For the past twenty-five years, Jeff Greenwald has wandered the globe, filing dispatches from territories as varied as Iran, Mali, Japan, Italy, Nepal, and the furthest reaches of cyberspace. Last summer, Tricycle assigned him to report on a different sort of journey: his first ten-day Vipassana retreat.
Day One—Spirit Rock Meditation Center
One hour into my ten-day retreat, I drop my bag in a cool, compact room in a dorm named Upekkha: Equanimity.
So far, so good. I accept the dry, grassy hills outside my window; the wild turkeys on the walkway; the wind curling down the valley. I accept my practical room with its small table, folding chair, and narrow bed with fuzzy pink blankets.
It reminds me, in fact, of a room I inhabited on a previous journey. In 1994, I set off on an around-the-world trip to commemorate my fortieth birthday. The idea was to avoid airplanes and perform a kora—a devotional circumambulation—around the Earth’s surface. On the final leg of that nine-month odyssey, I crossed the Pacific aboard the Bremen Express, a huge container ship sailing from Hong Kong to Oakland. My residence was the pilot’s cabin: a spartan room very much like this one. For fifteen days there was nothing in my life but my room, the purr of the turbines, and the ocean beneath and all around us.
The upcoming voyage seems similar: a long passage across a mysterious sea. But while the ship carried a thousand liters of beer and an impressive library of action videos, the retreat comes with an intimidating set of rules meant to limit distractions: almost total silence; no reading, TV, or radio; no eye contact with other “yogis”; and a seventeen-hour schedule of sitting and walking meditation broken only by work duty, meals, and dharma talks. There will be no iced steins of pilsener or midnight screenings of Predator.
• • •
This is my first ten-day retreat, and I have no idea what to expect. But I do know that the shape of my life is not as easy to accept as this monastic cell. I face the mixed blessing of a creative but solitary life. Traveling the world since my twenties, I’ve avoided the entrapments—and pleasures—of domestic life. I’ve no wife, children, pets, mortgage, life insurance premiums, or equity. Lately, that “freedom” has seemed akin to the sort in Me and Bobby McGee: “just another word / for nothin’ left to lose.”
Last spring, after my fiftieth birthday, I decided to pursue more conventional comforts. Miraculously, the perfect opportunity arose. Reggie was the kind of woman who could climb El Capitan, serve up a dinner of roast duck and cherry cobbler at the summit, and name the constellations in afterglow—but her urgency to start a family aroused my ambivalence. I waffled; she bailed. Facing ten days alone, in silence, I realize that my heart is still shredded by this sharp-edged failure.
Then comes the small stuff. Mortality, for example. Fifty, I’m fond of saying, is the new thirty. But eighty is still eighty, and it’s not so far away. My career remains a sore point (especially when my mother tries to find Tricycle in Hicksville). And there remains the eternal hope for a partner. A whole different set of issues may well arise on the retreat—but that’s the menu of distractions on Day One at Ground Zero.
As a travel writer, I sense these days will be spent in an unfamiliar, intriguing country, a land I’ve long dreamed of visiting, but which I know only from guidebooks. That this terrain lies within me makes little difference; it’s likely to be as alien as Ouagadougou.
• • •
A steady wind flies down the hill and in through my screen, rustling the papers on my bed. The sky is the color of Tibetan turquoise. Live oaks and pine trees cast scraggly shadows across the dry yellow grass, and a turkey vulture circles above the residence halls. I can’t believe I didn’t bring any chocolate.
A night of fitful sleep, during which I dreamed I ate a Kit-Kat bar the size of my door.
The first sitting is at 5:45 a.m. I tiptoe into the meditation hall at six, squeaking guiltily through the earnest silence. Our teachers sit on a low dais. Before them is a bowl-shaped bell, to be struck at the sitting’s end. Spirit Rock’s sitting hall is imposing but enclosing, a beautifully crafted room that lets in light and air while keeping out the static of civilization. I’d brought my zafu into the empty hall last night, and now find the cushion surrounded by my co-yogis: people who have dropped everything and traveled from far and wide, simply to sit in silence. Many sit cross-legged on zafus, while others meditate in chairs. The variety of folding seats, knee supporters, backrests, and zafus is astonishing. Meditation gear, like ski wear, is clearly a thriving industry.
The days will be regimented: sitting, walking, sitting, walking, from dawn until dark. Vipassana practice, teacher Joseph Goldstein reminds us, is an experiment; an investigation of how our mind works. The relentless schedule is simply a technique to remove distractions, and watch the mind with as few obstructions as possible.
My first work meditation is at 7:30 a.m. I’ve signed up for vegetable chopping. There are five of us, and we are quickly schooled by the cook. We wash our hands, slip on aprons, collect our knives, and receive our designated veggies. My upekkha is challenged at once: we’re having eggplant for lunch.
• • •
Walking meditation is a bit like scuba diving: the part where one ascends toward the surface, rising no faster than one’s tiniest air bubbles. I move into the walking room, pick a “lane”—it’s a bit like lap swimming—and begin the zombie-like gait. Across the way is a Burmese Buddha in the standing pose, hands by his side, palms out. Walking toward those open arms, I feel like a child taking his first steps. How many other yogis, I wonder, have felt this same sense of learning something familiar all over again?
• • •
I carry my lunch outside, to the redwood tables below a high, round hill that immediately captures my attention. Its golden grasses shimmer in the wind, mirroring the shadow of a hovering hawk.
I’ve been warned about “Vipassana romance,” and there are definitely some contenders: a blonde cowgirl, a doe-eyed Asian, an olive-skinned beauty who looks like Brenda on Six Feet Under.
It’s not just them. All the women I’ve known come skipping into the spotlight of my concentration, dancing like Mara’s daughters. Some memories are tinged with lust, others with sweetness, many with sadness.
Hardest to shake are the memories of Reggie. I imagine her here, calming her mind beneath these lovely clouds. I ask her for another chance, letting go into the safety I felt in her arms. When I let them in, these thoughts seem unbearable. But I do bear them, tears welling. I observe the texture of grief, watching it rise and fall.
Returning to my room, I spy—behind the thermostat—the brilliant orange feather Reggie wore in her hair on the Fourth of July. Why, oh why, did I bring that feather with me? I know why…and at some point I must bring it to one of the nearby Buddha shrines, and let it go. At some point…but not today.
• • •
One arrives here full of glee and trepidation, like a traveler visiting a famous city for the first time. It seems impossible to imagine that you will someday know the streets and subways, the best cafes and hidden museums.
This doubt, Joseph assures us, is natural. Have faith: the mind will calm down. This convoluted landscape may someday become a second home. Like a first-time visitor to Benares—or a hiker on the first day of a Himalayan trek—one must accept the initial agonies, and persevere.
First “interview” group today, kicked off by a frizzy-haired yogi who complains of shooting pains in her joints. “Vipassana pain,” our teacher, Annie, tells her. “A good sign.”
My issue is pain, as well. Loneliness, agitation, even despair as my mind dishes up memories of failed loves. I reveal this to Annie, who confirms that, yes, such things will come up. There’s no easy way to do this practice. Friends warned me of this, as well. “You’ll love the first few days,” my editor told me wryly. “It’s like being locked in a phone booth with a raving lunatic.”
This is the paradox of practice. It needs faith, to continue sitting through the boredom and knee pain and doubt. But one cannot expect anything.
• • •
While sitting, I make an effort to focus my awareness. But when thoughts come, they come hard, and the harder they come, the more they cry to be written down. Joseph shares his mantra on the subject: For the purpose of the meditation practice, nothing is worth thinking about. This, then, is my Seinfeld-like conundrum; to write a story about nothing.
Eyes move from ground to trees, from food to hill, grazing on legs and hips, chests and lips, along the way. No smiles, or outward signs. But the dance goes on. Men shave; women paint their toenails. We note who wears rings, and on which finger.
• • •
Every morning, every afternoon, and every evening one can see it: The World’s Slowest Race, as dozens of yogis compete in a “mindful walking” sprint toward the dining hall.
Spirit Rock is so beautiful that it is a distraction in itself. I’m obsessed with the ever-changing light on the crest of that hill outside the dining hall, with the wild turkeys in the grass, the lizards on the path, the calls of the birds who nest in the beams outside the meditation hall.
But this retreat, really, is about the Great Indoors. The sensation of a peach slice against my tongue. The tightness in my hips after exactly thirty minutes of a forty-five-minute sitting (the last fifteen are always the hardest). My bare toes against the cracks in the asphalt. The awareness of my awareness of women. The fictional dialogues and rehearsals that my mind continually invents: dialogues with friends, foes, family, ex-lovers, editors, everyone who has done me wrong, misunderstood me, judged me, or let me down. Dialogues in which my righteous view always prevails.
“You can find the entire world in your in-breath,” a teacher trainee tells me in our private session. “The in-breath is like your home, the place your mind returns to after work. Pay attention. Everything is there.”
Perhaps so. But for now, the whole world is also out there: in that hawk, the waving grass, that tall red-haired woman walking past my window.
• • •
A strong afternoon sitting. I split my “self” into two parts, and observe with detachment my monkey mind: rehearsing dialogues, churning up scenarios of attack-and-response, cultivating desire, perfecting verbal self-defense. The patterns seem so obvious, the remedy so near at hand. And then I lose it all an hour later, during Kamala’s talk on the Five Hindrances.
The talk, so succinct during the first half, begins to drag on, as Kamala provides endless examples of the disguises of Doubt, Aversion, and Restlessness. I began to realize that the talk will go over an hour, and cut into my evening walk. Cut into my walk! How dare she?!
Kamala had earlier described anger as a fireball, and I feel one descending. It’s the intense irritation I experience whenever I’m kept waiting. For the first time in days I find my mind on the loose, out of control. The feeling passes, of course (as soon as the talk ends), but it leaves me shaken. I look down at my hands, amazed to see that I’ve unconsciously bitten my nails—less than two hours after congratulating myself for breaking the habit!
Preparing tea in the dining hall, I remember the words of the Buddha, as shared by Kamala: “In this fathom-long body, all of the universe can be discovered.”
Monkey mind; reptile mind. During walking meditation, I watch a big lizard capture and devour a smaller one. The victim thrashes, then remains still as it disappears into its predator’s maw. Fascination; revulsion; aversion; the awareness of judgments being made. Then a placid return to walking.
Rarely do we realize how utterly controlled we are by our thoughts.
The lizard is just one more metaphor, added to the countless metaphors from our instructors. There are a thousand ways to paint the mind and its discontents. And what about these “mindful” thoughts? What should I do when I’m seized by the urge to fathom the meaning of a reptile?
“Don’t stop the thought—you can’t. Simply be mindful,” Joseph asserts. “Return your attention to the primary object: breathing, walking, the sensations in your body.”
It’s enormously difficult. Still, I have a slight advantage over my fellow yogis. Insight meditation is all about observing, and observation has been part of my training as a journalist. The skill, I’m learning, may be transferable.
I sit in silence for thirty minutes, then open my eyes. Out the window, the grassy hill looks radiant in late afternoon light. The ridgeline is a lion’s back, fine brown hairs prickling on the haunches.
• • •
Every morning at 6:45, every afternoon at 12: 15, and every evening at 5:15 one can see it: The World’s Slowest Race, as dozens of yogis compete in a “mindful walking” sprint toward the dining hall.
This evening, a plate of cookies waits at the end of the food line. With impressive self-control I follow the unspoken protocol, and take just one. Twenty minutes later, another yogi emerges, and sits beside me. I glance at her plate. Two cookies! Judgment spirals through my brain. My emotions run the gamut from gall to embarrassment (for her sake), ending with equanimity and admiration. Here is a woman who has guiltlessly accepted her love of cookies.
But as I reenter the dining hall for tea, I understand all. There’s a whole new tray of cookies! I take two, wrap them in napkins, and put one in each jacket pocket, planning to eat them under the stars after the day’s final sitting.
When that long-awaited moment comes, I sit on an outdoor bench and unwrap the first cookie—daydreaming about how great it would be to have a cup of hot chocolate, and how I’ll be sure to bring some next time. When I look down, both cookies are gone; I’ve eaten them in a virtual coma.
Another perfect teaching. Desiring one thing while devouring another, I’m left with nothing.
• • •
A breakthrough sitting this afternoon, during which each emerging thought is fixed with the lens of mindfulness, and viewed without attachment. One by one they bubble up from the tar pit of my unconscious mind, blossom into life, and—poof!—disintegrate. It’s great; I feel like Neo in The Matrix.
Rarely do we realize how utterly controlled we are by our thoughts. They run roughshod over us, ponies in stampede. I can see why people devote entire lifetimes to stabilizing those rare, blissful moments when we take back the reins.
But I bristle at Joseph’s warning that even these positive sittings, these rare moments when I think I might be getting somewhere, are “corruptions,” and self-delusion. It often seems that our teachers delight in being obtuse and in framing practice as a wild goose chase. I’m tempted to throw up my hands, and suggest a new “mantra” for the process: “We can’t tell you where you’re going, but you’re never going to get there.”
A good morning sitting, after a breakfast of rice pudding. Seems I sit best when well fed. My focus is on the nature of thoughts. What are they? Last spring, on a Point Reyes beach, Reggie and I saw thousands of tiny, dried-up jellyfish, washed onto the shore like sea bream. It seems that thoughts are much like those hapless beings: spawned by the millions, carried on the waves, and then blown away, desiccated, by the wind.
Speaking of Reggie, my mind has settled; I’m ready to make a symbolic gesture. And so, with a pang of sadness, I take her orange feather out of my room and leave it on the lap of the White Tara behind the meditation hall.
• • •
The only parts of the practice that can be described with confidence are the rough, cerebral edges. What happens at the center, when the mind quiets down, is impossible to verbalize. It’s as if I were writing about the Grand Canyon, but could only talk about the rim.
Still, there are moments—especially during the dharma talks—when I experience the delight of hearing a deeply felt truth articulated for the first time. In meditation itself, I feel something even more gratifying: the notion that my mind may actually be trainable. Thoughts are endless, and they rush in to fill the yawning well of awareness. But one might learn to hold that space open, with practice. It may not stay empty—but one can choose what to let in.
But don’t get me wrong; I’m still a bumbling novice. On Day Six, I continue to battle infinite distractions—from self-recriminations over my romantic foibles to a parade of ideas for absurd, New Yorker—style cartoons. Today’s bestin-show: “Tourrette’s Syndrome Sitting Group.”
• • •
It’s all about openness. Being open, with equanimity, to every thought that arises. Without preferences, without identification, without attachment. It’s the same mind-set required of a traveler on pilgrimage: “Whatever arises—bring it to the path.”
“All happy families are alike,” wrote Leo Tolstoy, “but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Conversely: All unhappy sittings are alike, but every happy sitting is different in its own way.
Unhappy sittings are always about the same thing: collapsing into the trap of identification, clinging, wishing for things to be different from the way they are. But all productive sittings reveal new facets of the breath, or the sounds outside the window. Each opens a new avenue for insight. Everyone of my “good” sittings has been transformative, highlighting a different aspect of my awareness. Every unhappy sitting is about dukkha—and dukkha is about closing down.
I’ve had those sittings, and plenty. This afternoon, the woman in front of me belched at reliable intervals; to my left, a stomach gurgled like a swamp. Minutes before the bell, as I was approaching a state of relative calm, someone on my right released a resonant fart. How much can a yogi bear?
For now, the important thing is just to let it all in, and to let it all out. If it can find the door.
• • •
Reggie’s feather blew off the White Tara; I find it in a bush a few yards away. That won’t do. I pick it up, bring it to the big stone Buddha by the dining hall, and toss it sheepishly among the feathers and talismans placed under rocks near the statue’s base. Not a very good job, so far, of letting go.
• • •
Kamala recounts a time when, in Burma, she told her teacher how hard practice was. “I’m not asking you to cut down the jungle,” he replied, “I’m just asking you to be mindful!” Everyone laughs; but I think it’s easier to clear a jungle. You gather a fleet of bulldozers—or pruning shears—and get to work. After a finite length of time, it’s done. That’s one of the most daunting aspects of meditation practice: One has no idea when, or if, the job will be “done.
• • •
My mind assigns personalities, develops attractions and aversions, based on the most superficial impressions. This rude woman belches every sitting; that kind man holds the door for me; that lonely woman looks like she’s been weeping; that strange man bows to his zafu; that generous woman tilts the soup pot for me; that selfish man jumps the queue. And so a menagerie of characters is created, all fanciful, bur oddly persistent. They demonstrate, as much as any teaching, how the mind manufactures and clings to illusion.
• • •
There’s a secluded bench in a small grove, not far from the meditation hall. On the way I pass an outdoor shrine filled with memories from lost lives: photographs, amulets, poems, prayer flags, candles, bones, a dog collar, a compass, a rake. I search my pockets, but find nothing to leave as an offering. For the first time in days, I regret being empty-handed.
During walking meditation I take the forest trail, picking a spur between two oaks whose limbs overhang the path. I close my eyes and move toward mindfulness. Twenty steps out; twenty steps back. The crunching of leaves synchronizes with my breath, as the sounds of the forest arise and recede. My eyes are closed, and I experience a moment of sublime spaciousness—which ends abruptly, as my head whacks into an overhanging limb.
• • •
In September of 1994, a few days after my around-the-world trip ended, I was driving through San Francisco. Somewhere in the lower Haight, I saw a body-piercing salon. On a whim, I parked my car.
It had been a momentous week, witnessing the conclusion of a transformative journey. During my trip I’d covered nearly thirty thousand miles, visiting twenty-seven countries. Those final days on the Bremen Express, like this retreat, had settled my mind, and prepared me for what lay ahead. Entering the piercing salon, I prepared to brand the memory of that journey onto my body.
Minutes later, I emerged with a silver hoop through my left earlobe. On the ring was a tiny enamel sphere. Green and blue, it looked like a miniature Earth.
It’s a shame there’s no body-piercing salon at Spirit Rock. I’d like a companion to that ring: something to mark fifty years, and this latest rite of passage. Bur how do you commemorate nothing?
• • •
Before dinner, I return to the Buddha where I’d left Reggie’s feather. It’s nowhere to be seen. I glance around to see if it has blown into a bush, or elsewhere. Nope; gone. I’m filled with deep regret. I watch the feeling arise, reach its emotional zenith, and dissipate into space. How can I fail to see the metaphor, the inner workings of cause and effect? Reggie had offered me everything: love, companionship, a family. I hesitated; now she’s gone. It is hard to deny that, on some level, that must be what I wanted.
Just as I wanted that feather to be taken away; and so it was.
Of all the vegetables I’ve chopped this week, tomatillos are my favorite. Their firm skin, jade hue, and receptivity to the blade made prepping for lunch a true meditation. Zucchinis are a close second. Mincing dill is a delight, though one soon becomes covered with fragrant hairs. Carrots are also noble, the knife tapping on the wooden board after every cut. I love cutting kale, collard greens, and chard, though those last inches can be tricky. Green peppers I can take or leave. Onions I strictly avoid, as well as tomatoes—for though I enjoy them as much as the next yogi, I loathe the slimy mess on the cutting board.
I imagine my fellow yogis wondering who will get which slice of each vegetable. Will this be eaten by the motionless man on my left? By the woman with the silver toenails? Or—yikes!—by one of the teachers themselves?
It’s a good feeling, feeding people. A delightful surprise, this “chopping for Buddhists.”
• • •
Silence will soon be broken. A few announcements are made, and we are told that speaking will be allowed for two hours (until dinner) in a few outdoor locations.
Nearly all the yogis race outside to chat. I remain seated, glad for some time alone. But within minutes, bedlam ensues—right outside the meditation hall windows. I recall a description of the human race from Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos: “My God, were they ever loud.”
I leave my cushion and move into the woods, walking until I reach the Grove of Memories. This time, I’m not empty-handed. I reach up and, for the first time in ten years, pull carefully but steadily on the silver band through my earlobe. It opens reluctantly, then falls into my hand.
There, on the arm of a laughing Buddha, I leave my forties.
• • •
A final meal by the grassy hill, where I’ve eaten every meal. I’m still captivated by its ridgeline, that protean edge where the rippling grasses meet the sky. With its ever-changing play of light and motion, this hill has taught me much about presence, change, and nonattachment. It belongs to me—but only on a moment-to-moment basis. Soon, even those moments will be gone.
I sit by the stone Buddha, unable to believe it is ending.
The world has rushed back, a flash flood into a box canyon. The yogis, so mysterious and inaccessible when silent, now step forward with their stories. The man with splotched pants, whom I took for a painter, is a paralegal; the zaftig, thick-haired woman who looked so sad is a spunky therapist; the tall man who seemed so serious is an animated Irishman, who hugs me with a grin.
Out of silence, these yogis still shine.
My mind is clear as I contemplate the most important insight gained during this long, strange trip: I am not, in truth, the distracted, dissatisfied person I often appear to be to myself and others. The obstacles to my happiness are not insuperable. I have the tools to remove them entirely; how I use those tools, and how often, is up to me.
But if I’m comforted, it may be (as the teachers implied) because I don’t know the deeper truth. My demons are still down there. For one reason or another, they kept their silence. I made no effort to dare them awake.
My car, waiting down the hill, seems a world away. As I drive south, banking around precarious curves, I recall a quotation from one of Joseph’s talks. It is by the Dalai Lama, and seems uniquely appropriate to this moment of departure:
“Changes in attitudes never come easily,” the Tibetan monk states in Tibetan Portrait: The Power of Compassion. “[Their] development is a wide, round curve that can be negotiated only slowly—not a sharp corner that can be turned all at once.”
I take a few long breaths, watching the play of light and shadow on the road ahead.