Forgive me, I am about to wax verbose. If so, it is only because I have been deprived of words for so very long that the ability to speak and write them again is really, really satisfying. So sit back, relax, mix up a non-intoxicating organically farmed beverage of your choice. You might just gain some insight into the nature of reality (and Buddhist monks).
1. Wanna know something interesting about not talking for many days at a time? When it started out, I actually thought I would like the whole "no communication" rule, because it meant I wouldn't have to bother trying to make small talk over the fruit and oatmeal breakfast. Instead, I actually experienced a Haley-esque kind of fracture where different parts of my personality starting interacting. No really, I'm not just saying this for comic effect. There was the cynic, the cheerleader, the numbers guy, the contemplator, the whiner, and the buddha, and they all had different things to say about the experience ("God this sucks, no, you must be a prodigy of effort! There are only eight more days to go anyway, just experience your own breathing. Ah, my back freaking hurts! Pain is impermanent, pain is impermanent...") So lesson number one: words are amazing, and living without them makes you a little crazy.
2. A word about the "numbers guy" voice in my head. He's the one that thinks like this:
At the end of day one, you have completed 1/10th of the course.
At the end of day two, you have completed 1/5th of the course.
Half-way through day three you have completed 1/4 of the course.
Mid morning of day four you have completed 1/3 of the course.
At the end of day five you have completed 1/2 of the course.
At the end of day six you have completed 3/5 of the course.
In the mid-afternoon of day seven you have completed 2/3 of the course.
Half-way through day eight you have completed 3/4 of the course.
At the end of day nine you have completed 9/10 of the course.
At the end of day ten you have completed ohmygodthatwasthelongesttendaysofmylife of the course.
So the moral of the story is don't listen to numbers guy. He's an asshole.
3. The meditation center is located sort of in the hills, nigh mountains east of Fresno. Now every hill essentially amounts to a giant pile of rocks and dirt, usually with a fine layer of vegetation on top. Well, the vegetation on this particular hill was not enough to make one forget that it was still basically a giant pile of rocks and dirt. Apparently there was some cool wildlife and vegetation around that Jon was able to appreciate, but for me, the experience was highly bug-laden. I recall making fun of him a few years back before his forestry trip, telling him that ants seek out nutrient-rich human anuses to feast on. Guess what crawled down the back of my pants the first night we got there? Hence lesson number three: karma is real, and it is a bitch.
4. To be fair, lesson number four is that Jon has a freakish propensity for attracting bees.
5. I have never so directly experienced the nature of my own ability to work. I found that for me, there is concentration and there is willpower, and the two don't necessarily correlate. When both were high it was a great productive period. When concentration was high but willpower was low, I was still able to meditation pretty well, although I was more easily distracted by physical discomfort. When they were both low everything sucked. But the most interesting part was when concentration was low but willpower was high: I would sit for an extended period of time, not really able to meditate but determined to see the session through. The feeling of personal satisfaction and of pure effort made was so intense that I actually got an endorphine rush a few times, but then I would have almost no willpower for a day or so afterwards. That said, I think I have a slight but noticeable increase in both concentration and willpower. So my fifth insight is this: concentration and willpower work like muscles: you can wear them out, but they get stronger over time.
6. You know the kind of guy who says, "trust me, we don't need to use a condom?" Wanna know the only thing in the universe that can lower my already rock-bottom level of trust and respect for that person? The answer is Buddhist monks. If we were meditating for an extended period of time, the monks conducting the course would give us a rest break. Specifically, they would say, "take a break for about five minutes and then return for further instruction." Five minutes my firmly toned ass. It was unlikely that we would return in ten minutes, sometimes even as long as fifteen. Even the monks didn't return on time. Now part of me appreciates that their mommas didn't raise no fools and they knew that people would stretch out the breaks and planned accordingly. But another part can't help but observe that even Buddhist monks will lie to you. Doesn't say much for no-condom guy, does it?
7. One day I am standing outside the dhamma hall, which has many big trees around it, when suddenly this guy grabs one of the branches and starts doing pull-ups. One of the bystanders, not to be outdone, grabbed another branch and did the same thing. When the first guy left, a third guy grabbed a branch and began swing on it back and forth. Meanwhile, the first guy started doing one-legged squats in front of the hall. My seventh insight: excessive meditation drives people crazy, and possibly causes them to regress into monkeys.
8. On day four we actually learned the vipassana technique we were there to learn. Unfortunately, it takes two hours to teach and they only started teaching us after we had already been meditating for two hours. Needless to say, I was pissed. And sore, and tired, and bitter. So part of the way through it became almost impossible for me to follow, although I did in a sort of minimal way. Basically it amounts to a body scan technique where you go through your body bit by bit and really concentrate on feeling some bit of sensation everywhere, no matter how small or obscure. Every moment, we were told, there is some sensation coming from every part of your body, you just need to develop your ability to feel it. Then the point was made that every sensation you feel is something changing, whether that is hot or cold or prickly or tingly or dull, it is some kind of change going on in your body. And this, finally, is the nature of impermanence. Everything is changing all the time. Don't take Buddha's word for it, experience it for yourself.
And you know what? That was a really awesome moment. I really did have a sense of being able to understand, if only briefly the nature of impermanence. Insight number 8: life is impermanence. Even if their way of demonstrating that was through slow arts of torture.
9. Gender segregation is stupid. It was so strict they wouldn't even allow men and women to walk on the same paths; the course was divided into male and female halves. Men and women sat on opposite sides of the meditation hall and entered from different doors. The male instructor only spoke directly to the male students, the female instructor to the female students (and let me tell you, what a couple of sexpots!) Trust me, between the boredom and the back pain I was in no mood to jump the bones of anyone else at the camp.
10. Know what the biggest thing I got out of the trip has been? A profound new appreciation for chairs. You, sitting there reading this! Find the nearest chair. It may be the one you are sitting on, or perhaps there is one in the room near you. Now take this opportunity, right now, to thank that chair. Let it know that it is a valued member of your household and/or community and that its many contributions do not go unnoticed or unappreciated. You may give the chair a hug if you feel so inclined. If you find this excessive, try sitting on the floor for ten hours a day. Oh sure, you can do it, you may even get used to it and feel fine with it, but anything that can support both your back and your feet with relative comfort for hours on end with such a simple, elegant design is truly a god among objects. Here's to you, chair!
11. I can live (happily!) on a minimal vegetarian diet. I was probably consuming about 1500 calories a day while I was there, the vast majority of that before noon. I was never hungry, or dissatisfied. I'm not going to stick to something so minimalist now that I am back, but I will look a lot harder at what I eat and why.
12. Aversion and craving really do appear to be the source of most of my suffering. That has given me a lot to chew on over the last several days.
13. Finally, one night I was walking back from the meditation/dhamma hall and I noticed one of the guest monks walking on the path ahead of me. He had taken off his shirt and was waving it wildly over his head. Overcome by my repressed lust at that point, I immediately tackled him to the ground and began making out with him passionately. The other guest monk (there were two), also unable to hold back any longer, joined from behind as he unleashed his sleeping tumescence. Men everywhere began either running to the women's side of the site or satisfying themselves or one another in wild displays of orgiastic lust. Where was I? Right, so this monk has taken off his shirt and is waving it in the air. And my first thought is, "why is the monk showing us his tits? This is not the Mardi Gras I was promised!" So the final insight is... actually, sorry, I have no idea what I learned from this experience. Maybe the universe is a mysterious, sexy place? Or possibly gender segregation was appropriate after all? We may never know.