Back to the Center…Vipassana

God I was nervous when I got into this course. I was nervous to even apply for this course. That’s why I chose one with a wait list, so it wouldn’t be certain. But I must have known I was more ready than last year, because this time I put myself on a short wait list. The last course I applied for was back in Ireland, last…September? Whoa, over a year already? This year has flown.

The last course I attended was in 2012…and I made it halfway. My timing was wrong. I didn’t know there could be a wrong time for such things, and I didn’t know I couldn’t handle anything. Before that, the first and only full course I sat was in 2009.

Nearly nine years later, I find myself back where I was then; home for the holidays, living in this cozy converted shed on the back of my mom’s rural property, back by the river. Likewise I am planning to go see about a man on an island in a month. I almost let the similarity of the situation swallow me in nervousness, because of how that last one played out. But this time is not similar, not at all. Now I am different, now I have lived through so much, and lived it through the eyes of Vipassana. Watching, patient, accepting, learning. Besides, what shows you how much you’ve grown more than going back to where you’ve been?

They sent an email before they processed my application. “We see that in 2012 you left a course early…are you prepared to commit to the expectations of the course, to stay the full ten days?” I replied as honestly as I could. “If I choose to attend, I intend to stay the full course.” I wasn’t sure I would choose to attend, however. 

They accepted me Friday, the day after thanksgiving. That day I woke and meditated and stretched and lounged, completely content with my silence, my solitude, my mind. That day I texted a friend to say, “Sometimes I am so OK with doing nothing that it scares me!” That day I wrote in my journal, ‘Just me and my thoughts…mmmm.’ On such a wave came my acceptance, and in its wake my slew of worries.

I worry I will lose momentum for all the beautiful things I have built. I am writing, I am running, I am opening to love…I worry I will lose my sense of humor, my need to find purpose through writing, my need for regulating my body with running…my drive to be sexy and passionate. I am worried I will become too serious again, that I will see these passions as detrimental, that I will push them away.

But still, the draw back to the center is strong. My mother asked me from her bath, as I sat agitated on the linoleum floor, invading her relaxation with anxiety. “You talk about why you are worried to go, but why do you want to go?”

Why indeed? Just…like…a place I think about. A place I need to go to again, that place of complete silence and suspension. Because I’ve been thinking about it for so long. Since the first course, and during each moment of stark awareness induced by meditation. Since I ran away from the last one, overwhelmed by my inner anxiety, defeated and disappointed in myself. Since I met a meditator man, became tangled in his web of Vipassana experience. Since I let go of him. Since I found Vipassana again, on my own, out on the road, in a small tent hiding from the advancing Italian winter. 

Since…everything that’s happened in the last nine years. Since I grabbed that technique for the first time and tried to use its power to control my life, to be perfect…then loosened it, lost it, tried desperately to reclaim it for the hard parts, the lessons and healing that only life experience can bring.

Every time I sit, almost every day, even if just for a little bit, I wonder if I will come back to it, “check it out” again. Many years I just sat to sit, not knowing why I held onto it, but knowing that I didn’t want to give it up completely, knowing that I at least had to try again…but terrified to actually do it.

Then this last year, a journey of slow transformation, spread out, not condensed like a Vipassana course. But life…that is how life teaches. And I realized that I have fallen in love with life. I have learned to embrace it as beautifully imperfect, and myself as well. Stripped down my standards of composed perfection. 

And that is when I met up again with Vipassana. One day, sitting in a swaying boat cabin, it just showed up changed, like it had been off on its own adventures, and we were able to be friends again, somehow. I saw its power. I sat and realized that I can use it to accept whatever’s rocking me. Use it to stay…just stay. 

I used to worry that Vipassana would take me away from life. That I would dismiss life’s lessons, the magic, the love, the passion. Question my own cravings, my intuitions…my beloved belief in serendipity. I wasn’t ready to let go of life, her sweet guidance, her tricky paths, her painfully beautiful growth. I used to feel like Vipassana left little room for emotion, but maybe just because of how I first used it, to drown the feelings that were drowning me.

My journal is almost filled with these worries and thoughts. All the thoughts! I am trying to capture them like butterflies. Desperately holding onto life as it is right now, worried that I will come back so changed, like after every big trip. Every time I go, I pack. I take what I’m not ready to leave (always too much). I cry for what I can’t take, and always I come back and wonder, “why was I so attached to that?” 

But less so recently. I know myself better now. Nowadays I come back and I have use for almost everything I left. I am happy to come back to these things, these people, because they feel like home. Because I know better what home is. I am getting closer to myself, I think.

I confirmed my attendance the last day of the deadline. Sunday. Then I had some work, a new massage client. In the study of his house, surrounded by Christian books and bibles, he chattered on about his death. He had died in February. Complications from a neck surgery that closed his airway. He talked to God. He had not claimed to be religious before, but he found himself in a place so lonely, so horrifying, and God explained that he must live for Him. That God wants all of us to be with Him, but in the end there will be a judgement, and if we lived our lives selfishly, the path with be harder.

As I stretched and poked his muscles, I wavered between shutting down and listening. The topic was disconcerting. The afterlife is scary, tricky. I have my own interpretations of God’s vague statements, of course. When I hear such proclamations as, “We must live for God,” I must break it down to make it more understandable, more practical, more…enactable.

I take it to mean living in awareness of those things we do that hurt ourselves, or others, those things we do out of impure intentions and impulses. That what we practice and get good at in life will determine our experience of death. That the things we hold tight to, attachments, reactions, habits, will determine the nature of our ultimate release. So I refine religious proclamations to fit my own experience. I guess I just speak a different language.

We ended the massage talking about meditation. He sat on the edge of the table, intrigued and excited as I gave him simple instructions for Anapana, breath meditation, that would go well with prayer. “Just set a timer for five minutes, sit comfortable, and focus on your breathe, gently bringing your mind back when it wanders, as it will…alot!” Strange that I should fall into a potent conversation about death just days before I set off to observe my deepest attachments to life.

The next day I met with old friends. People I went to high school with but hadn’t seen in years. We had all been close. We protected each other, accepted each other. We sat in a comforting circle on the floor, ignoring the couches, and snacked and chatted. I babbled my worries about the course, and one friend crawled away, across the carpet to a shelf. She returned and slid me a book: Long Quiet Highway by Natalie Goldberg.

“I love her!” I said. “I have a few of her books on writing.”

“She is a Zen Buddhist but struggles because she still wants to be a writer, not a monk,” said my friend. “I pick up a copy whenever I come across it, to pass it along whenever it seems like someone needs it. Pass it on when you find someone.” I opened to the title page, finding a big blue signature…Natalie Goldberg. I kept it just in reach the rest of the night, my token proof of serendipity, of universal guidance…that force, that friend, that I still need to believe in. Which is OK too. I will let all things go when I am ready. As I peel back my layers of attachment.

So I decided to make myself an altar, like a time capsule. In the center of my round dining table I will place things that feel important to me right now. I will put the Natalie Goldberg book, to wait for me with answers and reassurance when I get back, if I come home confused or lost. 

I will place the blue plastic dolphin I won at carnival in St. John, to remind me of my island romance, of sweetness and playfulness. I will set out a new blank journal, and a nice pointy pen, to invite and permit myself to write again. And I will place my calendar with my running plan, a visual display of how much I’ve done and how good it’s felt.

So I may come back to my altar, these things I set out that I don’t want to let go of, and I may look at them and think ‘easy’. Because my experience may show me why I hold them so tight, and that I don’t need them in the same way. But I seriously think, or I seriously hope that I will welcome them back fondly, with perhaps just a little more awareness. That I still embrace them, but without such a need that I squeeze the life out of them. 

Maybe the fact that I hope this so much means it is all a choice after all, that these things are not wrong. That no choice is really wrong. Or maybe I am just making excuses for my cravings. I will know what’s right by observing myself, honestly. Or I will just accept that for now I am still attached, because for now I am still living here in a world of passion and desire.

As I pack I call a friend, a fellow runner, for reassurance against my last little worry. I know I don’t need it, but I reach out regardless. “If I take ten days off running, should I just jump back into my training plan where I left off? Will I still be able to make it to thirteen miles by January?!”

He pauses on the other end of the line. I sense annoyance, though it could just be my annoyance towards myself. He responds thoughtfully, “What you are going to do is for your soul, which is just as important as your body…don’t worry. Just go for a run when you get back and see how you feel. Listen to your body.” I thank him bashfully. I knew that…

Then I read the astrology for the week. ‘Mercury retrograde is a time for reflecting on the past and reshaping the future…to implement that awareness when it goes direct December 6, the day of the New Moon.”

December 6…day eight of the course. New Moon is celebrated as symbolic for new beginnings, purification. Another omen…I am stashing these omens in a corner of my mind, an amulet to empower me through this course.  

I worry, I plan, I worry…and then it eases. Over and over again, my whole life. And I am slowly catching on, getting less carried away each time. Maybe I should put one more thing on my altar…a note, my worries written out. Maybe that is what I will confront the most, and then I will come home and laugh at myself. I will sift through my offerings, chuckling that I was so worried to lose these things that enrich my life, and then I will pick my list of worries and think, “Why was I holding onto that?!” And I will light it on fire, watch the smoke rise with my meditation infused eyes, then put on my shoes and go for a run!

I wait for my ride Wednesday morning, squishing my pillow into the brown canvas duffel bag. Before I leave, I sneak a peak in the Natalie Goldberg book. Page one, introduction: There is an order of Buddhist monks in Japan whose practice is running…

Continued on Into Silence

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