I feel like a animal in a cage. This is why the tigers pace back and forth all day at the edge of their enclosure. They are well fed. They are safe. But they are not free. Our teacher made a joke in the lecture last night that we are in a sort of prison. We laughed. But I’m not laughing now. The only exercise permitted is walking. My watch has a pedometer. I’ve never been so keen on reaching 10,000 steps per day as I am now, in the English countryside at Dhama Dipa, on a 10-day vipassana meditation course.
The code is strict: wake up is at 4 a.m. every day, no talking, no stealing, no sleeping on luxurious beds, no reading or writing, no electronics, no killing, no sexual misconduct, men and women are separated, and no intoxicants. Bedtime is 9:30 p.m. with lights out at 10, but I rarely stay away past 9:35, I’m so tired from spending more than ten hours a day meditating.
For a practice that’s supposed to bring peace and happiness, it sure is paranoia inducing. The last thing Craig said to me when he dropped me off in Hereford was, “I’ll be back in 10 days to pick up your body.” He was joking, but since all my electronics are locked up and no one is expecting to hear from me for more than a week it would be the perfect set up for an organ harvesting or cult rituals. There is another retreat center just next door. I see other women, (who I later learn are old students on more advanced courses in meditation,) walking while I’m walking. I imagine we are in an alternate reality being held captive for breeding, for cloning, for some evil geniuses’ science experiment.
We are Pavlov’s dogs following the sound of a gong. DONG. Wake up. DONG. Eat breakfast. DONG. Gather in the meditation hall. DONG. Eat lunch. DONG. Meditate. We are like herds of silent sheep. The actual sheep are in the pasture just beyond the property line. It’s lambing season and the babies are so cute and so small. They bleat all day following their mothers around as they graze.
Spring has come early to England and for that I am grateful. I have my wellies and my raincoat, but it only really pours one day out of ten. I walk the path every day and see the buds coming out of the trees in real time. First nothing then tiny sprouts then crumpled leaves that unfurl and grow. The most beautiful crocuses I’ve ever seen are candy striped deep purple, lavender and white. The daffodils cluster under the trees and by the end of the week, the magnolias are in bloom. I feel like Gregor Mendeleev going to check on the phenotype of each new sprout.
I eat oatmeal with stewed prunes and raisins for breakfast every day garnished with cinnamon, a generous spoonful of peanut butter, honey and a banana. Lunch is at 11, always vegetarian and usually quite good: curries, pasta, rice dishes, and a big salad. Tea is served at 5. Old students take lemon water or tea without milk. New students, like myself, can have tea with milk and two pieces of fruit. I eat another banana and a pear. The first few days I was hungry, now I just start to feel a twinge of hunger around 8 p.m. I tell myself I’ll be asleep soon. That this is just another sensation. That it is impermanent. This too shall pass. Don’t wish it away.
The goal of this type of meditation is to observe things as they really are, to observe the self as it really is, not as we wish it to be. Easier said than done. Conversations play and replay in my head. I am worried, I think about things, events, people. Let them pass. I tell myself I’ll think about these things at the next meal. Usually I forget and don’t have to think about them at all. I’ve never been with only my thoughts for this length of time. I’ve never be silent for this many days. I don’t remember the last time I went 24 hours without looking at a screen let alone 240. I worry something horrible has happened “out there” and I’ll have no way of knowing. Let it pass. The mind will do anything to distract itself from the work at hand.
There are about 120 students in the course. Some don’t make it until the end and go home early. Everyone working at the center is a volunteer, all the kitchen staff and the two course managers and the two assistant teachers. All the groundskeeping and repair work is done by old students. The center runs on donations. It’s an incredible operation. I tell myself if this many people give their time and money for me to learn, it must be worth it.
The meditation hall is beautiful, with an entrance on each side, one for the men and one for the women. The lobby has shoe and coat racks. I pace it during breaks. There Is a large ficus, a fern, a small ficus, a blooming Christmas cactus, a spindly tree that looks like it’s seen better days, four pots of geraniums and another spindly tree. There are also 15 birch trees just outside the hall, and 6 sinks in the bathroom and 6 steps leading to the dining hall. Being silent has made me very observant.
By day 7 my mind has finally quieted. I am able to sit for longer on my cushion, wrapped in tan blankets. The men’s blankets are blue. I have found a rhythm. I walk and shower at lunch. I sleep after breakfast. I brush my teeth before the final lecture of the day. I become attached to my routine and feel anxious as the final day approaches. I like being quiet. The difficulty of sitting has lead me toward some profound realizations. This too, I think to myself, shall pass.