Meditation Camp

I went to a meditation retreat this past summer, something I had been meaning to do since high school. This is the kind of thing that High-School Steve would have been into. We’re talking about a guy that suffered an entire night through Also Sprach Zarathustra because he thought Nietzsche would be somehow ennobling. Now, six years later and much changed, I hoped to regain a glimpse of my former incarnation by enrolling in the ten-day session.

This in direct defiance of the meditation guru, who admonished us on Day One that the only appropriate motivation is the pursuit of nibbanic peace.

Day One, we were aware of our breath. When the breath was entering, we were aware that it was entering. When the breath was exiting, we were aware that it was exiting. Oh, how my legs hurt! The meditation benches, the wedge-shaped pillows, the round meditation pillows. Nothing seemed to help.

No reading materials, no writing, no entertainment. Those were the rules. Moral precepts, really. No talking, no physical contact. Strict separation of the sexes. No eye contact. No meals after midday.

The vow of silence I grew to enjoy. The dietary restrictions were difficult at first but I grew used to stewed prunes and oatmeal and by Day Four my stomach had stopped hurting. We all compensated for the lack of distractions in different ways. A few times I caught myself immersed in the ingredient list on my tube of toothpaste.

High-School Steve had a one-pointedness that I have begun to miss. He was intense, too idealistic. He wanted to enter the fray and find the crucible truth, the purifying truth. He had within himself the seeds of his own destruction.

By Day Two my legs were fine. My whole body felt great. When the breath was moving through the left nostril, we were aware that it was moving through the left nostril. When the breath was moving through the right nostril, we were aware that it was moving through the right nostril. When the breath was moving through both nostrils, we were aware that it was moving through both nostrils. Every thirty seconds or so my imagination would drift towards the Harry Potter book I’d been listening to on the drive up. The Prisoner of Azkaban.

My tentmate spoke to himself in his sleep, holding up both ends of a conversation.

I came to college expecting to push myself. A few months into my undergraduate career it struck me that the more I pushed, the more I suffered. Suffering was a common tactic at Harvard, the secret trick in our freshman year playbook that everyone kept pulling out, day after day. My roommate took suffering to its mesmerizing fruition, tearing out his hair over his Chem 10 textbook while blasting The Rite of Spring as preparation for his Lit/Arts B final.

I strained to overhear the construction workers across the way talking about the Patriots game. I wasn’t supposed to be doing this. I was supposed to be concentrating on my breath.

My studies of Buddhism at Harvard left me a skeptic with a head full of academic Buddhist trivia, which I figured would do more harm than good in the ten-day retreat. I was absolutely correct. Midway though Day Seven I decided that the guru was a reckless, fraudulent demagogue.

Three hours of serious sitting meditation each day, along with seven more hours each day of supplemental meditation. Not that there was anything else to do. By day nine we were meditating at every waking minute. Lying meditation, dressing meditation, walking meditation, teeth-brushing meditation, pissing meditation, walking meditation, sitting meditation, walking meditation, eating meditation, walking meditation, and then, usually, a nap.

The construction workers were putting up a new pagoda and some residence halls. “I’ll say this much. Tom Brady has got a fucking howitzer. A fucking howitzer.” I strained to hear the score.

It was March of my freshman year when I chose not to suffer. College Steve was the antithesis born of this decision. I had no patience for the high-minded abstractions that drove my earlier incarnation. I kept instead at my core a storm of skepticism, optimism mixed with pessimism, doubt mixed with faith, satire, irony, Dennis Leary mentality, a deep distrust of the idealized. Cultlessness.

“Reckless, fraudulent demagogue. Reckless, fraudulent demagogue.” That was my opinion of the guru, and by Day Seven it was on five-second loop in my head.

Day Three and my legs felt great. My mind was clear and calm. Ron Weasley had disappeared as if under an invisibility cloak. We were aware of the touch of the breath rushing past the inside of our nostrils, the rim of our nostrils, and our upper lip. I was in high spirits. My mind was calm and clear. There was one particular thing that day that I didn’t want to be doing, and that was attending to the touch of my breath.

Inorganic chemistry and The Rite of Spring are not subjects that should be studied simultaneously. Missing the nuance of the Stravinsky is one thing; there is no way that anyone can possibly reason through Lewis acid-base pairs with “The Glorification of the Chosen One” blasting 11/8 in his ear.

My knee started hurting. That was the beginning of the crisis. That was the first trickle in the dyke. An old soccer injury. High-School Steve blew out his knees because he didn’t know when to take it easy. Or, he wouldn’t accept his physical limitations. It was a stupid thing to do, and it’s been nagging me ever since.

For me, the 4:30 session was hit-or-miss. The mind can be very focused that early in the morning. Two hours of luxurious meditation before breakfast. By the end of the course I was sleeping straight through to 7:00.

I kept my interest in Eastern philosophy through college, which led me junior year to a Div School course called Buddhist Meditation Traditions. The class was brutally dry and factual. The professor told us up front that it was going to be a stodgy academic study, we would not be practicing meditation ourselves, we would not be looking at these traditions through rose-colored glasses. The professor showed no interest in integrating Buddhist meditation with yoga or the Atkins diet into the American lifestyle.

Over the semester I became particularly sensitive to the practice of some theologians to take a diverse, rich tradition like Buddhism and dig through it for aspects that appeal to our modern sensibilities. Picking and choosing, sifting and labeling. And then, they clump together everything that pleases us and call it “essential” Buddhism, even though it does not line up with any sect of Buddhism in current practice, nor the exact teachings of the historical Buddha himself. The Buddha said to love your enemy? Ah! This is essential Buddhism! The Buddha said that there is a giant iron mountain in the center of the universe? No, this is not an essential part of the Buddhist practice. And then these same theologians trumpet that “essential Buddhism”—Lo and Behold!—is the same as “essential Christianity”. This trick especially hits home when they hijack one or two factoids from modern physics and massage them enough to imply that the Buddha and Einstein said, essentially, the same thing.

By Day Four my motivation was back. My legs felt good. My mind was calm and clear. I was eager to attend to my breath. We were aware of the touch of the breath on our upper lip alone. We were also aware of any tingling sensations, any sensations of warmth or cold, any sensations of pain or pressure on our upper lip. Never before in my life has my nose produced as much snot as during Day Four of this vipassana retreat.

Snot is a major hurdle in focused breathing exercises. Snot is also a difficult issue when a hundred disciples are packed into a meditation hall with such excellent acoustics. In the end it was something we all had to deal with; those who hadn’t caught the head cold by Day Four were suffering through it on Day Seven or Eight, when the serious work was underway.

The threefold path of morality, tranquility, and insight? Essential Buddhism! Belief in reincarnation? Gautama the Buddha was probably not very serious about this.

Morality, that was the precepts. Do not eat after midday and all that. Do not sleep on high or luxurious beds. Tranquility we got out of the way in the first four days with our breathing exercises. Insight was the real work, and it began on Day Five with our first session of vipassana.

Let’s say there’s one chair open at the lunch table. Should I sit there? Does everyone else at the table already know each other? I don’t know everyone at the table. Will I get introduced or will I just start eating? Will the table conversation be all about what the rest of them did last night? Will I be able to get a word in? Will someone change the topic of discussion so that I can be included? Will I have to say something clever before finishing up, so as not to leave unnoticed? There are all issues that you don’t have to worry about when everyone at the table has undertaken a vow of silence.

Sitting on the floor motionless for an hour, three times a day for ten days, it builds up: physical pain was an unavoidable part of the course. Unavoidable, but not to be feared. Really, a little bit of leg or back pain provided a good chance to practice equipoise. The guru himself hinted at this. A big part of Buddhist practice is to accept comfort and discomfort with an equanimous mind. And what made vipassana unique was that it operates entirely on a physical level, the mind focused exclusively on bodily sensation.

From this perspective a little soreness and burning is an opportunity, not a setback. I looked forward to the aches and pains in the hour-long sessions. Once I adopted this mindset, the same physical discomfort that would have otherwise caused suffering became a welcome tool.

I turned against the guru when he started insinuating that vipassana is the only reliable path to happiness. I hate it when people overstate their case. That, and he started running a little fast and loose with the scriptures. Also, there was also a taut and needling pain on the inside of my left knee.

The first session of vipassana was one of the most intense mental experiences in my life. By the end of the hour my mind and body were searing with intensity. It was exhilarating. The first four days of breathing exercises had served to relax and focus our minds. Now, with vipassana, we wielded our minds like a scalpel.

The discomfort of motionless meditation didn’t seem so innocuous when my knee started hurting. That ripping, burning sensation in my legs, I decided resentfully, was from actual ripping and burning and more than just the psychosomatic manifestation of negative sankaras or whatever bullshit the guru had been peddling at us.

I might have come to the vipassana course to reconnect with my earlier incarnation, I wasn’t expecting to remember him in my knees. And my response, thankfully, was not the one that High-School Steve would have chosen. Against the advice of the guru, I made accommodation for the pain, shifting and stretching until I felt comfortable. I decided not to let any theory override my better instinct.

If I hadn’t taken my Buddhist class at Harvard I wouldn’t have realized that the guru was twisting the scriptures to fit neatly into his teachings. He tried to slip some dodgy interpretation past us, concealing half of a truth, and I wasn’t prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

When my crisis burst open, Day Seven, my meditation practice went to shit. Here I am, trying to observe bodily sensations, trying to practice equanimity, and every time the guru opens his mouth I grimace, I am fury. Talk about generating negative sankaras. How am I supposed to deal with this? My only guide in this whole process is the goddamn guru, and he’s the one problem with my whole practice.

And the grand irony is, by this time my body is fine. I fidget with a vengeance. I shift my weight out of spite. My knee is feeling better, but I’m a wreck and this stupid vipassana practice only works through physical sensations. Fuck!


I’m surrounded by a sea of placid, sniffling meditators. Fuck!

Eventually, near the end of Day Eight, I worked my way out of this double-bind by separating the guru from his practice. Even if vipassana were being clothed in questionable theory, even if this theory were being presented in a dishonest manner, so what. The practice itself did not rely on theory. Vipassana is simple and I admired it for its simplicity: focus on a sensation, accept the sensation, move on.

All of the nonsense that the guru was spouting about the Buddha, in retrospect I shouldn’t have let it bother me so much. The guru himself was a Burmese ex-salesman, and he was in the habit of telling his audience what they wanted to hear. There was no reason to get infuriated by his insinuations that the efficacy of his technique had been more or less proven by the gents at the Berkeley Particle Accelerator. By Day Nine I was back in the business of finding my own proof.

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