Into Silence

Continued from Back to the Center

I was tripping giddy on that post Vipassana high, rolling in the luxury of the simplest pleasures. Like talking. After ten days of silence, laughing felt like an uncontrollable rush. After ten days observing subtle sensations, driving I-5 was a thrilling roller coaster. After sitting so straight and still, lounging in front of the fire might as well have been a full service spa treatment.

Happiness (and relief) flooded over me as I chatted with my mother, sunk in a bean bag chair, one hand plunged in the cat’s warm soft fur, rising and falling with his purring breath. I’d made it. And I didn’t want to hide away like the first time, to perfectly preserve my peace and lessons. This time I wanted to burst back into life, equanimity flaring, like a giggling monk at a carnival. Roll those new insights right into the dough of my existence, and continue on my way.

Everyone asked how my course went. I’d prompted them with enough anxious anticipation to leave anyone wondering how the drama would play out. My simple response was, “It was very nice, very pleasant,” with a smile. And it’s true. Pleasant. Hard of course, and terribly frustrating at times. I cried, but not a lot, and not wretchedly. The truth is, I didn’t dive very deep this time. Then again, I hadn’t intended to. My only intention was to stay.

The dining room filled with nervous women, cradling their cups of tea. The men ate in the room next door, already separated for the duration of the course. I imagined them chatting freely, naturally more expressive than these determined, reserved women. 

I’d already set up my room, my nest. One of many along the way. I forgot how luxurious this meditation center had become. For my first course I slept in what is now the dining room, I believe, which had been dimly lit and filled with low, narrow beds lining the walls, separated by curtains. Two years later the female residence was built, just across the lawn, past the meditation hall. Rows of connected rooms sharing covered walkways out front. Each housed two students, with their own curtained area and a shared bathroom and shower. Electric heaters ticked and pumped. Skylights ricocheted the sound of rain drops in the Washington winter. Warm, cozy, safe. Not that I had minded sleeping among many women, there was a comfort in that too.

The female course manager signed me in, accepted my bag of ‘contraband’ (my cell phone and chocolate) and directed me to 19A, a corner room on the backside of the residences, facing the woods. As I lugged my canvas bags of bedding and clothes past the hanging gong, I looked out over the field of walking paths to the snow-coated mountain in the distance. Ranier? I thought…for most of the course, until someone corrected me. St. Helens. You can tell by the blown out side. The side facing us. That mountain became a friend, always a pleasure to look up and see her standing sentinel over our strong determination.

A wall of warmth and peace hit me as I stepped into my room, as it would every time for the next ten days. As it did in the meditation hall. Like a church, or anywhere that’s been filled with a dedicated effort of purification. Our room was different though. My half had been closed off with real walls, rather than a curtain, making a separate little box with it’s own heater. The other half still just had a curtain. I would come to wonder if they put me here to increase my chances of success. A little more privacy for the high-risk run-away. I smirked at the possibility. I didn’t feel high-risk anymore, but I didn’t mind to be seen as such. I didn’t need the extra privacy, but I would take it gratefully. I made the bed with my sheets from home, my down comforter, hung my sweaters on the hangers, and arranged my hygiene bag on the bedside table. Then stepped back to survey the austerity. No entertainment, no personal pleasures. Just the essentials. Just enough. 

I ran through my nests of the past five years. Cars, shacks, little houses. Shared or solitary. Boat bunks for months, then cabins with doors that closed, privacy that felt luxurious after the bunks. Tents with my packs stuffed around me, hostel dorm beds with sheets hung to make them mine. All these places to store my things and my sleeping self. And then this little room, which promised everything I needed for the peace I’d been craving. I smiled and went for dinner.

The gong. (Photo pinched from https://www.bareivy.com)

I met my roommate that evening, before the course started. We sat next to each other at the table, in a premature, serious silence. Everyone unsure. But I wasn’t ready to start yet. We had ten days to be silent. I turned to her, took in her crooked loose bun of hair, the thick ring pierced through her septum. “Hey roomie!” I said. She looked back and smiled, a wild traveler smile, and we started talking. She was Hannah, from Portland, but raised in Bolivia with a family of missionaries. Her Spanish accent slipped subtly through her strong, mischievous voice. She had a traveler man on her mind. He had just gone into a two month meditation course in Europe. 

“Where in Bolivia,” asked the young woman across from Hannah. She had lived in the same town, on an exchange for nine months. She was nervous for the course, you could tell. Her eyes wide, her face lifted with anxiety. She was engaged to be married and unsure. The day after the course was hanukah and her engagement party. A lot to carry on your mind into such a journey. I started to feel grateful for the temporary certainty in my life, for my current break from heartache, my present confidence.

The small women across from me joined our conversation. I asked about her accent. “I’m from Russia,” she said, almost apologetically. But now she lived in Chicago. As she turned in her phone she teared up. Her children were six and nine. She would miss them, but she needed to be here.

We chatted about Vipassana. Hannah and I shared what advice we could, trying not to share too much, to influence their experiences. “Just follow the instructions,” I repeated, for them and for myself. “That is what got me through the first time, focusing on the practice.” Just then the female manager, Linda, walked over to me, holding her little notepad, and asked me to come with her. I left the table, knowing we had formed a little group. That even though we’d have no contact for the next ten days, we would be thinking about each other, and we’d be there at the end to check in and laugh. 

I followed Linda out of the dining room and past the check-in booth, through a door to a small side room, where the two female teachers sat cross legged on raised platforms. Oh, an interview! I felt irrationally special, but again I appreciated this shred of recognition in what had always seemed such a stoic tradition. I slipped off my shoes and shuffled across the carpet to kneel on the thin mat in front of them. The older of the two introduced them. “I’m Barbara and assisting me this course is Lynn.” Then she went on. “So, you came!”

“Yes,” I smiled. “I feel more ready this time.”

“What was it last time that made it so hard?”

I stumbled on my words. Something about Vipassana teachers compels me to be very concise. Vague almost. They are not cold, but…non-reactive? They don’t ride your emotions like a friend who is swayed by your story. They hold a neutral space. And in neutral spaces, necessary charges seem to just evaporate. 

As I spoke I realized that the specifics weren’t necessary. I didn’t need to tell them that five years ago when I came here I had just gotten off an airplane from the East coast. That I hadn’t seen my family in six months, that I’d been heartsick over a guy for a year, that I hoped to see that guy after the course, and that I hoped the course would make me less emotional, more desirable for that guy. I didn’t need to say that the second day of the course I got my period and a cold, and that the course was in English and Thai, so each set of instructions was twice as long in a language that agitated my raw mind and my sensitive ears. That all I wanted those five days was to be done already, to be with my mother, drink one of my brother’s home-brewed beers, call that guy to find out what was up…and eat some cookies.

“I just…chose the wrong time to come. And a lot built up for me. I didn’t have my own car so I felt trapped, didn’t know my options for leaving.”

“And did you work that out this time?”

“Well, I still don’t have my own car.” I thought about the kind older man who had picked me up at my mom’s house. He’d been a logger most of his life. In the 60s he met a woman camping who had taken him to his first course. They had a relationship for four years, then she’d gone on to become a teacher and he’d gone on to finish raising his children. Rick. I was sure I would see him in ten days. 

“But I know my options for leaving because I learned them all last time!” I laughed. Barbara cracked a slight smile. “I looked up all the trains and busses for peace of mind. I wasn’t sure I would actually leave, but by time I had done all that, and broken from the course, the teacher recommended that I go.”

I thought of that day. It had been a relief to know there was a train from Centralia to Eugene, and that the center manager could drive me to the station if I needed. I still toyed with the idea of staying, but the teacher, a small Thai woman with shortened English phrases, asked me to leave. It felt like a blow, but not a hard blow. The hardest part came as I walked back from the residences, carrying my backpack. The grounds were empty, the rest of the students were immersed in personal practice time, sitting in their rooms or the meditation hall. I noticed the teacher walking to the hall, her loose beige clothes graceful on her small frame, and realized she was going to remove my cushion. 

I had been asked to do such a thing when I served as female manager the year before. A woman sitting the course was asked to leave. She fought it because she really had no where to go. She may have come to the course for that very reason, but she was skipping meditations, alleging illness. After she left, the teacher had me take her cushion out of the hall, explaining that the vibrations of such an agitated mind can affect the whole environment. Now I was that contaminated mind, and I felt ashamed.

But as I left there was nothing but kindness. Where the teacher was stoic and detached, the servers were comforting and welcoming. “It’s OK, a lot of new students have a hard time. You can try again.” 

“But I’m not a new student,” I replied, to surprise, but support nonetheless. I rode in the minivan to the train station with a young, gentle woman who was staying a year on property as the center manager. I asked shyly about her position, unsure if I was allowed to know. When your only experience of a practice is complete silence, you tend to think every topic is off limits. But she answered me and talked to me as a person, not a shunned student. And I realized a little more that these people are normal and open, just with a dedicated practice. “Sometimes,” she confided, “I’ll leave the property and go to one of the teachers’ house, if I want to do something off limits, like knit or read a magazine.”

Those fifteen minutes with her soothed my fear that I had done something terribly wrong, that I was doomed for this practice, a reject. On the train I bought a big, oily cookie from the food car, and devoured it, settling into the rocking of the tracks, my tension instantly alleviated. I had five hours to gaze out the window and let the last five days roll away behind me. As I fell into my mother’s arms in Eugene, I accepted my decision, and myself. In the years to come, I would learn find my spiritual solace in other ways. I would not go back to the center until I was ready.

“I am in a much better place now,” I assured the teachers in the small interview room.

Barbara regarded me. She had a relatable presence. I would hear her laughing with other students during the course, and would wish I could make her laugh. But I knew this was just an insecure craving. I was here to work for myself and not for approval of the teachers. Still, there is that desire to feel special. 

“Just work in a relaxed manner,” she said. “If you need to stretch, or walk, or lie down…don’t let things build up.” I nodded. I had already planned on it. My main goal was to stay, I wasn’t here to push too hard. I thanked them and hurried out.

Back in my room Hannah and I joked our last jokes, and talked roommate logistics. We both didn’t intend to shower much, so we wouldn’t really get in each others’ way. “Oh yeah, you’re just gonna be one of those dirty little meditators,” she teased. Then I made sure she was OK to yellow mellow on the toilet flushing, and she made sure I knew about her charcoal toothpaste, about the black spots that would end up in the sink…and all over the bathroom I would come to find out. I’d tease her about it after, her art by charcoal and toothbrush. Then we heard the gong, that primordial sound, jetting me back to my very first course. The sound that would wake us each day, call us to meals, and call us to meditate, as it was now. “See you on the other side!” I said to Hannah, slipping on my boots. The course was starting.

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