The People of Vipassana
Doing my 10-day Vipassana meditation course I am surrounded by 60 some other women. We all live in two long bunk houses and eat in the same dining hall. We shower in the same toilet block. We walk the same mulch covered loop. But I don’t know them. I can’t say “thank you” when they hold the door. And I can’t make eye contact when we pass. It’s a strange existence being in such close proximity and not knowing anyone’s story.
I not allowed to speak or read or write so I observe. I observe the signs around the property. In the bathrooms: “please wash your hands.” In the dining hall: “Please return your cups.” On every sink a label of “drinking water,” or “not drinking water,” lets us know where to fill our water bottles. In the meditation hall: “please leave your shoes here,” and “please refrain from exercising or lying down on the carpet,” and “please do not eat or drink in the meditation hall.”
Another woman with striped Mary Janes brushes her teeth at the same time as me. We run into each other like clockwork in the small bathroom outside the G block of rooms. She is my teeth brushing friend. I try not to make eye contact, but on the last day of silence I can’t help but smile at her in the mirror. She gives me a nod.
I’ve made up stories about the other students. There’s a woman with a motorized scooter and my neighbor has crutches. They get the primo seats near the window in the dining hall. I was feeling anxiety about waiting in line and finding a place to sit. I can’t ask if a seat is taken or if someone at a table wants company. Too bad if they don’t. The coveted seats at at a bar under the windows. There’s no awkward lack of eye contact, just the birds and the flowers.
There’s a group who sit outside the bathrooms in the evening to watch the sunset. They are the sunset watchers. There is a group that lay on the grass in the walking area when the sun is out after lunch. They are the sunbathers. There is a very young looking women who sneaks in yoga stretches and squats. There’s a woman who wears a hat with ears. She’s made herself a seat in the woods out of branches. She watches the sheep.
We are assigned cushions in the meditation hall. There is a sick woman behind me and to the right. I spoke with her on the first day before we were silent. She’s also American, and she has a wicked cold. I try not to judge. She must be miserable. On the fifth night, at the meditation sit of the day one of the men lets out a huge, long fart. It is the loudest, longest bit of flatulence I have ever heard. I smile. Someone laughs. This sets off a chain reaction of a dozen laughs. Someone can’t control themselves and laughs longer and harder. This sets others to laugh at the laughter. It quiets down. Then starts up again. We have ignored each other for five days and finally this fart has broken the tension and allowed us to bask in the ridiculousness of this life and our decision to be here. The uncontrollable giggler excuses himself to the hall. Our teacher, in her ever even lilt in the exact verbiage of every other polite command on the premise, keeps her eyes closed simply says, “Please, continue meditating.”
We are silent. But we can’t help ourselves making eye contact on our way to bed. We can’t help smiling and gigging like little boys. On the last day when we are permitted to talk, the great fart of day five is a prime topic of conversation. “Oh, how about that fart?” “Did you loose it when that guy farted?” “Do you know who it was?” “He didn’t even try to muffle it, huh?” We are all gross, deeply flawed human beings. Perfection is not only impossible, but undesirable and it’s ridiculous to think otherwise.