4 of us left Long Beach CA on Dec 21st headed for the Southern California Vipassana Meditation Center at 29 Palms California. My friend Jim Smith, retired attorney and current ham radio operator at the Queen Mary had invited me to attend this 10-day meditation retreat. This was his fourth time to do this. I drove and picked up two more people; Horacio, Latino son of bracero farm workers and a Stanford religious studies graduate and Khue, Vietnamese son of boat refugees from Viet Nam and with a Masters degree in Linguistics. The lively conversations on the drive left me with a hunger for more discussions however we were all headed to 10 days of silence. Horacio and Khue were to be volunteer servers. The servers are previous students that prepare the food and do simple chores around the facility. Jim and I were students.
The Center is 20 acres with 11 buildings. This ten day class had 42 men and 40 women attending as students. There were 6 servers, 4 assistant teachers and several administrators on site. No one is paid for this work…all volunteers.
There are 3 residents buildings for male and 3 for female. Each student has a small private room with a bed, bath and shower. The Servers have their own resident buildings.
The Kitchen and dining hall is equipped with sliding walls to keep the men and women separate. Two very tasty and filling meals are provided each day, breakfast and lunch only.
The main meditation hall is approximately 100 by 40 feet. Men on the left, women on the right. Most sat on cushions or bolsters and some sat in chairs. The only requirement for sitting was to stay vertical, on knees, cross legged or in chairs. Two video screens in front provided recorded lectures from Goenka, the man who created this 10 day Vipassana Retreat. Four assistant teachers sat in front of the students. What is called “Noble Silence” is maintained for the 10 days. This is no interaction with anyone, neither eye contact or any kind of acknowledgement. Speaking is allowed only with the assistant teachers, after 9:00PM at the end of the day. The intention is to create the experience of being alone.
One of the promises of Vipassana is to provide access everyone’s in-born peaceful heart by disappearing cravings and aversions. This was why I went. Craving attention, self pity and lust filled thoughts have been stupidly consistent demons in my life. They have damaged my relationships and peace of mind.
I had chosen the holidays to do this. My family and close personal relationships did not like or understand why I chose to be gone over the holidays. When I am lost in my pervasive weirdly craving judgmental thoughts I am not really present(although I may look like it) anyway so I figured this was as good a time as any.
The day started at 4:00 AM with a loud gong sound outside the room. First sitting of meditation is from 4:30 to 6:30. Then breakfast and back to sitting from 8:00 to 11:00. 11:00 to 1:00 is lunch and rest time then back to sitting from 1:00 to 5:00. 5:00 to 6:00 is resting and tea time and then 6:00 to 9:00 PM is “Discourse” (lectures) and more sitting in meditation.
Goenka explains that he is not a “Holy Man’, no super powers or saintly qualities. He is a businessman and householder with a wife and children. He created this structure to deliver meditation instruction to teach people how to purify their own minds. He asked that we not bring any other religious practices or artifacts into this practice. No mantra’s, prayers, talisman, books, nothing. He asked that we not bring any books or writing materials either.
The first instruction is to begin to focus all our attention on a very small specific part of our body. Attempt to feel the breath moving through the nostrils and any sensation possible on the skin above the upper lip. Just concentrate on this and as your mind drifts off keep bringing it back to the physical sensations. 10 hours of this on day one and 10 hours on day two. By the middle of day two my mind was very, very busy with wildly lust filled and otherwise thoughts of everything I had either experienced or wanted to experience in my 73 years. I then remembered an instruction I had received many years ago from a trusted advisor, Dallas Ewing, who taught me “to ask God to remove the impure thoughts.”
So I did that. It worked as it had before. Hooray.
Day three at 9:00 PM I go to one of the instructors and tell him I had resorted to praying.
He said, “Praying?, How so, what about?”
I said, “ I asked God to remove my impure thoughts”
He said, “Oh no, please do not do that. It will work but only temporarily. They will come back. How long ago did you learn to do that?”
I said, “Twenty years ago”
He said, “Yeah, stop doing that and learn this way. Those impure thoughts are actually grounded in your body. When we teach you to sit quietly and not react or resist or crave them they will drift away by themselves.
I remembered a very old and apt quote from a wise person:
“What you can let be will let you be”
Part two will come next week.