Tuesday, April 4, 2017

“It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.”

Back in 2015, when I was living in Taiwan and jobless for the summer, I went to a 10-day meditation course.

You can read about my initial silent shenanigans here:

I got a lot out of that experience, but subsequently fell away from serious practice.
I decided it was once again time to punch my punya card.

Last week, I took a 4 ½ hour drive out to the rural Northern Illinois town of Pecatonica and did another 10-day meditation here in the mid-west.

Things got…interesting.

Let me spin ya a yarn of meditation and ontological skirmishes.


I’d been getting pretty stressed out lately.
Manifested unconscious clamoring in my 30’s looks a little different than it did in my 20’s.

Instead of the constant questions of “why are we here, and what does that mean?”, I get the daily interrogation of “what are you doing with your life and what career should you pursue?”

There’s also a healthy does of “Hey asshole, you wasted your 20’s and you should already have this figured out”, but this ain’t about my internal self-abuse.

It’s about something I do to mitigate that.

Coming in to the course, I knew the deal. There is a worldwide organization that holds these meditations, and regardless of if you’re in Far East Asia or the American Mid-West, they are run exactly the same way.

I showed up, checked in, and sat at a table by myself, like Aragorn in the Prancing Pony (because I’m so cool!), purposely sitting away from the congregation of men that were chatting and laughing it up.

I heard one gregarious and portly young man loudly declare “I’m going to talk as much as possible until we can’t. I gotta get it out, man. I got to get it all out.”

I leaned over and said,

“I got the opposite plan. If I don’t start talking to you guys, I won’t have the temptation to keep talking to you.”

Another guy with hair to his shoulders and a thick beard looked right at me and said,

“Well, I look forward to meeting you in 10 days.”


The bell rung at 4:00 AM and I got up without delay. I threw on my sweat pants and hoody and walked immediately outside into the cool late winter air. The farm we were on was quiet and bucolic. The stars still hung in the sky and the moon lit the way on my 2-minute walk from our dorm to the meditation hall.

I settled onto my cushion as we began the 3-day stint on the practice of Anapana.
I’m now what they call an “old student”, because I’ve already completed a 10-day sitting.  Being an old student, I was to forget about the sensations I felt on the nose, and focus all my attention on respiration.

Don’t control it. Just observe it.

Run your blades of concentration down the sharpening stone.
Build your faculties of awareness for the coming days.
Prepare for the battle.

The first few days were like a sort of boot camp. We’re allowed a little more leeway with our postures and movement. We talked in private to the assistant teacher, complaining of inability to keep focused, pain in our legs and backs, and distractions from other students.
He encouraged us to keep working.

“Patiently and persistently. Patiently and persistently.”

After Day 3, we began the practice of Vipassana.

What sensations do you feel?

Don’t react.

What pleasure do you feel?

Don’t react.

What pain do you feel?

All of it! My knees are on fire. My back feels like it’s about to break. My hips…

Don’t react, damn you!

Crave nothing. Avoid nothing. Be aware. Always. Remain. Equanimous.

We started the act of Strong Determination.

3 times a day, for a full hour, we sit crossed legged on the floor and we don’t move.

Boot camp was over. It was time for battle.

During my first 10-day meditation, I was frequently bored. I was often just waiting for things to be over. My mind wondered for entire hours and I wrote stories and held conversations in my head.

This time was different.

I mean, I still sidetracked myself.
 It’s strange how difficult it is just to hold your attention on one specific thing. And it’s even stranger to see where your mind goes when you remove vast chucks of external stimuli and force yourself to sit still with your eyes closed for long periods of time.

Some thoughts that occupied my mind:

What do I know about the country of Moldova?

Were I ever to meet Edie Falco, what would I say to her?

If I were a Jean-Claude Van Damn movie, which one would I be?

(I settled on The Quest. Let’s face it, I’m no BloodSport.)

But it was different, because I was more quickly able to bring myself back from the deviating path, and refocus on my practice.

I think that difference came from experience.
Not to say that I’m such a high-level practitioner, but I was starting to get a glimpse of deeper meditative states.

And in that deepness, I felt something I had never felt before while meditating.

I felt fear.

I went to a lower realm. An internal room of vast open blackness, in which time doesn’t exist, and where you come to realize that the content of your mind is so largely manifested outside of your conscious control, that there is no way it could possibly define you as a person.

And if that thoughtstream isn’t you…

Then just who the hell are you?

I was going into places my unconscious did not want me.
And it sent its Pretorian guards to kick me the hell out.
They arrived in the form of distraction.
All the meanderings of an unfocused mind, I began to see them as enemy combatants.
It was like I had to fight myself to obtain access to that deeper level.

I felt like Arjun preparing for war.
But not only was I Arjun, I was Kirshna, counseling and encouraging myself.
Even more so, I was also the adversary they faced on the battlefield.

I was Wolverine, (had to get that allusion in there again somehow) facing Azreal, the personification of Death, in battle every time he physically dies to obtain the ability of resurrection. And I was Azreal.         *

My mind was a back alley arena in Hong Kong, and I was both the noble Frank Dux and the villainous Chong Li as they faced one another in… DAMN IT, JAY!


All my engines worked in juxtaposition, for and against myself.  

I looked at the door to the meditation hall like it was the black gate to Mordor.
 (That’s right...Two LOTR references in one blog post.)
I felt visceral fear when I arrived at the entryway to remove my shoes and prepare for the sitting. I walked through it like I was entering the arena.

Day 5 was unlike anything I have ever experienced.

My mind exploded in hallucinations.
Obi-Wan clanged large poker chips the size of cymbals in my face, all along wearing a look of complete apathy on his countenance.
A chorus line of showgirls danced the can-can while adorning Iron Man masks as a backdrop of old western six-shooters spun behind them.
Pinhead from Hellraiser, styled with a kaleidoscopic mohawk, catapulted a florescent hedgehog from his hand and I watched as it launched through deep space, glowing a brilliant neon green before dissolving into fire, and then into nothing.

I was sweating bullets. I could feel my face scrunching up and my teeth bearing down on themselves. I was holding my breath and my body was shaking.

I was having a pretty good time.

I requested to speak to the assistant teacher during our lunch break.

“What can I help you with?”

“I’m experiencing very…uh..psychedelic hallucinations?”

“That’s actually not uncommon. Try and get through it. I know it can be unsettling, and difficult to…”

“Actually, I’m kind of enjoying it.”

“Oh…well…you know. Just don’t crave it.”

After that day, I never had another one.

My mind doubled down on its efforts to derail me. It was like the devil, taking different shapes to attain his ultimate goal. He’ll be your best friend, or your worst enemy. He’ll be a salesman, or an assassin. He’ll change tactics so quickly and skillfully; you’ll have no idea the conman took you until he’s long gone.

“I see you’re trying to focus there. Consider this, you’re a fucking loser, that’s never done shit, and will never do shit.”

Keep working.

“Remember that girl you used to date? She was a looker, huh? Say, remember that one night when you guys…”

Patiently and persistently.

“Life is long, eh? I know!  Let’s think about memories you have long since forgotten, going in reverse chronological order.”

Remain aware.

“Look, just because you wasted your 20’s, doesn’t mean you can’t turn it all around. We should brainstorm every single possible career choice there is out there.”

And equanimous.

“What are you even doing here, man? You joining a cult? If you think about it, this is some pretty weird shit to be doing.”

You’re bound to be successful. 

Hours started to pass quickly, and the fear began to recede.
The pain in my body began to turn into subtle vibrations, and I was able to occasionally scan my whole self without distraction. 

The idea is that if you can cut off the instinctive reaction of judgment to sensation at the physical level, this will in turn result in the same acceptance to the multitude of thoughts that arise and disappear as quickly (or slowly) as those feelings in your body.
Everything is always changing.
Understand this, and it will free you from the constant up and downs of unrecognized emotional reaction. It will sharpen your awareness of thought, and it will make it easy to control your behavior.

It’s way more intricate and complex than that, but there’s my dime store version of it.

The 10 days I spent there were full of juxtaposed mental states.
I ran the proverbial gamut.
Gutter depression one afternoon, tranquility that evening.
Anxiety in the morning, elation by lunchtime.
Hope at dusk, and discontent at dawn.

But as the days progressed, the meditation served to compress those emotional fluctuations. I began to feel stable, and even a bit detached, but in a good way.

One day, walking down a path by myself, I burst out laughing. The ridiculousness of the thoughts that were causing me stress seemed so obvious now.
 Why would I torture myself like that?
What was it that would cause my mind to so utterly turn on itself?

How pointless.


Day 10 came and Noble Silence was lifted. We could now chat amongst ourselves.
Although I had not spoken to any of these guys, not more than a few preliminary words at least, I had begun to consider them my friends. We slid into easy conversation and smiled and laughed as we recounted experiences. There was a lot of common threads amongst what we had all individually went through, although no one else seemed to have had the hallucinations like I did.

A doctor from Detroit and I were talking, and he smiled brightly and asked,

“I just want to know, is my face glowing like yours is?”

It was.

I fell into conversation with another guy about my age from Chicago.
He had wild blue eyes and spoke with zeal and listened with intent.
We talked about meditation, Zen, consciousness, psychology, and life in general.
We were laughing and excited and sharing ideas and interests.
I told him about the dark place.
The empty room. The black void that seemed to be at the bottom.
I told him that it scared me.
I told him I wasn’t sure if I was ready for what I may find there.

He got quiet and serious and looked me right in the eye.

“I know, man. I don’t know if I can handle it either…”

Then he grinned,

“...But that’s the fun part.”

*Wolverine #48 (2003)

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