At 4 a.m. I am woken by the harrowing sound of the gong. In a large hall separated into rooms with the use of ropes and curtains people reluctantly begin their movement. It’s 50 degrees in the room and even colder outside, and I wince at the thought of getting out. For the first time in seven days I give myself a break and stay in the warmth of my sleeping bag for another 20 minutes.
Finally, I get out, put on a few layers of clothing and walk into the meditation hall, where 60 people are already sitting in complete silence with their eyes closed.
Breath in. Breathe out.
After watching my breath for a few seconds I begin to fall asleep, then catch myself doing this, notice few more breaths and start falling asleep again. However, seven days of training weren’t a waste, and after a few minutes I aquire a calm energy and sustaining attention on a single object is no longer the challenge it was in the first days. Breath in, breathe out. My knees begin to remind me of their existence.
At 6:30, I again hear the gong, but this time it fills me with anticipation: breakfast. In silence, all men walk towards the dining hall. Breakfast is late, and for a few minutes I observe a comically surreal picture: 30 men standing in complete silence with their gazes fixed upon the metal door of the dining hall.
I should probably tell you about Goenka. Born at the beginning of previous century in Burma, he grew up in a rich family and built a career in international business. At age 30, wealthy but miserable, he became an avid meditator, and after 15 years of devout practice he brought the technique first to India and then to the rest of the world. In the ’90s his lectures were recorded and now, when we sit down in the hall and close our eyes, his charming and imperious voice comes from the speakers above us, just as it does in vipassana centers all around the world.
At 8 begins the Adhitanna, session of strong dedication: for an hour we are to meditate without moving a single muscle. We live our lives, Goenka tells us, reacting to an endless stream of craves coming from our bodies, and now it is time to break out of this sensory slavery. “Anicca,” he tells us, which in Pali means impermanence: all emotions and sensations will eventually fade away, so why waste your time trying to rid of them? Maybe that’s true, but it sure feels like the pain in my knee is there to stay.
After the ordeal of complete stillness, we meditate for another two hours, and at 11, I have a couple of hours to eat and recuperate. The range of activities available is rather limited: you can either lie down on the mattress and look at the ceiling of walk circles around the few acres of center’s territory. Thinking thoughts is ill-advised, but I can’t help myself. In a total entertainment-vacuum, my brain comes up with ideas and games at mind-boggling pace. After classifying the local fauna I move on to giving nicknames to fellow meditators to studying the muscle mechanics of walking.
But today my creative energy has left me. “I’m bored!” I mentally scream in desperation. Almost instantaneously I get a response from Goenka, whose voice after countless of lectures and instructions have become a citizen of my consciousness
— Observe boredom. What is it like to feel bored?
— But what if I’m too bored to observe boredom?
— Then observe that.
After the break another meditation session begins, four hours with a few five-minute breaks. Recently it was easier to stay motivated, as I am beginning to feel how this insane undertaking yields a noticeable, although for now not very useful, progress. After a week, you begin to develop superhuman sensitivity to your own body. You feel your eyeballs pressing into the eyelids, or the slow and quiet heartbeat. You observe how your pulse spreads through your arm into the hand and every phalange of every finger. Sometimes, when you concentrate on the breath, you begin to feel your own lungs (it feels a bit like when you’re sick and are about to start coughing).
Every inch of our skin, every second, emits a signal, but usually it gets lost somewhere in the upper level processing. When you pay attention, you first notice the wind touching your cheeks, and then the pressure of your shirt on the shoulders. Finally you can feel a light sensation even in the areas seemingly untouched by anything. Spending days laser-focused on the sensation of touch you eventually observe how their solidity vanishes away and is replaced by a flurry of quick subtle vibrations. Finally, at the end of the course, I am able to see how the pain in my knee falls apart into these harmless little quants of muscle tension. How odd.
It’s 5 p.m. now. There is no dinner here, but if you’re a newbie in this you’re allowed to have some tea and a fruit. Consuming a banana, I watch the turbulent dance of the tea vapor, backlit with the sunset. This is the emotional apex of my day: the work is almost finished and the cold of the night hasn’t yet crept up on us.
You obey the timetable with prison-like zeal. Timetable becomes a part of you, and your body knows what’s going to happen next even if you aren’t thinking about it. Repeating the same exact day 10 times in a row down to a minute can be an interesting experiment in itself. You learn that boredom is not fatal, and that habit replaces willpower much faster than you imagined. You learn that your mood oscillates wildly up and down without the help of external intervention. How odd.
At 7, after another hour of staying motionless, I drag my body to the TV room, where they put on the evening Goenka lecture. In between the Buddhist tales and personal anecdotes he occasionally drops priceless practical advice, and I try to listen carefully, swearing mentally whenever he brings up karma and past lives. Goenka tells us that one can only reach success in meditation if one does not desire it, that desire is just an annoying distraction from what is happening right now. Goenka tells us about a bloodthirsty warlord who after meeting Buddha decided to dissolve his army and join his teacher under the tree.
At 9, after yet another meditation session, I finally drop onto my bed. My knees respond with relief and gratitude: “Thank you, Master!”. I fall asleep before I can zip my sleeping bag and wake up from the gong a second later. It’s 4 a.m., and it’s time to get up.
Artur Gorokh is a graduate student studying applied mathematics at Cornell University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Radically Moderate appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.