Day Nine, being our last day of noble silence, had a different flavor to it, a sort of “last day of summer camp” feel. The last day of anything feels different, if you happen to know in advance that it will be the last day of that thing.
Goenka had told us that this would be the last day of serious work in the course. Once we opened our mouths on Day Ten and words fell out, well…all bets were off. (His language was we would switch from “noble silence” to “noble chattering”.)
So, even though it was serious work that was soon coming to an end and I was relieved about that, I also felt a heightened sense of urgency to do my best. After all, it would be my last opportunity to build upon all of these consecutive days of immersive meditation and soak in this unusual experience.
It would also be the last day of eating together in silence, of sharing the walking path in silence, of having moments of observing nature (and observing each other observing nature!) in silence.
Slowing down in this way and, importantly, having all distractions removed (including conversation), naturally led to paying closer attention to the natural world around us. The grounds of the Southern California Vipassana Center (and, I would imagine, the other Vipassana center locations worldwide) are by design situated in a beautiful and tranquil natural setting. It was not uncommon to stop and give sustained attention to something we would likely have ignored in our “householder” lives: the bustling activity in and around an anthill; a rabbit feeding on some leaves; the changing light in the sky, over the horizon, or on the surrounding landscape; or even a perfectly still cactus specimen. I loved having these opportunities, as well as watching my fellow students indulging in them.
Closer observation of the natural world, in an atmosphere of silence, also seemed to highlight the parallels between our internal and external worlds. Careful inspection of a cholla cactus, with its incredible proliferation of sharp, protective spines, reminded me of a particularly defended person I know (and, of course, my own self-protective tendencies). The ever-changing light in the sky reflected back that same aspect of my own body sensations, moods, and emotions.
At the same time, the pull to wander away from the present moment was still strong, even while I was acutely aware of its impermanence. There was still curiosity, for instance, about what the next day would be like, when we could finally speak to each other, and this conflicted with my attempts to maximize appreciation for this last day in silence.
“Being here now”? Turns out: not so easy. It takes practice!
At last, Day Ten arrived. It was also known as “Metta Day”, in reference to another meditation technique we would be adding to our practice for the course’s grand finale.
I was already quite familiar with Metta (aka, Lovingkindness) – in fact, I dedicated a whole post to it here.
It is among the most beautiful practices I know of. It can be profoundly moving, cleansing, and heart-opening. It can bring about feelings of warmth and connectedness towards oneself and one’s fellow beings everywhere. I was anticipating it might be especially powerful following nine days of intense silent meditation!
And, I must admit, the thought occurred to my cynical side that it might also be a smart way of ending the retreat on a high-note and putting people in a very “giving” (as in “donating”) frame of mind.
Speaking of money, you might be wondering what all of this costs? This ten-day retreat, on beautiful and carefully maintained grounds, complete with healthy meals, lodging, and guided instruction? Turns out there is no cost at all. It is entirely donation-based. What’s more, they only accept donations from people who have completed a course. They will receive donations (according to your own “means and volition”) on the last day of the course or any time thereafter. And this is their entire source of funding!
If you think about it, it is quite an impressive business model. Imagine the confidence a company must have in its product or service for its stance to be: Try it out first. Then, only if you feel it is of value to you, pay us whatever you feel like. You can keep it regardless. How many businesses would survive like that?
Honestly, I don’t know how they make it work, but there are centers worldwide (they each operate independently even though they follow the same structure and all use Goenka’s recordings) and it seems like demand for and interest in courses is only increasing (the SCVC has an expansion/construction plan already in place that will double the capacity of students it can hold at any given time; the current capacity is 35 men and 35 women).
I thought for sure there would be a hard push for donations on the last day, complete with lots of guilt-tripping and in-your-face “requests”. But, as with so many other aspects of the course, my expectations were upended. They made it known where and when we could donate. In this area, there were some brochures and some literature about Vipassana, and a modest trade show-style display showcasing programs, other retreats, and the expansion plan for this particular center. There was a single volunteer on hand at a table (one on the men’s side, one on the women’s side) to take donations. But there was no pressure whatsoever to donate, nor even as much as a suggested amount mentioned by anyone. I was very pleasantly surprised. I actually thought they could have done at least a little more promotion than they did. (How refreshing is that?!)
Back to the Metta.
Again, I was surprised by what I felt was an opportunity missed.
Goenka’s instructions for and delivery of the guided Metta practice (via audio only) were, to my ears, seriously lacking. Granted, his presentation style on the audio-only recordings took some getting used to. His voice (as I have previously described) could sound downright sinister at times.
Here, as he spoke of radiating out love and goodwill towards all living creatures, his voice sounded utterly ghastly. Imagine someone on his deathbed, with hardly any life left in him, slowly sounding out the following words in as dreary, bloodless, lackluster, and gravelly a manner as you can imagine: “Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaappppppppppppyyyyyyyyyyyy.”
I’m not kidding.
He took what has, in my experience, been a deeply moving practice (I was expecting us all to be reduced to tears of compassionate joy) and utterly sucked all of the beauty and heart out of it, eliciting not a trace of lovingkindness or any other feeling out of me, other than boredom. (I would refer you instead to Jack Kornfield’s guided audio recording of this meditation [he calls it Lovingkindness] for a dramatically different, much more impactful and beautiful rendering. Then again, I would refer you to almost any other guided version you might find anywhere!)
Anyway, once our morning group sit, and instructional session in Metta (as it was) had officially ended, we left the mediation hall, where a sign on display informed us that the noble silence had been lifted, and (outside of and way from the vicinity of the hall, please) we were now free to speak with one another!
Needless to say, this changed everything. We introduced ourselves, congregated and conversed in small groups, and smiled and laughed a lot.
People were generally nothing like the versions of themselves I had imagined in my head. All kinds of unexpected accents emerged from people’s mouths! Who knew this guy was British? Or that one was from Finland? NEVER would have guessed that! There were plenty of southern Californians, yes, but also many others from all over the world. And, of course, through conversation, people revealed all kinds of things that seemed to counter whatever impressions I had generated from observing them over the previous nine days.
There would still be more meditation sessions to follow (and these would require silence), but in between the conversation flowed freely, and the atmosphere was markedly different. It felt like a completely different version of the same place. We were even served dinner! 😊
The course does not actually conclude until the following morning. There was a very early group session (I believe we had to be in the hall by 4:45am) consisting of some extended Goenka chanting and a final video discourse from the man himself to send us off back into the world. He recapped all that we had covered and practiced in the previous ten days, and encouraged us to incorporate the practice in our everyday lives.
The most meaningful thing, to me, in this last lecture was his plea for us to not throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. He clearly believed in the benefits of Vipassana practice, and sincerely wished for others to experience these. “If you heard something during the course of these lectures that you did not like or agree with,” he told us, “that’s fine. Just discard it.” But he urged us not to dismiss the entire practice because of this. His message was that Vipassana could still be immensely helpful in cultivating equanimity in everyday life, if we practiced studiously.
It made sense to me that it had been a fellow Appalachian Trail hiker that had planted the seed for my doing this retreat, as I mentioned in the first post of this series. While the two experiences (long-distance backpacking and an intensive meditation retreat) were very different, there were certainly some parallels:
- Both entail taking a temporary break from the rat race and living a much more simplified lifestyle (although by no means one devoid of hard work).
- Both involve eschewing electronic devices to a significant extent (although nowadays there is probably a proliferation of cell phones on the AT as opposed to when I did it back in 2002; whether or not reception is available for them is another story).
- Both experiences highlight the interconnectedness of body and mind. While hiking long distances with a heavy pack through a variety of terrain and weather is a significant physical challenge, there is also a huge mental component to getting through it. Similarly, meditating for hours on end, though most obviously a challenge for the mind, also has a significant physical aspect to it (namely, tolerating prolonged sitting, especially when one is practicing “strong determination” to sit perfectly still or is experiencing significant pain or discomfort).
- Both offer opportunities for self-reflection, as well as observation of the natural world. The combination of these two things is a significant feature of both experiences, and makes apparent the ways in which the processes and states of internal and external world phenomena are analogous (e.g., changes in “weather” and “perspective”).
- Both inevitably force you to confront, and learn things about, yourself.
- Both are undertakings that are essentially independent ones, but not completely. They also include crucially important support from others, in one form or another (be it the phenomenon of “trail angels” [Google it] or silent solidarity).
- Both can feel at times like heaven or hell. They can be invigorating or torturous. And one’s mindset plays a big part in creating either of these experiences. In short, they both entail successful management of your own morale.
- Both, for me, were profound and rewarding experiences that will stay with me for as long as I am alive and have a functioning mind.
In the next post, the last one of this series, I will highlight what, for me, were the significant takeaways from my retreat: the lessons learned and insights gleaned.