Spring Break Off and On the Path: More Notes from A Midlife Crisis
“What? You can’t be serious. That is completely dumb and dangerous. Who do you think you are? Over my dead body you’re doing that. Just go on your course.”
There is no one like my wife to knock me off a cloud and cut through my bullshit. But we’ll get to that later.
As Spring 2020 approached, it had been a year and a half since I completed my first 10-day vipassana meditation course and I felt ready to return. I searched for reasons to go. I asked my wife, “do you want to come with me this time?” NO.
Going to multiple 10-day vipassana courses is like intentionally throwing yourself into Groundhog Day except in the movie, Phil, a weatherman stuck living the same day repeatedly, occasionally had a lot of fun. Instead of a one-day loop, the course is a ten-day loop. The classes are taught by the same teacher via the same sequence of audio and video recordings regardless of the location and time of the year. But every course is different. We’re in a different place in life. The cast of characters is different. The weather and accommodations vary. Yet, like Phil, if we get it right this time, there might be some form of liberation.
As I continued to brainstorm, Covid arrived and all vipassana centers closed. Locked down, I began creating Covid-safe alternatives to fill the place of a course. Renting a cabin in the wilderness is a good option for a reasonable person, but to me, it was too similar, yet too inferior, to a vipassana center. At a vipassana center, everything is taken care of so I can be free of responsibilities and distractions. Plus, they make certain that I follow course rules. If I was going to create something on my own, I wanted it to be totally different.
I imagined renting a Tesla with “camping mode” that would allow me to camp, aka sleep, in the car, with the climate control on, and drive during the day in silence, under course rules. I would not be able to meditate deeply but there would be ample time for concentration and awareness, and it would be a totally different adventure that would also allow me to travel “Covid-safe” extensively. I wasn’t going anywhere yet, all things considered, but I played around with google maps a bit and it was fun to dream.
Time passed and vaccinations unlocked opportunities. With Spring Break on the horizon, my wife and kids planned to visit family in the Dominican Republic. I told them that I had other plans. The vipassana center closest to me had cautiously reopened and offered a perfectly timed 10-day course. The course size was restricted to 10 men and 10 women with most of the already limited spots reserved for more experienced meditators than me. I applied but soon learned that I was #9 on the waitlist. The few other centers that had reopened were only accepting locals who could arrive by personal car without taking an airplane or any other sort of public transportation. It seemed unlikely that I would be able to complete a course at a center this time around so I went back to alternatives.
I created a new version of a self-course in my mind after reading Amtrakistan, by the terrific travel writer Eric Weiner. Trains would allow for deeper meditation than driving and much stress and responsibility than driving and camping. I went to Amtrak.com and studied routes. I could take the Silver Star from South Florida to Washington DC, change to the Capitol Limited to Chicago, switch to the Southwest Chef to Los Angeles, up the Pacific to Oakland on the Coast Starlight, hop on the California Zephyr through the Rockies to Chicago, to return home via the Capitol Limited and Silver Star again. No big deal, right?
After further consideration, I remembered the whole ongoing pandemic thing, and decided that wearing a mask for ten straight days and sleeping in a coach seat for nine straight nights was less than ideal. More importantly, Amtrak is notoriously late, and missing any connection would cause the journey to fail beyond repair.
Just in case, I contacted Eric. As a train expert and a good person, he kindly replied, told me that two of the connections were too risky and, by the way, I should splurge for a roomette. In his trip, Eric only crossed the country once and allowed himself great luxuries like reading and talking to people. I think he ate dinner and drank adult beverages. Wimp.
The freedom of the open road called my name. No set schedules. No missed connections. No masks. More room to sleep than a coach seat. Why not? My favorite travel writer Paul Theroux successfully completed a five-day coast to coast trip at age 79 year. Surely I could go coast to coast and back.
On Turo.com, I made a refundable reservation for a Tesla with unlimited miles and unlimited free supercharging. I’d bring my dog Louie with me, so I wouldn’t have to find anyone to take care of him while I was away, and he would be a perfect companion for this sort of endeavor: he doesn’t talk, and I think he might be enlightened.
Even though the owner of the car chose the unlimited mile option for the listing, I contacted him because it seemed like the right thing to do. Also, Teslas are trackable and I didn’t want his stink eye one me during or after the trip. I told him that I planned to take a long road trip in his car and wanted to make sure he was ok with it. I might have left the part out about sleeping in his car with my dog. He reluctantly agreed. At a minimum, someone as forthcoming as me probably wasn’t going to run drugs or arms, drag race, host an orgy, or whatever else worse someone can do in a rented car.
I started to plan more seriously and set guidelines. I’d spend the entire trip in silence except meditation recordings that are mostly silence anyway and watch a discourse each night. My phone would stay on dnd with the gps tracker still functioning. No reading, music or podcasts, and no talking unless someone talked to me. I’d pack breakfasts and lunches for myself, a bag of kibble for Louie, water, an Ikea twin mattress, and my laptop if I became inspired to write. Who knows? I could write the next great American novel on the road. Or publish another article on Medium.com that earns me 27 cents.
Taking a long-distance road trip in a Tesla is terribly inefficient unless you have all the time in the world. In this case, I did. I calculated how long routes would take, including charging time. I would need longer breaks anyway. I looked for places to camp. Do you know that you can pay people on Airbnb to sleep parked on their driveway/property? You do now.
I learned more about United States geography than I had in all my years of school combined. I’d leave from South Florida, pass through the Florida panhandle, cross Texas and the rest of the Southwest until I touched the Pacific coast in San Diego, only to turn around, and return home on a separate route. I wanted to see Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Texas, take the Scenic Drive in El Paso for a glimpse of Mexico, sleep one night on the Wedge Overlook in Utah, drive through Arches National Park, and then make my way back home, taking in my immense country in a different way.
I created alternative routes in case of delays from bad weather, traffic, construction, or exhaustion, but there were so many variables that I stopped planning further and confirmed my first night on someone’s driveway near Pensacola. In case I needed to stop for the night far from a known camping site at some point, I created this sign to be laminated and used at hotels close to the highway. Totally normal for a 42-year-old semi boring married dad of two with a decent job and life, right?
A few weeks before Spring Break, my phone rang. The assistant teacher of the course I applied to wanted to interview me because a spot had opened and my number was up. Due to Covid restrictions, there would be a considerable extra amount of solitude compared to a regular course and, basically, she wanted to make sure I wouldn’t go nuts. Whatever I said worked. I did NOT mention my silent road trip idea.
Now I had a decision to make. Or I thought I had a decision to make. I presented the two options to my wife for guidance. After further explaining what the “driving trip” option entailed, I learned that there was no decision to make after all. I canceled the Tesla reservation, cancelled the Pensacola driveway, and left my route planning lying dormant in a google drive, like a volcano, unclear when it will erupt again.
Under normal circumstances, it’s difficult to get a blessing from my wife to disappear from the world for 10 days. In her defense, some of my friends have told me they’d never be allowed to do such a thing. Compared to the silent road trip plan, the course seemed like a wonderful idea. OK, not wonderful, but acceptable. So, to my friends who think they’d never be allowed to attend a course, remember you only need to come up with a completely absurd alternative that you’re willing to do.
My destination is Jesup, Georgia, 100 miles Northwest of Jacksonville. I pass the Krusty Krab in Brunswick, Georgia, and turn around to quickly take a selfie for the many SpongeBob fans in my family. How many gems like this could I have discovered on my road trip?
Dhamma Patapa serves the Southeast region of the United States. For my first course, at a different center in Wisconsin, I slept in one large room with more than a dozen other men, my bed partitioned off by curtains, offering me some privacy but no protection from the sounds of the creaky wooden floors or other noises and smells of my roommates. Next, I completed a three-day short course where I am now, sleeping in a trailer next to burping snoring stranger. Now, I have been assigned a private bedroom with my own bathroom and meditation cell (closet) that contains a cushion, a dimmable light, and a speaker that broadcasts from the meditation hall. While the room isn’t fancy and the head in the shower stall is so short it could decapitate an Oom-Pah Loompa if he didn’t duck while washing his hair, I am very pleased. There are no luxuries here, by design, but it’s luxurious to me.
S.N. Goenka teaches this course and every other course at his centers via timeless audio recordings played during each meditation session and video discourses shown every night. He is not a household name but most of the well-known Western meditation teachers were either taught by Goenka or by someone one degree away.
Goenka’s centers are free from commercialism. It’s a testament to his integrity and planning that they continue to thrive, bills get paid, and everyone eats, entirely from the donations of past students. During the three years I have been involved with the centers, I have been asked zero times for money.
Courses are never advertised. They can only be found on the official website. There is no need to apply for a scholarship. Every course is free to anyone, from anywhere, including housing and food. They accept applicants on a first come, first serve basis, and everyone is treated the same regardless of where they are from, who they know, how much is in their bank account, or what they do or don’t believe.
The assistant teachers do not get paid or accept donations nor do the servers, comprised of past students who volunteer at the center to cook, clean, and do whatever else is necessary for the current students to practice without needs or distractions. Every course has at least one assistant teacher on site who has, among other requirements, completed many courses, including longer courses of 30 days or more, and provided various forms of service. They are available to answer questions and make sure that the course obligations are met.
I’m assigned to meditate in my cell during morning sessions and in the meditation hall, with a mask on, during afternoon and evening sessions. My fellow meditators are serious and well behaved. I rarely see anyone else and our small group in the hall is quiet and still except a woman who occasionally makes a noise that sounds like a medium-size dog trying to escape from her throat. I hope it’s her throat.
There is a note taped to my lunch container every other day with an assigned time to meet with the assistant teacher to check in with any questions and, I think, to make sure I haven’t gone Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
On a walk, I bat the song Mr. Lonely out of my head several times before I realize why it popped into my head in the first place. I’m not actually lonely, though. Stop it.
For 24 hours, it rains incessantly with temperatures in the 40s and 50s outside, removing the opportunity for walks and fresh air during breaks. That’s challenging. Otherwise, the weather is pleasant.
On another walk, I quickly remove the song Message in a Bottle from my mind. No, I’m not sending out an SOS to the world. I claim to not care or even listen to lyrics and I’m doing a good job of keeping music out of my head. What is this?
Someone on the women’s side of the meditation hall lets out a tremendous belch that shakes me out of deep concentration and probably registers on every seismograph within a 500-mile radius.
While drinking tea outside, I watch a woodpecker bang his head repeatedly into a tree. Oh, my avian friend, I have fantastic news for you: you’ve landed in the right place. They teach you to come out of that anger here.
The purpose of the course is purification of the mind and body. Moral living at the center provides the proper environment to cultivate the right kind of concentration that is used for purification through objective awareness of body sensations without reacting. That’s a mouthful, but comprehension is not essential to succeed. If I follow the rules and do what is asked, it occurs organically. This is not an intellectual pursuit. Endless free time without distractions will undoubtedly lead to contemplation, but it’s not recommended and only hinders the task at hand. The less I think, the better. Replaying the past in the mind or considering the future is detrimental.
To makes this more relatable, moral living comes from the rules of the center. We follow the following five precepts: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, and no intoxicants. They serve me food that has not been killed. I have repellent and a bug relocator in my room (a cup with a piece of cardboard that I use frequently) to help me to stay from murder by my own hands. No one brings valuables nor is there anything particularly valuable at the center, so stealing is not a great option. Sexual misconduct is not my bag, but just in case, men and women are separated and I’m not interacting with anyone. It is easy for me not to lie since I do not speak. Intoxicants are unavailable and I do not even take a single sip of the liter of whiskey I smuggled in the “bottle of shampoo” in my suitcase. Fine. Since I can’t lie, I’ll tell you the truth: happy hours in my room are legendary. Or not. Taking intoxicants isn’t necessarily immoral in the real world but some intoxicants can harm me, can cause me to act differently in way that can harm others, and can cloud my mind to lessen concentration. So, I didn’t pack booze.
People in the real world with the audacity to eat dinner, read, listen to music, and have contact with the outside world are not degenerates. During the course, I temporarily stop these activities to better my concentration. But morality and concentration have an essential relationship. Many individuals use excellent concentration for harm. The wholesome environment and way of living here helps to sharpen the right type of concentration.
I sharpen the mind by following the breath for the first three days. Nothing more. Nothing less. Any time stories start to bombard the mind, I return to observe the breath. The breath is unfiltered reality. The breath is truth.
Once the mind has been wholesomely sharpened, I have the concentration necessary to spend the rest of the course purifying the mind and body. I dispassionately observe body sensations such as pain, tingling, pulsing, heat, and numbness. Without trying to create them. Without trying to stop them. Observing them how they are. Not how I want them to be, but how they are. By calmly observing and not reacting, I disassociate myself from the sensations, which causes a natural cleansing reaction and also helps to end, or at least slow down, bad habit patterns.
Spoiler alert: I am not talking to you live and direct from the course. The course is over. I’m just trying to make this thing more readable. I wasn’t aware and present with an empty but focused mind crushing purification for the entire course. There were difficult times, but I enjoyed the second course much more than the first one.
You might be skeptical about the idea of purification. It sounds like something a guy with an unruly beard might tell you or an infomercial for a product you can order today with nothing down and a money back guarantee*. As someone with zero special powers, I can still tell you that there is a lightness and a great relief from disassociating and dissolving pain and other sensations with the mind. Everyone has this capability. If the mind can cause maladies and misbehaviors, then it’s reasonable to believe that it’s the best candidate to remedy them.
We’re taught that we aren’t addicted to drugs or anger or anything else but to the sensations that come with them. By calmly observing the sensations and not reacting, we can come out of the addiction and change the habit pattern. Regardless of your feelings about addictions, the discipline required to sit still for an hour and not react to body sensations automatically produces a form of liberation and control of the mind.
You might ask if disappearing from the world for 10 days is a selfish act. Maybe. There is a fine line between self-help and selfishness and sometimes it isn’t even fine. If asked, I can always reply that I can’t help others if I can’t help myself but that stales quickly if no one else benefits. Certainly, sitting on a mat alone, observing body sensations, is not a complete way to self-betterment. But there is much more to the practice that leads to selflessness, not selfishness.
Taking a course is a renouncement of sorts. I arrived with almost nothing and relied on the charity of others, humbly accepting the accommodations and food given to me without complaint. This helped to dissolve the ego. When the course ended, I gave charity, but it was entirely my choice. Regardless of how much I gave, I received nothing in return, for this type of charity is not meant to boost the ego, but to lessen it. Serious students choose to occasionally serve courses, instead of taking them, using their valuable free time to focus on helping the other students instead of helping themselves.
Have you vomited yet from this boatload of egoless purity talk? If so, I can no longer judge you but if I could, I wouldn’t. There is danger that these perfect ideals can create a self-righteous monster who lives on top of Mt. Pious, looking down on everyone else. I rarely get that vibe at the end of a course, when we can talk to each other, but I also don’t see vipassana meditators often in the real world. The true tests occur away from the idyllic environment of a center.
Unless I’m nicer and more helpful to loved ones, friends, and even foes, the practice isn’t as beneficial as it should be. With less than three years of experience, I am relatively new to this practice. I’m told it’s a long path and I’ve only taken the first few steps. It makes sense. But my investment of time and energy is not insignificant. I have learned quite a bit and personally benefited, but frankly, the jury is still out. I’m not a terrible person but I wasn’t one when before I started. I certainly could be all-around more kind and less judgmental. I’m still unable to remove my karma police badge and place it in the garbage where it belongs. Yet I remain with confidence in the practice and confidence in my capability to improve.
I was struck this time from Goenka’s comment “mastery of the mind is the most wholesome action.” I have learned that, unfortunately, good intentions alone are practically meaningless if the mind can’t put them into action. I’ve tried setting good intentions and, while it can be a little helpful, it’s not nearly enough. I will always be a flawed human, prone to mistakes, like everyone else, but a better mastery of the mind allows the opportunity to able to put good intentions into action and squash the bad ones before they appear.
I didn’t think that I’d be liberated after my second time in Vipassana Groundhog Day. Since everything is always changing, it wouldn’t last anyway. Phil liberated himself momentarily from an endless cycle, and he gained some valuable tools along the way, but to think that the rest of his life will be free from difficulties is more unrealistic than getting stuck in Groundhog Day in the first place. After my first course, I had a great bliss buzz for a few weeks, but it wore off. I’m curious to see if the buzz will last longer or shorter this time but I’m aware that it will go away.
I don’t know what I would have learned on the road, but I thank my wife for laying down the law and steering me in the right direction. The course was an important and fulfilling experience for me. I’m fortunate to have encountered this organization and blessed with the help of others to fulfill my responsibilities during my absence.
Surely this is not the only path to self-improvement. There are many other meaningful practices and first-rate organizations. Some people are kind and content without any formal practice at all. There are countless roads that lead to the same destination. While this practice is difficult and intensive, it’s not all tedium, pain and suffering. There are friendly generous people. There is joy. At times, living in the center felt like Shangri-La. It’s incredibly peaceful to live so simply, to be free from disturbances. To learn to live without distractions. Time slows down. I feel like I just spent three months on a different planet. I don’t need a vacation from my vacation. And while I did not travel far, it was definitely a journey.
May you be peaceful. May you be free from suffering. And if you work in a hotel and one day get handed a laminated note from someone asking if he can sleep in the parking lot, may you tell me yes.