Getting out of my car on Wednesday night at 4:30 pm, I had no idea. Unimpressive tan buildings, serene landscaping, the place populated by persons I know I could take in a fight for the last beer in the fridge. The men were scattered about and ranged from wimpy hippie guy to aloof older guy. Certainly not intimidating.
As I turned toward the registration area indoors, I was filled with confidence that this would be easy — shut the hell up (hard, but doable), eat vegetarian food (echhhhh, but I know it’s good for me) and lastly, meditate and learn the secrets of Gotama the Buddha in the secluded wilds of the Northwest Vipassana Center in Onalaska, Wash., halfway between Seattle and Portland. How to lead a happier life in 12 easy days or you pay nothing! (The fee is a charitable contribution, but still, it’s an implicit money-back guarantee.) Twelve days of hanging around and relaxing while I gain wisdom and enlightenment — no problem.
I have rarely, if ever, been so completely wrong about something and in only one other case — my intoxicant-fueled college days — so ill prepared. They say you pay for your hubris, and pay I did.
The not talking was by far the easiest part. The food was good, everyone was nice. That is, as nice as you can be without any human interaction. I came to a small conclusion, though, on Day One: two knee operations are not at all conducive to sitting in the lotus position for nine hours at a time. I went to bed apprehensive about the next day.
I woke up at 4:30 to find myself again confined to a Rob-centric universe. With no outside interaction, all you do is introspect. That first day I thought of things I hadn’t remembered in years, and none of it was good. I was a lonely frightened child all over again, stuck in another hellish summer camp.
Years of loud music had (I thought) destroyed my hearing, but on Morning Two, I found the veil lifted. I could hear rabbits in the woods; I could differentiate sounds of construction equipment. Hell, I even heard a worm moving through the grass. This was great! Being made sensitive when you have been desensitized to the world at large, however, does have a downside. I only had a 12-ounce capacity for this stuff and was having gallons poured into me. In meditation, I could hear people move, hear their stomachs growl. I heard a pregnant woman release a rattling fart that would have knocked all the stuff off the walls if there had been anything on the walls.
Then he came. Disgusting sound guy, I called him.
Late for the second day, this large gentleman settled into the lotus position on a cushion two persons away from me. There was silence and then the single loudest, most disgusting belch I have heard. It was the kind of burp where you look up to see if you sprayed any innocent bystanders. I struggled to not burst out laughing. Silence … and then another belch, equally as horrifying and just as funny. This went on every 45 seconds, more or less for an hour. At session’s end, I returned to my room and laughed with my hand over my mouth for what felt like an eternity. I knew that the man had not planned this; I knew it had to be some gastrointestinal malady that he had no control over (that only presented itself, strangely, during meditation) but that didn’t make it any less ridiculous. I went to bed feeling OK.
Late that night, my roommate woke up, but not really. He started talking in his sleep. No, yelling in his sleep. “Oh God, no!!!” he screamed, his voice filled with terror. Pause. And then ”Oh God, please, what now?” He had my interest. I don’t know how long this went on, but my last refuge, sleep, was compromised.
At this juncture, I would like to make two points. I was the only one who found Disgusting Sound Guy’s antics amusing. Actually, a Yakuza-tattooed 60-year-old chuckled once. I liked him. The point is, all the other persons were engaged in the process. They weren’t aware of the sounds I was hearing; they were concentrating on their breathing. I was concentrating on my kids, my friends, how I miscalculated my last estimate, the ass-kicking I took at age 8, the ass-kicking I gave at age 23, disappointing loved ones, my need for approval, etc. I thought I got the joke that no one else found funny, when in reality, I was the one who didn’t get it. When I realized this, I felt foolish and wasteful and arrogant. It’s also when I decided to leave.
The second point is the course — or “sit,” as it is called — is awesome for a prepared and focused mind. The information was presented in a simple, useable, light-hearted manner. One could not hope to gain more knowledge about one’s self in such a short period of time. Even one as callow as I saw great benefits. I ran like Flock of Seagulls after four days. It’s worth the trouble if one entered with a clear mind, ready to engage diligently, patiently, constantly and totally. As the teacher said, do this and you cannot help but succeed.
At approximately 11:30, I was awakened by a howl of anguish that sat me up like an electric enema. My roommate was at it again, worse this time and a bit scary. Suffice it to say, I rose and armed myself in case he decided I was the source of his discomfort. I sat on the bed gripping my Leatherman pliers (I didn’t have the knife out, I just figured I would pinch him or something I if he freaked on me). I sat listening to him scream about much of the same things that I thought of during the previous four days. Then I realized that I could hear others having dreams next door. Apparently, if you do your work in the daylight, you lose it a night. Only slackers sleep soundly, but it is not the sleep of the just, and it would not be tonight. This was by all means the most ludicrous situation I had put myself into in a long time and I began to laugh in spite of everything that was happening.
When I awoke, I packed and left my room, pretty sure the joke left with me. In retrospect, I am grateful for the experience. After all if we are what we pretend to be, I pretended to be something pretty good. That in itself is something to be happy about. The nice people at the Northwest Vipassana Center even called to make sure I had gotten home OK and told me that I was welcome to return when I was ready. This surprised me, as I am used to people being disappointed in my failures, especially me. Then I remembered what a dear friend said to me, “They don’t get mad, they are Buddhists.” As for the offer to return, I think I’ll sleep on it.