Summary – Meditation Retreat

Twenty-plus years I’ve been meditating strictly on the faith that by setting my intention to meditate, however seemingly poor the performance or outcome, the gears of the deep mind were turning and churning out self-awareness. At a 10-day meditation retreat, faith became manifest. In the most tangible, empirical sense, I learned that meditation works.

Among the highlights threaded through the ups and the downs, the third eye opened—quite palpably, and to my utter surprise and wonder. Awareness streamed in and expanded. I saw the outer personality with clearer eyes. In that seeing was love.

The attention stabilized to a degree I’ve never experienced. I spent whole hours almost one-pointedly listening to silence. I fell in love with silence. I learned that silence is my teacher. I saw what surrender means, in preview.

I entered awareness without thought. In this awareness was a keen knowing that the thinking mind or the “ego” (the illusory separate self) is generating catalyst, and misery. If that voice disappears, there is no misery.

I received a small, saline drop from the great ocean of truth I have long sought to lose myself in. My life was put on a different, or upgraded, course. And I ate pretty tasty vegan food, though oatmeal by Day 10 was becoming a bit much. Here is that story.

Prelude – Meditation Retreat

What if I can’t make it? What if I literally can’t sit still and be silent for that long? What if an emergency happens back at home or at L/L? What if I lose my mind, or want to quit, or desperately have to go to the bathroom in the middle of a group meditation?

These among other doubts visited me as I fast approached a leap into a great unknown, something for which I had no precedent and could have no preparation. While I did attempt to prepare by holding long meditations at home, it was like trying to train for a mountain hike when you have no high elevation nearby—I could not simulate what it would be like to meditate for ten hours a day over the course of ten days in what Buddhists call “Noble Silence” while turning in my phone and losing all contact with the outside world.

But, the call to undergo the experiment of a 10-day meditation retreat was far stronger and more compelling than the subversive doubts, so the small moments of anxiety never slowed my determination. A meditation retreat had long been a dream of mine, and I found an organization with centers around the world holding vipassana retreats. I landed on a large facility in North Fork, CA called the California Vipassana Center an hour outside of Fresno, nestled in the rural and remote foothills of the Sierra Nevada range.

Not the daily Dhamma Hall where group meditations take place, this is the Pagoda where one is assigned a meditation cell.

In the following account, I will share snippets of thoughts and reflections as they occurred during my 10-day sojourn, diary style, jumping between inner and outer experiences. Bullets with circles will mark the start of a new reflection (some are highlighted for significance), and bolded words anchor the key idea in each section.

Note: If the algorithms delivered you to this journal because you’re trying to determine whether or not to take the leap, I’m not sure I’ll be helpful for your purpose. I blend a unique philosophy into my path; I deviated from the retreat’s instructions; this is less an analysis of the course and more a hodgepodge of my personal experiences; and there are far better accounts of a 10-day at this particular type of retreat center. If you are feeling the call, however, I do encourage you to take the plunge. It was life changing for me.

Day 1 – Meditation Retreat

⦿ One is technically at the 10-day retreat for 12 days: First day is a check-in + orientation, then 10 full days, then a morning check-out. I missed the check-in day. The first of my three flights was delayed, causing me to land in Fresno at 8:30pm—eight hours later than my original destination and a bit too late for my rideshare. I grabbed a hotel and caught a Lyft to the center in the early a.m. the next day (Day 1), where I was greeted by a very friendly Mike who gave me a quick rundown, got me a couple bites to eat, and showed me to my room. Mike also collected a part of my identity, an until-death-do-us-part companion who, wake or sleep, I am hardly ever without: my phone.

⦿ Before struggle and “Can I really do this?” set in, my first couple hours at the center were euphoric, the closest I naturally come to bliss without chemicals or sex. I had no cell phone! Sweet Jesus the consciousness freed up from that alone was wonderful. And the silence! I was at a retreat with ~60 other men in close proximity and I didn’t have to squander a drop of energy in the awkwardness of making intelligible noises from my mouth while striving, and only occasionally succeeding, to avoid being an idiot. And the grounds, so beautiful! My being was a living smile of contentedness and joy. I was concerned not that ten days of silence would be too much, but that it wouldn’t be enough.

Who would expect such joy to persist as a steady state?

⦿ The Dhamma Hall. This is where roughly 120 people gather to meditate for the group sits. A cavernous beautiful interior with a long, carpeted floor space, it is insulated well from exterior sound. Each meditator is assigned a spot in the neatly arranged grid of zabutons (rectangular floor pads) and zafus (buckwheat filled cushions) for the duration of the course. 

Men and women are segregated for the 10 days. There is no interaction and definitely no physical contact permitted. The only time they share any amount of space is in this Dhamma Hall—women on one side, men on the other.

In the following schedule, the Dhamma Hall is where we meet each of the three times it says “Group meditation in the hall” (8:00–9:00 am, 2:30–3:30pm, & 6:00–7:00pm), though we are often in there longer, particularly for the evening sessions where we arrive at 6pm and don’t leave until 9pm.

⦿ Group sits have begun. Holy shit. One long, confined, slow-ticking hour. This is having the feel of a marathon—a race so long that the end can neither be seen nor reached more quickly by an (ultimately unsustainable) increase in speed. Instead, the realization grows that one is in it for the long haul; and just like a marathon or reading this journal, it becomes a situation of endurance: of placing one foot in front of the other with a focus not on the destination, but the present experience.

And in the spirit of the marathon, in those beginning days’ sessions the men stream silently out of the Dhamma Hall looking like they’ve run a long race as they lean forward, hands on knees, and find various ways to contort their bodies in stretches.

⦿ The day is so silent; the schedule so empty save for meditation; the social interaction and stimulating/distracting activity for the mind so non-existent—this starves the mind of its usual diet.

I am experiencing agitation. I am coming up against the same hard walls and twisted knots of energy within that might as well be boulders in their immovability. I’ve been here before, internally; I’ve tried to relax these knots, to move or circumvent these boulders. It never works. In this day’s meditations I begin to fluctuate between a sense of progress/traction/hope and futility bordering on despair.

⦿ Me: A core emptiness, numbness, dissatisfaction, brokenness, non-wholeness, aridity, cut-off’ness, isolation, loss of community, outside of warmth, non-presence—a knot of pain. These are the various facets of that which I lump under the umbrella term “pain,” or “existential pain,” on the rare occurrence I attempt to communicate this longstanding situation with regard to my existence to another person.

It could be expounded on for pages but basically summarized in the above words. I am facing it here. Again. This is the same pain I try to medicate (with weekend alcohol and occasional, time-limited bouts with nicotine). The same pain I try to solve again and again and again. I don’t know if it was with me in childhood, perhaps unconsciously, but it’s definitely been loud and present during the past ~24 years of adulthood in the more consciously lived portion of my journey.

⦿ Somehow, Trisha and I got a bad batch of laundry detergent from Costco that leaves a particular brand of funk, not unlike stinky feet. To my (non) delight, I discovered that the sheets I brought with me for my dorm room were washed with this detergent. I need to keep the window open to my room. I learn to fragrance the room with hot tea in my thermos.

Day 2 – Meditation Retreat

⦿ In agitation, emotional/physical pain, and sense of futility, I am tempted, but only ever so slightly, to quit. I remind myself that breakthroughs, achievements, and rare outcomes flow from difficult work, from those who overcome the barriers—not through imposition of force or control of the self, but through determined and focused use of will and faith that persists through challenges.

⦿ My mind creates such misery.

⦿ Rivulets of hope spring up in the trenches of pain.

⦿ I miss Trisha. When I could focus the mind no longer, I made it to the end of the 6pm sit by bringing to memory Trish, and our two pups, Emma Lou and Cooper. How blessed I am to share home with these three.

⦿ The absence of the phone reminds me of stories I’ve heard about the ghost limbs of amputees. I keep thinking that it’s there. Damn you, Reddit.

⦿ My back is killing me. I had never quite mastered how to sit upright well using cushions or meditation benches; and a lifetime of poor posture – both standing and sitting – does not support hours upon hours of sitting upright on the floor.

Fortunately, we can still shift positions during these initial days, so I make an adjustment here and there during the hour-long blocks. And in between the blocks, I try every combination of cushion or bench I can conceive of, in all contortions of butt cheeks and leg bones, including using a meditation bench that ate up half of my checked-in bag to bring with me.

In these early days, most meditators are relatively still, but hearing significant shifts of position as people try to dissipate the pain of sitting for so long is also not uncommon.

⦿ And loud breathers! The hall is so silent that some loud breathers around me are not jelling with my agitated mind. But, we’re also meditating with face masks on due to the world still being somewhat in pandemic conditions. (Masks will become optional by Day 4.)

⦿ I would estimate that roughly 25% of our time in group sits was spent receiving instruction and/or “dhamma talks” from the organization’s late founder and the course’s conductor, S.N. Goenka. Each group sit begins and ends with Goenka’s audio instructions and/or chanting played over the hall’s many speakers; and each day nears its conclusion with 1.25hrs of a dhamma talk from a 1991 recorded video of the same man.

⦿ The first three days we are focused exclusively on anapana meditation. The only thing we are doing is bringing our attention to the triangular area of our nose, nostrils, and the area just above the upper lip. We are instructed to observe, observe, observe the breath. Never to control or manipulate it, just to watch it in its natural state. Is it rapid? Is it shallow? Is it agitated? Etc. By repeated and eventually sustained observation of the breath, the mind, we are told, will be made sharper, more sensitive, and more able to be with the present experience. We will do this for three entire days as prep for the actual technique of vipassana, to which we will be introduced on Day 4.

Day 3 – Meditation Retreat

⦿  I alternate between never again and this is amazing. I woke today feeling optimistic and good. I vowed internally to avoid judgment of self and others, and I articulated “may all beings be happy.” I am given courage by Goenka’s indication that the mind may react with resistance to this regimen and create agitation.

⦿ Something is steel inside of me. Did I, on a deeper level, want to be this stuck without answer or clarity?

I very strongly want to help others find their own way out of pain, but I am of little use to anyone stuck, trapped, and confused as I am in my own. Intellectually I know that these are the words of an illusory self with whom I am presently identified, but this is my reality nonetheless—seemingly unchangeable, unyielding to inquiry and healing.

⦿ I chase satisfaction in my daily life, fumbling blindly for liberation and salvation, or even relief, but seldom do I ever feel completely whole, completely satisfied and well, completely present and harmonious. Even in a night of weekend drinks, while it can be casual and a genuinely good time (Trish and I in particular have such a fun, connecting time together with a couple drinks), and while it need not have much connection with the overall, larger spiritual journey, I can clearly see how the mind reaches and grasps for that shift in consciousness as if it will offer a doorway out. It is a false salvation.

⦿ I think I narrowed down the source of these energetic knots or tangles within me, as I perceive them. They seem to be concentrated in the heart and sacral centers (the green and orange rays). I’m getting a visual of something akin to a lodged kidney stone in my pranic pipelines.

⦿ Otherwise… there is little that is new for me to observe in this stuckness. I have mapped this out so well. I have been staring at this state of bondage forever.

Do I pay it too much attention in the normal flow of my life? No, I don’t think so. I have forgotten it many times. I have been lulled into a (incomplete or untrue?) sense of wholeness, rightness, satisfaction only for the pain to return, often crushing and scattering my hope, my dreams, and my momentary sense of inner security. It seems to oscillate between active and dormant, but it’s always there. Even in happy and ostensibly stress-free times, like adventures with Trish, it’s always there, lurking.

⦿ Rather difficult, this experience. The total lack of stimulus and social engagement, the sitting with your thoughts forever, the backpain… seven more whole days of this feels like a very long time. And what if I make it through this with nothing to show for it? Among my various salvation projects over the years, this is the most committed and intensive, and if I reach the other side in the same exact state I entered this… the despair may be great… I may have little hope of remedy if this fails.

At the root of all kinds of dukkha is craving, or attachment. We go through life grasping at or clinging to what we think will gratify us and avoiding what we dislike. The second noble truth tells us that this very grasping, or clinging, or avoidance is the source of dukkha. We are like drowning people who reach for something floating by to save us, then discover that what we’ve latched onto provides only momentary relief, or temporary satisfaction. What we desire is never enough and never lasts. –

Tricycle.Org

Day 4 – Meditation Retreat

Morning

⦿ I love sharing meals in silence with so many people. The chairs have something akin to small tennis balls underneath each leg to mute their movement. Each sits with their meal in quiet. Practically no eye contact and no exchanges; we are together not in words but shared purpose and silence.

The kitchen is sporting Kirkland’s swag: the same Valencia peanut butter we have at home. And Earth Balance! If they only had Vegannaise, they would hit the culinary trifecta.

⦿ 10 normal earth days in your life is no metric for the experience of total silence and days of meditation at a retreat. One cannot hit fast forward on this experience. We ride atop a tortoise. 6 days + 1 long evening remaining. I wonder what a 30-day retreat would be like. Later-me thinks that I would love to do a 30-day

⦿ The energy within constricts. The mind becomes agitated. A reciprocal loop. I seek release, relief, distraction in my normal run of things, but this is not a normal situation, and such outlets are unavailable to me. I’ve never been able to track down the source of this. Is this internalized tension from a childhood where voices raised in anger and conflict were so common? I don’t know. I call the pain existential because I can locate no biographical source, no particular incident or period or relationship which might serve as a causal factor.

⦿ Through these days of anapana meditation, I realized how I have inadvertently been attempting to control or manipulate the breath while observing it. Unless something more profound emerges, I think that learning to untangle control from observation could be one of my most helpful insights.

⦿ Back jack. Holy baby Jesus!! After three days of struggling on the floor, I finally relented and was one of several people who used one of the facility’s back jacks. Wow, it has saved my life. Placing it on my zabuton, I propped up my knees with two cushions underneath each as I sat cross-legged, my back held upright by the chair. (I was told at the end of the course by the fellow behind me that he had visions of me meditating as if I was in a race car.)

I would spend most of the next 6 days meditating in this. The sole downside I discovered was a potential increase in drowsiness at times, otherwise I was freed up from frequent focus on my back to bring my attention more firmly upon the breath.

(Around Day 8 or so I will begin to master sitting upright without the back jack on this sort of thingy. At home now, I have 1hr+ meditations with no support on this, but with less hair.)

⦿ It is not for me a simple matter of collecting and holding attention, this business of meditation. I frequently can’t seem to raise and gather the necessary energy for stabilizing an equanimous witnessing in detached distance. The awareness itself is subsumed, stolen, undercut by the blockages within me. There is an inner fog. Attempts to concentrate become diffused. The awareness seems pulled and stuck within deeper blockages, particularly around R2 and R4.

⦿ I accept the perfection of this, intellectually at least; but if I, if the Creator, don’t resolve or heal this situation, then my patterns will resume at home, including the self-sabotaging type of finding chemical escape (not through hard drugs but the still plenty disruptive of weekend alcohol and the even worse devil, nicotine).

⦿ The men’s area of the center includes several narrow walking paths connecting the various living/eating/meditation areas, the kind that activate my heart. Hard-packed, light brown earth, sometimes mixed with light grey small pebble gravels, they move up and down the rolling hillside through a landscape that reminds me of a Mediterranean setting. Pale green spring grass; purple lilacs and yellow tulips; gray stones and boulders, some quite large, often colored with variations of brown-and-green moss and lichen; giant pine trees (sequoias?); pale green bushes; and a tree new to me and marvelous in its appearance and design: the manzanita tree.

The shrubs-come-Manzanita-trees are covered in a brownish-red, hardened, resin-like casing. I would later learn from a US National Forest firefighter in attendance at the retreat that the seeming “resin” is actually the living tree that grows around a dead sort of skeleton. The following are not from the California Vipassana Center, but give an idea nevertheless.

⦿ Then there is a single hill that rises from the landscape like a vision from a dissolving dream. I don’t have words for this hill. On the outer level, it was alive with a grassland mystique, fitted with outcroppings of large stones, various trees, and enough open space between the trees and stones to invite Spirit in.

A small path leads up to its top. Following the group meditation on the morning of Day 4, instead of going directly to my room for continued meditation, I walked alone to the Vision Hill, as it became known to me. At the top, a small valley of sorts spread out in front of me with rising hills and plateaus surrounding, baby blue skies, distinct white clouds just over the ridge line, and a panoply of green covering the earth with various textures and hues of tree and grass. When the sun shines through the equinox air on the pastel greens, it looks like a new Earth.

I talked to the Creator here in prayer, seeking self-understanding and salvation.

⦿ Everyone has been so authentically kind here, from Mike who greeted me and offered a breakfast, to Eric the course manager, to Craig the main assistant teacher who emanates compassion, to the men who, in silence, share this special space and time in harmony.

Afternoon

⦿ I learned the actual vipassana technique. It consists of using the attention and focus we’ve been cultivating the past few days to perform body scans, essentially. Starting at the top of our head, we are given detailed, slow instructions for scanning each and every portion of our physical bodies at the surface level, primarily, one portion at a time. With equanimity—I repeat—with equanimity we are to register/become aware of any sensation that comes to our attention in that particular area, whether it be a gross-level sensation (pressure on the skin, temperature, the feeling of the clothing, etc.) or something more subtle, like an energetic sensation.

We are to become sensitive to all sensation and just observe it with equanimity, neither craving pleasant sensation nor having aversion to unpleasant sensation; just observing each sensation objectively, without reaction. This instruction toward equanimity will be repeated several thousand times, helping to install a rather missing piece in my own practice.

If taken to its fulfillment, this practice is said to yield the result of seeing the atoms of the body blinking in and out of existence.

⦿ Impermanence is a key understanding and teaching of Buddhism. All observable phenomena shares a common characteristic: impermanence. Everything, including the lifetime, arises and falls away. Thus, to react in craving or aversion, clinging and attachment, is bondage.

⦿ It is this practice which helps one to push through and dissolve pain that may arise during the sitting. And in fact, adhitthana, a Pali word meaning “strong determination,” began today. We are asked to hold the same posture throughout the hour-long meditation with no movement whatsoever. IF we find it absolutely necessary to move, we are encouraged to keep it to a minimum and to move slowly and quietly.

It produced a profound transformation in the quality of silence in the room. Where before a periodic shifting on the cushion could be heard (especially pronounced given the sound of buckwheat-filled cushions being moved), now everyone was virtually motionless. For an hour.

Silence was never 100% pure for the entire span. Tiny disruptions every few minutes in the form of a cough, a sneeze, or a gurgling stomach….

⦿ This afternoon, a gurgling stomach somewhere in the room was so loud and cartoonishly contorted in its sounds… it initiated a “call and reply” as other stomachs swooned in gurgling response… I had to bite my lip. Hard. Trish would have lost it if she were here (and been gurgling in reply, as she has a very musical stomach). I think that it was the cabbage at lunch.

⦿ Funny, all these guys, likely so colorful and talkative at home, each with a different voice, but here they speak and share only a single voice, that of silence. And often look like somber zombies.

⦿ Here’s where I deviated from the course. I continued to give the vipassana technique of scanning for bodily sensations my earnest best, but I was receiving little value from the practice. For me, the holy grail of meditation practice is a sustained and effortless single-pointed awareness. Cultivating that was what I came here to do, so I mostly resumed the anapana practice of bringing my attention to rest on my nose. This deviation would be heresy to the faithful, but it is this that would soon begin opening the gateway. I have no regret. In fact…

9:00pm

⦿ THE SPIRIT CHANNEL OPENED! Naturally, through meditation. MEDITATION!

Though I don’t think I’ve ever said or thought the words “spirit channel” before, this was the statement declared to my brain following a profound turning point in the 10-day journey. In the evening meditations, the attention became stable. I didn’t have to prop it up or struggle to hold it. Nor was the attention a fragment of the available energy. It had become more whole.

Thoughts still came. Mind still wandered. But there was an underlying stability. The breath slowed. The body eased. Space opened. There was a tremendous pressure in the center(?) of the brain. Clarity arose.

Just yesterday I had experienced my first dose of tranquility. I had let the body breathe itself, so to speak, with effortless witnessing in the exercise of my key insight thus far: observation without attachment or aversion. Then the prayer on the hillside.

⦿ I want more (says me in a totally non-craving way). I’m glad and grateful for six more days! It is so… amazing to be able to collect the focus upon a single point and not have it scattered to the daily winds.

⦿ Laying in bed tonight, a crisp, cool burst of air moved distinctly across my face in a room that had no moving air. Window was closed, ventilation not operating. I believe I was thinking of Trish?

Day 5 – Meditation Retreat

⦿ Approximately 120 virtually motionless people together in a room so silent for a glorious hour that were a pin to drop, it could be heard, but not be disruptive to your process. You are so focused in the abidance of internal silence. You are not distracted and consumed by the noise of your thoughts. You are alert. The air is crystal clear.

It is transcendent. It is different than just meditating alone in a silent empty room—there is a certain texture and strength or frequency to the silence.

⦿ Underneath the gross is the subtle. Underneath that, subtler still, under that… The mind becomes more sensitive to the subtle, but in its usual operation it is not sufficiently sensitized or itself subtle. That casts 80.10 into a whole new light. And speaking of…

I am caffeinated this morning. While it seems to have its short-term benefits in creating alertness, or a somewhat artificially induced version thereof, it is also akin to driving a high-speed car through the countryside. You miss and thus cannot enjoy the subtle: the leaf falling, the butterfly traveling, the faint bird song or the shimmer of light through the tree branches.

 ⦿ What a strange and silent intimacy. Hardly any awkwardness and little stress when you don’t have to form words for others. You are there, together, in beingness, each trying not to be preoccupied with their own thoughts. I kinda love these guys. So peaceful. Human beings could probably solve many problems and learn to live together in resounding harmony if they just STFU more often.

⦿ Wish that we had gotten that second plane ticket to get Trish to Yosemite National Park, where I am headed to integrate this experience before returning to the hubbub of life.

⦿ Today not a linear progression from the heights of last night. Feeling some numbness return. I wonder if it is not “numb,” per se, but the mind is just insufficiently sensitive, operating at a level too gross to sense the subtle.

⦿ One co-meditator was sweeping our dorm with a broom today. Nice.

Evening

⦿ Two core truths:

  1. I create misery
  2. I don’t know how to stop

Buddhism says that freedom from clinging, craving, aversion, and attachment is the way.

⦿ This practice of equanimity can be likened to a doctor diagnosing a patient. “Does it hurt here? What about here?” The doctor doesn’t make a drama or personal story about the pain. She examines it with detachment, as phenomena.

⦿ *No caffeine tomorrow.* Five days remain. I must try.

Day 6 – Meditation Retreat

⦿ I love waking in the morning and NOT checking the phone.

⦿ I can see that I was built to serve L/L Research—I work very hard and rock it out, operationally speaking, thanks as well to an amazing team—but I also feel underqualified. Someone in my position freer from their own misery and confusion is needed; someone able to communicate that in a clarifying vision that shines a light upon the way for others. I have a very good grasp of the Law of One philosophy, but what of embodying KYAYBC? (Know Yourself, Accept Yourself, Become the Creator)

⦿ Goenka stresses bringing awareness to body sensations equanimously. Ra says, “the various functions of the body need understanding and control with detachment.” I need to blend Buddhism with the Law of One.

⦿ It’s another shower day (for me)! And speaking of, I think that this was the first day of being greeted by the B.O. of another. It reminded me of a mountain town in western North Carolina…

⦿ Everyone here is working out their own salvation. They could be on a beach sunbathing and swimming in waters saline and alcoholic, but they are giving a portion of their lives to seek peace and transformation here, to be better for this world. I so admire each.

⦿ REMEMBER: Thoughts are of the past and future. Breath is of the present. Body is present. Thought is forgetfulness. I am understanding more the value of becoming aware of and sensitive to the minute sensations of body. It is a portal to Now, to What Is, to the unconscious as it reveals itself insofar as one has become an equanimous observer.

A nighttime view of the pagoda

11am

⦿ The cell! The grounds contain a large Burmese-style pagoda (see picture above) that contains over 100 individual meditation “cells” inside; essentially a tiny room the size of a closet consisting of a floor, ceiling, four walls, and a door, with a meditation cushion. Here one can meditate in darkness and near total silence by themselves. “Old students”—those who had completed a 10-day course in the past, of which there were many, some of them on their 6th time or more—were assigned a cell on day two. “New students”, like myself, were assigned a cell on day 6. Prior to signing up for the course, I had no idea these existed. Experiencing one was like Christmas day.

⦿ Almost 2hrs unbroken my first time! I think I’m finding my way. The awareness that one can access… it doesn’t necessarily, or at least not immediately, seem to change or reconfigure the personality. Instead it bathes that personality in all-seeing, all-embracing awareness, revealing what… let’s say… a construct the outer personality is, while also holding its myriad imperfections in an unconditionally loving embrace.

For a time, I could see the quirks, neuroses, conditioned behavior, and other unique facets of my personality as all… okay. Whatever cultural standard the self is meeting or not meeting, everything is loved just as it is.

⦿ I made a drawing of two elements. On the left is a circle with the caption “Me” above it. Inside the circle: thoughts, sensations, past/future, choices, memories, identity. On the right, an eye looking unblinkingly at that circle with the caption “Awareness” and “Equanimous Observation”

⦿ By using the vipassana technique, says Goenka, with equanimous awareness—not reacting and creating new sankharas—the old sankharas (roughly: our past conditioning and tendencies) bubble up to the surface and release. They are exposed “layer by layer.” This has some accordance with the way that Tolle describes attention as an alchemical mechanism for transmuting unconsciousness into consciousness, darkness into light.

Equanimity produces a purification of the mind.

⦿ Where in the Dhamma Hall I am on the backjack, in the cell I am sitting upright on a meditation bench with no back support. There are significant intertwining ribbons of tension and contraction that cause compression on the chest and breathing. I didn’t try to “solve” or change, just witnessed without deviation of the attention. No impositions of past or future, just now.

I am able to keep the spine straight with constant, unwavering awareness. When the attention waivers, the spine immediately almost imperceptibly slouches until there is pain. I suspect that my lifetime of poor posture isn’t so much a musculature or physiological situation, but rather an outgrowth of energetic blockage and unconsciousness.

⦿ This is how I (re)enter reality. This is how I submit myself to the Creator – an awareness inherently and infinitely intelligent.

Day 7 – Meditation Retreat

⦿ Wow, four days left. Some sorrow in doubt about how deeply rooted my conditioning is. I don’t know that the time spent in silence here can inoculate me against the coming onslaught of busyness. Which is not to say that busyness is to be resisted or reacted to negatively, just that it will rip me away from this practice.

⦿ Dance of the silent bodies. Funny how relatively coordinated we roughly 60 men are in mindful awareness of each other’s movement and space as we stream through various doorways and environments through and around each other.

⦿ During meditation, I received repeated images of clenched teeth. I’ve been holding a lot of tension in my jaw the past couple/few years, which has caused the constant tinnitus, and I’m seeing that it’s connected to a tension I hold in my abdomen, presumably around R2.

⦿ Ra describes perfect balance in the following way:

The catalyst of experience works in order for the learn/teachings of this density to occur. However, if there is seen in the being a response, even if it is simply observed, the entity is still using the catalyst for learn/teaching. The end result is that the catalyst is no longer needed. Thus this density is no longer needed. This is not indifference or objectivity but a finely tuned compassion and love which sees all things as love. This seeing elicits no response due to catalytic reactions. Thus the entity is now able to become co-Creator of experiential occurrences. This is the truer balance.

Ra

I believe that the equanimity that we are cultivating here is quite synonymous to this understanding of balance.

12:00pm

⦿ The Assistant Teachers—space holders and emcees for the event—are available for brief “interviews” from the students. I scheduled one such today. Whether through lack of knowledge or institutional limitations, the Assistant Teacher seems literally only able to talk about and reinforce the technique. I think it is an intuitional restriction. One critique I have of the course is that we listen to hours upon hours of the late Goenka, but hear next to nothing of the living and present teachers. I would really enjoy receiving some of their wisdom. They’ve qualified themselves for the position. They presumably have years of meditation behind them.

⦿ Tired today. Little progress, seemingly, in meditation. Beset by the same misery-manufacturing mind. And when feeling “low vibration,” I become susceptible to painful replays of malice received in recent years.

⦿ Throughout the journey of meditation, even long before coming here, I have grasped for some sort of stable platform upon which to climb onto and stand atop in order to witness the arising and falling phenomenon. I have been in search of some master key, some core healing. This may open the way.

⦿ In my cell in the pagoda today, I looked to the silence, the literal, actual experience of silence as the ONLY method and portal for healing. I have sought inner healing for years, and the silence, oddly enough, was the one place I haven’t really gone.

So today, I placed my trust in the silence. And I did so in a strong way during the night’s group sit in the experience described above. I learned that:

——-SILENCE IS MY TEACHER——-

Not in a figurative, poetic, or abstract way. Literally, there is truth, intelligence, and beingness where the thoughts end, where there is no “sound,” no object, no activity, no quality but eternal stillness and silent presence.

5:45pm

⦿ I had a breakthrough meditation at 6pm group sit in the dhamma hall. A big pressure in the 3rd eye again. I kept focusing, and focusing, and focusing. Fear came. What if I go crazy and lose myself in the group? What if I can’t control behavior or speech, and I break the silence? I recalled and exercised Ra’s insight:

This energy [of the north pole of the magnetic system] is brought into being by the humble and trusting acceptance of this energy through meditation and contemplation of the self and of the Creator.

Consequently, I listened not to the fear but, exercising humility and trust, I let go; I leaped; I continued the practice. And something… manifested. Light emerged and sunk slowly and warmly into my heart, where it stayed. A sort of power filled me as I rested and abided in focused, surrendered silence. It restored, cleansed, and strengthened me to a degree. It was a spa for the soul.

⦿ In 52.7, Ra says “There is great danger in the use of the will as the personality becomes stronger, for it may be used even subconsciously in ways reducing the polarity of the entity.” I likened this to a “hijacking” (as explored in-depth in the Kundalini entry in the section “Metaphysical Principles of Magnetism” in A Concept Guide). Maybe what does the hijacking is the “ego,” the false or illusory self. When this ego is opaque to eternity within, and when it comes into contact with the power available in silence, the power of the beyond, then the illusory self and its chatterbox mind may find cause to think that it is special, and write its story accordingly.

⦿ The thinking mind must die, in a sense. It must literally submit to that which is superior. It is humbling, because the thinking mind—as has never been clearer to me—wants to comment and reflect upon everything, to “know” everything,” to control and manipulate in the (wrongheaded) belief that it is directing the show.

The ego is a very powerful elephant and cannot be brought under control by anyone less than a lion, who is no other than the Guru* in this instance; whose very look makes the elephant tremble and die. We will know in due course that our glory lies where we cease to exist.   The ego submits only when it recognizes the Higher Power. Such recognition is surrender or submission, or self-control. Otherwise the ego remains stuck up like the image carved on a tower, making a pretense by its strained look and posture that it is supporting the tower on its shoulders. The ego cannot exist without the Power but thinks that it acts of its own accord.

– Ramana Maharshi

*The guru can be, but is not necessarily an external source in this teaching.

⦿ The pressure and enhanced awareness continued as I returned to my room and lay in bed. I let it work on me again. I had a small epiphany that I’ve been here before, with Spirit, particularly with psychedelics in my earlier years. Getting here naturally, however, is infinitely superior. It doesn’t have the fireworks, but it is also without the  instability, the randomness, and the overstimulated exhaustion of the chemically-induced experience.

⦿ Equanimity—neither grasping for the pleasant nor avoiding the unpleasant—is the way to trust the silence. The Power in silence will energize the many habit-patterns of the mind and all of its limitations. You cannot logic your way through it; nor can you try to control and manipulate, as you lack understanding.

As the various conditioned patterns of the mind rise up to try to run the show, equanimity releases both control and the need to understand. Why crave, reject, attach, or react to that which is impermanent? Which is what the mind is—impermanent. Greet it all the same with equanimity.

In that non-reaction is an essential trust.

⦿ When I took the leap this evening (mentioned above) and trusted the energy, it opened the third eye and continued to in-stream the intelligent energy for some time as I lay in my bed. I reached a point of fatigue. I spoke with it, as it were, and implored it to subside for the time being as I needed to rest.

⦿ REMEMBER: The unconsciousness will try to pull you down, so to speak. More technically, it will offer you catalyst for becoming conscious. But from a functional standpoint, it will seem to resist the light of awareness. It will stir up noise and drama and stories to generate negativity, to think endlessly, to steal the attention in the sleight of hand that gets the self to identify with the habit-patterns. *It will return.*

⦿ Each night we are greeted with a 1.25hr video of Goenka’s “dhamma talks.” (Dhamma being the body of teaching and the way of the Buddha, or Buddhahood, the remembrance of our essential Buddhic natures.) I love hearing the everyday stories if the Buddha. Makes it so accessible, relatable, and removed from the realm of myth. Also appreciate about Buddhism this notion of impurities in the mind combined with the ability to purify the mind.

⦿ One week completed!

Day 8 – Meditation Retreat

⦿ If we could reduce the complex noise that the ego makes to one statement, it might be “I am special.” Both in the positive and the negative sense. I am especially good, worthy, deserving, superior, etc.; or I am especially unworthy, lacking, inferior, undeserving, etc. I am more real or legitimate than you. I am less real or legitimate than you. And all the energy we expend to chase and to reinforce the illusion of a separate self on either half of that coin. All that we do to guard against anything which might work against our self-image, or reveal the true poverty of that sense of self. To be free of this special curse, that I think is the path of liberation.

⦿ Equanimity, I believe, is also a key facet of that practice of discovering the “completeness within yourself” and other-selves:

The mind contains all things. Therefore, you must discover this completeness within yourself.   The second mental discipline is acceptance of the completeness within your consciousness. It is not for a being of polarity in the physical consciousness to pick and choose among attributes, thus building the roles that cause blockages and confusions in the already-distorted mind complex. Each acceptance smoothes part of the many distortions that the faculty you call judgment engenders.   The third discipline of the mind is a repetition of the first but with the gaze outward towards the fellow entities that it meets. In each entity there exists completeness. Thus, the ability to understand each balance is necessary. When you view patience, you are responsible for mirroring in your mental understanding, patience/impatience.

Ra

Knowing that all phenomenon is impermanent, and thus not becoming attached, the self can witness any one quality arising without making an identity of it, knowing that it has its opposite that will or at least can arise and fall as well.

⦿ The indigo center (the third eye in the chakra system) remained partially opened this morning. During the past two days, each time an intensive wave of pressure and opening in the third eye got underway, I received a strong visual image of a single, off-white, milky drop being secreted from… something, I’m not sure. (In retrospect, I presume that the image had something to do with the pineal gland long associated with the third eye.)

As I concluded my morning sit in the pagoda, I turned on the dim light provided in the ceiling, stood up, and a small silver reflection from the carpeted floor caught my eye. I crouched down… it couldn’t be, I thought to myself.

With some effort, I got the nearly weightless source of the reflection onto my finger tip. It looked identical to the “silver fleck.” It was not so geometrical (not all flecks were), it was in the shape of a teardrop… reminiscent of the vision of the teardrop I experienced very vividly. I’m in awe. One appeared once before for Austin and me. This is the first of my own. I would later bring the teardrop fleck home from California.

⦿ I’ve had the most stability and clarity in focus that I’ve ever experienced, but I haven’t yet fully stabilized the attention into 100% unwavering and sustained single-pointedness. I believe that this is the precursor to absorption and dhyana (not mentioned in this course but essential to the self-realization in Vedanta and Buddhism). That is my work and goal.

Lunch

⦿ Crashing with fatigue by lunch. Last night was intense, and someone in my dorm had opened/closed their door loudly at 3:30am—those barbarians—and I have been up since. Still energized from the indigo opening, though, I took an hour nap and woke feeling like I had partied hard the night before.

⦿ Sexuality has been mostly muted during this experience. The past two days it’s made some appearance. Not suppressing, per se, but not indulging in order to honor the precept, and to make that energy available for meditation and healing work.

⦿ The thinking mind really is something of an idiot in its constant chatter and things it says.

⦿ The fellows here seemed to be slowing down around Day 6 or so, but as of Day 8, everyone seems to be moving at a crawl. There couldn’t be a more heavenly environment for it either. Sunny blue skies, dry air, mid-70s, birds and squirrels, signs of spring abounding. These men… eight days with them and I don’t know their names, their stories, their accents, whether they even speak English… yet we have existed together in shared purpose in such resplendent peace & harmony.

⦿ The hard negative catalyst in my recent past is less about the facts and substance of the positions and more about my relationship with myself in terms of how such things impact me.

⦿ Mindfully drinking my evening tea and slowly consuming my evening orange and banana, I marveled that this all is happening. One day, old and grey, I will wonder how this ever was, as the ghost of these 60 men walk slowly along the meditative pathway where so many truth-seekers and salvation-goers walked before, where the physical, earth-bound pathways tread with the soles of their feet were really the circuits of their consciousness.

⦿ As the intensity of the opened gateway faded, I slipped into a mode of feeling insufficient and unworthy of the future work ahead. I could feel the misery creeping back in. But like not adding new logs to a fire, I stopped feeding it. I just observed. I could feel the tightening rope uncoil.

Day 9 – Meditation Retreat

⦿ 6am. It’s dark here, but the sun shines for Trish at home. Marital catalyst has come up little the past week thanks to all the intensive work we’ve done to clear the baggage, but there is still yet road to travel both for Trish and me; on her end for reasons she can speak to, but on my end with the energies of frustration, condescension, and impatience.

⦿ The “ego” just wants to feed and be kept alive. It doesn’t care what the situation is. I must apply these principles of equanimity and awareness while being extremely vigilant in my mindfulness in order to stop this wheel and stop generated new “sankharas.” This lets the old stock burn up, like a fasting for the soul.

⦿ Having returned to a more normal S.O.P. since yesterday’s nap and the end of the opened gateway/higher awareness, I see the contrast better between the silence and my everyday personality. In the elevated state, above the water, the currents (mind-habits) are still present, but I am not so pulled and pushed by them. In the non-elevated state, I more immersed in the water and subsumed in the currents. The intellect can still reflect on the currents, of course, but experientially I am whisked away.

⦿ Spent some time in meditation thinking about Trisha Bean. Her smile, humor, the way she cares about me. The heart was aglow.

⦿ I need to treat intense pain and intense pleasure equally. Perhaps I will have different responses to each, yes, but any response should be equal in avoiding clinging, craving, aversion, and attachment. The reaction to ever-changing, ultimately impersonal forces is bondage. This is the path of freedom.

⦿ In pagoda meditation, I held firmly without strain to single point, but invariably the tension/constriction elsewhere in the body/mind made me as tight as a wound rope. But, to place my attention on the tension is to lose focus, forget, be pulled into thought on an unstable platform. I don’t fully understand how to form an holistic, stabilized attention when blocked energies steal and fragment the energy.

⦿ Thought-less awareness. This is what I am tasting. Quite actually: awareness without thought. Not by my hands does the door open. It opens through a single-pointed focus that surrenders craving, attachment, and aversion. To be conscious, aware, and accepting all things without thought. To release the need to control. This is surrender.

⦿ I taste it, this thought-less awareness, but the thinking monkey mind, even when relatively docile, is always in motion trying to comment, reflect, direct, and “understand.” It can do none of those things with silence so it must do the one thing that it least wants to do: stop. Otherwise known as surrender.

But how to surrender? In addition to all the determination-harnessing techniques of will, I must lean into the silence. I must ask the silence to teach me and trust that it is working upon me, even though not communicating discernibly. And to be its partner, I myself must be still and silent.

⦿ Maybe one day I will thank the antagonists for providing a cargo ship of catalyst sufficient to bring misery to new heights, pushing again and again to accept the unacceptable, love the unlovable, surrender to the is-ness of a cruelty I do not understand.

⦿ Final evening of Noble Silence. Full sun again as it slants downward upon the hills. Everyone seems particularly still as they take in the space (except for the barbarians opening/closing the doors in our dorm). I wonder if the guys are eager to return home? I wonder if some will miss this experience?

⦿ I skipped my evening tea and fruit in order to fast and purge some negativity I hold, so I walked the hard earth and gravel mix pathways in barefeet. It followed another round of near single-pointedness again; very intense concentration, but never in a fully settled, at-ease body. I felt once again my brokenness. Surrounded by earthly heaven, I can’t feel and can’t connect. I feel no joy.

⦿ AT the 7pm group sit, I used a technique I’ve used previously in this course. I started actively listening to the silence. Literally, I shifted my attention to my ears to listen to the silence. The listening stabilized and intensified. The attention remained steady. The mind existed without thought. And I did not rubber-band back into my usual mental loops (or mental mayhem, I should say).

⦿ The silence in the room was not ordinary, not what one would hear by oneself in an empty room. It was supported and sustained by the hum in consciousness of 120 souls. It felt alive.It was a very tangible experience! Like a placid, perfectly still lake until a ripple spreads outward from the landing of a dragonfly (a stomach grumbles), or a pebble is dropped (a throat clears), or a stone is thrown (a sneeze). I became so hyper-aware and present that I could register and echo-locate each tiny disruption to (or enhancement of) the silence.

The thinking mind would intrude now and again, especially when becoming self-conscious of not thinking, but seldom overriding the listening completely. This for the better part of an hour. Minute after minute “I” stayed still in this alert state, nothing “to do” in the conventional sense, no stimulus for the thinking mind, little to nothing to chew on—it was patience embodied.

⦿ Once again, somewhere centered in the brain behind the eyes, an intense but not disruptive pressure built. But there was no sense of the gateway (3rd eye) being opened as there had been the other day. I vaguely recall receiving an image similar to the one of the white milky secretion, but this time it was as if it had been exhausted for the time being with nothing further to give.

This listening to the silence was still one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. When the break came, I walked barefoot under the sun with a mind so spacious and subdued. I felt rather empty of content, and I eased away from the suffering that had been with me earlier this day.

What could I do with more days?

Day 10 – Meditation Retreat

⦿ I just realized that, in silence, no cliques formed—indeed, no groups of any kind. Each meal and each break saw a random shuffle of individuals in any one place.

⦿ At the 5am meditation in the pagoda, I sat upright on my kneeling bench. The back wanted to give up real soon, but I invoked “strong determination.” Not force, but unceasing vigilance in holding the spine upright. To look away, even for a moment, the spine imperceptibly slouches in pain.

I’ve seen this pattern innumerable times as I’ve tried to correct my posture while at the computer (where I have spent a good portion of my adult life). As soon as my attention leaves the spine, it slowly slouches until the next time I became aware that I’m bent.

Thanks to meditation, I am realizing that this isn’t purely musculature-related or physiological. The quickness with which the spine wants to release the upright form is connected to, if not a manifestation of, the desire for sleep/unconsciousness/forgetting, and not carrying the responsibility that has weighed heavy upon my journey.

⦿ Holding upright, constriction and pain arose. Correspondingly, a desire, if it can be so called, arose from the spine to give the effort up. It made my breath shallow and concentration a challenge. Yet, second after second, I held, and slowly, a breakthrough emerged: the spine held the form with less resistance, and I partially entered thought-less awareness again.

⦿ In that space of “no-mind,” I momentarily saw how self-imposed misery is. Though the thinking creates a pageantry of many voices and scenes within the mind—as if the self is remembering, anticipating, and actually living in an external world in the projected scenes—there is only ever one voice in here: my own. Remove that and what is there to cause misery? 

 ⦿ Breakfast, final silent meal. Closed eyes at the table and listened to the uncoordinated symphony of metal silverware clanking, feet shuffling, etc. What beautiful men. It encourages my spirit to see men seeking peace and healing. Incalculable pain and destruction on individual and collective levels has been rendered by the masculine principle that has gone out of balance with, and sought subjugation of, the feminine principle.

Noble Silence ends…

⦿ On Day 8’s nightly dhamma talk, Goenka said that we had one more day to do serious work (Day 9), because after the 8–9am group sit on Day 10, noble silence would end and noble chatter would begin. And once the talking starts, one cannot do serious work any longer. So on Day 9, Goenka’s recording exhorted us to work diligently, patiently, persistently….

That turned out to be accurate. Talking began at 9 am and by the next time I meditated, I could not resume the same work I had been doing previously. The 9.25 days of winding down the toy monkey smacking the cymbals together so that it was calm and quiet, was reversed; it resumed clashing those cymbals. I could still find focus and quiet, but short durations only, not the long spells of skating on a sheet of silence.

⦿ At 9am, the assistant teacher did not give his usual housekeeping notice of a break followed by where we could continue our meditation. Instead, oddly, the assistant teachers just walked out of the Dhamma Hall. This signaled the end to noble silence somehow?

The men gathered outside the hall and… wow… like Dorothy stepping out of her black & white world into a realm of vibrant color, all those formerly expression-less faces became alive and animated with expression in the eyes. And voices. And accents! And intelligence, sincerity, wit, humor, curiosity, story. It was all rather amazing, actually, but it overtook all that inner calm I had cultivated. My social issues arose to the fore as I felt… outside, different, lame.

⦿ It just so happened that N., the same fellow who was to pick me up from the airport when I first landed in Fresno (but didn’t due to my eight-hour flight delay), had been seated next to me the entire 10 days. Ha. I learned that early on, and he too apparently knew that, but due to Noble Silence I could not address him in acknowledgement of who he was and in gratitude for what would have been the ride. So we enjoyed a good chat now that we could talk.

When our conversation ended, I tried to stand with a group for a moment but after that quietude, navigating personal challenges was a bit much. I felt like an outsider, a not uncommon experience in my life, so I quietly returned to my room to meditate.

⦿ I arrived to lunch early to sit at one of the outside picnic tables in a strategy of letting someone choose to sit with me instead of vice versa. A couple of other tables formed, intensifying my sense of being on the outside, until a group of guys came up and asked to sit next to me. It was great. We enjoyed thoughtful and sincere conversation on a range of topics. I was asked the ever-challenging question of what I do for a living, and was met with genuine if not completely understanding curiosity. And the topic of Gandhi entered the conversation with one of the three, a fellow of Indian descent, I believe, which would lead to us re-connecting the next day and exchanging some email after the event, but that’s a personal story for me.

⦿ As much as the socializing scattered the quietude to the winds, it was a very ebullient atmosphere, similar to L/L’s events. And I loved hearing so many different stories. I was surprised to learn how many of the students were on their 3rd, 4th, or more(!) repeat of this exact course. I met three or four men whose female partners were on the women’s side as well.

⦿ I retrieved the phone but kept myself from looking. It was really weird having it again. It is funny how quickly we can adapt to our new environs such that what was decades native to us is suddenly weird to reintroduce.

Day 11 & Onward

Day 12, actually, if my flight had landed on time for the check-in day.

⦿ This day featured a final dhamma talk at 4:45am from Mr. Goenka, followed by breakfast, socialization, and cleaning up. It was a buoyant atmosphere, but the descent had begun…

⦿ N. gave me an hour ride to the Fresno airport with a French mathematician. We enjoyed conversation on the way. After being dropped off, I headed to the fabled Yosemite National Park for a couple days in a rented car. Having planned this months in advance, I thought I could spend a couple of days in solitude at Yosemite as a place to integrate my recent experience and buffer before the return to busyness and a world of noise. It was mostly a bust. I fulfilled none of my three main activities—meditation, journaling, or hiking—due to various reasons, one of which was that the lodging was anything but quiet and solitary. There were whole school field trips there. lol. I wish I could have been in the backcountry.

And it felt very empty being in a new national park without Trish. We have explored so much of this country together.

A few pictures I took, including a blanket of morning snow over Half Dome.

⦿ Returning home was a challenge. Not the home part, but the deluge of responsibilities and commitments, and the stimulation from the roar of 10,000 things. I knew that tender inner place of focus, quiet, and equanimity would be somewhat lost as my attention became swept up. This was sorrowful. For the first time in my life, I had seen and walked a few steps on the path toward true wholeness and peace through the touch of samadhi that leads to what is already and always present… by way of dissolution of the misery-making individual self.

I felt thrown back into the river with its unrelenting force of momentum. There is little ability to spend time on its banks. But that, too, is a misperception, as there is no moment in which the Creator is not fully available.

⦿ Three months later, I have meditated diligently daily, and longer than I had before the retreat. 85 consecutive days of the past three months have been spent alcohol-free. Yet, I have not yet been able to cultivate that stability of attention and clarity of experience that I tasted at the retreat. But, I feel changed. And I sense new possibility in me, one outgrowth of which is this journal.

And the great work continues…