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S.N. Goenka’s excellent system

Home from the ten-day vipassana course, I recompose my molecules and begin again.  For ten days I was intimate with fifty strangers, sleeping from 10 p.m. till 4 a.m. in chilly dorms, standing in line to pee, jostling before dawn with toothbrushes in our mouths, staggering back to the meditation hall as if back into the mouth of hell.  Intimate as our circumstances were, each of us was engrossed in our own inner filmscape, what Yeats called the rag and bone shop of the heart. Full of memories and secrets, we sat knee to thigh with each other, absolutely still for thirteen hours a day. Sitting times were punctuated by breaks for breakfast and lunch (no dinner), a little time for walking in a spectacular meadow, a little time for personal hygiene, and by occasional five-minute pee-breaks. We sought equanimity, acknowledged impermanence, and watched our minds do what they do. Wander, obsess, fantasize, remember, hash things over and over. Occasionally we left our inner drama long enough to follow instructions.

If one could die of boredom I would have been dead by the third day. God, I was bored. On the fourth day my guts were in knots. By the seventh day I was full of fury, certain vipassana was NOT MY PATH and sick to death of it. On the eighth day I signed up for a ten-minute meeting with the “assistant teacher,” a pleasant-faced white-haired man named Norm Kosky. I raged at him that life is not misery and if enlightenment exists I don’t want any damn part of it. He smiled and said, “So you’re not interested in enlightenment. Fine. But you still want to be liberated from actions that harm others, don’t you?” Yes, damn it. I do. I kept working as hard as I have ever worked in my life, bringing my wild mind back to the truth of the moment on my flesh. By the ninth day I reached great clarity regarding my personal life, my body began tingling with a sense of dissolution in sub-atomic space, and I saw that what I obsess about is trivial. I had found a way to sit without inflicting unbearable pain on my body, I’d figured out how I want to proceed with my new life in Portland, I had the opening line for my novel, and I was deeply grateful. The system of these ten-day courses, preserved in Burma along with the Pali scriptures attributed to the historical Buddha, popularized by S.N. Goenka, is a bit of practical genius.

All you have to do is watch your breath and then watch sensations arise on the body. It’s so easy. And impossibly difficult. There is no way to describe the experience of these meditation camps.  A hundred and thirty hours of mental effort cannot be condensed or summarized. And yet even if you take the course, endure the boredom, and survive the humiliation of witnessing how incredibly stupid your mental habits are, you may still not get the benefits. For that, you have to follow the instructions. The instructions are clear, uncompromising, and shattering to Western notions of individuality. The system bashes the ego all to hell. It’s easy to ridicule. Sarah Macdonald in Holy Cow and Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love both rip Goenka’s course to shreds. Let them have their fun. I enjoyed laughing with them, but I have deep respect for the course. I suck at it, but I’m sticking with it and have recommitted myself to daily practice. 

This was the third time I have done this course. My first was in Massachusetts, in 1989; the second was in Dallas, in 2001. There are vipassana centers in this tradition all over the world. Hundreds of thousands of people do them. What started me was my physician, in Northampton. He was a vipassana meditator and recommended I do the course to see if it would help with migraines. It hasn’t, so far. But it has been worth doing. Each of the three times, I got a little more out of it. I guess one of the things I respect most is that it isn’t set up to make money. There is no charge at all for room and board for the ten days, and at the end of the course, you pay what you feel it’s worth and what you can afford. No questions. No arm-twisting. No humiliating financial need forms to fill out. And yet the system is growing, expanding, reaching more people every year. Amazing. I don’t know how it works, but it obviously does.

Although the whole system is based on what the Burmese believe are the pure and unadulterated teachings of the historical Buddha, Goenka rejects being identified as a “Buddhist” and says this system of meditation is not a “Buddhist” system. He says he rejects sectarianism, rituals, rites, and hocus pocus. While he claims he doesn’t denigrate any system of faith, in fact he takes pretty strong digs at Hinduism and at Buddhist traditions that include props like mantras, visualizations, and statues, bells, and whistles. His sense of humor, his personal warmth, and his fondness for parables endear him to his students all over the world.

I have two quibbles with the system, both concerning who is excluded from it. People who call themselves “healers” or “energy-workers” can’t go. This makes no sense to me, because doctors, nurses, therapists, ministers and all other kinds of “healers” are admitted. The other group of people who can’t go are those diagnosed with mental illness. Most of us are mentally ill some way or other but are undiagnosed and thus untreated (or self-medicated with alcohol, drugs, or what not), so it seems strange to me that those who have acknowledged their mental difficulties and are doing something about them are excluded. Still, I am not running a system for masses of people–hundreds of thousands, in over a thousand languages–so I’m willing to admit that there are probably aspects of the way it’s set up that I will never understand. Apart from these exclusions, I think it’s a very fine system of discipline and training–and if I weren’t so damn rotten at it, I’d probably see that it has even more benefits than I’ve yet experienced. 

The setting of this particular center is spectacular. The buildings are on a hill overlooking a meadow with a little lake, and beyond the meadow lie the foothills of the Cascades. The horizon changes from hour to hour and day to day, depending on how dense and how low the cloud cover is. The first few days of the course were clear bright days, and there, at an unfathomable distance, whiter than white and almost as though painted on a sky-blue canvas drop, was Mt. Ranier. Not since Africa have I seen such stars at night.  Small herds of deer drift peacefully through the meadow, ignoring the silent humans. A forsythia bush by the dining room came into bloom while we were there, as did a host of daffodils; hyacinths and tulips are about to open up, and in another week or so the weeping cherry will blossom.

The people on the course were mostly young. I’d say the average age was maybe 35, though there were five or six of us gray heads. The kids all had wonderful names: Darius, Jeppa, Milan, Raama, Soleil, Miguel, Rui, Broehe, Cami; and many of them had interesting tattoos and piercings. On the tenth day we were allowed to talk to each other, and I found out that the woman whose bed was next to mine and who sat right behind me all those 130 hours is a wool spinner, a former sheep raiser who lives on Whidby Island, a place I’ve dreamed of going for years. We exchanged email addresses. The young woman who drove me home (we carpooled to reduce our carbon footprint) has just moved to Portland herself. She arrived seven days after I did and also chose it because it “felt right” to her. She said, “When my husband and I got to Portland, all the muscles in my body just relaxed.” As we drove into town, we beamed and said simultaneously with a kind of wonder, “This is home!” This is home.

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4 responses to “S.N. Goenka’s excellent system”

  1. h sofia says:

    I called you while you were away – I was headed into town to see a play at the Armory, but your voice mail said your phone was off until later this month. I’d forgotten; then I recalled that you were away at the retreat anyhow. But I will meet you soon! Right now I’m sick with a cold, and feel as lousy as a person in my fortunate situation can feel.

    My thought about the retreat and why they might exclude those with a diagnosis is that they may want to avoid worsening someone’s condition. It sounds like a strange kind of stress and pressure, and someone who is mentally fragile might snap? Or maybe it’s a liability issue (insurance costs)?

  2. Kathryn says:

    Sorry to miss you. Next time we’ll make it. I appreciate your idea about the exclusions. I got another email from a friend who said about the same thing: the rules are probably not meant to exclude but to protect. Good idea. See you soon, I hope.

  3. meditatorgirl says:

    Kindle: The energy healers (EH) using the energies outside their own body for healing are permitted only one course as a trial and then must choose between their EH practice which conflicts with Vipassana for several reasons that can be dangerous to the EH person. The severely mentally ill are usually not accepted, but might rarely be, and only after a careful consultation to determine if it would be to their benefit. Such individuals are really best treated by skilled professionals in the area of their illness, as the meditation can exacerbate the minds of the more mentally compromised persons resulting in hospitalization. Two Vipassana teachers, when there are, did you say 50 others, can not really provide the proper services like a professional institution’s resources with significantly mentally ill persons.

  4. Kathryn says:

    Thank you for this stunning clarity. I get it now. H Sofia and my other friend who responded by email were right: it’s not an exclusion; it’s a way to respect others and to care for them. I withdraw my former quibbles.

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