I still feel, well…different. 


I’m not going to push this on anybody. I’ll just end this by saying, if you suffer from anger, depression, anxiety, insomnia or things of that nature (I certainly do), perhaps you ought to consider checking Vipassana out. 

It’s not a magic bullet. It’s not an instant elixir. It’s not a cure-all. 

It’s a way to navigate hardship, and hopefully, live a better life. 

At least that’s how I feel right now.

Here’s a link to check it out. There are centers all around the world. 


See ya in the funny pages. 

*We were able to talk a little bit to the volunteers (this thing is completely donation based. They don’t expect lots of money. Give what you can) and to the assistant teacher. He lead the sessions and answered questions at specific times each day.

**I'm currently writing this with a headache and a shallow feeling of the blues. No prompt panacea, folks. Just a little more knowledge gathered that life is always changing. Do what you can. Accept what you have to.  Nothing lasts forever. 

*** I killed lots of mosquitoes. 

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