No phone, no internet. No talking, no touching anyone, any how. No looking people in the face, no sexual nothing, the genders strictly segregated. Vegetarian food, two meals before noon, and two bits of fruit at 5 o´clock. No alcohol, drugs, music, talking, no reading or writing or entertainment, no outward expressions allowed. I turned-in my car keys on the first day. Nothing around but sheer mountain fastness. There was no escape.
This was DhammaSakka, a Buddhist Boot Camp in Avila province. Ten days of cloistered monastic discipline, arcane instruction, inner examination, and incredibly deep sleep.
Up at 4 a.m., and on the mat by half-past, meditating (and sometimes just dozing) in a big warm room. Eighty souls pinned to zafus and zabutons and pillows and yoga-rolls, focusing for a day on the breath moving through their noses. Another day for the breath moving over their upper lips. Another day and outward to the throat, head, and beyond, until every little tingle or itch or ping of pain was carefully observed and noted, but not responded-to. We were learning to observe, but not react. Sensation is real, but it does not require response. Left alone, the sensation fades away on its own, sooner or later. Usually.
I learned to meditate years ago. I thought I had my posture ironed-out, but I´d never sat for longer than 60 minutes at a stretch. Sitting Vipassana was eight or ten times that, hours of stillness that set my hip joints alight. An old shoulder injury flared, and on Day 3 I humbly whispered my petition to the teacher during question time. My post was duly shifted from the pack of toned Portuguese yoga moms to the rear wall, a lineup of older ladies. I spent the following week flattened against that wall, tucked into a lopsided pretzel shape my component structure could live with, face-to-face with the reality of my 55-year-old frame.
But no one was looking at me. I wasn´t supposed to look at them, either. When I did sneak a peek over the room full of bodies lined up in rows before me, I was secretly pleased to see some writhing and wriggling going on. I was not alone.
This Ten-Day Vipassana Course, an introduction to Buddhist meditation as taught by a S.N. Goenka, a roly-poly charismatic Burmese businessman. It is a surprisingly modern approach to spreading philosophy. It depends on video teachings each evening, offered in the mother tongue of every person present via headphones or dubbed translation. The main course was arranged by the Portuguese national branch of the India-based Vipassana Foundation, and offered here in Spain in (heavily accented) English and Portuguese. Our group listened in Russian, Czech, Dutch, German, Spanish, too.
We were herded, guarded, and looked-after by a team of 20 volunteers, people who underwent the course themselves and now enjoy spending their holidays here at the camp, sitting silently for many hours between their work assignments. The setting is spectacular. Dhamma Sakka stands on a hillside in the Gredos Mountains, with spectacular white peaks, green pastures, and drifts of spring wildflowers. We could not sing, but the music of cowbells, frog songs, and larks filled the valley through the day, and a wind roared down from the peaks during the night.
Or maybe that was just the snoring from the next bunk.
There was chanting, however. Very weird, low bass warblings and yodelings of Pali prayers, sung by the Goenka himself. I did not like it at first, but the phrasing was catchy. I didn´t know what the words meant, but they stuck in my head. I made up my own words, silly ones, which were probably not always duly respectful. I made myself laugh.
Our bunks were clean and comfortable. The center is only three years old, scrupulously maintained. The food was excellent, if a bit Organic. Perhaps because the Portuguese group arranged this session, the chow had a distinctive Portuguese flair. Sadly, my innards are tuned to the Spanish channel. Tasty as they were, all those whole grains and pectins combined with the odd sleeping and eating schedule and the sudden loss of my usual couple-of-miles walk in the morning. So my digester, in its wisdom, simply shut down for a couple of days.
So yes, there was physical misery. There was a day I balked at all the rules, feeling hemmed-in by the rather short walking trail roped-off for women to use. (The men paced their own, similar-sized corral on the other side of the camp during the designated hour.) There was another bad day when Marcella, the only one of my roommates whose name I knew, developed a fever and was sent home. It was Day 8, the day they announced three one-hour sittings where we´d be expected to not move at all. Oh, lucky Marcella! How I envied her!
But I did it. By Day 8 I pretty much had the body stuff nailed down, and the inner work was well underway. I had to push through some heavy resistance, but I did it.
And I did it again.
It never became easy, but it became do-able. With my body settled-down, I could go deep into my mental basement and start clearing out accumulated junk I´d forgotten I had stored in there. Notebooks, bad poetry, bad decisions, politics, dead dogs and dreams, rags and bones.
A rare opportunity for real mental maintenance, a mid-life re-boot, even. It took an awfully long time to get down in there, so I made good use of the opportunity. I stayed deep. I felt drowsy even in the times between sittings, but my senses were sharp. The evening fruit break was such a high point, and on Day 9 I felt a bolt of true joy when I snatched the last banana from the buffet table. My banana! So delicious, so full of vitamins! What joy!
I wasn´t brainwashed, but I was not in my right mind.
I looked at it, and at the people around me slowly savouring their apples and pears. I realized how beautiful some of us were. An exceptionally good-looking group, just a little tired. And so wonderfully silent!
Outside that night, the sky was spangled with stars, the sliver of Equinox moon, the Milky Way. And the following day, after the morning´s Hour of Great Resiliance, the Noble Silence was lifted.
The entire atmosphere changed in an instant. Our lips were unsealed and speech began, and with the joy of children let loose for summer, we introduced ourselves, we laughed, even.
I was courteous, it was fun, but I never was much good at that shmoozing. I slipped away for a walk down to the creek, where the frogs were singing. It was quiet there. I spotted a couple of other introverts hiding out in the woods.
At 5:30 a.m. the final morning, Goenka made his final video appearance. After a half-hour of the Yodeling Yoda´s Greatest Hits, he expalined how we all can donate some money to cover our costs, and/or do some volunteer work. Starting with cleaning our rooms.
I did both. I believe in donativo. Everyone ought to pay his way, and years of hospitalera work have made me an expert at cleaning up bunk beds and folding up blankets with speed and efficiency.
I probably will not put myself through another 10-day wringer like this one, but my hat is off to Goenka and his merry crew. Their message became a bit incoherent at the end, but their gentle sensory deprivation technique slowly brings a determined student to deep places in a way I´ve never seen before.
And their “pay what you can afford” approach brings Buddhist practice within reach of everybody. Sadly, western Buddhism, in my opinion, is an exclusive, suburban, upper-middle class phenomenon. American Dharma Centers are designed by and for wealthy, well-educated elites, and a 10-day program at any American Buddhist center would cost thousands of dollars. They´ve priced themselves out of the reach of most American seekers. The Vipassana people, on the other hand, have centers like this one scattered throughout the world. The courses have long waiting lists to attend.
It´s good to see I am not alone in this hunger and thirst for righteousness.