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At some point in the nebulous past, Claudia told me about a certain meditation course being taught around the world called Vipassana (as taught by S. N. Goenka, some Burmese fellow). One interesting aspect of the technique is that one must separate themselves completely from all input and output (no books, magazines, reading or writing materials; nothing at all) and remain silent for ten days, doing nothing but meditation all day long. This sounded like a pretty extreme mental challenge and just like the sort of stupid thing I would do just to see if I could cope.

Months went by and other stories from survivors of the course turned up and the common theme was that it was about as far from a walk in the park as one could get in the known universe. So when the prospect of attending the course in Italy came up, I was more than willing; you might even say eager. Boy did that attitude undergo some serious scrutiny during those ten days.

We took the train up to Piacenza (a small city about half an hour south of Milan) and a bus from there to the center. I cleverly left my jacket on the train, with my camera in the pocket, so you get no pictures of the meditation center. They wouldn't have let me keep it during the course anyway, so you wouldn't have gotten any pictures of the ongoing saga, but a photo or two of the grounds would certainly help you to visualize things a bit better. I recovered the jacket and camera after the course (much to the astonishment of the Italians that heard about the mishap) and was left only mildly dissatisfied that my jacket enjoyed ten delightful days in Milan while I was suffering in the countryside at this meditation camp.

Without further ado, this is the story of my (mental) adventure. Note: if you're here for the pretty pictures, you might want to skip this page.

Buddha boot camp

We arrived in the afternoon and spent the remainder of that day being "oriented" and made aware of the ground rules of the center. Aside from the Buddhist code of discipline (like the five-fold precepts of sila, moral conduct), there was to be complete separation of the sexes (there were literally big fences in between the womens' and mens' areas) and we were to observe Noble Silence. This meant no speaking to anyone, nor interacting of any sort more than absolutely necessary. No exchanging glances. Definitely no touching. Noise making of any kind was frowned upon and sudden movements weren't a good idea because they would be visible in others' peripheral vision (OK, I made that last one up, but we weren't allowed to exercise because it would be "distracting"). Basically you were to help one another maintain the illusion that you were completely alone, even though the facilities put you in close quarters with the other 25 meditators for the duration of the course.

We were also to adhere strictly to the "time table." What might that "time table" be you wonder? Well, have a look:

    4:00 a.m. ---------- Morning wake-up bell (gong actually)
    4:30 - 6:30 a.m. --- Meditate in the hall or your room
    6:30 - 8:00 a.m. --- Breakfast break
    8:00 - 9:00 a.m. --- Group meditation in the hall
    9:00 - 11:00 a.m. -- Meditate in the hall or your room
    11:00 - 12:00 noon - Lunch break
    12:00 - 1:00 p.m. -- Rest and interviews with the teacher
    1:00 - 2:30 p.m. --- Meditate in the hall or your room
    2:30 - 3:30 p.m. --- Group meditation in the hall
    3:30 - 5:00 p.m. --- Meditate in the hall or your room
    5:00 - 6:00 p.m. --- Tea break
    6:00 - 7:00 p.m. --- Group meditation in the hall
    7:00 - 8:30 p.m. --- Teacher's discourse in the hall
    8:30 - 9:00 p.m. --- Group meditation in the hall
    9:00 - 9:30 p.m. --- Question time in the hall
    9:30 p.m. ---------- Retire to your room; lights out

Now I happen to be fond of arithmetic, so I did a little math and discovered that the "time table" involves ten and a half hours of meditation a day, for a grand total of 105 hours of meditation over the whole course. Bear in mind that your average college course entails on the order of 50 hours of lecture. We're clocking in at twice that and with no nutty professor to keep us entertained.

Another fun fact that comes to light after perusing the time table is that the word "dinner" doesn't appear on it. There's some funny "tea break" thing right around when one might expect dinner, but dinner itself is conspicuously absent. This, it turns out, is part of the fun. The Buddha decided, when he was putting together this whole business, that eating after noon was a bad idea. I never found out exactly why this was considered to be a bad idea, but heck, the more challenging the better. Right? Well, it turned out that first time students (that's me!) were allowed to have fruit during the tea break. Not only that, but they were kind enough to provide some dry pieces of bread to go along with the fruit. So my nightly dining experience consisted of half a banana, a kiwi and about six square inches of dry bread. Oddly enough, pangs of hunger never really factored into my nightly experience despite the meager diet, which is unfortunate as I would have welcomed distraction in any form after the first couple of days.

Orientation out of the way, we all went down to the main hall for an hour of meditation (so there were actually 106 hours of meditation, all told) where we learned what meditation actually meant. It was pretty simple, really: sit on a few cushions in whatever position you find comfortable (no lying down!) which for most people was either some form of cross-legged or with legs tucked under in a squished vee. Once in that position, we closed our mouths and eyes and observed our breath. No controlling of the breath, just observe the natural breath as it goes in and out of the nostrils. That's it. Seemed easy enough to me. After that we went to bed, and I felt like a meditation pro.

Enlightenment is available on three audio cassettes or two CDs

During orientation I was shuttled off into another room with a couple of other people to hear the orientation in English from a tape recording. I figured everyone else was hearing the orientation information from the instructor who I would see later. The next day, during the first meditation, I did see the instructor, but the audio tape thing didn't stop.

Rather than the instructor speaking, he would just press play on a tape and we'd hear some instructions first in English from Goenka (that Burmese gentleman I mentioned at the very beginning) and then translated into Italian by the instructor himself, who would sit there, still as the Buddha, while his recorded voice regaled us with the details of the meditation technique. In fact, for the entire course, the instructor only actually spoke at the end of the group meditations and he said (every time) "You may now continue to meditate in the halls or meditate in your room." That's it.

At first this struck me as a little odd. I suppose this is a perfectly reasonable form of distance learning, but somehow I had associated meditation in my mind with the martial arts, which require a very interactive relationship with the teacher. It's not that the teacher was entirely a button pushing monkey, he was available for any questions that the students might have while practicing the technique and in theory he was well established in said technique, but there was no confidence building equivalent of seeing the teacher do a jump-spin side-kick, breaking two boards, while simultaneously rendering two assistant students horizontal with her fists.

Nothing doing!

It turns out that receiving the instruction from Goenka on audio tape was way better than hearing it in broken English directly from the instructor. Goenka taught with flare. He has been teaching the course for thirty years and has taken the trouble to memorize all of the original Buddha's teachings in ancient Hindi (or whatever the heck they spoke in India 25 centuries ago), from which he would chant for us at the beginning and end of every group meditation session.

Now Goenka has no religious training. He was a business man in Burma before he was turned on to Vipassana in his search for a cure for his migraine headaches. Having no religious background, he was never instructed in the art of chanting. In fact, what he does is to sort of draw every word out to excruciating lengths and let them die a fading, horrible death on his lips as he slowly runs out of breath. You can't truly appreciate what this sounds like without hearing it, but my best attempt at characterizing it is this: imagine Johnny Cash, rip-roaring drunk, on the verge of falling unconscious, deciding in his teetering, deteriorating state to sing a rendition of the French national anthem, translated into some African pygmy language.

After a while, it really starts to grow on you. I'm sure it helped that his chanting at the end of the group meditations was the first indication that your long session of torture was almost over. It was sort of Pavlovian in that regard.

At the end of every day, we heard discourse on the background and details of the meditation technique. By virtue of my being an English speaker, I got to see the discourse on video tape directly from Goenka himself rather than being subjected to the Italian translation of said discourse in the main hall. This was a tremendous boon because I got to see Goenka, who is a cute, pudgy, Indian-looking fellow who sits like a little Buddha while speaking for an hour and a half. On top of that, I got to hear all sorts of great stories from Goenka about the time of the Buddha, the time when he learned Vipassana in Burma, and the thirty years that he's been teaching Vipassana to people around the world.

Goenka is a funny fellow. It's true that he was telling jokes to a group of people so starved for entertainment, they would have jumped at the opportunity to subject themselves to repeated viewings of Yentl. None the less, a few laughs were like water for our parched throats. You might be thinking to yourself that laughing would surely be far outside the acceptable protocol of Noble Silence, which it was. However, by the time Goenka started to get funny, we were all so far beyond our wits end that it was all we could do to keep from rolling around on the floor in tears. Plus we could hear people laughing on the video, so we figured the Buddha wouldn't mind.

The other great thing about Goenka was that he took generous liberties with the English language. He clearly had an excellent grasp of the minimal vocabulary he needed to communicate the theory and history of Vipassana to English speakers and the way in which he would adopt idioms that were only marginally applicable was nothing short of endearing. Between this and his tendency to leave out words, he had me grinning every time he said "What you teaching?", "What you saying?" and his clear favorite, "Nothing doing!"

The world according to Buddha

Aside from a multitude of stories and a foray into Buddha physics that left my mouth agape at the thought that anyone could actually believe in something so obviously fabricated 2500 years ago, very little information about the technique was communicated during the discourses. This wasn't for lack of intent. The technique is simply very simple. We had it spoon fed to us over the course of 15 hours and we had a whopping 105 hours to practice it, but I'll sum it up for you here in this short list:

  • Day one: observe your breath (don't control it, just observe); when your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath
  • Day two: observe the sensations in the triangle formed by your nose and your upper lip
  • Day three: reduce the area; now observe only those sensations in the trapezoid formed by the ends of your nostrils and your upper lip
  • Day four: take your now sharpened mind and observe your entire body, one section at a time (I divided my body into 112 different sections); begin the meditations of strong determination (that means sitting for one hour, three times a day, without moving the slightest muscle; no opening your eyes, no uncrossing your legs, not even moving your fingers; perfectly still, for sixty excruciatingly long minutes)
  • Day five: instead of only moving from head to feet and starting again at the head, now move from head to feet and feet to head
  • Day six: instead of doing each arm and leg separately, split your attention between the two and observe them simultaneously (Goenka would say, "Move your attention simultaneously and symmetrically down your body" which he would pronounce sih-muhl-tay-nee-us-lee and sih-meh-trick-ih-lee with his great Burmese accent)
  • Day seven: observe larger parts of your body (both arms all at once, for example) where you are feeling subtle sensations (you get to know what subtle sensations means by day seven), then go back and observe each part individually
  • Day eight: where you are experiencing subtle sensations, flow your attention freely through those areas (the "free flow") and then go back and observe each part individually
  • Day nine: flow your attention through your entire body and then go back and observe those parts where you are not feeling subtle sensations
  • Day ten: flow your attention through your entire body and then try to feel subtle sensations in the interior of your body as well as on the surface, alternate this with part by part observation

That's it. This is coupled with a list of sensations that you might experience (heat, moisture, tickling, tingling, pain, tightness, etc., etc., etc.) repeated often enough for you to start hearing the list of sensations in your dreams. When you start, you don't feel much in the way of sensations, aside from the screaming pain in your back that comes from sitting without moving for hours on end and the occasional mind bending tickling sensation somewhere on your body that brings you to tears as you attempt to ignore it. All of the sensations are simply to be observed, not reacted to. Do not be averse to the unpleasant sensations; do not crave the pleasant sensations.

"What could possibly be pleasant about sitting for hours on end observing your sensations?" you might ask. Well, after a few days, you start to feel the "subtle" sensations. This is apparently a very subjective experience, but it is described as tingling, or electric, or something like that. For me, it was a gentle tingling that uniformly covered some areas of my body (my face, my arms and my legs). I think that what's going on here is that as one slowly trains one's mind not to filter out the very evolutionarily uninteresting sensations that are constantly being reported by your nerves, one starts to feel the random misfirings that are part of this sensitive system hovering around an equilibrium. Either that or it's just some sort of glitch in the nerve mechanisms that causes everyone to have a similar experience.

Half-baked theories aside, the gross physical sensations (like the pain in your back) start to fade away and you eventually start to feel only these subtle sensations. It's then that the whole process of sitting for hours on end ceases to be one of constantly holding back the urge to scream and becomes one filled with peace and harmony.

I have a theory of how the process of sitting quietly for hours on end, not reacting to your sensations, helps you to achieve the centered, Buddhist calmness in your everyday life, but unlike the version told by Goenka, it doesn't have the exciting Sanskrit terminology, colorful analogies or total disregard for 2500 years of scientific discovery. So I'll share his version with you.

As you go through life, you interact with the outside world and these interactions result in either pleasant or unpleasant sensations on your body. For example, you accidentally rear-end some guy at an intersection and he gets out and proceeds to read you the riot act; you experience unpleasant sensations. Or you take a test in school and find out the next day that you got a perfect score; you experience pleasant sensations. Your subconscious mind responds to these sensations by creating "sankara". These are little permanent things that live in your mind and build up over your lifetime. He also explains how they are related to the four elements that make up the whole universe, but I think he was just killing time during that part.

In the life of an unliberated person, these sankara build up. When one finds themselves reflecting on the past, reliving good or bad experiences, the sankara cause corresponding sensations on the body, which are then translated into more sankara of craving or aversion. This happens through the six sense doors and the three parts of the mind that correspond to each sense door, but that's also not really important. The main point is that sankara of the past continue to affect your present life experience. One ends up creating substantially more misery for oneself by thinking than one actually experienced in the first place.

By learning Vipassana meditation and the teachings of the Buddha, you come to understand the principle of "anicca" which is that everything is impermanent. All sensations arise and then pass away and in fact everything in the universe is constantly changing, arising and passing away. You come to understand intellectually that both bad and good things are temporary, and that to crave good or to be averse to bad is an exercise in futility.

Having that intellectual understanding is fine and dandy, but you need to experience these truths for yourself. That's where the meditation comes in. You are able to experience the arising and passing away of the sensations that you observe during meditation and you can practice observing them without craving or aversion ("with purrrfect equanimity," as Goenka would say). As you become better at being equanimous about the pleasant and painful sensations on your body, that ability transfers directly into your life. You begin to react to life situations with equanimity.

This, combined with your understanding of anicca and the teachings of the Buddha, results in a growing compassion for all other living things. You no longer feel hurt or misery in your life and you develop a desire to share your peace and harmony with others. You also stop thinking that the blue screen with "MAY ALL BEINGS BE HAPPY" written in yellow block letters, shown at the end of the discourse videos, is some sort of Orwellian mind control scheme and actually accept it as the genuine wish of compassionate individuals. Not that that makes it any less creepy.

Another point of note is that once you stop reacting with craving or aversion to sensations, you stop creating new sankaras in your mind. Once you stop creating new sankaras, your built up supply starts to magically go away. Goenka says this is "according to the laws of nature." The Buddhist laws of nature, that is, which are substantiated not by repeatable experiment, but by good analogies. When you stop adding fuel to the fire, it eventually burns itself out. Sarcasm aside, the theory is that once you start to face life equanimously, the built up misery of all the previous trauma and unrequited desire in your life slowly goes away.

So there you have it. The teachings of Siddhartha Gautama filtered through the mind of a skeptical and sarcastic westerner. Take it with a grain of salt, but also bear in mind that I think that the technique is actually useful for people who are willing to bear with it and aren't interested in finding their own road to peace and happiness. Again excuse my very western implication that finding one's own road to happiness is somehow better than following a road already outlined by someone else. As Goenka says (not in these exact words), you don't actually have to believe any of this Buddhist nonsense, just practice the technique and you will experience the benefits.

Back to the fun stuff

There were a few hours in the day where we were allowed to eat and rest. As you can imagine, after getting up at four in the morning, as many of those hours as possible were spent sleeping. Unfortunately, I discovered that after the first couple of days, my body was sufficiently adjusted to the schedule that I could only sleep after breakfast and I was left alone with my mind during the two hours for lunch and the hour for tea. Along with all the other guys at the camp, I would opt to spend some of that spare time strolling around the grounds.

They said in the brochure (well, on the web site anyway) that there were places to walk around at the center and that one could take walks during the break periods. I imagine that the larger centers have long lovely paths through beautiful wilderness, but the Italians don't quite draw the donations that, say, the center in Igatpuri, India rakes in. Thus, we had a grand total of about two hundred feet of path along which to stroll. About one hundred of that was the path from the sleeping area to the meditation hall and the other hundred feet was a little loop that went up a hill at the edge of the lot and back down. Once again, I resort to arithmetic. If all twenty of the gentlemen at the course decided to go for a stroll at the same time (which did happen on a few occasions), they each had about ten feet of path in which to walk.

And walk they did. Like catatonic monkeys all in a row. I don't know what was going through the minds of these free-thinking Italians, but my best guess is that they thought that the slower they walked, the faster time would pass. Combine this with the fact that they were all spaced evenly along these two hundred feet of path and you end up with straight out of an Escher print, minus the groovy monk robes. By the fourth day, I was lining up with the rest of the monkeys, taking my two steps every five seconds and loving it. It was that high on the list of entertaining things to do.

As the days progressed, my resolve not to "disturb" the other meditators began to wane. On the second day, I began making rock sculptures. These started out as simple stacks of three rocks of decreasing size with some sort of theme: all oval shaped rocks, all square rocks, all broken pieces of ceramic. Later in the week I discovered that among the myriad gray rocks, there were a few rocks of different colors. By the eight day, I was finding rocks in every color of the rainbow and branching in radically new thematic directions. This radical creative outlet consumed about thirty minutes of my two lunch hours each day. Only one and a half to go.

On the fourth day, I fashioned a catapult out of a small branch, some string that came loose from one of my socks, and a few round seeds that had fallen from a nearby tree. The inaugural firing of my branchapult resulted in the string coming loose and the seed falling straight to the ground. Not to be discouraged by failure, I revised the design slightly, retied the string and took another shot. This one actually traveled about six inches before plopping unsatisfyingly on the ground. Back to the drawing board.

On the seventh day or so, the wind began blowing the petals from the trees. I spent much of my outdoor time practicing my ninja petal catching skills. I was most successful when I would casually ignore the petal until it was a few feet above the ground and then rapidly, but gently reach out and snatch it from the air. After a couple of days of practice, I was able to do this with such stealth that I no longer caused my fellow meditators to glance over at what I was doing. Either that or they had grown bored with my antics.

On the eighth day, I discovered that I could play tunes on the clothesline by dividing its length in factors of two with my fingers. I couldn't make all of the notes, but I managed to fuddle through many a tune slightly off key.

On the sunny days (there were a few, there were also quite a few cloudy days and on the second day, it snowed), I would sit at the top of the stairs and look down at the gravel below. After a while, I noticed a lizard prowling about in search of something to eat. This was far more entertainment than I'd had thus far, so I watched him raptly for the next ten minutes. Much to my delight, he happened upon another lizard who was hiding under the stairs. As if God was intervening directly to end my boredom, the first lizard proceeded to grab the second lizard by the tail and engage it in a bout of lizard wrastlin' that would have been entertaining in my most decadent of moods. The wrastlin' lasted a few minutes after which the territory dispute was resolved. I saw my two lizard friends individually on later days and they even circled one another suspiciously on occasion, but no more wrastlin' took place.

Games you can play... in your head!

By the fifth day, I was reaching the limits of my patience with the whole process of sitting for hours on end, observing the sensations in my body. Things were going well and I was experiencing some new sensations, but the glacial pace at which information was delivered to us about the technique, combined with my rationalization that it was not necessary to spend ten and a half hours a day practicing each tiny new revelation motivated me to rework the "time table" slightly more favorably. The new plan was to meditate for five and a half hours a day and spend the remaining five hours thinking about stuff.

I didn't want to become the poster boy for slacking as everyone was already struggling hard enough not to crack without having to see one of their fellow students casually lounging about during meditation hours. Plus that probably would have got me kicked out and I wasn't sure if Claudia would be relieved or extremely annoyed at having her experience cut short. So the plan was to sit quietly, as if meditating, but instead to be exploring the millions of tiny universes in my mind.

Millions of tiny universes, indeed. I soon discovered that nearly every form of intellectual stimulation with which I had experience involved some sort of extra-mental component. Be that a pen and paper, a computer, a robotic dog, anything. Not easily discouraged, I began to tackle the problem of finding things that one can do entirely in their mind, with their eyes closed and without moving (much). Heck, Stephen Hawking does theoretical physics in his head. Surely I can entertain myself for a few hours each day.

The first thing that came to mind was factoring large numbers into their component primes. This turned out to be a rich vein of entertainment because your average five digit number takes about half an hour to factor (given my not so rapid, entirely in the head, long division skills). Did you know that 25,317 is equal to three squared times 29 times 97? I bet not. How about that 16,591 is equal to 47 times 353. I particularly liked that one because it involved big happy primes. After a while, I developed a knack for picking numbers that were hard to factor. Picking an even number or one ending in five is practically cheating because you can easily factor out a two or five respectively. Picking something ending in 7 and making sure the digits don't add up to a number divisible by three (which ensures that the number itself isn't divisible by three) tended to make things more challenging.

My thoughts retained a bit of a mathematical flavor for a while. I considered playing a game of chess or checkers against myself in my head, but quickly realized that remembering the state of a chess or checkers board is vastly beyond the capacity of my short term memory. The people that do it must be extremely good at the games in question and must do a heck of a lot of reduction of information because the position of 16 pieces on a board with 64 (or 32) squares blows way past seven plus or minus two. Then I moved on to thinking about the most efficient representation of a checkers game. Needless to say, I was unable to reduce it to something I could keep in short term memory. Later I stumbled across the algebraic equality x2 - 1 = (x-1)(x+1) after I decided to factor 65535 (which is 2562-1) and immediately reduced it to 255 times 257. Ah how easy I am to entertain.

On some other thought laden afternoon, I struck upon another rich vein of entertainment: word games. First I tried making palindromes. Since I was at a Buddhist meditation camp, I was using meditation-themed words. That turned out to be a bigger challenge than I expected. Try making a palindrome out of words like dhamma, enlightenment, or buddha. Not exactly a walk in the park. The best I could come up with was (and this barely qualifies as coherent): An ass, a pivot! O Vipassana. I know. I'm not quitting my day job.

I moved on to anagrams and that proved a heck of a lot easier, even when sticking with the Buddhist theme. Two that were worth mentioning: inner peace = inane creep and enlightenment = thin gentlemen. Try anagramming a thirteen letter word entirely in your head if you want a good mental workout. Then I made up an entirely new form of word play (new to me anyway) that involved classifying words according to their unique letter arrangements. For example, dhamma and indeed both map to 123443. Anyhow, the interesting aspect of that was trying to count the number of unique arrangements for a given number of letters. I won't bore you with the math (you're probably already thoroughly bored as it is), but suffice it to say that this problem kept me occupied for a good three or four hours. Far and away the biggest time consumer of them all.

The rest of the time I spent thinking about all manner of wacky things like what questions I would ask the Dalai Lama, if I ever met him or what was the last interaction I had with every single person I'd met in the last ten years (at least the ones I could remember). I did resort to a few other creative acts, like bad poetry composition:

Ode to Vipassana

    My thumb is numb
    My mouth is dumb
    My eyes are firmly shut

    I have, I fear
    No feeling in my rear
    And a rumbling in my gut

    My knees are squeezed
    In two tight vees
    Beneath my crooked spine

    And what's more
    My back, so sore
    And my thoughts, less than divine

Once again, I was not inspired to make any radical career changes. The good (or bad, depending on whether or not you're me) thing about having all this time to think is that in nearly every conversation I've had since I've been back, I've been able to honestly say, when the other person brought up some random topic, "You know, I happened to be thinking about that while I was at that meditation course." I'm sure all my friends are enjoying it immensely.

Warning: Meditation may cause blindness

By the seventh day, I was well established in my meditation avoidance techniques and figured I'd cruise through the remaining three days with nary another existential crisis. Little did I know, my subconscious begged to differ.

While wandering around after lunch, I sensed something peculiar in the corner of my vision. I tried to figure out what was the matter and had a vague feeling that things were ever so slightly less clear than normal. Not being in the habit of measuring my visual acuity on an hourly basis, I couldn't exactly remember whether things that appeared slightly blurry now used to be clearly visible. I didn't have much time to explore the situation because about ten minutes later it was time for our four hour afternoon meditation extravaganza.

When I emerged from the darkness of the meditation hall, my vision was very obviously blurry. This came as a bit of a shock to me as I've never had even the slightest problem with my eyes at all. My ears have been a constant source of problems, but the vision's always been 20/20. Immediately, the thought runs through my mind that all these years of staring at a monitor for numerous hours a day has finally caught up with me, but then reason fought its way back to the fore and assured me that vision does not just catastrophically degrade in a matter of hours. Not unless there's a tumor pressing down on the optic nerve or you're about to have a stroke. Thank you, reason.

I pondered the possibilities during the tea break and then went back in for another hour of meditation (one of the meditations of strong determination no less). Upon emerging from the dark cave of enlightenment, I discovered that my vision had rapidly degraded and that I could no longer focus on anything further than about six inches in front of my face. This was slightly more disconcerting. During tea, I had postulated that what I knew about blurred vision was that it was usually accompanied by dizziness and headaches in cases where it was the harbinger of something truly sinister. I was not at all dizzy and my head felt fine.

On top of that, I had been having very entertaining auditory hallucinations for the last couple of days. Every time we were to go from meditation to eating or when we woke in the morning, they would come around with a big gong and gong away to make sure that everyone knew that it was time to do whatever was next on the schedule. By now, I was lucidly hearing that gong in my head just about constantly. For hours during meditation, it would be gonging away. I was also hearing the chirps of the different birds quite vividly at hours when the birds were certainly not chirping (like three in the morning). As far as I knew, half the bird chirping I heard during the day was entirely my own creation.

All these clues, coupled with a vague recollection of reading somewhere that many people experience strange psychosomatic reactions during these ten day meditation courses comforted me somewhat and helped to dispel the idea in my mind that I would be dead or unconscious by sundown.

Regardless, I decided this was sufficiently peculiar to exercise my right to speak to an assistant teacher. I dutifully approached the one that had been nicest to me during the registration process and carefully explained that my vision had become blurry (remembering that his English wasn't so good). He looked back at me with a curious expression and said, "You had a vision?" A bit more explanation, supplemented by a lot of hand waving, finally convinced him that I wasn't talking about any transcendental experience, but that my vision was, in fact, blurry. He pieced together a string of English words that I could only assume were meant to convey that this was all in my mind and that I should just keep meditating and everything would be alright. Knowing that he knew as little as I did about optic pathology, I wasn't reassured. I decided to talk to the head honcho the next day during the question period.

Which I did. My intent was to find out if blurry vision was common among Vipassana meditators or if I was forging my own trail through the jungle of stress induced ailments. The teacher didn't latch right on to the meaning of blurry vision either, but he did say straight away that he didn't understand what I was talking about, rather than veer off into the metaphysical. A little more hand waving got us on the same page and he was soon speaking in soothing tones about how all sorts of strange things happen to people and that I shouldn't be worried.

Again, I wasn't interested in his medical diagnosis; I just wanted to know if it had actually happened to other people. So I pressed further, asking if he'd actually seen cases of blurry vision among his own students. He assured me that he had, but the way the whole conversation went, I had a sneaking suspicion that he hadn't and that he was just trying to make me comfortable. I wanted at this point to ask him exactly how many cases he had seen, but I decided that would be a wee bit more confrontational than the situation deserved. After all, he was turning out to be a nice guy. I probably wasn't going to die and I didn't need to go picking a fight with the teacher just to satisfy my overly rational mind. Plus, up close, he looked exactly like an Italian Mr. Rogers and that was kind of creeping me out.

Thus, I resigned myself to coping with my blurry vision for the remainder of the course. It followed an interesting pattern which was that when I woke in the morning, I could see perfectly clearly (or at least as clearly as one can see in the pre-dawn darkness after having gotten out of bed at the unholy hour of four a.m.). Then, as I endured the meditation sessions in the hall, it would progressively get worse and worse, until by the end of the day, I could no longer see Goenka's smiling face on the nightly discourse video. Instead, I was being lectured by a brown, swaying blur.

The variability in quality of vision was somewhat reassuring (I suspected that a tumor wouldn't behave so predictably), but it was also very distracting. I couldn't help but take every opportunity to gauge the degree to which my vision had degraded by comparing, say, the clarity of a sign posted on the door while standing near the stairs, to what it was earlier in the day. Spending all this time gauging the quality of my vision didn't exactly help me to put it out of my mind. Of course, the very fact that any time I spent with my eyes open was a constant reminder of my blurred vision wasn't helping either.

As you might have deduced, I didn't die from any terrible affliction. In fact, on the eleventh day (the one on which we got to go home), my vision seemed only slightly funny. By the day after that, it was perfectly fine again. I'm planning on having the old peepers tested in the near future to make sure there isn't any residual degradation, but given that the slightest change was starkly apparent at the time, I think my vision is back to where it was before the whole fiasco.

May all beings be happy

My final thoughts on the whole affair are not too far out of line with what I thought going into the whole thing, but the experience was sort of like a Vonnegut novel. He tells you everything that's going to happen in the entire book within the first couple of pages and then proceeds to use the next two hundred pages to violate in the most hilarious and unexpected ways every single assumption that you made after reading those first two pages.

I can't honestly recommend the technique to anyone trying to make their lives less miserable. Not that I think that the technique doesn't work, but practicing it seriously is like amputating your leg after stubbing your toe. No one that I know is the same kind of miserable as the suffering Indians for whom Buddha developed the technique 2500 years ago, and there are a vast range of things that can be done to be happier in these miraculous, modern times (granted, few of them are as simple). I can wholeheartedly recommend the experience to anyone looking to test the limits of their psychological endurance or to anyone who wants to gain a keener perspective on what it would feel like to be trapped alone on a desert island (minus the slow starvation part).

I am happy that I did it, but you won't find me signing up again next year. Nothing doing!

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