A Walk in the Woods (Part 3)

Dec 11, 2005 4:03 pm

The days passed slowly.

During the breaks from meditation, there was little to do except urinate tea and wander the male half of the property. Early in the course most of the new students spread out on the grass outside the hall, stretching and limbering up with the concentration of boxers before a big fight. (Only gradually did it dawn on us that stretching made no difference at all — whatever we did, something was going to hurt, and when it did it was up to us whether we felt the mental pain that went with it. By the end of the course, no one was stretching.)

Sprawled out regally on the grass amongst us was a mob of Eastern Grey Kangaroos. They had grown bold from years of dumb, passive primates, and ignored us like the lowly lawn attendants we were. Even the joeys had no fear of grazing within arm’s reach.

Most of the grassy property was their domain, except for a strip of bush running up the left side and curving around the back into the female half. I took to walking up and down the narrow track in the trees, especially during the breakfast break. If you ignored the signs warning you to stay within the boundaries you could almost pretend you were walking freely through bushland. By Day 4 and 5 I was feeling like a caged animal. The urge to write was overwhelming — words and phrases tumbled through my mind, and I frantically tried to commit them to memory. One day while walking I discovered a deeply inscribed tree. Meaningful things, like “Love”, “AS IT IS”, and “This will also change”. I resisted the urge to carve “Help me, Obi Wan” into the bark.

It began to rain. It rained day and night for days, on and off. We loved the downpours, cooling the subtropical heat and calming our minds with white noise. I could tell that the others were finding it difficult as well. Little things, like someone intently reading a sign in the bathroom for the third time — the cleaning instructions.

Most people had a sullen look on their face, lost in their own thoughts. One morning over breakfast I raised my tea to my lips and found myself staring at a perfect smiley face, made from the tea leaves at the bottom of the mug. The eyes, the nose, the smile were all perfectly placed. And the eyes were closed. I nearly sprayed the tea over the person opposite me. Grown men glanced furtively from side to side, not knowing where to look. I suddenly realised that everyone had been lobotomised, and I was the only sane person left in the institution. I began to giggle, and had to leave the room.


On Day 5 we began three 1 hour sittings of “Strong Determination”, when we had to remain motionless with our eyes closed for the whole hour. More like “Strong Desperation”. Some of these were the longest hours of my life. Subjectively they felt like 3 or 4 hours. Imagine staring at a clock and watching the minute hand tick 60 times. Multiply that by 3, and you have some idea of what each hour felt like. One day I seriously began to think that I’d drifted off at some point and everyone had left me there, it was so quiet. I decided that I needed to get over this aversion to not moving. So on Day 6 I didn’t move once through the first 2 hour sitting from 4.30am. After that, the 1 hour sittings didn’t seem so bad, and I let myself move occasionally during the longer sessions.

As I moved less, I began experiencing strange sensations. “Insects walking” was one. Many of them might have been real for all I know, but a couple weren’t. I knew because the beetle and spider that ran across my feet and neck were too big to be real — the size of my hand — and their tracks started and ended abruptly. I also began feeling what I can only describe as “subtle vibrations”, like a weak electric current playing over the surface of my skin as I concentrated on a particular part of the body. I was learning to remove the filters from my mind and experience sensation at a very fine level. At least, that’s what it felt like.

Amidst all this sensation, deep upwellings of memory and emotion rose to the surface of the conscious mind. The most intense I’ve ever felt. All the pain from the last few years, death and misery. I still don’t really understand why the technique works like this. The way Goenka explained it, when you stop generating positive and negative reactions towards sensations, all the old cravings and aversions are automatically drawn to the surface. He used the analogy of a fire — when you stop adding more wood, the wood that was there is consumed until the fire extinguishes itself.

However it happens, you can’t argue with the experience. Deep complexes are pulled up from your brain. It’s an unpleasant experience, like having bandaids ripped off, only far worse. I felt like my conscious mind was a forest whose floor was choked with woody lantana. As I pulled up one feeling, I’d follow the thread of it like the runner of a weed deeper and deeper into a knotted tangle of unacknowledged feelings. And the further in you go, the bigger it gets.

Visions flickered peripherally, threatening to explode into fully-fledged trips at any moment. I got glimpses of white through the wet darkness, like a photo being developed. Some words appeared on white in black cursive: ANATOMY OF MISERY. A ten-pointed star formed below the title. As I moved my attention clockwise around the top five points, a word popped up next to each one. The first one was “Future”. To the right of the star appeared a larger label: CRAVINGS. Then the same, anti-clockwise, around the corresponding bottom points; the sixth word was “Present”. To the right of the star, below the line splitting it in two, appeared another label: AVERSIONS. One by one, memories rose to the surface, and with mounting excitement I felt the star click into each one and cut the knot at the base. I understood why I had acted as I did. I stopped thinking about when the sitting was going to end. Each tick of the internal clock became the blow of an axe, chopping deeper into my craving for the future.

Later, the assistant teacher Paula warned me that these visions, while interesting, were a distraction that would stunt my progress. It was a predictable, but appropriate, observation. I did my best to let go of them. But they were in my dreams as well. I’ve forgotten those ones. The only dream I remember is one where the kangaroos were conducting experiments on us.


On the morning of Day 7, I woke to find myself gagging. I felt something about the size of a week-dead possum pushing up my oesophagus. I couldn’t breathe, and there was nothing I could do. My mouth split open and something foul emerged, like a python regurgitating its last meal. I felt a great weight fall from my body. With a start, I realised I hadn’t moved or opened my mouth the entire time. Reality slipped, and I felt dizzy.

(My rational response is to say it was a dream. But others experienced similar things. The guy from the Czech Republic felt a small ball in his stomach while meditating. He decided he didn’t want it in him, and pushed it up out of his mouth.)

That day my meditation felt flawless. We were instructed to start from the top of the head and move our attention down to the feet, but this time try to become aware of the whole body, rather than particular parts. Almost immediately, I felt multiple waves of subtle sensations travelling up and down my entire body — a free flow of sensation. I felt like rings of light were pinching off the top of my head and pulsing up like jelly-fish. It was intensely pleasurable. Somehow I managed to remain equanimous, even though this was like nothing I’d ever experienced. During the next five minute break, I realised I hadn’t moved once the whole day, and if I could last another couple of hours I would have sat still for a whole day of intense meditation. I felt a huge rush of excitement and I jumped in the air, giving myself high fives. I’d nailed it.

Bad idea.

I was now craving this pleasant sensation. The next sitting was horrific. I couldn’t concentrate at all, and could only feel gross sensations, like my shirt against my skin. The physical and mental pain was unbearable. My whole body screamed to move, move, move. To distract myself, I bit my cheeks so hard that tears were running down my face. Was there a better example of self-inflicted misery? As soon as I realised this, I moved — then tried to remain equanimous with my “defeat”.

Even now, I haven’t regained that feeling of subtle sensations sweeping over my body. The fault, I know, lies entirely with me and the intense craving I generated. But after crashing down for a while, I slowly worked my way back to feeling subtle vibrations on particularly parts of the body. If anything, my experiences became even more bizarre. My perceptions of my body became unreliable. Normally when you close your eyes you retain an accurate sense of where your body is in space. During one sitting I realised that I was taller than a large tree and my body and limbs were as thin as a broom handle. As deeply as you normally know the position of your body, I felt like I was a Giant Gumby Man. I could feel my hands on my lap way down below me, and got a feeling of vertigo so strong I almost toppled over onto my side. Very weird.

I felt my heart beating. Some parts of my body broke out in intense sweating; other parts shivered. I wept for no reason. In one sitting the subtle sensations, which I could now only feel on particular parts of my body (the other parts remained “blind”) began to bore into my face. It felt like the skin was peeling back to reveal the individual facial muscles glowing against the cool dark skull. In one eye, I felt a huge grain of sand on the cornea; this feeling ended as soon as I opened my eyes at the end of the sitting, and returned the next time I meditated. In the other eye, subtle sensations tingled until my entire eyeball was pulsing. It found my optic nerve, and like a worm burrowed into the eye socket. I had a sudden vision of my brain dissolving into energy, and panicked. The sensations vanished.

Outside, during the breaks, everything began to look and smell and feel incredibly sharp, like high-definition television after years of black-and-white. People sat before ant nests in deep contemplation, or stood out in the rain without an umbrella, arms out-stretched. Sometimes when I saw them I smiled. Other times I felt like crash-tackling them.

By now my mind was almost completely chilled, except for the occasional anarchic thought bubbling up. The meditation spread out from hall until even the breaks for meals and washing were contemplative. My craving to write went away, and I began looking forward to the next sitting — I didn’t want the course to end. Part of me became irrationally frightened that if I kept meditating I would dissolve like a drop of ink into an ocean, never to be seen again. Part of me yearned for it. Another, deeper, part of me simply observed this tug-of-war silently.

Anicca, anicca, anicca.


On Day 10, after the morning sitting of Strong Determination, Noble Silence was lifted. It was like a dam bursting. All the blank faces were suddenly animated, and we shared and compared our experiences for the rest of the day, as if we had known each other for years.

I made a conscious effort to get around to speak to everyone, to get a feel for who they were and what they had experienced. It’s interesting how you build up strong beliefs about the character of someone you have watched and lived with for 10 days, but haven’t spoken to. Some impressions were right; others were completely wrong. Of the 30 or 40 men and women on the course, only two hadn’t made it to the end. The executive was one, and the junkie had been asked to leave (apparently a very rare occurrence) on Day 2, because he was, shall we say, not coping well.

As you might expect, it was a very interesting group of people. The only guy I didn’t get a chance to speak with properly was Henry. Henry was a softly spoken American, with a shock of white hair and clear, watery eyes. He walked with a slight slouch, and had an air of silence about him. As I wandered about talking, several people mentioned that he had sat the course 30 times. Yes, 30. I really wanted to find out about his experiences, but also wanted to wait for the right moment. In the dinner line that night he was in front of me. He turned. “You sat very well. I think you might take on the robes.” I looked at him. “It’s crossed my mind,” I said. He smiled softly and turned away.

He only said one other thing to me, the next morning, as the group was preparing to leave. We were alone shaving in the bathroom. He finished wiping his face with his towel. “Well, Chris,” he said, looking at me directly. “Have a good trip.” I smiled, feeling more relaxed than I had in years. “Thanks. I will.”

And that was that.


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