Ten-Day Vipassana Meditation Course in Bodh Gaya, India, with S.N. Goenka

This is a  chapter I decided to delete from my book, formerly called "Sit Down and Shut Up." It's an account of my experience with S.N. Goenka's ten-day Vipassana meditation course, in Bodhgaya India in 1975, sitting with the master, Goenka himself. It consists of simply sitting, some ten to twelve hours each day and observing oneself quietly, without judgment or reluctance, all the while being under the comforting guidance of Mr. Goenka. Though it is in the Buddhist tradition and thought to be the most pure teaching of the Buddha himself, it is beneficial for anyone of any faith, or of no faith at all. There is no credo, history nor belief system to adhere to or adopt. It may sound like a recipe for madness, but by prolonged sitting with the reality of our most immediate and inescapable environment, our own mind and body - and noting all that arises in minute detail, "as it is," not as we imagine ourselves to be - the astonishing result at the end of the ten days is a blissful peace that would be inconceivable without having the direct experience of it. The best introduction would be to watch the moving You Tube film "Doing Vipassana, Doing Time" which documents hardened and jailed criminals in India who have submitted themselves to the course.This is a program devised by the teacher in the fifties after studying with a master for some years, and is still vastly popular world-wide, especially with the spiritually-seeking youth of today. To learn about Mr. Goenka, click here

The bell rang at five AM. I groggily climbed off my mat, wondering what to expect, not overeager at the prospect of sitting still all day long. I had been happily going about living, and right now I wanted to go over to the bazaar for a cup of tea and some breakfast. It was still dark - I was cold. With uncomfortable recollections of my first day at Marine Corps boot camp, I looked around at the other ‘recruits,' well over a hundred, nearly all of them rather awkward young westerners, filing silently into a large hall. They were all wearing loose clothing, men and women, and all wrapped in shawls - it seemed a little eerie, I'd been sort of reluctantly dragged over here from a very happy situation in Varanasi by my friend Charlie, and I was struggling to get into the spirit of this thing. Pretty soon we were all seated, mostly on the floor, a few in chairs along the walls. Many looked as dubious as I. As I began assessing my surroundings I notice we’re not in a hall, we’re on a broad flat rooftop that had been encompassed by enormous, brightly colored canvas panels, like a circus tent, entirely roofed, all with boldly appliquéd geometric patterns – it created a surrounding that glowed brightly  when illumined by the sun. But for now we remained in the dim light, unattended and fidgeting.
At last there appeared an unassuming middle-aged man, short cropped gray hair, rotund but not fat, dressed simply in an open collared sport shirt and a pair of brown trousers, and barefoot. He was followed closely by a woman who took her place beside him on cushions placed closely together. This I would learn is Goenka’s wife who had vowed to become his disciple when he’d chosen his new life’s path. When he spoke, his deep and lilting tone had the effect of instantly relaxing us; this was no pompous, self-aggrandizing guru – he instantly gained my trust. We began.
"Direct your attention to the area below the tip of your nose…  watch the breath coming in, going out. Breathing in, breathing out. Keep the attention focused at the small area below the nostrils, watch the breath moving in, moving out... very monotonous. This we did for ten hours every day, for three days. I was going mad. I was grateful for his edifying and comedic relief before bedtime - on the nature of our attachments to the illusions of beauty, for example: “We think our wife’s long shiny black hair is sooo beautiful, until we find one in the soup…”  and other very clever and humorous observations about the nature of everyday reality, but it was not enough to make me wish to continue, what I wanted every day was to pick up and go back to Varanasi.
I shared a small dorm room with five other guys and none of us cheated on the no-talking policy. After the day was done, there we were, with nothing to do except to read, or write a letter, or go to sleep. Normally we’d be chatting it up, exchanging travel tales, lighting up joints, going out for tea and snacks, and there'd be some girls around. Tonight and for the next week and a half, we were stoic as monks in a monastery. Well, we were monks in a monastery.
On the third day the routine thankfully began to change. I had acquired a certain degree of steadiness in spite of my bad attitude, but was ready to move to the next stage, any next stage. We are now instructed to leave this very small zone of the 'area just beneath the nose' and go, with our mind’s eye, to the top of our head. At the top of our head we were told to take note of any sensation we may feel there, in the small area at the crown. Then we moved to the ears, to the eyes, the face, the shoulders, arms fingers etc. Taking small areas at a time, we’d note what was going on in there, labeling every sensation we felt with a word: it’s... ‘hot’, ‘tingly’, ‘numb’, ‘sore’, ‘asleep’, ‘ painful’, ‘cold,’ ‘tired’, ‘cramped’, etc. If we felt nothing at all, we’d just move on. The next phase was to start at the top of the head again, but this time, in wider swaths, sweeping through the interior of the body, lingering when we found something that caught our attention. I’ve got gas. What is gas? Why is it there? Where is it exactly? I have butterflies in my stomach. What are ‘butterflies’? This was much less tedious, enjoyable even, but my mind would wander all over the place: I’d suddenly find myself off somewhere with an old girlfriend, then having great sex, or driving down a dark back road in my car with my teenage buddies, the radio blaring Buddy Holly, with the crickets chirping in the hot Kansas summer night, the smell of hay and humidity filling the air - and - who was in the car? Oh yeah, that guy, and there I am twelve years later rehashing an argument we had, re-crafting my case – "I should have said..." I’d snap out of it, wondering how the hell I got off on that tangent, then try to track it down to see if I could find the trail that led me there before I’d realize that this also was just another diversion of thought. “Bring the attention back to the breath...” Our teacher already knew that was happening all around the room and would periodically guide us back to present reality from our ventures down memory lane, which he more accurately termed as hallucinations. “Our thoughts are just a mirage – the past, it is gone – the future – it will not come.” “Monkey Mind” is the term that is used to describe how unstable and tricky the mind is. It jumps all over the place. It latches on to the slightest bit of movement and it’s off and running. So the idea is to simply make it stay put, to pay attention to all the slightest details of the precise here and now. I’d think I was getting good at it when suddenly I’d be twisting in agony - “OH GOD, GET ME OUT OF HERE!!!” I take mental notes: “Ok, here’s my body shouting orders to itself, and pleading with the mind to go along, and ordinarily it would, but because of the situation the mind is overriding the body's orders. The body is shouting: “JUST LEAVE! STAND UP! REMOVE YOURSELF AND GO!” The body stays put, against its will. I’m getting involved in watching this showdown. But then I think "Who's this 'I', anyway? Normally I'd say, "I was going crazy so I left." But here I am going crazy and I'm not leaving. So 'I' must be something other than my body. And furthermore, my mind wants to leave, too. Something is compelling both my mind and body to stay put. Is that 'me?' I don't have to obey this teacher's commands, I have free will and could get out of here if I wanted, but this is something some deeper part of myself wants, so that 'I' seems to be the one in command right now. "Relax," I tell myself “Just cool it - too many I's to keep track of." So by now it's begun to get interesting; I was becoming curious as to where all this was leading. “Ah,” I think. “The body and mind is beginning to lose its authoritarian grip. A few moments ago it was furious with demands, now it’s giving in – becoming interested in something that seems to be calmly dictating from beyond its self-interested demands.
On the fourth day we were ready to begin.
Today we’re going to meet ourselves for the first time.” Goenka said not without a touch of mischief.
Please find a position you like and become comfortable in it. You may sit cross -legged, on a chair, lie on your back or sit on your knees. Anyway you like, however lotus position is best, if you can. Whatever position you choose you will stay in it for one hour, without moving from it. To be more precise:
Do not move your finger.
Do not scratch an itch.
Do not shuffle even slightly into a more comfortable position.
Do not flex your muscle in your leg if your knee falls asleep.
Do not wiggle your toe.
Do not lick your lips.
Do not even move your eyelash.
Are you ready?
A nervous laughter rolls through the room.
“Please stand up and stretch for a few moments, then we’ll begin.”

I sit in the lotus posture; I’d become used to it - it’s best as it locks the body in an upright position, holding the spine straight up. The legs don’t become dead weight as they do when sitting for a long period of time in a chair. Within the discipline of yoga, it has been ‘scientifically proven’. But even after years of meditation, or playing at it, I was not accustomed to sitting for so long, in such a strictly regimented way. My nervous laughter joined with the rest; I had no advantage on anyone here.
For the first fifteen minutes, I was sailing, my mind sweeping through my body just like it was supposed to, maybe I was good at this after all.... at this self-congratulatory remark, uh oh. My knee began to tingle, I could feel it going numb. My mind rushes to my knee. OK, it’s...tingly, it’s... going to sleep. 'Oh shit, my leg’s going to go to sleep.' I really hate that, and I didn’t want it to happen. This really freaked me out; a minute ago I thought I was doing so well, but now something’s happening that I really don’t like. I’d never passively allowed this to happen before in my whole life. I’d twist it around or stretch it out or jump on it till the blood came back to it. Now I’m not supposed to move a hair. I’m supposed to just let it go to sleep. I could fudge this thing, and nobody would know. I could flex my muscles to prevent this. No, I couldn’t do this, somebody would know; I would. What would be the point of coming here and going through all this agony if I cheated? I would never know what this was all  about if I did that. This was a dilemma, how could I get out of it? Then an old high school adage came to mind, “When all else fails, follow directions.” Oh yeah, I’d always thought that was just a joke. But now, the directions were clear: “Don’t try to get out of it.”
So I turned the thought of squirming out to going in, like the man said. I began the inquiry: what is this, anyway? It’s tingly, it’s numbing; ‘numbing’ - what does that mean? Look closer. Feel it. It’s oscillating. A point in my knee was oscillating; the tingling sensation was actually tiny vibrations. ‘Vibration’ was the word I settled on. It’s vibrating. Is that what feels so bad? That doesn’t feel so bad. It sure is sending out lots of waves, down my leg to my calf, up into my thigh. But now that I’m looking at it and really feeling what’s going on without trying to get away, it loses some of its charge. I’d followed all the waves and oscillations and vibrations, and did my best to name or identify all that I could. My mind was drawn back toward it, the exact point where the blood flow was pinched. And then I fell into it.
I entered into the exact center of the pain, and its nature changed completely. It wasn’t any longer something I was desperately trying to avoid; in fact my whole being became utterly calm and untouched within it. I was no longer sitting and looking at this from a removed vantage point, from my head, looking down at my knee. It became my central, singular experience. It wasn’t as if I lost consciousness, or bearing, or recollection of ‘who I am’, or memory. On the contrary, it was a state of increased consciousness. Then the whole swirling mass became as a firestorm burning all around me, and I was floating serenely in the center of it. I had entered into the pain center and it actually felt soothing, like being in the eye of a hurricane.
I had turned toward, rather than my usual running away from a source of discomfort - and it brought about a great calm.

When the intensity of this revelation had passed, I returned to my more ordinary state of mind. I was jubilant. I was feeling proud that I’d made a ‘discovery’. Maybe I could even be a teacher - oh man, pride was carrying me away. An experience does not an adept make, and in reveling about my ‘success’, I lost my edge and became restless again. How much more time is left? There’s no clock. My leg is now quite dead; I don’t have the energy to go back through that again; so I just let it be dead, and uncomfortable. But I’m ready to get up now. Activity wants to happen. I’m tired of this. An hour is a damn long time. The novelty has worn off and I’m bored now. Label that: ‘Boredom.’ My cynical sense of humor returns and I’m reminded of a Gahan Wilson cartoon where a young monk is sitting cross-legged on a mat looking up to a grizzled old monk: There’s a quizzical look on the young monk’s face and the old monk says, “Nothing happens next. This is it.”
I narrowly open my eyes and scan the room. Here are hundreds of people sitting here like old monks, seemingly in bliss; the room is totally silent, nobody is moving an eyelash. I think that if I could hear thoughts, the room would be screaming. “Keep the attention focused on the breath...” Goenkaji’s mellifluously intoned reminder kept bringing us back to the present moment and the work at hand...
By the end of our ten days I had arrived at a very calm state of mind indeed. My whole body was full of the bliss that is found in ‘resting in the self.' It’s astonishing that a technique so simple as sitting still could produce such profound results. One student asked about reincarnation, a fundamental tenet of Buddhism, Goenka dismissed it out of hand. “The meditation will be all you’ll need – all else can become too intellectual.” He’d guided us rather into a direct perception of our true state of being, “as it is," as he'd often say, behind the clamoring physical and mental activities that keep us forever distracted and in a state of nervous tension. 
Buddhism is more a science of psychology and physiology than a ‘religion’ as we think of them; it is first about undoing our own knots, to reach beyond our conditionings, to release from our ingrained destructive or debilitating habits. Only then may we begin to proceed toward true 'enlightenment.'
Afterwards, at our parting feast and gab fest, it was with some reluctance that I spoke for the first time. I’d come into a state of deep rest and I didn’t want to disturb that. I thought that if in ten days one could come to this level of serenity, what could be attained after years of abstinences and contemplation, as the ascetics do, as Goenka has done?
We had heard no glorifying discourses on Buddha, were taught no dogma, nor given anything to memorize. We were not asked to pledge any allegiances whatever. Many were here without paying.
Without ulterior agenda, Goenkaji's teaching is solely about bringing peace into the self, for the sake of bringing peace into the world.

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