10 Days of Silence

It felt like the first day high school football’s “Hell Week.” Brimming with nervous excitement, I chatted with the other first-timers.  We swapped our doubts and concerns, mentally preparing for the upcoming 10 days.  A crowd quickly gathered around one of the veterans, The Motivator, I dubbed him.  He was well over the 500-lb mark but he’d been through the course four times already.  “If he can do it, so can I!” I vowed. 

“Try to minimize your suffering,” he advised the group.  “Minimize suffering,” I echoed.  Sounds good to me…that’s my general policy anyway.

A bell rang, calling everyone to gather together.  Little did I know that my life would soon be dictated by bells.  Ding, wake up. Ding, meditate. Ding, eat.  Ding, meditate.  Ding, meditate again.  Ding, eat. Ding, meditate.  Ding, meditate again.  Ding, meditate some more.

At least it was more pleasant than the whistles of football practice.  And rather than angry, screaming coaches with small-man syndrome, it was a soothing instructor, radiating inner peace.

While the group gathered I began to size everyone up.  I was drawn to one guy off to the side, uninterested by newbie babble.  He moved with a calm, deliberate grace and I thought he might drop into the full lotus at any second, hovering on his own inner awareness.  Yoda.

I gazed around, The Yoga Instructor looked right at home.  The fortunate blend of Argentine and Ecuadorian parents, his blond ponytail rested on broad shoulders sculpted and tanned by years of surfing in the land of Pura Vida. He looked like the guy pictured on the cover of your ex-girlfriend’s crappy romance novels.  

I heard laughter and saw “The Eccentric German” surrounded by people hanging on his every word.  He’d moved to Costa Rica forty years ago, long before it was cool.  He exuded the been there, done that mentality.  “Who am I kidding?” I realized, “I don’t belong here.”  Just 24 hours prior I was drinking beers on the beach with old frat buddies.  They were going to see right through me.

After a quick introduction to the course, Noble Silence officially began and everyone entered the meditation hall.  Each person began to unravel his preferred meditation pillows onto the tile floor.  The Yoga Instructor gracefully sank into his minimalist mat and pad. The Eccentric German had an ornately decorated Japanese cushion complete with padded backrest and round side pillows for his knees.  I looked down at my sleeping bag (the only item in my pack bearing slight resemblance to a cushion) and wondered if there would be any award for the Least Prepared Meditator.  Just the night before I went online to find the exact location.  It turned out that the course was not in San Jose, as I’d thought, but in the mountains four hours to the south.  This meant that I had to wake up at 3:00 a.m. (after the beers) and endure a 10-hour bus ride.  I didn’t sleep and wink and showed up with a headache, fever and sore ass.  This is without a doubt the worst possible way to begin 10 days of silent meditation.

“Listen…Feel…each breath,” the Instructor began.  I managed to pass the first hour of mediation without falling asleep or falling off of my cushion and declared it an immediate success.  I went to bed feeling surprisingly positive about the coming week.   

Ding. It was 4 a.m. and the sun wouldn’t be up for hours.  Normally I use these hours for my deepest slumber, but Goenka seemed to think that they better spent meditating.  Two lengthy hours later I limped my way to breakfast.  Everything hurt.  Everything ached.  The Eccentric German slowly paced the corridor, looking monk-like with his hands clasped behind his back as he made each deliberate step.  The Yoga Instuctor and Yoda relaxed and sipped their tea enjoying the mountain scenery.  “How the hell can they sit down at time like this? Why do they look so damn content?” I ate my breakfast standing up.  The schedule after breakfast: three more hours of meditation.  By lunch my ass felt like it had been the victim of a five-hour Whack-a-Mole marathon.  Never in my life had I thought sitting could be so painful. Previously, I had considered it an enjoyable past-time, at which I was quite skilled. No más.

The misery continued into Day Two with constant and interminable agony.  Finally I broke the rules and popped an Advil. It saved my life.  For the first time I actually enjoyed a session.  The headache and fever disappeared.  I avoided pain by changing positions every five or ten minutes.  I don’t recall doing much “meditating” during Days Two & Three, but my mind wandered brilliantly.  I gave myself a virtual tour of the sailboat my family had when I was little, relived random high school sports matches, created recipes and menus for themed dinner parties.  When you’re not talking, not doing anything and have nothing to worry about, your mind produces all kinds of unexpected thoughts and memories.  I mentally wrote postcards and birthday notes to friends and family.  The stream of consciousness is surprisingly amusing.

Day Four.  On Day Four you can no longer move during the meditation sessions.  No changing of position, no fidgeting, no swatting the Dengue-carrying mosquito buzzing your ear.  Have you ever sat still and observed the entire process of an itch starting to develop, increasing in intensity, driving you insane until it finally fades to nothingness.  The sensation seems to last somewhere between millennia and eons.  Day Four is the real deal.  My strategy of constant movement and switching between cross-legged, the knee sit, arms around the legs and legs out front was now outlawed.  It marked the return of misery.  It also resulted my first actual meditating.  The Vipassana practice entails concentrated awareness of subtle sensations on the body, starting at the head and slowly moving down to the toes.  I found that it was the only way to avoid focusing on the pain.  “Alright neck, what’s going on here? Hmmm…wait. Yep, that’s an itch. Definitely an itch.  Okay, on to the back.  Upper back…a little tense. An itch? Nope…false  alarm.  Alright, down to the lower back…Pain! Very sharp pain!”  My inner monologue narrated the tactile sense.

During Days Four and Five I completely skipped the non-mandatory two hour sessions that took up most of the schedule.  I needed them to rest and prepare for the three hour motionless sittings from hell.  I can honestly say that I’ve never been in so much pain.  I would occasionally open my eyes and see Yoda and The Motivator sitting camly, looking relaxed and peaceful.  It was inconceivable. For me, each session was the same.  During the first half hour the pain grows slowly, but exponentially.  The next 15 minutes were excruciating.  The following ten minutes I would just hope to go numb or pass out. For the last five I wanted to scream, trample through the peaceful meditators and run away. But no, screaming would violate the Noble Silence, physical contact was strictly prohibited and running would violate the anti-exercise section of the Code of Discipline.  So I sat.  Seconds passed as ages.  I would shake with pain, determined not to move until the final chant signified freedom to put my leg in front of me and allow blood to flow for the first time in 45 minutes.

On Day Six something miraculous happened.  I learned how to sit.  I figured out a way to sit cross-legged for an hour.  It wasn’t  enjoyable, but I no longer felt the burning desire to yell “I hate sitting and I hate all of you!” while storming out Billy Madison-style.

The last four days passed in a daze.  My mind no longer wandered.  I had already had every possible thought.  There was nothing left to do but meditate.  I fell into the routine, focusing only on the present session until, suddenly, it was Day Ten.  Noble Silence ended.  I had completed the entire 10-day Vipassana course. And it felt brilliant! 

I spotted The Yoga Instructor strolling on the grass.  “How were you so calm and relaxed the entire time?” I just had to ask.

“Are you kidding?” He replied, “my ass was killing me!”

Like me, he discovered the only path to escape the pain, to minimize suffering, was the meditation.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Jake on 26 July, 2010 at 7:42 am

    How many Simpsons episodes did you recreate? I would have gone batshit insane.


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