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A Supposedly Zen Thing I’d Definitely Do Again

The wild inner life of a mind unwound by a 10-day silent retreat

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A Supposedly Zen Thing I’d Definitely Do Again

Zen on the Cheap …

The wild inner life of a mind unwound by a 10-day silent retreat

The author at Dhamma Pakasa Illinois Vipassana Meditation Center
Photograph: ADAM FLINT

There are few reasons to visit Pecatonica, Illinois. The only time I’d been to the agricultural village 15 miles west of Rockford was for a Metallica concert when I was 14. Now, two decades later, I’m headed there for the extreme opposite of a heavy metal show: to live in monk-like silence while attending a 10-day meditation course. No speaking. No phone. No Wi-Fi. When I enrolled, the experience sounded like a healthy escape, a chance to be reacquainted with the unmediated me. To get perspective on why I can’t use the bathroom or get to sleep without the soothing glow of the internet. Instead, I would binge-watch myself, browse the infinite scroll of my own mind.

Suddenly I’m wondering what in the hippie-dippie hell I’d been smoking. Barreling west on I-90 toward the Dhamma Pakasa Illinois Vipassana Meditation Center in a car driven by a meditator I connected with on the retreat’s ride-share board, I’m feeling a million miles from Zen. The prospect of confronting the aspects of myself I’ve staved off with the help of my Netflix queue makes me jittery. I cop a final digital fix as suburban sprawl gives way to dense cornfields. I thumb through Twitter. Shoot off work emails. Peruse my bookmarked news sites. Then, as the car turns off the country road and onto the retreat’s driveway, I text a farewell-for-now to my regular contacts.

The meditation center spreads across a charming but modest patch dotted with weeping willows and cattails. The campus’s three main buildings — a dormitory, a dining hall, and a meditation hall — encircle an algae-choked pond teeming with small frogs. Inside the dining hall, where students check in, the first things I notice are the tennis balls. They cover the feet of every chair to eliminate noise.

“Welcome to meditation prison!” jokes the men’s student manager, a middle-aged guy named Jim Herndon, as he processes my registration. The barrel-chested former air force chaplain radiates what is known in Pali, the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism, as metta — a potent “loving kindness.” He hands me a small drawstring bag for my wallet, keys, and other valuables, which will be locked away for safekeeping. I place my iPhone in the bag and feel an immediate flutter of separation anxiety. “A lot of people find it difficult to let go of their phones,” Herndon says with an empathic smile. “But you’re in for a life-changing experience.”

The objective of Vipassana is nothing less than liberation from all suffering. The technique is thought to be what the Buddha himself used to achieve enlightenment around 2,500 years ago. By developing the mental acuity to perceive first the natural breath and then the smallest sensations on the body, meditators break the habit of craving positive sensations and rejecting negative ones. The path to happiness is understanding that all things pass.

A coordinator bangs a gong to signal the beginning of “noble silence.” That prohibits not only speech but also gestures, eye contact, reading, and writing. The only people we’re allowed to speak to are the student manager and the teacher, who is available twice a day for brief questions. We vow to abstain from killing any being, sexual activity, drugs and alcohol, exercise, and using “luxurious beds” (instead we’re provided with a thin, summer-camp-grade twin mattress). The retreat is segregated by gender. The organizers say it’s to reduce distraction. Signs even demarcate outdoor paths: “Male Boundary” or “Female Boundary.”

We file over to the meditation hall, leaving our shoes in a cubby by the door. From a shelf packed with pillows, I grab one that looks like a Moroccan pouf. Herndon assigns each of us a spot on the carpet of the dimly lit room. Once we are all seated with our eyes closed, the teacher, Ginger Lightheart, a grandmotherly type, cues a recording of someone chanting in Pali. It is the voice of the late S.N. Goenka, the course’s ever-present meditation guide and avuncular host of the nightly video lectures. Goenka, who died in 2013, is responsible for popularizing Vipassana around the world. More than a million people have taken a 10-day course. Dhamma Pakasa alone, one of 13 centers in the United States, has taught an estimated 12,000 students since 2004. It’s so popular that even with 20-some sessions a year, I was waitlisted twice.

“Staaart with a calm and quiet mind,” the guru purrs in his voice-of-God baritone. He instructs me to observe the breath going in, the breath moving out — a practice called Anapana that is the first step toward Vipassana. Maybe the air goes in just one nostril. Maybe both simultaneously. Either way, my mind is to act as a watchman. “Work diligently,” Goenka says. “Work patiently and persistently. You are bound to be successful.”

Then … silence. Well, almost. Someone’s stomach gurgles. Someone else farts.

I crack open an eye. In our modest, loose-fitting clothing, we look like we’re at an adult sleepover. I squeeze my eye shut again and concentrate on my breath. I notice my exhalation ever so slightly moves the hair in my mustache. But then my mind is beset by distraction. My lower back aches and my knees throb from sitting cross-legged. Mercifully, Goenka’s voice returns. He burbles an exit chant in Pali. After that, we troop to the spartan dormitory. It’s 9 p.m. Lights out is at 10. I lie in the dark, eyes open, wondering how I’m going to survive the next 10 days.

The morning of the first full day, I sleep through the 4 o'clock wake-up gong, finally stirring when the breakfast bell tolls at 6:30. At the dining hall, I scoop oatmeal out of a metal steam tray and make a cup of instant coffee. The only sound is the clinking of silverware against plates.

I gaze around, making sure not to lock eyes with anyone. Most of the youngish white guys in my group look like Outward Bounders who lead zipline tours. One wears a “Namaste” T-shirt. Another’s hat reads “Be Here Now.” There’s also a hippie elder with stringy gray hair and a wannabe monk with shaved eyebrows who seems to levitate in his foot-glove shoes.

The retreat, including room and board, is free of charge. That’s strategic: By taking money out of the mix, I become a beggar-monk, thankful for anything I’m given. For lunch at 11 a.m., we are served “simple, vegetarian” meals: curried chickpea stew, Thai-style saffron rice. There is no dinner. Instead, during a 5 p.m. tea break, new students are offered apples, bananas, and oranges. I eat one of each and actually feel my ego deflating.

Aside from meal breaks and an afternoon rest hour, I am to meditate, in either the dorm or the hall, for 10 hours and 45 minutes per day. Three sittings are mandatory all-student Goenka-guided affairs in the hall. The final one is followed by a viewing of the guru’s evening lecture — a mix of technique-related reminders and apocryphal stories.

During the second day’s discourse, Goenka first mentions “the monkey mind,” the unstable, agitated brain that swings from one thought to the next. The intention of Vipassana, he says, is to tame this havoc-causing wild animal. It strikes me that the internet is the monkey mind’s manifestation, offering branches in the form of links and tweets from which to swing from one disparate subject to another.

Taming my monkey mind is no easy task. Not when I’m seated cross-legged on the ground for an hour. “It’s like running a marathon sitting still,” the guy who gave me a ride had warned me. I find myself thinking about anything but the sensations around my nostrils. I mentally belt out the chorus of “Karma Chameleon.” I script a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode set at a silent retreat. Back in my dorm room, I find it impossible to meditate with flies buzzing in my face. Buddha surely would’ve let them live. I smack them dead against the window with a Kleenex box.

By day 3, I feel like I’m whittling my mind into a sharp and useful tool. My attention still strays, but it’s on a shorter leash. I’m stingingly aware of the world around me in a way I haven’t felt since I was a child. I note the dewy air just after sunrise dancing with the barnyard scent of the Illinois countryside. The central pond inevitably becomes a metaphor for my mind: Some days the water is murky; other days, so clear I can observe its greatest depths.

Day 4 we graduate from Anapana to Vipassana, directing our hyperawareness to the entire body. Moving from the top of my head to the tips of my toes, I scan each part, attentive to any sensation. Just observing. By days 5 and 6, when we’re urged not to flinch for a full hour, I extend my stillness record to 50 minutes. Everyone limps out of the hall on numb legs to walk the paths in a postmeditation stupor. I wonder if the occupants of the rare car that passes believe the asylum residents are escaping.

It’s obvious some of my fellow meditators are struggling. They’ll exit sittings early to sulk on a bench or crouch alongside the pond, lazily poking at the algae with a twig. A few days into the course, one student leaves because the discipline reminds him too much of his strict Mormon upbringing. Goenka tells us that it’s normal to ache, to be frustrated by wandering thoughts. He says this is the body and mind resisting attempts to correct the habits that lead to a life of misery.

After chafing against the rules for a few days — no one’s gonna tell me when I can and can’t bathe! — I realize therein lies the genius of the retreat. With everything decided for me and diversions eliminated, feelings I’ve long ignored or drowned out rise to the surface unbidden. I seethe with fresh resentment over losing a job. I swell with regret for being “too busy” to visit a beloved uncle in the days before he succumbed to cancer. Each painful thought exhibits as an unpleasant bodily sensation that diminishes somewhat once I observe it with a balanced mind.

I also recognize that no matter how laid-back the environment, I can always find someone or something to annoy me. Here it’s my suite mate, a stern-faced physician. Our bedrooms are separated by little more than a thin stucco wall. And he’s a snorer. He wakes with the aid of an against-the-rules electric alarm at 3:45 a.m. — robbing me of 15 precious minutes of sleep — and jumps into the shower. The dorm plumbing squeals like a stuck pig. The worst part: Noble silence dictates I say nothing. One morning, incensed by the predawn racket, I ask myself, What is this anger? Physically, it manifests as a quickening of the pulse. Faster, heavier breathing. Tenseness. I observe the sensations, reminding myself that they will pass. As if by magic, they do.

And, oh, how clearheaded I am! Maybe it’s the regimented sleep; I’ve not been to bed consistently before midnight since elementary school. Or perhaps all the vitamin-rich vegetarian food. Or maybe it is the meditation. I watch a bee poke around on a flower without thinking, Gee, I should Google “How do bees pollinate?” Pangs of boredom surge through my body for the first time since I was a teenager, and it’s like being reunited with a long-lost part of myself.

When noble silence ends on the retreat’s final full day — a “cushion” day to ease us back into the world — I worry speaking will disturb whatever inner peace I’ve managed to cultivate. In front of the dorm, I join a circle of guys chattering. “Can the Goenka impressions commence?” I say. The line gets a laugh. Talk quickly turns to sensations. One describes feeling like his skin was covered in fizzy Pop Rocks. Another speaks of pleasurable surges of lightning down his spine. Yet another achieved bhanga, a sense of total bodily dissolution.

There are also plenty of accounts of dark nights of the soul. One guy admits to sobbing daily. Another confides that he had fantasies of torturing someone who had severely wronged a loved one. There are epiphanies, too. One 20-something decided he should break up with his girlfriend, while another says he’ll now agree to his girlfriend’s request for an open relationship.

After breakfast on departure day, a volunteer hands me the bag that contains my wallet, keys, and iPhone. Do I really want to plug back into the Matrix? I push the power button. The Apple icon appears. It reminds me of the full moon on the ninth night, pure white light in the big black sky. Alerts for 10 days of missed text messages and emails and voicemails flood the screen. I sense my monkey mind stirring, preparing to swing again.

Then Goenka’s sonorous voice rattles in my head: “Start with a calm and quiet mind.” I close my eyes, focus on my breath, then my body, and I remember the law of impermanence: This too shall pass.

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